Introduction

Did the author of Genesis 1 intend to communicate that God created everything in six 24-hour days, or are the days meant to be understood in some other way?

The question of how to interpret the “days” in Genesis 1 has been debated for hundreds of years within the Christian church. The early chapters of Genesis  were explored for their theological message (and not for scientific claims) by many notable Christian thinkers long before scientific evidence for the great age of the universe began to accumulate. The diversity and sophistication of pre-modern views of Genesis reminds us that the best interpretation is not obviously six 24-hour days.

Despite disagreements, all Christians believe Genesis 1 teaches that the one true God created all things and called his creation good. BioLogos affirms that Genesis, like the rest of the Bible, is the inspired and authoritative word of God. Based on a close examination of the biblical text and the cultural context in which Genesis was written, we favor a literary view over a calendar day or day-age view: the seven-day pattern is a literary device that serves the theological purposes of the author, rather than revealing information about the chronology of natural history.

Contrasting Views of Genesis 1

Most Christians today interpret the first creation account in the Bible, Genesis 1-2:3, in one of three ways:

  1. According to the calendar day view, Genesis 1 is a straightforward historical narrative, in the modern journalistic sense. The repeating formula “there was evening, and there was morning—the first day,” and so on for six days (see 1:5, 8, 13, 19, 23, and 31)—refers to six 24-hour periods. This conclusion, combined with a summation of years given in biblical genealogies, lead most advocates of this view to believe that God created the material universe in one ordinary week between six and ten thousand years ago. Those who hold this view are known as young-earth creationists.
  2. By contrast, those who hold to the day-age view argue that each “day” in Genesis 1 represents an extended period of time. The days of Genesis 1 may be millions of years long and even overlap with one another. Advocates of this view tend to accept the scientific evidence for the great age of the universe; they are called old-earth or progressive creationists.
  3. Others prefer a literary view (not to be confused with “literal,” though that word, in its technical sense, is the origin of "literary"). Literary views prioritize the literary features, theological themes, and cultural context of the creation account.

According to one literary approach, the framework view, the author of Genesis 1 uses the regular week—six days of work and then a Sabbath rest—as a framework to describe God’s work of creation.  The first three days describe the creation of realms of habitation, while the second three creation days describe the inhabitants of those realms. For example, darkness and light are separated on the first day, but the sun, moon and stars are not created until the fourth day.  As the foundation for days 4-6 is laid on days 1-3, we see God’s design of the cosmos (see Table).

 
Credit: Conrad Hyers/PSCF. Used by permission.

The analogical day view is another literary approach. As “analogical” implies, the author is using the regular work week as an analogy to the creation week and is not intending to teach that God actually created everything in a six day period.

In another literary approach, the cosmic temple view, the seven days of Genesis 1 point back to the ancient practice of temple dedication. In the ancient Near East (ANE), temples were typically dedicated in a seven-day ceremony with the god coming to “rest” in his temple once it was complete and his image was installed. Not only are sevens pervasively associated with the tabernacle and temple in the Old Testament, but humans are the authorized image in God’s temple-cosmos. God’s rest on the seventh day could  refer to his royal dwelling in, and rule over, the world he made, especially through human beings, to whom he delegated authority over the earth (Gen 1:26-28).

Literary approaches to the days of Genesis 1 are preferred by evolutionary creationists—like those in the BioLogos community—as well as some notable scholars who oppose, or are unsure about, evolution.

Many variations of the calendar day, day-age, and literary views exist, and scholars classify them in different ways. Yet all Christians affirm God’s ultimate sovereignty, the goodness of creation, and the honored status of people as his unique image bearers.

Textual Clues as to the Purpose of Genesis 1

The biblical text itself is the ultimate guide to the best interpretation of Genesis 1. Many of the clues we find in the text point to literary views.

Proponents of the day-age view note that the Hebrew word for day (yom) is sometimes used in Scripture for periods longer than a day. However, the uses that are often cited (e.g., Gen 2:4; Lev 14:2) are actually in a prepositional phrase (beyom; lit. “in the day”), which has the sense of “when,” or in certain fixed expressions like the “day of the Lord.” The presence of “evening and morning” with the first six days also makes it unlikely that the biblical author had in mind long periods of time.

Another essential clue about the purposes of Genesis 1 is its juxtaposition to a second creation account beginning in Genesis 2:4. Each account offers a different creation sequence and a different focus (see table).

Credit: Daniel Harlow/PSCF. Used by permission.

A common approach to this problem has been to squeeze the events of Genesis 2 into the sixth day of Genesis 1, but the numerous differences between the two accounts (see chart) have convinced many biblical scholars that they are not meant to be seamlessly intertwined in one account. Instead, Genesis 1:1-2:3 is better understood as a prologue to the rest of Genesis. According to biblical scholar J. Richard Middleton,

In Genesis 1 we find God calling the cosmos (heaven and earth, and all that is in them) into existence. Then in the rest of Genesis (beginning in Genesis 2) we have the account of what came of (or developed out of) God’s initial creation, how humans responded to God’s call to be his image in the world.

These textual insights point to a remarkable literary depth in the early chapters of Genesis. What may seem like two disjointed creation narratives turns out to be a strategic arrangement serving the book as a whole.

The fact that God inspired the text in such a way that these two distinct creation accounts appear side by side strongly indicates that the chronology of creation is not the main focus of these texts. Together, they give us a fuller theological picture of God’s work in creation.

[Watch this video on Genesis 1-11 from The Bible Project.] 

Cultural Context Further Reveals Purpose

In addition to the text itself, the ancient cultural context is helpful in understanding the author's intended meaning. Over the past century, biblical scholars have made significant advances in understanding ANE culture, the context in which Genesis was written. Babylonian and Egyptian creation stories predating Genesis have been discovered that suggest that Genesis was written as a response to polytheism. Countering a culture in which celestial bodies were worshiped by earth dwellers, Genesis describes their purpose in terms of providing service (light and calendrical time) to earth dwellers.

In the Babylonian creation story Enuma Elish, the storm-god Marduk forms heaven and earth from the body of the goddess Tiamat, whom he has just vanquished in battle; by contrast in Genesis, there is one God, and creation is an act of generosity and love, bringing into being a good world in which humans and other creatures can flourish. Whereas Marduk creates humans out of the blood of Tiamat’s consort in order to serve the gods, the God of Genesis creates humans in a peaceful fashion and bestows on them his own image, delegating to them the high task of ruling the earth as his representatives.

Genesis therefore reveals God’s distinctive character and creative activity in part by countering the stories that already existed in people’s minds at the time.

God chose to reveal himself to a particular people with a particular conception of the world. It is evident in the biblical text that he was not interested in correcting pre-scientific ideas the Israelites shared with other ANE peoples. For example, they may have understood the waters of the heavens to be held back by a solid dome—the so-called firmament described in Genesis 1:6-8. The stars (and possibly the sun and moon) were believed to be embedded in the dome, and the earth was thought to be flat, with water all around (both above the firmament and below the earth). All ANE people shared this general two-tiered cosmology of heaven and earth and Genesis takes this view of the world for granted.

Does the fact that Scripture uses pre-scientific ways of describing the world invalidate its message? No. Christians have long noted that God revealed himself to the biblical writers in ways they could understand, a principle known as accommodation. As John Calvin wrote,

For who even of slight intelligence does not understand that, as nurses commonly do with infants, God is wont in a measure to “lisp” in speaking to us? Thus such forms of speaking do not so much express clearly what God is like as accommodate the knowledge of him to our slight capacity. To do this he must descend far beneath his loftiness (Institutes of the Christian Religion, 1.13.1).

St. Augustine, one of the most important theologians in the history of the church, was famously disturbed by the “human-like” way in which God’s creation is portrayed in Genesis 1. For him, it was difficult to understand why an infinite God would take a whole week to create the cosmos. He concluded that God created instantaneously, but with the capacity to develop, much like a seed has the capacity to develop into a mature tree. In his view creation was simply portrayed in Genesis 1 as happening over a week’s time to accommodate human understanding. While Augustine’s instantaneous creation view has few modern adherents, he grasped a vital truth about Genesis 1: that the seven-day divine work week is not meant to limit God’s creative action but to present it in a way the original hearers would have understood.

Conclusion

So are the days of Genesis 1 meant to be understood as regular, 24-hour days? Yes and no. The seven-day week is meant to be understood as a regular human work week. But it does not automatically follow that Genesis 1 is revealing scientific information about the chronology of natural history. The frequent references to ancient cosmology in Genesis 1 indicate that God did not choose to reveal modern scientific information to the ancient Hebrews.

Genesis 1, read in its original context, provides a powerful message against the polytheism and nature worship that pervaded the ancient world. It speaks of a God who cares for his creation and calls it good—and enters into a unique relationship with humankind, made in his image. The seven-day pattern is a literary device that serves these theological points.

Genesis 1 is overwhelmingly more interested in the who of creation than the how and how long. To extract a chronology of natural history from the text is to impose categories and questions upon the text that are foreign to its original hearers.

Even though Christians disagree about the nature of the days of creation, there is no doubt that Genesis 1 teaches that God created everything and everyone. As we interact with each other on this disputed topic, we should do so with love toward those with whom we disagree. Our Christian faith depends on the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, not on having the correct interpretation of Genesis.

Further Reading

  • How should we interpret the Bible?

    Common Question
    How should we interpret the Bible?

    Clues to the original intended meaning can be found in the style of language, the genre of literature, the original audience, and the historical and cultural context.  Read More >

    Basics
  • Pre-Modern Readings of Genesis 1

    | Sujin Pak
    Blog Post
    Pre-Modern Readings of Genesis 1 | Sujin Pak

    Some of the most revered figures in Christian history—Origen, Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, and Calvin—offered insightful  but  distinctive interpretations of... Read More >

    Going Deeper
  • The Numerology of Genesis 1

    | Conrad Hyers
    Blog Post
    The Numerology of Genesis 1 | Conrad Hyers

    At the time the Genesis creation account was being written, numbers had not only arithmetic significance (as they do now), but also symbolic meaning that could convey religious truths... Read More >

    Going Deeper PART 2 of 3
  • What is the Relationship Between the Creation Accounts in Genesis 1 and 2?

    | J. Richard Middleton
    Blog Post
    What is the Relationship Between the Creation Accounts in Genesis 1 and 2? | J. Richard Middleton

    The divergences between the creation accounts in Genesis 1 and 2 suggest that these texts are not teaching science; for then we would need to ask which account is scien... Read More >

    Going Deeper
  • Genesis 1 and a Babylonian Creation Story

    | Pete Enns
    Blog Post
    Genesis 1 and a Babylonian Creation Story | Pete Enns

    Found among the ruins was a Babylonian creation story referred to today as Enuma Elish. How people viewed Genesis would never be the same again.  Read More >

  • Science and the Bible: Concordism, Part 1

    | Ted Davis
    Blog Post
    Science and the Bible: Concordism, Part 1 | Ted Davis

    God has written two “books” for our instruction, the book of nature and the book of Scripture. Since God is the author of both “books,” they must agree when pr... Read More >

    Going Deeper PART 8 of 22
  • The Ancient Science in the Bible

    | Denis Lamoureux
    Blog Post
    The Ancient Science in the Bible | Denis Lamoureux

    Scripture features an ancient perspective of the universe and life. Read More >

    Going Deeper
  • Augustine, Genesis, and “Removing the Mystical Veil”: Part 1

    | Brandon Withrow
    Blog Post
    Augustine, Genesis, and “Removing the Mystical Veil”: Part 1 | Brandon Withrow

    Saint Augustine (354-430 C.E.) was not always a saint. His famous Confessions show him to be a self-indulgent hedonist, a seeker looking for satisfaction in something, anyth... Read More >

    Basics PART 1 of 2
Elaine Howard Ecklund, Herbert S. Autrey Chair in Social Sciences and Professor of Sociology at Rice University

BioLogos—more than any other organization I know of—helps churches understand the beauty of science.

- Elaine Howard Ecklund, Herbert S. Autrey Chair in Social Sciences and Professor of Sociology at Rice University