Creation days and Orthodox Jewish tradition
After years of agonizing over the literal days of creation in Genesis, I decided to spend time researching this problem at the London School of Jewish Studies in Hendon, England. After all, I thought, why shouldn’t I go to the natural Jewish vine for some answers? (Of course, one should be cautious to distinguish between real exegesis of the Word of God, which must always overrule the ‘traditions of men’ [Mark 7:13], and we’ll see some examples. Although not covered here, it applies especially to modern Judaic revisionism of the Messianic passages after the rise of Christianity.1)
On my arrival, a Yeshiva (religious study group) was in process among the Orthodox students. But I was shown to the library where a bearded Rabbi pulled out the best conservative commentaries on the days of creation, along with the Talmud. This is the code of Jewish oral tradition interpreting the Torah or the Law of Moses, completed in the 5th century AD.2
Eager to study, I took notes from these learned works, which had been compiled by some of the most eminent scholars in Judaism. It was a strange experience being surrounded by Orthodox Jews meticulously scrutinizing ancient books. After days of careful study of the conservative Rabbinical scholars, I had my answer: the days of Genesis were literal.
I turned to Rabbi Abraham Ben Meir Ibn Ezra’s commentary on Genesis. This scholar (c. 1089–1167) from medieval Spain is highly regarded in traditional Rabbinical circles, and his commentary was highly commended by Maimonides (1135–1204). Maimonides (a.k.a. Rabbi Moses ben Maimon, or the acronym Rambam) has been considered the key figure in Judaism since the Temple was destroyed in AD 70.
In fact, in the preface it says, “Ibn Ezra’s commentary constitutes a major contribution to Biblical Exegesis. One cannot be considered a true student of the Bible without having studied it.” Actually, Ibn Ezra was somewhat liberal, imbibing neo-platonic philosophy, and was a forerunner to the Jewish numerological mysticism known as the Kabbala.
Figure 1. The first word of Genesis. Its first letter (on the right) is open only at the front, indicating that it is pointless trying to consider a time before the beginning.
But on Genesis, he has no doubt: he says very clearly, “One day refers to the movement of the sphere.” This shows that the common sceptical objection “how could the creation days be literal before the sun was created” was solved in principle centuries ago. The ‘sphere’ referred to the celestial sphere of the pre-Galilean Ptolemaic cosmology, universally accepted in the Middle Ages. This is further proof against the idea that the Bible or its followers promoted a ‘flat earth’.3 But now we would say that the earth was rotating relative to the light created on Day 1.
The footnote makes sure we get the point when it says, “The heavenly sphere made one revolution. The sun was not yet …”.4 This shows that they had no problem with the sun being created on the fourth day, as opposed to ‘appearing’ as many long-agers, e.g. Hugh Ross, claim. There is a perfectly good word for appear (ra’ah), e.g. when the dry land ‘appeared’ as the waters gathered in one place on Day 3 (Genesis 1:9). But it is not used here.
I turned to one of the best commentaries available on Genesis from Talmudic, Midrashic and Rabbinic sources. I discovered that virtually all the Rabbis had understood the creation days as literal days.
In fact, some of the Rabbis even tried to work out what happened in each hour of the creation of Adam on the sixth day! But here they delved way beyond the information in the text. The Talmud says, “In the first hour his [Adam’s] dust was gathered; in the second it was kneaded into a shapeless mass; in the third, his limbs were shaped; in the fourth, a soul was infused into him …”. But on Day 6, God created all the animals and brought them to Adam to name, then created Eve (Genesis 2:18–24).
However, the Talmud errs more seriously when it claims that in the twelfth hour Adam and Eve were expelled from Eden.5 Creation was still ‘very good’ at the end of Day 6, so the Fall of both Satan and the first couple must have happened after Creation Week. It can’t have been more than a few days, because Adam and Eve were told to reproduce (Genesis 1:28), and, being physically perfect, they would have been fertile and unlikely to disobey.
The Rabbis who have compiled this commentary on Genesis write, “The Sages however, tell us explicitly (Yalkut, Tehillim [Psalms] 49; Midrash; Pirkei d’Rabbi Eliezer 11) that all the events related here—[creation of man, Fall, etc.] including the birth of Cain and Abel [Tosaf. Sanhedrin 38b excludes Abel; see Maharsha ad. loc.] occurred on the very first day of Adam’s creation”.5 This is also wrong, because Cain’s conception occurred after they had fallen and were expelled from Eden (Genesis 4:1).
We are even told that the ancient Rabbis did not bother to debate about the literal days so much as the actual month in a solar year when the world was made! The commentary says, “It appears that the ancients referred to Tishrei [September/October] as the first month, for in it creation was completed.”6
Search as I might, I could not find any reference to a day (Hebrew yôm) in Genesis 1 meaning any more than a literal 24-hour period. Some of the Rabbis did debate about Genesis 2:4, which says, ‘This is the account of the heavens and earth when they were created, in the day that the Lord God made earth and heaven.’ However, in this case, yôm is prefixed by the preposition be, so beyôm, and was just an idiom for ‘when’. The days in Genesis 1 had no preposition, and had the phrase ‘evening and morning’ and a number, which are always indicators of ordinary days everywhere else in the Old Testament. None of the rabbis tried to juggle this ‘day’ (in Genesis 2:4) to suit pagan philosophy (the Greek philosophers held to a long-ages understanding). Instead, most of them correctly took ‘day’ here to mean ‘at the time when’ creation took place.7
There was a popular prophetic understanding of a ‘day’ meaning the coming of the Messiah at the end of the world, but this had nothing to do with creation itself. The Talmud says, “Six thousand years shall the world exist, and one [thousand, the seventh], it shall be desolate, as it is written, And the Lord alone shall be exalted in that day. … it is also said, For a thousand years in thy sight are but as yesterday when it is past.”8
The Rabbis calculated these six thousand years by basing them on the six literal days of creation. They reasoned that one literal day of creation prophetically referred to a thousand years of history.9 This reasoning was the traditional approach of most of the early Church Fathers, too.10
A number of old-earthers, including Hugh Ross, have misrepresented their teachings and claimed that they believed in thousand-year creation days, which as we saw above is not what they taught. Rather, they regarded the creation days as corresponding to, not equal to, thousand-year periods of earth history, with the seventh day corresponding to the millennium.11
Turning to some of the more modern Jewish scholars, I discovered a stubborn refusal to dilute the plain meaning in the Hebrew Scriptures. Professor Ginsberg had this to say:
“There is nothing in the first chapter of Genesis to justify the spiritualisation of the expression ‘day’?. On the contrary, the definition given in verse 5 of the word in question imperatively demands that ‘yôm’? should be understood in the same sense as we understand the word ‘day’? in common parlance, i.e. as a natural day.”12
Professor Nahum Sarna, who was chairman of the Department of Near Eastern and Judaic Studies at Brandeis University, Waltham, Massachusetts, referred to the days in Genesis as the same kind of days in the regulatory sacrifices in the Book of Leviticus (i.e. literal days, Lev. 7:15; 22:30).13
My conclusion had to be that the traditional Jewish understanding of the days of Genesis is that they are literal. As I left the London School of Jewish studies and passed a Jewish newsagent on the way back to the tube (London Underground train), I glanced at the Jewish Chronicle. It was dated in the year 5,760 since creation. The Rabbis calculated this date 4,000 years after the event, and a lot of information was missing at the time. With modern knowledge of post-biblical chronology, we now know they were about 250 years short.
But even so, it is roughly 6,000 years ago with no thought of millions or billions of years. This shows that they must have accepted a straightforward understanding of the creation days in Genesis 1 and the chronologies in Genesis 5 and 11.
I smiled and disappeared into the bustle of the London rush hour.
References and notes
- For evidence about how they were historically understood, see Fruchtenbaum, A.G., Messianic Christology, Ariel Ministries, 1998. Return to text.
- The Talmud comprises the Mishnah and the Gemara. The Mishnah was oral tradition, which was specifically what Jesus referred to as the ‘traditions of men’ (Mark 7:13). The Mishnah was written down in the 2nd century AD. The Gemara is a commentary on the Mishnah completed in the 5th century. There are actually two Talmuds, but when most people say ‘the Talmud’, they mean the more comprehensive Babylonian Talmud rather than the Jerusalem one. Return to text.
- See also the articles under, Does the Bible really teach a flat earth? Return to text.
- Ezra, I., Commentary on the Pentateuch, Genesis (Bereshit), translated and annotated by Strickman H.N. and Silver A.M., Menorah Publishing Co., New York, USA, p. 33, 1999. Return to text.
- Translation and commentary by Klotowitz R.M., Overviews by Scherman, R.N., Bereishis, Genesis: A new translation with a commentary anthologised from Talmudic, Midrashic and Rabbinic sources, vol.1 (a); Art Scroll Tanach Series, Mesorah Publications Ltd., p. 113, 1977. Return to text.
- Ref. 5, p. 249. Return to text.
- Ref. 5, p. 87. Return to text.
- Shachter, J., Freedman, H. and Epstein, I., Talmud: Sanhedrin, The Soncino Press, London, 97a and 97b, 1987. Return to text.
- However, this passage (Psalm 90:4, cf. 2 Peter 3:8) is really teaching that God is outside of time, by contrasting a short and long period of time: a day and a millennium. Note that the comparison also includes ‘like a watch in the night’, but no one tries to claim that a shift of night watch duty had any parallel with any millennia. Return to text.
- Examples: Irenaeus (Heresies 5:28:3); Hippolytus (Commentary on Daniel 4); Methodius (Fragments 9); Lactantius (The Divine Institutes 7:14); Augustine (City of God 20:7). Return to text.
- Note that CMI is not hereby taking a stand on eschatology, but merely reporting what early commentators believed, and correcting a common deceptive argument. Return to text.
- Ginsberg; cited in: Wiseman P.J., Creation Revealed in Six Days, Marshall, Morgan and Scott Ltd., p. 22, 1948. For a critique by a linguist of Wiseman’s ‘days of revelation’ error, see Taylor, C.V., Days of Revelation or Creation? Return to text.
- Sarna, N.M., The JPS Torah Commentary on Genesis, The Jewish Publication Society, Philadelphia, USA, p. 8, 1989. Return to text.