How the Scriptures affirm a literal and historical six-day creation
Genesis 1 quite clearly depicts God creating the world in six 24-hour days. While old-earth creationists like Hugh Ross argue that the creation days could be long periods of time, this finds no support in the Hebrew text. OT scholar Gordon Wenham, though he denies that Genesis 1 is chronological history, makes this clear with respect to Genesis 1:
There can be little doubt that here [Genesis 1] “day” has its basic sense of a 24-hour period. The mention of evening and morning, the enumeration of the days, and the divine rest on the seventh show that a week of divine activity is being described here. Elsewhere, of course, “in the day of” and similar phrases can simply mean “when” (e.g., Gen 2:4; 5:1, etc.). Ps. 90:4 indeed says that a thousand years are as a day in God’s sight. But it is perilous to try to correlate scientific theory and biblical revelation by appeal to such texts. Rather, it is necessary to inquire more closely into the literary nature of Gen 1 and whether chronological sequence and scientific explanation are the narrator’s concern.1
However, the Scriptures go further than merely depicting a six-day timeframe for God’s creative activity. They plausibly assert it self-referentially.
Did God actually speak the Ten Commandments?
Exodus 20:8–11 is the keystone text (after Genesis 1) that asserts six-day creation:
Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor, and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God. … For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy [emphasis added].
This clearly depicts God asserting six-day creation, and it also has Him asserting that the Israelite work week was patterned after God’s creation week. Interestingly, in response to this many old-earth commentators try to reverse the logical relationship between God’s creation week and Israel’s work week. Averbeck, LeFebvre, and Craig are representative:
… the seven-day structure is an analogy that derives from and reinforces the regular pattern of the work week that God was so concerned the Israelites adhere to: work six days and rest on the seventh (Exod 20:11; 23:12; 31:12–17; 35:1–3; Deut 5:12–15). It is shaped in this way to model the Sabbath for them and support their observance of it.2
Genesis 1:1–2:3 provides a narration of creation events, but the timing and details of its telling are transparently “re-mapped” to the cadence and themes of Israel’s weekly sabbath festival.3
… the Pentateuchal author has taken the typical Jewish work week, climaxing in the Sabbath, and used it as the rubric for framing his account of creation.4
Craig is clearest about who is responsible for supposedly framing God’s creation activities according to the Israelite work week: the Pentateuchal author. If Genesis 1 were all we had concerning the timescale of God’s activities, this might be plausible. After all, God doesn’t assert anything about His creative activity in Genesis 1—it merely depicts it. However, in Exodus 20:11 the author doesn’t simply represent God’s creative activity as paradigmatic for Israel’s work week. Rather, the author represents God as saying that He made the world in six days and rested on the seventh.
Moreover, Deuteronomy 4:32–34 unequivocally represents God’s words at Mount Sinai as history by representing it as a unique series of historical events:
Ask now about the former days, long before your time, from the day God created human beings on the earth; ask from one end of the heavens to the other. Has anything so great as this ever happened, or has anything like it ever been heard of? Has any other people heard the voice of God speaking out of fire, as you have, and lived? Has any god ever tried to take for himself one nation out of another nation, by testings, by signs and wonders, by war, by a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, or by great and awesome deeds, like all the things the Lord your God did for you in Egypt before your very eyes?
And the event Moses refers to is specifically the giving of the Ten Commandments, as he clarifies in Deuteronomy 4:12–13:
Then the Lord spoke to you out of the midst of the fire. You heard the sound of words, but saw no form; there was only a voice. And he declared to you his covenant, which he commanded you to perform, that is, the Ten Commandments, and he wrote them on two tablets of stone.
Thus, the Bible asserts that God spoke the Ten Commandments audibly to the nation of Israel at Mount Sinai, then wrote them on tablets. The Ten Commandments would include His assertion that He made the world in six days.
Exodus 20:11 vs Deuteronomy 5:15: which rationale for the Sabbath did God directly say?
However, there are two accounts of God’s words at Mount Sinai in Scripture: Exodus 20:2–17 and Deuteronomy 5:6–21. Moreover, Deuteronomy 5:15 provides a different rationale for the Sabbath from that found in Exodus 20:11:
Remember that you were slaves in Egypt and that the Lord your God brought you out of there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. Therefore the Lord your God has commanded you to observe the Sabbath day.
Nonetheless, Deuteronomy 5:1–5 shows the author put this rendition of God’s words on Moses’ lips. Moreover, the situation in which Moses recounts God’s words is different from Exodus 20. He recounts the events of Exodus 20 for a new generation of Israelites. The author of Exodus 20, however, recounts the event itself.
Moreover, like Deuteronomy Exodus also mentions the two tablets (Exodus 24:2, 31:18). Indeed, the final thing God speaks to Moses about before He writes the Ten Commandments on the stone tablets in Exodus 31:18 is the Sabbath (Exodus 31:12–17), in which God iterates the Creation Week as the paradigm for Israel’s work week. The juxtaposition of verse 18 with vv. 12–17 strongly suggests that the Exodus 20:11 ‘creation week’ rationale was what God directly spoke (and wrote on the tablets) rather than the Deuteronomy 5:15 ‘salvation from slavery’ rationale.
Furthermore, Exodus 20 recounts events that occurred before God wrote on the tablets, whereas Deuteronomy 5 recounts a speech of Moses’ gave after God wrote on the tablets. So, if either rationale was actually spoken by God and written on the tablets (and it’s practically certain that some rationale was written on the tablets5), all the biblical evidence points it being the Exodus 20:11 rationale.
Indeed, Deuteronomy 5:15 is actually evidence against a non-literal reading of the Genesis 1 days. The fact it provides a different rationale for the Sabbath shows that neither God nor the Pentateuchal author needed to create a non-literal depiction of God’s creative activity coordinate with Israel’s work week to justify keeping the Sabbath. Indeed, God commanded Israel to keep the Sabbath in Exodus 16:23 without mentioning any historical/etiological rationale for why they should keep it.
Moreover, the rationale Deuteronomy 5:15 gives for the Sabbath is also self-referentially affirmed as history by Scripture. Just like the giving of the Ten Commandments at Mount Sinai, the plagues in Egypt and the Exodus event are represented as part of the unique history expected to be affirmed as such in Deuteronomy 4:32–35. As such, while we are expected to believe the historicity of the Exodus rationale, those who argue that the Genesis 1 ‘days’ are non-historical say that we are not expected to believe the historicity of the parallel rationale given in Exodus 20:11. But why is one to be believed as history, and not the other? The non-literalist seems to create a disparity between the assertoric value of the rationales where none is intrinsically evident.
Exodus 20:11 in the context of the Ten Commandments
Moreover, God called Israel to copy His pattern of work and rest, and specifically the timeframe of six days of work and one day of rest. It makes little sense for God to describe this aspect of His work non-literally, since if it was non-literal Israel could not copy what God never literally did. OT scholar E.J. Young explains further:
In Exodus 20:11 the activity of God is presented to man as a pattern, and this fact presupposes that there was a reality in the activity of God which man is to follow. How could man be held accountable for working six days if God himself had not actually worked for six days?6
The fourth commandment constitutes a decisive argument against any non-chronological scheme of the six days of Genesis one. And a non-chronological scheme destroys the reason for observance of a six-day week followed by a seventh day of rest.7
Furthermore, God commanded Israel to not bear false witness in the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:16). If what God said of His own creative activity was non-literal, it plausibly amounts to bearing false witness. This utterance comes in a legal context (Exodus 20:1 is formulaic language for the period for the beginning of a treaty) in which God bears witness about His own creative activity. However, someone bearing witness to their own past activity in ‘non-literal’ way in a legal context seems to be a good way to define ‘bearing false witness’.
This doesn’t change if all we do is replace ‘someone’ with ‘God’. To make matters worse, the precise point of ‘non-literalness’ is the precise point of identity between God’s work and Israel’s commanded practice. So, not only would it be fair to define God’s words as ‘bearing false witness’ if they’re supposed to be taken ‘non-literally’, but it would be bearing false witness with respect to the most crucial point of the command!
Finally, this command was a matter of life and death: the penalty for breaking the Sabbath was death (Exodus 31:15, Numbers 15:32–36). Why would God say that failing to copy what He said He did amounts to the death penalty if He never actually did what He said He did?
Are biblical creationists arbitrarily selective in their literalism?
Creationists are sometimes accused of being arbitrarily selective in what we take to be literal in Genesis 1–11. E.g. Bruce Gordon, Associate Professor of the History and Philosophy of Science at Houston Baptist University claims:8
Young-earth creationists—who maintain the Bible teaches a literal six-day creation less than ten thousand years ago and that earth’s large-scale geological features are explained by a global Noahic flood—are arbitrarily selective in their literalism. They believe the creation days were literal 24-hour periods, the heavenly lights (the sun, moon, and stars) were created after the earth on the fourth day, and Noah’s flood was global, but reject a literal reading of the texts referenced above. Their arbitrary selectivity evinces a double standard. Consistency demands either naive literalism throughout or recognition of a religious cosmography communicating a worldview instead of an ancient scientific cosmogony and cosmology.10
The argument of this article, however, refutes this concern. This argument relies on Scripture’s own structure of self-attestation to argue that the Bible asserts a literal/historical six-day creation, not any sort of ‘naïve literalism’. Moreover, no biblical case parallel to the one above can be made for the notion that the Bible asserts a ‘flat earth/solid sky’ cosmology. While many creationists reject the idea that the Bible even depicts such a cosmology,11 it is perfectly open to those who assert a literal six-day creation to accept that the Bible does depict a flat earth/solid sky cosmology, but it doesn’t use such language to speak directly to physical cosmology. As Weeks perceptively pointed out:
“Sometimes it seems that those who claim that the Bible used the symbols of its day are merely trying to say that it used a naive as opposed to a scientific cosmology … . If we assume for the sake of the argument that this is the case, then it should be clearly recognized that all we have established is that scientific dogma should not be made out of Biblical cosmology. The argument has no relevance to other parts of the account like the creation of animals, man, etc. Unfortunately this argument is generally used without this careful delimitation. Generally it is argued that the fact that one element shows the use of nonscientific concepts proves that the whole uses naive ideas whose details may not be pressed.”12
God giving the Ten Commandments was a unique event the Scriptures self-referentially testify to having really happened. God spoke audibly for the whole nation of Israel to hear at Mount Sinai. And at that event God himself said that He made the world in six days—an identical timespan over which He commanded Israel to work, and then to have a day of rest from. So, the author of Genesis and Exodus did not come up with the idea of depicting God’s creative activity as a week; God did. Did God speak ‘non-literally’ about His past activities in the very same speech He commanded Israel not to bear false witness? Unlikely. Thus, we should take God at His word—He really did create the world in the timespan He said He did.
References and notes
- Wenham, G.J., Genesis 1–15 (Word Biblical Commentary vol. 1), Word Publishers, Waco, TX, p. 19, 1987. Return to text.
- Averbeck, R., Chapter One: A Literary Day, Inter-Textual, and Contextual Reading of Genesis 1–2; in: Charles, J.D. (Ed.), Reading Genesis 1–2: An Evangelical Conversation (Kindle Edition), Hendrickson Publishers, Peabody, Massachusetts, Kindle location 1039–1042, 2013. Return to text.
- LeFebvre, M., The Liturgy of Creation: Understanding Calendars in Old Testament Context, IVP Academic, Downers Grove, Illinois, p. 113, 2019. Return to text.
- Craig, W.L., #757 The Sabbath Day and Mytho-History, reasonablefaith.org, 7 November 2021. Return to text.
- In every recounting of the Ten Commandments in Scripture the Sabbath command always has a rationale attached to it. Return to text.
- Young, E.J., Days of Genesis, Westminster Theological J. 25(1):1–34, Nov 1962; biblicalstudies.org.uk. Return to text.
- Young, E.J., Days of Genesis, Westminster Theological J. 25(2):143–171, May 1963; biblicalstudies.org.uk. Return to text.
- Gordon, B., Constrained Integration view; in; Copan, P. and Reese, C.L. (Eds.), Three Views on Christianity and Science, Zondervan Academic, Kindle Edition, p. 139, 2021. See also my review, J. Creation 35(2):33–37, 2021. Return to text.
- Gordon is referring to texts he cites as evidence the Bible depicts a ‘flat earth/solid sky’ cosmology. Nonetheless, he elsewhere adds: “It is very doubtful that the ancient Hebrews (or other ancient peoples) understood this world picture with naive literalness.” Return to text.
- Gordon, ref. 8, p. 163. Return to text.
- See e.g. Humphreys, D.R., Starlight and Time, Master Books, Green Forest, AR, pp. 32–36, 58–65, 1994; and Mortenson, T., The Firmament: What did God create on Day 2? ARJ 13:113–133, 2020. Holding, J.P., Is the raqîa‘ (‘firmament’) a solid dome? Equivocal language in the cosmology of Genesis 1 and the Old Testament: a response to Paul H. Seely, J. Creation 13(2):44–51, 1999 rejects the idea that the Bible exclusively depicts a ‘flat earth/solid sky’ cosmology. Return to text.
- Weeks, N., Problems in interpreting Genesis: Part 1, Creation 2(3):27–32, 1979. I have elaborated on Weeks’ point in Doyle, S., Ancient cosmology and the timescale of Genesis 1, J. Creation 32(3):115–118, 2018. Return to text.