‘In my father’s day … ’
To determine whether ‘day’ means a long period of time, the hours of daylight, or a 24-hour period, you need to look at the context
Published: 26 March 2013 (GMT+10)
One argument often raised by people1 doubting that God created in six ordinary earth-rotation days is that ‘day’ can mean a period of time longer than 24 hours, i.e. a non-literal day.
“In my father’s day … ”, they say, and also point to Bible passages such as Genesis 2:4b (KJV)—“in the day that the Lord God made the earth and the heavens”. They might also refer to Numbers 7:10 (KJV)—“in the day that it was anointed”—which refers to the twelve days of sacrifice at the dedication of the temple.2 (All Bible quotes in this article are from the KJV,3 unless otherwise indicated.) “See?”, they argue, “In those instances ‘day’ doesn’t mean a 24-hour day, but is clearly referring to an extended period, longer than a day.”
On that point, they’re absolutely right. ‘Day’ can sometimes mean something other than a 24-hour day. It can indeed refer to a longer period than 24 hours, as they say. Sometimes too it is shorter than 24 hours, i.e. referring only to the daylight hours. But often ‘day’ does mean an ordinary 24-hour day, and it’s the context that determines this.
For example, consider the three occurrences of the word ‘day’ in the following sentence:
In my father’s day, it took six days to drive a car across this great country of ours, driving only during the day.
The first instance of the word ‘day’—“In my father’s day … ”—is an indefinite period longer than 24 hours, most usually referring to the time or era when “my father” lived.
The third appearance of the word ‘day’, in the sentence’s closing caveat—“driving only during the day”—is a period restricted to the hours of daylight only, i.e. daytime.
But it’s the second occurrence of the word ‘day’ in the above statement—“it took six days”—that inescapably refers to a 24-hour period. The contextual key to this is the number that precedes the word ‘day’ here. “Six days” means six days. Six ordinary earth-rotation days. And the closing information re driving only in the daytime is additional confirmation—if any were needed.
Turning our attention now to the biblical account of creation, let us examine the context of Genesis days in light of the principles demonstrated above. We have deliberately chosen to quote from the KJV, as all three contexts of the English word ‘day’ are in evidence there, too.
‘Day’ in the Genesis Creation account
The word ‘day’ in Genesis 1 first appears in verse 5, where it is used twice:
And God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And the evening and the morning were the first day.
The context makes it clear that the first occurrence of the word ‘day’ (“God called the light Day”) is referring to daytime. The next occurrence is with a number, “the first day”. I.e. this is an ordinary day—and the other information re ‘evening’ and ‘morning’ is additional confirmation—if any were needed. In fact, “the evening and the morning were the first day” is a defining statement. (See box: “First Day” / “One Day”.) It defines the Jewish (evening-then-morning) ‘day’—e.g. as seen in the rush to take Jesus’ body down from the cross before sunset, the commencement of the Sabbath (John 19:31, cf. Deuteronomy 21:22–23 / Galatians 3:13).
“Evening … morning … first day.” Similarly, this pattern of evening-morning-number-day is also evident for Day 2 of Creation in Genesis 1 (v. 8):
And the evening and the morning were the second day.
And for Day 3, too, evening-morning-number-day (v. 13):
And the evening and the morning were the third day.
And again for Days 4, 5 and 6:
And the evening and the morning were the fourth day. (v. 19)
And the evening and the morning were the fifth day. (v. 23)
And the evening and the morning were the sixth day. (v. 31)
The careful repetition of this evening-morning-number-day pattern for all six days of Creation Week leaves no room for any doubting that the six days were ordinary earth-rotation days.
So we see that the Creation Week account uses ‘day’ to mean ‘daytime’, i.e. less than a 24-hour day (Genesis 1:5a, also vv. 14a,16,18); and in other instances to mean an ordinary earth-rotation 24-hour day (Genesis 1:5b,8,13,19,23,31, 2:2,3); and finally in Genesis 2:4 we see ‘day’ in the KJV in line with the “in my father’s day” usage, i.e. a period longer than a 24-hour day:
These are the generations of the heavens and of the earth when they were created, in the day that the Lord God made the earth and the heavens,
It is surely obvious that ‘day’ here in Genesis 2:4 of the KJV cannot refer to a literal 24-hour day, e.g. because the account up to this point has made it clear that there were six (literal) days of Creation. So, we see that even when just considering only the English rendering of the KJV, it’s the context that makes it evident whether ‘day’ is referring to an Earth-rotation day, daytime, or a period longer than 24 hours.
And when we consider the original Hebrew, we see additionally that there is a completely different grammatical context in Genesis 2:4. Unlike the way יום (yôm—day) is used in Genesis 1:1–2:3 where it is a singular, absolute noun ‘day’, in Genesis 2:4 it is a singular, construct noun ‘day’ as it is prefixed by ב (bə) thus ביום (bəyôm). (For more on this see Does Genesis 2:4 refute literal creation days?)5 This is often an idiomatic (a more precise word than “figurative”) expression for “when”.
Hence those English versions such as the NIV6 which translate bəyôm in Genesis 2:47 as ‘when’ accurately mirror the Hebrew meaning. In fact, some Hebrew scholars rather bluntly describe the KJV’s “in the day that” rendering of bəyôm in Genesis 2:4 as “faulty translation”.8
A definitive ‘proof-text’ for 6-day Creation: Exodus 20:8–11
As well as using the faulty “in my father’s day” argument, people arguing against ordinary six-day creation often cite 2 Peter 3:8, “ … one day is with the Lord as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day.” They try to argue from this that the days of creation week could have been indefinite ‘God-days’. But from the context it’s clear that 2 Peter 3:8 has nothing to do with the days of creation. (Rather, it concerns the second coming of Christ.) Also it is not defining a ‘day’ as it does not say one day is a thousand years but rather one day is as a thousand years. It is teaching that God is not bound by time as we are (because He is the Creator of time itself). To the eternal Creator of time, a short period of time and a long period of time may as well be the same. Peter is likely referring to Psalm 90:4, which makes the same point: “For a thousand years in thy sight are but as yesterday when it is past, and as a watch in the night.” If one ‘day’ were really a thousand years, then so would be a three-hour ‘watch’ period! (Matthew 14:25). For more, see 2 Peter 3:8—“one day is like a thousand years” and “The days were ‘God’s days’ not ‘man’s days’”.
Probably, however, the most effective and definitive ‘proof-text’ for ordinary 6-day creation is Exodus 20:8–11 (the 4th Commandment). Certainly many proponents of ‘indefinite’ creation-days are often surprised when shown it (as if seeing it for the first time):
Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days shalt thou labour, and do all thy work: But the seventh day is the sabbath of the Lord thy God: in it thou shalt not do any work, thou, nor thy son, nor thy daughter, thy manservant, nor thy maidservant, nor thy cattle, nor thy stranger that is within thy gates: For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that in them is, and rested the seventh day: wherefore the Lord blessed the sabbath day, and hallowed it.
In this passage, it’s explicit that the six days of creation were the same sorts of ‘days’ as the six days for human labour here on Earth. They were not ‘God-days’, or Martian days, or Venusian days.9 Venus, Mars, the stars and the other planets did not even exist until Day 4—cf. “the earth” is referred to specifically in Genesis 1:1,2. The days of creation in Genesis and in Exodus 20:8–11 are Earth-days. The universe was created in six consecutive, normal-length Earth-days, the same as those of the six-day working week defined by God in Exodus 20:8–11 (and 31:17).
Days before the Sun
Some people arguing for an old earth say that Days 1–3 could not have been literal because the sun wasn’t made until Day 4. They say that as the sun is necessary for the day-night cycle, none of the creation days are literal.
The sun was not created until Day 4, so how could the first three days have been ordinary days?
The creation of light before the sun was noted by early Church Fathers and the later Reformers without any problem, but some raise it today as if creationists had never thought of it. E.g. in AD 180, Theophilus of Antioch noted that it made nonsense of sun-worship because God made the plants before the sun, and Basil said the same [in the 4th century].10
The most basic definition of a day is the ‘time for Earth to make a complete rotation on its axis’. All we need for a day is the earth rotating. To demarcate the day with evening and morning, we then need a directional source of light so that the rotating earth causes the night and day cycle that is described for each day in Genesis 1. The Bible says that in the latter part of the first day, following the period of darkness (Genesis 1:1–2) God said, ‘Let there be light’ and there was light (v. 3). So we have a source of light and a rotating Earth and we have days happening: and there was evening and there was morning, one day.
Those who would claim that the first days had to be a different length have to suppose that God changed the speed of rotation of the earth on its axis, when he created the greater light as the light bearer (Genesis 1:14), which is hardly likely.
Scripture gives no hint that the days were any different: the same formula applies for Days 2 and 3 as for Days 4 and 5 (there was evening and there was morning, a second/third/fourth/fifth day).
Only 3 days, no ‘years’, before Day 4
On Day 1 of Creation week, God creates light, then separates the light (daytime) from darkness (night)—Genesis 1:3–5. But from Day 4, God institutes the sun and the moon to separate (“divide”) daytime from night—Genesis 1:14–18:
And God said, Let there be lights in the firmament of the heaven to divide the day from the night; and let them be for signs, and for seasons, and for days, and years: And let them be for lights in the firmament of the heaven to give light upon the earth: and it was so. And God made two great lights; the greater light to rule the day, and the lesser light to rule the night: he made the stars also. And God set them in the firmament of the heaven to give light upon the earth, And to rule over the day and over the night, and to divide the light from the darkness: and God saw that it was good.
Note that the sun and moon are to function not only as ‘lights’ but also “for signs, and for seasons, and for days, and years” (Genesis 1:14b). Once more in the creation account we have ‘days’ used to mean ordinary days—it would be nonsensical for anyone to translate this “for signs, and for seasons, and for vast geological ages, and years”. So, from Day 4, one rotation of the Earth on its axis relative to the sun equals one day (cf. relative to the previous interim light source God provided on Days 1–3), and one orbit around the sun equals a year. Since the very beginning of the universe, Earth has orbited the sun about 6,000 times (see How does the Bible teach 6,000 years? and the responses to critics of this article, 6,000 years of biblical history: Questions and answers), It was a thousands-of-years timeline, not millions-of-years, that Jesus believed, too—see Jesus and the age of the earth. So any clutching at “In my father’s day … ”-type arguments for an old earth have no scriptural justification whatsoever.
“First Day” / “One Day”
And there was evening and there was morning, one day.
Which of these English renderings—“first day” or “one day”—most closely mirrors the Hebrew text?
Cardinal versus Ordinal numbers in the original Hebrew of Genesis 1
The numeric for Days 2–6 in the Creation Week account in Genesis is in the Hebrew form of an ordinal number,12,13—i.e. the days are numbered second (שני shenî), third (שלשי shlîshî), fourth (רביעי rveiyi), fifth (חמישי chamîshî) and sixth (ששי shishî).
But there’s a key difference with Day 1 of Creation Week. That’s because Genesis 1:5 in Hebrew does not say “first day” (which would be יום ראשון yôm ri’shon)—i.e. day with an ordinal number—but instead “one day”, (יום אחד yôm echad)—i.e. day with a cardinal number. This is the first moment in recorded history that anyone has spoken the word ‘day’ with a numeric—and so the cardinal number rendering in the NASB is apt.
Note that a day can be only a “first” if there are other days that follow. At the beginning of Creation Week, there was only that one day. Also, God himself in Genesis 1:5 is defining what a day is: a darkness (night) and light (daytime) cycle, “there was evening and there was morning, one day”. One rotation of the earth equals one day. The whole creation was completed in the time it took for the earth to rotate just six times. Six ordinary earth-rotation days.14
The great theologian Basil (AD 329–379) pointed this out long ago in a homily on Creation Week:
“Why does Scripture say ‘one day’ not ‘the first day’? Before speaking to us of the second, the third, and the fourth days, would it not have been more natural to call that one the first which began the series? If it therefore says ‘one day’, it is from a wish to determine the measure of day and night, and to combine the time that they contain. Now 24 hours fill up the space of one day—we mean of a day and of a night; and if, at the time of the solstices, they have not both an equal length, the time marked by Scripture does not the less circumscribe their duration. It is as though it said: 24 hours measure the space of a day, or that, in reality a day is the time that the heavens starting from one point take to return there.”15
- E.g. followers of the Watchtower Society, known more widely as “Jehovah’s Witnesses”, who deny the deity of Christ. See How to talk creation with a Jehovah’s witness. Return to text.
- Numbers 7:12, 18, 24, 30, 36, 42, 48, 54, 60, 66, 72, 78. Return to text.
- KJV= King James Version (also known as the ‘Authorized Version’). Return to text.
- Some people wrongly think that the seventh day is continuing. See Is the seventh day an eternal day? Return to text.
- Theologian: Genesis means what it says!—Jonathan Sarfati interviews Old Testament scholar Dr Robert McCabe, Creation 32(3):16–19, 2010. Also see Sarfati, J., Refuting Compromise (Updated and Expanded), Creation Book Publishers, 2011, pp. 70–71. Return to text.
- New International Version 1984. Return to text.
- And also in Genesis 2:17, 3:5, 5:1, 5:2 and Numbers 7:10, 84. Return to text.
- Graves, D., … when Yahweh God made the earth and the heavens,”—a proposal for the right translation of כְּיוֹם [bəyôm] in Genesis 2:4, Journal of Creation 23(3):119–122, 2009. Return to text.
- Mars rotates on its axis a little more slowly than Earth, so a Martian day is slightly longer than a day on Earth. Venus, however, rotates much more slowly: a day on Venus lasts 243 Earth-days! In fact, a day on Venus is longer than a Venusian year (the time it takes for Venus to orbit the Sun). See also Venus: cauldron of Fire and Mars: the red planet. Return to text.
- Theophilus, To Autolycus 2:15, Basil, Hexaëmeron 6:2. Return to text.
- NASB = New American Standard Bible. Return to text.
- Ordinal numbers are used to refer, for example, to the order of runners finishing a race—first, second, third, etc., as opposed to cardinal numbers: one, two, three, etc. Return to text.
- Just as it is with all of the numbered days of the temple sacrifice in the Numbers chapter 7 passage (see Numbers 7:12, 18, 24, 30, 36, 42, 48, 54, 60, 66, 72, 78) referred to at the start of this article. Return to text.
- And this numbering pattern, including the deliberate use of the definite article for Day 6 (and Day 7 in Genesis 2:2–3, as well as for all the days in the Numbers passage) further emphasizes this. Sarfati, J., The numbering pattern of Genesis, Journal of Creation 17(2):60–61, 2003; creation.com/numbering—after Steinmann, A., אחד as an ordinal number and the meaning of Genesis 1:5, Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society (JETS) 45(4):577–584, 2002. Return to text.
- Basil, Hexaëmeron 2:8, AD 370, newadvent.org/fathers/32012.htm; see also Genesis means what it says: Basil (AD 329–379), Creation 16(4):23–53, September 1994; creation.com/basil. Return to text.