One of the basic rules of interpretation is that you understand something literally unless that meaning is repugnant to logic or silly (Terry, p. 247). It is not a great rule. What is obviously figurative to me maybe obviously literal to you, but it is a place to start. However, there are words and passages that we can all agree are figurative: James, Peter and John were not literally pillars even though they are called “pillars” of the church (Gal. 2:9), the world is not flat even though we read about the four corners of the earth (Rev. 7:1), and we know the sun does not go around the earth even though we read that “The sun stopped in the middle of the sky…” (Joshua 10:13). But, when we apply this rule to whether the days in Genesis one are 24 hour periods of time we are not so sure.
Understanding what the “days” are in Genesis one seems simple: we keep reading the phrase “there was evening, and there was morning,” so it must be referring to 24 hour days. But when we think about it they could not have been 24 hour days. In order to have a 24 hour day we need our planet spinning on its axis while orbiting around the sun. On the first day the earth was without form and there was no sun and there were no heavens. How could there have been a 24 hour day? The problem continues when we ask “When did the first day begin?” God created light without creating the sun, and He did not separate light and darkness until some later time in that “day.” So, at what time did the first day begin?
God created the sun and moon and the stars on the fourth day for the purpose of marking “...seasons and days and years…” (vs. 15). We know a day has 24 hours because God gave us the rising and sitting of the sun. If there was no sun until the fourth day the way God gave us to mark time did not exist. These days must serve a different purpose in this passage than as markers of time. Early Christians also saw these difficulties: Origen (184-253 AD), in his book On First Principles, wrote “What person of intelligence, I ask, will consider as a reasonable statement that that the first and second and the third day, in which there are said to be both morning and evening, existed without sun and moon and stars, while the first day was even without a heaven?” Whatever chapter one of Genesis is, it is not a literal account of how God created the earth and heavens.
The Genesis one account is highly structured and based around the seven day week, with six days of work and one day of rest. This is a concept that easily understandable to us, and to people thousands of years ago. We can think of it as a parable. There are certain questions that are pointless to ask about parables. For example, in the parable of the sower, is the sower a literal person, is the grain literal grain, and what kind of grain was sown? Those questions are pointless because they do not bring us any closer to understanding what the parable means. In the same way asking if the days in Genesis one are 24 hour days does not bring us closer to understanding what the account means.
The purpose of the Genesis chapter one is stated in the first verse: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” Verse one functions “...both as a superscription and as a summary” (Hamilton, p. 117). Genesis one is an account teaching that God created the heavens and the earth. It is not an account of how God created the heavens and the earth. It can be divided into two panels: Days one, two and three are days of creation and Days four, five and six are days of populating (Youngblood, p. 46).
Day One: Light Day Four: Lights
Day Two: Firmament (sky and seas) Day Five: Inhabitants (fish and birds)
Day Three: Dry Land, Vegetation Day Six: Land Animals and human beings
God is portrayed like someone building a house. He lays the foundation, raises the walls and the roof, and when the house is finished he fills it with all the things his family will need. When the house is ready he brings in his family. This is an illustration that I can understand.
In Genesis one God states that He created earth and the heavens. The chapter is very strongly “antimythical” (Hamilton, pp. 127-128). We find no other gods there. There was no battle or conflict. The sun and moon are not gods, they were created by God to serve us as “signs to mark seasons and days and years” (Gen. 1:14). They are not even given names, only the greater light and the lesser light. Stars were made by God, to mark the seasons, they have no control over our fates. God made the earth, plants and animals, and everything He made was good. All of these concepts are taught in Genesis one in the simple form of a seven day week.
We have invested a lot into this chapter. We have called it the foundation of the bible, and that if it falls the whole bible falls with it. We have taught that there in only one way to interpret Genesis one and if you do not follow the literal 24 hour days then you are not a real Christian. I have taught those things. I was wrong. I put a stumbling block in front of good people who had the honesty to say that they disagreed. I am a believer. I believe God created the heavens and the earth. I believe Jesus Christ is the son of God. Whether the days in Genesis one are 24 hour days makes no difference. The bible reveals God’s saving message to mankind. It is about about salvation not science.
“Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see. This is what the ancients were commended for. By faith we understand that the universe was formed at God’s command, so that what is seen was not made out of what was visible.” Hebrews 11:1-3
Hamilton VP. The Book of Genesis Chapters 1-17. The New International Commentary on the Old Testament. 1990, Eerdmans Publishing Company.
Terry MS. Biblical Hermeneutics. Academie Books.
Youngblood RF. The Genesis Debate, Persistent Questions about Creation and the Flood. 1990, Baker Book House.