What is the Meaning of the Word "Day" in Genesis? Part 1

Post Author: Bill Pratt

The Hebrew word yom is used eleven times in Genesis, chapter 1.  When you read Genesis 1 (and you should before proceeding to read this post), it is clear that the author is describing the creation of the heavens and earth by God.  As the author describes this process, he uses the word yom to denote periods of time that pass between each major creation event.  Here are a few verses (Gen 1:3-8) to show what I mean:

And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. God saw that the light was good, and he separated the light from the darkness. God called the light “day,” and the darkness he called “night.” And there was evening, and there was morning—the first day. And God said, “Let there be an expanse between the waters to separate water from water.” So God made the expanse and separated the water under the expanse from the water above it.  And it was so. God called the expanse “sky.”  And there was evening, and there was morning—the second day.

This pattern continues through the sixth “day” until the initial creation account ends with Gen 2:1-3:
 Thus the heavens and the earth were completed in all their vast array.
 By the seventh day God had finished the work he had been doing; so on the seventh day he rested from all his work. And God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it he rested from all the work of creating that he had done.
 The word yom can mean several things in Hebrew.  It can refer to a 24-hour period or it can refer to longer periods of time.  Which is the correct interpretation in Genesis 1?
As Norman Geisler records, those who argue that the “days” are 24-hour periods argue like this:
 It is contended that the usual meaning of the Hebrew word yom (“day”) is twenty-four hours unless the context indicates otherwise. The context does not indicate anything but a twenty-four-hour-day in Genesis 1; hence, the days should be taken as solar days.
 (Norman L. Geisler, Systematic Theology, Volume Two: God, Creation (Minneapolis, MN: Bethany House Publishers, 2003), 637.)
The response to this view is as follows:
 It is true that most often the Hebrew word yom (“day”) means “twenty-four hours.” However, this is not definitive for its meaning in Genesis 1 for several reasons.
First, the meaning of a term is not determined by majority vote, but by the context in which it is used. It is not important how many times it is used elsewhere, but how it is used here.
Second, even in the creation story in Genesis 1–2, “day” (yom) is used of more than a twenty-four-hour period. Speaking of the whole six “days” of creation, Genesis 2:4 refers to it as “the day” (yom) when all things were created.
Third, and finally, yom is elsewhere used of long periods of time, as in Psalm 90:4, which is cited in 2 Peter 3:8: “A day is like a thousand years.”

(Norman L. Geisler, 639)

These are the just the basic introductory arguments for these views, and much more could be said.  But we have to start somewhere and we will continue batting these views back and forth in future posts.

  • “These are the just the basic introductory arguments”

    You have started writing on an essential topic, and I am sure you will have enough number of posts to cover the subject in a comprehensive and authoritative manner.

    Johnson C. Philip, PhD (Physics)
    India

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  • Keith

    Just a note that everytime the word Yom is used ANYWHERE else in the Bible with a number (2 days), “morning”, “evening”, or “night” is assumed to mean 24 hours but in Genesis all 4 indicators are used and it’s supposed to be different.

  • Bill Pratt

    Hi Keith.
    I don’t think this argument works. Please see What is the Meaning of the Word “Day” in Genesis? Part 2

    God bless,
    Bill

  • franklinmonroe

    There seems to be a presupposition above that “day” must mean “solar day”.

    But another definition of “day” is simply the length of time required for the Earth to fully rotate around it’s axis once. One complete rotation of the Earth does not require the presence of the Sun. A ‘young-Earth’ assumption would be that God created the Earth with a rotation similiar to what is demonstrated today (approximately a 24-hour cycle).

    Any extremely long periods proposed for a single rotation would result in death for the created life on Earth followinf the conclusion of Day Three; then ‘old-Earthers’ would also have to explain a mechanism for the acceleration of the Earth’s rotation and the adaptation of living organisms to present conditions).

  • Just to keep Bill Pratt honest it must be pointed out that the word “day” in Psalm 90:4 and in 2 Peter 3:8 both mean “ordinary day” and NOT “long period of time” as his response states.

    If he is correct then both verses could be read “For the Lord a thousand years is a “long period of time…”

    That is obviously is not the meaning of those verses. But the verses make perfect sense if day means “ordinary day”.

    Example: For the Lord a thousand years is as an ordinary day…

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  • Barry Miller

    This “argument” has to work, unless your determined for it not to work. I can say back in my day it took 3 days to get to town during the day we see different uses of the word day, same word different meaning. If I say yesterday morning I went to town that means during that 24 hour period. With morning and evening are classifiers saying 24 hours. Also adding a number, first, second third leaves no doubt, it means a day. In Exodus we are told to use the creation as a example, to rest on the first day. Are we supposed to work six thousand years and rest for a thousand? Why is this the only passage of scripture where we doubt the simple meaning the word Yom? Because so many want evolution to fit because they lack faith in God’s holy inherent Word. BTW You changed what the Bible says at the very foundation. Yo wrote “Heavens” when in reality God created the heaven, singular. That’s important.

    Barry

  • Barry Miller

    Outside Genesis 1 the word “yom” is used
    with a number 410 times, and each time it means an ordinary
    day, why would Genesis one be the exception?

  • Barry Miller

    Outside Genesis 1 “yom”
    is used with the word “evening and morning” 23 times. “Evening and
    morning” appear in association, but without “yom,” 38 times. All
    61 times the text refers to an ordinary day, why would Genesis one be the exception?

  • Barry Miller

    Genesis 1:5, “yom” occurs in context with the
    word “night.” Outside of Genesis 1, “night” is used with “yom” 53 times and each time it means an ordinary day, why would Genesis 1 be the
    exception?

  • Barry Miller

    “..let God be true, but every man a liar..” Romans 3:4