The Creation Days in Genesis: The Language of Genesis 1

by Dr. George Benthien

Some of the difficulties involved in interpreting the creation account relate to the Hebrew language in which it was written 8. First of all, Biblical Hebrew contained very few words relative to modern languages. Strong’s exhaustive concordance lists 8674 words in the Hebrew dictionary. The actual number of root words is usually taken to be 2552. By way of contrast, the Merriam Webster Collegiate Dictionary lists over 165,000 words and the Oxford English Dictionary (2nd edition) lists over 615,000 words (over 1,000,000 including scientific words). Therefore, the Hebrew vocabulary was much smaller than most modern languages such as English. It follows that most Hebrew words had several meanings. Also, it was not possible in Biblical Hebrew to express many of the nuances we find in English.

The small size of the Hebrew vocabulary also means that the English words used to translate the Hebrew often have additional connotations that were not present in the original. For example, when we think of the words “earth” and “heavens” we think of a roughly spherical planet orbiting the sun in a vast universe containing many other planets and suns. However, to the original hearers, the Hebrew word for “earth” would likely have referred to the ground surrounding them, and the word for “heavens” would likely have meant the sky they saw above.

The words in most languages are made up of consonants and vowels. In speech, consonants involve motion of the lips or tongue whereas vowels involve air flow deeper in the throat. Almost all words in Biblical Hebrew consisted entirely of consonants. The root words usually consisted of three consonants. Vowel marks were not introduced into the Hebrew language until about 150 A.D. Therefore, most words in written Hebrew corresponded to several spoken words. For example, if English words were written this way, the words bread, board, bard, and bird would all be spelled “brd”. In Biblical Hebrew, the meaning of a word almost always depends on the context.

In addition, verbs in Biblical Hebrew did not have tenses related to time. Thus, we cannot tell from the verb itself whether the action takes place in the past, in the present, or in the future. Hebrew verbs only indicated a completed action (perfect form) or an incomplete action (imperfect form). In Biblical Hebrew the verbs do not specify the duration or time ordering of the actions. It was mentioned in connection with the Gap Theory that the word translated as “was” in the phrase “the earth was without form” could also have been translated as “became”.

Most of the controversy concerning Genesis 1 centers on the meaning of the Hebrew word “yom” (pronounced yome) for day. In Biblical Hebrew it can mean a 24-hour day, the daylight hours, or a finite period of time. Its most common meaning is “daylight”. It is only rarely used to represent a 24-hour day. Unlike English, the original Biblical Hebrew had no other word to express a finite period of time of unspecified duration. Some writers have suggested that the Hebrew word “olam” could have been used for that purpose. However, this word only came to mean an age or era in postbiblical writings. In biblical times “olam” meant forever, always, eternity, etc., i.e. periods of time without a beginning or end. The following are some examples in which “yom” refers to a finite period of time.

Numbers 3:1  These are the generations of Aaron and Moses in the

yom
day

that the Lord spoke with Moses in mount Sinai. ( From Exodus 34:28 we have “So he was with the Lord forty days and forty nights”)

Genesis 2:4  These are the generations of the heavens and of the earth when they were created, in the

yom
day

that the Lord made the earth and the heavens.

Genesis 2:17  But of the trees of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shall not eat of it: for in the

yom
day

that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die. ( Genesis 5:5 states that Adam lived 930 years)

Psalm 90:4 (attributed to Moses)  For a thousand years in thy sight are but

yom
yesterday

when it is past and as a watch in the night.

Isaiah 34:8  For it is the

yom
day

of the Lord’s vengeance, and the year of recompenses for the controversy of Zion.

Hosea 6:2  After two

yom
days

he [God] will restore us [Israel]; on the third day he will restore us.

The seventh “yom” in Genesis 1 is often taken to be a long period of time (possibly extending to the present) since the phrase “and there was evening and there was morning” is omitted.

Hebrews 4:4–11  For somewhere [God] has spoken about the seventh day in these words: “And on the seventh day God rested from all his work.” …

It still remains that some will enter that rest. … There remains, then, a sabbath-rest for the people of God; for anyone who enters God’s rest also rests from his own work, just as God did from his. Let us, therefore, make every effort to enter that rest.

It is possible that the seven days in Genesis 1 are, at least in part, a literary device. Ancient Near Eastern literature, particularly from Mesopotamia and Canaan, provides numerous examples of the use of seven days as a literary framework to circumscribe the completion of a significant or catastrophic event 7. The pattern in these works runs uniformly as follows: “One day, a second day, so and so happens; a third day, a fourth day, such and such occurs; a fifth day, a sixth day, so and so takes place; then, on the seventh day, the story comes to its exciting conclusion.” Genesis 1:1–2:3 modifies this pattern from three sets of two days followed by a concluding day to two sets of three days followed by a concluding day. On days 1–3 God gives form to the universe. The characteristic verbs used in these three days are separate and gather. On days 4–6 God fills his creation. The characteristic verbs here are teem, fill, be fruitful, increase.

In some translations we find the phrases “the first day”, “the second day”, “the third day”, “the fourth day”, “the fifth day”, and “the sixth day” associated with the days of creation. A more literal rendering of the Hebrew is “one day”, “a second day”, “a third day”, “a fourth day”, “a fifth day”, and “the sixth day.” The omission of the definite article “the” in all but the sixth day allows for the possibility of a literary ordering of the days as well as a strictly chronological order. It would also seem to allow for the possibility of gaps between the days. The use of the article on the sixth day seems to provide a special emphasis.

Each of the six days ends with the phrase “and there was evening and there was morning …” Authors Mark Van Bebber and Paul Taylor 11 wrote, “This phrase [evening and morning] is used 38 times in the Old Testament, not counting Genesis 1. Each time, without exception, the phrase refers to a normal 24-hour day.” However, the old-earth adherents point out that

  • The word “day” appears in none these references.
  • In only a few of these do the words “evening” and “morning” even occur in the same sentence.
  • The phrase “evening and morning” occurs only once. In Psalm 55:17 David said, “Evening, and morning, and at noon will I pray.”
  • 24-hour days were usually marked by “evening to evening” and occasionally “morning to morning.”
  • The exact phrase “and there was evening and there was morning” occurs only in Genesis 1.

The verses

You sweep men away in the sleep of death; they are like the new grass of the morning — though in the morning it springs up new, by evening it is dry and withered.  Psalms 90:5–6

are an example of where “evening” and “morning” are used figuratively to delimit a period of time.

Van Bebber and Taylor also said that 358 out of the 359 times “yom” is used with an ordinal modifier, it represents a 24-hour day. However,

  • There is no rule in Hebrew grammar that requires this interpretation.
  • All of the 358 cases mentioned refer to human activity where the 24-hour meaning would be natural. Genesis 1 and Hosea 6:2 refer to God’s activity.

It is often argued that the required Sabbath observance indicates that the days were ordinary 24-hour days.

Exodus 20:9,11  Six days you shall labor …, but the seventh day is a Sabbath. … For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth …, but he rested on the seventh day.

Hebrew scholar Gleason Archer noted, “By no means does this [Exodus 20:9–11] demonstrate that 24-hour intervals were involved in the first six ‘days,’ any more than the eight-day celebration of the Feast of Tabernacles proves that the wilderness wanderings under Moses occupied only eight days.”

Let us close this section by looking at a few other Hebrew words that occur in the creation narrative.

  • Elohiym (el-o-heem´): The plural form of Eloahh (el-o´-ah). It is a combination of the words el (the strong one) and alah (to bind oneself by oath). Thus Elohiym is the mighty and faithful one. It is the only name for God used in Genesis one.
  • ruwach (roo´-akh): The word for wind, spirit, or breath. When it occurs together with Elohiym it refers to the Holy Spirit.
  • reshiyth (ray-sheeth´): the first (in place, time, order, or rank), the beginning.
  • shamayim (shaw-mah´-yim): The sky, the heavens, or the spiritual realm.
  • erets (eh´-rets): Can mean earth, field, ground, or land.
  • towb (tobe): Can mean good, beautiful, or best.
  • adam (aw-dawm´): The word for human, man or mankind.

In the Hebrew there are three primary creation verbs used in the first chapter of Genesis. They are “bara”, “asah”, and “hayah”. Their meaning and usage in Genesis 1 are given below.

bara (baw-raw´): to create; to bring forth something that is radically new.

God created the heavens and the earth  Gen 1:1

So God created the great creatures of the sea and every living and moving thing with which the water teems, according to their kinds, and every winged bird according to its kind.  Gen 1:21

So God created man in his own image  Gen 1:27

asah (aw-saw´): make; produce; fabricate. This verb doesn’t necessarily imply that something is being made out of something else, you have to look at the context.

God made two great lights — the greater light to govern the day and the lesser light to govern the night. He also made the stars.  Gen 1:16

God made the wild animals according to their kinds, the livestock according to their kinds, and all the creatures that move along the ground according to their kinds.  Gen 1:25

Then God said, “Let us make man in our image  Gen 1:26

God saw all that he had made, and it was very good.  Gen 1:31

hayah (haw-yaw): cause to appear or arise; come into existence.

Let there be light  Gen 1:3

Let there be an expanse between the waters to separate water from water.  Gen 1:6

“Let the water under the sky be gathered to one place, and let dry ground appear.”  Gen 1:9

“Let there be lights in the expanse of the sky to separate the day from the night,  Gen1:14

and let them be lights in the expanse of the sky to give light on the earth.  Gen 1:15

Be fruitful and increase in number;  Gen 1:28

It is said that the ancient Hebrews did not allow anyone to expound on the first chapter of Genesis until they were 30 years of age. They obviously recognized that this was a difficult passage. Maybe, we too should show some humility in approaching this difficult passage.

This series is courtesy of Dr. George Benthienand can also be found at his website.

FOLLOW THE LINKS BELOW FOR MORE OF THIS SERIES >>>

Part One – The Creation Days in Genesis: Introduction and Historical Background

Part Two – The Creation Days in Genesis: Historical Background (continued)

Part Four – The Creation Days in Genesis: Science and Revelation

Part Five – The Creation Days in Genesis: Interpretations of Creation Days

Part Six – The Creation Days in Genesis: Arguments For and Against

Part Seven – The Creation Days in Genesis: Common Ground

The Poached Egg Apologetics


RECOMMENDED RESOURCES:   A Matter of Days: Resolving a Creation Controversy / The Lost World of Genesis One: Ancient Cosmology and the Origins Debate/ The Case for a Creator: A Journalist Investigates Scientific Evidence That Points Toward God/ More Apologetics Resources >>>