What Is In a Day? Genesis One

clocksI just realized I have never posted anything (other than my thesis) dealing with the range of meaning for the Hebrew  יוֹם (yom) which is often translated as something like “day”. With all of the kerfuffles (that is a specific theological term 😉 ) over the word “day” in Genesis 1, I thought I’d do a brief post on my own work on this on what has been taught to my students (and will be tomorrow morning as well).

So here is the semantic range (the range of meanings based upon usage of the Hebrew term) as I have worked it out from my reading of the text of Genesis 1 (which is a distinct literary unit from verse 1 to either chapter 2, verse 3 or possibly verse 4):

  1. Period of light (v.5)
  2. Period of alternating darkness/light (vv.5, 8, 13)
  3. Cultic festivals (v.14)
  4. A twenty-four hour period (v.14, 18, 19, 23, 31)
  5. The “day” of God’s resting (2.2-3)
  6. The week of creation (2.4)

This first usage is what God “calls” the period of “light” which he had just created.

The second is (to be precise) an alteration between darkness and light. While this could be (and arguably is) the same as #4 there are many who see the lack of the sun, moon and stars (interestingly enough remaining unnamed by this text) on days 1-3 as indicative that these “days” are in fact not to be precisely equated with those following the creation of sun, moon and stars. This is argued on the basis of our own calculations of time as we experience it presently. I simply offer this variant because it is a possible (though I think unlikely) usage different from #4.

The third is best translated by the context provided in the New Jerusalem Bible of Gen.1.14: ‘God said, ‘Let there be lights in the vault of heaven to divide day from night, and let them indicate festivals, days and years’. Many of the translations miss the sense of the festivals as unique “days” in the unfolding revelation of God’s plan for creation. The (second) usage in this passage is not so much simply referring to the passage of days and years, but of the sacred days and years (ie, the Day of Atonement, Sabbath Years, etc.). It is a sacred (the scholarly term being “cultic”) day.

The fourth is typically where folks get rankled with one another and debate as if heaven and hell were in the balance. This is a usage of “day” that refers to twenty four hour periods of time passing (clarified by “evening and morning”) after the sun, moon and stars are in their courses. Now whether one should understand this literalistically (with fullest historical intent) or as a theological construct (without historical intent beyond God’s creating) is another issue. Both can regard it as a “twenty-four hour period”. One never moves beyond that sense. The other understands it as something like metaphor or construct.

The fifth might also simply fall into the category of the fourth, but is differentiated in the text by no ascription of “evening and morning” and technically no movement beyond the “day” of God’s resting (sabbathing). Some (even from the second Temple period in Judaism) regarded this as a reference to the ongoing “day” of God’s “rest”.

The sixth usage of yom is obscured in many translations by the use of “When” or “In the time of”. It is literalistically translated “In the day of…”. And this usage is pointing to the week of creation just laid out. It is not saying it took only one “day”, but points simply to the time of creation.

So what do you make of this semantic range? Is it possible we are missing the forest for the trees?

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14 thoughts on “What Is In a Day? Genesis One

  1. Hi Richard, thank you for this really helpful article. Would you mind me reproducing it as it is strictly for the purpose for which you intended it – that is to discuss the semantic range of the word with Genesis 1 & 2? Julian

  2. It is interested that it it translated “In the day of”, when it talks about that it took a week. Why is it that they used, ”in the day of” and not something else ?

  3. I have never thought about the second in that way. Is that section saying that there were periods of darkness and light without the existence of a sun?

  4. I never thought hell was mentioned or talked about in Genesis. If it was I probably never would have thought or looked closely to Genesis because we were all thought about this in Sunday school and never went further that what we were taught from church.

  5. It is interesting that so much can be packed into one word. It sounds like most English translations do not do it justice.

  6. Rick,

    Quite the comprehensive study into a single word. Perhaps you are “missing the forest for the trees”, but this is a subject that warrants study. Jesus was the Word. John 1:1 (NLT) “In the beginning the Word already existed.The Word was with God, and the Word was God.” Words have meaning and as language changes, words change and meaning can be lost. Studying language and delving into the meaning of words gives us insight into the character of God. Genesis 1:3 (NLT) “Then God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light.” When God speaks, a universe can come into existence. The meaning of God’s Word(s) is therefore of utmost importance.

  7. I have often heard the most controversy over this term in regard to evolution. Evolutionists say there is no way the earth was created in seven days, and creationists will refute that by saying the biblical meaning for day in regard to creation is much longer than what we know as a “day.” Thus, it was not referring to a 24 hour day but a more figurative measure of time (if that makes sense). What would you have to say in regard to this debate over the creation vs. evolution debate?

    • The literary nature of the text points to a historicized account even though this is not determinative of whether it might still be framed in such a fashion as to leave the door open to other possibilities. But the text properly speaks of a week of days. Is this only a literary feature? That is a different question.

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