Thursday, September 29, 2011

Thoughts on the “Yom” of Creation Part #2

So in my last entry I attempted to demonstrate that the Hebrew word “yom” can quite literally mean a period of time of indeterminate length. Of course, that doesn’t necessarily mean that’s how it’s being used in Genesis 1 & 2. To make a determination we need to explore context and see if there are any textual clues.


Our understanding of a natural day is related to rotation of the earth relative to the position of the sun. Put more observationally, a natural cycle of day and night is related to the apparent movement of the sun. Moses does not specifically mention the sun or the natural cycle of day and night as we understand it until the fourth yom. So whatever the first, second, and third “yom” might be, they are something different than how we would ordinarily define a natural day.


Moses, in the original Hebrew sets up a stylistic poetic pattern, bookending each yom with “ereb” and “boqer”, usually translated as “evening” and “morning”.  This is not how Hebrews counted 24 hour days. Hebrews viewed a day as being evening to evening. It is also not the common colloquialism for indicating a natural day. Just a few chapters later Moses uses the common colloquialism for a natural day which is to use “yom” and “layil” (day and night, not evening and morning). This certainly isn’t conclusive, by any means, but it appears that Moses is using ereb boqer in an unusual fashion that is different than what we would expect if he meant a 24 hour day. He seems to be using these Hebrew words to indicate that the first six yoms had beginnings and ends. So a reasonable understanding of what is being said in the Hebrew might possibly be, “There was a beginning and an end: a first period”. Why might this unusual syntax be important? See clue #3 for the answer.


As already stated, Moses’ creation narrative has a poetic rhythm in the Hebrew. Moses sets up this highly repetitive pattern where he again and again says something like, “evening and morning, a first yom, evening and morning a second yom, evening and morning a third yom, evening and morning a fourth yom, evening and morning a fifith yom, evening and morning a sixth yom”.   Then, he suddenly shatters that rhythym with the seventh yom. When faced with pattern and repetition in Hebrew poetry and narrative, interpretively we are always called to ask “why” when a pattern is broken. There is almost always a point to doing so. It is self evident in this passage that God’s work is done and that He is now resting from that work, but did God’s rest have an end like the other yom? The answer from Hebrews chapter 4 is that God is still in that seventh yom rest today and that we are being invited back into His rest through faith in Christ. Those who are in Christ are living in the seventh yom rest today, each and every day. So Moses, appropriately indicates that God’s rest does not end by intentionally failing to bookend it with ereb boqer. He leaves the seventh yom wide open. So not only does it appear that the first, second, and third yom were something other than what we would normally define as natural days, but it seems abundantly clear from Hebrews 4 that for God the seventh yom has lasted from creation until now. However, long that might be, we can at least conclude that the seventh yom is a long period of indeterminate length. So already in chapters 1 and 2 we have at least four uses of the word yom that do not appear to be referring to normal days.


This is the account of the heavens and the earth when they were created, in the day [yom] that the Lord God made earth and heaven.
Genesis 2:4 (NASB)

This says “in the yom that the Lord God made earth and heaven”. I don’t know of anyone who believes God chose to create everything in one 24 hour period. This is not a question of power. God could create everything in 24 nanoseconds if He wanted to. That would be no problem for God. The question is, “What did He choose to do?” and nobody believes he chose to create everything in 24 hours and yet this text says, “in the yom that the Lord God made earth and heaven”. So clearly yom means something longer than 24 hours here. At the very, very least, yom is being used to refer to a 144 hour period here. So now we have five examples in the creation narrative where yom refers to something other than what we understand to be the natural definition of a “day”.


This is the account [toledoth] of the heavens and the earth when they were created, in the day that the Lord God made earth and heaven.
Genesis 2:4 (NASB)

Here is how the very literal NASB translates “toledoth”:

Transliterated Word: toledoth (410a)
Root: from 3205;

Definition: generations:--

List of English Words and Number of Times Used
account (1),
birth (1),
genealogical registration (12),
genealogies (3),
generations (21),
order of their birth (1).

, New American Standard Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible, (Anaheim, CA: Foundation Publications, 1998), WORDsearch CROSS e-book, Under: "8435".
Here is the definition from a well respected lexicon:

‏תּוֹלֵדוֹת‎ [See Stg: ]
tôlēd̠ôt̠: A feminine noun meaning a generation. This key Hebrew word carries with it the notion of everything entailed in a person's life and that of his or her progeny (Gen. 5:1; 6:9). In the plural, it is used to denote the chronological procession of history as humans shape it. It refers to the successive generations in one family (Gen. 10:32); or a broader division by lineage (Num. 1:20ff.). In Genesis 2:4, the word accounts for the history of the created world.

Warren Baker and Eugene Carpenter, The Complete Word Study Dictionary – Old Testament, (Chattanooga, TN: AMG Publishers, 2003), WORDsearch CROSS e-book.

This is the same word used a few chapters later by Moses in the Genesis genealogies. We’ve already seen that yom is being used here in 2:4 to describe a period of time and it appears that Moses is also saying that this period of time covered something long enough to be described as “generations” so “age” (a literal meaning for the word yom) seems contextually appropriate.So a reasonable understanding of Moses is saying in Genesis 2:4 might be:

“These are the generations of the heavens and the earth when they were created, in the age that the Lord God made earth and heaven.”
Genesis 2:4 (NASB)

In all this I am not suggesting that modern English translators have erred. I would not advocate for altering the English words that most translations use. I think to do so would be to lose some of the beauty, majesty, and imagery of Moses’ poetic narrative. I don’t think we need a “flat” translation to properly interpret as long as we pay attention to the clues Moses gives us as to the meaning he is conveying. I am also not suggesting that what I have outlined here is the only possible explanation. It may not even be the best explanation, but it is entirely orthodox, faithful to the original text, and respectful to the author’s intended meaning.

I’m not at all concerned if anyone is swayed to this way of thinking. That’s simply not important as this is a non-essential. I am only concerned that we understand that we have faithful brothers and sisters who might think differently from us on some non-essentials and yet they are every bit as committed to the Word of God. In fact, it’s just possible that they have spent enormous amounts of time really digging in deep and trying to understand how the original hearers speaking the original language would have understood things. If we can keep this in mind, even if they are wrong, I think we will show much more love and unity in our discourse. Thanks for reading.


  1. Chris,

    I know this is off topic, but do you have a study in regards to matthew 5:17?



  2. Hi Steven,

    No, I've never written a formal study on Matthew 5. I really should though given the number of times I've reviewed it in depth with various individuals. If you want to e-mail me directly at ambulater[NO SPAM] (remove the "[NO SPAM]) I can send you some things I've archived from others.