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.

Thoughts on the “Yom” of Creation Part #1

In writing this post, I at no time wish to give the impression that the direction I lean on this subject is the only acceptable one.  I’ve changed my mind before and may change it again. Rather, I hope this to be an appeal to extend a great deal of liberty, love, and grace to our brothers and sisters who may differ on non-essential secondary issues. Specifically, I would like to demonstrate that contextually interpreting “yom” (usually translated as "day") in Genesis 1 and 2 may not be so dogmatically one-sided as we may have been led to believe. If this is true, then we should be a bit humble about our particular view and avoid labeling differing views as heretical or based on compromise. There have been scholars throughout history, prior to the advent of modern science, who took differing views on “yom” in Genesis 1 and 2 based solely on the context of this passage. I think that’s okay. I’m going to present one particular literal contextual interpretation because it may be one you haven’t really heard before, but it is orthodox and has a long history in both Jewish and Christian thought. It may or may not be correct, but we should certainly refrain from condemning brothers and sisters who hold it. It’s an entirely possible, and literal, understanding of the actual Hebrew text of Genesis 1 and 2.



Let’s get this out of the way right away. There is an oft repeated myth in some Christian circles that goes something like, “Yom with an ordinal number always means a 24 hour period”. I find it extremely unfortunate that these kind of things get repeated to the point that they are accepted as fact when there is no basis for it. Here are a few things to keep in mind about this myth:

1. There is absolutely no such rule in Hebrew. There is nothing in the Hebrew language that necessitates such a claim and you can search any Hebrew lexicon in vain for such a rule. It just doesn’t exist.

2. Appealing to something that may seem to usually be the case, does not require that it is always the case. This is just not good logic.

3. Hosea 6:1-2 uses yom with ordinal numbers in a prophetic way that clearly isn’t referring to 24 hour periods so we can see that this is not always the case, even if we look only at the Bible and not at the all other Hebrew literature.


I’ve heard people insist that the only “literal” way to translate yom into English is as a 24 hour “day” and that all other interpretations are considered to be something less than literal. I don’t understand where this is coming from and why someone would say this, but I assume they are not familiar with some of the basic principles of translation. Here are a couple of things to keep in mind.

1. Nearly all words have a range of meanings. Some have a very large range indeed. One that pops to my mind at this moment is the English word “can”. Look it up in a dictionary and you will see a long list of numbered meanings. All of these meanings are real uses of the word with real distinct definitions. For that matter, even the English word “day” has meanings and uses that are something other than “a 24 hour period” (e.g. “Back in George Washington’s day...”)

2. When translating, you may find a word in the receptor language that has a meaning which is more or less the equivalent of the a word in the host language, but you will almost never find a word in the receptor language that has the exact same range of meanings as a word in the host language. This is why it is said that all translation involves compromise. When we spend a lot of time arguing about the range of literal meanings of an English word in an English translation we are totally missing the point and engaging in a truly useless conversation. The question is not what the English word can literally mean, but what the underlying Hebrew word can literally mean and what is best supported by the context.

3. The NASB is considered to be one of the most conservative, literal English translations of the Bible. Here are just a few of the ways that it LITERALLY translates the word yom (I’ve only included ones that you might be less familiar with):

age (8),
age* (1),
all (1),
always* (14),
amount* (2),
battle (1),
birthday* (1),
Chronicles* (38),
completely* (1),
continually* (14),
course* (1),
each (1),
entire (2),
eternity (1),
ever in your life* (1),
fate (1),
first (5),
forever* (11),
forevermore* (1),
full (5),
full year (1),
future* (1),
holiday* (3),
later* (2),
length (1),
life (12),
life* (1),
lifetime (2),
lifetime* (1),
live (1),
long (2),
long as i live (1),
long* (11),
now (5),
older* (1),
once (2),
period (3),
perpetually* (2),
present (1),
recently (1),
reigns (1),
ripe* (1),
so long* (1),
some time (1),
survived* (2),
time (45),
time* (1),
times* (2),
usual (1),
very old* (1),
when (10),
whenever (1),
while (3),
whole (2),
year (10),
yearly (5),
years (13),

New American Standard Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible, (Anaheim, CA: Foundation Publications, 1998), WORDsearch CROSS e-book, Under: "3117".

All of these are literal meanings of “yom” because yom has a very large range of meanings that surpasses any similar word we might have in English. Simply put, it can be considered a period of time of indeterminate length. Because we’ve always read English translations, this fact has been masked to us. We’ve often read the word yom when it was translated as some period of time and didn’t even know that it was the same word as in Genesis 1 & 2. So the question is not whether or not it can mean an age or a period, it most certainly can literally mean either of those. The question is what is the meaning of yom in Genesis 1 & 2? Next time, I will go over a number of contextual indications in Genesis 1& 2 that suggest that Moses is using “yom” to mean a period of time of indeterminate length.