Thursday, September 29, 2011

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.

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