That Genesis is ambiguous on when God created everything and how long it took does not seem like a particularly controversial point. Even lots of conservative commentaries recognize it does not mandate a young Earth. Indeed, studying Genesis immediately reveals reasonable interpretations allowing for a very old Earth and human evolution.
Despite this, Young Earth Creationists insist the only possible interpretation of Genesis is that God created everything in six, consecutive 24-hour-days six- to ten-thousand years ago.
To bolster their insistence, Young Earth Creationists point to Exodus 20:11 and 31:17, which relate to keeping the Sabbath holy.
In those two verses, God tells Moses that “in six days” God made everything.
My next post will explain that those verses, like Genesis 1, do not necessarily refer to six, consecutive 24-hour-days. Today’s post looks at a more fundamental question.
Do those two verses belong in our Bibles?
Many respected Old Testament scholars view both verses as late additions to what is now the Exodus text. They view them as insertions or edits that occurred 600+ years after the time Moses is said to have died.
Two of the main reasons many scholars consider Exodus 20:11 and 31:17 late additions are described below.
Some questions to consider while reading: What should we do with this information? How should we treat these verses? If they were probably late additions to the text, should we rely on them at all? Should we declare that since they are in our Bibles today, the verses belong there and God intended for us to rely on them? Should we note them only as historical information? Should we rely on them to formulate an interpretation or a theology?
I. Exodus 20:11 Stands Out in Form and Substance from Surrounding Text
Chapter 20 of Exodus describes God giving the Ten Commandments to Moses and other Israelites. Each commandment is short—a single verse—and no reason for it is given.
But there are two exceptions.
See if you can spot the two exceptions—a total of five verses—in Exodus 20:1-17 that depart in form from the surrounding text—
“1 Then God gave the people all these instructions:
2 “I am the Lord your God, who rescued you from the land of Egypt, the place of your slavery.
3 “You must not have any other god but me.
4 “You must not make for yourself an idol of any kind or an image of anything in the heavens or on the earth or in the sea. 5 You must not bow down to them or worship them, for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God who will not tolerate your affection for any other gods. I lay the sins of the parents upon their children; the entire family is affected—even children in the third and fourth generations of those who reject me. 6 But I lavish unfailing love for a thousand generations on those who love me and obey my commands.
7 “You must not misuse the name of the Lord your God. The Lord will not let you go unpunished if you misuse his name.
8 “Remember to observe the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. 9 You have six days each week for your ordinary work, 10 but the seventh day is a Sabbath day of rest dedicated to the Lord your God. On that day no one in your household may do any work. This includes you, your sons and daughters, your male and female servants, your livestock, and any foreigners living among you. 11 For in six days the Lord made the heavens, the earth, the sea, and everything in them; but on the seventh day he rested. That is why the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and set it apart as holy.
12 “Honor your father and mother. Then you will live a long, full life in the land the Lord your God is giving you.
13 “You must not murder.
14 “You must not commit adultery.
15 “You must not steal.
16 “You must not testify falsely against your neighbor.
17 “You must not covet your neighbor’s house. You must not covet your neighbor’s wife, male or female servant, ox or donkey, or anything else that belongs to your neighbor.”
Verses 5-6 and 9-11 stand out as departing from the otherwise brief-and-pointed form of these group of verses (1-17), which causes some scholars to consider them likely late insertions into the passage.
They stand out for two other reasons, too.
One, verses 5-6 makes a grim statement—“I lay the sins of the parents upon their children…—even children in the third and fourth generations of those who reject me”— which is repeated nearly verbatim in two places. But the statement is contradicted elsewhere in the Bible (e.g., Ezekiel 18).
Two, verses 9-11 base the Sabbath commandment on creation, but the Sabbath is instead based on commemorating the exodus—God bringing the Israelites out of Egypt—and the covenant that followed, as well on an opportunity for people to rest, in other scripture, including Exodus 16:22-26, 20:2, 23:12, and 31:12-17a, and Deuteronomy 5:12-15.
For example, Deuteronomy 5 describes Moses giving the Ten Commandments to the Israelites:
“14 But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work—you, or your son or your daughter, or your male or female slave, or your ox or your donkey, or any of your livestock, or the resident alien in your towns, so that your male and female slave may rest as well as you. 15 Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm; therefore the Lord your God commanded you to keep the sabbath day.”
These departures and differences are some of the reasons Exodus 20:11 is viewed by many respected Old Testament scholars as a late addition to the text.
II. Exodus 31:17b: So Awkward, It Might Not Belong
Exodus 31:17b, the other verse referring to “in six days,” is part of a group of verses that many Old Testament scholars also consider a late addition.
The group (vv. 15-17) is in a longer passage in which God says to Moses:
13 “Tell the people of Israel: ‘Be careful to keep my Sabbath day, for the Sabbath is a sign of the covenant between me and you from generation to generation. It is given so you may know that I am the Lord, who makes you holy. 14 You must keep the Sabbath day, for it is a holy day for you. Anyone who desecrates it must be put to death; anyone who works on that day will be cut off from the community. 15 You have six days each week for your ordinary work, but the seventh day must be a Sabbath day of complete rest, a holy day dedicated to the Lord. Anyone who works on the Sabbath must be put to death. 16 The people of Israel must keep the Sabbath day by observing it from generation to generation. This is a covenant obligation for all time. 17a It is a permanent sign of my covenant with the people of Israel. b For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, but on the seventh day he stopped working and was refreshed.’”
Verses 15-17 are viewed as a late addition in part because they are awkwardly phrased. In vv. 13-14, God speaks in first person. The text switches to third person in v. 15, then back to first person in v. 17a, and then back to third person in v. 17b.
An additional oddity appears in v. 17b, per some scholars, in the form of referring to God as “refreshed,” suggesting God was tired, a theologically striking and unusual statement. Commentators call this an “utterly astonishing” phrase.
Also, scholars widely recognize that passages immediately following v. 17b combine material from multiple hands, which calls 17b’s authorship and timing into question by association.
For these reasons and others, some respected Old Testament scholars view Exodus 31:17b to be a part of a carelessly phrased, late insert into the text.
Conclusion: What Does One Do With This Information?
How should we treat these two verses? Should Youth Earth Creationists rely on them? Should anyone rely on them? Should they be used to formulate an interpretation or a theology? Should we consider the person who inserted them inspired by God? Should we just say that “they are in our Bible and so we should rely on them”?
Are the reasons for thinking they are late insertions too weak to think about it further? Should we delete them from Exodus if evidence is found that suggests it is highly likely that they were not in the original expression of the Ten Commandments? Should we rely on them unless it is proved conclusively that they do not belong? Should we ignore these scholars? Should we give these verses less weight?
This post is the fourth in a series on Young Earth Creationism.
In the next post, I will discuss aspects of Exodus 20:11 and 31:17b that suggest, regardless of one’s answers to the questions above, those verses do not demand that Earth was created in six, consecutive 24-hour-days.
Sources and Notes
“Genesis is ambiguous …. immediately reveals …. “: See the second post in this series.
“… many very conservative commentators … “: See, e.g., Robert B. Hughes and J. Carl Laney, Tyndale Concise Bible Commentary, Wheaton, Illinois: Tyndale House Publishers, Inc. (1990), page 10 (“creation narrative’s literary form of elevated and poetic prose … leave room for a figurative use of the word ‘day'”); C.I. Scofield, The Scofield Reference Bible, New York: Oxford University Press (1917), page 4 (“the frequent parabolic use of natural phenomena may warrant the conclusion that each creative ‘day’ was a period of time marked off by a beginning and ending”).
“… edits to the text …”: See, e.g., The New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. I, Nashville: Abingdon Press (1994), page 845; Martin Noth, Exodus, Philadelphia: The Westminster Press (1962), pages 164-165, 241.
Exodus 20:8-11: See, e.g., The New Interpreter’s Bible and North, supra; William H.C. Propp, “Exodus 19-40,” The Anchor Bible, New York: Doubleday (2006), pages 112, 146; Brevard S. Childs, The Book of Exodus, Philadelphia: The Westminster Press (1974), pages 413-415 (20:8-11 shows “many signs of growth and expansion”; it “gives every indication of having been formed from composite elements”; “The commandment is the longest in the Decalogue, showing many signs of growth and expansion. Moreover, the parallel passage in Deuteronomy is strikingly different in its formulation.”); Childs at 416 (Indeed, some view Genesis 1 as being written after the establishment of the tradition of honoring the sabbath day. In other words, Genesis 1 is based on that tradition, rather than the other way around.); Kenneth A. Strand, Ed., The Sabbath in Scripture and History, Washington, DC: Review and Herald Publishing Association (1982), page 279 (“Exodus 20:11 is thought to be a later addition around 500 B.C. ….”).
“utterly astonishing”: The New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. 1, supra, page 924.
“… in two places …”: Exodus 34:7; Numbers 14:18.
Exodus 31:13-17: See, e.g., sources cited for 20:8-11, supra; Noth at 241 (“In vv.15-17, however, we certainly have a secondary addition, as is evident from the carelessness of the phrasing alone. In vv. 15 and 17b Yahweh is named in the third person without any reference to the context, but in between v. 17a has him speaking again in the first person. This additional is substantially composed of repetitious of previous verses, variants on the sabbath commandment of 20:8-11 and a reference to Gen. 2:2f; it concludes with the striking statement that Yahweh ‘was refreshed’ after the six days of creation.”); The New Interpreter’s Study Bible, Vol. 1, Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press (1994), page 924 (“The inescapable inference is that in six days of creation God worked very hard, and God’s own self had been diminished through that exertion.”); Noth at 190 (The keeping of the sabbath day was an old custom in ancient Israel, and these late writers supplied a reason. It is possible it related to rest or to a renewing of creation.).
“… multiple hands …”: The Jewish Study Bible, 2nd ed., New York: University Press (2014), page 173.
All scripture quoted comes from the New Living Translation or the New Revised Standard Version.