This post explains why Young Earth Creationist arguments that Exodus 20:11 and 31:17 must mean God created everything in six, consecutive 24-hour-days are wrong.
Introduction to the Text: Multiple, Reasonable Interpretations Possible
In both verses, God says the Israelites shall work “six yamim” and rest on the seventh because “in six yamim” God created everything and rested on the seventh.
Yamim, an Ancient Hebrew word, is a form of yom, a word nearly universally recognized as having multiple literal meanings, including 24-hour day, daylight hours, and an indefinite time-period.
Every major English translation translates yamim in Exodus 20:11 and 31:17 as “days.”
But the English translations do not specify what kind of “days.”
“Days” has several literal meanings, including 24-hour-days, daylight hours (as in “I work days”), and indefinite time-periods (as in “the days of the Dinosaurs” or “back in your days”).
Nor does the text specify consecutive days. Indeed, the word “in” is not in the original Hebrew verses.
And there is no demand in the text for a literal interpretation. It could be allegorical, metaphorical, or symbolic.
The point is that, while it is reasonable to interpret these verses as specifying creation of everything in six, consecutive 24-hour-days, it is also reasonable to interpret them as specifying creation over long time-periods. The text is ambiguous.
Introduction to the Problem and Overview of the Post
Once one understands that yom, yamim, day, and days have several possible literal meanings, it is easy to see that it is reasonable to interpret the creation days of Exodus 20:11 and 31:17 as something besides six, consecutive 24-hour-days. This is even before one recognizes that allegorical, metaphorical, God-days, symbolic, and still other interpretations are reasonable, as well.
Rejecting this ambiguity and insisting their interpretation is the only plausible one, Young Earth Creationists offer arguments that are plainly wrong. But they keep repeating them.
First, some of them argue since the first use of yamim in each verse refers to a 24-hour day, it is illogical to interpret the second use in each to mean something different. But there are multiple instances in the Bible in which the same word used twice in a short span means two different things.
Second, they argue yamim always refers to literal 24-hour-periods in non-prophetic literature. But there are multiple examples in which it does not.
Third, they argue that anytime a form of yom is preceded by a number, it always clearly refers to a literal 24-hour-period. But there are contrary examples.
This post addresses problems with these three main arguments by Young Earth Creationists regarding Exodus 20:11 and 31:17 (and more).
First: Interpreting the Same Word to Have Different Meanings is Appropriate
Young Earth Creationists argue that when God says “six yamim” of work for humans in these verses, God obviously meant six, consecutive 24-hour-days, and thus when God referred to “six yamim” of creation in the same passage, God must have meant six, consecutive 24-hour-days of creation; interpreting the same word (yamim) to mean two different things in a short span would be irrational.
Respected Old Testament scholars point to multiple places in the Bible in which the same word means two different things in a short span, though.
Two examples jump out.
First, yom (sometimes rendered yowm or yawm), the root word of yamim, is used to mean two different things in a single verse, Genesis 1:5, which says
“God called the light yowm (Day), and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first yowm (day).”
Yowm is translated “Day,” meaning daytime (daylight, often ~12 hours), and then is translated “day,” meaning something else, such as a 24-hour day or an indefinite time-period.
In a second example, God uses bayit to mean two different things in a short span of verses, 2 Samuel 7:5-12, where bayit’s first two uses connote a physical house while its third connotes a dynastic house (a blood-line of kings).
There, God says to David, in discussing the possibility of a physical house (the Temple), “Are you the one to build me a bayit to live in? I have not lived in a bayit since the day I brought up the people of Israel from Egypt to this day ….”
Using it a third time, God then says, “the Lord declares to you that the Lord will make you a bayit. When … you lie down with your ancestors, I will raise up your offspring after you, who shall come forth from your body, and I will establish his kingdom.”
God promises David a bayit, a “dynasty,” in which his offspring will become kings. Indeed, the line of David remained on the throne of Judah for over 400 years.
Thus, the assertion that yamim cannot have two different meanings when used in a short span in Exodus 20 and 34 is obviously incorrect.
Second: Yamim Does Not Always Refer to Literal 24-Hour Periods
Young Earth Creationists argue every use of yamim in Old Testament literature—at least in non-prophetic literature—refers to literal 24-hour periods of time.
But yamim refers to periods of time besides literal 24-hour periods in multiple places throughout Old Testament literature, non-prophetic and prophetic, including in Genesis 4:3 ([course] of time); Genesis 29:14 (the period); Leviticus 25:29 (full year); Numbers 9:22 (a year); Numbers 20:15 (a time); Deuteronomy 20:19 (a time); Joshua 11:18 (a time); Joshua 24:7 (a season); 1 Kings 17:7 (a while); Psalm 77:5 (days [of old]); and Lamentations 5:20 (time).
Two examples illustrate the point.
Moses uses yamim to refer to an indefinite, long time-period, not literal 24-hour-periods, in Numbers 20:14-15. He tells the king of Edom, “You know all the adversity that has befallen us: how our ancestors went down to Egypt, and we lived in Egypt a long yamim ….” Indeed, the Israelites lived in Egypt for hundreds of years. Moses was not saying the Israelites lived in Egypt a long “24-hour period” or many “24-hour periods.” He was not referencing 24-hour periods or giving a specific time. He was conveying that the Israelites lived in Egypt a really, really long time. BibleHub defines yamim as “time” here. Young’s Literal translation expresses the phrase as “many days”—i.e., in this context, a very long time.
God uses yamim in Leviticus 25:29 to refer to a full year, not to literal 24-hour periods. God, giving rules to the Israelites, says “If anyone sells a dwelling house in a walled city, it may be redeemed until a year has elapsed since its sale; the right of redemption shall be yamim.” Every major English translation translates yamim here as a full year, not some specified or even unspecified number of 24-hour periods.
Thus, the argument that every use of yamim in Old Testament non-prophetic literature refers to literal 24-hour periods of time is incorrect.
Third: Time-Periods Besides 24-Hour Ones Are Numbered, Too
Some Young Earth Creationists assert that when day or days (yom, yamim, and forms thereof) is preceded by a numeral in the Bible, as in “six yamim,” it always refers to a literal 24-hour period “[b]ecause it would make no sense to speak of six ‘long periods of time.’”
Of course it makes sense to speak of six “long periods of time.” The MacMillan Dictionary, for example, lists many “long periods of time,” such as the Stone Age, the Bronze Age, the Iron Age, the Dark Ages, the Middle Ages, and the Renaissance.
Also, day and days do not always refer to a literal 24-hour period when preceded by a numeral or ordinal. Commentators point to several contra examples (see source notes below for a list).
One is Hosea 6:2, which says “After two days he will revive us; on the third day he will raise us up, that we may live before him.”
Most Old Testament scholars explain that the “after two days” and “on the third day” phrases, which use forms of yom, are expressions for “a short period.” Indeed, the New Living Translation translates the phrase as “[i]n just a short time.” None of the 15+ commentaries on Hosea 6:2 I reviewed indicated it means literal 24-hour periods.
The Hosea 6:2 phrase is analogous to one in the Book of Amos in which God says “[f]or three transgressions … and for four, I will not revoke the punishment ….” Old Testament scholars explain the phrase “probably means an indefinite but finally decisive number of violations.”
A second example is 1 Samuel 27:1, which says, “David said in his heart, ‘I shall now perish one day by the hand of Saul; there is nothing better for me than to escape to the land of the Philistines; then Saul will despair of seeking me any longer within the borders of Israel, and I shall escape out of his hand.'”
“One day” here refers to “at some indefinite point in time,” not a 24-hour day. In other words, David is saying “if I stay here, at some indefinite time in the future, Saul is going to kill me, so I better get out of the area.” It would make no sense to insist that David is saying “I shall now perish in one 24-hour day …” here.
Indeed, major translations also use “one of these days,” “someday,” and the like instead of “one day.”
1 Samuel 27:1 uses the Hebrew word yom for day and the Hebrew word ehad for one. In other words, “one day” in this verse is a translation of ehad yom. Here it means “at some indefinite point in time.” Ehad yom is exactly the same Hebrew phrase used in Genesis 1:5 that is translated “the first day.”
Thus, when day or days (yom, yamim, etc.) is preceded by a numeral, it most often refers to a 24-hour period, but it is not true that it always does, as can be seen by these two examples. Of course, many say the numbered days in Genesis 1 are not literal 24-hour periods, either.
Also, commentators note there is no rule of grammar in Hebrew that if “day” or “days” is preceded by a number, it must refer to a 24-hour period. Essentially, they say “so what?” — even if there were no contra examples, it would not matter, as the presence of a number does not dictate a meaning for the word it modifies here.
It is a rule made up by Young Earth Creationists. It would be like saying there is a rule that “day” or “days” must refer to a 24-hour period if it appears in an Old Testament book that starts with G. Or a rule that when someone says they have to work “the next three days,” they are referring to working 72-hours straight. Not only is there no such rule (see, e.g., Hosea 6:2), such a rule does not make sense in the first place.
Wait, Wait … There’s More …
Again, my point is not that it is unreasonable to interpret Exodus 20:11 and 31:17 as referring to six, consecutive 24-hour-days. My point is that there are other reasonable interpretations and that Young Earth Creationists are wrong to insist that their interpretation is the only reasonable one.
This is emphasized even further by other factors suggesting that they should not be so confident.
Four of these factors—
(1) No “In” In the Original; “In” Is Inserted into English Translations
Some Young Earth Creationists make much out of “in six days,” but the word “in” does not appear in the original Hebrew of the verses. “In” was added to English versions of the Bible by translators.
The Hebrew says “For six days made …,” not “For in six days made ….” Translators infer that “in” is the right word to add, but it is an inference, not a certainty.
Of course, “in” has a wide breadth of meaning, including definitions other than the one on which Young Earth Creationists rely. These others include “something that is or appears to be enclosed or surrounded by something else,” “expressing a state or condition,” “expressing inclusion or involvement,” and “as an integral part of,” all definitions that allow for interpreting the two verses not to require six, consecutive 24-hour-days.
For example, that everything was created “enclosed or surrounded by” or “including or involving” six days allows for the “Day-Gap” interpretation and other interpretations of Genesis and Exodus that allow for an Old Earth and evolution.
With or without “in,” there is nothing in the verses that mandate that the yamim be consecutive.
(2) Exodus 20:11 and 31:17 Might Have Been Added to Exodus Late
Many respected Old Testament scholars view Exodus 20:11 and 31:17 as late additions to what is now the Exodus text, insertions or edits occurring 600+ years after the time Moses is said to have died. In other words, they may not have been in the original.
My prior post describes two of the main reasons many scholars consider them late additions.
(3) The Days May Be Symbolic, God-Days, Etc.
Keep in mind that even if “in six yamim” expresses 24-hour days, it may simply be a symbolic expression. For example, it may be saying that since six days represent the creation time and the seventh day represents rest in Genesis, humans should rest on the literal seventh day as a symbol of honoring God.
Or the time may be from God’s standpoint. 2 Peter 3:8– “… with the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like one day.”
Or it may be metaphorical or allegorical. Or it may be something else.
(4) There Were No Vowels, Etc., in the Original Text of Exodus
Exodus was originally written in the Ancient Hebrew language, the written form of which included only consonants—no vowels. And the written form generally did not include punctuation.
Sentences were thus essentially long strings of consonants.
So, the reader is left to decide what vowels (and possibly additional consonants) to include and to decide where one sentence ends and another begins.
With missing vowels, etc., can one have a high level of confidence that the two uses of yamim in Exodus 20:11 and 31:17 are indeed both exactly the same form? Could one of them actually be slightly different? The Masoretes inserted vowels centuries later.
Can one have a high enough level of confidence about the text to insist, adamantly, that the Young Earth Creationist’s argument is correct?
Exodus 20:11 and 31:17, like Genesis 1, are thus ambiguous regarding whether God created everything in six, consecutive 24-hour-days or not.
While interpreting the text as describing six, consecutive 24-hour-days of creation is a reasonable interpretation, it is not the only one. It is also reasonable to interpret the text as describing God creating in six, indefinite time-periods, for example.
The Young Earth interpretation conflicts with what virtually every reputable scientist—Christian and non-Christian—says about the age of the Earth and human evolution. But they insist, nevertheless, and many cast aspersions on those who explain that scripture allows for an old Earth and that science supports it.
The text allows for recognition that a Young Earth interpretation is reasonable and that an Old Earth interpretation is reasonable. It is past time to stop insisting that the text bears only one interpretation.
How does one pick from multiple reasonable interpretations of a text? Lift our head up and look around? Maybe a Psalmist, the Apostle Paul, and Job gave us hints:
“The heavens are telling the glory of God;
and the firmament proclaims his handiwork.
Day to day pours forth speech,
and night to night declares knowledge.
There is no speech, nor are there words;
their voice is not heard;
yet their voice goes out through all the earth,
and their words to the end of the world.”
“Ever since the creation of the world his eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through the things [God] has made.”
“But ask the animals, and they will teach you;
the birds of the air, and they will tell you;
ask the plants of the earth, and they will teach you;
and the fish of the sea will declare to you.
Who among all these does not know
that the hand of the Lord has done this?
In his hand is the life of every living thing
and the breath of every human being.
Does not the ear test words
as the palate tastes food?
Is wisdom with the aged,
and understanding in length of days?
With God are wisdom and strength;
he has counsel and understanding.”
This is the last in a series of five posts on Young Earth Creationism. The first in the series discusses a recent poll on U.S. adults’ view on creationism, including a first-time tie for Young Earth / Old Earth views, including among near-weekly church-goers. The second dives into some of the scriptural and scientific problems with Young Earth Creationist views, focusing on Genesis and scientists’ views. The third, which is one of my all-time favorites, addresses scientists’ views on religion, polls that suggest an increase in belief in God among them, and related matters. The fourth analyzes a new issue for me, whether Exodus 20:11 and 31:17 belong in our Bibles in the first place.
I hope you enjoyed reading this series as much as I enjoyed writing it.
(The picture is one I took in January from the front of the Church of the Ten Lepers in Berqin, West Bank, near the traditional location of Hosea’s ministry.)
Sources & Notes
Definition of “Young Earth Creationists” as used here: see my prior post.
Anyone will likely quickly see I am not educated in Ancient Hebrew. I am taking Biblical Greek this coming year and, if all goes well, Ancient Hebrew the next. I spent a lot of time reading and comparing what experts have to say about these issues. Nevertheless, I caveat my analysis with my lack of language expertise.
“… yom …”: http://biblehub.com/hebrew/3117.htm
“Yamim …”: http://biblehub.com/hebrew/yamim_3117.htm.
“Yamim … other …, such as an indefinite time-period”: See, e.g., Genesis 4:3 ([course] of time); Genesis 29:14 (the period); Leviticus 25:29 (full year); Numbers 9:22 (a year); Numbers 20:15 (a time); Deuteronomy 20:19 (a time); Joshua 11:18 (a time); Joshua 24:7 (a season); 1 Kings 17:7 (a while); Psalm 77:5 (days [of old]); Lamentations 5:20 (time); see also http://www.oldearth.org/word_study_yom.htm.
“today … ‘days’ … several meanings, including indefinite time periods …”: https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/day (e.g., “particular period of the past”; “era”; “particular period in a person’s life”; “present time”).
“… same passage…”: See, e.g., Terry Mortenson, “A Response to a Gospel Coalition Blog on the Age of the Earth,” Answers in Genesis web-site (April 22, 2015) (“Exodus 20:8–11 functions as an insurmountable stone wall against any attempt to fit millions of years into Genesis 1 or before Genesis 1, and the fourth commandment is God’s own commentary on Genesis 1. It rules out the day-age view and the revelatory-day view and the day-gap-day-gap-day view and the framework hypothesis because God says He created in six days and uses the same word (yāmîm, plural of yôm) all through those four verses.”); “The Ten Commandments and the Days of Creation Week,” Biblical Discipleship Ministries web-site (March 27, 2015) (“must find,” “No exception ….”); “The Beginning—When?”, in Jesus Christ Creator, Parent Company web-site (2003); Jason Lisle (of Answers in Genesis), Understanding Genesis, Green Forest, AR: Master Books (2015) (“using … same word … in … same context”); William T. Pelletier, “The Bible and Science,” The Woodside News (“illogical to interpret the same word day in the very next verse to mean a long billion-day age—especially since the end of the verse requires the regular interpretation for the Sabbath day”).
“same word to mean two different things … scholars point to several places … in which it occurs.”: E.g., Genesis 1:1, 5, 8-9, 10-11; Genesis 6:1-4; Exodus 8:26; Exodus 22:4; Numbers 15:38-39; 2 Samuel 7:5, 11 (house); Ezekiel 37:5,9,14 (ruach); Isaiah 1:19-20; and others. See, e.g., Robert Alter, The Five Books of Moses, New York: W.W. Norton & Co. (2004), page 443; M.P. Weitzman, The Syriac Version of the Old Testament, Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press (1999), pages 32, 309 (“two different meanings … single verse”); Moshe Bar-Asher, “The Bible Interpreting Itself,” in Rewriting and Interpreting the Hebrew Bible: The Biblical Patriarchs in Light of the Dead Sea Scrolls, Devorah Dimant and Reinhard G. Kratz, eds., Berlin: Walter de Gruyter GmbH (2013), page 15 n.40; Edward D. Herbert & Emanuel Tov, The Bible as Book: The Hebrew Bible and the Judaean Desert Discoveries, London: British Library (2002), page 34.
“ … ‘dynasty’ …”: See, e.g., http://biblehub.com/commentaries/2_samuel/7-11.htm
Leviticus 25:29: Latter phrase may have intended to clarify that the year referred to in the first part does not mean the end of the calendar year, but is instead a full year (yamim). See Jacob Milgrom, “Leviticus 23-27,” The Anchor Bible, Vol. 3B, New York: Doubleday (2001), page 2198.
“The MacMillan Dictionary …”: http://www.macmillandictionary.com/us/thesaurus-category/american/specific-periods-of-history
“Commentators point to contra examples ….”: Commentators point to other instances in which yom, yamim, or similar Hebrew word is preceded by a numeral (or ordinal) in the Bible but, in their view, do not refer to a literal 24-hour period, including Genesis 1:5; Genesis 2:2-3; Genesis 29:20; 1 Samuel 27:1; Isaiah 9:14; Daniel 11:20; Zechariah 3:9; and Zechariah 14:7-9. See, e.g., Justin Taylor, “Biblical Reasons to Doubt the Creation Days Were 24-Hour Periods”, The Gospel Coalition web-site, (Jan. 28, 2015); Rich Deem, “Does the Bible Say God Created the Universe in Six 24-Hour Days,” Evidence for God web-site; Andrina G. Hanson, “Does the Hebrew Word ‘Yom’ (Translated ‘Day’) I Genesis 1 Mean a 24-Hour Day or Something Else?”, Facts and Faith web-site (March 16, 2014); William Lane Craig, “The Doctrine of Creation (part 4),” Podcast Transcript, Reasonable Faith web-site.
“Hosea 6:2 … a short period”: James L. Mays, Hosea, London: SCM Press Ltd. (1969), page 95; see also Francis I. Andersen & David Noel Freedman, “Hosea,” The Anchor Bible, Vol. 24, New York: Doubleday & Co. (1980), page 420 (it “is an artistic turn, not a time schedule, though it may reflect the widespread belief that there was a three-day period after death before the final separation of the soul from the body”); The New Oxford Annotated Bible, New York: Oxford University Press (2001), page 1285 (n. 6.2) (“idiomatic expression for a brief period of time”); G.I. Davies, Hosea, Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co. (1992), page 161 (“vague expression for a short period of time”); Ehud Ben Zvi, Hosea, Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co. (2005), page 132 (“temporal reference is a pattern of ‘x, x+1’ (see Roth, “Numerical Sequence”) and here serves to convey a sense of a brief period; it should not be taken literally”); cf. J. Andrew Dearman, The Book of Hosea, Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co. (2010), page 195 (Hosea 6:2 is ambiguous on this point).
“.,, New Living Translation …”: http://biblehub.com/hosea/6-2.htm
Amos phrase: Amos 1:3, 6, 9, 11, etc. `
“… Book of Amos … probably means …”: The Harper Collins Study Bible, Revised Edition, New York: HarperOne (2006), page 1218.
“major translations … ‘one of these days,’ ‘someday,’ …”: http://biblehub.com/1_samuel/27-1.htm.
“make much … ‘in …’ …”: See, e.g., Terry Mortenson, “A Response to a Gospel Coalition Blog on the Age of the Earth,” Answers in Genesis web-site (April 22, 2015); Simon Turpin, “God Spoke and Wrote All These Words,” Answers in Genesis web-site (September 16, 2016).
Definitions of “in”: See Google-supplied definitions.
“… Ancient Hebrew … only consonants—no vowels …. not include spaces …”: Page H. Kelley, Biblical Hebrew: An Introductory Grammar, Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co. (1992), page 2; Robert Ray Ellis, Learning to Read Biblical Hebrew, Waco, Texas: Baylor University Press (2006), page 167; Arthur J. Bellinzoni, Old Testament: An Introduction to Biblical Scholarship, Amherst, New York: Prometheus Books (2009), page 356.
A Psalmist (Psalm 19:1-4); Paul (Romans 1:20a); Job (Job 12:7-13).
All scripture quoted is from the New Revised Standard Version unless otherwise is indicated.