Yom is the Hebrew word for day, and is used as such throughout the Bible. In most cases, there is no question of the meaning of the word due to the surrounding context. However, when it comes to the creation of the universe, or anything really, we don’t have any context at all unless we know two things; the thing that is being created, and the process that is being used to create it. These are three things that we really do not have an understanding of when we look at the book of Genesis. We do not know what the universe is, and we most definitely do not know, with complete certainty, the process by which it was created.
In Genesis, we know that God spoke and “it was so”. While this is enough information to understand that God spoke the universe into existence, this does not explain the chain of events which followed. That chain of events is part of the context we need to determine “how” the universe was created, or more specifically, how long it took to be created.
Even in English the word “day” can be pretty vague depending on the context in which it is used and the intent of the person using it. “It is a beautiful day” is obviously referring to today, a 24-hour period, however the phrase “back in my day” has a much more ambiguous meaning. Things get even more convoluted when we use the phrase “one day”, as in “one day, I will build that rocket like I have been planning to.” In order to understand the period of time it will take to build a rocket, we need to fully understand the type of rocket being built, and thereby we will also be able to understand the process used to create the rocket. This will lead us to an understanding of the meaning of the word “day” when it is used in that context. If I intend to build a model rocket, I probably mean the standard 24-hour day, if I am referring to a real rocket that is capable of launching carrying a payload of satellites into space, then I probably am referring to much longer period of time than the standard 24-hour day.
Yom is Hebrew however, not English, and so even though the English word day is used as an equivalent, it may not be completely equal to the Hebrew sense of the word. To answer this question, I consulted Strong’s Concordance which is essentially a dictionary of what we believe the meanings are for ancient Hebrew terms. Given that Jewish scriptures like Genesis are the only means of understanding that we have for the language, there was no dictionary at the time, this is not only our best resource, it is essentially our only alternative resource to the Bible itself. Here is an excerpt:
- yom (398a); a prim. root; day:—
- NASB – afternoon*(1), age(8), age*(1), all(1), always*(14), amount*(2), battle(1), birthday*(1), Chronicles*(38), completely*(1), continually*(14), course*(1), daily(22), daily the days(1), day(1115), day of the days(1), day that the period(1), day’s(6), day’s every day(1), daylight*(1), days(635), days on the day(1), days to day(1), days you shall daily(1), days ago(1), days'(11), each(1), each day(4), entire(2), eternity(1), evening*(1), ever in your life*(1), every day(2), 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), midday*(1), now(5), older*(1), once(2), period(3), perpetually*(2), present(1), recently(1), reigns(1), ripe*(1), short-lived*(1), so long*(1), some time(1), survived*(2), time(45), time*(1), times*(2), today(172), today*(1), usual(1), very old*(1), when(10), when the days(1), whenever(1), while(3), whole(2), year(10), yearly(5), years(13), yesterday*(1).
As you can see, the synonyms given are quite diverse. Among those listed are day, age, lifetime, and eternity. As you can see, Yom, when used out of context, could refer to anything from a 24-hour day to all of eternity.
Does Genesis Give Context?
And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. And God saw that the light was good, and He separated the light from the darkness. God called the light “day,” and the darkness He called “night.” And there was evening, and there was morning—the first day.– Genesis 1:3-5
Consider Genesis 1:3-5, here God creates light and calls it “day”. At this point in the verse readers don’t seem to insist that the light being referred to as “day” is a literal 24-hour day, and yet yom is the Hebrew word used here. After this, there is evening and there is morning which is then considered the first day. If we wish to consider this “first day” as a solar, or 24-hour day, then let’s explore the what it means to have a solar day.
According to Webster’s dictionary, the primary definition of day is “the time of light between one night and the next”. This is, of course, relative to the one’s position on a planet. When it is daytime in the western hemisphere, it is nighttime in the eastern hemisphere and in this way, it is never fully day or night on the planet. If this is the case, and God is the one creating the universe, are we to assume that from God’s perspective the first day of the universe was one rotation of the earth? It seems to me that this does not follow the context that we have been given thus far. Until this point, the context has been related to the universe with only a brief mention of the fact that the earth has no form. If the earth is formless, and we know that day/night can exist anywhere that there is light/darkness (on any planet or in any universe), then it does not follow that we would be reading that it was evening on the currently formless planet earth. This point is particularly relevant when we consider that the sun, moon, and stars are not created until the fourth day.
One reason that some theologians presume Genesis is referring to a 24-hour day is due to the usage of evening and morning in the verse. Given that we are discussing the interpretation of ancient Hebrew, it is important that we understand some details regarding the origin of the Hebrew words used here in Genesis. Let’s begin with evening.
Ereb – even, evening, night, mingled, people, eventide,
eveningtide, Arabia, days, even,
evening, evening, eventide (From the Exhaustive Concordance (KJV Translation Frequency & Location))
Just by looking at the synonyms given it would appear that we evening is the best choice for an English equivalent here, however, when we look at the root of the Hebrew word we begin to see that the evolution of language might be throwing us off. The root ayin-resh-bet (ערב) means “mix” or “crisscross”, which likely explains how the word ereb ended up being used for “evening” as well as “mingled” as seen from the synonyms shown above. When we consider how evening brings about the mixing or mingling of light and dark, we can begin to get a clearer understanding of why this word was chosen in Genesis as well as why it evolved into the more modern meaning. Given the context in Genesis, it would seem that ereb is referring to the mixing, mingling, or more specifically, the fading of light into darkness.
Now let’s take a look at “morning” or boqer.
Boqer – From the verb baqar, meaning to seek/ inquire. It’s suggested that the most rudimental meaning of the root is ‘to split’, hence the breaking of dawn. But frankly, nothing is broken. Instead the root seems to denote the closing in on something, approaching something (to check it out or to simply bond). Another derivation of this root is ‘herd’, which is a collection of animals that are loosely bonded. Morning is the time of day when objects become visible and begin to relate, and people begin to connect.
Keeping this in mind, we can see how beautiful the language used in Genesis truly is as well as the author’s intent. Given the context, it looks like we have a description of the light of God breaking through the darkness, but also the light revealing creation (the universe) so that God may once again connect with it through His work.
The First Day (or Day One)
The Institute of Creation Research firmly states that when a number is used with the word “yom”, it must mean a 24-hour period. Their reasoning for this is that in all other instances of a number being used in conjunction with yom, it is clear that the context is referring to a solar day. I thought about verifying this for myself, but I decided against it for two reasons. First, it just seems like poor logic. Essentially, they are claiming that all of the uses of yom with a number must mean a 24-hour day because all of the other uses of yom with a number mean a 24-hour day. Couldn’t it be just as likely that yom with a number commonly refers to a 24-hour day, but not always? The Old Testament is a fairly small sample of text, and the context in the creation story is vastly different from the context of other Biblical examples. The second reason is this, “one day, I will build a rocket.” In my example earlier, I used a number with the word day to show that that the word day could mean more than a 24-hour period. I will offer one additional refutaion of this position from the Encyclopedia of Bible Difficulties:
“There were six major stages in this work of formation, and these stages are represented by successive days of a week. In this connection it is important to observe that none of the six creative days bears a definite article in the Hebrew text; the translations “the first day,” “ the second day,” etc., are in error. The Hebrew says, “And the evening took place, and the morning took place, day one” (1:5). Hebrew expresses “the first day” by hayyom harison, but this text says simply yom ehad (day one). Again, in v.8 we read not hayyomGleason L. Archer, Encyclopedia of Bible Difficulties, pages 60-61, Baker 1982
hasseni (“the second day”) but yom seni (“a second day”). In Hebrew prose of this genre, the definite article was generally used where the noun was intended to be definite; only in poetic style could it be omitted. The same is true with the rest of the six days; they all lack the definite article. Thus they are well adapted to a sequential pattern, rather than to strictly delimited units of time.”
So why would the days be numbered then, if not to signify that Genesis is referring to a 24-hour day? I believe that this goes back to the beauty of the language used in Genesis 1. It looks like there is a marvelous parallel being drawn here between the seven periods of work/rest that God underwent in order to create the universe and the seven actual days of the week that mankind has adopted. Genesis 1 certainly did not need to draw out the order of creation, nor did God need to separate His work into stages. God chose to work in stages for a reason, and Genesis was written in a way that outlines those stages for a reason. The author could have just as easily written that “In the beginning God created all things”, and then moved straight into Genesis 2, but instead we are presented God’s work in stages. Is this not the origin of the Sabbath, to signify and honor God’s work and to celebrate with rest?
A Quick Recap
Let’s take a moment to look at what we discussed in its totality.
- The context of the first day in Genesis 1 is universal, as the earth is still formless at this point.
- Evening and Morning are used in ways that might seem obvious in an English translation but have much more nuance in ancient Hebrew.
- Numbered days do not necessarily mean 24-hour periods.
In all languages, context is important. When reading the story of the creation of the universe, it is difficult to get that context until we understand what the universe is, what laws govern it, and what sort of chain of events took place to create it. The lack of that context is what I believe created the issue we have addressed here, and I believe that in time we will see how scientific advances can help us to determine even more of that context.