The 'Six Days' of Creation >>back home

The 'Six Days' of Genesis constitute for many the most immediate and possibly the most convincing reason for maintaining that the biblical account of Creation and the scientific evidence are irreconcilable. This however is far from being a necessary conclusion. The 'six days' of creation are never mentioned again after the Exodus narrative closes. Revelation in the Bible is progressive; later revelation may greatly enlarge the scope and perspective of the earlier, and it is so here.

Most well‑informed and unprejudiced persons would agree, I believe, that the evidence from geology and the fossil record, reinforced by cosmological observations of such things as the distant galaxies with the red shift of their atomic spectra, strongly suggests a very great age for the physical universe including the earth, an age possibly running into thousands of millions of years. The evidence indeed seems to the writer to point incontrovertibly to this conclusion. That being so, what are we to make of the biblical statement that in six days the LORD made the heavens and the earth. the sea, and all that is in them (Exod.20.11)? As the reader probably knows already, there have been many suggestions made by those to whom Scripture is God‑given to effect a reconciliation. The 'Gap Theory '1, (that a long interval is exegetically allowable between the first and second verses of Genesis) is one of the early ones, but it is held now by few. Other proposed solutions have been summarised helpfully in the recent little book by Prof R J Berry 2. The present discussion is not intended to set out some new solution to the problem, but rather to share the reasons which have led the author, without losing any of his convictions about the Bible as wholly God‑given, to be prepared nevertheless to accept much of today's neo‑Darwinian theory as the best presently‑available account of the appearance and development of life in time, and incidentally, the so‑called Big‑Bang Theory too of the origin of the physical cosmos. Let me (to change the pronoun) begin with my presuppositions. First, the biblical statement that the LORD by wisdom founded the earth (Prov.3.19f cf. Prov.8.1,27ff; Ps.104.24) surely implies that God had practical reasons both for what He did and for the way He did it. Second, in a well‑known verse (Ps.111.2) the psalmist writes, the works of the LORD are great sought out of (studied by RSV) all those that have pleasure therein. While 'works' often means God's acts in history, more often (as no doubt here) it means His works of creation. This seems to suggest that God desires man to share with Him at least some of His thoughts about these, including their 'why' as well as their 'how' 3. The great physicist John Strutt, the 1904 Nobel Prizewinner who later became Lord Rayleigh, had this very text inscribed over the entrance to the Cavendish Laboratory in Cambridge. It is certainly not a forbidden or fruitless exercise to ask about the Genesis account, "Why did God do it this way?" and "Why does the Bible tell us this?" For to be 'made in the image of God' is surely to be able "to think some of God's thoughts after Him", as Johann Kepler said. I suggest therefore that this account, given to Israel just freed from bitter slavery, was worded to convey to them God's loving concern to teach them a happy way of life. It was to be based on six days' work followed by one of rest and refreshment; this was to go on as long as life and strength lasted. To cheer them, this was how God had worked - with an obvious difference: there was no night and day for Him, nor did He ever grow weary. I have no doubt that the 'days' in terms of which God told them He worked were chosen thus to encourage them, not to give them mere cosmic information.

In approaching the matters before us we must remind ourselves that when the Israelites came out of Egypt they came out not as a body of well‑behaved, disciplined and eager‑to‑learn men and women, but probably as a disorientated and rebellious mob which years of bitter slavery had deprived of many habits of healthy and well‑ordered living 4. It was into such a rabble that Moses had to introduce ‑ or re‑introduce, it may be, for the common week may be traced back to the very earliest civilizations ‑ a system of divinely‑given laws to be codified later in the Pentateuch. It was a prodigious task with a people habituated to ill‑usage, suspicious, and far from homogeneous, as the biblical record makes abundantly plain5. If a law is vital (especially to this nation's calling as the people of God) it must once given be enforced; it cannot be allowed to fail by default 6. The stern discipline by God in their subsequent history abundantly exemplifies this. But loving wisdom will naturally try persuasion first, by demonstrating desirability; and no doubt before Moses began to instruct the nation of Israel in the new disciplines they were to follow he would have been armed with the strongest incentive to lay before them.

How are these principles illustrated in the biblical record? In Leviticus where the laws are codified most fully the number 'seven' appears very frequently, clearly associated with 'completeness' or 'perfection' in one way or another (e.g.Lev.25; ef Exod.23.10ff). One interesting case concerns agriculture 7. For six years their fields were to be sown, but the seventh year was to be a 'sabbath' when they were to be allowed to lie fallow. In the Exodus reference this is placed, surprisingly, even before mention of the weekly routine, which might have been considered to be the more fundamental (in the light of the emphasis of Genesis 1). There follows the remarkable provision of the Jubilee, the year after every seven sevens of years when everyone who has had to sell his patrimony to meet obligations was to receive it back free in full. A release from slavery and the cancellation of debt plus generous help were other seven‑year provisions (Deut.15; modern governments might note). All this indicates that the number 'seven' answers to some important aspects of human living. Most people alive now would probably agree that the familiar week of seven days is 'just about right': it may be recalled that 'weeks' of six and ten days were tried by the French revolutionaries and Russian communists but abandoned. Of all the cyclical physical phenomena to which man is subject the 'day/night' cycle (and so derivatively the weekly one) repeats most frequently and summons him most inescapably (more so than the monthly or yearly cycles, impressive as these are). For both these reasons, if the benefits of the pattern of seven were to be fixed successfully and with divine sanction within the culture of this raw nation, the obvious thing was to get things moving to that end at once, and the common week would be the obvious target. The agricultural year and the others would then follow easily enough. It is not surprising therefore that Exodus 20.8ff is worded as it is. Irrespective of what the duration of the six 'stages' or 'phases' or 'chapters' of the divine creative activity may have been, it would have made good sense to refer to them all as 'days'. This would form the basis of a strong imperative to copy the Creator (introducing early the great principle of Eph.5.1).

It is my conviction that these considerations explain why 'it is written for our learning' that In six days the LORD made the heavens and the earth . . and rested on the seventh day. Man is not being told that before he came on the scene, God had worked at a fantastic rate and got the whole of our planet ready during six of its rotations; for what could have been the particular value of that? God doesn't need to keep His eye on the clock, as we do (Psalm 90.4). No, we are not to think that His 'days' were delimited like ours. This period‑word was used to encourage and teach an immature people how they were to organise their new life on a daily basis. That at least is my own understanding of the significance of 'days' in Exodus 20.8‑11.

This argument will not convince everyone, so let me try to answer some expected objections. "Why use 'days' when it can and does mislead?" Well, 'day' has a well‑recognised figurative use in the Bible 8; and it is used in several different senses even in this brief narrative. "Even so, why was it chosen here?" 9 Let me amplify the answer I have just outlined: if the commandment had said 'in six aeons the Lord made heaven and earth' would it have conveyed with equal force the call to organise their life on a weekly basis and do so from this very day? Hardly. The seven‑day week has since become universally a welcome and much‑valued institution; but it might well have appeared to the rabble then as an imposition, and left Moses with anxiety that it might fail by apathetic or rebellious procrastination. That is one reason (I believe) why God spoke of His work as done in 'days' rather than in 'aeons' 10, and also why the week of seven days was enforced initially so very strictly 11. "But what of the repeated refrain, 'There was evening and there was morning' (RV, RSV, NIV), or 'evening came and morning came' (Moffat, REB)? Doesn't that prove they were literal days?" I don't think so; there are probably clearer syntactical expressions in Hebrew if that had been the intention. There is a better exegesis I believe: the purpose of the refrain is to indicate that God worked continuously all through the day till 'evening came', and then all through the night till 'morning came', consistently with the final statement that God rested on the seventh day (for which no 'evening' and 'morning' are predicated: compare John 5.17 NIV). The great creation psalm (Ps.104) appears to have its eye on this understanding in its vv.20‑23: the beasts prowl in the hours of darkness, then retire to their dens to lie down; man goes out to his labour till evening. But God works without pause (compare Isa.40.28; Ps. 74.16). "But isn't it a fact that in the Bible the word 'day' with a numeral always means a common day"? This too has certainly been claimed 12, and it may possibly have become a rather loose convention later on: but the case of Hosea 6.2 tells against it. The days we are concerned with were before man came on the scene; the first 'numbered days' in the human story are Noah's, possibly thousands of years later 13. The argument is too weak to carry conviction. A better reason for the ordinal numerals is to convey the ideal of an ordered life ‑ first things first ‑ in which the creature is to imitate the Creator (Matt.5.48; Eph.5.l). God's work is always characterized by order (Mark 4.28).

'Creationist' problems

'Creationists' maintain that each day's work was completed during one rotation of the earth, a happening they would regard as 'miraculous'. In both the Old and New Testaments miracles are regarded as 'signs'; they signify to those present something demanding attention14. How can events brought to completion before man was present as observer be placed in this category 15? Their subsequent narration as '24 hr events' can hardly have had an impact like that of miracles witnessed and wondered at 16; it would seem but the giving of pointless information ‑ unless it had the significance I have previously suggested. I cannot but feel that proposals to force the 'week' of Genesis 1 into a literal mould are a hasty and demeaning exegesis of the word of God. Nothing later in the Bible gains in substance from it, as happens with so many other phrases here: the 'in the beginning'; 'let there be light'; 'seed . . and fruit . . according to its kind'; 'lights . . for signs and seasons'; 'man in Our image' for instance 17.

The Creation 'week' of Genesis is in an obvious sense a unique period, not one of everyday type. Its description therefore, it can be argued, demands the figurative use of everyday language (see e.g. Pss.95.5: 104). The account already uses 'day' in three different senses (Gen.1.5 has two already, and 2.4 a third), and the word is quite widely used elsewhere in a non‑literal sense. Its meaning here cannot safely be tied down therefore to the everyday usage, especially when it leads to such extraordinary suggestions as that implied a little earlier 18. To me, the 'six days' represent six 'chapters' in the record of the divine activity; they form part of a didactic narrative, one meant to give realization of 'what happened' as the cosmos came into being so that man can understand his place in things. It is almost impossible when dealing with great 'historical' subjects to avoid the use of overlapping sub‑accounts. Too many important things will be going on at the same time for the telling to be plain linear; the joint history of the kingdoms of Judah and Israel are a familiar biblical example of this. It is unreasonable therefore to suppose that the 'history' of the drama of creation (given in appropriately simple form) could avoid the same treatment, unless the Creator did all things strictly one‑at‑a‑time. Then however it would not tally with common experience, and so would lose instructional value. That is one reason why I do not believe that we are meant to think that what is recorded for each day was delimited precisely by that day rather than being instead its principle concern. Nevertheless, the story as a whole moves continuously forward. Days three and four may be understood in this way; we do not need to suppose that the appearing of land plants was complete before that of the sun, moon and stars had begun. The heavenly bodies may well have been in space long before day four but hidden by thick clouds; this would be quite in accord with the Bible's purposeful logic. Other considerations may have entered too. We need to remember that the heavenly bodies were the objects of veneration and worship to many of Israel's contemporaries 19, and therefore for religiously significant reasons a sort of 'servant status' as light‑givers has been emphasised, their introduction postponed and their popular names ('sun' and 'moon') withheld. The presentation may be compared with the opening of the Gospel story: the ministry of the Baptist ended (the close of day one), that of Jesus began (the dawn of day two). but they overlapped. Such a feature appears too as already noted in the historical books of the Old Testament with the royal dynasties of Judah and Israel. All this may seem an unfamiliar perspective, but once Genesis 1 can be seen as presenting overlapping scenarios, and as given not to teach cosmogony to men but its meaning for them ‑ God's way of working as a pattern for theirs ‑ it will appear logical enough. Further, the verbs in vv.16,17 may quite legitimately be translated as pluperfects 20 ('God had made two great lights . and had set them'). Then when on the fourth day God said 'Let there be' lights. a dense cloud cover began to disappear and the two to be seen. This all makes better sense of the whole, and is consistent with the view that cosmic 'science' (as we would now call it) was not then in mind but rather the great priorities for man's life. The phrases 'as signs' and 'to give light' certainly point to this.

There is the profound statement about man and his access to knowledge (to which I shall repeatedly return) in Deut.29.29: The secret things belong to the LORD our God, but the things revealed belong to us and to our children for ever, that we may follow all the words of this law ‑ a declaration of God's purpose whose substance is repeated in many different ways throughout the Bible (see Job 38.4ff: Eccles.3.11; Matt.11.25f; Rom.11.33f; 1Cor.13.12). I insisted in my Foreword that the Bible must be allowed to define its own terms and to declare its own standpoint, otherwise the critic is simply playing a fool's game. Well, in this seminal verse the Bible does this. When one considers in this light the grand simplicity, dignity and rationality of the Bible's account of Creation compared with others of antiquity, the Bible's is seen to have a supreme claim to be God‑given; and as such it will stand alongside (or rather encompassing) science's own final offering.

Postscript ‑ A New Testament view of the 'six days'

My final defence for a 'parabolic' understanding of the Genesis 'days' comes from two New Testament passages. The first is from the epistle to the Hebrews, whose writer had a profound understanding of the Old Testament. The eleventh chapter contains a very forceful account of the place of faith in the life that pleases God, and it traces this to a settled conviction that God is Creator, the Unseen Source of all there is. Verse 3 expresses it thus (RSV): By faith we understand that the world was created by the word of God, so that what is seen was made out of things which do not appear. This is generally agreed to mean that the visible world was called into being from nothing (i.e. from nothing visibly there to begin with). However, there is a peculiarity in the Greek: the 'world' is not he word usually anglicised as 'cosmos', but that anglicised as 'aeons', or ages, the universe under its aspect of periods of time. Again, these ages are not 'created' but 'adjusted', 'prepared', 'perfected', 'furnished completely' (Gk. katertisthai 21). Hebrew thought is concrete, not abstract like that of science; it does not distinguish sharply the 'ages' from what happened in them. The author of Hebrews (who is celebrating the 'triumphs of faith'), then logically omitting the Fall, goes straight to Abel and after him to what filled the times we now call 'history'. The impression all this gives is that he is thinking consecutively, and that what he means by 'ages' is what the Genesis writer correspondingly means by 'days'. For the statement in Heb.11.3, by the word of God the 'ages' were prepared, perfected, furnished completely, parallels the Genesis account of how the 'days' were each filled up appropriately. I am persuaded therefore that the 'ages' of Hebrews are the same as the 'days' of Genesis. This brings us to the critical point: why does the author call them aeons (ages) rather than hemerai (days)? I think the answer has already been suggested: because they were aeons. They had been called 'days' to provide the 'get up and get moving' emphasis those erstwhile slaves needed. To say 'aeons' would have suggested that they could take their own time about it; the new way of life would, surely, get established in the end!

So we may summarise thus: the writer of Hebrews uses aiones rather than kosmos because his interest centres on time and history, not on the physical and biological features of things. He uses aiones rather than hemerai because his eye is on the Unseen Author (cf. Heb.11.1), of whom it is written (Ps.90; incidentally, by Moses!): Before the mountains were brought forth . . even from everlasting to everlasting You are God.  . A thousand years in your sight are like yesterday when it is past, and like a watch in the night. He is, Paul says, the King of the ages . . . unto the ages of the ages (1 Tim.1.17). For the writer of Hebrews to have insisted on hemerai would have made it look as if God had hurried, a strange thought in the light of the biblical revelation! He has no need to hurry; He creates time.

My second New Testament reference comes from the teaching of Jesus Himself (Mark 4.33f): With many such parables Jesus spoke the word to them, as they were able to hear it (RV, RSV); as much as they could understand (NIV). This introduces a general principle of biblical revelation: it is progressive (cf. John 16.12,13 NIV), and while nothing given earlier is later 'destroyed' or 'abolished' (Matt.5.17ff AV, NIV), new light is now given which 'fulfils' and develops it22. The raw, untutored hearers would naturally take 'day' in Exod.20.11 in the sense familiar to them. It spoke to them about their day by day living; and it carried with it inevitably the implication that a start was to be made today, no putting‑off to some indefinite future. At the end of the forty years' wandering the weekly sabbath would be an established institution. Although the new generation also needed to know Why? (there would be much parental failure to instruct), in his final rehearsal of the Ten Commandments before his death, Moses makes no mention whatever of the 'six days' of creation, but stresses instead things more fundamental for man's well‑being (Deut.5.12‑15; cf. Mark 2.27). This is surely very significant. The 'six days' are in fact never again referred to in the whole Bible: the profounder import of the weekly ordinance had taken over. Let me state again my mature conviction: the 'six days' are not an introduction to cosmogony (which would anyway have been wasted on the recipients); they introduced a God‑blessed routine for living. The Genesis phraseology, appealing to God's own example, served a valuable initial purpose ‑ it was a 'user‑friendly' call to imitate God. A literal 'six days' has therefore no bearing on our geochronological science.


1     See for instance, Douglas F Kelly, CREATION AND CHANGE (Mentor.1997) This quotes a good number of recent authors and references.

2     Berry, R.J., GOD AND EVOLUTION Hodder and Stoughton, London, 1988

3     For a discussion of Ps.111.2 on this point see Derek Kidner PSALMS (Tyndale O.T. Commentaries, IVP, Leicester); see also note 9 (below).

4      Exod.5.6‑21: 12.37‑39; 14.10‑12; 15.22‑24; 16.1‑3; 17.1‑4; 32.1‑6, 25

5      Num.11.4‑15; 14.1‑12; 20.1‑5; 31.14‑18; Deut.23.12‑14

6     See for instance, Num.15.32ff; Deut.30.19ff

7     Lev.25.1‑7

8      Eccles.7.14 RV; Isa.2.11; Jer.50.27 etc.

9     It is common to ask the questions both How? (in the mechanistic sense) and Why? (in the metaphysical or religious sense) about nature. In the Genesis narrative God seems to regard the Why? questions as the more important, giving them His direct attention. For instance, He gives His reasons for setting the heavenly bodies in place (Gen.1.14ff), for creating seed‑bearing green plants (1.29f), and for making a helper for man (2.18). He seems to have given man the discipline of science ‑ observation and experiment ‑ as the way to ascertain the How? answers (see Isa.28.23‑29; Matt.16.2f)

10   See later on Hebrews 11.3 where the Greek is literally, we understand the aeons to have been adjusted . .

11      Numb.15.32‑36

12   Douglas F Kelly, op. cit. pp.107ff

13   Gen.7.11

14   cf. E H Andrews FROM NOTHING TO NATURE 1979  (chap.9)

15   e.g. Deut.6.22; Dan.4.2; Matt.24.24; Luke21.11

16   cf. Dan.3.24ff; Acts 4.16

17   See John 1.1‑3; 2 Cor.4.6; Jer.33.20; James 3.9

18   i.e. that the viscosity of water was miraculously lowered on the third day, when the ocean depths and mountain heights were formed.

19   See for instance Deut.17.3; 2 Kings 17.16: 23.11; Isa.40.26; Jer.8.2; 19.13; Ezek.8.l6f; Zeph.1.5; Acts 7.42

20   Compare the NIV translation of Gen.2.19 ('had formed'). Hebrew has no separate form for the pluperfect.

21   This is the perfect infinitive passive of the verb katartizo, 'to render fit; to furnish completely, complete, equip, prepare' (Abbott‑Smith, MANUAL GREEK LEXICON OF THE NEW TESTAMENT).

22        The saying quoted (Mark 4.33f) refers to 'parables', most of which express general truths. But the parable in Matt.21.33ff refers 'parabolically' to particular historical events, so Mark 4.33f may legitimately be applied to Gen. l. The comment about revelation being progressive may also be applied to such cases as Gen.2.21ff and Matt.19.3ff; Gen.3.15 and John 12.31‑33; Exod.3.6 and Matt.22.31f; Gen.15.6 and Rom.3; Gen.22.1f.14f and John 3.16, 8.56,58; Isa.7.l0f and Matt.1.18‑25; Isa.64.4 and 1 Cor.2.6‑10; Acts 11.4‑10 and Mark 7.18,19 NIV. An interesting case which illustrates the principle of Heb.2.17 concerns the providentially‑ordered flight to Egypt of Mary and Joseph; Matt.2.13‑17, and Hos.11.1.