Recently I went through Genesis 3-50, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy and looked at all the uses of the Hebrew word “yom,” which means “day.” You can see those passages in the above links. My goal was to evaluate the flexibility of the word. Can the word “yom” mean a long period of time? The motive for my research was the oft-cited idea that “yom” can mean long periods of time, therefore in Genesis 1 “day” can mean billions of years. I have heard this cited by many good Christians whom I respect. However, I questioned whether the data backed up their claims. So I decided to look into myself. Here are some basic findings from the study.
First, “day” is used several hundred times in the Pentateuch. In the ESV the word “day” is used 345 times in the Pentateuch. This does not include the places where “yom” is translated “today,” which would push the count over 400. We are not dealing with a small sample size.
Second, there are no examples in the Pentateuch where day with the numeral (first, second, etc.) means anything other than a literal, 24 hour day or a part of a literal, 24 hour day. There are no exceptions to this that I could find.
Third, day almost always means a specific 24 hour day in the past, present, or future. It can refer to the day God made a covenant with Abraham (Genesis 15:18), when a father tells his son about the Exodus out of Egypt (Exodus 13:8), when Israel gathered to have the law given (Deuteronomy 18:16) or when the Lord struck down the first born in Egypt (Numbers 3:13).
Fourth, there are occasions where “day” could mean a time longer than 24 hours. However, these are limited to only a handful, by my count less than ten. In these few situations, day usually means a period of judgment most notably in Deuteronomy 31:17-18 and 32:35. It is possible to interpret these as future 24 hour days. But even if one sees “day” as not a literal 24 hours, it does not mean hundreds or even thousands of years.
In the five books of Moses “day” usually means a literal, 24 hour day. There is nothing in these books to give us any reason to change the normal meaning of “day” in Genesis 1-2. I will admit this study is narrow in its focus. But the most common reasons cited for putting billions of years into Genesis 1 is that “day” is flexible. A close study of the word in the first five books of the Bible however gives no quarter to this idea.
In the future I am going to look at the following:
Other places in the Old Testament where creation is mentioned to see if those places indicate that God took a long period of time to create the world.
Other uses of the word “day” in the Old Testament to see how frequent a non-24 hour usage of “day” actually is.
Is the idea of non-human death before Adam’s sin plausible based on the Biblical data?