Young-earth creationists (YEC) reject the arguments of old-earth creationists (OEC) on the basis of biblical statements about the creation of the earth. Though there are numerous texts throughout Scripture that bear upon the subject, the greatest point of disagreement comes from Genesis 1. The first chapter in the Bible, claim YEC, contains all the evidence necessary to refute the OEC position. Is there a legitimate way to interpret Genesis 1 that would allow for earth to be billions of years old? Before we examine the OEC interpretation of Genesis 1 in order to answer that question, let us first lay out the basic YEC position in a nutshell. Of course, there are varieties of interpretation within the YEC and OEC communities, but the description below should fairly summarize the way the text is handled by some of the leaders of each group.
The Young-earth position
The text says that the universe and the earth were created in six literal days. Since man was created on the sixth day, and he has only been on the earth for thousands of years, the universe and the earth must be only thousands of years old. The plain meaning of the word for “day” (yom) is a 24- hour period. Thus the plain meaning of the text is that God created the heavens and the earth within a period of 144 consecutive hours. For those who contend that yom means anything other than a 24-hour period, the use of ordinal numbers (first, second, third, etc.) makes it clear that consecutive literal days are in view. If that is not clear enough for some, each day is marked by “evening and morning.” How can an evening and a morning take millions of years to transpire? And if that is not enough, Moses even interprets the days of Genesis 1 in Exodus 20:10-11, where he plainly identifies the six days of creation with the six day work week. Clearly, the use of “day” in Exodus 20:10-11 is to refer to 24-hour days. Creation, therefore, must have taken place in six literal days, which were “in the beginning,” only thousands of years ago.
The old-earth position
The OEC position acknowledges these features of the Genesis text, but interprets the days of Genesis 1 to refer not to 24-hour periods, but to long periods of time. According to OEC, each day of Genesis 1 represents a fixed period of time that has a beginning and an ending. Though each day is consecutive, there may be a period of time between each day, but if so, no creating took place in the interim periods. Creation only happened during the time spans of each creative day. The phrase, “there was evening and morning” is a figure of speech that means something to the effect of, “there was a beginning and an ending.” The numbering of the days indicates consecutive order and in no way invalidates the day-age interpretation.
Explanation of the OEC interpretation
On what basis do OEC’s interpret yom to mean “age” instead of “day”? Their argument is lexically sound. The word does not only mean “day,” but has a broader range of meaning that, according to some of the most trusted Hebrew lexicons in print, also includes “time” (Theological Wordbook, 1:370; BDB, 399), as in “time of harvest” (Prov 25:13). The word can even be translated “day” and still have the connotation of a fixed period of time much longer than 24 hours. For example, the “day of the Lord” (Amos 5:16, 18, 20; Isa 2:12; 13:6, 9; Joel 1:15; 2:1Zeph 1:7, 14; Mal 3:23) may refer to a period of years. In fact, in Genesis 2:4, just one verse after God blessed the seventh “day,” Moses refers to the entire creation period as a “day.” Here, right in the context of the creation account, is a use of yom that is more than a 24-hour period.
For this reason, to refer to “day” in Genesis 1 as an age or a long period of time does not constitute a metaphorical or figurative use of the word. It represents a literal rendering of yom because the word literally carries as one of its potential meanings the idea of a fixed period of time, often much longer than 24 hours. Many YEC’s misrepresent the OEC interpretation of yom as figurative, charging that such an interpretation opens the door to a non-literal interpretation of the rest of the chapter and even all of Genesis 1-11. Such a charge is a straw man argument.
In fact, yom is the only word Moses could have used to refer to an age. No other Hebrew word directly corresponds to our words, “age,” “era,” or “epoch.” while English has numerous words to reflect this idea, the only reasonable word choice Moses could have made to describe creation as taking place in six “ages” was yom.
To understand how an OEC can interpret yom as an age despite the use of ordinals and the term, “evening and morning,” consider the purpose of Moses (and therefore, of God) in writing Genesis 1 the way he did. It reads as it does partly because of its purposes for Sabbath teaching. Moses is not merely giving an account of how God created; he is, among other things, using this account as a paradigm for the Hebrew work week. The same man who wrote Genesis 1 also wrote Exodus 20:10-11. Knowing that God’s creative acts in the beginning were to serve as the paradigm for the work week, Moses used yom in a way that would carry the meaning of “age” while at the same time communicating the idea of days. He did this very effectively, and this explains why a phrase such as “evening and morning” is used. Numbering the days to six makes the correspondence unmistakable.
In short, the OEC argument states that Genesis 1 may look like literal days, but that is because modern readers do not fully understand the meaning and use of the Hebrew terms, and because Moses intentionally wrote in a way that would communicate the idea of literal days so that later Israelites would understand the creation week to be a paradigm for their six-day work week.
Assessment of the OEC interpretation
The strength of the OEC interpretation of Genesis 1 is its exegetical technique. This interpretation emphasizes the author’s intended purpose, makes careful examination of the lexical data, and fairly explains its relationship to Exodus 20:10-11. The methodology is not necessarily better than that of YEC, but if one is going to refute the OEC interpretation of Genesis 1, it will not come by criticizing their methodology. Nevertheless, the YEC interpretation seems more sound and more likely on the basis of the exegesis of the text. Using the same methodology, an interpretation of a literal six day creation emerges with less effort and maintains a smoother harmony with Exodus 20:10-11.
Therefore, despite the skill with which OEC interpreters exegete Genesis, the YEC interpretation is to be preferred at face value. But two important caveats are in order. First, the OEC interpretation is valid and legitimate, and may actually be the correct interpretation of the passage. It is only asserted here that it is less likely than the YEC interpretation. Second, face value is not all there is to the issue. An essential feature of the OEC position is that it is not based only on what Scripture says about creation, but also on creation itself. Hugh Ross states, “We build our day-age interpretation upon the conviction that we can trust God’s revelation in both the words of the Bible and the works of creation” (Genesis Debate, 123).
Probably the best young-earth interpretation of the universe is the mature creation theory, which posits that God created everything mature, so that it all looks as though it is billions of years old, when in fact it is only thousands of years old. Though some advocates of mature creation might balk at the term “appearance of age,” it is still true that this theory argues that the universe appears to be much older than it really is. On the other hand, the old-earth interpretation of Genesis 1 argues that at first glance it seems that God created in six days only a few thousand years ago, but in fact he did it over a span of billions of years.
We have then an interesting contrast between creation and Scripture. According to young-earth creationists, the universe has the appearance of age, but is really very young; according to old-earth creationists, the Bible describes creation in a way that makes it appear to be very young when in fact it is billions of years old. Thus young-earth creationists believe in an appearance of age for the universe, while old-earth creationists believe in an appearance of days in Genesis 1.
My next article will study some other Scriptural arguments about the age of the earth. In the final article I will weigh in on the question of to what degree, if any, scientific evidence should affect our exegesis of Scripture.
Francis Brown. The New Brown-Driver-Briggs-Gesenius Hebrew and English Lexicon. Peabody: Hendrickson, 1979
David G. Hagopian, ed. The Genesis Debate. Mission Viejo: Crux Press, 2001.
R. Laird Harris, ed. Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament. 2 vols. Chicago: Moody, 1980.