The Days of Creation

Notice that there are six days of creation and eight acts of creation (the “God saids”). We believe that the days are present in the narrative primarily to teach theology and to provide a logical context for the creation narrative. They also provide some rather nice clues for figuring out the riddle. The eight acts of creation, by contrast, preconfigure science. They are factually accurate statements of what happened as the world we know came to be.

As we get into a discussion of the days, the first observation that needs to be made is that the creation days do not contain the events associated with them.

The Days Do Not Contain the Events

As we said earlier, the fulfillment of the creation commands happened over a period of time; everything didn’t happen in twenty-four hours. That is, the days provide a thematic context for the explanation of creation, not a chronological context. As we discussed in chapters four and five, that conclusion was supported by the verb forms and the thematic organization of the text.

But we are not limited just to those arguments. Over a millennium and a half ago, Augustine noted that the days do not work as a chronological context:

At the time when night is with us, the sun is illuminating with its presence those parts of the world through which it returns from the place of its setting to that of its rising. Hence it is that for the whole twenty-four hours of the sun’s circuit there is always day in one place and night in another.1
That is to say, the precise timing of evening and morning can happen only in one place on the globe at a time. If the Hebrew text meant to say that everything happened in 144 hours (six days times 24 hours each), then the text would be correct in only one spot. For the other side of the world, it would have been “there was morning and then there was evening” or, partway around, “there was midafternoon and then there was midmorning.” Surely the text was intended to be accurate for the entire world. And the text is accurate if the days are seen as markers and not as containers for the acts of creation.

The fact that the days were not meant to be considered containers of the associated events can be seen in a further examination of day one. The creation activity associated with day one could not have all occurred on the first day. To look again at the King James Version of Genesis 1:3-5:

And God said, Let there be light: and there was light. And God saw the light, that it was good: and God divided the light from the darkness. And God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And the evening and the morning were the first day.
Evening followed by morning could not have happened until the work of this stage was completed. Since the first day did not contain the events associated with it, we may suppose it serves as a model; the rest of the days also did not contain the work associated with them.

Finally, the fact that the fulfillment of the “God saids” was a process instead of a poof! is brought out in the divine instruction that leads to dry land:

Let the waters under the heaven be gathered together unto one place, and let the dry land appear.” (Gen 1:9 KJV)

The text could have read, “Let there be dry land,” but it doesn’t. It deliberately describes a process, a process of gathering and a process of drying. This is another clue, we think, that what is going on is not matter of sudden, massive miracles, but a matter of process. The account does not tell us how long this all took--it doesn’t have to in order to make its point--but the text is consistent with a process and a duration that would reflect eternal, omnipotent majesty.

But even if the days do not serve as containers for their associated events, they do serve at least three useful purposes. They teach theology, they provide a logical context, and they provide clues to the riddle.

The Days Teach Theology

The creation days teach the sabbath, and they teach important things about God.

The Establishment of the Sabbath

The sabbath reference is straightforward. Exodus 20:8-11 (NIV), part of the Ten Commandments, gives the creation narrative as the rationale behind the sabbath observance:

Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the LORD your God. On it you shall not do any work, neither you, nor your son or daughter, nor your manservant or maidservant, nor your animals, nor the alien within your gates. For in six days the LORD made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but he rested on the seventh day. Therefore the LORD blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.

As Augustine pointed out, God did not rest because he had to--he of limitless power does not need to rest.2 He rested in order to provide a role model for us, who do need to rest and reflect on spiritual matters, lest we be caught up and blinded by the busyness of our business. This also teaches us balance: work is good, rest is good, and frequently/reliably returning to spiritual matters is essential.

It is quite likely that some readers are thinking, “Aha! Doesn’t it say here that the days were twenty-four-hour days? Doesn’t the Hebrew use the same word day for the days we are to work and the days that God worked?” We can’t think of a better response to this than the one Tayler Lewis gave about a century and a half ago (italics in the original):

’Six days shalt thou labor and do all thy work . . . For in six days the Lord made or wrought the heavens and the earth.’ The Hebrew word for working is the same in both clauses. Now who shall dare to say here that God’s work and man’s work, or God’s manner of working and man’s manner of working, are the same, or to be taken in any aspects of mere resemblance, because the same term is used of both, or of the common idea that unites them both? Let us, then, simply supply the suggested thoughts. In six human days shalt thou labor and do all thy human work, for in six divine days the Lord did his divine or superhuman work in the creation of the heavens and the earth.” [Similarly . . . ] “‘Remember the Sabbath day,’ or day of rest,--as every one knows the word means in the Hebrew,--‘for God rested on the Sabbath day.’ There is the same word for rest (or Sabbath) in both cases; but has it the same identical meaning? Is there no transition to the higher idea, although in such immediate verbal connection? Is God’s rest our rest? Are not ‘his ways higher than our ways, and his thoughts than our thoughts, even as the heavens are higher than the earth?’” [In the same way . . . ] But certainly they could have been no common days, no common nights, no common mornings. This, we think, must appear from the whole spirit and aspect of the strange account. They were God’s days, his dies eternitatis. They were the morning and evening intervals of His creative periods, as much beyond our diurnal cycles as His ways are above our ways and His thoughts above our thoughts, . . . ”3

The Nature of God

We also think the days help to teach us about the omniscience and the omnipotence of God. When God commands something, that something happens. It may not happen instantly, but it does happen. Thus, when God commands something, that something is as good as done.

And God, being God, can see the result of his command even as he utters it, even though for us that would mean seeing years and years into the future. It is therefore not inconsistent with the text or inconsistent with God for God to command something, for the text to explain what happened over time as a result and for God to pronounce the results good soon after he commanded it to happen.

Theological Commemoration

Finally, we think the creation days are analogous to the Feast of Tabernacles, which celebrated the Jewish harvest over seven days but did not contain the work of the harvest:

Celebrate the Feast of Tabernacles for seven days after you have gathered the produce of your threshing floor and your winepress. (Deut 16:13 NIV)

Like Labor Day, which in the United States commemorates labor done throughout the year, each of the creation days commemorates acts and events of creation without containing them.

Logical Context

While the creation days perform these useful theological functions, they also help to provide context.

Recall our discussion (chap. 4) that the text of Genesis 1 takes a thematic approach to its subject rather than a chronological approach. The advantage of a chronology is that the time sequence organizes the text: this happened first, then that happened, and then this happened. But if the text is going to be organized thematically, there needs to be a context for organizing the themes. What order are the themes to be placed in?

Second, there is the challenge of audience. The first hearers would know only the world as they saw it; later hearers would know quarks and black holes and radio. As we said in the introduction, it would be like trying to explain math to a three-year-old and to a thirty-three-year-old using the same words.

Given these challenges, then, we think that instead of giving us a step-by-step recipe for what he did, God chose to present the material in the form of a conceptual explanation.

As an example, imagine a master chef trying to explain to a group of diners how he assembled a masterpiece dinner. If the chef were to explain step by step what he did, the audience would soon be lost as the chef moved back and forth from one dish to another. Instead, the master chef would explain it using a concept series that would make sense to the audience--say, starting with the appetizers and finishing with dessert--even though he may have started to prepare the dessert first. Note that the master chef is not being inaccurate when he tells of his creation this way. He is explaining it in a way that will make sense to an unsophisticated audience. He is giving them what they need to know in a way that they can understand.

When we look again at the relationship between the days of creation and the acts of creation we see--as people have seen for a number of years--that there are three days of forming and three days of filling.

Notice that Genesis 1:2 sets the stage by announcing that the earth was “without form and void” (KJV) or, to put in another way, “formless and empty” (NIV). In the first four actions of creation God creates form and structure. In the next four acts of creation God fills that structure. The chart (page 000) demonstrates how the days create a context for correlating the acts of forming and the acts of filling. And the connection to the introduction’s “formless and empty” is too good to be accidental.

The Acts of Forming and the Acts of Filling

   If you look back at the chart and fit the days over the acts, you will see that there are three days on the forming side and three days on the filling side. That is, the six days of creation are perfectly balanced between forming and filling.
But there are eight acts of creation. So in order to make the eight acts and the six days line up, there had to be adjustments. Two acts (forming dry land and creating vegetation) fall into day three, and two acts (creating land creatures and creating humankind) fall into day six. We even think this adjustment is yet further evidence that the creation days are markers and not containers.

The correlation between separating the waters to create the oceans and the sky and then filling the oceans and the sky with water creatures and air creatures is especially clear. But perhaps the treatment of vegetation is worth a little deeper discussion. The vegetation events can be thought of in at least two ways, both of which may be right.

One way to think about it is the separation of the living from the nonliving. That is, up to this point God has been separating opposites to create a framework for the world--light from dark, waters above from waters below, wet from dry.4 With the creation of vegetation, God may be seen as doing that again, by drawing a distinction between the living and the nonliving. The living is the vegetation; the nonliving is everything else described up to that point.

But it can also be thought of in another way. If we see these four creation acts as setting the stage for life, in this fourth “God said,” God makes the land fit for habitation by providing a source of food. By providing day/night, atmosphere (including water), land and food, God has provided the essentials to support animal life and human life. One of the arguments for this view is that there is a corresponding statement (although not a true act of creation) in which God gives the vegetation to the living creatures for nourishment.

In either way of looking at this, we see evidence that God is using a conceptual explanation rather than a step-by-step recipe. God has created all creatures; now God announces that he has given them all the sustenance they need to live. God is laying out the logic of what he did, not the assembly instructions.

This view of the text as a conceptual explanation helps to clarify the formula for the creation days: “and there was evening and there was morning.” This formula has sometimes struck readers as odd, because “evening followed by morning” generally describes a night, not a day.

But according to Lewis, the sequence of evening and then morning has a special significance here because of the roots of those Hebrew words. Note that in the formative stages, God is taking things that are mingled together and separating them to form the framework of the world--light from darkness, water below from water above, wet from dry. Lewis points out that the root meaning of the Hebrew word for evening is “blended together” or “mingled,” while the root meaning for the Hebrew word for morning is “separation.”5 So this sequence that is highly unusual for defining daytime (evening followed by morning) is a perfect sequence for creation time (mingling followed by a separation).

This observation also helps to make the treatment of the seventh day fall into place. We’ve already discussed (chap. 2) that the seventh day does not come with “evening and morning.” That makes sense if you think of “evening and morning” as the basic structure of creation (mingling followed by separation). Because the seventh day is not associated with an act of creation, it would not be defined in terms of the mingling and separation formula.

When we turn to the forming and filling structure, then, the creation of humankind comes as a special subset of the creation of land creatures. Upon reflection, this makes sense. Genesis 1 was written for a particular land dweller. So it is only natural for Genesis 1 to specifically mention the creation of that land dweller. It is like a message from a loving parent to a child: “You were not a surprise. You were not an accident. You are special, and I especially wanted you to be here.”

There has been considerable discussion about what the act of human creation (Gen 1:26 KJV) means:

And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth.
Whatever “in our image” might mean or whatever “dominion” might suggest, it is nevertheless true that in all the history of this planet there has never been any other single species with as much power to shape other species,6 with as much power to, perhaps, create new species7 and with as much power to eliminate other species. In all the history of this planet there has never been any other single species with as much power to destroy the planet--and therefore any other single species with the choice whether to nurture it or to destroy it.


When the view of Genesis 1 shifts from chronological assembly directions to conceptual explanation, the days, which have been stumbling blocks for so long, turn out to hold vital clues that unlock the chapter’s meaning.

For example, the recitation of “evening and morning” is helpful in at least three different ways. One, it helps keep us focused on the perspective of the narrative--the ground’s-eye view. It is only from the earth’s surface that evening followed by morning makes a day; that doesn’t happen at some imponderable point in outer space.

Second, although the “evening and morning” formula has often been used as support for the argument that the days should be considered chronologically, we think it has been inserted so we won’t. That is, it would be very tempting to think of the days as ages--“in my day” or “the day of the horse and buggy”--and then try to see all the events of creation as sequential, when they’re overlapping. But the “evening/morning” recitation is a clue not to take the days as representing expanses of time.

Third--and I (Dallas) am particularly fond of this one, because of my experience with the design process as an engineer--they provide a wonderful introduction to the process of creation. That is, we come to the Genesis narrative familiar with the wand-waving miracles of television and movies where everything happens in one giant poof. Yet in this narrative God introduces us to the fundamental process of design. First we think of what we intend do, and then we do it. We do it in stages. We look at what we’ve done as we go along and assess whether we like it. We build upon what we’ve done in prior stages to get to the next stage. And it is a process that usually happens over time. In a humbling way that recalls the words “Let us make man in our image,” God models for us the creative process--the design process--that we use in our creations.8


Putting all these pieces together, including the observation that the days do not contain the events associated with them, gives us two ways to solve the riddle of sequence. One way is to think of the days as a logical context for the creation account: the three days of forming and the three days of filling.

A second way is to think of the sequence of the days as the natural progression of a ground’s-eye view of the sky. That is

1. Creation of “day” and “night.”

Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters. (Gen 1:2 NIV)
In Genesis 1:2, as the stage is being set for the account to begin, we like to think that the sun already existed, but the stuff that was to become the world as we know it was so mixed up and opaque that daylight couldn’t penetrate to where the surface of the earth was to be. That is, “darkness like night” was over the surface of the deep.

As then creation account begins, then, the material condenses enough so that daylight becomes visible at the earth’s surface. This stage does not mark the creation of light as a phenomenon per se--the way we know it today with photons and waves and energy and a constant speed--but marks the penetration of the sun’s light far enough into the mists so that a distinction between day and night would be visible to a surface dweller.

2. Creation of the atmosphere, the separation of the “waters above” from the “waters deep:”

And God said, “Let there be an expanse between the waters to separate water from water.” And it was so. 7 So God made the expanse and separated the water under the expanse from the water above it. 8 God called the expanse “sky.” . . . Gen 1:6-8 NIV, Septuagint corrections)
We talked about this earlier (chap. 5). The separation of the earth’s surface from its atmosphere is not something to be taken for granted. The viewer at the earth’s surface would see a heavy mist over all the earth, heavy enough so that the stars and perhaps even the sun and the moon would not be separately visible. It is particularly significant, for example, that the creation account starting in Genesis 2 opens with a discussion of a mist instead of rain watering the ground. The Hebrew text could have said “rain” (the prior verse said there wasn’t any rain yet) but made a point of mists.

3. The mists and cloud cover clear, showing the ground-level viewer the starry sky for the first time (NIV, with tweakings [in italics] to show what we think it’s saying):

And God said, ‘Let there be lights seen in the expanse of the sky to separate the day from the night, and let them serve as signs to mark seasons and days and years, and let them be lights seen in the expanse of the sky to shine on the earth. And it was so. God had made two great lights--the greater light to govern the day and the lesser light to govern the night. He had also made the stars. God gave them in the expanse of the sky to shine on the earth . . .

This may be another reason that the sun, the moon and the stars don’t figure in the account until Genesis 1:14-18. The sun, moon and stars would have been there already, but it took a clearing of the atmosphere for them to be seen for the first time by a viewer at the earth’s surface.

We’re fond of this explanation because it is rather dramatic (there is a kind of ta da! inherent in the moment when the starry sky is first visible. One can almost hear God laugh when the creatures on the ground first looked up with an “Ooh!” and an “Ahhh!”) and also helps to line up the sequence.


Putting it all together also solves the riddle of duration. Genesis 1 is consistent with a gradual fulfilling of each of the acts of creation. As we’ve seen,

1. The days do not contain the work associated with them.

2. The structure of the text provides the details of creation as epilogue to the assertions of command and completion.

3. The Hebrew verbs in Genesis 1 are, for the most part, imperfect verbs that suggest action over a period of time. (In the Hebrew there isn’t the same sense of “one and done” that we see in most English translations.)

4. The Hebrew clues us that the unfolding of each of the acts of creation overlap each other. As we discussed in chapter five, the Hebrew use of generations signals that this is a thematic explanation rather than a chronological explanation. It describes what happens as a result of a command and then goes back to describe what happens as a result of the next command, even though the happenings overlap with each other.

5. The divine command in Genesis 1:9 (NIV)--“Let the water under the sky be gathered to one place and let dry ground appear”--demonstrates a process and not an instantaneous poof.


It would be nice at this point to say we’ve come at last to the final, definitive understanding of Genesis 1. But that would be tantamount to saying we’ve fully understood the mind of God, and who can ever do that? But we do think that by putting together pieces that scholars have come up with over the years, we’ve solved the riddle enough to reach our goal, which is to show that the creation account in Genesis 1 makes sense and is consistent with physical fact. New readers cannot pick up the Bible, read the first chapter and then toss the whole thing aside because the first chapter is obviously wrong.

From the material we’ve gone over, we think it is clear that Genesis 1 does not speak of sudden, massive miracles in the space of 144 hours. Instead, the days are there to teach theology and to serve as markers for the logical context of the creation account. With that, the only potential conflicts with physical fact go away--the potential conflicts of sequence and duration.

There may also be additional treasures tucked inside the account for us to find. Surely, as our view of the material world continues to advance, our appreciation of Scripture will advance too.

And it is fair to say that nothing is as rewarding as the study of Scripture. I (Dallas) have been studying these thirty-five verses for almost four decades now--reading commentaries, analyses and translations far and wide--and far from making the Scripture boring, Scripture has only seemed more and more precious, more and more awesome, more and more beautiful. Far from getting tired of it, I have come to appreciate it even more, and I keep seeing new things in it every day. (They even had to tell me to draw the line and declare this book done, or I’d never get it out!)

And that’s only the first thirty-five verses. There is so much more to learn, so much more to appreciate, so much more to stand in awe of. And so I’d like to challenge you, the reader. If there are parts of Scripture that call you, that grab you and won’t quite let you go, go ahead and follow their study. It may take you far longer than you expected (nearly forty years came as a surprise to me), but the journey is also far more rewarding than you might expect.

 Chapter 6: The Days of Creation

1 Johannes Quasten, Walter J. Burghardt and Thomas Comerford Lawler, eds., Ancient Christian Writers: The Works of the Fathers in Translation, no. 41, St. Augustine, The Literal Meaning of Genesis, trans. John Hammond Taylor, S.J. (New York: Newman Press, 1982), 30, 1.10.21.

2 Ibid., 113-27, 4. 8-19.

3 Tayler Lewis, The Six Days of Creation, 2nd ed. (Schenectady, N.Y.: G. Y. Van DeBogert, 1855), 99-100, 276-77.

4 This process is analogous to separating matter from antimatter to create a physical universe out of nothing.

5 Lewis, The Six Days of Creation, 87-89.

6 Consider the different breeds of dog. Most of today’s breeds were created through human intervention, yet are all still part of the same species that includes the wolf.

7 Note the experiments in which genes from one species are inserted into another, creating beings that never before existed.

8 It also teaches another powerful lesson of God’s majesty. In the human design process, we don’t know how it’s going to come out until we try it--and in the process learn from our mistakes. In God’s process, he got everything right the first time. To one experienced with the human design process, that is an extremely powerful statement of the all-knowingness of God.

The Riddle of Genesis, Chapter 6