Wednesday, November 5, 2008

The Meaning of Day (Genesis 1:5)

In his complete commentary on Genesis, Matthew Henry answers this question by suggesting that we observe, “That God divided the light from the darkness, so put them asunder as that they could never be joined together, or reconciled; for what fellowship has light with darkness? 2 Co. 6:14. And yet he divided time between them, the day for light and the night for darkness, in a constant and regular succession to each other…God has thus divided time between light and darkness, because he would daily remind us that this is a world of mixtures and changes (emphasis in original).”[1] Henry’s words demonstrate several things: First, he indicates time is divided between light and darkness, or day and night; second, he indicates that this division of time occurs constantly during the regular succession of day following night, et cetera; third, he indicates that this constant division of time between night and day occurs on a daily basis. Hence, Henry demonstrates his belief that day in the context of Genesis 1:3-5 refers to two things: When referring to light, day means daytime, or the period of the day in which there is light as separated from the darkness of night; When referring to days in sequence (one day, a second day, etc.), day refers to a literal twenty-four hour period which encompasses a period of light and darkness (daytime and nighttime).
John Gill, in his commentary on Genesis 1:5, takes the same position, but makes an interesting point which takes into consideration the lack of heavenly bodies as containers of light, which would not be created until the fourth day (Genesis 1:14-19). He states, “Either by the circulating motion of the above body of light, or by the rotation of the chaos on its own axis towards it, in the space of twenty four hours there was a vicissitude of light and darkness; just as there is now by the like motion either of the sun, or of the earth; and which after this appellation God has given, we call the one, day, and the other, night.”[2] While we often consider only the creation of light and its separation from darkness on day one, it is refreshing to consider that at this point in time, the earth remained formless and void. Gill allows for the lack of a completed creation to possibly infer both the lack of a rotational cycle for the earth as well as the lack of an orbital pattern for the earth at this point in God’s creative process. As Gill indicates, whether the division of light and darkness was accomplished by the axial rotation of the earth in reference to the light, or the circulating motion of the mass of light itself, the assertion is made that either of these occurred only in the continual pattern of a twenty-four hour period.
John Calvin agrees with both Henry and Gill in their understanding of the term “day,” but, just as Gill, he too adds an important point to the argument. Rather than refute the hypothesis that “day” refers to long ages, he refutes an older hypothesis that God would not have taken so much time as six days to complete His creation. He states that, “And God called the light That is, God willed that there should be a regular vicissitude of days and nights; which also followed immediately when the first day was ended. For God removed the light from view, that night might be the commencement of another day…The first day Here the error of those is manifestly refuted, who maintain that the world was made in a moment. For it is too violent a cavil to contend that Moses distributes the work which God perfected at once into six days, for the mere purpose of conveying instruction. Let us rather conclude that God himself took the space of six days, for the purpose of accommodating his works to the capacity of men (emphasis in original).”[3] Calvin reiterates the points above of Henry and Gill that “day” refers to the sequential day and night period given in the space of a normal twenty-four hours. Additionally, Calvin makes reference to the capacities of men by God taking six full days to complete His creation. Perhaps Calvin was considering Exodus 20:11 in this statement, as it appears that God’s creative process purposely parallels the construction of the work-week and Sabbath. While the argument can be made that God may have either finished the portion of His creative process instantaneously each day, or took the full night and day sequence to complete this portion, the argument from Calvin is that a day is twenty-four hours and God took six of these periods to complete His creation.
Finally, John MacArthur, from his notes on Genesis 1:5 in the MacArthur Study Bible, takes the opportunity to comment on the appropriate usage of the Hebrew term “yom” under varying circumstances. He comments, “God established the pattern of creation in 7 days which constituted a complete week. “Day” can refer to: 1) the light portion of a 24 hour period (1:5,14); 2) an extended period of time (2:4); or 3) the 24 hour period which basically refers to a full rotation of the earth on its axis, called evening and morning. This cannot mean an age, but only a day, reckoned by the Jews from sunset to sunset (vv. 8,13,19,23,31). “Day” with numerical adjectives in Hebrew always refers to a 24 hour period. Comparing the order of the week in Ex 20:8-11 with the creation week confirms this understanding of the time element. Such a cycle of light and dark means that the earth was rotating on its axis, so that there was a source of light on one side of the earth, though the sun was not yet created (v. 16).”[4] While MacArthur’s understanding of the axial rotation of the earth is a more specific statement than the freedom given by Gill, he agrees with Henry, Gill, and Calvin, in that “day” in Genesis 1:5 refers to a literal 24-hour period of time. MacArthur’s study of the Hebrew language helps to support this argument as he provides grammatical rules when pairing “day” with numerical adjectives for the appropriate understanding of the term.
Considering the solutions given by these four men, I agree with them all in that the term “day” in Genesis 1:5 refers to a literal 24-hour period of evening and morning, establishing a sequential pattern for the division of time into days, as well as light and darkness into nighttime and daytime, respectively. While MacArthur and Gill agree that there were no heavenly bodies to contain the light at this point in the creative process, I better appreciate Gill’s point regarding light as there is no necessary requirement for any scientific laws or currently observed scientific phenomena to have existed prior to the completion of God’s creation. While the modern form of the argument seems to pit long ages against literal 24-hour periods, and this likely due to the overwhelming acceptance and influence of evolutionary biology, I also appreciate Calvin’s argument against the instantaneous completion of creation merely described as having occurred in six days. At a minimum, this stresses how far secular humanism has brought man away from recognizing the power of God.
As a final thought, despite the varying interpretations of how we should understand the term “day,” Boyd and Eddy offer some unifying words for the evangelical community over this issue: “With all orthodox Christians, evangelicals hold to theism as a worldview. More specifically, they uphold the Biblical claim that the Triune God alone is the sovereign Creator of all that is and that he is active in creation (Genesis 1-2; Col. 1:15-17; Heb. 1:3).”[5]

[1] Henry, Matthew. "Complete Commentary on Genesis 1". "Matthew Henry Complete Commentaryon the Whole Bible". . 1706.
[2] Gill, John. "Commentary on Genesis 1:5". "The New John Gill Exposition of the Entire Bible". . 1999.
[3] John Calvin. Commentary on Genesis – Volume 1, trans. Rev. John King (Christian Classics Ethereal Library, 2008),
[4] MacArthur, John F. Genesis 1:5 notes. The MacArthur Study Bible. Thomas Nelson: La Habra, 2006.
[5] Gregory A. Boyd and Paul R. Eddy, The Genesis Debate, Across the Spectrum: Understanding Issues in Evangelical Theology (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2002), 51.

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