The Length of the Creative Days
Dr. J. Oliver Buswell, Jr.



The question before us is not what God can do or could have done in the creation of this world. God could have created a universe in an instant of time as easily as in any length of time.

[302] The question is not how Scripture can be harmonized with geology or with any theory of cosmogony. Of course, we are thankful for any light from natural or historical facts upon the interpretation of the Scriptures. This, however, is a secondary question. The question before us does not lie within the field of those who specialize in the physical sciences.

The question is, what do the Scriptures teach in regard to the length of the creative days described in Genesis 1:1 to 2:4. This is primarily a question of hermeneutics and exegesis.

We shall proceed first of all to a general statement of interpretation. We shall then discuss objections to our interpretation, after which we shall take up a certain theory held by many Christian people and present our objections to it.

The chart at the beginning of this article sets forth what we believe to be the best interpretation of the days of the creative week.

We hold that the word “day” is used here as elsewhere, figuratively and represents a period of time of undesignated length. This does not mean that the several days correspond to periods into which geologists have divided the physical history of the earth. Moses, as inspired by the Spirit, did not describe the periods marked off by the modern geologist, though the facts which Moses does give and the order of these facts are not in conflict with any established facts of geology. If the word day is used figuratively, then the words referring to the parts of days are figurative. We commonly refer in English to “the dawn of a new day” when we mean literally the beginning of a new era. According to Hebrew usage the literal day began with the evening, and concluded with the daylight. Thus “the evening and the morning” taken figuratively, represent the opening and the closing of great eras of time included in the creative work of God. There is no line of division between the “days”, but one period follows another in unbroken sequence as morning follows evening. Examples of the figurative use of “day” are very numerous in Hebrew and in English. In fact, the usage is identical in the two languages. “The day of Jehovah”, “That Day”, are expressions which actually include at least one thousand years. Similarly in English we refer to Wycliffe as “the morning star of the reformation” and we say “in Luther's day” meaning in Luther's period of time.


It is important for us to inquire first what was Moses' own use of the word “day”. I shall proceed from those references which are most clear to those which are not quite so readily understood. [303]

Genesis 2:4 — “These are the generations of the heavens and of the earth when they were created, in the day that the Lord God made the earth and the heavens.”

In this reference, the entire period of six days is referred to as one day. There can, therefore, be no possible doubt that Moses was in the habit of using the word “day” sometimes at least, to refer to a period of time of undesignated length. This is the only possible explanation of the fact that a period of six days is referred to as one day by the words “in the day that the Lord God made the earth and heavens.”

Psalm 90:1-4 — “Lord, thou hast been our dwelling place in all generations. Before the mountains were brought forth, or ever thou hadst formed the earth and the world, even from everlasting to everlasting, thou art God. Thou turnest man to destruction; and sayest, Return, ye children of men. For a thousand years in thy sight are but as yesterday when it is past, and as a watch in the night.”

Conservative scholars tell us that the headings of the Psalms are quite accurate and that we have no reason to doubt that, as stated in the heading, Moses is the author of the ninetieth Psalm. That being the case, we have in his own language a very clear reference to the attitude of God toward our earthly measures of time. Here we see that a thousand years in God's sight are as only a day, “yesterday”, or as only three or four hours, “a watch in the night”.

Genesis 1:5 — “And God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And the evening and the morning were the first day.”

It appears from this verse that within the first creative “day” or period of time, the series of earthly days and nights, periods of light and darkness, was instituted. The inference is that the first day began with a long period of darkness on the earth, then with the coming of light, periods of darkness and light followed each other, and days and nights in our literal earthly sense of the word, began to occur. This was all within the “first day” of the creative work of God.

The references in the Scofield Reference Edition of the Bible argue here against the twenty-four hour day theory.

“1. The word ‘day’ is used in Scripture in three ways: (1) that part of the solar day of twenty-four hours which is light (Genesis 1:5, 14; John 9:4; 11:9); (2) such a day, set apart for some distinctive purpose, as ‘day of atonement’ (Leviticus 23:27); ‘day of judgment’ (Matthew 10:15); (3) a period of time, long or short during which certain revealed purposes of God are to be accomplished, as ‘day of the Lord.’
“2. The use of ‘evening’ and ‘morning’ may be held to limit ‘day’ to the solar day; but the frequent parabolic use of natural phenomena may [304] warrant the conclusion that each creative `day' was a period of time marked off by a beginning and ending.”
Genesis 1:14-19 — “And God said, Let there be lights in the firmament of the heaven to divide the day from the night; and let them be for signs, and for seasons and for days, and years: And let them be for lights in the firmament of the heaven to give light upon the earth: and it was so. And God made two great lights; the greater light to rule the day, and the lesser light to rule the night: he made the stars also. And God set them in the firmament of the heaven to give light upon the earth, And to rule over the day and over the night, and to divide the light from the darkness: and God saw that it was good. And the evening and the morning were the fourth day.”

It is obvious here that the visible function of the sun “for days and years” did not begin until the fourth day of the creative period. This fact was noted by St. Augustine long ago. (See “City of God,” Book 11, Chapters 6 and 7.) The clear inference of Moses’ teaching here is that the whole visible periodic function of the sun and the other heavenly bodies began to operate within the fourth day. It is hard to see how this fourth day could have been a twenty-four hour day. Obviously, Moses did not intend it to be so understood.

James Orr, “The Christian View of God and the World” page 421 says, “Even in regard to the duration of time involved, — those dies ineffabiles of which Augustine speaks, — it is at least as difficult to suppose that only ordinary days of twenty-four hours are intended, in view of the writer's express statement that such days did not commence till the fourth stage in creation, as to believe that they are symbols.” Orr here quotes Augustine as follows: “Of what fashion those days were it is either exceeding hard or altogether impossible to think, much more to speak. As for ordinary days, we see they have neither morning nor evening, but as the sun rises and sets. But the first three days of all had no sun, for that was made on the fourth day, etc. — De Civitate Dei, xi 6, 7. Cf. De. Genesi, ii 14.”

Exodus 20:8-11 — “Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days shalt thou labour, and do all thy work: But the seventh day is the sabbath of the Lord thy, God: in it thou shalt not do any work, thou, nor thy son, nor thy daughter, thy manservant, nor thy maidservant, nor thy cattle, nor thy stranger that is within thy gates: For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that in them is, and rested the seventh day: wherefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day, and hallowed it."

The other examples of Moses' usage given above seem to me quite clear [305] in indicating that Moses was in the habit of using “day” to denote long periods of time. The fourth commandment, in the twentieth chapter of Exodus, is frequently referred to as evidence on the other side.

If we had no other examples of Moses' usage, this example would not necessarily imply that the length of days in the creative week is the same as the length of days in man's ordinary week of time on this earth. We suggest, on the contrary, that those to whom Moses delivered these commandments of God were quite familiar with Moses' own language. They had heard him discussing the substance of the first chapter of Genesis; they knew that he referred to the period of six days as one day (Genesis 2:4). They had heard him use language similar to that found in the ninetieth Psalm. They knew that he regarded God's attitude towards earthly time as quite different from man's attitude. It is not difficult to see, therefore, that those who were familiar with the ninetieth Psalm and Moses' general attitude toward God's time, would draw no such inference from the fourth commandment as is drawn by those who hold to the twenty-four hour day theory. What Moses says is in fact thoroughly in accord with the idea that the days in God's creative program are long periods. The substance of the fourth commandment is that man must work six days and rest one day, for God in creation worked six of God's days and then rested on the seventh day from His creative work. There is no more reason to conclude that God's creative days are as short as man's days of the week, than there is to conclude from the same Scripture that God Himself is no greater than man. The argument is one of analogy between the infinite greatness of God and the little activity of man. Man must work six days and rest one because God in His greatness has chosen to observe a similar practice.

Hebrews 4:1-11 — Outside of the writings of Moses we have a very interesting reference to one of the days of the creative period in the fourth chapter of Hebrews, verses 1-11. The author of the Epistle to the Hebrews in this passage teaches that the “rest” of God is originally described in Genesis 2:1-3, “For He spake in a certain place of the seventh day on this wise, and God did rest the seventh day” (Hebrews 4:4). The author argues then that “rest” was available for God's people in Moses' time, in Joshua's time, in the time of the writing of the ninety-fifth Psalm, and in his own time “There remaineth therefore a rest unto the people of God” (Hebrews 4:9). Thus, it is clear that in the inspired judgment of the writer of the Epistle to the Hebrews the seventh day of the creative period was still going on when this epistle was written.

This probable continuance of the seventh day in which God has ceased from His work of creation is indicated above in the chart. Immediately [306] after the creation of man, God stopped His work of creation. He is now carrying on His work of providence, and His work of redemption, but God will not again undertake any work of creation until the end of the millennium. After that He will create new heavens and a new earth. This new creation will end the seventh day referred to in Genesis 2:1-3.

Genesis 1:1-2:4 — In addition to the above argument, the reader's attention must be called to the fact that we have here in the very first part of our Bible a beautiful orderly, systematic account of creation. We have first of all an introductory statement covering the entire creative activity of God, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” Then follow detailed statements in regard to the process of the creation of the earth, including a statement that on the seventh “day” God ceased from His creative activity after having seen that it was “all very good”. Then follows a general conclusion summing up the entire creation record “these are the generations of the heavens and the earth when they were created in the day that the Lord God made the earth and the heavens.” The reader must note that the entire record is called “creation”, not “renovation”. It is summed up at the beginning and at the end as the divinely inspired account of creation.


We began by saying that this is a question of Scripture interpretation, not of geology. Having examined the Scripture on this question, it is not out of place to inquire whether Biblical statements have any reference to geology. Let the reader follow through the account in the first chapter of Genesis day by day and note the marvelous orderliness of the description. The following explanation is given independently of any particular geological theory except that the earth was at one time in a state of intense heat, and has been through a cooling process. This, I believe, is the view of most geologists. If so it coincides with the fact of darkness on the first “day”, followed by light and vegetation before the sun was visible. If this assumption should ever prove to be untrue we should then have to seek some other explanation for light and vegetation before the visibility of the sun. The twenty-four hour day theory would not be established by the abandonment of this one geological assumption. The following interpretation is not based on geology, and can be harmonized with any reasonable geological theory.

The first statement in the creation record has to do with the entire physical universe, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth”. This includes the sun, moon, and stars as well as the earth on which we live. Next we find specific reference to the earth itself and from [307] this point forward we are dealing with the earth as the future habitation of man. The point of view, as others have pointed out, is the surface of the earth and not the universe in general. “And the earth was without form and void and darkness was upon the face of the deep.” The words (thohu wa-bhohu) “without form and void” simply mean “empty and waste”. The earth or any given country on the earth may be described by these words after a desolation, but may also be described by these words when it is simply in a virgin condition empty and waste, not having been desolated, but not having been completely prepared for the habitation of man.


It seems quite apparent from the study of the nature of this earth that it has at one time been much hotter than it is now. Nobody knows how many fluctuations between colder periods and periods of greater heat may have taken place. Just now glaciers are receding in many parts of the earth. In the large the history of the earth, with much fluctuation, is a history of a cooling process of an enormous ball. We are not here concerned with the way in which this ball may have come to be in its present shape. The planetesimal theory or the nebular theory or whatever theory we may have of cosmogony does not enter into this question. The earth, since it has been the earth, has been much hotter than now, and has been through a long process of cooling off. Now doubtless when the earth was much hotter than at present, all the water in the earth and a large part of the other liquids, would have existed in the form of vapor. Thus, the earth would have been surrounded by dense banks of clouds and the surface of the earth would have been for a long period in dense darkness. The heavens had been created, the earth had been created, or rather was in the process of creation as the habitation of man. Gradually by the cooling process the dense banks of cloudy vapors surrounding the earth began to become slightly transparent, and the first great event of significance in the preparation of the surface of this earth for the habitation of man was the penetrating through of light from the sun. A dim, diffused light at first, yet such that at some points on the earth's surface, day and night could soon be distinguished, though the heavenly bodies were not yet visible. This is the process of the first day as Moses describes it.


In the second day the cooling process continues. The heavy banks of clouds begin somewhat to condense, the earth is still in a diffused light coming through this cloudy atmosphere, the heavenly bodies are not yet visible, but there is a clearing up of the atmosphere on the surface of the [308] earth, an "expanse", (the word incorrectly translated "firmamentum" (firmament)) developed between the cloudy waters about the expanse or firmament and the waters which covered the surface of the earth. This is the process of the second day.


The third day continues the cooling process. The dry land appears, the heavenly bodies are still invisible through the dense banks of clouds, but the earth continues to cool and the great masses of the continents buckle and heave above the surface of the waters. Volcanic action probably was violent in this part of the process. God brings forth from the dry land vegetation. The presumption is that the first part of the earth's surface cooled sufficiently for vegetation would be the polar regions. The tropical regions were still too hot for the vegetation but the great masses of vegetation which now form the coal beds in the Arctic and Antarctic regions, developed. Vegetation then spread over all the earth. All this was pursuant to the divine command “Let the earth bring forth grass, herb yielding seed and fruit tree yielding fruit after his kind whose seed is in itself, upon the earth”. Nobody knows how many times various parts of the earth may have been elevated above the sea and then submerged again. Let the fossils be found where they may. The Scripture simply says the dry land appeared and the vegetation was brought forth.

In all of this interpretation the key thought is that the physical point of view after the first verse of the chapter is the surface of the earth, being prepared for the habitation of man. (See “The Creative Days” by Prof. L. Franklin Gruber. Bibliotheca Sacra Oct. 1919.)


On the fourth day the atmosphere clears sufficiently so that God places in the firmament of heaven the sun, moon, and stars. Note that the word “create” is not here used. God created the heavens and the earth before this fourth day. The sun, moon, and stars are now made to function “for times and for seasons and for days and years.”


The fifth day shows the orderliness of God's creation of animal life.


The sixth day continues the creation of animal life. Finally as a distinct creation the great climax, God “created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him, male and female created he them.” The [309] rhetoric of Genesis 1:26 seems to suggest a pause, perhaps a lapse of some time, between the creation of “the beasts of the earth” and the creation of man. This ends the creative process.


After the creation of man God ceased from His creative activity and “rested the seventh day from all his work which he had made.”

The above interpretation is not the only possible one. It is only tentatively suggested, but it seems to us the most reasonable. It assumes as has been said, a long cooling process in accordance with the second law of thermodynamics and in accordance with the evidence from the igneous rocks. It has nothing to say one way or another about cataclysms or glacial periods within any of the creative “days”. We do hold with J. Frederick Wright that the last glacial period was connected with the cause of the flood (See “The Deluge of Noah” I.S.B.E. Vol. II) but that is another question.


Let us now give attention to certain objections in matters of detail.

Objection 1 — It is objected that the creation record cannot be true since vegetation appears before the sun. Vegetation is made on the third day, the sun does not appear until the fourth day.

Answer — The creation record does not state that the sun was created on the fourth day, but that it was then made to appear in the firmament. Probably the light which appeared on the first day was diffused light from the sun, coming through dense banks of clouds.

Objection 2 — Vegetation is said to have been created before the insects were created, whereas many forms of vegetation depend upon insects for pollenization.

Answer — The creation of insects simply is not mentioned in the creation record. The record does not claim to be exhaustive in detail. The “creeping things” referred to in Genesis 1:24, 25 are not insects, but four-footed animals walking on the earth. If insects are actually necessary to the existence of vegetable life from the beginning, then probably God created them along with vegetation. Whether this is true, or whether God provided some other method of pollenization we do not know. The insects simply are not mentioned.

Objection 3 — If the days are long periods of time, then half of the days must have been dark and half light. Vegetation could not exist during long periods of darkness including thousands of years.

Answer — In claiming that the days are long periods of time, we claim [310] that the word day is used in a familiar figurative manner. Thus these long periods included the regular progress of solar days and nights as described in Genesis 1:5 and Genesis 1:14-19. All of this will be made clear by examination of the chart.

Objection 4 — All God's creative acts are instantaneous “He spake and it was done, He commanded and it stood forth.” Some go so far as to say that to recognize any process in time is to recognize evolution.

Answer — It is true that “He spake and it was done, He commanded and it stood forth”, but it is not correct to insert, either consciously or unconsciously, the word “instantaneously” before the verbs in this sentence. It simply is not a fact that all of God's creative activity is instantaneous. The verb “bring forth” in the sentence “Let the earth bring forth grass” implies a process of time if it has any meaning at all. This is not a question of what God can do. He can create anything in an instant of time, but the Scripture plainly teaches that He chose to use at least some time during the creative process. God often works cataclysmically but He also works sometimes in temporal processes.

Objection 5 — The theory that the days of creation represent long periods of time is said to contradict the statement of the age of Adam in the fifth chapter of Genesis.

Answer — This objection is based upon the false idea that after the sixth day of creation the seventh day intervened before anything went forward in the world. It is clear from the first chapter of Genesis that man was created at the very end of the creative process. The interpretation which we advance does not interpose a seventh day between the creation and the beginning of world history, but regards God as now resting from His work of creation until such time as He shall choose to create the new heavens and the new earth. The years of Adam's life began as soon as he was created at the end of the sixth creative day.

Objection 6 — “Wherever the word 'yom' (day) is preceded by a numerical article, we are forced to accept it as a literal day.”

Answer — In thefirst place, the very form of this objection reveals the fact that the author had never had a course in Hebrew before he made this statement. There are such things as “numerals” and there are such things as “articles” in the various grammars of the various languages. The words “numerical article” however do not refer to any known grammatical phenomena.

It may be true that this is the only case in which the word day is used figuratively when preceded by any numeral, but the reason is that this is the only case in Scripture in which any indefinitely long periods of time are enumerated. The words “aion” in Greek and “olam” in Hebrew are [311] literal words for “age”, but we do not happen to have any case in which God has said “first age”, “second age”, “third age”, etc. The attempt to make a grammatical rule to the effect that the numeral preceding the word day makes it literal, breaks down on the simple fact that this is the only case in all the Scriptures, and in all Hebrew language, I think, in which ages are enumerated one after the other. There is no such rule in anybody's Hebrew grammar anywhere. The author of this objection, or the one from whom he has attempted to quote, has simply put forth with a sound of authority a grammatical rule which does not exist.

Objection 7 — “The word ‘day’ (Hebrew ‘yom’) when used figuratively to denote a period of time longer than a literal solar day, is never used to denote time outside of the scope of history.”

Answer — Genesis 2:4 “in the day that the Lord God made the earth and the heavens,” refers to the whole creative work of God “the heavens and the earth when they were created.” Let the writer of this objection search through the entire range of Scripture to find one example of any word but “day” denoting successive periods of prehistoric time.

Objection 8 — “It is never permissible in serious thought to have a double meaning [both literal and figurative] of the same word in the same context, unless it is accompanied by an explanation.”

Answer — Let the writer of this objection look up the difference between a simile and a metaphor. Were the disciples to “catch men” with a physical net? or is the “water of life” a physical substance?

Objection 9 — The existence of plant life for long periods of time before the creation of time before the creation of man would be “prodigious waste.”

Answer — Are all uninhabited times and places wasted? Rather the Scriptures (Psalms 8 and 90) seem to emphasize the littleness of man in the physical universe.

Objection 10 — “Not even an evolutionist would claim that fowls came into existence at the same time marine animals first appeared.” (With reference to Genesis 1:20-22.)

Answer — No! It is Moses who states that. And it is remarkable that the Hebrew words here used include the reptiles and seem to imply that birds were created soon after reptile forms of life. This the facts of biology and geology confirm.


Let us now turn to a theory which has been popular among Christian people for quite a number of years. It is held by some that after the creation of the heavens and the earth and before the situation described in [312] the second verse of the first chapter of Genesis, a great cataclysm and a long period of time took place, in which the earth was desolated. Our objections to this theory are (1) that it rests upon not one single grain of evidence, and (2) that it was invented in order to harmonize geology with the Scripture and not simply in order to interpret the Scripture as it stands. Christian geologists have felt the problem of light and vegetation before the visibility of the sun to be a difficulty in the Genesis account. They have therefore invented the theory of a long period of time inserted between the first two verses in chapter one.

In the notes in the Scofield reference edition of the Bible we read the following comment on Genesis 1:2: ? “Jeremiah 4:23-26; Isaiah 24:1 and Isaiah 45:18 clearly indicate that the earth had undergone a cataclysmic change as the result of a divine judgment.” We reply that this is a definitely untruthful and misleading statement which anyone can examine for himself if he will but look up the references cited. No one can intelligently read Jeremiah 4:23-26 in its context without seeing that this is a reference to events still future to Jeremiah. It refers to the desolation of men and cities, as Jeremiah specifically states. Similarly Isaiah 24:1 taken in its context is positively predictive and does not refer to any past event unless language has lost all meaning. Isaiah 45:18 reads as follows: “For thus saith the Lord that created the heavens; God Himself that formed the earth and made it; He hath established it, He created it not in vain, He formed it to be inhabited: I am the Lord; and there is none else.” Surely we can understand that God did not create the earth “in vain” (“thohu”), that He formed it to be inhabited; but to distort this statement to mean that there was no stage in the process of creation at which the earth could be described as empty and waste before it was yet formed to be inhabited, is to do violence to language.

It is argued that during this supposed period of time between the situations described in the first two verses of the creation record, the fall of Satan and the fallen angels took place.

Our reply is that we do not have the slightest hint in the Scriptures as to the time and place of the fall of Satan and his evil angels, except that Satan was a fallen creature when man was created. There is all eternity past and all space in which the fall of Satan and his evil angels may have taken place. We do not need violently to disrupt an orderly passage of Scripture and insert a cataclysmic period of time, to make room for the fall of devils. It is argued that “ha yethah” the word translated “was” in the second verse of the first chapter of Genesis should correctly be translated “became”. Our answer is that this verb is a very simple grammatical form, the third person feminine singular perfect of the verb to be. Its primary [313] meaning is simply “was”. It is true that the verb “to be” in Hebrew is sometimes used to mean “became” if the context demands it, but the verb as it stands is “was” as anyone who has studied Hebrew will testify. There is not the slightest hint in the context that the unusual meaning “became” should be read. In fact, we should either find the preposition “to” (“1—”) before the descriptive adjective or noun if the word is to read “became” (See Genesis 2:7), or else we should find from the context that “was” has some such meaning as “was potentially”. Neither of these is the case.

It is argued that the word “replenish” in Genesis 1:28 means “fill over again”, therefore the earth must once have been full, then devastated, before man was to replenish it.

The answer is that the word in Hebrew (“mala’”) means simply “to fill” and does not convey the idea of anything beyond this simple meaning. The correct translation would be “Fill ye the earth”. This is an example of argument from the etymology of an English word, the etymology of the English word having no substantiation whatever in the Hebrew original.

(The above notes are tentatively set forth in an attempt to assist those who are bewildered by fanciful interpretations. The author will welcome criticisms. The same argument in briefer form was published in an article by the author in "Christian Faith and Life", April 1935.)

From: "Chronology," Davis Bible Dictionary, 1935.