The Hebrew Word “Yom”

“How Old Is the Earth?” series (post #1)

My recent post, Were Adam and Eve Real People?, got my mind to stewing on the Bible’s account of creation. Most specifically, I revisited the question, “How old is the earth?” I say “revisited” because that’s a subject upon which I’ve done a fair amount of preaching down through the years. I was surprised to find, however, that I haven’t written about it on the blog. Therefore, I’m going to devote a series of posts to remedying that problem.

Let me say going in that I am in the “young earth” camp. That means that I believe that planet earth, not to mention the rest of the universe, is somewhere in the ballpark of 10,000 years old, give or take a few thousand years either way. Yes, I am a college graduate. Yes, I know about carbon dating. Yes, I know about the geologic column. Yes, I know about the speed of light. Yes, I know about the theory of evolution. Yes, I know what scientists tell us about the enormity and vastness of space. Trust me, I’ve heard the evidences for an earth and a universe that are billions of years old. But here’s something else I know: Like it or not, believe it or not, scoff at it or not, the Bible teaches that the earth is only a few thousand years old. Don’t believe me? Then hear me out in this series.

With this opening post I’d like to define the Hebrew word yom. This is the word which our English translations translate as “day” for each of the seven days of the creation week in Genesis chapters 1 and 2. And how is yom defined? It’s the word the Jewish people use to refer to a typical 24-hour day.

The Bible’s first instance of yom comes in Genesis 1:5, which describes the first day (Sunday) of the creation week:

God called the light Day, and the darkness He called Night. So the evening and the morning were the first day. (N.K.J.V.)

In keeping with this first instance, we find this same kind of summary phrase and use of yom following each of the remaining five days upon which God worked. The pattern is always the same: “So the evening and the morning were the ______ day.” We see this in Genesis 1:8; 1:13; 1:19; 1:23; and 1:31. The only exception to this rule is that we don’t get such a phrase following God resting on the seventh day (the Sabbath day, Saturday).

The fact is that yom is used some 2,300 times in the Old Testament text, and in the overwhelming majority of instances it refers to nothing more than a 24-hour day. Admittedly, there are multiple passages in which it is used in reference to a more general, larger period of time, but most of those passages are prophetic in nature. In particular, there are various verses that speak of a coming period of judgment called “the day of the Lord.” None of this applies, however, to the days of the creation week because those had nothing to do with prophecy or judgment.

Even more than that, each day of creation is assigned a definite number (“the first day,” “the second day,” etc.). This is important to note because in every instance where the Old Testament applies a numerical adjective to yom the reference is to a 24-hour day. And then there is the fact that each of the six days of God’s work is specifically described as having an evening and a morning.

Seriously, how much clearer does God have to make it? Think about it like this: If the days of the creation week really were literal 24-hour days, the descriptive language God would use to convey that teaching to mankind as simply and as directly as He could would be the language used in Genesis chapter 1! That being the case, how can we be so quick to explain it away and seek other interpretations?

Of course, there are those who try to bring a New Testament verse, 2 Peter 3:8, into this whole discussion. That verse says:

But, beloved, do not forget this one thing, that with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day. (N.K.J.V.)

According to some, this verse allows for the idea that the days of the creation week were vast geological ages that could have extended for millions of years. This is known as “the day-age theory.” Obviously, though, even if we take the verse hyper literally, it still doesn’t teach that the earth is millions of years old. At most the creation week would have lasted 7,000 years and the earth would still be under 20,000 years old.

Actually, though, a close reading of 2 Peter 3:8 shows that it has nothing to do with creation. The verse is found in the context of a teaching on God’s judgment, and it’s used figuratively to illustrate how patient and longsuffering God is about sending judgment upon the world. Peter is saying, “The fact that God hasn’t poured out His judgment yet doesn’t mean that He isn’t going to do it.”

So, in conclusion, we just need to let the Genesis account of creation read the way it is written and stop trying to bring dicey word-plays into it. First, yom is the word the Jews used for a 24-hour day. Second, God’s six days of work are each described as having an evening and a morning. I dare say that these two facts by themselves make the case for a young earth. I’m happy to report, though, that there is even more evidence to be seen. Next time we’ll look at another important piece of it.

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