Time in the First Three Chapters of the Bible


Time in the First Three Chapters of the Bible

Having surveyed the idea of the “great and special day” as we find it in other parts of Scripture, let’s return to the beginning of our inquiry: In the beginning God . . .  To set the stage, let me take you to a commencement speech given to a graduation class several years ago.

On May 14, 2010, Dr. Stephen B. Sample gave the Commencement Address to the graduates of the University of Southern California. This address was one of his final duties as the outgoing President of the University. By commencement address standards, it was not a long speech. But I am certain it will be long remembered by those who attended. He challenged them with three short questions.

Dr. Sample said that the graduates’ answers to these three questions “underlie many of the more complicated issues which you will have to address during your lifetime.” Here are the three questions he gave to the graduates:

How do you feel about money?

How do you feel about children?

How do you feel about God?

On that day of graduation, those three questions provided the graduates with material for conversations into the night and into their lifetimes.

For our consideration, it is the third question that raises the compelling issue. That is the question that begs for our attention. It uncovers the real debate behind the opening words of Genesis: In the beginning, God . . .  That question to the graduates can help untangle the conflicts that have plagued well meaning people for centuries and perhaps even longer.

How do you feel about God? That seems to be an innocent inquiry but our answer can betray the inner motivations of thought or even scientific endeavors. For starters, consider a person who does not admit or believe there is a God in the first place. We’re not going very far down that track, are we? But that is not who we are talking about, either. Rarely will an avowed atheist pick up a Bible to see what he or she can learn about God and creation.

Repeat those words again–not with devotional fervor, but thinking about God’s role as the Creator of the heavens and the earth: How do you feel about God?  Is he the Creator of a universe we believe spans something like 14 or so billion light years across with billions of stars, planets and galaxies? You may say, “Well, I don’t believe it is 14 billion years old!” All right, that’s not a problem: But do you believe God created the entire universe that astronomers tell us is 14 billion light years across?

If you still say, “No, I can’t sign on to that,” it can sound like the title of a book written a number of years ago by J. B. Phillips: Your God Is Too Small. Or, it could be like a trick question sometimes put forward: Can God create a stone so large that he can’t move it? Or can you just settle on the truth of the statement, “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth . . .”? Hopefully you can, because that is part of a valid answer to the question posed by Dr. Sample to the graduating class of 2010.

You see, if God is not appropriately positioned in our life plans, we reduce the joy of living and of healthy relationships. For example, what would the1940’s have been like if Hitler and his generals had viewed God as the one who created the heavens and the earth with everything in them and who, one day, will call us all to account for acts to neighbors and nations? Instinctively, we all know the answer.

Ultimately, we must come down to an equation placing God into creation where he is the autonomous, eternal and omnipotent being who is responsible for all we see or he is not. So, if you are a “God believer,” can you then clip his wings to fit the image of what you think your God should look like? At that point, your self-designed god is then no longer the God of creation, is he? However, there may be a shorter and less threatening path to where we are headed. Let’s look.

Is the “Yom” of Genesis Kairos or Chronos?

We have spoken of the difficulty with the Hebrew word “yom” in the Old Testament. That surfaces right away in the opening chapters of Genesis. If the Greek language words for “day” had been available, it might have been different. But we are not left in the dark even with the word yom. Within Genesis 1 – 3 itself, there is significant evidence about this word that helps explain its use.

As the writer, here is my disclaimer about the Hebrew language: I don’t know Hebrew, but I understand English. There are far more words available in English to express time, duration and meaning than what is available in Hebrew. In Hebrew, there are a total of about 8,500 words. English has around 500,000 words. As we said, it would have been helpful in this context if Greek had been the original language. A richer vocabulary would have been available with numerous options.

Secondly, Scripture shows the importance of knowledge for successful living. For example, much of the writing of the Torah regarding diet and uncleanness were written thousands of years before the “discovery” of germs and diseases. Our current knowledge about maintaining health and preventing illness has come largely through the use of microscopes, autopsies, DNA and a host of other techniques. Can we argue that since the dietary and cleanliness laws are available in Scripture, should we even consider discoveries made by other means?

As a matter of fact, many good reasons for the dietary and cleanness laws of the Torah are supported by recent discoveries made through human ingenuity and devices. We won’t try to list them, as we wouldn’t remember even a part of the number. Surely the microscope and the hypodermic needle would be near the top of anyone’s list of important inventions. And these discoveries have reinforced the Biblical directive to pay attention to our health and avoid over-indulgence.

The Time and Purpose of Genesis 1 – 3

But let’s move into the text of the first three chapters of Genesis. They can help us loosen some of the knots we have tied around our theology. Perhaps the first item to take up has to do with the purpose of the initial chapters of the Bible. As a reminder, in covering certain specific health issues in Leviticus, there are chapters upon chapters going over details and regulations for separate health hazards. Can you imagine Genesis giving us the full detail of God’s creation activity?

We can reasonably conclude that Scripture’s creation account was not intended to be a “science textbook” similar to the passages in Leviticus on morals and diet. If they were intended to be science texts, can you imagine how big the book of Genesis would have been? Rather than science, God gave us his imperatives for relationships and accountability. Genesis is a theological document intended to tell us two things and two things only: Who is the Creator and Why were we created? Those two universally asked questions are answered clearly and directly by the text.

Throughout the rest of Scripture, the imperative of God’s commandments, directives and prophecy is founded on one single fact: He is the Creator God of everything that exists. There are numerous references in both Testaments pointing to God the Creator as the reason why we should listen to his commands and counsel. That is certainly seen the Genesis account, particularly as it pertains to God’s covenant with Adam and Eve. They understood that disobeying God would result in expulsion from the Garden of Eden and a break in relationship.

In addition to that, the very language in the use of “yom” points toward a theological rather than a scientific discourse. In these three chapters that word does not have the characteristics of what we saw with “kairos” and “chronos.” Of course, Greek didn’t exist at the time. But lets look at the meaning of “yom” as used in the opening chapters of Genesis. We find wide differences of opinion as to what the significance of “yom” is in these chapters. What follows, however, can certainly be derived from the text.

Genesis 1:1, 2

1 In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. 2 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.

There is no time duration given or implied or suggested by the text or those mentioned in this text. “Yom” is not in the text. As you read you find that the creation of the heavens and the earth was prior to any other creative activity mentioned in verse 3. That part of the narrative corresponds with current scientific calculations: After the Big Bang took place it was several hundred thousand years before there was enough dispersal and cooling for light to even appear.

Genesis 1:3-5

3 And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. 4 God saw that the light was good, and he separated the light from the darkness. 5 God called the light “day,” and the darkness he called “night.” And there was evening, and there was morning—the first day.

The part of the day that was light, God called “yom.” So daylight time is called “yom.” Note also that in the last phrase, the word “the” is struck out. The word “the” is not in the Hebrew text—it is in error. The same will be true for five other “yoms” of creation. The time duration for the first “yom” is 12 hours, or the length of daylight.

Genesis 1:14-19

14 And God said, “Let there be lights in the vault of the sky to separate the day from the night, and let them serve as signs to mark sacred times, and days and years, 15 and let them be lights in the vault of the sky to give light on the earth.” And it was so. And God saw that it was good. 19 And there was evening, and there was morning–[the] fourth day.

In these verses, you will read that God placed signs in the sky to mark times, and days and years. Different from “daylight” time, here the word “yom” is used to signify “days” of 24 hours. You will also note that “the” in the phrase the fourth day, is again crossed out, as it is not in the Hebrew text.

Genesis 2:4-7

4 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, 5 when no plant of the field was yet in the earth and no herb of the field had yet sprung up—for the Lord God had not caused it to rain upon the earth, and there was no one to till the ground; 6 but a stream would rise from the earth, and water the whole face of the ground— 7 then the Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being.New Revised Standard Version.

Two things about this passage: First, in the phrase that us underlined, the word “day” is referencing the time period from “day one” into “day six.” We say “into” because in this narrative, at some point during the sixth day, it reports that “the Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground. . .” So the accounting of “days” here is five days plus a portion of day six.

Secondly, “In the day that the Lord God made . . .” both the words “the day” are found in the Hebrew text, including “yom.” Unfortunately the translation being used in this book, the New International Versionhas omitted the word “day” from its translation of verse four. This alters the true meaning of the text.

Genesis 2:1-3

1 Thus the heavens and the earth were completed in all their vast array. 2 By the seventh day God had finished the work he had been doing; so on the seventh day he rested from all his work. 3 Then God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it he rested from all the work of creating that he had done.

In Hebrews 4:1-11, the writer talks about God’s “seventh day of rest” still open to all who will enter in. Then in Psalm 90:1-6 (attributed to Moses) we read:

1 Lord, you have been our dwelling place
throughout all generations. 2 Before the mountains were born or you brought forth the whole world,
from everlasting to everlasting you are God. 3 You turn people back to dust,
saying, “Return to dust, you mortals.” 4 A thousand years in your sight
are like a day that has just gone by, or like a watch in the night. 5 Yet you sweep people away in the sleep of death—they are like the new grass of the morning: 6 In the morning it springs up new,
but by evening it is dry and withered.

From these Scriptures, we get a picture of the word “yom” that is loosely defined in terms of time. “Yom” in these passages reflects more the meaning of “kairos” rather than “chronos,” God-Time rather than human-chronology. So when Moses talked about God being from everlasting to everlasting, the picture is one from “eternity past into eternity future.”

In summary, in the opening chapters of Genesis we discover a very open use of the Hebrew word “yom” to mean a large variety of things. Yet, throughout the narrative, the scene is not about “how” God did creation, nor when or how long it took. It conveys the grandeur, the power, the authority, the personality and the Deity of the Creator. Does that mean that God couldn’t create the universe in six literal days? Not at all. But the language used does not point to that conclusion. It does, however, point to seven stages, seven epics, seven chapters, seven phases if you will in God’s book about creation.

And to bring into our thinking what we have previously expressed, it would appear that somewhere in the middle of day six, the time element changes. During days 1 through 5, it appears to be developed along the lines of “Kairos” or God-Time. At some point during day six, there is a shift to “Chronos” or human time. And as we have just written, “human-time” will come to an end when God re-introduces his own time, God Time.

The indefinite and fluid meaning of “yom” in Genesis seems to be a direct effort to steer us away from the how and when of creation so that we would focus on the real issues: Who and Why. Arguments against data gathered by telescopes and scientists has to be generated from ideas outside the Genesis narrative and other Scriptures. This leads us to the aspect of creation that should be responded to by this and every generation.


God’s Timing in Your Life