Seven Days, or 17 Billion Years?
(a summary)Probably the biggest problem most people have in determining whether or not the Bible is indeed Yahweh's Word, is accepting as literal the description of creation as recorded in Genesis chapter 1 and 2.
Did Yahweh really create the world in just six 24 hour days? Remember that He "rested" on the seventh day. To the modern mind, exposed as we are to scientific thinking as no other generation, it's somehow easier to believe that 17 billion years ago there was a "big bang" the end result of which was everything that exists, andů..well, us!
A major problem in considering whether or not the Bible is speaking about seven literal 24 hour days or not, is how numbers are used. When we use a numbering system today it has only one usage. It means a specific quantity and nothing else. When we speak of a day it is universally understood, in the Christian community, to mean a period of 24 hours. But this has not always been the case.
In the ancient world it was very different. Numbering was not a common facility; even today it's possible to go to regions where people remain number illiterate. They simply do think in terms of numbers. The Aborigines of Australia, the Eskimos of Alaska, and tribes in some regions of South America, are very limited in their ability to count, often limited to just three. In other words they do not count. Even their concept of a persons age is limited to 3, with a young person being 1, while a "middle aged" person is 2 and the elderly are just 3! The ancient Sumerians (descendants of Shem) who ruled in the Near East for over a thousand years, and whose writings are the earliest of which we have records, developed their number system with 1 being the same word as 'man', 2 being the same word as 'woman' and 3 the same word as 'many' meaning 'everything else'. In their eyes the world was made up of themselves, their wives and the rest of creation. All without exception look to a time in their history when their counting and their numerical thinking, was limited to three.
Not that the Sumerians remained in-numerate. They developed numbers to a highly sophisticated extent for business and other purposes, and used numbers in historical documents, yet in all their religious literature, they only used the numbers three and seven. Why? Because those numbers signified to them not quantity but quality. Three was the number of completeness, seven the number of divine perfection.
Today our culture contains vestiges of confused "quantity thinking" about numbers. We often speak in terms of having dozens of things to do when what we really mean is that we have quite a few things to do! We might say that we've got a million miles to go to get somewhere, again what we really meant to say is that we have a considerable distance to go. We are happily using numbers as adjectives, not literal number words. With the ancients that was how the common people used numbers all the time. In all ancient accounts of creation in the ancient Near East, creation took place in "seven days". Why? Because this meant a perfect and complete divine work. Just as the seven gates to Sheol (i.e. hell, as the world of the dead) signified an impassible barrier to anyone who wanted to come back! Expressing it in these terms meant only one thing to the reader, the divine completeness of the work. The seven pattern was imposed to bring out that fact.
So when we come to the account of creation we have to consider the question as to whether the 'seven days' are to be taken literally. Did Yahweh bind himself to seven periods of around twenty-four hours, or is the pattern one deliberately used by the writer to convey the perfection of Yahweh's creative handiwork?
It must be recognized that the ancients did not look on time as we do. There is no Hebrew word for the chronological concept of time as such. They just did not think of time in that way. There were words for an appointed time, the 'right' time, and so on (one of which was 'yom'), and they had words which could represent longer or shorter periods of time such as 'year', 'month', 'day', and so on, but these were also were fluid. There was no fixed length of a year. Although a 365 day year is witnessed in Palestine, it was not a standard norm. Thus the prophets can think in terms of 360 (12 x 30) days to a year, and even this is longer than most actual years which were for twelve lunar months (of 28-29 days per month), with an occasional thirteen month year required.
So 'years' varied and actual 'months' were usually determined by the cycles of the moon, although they could be thought of as for approximately thirty days. Days also were evening to evening, not for an exact twenty-four hours (an unknown concept). Nothing was precise. So the ancients did not think of time precisely. It is true, of course, that when speaking of 'days' in this sense, a general idea of its length in day to day life would be in mind, but Joshua's long day (Joshua 10.14) was still recognized as being one day, albeit unique. Thus when the Psalmist says of Yahweh, 'For a thousand years in thy sight are but as yesterday when it is past, or as a watch in the night' (Psalm 90.4), he was merely recognizing that with Yahweh time was even more fluid, and that a day for Yahweh was of even more undefined length.
The whole creation account, while patterned in a clearly structured way, is to some extent artificial. On the first day light is brought into being, on the fourth it is controlled by the sun and moon. On the second day the seas and atmosphere are brought into being and on the fifth they are populated by fish and birds, on the third day the dry land and vegetation appear and on the sixth the animals and man who populate it and eat from it. The division is simplistic and does not take into account the complexity of many aspects of the creative work. For example, the birds need to eat and nest and needed dry ground as well as air and water.
When the writer sat down, to write down under the inspiration of Yahweh the creation of the world, he must have first visualized the process and general order and fitted it into a 'seven' group to portray its perfection. His pattern is clear to see.
First created were the heavens and the earth.
On the first day light is made. On the fourth light is controlled with regard to earth.
On the second day the atmosphere and seas are made, on the fifth birds and fish populate them.
On the third day the dry land and vegetation is made and on the sixth the living creatures that will live on it and eat of it.
Finally on the seventh day no further work is needed and Yahweh ceases His creative work.
So every ancient reader realizes that Yahweh's perfected work is complete and final for it is a work of 'seven'. Here are Yahweh's activities, then, brought into effect by His word. Each is then seen as the product of one of one Yahweh-day, a time period without any thought as to how long it really was. The writer's interest is not in how it happened, or what processes took place. He is concerned in Who did it and what He provided. In the end he knew it was all through Yahweh's power.
The ancients never tried to be scientific, they did not have a scientific world view of either true or false. They did not try to work out what the earth was like in relation to the universe. They accepted things as they were. Attempts to build up a picture of how they visualized the world are based on the false assumption that they tried to do it, when they did not. They simply described what they saw, and when they saw it, many times in highly metaphorical language.
Just as we describe the sun as rising and setting (although it does neither), so they described what they saw without even considering what lay behind the science of what they said. They looked at the sea water, and saw the bottom of the floor of the sea underneath, and likened it to a house with foundations. They did not ask what lay below the foundation. They left that in the hands of Yahweh. They looked at the sky and likened it to a canopy. But, they did not speculate on what kind of canopy it was.
We should think very carefully before we relegate the Genesis Creation record to the dustbin, the events and the numbering system used are not "wrong" they were, just different. Nor should we blindly accept the "modern" creation story and its 17 billion years as fact. No one is around that observed either process, and whether Yahweh accomplished the work in seven 24 hour literal days or some 17 billion years is really irrelevant to your eternal future!
Original Author unknown!
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