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Genesis Creation: Literal or Literary?

The great Reformer John Calvin asserted that "God himself took the space of six days" to create the world.

  • Kenneth L. Gentry, Jr., Th.D.,
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The great Reformer John Calvin asserted that "God himself took the space of six days" to create the world.1 Our church's Confession agrees, declaring that God created the world "in the space of six days" (WCF 4:1). But recently this clear temporal affirmation based on the opening narrative of God's Word has been radically re-interpreted by some Reformed theologians. Was Calvin correct? The divines? Did they accurately handle the Word of God? Or were they naive children of their times?

In this article I will introduce several compelling reasons for interpreting the days of Genesis 1 in a straightforward manner that demands both their chronological succession and 24-hour duration. Then I will briefly consider common objections to six day creationist exegesis.

The Argument for Literal, Chronological Days
First, there is the argument from primary meaning. The preponderant usage of the word "day" (Hebrew yom) in the Old Testament is of a normal diurnal period. The overwhelming majority of its 2,304 appearances in the Old Testament clearly refer either to a normal, full day-and-night cycle, or to the lighted portion of that cycle. In fact, on Day 1 God Himself "called" the light "day" (Gen. 1:5), establishing the temporal significance of the term in the creation week. As Berkhof declares in defending a six day creation: "In its primary meaning the word yom denotes a natural day; and it is a good rule in exegesis, not to depart from the primary meaning of a word, unless this is required by the context."2

Second is the argument from explicit qualification. So that we not miss his point, Moses relentlessly qualifies each of the six creation days by "evening and morning." Outside of Genesis 1 the words "evening" and "morning" appear in statements thirty-two times in the Old Testament, presenting the two parts defining a normal day (e.g., Ex. 16:13; 18:13; 27:21). Robert L. Dabney observed in defending a six day creation, "The sacred writer seems to shut us up to the literal interpretation by describing the days as comprised of its natural parts, morning and evening."3

There is also an argument from numerical prefix. Genesis 1 attaches a numeral to each of the creation days: first, second, third, etc. Moses affixes numerical adjectives to yom 119 times in his writings. These always signify literal days, as in circumcision on the "eighth day" (Lev. 12:3; cp. Num. 33:38). The same holds true for the 357 times numerical adjectives qualify yom outside the Pentateuch. (Hos. 6:2 is no counter example. It either refers to the certainty of Israel's national resurrection, using the literal time period at which a body begins to decompose [Jn. 11:39] to underscore their hope. Or it may be alluding to Christ's resurrection on the third day as Israel's hope [1 Cor. 15:4].) As Gerhard Hasel observes, "This triple interlocking connection of singular usage, joined by a numeral, and the temporal definition of 'evening and morning,' keeps the creation 'day' the same throughout the creation account. It also reveals that time is conceived as linear and events occur within it successively. To depart from the numerical, consecutive linkage and the 'evening-morning' boundaries in such direct language would mean to take extreme liberty with the plain and direct meaning of the Hebrew language."4

Fourth, there is the argument from numbered series. In a related though slightly different observation, we note that when yom appears in numbered series it always specifies natural days (e.g., Ex. 12:15-16; 24:16; Lev. 23:39; Num. 7:12-36; 29:17ff). Genesis 1 has a series of consecutively numbered days for a reason: to indicate sequentially flowing calendar days. As E. J. Young observes about the Framework view, "If Moses had intended to teach a non-chronological view of the days, it is indeed strange that he went out of his way, as it were, to emphasize chronology and sequence.... It is questionable whether serious exegesis of Genesis One would in itself lead anyone to adopt a non-chronological view of the days for the simple reason that everything in the text militates against it."5 Derek Kidner agrees, "The march of the days is too majestic a progress to carry no implication of ordered sequence; it also seems over-subtle to adopt a view of the passage which discounts one of the primary impressions it makes on the ordinary reader."6 Wayne Grudem concurs: "The implication of chronological sequence in the narrative is almost inescapable."7

Fifth is the argument from coherent usage. The word yom in Genesis 1 defines Days 4-6 — after God creates the sun expressly for marking off days (Gen. 1:14, 18). Interestingly, Moses emphasizes Day 4 by allocating the second greatest number of words to describe it. Surely these last three days of creation are normal days. Yet nothing in the text suggests a change of temporal function for yom from the first three days: they are measured by the same temporal designator (yom), along with the same qualifiers (numerical adjectives and "evening and morning"). Should not Days 1-3 demarcate normal days also?

Also is the argument from divine exemplar. The Scriptures specifically pattern man's work week after God's own original creation week (Ex. 20:9-11; 31:17). It outlines that this is not for purposes of analogy, but imitation. To what could the creation days be analogous? God dwells in timeless eternity (Is. 57:15) and does not exist under temporal constraints (2 Pet. 3:8). Irons argues that, "God has not chosen to reveal that information."8 But "then the analogy is useless."9 Nor may we suggest that the days are anthropomorphic days, for anthropomorphic language "can be applied to God alone and cannot properly be used of the six days."10

To make Genesis 1 a mere literary framework inverts reality: Man's week becomes a pattern for God's! As Young, following G. C. Aalders, remarks, "Man is to 'remember' the Sabbath day, for God has instituted it.... The human week derives validity and significance from the creative week. The fourth commandment constitutes a decisive argument against any non-chronological scheme of the six days of Genesis one."11 If God did not create in six days, we have no explanation for Israel's work week — for Israel employed a six day work week followed by the day of rest before Genesis was written.

Seventh is the argument from plural expression. Exodus 20:11 and 31:17 also teach that God created the heavens and the earth "in six days" (yammim). As Robert L. Reymond reminds us: "Ages are never expressed by the word yammim."12 In fact, the plural yammim occurs 858 times in the Old Testament, and always refers to normal days. Exodus 20:11 (like Gen. 1) lacks any kind of poetic structure; it presents a factual accounting. By this shorthand statement, God sums up His creative activity in a way that not only comports with, but actually demands a six day creative process.

We can also use the argument from unusual expression. Due to the Jewish practice of reckoning days from evening to evening, the temporal pattern "evening and morning" may seem unusual (because it assumes the day began in the morning, passes into evening, and closes at the next morning). Cassuto comments: "Whenever clear reference is made to the relationship between a given day and the next, it is precisely sunrise that is accounted the beginning of the second day."13 For example, Exodus 12:18 has the fourteenth evening at the conclusion of the fourteenth day (cp. Lev. 23:32). Therefore, Genesis 1 presents literal days reckoned according to the non-ritual pattern — evening closing the daylight time, followed by morning which closes the darkness, thereby beginning a new day (e.g., Gen. 19:33-34; Ex. 10:13; 2 Sam. 2:32).

Ninth is the argument from alternative idiom. Had Moses intended that six days represent six eras, he could have chosen a more fitting expression: olam. This word is often translated "forever," but it also means a long period of time (e.g., Ex 12:24; 21:6; 27:20; 29:28; 30:21). Furthermore, he should not have qualified the days with "evening and morning."

And lastly, we have the argument from scholarly admissions. Remarkably, even liberals and neo-evangelicals who deny six day creationism recognize Moses meant literal days. Herman Gunkel: "The 'days' are of course days and nothing else" (cf. Hasel, "The 'Days' of Creation," 21). Gerhard von Rad: "The seven days are unquestionably to be understood as actual days and as a unique, unrepeatable lapse of time in the world" (Genesis 1-11, 65). See also: James Barr (Fundamentalism, 40-43); Brown-Driver-Briggs Lexicon (p. 398); Koehler and Baumgartner's Lexicon (p. 372); Holladay's Lexicon (p. 130); and Jenni and Westermann's Theological Lexicon (528). Evangelical Old Testament scholar Victor Hamilton states the matter dogmatically: "Whoever wrote Gen. 1 believed he was talking about literal days" (Genesis, 1:54), as does Wenham (Genesis, 1:19).

In summary, Moses informs us that God created the whole universe in the span of six chronologically successive periods of 24-hours each. Nevertheless, Framework and Day Age advocates see problems.

The Problems for Literal, Chronological Days
The first common objection is, "Genesis 2:4 speaks of the entire creation week as a 'day,' showing that 'day' may not be literal." In response, the phrase here is actually beyom, an idiomatic expression meaning "when" (NIV, NRSV, NAB; cp. TDOT 6:15). Besides, even had Genesis 2 used "day" in a different sense, Genesis 1 carefully qualifies its creative days (see points 2-5 above).

A second objection is, "Genesis 2:2-3 establishes the seventh day of God's rest, which is ongoing and not a literal day. This shows the preceding six days could be long periods of time." First, contextually, this is an argument from silence — one which contradicts Exodus 20:11. Second, if true, it would imply no fall and curse (Gen. 3), for then God would be continually hallowing and blessing that "ongoing day." In fact, God does not bless His eternal rest, but a particular day. And third, days 1-6 (the actual creation period) are expressly delimited; Day 7 is not. (This is, however, because the creation week has ceased. To mention another "morning" would imply another day followed in that unique period.) Since this is the seventh in a series of six preceding literal days, how can we interpret it other than literally?

The third objection is, "On Day 4 God creates the sun to provide light; but light was created on Day 1. This shows that the days are not chronologically ordered, but thematically cross-linked." This "problem" is answered in the context. On Day 1 God declares "good" the newly created light, but not His separating it from darkness to form "evening and morning." This is because the final, providential mechanism for separating (the sun) is not created until Day 4. Thus, when Day 4 ends we finally read: "it was good" (Gen. 1:18). This is similar to the separation of the waters above and below on Day 2, which is not declared "good" until the final separation from the land on Day 3 (Gen. 1:9). Or like Adam's creation not being "good" (Gen. 2:18) until Eve is separated out of him. Also, Scripture elsewhere suggests light was created separately from the sun (2 Cor. 4:6; Job 38:19-20) and can exist apart from it (Rev. 22:5).

Besides, most of the material in Genesis 1 demands chronological order — even for Framework advocates. This suggests that the surprising order of light-then-sun is also chronological. Not only is Genesis 1 structured by fifty-five waw consecutives, indicating narrative sequence, but note that separating the waters on Day 2 requires their prior creation on Day 1 (Gen. 1:2d). Creating the sea on Day 3 must predate the sea creatures of Day 5. Day 3 logically has dry land appearing before land vegetation later that day. Day 3 must predate Day 6, in that land must precede land animals and man. Day 6 must appear as the last stage of creation, in that man forms the obvious climax to God's creation. Day 6 logically has man being created after animal life (Days 5 and 6) in that he is commanded to rule over it. Day 7 must conclude the series in that it announces the cessation of creation (Gen. 2:2). And so on.

A fourth objection is, "The parallelism in the triad of days indicates a topical rather than chronological arrangement: Day 1 creates light; Day 4 the light bearers. Day 2's water and sky correspond to Day 5's sea creatures and birds. Day 3's land corresponds to Day 6's land animals and man." In response, first, such parallelism can be both literary and historical; the two are not mutually exclusive. God can gloriously act according to interesting patterns. For instance, just as the land arises from the water on the third day, so Jesus arises from the tomb on a third day. Likewise, in John 20:15 Mary Magdalene sees Jesus, the Second Adam, in a garden (Jn. 19:41) and assumes He is the gardener. Is this a new Eve encountering the New Adam in a new garden under the new covenant? This theological imagery may very well be true here. But she really did see the resurrected Jesus.

Second, we must not allow the stylistic harmony in the revelation of creation to override the emphatic progress in the history of creation. The chronological succession leaves too deep an impression upon the narrative to be mere ornamentation. And third, numerous discordant features mar the supposed literary framework: For instance, "waters" are created on Day 1 (Gen. 1:2), not Day 2 — disrupting the parallel with the water creatures of Day 5. In addition, the creatures of Day 5 are to swim in the "seas" of Day 3. Consequently, the "seas" separated out on Day 3 have no corresponding inhabitant created on its "parallel" day, Day 6. Additional illustrations are pointed out by Young,14 Grudem,15 and others.

A fifth objection is, "God employed ordinary, slow providence as the prevailing method of creation: Genesis 2:5 demands that the third day had to be much longer than 24 hours, for the waters removed early on Day 3 leave the land so parched that it desperately needs rain to clothe the landscape with verdure. Yet a full panoply of vegetation appears at the end of that very day, Day 3 (Gen 1:11)."

This novel, minority interpretation of Genesis 2:5 misses Moses' point. In Genesis 2 Moses is setting up Adam's moral test, while anticipating his failure. Note that Genesis 2:4 introduces us to what becomes of God's creation.16 Also, in describing the whole creative process, Genesis 1 uses only God's name of power (elohim); Genesis 2 suddenly introduces His covenant name (Jehovah God). Further, unlike how He creates the animals (en masse by fiat), God creates Adam individually and tenderly (2:7). Genesis 2 also focuses on the beautiful garden (2:8-9) and God's gracious provision of a loving helper for Adam (2:18-24). God then provides abundant food for Adam (2:16). Thus, the Lord God loves Adam and well provides for him. Would Adam obey Him in such glorious circumstances?

Note also, the anticipation. Opening this new section with the words of Genesis 2:5, the narrative intentionally anticipates Adam's fall and God's curse — preparing the reader for the prospect of death (Gen. 2:17): Genesis 2:5 states that before God cursed the ground with the thorny shrubs (cp. Gen. 3:18a) and before man had to laboriously "cultivate the ground" (cp. Gen. 3:18b-19a), God provided him with all that he needed. The narrative then notes God's creation of Adam from the dust (Gen. 2:7), anticipating his rebellion and return thereto (Gen. 3:19b). It tests Adam in terms of his eating due to God's abundant provision (Gen. 2:16-17), which foreshadows his struggling to eat, due to his failing God's singular prohibition (Gen. 3:17-19a). We learn that at their creation Adam and Eve were "naked and not ashamed" (2:25), anticipating their approaching shame (3:7).

Thus, Genesis 2:5 anticipates moral failure, rather than announces creational method.

Leading Framework advocate Meredith Kline argues that "as far as the time frame is concerned, with respect to both the duration and sequence of events, the scientist is left free of biblical constraints in hypothesizing about cosmic origins."17 The Scripture clearly teaches that "from the beginning of creation, God made them male and female" (Mk. 10:6). But Kline allows billions of years of creating (from the original ex nihilo to Adam), teaching that we have only just recently left creation week!

Certainly much more needs to be stated. But I believe the above sufficiently demonstrates the validity of our Confession, which declares, "It pleased God the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, for the manifestation of the glory of His eternal power, wisdom, and goodness, in the beginning, to create, or make of nothing, the world, and all things therein whether visible or invisible, in the space of six days; and all very good."

For these reasons I am a Six Day Creationist. That is, I adhere to the historic, traditional interpretation of Genesis 1.


1. John Calvin, Genesis, at 1:5.

2. Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology, 154.

3. Robert L. Dabney, Systematic Theology, 255.

4. Gerhard Hasel, "The 'Days' of Creation," Origins 21:1 [1984], 26.

5. Edward J. Young, Genesis One, 100.

6. Derek Kidner, Genesis, 54-55.

7. Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology, 303.

8. Charles Lee Irons, "The Framework Interpretation Explained and Defended," [1998], 66.

9. Joseph Pipa, Did God Create in Six Days?, 172.

10. Young, 58.

11. Young, 78-79.

12. Robert L. Reymond, Systematic Theology, 394.

13. Umberto Cassuto, Genesis One, 28.

14. Edward J. Young, Genesis One, 71-73.

15. Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology, 302-03.

16. Edward J. Young, Genesis One, 59-61

17. Meredith Kline, "Space and Time in the Genesis Cosmogony," in Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith, 48 [1996]: 2.

  • Kenneth L. Gentry, Jr., Th.D.

Kenneth L. Gentry, Jr., holds degrees from Tennessee Temple University (B.A.), Reformed Theological Seminary (M. Div.), and Whitefield Theological Seminary (Th. M.; Th. D).  He also attended Grace Theological Seminary for two years.  He is Research Professor in New Testament (Whitefield Theological Seminary), a theological writer, and conference speaker. He has written numerous books and articles on issues such as theology, ecclesiology, eschatology, theonomy, six-day creation, presuppositionalism, worldview, Christian education, and more.  He also offers a Christian writing correspondence course.  He is the Director of GoodBirth Ministries, a non-profit religious educational ministry committed to sponsoring, subsidizing, and advancing serious Christian scholarship and education.  He is a retired Presbyterian minister holding his ordination vows in the Reformed Presbyterian Church, General Assembly.

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