Genesis 1—”Modern science proves that the earth is billions of years old – which contradicts the clear “six days” of Genesis’ creation account.”
There are two schools of thought which reconcile the Genesis account with an old earth. Neither are simply attempts to “reinterpret” Genesis to fit with modern science, for both have their roots with commentators who predate modern science’s discovery of an old earth.
A First View of Genesis: The Day-Age Interpretation
The Hebrew word used for day in Genesis 1 is yôm (Hebrew יום), the same as that used by the Qur’ān to describe the six “days” ( يَوْم yaum ) of Creation. In both languages, this yôm can also mean variously 12-hour periods, 24-hour periods, or indefinite ages.1 Furthermore, we read in the Bible that “With the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day” (Injīl, 2 Peter 3:8, also Zabur 90:42). In addition, the Hebrew words used in Genesis for ‘morning’ (בקר) and ‘evening’ (ערב) can also mean simply ‘beginning of yôm ‘ and ‘end of yôm ‘ respectively,3 just as we refer to ‘the dawn of world history’ or the ‘sunset years of one’s life.’ It is clear that the author did not intend to mean a literal sunrise and sunset, as he used these terms to mark off the three yôm periods before the sun even came into the picture.4
Possibly the clearest indication of this extended-creation interpretation’s validity is the fact that most of the early Christian scholars of Genesis up until 400AD taught explicitly that the Genesis creation days were extended time periods (something like a thousand years per yôm ).5 This was over a thousand years before modern science, at a time when there was no underlying reason to believe in long creation days.
On the contrary, theologically authoritative sahih Hadith show that Muhammad understood the Qur’ānic creation days literally as ‘Saturday, Sunday, Monday’, etc:
“Abu Huraira reported that Allah’s Messenger (pbuh) took hold of my hands and said: Allah the Exalted and Glorious, created the clay on Saturday and He created the mountains on Sunday and He created the trees on Monday and He created the things entailing labour on Tuesday and created light on Wednesday and He caused animals to spread on Thursday and created Adam (pbuh) after ‘Asr on Friday; the last creation at the last hour of the hours of Friday, ie. between afternoon and night.”6
Many of the earliest commentators had the same view; Al-Tabari records the tradition of Ibn Abbas:
The Jews came to the Prophet and asked him about the creation of the heavens and the earth. He said: God created the earth on Sunday and Monday. He created the mountains and the uses they possess on Tuesday. On Wednesday, He created trees, water, cities and the cultivated barren land. These are four (days). He continued (citing the Qur’ān): `Say: Do you really not believe in the One Who created the earth in two days, and set up others like Him? That is the Lord of the worlds. He made it firmly anchored (mountains) above it and blessed it and decreed that it contain the amount of food it provides, (all) in four days, equally for those asking’- for those who ask. On Thursday, He created heaven. On Friday, He created the stars, the sun, the moon, and the angels, until three hours remained.7
Since sahih hadith are authoritative in interpreting the Qur’ān , we must believe that the Qur’ān teaches 24-hour creation.
Some might object that since the six-day sequence is like a work week, it must be 24-hour periods. It is true that the creation week is compared with a work week (Exod. 20:11). However, it is not uncommon in the Old Testament to make disproportionate unit-for-unit comparisons. For example, God appointed forty years of wandering for forty days of disobedience (Num. 14:34). And in Daniel 9:24-27, 490 days represents 490 years.
A Second View of Genesis: The Literary Framework Interpretation
Many respected scholars interpret the Genesis account to be a visual poem which is not intended to be interpreted with rigid literalism nor chronologically, since it is clearly a poetic structure with a primarily theological description:
|Day 1: “light” (v3)||Day 4: “lights” (v14)||Day 2: “atomsphere & oceans” (v7)||Day 4: “birds & sea creatures” (v21)||Day 3a: “dry ground” (v9)||Day 4: “livestock” (v24)”man” (v26)||Day 3b: “vegetation” (v11)||Day 4: “green plants” (v30)|
In this view, ‘day’ is interpreted as a metaphorical poetic literary structure. One must interpret scripture according to the conventions of the original language and culture, and we know that it was common for Jewish literature to rearrange events according to theological significance rather than according to chronological sequence. Matthew’s Gospel is a clear example—the chronological events in Jesus’ life are deliberately rearranged according to theological groupings, though sequential language is still used. This seems strange to our cultural and literary conventions, but it fits the genre of Hebrew scripture.
If we demand rigid chronological sequence for scripture creation accounts, the Qur’ān also runs into problems. If we add up the creation days of Sura 41:9-12 we get eight days (2+4+2), while elsewhere in the Qur’ān it says that creation took six days (7:54, 10:3, 11:7, and 25:59). We cannot always interpret scripture sequentially.
- For example, “year” (Exodus 13:10); “period” (Genesis 29:14).
- This psalm is actually attributed to Moses, the same prophet who under divine inspiration recorded the Torah creation account.
- For further discussion on this, see Hugh Ross, Creator and the Cosmos,
- In addition, the third day is clearly longer, for in it God created not only vegetation but also matured it to seed-bearing capacity. The sixth day also involves a series of events impossible to complete in 24 hours.
- Hugh Ross writes, “Prior to the Nicene Council, the early Church fathers wrote two thousand pages of commentary on the Genesis creation days, yet did not devote a word to disparaging each other’s viewpoints on the creation time scale. All these early scholars accepted that yom could mean “a long time period.” The majority explicitly taught that the Genesis creation days were extended time periods (something like a thousand years per yom ). Not one Ante-Nicene Father explicitly endorsed the 24-hour interpretation. Ambrose, who came the closest to doing so, apparently vaccilated on the issue.” ( The Genesis Debate, ed David Hagopian (Crux Press: Mission Viejo, 2001), p 125,126.
- Sahih Muslim, #6707
- The History of al-Tabari , Volume 1- General Introduction and from the Creation to the Flood (trans. Franz Rosenthal, State University of New York Press, Albany 1989), pp. 187-193: