Many Christians take the position that God created the earth in six 24-hour days around 6000 years ago. The basis for this belief is that they feel that this is the plain, straightforward meaning of Scripture. And they feel that when the plain meaning of Scripture is so clear, there is no need to look for a different interpretation.
The young-earth creationists’ commitment to the complete trustworthiness of Scripture is certainly commendable, but in this particular case I suspect their interpretation of Genesis is actually based more on tradition than on Scripture itself. Simply put, I do not find the plain, straightforward interpretation of Scripture to support their position.
It is admittedly true that the creation account in Genesis 1 might seem to imply the young-earth position at first blush (at least to our 21st-century Western way of reading the text, where we might easily not pick up on what may have been more clearly figurative in the original Hebrew context). Specifically, the fact that each creation event is summed up with a statement about the evening and the morning being another day could easily seem to indicate that the divine author is speaking of literal 24-hour days here. And in the summary statement of Exodus 20:11 (“in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them”) there is certainly nothing to make us suspect that the days are either figurative or anything other than the literal 24-hour kind.
But when we come to Genesis 2, a very different picture emerges. Firstly, the entire creation is said to take place in one “day” (v. 4), as is clearly shown by most translations (although not the NIV). This ought to be a pretty good hint that the days of Genesis 1 are not necessarily to be taken as literal 24-hour intervals, but rather as figurative in some sense or as indeterminate periods of time. This should not be the least bit surprising to anyone who has read of “the day of the Lord,” which is also apparently not just a 24-hour interval, or Psalm 90, which speaks of a day being like a thousand years in God’s sight (v. 4). That Psalm also seems to use the words “evening” and “morning” in a metaphorical sense (v. 6), speaking of the sprouting and dying of grass. (Admittedly, however, the NIV translation reads as if the morning and evening are literal here.)
Verses 5 through 7 of Genesis 2 seem to speak of the creation of man at a time when God had not yet made plants. At least that would be the plain, straightforward meaning of the text to most people’s way of thinking. But here is a case where the plain, straightforward reading clearly does not harmonize with Genesis 1, and so we must look for an alternate interpretation that removes this conflict without denying the inerrancy or literal inspiration of Scripture. I believe the clearest solution is to assume that the context of these verses is limited to the region of the garden of Eden, not the whole earth. (I suspect this context limitation may begin even earlier, perhaps starting in Genesis 1:28 where God blesses man and gives him special instructions.)
Whether or not the context of these verses is limited to the garden of Eden, however, they still do not fit well with the young-earth interpretation. Verse 5 explicitly lists the reasons for there not yet being any plants at this time, namely because it had not yet rained and because there was not yet any man to cultivate the ground. The natural implication is that if the ground in question had been rained upon and cultivated, it would have grown plants by now. It is hard to see how the lack of rain and cultivation could legitimately be spoken of as reasons for the lack of plants if the passage was referring to a creation of six literal 24-hour days, in which the creation of plants on the third day would not in any sense be dependent on either rain or cultivation. The dependence on rain and cultivation thus strongly suggests that a longer period of time is in view.
Things start to get really difficult for the young-earth creationists in verses 8 and 9. Here the text says God planted a garden in Eden, and that in it He made trees grow out of the ground. The plain, straightforward meaning of this is that a great deal of time (at least tens of years) was involved here. There is no indication whatsoever that God created the trees in the garden in a fully mature state, but rather it specifically says He planted them and made them grow out of the ground.
Verses 15 and 16 have God placing Adam in the garden and commanding him not to eat of the fruit of one of the trees that God had previously planted, strongly implying that the tree had already grown by this time. Verses 19 through 20 have Adam naming all the animals and apparently realizing his own loneliness. It does not state how long this took, but again a plain, straightforward reading would certainly assume more than just one day.
Finally, in verses 21 and 22, God creates Eve. Keep in mind that this does not happen until after the trees in the garden of Eden have grown from seed, and after Adam has named all the animals and has not found anyone suitable for him. And yet, according to Genesis 1:27, the creation of woman occurred on the sixth day!
Clearly the plain, straightforward interpretation of Genesis 2 does not harmonize with our first impression of Genesis 1. This does not mean that the Bible contains errors, but it does mean that we must be very careful about insisting that our interpretation of any particular passage is necessarily correct, especially when that interpretation is based only on what we consider to be the plain, straightforward meaning of the text.
Where possible, our best recourse in cases like this is to let Scripture interpret Scripture. The true explanation must agree with the whole of Scripture, though it may well disagree with our first-blush interpretation of some passage. We must have the humility to be able to subject our dearly-held initial impressions to the rest of Scripture.
It seems to me that the young-earth position is practically impossible to reconcile with the text of Genesis 2. On the other hand, I think the belief that the creation days were in some sense figurative or longer than 24 hours is consistent with all of Scripture, including Genesis 1 and Exodus 20:11. That does not prove this belief correct, but at the very least we ought to admit that the plain, straightforward interpretation of Scripture does not necessarily preclude the idea of an old earth, created over eons of time rather than in 144 hours. And if the idea of an old-earth is not precluded by Scripture, then it is certainly valid to examine the facts of nature scientifically and see if they decide the issue for us.
As it turns out, I believe they do.
This page copyright © 2001 Edward A. Morris. Created May 6, 2001. Last updated January 29, 2008.
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