Exegetical and Syntactical Considerations of יום
There is much dispute today over the meaning of יום (yôm, day) in Genesis chapter one. Various theologians are cited. A smattering of Scripture is appealed to from various perspectives. We are told by some “experts” of the Hebrew language that, because they know the tongue so well, you and I can’t say that the days in Gen 1 are typical 24 days (rounded off, but determined by one full rotation of the earth on its axis). Dictionaries, theologians, scientific evidence, all may be cited, but what do the Scriptures say? Can we, by a very careful study of the Scriptures, determine the meaning of יום in Genesis 1?
A careful study of יום in Genesis 1 is needed, not a drive by shooting to demolish someone else’s argument. Not a drive through trip to a fast-food manna chain to satisfy our own preconceived notions, but a diligent study of the Word of God. I believe that God has revealed himself with sufficient clarity on such a foundational principle as the building blocks of creation, the days of Gen 1. A thorough analysis of the use of יום will clarify its meaning, in the specific construction of Gen 1, to all who are willing to take the time to study the Word of God.
The following is an abridged compilation of a study on the exegetical and syntactical import on the use of the term יום (yôm, day). The focus is to determine the meaning of יום when employed as a substantive in conjunction with an attributive adjective/ordinal, as it is found in Gen 1. My findings indicate that יום used in this construction always refers to a literal 24 hour day.
While יום has a semantic range, from expressing duration, or time, or age to that of a literal 24 hour day, it does not have this range in every occurrence and every usage. To the contrary, its meaning is determined by its syntactical construction. Linguistically speaking, every word has a semantic range as a term, but it does violence to hermeneutics to suggest or believe that every term has such a broad range of meaning when used as a term in a specific context. If it were the case that the entire semantic range were possible for every occurrence of every root in any construction, we would be in the impossible situation of never being able to understand anything anyone ever says or would write. An example would be that of אלהים (‘ĕlōhîm), which has the semantic range God, gods, judges, angels. It would be fallaciously argued that, since every time אלהים is used it may mean any one of its possibilities, Gen 1:1 is to be understood as angels creating the heavens and the earth!
Words as terms have meaning and their meaning is determined by their usage. To say that יום as a word may mean day, daily, time, or daylight, year, etc., is not the same thing as saying that, as a term, יום may mean any one of these possibilities, and others, every time it is employed. Various constructions have various consistent meanings depending on the usage. This is the case even when there is a subset range within a larger domain. There are parameters that narrow the choices so that one, to repeat, is not left with an arbitrary choice to determine meaning over the entire semantic range.
The focus, therefore, of the following study is to determine the meaning of יום as found in Gen 1, wherein it is employed as a substantive in conjunction with an attributive adjective/ordinal. While every use of of יום in the Old Testament was examined, the summary findings are confined to the Pentateuch, as authored by Moses. I trust and pray in the end that the reader will agree that יום as found in constructions like those of Gen 1 always refers to a literal 24 hour day.
We will begin by looking at יום used as an anarthrous substantive. This will be followed up by examining יום in conjunction (anarthrous), then with the definite article. Finally, we will study its employment in construct and in the plural.
יום is first used as a substantive in Gen 1:5 with specific reference to its designation as the name for the light (אור). The predication of this first creative period as the first day, “day one,” using the cardinal יום אחד, Gen 1:5, is the second employment of יום. It is further qualified as covering the span “evening and morning;” a formula used for the following five days as well. It is interesting to note that Holladay in his lexicon under meaning 2, “day of 24 hours,” references Gen 1:5 (a liberal who recognizes the Hebrew means 24 hour day, but has no problems with science because he rejects the infallible inspiration of the text). In Gen 27:45, 33:13; and Num 11:19 the meaning of יום אחד ranges from that of “one day” as in a particular day (not as an age or eon or epoch), to that of “one day” as in the time span of 24 hours. Clearly, in Numbers it has reference to a literal 24 hour day.
For the next six days referenced in Gen 1 the ordinal is used to modify יום, as opposed to the cardinal in the first instance. The second day and following are designated employing the ordinal as a modifying adjective, יום שׁני (1:8); third day, יום שׁלישׁי, Gen 1:13; fourth day, יום רביעי, Gen 1:19; fifth day, יום חמישׁי, Gen 1:23; sixth day, יום השׁשׁי, Gen 1:31, with definite article (ordinal); and seventh day, את־יום השׁביעי, Gen 2:3, with the definite article (ordinal). For a similar sequence of counting with ordinals modifying יום, see Num 7 and 29, in which the reference is to specific 24 hour days.
Further examination of the use of יום as an anarthrous substantive is as follows: Gen 31:39 יום contrasts with לילה as daytime; Gen 39:10 יום יום as “day after day” or day by day with base line reference to a 24 hour day; in Ex 5:19; 16:4. etc. with דבר as in דבר־יום for “daily task” or matter; Num 30:15 (MT) used with אל in the phrase מיום אל־יום referring to a time span with particular 24 hours days as the reference and in particular of the occurrence; Deut 4:10 as a time literally referring to a particular 24 day.
Therefore, when יום is used as an anarthrous substantive in the Pentateuch it always refers to a literal 24 day, or has a particular aspect of a 24 day as its referent.
Next we consider the use of יום in conjunction (anarthrous), as in ויום. יום does not occur in the pointed text as definite with ו, or with ו and the definite article ה in the Pentateuch. There are three occurrences in the Pentateuch of ויום. Gen 8:22 has day in conjunction with night, as in day and night – clearly a 24 hour day. The other two occurrences of יום are in the Decalogue, Ex 20:10 and Deut 5:14, with reference to the literal 24 hour Sabbath to be observed. Again, all occurrences have as their reference literal 24 days, or have a particular aspect of a 24 day as its referent.
Still examining יום as a substantive, we next look at its use with the article, as in היום. היום is first used in Gen 1:14 to distinguish daytime from night in direct reference to the function of the sun in marking off literal seasons of days and years; likewise in Gen 1:16. In a parallel construction, emphasis is placed on the sixth day, יום השׁשׁי, Gen 1:31, with the definite article modifying the adjective (ordinal), which, in turn, gives the particular reference “the sixth day” (likewise for “the seventh day,” Gen 2:3). In places such as Gen 4:14 and 6:5 we begin to see the various constructions as in “this day,” “every day;” or as “that day” in Gen 7:13; 17:23, 26, etc.; “the day” as in Gen 18:1; or others as in the idea of today. In like manner, היום is coupled in various places with הזה to specify “this day,” Gen 26:33; 32:33 etc. (not all that common in the Pent.) היום, in Gen 29:7, is engaged with גדול to refer to daylight as in “full (great) day;” and other usages we find it along with עד or כל to denote literal time of literal days.
A most interesting passage of the articulate usage of יום is Deut 4:32. The “former days” (לימים ראשׁנים) speaks of the time preceding the Israelites. This time goes back to a specific day, that is “from the day God created man on the earth” (למן־היום ...). From a point beginning on a particular day, היום, the rest of the days, ימים, follow. Here the definite use of יום is compared to the plural usage with a particular time or day in mind, not an epoch or eon. To summarize the articulate usage of יום - it always has a particular day in mind, or time with reference to an aspect of a 24 hour day (daylight).
This brings us to various usages of יום in construct and/or with prepositions such asב ,ך ,ל ,מ either with יום in the singular, as well as consideration of יום in the plural. At this point the briefest of comments will suffice for two reasons. First, this is not the construction under consideration in Gen 1. Second, it is readily apparent, with just a few examples cited, that this is where the semantic range of יום broadens. This is specifically because of these various constructions, rather than יום in the singular non-construct state, either anarthrous or articulated, in context having such a range of meaning.
Often cited in seeking to show how יום may mean an unspecified and indeterminate period of time is Gen 2:4 with the employment of the construction ביום. A careful reading, however, of Gen 2:4 comparing the phrase השׁמים והארץ (2:4) with the reference to the same in Gen 1:1 will indicate that ביום is parallel to בראשׁית and functions much the same. In this case it either refers to the beginning day, the first day of God’s beginning creation, or, if it is used to modify and focus on the creation of man in v. 7, coupled with תולדות of v. 4, it refers to the beginning of creation from the day on which man was created (cf. Ex 10:6). Either way, in the construct state, and taking into account the construction and purpose of 2:4ff, this does not warrant a light speed jump to support of יום with an ordinal or cardinal to mean a long indeterminate period of time.
Other examples in which the semantic range of יום begins to broaden include Gen 30:33, in which we find ביום מחר. The KJV has “in time to come” lit. “in day of following.” Also, Gen 39:11 “and it came to pass” (KJV) for יוהי כהיום הזה in reference to that which followed a sequence of days, day by day (יום יום, v. 10). We find יום with ל in Ex 19:11 as a particular 24 day. It is used in construct with מ of which Ex 10:6 is typical as in “since the day” or “from the day;” in this case to speak of the day of creation of man (cf. Gen 2:4; Deut 4:32), or the day of living in the land, unto “this” particular day. When looking at Ex 10:6, it would be difficult to equivocate and say one was an eon and the other, “this day,” was literal.
As to יום in the plural (ימים) Gen 4:3 is typical, wherein we see the plural employed to designate the passage of time, days. The KJV translates ויהי מקץ ימים as “in the process of time” the NIV as “in the course of time.” Or in Gen 5:4 in construct ימי־אדם as the “days” “time” of Adam. And so follows the various and many usages in the plural, with or without prepositions etc., in which day(s) refers to various aspects of time. But NB, this is clearly distinguishable from the employment of יום in Gen 1. In other words, it is very clear from grammatical and syntactical considerations why יום in these constructions means “time” or period of time, etc.
Thus, it is also clear when looking at יום as it is employed in Gen 1:1 - 2:3 there is not one instance in the Pentateuch where it can mean or refer to anything other than or a descriptive aspect of a literal 24 hour day. This is further strengthened in the text of Gen 1 by the use of the cardinal אחד for the first day or day one, as in one day made up by the creation of light and darkness with the cycle being one day. Day is a creation fiat by God, rather than a “natural” occurrence governed solely by that which rules the day, the sun created on day four. This understanding of the day of Gen 1 as a normal 24 hour day is bolstered all the more by the framework of “evening ... morning” to mark it off (cf. Dan 8:14, 26), with evening as the beginning of darkness and morning as the beginning of the period of light, which is the extent of the semantic range. To conclude, יום in Gen 1:1-2:3 refers to a normal, literal 24 day.
Short and a bit obtuse may describe the above. If you have not taken the time to look at and examine each reference, please do so. That is, if you want to have a well informed opinion, your conscience dictated by the Word of God, you need to study the Scriptures. Otherwise, without resting on a careful study of the Scriptures, it is arrogance to take exception to the historic biblical understanding of the days of Gen 1. I think once you study the Scriptures the issue will be clear. “Let God be true, but every man a liar” (Rom 3:4).
The true facts of science will not contradict the Word of God. Scientists who posit an old age do so using calculations based on either motion, distance, or change. Since God created things to be apart, and since we cannot presuppose and impose a uniformitarian schema on the things that now are (contra the premises of carbon dating, etc.), the young age of the earth that is inherent in viewing the days of Genesis 1 as 24 hour days poses no scientific problem. However, even if it did, we must rest on a clear and careful understanding of the Word of God and examine creation through the lens of Scripture.
Since there is no such thing as a brute, or uninterpreted, fact, scientists must interpret the “facts” through the revelatory spectacles of Scripture. Knowledge, like the mind of God, is of a whole piece. Isaiah’s cry, “to the law and to the testimony: if they speak not according to this word, it is because there is no light in them” (Isa 8:20), applies to all men in every discipline. All rest under the authority of the Word of God. Every fact in the universe has its significance and interpretation in relation to Him. Our minds must be renewed and directed in proper thinking by the sure Word of testimony. To be sure, when our interpretation of Scripture is contradicted by the findings of certain scientists, we reexamine our understanding of the sacred text to ascertain whether or not we have made naive assumptions, etc. However, I believe the above study demonstrates that the Word of God is very clear as to the 24 hour day in Genesis 1. On this we stand, as we have so taken as our Confession, “in the space of six days” (WCF 4:1).
About the Author
Rev. Michael Ericson was ordained to the ministry in 1991 in the Presbyterian Church of America and has served as minister of Trinity Presbyterian Reformed Church in Des Moines, Iowa for the last twenty years. He received his bachelor’s degree from Covenant College, Master of Arts in Philosophy from Baylor University, and both a Master of Divinity and Master of Theology from Reformed Theological Seminary, Jackson.