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Creation Passages: “Day” with a Cardinal Number


In this study we continue to examine the use of the term “day” in describing the Biblical creation. Specifically, we seek to determine whether the “days” of creation refer to literal 24-hour days or to long periods of time (averaging 700 million years each, so as to agree with the modern time scale adopted by evolutionists).

To see a more thorough statement of the issue, please read my previous article on the significance of the word “days” (plural) in creation passages (see www.gospelway.com/creation/). We will not repeat the statement of the issue here but will proceed with further evidence.

While the word “day” is occasionally used to refer to periods of time longer than 24 hours, such instances are a small fraction of the total. To know what a Bible word means in any particular passage, we must examine its use in context and then compare such usage to other similar contexts.

In this study we seek to examine creation passages that use the word “day” in connection with a cardinal number.

A “cardinal” number simply indicates how many items are referred to (“one,” “two,” “three,” etc.). This contrasts to an “ordinal” number, which indicates the order of the items (“first,” “second,” “third,” etc.).

Three passages refer to creation using the word “day” in connection with a cardinal number:

Exodus 20:11 — For in six days the LORD made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested the seventh day. Therefore the LORD blessed the Sabbath day and hallowed it.

Exodus 31:17 — … for in six days the LORD made the heavens and the earth, and on the seventh day He rested and was refreshed.

The third passage is frequently translated as an ordinal number (“first day”), but is really a cardinal number in the original text (“one day”).

Genesis 1:5 — God called the light Day, and the darkness He called Night. So the evening and the morning were the first day [literally “one day”].

The ASV here says, “And there was evening and there was morning, one day.” The NASB is similar. See also the footnote in the NKJV, etc.

While we may occasionally use the word “day” in a vaguely defined sense, we would not be likely to refer to a specific number of days (such as “six days”) in such an undefined sense. The use of a specific number would imply that the intended meaning is precise, specific, or exact. In fact, such an expression would appear to be even more precise than the use of “days” (plural), as in our previous study. “Six days” surely carries a more precise significance than simply “days.”

So we seek to determine whether “day” with a cardinal number refers to an undefined period of time or whether it refers specifically to literal days. In particular, is it used in a way that could comprehend vast ages lasting many millions of years?

I have listed below what is, to my knowledge, a complete list of every passage in the Bible using a cardinal number with the Hebrew word for “day” (YOM or YOWM – Strong's number H3117) or the Greek word for “day” (HEMERA – G2250). This list was compiled from a computer word search of Strong's Hebrew/Greek text. (References to “numbers” from here on refer to cardinal numbers.)

In the list, I have indicated which verses might possibly involve a meaning significantly longer than a literal day. They are preceded by ????. I have also categorized the verses according to the nature of the books (books of law or history as compared to prophecy, etc.). And I have summarized the results by whether they are literal days or could be longer ages. I have also indicated how many could refer to ages lasting hundreds of millions of years.

Here is a summary of the results:

Type of book Total verses Literal days Long ages?? Millions of years
OT Law 115 all none none
OT History 71 all none none
OT Poetry 1 all none none
OT Prophecy 34 22 12(??) none
Total OT 221 208 12(??) none
NT History 46 all none none
NT Epistles 5 4 1 none
NT Prophecy 6 none 6(??) none
Total NT 57 50 7(??) none
Bible Total 278 258 19(??) none

Observations about the results:

(1) It is interesting that the writings of Moses (Old Testament law) constitute the Bible section that most frequently uses “day” with a cardinal number. Moses uses it in well over 100 verses, and every time, without exception, he uses it to refer to literal days. Never – not once – does he use it to refer to longer periods! Since the three verses we are studying were all in the writing of Moses, it would seem highly unlikely that all three of them refer to long periods of time, when such a usage is never found anywhere else in Moses' writings.

(2) Further, the same is true with all writings that have the nature of history, law, or doctrine. Always, without exception, references to “day” with a cardinal number refer to literal days, never to longer periods. (The one apparent New Testament exception is not really an exception, as we will note later.)

Genesis 1 is clearly intended to be history and doctrinal instruction, as are Exodus 20 and 31. The other contents of Genesis and Exodus are clearly intended to be history and doctrine. This would only be denied by liberals and modernists, never by those who believe the Bible is the infallible, verbally inspired word of God. But the Bible contains at least 235 verses of history or doctrine that contain “day” with a number. Every one of them refers to literal days. Why would anyone think the days of creation are not literal days?

(3) 19 verses use “day” with a cardinal number in a way that may refer to periods longer than a literal day, but it is a fact that all these examples are found in prophecy, never in history or doctrine. Since prophecy commonly uses words in symbolic and non-literal ways, we would expect it to use “day” symbolically. But this proves absolutely nothing about how the word is used in historical or doctrinal contexts.

(4) I have listed one occurrence of “day” with a number, which is found in a New Testament epistle, rather than a book of prophecy. The passage is as follows:

2 Peter 3:8 — But, beloved, do not forget this one thing, that with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day.

This passage is sometimes used to try to argue that the days of creation may be longer than a literal day. Please consider, however, the following points:

(a) The word “as” proves unquestionably that this is a figurative use. “One day” is plainly said to be “as” a thousand years. Shall we conclude that this proves “day” always means 1000 years in the Bible? Of course not!

We all know the difference between literal language and symbolic language. The fact a word can occasionally be used non-literally does not argue that it always is so used or that it is non-literal in any particular passage. There must be something in the usage that implies a figurative meaning. What is there in the context of the creation days that would lead us to believe the days are not literal?

(b) While 2 Peter is a doctrinal book, the fact is that the context of 2 Peter 3 is unquestionably prophetic. It discusses Jesus’ return and the destruction of the earth. The point under immediate discussion is that God predicted the end of the world; since it hasn’t happened yet, some claim that God has not kept His word. Peter is explaining that, in deciding when the world will end, the determining factor for God is, not time, but circumstances. Jesus will return and the world will end when the circumstances are right, regardless of how long it takes. So whether it takes one day or a thousand years, makes no difference to God. He said it would end, and it will. But He never said when it would end, so we cannot hold Him to any human timetable. But none of this means time does not matter with God, or that we can just disregard or take figuratively what he has said about time in other contexts.

While God has never said when the world will end, He has stated how long it took to create the universe: “in six days.” This is stated in historic and doctrinal contexts, not prophecy. The clear intent of these passages is to convey to the human mind how long creation took. Context and usage show that God is using human language to communicate a historical, doctrinal truth to our minds. It is absolute folly to claim that 2 Peter 3:8 argues that the days of creation are not literal. 2 Peter 3:8 is prophecy and proves no more about historic or doctrinal passages than does any other prophecy.

(c) Even if 2 Peter 3:8 applied to the days of creation (which it does not), it would not help those who claim long ages in the days of creation. The passage says a day is as “a thousand years.” But the day-age theory says each day must be as 700 million years! That is a far cry from 1000 years! 2 Peter 3:8 is no help to them. They want each day to be 700,000 times larger than 2 Peter 3:8 says!

Saying God made everything in 6000 years still does not help those who seek to change the Bible to fit the modern “scientific” theory. If we were to accept such an error, they would not be satisfied but would just continue arguing with us! They want 4-5 billion years!

When the Bible uses “day” with a cardinal number, the fact remains that the usage is always literal, except in the symbolism of prophecy. Since Moses' descriptions of the days of creation are not prophecy, the only fair conclusion is that the days of creation are literal.

(5) Here is yet another significant observation: Whenever a number of days is used to describe an event (such as creation “in six days”), the days are always consecutive days. I can find no exceptions, either in the Old Testament or the New Testament. Hence, the references to “day” with a cardinal number not only disprove the argument that the days of creation are long ages, they also disprove the argument that long ages occurred between the days.

(6) And finally, no Bible passage – not even prophecy – uses the word “days” in a way that could reasonably be taken to refer to ages of many hundreds of millions of years. There simply is no Bible authority whatever for such a conclusion.

(* Note Gen 29:20 uses “one day” - often translated “a few days” - to describe how brief Jacob thought the seven years seemed as he worked to earn the right to marry Rachel. Although some translators translate this “a few days,” it clearly does not refer to long ages, but the few “days” mean 24-hour days. And the point is to emphasize the shortness of the time, not to describe long ages of time.)

A study of the language of Scripture confirms that the original intent of the inspired writer was to state that creation occurred in six consecutive, literal days. The clear intent of Scripture is violated by all attempts to find long ages in creation.

This conclusion is strengthened as different aspects are examined and the evidence accumulates. Please examine the other articles on my web site at www.gospelway.com/creation/.

Click here to see the detailed list of passages in this study of "days" with a cardinal number.

(C) Copyright 2000, David E. Pratte
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Scripture quotations are generally from the New King James Version (NKJV), copyright 1982, 1988 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. used by permission. All rights reserved.

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