Six 24-hour Days Or Millions Of Years? It’s The Wrong Question

What do you believe about the creation accounts in Genesis 1 and 2? Would you describe yourself as a Young Earth Creationist (YEC) or an Old Earth Creationist (OEC)? Perhaps you’re one of those who is struggling in this area of biblical thought?

I’ve been spending a lot of time in Genesis and reading creation websites that hold to these views. Many of the articles I read on either side of the issue are very compelling. But it has occurred to me that the leaders in the YEC and OEC camps have missed something very important: the main thrust of Genesis 1.

Did God create the universe in six 24-hour periods or did he create everything in six unspecified ages taking millions of years? I’d like to suggest that the timing of God’s creative act actually misses the main point of Genesis 1. By asking this question we may actually be asking the wrong question, or at least a question that is not the central focus of Genesis. Allow me to elaborate.
Take a look at the various YEC and OEC websites and what do you see? A constant focus on the time it may have taken for God to create all things. Everything is about literal days, or ages, or millions of years, or thousands of years, as if time is the central focus of Genesis 1 and 2. I think that the passionate advocates of these views may have fallen into a literary trap, baited by our culture. What do I mean by this?

In the West, especially in the US, the notion of time is a very important one. Much of our lives revolves around time. We must be on time, in time, timely, set up a time, tell time, note the time, synchronize our time, time things and be exact about time. Yet there is a larger world beyond our culture that does not regard time as so central to life. This was especially true in earlier ages. In the days of Moses, when Genesis was written, there were no watches, or mechanical clocks, or digital timepieces. You couldn’t say to someone, “I’ll meet you at 2:15 on the nose. Don’t be late.” Even in many cultures today saying you will meet at 2:00 may sound exact, but what it really means is, “I’ll see you sometime after 2:00.” Hours could pass by and the visitor would never be considered late. What matters is not the time, but the relationship and how honor for the relationship is expressed in the welcoming of the invited person—not what specific time they show up. Now, admit it, that’s a completely foreign way of thinking in your eyes, is it not?

Here’s a fact that our friends in the YEC and OEC camps seem to have missed: Genesis was written in a culture that was not preoccupied with the details of time. Even the titles of the positions, Young Earth Creationist and Old Earth Creationists are western-centered, time-centered titles. If we can put away our cultural attachment to the notion of exact time or specific time and try to read Genesis with different eyes we can discern that Genesis 1 and 2 reveal something far more significant than how long it took God to create.

In Genesis 1 the emphasis is not on the time of when God created, but rather on what he said followed by what he did. When it comes to the saying, “There was evening and morning, the [whatever] day,” we should think of these as frames around pictures. The notations of time are a framework which surround, not center, God’s activity. The day is the day not simply because it has light, but because God manifests his special presence to create. The night is not dark because there is no light, but rather because God’s special presence to create is not manifested. 

Therefore, the focus of Genesis 1 is not on time. Time is tertiary to what is revealed. What is revealed is God’s person, God’s speech, and God’s activity. In fact, many things about God are revealed: his power, authority, creativity, order, love, justice, care, etc.

Dr. John Walton, professor of Old Testament at Wheaton College, is a somewhat controversial figure because of his views on Genesis 1 and 2. However, he rightly points out in his writings that there is a difference between material ontology and functional ontology. Christians of the West tend to interpret Genesis 1 and 2 with a material ontology. That is, they see the creation account as a creation from nothing. However, he notes that the ancients before us likely had a worldview that was different, one that he calls a functional ontology. In a functional ontology created things are assigned a purpose and until they are assigned a purpose they don’t have real significance or practical existence. Please don’t mistake me as a supporter of Walton’s view, I’m still a seeker myself. But his definition may contain some merit. After all, after the creation of light, everything subsequently created was created out of something that pre-existed, mainly, the earth. So Genesis 1:1 is material ontology (the creation of something out of nothing), while the following passages could represent functional ontology: assigning purpose. I don’t know if I agree with this or not. Genesis 1 and 2 are very deep and plumbing their depths isn’t a short-order exercise. But I would like to let Walton speak for himself. 

“The hermeneutical commitment to read the text at face value elevates this interpretation since it makes an attempt to understand the text as the author and audience would have understood it. It does not reduce the text to a symbolic, figurative, theological or literary reading, as is often done in the attempt to correlate the text to modern science. Concordism applies scientific meanings to words and phrases in the text that are modern—that the ancient readers would never have had. Day-age seeks to make room for an old earth. Both of these approaches struggle because they are still trying to get Genesis to operate as an account of material origins for an audience that has a material ontology and cannot think in any other way.”

So, if understanding Genesis 1 and 2 requires that we put away our time-centered western perspective, then what does it reveal? Very simply, God is being revealed, not creation. The account of creation is simply the literary mechanism that Moses uses to reveal to Israel who God is, what God does, and how far his sovereignty extends. Think for a moment what Moses was trying to do when he wrote Genesis. Israel already believed in God, but they weren’t shy about worshipping Egyptian deities either. They had the general knowledge of their history, but not the details. They didn’t even know God’s name until Moses revealed it to them. So, from the beginning of Genesis 1 Moses reveals just who God is, the Creator of all things. In doing so he elevates God as greater than all of the false Egyptian gods Israel knew about. Moses also used the form of covenant writing to express what God had done for man and that therefore man should obey him. Therefore, the covenant that God makes with Adam does not begin in chapter 3 of Genesis, rather it begins in Genesis 1:1.

I know that what I’ve written here probably presents more questions than answers. I’m okay with that. My journey through Genesis 1 and 2 isn’t nearly complete. But when I try to exercise the practice of putting away my cultural biases (which isn’t easy), then the scripture becomes open to me in ways that I’ve not previously considered. Perhaps that can happen for you too.

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