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Problems with a Day-Age Interpretation of Genesis

by Jeff Lewis

In the wake of the Kitzmiller vs. Dover Area School District trial [1], I did something that maybe I shouldn't have. I struck up a conversation with a couple co-workers about Intelligent Design, otherwise known as ID. We kept it friendly enough. They already knew my religious/scientific opinions (at the time, I was a liberal Christian), and I already knew theirs, so there weren't any heated arguments. I was just interested to see how fundamentalists felt about Intelligent Design, and about the judge's decision in the case.

Here's why I was curious to their opinion. It seems to me that if you're going to reject evolution on religious (Christian) grounds, it's because you believe in basically a literal interpretation of the Bible (i.e. that the creation story in Genesis is accurate). If you don't believe in a literal interpretation of the Bible (i.e. you believe in a figurative, allegorical, historical or some other interpretation), then there shouldn't be any religious reason to reject evolution. So I wondered, if you held to a literal interpretation of the Bible, what would be your take on Intelligent Design? A lot of the ID proponents claim that ID is really science, and that they're just trying to point out evidence of an intelligent designer. They stress that they're not trying to support the Bible. Further, some of the evidence that they use goes against a strictly literal interpretation of Genesis, such as using the Cambrian "Explosion" of 500 million years ago. Really, it makes me wonder why ID is so popular. It's bad science, as evidenced by its overwhelming rejection by the scientific community, and, from a fundamentalist viewpoint, it's bad religion, because it's counter to a 6 day creation.

So, when I brought it up to those co-workers that ID goes against a literal interpretation of Genesis because it allows for the Earth being billions of years old, they got kind of wishy washy on the age of the Earth. Their reply was something to the effect of, "A day in the life of God is like a thousand years to man," so how can we be sure how long the days in Genesis actually were. My first thought was, wow, so the Bible's only literal when it's convenient; otherwise, it's open to interpretation. But, I had heard the argument before (and even used a version of it myself when I was still a Christian – though not a creationist), so I decided to look into it a little further. After a little research, I found people who said that in the original Hebrew, the word used for 'day' in Genesis could be translated as either day or age, and that maybe age was the word that should be used there. This, or the day to a thousand years argument my coworkers used, actually turn out to be pretty popular arguments. So, I went back and took another look at Genesis, but these day-age interpretations still don't make any sense. Let’s start right from the beginning, Chapter 1, Verse 1 [2]:

1 In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.

2 Now the earth was [a] formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.

3 And God said, "Let there be light," and there was light. 4 God saw that the light was good, and He separated the light from the darkness. 5 God called the light "day," and the darkness he called "night." And there was evening, and there was morning—the first day.

So on the first day, God created a light, which he called day, and a dark, which he called night. I really have no idea what the Bible's referring to, here, since it's not day and night in the conventional sense. The real light of day is the sunlight that shines onto the side of the Earth that happens to be facing the sun at that particular time, and the darkness of night occurs on the side of the Earth that's in the shadow. Since Genesis doesn't say the sun was created until the fourth day, I don't know what this day and night refer to. I have heard the argument that light and darkness represent good and evil, but that doesn’t explain the use of day, night, evening, and morning, which seem to be describing an actual solar day.

6 And God said, "Let there be an expanse between the waters to separate water from water." 7 So God made the expanse and separated the water under the expanse from the water above it. And it was so. 8 God called the expanse "sky." And there was evening, and there was morning—the second day.

On the second day, God created the sky "to separate water from water." Once again, I'm confused. What waters does the sky separate? At this point, Genesis seems to indicate that the Earth is covered by one vast ocean, so that's one body of water. But what other water is this being separated from? Is there some vast body of water floating around in space somewhere?

I find it very easy to imagine a primitive people looking up, and imagining an actual discrete physical dome above their heads. That could even explain why they thought it was covered in water (it is blue, after all, and rain does fall from up there). But in reality, "sky" is just some fuzzy notion of the atmosphere at some arbitrary height above the ground. Think about it this way – we know that airplanes fly through the sky, but when exactly do they get there? Immediately after takeoff? 100 feet up? 30,000 feet? It's not clearly defined. Perhaps this issue of defining what’s meant by “sky” is merely a translation issue. Perhaps the Hebrew word doesn't have the same ambiguity as English. Or perhaps it's meant to mean simply “atmosphere.”

However, even assuming that the Bible is here referring to the creation of the atmosphere, I still don't understand what's being separated. Maybe I'm being too literal, but I'm trying to figure out some way that this passage means actual separation of one group of H2O molecules from another group of H2O molecules. I’ve heard the argument that maybe it was referring to clouds being separated from the ocean, but that explanation still makes no sense. Water is not present in the atmosphere only in the clouds – water vapor is present from ground level all the way up. It's just that at some point it gets cold enough for that vapor to start condensing – the altitude at which clouds begin to form. Even assuming that it's liquid water the passage is referring to and not vapor, remember that depending on conditions, the altitude at which water condenses can vary, even going all the way down to ground level. It's just that we refer to ground level clouds as fog.

9 And God said, "Let the water under the sky be gathered to one place, and let dry ground appear." And it was so. 10 God called the dry ground "land," and the gathered waters he called "seas." And God saw that it was good.

11 Then God said, "Let the land produce vegetation: seed-bearing plants and trees on the land that bear fruit with seed in it, according to their various kinds." And it was so. 12 The land produced vegetation: plants bearing seed according to their kinds and trees bearing fruit with seed in it according to their kinds. And God saw that it was good. 13 And there was evening, and there was morning—the third day.

Finally, on the third day, Genesis starts talking about things that I can understand. First God created the continents, or at least "land." Now that there was land to work with, he created seed bearing plants and fruit bearing trees. There's no explicit mention of any other types of plants anywhere else in Genesis, so I think it would be safe to assume that this third day of creation accounts for all of the plants. Remember, the sun still won't be created until the fourth day, so there was still no sunlight for these plants to use for photosynthesis. And there's no mention yet of any animals being created, including insects, so there was no way for flowering plants to reproduce through insect pollination, or for certain other plants to reproduce which require that their seeds pass through the digestive system of an animal, first.

14 And God said, "Let there be lights in the expanse of the sky to separate the day from the night, and let them serve as signs to mark seasons and days and years, 15 and let them be lights in the expanse of the sky to give light on the earth." And it was so. 16 God made two great lights—the greater light to govern the day and the lesser light to govern the night. He also made the stars. 17 God set them in the expanse of the sky to give light on the earth, 18 to govern the day and the night, and to separate light from darkness. And God saw that it was good. 19 And there was evening, and there was morning—the fourth day.

On the fourth day, God finally created the sun, the moon, and the stars, so now the plants could at least survive.

20 And God said, "Let the water teem with living creatures, and let birds fly above the earth across the expanse of the sky." 21 So God created the great creatures of the sea and every living and moving thing with which the water teems, according to their kinds, and every winged bird according to its kind. And God saw that it was good. 22 God blessed them and said, "Be fruitful and increase in number and fill the water in the seas, and let the birds increase on the earth." 23 And there was evening, and there was morning—the fifth day.

On the fifth day, God created all of the birds, and all of the creatures of the sea. Now, there were finally some types of animals to distribute seeds. If flying insects are counted as birds, there were finally bees and other insects to pollinate flowers.

24 And God said, "Let the land produce living creatures according to their kinds: livestock, creatures that move along the ground, and wild animals, each according to its kind." And it was so. 25 God made the wild animals according to their kinds, the livestock according to their kinds, and all the creatures that move along the ground according to their kinds. And God saw that it was good.

26 Then God said, "Let us make man in our image, in our likeness, and let them rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air, over the livestock, over all the earth, and over all the creatures that move along the ground."

27 So God created man in his own image,
in the image of God he created him;
male and female he created them.

28 God blessed them and said to them, "Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air and over every living creature that moves on the ground."

29 Then God said, "I give you every seed-bearing plant on the face of the whole earth and every tree that has fruit with seed in it. They will be yours for food. 30 And to all the beasts of the earth and all the birds of the air and all the creatures that move on the ground—everything that has the breath of life in it—I give every green plant for food." And it was so.

31 God saw all that he had made, and it was very good. And there was evening, and there was morning—the sixth day.

On the sixth day, God created all of the "livestock, creatures that move along the ground, and wild animals." Also on the sixth day, God created people.

I’ll leave off with the Bible quotes there, and won’t even attempt to address the discrepancies between that creation story and the subsequent creation story presented in chapter 2 of Genesis.


So, if you try to interpret Genesis as the days being ages of indeterminate time, you're still left with problems. If plants were created in the third age, and the sun in the fourth age, unless the ages were extremely short, the creating must have taken place right at the end of the third, and right at the beginning of the fourth ages, or else the plants would all die. I suppose that interpretation is possible, but there's still a big problem of many of the plants not being able to reproduce which are dependent on animals for pollination, germination, or seed dispersal. This would seem to indicate that the fourth age, the one where 99.99% of the material in the universe was created, would have had to have been very short, indeed. If the wording is supposed to be somewhat consistent, such that each "day" or "age" represents a similar amount of time, this presents a big problem with each day representing millions or billions of years.

If you're trying to use a day-age interpretation to try and reconcile Genesis with science, there are many errors with the Biblical account [3]. First, Earth was certainly not the first planetary body, and our sun was certainly not the first star. Also, birds did not come before land dwelling animals – they evolved from land animals.

So, the day-age theory, or "a day in the life of God is like a thousand years to man" interpretations are just weak. Even ignoring what science tells us of the evolution of life on Earth, and the history of the universe as far as star and planet formation, there would have been no way for plants to survive an entire age without having the sun for photosynthesis, or the animals that they required for pollination, germination, and seed dispersal.

Now, if you stop and look at Genesis as being written by a scientifically primitive society with no idea of the true history of the Earth or the life on it...


[1] This was the first court case directly challenging ‘Intelligent Design’, a new form of creationism that gained popularity in the late 1990s and early 2000s. ID’s main purpose was to promote creationism without explicitly mentioning God, since a previous court case had ruled on Constitutional grounds that religious creationism couldn’t be taught in public schools. The ID proponents lost the Kitzmiller case rather dramatically, with the judge even referring to “The breathtaking inanity of the Board's decision”.

[2] As mentioned in the first essay, these passages are quoted from the NIV. Note however, that the NIV was revised in 2011, so the wording here is slightly different from the wording in the latest revision of the NIV. Also recall the discussion from the footnotes of the first essay, that the NIV is not the most reliable of translations. Here in chapter 1 of Genesis, it’s not too bad. Chapter 2, however, is a different story:

[3] Of course, a literal young Earth interpretation of Genesis has all these problems and more. Given all the evidence that exists pointing to the ancient age of the Earth and the universe, it really is inconceivable that this creation story could be true on that type of literal level.