“Yom with a number” — rule of Hebrew grammar or young-earth fabrication?

There is a rule of Hebrew grammar that only ever gets cited by Literal Six Day Young Earth Creationists when attacking old-earth approaches to Genesis 1 such as the day-age, gap theory, or framework interpretations. It insists that although yom, the Hebrew word for a day in Genesis 1, is often used elsewhere in Scripture to mean an extended or undefined period of time, when it is accompanied by an ordinal number (first day, second day and so on), it can only ever refer to a literal, solar, 24 hour day of Earth time.

Hebrew scholars, on the other hand, tell us that there is no such rule. For example, Norman L. Geisler says:

Numbered days need not be solar. Neither is there a rule of Hebrew language demanding that all numbered days in a series refer to twenty-four-hour days.

(Baker Encyclopedia of Christian Apologetics, (Zondervan, 1999), p. 271.)

They even point to counterexamples in Scripture. For example, most theologians consider Hosea 6:1-2 to be referring to unspecified periods of time when it says this:

Come, let us return to the LORD For He has torn us, but He will heal us; He has wounded us, but He will bandage us. He will revive us after two days; He will raise us up on the third day, That we may live before Him.

Another example that they cite is Zechariah 14:7, which even turns the concept of “evening and morning” delineating one day from the next on its head:

It will be a unique day — a day known only to the LORD — with no distinction between day and night. When evening comes, there will be light.

Just because it’s always used that way (except when it isn’t), doesn’t mean it’s a rule.

On the BioLogos forum back in September, contributor @Socratic.Fanatic gave the best explanation I’ve ever seen as to what is wrong with this “rule”:

It is also worth mentioning that much of the OT is dealing with the Children of Israel, their kings, and chronologies of events. But in Genesis 1, for example, the context is entirely different. We aren’t looking at the day to day events in the nation of Israel. Indeed, it is not about human events at all. It is about God and his creation. So we would expect some of the words to potentially be used in ways which are different from various other books in the NT. (To give an example in English, I have a shelf of books dealing with Edwardian England, and the word class used in those books almost always refers to social classes. But if I grab one of my biology books, that particular definition of the word class would rarely if ever apply. Instead, class refers to a taxonomic classification of organisms. Context and subject matter can be far more important than some imagined “grammatical rule” created out of thin air to support a theological objective.)

Basically, the fact that yom with a number only ever means a 24 hour day when talking about day to day affairs of human beings does not mean that it only ever means a 24 hour day when talking about grand scale events such as the creation of the cosmos.

The way that yom is combined with a number in Genesis 1 is unique to Genesis 1.

For reference, see this paper by Rodney Whitefield. He references Gleason L. Archer as making the following point:

There were six major stages in this work of formation, and these stages are represented by successive days of a week. In this connection it is important to observe that none of the six creative days bears a definite article in the Hebrew text; the translations “the first day,” “the second day,” etc., are in error. The Hebrew says, “And the evening took place, and the morning took place, day one” (1:5). Hebrew expresses “the first day” by hayyom harison, but this text says simply yom ehad (day one). Again, in v.8 we read not hayyom hasseni (“the second day”) but yom seni (“a second day”). In Hebrew prose of this genre, the definite article was generally used where the noun was intended to be definite; only in poetic style could it be omitted. The same is true with the rest of the six days; they all lack the definite article. Thus they are well adapted to a sequential pattern, rather than to strictly delimited units of time.

What this boils down to is that even if the “yom with a number” pattern applies to the rest of the Bible, Genesis 1 does not fit this pattern. The rule simply does not apply here. It is the linguistic equivalent of Andrew Snelling’s meaningless and fallacious attempt to establish an upper limit on the age of the earth from the amount of sediment on the ocean floor.

Where did the “yom with a number” rule come from anyway?

Besides the existence of exceptions to the rule, the only time anyone ever acknowledges its existence is when YECs bring it up for this specific argument.

Hugh Ross of Reasons to Believe, an old-earth creationist ministry, did some research into this. In a podcast on 1 February 2005, he says this:

I’ve been looking at this for several years, and I’ve yet to find a non-young-earth-creationist source that makes this point. It seems to be unique to modern young-earth creationists, as Doug Branning suspects, and as I read on in Doug’s e-mail he says as far back as he’s been able to trace it is the 1970s. Well that’s also been true for me — I thought I could trace it back to the fifties or the sixties, but I’ve been unsuccessful. The earliest reference I’ve been able to find is the 1970s, and this is coming from the people that are part of the Institute for Creation Research — so Henry Morris and others were making that argument in the seventies. Now there may be a reference in the sixties, but I’ve not seen it — at least, not in print, and that might be a good project for one of our volunteers to look at, to see when they can find this first source, and as Doug says it’s not only with respect to the evening and morning, but this idea that when yom is used with a numeric modifier. But what I’ve been able to tell, both arguments appeared at the same time.

Given that it started in the 1970s, or at best there might be some references of audio material in the sixties or even the fifties, what that still tells us is that this can’t be a really valid argument because it doesn’t show up earlier in church history or church commentaries. The fact that it’s unique to the young-earth creationist camp also makes this a suspicious argument. So I think Doug is making an excellent point. Given that it’s so recent, and given that it’s unique to young earth creationists, that by itself makes their argument invalid.

(Source: “Creation Update #259”; link to podcast here; index page on RTB website here; discussion starts at 1:10:15.)

This is a very important point. If the “yom with a number can only mean a 24 hour day” rule had any merit, why is there no reference to it before the 1970s, why are all references to it made by young-earth creationists, and why do they only ever reference it when arguing for literal 24 hour days of creation?

Nineteenth and early twentieth century atheists would have loved to have a “yom with a number” rule, as it would only have strengthened their claim that the Bible and scientific evidence about the age of the earth are incompatible. They would have been rubbing our noses in it all that time. It would have been a massive embarrassment to evangelical Christians.

What do we see instead? The first appearance of this rule was in literature as recent as the 1970s from an organisation whose highly profitable business model depends on convincing Bible-believing Christians such as myself that the Bible demands a young earth and can not be interpreted otherwise.

All I can conclude is that this “rule” is a fabrication. Its sole effect is to shackle the Bible to a legalistic and anti-scientific interpretation, pit Biblical Christianity and science against each other, and in so doing, nullify the Word of God with tradition.

Featured image credit: Pixabay

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Religious presuppositions are not the problem with young-earth creationism

There is a right way and a wrong way of responding to Literal Six Day Young Earth Creationism.

The wrong way: object to their religious presuppositions.

Do not object to them introducing religious presuppositions into science. Do NOT object to them introducing religious presuppositions into science. DO NOT object to them introducing religious presuppositions into science. As soon as you’ve gone down the route of objecting to their religious presuppositions, you’ve lost the argument.

This is because YECs believe that you are motivated entirely by presuppositions and biases of your own. The fact is that there is a very real anti-Christian bias evident in many parts of academia, culture and society. It may not be quite as caricatured in the God’s Not Dead movies, but it’s very much there, and young-earth creationists automatically assume that it is the main, if not the only, reason why they can’t get creationism taught in science classes in schools.

Even if you believe this perception to be illusory, by framing the debate in terms of religious presuppositions, you are just confirming it. This adds fuel to the fire, causes them to dig their heels in, encourages other Christians who are “on the fence” about the whole matter to join them in the young-earth camp, and can make scientifically literate Christians, who are best placed to bring correction on the matter, reluctant to do so.

On a similar note, do not describe yourself as “opposing creationism” or “combatting creationism” or “arguing against creationism.” By expressing opposition to creationism itself you are giving yourself the appearance of being motivated by your own presuppositions again. You are also giving the impression that you would not take them seriously even if they did manage to come up with rock-solid, indisputable, watertight evidence to support their case.

It especially makes me cringe when I hear Christians making this objection. This is an objection that is very easily misunderstood, and you can all too easily end up sounding like a non-Christian when you’re making it. It also opens you up to charges of “compromise” — a favourite YEC accusation. So be careful.

Furthermore, if the only problem with YEC were religious presuppositions, then the evidence would be ambiguous, and it really would be possible to look at it through different “glasses” and see six thousand years rather than 4.5 billion.

The right way: demand that they get their facts straight.

What you are to oppose, combat, and argue against, is sloppy thinking, falsehood, unjustified assertions, and resistance to critique. As such, your response to young-earth creationism needs to be simply a demand that YECs get their act together and start applying the same standards of rigour and quality control as everybody else.

For this is the real problem with young-earth “creation science.” Their technical standards are so low that in any other area of science or technology, they would kill people. They are at times willing to tell outright falsehoods in order to support their position. They refuse to be held accountable to anyone outside their own echo chamber. And they show a cultish hostility to critique even from concerned Christians who share their stated goal of seeing the Bible upheld as the Word of God.

Most rank and file YECs aren’t even aware that this is an issue. When I tell them that science has rules, their natural tendency is to assume that I’m talking about a rejection of miracles. I have to make it clear to them what kind of rules I’m looking for, and that rejection of miracles has nothing to do with it. No arithmetic errors, no quote mining, no fudging of the data, no misrepresentation, the need for adequate peer review and replication, and so on. Basic standards of honesty and quality control — and furthermore, very much in line with what the Bible itself demands in terms how we handle weights and measures (cf Deuteronomy 25:13-16; Proverbs 11:1). I say that to break these rules in order to “fit Scripture” is neither scientific nor Scriptural. Yet time and time again, I see young-earth arguments that completely disregard these rules, and then cry “compromise” or “persecution” even over mistakes as egregious as misquotes, arithmetic errors, and cherry-picked data.

The fact is, most YECs agree wholeheartedly with these rules in principle. They just aren’t aware that bad arguments from the young-earth camp are a problem — mainly because many of them lack the scientific and technical understanding to be able to fact-check them.

Addressing the issue of quality control is hard work, to be sure. You have to make sure your own facts are straight as well, and it can also be difficult to communicate the nature of the problem clearly and in an easy-to-understand way to people who very often have little or no scientific training. But it is very, very necessary.

The role of miracles in creation

There is no doubt that the universe shows clear evidence that it is billions of years old. But there are also things that we see in nature that at the very least have the appearance of design. Take a look at this video for example:

Now even if natural processes can explain how molecules such as kinesins — the motor proteins that “walk” along the microtubules — came about, I still find it awesome to think that such natural processes exist. Is there any reason why we should not consider the existence of these processes themselves to be miraculous?

Literal Six Day Young Earth Creationists often equate an ancient earth or evolution with denying the possibility of miracles. One anti-evolution booklet that I have been reading says that as Christians we must reject long ages for the following reason:

Because it implies faith in a very small, ineffectual God.

In other words, a Creator who isn’t capable of creation in a timeframe of His choosing. If there is a God of our gigantic universe, ought He not to be able to create something as relatively insignificant as our earth in six days — or six minutes or six seconds if He chose?

This completely misses the point.

Old-earth Christians do not deny the possibility of miracles. Even evolutionary creationists do not deny the possibility of miracles. The only thing we say about miracles is that they are not a get-out-of-jail-free card to reject scientific findings that you don’t like.

The fact remains that if the earth is six thousand years old, and if God did create it over six literal 24-hour days, then He must have created vast swathes of completely unambiguous and highly self-consistent evidence for 4.5 billion years of history that never happened.

This hypothesis is called the “Omphalos Hypothesis,” and it was first proposed in 1857 — two years before Darwin published On the Origin of Species — by Philip Henry Gosse (1810-1888). Gosse proposed that in order to be fully functional, the earth must have been created “mature” — fully formed trees with growth rings, and Adam as a mature adult, for example.

The problem, however, is that we’re not just dealing with evidence of age, but with evidence of history. The geological record tells the story of 4.5 billion years of very distinct and definitive events happening at times that can in some cases be pinpointed with astonishing precision. The evidence is also very self-consistent, with tree rings, ice cores, lake varves, continental drift, coral growth, radioactive isotopes, index fossils, oil deposits, and much much more lining up with each other with extraordinary consilience. It’s as if Adam were not only created as a mature adult, but as if he were created with scars and missing teeth from skateboarding accidents that had never happened.

This means that if the earth is only six thousand years old, then it must also be an extremely elaborate forgery.

What is the purpose of miracles in the Bible?

When we read the Bible, the most spectacular miracles that we read about tend to be concentrated round a few key events in history. These are the Exodus and the Conquest; the ministries of Elijah and Elisha; and the ministry of Jesus and the early Church. We read about other miracles in other parts of the Old Testament, but not to the same extent, and in fact, the accounts of the history of Israel and Judah in many places are relatively unspectacular.

But why should miracles be concentrated the way they are? Simply because in Scripture, miracles serve a particular purpose: communication. They are God’s way of getting our attention when He has something particularly important to say. Generally, the more spectacular the miracle, the more important the message.

This is the complete antithesis of Omphalos.

Let me make one thing clear. I believe in miracles. But I do not believe that God would use miracles in this way to deceive us. It is inconsistent with the way we see miracles being used in both the Old and New Testaments, and it is inconsistent with what the Bible tells us about the character and nature of God.

The Bible tells us in 2 Peter 3:8 and Psalm 90:4 that a day with the Lord is like a thousand years and a thousand years are like a day. I know that some people think that’s not a lot to go on. But the fact is, that at least the Bible gives us something in support of long ages. In support of Omphalos, the Bible gives us nothing.