Are the Seven Days of Creation Literal?
The more I study Genesis, the more I am convinced that we often come to the Creation story (and other biblical texts) with the wrong questions. How one answers the question, “Are the seven days of Creation literal?”, can determine in some people’s minds whether a person is orthodox or not. To some it is a question of believing or not believing in the authority of the Bible. Perhaps “wrong” is too strong a word in my above statement. Given our 21st century mindset, and the Creation-Science debate, the question of whether Creation took place in seven days seems to be perfectly logical. My point is that we often fail to examine the presuppositions that lie behind some of the questions we ask. If we fail to examine the presuppositions behind our questions, we are in danger of bringing our own agenda to the biblical text and expecting answers that the text may not be addressing. In other words, since the age of Enlightenment we are predisposed to ask questions about the material origins of things. Where did this come from and how did it happen? These are perfectly good questions but we mustn’t assume that they are the same questions people in the ancient world would ask. I am of the mindset that we should first seek to understand what the Bible means in its ancient context. I have written elsewhere on the importance of biblical backgrounds and understanding the culture of the ancient world (see here. You can also click on “Bible backgrounds” for other articles). Just as most people need the ancient Hebrew translated into a modern language they can understand, so it is important to translate (as much as is possible based on our current state of knowledge) an understanding of ancient Near Eastern culture (the culture in which the Bible was birthed). Once we can determine the ancient context and what a story would have meant to the original audience, it becomes an easier task to see what it is saying to us today. After all, if we come with our own agenda and seek to place an artificial grid over the text through which it must be interpreted, we can make the Bible say anything we like. My purpose in this article is to first examine what Genesis 1 meant in its ancient Israelite (Near Eastern) context, and then to return to the question of whether Genesis is teaching that Creation took place in a literal 7-day period.
The Connection Between Creation Stories and Building Temples
Ancient Mesopotamian, Canaanite, and Egyptian literature all share the common trait of viewing the temples of their various gods as being the hub of the cosmos (the world as they knew it). John Walton states, “Throughout the ancient world, the temple was a significant part of the cosmic landscape. It was considered to be at the center of the cosmos, the place from which the cosmos was controlled, and a small model of the cosmos—a microcosm” (Walton, J. H. (2011). Genesis 1 as Ancient Cosmology (p. 100). Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns). The building of ancient temples are described in cosmic terms with their tops in the heavens and their roots in the world below (the netherworld). Temples were viewed as the foundation of the cosmos and the bond that held everything together. Temples were pictured as sources of life-giving water and thus were providers of the fertility of the land. From the temple the god controlled the fertility of the land. Most importantly for our purposes here Walton notes that, “The interrelationship between cosmos and temple is also evidenced by the fact that accounts of origins often include accounts of temple building, with temple building at times being at the climax of the origin account or even serving as the purpose for creation” (Walton, J. H., Genesis 1 as Ancient Cosmology p. 107). Walton not only makes these observations, but gives plenty of evidence by quoting from ancient sources. Check out his book if you’re interested in reading the actual sources. Another way of summing up the importance of the connection between creation and temple building is the quote cited by Walton from Coote and Ord which states, “The temple is the focal point of creation in nearly every account available to us“(p. 107, emphasis mine).
Temples, Resting, and 7 Days
Two other features are significant regarding the temples in the ancient world. First a temple is the resting place of the god. Although rest can imply different things since ancient gods had many human qualities, most importantly rest communicates the concept of rule. As when a god rests on his throne in the temple. This is not for the purpose of taking a nap, but for ruling. The other significant feature is that several accounts of ancient temple building relate it to a seven day inauguration period at the end of which the god comes to dwell in the temple.
To this point we have noted connections between Creation and temple building and the concepts of rest (meaning rule) and seven days. However, all of this has been in reference to literature of the ancient Near East. The evidence referred to is not to say that the Bible has borrowed from the Creation myths or temple building stories of the nations around them, as much as it is to note that these things are part of the culture of the times. These ideas are in the “atmosphere” of the ancient world and as such Israel partakes of similar ideas (though distinct in other ways). This is where some, especially those who think of themselves as Bible fundamentalists, become uncomfortable. Before moving to the biblical evidence (which will hopefully satisfy those who are skeptical), I think it’s important to take a short rabbit trail and talk about the importance of understanding another culture.
Although people today have different beliefs about various things, they share certain cultural language and understandings. If I say I have taken a flight from Paris to Atlanta, everyone knows that I booked a flight on an airline and flew in a plane to Atlanta. I don’t have to explain myself in detail. I don’t have to mention that I had to go through a security check. Everyone knows that is part of the procedure. If I talk about my laptop or texting someone, or say I have taken a “selfie,” everyone knows what I mean without further explanation. However, if someone from the past could come and visit our 21st century culture (even from as short a time as 150 years ago), they would have no idea what I meant by any of these things. Our culture, our history, our language, would all need explaining. If I told someone from the past that I flew from Paris to Atlanta they might think I’m lying or claiming to be a god (because who can fly?), and they may not have any idea what Paris and Atlanta are. The same is true of the ancient world as we try and understand their culture and language. There are many concepts taken for granted because they were understood and didn’t need further explanation. Ancients understood the connection between Creation accounts and building temples. It was as much a part of their culture as selfies and laptops are a part of ours…no additional explanations were needed. This is why when we read Genesis 1:1-2:3 we do not automatically see that the Creation story is talking about God taking up residence in His temple. And if we preoccupy ourselves with questions from our own cultural standpoint (Are the seven days of Creation literal?), we will never hear the original message. We need “ears to hear” and it begins with understanding the culture and the signals that are in the language of the text that communicates its meaning.
Before presenting the biblical side of this argument I’d like to illustrate what I have just stated above. God authorized Moses to build a tabernacle, a dwelling place that would symbolize His presence with His people (Exod. 25-27). We are told that the plans were given to Moses on the mount and he was to see that everything was made according to that pattern (Exod. 25:40; Heb. 8:5). Therefore the plan of the tabernacle came from God. When Solomon’s temple was constructed, it was built by following the plan of the tabernacle, except that it was twice as large. However, we know from Scripture that Solomon was aided by Hiram, King of Phoenecia, and his craftsmen (1 Kgs. 5:18; 1 Chron. 2:7). We also have evidence of temples built before the time of Solomon that resemble the plan of Solomon’s temple (see the picture at the left from Ain Dara). An article from Bible History Daily entitled “Searching for the Temple of King Solomon,” states, “the closest known parallel to the Temple of King Solomon is the ’Ain Dara temple in northern Syria. Nearly every aspect of the ’Ain Dara temple—its age, its size, its plan, its decoration—parallels the vivid description of the Temple of King Solomon in the Bible. In fact, Monson identified more than 30 architectural and decorative elements shared by the ’Ain Dara structure and the Jerusalem Temple described by the Biblical writers.” My point is that in some important ways, the Temple of Solomon was unique. However, in many other ways it resembled other temples that were part of the cultural heritage of the ancient Near East. Similarly, the Creation story in Genesis 1:1-2:3 is unique (and it certainly proclaims a very unique theology), however, it also shares commonalities with the culture of its time in the way the story is told.
The Bible and Creation, Temple Building, 7 Days, and Rest
Although I admittedly went on a bit of a rabbit trail above, I hope I have demonstrated that it is important to consider evidence presented to us from the ancient Near East when seeking to understand the culture in which the Bible was written. What I would now like to demonstrate is that the Bible makes the same equation between Creation, temple building, seven days and rest. Isaiah 66:1 connects several of these ideas. In this verse, Heaven is said to be God’s throne, while the earth is His footstool. The next question concerns building God a temple: “Where is the house that you will build for Me?” In other words, if the heavens and the earth are God’s temple, how can He be contained in a building? The final question in this verse connects the idea of rest with a temple when God asks: “And where is the place of My rest?” The image of throne mentioned earlier in this verse helps us to understand that God’s rest involves his rule over Creation (the heavens and the earth). Psalm 132:7-8 speaks about God’s tabernacle, which is referred to as His “footstool” (just as the earth was called God’s footstool in Isa. 66:1). The psalm goes on to picture the ark of the covenant being taken up to be put in the tabernacle with the words, “Arise O Lord, to Your resting place.” Later in the psalm we learn that “The Lord has chosen Zion.” Zion is His dwelling place and God declares, “This is my resting place forever” (Ps. 132:13-14). These passages from Isaiah and Psalms clearly connect the ideas of God’s temple being His creation (heaven and earth), along with the tabernacle and temple which are only copies of the reality. These passages also assert that God rules from his Temple (that’s where His throne is) and it is His resting place.
We have still not mentioned how the idea of seven days fits in. Above, we noted that in other ancient Near Eastern accounts of temple building the time period of 7 days was significant for the inauguration of the temple and its occupation by deity. The same understanding can be found in the account of the building and consecrating of Solomon’s Temple in 1 Kings 6-8. In 1 Kings 6:38 were are told that it took Solomon seven years to build the Temple. In chapter 8, the Temple is inaugurated during the Feast of Booths which occurs in the seventh month. This feast, according to Deuteronomy 16:13-15 lasts seven days. Solomon actually extends the seven day feast for an additional seven days (1 Kgs. 8:65). Note the emphasis on temple building and the number seven in this passage: 7 years, the 7th month, a 7 day feast, followed by another 7 days.
When Genesis 1:1-2:3 relates that God created the world in seven days and then rested, what it is seeking to communicate is that God created the earth as His Temple. God’s desire is to dwell with human beings. That’s what a temple or tabernacle is all about. God’s rest on the seventh day means that He has taken up the task of ruling over what He has created. This truth is communicated very effectively by John Walton and N.T. Wright in a couple of short videos. Here are the links: John Walton: Interpreting the Creation Story; and NT Wright and Peter Enns: What Do You Mean By Literal?
Conclusion: So Are the Seven Days of Creation Literal?
After looking at the above argument and watching the video by NT Wright and Peter Enns, my hope is that we might rethink our question. My question would be, “Why does the inspired author structure the Creation story according to seven days?” One answer could be, “Because it really happened in seven days.” But based on the evidence presented here, we might say that a more important observation is what those seven days communicate. If the Creation story is seeking to tell us something about God’s desire to dwell and rule among his creation, that seems like a far more important truth than simply saying seven days means He created the world in seven days. The modern question and answer doesn’t leave us much to chew on. But the intent of the story in its original context gives us a lot to think about! The debate about whether the days of Creation in Genesis 1 are 24 hour days has good arguments both for and against. For example, the sun, moon, and stars are not created until Day 4 (Gen. 1:14-19). Since we are told they were created “for signs and seasons, and for days and years,” we might conclude that it is impossible to tell how long the first three days were. We measure days, months, and years by the sun and moon, so how do we know that days 1-3 were literal 24 hour days if there was no sun or moon? Another unusual feature of the Creation story is that every day ends with the statement, “And there was evening and there was morning.” Every day, that is, except day 7 which has no ending whatsoever. Now that’s a long day! This clearly suggests that the focus is not on a 24 hour period. However, the 24-hour-side might come back and point out that Israel is commanded to keep the Sabbath because, “In six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth…and rested on the seventh” (Exod. 20:11). This now sounds like literal 24 hour days. More arguments can be mounted in favor of both positions. To me the sad point in all of this is while we argue which position is the correct one, or the most orthodox one, we are missing the true beauty of the Creation narrative and the real significance behind the meaning of the seven days! In the end, it doesn’t really matter to me whether God created the world in 7 literal 24 hour days or in a longer (or even shorter!) span of time. I want to know why He created this world, and what Genesis 1:1-2:3 has to say to my life.