What did Moses mean when he wrote in Exodus 20:11: “For in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them”? I would like to briefly argue here that “day” in Genesis 1 and Exodus 20 should be interpreted as a normal 24-hour period of time. More extensive arguments are given by Robert McCabe, Gerhard Hasel, Mark Snoeberger, Jason Lisle, and Jonathan Sarfati.
1. Each day is defined as one evening and one morning whereas long ages have multiple evenings and mornings.
2. When the term “day” is used preceded by a number in Scripture, it always refers to a 24-hour period of time. Hosea 6:2 is not an exception to this rule when Hosea says “on the third day he will raise us up” since this is a messianic prophecy fulfilled when Jesus rose from the dead on the third day (Luke 13:32; 24:46). The first day of the week when Jesus rose again was a literal 24-hour day.
3. Exodus 20:11 interprets the days of Genesis 1 as literal days occurring in the course of one week: “For in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested the seventh day.” God’s pattern of working and rest is our pattern for life. Notice the introductory causal term “for” explaining why the Israelites should observe this pattern of six days of work followed by a day of rest. A non-literal interpretation of “day” would destroy the force of the argument for the people of God to observe the Sabbath if God did not actually create the earth in six days and rest on the seventh.
4. The term “day” occurs with other temporal markers such as “seasons” and “years” in Genesis 1:14. If “day” is a long period of time, then what are “seasons” and “years”?
5. Genesis 1 is an example of narrative literature rather than poetry as demonstrated by the consistent use of qal waw-consecutive imperfect verbal forms also known as preterites. See Steven Boyd’s work on the subject.
6. Long ages of time would introduce animal death before the fall of Adam into sin contradicting Romans 8:19-23 which includes the fall of all creation with the fall of man. The cursing of the ground is a direct result of Adam’s sin and did not exist beforehand: “cursed is the ground because of you” (Gen 3:17). Death of any kind is not “very good” (Gen 1:31). Even children know this when their pets die. Death will not exist in the new heavens and new earth (Rev 21:4). If animal death was “very good,” then why doesn’t God allow for it to continue forever?
7. The incentive to interpret “day” as something other than a 24-hour period is not derived from exegesis, but by evolutionary constraints to fit billions of years into the text of Scripture and accommodate evolution with Christianity.
8. The history of Christianity is almost universally against interpreting “day” as a long period of time in Genesis 1. The concept of evolution is pagan in origin having its roots in Greek philosophy rather than the Bible. It was not until the rise of evolutionary biology and uniformitarian geology that old-earth creationism gained a foothold in the church.
9. Even if the days of Genesis are long ages, their chronology and ordering of events does not fit in with an evolutionary understanding of astronomy.
10. The nearly universal consensus of Hebrew scholars is that the days of Genesis 1 were intended to be interpreted as literal 24-hour days by the original author.
James Barr, a well-known Hebrew scholar and no friend of Christianity, admitted in 1984 that the interpretation of “day” as intended to be understood in Genesis 1 as a 24-hour period of time is the universal interpretation of Hebrew scholars as far as he knows:
“Probably, so far as I know, there is no professor of Hebrew or Old Testament at any world-class university who does not believe that the writer(s) of Genesis 1-11 intended to convey to their readers the ideas that (a) creation took place in a series of six days which were the same as the days of 24 hours we now experience (b) the figures contained in the Genesis genealogies provided by simple addition a chronology from the beginning of the world up to later stages in the biblical story (c) Noah’s flood was understood to be world-wide and extinguish all human and animal life except for those in the ark. Or, to put it negatively, the apologetic arguments which suppose the ‘days’ of creation to be long eras of time, the figures of years not to be chronological, and the flood to be a merely local Mesopotamian flood, are not taken seriously by any such professors, as far as I know.”
This general consensus has been corroborated by others. For these reasons, I see the days in Genesis 1 as 24-hour periods and not long ages of time. The Zondervan Counterpoints book The Historical Adam has a good discussion on whether Genesis 1-3 should be interpreted as literal history or allegorically. Walt Brown has a useful article on how the New Testament interprets Genesis 1-11 which contradicts an allegorical reading of Genesis.