Christianity sees the seventh day of creation tied to the fourth commandment in Exodus 20:8-11. Exodus 20:11 said God made the heaven and earth in six days and rested the seventh day. “Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.” C. John Collins observed that for many people, this implies that not only was the creation week “the first ‘week’ of the creation, but in fact it was of identical length to the week we are familiar with.” A day in Genesis 1 is twenty-four hours and a week is seven twenty-four hour days. Any other interpretation is a violation of the authority of Scripture and is forbidden. But what if that’s not what Genesis 1 means when it refers to days and a week?
In Redeeming Science Vern Poythress pointed out that although some people think that the length of a 24-hour day in Genesis 1 is obvious, “the text does not directly state how long the days were in terms of ordinary human measurement.” The use of the Hebrew word for day (yom) and the evening and morning refrain points to a correspondence between God’s work and the human sabbatical pattern, but it does not prove the correspondence is an identity.
The next thread to pull in the seven twenty-four-hour day understanding is that the seventh day doesn’t have the formulaic beginning and ending: “And God said . . . And there was evening and there was morning, the ______ day.” The usual reply is that seventh day in the creation week was the day God rested from all his creative work (Genesis 2:1-3). Since he completed his work in the sixth day, the seventh day would not have a formulaic ending because the creative work was completed. Nevertheless, this is a distinct break in the pattern of the workweek with the first six days.
But how long is the seventh day? Poythress said the seventh day has a special blessing and holiness because God rested on it from all his work (Genesis 2:3). God’s rest is the pattern for human rest, as we see in the fourth commandment. Since God rested on the seventh day of creation, He blessed the Sabbath and made it holy (Exodus 20:8-11). The holiness belongs to God’s rest, not the day itself. “The holiness extends to the day precisely because it is the day of God’s rest.” In order to deserve the holiness it receives, the seventh day must be linked closely to God’s rest. So he concludes that since God’s rest goes on forever, “God’s day of rest also goes on forever.”
While God’s work of creation was finished and his rest from it lasts forever, our rest on the seventh day isn’t absolutely finished yet. We begin again on the first day of the next workweek. But our work is heading towards the coming time of absolute, final rest (Hebrews 4:9-11). “Our human rest on one day of 24 hours looks not only backward to God’s rest from creating but also forward to our final ‘day’ of rest.” Human 24-hour Sabbath rest both foreshadows our final rest, and imitates the final rest of God, into which He has already entered. “This foreshadowing involves analogy to the reality to which it points, rather than pure identity of length.” So again, God’s seventh day in Genesis 2:2-3 is unending.
“And if this is so, then it is analogous rather than identical to a human day of 24 hours.” If the seventh day of the creation week is analogical, then the pattern of God’s entire workweek forms an analogical pattern to our work and rest. God’s workweek is not the same as a human workweek, but they correspond to one another. They are analogical. Now look at this conclusion another way.
An original reader of Genesis 1 would recognize and relate to the rhythm of God working with a rhythm like that of a human work week rather than a description of His activity segmented into 24-hour days. “The pattern that strikes him is the rhythm of work, not the question of the ticking clock.” The Israelites did not have mechanical clocks, so measurement by clock time (i.e., 24-hour days) makes no sense to them. The time pattern of workdays, followed by night—evening and morning—would make the most sense to them.
Poythress said in Christian Interpretations of Genesis 1 the analogy in Genesis 1 extends to the entire week, including the evenings and mornings, and isn’t just focused on the word day. “God pauses between his works from one day to the next.” This reflects the human work pattern noted in Psalm 104:23: “Man goes out to his work and to his labor until the evening.”
Now look at the pattern of evening and morning, repeated in the six days of creative work in Genesis 1. God is working during the day and “resting” during the evening, just as man does in his work. The lack of “evening and morning” for the seventh day in Genesis 2:3-4 indicates the continuation of his day of rest from the work of creation. “God’s rest from the work of creation is everlasting.” He no longer “creates” animals or plants or humans —the conception and birth of Christ being the only exception. So by inference, the day of God’s rest is everlasting; and not 24-hours long. So when Exodus 20:8-11 establishes a 24-hour Sabbath day of rest imitating the day of God’s rest from his creative works, it is analogical to God’s rest. “So again the salient factor is not the length of time, as measured by a clock of some kind, but rather the kinds of activities that take place during the day.”
We see God having the same pattern of work and rest, moving towards His Sabbath. The first day is God’s workday, followed by rest; and another workday and rest; continuing until the Sabbath day of rest. God cannot be literally said to “rest,” since he cannot get tired, so the language of his workweek and Sabbath is once again analogical and not literal. The narrator of Genesis “wanted primarily to tell us about the making and shaping of the earth as a place for humans to live in fellowship with their Maker.” See this link for free ebook copies of the two works referenced above by Vern Poythress, Redeeming Science and Christian Interpretations of Genesis 1.
C. John Collins said the best term for the formulaic language used in Genesis 1 was “exalted prose.” By this he meant the language is “higher” than ordinary language, as is the language in a very traditional high-church liturgy. “The language here is stylized, very broad-stroke, and majestic in its simplicity.” It makes the same truth claims as traditional prose narrative. But “we must not impose a ‘literalistic’ hermeneutic on the text.”
The alternative understanding proposed by Collins and Poythress for a literalistic sense of the days in Genesis 1 is called the analogical days view. There is an analogical, but not an identical correspondence between God’s workweek in Genesis and the human workweek of six 24-hours days and a day of rest. The days in Genesis are structured to set a pattern for our own rhythm of rest and work. The length of time for the creation week, either before or after it, is irrelevant to the purpose of the account. Poythress closed his discussion of the analogical day view in Redeeming Science with the following:
Thus, when some advocates of the 24-hour-day view claim to have specific information about the length of the days, they fall short in hearing what Genesis does and does not say. They sincerely desire to honor God’s word, and to follow God wherever he leads, but they have not done full justice to the passage. In harmony with the analogical day view, the passage simply teaches that God made the world in six days but does not provide details about how to measure the exact length of the days by some objective, nonhuman standard.
For more articles on creation in the Bible, see the link “Genesis & Creation.”