I just realized I have never posted anything (other than my thesis) dealing with the range of meaning for the Hebrew יוֹם (yom) which is often translated as something like “day”. With all of the kerfuffles (that is a specific theological term 😉 ) over the word “day” in Genesis 1, I thought I’d do a brief post on my own work on this on what has been taught to my students (and will be tomorrow morning as well).
So here is the semantic range (the range of meanings based upon usage of the Hebrew term) as I have worked it out from my reading of the text of Genesis 1 (which is a distinct literary unit from verse 1 to either chapter 2, verse 3 or possibly verse 4):
- Period of light (v.5)
- Period of alternating darkness/light (vv.5, 8, 13)
- Cultic festivals (v.14)
- A twenty-four hour period (v.14, 18, 19, 23, 31)
- The “day” of God’s resting (2.2-3)
- The week of creation (2.4)
This first usage is what God “calls” the period of “light” which he had just created.
The second is (to be precise) an alteration between darkness and light. While this could be (and arguably is) the same as #4 there are many who see the lack of the sun, moon and stars (interestingly enough remaining unnamed by this text) on days 1-3 as indicative that these “days” are in fact not to be precisely equated with those following the creation of sun, moon and stars. This is argued on the basis of our own calculations of time as we experience it presently. I simply offer this variant because it is a possible (though I think unlikely) usage different from #4.
The third is best translated by the context provided in the New Jerusalem Bible of Gen.1.14: ‘God said, ‘Let there be lights in the vault of heaven to divide day from night, and let them indicate festivals, days and years’. Many of the translations miss the sense of the festivals as unique “days” in the unfolding revelation of God’s plan for creation. The (second) usage in this passage is not so much simply referring to the passage of days and years, but of the sacred days and years (ie, the Day of Atonement, Sabbath Years, etc.). It is a sacred (the scholarly term being “cultic”) day.
The fourth is typically where folks get rankled with one another and debate as if heaven and hell were in the balance. This is a usage of “day” that refers to twenty four hour periods of time passing (clarified by “evening and morning”) after the sun, moon and stars are in their courses. Now whether one should understand this literalistically (with fullest historical intent) or as a theological construct (without historical intent beyond God’s creating) is another issue. Both can regard it as a “twenty-four hour period”. One never moves beyond that sense. The other understands it as something like metaphor or construct.
The fifth might also simply fall into the category of the fourth, but is differentiated in the text by no ascription of “evening and morning” and technically no movement beyond the “day” of God’s resting (sabbathing). Some (even from the second Temple period in Judaism) regarded this as a reference to the ongoing “day” of God’s “rest”.
The sixth usage of yom is obscured in many translations by the use of “When” or “In the time of”. It is literalistically translated “In the day of…”. And this usage is pointing to the week of creation just laid out. It is not saying it took only one “day”, but points simply to the time of creation.
So what do you make of this semantic range? Is it possible we are missing the forest for the trees?