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

This post is more than 6 years old.

Posted at 10:00 on 11 December 2017

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.

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