Were the Days of Creation 24 Hours Long? An In-Depth Look at Genesis 1-2
The Structure of Genesis 1
Genesis 1 is a structural masterpiece. The intentionality Moses gives to crafting it is quite astounding. So, let’s start by looking at the overarching arrangement of this account and consider what Moses is meaning to convey through it.
The bones of the narrative that hold it all together are a series of repeated phrases. Let me outline them below labeling them A, B, C, and D.
These phrases are repeated for each of the first six days of creation. What is interesting, however, is that the first three days all follow a slightly different pattern: Day 1 establishes the basic ABCD pattern; Day 2 removes one of the phrases (phrase C); Day 3 states ABC twice before concluding with D. You can see this in the chart below.
It gets even more interesting as we go on, for the same unique pattern of days 1-3 get repeated in days 4-6. You can see this in the chart below.
It is pretty amazing when you zoom out and discover Moses’ parallel arrangement of these phrases. But it is not just for “literary aesthetics” or to make the story “look pretty” that he crafts it in this way; Moses uses the structure to highlight how the events of each day are related to each other and together have theological significance for us today.
Let me display some of the main thematic parallels in the chart below. I have numbered these according to their days. Days 3 and 6 include two parts since God gives two creative pronouncements on these days.
You may also have noticed an internal similarity between days 1-3 and days 4-6. On days 1-3 we are told of God dividing and forming various regions: light/darkness, sky/waters, and dry land. Then on days 4-6 we see Him filling these regions with movement, purpose, and life: the lights (i.e., the sun and moon), sea creatures and birds, and land animals and humanity.
To summarize, days 1-3 depict God forming various regions and days 4-6 depict God filling them.
Do these two concepts (forming and filling) ring a bell?
Remember how Moses set up the creation account? Although he could have started the narrative at any point in time, he chose to pull us into the story at the point when “the earth was formless and empty” (1:2). Having established this twofold need, Moses then structures the rest of this account to show us how God is the one who brings order out of chaos (days 1-3) and fills what is empty with life (days 4-6).
So how does God bring order and peace out of chaos? How does he fill what is void with life?
Once again, God could have expressed His means of creation in all kinds of ways. Yet, He purposely chose to highlight His Word as the source of order and life. Moses hammers this home by mentioning ten mainline events of God speaking: “And God said,” “And God said,” And God said” . . .
Now, we can’t miss that the repetitive structure of Genesis 1 is intentional. Phrases A-D serve to highlight key elements of the creation narrative. They show us not only what happened, but also guide us in how we are to engage with these events. Although we as modern, western readers typically zone out from repetition, Moses’ readers would have leaned in. Repetition was one of the main ways they emphasized a point. Thus, the things we as modern readers are most tempted to ignore are the some of the very things Moses is trying to focus our attention on.
The power of God’s word is one of the main themes Moses wants us to see. For along with the mention of “And God said” we are repeatedly told “and it was so.” The verb for this phrase is used 7 times (a symbol of perfection) to display the effectiveness of God’s word.
As the Israelites would go on to engage with the rest of what God inspired Moses to write, this initial account in Genesis 1 was to establish a framework for how they were to view and approach God’s words that followed. These ten creative statements in Genesis 1 were to orient them to another set of “ten sayings” that God would give – what we often refer to as the “ten commandments.” Just as with creation, this next set of ten sayings were given to form and fill God’s people with abundant life.
Furthermore, in seeing how God’s word accomplished whatever it was sent out to do, the Israelites were to see that God and His promises were trustworthy. For them, this meant following His leading to inherit the land He promised to give them– a land which was then inhabited by an intimidating bunch.
As God assures us in Isaiah concerning the certainty of His promises:
“so is my word that goes out from my mouth:
It will not return to me empty,
but will accomplish what I desire
and achieve the purpose for which I sent it” (Isaiah 55:11 NIV).
Or as Paul reminds us from this creation account: We have a God who “calls into being things that do not exist” (Romans 4:17). Because of this, even against all hope, He we can live with a confident hope in Him to fulfill His promises (Romans 4:18).
The Nature of God’s Word
While phrases A and B focused on the means and effectiveness of God’s word, phrase C (“and God saw that it was good”) depicts the nature of His words: they are good and bring about what is good. We can trust God not only because He is powerful, but also because He is good.
The text also focuses in on two occasions when God speaks directly to His creation. Both instances recount a “blessing” which God speaks over them (Genesis 1:22, 28). With Adam and Eve, God continues on to inform them of His provision and bestow on them purpose. Though not in reported speech like the previous instances, we also find God blessing the seventh day as well in Genesis 2:3. Thus, each of the last three days display God’s heart to bless what he has made.
God’s goodness is not simply an abstract concept. It is something God wants us to experience. As David puts it, “Taste and see that the Lord is good” (Psalm 34:8). The goodness of God’s creation (even under its curse) is one of the many ways God expresses His goodness to us on a daily basis. And as Peter points out, the more we taste of God’s goodness, the greater we long for more of His life-giving Word (1 Peter 2:2-3).
A Pattern to Repeat
The final phrase (“And there was evening and there was morning, a _____ day”) serves to frame this account in terms of work week which culminates in the Sabbath.
The mention of evening and morning marks the end of each workday and recounts the period over which God (like humans) rests from His work. Since there is much to look at here, we will need to return to it in a future article.
But before then, it will be helpful to examine the structure of Genesis 2 and how it relates to what we have found here in chapter 1. After this, we will pause to reflect on the implication of these arrangements as they relate to the length of time involved in each day.
 John provides a great reflection on this at the beginning of his Gospel, linking God’s life-giving and revelatory Word to Jesus (see John 1:1-18).
 This verb also occurs 12 other times (another intentional number) to depict the concluding of the days – what we have labeled phrase D.
I have a question. This has always baffled me. Genesis 1:1-2 – The earth was formless, empty and dark. Verse 3 – God said let there be light and there was light to separate the day from night. But God only created the sun, moon and stars to separate day from night in verses 14 -16. What was the light in verse 3 since the sun, moon and stars have not yet been made?
This is a great observation and question. It is actually a question that believers have been discussing for thousands of years. Let me outline some of the main ways it is answered.
1) Those who hold to a young earth view (with 24-hour days) consider God’s glory to be the source of light. They suggest it is similar to what we see in Revelation 21:23, “The city does not need the sun or the moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gives it light, and the Lamb is its lamp.”
2) Hugh Ross and many who hold to the old-earth view (with the word day signifying ages), propose that the light mentioned in day 1 came from the sun. Since the author’s viewpoint is on earth in verse 2, they argue that the light is shining from the sun but the sun is not yet visible due to clouds (which scientists believed covered the earth in its early days). When God says “let there be lights” on day 4 (i.e., the sun and the moon), He is not speaking of them coming into existence. Rather he is speaking of them now being seen from earth with the clouds clearing. Proponents of this view note how there are a variety of words used for “create” in Hebrew and that each has their own meaning. While bara in verse 1 speaks of creation out of nothing (“God created the heavens and the earth”), “let there be” in verse 14 pertains to the lights’ appearance and function. Consider the use of this verb in Psalm 33:22, “Let your steadfast love . . . be upon us” (see also Psalm 90:17; 119:76). It is obvious that this is not a request for God’s love to begin, but for it to be manifested or function in a certain way. They contend that is what is happening here: the sun and moon are now visible from earth and given a particular function of demarcating sacred times, etc.
3) Another group within the old-earth camp holds something very similar to Hugh Ross and the day-age view. However, they don’t think Moses attempted to give a chronological arrangement of the days. They point to the lack of a prefixed article (something like “the” in English) on the word “day” along with the number which modifies it. This is a very unique construction that never occurs in any other mention of numbers and days in the Old Testament. The effect is likely to mark these as undefined lengths of time that need not be in chronological order. Although the mention of six days is certainly intentional, the chronology of them is not. Now, they affirm this is a historical account. However, they note how history can be presented in a number of ways (we see this in the Gospels where the ordering of events does not always follow chronology – this is actually rather common in Scripture). And since Moses presents these events with clear thematic parallels, they do not find chronology to be his guiding concern behind his literary arrangement. Moses signals this to us as readers by oddly removing the article before the days and their numbering. In light of all this, they consider Days 1 and 4 to very likely be describing the same event. It is simply telling of it in two ways: the first emphasizing the separating of light and dark (forming these domains), the second emphasizing the objects and their function (filling these domains).
Each of these views has been accepted in the church as possible readings. Many in the old-earth camp find this observation to intimate that 24-hour days are not in mind. I find myself in this old-earth group, but feel free to arrive at your own conclusion as you consider this in light of Genesis 1-2 as a whole.