Saturday, March 21, 2009

Hermeneutics - The days of Genesis

Today I want to look at a specific example of the necessity of proper hermeneutics. Sometimes you hear the much debated argument over whether the days of Genesis 1 are of 24 hours length or periods of time. This debate has been going on over and over during my life time, but much of it I believe is wasted breath due to poor hermeneutics. I’m not saying that asking the question isn’t important, indeed it’s a proper and good question, it’s just that there are so many educated people around who talk nonsense all because of a failure of their hermeneutics, or a failure to properly apply hermeneutics.

Hermeneutics requires that we ask the historical and grammatical questions of the text. So we need to ask ourselves who wrote Genesis and when? This is the historical part of our hermeneutical principle. It is generally agreed that Moses wrote Genesis. Indeed most take it Moses wrote the Torah, the first five books of the Bible. Again Scripture itself attests Moses was the writer of the law ( torah ) John 1:17. I think that when Jesus says that Moses wrote the Torah that should settle it, John 5:46-47, John 7:19, Matthew 19:7-8 etc. It seems to me to be a bit of an arrogant furphy to say that he was just accepting a common understanding among God’s people of attributing the Torah to Moses, where is the Biblical evidence for that? If Jesus proclaims that Moses wrote it, and Paul declares all Scripture is breathed out by God as 2 Tim 3:16 states, then are not Jesus’ words Scripture?

There is of course the further question of the resources that Moses used to write it – whether he drew on oral traditions, or other documents kept by God’s people that had been recorded from earlier oral communication. However deciding on the answer to those questions will not prevent us I believe from determining the day issue of Genesis 1.

It’s generally taken that Moses wrote Genesis during the time of the Exodus of God’s people from Egypt. The first and major point to draw from this is that he wrote Genesis in the language concepts of that time. So when Moses said “day” it meant a numerical 24 hour day unless it was qualified in some other way in the context. Let me explain this a bit further. In Genesis 1 Moses not only says “one day”, “second day” etc but he also associates evening and morning with it. Now we need to ask how did the Hebrews of Moses time understand those words of “evening” and “morning” when Moses said them? Clearly they understood them as to what they signify. To give them any other meaning is to talk gibberish. What some commentators have further added here is that when the Hebrew word yom is qualified by a numeric for example “one”, then it stands for a 24 hour day. When yom is not so numerically qualified, as when we say for example “in the day of the horse and cart” we don’t mean a 24 hour period but a time period. Another example from the Bible in this regard is “in the day of the Judges”. Indeed if Moses had wanted to clarify that the days spoken of here were extended periods of time he could have used the Hebrew word olam which means just that.

Now some like Kevin Nelstead a Christian who is a geologist and believes in an old earth, have argued that yom is used also in Genesis 2:4 in a non-literal sense standing for a period of time, however, that is not an effective argument against 24 hour creation days because there is no number associated in the phrase with yom in verse 4 unlike in Genesis 1! If I might be so bold yom should not be said to be used in Genesis 2:4 in a “non-literal” sense, rather the word itself is literally day, but the phrase is figurative for “in the days of …” as I pointed out above. Just because we follow a hermeneutic based upon the literal sense of words doesn’t exclude figures of speech or metaphors or the like. Indeed you don’t have figures of speech or metaphors or any other literary device unless you take the word literally to begin with. And moreover, I would like to point out that what that word signifies has a limited range of meaning. Otherwise language becomes gibberish again and no communication is at all possible if for example the word “dog” signifies rock and dog and cat and horse and tree stump and house and so on and on.

Given the present contortions of so many people when trying to understand the meaning of days in Genesis 1 one has to wonder if they have the same difficulties with the New Testament when they come across statements like “Herod is a fox”. Will they suddenly devote hours of speculation about someone having a pet fox called Herod? And then write papers on the point the gospel writer was making by talking about this fox called Herod? Nonsense breeds nonsense doesn’t it!

A second issue that some have raised about the text being written during the time of the Exodus has to do with its purpose. One assumption given by some is that it was written to encourage the people of God as they walked in the wilderness after having left all behind. They needed to know that the Lord God is the creator of all things and sovereign over all. Now this has to be more than just an assertion, it needs to be buttressed by evidence from Scripture itself, it needs to be carefully argued for, and I for one so far have not read, nor found any clear indication in Scripture that this was the purpose of the creation accounts. It seems rather that Genesis 1 & 2 provide a theological grounding for understanding man’s present sinful state, how God did not make creation or man that way and that God has a plan to save mankind through the seed of a woman Genesis 3:15, a prophesy about the Messiah. Indeed Genesis 1-3 provide the basis for understanding the rest o the Bible.

So keep that in mind, but in the meantime we will just wait to see if any really good evidence for that theory arises. Regardless of that outcome I don’t believe it changes the understanding of the text as to the meaning of the word day.

You will no doubt have noticed how we have begun our investigation of the day issue of Genesis from a purely historical grammatical approach. Now we may buttress our understanding by taking notice of theological implications from the rest of Scripture. By this I mean that when we consider the argument put forth in Exodus for the Sabbath day it gives implications that cannot be dismissed about the days of Genesis. Again this Exodus passage was written by Moses! I am sure Moses didn’t have a brain freeze like some of us and had already forgotten what he’d said in Genesis chapter 1!

The argument presented in Exodus for the Sabbath to be observed is that since God created in 6 days and rested on the seventh, so we are to rest on the seventh day. The argument becomes nonsense if we say the day there represents time periods. What then follows from that kind of thinking? Could we say that we can work flat out for 6 months and then take the seventh off? Or let’s work for 6 years and take the seventh off? The Sabbath then becomes something we determine by whim, and not as God directed. Sadly it is rare that I hear anyone take seriously the argument of Exodus in relation to Genesis 1 but they certainly need to.

I have merely drawn our attention above to the importance of Hermeneutics regarding the lenght of days in Genesis 1. A lot more can and should be said about the issue, it's just that that is the place we are to start!

In Christ,

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