The top Hebrew scholars all agree that the writer of Genesis 1 intended the word day to mean 24 hours. If they all agree . . . then why can’t we?
In 1983, as a Junior, I walked into the University of Georgia’s religion building terrified. The professor was an expert in Hebrew from Yale University. I had been a Christian for only two years, and I wanted to learn that language.
I knew that the religion department doubted the authorship of Old Testament books. For them, the myth Enuma Elish was more important for understanding Genesis than was Moses, Paul, or Jesus. Most of them believed that evolution disproved Christianity once and for all. Jesus was just a man, and the Bible was a book like any other book—written only by man and full of errors.
I knew at the core of this secular approach to Bible study was the axiom that human reason is supreme. They believed that scholars are over, rather than under, God’s Word. So I anxiously wondered how studying Hebrew in a secular setting might help or hurt my faith.
The Bible, however, has an intrinsic, self-authenticating power—a power even skeptics cannot destroy. In spite of skeptical attacks, the Hebrew language has remained a passion of my life for almost thirty years. I focused my doctoral work in England on the New Testament use of the Old Testament, and my continuous study of Hebrew since then has reaffirmed the supernatural nature of God’s Word and its truth at every point.
I teach at a Christian college that hosts a conference every year on a contemporary hot topic. Last year the school decided to host one on the proper reading of Genesis 1–2. The goal was to gather all the major evangelical scholars for a two-day conference and let them present their cases for different ways to read the first two chapters of Genesis.
The school stumbled on a serious problem—we could not find a nationally recognized Old Testament scholar who held the traditional view that the world was created in six twenty-four hour days.
During my search, I even went to the national Evangelical Theological Society meeting and attended their session on Genesis 1–2. During a panel discussion, some scholars began to openly mock the traditional view. Others assured the audience that Enuma Elish, and the like, were the key to understanding Genesis. I felt like I was back in Peabody Hall. What was happening?
When I left ETS, I was confused. Did the majority of evangelical scholars really believe that the Hebrew text failed to support the traditional view? Did they believe that no one who studies Hebrew seriously believes that God supernaturally created everything in six days a few thousand years ago?
This experience bothered me so badly that I started doing more research. I knew that modern critical scholars think the day-age view and the more recent framework hypothesis are grammatically untenable from the standpoint of the original author’s intent. One of the best Hebraists in the world, James Barr of Oxford University, had written in a letter twenty years ago, “So far as I know, there is no professor of Hebrew or Old Testament at any world-class university who does not believe that the writer(s) of Gen. 1–11 intended to convey to their readers the ideas that (a) creation took place in a series of six days which were the same as the days of 24 hours we now experience (b) the figures contained in the Genesis genealogies provided by simple addition a chronology from the beginning of the world up to later stages in the biblical story.”1
I wondered what modern “world-class” Hebraists would say about Barr’s statement today, so I tracked down several leading experts to ask their opinion.
Hugh Williamson is the current Regius Professor of Hebrew at Oxford University. Oxford is perhaps the most prestigious university in the world, and Williamson is one of the top Hebraists anywhere. In an email he responded, “So far as the days of Genesis 1 are concerned, I am sure that Professor Barr was correct. . . . I have not met any Hebrew professors who had the slightest doubt about this unless they were already committed to some alternative by other considerations that do not arise from a straightforward reading of the Hebrew text as it stands.”2
I also emailed Barr’s letter to Emanuel Tov of Hebrew University Jerusalem; he would be on anyone’s list of Hebrew experts. Professor Tov responded in kind: “For the biblical people this was history, difficult as it is for us to accept this view.”3 Here was confirmation from a Jewish man who spoke and thought in Hebrew.
There is a residential theological research library called Tyndale House, located outside of Cambridge University in England. You can rent a room and literally live in the library. It is perhaps the best such facility in the world. During its history some of the top scholars have been its “warden.” The current warden is a young man of encyclopedic knowledge named Peter Williams. He sent a paper to me that said, “Although the Young Universe Creationist position is not widely held within secular academia, the position—that the author of Genesis 1 maintained that the world was created in six literal days—is nearly universally held.”4
I could go on, listing dozens and dozens of names, but there is no need. The scholarship is clear. The writer of Genesis 1–2 meant the text to teach chronology in terms of normal days. So why would almost the entirety of evangelical scholarship reject the author’s intent?
My inability to find many evangelical scholars who support the traditional view was puzzling for another reason: evangelicals’ public commitment to the inerrancy of Scripture. The Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy, signed in 1978, gives the fullest statement on what evangelicals believe about the Bible. Article 12 says of creation and the Flood, “We deny that Biblical infallibility and inerrancy are limited to spiritual, religious, or redemptive themes, exclusive of assertions in the fields of history and science. We further deny that scientific hypotheses about earth history may properly be used to overturn the teaching of Scripture on creation and the flood.”
I was confused why many of the signers did not believe in the traditional view of Genesis 1–2. So I started emailing people I knew who had signed the document. What I found out was shocking. Henry Morris had proposed the language for Article 12, and he meant it to exclude long ages and theistic evolution.5 Many of the signers decided to reject Morris’s intended meaning and reinterpret his words in line with their own beliefs.
This was the same thing that happened among Bible-believing churches at the turn of the twentieth century, during the early rise of modernist theology. Ministers in the Presbyterian Church, for example, would affirm the Westminster Confession, but they would self-interpret the words. So where the Confession said that Jesus is God, the liberal minister agreed but meant that Jesus had a God-consciousness like any other man.
This is theological doublespeak. I am surprised that evangelicals are stumbling down the same dead-end path that wrecked mainline churches a century ago.
I would ask my evangelical brothers some basic questions. If the text of Genesis 1–2 does not mean to teach traditional chronology and twenty-four-hour days,6
Nobody has provided me with answers that point to anything but a traditional view of the original meaning. Anyone who says that a closer study of the Hebrew leads elsewhere is simply incorrect. The original intent is plain—a day was a day, from the very first miraculous day.
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