Was the World Made in Seven Days?

creation, creator, creature, genesis

creation, creator, creature, genesis

Christianity has had a somewhat rocky relationship with science these last few centuries. While many people would argue that there are no real contradictions between our faith and genuine scientific findings, not everyone agrees. There are some who believe that several tenets of modern science, such as evolution and heliocentrism, contradict the teaching of Scripture. As a result, many Christians use the Bible as justification for rejecting those scientific findings, and many non-Christians use science as justification for rejecting the Bible.

To sidestep this problem, most Christians today opt for figurative interpretations of passages that seem to contradict modern science. For example, when they read the seven-day creation account in Genesis (Gn 1, 2:1-3), they claim that the Bible is not trying to teach us exactly how God created the world. Rather, it is simply trying to teach us theological truths about God and the world. Consequently, they do not take the seven days literally, so the conflict with modern scientific understandings of the history of the universe disappears.

The Problem

However, there is a problem with the way this interpretive strategy is often presented. When we read the seven-day creation story, it’s not immediately obvious that the days are in fact meant to be taken figuratively. Rather, it seems like people today read the text through the lens of modern cosmology, and they interpret it figuratively because they’re trying to find a way, any way, to reconcile their faith with their science. It seems like they’re taking science as their primary standard of truth to which the Bible must conform.

However, if that is all we can do, then it’s difficult to see how we can salvage the reliability of Scripture. If the seven-day creation story doesn’t give us any indication that it is meant to be taken figuratively, then to do so is actually to misinterpret it. If the text is intended to be taken literally, then it contradicts modern science, plain and simple. To impose upon it a meaning it was never supposed to have is simply a dishonest way of admitting that it’s wrong.

Instead, if we want to show that our faith doesn’t really contradict our science, we have to do more than just come up with clever ways to interpret Scripture; we have to show that the text was always meant to be understood that way. In other words, we have to show that the author of the seven-day creation story actually intended the days to be taken figuratively and that he meant to teach us theological truths about God and the world rather than scientific truths about how exactly the world came to be.

The General Pattern

To do this, we have to examine the text carefully and see if it gives us any clues to the author’s real meaning. When we do this, we’re going to see that the seven days are simply a literary framework that the author used to structure his story. He didn’t believe that God literally created the world in seven days, so neither should we. The first step in demonstrating this is to point out the pattern in the seven days of creation. In each of the first three days, God creates habitats or environments, and then in the next three days, he fills them with inhabitants. Finally, the entire week is capped off with the seventh day, the Sabbath, in which God rests and enjoys his creation. To see this pattern, let’s take a look at what God creates on each of the first six days:

Habitats/Environments:
Day 1: Light/day and darkness/night
Day 2: The sky, which separates the waters above (basically what we now know are clouds) from the waters below (the seas and oceans)
Day 3: The waters below the sky are gathered into one place, and dry land appears

Inhabitants:
Day 4: The sun and moon “to rule over the day and over the night, and to separate the light from the darkness” (Gn 1:18)
Day 5: Birds to fly in the sky and sea creatures to swim in the ocean
Day 6: Land animals, including man

The Specific Pattern

When we lay out the days this way, the pattern is quite obvious. As I said, God creates habitats on the first three days, and then he fills them with inhabitants on the next three. However, there’s actually more to it than just this. The pattern is actually more specific than just a general correspondence between days 1-3 and days 4-6; each day in the first set corresponds to one in the second set. Specifically, days 1 and 4 go together, days 2 and 5 go together, and days 3 and 6 go together. To see this, we can reorganize the days and make it clearer:

Day 1: Light/day and darkness/night
Day 4: The sun and moon “to rule over the day and over the night, and to separate the light from the darkness” (Gn 1:18)

Day 2: The sky, which separates the waters above (basically what we now know are clouds) from the waters below (the seas and oceans)
Day 5: Birds to fly in the sky and sea creatures to swim in the ocean

Day 3: The waters below the sky are gathered into one place, and dry land appears
Day 6: Land animals, including man

This more specific pattern is almost perfect, but there is one small issue with it: the creation of the sea seems to take two days (days 2 and 3). First, by separating the waters above from the waters below, God creates the sea on day 2, and then he separates it from the dry land and names it on day 3. The pattern gets a bit messy here, but it still holds up if we look at the days closely. By the time God makes the dry land appear on day 3, the sea already exists; he just hasn’t named it yet because there’s nothing on earth to contrast it with. However, once he creates the dry land, he can name the waters below “the sea” because He can now contrast it with the land. Nevertheless, it was still created on day 2. As a result, the pattern gets a bit messy, but it ultimately holds up.

The Sunlight Problem

If God wanted to, he could have created the world in seven days according to a pattern like this, so the mere fact that there’s a structure to the text does not automatically mean that it is supposed to be taken figuratively. Rather, we still need to look for an indication in the text that this is merely a literary pattern rather than a literal description of God’s creative activity, and that indication comes in the form of a problem.

God creates the sun and moon on day 4 in order to “separate the day from the night” (Gn 1:14) and “give light upon the earth” (Gn 1:15), but all of that has already happened on day 1. Day and night have been alternating since the very first day of creation, and light was the very first thing God created (Gn 1:3). Consequently, the story doesn’t seem to work when taken literally. How can there be light before the sources of light are created? How can day and night alternate with nothing to separate them?

A Potential Solution?

Nevertheless, this still doesn’t prove that the seven days aren’t meant to be taken literally. If God really did create the world this way, then he could have miraculously given light to his creation and caused day and night to alternate before he created the sun and the moon. As a result, the text could still be intended to be a literal account of how God created the world.

However, there is a problem with this view. In the second creation story (which comes right after the seven-day story and is intended to supplement it rather than contradict it), we read that in the beginning, “no plant of the field was yet in the earth and no herb of the field had yet sprung up—for the Lord God had not caused it to rain upon the earth, and there was no one to till the ground” (Gn 2:5). This tells us that when God created the world, he didn’t miraculously cause things to behave contrary to their natures. He let the land remain barren until he gave it what it naturally needed for plants to come about, so we can extrapolate from this and conclude that he didn’t miraculously create light and separate night from day without the sun and the moon either. Consequently, the problem remains.

The Real Solution

With that, we come to the third and final, decisive step in our demonstration that the seven days of creation are meant to be taken figuratively. The key is not simply that the days are laid out in a clear pattern; it’s not even just that the story doesn’t work when taken literally. Rather, the smoking gun is the fact that even though the seven days don’t work as a literal, scientific account, they work perfectly when we take them as a literary framework. The sun and moon are created on the wrong day if we take the account literally, but they are created on exactly the right day if the author was simply using the seven days as a literary framework.

From this, we can see that the author was not trying to give us a literal, scientific account of the creation of the world. Rather, he was just trying to teach us theological truths about God and creation, and to do this, he created a literary framework into which he fit the various elements of the story, even if it meant that his story didn’t work when taken literally.

Faith and Science

At the end of the day, we can see that the seven-day creation story in Genesis does not in fact contradict modern scientific findings. It is not supposed to be a literal account of how exactly God made the world; rather, it is a figurative and poetic account meant to teach theological truths. As a result, we can successfully avoid both extremes that we often find in modern debates about this story. On the one hand, it doesn’t allow us to use science to reject the Bible, and on the other hand, it doesn’t allow us to use the Bible to reject science.

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2 thoughts on “Was the World Made in Seven Days?”

  1. Pingback: SVNDAY CATHOLICA EDITION | Big Pulpit

  2. I see no reason why there needs to be such conflict either with the bible or with science. One must first recognize that there are no absolutes (except for God Himself). Who cares if the world was built in 6 days, or over millions as time is relevant. While I fully believe that God created the world and all that is in it, evolution via natural selection in which the environment exerts enough influence to change everything in it to some extent is very possible. God did not plunk us all down in a static environment. If the world has changed over time who cares and what does that really mean if anything as to whether God created the world. Science likes to think it has all the answers, but one must realize that in the scope of things we still know little to nothing. Science measures what is observable, and can no more prove or disprove of God. It is the absolutists that try to use the speck we know of God to find all the answers in this world, as well as science that tries to answer all without Him. Hopefully when we all get to Heaven, we’ll have a hearty chuckle at our total and complete ignorance.

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