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Can "Yom" in Gen 1 be translated "aeon" meaning "an age". What is its semantic range?

I have read a few translations which translated "days" as: "From darkness to light, the sixth creation phase" and "the mixing and the breaking forth were the time sixth" in Genesis 1:31. Now if these are credible translations of the Hebrew text, why all the controversy?


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This really a doctrinal question, not a textual one, and one that has been dealt with over at C.SE: christianity.stackexchange.com/questions/7476/…. This is a valid position, but it calls for a doctrinal rather than exegetical answer. –  Affable Geek Mar 2 '14 at 2:12
@hamartia : I have edited your question to a form better suited to the remit of BH.SE. If you are unhappy with this, please roll-back and/or edit appropriately. Thanks! –  Davïd Mar 11 '14 at 8:52

3 Answers 3

OP question #1:

Can "Yom" in Gen 1 be translated "aeon" meaning "an age".

The short answer is "not quite". יוֹם (yôm) can refer to some unspecified period of time, as in "the day of the LORD" (as e.g. in Amos 5:18), but that is usually regarded as quite a specialized meaning.

Typically, the "unspecified period" is used with the plural, "days", however: e.g. Deuteronomy 32:7: "Remember the days of old...".

Its "basic" meaning is "day (as opposed to night)", i.e., "daytime" (e.g., Numbers 9:21), but it is also used of the 24-hour period (e.g., Leviticus 22:30). It also has a range of uses much like the English "day", e.g., "...the day when you came out the land of Egypt..." as a reference to the time of the exodus (Deut 16:3 -- see all the uses of "day" in verses Deut 16:3-4!).

The yôm entry in Brown, Driver, and Briggs, A Hebrew and English Lexicon of the Old Testament (OUP, 1906), pp. 398-401 gives a good sense for the range of meaning lexicographers attach to this biblical Hebrew word.

For idiomatic uses of yôm, see S.J. De Vries, Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow: Time and History in the Old Testament (Eerdmans, 1975), and pp. 39-53 in particular.

For yet more reference material, see the "יוֹם (yôm)" article by Magne Sæbø in G. Botterweck & H. Ringgren (eds), Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament (Eerdmans, 1990), vol. 6, pp. 7-32.

OP question #2:

Now if these are credible translations of the Hebrew text, why all the controversy?

The translations cited by OP are not credible: survey the range of translations for "public" versions of Genesis 1:31: the "creation time" and "mixing and breaking forth" wordings here and throughout Genesis 1 in the "translation" cited by OP are simply fanciful, and do not correspond to the wording of the Hebrew.

(Beyond this, the question has to do not only with Hebrew semantics but with commitments beyond the linguistic, and best discussed either at Mi Yodea or Christianity.SE.)

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A little known fact that is often left out of this type of discussion is that we ourselves do not have 24-hour days. It also depends on what definition of "day" you use, you could use the "one full rotation of the Earth around its axis" (rotation period or sidereal day) or "the time it takes for the sun to go back to its position in the sky" (solar day).

For an excellent explanation of this see How long is a day?

Some relevant quotes from that site:

It actually takes the Earth slightly over 23 hours and 56 minutes to rotate once around this axis. In this time all the stars appear to revolve once around the Earth and return to their starting positions. Astronomers call this period of time a sidereal day.


But the Earth's axis is inclined at an angle of about 23.5° from the perpendicular to the plane of the Earth's orbit. And although the Earth's orbit is close to being circular, it is actually an ellipse, so it is shaped like a slightly squashed circle.

These two factors mean that the time taken for the Sun to return to a position due south in the sky varies slightly throughout the year. On average this period of time is 24 hours. But at some times of the year it is slightly longer and at other times of the year it is slightly shorter.

So, how long is a day? We cannot say that a day is by necessity 24 hours. And therefore we also cannot say that a yom is 24 hours either. Especially since the sun (or "greater light to rule the day") was not created until the fourth day (Genesis 1:16).

In other words, it is eisegetical to insert the meaning of "24 hours" to the word "day" (even in English), since even in our present time, it is not so. We say a day is 24 hours out of convention and pragmatism (imagine if we started using strict sidereal days or solar days, the mess that would create), not any other reason.

As other answers point out, the day "yom" is not used to refer only to a solar day or rotation period, but can refer to events such as "the Day of the Lord", "the day I took you out of Egypt", etc. Again, as noted in other answers, you can check any concordance for this, and if you can read basic Hebrew, the BDB (Brown, Driver and Briggs A Hebrew and English Lexicon of the Old Testament) for occurrences of "יוֹם" and how it is used in each given context.

Another point is to say that in Genesis 1:5, God calls the light "day", not a specific quantity of time.

If we translate "yom" in Genesis 1 to "aeon" that would add unnecessary interpretation and perhaps even greater confusion, depending on how people understand the word "aeon" (an explanation of why this cannot be thousands or millions of years would require the use of doctrine, so would belong better in a different forum than this one). It would also create a greater conflict since the fact that the creation model of 6 yomim with the 7th yom for rest was what the law of the Sabbath was based upon.

"For in six days the LORD made the heavens and the earth, the sea and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day; therefore the LORD blessed the sabbath day and made it holy." Exodus 20:11 (NASB)

So it is important to keep the translation coherent with this reasoning, hence the choice of "day" for other languages too.

To answer your final question, the controversy is actually only a century or two old, when people started believing in evolution and saying that the earth was millions of years old (and now billions). This obviously conflicted with the biblical account of how long life has been on Earth (notice I didn't say "of how old Earth is"), and the polemic evolved (pardon the pun) as people chose sides in the matter. Only then did some find it necessary to find a different meaning for the word "yom", to attempt to reconcile wanting to sit on both sides of the fence.

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What you are saying is not all relevant for the question under debate. The authors of the Old Testament books, like other ancient peoples, did not believe that the earth rotated around an axis; they thought that the heavens spin around an immobile earth. In ordinary time keeping the period from sunrise to sunset was divided into 12 hours of the day, and the time from sunset to sunrise into 12 hours of the night, so the length of each hour differed from day to day. Later, scientific authors like Ptolemy divided the period from sunrise to sunrise evenly into 24 equinoctial hours. –  fdb Mar 12 '14 at 11:08
The modern measurement of the sidereal or solar day as slightly more than 24 hours depends on the modern redefinition of time units in terms of wavelengths. So, in the Bible the day (in the broader sense) is exactly 24 hours, the day (in the narrower sense of “period of daylight”) exactly 12 hours. –  fdb Mar 12 '14 at 11:08
@fdb, can you provide a Biblical reference for those statements? Even so, according to what you said, "the length of each hour differed from day to day" shows that not all days were equal in length. Same conclusion, different path. The point I raise is that what is generally assumed to be the meaning of "24 hour day" is incorrect (or at best, imprecise). Which is no different to what you said. –  Raphael Rosch Mar 12 '14 at 14:43
@fdb the reason I asked for Biblical references is because you are making (non hermeneutical) statements, assumptions about how people at the time thought, something that cannot be concluded from the text. The OP's question included this: "why all the controversy?" Which is what my answer addresses with the parts on the solar and sidereal days. If the Bible does not discuss these things, then it is assumption (ie, the source of the controversy), and not hermeneutics. Something that would belong on another forum. –  Raphael Rosch Mar 12 '14 at 16:10
@RaphaelRosch FYI I just edited this to use blockquote rather than code block formatting for your quotes. +1 from me, good work. –  Dan Mar 12 '14 at 21:45

There is no linguistic support for יום as any period of time other than 24 hours. In all available Hebrew and cognate languages, it's just 24 hours. So if you insist that your interpretations are based on linguistic evidence, you are out of luck. If you are willing to take a more metaphorical view of the text, well, then, off you go-- but to another site.

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To be absolutely precise, yom means not only a period of one day and one night (“24 hours”), but also “daytime” as opposed to night. And of course it has lots of figurative usages. The first chapter of Genesis is basically an aetiological sanctification of the Jewish concept of the Sabbath: God created the world in six days and rested on the seventh; consequently men and women must also rest from all work on the seventh day. If, in this context, “day” were to mean anything other than “the period of one day and one night”, then the whole point of Genesis 1 would be lost. –  fdb Mar 11 '14 at 10:49

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