Were the Days of Creation 24 Hours Long? The Non-Chronological Arrangement of Genesis 2

non-chronoglocial-arrangement

Having examined how the literary arrangements of Genesis 1 and Genesis 2 develop, let us now pause to reflect upon any insights that can be gleaned concerning the timing of creation. Let’s dive in to understand if the days of creation were 24 hours or not.

In this article, I want to draw our attention to the non-chronological arrangement of Genesis 2. A close reading of this chapter shows us that Moses was guided by thematic rather than chronological concerns in his arrangement of the account. This observation should make us slow to assume that Moses’ aim in these creation accounts was to outline a precise timing of events.

Who came first: Adam or the animals?

One of the key places where we find Moses not all that interested in presenting a chronological account pertains to his ordering of Adam and the animals in the creation sequence. It is noteworthy that Moses finds no problem reversing his order of these events in chapter 2 from what he just presented us with in chapter 1.

In Genesis 1, God creates birds on day 5 (verses 20-23), land animals at the start of day 6 (verses 24-25) and then lastly Adam and Eve (verses 26-31).

However, in Genesis 2, Moses presents God creating Adam first, followed by the land animals and birds. He reverses the sequential ordering of these three sets. You can see this in the text below:

Then the Lord God formed the man of dust from the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living person. . . . 18 Then the Lord God said, “It is not good for the man to be alone; I will make him a helper suitable for him.” 19 And out of the ground the Lord God formed every animal of the field and every bird of the sky, and brought them to the man” (Genesis 2:7, 18-19 NASB).

The picture Moses paints here is of Adam starting out all “alone” on earth. After declaring this situation as “not good,” God creates animals. However, He does so not to solve Adam’s immediate need. For after Adam encounters and names all the animals, verse 20 concludes: “but for Adam there was not found a helper suitable for him” (NASB).  Rather than solving the problem, the animals serve to intensify it in order to ultimately intensify the way Adam cherishes Eve as his uniquely suitable helper.

For us as readers, the animal’s literary placement creates dramatic tension in the narrative that draws us in. It focuses us on the question, “Will a suitable helper for Adam ever be found?” By doing so, Moses draws us into Adam’s experience of loneliness and then exuberant joy when he first lays eyes on Eve. We can now feel the emotion behind his exclamation: “This one at last is bone of my bones, flesh of my flesh!” (Genesis 2:23).

It is interesting to consider that if this were the only account we had of creation, many would adamantly hold that Adam was created before the animals. This is simply the sequence we find in chapter 2. But as we read this account alongside chapter 1, it becomes clear that Moses is not focused on giving us the exact chronology. He is more interested in making sure we don’t miss the significance of key themes surrounding these historic events.

Moses presents the creation of animals as the next mainline event.

Let me slow down to explain more of what is happening in Genesis 2:19 (when God creates the animals). I want to direct your attention to how the original language presents a sequencing of events which cannot be transferred into English. I will try to make this as simple and clear as possible, so stick with me here.

Unlike English, Hebrew narrative uses a particular verbal form to mark the story’s mainline events. It is referred to as the wayyiqtol. These verbs link the main events of a story together in a sequential chain. They depict something like “and then this happened … and then this happened … and then this happened …”

If an author would like to present background information outside of this chain of events (say to recall something that happened in the past), they would signal this to their reader by using a different construction. There are two main ways of doing this, both of which Moses uses elsewhere in Genesis 2.

The first way is to present this background information in a relative clause. We find an example of this in Genesis 2:8, “there He placed the man whom He had formed.” This relative clause recalls the past event of God forming man off the main storyline.

The second construction authors use to signal background information is by switching the order of the subject and verb. Instead of starting with the verb, they start with the subject. An example of this construction can be found in Genesis 2:10. Here is how the words are ordered in Hebrew, “Now-a-river [subject] + went-out [verb]+ from-Eden.”

If Moses wanted to mark the creation of animals as an event that occurred before Adam, He could have used one these two very common devices (a relative clause or reversed word order) like he does elsewhere in Genesis 2. However, he intentionally presents this as part of the story’s sequential development of mainline events.  By doing so, Moses creates dramatic tension and delay to help us as readers experience the immensity of Adam’s joy when he first encounters Eve.

Can this be translated as a preceding event?

Rather than acknowledging Moses’ thematic concerns as the guiding element in his arrangement of this account, some have proposed alternative translations. They try to harmonize these events by treating the wayyiqtol here as a past perfect. This presents the action as an event which had already occurred sometime in the past (and not as the next event in the series).

The NIV and ESV are the only two well-known translations that do this. Here is how the NIV translates Genesis 2:19.

“Now the Lord God had formed out of the ground all the wild animals and all the birds in the sky” (emphasis added).

While there are a few rare occasions where the wayyiqtol can function as a past perfect, many argue such a use is not justified in this context. Here is how the NET Bible summarizes it in their notes.

“To harmonize the order of events with the chronology of chapter one, some translate [the wayyiqtol] as a past perfect (“had formed,” cf. NIV) here. (In chapter one the creation of the animals preceded the creation of man; here the animals are created after the man.) However, it is unlikely that the Hebrew construction can be translated in this way in the middle of this pericope, for the criteria for unmarked temporal overlay are not present here.”[1]

While there remains some debate among Hebrew scholars on “the criteria for unmarked temporal overlay” with this particular verbal form (which gets far more technical than I imagine most want to engage with), let me point out the simple fact that Moses intentionally chose to leave this “unmarked.” He did not distinguish this as a preceding event even though He could have. He purposely constructed it as the next event in the main storyline. Thus, he is more interested in presenting a thematic development than giving us a chronological account. If chronology was his driving concern, he would have presented this as background information through a relative clause or reversed word order. However, he did not find this important.

Another instance: Moses rewinds the tape to give more detail.

Let me point out another place in Genesis 2 where were we find Moses arranging the account thematically rather than chronologically. The details involved here are much less debated and are easy to see in English translations.

It pertains to Moses’ use of the literary pattern called synopsis/resumption–expansion. This is when an author tells the whole story in brief form (synopsis), and then repeats the story (resumption) in greater detail (expansion). This arrangement is rather common in Hebraic literature.

Look with me at verses 8-9 and 15. It is easy to see how Moses retells with added detail the same two events he summarized in verse 8.

[Creating a Garden]

The Lord God planted a garden toward the east, in Eden;

[Placing man in the garden]

and there He placed the man whom He had formed. 

[Creating a Garden – Retold]

Out of the ground the Lord God caused every tree to grow that is pleasing to the sight and good for food; the tree of life was also in the midst of the garden, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. . . .

[Placing man in the garden – Retold]

15 Then the Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to cultivate it and tend it . . .” (Genesis 2:8-9, 15 NASB).

Wrap up on Days of Creation

Although Moses presents each of these verbs in a sequence of mainline events (by using the wayyiqtol verbal form), it becomes clear that the account is not meant to be read as a precise sequence of events. Instead, Moses arranges the account to emphasize the twofold theme of vegetation and humanity. Once again, we find him more interested in expounding key themes than outlining the timing of these events.

This realization should keep us from immediately assuming everything is chronologically arranged and that the timing of these events is a central element to Moses’ account of creation.

For many, the idea of the Bible presenting historical information thematically rather than chronologically is new to them. However, it is not all that uncommon in Scripture. To help us realize the prominence of this, our next article will look at a few other clear examples of non-chronological arrangement in Scripture.

Go Deeper:


[1] https://netbible.org/bible/Genesis+2 For further resources they mention S. R. Driver, A Treatise on the Use of the Tenses in Hebrew, 84-88, and especially R. Buth, “Methodological Collision between Source Criticism and Discourse Analysis,” Biblical Hebrew and Discourse Linguistics, 138-54. For a contrary viewpoint see IBHS 552-53 §33.2.3 and C. J. Collins, “The Wayyiqtol as ‘Pluperfect’: When and Why,” TynBul 46 (1995): 117-40.

1 Comment

  1. Bob Glaser on August 1, 2021 at 5:41 pm

    Always good to learn background, and reasoning, when trying to understand seemingly controversial biblical passages. Thank you. I think God does not give us every explicit detail so we will delve into the study of His word. We live by faith, not sight.

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