Were the Days of Creation 24 Hours Long? The Significance of Evening and Morning
“And there was evening, and there was morning, ______ day.”
As you may recall from a previous article, this is one of the four phrases Moses uses to structure Genesis 1. This particular one is how Moses concludes each creation workday (days 1-6, see Genesis 1:5, 8, 13, 19, 23, 31).
Since it plays a significant role in discussions concerning the timing of creation, it is worth examining what Moses is intending to communicate through it.
Now, there are two main ways of interpreting this phrase. So, let’s walk through what these interpretations are, the history of their depiction in English translations, and then conclude by considering which interpretation best aligns with the way in which Moses originally presented the phrase.
1) The Two Main Interpretations
Defining a Day
The first approach interprets the phrase as defining what a day is by outlining the two components of which the day is composed (evening and morning). Advocates of this approach contend that Moses is using this phrase to define each day as a 24-hour day.
Bracketing the Night When God Pauses from Creation
The second approach interprets this phrase as presenting two distinct events (the passing of evening and the coming of morning) which bracket the night when God pauses from creation. Interpreters who hold this view suggest God is revealing Himself through the analogy of a human going about their workday, pausing from their labor at night, and then returning to it the next morning.
The two key differences between these interpretations can be summarized as such:
- While the first interpretation treats the mention of evening and morning as 24 hours, the second one understands it as something analogous to a night when one rests from their labor.
- While the first interpretation finds Moses to be defining a day, the second one finds him to be recalling two events which conclude that workday and bring it to the start of the next one.
2) History of Translation
In order to discern which of these two readings Moses intended, we need to turn to the text. However, depending upon which English translation one looks at, they may arrive at different conclusions. Because of this, it is helpful to examine how this phrase was constructed in its original language as well as how various English translations came about. Here is a brief summary.
The Hebrew Masoretic Text and the Greek Septuagint (an ancient translation of the Hebrew text) record something like this when translated rigidly into English (I will place brackets around each Hebrew word and present them in their exact order):
[and there was] [evening] [and there was] [morning] [day] [one]
When the Latin Vulgate came along, it translated the phrase something like this:
[And composed] [it was] [of evening] [and] [morning] [day] [one]
In 1530, William Tyndale translated the Pentateuch (Genesis – Deuteronomy) into English. His translation served as the first English translation since the start of the renaissance (a time noted for its return to the original languages and the invention of the printing press which could produce Bibles much more abundantly). Although the exact sources Tyndale used for Genesis is uncertain (he likely drew upon a variety of them), his translation of this phrase appears to be based upon the Vulgate. Here is how he translates it:
“and so of the evenynge and mornynge was made the fyrst daye.”
Tyndale’s English translation continued through the Geneva Bible (1562), the Bishop’s Bible (1602), and the King James Version (1611), with the phrase preserved in the New King James Version (1982) as well. The NKJV states:
“So the evening and the morning were the first day.”
The Revised Version in 1884 was the first English translation to depict the original Hebrew phrasing rather than that of the Latin Vulgate,
“And there was evening and there was morning, day one.”
A focus on the original Hebrew phrasing is now reflected in most modern English translations such as the NASB, ESV, CSB, NIV, and NLT. Here is how the NIV puts it:
“And there was evening, and there was morning–the first day.”
The point of this brief history is to show how the Vulgate along with the early English translations and into the King James Versions have shaped the church’s interpretation of this phrase. They have generally instilled the idea that Moses defined the days as a composition of evening and morning. However, when one analyzes this phrase in Hebrew (its original language), there are strong reasons to interpret it as two distinct events which separate the night from God’s workday.
3) Reasons for Interpreting These as Events that Mark a Resting Period
Two Mainline Verbs
The text presents two, distinct, mainline verbs which move the story forward (“and there was… and there was”). As you may remember, unlike English, Hebrew narrative uses verbal forms to distinguish between mainline events and background information. The form used here (the wayyiqtol) presents these verbs as mainline events. If Moses wanted us to read this phrase as background information with him pausing to define what composed each day, he would have used a different verbal form. However, Moses indicates that we are to approach these as two mainline events.
Why does Moses choose the terms Evening and Morning?
In choosing the terms “evening” and “morning,” Moses focuses on two transitional periods: “evening” being the transition from day to night – sometimes translated as “sunset” or “twilight”; “morning” depicting the transition from night to day – sometimes translated as “sunrise” or “dawn.” For example, in Psalm 65:8 the terms occur together and are often translated as “sunrise” and “sunset.”
“You make the sunrise and the sunset shout for joy” (NASB).
If defining a day was Moses’ goal, why does he mention the transitional times rather than the entities “day” and “night” that God defined on day one.
Moses’ choice of transitional terms best aligns with the interpretation that he is recalling the closing of a workday (evening) and the reopening of the following workday (morning).
Moreover, why does Moses mention them in the order of evening and then morning?
Some suggest that beginning with “evening” reflects how the account opens in verse 2 with the statement, “darkness was over the surface of the deep.” However, if this were the case, one would expect the word “night” rather than “evening” since evening describes a transition from light to darkness (think sunset rather than darkness itself). Since light did not even exist until day one had already begun, it seems odd to consider it beginning with “evening” – a transition of light to darkness. It is far more fitting to interpret “evening” as the closure of this day rather than its start. Here we find further support for interpreting the phrase as the workday’s conclusion rather than its composing elements.
Why doesn’t Moses depict the cycle of a full day like he does elsewhere?
If Moses wanted to define an entire 24-hour day here, why didn’t he employ his standard phrasing for a 24-hour cycle: “evening to evening” or possibly “morning to morning.” This is what we find elsewhere regarding his mention of 24-hour cycles. For example, when God had Moses establish the 7-day Festival of Unleavened Bread in Exodus 12:18, He says it is be, “from the evening of the fourteenth day until the evening of the twenty-first day. For seven days . . .” Similarly, it was “From the evening . . . until the following evening” that God had the Israelites cease from their work as they celebrated the Day of Atonement (Leviticus 23:32). I could not find any instance of “evening” and “morning” being used to define a 24-hour cycle. Daniel 8 gets the closest to this, but here the phase is still not claiming that a span of 24 hours is composed of evening and morning.
Daniel 8:14 says,
“For 2,300 evenings and mornings; then the sanctuary will be properly restored” (NASB).
Daniel is not claiming here that a day is composed of evening and morning. He is merely mentioning the two times of the day when sacrifices are made at the temple. The words themselves (“evenings and mornings”) do not depict a timespan of 24 hours but simply two significant portions of the day. Since these portions of the day occur every 24 hours (as every portion of the day does), the end result is a passing of a day. However, the terms themselves are not depicting a 24-hour day.
Let me give an example. My dad and his siblings grew up distinguishing between “dark sleeps” (overnight) and “light sleeps” (naps). They would count down the days until a special event by referring to a certain number of “dark sleeps”: “Only three more dark sleeps until we go camping!” The implication would be that there were roughly three days until they would go camping. However, one would be mistaken to conclude from this that a dark sleep spans 24-hours or that a day is composed of one dark sleep.
The same idea is going on here. To claim that Daniel uses “evenings and mornings” as a depiction of a 24-hour day moves beyond what the text is claiming.
Thus, this phrase in Genesis 1 is not depicting a timespan of 24-hours, but rather the passing of a night (evening to morning). This is evidenced by Moses consistently using other phrases when referencing a complete day (like “evening to evening”) and the fact that the passing of “evening” and “morning” are never used to define a day. They merely reference two transitional portions in the day when one stops working and then wakes up to start working once again. As one examines Moses’ construction of this passage, it becomes clear that He is depicting God going about creation in the same way we go about our workweek.
 Before Tyndale there were a few Old-English translations – most of which English speakers today would not be able to understand (like the Old-English Hexateuch by Ælfric of Eynsham from around AD 990). The first full English Bible was translated by Wycliffe in 1382. Wycliffe’s translation was based entirely upon the Latin Vulgate, the only source text available to him. Here is how he translates this phrase, “And the euentid and morwetid was maad, o daie.” Although many of Wycliffe’s phrases were carried on in subsequent translations, it was Tyndale’s more precise wording that influenced the translation of this passage going forward. In general, it is hard to overstate Tyndale’s influence on English translations. In fact, more than 75% of the 1611 King James Bible was directly taken from Tyndale. Thus, for simplicity sake, I have chosen to focus on Tyndale’s influence above.