While guiding a family on a hike on Mt. Gilboa this summer and describing the biblical and geological history of the mountain, one of the kids wondered how I reconcile the scientific dating of the age of the world with the biblical account. I responded that we don’t have to take the biblical description of the creation in six days literally. I pointed out that the sun was not created in the Biblical account until the fourth day, and so the first three days might not be the same as the days that we experience. I have offered this answer many times before and even shared it with my children, so I was a bit taken aback when I read Dr. Rabbi Zeev Farber’s critique of this approach in his recently published article “If the Sun Is Created on Day 4, What Is the Light on Day 1?”
From this article, I learned that this idea has been termed, “The Day-Age Theory.” Rabbi Farber dismisses this explanation as apologetic and out of sync with the “ancient cosmologists’” conception of light emanating from the sky. Drawing upon a collection of modern academic interpretations, an ancient near eastern text, and a relevant parallel Biblical text, R. Farber fairly convincingly explains that ancients’ cosmology asserted that light emanates from the firmament’s waters independent of the celestial bodies (sun, moon, and stars). On the basis of this demonstration, Rabbi Farber claims that in the Biblical world view, “day and night are controlled by the entry and exit of the primordial light and darkness into the watery heavens.” He concludes that since in the ancient/Biblical view, day and night are not controlled by the appearance of the sun and its absence but by the entry and exit of primordial light into the firmament, the appearance of days before the creation of the sun on day four should not raise any eyebrows. Thus, Rabbi Farber disposes with readings that suppose modern conceptions of the notions of daylight and astronomy as “fatuous and/or apologetic.” According to Rabbi Farber there is no basis to the notion that days four through six of creation were any different that days one through three. We should not allow a misguided attempt to reconcile science with the Biblical record to falsely interpret the duration of days one through three as anything other than the usual twenty-four hour span.
Finding Rabbi Farber’s take to be interesting, well researched and ostensibly convincing, I wondered whether I will need to change my answer to future questions like the one I received this summer. Maybe I should set the record straight with my children. Before doing any of that I decided to think through Rabbi Farber’s claim more carefully to be sure it was compelling. Upon a careful read, I began to see that his approach is less than fully convincing. Indeed, I believe that there are at least two problems with Rabbi Farber’s analysis.
Before proceeding to layout these problems, it is important to note that the absence of the sun on days one through three is not the only basis for interpreting “day” in the Bible’s first chapter as referring to a much longer period. The Medieval sage Rabbi David Kimchi demonstrates in his lexicographical book of grammatical roots that many times the Biblical term יום indeed means a period, era or epoch. There, he collects many of examples of this phenomenon. For example, the prophet Isaiah in referring to what we refer to as the messianic age writes:
וְהָיָה, בַּיּוֹם הַהוּא, שֹׁרֶשׁ יִשַׁי אֲשֶׁר עֹמֵד לְנֵס עַמִּים, אֵלָיו גּוֹיִם יִדְרֹשׁוּ; וְהָיְתָה מְנֻחָתוֹ, כָּבוֹד.
“And it shall come to pass in that day, that the root of Jesse, that standeth for an ensign of the peoples, unto him shall the nations seek; and his resting-place shall be glorious.” (Isaiah 11:10)
Clearly the prophet is not referring to one specific day but rather to an era. Even without noticing the absence of the sun on days one through three, we can already begin asking ourselves, in what sense is the Bible using the term day? Perhaps, the intention is something much longer than a twenty-four hour cycle. Equipped with this sense of the possible meanings of the Biblical term for day, we can now proceed to look more closely at Rabbi Farber’s arguments.
He explains that, “When this ancient cosmologist asked himself why the day-time sky is blue, his answer was because there is light in the heavenly water above the firmament. As he would have seen from earth, water is blue and thus when the light enters the water, the sky looks blue. When the light leaves the water and darkness creeps in, it is black.” Here we find the first problem in his suggestion. If day is to be associated with the entrance of light entering the waters of the firmament, then day is dependent upon the existence of a firmament. And yet, the firmament is only created on the second day! The necessity for the firmament is underscored by the Sumerian text that Rabbi Farber quotes and explains:
“When Anu, the lord, made heaven shine, made earth dark… Heaven and earth he held together as one… Day did not shine; in night, heaven stretched forth. Earth, bringing forth plant life did not glow on its own…”[Wayne Horowitz, Mesopotamian Cosmic Geography (Winona Lake: Eisenbrauns, 1998), 138-139.]
“The text describes the Sumerian high god Anu’s creation of the world. When Anu separates heaven and earth, the heavens shine but the earth does not. In other words, when the heavens and earth were combined in the primordial mush, there was perpetual night. By separating the heavens from the earth, Anu also separates light from darkness.”
Even if we accept Rabbi Farber’s claim that Biblical days are not based on sunlight, we still can create an alternative “day age theory!” The first Biblical day of creation can’t be a “typical primordial light cycle day” — there is no firmament yet and so on day one perpetual darkness must have reigned!
Additionally, Rabbi Farber omits from his analysis another passage that seems to undermine his conclusion — the end of Genesis 1:14.
“And God said: ‘Let there be lights in the firmament of the heaven to divide the day from the night; and let them be for signs, and for seasons, and for days and years;”
וַיֹּאמֶר אֱלֹהִים, יְהִי מְאֹרֹת בִּרְקִיעַ הַשָּׁמַיִם, לְהַבְדִּיל, בֵּין הַיּוֹם וּבֵין הַלָּיְלָה; וְהָיוּ לְאֹתֹת וּלְמוֹעֲדִים, וּלְיָמִים וְשָׁנִים.
Rabbi Farber does indeed address the beginning of this verse which states that the lights of the firmament divide day from night. In consonance with his approach, he interprets this phrase to indicate that, “the sun symbolizes the daytime over which it rules, and the moon symbolizes the night, over which it rules.” Thus, the sun merely symbolizes the day but it doesn’t cause it. While this interpretation may be plausible for the first half of this verse, it seems more difficult to maintain it for the second half. There we read that the celestial luminaries “will be for … seasons, days, and years.” It seems clear that the luminaries do not merely symbolize the seasons and years. Here the luminaries are not distinguishing or dividing but rather they themselves “are for” seasons, days and years. Aren’t the cyclical motions associated with them are the very cause of the seasons and the yearly cycle. Presumably even the ancients associated the waning days of winter sunlight and the inclement climate. They defined a year by the completion of a solar cycle. When it comes to years and seasons, the sun seems not a mere symbol but rather their cause. Sandwiched in between the sun’s causation of seasons and years are days—“let them be …for seasons, and for days and years!” The context of this phrase clearly indicates that a heavenly luminary is the cause of the day and not a mere symbol of the day.
It seems then, that even if we accept Rabbi Farber’s ancient cosmologist’s understanding of the nature of a day for days two through three of creation, from day four on we have a different type of day — a day that is determined by the sun and not the primordial light. If this is the case, then while we may accept Rabbi Farber’s conclusions regarding the first half of the creation story we still have strong grounds to suggest that there very well may be a difference between the length and nature of days after the creation of the sun.
Given the fact that the term day elsewhere in the Bible can indicate and epoch or era, and given the issues I have raised in Rabbi Farber’s presentation, I feel comfortable continuing to share the Day-Age Theory as a possibility.