When is a Day Not a Day? An Exegetical Note on Hosea 6:2

Robert I. Bradshaw


Young Earth Creationists argue that the days of Genesis 1 are literal 24 hour days, pointing out that when the Hebrew word for 'day' (yom) is always has this meaning when it is preceded by a number (e.g. "on the first day of the first month" Ezra 7:4). Linguistically speaking there is no reason why yom has to mean a twenty four hour period when it is found in this context. However, if it can be demonstrated that this is the way that it was normally used, then this would strongly imply that anyone attempting to interpret it as meaning (for example) a thousand year period would be guilty of appealing to an unlikely meaning, thus weakening his or her argument.[1] If, on the other hand, it could be demonstrated that yom + a number often has a non-literal meaning in the Old Testament, then Young Earth Creationists could no longer use this as evidence to support a literal meaning in Genesis 1. To this end Alan Hayward writes in his book Creation and Evolution, The Facts and the Fallacies that Hosea 6:2 "is at least one exception that shatters the so-called rule."[2] (Hayward, 1985, p. 164). This verse reads in the New International Version: "After two days he will revive us; on the third he will restore us, that we may live in his presence."

The exact meaning of this verse is a matter of debate. Commentators are divided in their opinion as to who is speaking in the first three verses of Hosea chapter 6. There are three main views:

(a) that it is Hosea praying for his people;[3]

(b) it is the people praying a shallow and insincere prayer of repentance,[4] or

(c) that it is prophetic of the true prayer of repentance that the people of Israel will pray in the future.[5]

Scholars also disagree on what the time period mentioned refers to. Several views can be identified:[6]

  1. Some link this verse with the events described in 2 Kings 19:29, arguing that the promised restoration took a year.[7] This interpretation is unlikely because the events described in 2 Kings 19:20-37 are portrayed described as being a sign to Hezekiah that the Assyrian King (Sennacherib) would pay for insulting the God of Israel. They do not come about in response to repentance on the part of the people. There is no historical event recorded in Scripture that could be taken as a fulfilment of this verse.[8]
  2. Those who hold that Hosea 6:1-3 represents an insincere and shallow prayer of repentance argue that there is no need to look for a historical fulfilment. The people were clearly mistaken - they thought that repentance would bring a rapid change in their fortunes.[9] The days in verse 2 may or not be literal.
  3. Finally, some see this as a sincere call to repentance by the people themselves, indicating that the restoration of Israel will come during the millennium.[10] Again no historical event is required to support this view and the days could be literal or mean a short period of time.

Despite these the disagreements there are good linguistic reasons for a non-literal meaning of the days here, as the verse contains two features common in Hebrew poetry. The first, a chiasm, draws attention to the connection between the first and second halves of a verse or series of verses, as follows:

...he will revive us…

After two days…

...on the third day…

...that we may live in his presence.

As this device is used almost exclusively in synonymous parallelism (where the two halves express the same thought in a different way) then two and three days must mean the same thing, i.e. a short period of time.[11] The second device used is known variously as n/n + 1 or x/x + 1, a well-known Hebrew "numeric saying".[12] This device was used to provide a coherent structure and to aid reflection and memorisation.[13] Other examples from the Old Testament make this more clear:

Job 5:19: From six calamities he will rescue you, from seven no harm will befall you.

Prov. 6:16: There are six things that the Lord hates, seven that are detestable to him:

Prov. 30:15: There are three things that are never satisfied, four that never say, "Enough!"…

Prov. 30:18: There are three things that are too amazing for me, four that I do not understand.

Amos 1:3: This what the Lord says: "For three sins of Damascus, even for four, I will not turn back my wrath..."

Recognition of the presence of these two features has resulted in general agreement that in Hosea 6:2 the author is emphasising the speed and certainty of Israel's restoration (whenever that restoration is to take place) rather than defining a specific time period.[14] So it seems that Alan Hayward is correct when he sees here an exception to the general rule that yom + a number=a literal day. However, it is worth noting the n/n + 1 idiom, the only Old Testament exception to the rule[15] is not found in Genesis at all and so cannot be used to argue that the days there are non-literal. We can conclude that, far from being "shattered" as Hayward claims, the general rule still holds with one exception, the idiomatic use of day in Hosea 6:2. Knowing of this exception and the reasons for it may save Creationists from embarrassment if it was raised during a debate. The onus still lies with those who argue for a non-literal use of yom in Genesis 1 to prove their case.

© 1997 Robert I. Bradshaw

[1] See further D.A Carson, Exegetical Fallacies.  (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1984), 36-40.

[2] Alan Hayward, Creation and Evolution, The Facts and the Fallacies.  (London: Triangle, SPCK, 1985), 164.

[3] So C.F. Keil, "Minor Prophets," Commentary on the Old Testament in Ten Volumes.  (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1988), 94; G. Herbert Livingston, "Hosea," Walter A. Elwell, ed.  Evangelical Commentary on the Bible.  (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1989), 609.

[4] So George A. Buttrick, gen ed.  The Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. 6.  (New York: Abingdon Press, 1956), 624; J.B. Hindley, "Hosea," D. Guthrie, J.A. Motyer, A.M. Stibbs & D.J. Wiseman, eds. New Bible Commentary, 3rd edition, 1970. (Leicester: IVP, 1985), 709-710; Douglas Stuart, "Hosea-Jonah," Word Biblical Commentary, Vol 31. (Waco: Word, 1987), 108-109.

[5] Leon J. Wood, "Hosea," The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, Vol. 7.  (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1985), 193.

[6] In the past many have taken this passage figuratively as referring to the resurrection on Christ on the third day.  This interpretation is now generally rejected.  The following discussion will be limited to the literal interpretation presented by scholars.

[7] Hayward, 164.

[8] Wood, 193.

[9] Buttrick, 624.

[10] Wood, 193.

[11] Stuart, 108.

[12] See further W.M.W. Roth, "The Numerical saying x/x + 1 in the Old Testament," Vetus Testamentum, 12 (1962): 300-311; W.M.W. Roth, "Numerical Sayings in the Old Testament, A Form Critical Study," Supplements to Vetus Testamentum, 13. (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1965): 6.

[13] James L. Mays, Amos: A Commentary, 1969. (London: SCM Press Ltd., 1978),  23.

[14] Keil, 95; Wood, 193; Livingston, 609.  Douglas Stuart, however, argues that it refers to a restoration taking place after "a set time".

15 "day" by Jesus in Luke 13:32 is another exception, but seems to have forgotten that the New Testament was written in Greek, not Hebrew.  Hayward, 164.