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Does yom with a number always refer to 24-hour days?

2 Chronicles 21:19 and the meaning of yôm1

Published: 20 January 2013 (GMT+10)
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J.C. from the United Kingdom writes:

Hi, I’ve used your search bar but can’t find the answer to my question. I’ve always thought that any time Yom is used with a number it means a 24hr day, however in 2 Chronicles 21:19 it apparently says: ‘In the course of time, at the end of two years’, and later ‘he was thirty two years old’. These, I’m told, are an example of yom with a number where it means year. Can you help?

CMI’s Shaun Doyle responds:

Hi J.,

Thank you for your email.

This one has been a real team effort, as it has been a rather difficult verse to interpret. Perhaps the most important thing to note is that to use one dubious case as an interpretive key to Genesis 1 is highly forced eisegesis. And it wouldn’t make their case, since no one is defending creation over six years. Also, Genesis has additional supporting evidence for literal days that the 2 Chronicles 21:19 lacks, such as evening and morning, and the comparison with our working week in Exodus 20:8–11 (see The meaning of yôm in Genesis 1:1–2:4).

From the commentaries we consulted, the time factors in 2 Chronicles 21:19 have proved rather difficult to interpret. It appears that most translations go for a somewhat idiomatic rendering of yôm in 2 Chronicles 21:19at the end of two years”. They think that if the relevant yôm was taken in its most natural sense, it would specify the ‘chronic’ illness lasted two days, which obviously doesn’t work in the light of 2 Chronicles 21:15. Note these comments:

“21:18–19a According to the prophecy of v. 15, Jehoram was judged personally and died in agony. There is a textual problem in v. 19a. Jehoram is said to have died after two days, which appears to contradict the picture of a protracted disease. The most common solution is to translate “two years” (NIV, NEB, KJV, NRSV), following similar usage of “days” as “years” elsewhere in the Old Testament (cf. Judg 17:10; 2 Sam 14:26). There is, however, no secure position.”2

However, there is a different way to understand 2 Chronicles 21:19 that still makes sense of the illness being chronic while avoiding an unlikely interpretation of yôm. First, the ancient Greek translation of the Old Testament known as the Septuagint (LXX) translates the phrase as “two days” (ἡμέρας δύο). Second, the Old Testament commentators Kiel and Delitzsch offer a different interpretation: as a result of his chronic intestinal illness, Jehoram’s bowels came out two days before he died because of the illness. Presumably, this is what finally caused him to die. It also means that v.19 doesn’t specify how long he had the illness—just that it was chronic, and two days before he died of it his bowels came out because of it. So if both Kiel and Delitzsch and the LXX translate the לְיָמִ֣ים שְׁנַ֗יִם (lyāmîm shnayîm) as “days”, it shows that it’s far from conclusive that the word is anything but literal.

We also consulted Old Testament Hebrew expert Dr Ting Wang, and he supported this interpretation:

“You make a good point that the LXX translates the phrase as ‘two days’ (ἡμέρας δύο), and it is perhaps interesting that the LXX leaves out the word ‘end’ in its rendering of the Hebrew.

“At any rate, you are correct that the LXX is a witness that the bilingual (Hebrew/Greek) translators did not render the phrasing in 2 Chronicles 21:19 with ‘years’ (on the other hand, it could of course also be argued that they are merely translating an idiom ‘woodenly’).

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“Looking back a few verses, the phrase יָמִ֖ים עַל־יָמִֽים in 2 Chronicles 21:15 generally refers to a protracted period of time (literally “days upon days”), but I think its placement at the end of the verse is significant. That is, I do not think it refers to the entire illness as being protracted, but rather to the final process of the bowels “coming out” as taking place over days.

“Please notice the difference between the meanings of the NIV1984 and the KJV:

“‘You yourself will be very ill with a lingering disease of the bowels, until the disease causes your bowels to come out’ (2 Chronicles 21:15, NIV1984)

“‘And thou shalt have great sickness by disease of thy bowels, until thy bowels fall out by reason of the sickness day by day’ (2 Chronicles 21:15, KJV).

“The NIV1984 takes the phrase as modifying the entire sickness, but I think the KJV is closer here—the phrase ‘days upon days’ occurring at the end of the verse (in Hebrew) seems instead to modify the lamentable process of the bowels’ coming out (what an awful way to go).

“As such, it would not then be contextually required to render the שְׁנַ֗יִם יָמִ֣ים of 2 Chronicles 21:19 as ‘two years,’ but rather, taken all together, as informing us that the process of the emission of the bowels was completed by the end of the second day.

“The phrase וַיְהִ֣י לְיָמִ֣ים מִיָּמִ֡ים at the beginning of 2 Chronicles 21:19 (the LXX reverses the order of the prepositions: καὶ ἐγένετο ἐξ ἡμερῶν εἰς ἡμέρας) seems to be modifying the entire illness, and in Scripture is idiomatic for a protracted period of time (although the placement of the Hebrew prepositions is a bit unusual).

“So to sum up, with regard to 2 Chronicles 21:19, I think it is feasible to take the ‘two days’ as referring to the two days of the emission of the bowels, and the וַיְהִ֣י לְיָמִ֣ים מִיָּמִ֡ים as referring idiomatically to the protracted extent of the entire illness.”

However, the reference “he was thirty two years old” in 2 Chronicles 21:20 was much easier to solve. There is no usage of either yôm (day) or shâneh (year) in the Hebrew of 2 Chronicles 21:20—it literally reads: “thirty and two he was in his reigning”. However, 2 Chronicles 21:5 is explicit that Jehoram was 32 years old when he began to reign; it literally reads: “thirty and two years Jehoram in his reigning”, where shâneh (year) is used. It is also confirmed by 2 Kings 8:17. Yôm is nowhere used to denote Jehoram’s age.

I hope this helps,

Shaun Doyle
Creation Ministries International

References

  1. Special thanks for helpful comments from Dr Jonathan Sarfati, Lita Sanders, and Hebrew specialist Dr Ting Wang. Return to text.
  2. Thompson, J. A., The New American Commentary Vol. 9: 1, 2 Chronicles (electronic ed.), Logos Library System, Broadman & Holman Publishers, Nashville, TN, 2001. Return to text.

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