I Have a Question

Response by Thomas R. Valletta

Answers are intended for help and perspective, not as pronouncements of Church doctrine.

The Length of Creation

Some individuals interpret scriptures to say that the Creation was done in six 24-hour days. Does Abraham’s usage of “time” lead us to understand that the Creation was not confined to six 24-hour days as we know them?

Some readers of the Bible believe the Creation of the earth took six 24-hour days. Others refer to Peter’s statement “that one day is with the Lord as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day” (2 Pet. 3:8) as evidence that the Creation may have taken 6,000 years.

Latter-day Saints have additional information that allows a third view—that each “day” of the Creation was of unspecified duration and that the Creation of the earth took place during an unknown length of time. Abraham stresses that day is synonymous with time. For example, Abraham 4:8 summarizes the second creative period by stating that “this was the second time that they called night and day.” This usage is consistent with ancient Hebrew. The Hebrew word YOM, often translated day, can also mean “time” or “period.” In other words, the term translated day in Genesis could be appropriately read as “period.”

Also, the term day is used in scripture to indicate a period of time in which the labor of God is to be performed. Day in this sense is usually contrasted with night or darkness, wherein labor is ceased. For example, the Savior said, “I must work the works of him that sent me, while it is day: the night cometh, when no man can work” (John 9:4; see also John 11:9–10). The Book of Mormon also contains this ancient usage. In Alma 34:32–33, Amulek warns: “The day of this life is the day for men to perform their labors. …

“I beseech of you that ye do not procrastinate the day of your repentance until the end; for after this day of life, which is given us to prepare for eternity, behold, if we do not improve our time while in this life, then cometh the night of darkness wherein there can be no labor performed.”

These scriptures suggest that the word day is used to describe periods of varying lengths. Elder Bruce R. McConkie explained, “There is no revealed recitation specifying that each of the ‘six days’ involved in the Creation was of the same duration” (Ensign, June 1982, 11).

The accounts of the Creation were clearly given to us for reasons other than determining the “how” and the “how long” of creation. A more rewarding approach is to read these accounts to discover what they tell us concerning God’s work and glory.

[photo] Photograph of earth courtesy of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration

[illustrations] Right: Creation of Animals and Fowls, by Stanley Galli; far right: Adam and Eve in the Garden, by Lowell Bruce Bennett

The Length of the Lives of the Ancient Patriarchs

Methuselah was 969 years old when he died (see Gen. 5:27), Noah was 950 (see Gen. 9:29), and Adam was 930 (see Gen. 5:5). Why did these and other ancient patriarchs who lived before the Flood live so long?

It is important to consider three points before attempting to answer why. First, modern revelation supports the scriptural indication that many Old Testament patriarchs lived incredibly long lives (see Moses 8:1–13; D&C 107:41–53). Second, early prophets of this dispensation understood these scriptural references to be literal (see Brigham Young, in Journal of Discourses, 12:37; Wilford Woodruff, in Messages of the First Presidency, edited by James R. Clark, 6 volumes [1965–75], 3:253). And third, early historians took these statements literally. The first-century historian Josephus tells us, for example, “Let no one, upon comparing the lives of the ancients with our lives, and with the few years which we now live, think that what we have said of them is false; or make the shortness of our lives at present an argument that neither did they attain to so long a duration of life” (Antiquities of the Jews, book 1, chapter 3, paragraph 9).

The question is not completely resolved in scripture, but several possible answers are implied. Some have interpreted 2 Nephi 2:21 [2 Ne. 2:21] as referring to those living before the Flood: “The days of the children of men were prolonged, according to the will of God, that they might repent while in the flesh.” Others have suggested that it was righteousness that increased the length of their lives. Josephus asserted that “God afforded [the ancients] a longer time of life on account of their virtue, and the good use they made of it in astronomical and geometrical discoveries, which would not have afforded the time of foretelling [the periods of the stars] unless they had lived six hundred years” (Antiquities of the Jews, book 1, chapter 3, paragraph 9).

President Brigham Young likewise attributed the patriarchs’ longevity to their obedience to the “laws of life.” He urged the early Saints to cease “wasting their lives and the lives of their fellow-beings, and the precious time God has given us to improve our minds and bodies … , so that the longevity of the human family may begin to return” (in Journal of Discourses, 14:89). A passage in the Book of Mormon supports the idea that the Lord will “lengthen out” the days of the righteous (Hel. 7:24).

Others have suggested that the earth’s environment may have changed radically at the time of the Flood and that this accounts for the decrease in longevity immediately thereafter (see Moses 8:17).

Among other possible purposes for the prolonged life span of the ancient patriarchs was the Lord’s need to establish truth through his law of witnesses. In Lectures on Faith, we read: “It is easily to be seen, not only how the knowledge of God came into the world, but upon what principle it was preserved; that from the time it was first communicated, it was retained in the minds of righteous men, who taught not only their own posterity but the world; so that there was no need of a new revelation to man, after Adam’s creation to Noah, to give them the first idea or notion of the existence of … the true and living God” (Joseph Smith, compiler [1985], 20).

All these factors are feasible explanations. They are not mutually exclusive, nor do they exhaust the possibilities.

[illustrations] Far Left: Old Testament Prophet, by Judith Mehr; left: Noah’s Preaching Scorned, by Harry Anderson

The Tower of Babel

According to the account in Genesis, the events surrounding the building of the Tower of Babel represent a crucial point in history. Is there additional background information and perspective available to help us better understand the meaning of these events?

Genesis 10 describes the scattering of the sons of Noah and their descendants after the Flood. Verses 9 and 10 [Gen. 10:9–10] tell us that Nimrod founded the kingdom of Babel, or Babylon as it was later called, in the land of Shinar. Genesis 11 begins: “And the whole earth was of one language, and of one speech. …

“And they said, Go to, let us build us a city and a tower, whose top may reach unto heaven; and let us make us a name, lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth” (Gen. 11:1, 4).

The Lord came down to see the city. He decided to confound the language and scatter the people (see Gen. 11:5–9).

Early Jewish and Christian traditions reported that Nimrod built the Tower of Babel, referred to as a pagan temple, in an attempt to contact heaven. Among the Jews, Nimrod’s name has always been a “symbol of rebellion against God and of usurped authority”: he “established false priesthood and false kingship in the earth in imitation of God’s rule and ‘made all men to sin’” (Hugh Nibley, Lehi in the Desert and The World of the Jaredites, volume 5 of The Collected Works of Hugh Nibley [1980], 156).

Josephus, an ancient Jewish historian, provided additional insight. He noted that Nimrod had tried to gain power over the people. Nimrod probably felt this counterfeit temple would add to his control (see Antiquities of the Jews, book 1, chapter 4, paragraph 2).

The building of the tower was undertaken when the people discovered an important new technology—oven-baked bricks. Ordinary mud bricks, baked in the sun, could be used to build only to a limited height or they would crumble under the stress. But bricks baked in an oven could be stacked quite high; the temple towers at Babylon were 91 meters high. In the Bible, bricks are mentioned only in connection with this tower, pharaoh’s buildings, and idolatrous altars (see Gen. 11:3; Ex. 1:14; Ex. 5:7, 14, 16; Isa. 65:3). This usage suggests the people’s feelings of rebellion against the Lord in the society that had developed since the Flood.

The account in Genesis provides further insight regarding the significance of the building of the tower. First, the impetus in building this temple was to make themselves a name (see Gen. 11:4). In other words, Nimrod was proposing that they build a temple to receive the name of God without making eternal covenants. Second, they wanted to build this tower-temple so they would not be “scattered” (Gen. 11:4). Latter-day revelation ties the sealing power to preventing the earth from being wasted at the Second Coming (see D&C 2:3). One meaning of the word wasted in Joseph Smith’s day was “destroyed by scattering” (Webster’s Dictionary [1828]). Finally, the word Babel in Hebrew meant “confusion,” but in Babylonian, the meaning was “gate of God.” Nimrod and his people were building their own temple, their gate to heaven, without divine approval or priesthood keys.

The Babylonians, an apostate people, had some understanding of temple ordinances and temple purpose, so they constructed an edifice symbolizing to them their connection to God. And using their own contrived ceremonies to imitate true temple worship, they attempted to duplicate the process of preparation for the hereafter.

Further, the word Babel in Hebrew is the same word translated elsewhere in the Old Testament as “Babylon.” Thus, in biblical terms, the people in this story were building Babylon—a city that has come to represent the world or worldliness (seeD&C 1:16).

The story of the Tower of Babel must be read in the context of the whole book of Genesis. After the Fall, the gospel was taught to Adam’s descendants. Some accepted gospel teachings, but many rejected them. Secret combinations, starting with Cain’s, brought apostasy into the world. At the same time, Enoch gathered the righteous to Zion, and they were translated. Then the Lord sent a flood that destroyed the unrepentant. In the aftermath, a covenant was made with Noah and his seed to reestablish the teaching of the plan of salvation on the earth (see Gen. 9:11; Joseph Smith Translation, Gen. 9:17).

The city of Enoch had been translated (see Gen. 5:23–24; Moses 7:21, 69) before the Flood, but at the time of Abraham (the general time of the Tower of Babel), Melchizedek also created a society that produced a Zion people who sought to join the city of Enoch and obtain heaven (see Joseph Smith Translation, Gen. 14:33–34). Considering the trauma of the Flood (see Gen. 6–8), the aspiration to build a tower to heaven, with water-impervious materials, may also have been an attempt to survive a flood, should God attempt to destroy earth’s inhabitants again. Thus, their temple-tower was likely designed for many purposes, making the tower more meaningful in their eyes. However, their attempt to dodge the judgment of God was based on their human ingenuity rather than on repentance. The Lord’s response was to humble these people.

The building of the Tower of Babel was the transitional event between the dispensations of Noah and Abraham. Immediately following the scattering, the Lord intervened by establishing his covenant with Abraham and taking him to the promised land (see Gen. 12). The Lord established the Abrahamic covenant as the basis for building Zion, and that covenant is based on our acknowledgment of and dependence on the cleansing blood of the Atonement.

The narrative begun in Genesis ends in 2 Kings 25 [2 Kgs. 25]. Abraham’s descendants, the children of Israel, find themselves—because they broke the covenant—back in Babylon where the story began. Their breaking of the covenant resulted in their exile from Jerusalem (Zion) to Babylon. Yet the Lord had the power and the mercy to bring them back, through their repentance and his renewal of the covenant. Subsequently, Israel was released from Babylon by Cyrus and later by Darius. Zerubbabel, and later Ezra and Nehemiah, led the people, and some did return and renew the covenant.

In the latter days, the Lord once again has called us out of the world: we have been instructed to go “out … from Babylon, from the midst of wickedness, which is spiritual Babylon” (D&C 133:14) to build Zion.

[illustration] The Death of Abel, by Gustave Doré

[illustrations] The Tower of Babel, by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, courtesy of Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna; far right: Abraham Journeying into the Land of Canaan, by Gustave Doré