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Three Days and Three Nights

By Richard Gunther


How long is a day - and when does it start and finish? You might say 24 hours, from one morning to the next, but it all depends on which culture you come from. In this case we will be looking at the Hebrew culture only, because the object of this essay is to find out what the Hebrews meant when they used the word "day".

The first time the word "day" is used in the Bible is in Genesis 1, where each of the days of creation are separated :

"And God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And the evening and the morning were the first day". Genesis 1:5

If God had simply said that this was a "day" we might be tempted to imagine all sorts of lengths for it, perhaps ranging from millions of years to only a few seconds, but God has qualified the word, and given it a beginning and and an end : "evening and morning", which means that a Hebrew day must be 24 hours. According to the Hebrews, a day began in the eveing, and ran right through to the next evening.

There is no way these "days" can be anything but literal 24 hour days, because not only are they qualified with the words "evening and morning" but they are referred to in the Law :

"Six days shalt thou labour, and do all thy work:

But the seventh day is the sabbath (rest) of the LORD thy God: in it you shall not do any work . . . for in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that in them is, and rested the seventh day: wherefore the LORD blessed the sabbath day, and hallowed it". Exodus 20:9 -11

Logically, if the Law commanded anything but literal days, then the days of creation could be any length at all, but the two are tied together, so the days we presently experience must be the same as the days God created the world in.

Another use of the word "day" is to signify that something happened during the 24 hours of the day, as in Genesis 7:13 "In the selfsame day entered Noah, and Shem, and Ham, and Japheth, the sons of Noah, and Noah's wife, and the three wives of his sons with them, into the ark".

And a third meaning is "during the period of natural light", i.e. when the sun is shining. This meaning is used in Proverbs 4:18 "But the path of the just is as the shining light, that shines more and more unto the perfect day".

"Day" can also be used figuratively, as in "day of opportunity" (John 9:4), and it can also be used in a general way, and mean "time' or "period", such as the "day of the Lord" (Rev.1:10)

The most important thing to notice is whether God leaves the word 'day" qualified or unqualified - that is, whether or not He adds boundaries to it. (Remember, God is a master at using words exactly - He is the One who gave us language, so He must know how to use it correctly.) For example, we sometimes say "I worked on that all day", but what we really mean is, "I worked on that from 9 till 12, and then did another 4 hours after lunch". Our idiom means we worked for a large part of the daylight hours, and that is usually all the other person needs to hear - but if the other person asks us exactly how long we worked, we would qualify the expression by adding the hours.

When we read the Scriptures, we come across hundreds of cases where the word "day" is used, and in most cases "day" means a part of a day only. Something happened, or was finished, or said, or brought . . . during that day. But occasionally, there are cases where God adds a boundary to the word "day" because He wants us to understand that He is not talking about a small part of a day, but a whole day. The same can be said of the word "years". A "year" can signify a whole 365 days, or just a portion of a year, as we see in some of the reigns of the kings of Israel and Judah.

But when the number of "nights" is added to the word "day" we know that we have a literal statement of fact.

The Hebrew day began in the evening, at sunset, and the day ran through to the next sunset. In John 11:9 we read of "twelve hours in the day" - this means 12 hours from sunrise. In the same way the other half of a day was twelve hours from sunset.

Paul qualified the word "day" to tell us exactly how long he was adrift in the sea :

"Thrice was I beaten with rods, once was I stoned, thrice I suffered shipwreck, a night and a day I have been in the deep" 2 Corinthians 11:25.

When Esther (Est.4:16) says "fast for me, and neither eat nor drink three days" she defines her meaning in the typical Hebrew/Jewish way as being three complete days because she adds "night or day", so when it is written that the fast ended on "the third day" (5:1), this third day must have come after and included the third night.

Again, in 1Sam.30:12 we read of a young man who "had eaten no bread, nor drunk any water, three days and three nights". He explains that "three days ago I fell sick" which means that three complete days and three complete nights previously he stopped eating. The young man was an Egyptian (11,13), which is why he reckons his days from sunrise to sunrise - the egyptian way. (Another proof of the accuracy of the Bible).

Jonah is another case in point. The Bible says that Jonah was "in the belly of the fish three days and three nights" (Jonah 1:17). The words are qualified. This means that he was there not for a part of three days, but for three whole days and three whole nights.

When Jesus referred to Jonah as a sign of Himself, He used exactly the same Hebrew idiom. This tends to be ignored every Easter unfortunately, as the Church marks the death of Jesus on a Friday, and the resurrection on Sunday morning. This gives us one whole day and a part of two other days - nowhere near enough! Once again, sadly, traditions have replaced God's Word.

As Jesus said, carefully choosing his words to convey the exact meaning :

"For as Jonas was three days and three nights in the whale's belly; so shall the Son of man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth". Matthew 12:40

So when was Jesus crucified? On the Western calendar, he would have been buried on a Wednesday, and lain in the grave all Thursday, all Friday, all Saturday, and risen very early on Sunday morning - three sunset-to-sunset days, exactly as He said.

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