Mike, I saw your reply after I had already written my previous followup. I wish I could easily retrieve some of the essays I’ve written on this topic. There was also a 13-episode on Youtube by Gordon Glover that I would often link for inquirers—but the last time I looked, all of his excellent videos had disappeared. (If anyone has seen them back online, I’d be grateful for new links.)
I don’t know anything about your background so I do think that a “big” question like that deserves more than a quick summary statement as an answer. So I would indeed recommend the various Biologos articles and videos. But one analogy I used to use (in terms of “genre” of a sort) was Carl Sagan’s Cosmic Calendar from the COSMOS TV series. It provides an example from our culture of doing something similar: Sagan constructed a way to look at the history of the universe as if it were a single year’s calendar. (If you didn’t see Cosmos, you can look up Cosmic Calendar on Wikipedia.) Sagan talked about months and days, hours and minutes in a timeline of history—but all of those terms were stand-ins for vast periods of time. If I recall, the solar system came in early fall and eukaryotes appeared in November. Dinosaurs appeared on Christmas Day and humans walked upright by mid-evening of the last day of the year!
That provides a small taste of the concept. What is often much more difficult for those who haven’t studied Semitic languages and cultures is the ways in which the Ancient Hebrews (and their languages) had a much different view of chronology. Indeed, the Hebrew language of the Old Testament doesn’t even use verb tenses in the ways we English-speakers would expect. And we take for granted that a series of numbered days would (obviously!) imply chronological order. Yet, we CANNOT take that for granted in Hebrew literature. I could give you lots of examples of cultural differences like these which arise in Bible translation—although I’m sure Christy could do a much better job because she is still on the mission field and keeping current on linguistics literature while I’m retired—but all I can do at this point is give a few general examples like these. New Testament scholars comparing the Gospel accounts run into similar cultural issues when the chronologies don’t seem (to us) to match quite like they should.
When I read Genesis 1, I see several levels of chiastic structures, among other things. Yes, there are six YOM but they are a special pattern of 3+3 which upon examination indicates that the author wasn’t just saying “this happened, then that happened, etc etc.” but that a literary FRAMEWORK meant to communicate important underlying meanings was being constructed. I believe it is primarily a REFUTATION of the cosmology and polytheism of the neighboring cultures. The God of Israel is described as sovereign over all of the domains of nature—instead of individual gods and goddesses ruling over the land domain and the sea domain, the fish domain, and the beasts of the field domain and the birds of the air domain. (Think Greek and Roman deities where there is a diverse panoply of rulers.) It is natural for us as modern day westerners to think that Genesis 1 is all about chronology of events—but I would contend that the original author and audience saw it as using the six days merely as a literary device which serves as a theological outline.
As I feared, this kind of summary falls far short of adequately answering your question. It took me many years of study before I realized how “western” was my approach to the text.
By the way, my summary naturally implies a Framework Hypothesis approach to Genesis 1 and I don’t mean to imply that that is the ONLY reasonable way to look at it. But many other approaches are quite similar in how they try to read the text as it would have been understood within Semitic culture.
I should also mention that it is easy for American Christians in our day to assume that six literal days and a strict chronology is the most important and “obvious” understanding of Genesis 1. But anyone who has studied hermeneutical history and theologians who lived before the recent explosion of Gish-Morris-Whitcomb Young Earth Creationism (and “creation science”) realizes that not all Christians have been focused on a 6,000 year old earth and Ussher’s Chronology. Many theologians through the centuries took for granted that the six days of Genesis 1 were not 24 hours days—but weren’t all that concerned about their duration.
Tradition can be a powerful force. (I am among the first to admit that because of my own Young Earth Creationist background.) It took me a lot of years and study to get beyond my own denominational interpretative traditions.
This is a very complex topic. I wish I could produce a better summary. No doubt it sounds even “far fetched” to some who are learning about these topics for the first time. That is how it seemed to me. I had the additional obstacle of having been taught an erroneous understanding of the Doctrine of Perspicuity.