Dear 100 Hour Board,
A seminary teacher once told me that when you see the number 1,000 in the Bible, the ancient Hebrews usually just meant "a lot." That is, "1,000" could just be symbolic for meaning "a lot," the same way some people exaggerate sometimes and says "millions" or "billions" of people attended an event, or so forth.
If this is true, it's very cool. That would mean that the six days of creation (if a day for the Lord is a thousand years for us) really just means that it took six indefinitely long time periods to create the world, not necessarily 6,000 exact literal years.
The problem is, I haven't been able to verify this number symbolism in any reliable sources. When I search online, I just get a bunch of random churches' websites. Is this something that could be verified with a BYU religion professor or something? I'm just looking for some more scholarly proof.
-I'm turning 1000 this year
Dear Millennia-Old Millennial,
After some personal internet searching I rapidly came to the same conclusion that you did. Unable to find satisfactory answers on the internet I went and talked to BYU professor of Ancient Scripture, David Seely (who I probably should've just talked to in the first place).
Professor Seely said he had heard of 1,000 being used as a standard Hebrew symbol for "a lot." He mentioned that the Hebrew word eleph is used for a troop or large group of people. For example, in the Book of Numbers there are two possible translations for a group of people. 5 eleph and 289 people could either mean 5,289 people, or 5 groups of 289 people. Depending on the interpretation, the people counted in the tribe of Israel could therefore vary between tens of thousands to several million.
However, just because 1,000 doesn't specifically mean "a lot" doesn't mean that it is always literally 1,000. One prime example is 2 Peter 3:8. "But, beloved, be not ignorant of this one thing, that one day is with the Lord as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day." Many people take this to literally mean that 1 day for us is 1,000 years for God, but this could also just be a metaphor to describe to us that time is different for God than for us. The church doesn't officially teach either way whether or not the 1 day:1,000 year ratio is accurate or metaphorical. Sometimes such numbers are taken to be literal, such as the Millennium, but sometimes they aren't.
The same reasoning of literal versus metaphorical goes for a day as well. Professor Seely told me that in Hebrew a day can mean a specified period of time with a beginning and an end. Depending on how literal you want to get the creation could have taken 6 days, or 6,000 years, or just 6 distinct periods of time. It's probable that not all numbers in the Bible are literal, but it does make for all kinds of interesting speculation. For example, Professor Seely told me that a biblical scholar counted back through all the lengths of time in the Bible and calculated that Adam was created in the year 4,004 BC. The Book of Revelations prophesies that the Millennium will happen after 6,000 years, so many biblical scholars predicted the Second Coming to occur in the year 2000. Obviously, that didn't happen, but wait! Revelations 8:1 says "And when he had opened the seventh seal, there was silence in heaven about the space of half an hour." That half an hour happens after 6,000 years but before the Second Coming. Using the 1,000 years on earth to 1 day for God unit conversion, that half an hour works out to around 21 years, which would set the Second Coming for 2021. Is it going to happen in 2021? Probably not. Doctrine and Covenants 49:7 says "I, the Lord God, have spoken it; but the hour and the day no man knoweth, neither the angels in heaven, nor shall they know until he comes." So I imagine that if God isn't telling the angels, he probably didn't leave the exact date as the answer to some biblical math problem.
All speculation aside, there's probably not a hard and fast answer to your question. It is possible that 1,000 is literal, and it's also possible that it's just symbolic. Although professor Seely hadn't heard of that use of symbolism before, he didn't rule it out entirely. Personally I think it's kind of cool that it's possible that a day is just as likely to be symbolic as a thousand years. That means that pretty much all beliefs about how long it took to create the earth can fit inside the church's teachings. Hope this helps!
(Who sometimes feels that this semester is literally taking 1,000 years)