On Genesis Creation: Figurative or Literal?

One of the more touchy areas of conflict within the Christian sphere is the discord between the Genesis account of creation being a literal work describing the beginnings of the universe or a figurative piece meant to convey theological truths. I want to spend this article unpacking the creation accounts of the Bible including what they do say and what they do not say.

For many Christians attempting to hold a high view of Scripture, the first few chapters of Genesis must be understood in a literal fashion or else it undermines the authority of the Bible and opens it to subjectivity. They believe in the young age of the earth and universe and that biodiversity came about as an instantaneous declaration of God. Accordingly, these persons are often called “Young Earth Creationists” (YEC). Their belief stems from interpreting Genesis 1 as six literal days of creation. They use the genealogy in the proceeding chapters to conclude the universe is under 10,000 years old; however, there do exist Christian perspectives which counter this view. They range from “Progressive Creationism” to “Theistic Evolution.” For the purposes of this article, I will emphasize solely what Scripture contends in the first few chapters of Genesis, and my argument will be from Scripture. Because contemporary science does not foreground what YEC wish to underline, namely Scripture, I will not be using contemporary science to argue my point.

It must be stressed this issue is secondary within the realm of Christian theology and philosophy. One can maintain orthodoxy while falling on whichever side of the debate; this topic need not divide believers to the extent of excluding one another. It is unorthodox for a believer to chastise another group because they hold to a counter-perspective on this issue. Such actions disobey the command of Paul to have “no divisions among you, and that you be united with the same understanding and the same conviction” (1 Corinthians 1:10). As long as a person does not use her position to deny God as Creator and Sustainer, the Incarnation of Jesus, repentance of sin, the Trinity, or other necessary core Christian doctrine, then she is perfectly within orthodoxy to maintain either a figurative or literal interpretation of Genesis.

As St. Augustine of Hippo (354-430 AD) said, “In matters that are so obscure and far beyond our vision, we find in Holy Scripture passages which can be interpreted in very different ways without prejudice to the faith we have received. In such cases, we should not rush in headlong and so firmly take our stand on one side that, if further progress in the search for truth justly undermines our position, we too fall with it” (The Literal Meaning of Genesis).

My basic contention for this article is that a figurative interpretation of Genesis creation is the natural reading of the accounts, but what do I mean by “figurative”? For the purposes of this article, I define figurative language as language using words or expressions which convey a meaning different than would be understood by a literal interpretation or reading. For example, when Jesus says, “I am the vine…” (John 15:5), He does not mean that He is a plant. He is establishing Himself as the source to which believers are attached. In the same way, I contend much of the language used in the Genesis creation accounts are not meant to denote a meaning which points one to a historical creation of the universe. Rather, I shall argue the Genesis creation accounts are meant to point first and foremost to God as Creator, and the process illustrated is meant to underscore this concept of God as Creator instead of providing an actual account of what happened the first days of the heavens and earth. The reason for understanding Genesis figuratively stems from three reasons each to be addressed in turn: 1) there are two distinct creation accounts; 2) Genesis 1 contains semi-poetic language, while Genesis 2 reads like a narrative; and 3) the genealogies in Genesis are not necessarily a literal transcription of familial lineage.

Point 1: There are two distinct creation accounts.

Many persons may be surprised to discover there exist two distinct stories of creation between chapters 1 and 2 of Genesis with one account contained in Genesis 1:1-2:3 and one account contained in Genesis 2:4-25. The two creation accounts differ in terms of style, starting point, and order of creation.

The style variation between Genesis 1 and 2 is instantly apparent. Genesis 1 reads much like a poem and is structured that way as well. As I will explore later, Genesis 1 constructs its creation account by paralleling the days of creation with one another. Genesis 1 also contains repetition of words (such as, “Then God said…”, “And God saw that it was good…”, etc.) not seen in Genesis 2. In this way, Genesis 1 contains what is called “semi-poetic language.” This language is utterly different from how Genesis 2 constructs itself which is written like a narrative. The story is not broken up in the same way as Genesis 1 (via days), but the events flow from one into the other. Genesis 2 presents creation, a problem (man is alone), then a solution given by God (He gives man a woman). While Genesis 1 is more systematized and poetic, Genesis 2 resembles a novel.

The starting points between the first and second creation accounts are disparate as well. In Genesis 1, the beginning of the creation account has God creating the heavens and the earth. Genesis 1:2 says, “Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness covered the surface of the watery depths, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the surface of the water” (HCSB). The start of the creation account has the beginning of the earth being watery. From this context God brings light, order, and living things. The second creation account begins from a different point. Rather than being a watery surface, the earth is described in a way more akin to a desert landscape. Genesis 2:5-7 says, “No shrub of the field had yet grown on the land, and no plant of the field had yet sprouted, for the LORD God had not made it rain on the land… But water would come out of the ground and water the entire surface of the land. Then the LORD God formed the man out of the dust from the ground” (HCSB). The starting point from which God creates life is not from watery depths but rather a barren landscape in the same way a painter colors a blank canvas.

Finally, the orders of creation are different between the first and second creation accounts. The creation order in Genesis 1 has God creating the birds of the air, fish of the sea, and creatures of the ground before the creation of man (vv. 20-27). The animals are created, and God creates man so that he may serve as a designated ruler and caretaker of them (v. 26). The creation order in Genesis 2 slightly yet noticeably varies from the first. In the latter creation account, God creates man first. As Genesis 2:7 says, “Then the LORD God formed the man out of the dust from the ground and breathed the breath of life into his nostrils, and the man became a living being.” (HCSB). God creates lush plants in the garden, and man is given the role of caretaker much like in Genesis 1. Afterwards, God declares man should not be alone, so He creates animals as helpers to compliment him (v. 18-19). So between Genesis 1 and 2, we see distinct justifications for creating man and in different order relative to the animals. Such a distinction seems to imply the focus is not in securing a literal account of creation; rather, the point is to emphasize the duty humans have towards both the plants and animals God made.

While not meant to be an absolute proof, these details of Genesis 1 and 2 seem to point to the conclusion Genesis 1 and 2 possess distinct creation accounts. The existence of two distinct creation accounts indicates the prevalence of figurative language over literal.

Point 2: Genesis 1 contains semi-poetic language, and Genesis 2 reads like a narrative.

As mentioned above, the style between Genesis 1 and 2 significantly differs. Genesis 1 possesses what is called “semi-poetic language” primarily due to the large number of repetitions of words and phrases throughout the chapter. Such repetitions include phrases like “Then God said” (vv. 3, 6, 9, 11, 14, 20, 24, 26), “And it was so” (vv. 7, 9, 11, 15, 24, 30), and “And God saw that it was good” (vv. 10, 12, 18, 21, 25). The repetitions are not dissimilar from a pattern one would expect to find in a poetic work. Further, the first three days of creation mirror the last three days of creation. On the first day, God creates light and separates the light from darkness; on the fourth day, God creates sources for the light: the Sun, moon, and distant stars. On the second day, God creates an expanse between the waters which separates them. The expanse between the waters is called the sky; on the fifth day, God creates birds of the air to inhabit the sky. He also fills the waters below (the seas) with every kind of fish. On the third day, God creates land and gathers the waters together. He separates the two, and He brings forth vegetation on the land; on the sixth day, God creates land animals of every kind. Then God brings forth humans to rule over the creatures of the air, sea, and land. This mirroring is reminiscent of poetic structure although not necessarily so; the semi-poetic language and structure is a strong indicator figurative language is at work here.

In contrast to the poetic structure of the first creation account, the second creation account in Genesis 2 reads much differently. There is no mention of the days which divide the creative acts; rather, each act of creation flows into the next. As mentioned before, the second account begins with God springing forth life in a barren land. Water comes from the ground, and out of the dust God creates man (which is an interesting dichotomy with Genesis 1 which says man is made in God’s image, so it seems the Bible declares our uniqueness but also our lowliness). God gives man helpers in the form of the variety of animals. Despite this generosity, it seems incomplete because there was no helper fully compatible with man (v. 20). Therefore, God puts man into a deep sleep. From one of the man’s ribs, God forms a woman to be his companion, and the man expresses his joy (v. 23). From here, chapter 3 describes the Fall of humanity due to rebellion against God. Chapter 3 seems tied to the Genesis account of chapter 2 rather than the account of chapter 1; however, it is enough for our purposes here to limit our study to chapter 2 without having to go on to the next chapter.

In the second Genesis account, a story is being told. Though Genesis 1 described no account of conflict, Genesis 2 outlines one: man is alone, so God becomes provider of man’s need for sufficient community. God creates animals, but they are insufficient because they are not totally compatible. Therefore, God gives man a woman who is compatible with him. There exists a clear narrative taking place, and although this narrative structure alone does not seem to be indicative of figurative language, examining this account in light of Genesis 1 seems to denote some kind of figurative language is used to highlight differing aspects of God’s creative acts. A historical account of creation would not seem to have these differences especially since there seem to be irreconcilable distinctions between the creation accounts of Genesis 1 and 2 (i.e., order of creation, starting point).

Point 3: The genealogies in Genesis are not necessarily a literal transcription of familial lineage.

If the Genesis accounts of creation are meant to be figurative language, then how do we understand the genealogies present in Genesis chapters 5 and 11? YEC often point to the genealogical record in these chapters to argue the earth must be young because the genealogy gives a full record from Adam onward; however, there are two primary problems with this argument: 1) there is no good reason to suspect these genealogies are a full record, and 2) the age of these persons land on very specific numbers.

Modern readers often find difficulty in understanding the construction and use of Biblical genealogies. The genealogies often denote a theological meaning rather than provide a literal transcription of familial lineage. For an example, consider the genealogy given in the Gospel of Matthew. The author of the Gospel writes of 42 generations between Abraham and Jesus: 14 between Abraham and King David, 14 between Solomon and Jechoniah (the time of the Babylonian exile), and 14 between Shealtiel and Jesus. Now if one compares this genealogy to the lineage of kings in 2 Chronicles, some striking differences will arise. For example, Matthew says Joram fathered Uzziah, but 2 Chronicles lists several generations between these men. Ahaziah (22:1), Joash (22:11), and Amaziah (24:27) are born between Joram and Uzziah. Does this mean the writer of the Gospel of Matthew got it wrong? Not likely. It is widely believed that the writer of Matthew was heavily trained in the Jewish Scriptures (due to his consistent references to them throughout his Gospel); the writer would not have excluded these generations accidentally or due to ignorance. Further, he does this same exclusion for all three groups of 14 generations. It would seem odd if the writer was mistaken to the point of accidentally giving all these groups exactly 14 generations between significant events in Jewish history. Luke does something similar in his genealogy when he places 21 names between Adam and Abraham, 14 between Abraham and David, 21 from David to the exile, and 21 from the exile to the time of Jesus Christ. Therefore, it seems the most reasonable conclusion is the writers intended to make a theological point with their genealogies.*

With this in mind, the question must be asked: did those who wrote Genesis intentionally exclude generations? There is no foolproof way to discover this answer. Appealing to the fact that it is in the Bible and therefore must be complete is obviously fallacious not because of error in the Bible but because of intent in the writings themselves as we saw in Matthew and Luke’s case. Often, persons reject biblical inerrancy by focusing too heavily on the content of the writings rather than the intent of the authors, and one should tread carefully to avoid that mistake here. It is tempting to read the genealogies (indeed, all of Scripture) through a twenty-first century Western lens. To do so is to be irrespective of the unique context out of which Jewish literature arises. A culture two thousand years ago on the opposite side of the world would not understand a piece of theology, literature, or even history in the same way as an American would today. This is not an appeal to ignorance; rather, this is an appeal to caution when understanding these texts. While an American would expect a genealogy to be full and complete without exemptions, an ancient Jew would not have demanded as much, especially in a largely illiterate culture where only very few could read and write. Further, writing was incredibly expensive and took a significant amount of time. To preserve a large document like Genesis would have taken incredible commitment by a group dedicated to what was written. There would have been no need to provide a full and complete account of the generations between Adam and Abraham if one could convey a sufficient point by offering an incomplete genealogy or skipping generations. Such a process is called “telescoping” because the authors are leaving out certain generations which will signify the important characters within a genealogy.

The second reason the genealogies may not be literal familial transcriptions is the numbers used in the genealogies are quite specific. It is easy to bypass the numbers upon a superficial reading, but upon closer inspection many of the numbers end with specific digits. In Genesis 5, all the persons’ ages end with 0, 2, 5, 7, or 9. Similarly, in Genesis 11, all the persons’ ages end with 0, 3, 5, 7, 9. It seems odd these persons would live to only a specific age with repeating end numbers which totally exclude half the numbers available. This may seem speculative, but in light of the theological focus genealogies usually possessed, such an interpretation is not necessarily a stretch. Of course, scholars today can only speculate what these numbers would have meant to an ancient Jew, but given the patterns exhibited it does call one to consider whether there was an ulterior meaning for these numbers.

In light of these three points, I would submit that a literal reading of these chapters of Genesis is not the intent of the writers, and their focus was much more theological than one might think upon a superficial reading of the text.

Now, critics may ask the question: “Aren’t you just reading figurative language into the creation accounts to try and exonerate Genesis of supporting a YEC view of the universe? Isn’t this reinterpretation just a retreat from science?” Interestingly enough, this question is often proposed from both opponents of Christianity and Christians themselves (particularly YEC). This question is fair, but it presents a false notion. Even if this interpretation comes from a retreat to science, it does not follow this interpretation is false. Claiming it is false for this reason commits the genetic fallacy (where one argues against a position by explaining its origins). Moreover, I did not argue my point using contemporary science; I argued from Scripture. One cannot merely dismiss my argument on the basis that it is a retreat to science; one must come to terms with the argument from Scripture itself. Further, while a literal interpretation of Genesis may be prominent among specific denominations, it is by no means the sole position throughout Church history even among some of the early Church fathers. A prominent example is St. Augustine of Hippo. In his work The Literal Meaning of Genesis, Augustine defends the view that everything was created simultaneously (in contrast with six-day creation). The six-day structure of creation is then a logical framework rather than a historical account.** Further, Origen of Alexandria also believed in an allegorical understanding of the Genesis creation. He argued that Genesis 1 did not make sense to read literally, and therefore, it is more sensible to understand the account not propagating a historical narrative. As he argued, “…if God is said to walk in the paradise in the evening, and Adam to hide himself under a tree, I do not suppose that anyone doubts that these things figuratively indicate certain mysteries, the history having taken place in appearance, and not literally” (De Principiis).(3*) Dismissing a figurative reading of Genesis by reducing it to a retreat from science ignores both a critical literary analysis of Genesis as well as theological discourse over this topic within Church history.

Now, I do not mean to submit these points serve as a proof of the figurative nature of the creation accounts; however, given the veracity of these points, one is certainly justified (perhaps even more justified) in upholding that the Genesis creation accounts are figurative language. Of course, stories constructed with certain literary style and theological focus could be taken literally. One can think of several biblical stories which are obviously historical yet contain profound theological significance and are delivered with a specific literary style. One must weigh these factors relative to the scenario. The danger is to think of the Bible as either entirely figurative or wholly literal. Either scenario does not approach the text with the criticism it deserves and leads the reader to some fairly nonsensical conclusions such as believing the crucifixion of Jesus is meant to be figurative or maintaining all of Christ’s parables or Old Testament stories are literal. For the purposes of this article, once a person takes into consideration the two distinct creation accounts, literary and poetic styles, and seemingly theologically focused genealogies, she can determine these factors point to a figurative understanding of Genesis, and the defensibility of such an interpretation gives one sufficient reason for accepting the conclusion.

Finally, does a figurative reading of the Genesis creation accounts subtract from the meaning inherent in these chapters? Of course not! Quite the contrary; if the Genesis accounts are theologically focused rather than historically focused, then the reader is beckoned to primarily notice what the original authors wanted: God Himself. There are entire ministries dedicated to defending the literal interpretation of Genesis, but I find these ministries to be misguided not only because I do not believe such an interpretation is correct but also because these ministries are making their focal point a historical reading of Genesis rather than the One who is the epicenter of Genesis! Whichever way one chooses to read Genesis, God is still established as the Creator and Sustainer. He is the Giver of Life and the Bringer of Order, the Origin of Light and Mediator of Natural Powers, the Stretcher of the Sky and the Pourer of the Sea, the Gardener of Vegetation and the Breeder of Animals; He is the One who supplies our needs and the Source from whom all human beings owe their existence, for all persons are made in His image.

“The heavens are Yours; the earth also is Yours.
The world and everything in it—You founded them.
North and south—You created them.
Tabor and Hermon [the mountains] shout for joy at Your name” (Psalm 89:11-12).

*: See more concerning genealogies and their role here: http://www.reasons.org/articles/the-genesis-genealogies

**: See paper concerning Augustine’s views on Genesis here: http://www.asa3.org/ASA/PSCF/1988/PSCF3-88Young.html

3*: See Origen’s views on Genesis from his work De Principiis here: http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/04124.htm

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