Beware of taking Genesis 1-3 too Literally

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Beware of taking Genesis 1-3 too Literally

Post by Admin on Sat Feb 11, 2017 10:52 am

When we read any passage in the Bible, it
is very important that we interpret it as it is
supposed to be interpreted. If a passage is
meant to be understood literally, then taking
it figuratively is obviously going to lead to
wrong conclusions about what it is saying.
Similarly, if a text is meant to be
understood figuratively, then to take it
literally would be a big mistake.
It is very common for readers of the Bible
to go wrong in both of these ways.
On the one hand, there are those who make
the mistake of giving illegitimate
spiritualising interpretations to things that are supposed to be
taken literally. Sometimes even passages that refer to key
components of the Christian faith, like the resurrection of Jesus or
His future return, are interpreted purely symbolically, resulting in
extremely serious error.
On the other hand, and at the other extreme, there are those who
insist on taking every biblical passage literally whenever it is
conceivably possible to do so. This, however, fails to reckon with
the fact that Scripture is full of non-literal language. The Psalms,
for example, constantly use vivid metaphors. Books like Daniel and
Revelation use powerful apocalyptic imagery. And it is noteworthy
too how in John’s Gospel we repeatedly find Jesus making
statements that those listening to Him misunderstand because they
take His words literally (see John 2:19-21; 3:3-4; 4:10-15, 31-34).
One part of the Bible that Christians often interpret too literally is
the first three chapters of Genesis. Many believers, who are
rightfully distressed by godless theories of how the universe and
mankind originated, seem to think that one way to oppose these
theories is to insist on a fully literal interpretation of Genesis 1-3.
In fact, a close reading of these chapters shows that it is a mistake
to take them fully literally. Let us look at some reasons why this is
the case:
(1) In Gen 1:3-5, we are told:
3 Then God said, ‘Let there be light’, and there was light. 4 God
saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the
darkness. 5 God called the light ‘day’, and He called the darkness
‘night’. And there was evening and there was morning, one day.
However, in verses 14-19, we read:
14 Then God said, ‘Let there be lights in the expanse of the sky to
separate the day from the night, and let them serve as signs to
mark seasons and days and years; 15 and let them serve as lights
in the expanse of the sky to give light on the earth’, and so it
happened. 16 God made the two great lights, the greater light to
govern the day and the lesser light to govern the night; He also
made the stars. 17 God placed them in the expanse of the sky to
give light on the earth, 18 and to govern the day and the night, and
to separate the light from the darkness; and God saw that it was
good. 19 There was evening and there was morning, a fourth day.
We see in verses 3-5 that on the first day God creates light that He
calls ‘day’, i.e., day-time as opposed to night-time. However, in
verses 14-18 He creates the sun, moon and stars on the fourth
day. But the light that gives us day-time obviously comes from the
These verses stand as a strong piece of evidence that we are not
supposed to understand Genesis 1 as a purely literal account. On
the first symbolic day the focus is on God’s creation of light,
darkness and twenty-four hour days, while on the fourth symbolic
day the focus is on His creation of the sun, moon and stars. The
point that is being made is that God created all these things: light,
darkness, the twenty-four hour day, sun, moon and stars. But the
text is not meant to be taken as a literal chronological account of
when God made these things.
Sometimes Christians who insist on taking all these verses literally
come up with forced interpretations that involve, for example,
God’s creation of the sun on the first day, but the sun’s appearing
from behind clouds on the fourth day. Solutions like these are very
implausible. In the text God seems clearly to be portrayed creating
the sun on the fourth day and creating the light for day (which, in
reality, comes from the sun) on the first day. The fact that there is
an overlap is not a problem because the chronology in the text is
not meant to be taken literally. The six days of creation are simply
a literary device used to frame the description of God’s act of
After God’s activity on the first day of creation in 1:3-5 has been
outlined, there follows immediately the sentence, ‘And there was
evening and there was morning, one day.’ Similar sentences,
referring to evening and morning and giving the number of the day
in question, are also found after the other five days of creation
(1:8, 13, 19, 23, 31).
It might be thought that the explicit references to evening and
morning suggest that literal twenty-four hour days are being
described in chapter 1. There is no need to think this, however.
‘Evening and morning’ can easily just be part of the literary device
that uses symbolic days.
(2) On each of the seven days that are referred to in 1:3-2:3, the
Hebrew word yom, meaning ‘day’, is used (1:5, 8, 13, 19, 23, 31;
2:2, 3). But if we look at 2:4, we find yom used again with
reference to ‘the day that the LORD God made earth and heaven’.
The whole period of the six days of creation in 1:3-31 is now
referred to as a single day.
Given that yom in 2:4 does not refer to a literal twenty-four hour
day, it becomes easier to think that the days of 1:3-2:3 do not have
to be literal twenty-four hour days either.
(3) Gen 1:12, referring to the third day of creation, states:
The earth produced vegetation, plants yielding seed according to
their kinds, and trees yielding fruit with seed in it according to their
kinds. And God saw that it was good.
And then Gen 1:24, referring to the sixth day of creation, states:
Then God said, ‘Let the earth produce living creatures according to
their kinds: livestock and creeping things and animals of the earth
according to their kinds’. And so it happened.
It is interesting that these verses speak about the earth ‘producing’
plants and animals. There may well be a hint here that natural
processes were involved in God’s method of creating these things.
If so, it seems reasonable to think that these processes would
have taken much longer than a literal twenty-four hour day.
(4) In Gen 3:1-5, we read:
1 Now the snake was more crafty than any animal of the field
which the LORD God had made. And it said to the woman, ‘Did God
really say, ‘You shall not eat from any tree of the garden?’’
2 The woman said to the snake, ‘We are allowed to eat fruit from
the trees of the garden. 3 But God has said, ‘You are not to eat
fruit from the tree that is in the middle of the garden, and you are
not to touch it, or you will die.’’
4 The snake said to the woman, ‘You certainly will not die. 5 For
God knows that on the day you eat from it your eyes will be
opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.’
It would be a big mistake to take this passage literally. We have
here an animal that plots against and speaks to Eve! But animals
obviously don’t literally do this!
Those who insist on trying to interpret this passage literally
sometimes claim that it refers to Satan literally manifesting himself
as a snake and speaking to Eve.
This interpretation is very problematic, however. Note in verse 1
how we are told that the snake was more crafty than any animal of
the field. The way that the snake is set alongside other animals
and compared to them surely shows that we should understand
the snake on the same level as the other animals. The other
animals are surely understood to be real animals, so the snake
should be understood as a real animal too, not simply as a
manifestation of Satan in the form of a snake.
Others who insist on a literal interpretation acknowledge that the
text depicts a real snake, but claim that the passage refers to
Satan speaking through the snake in a way similar to how God
speaks through Balaam’s donkey in Numbers 22:28-30.
There is also a huge difficulty with this interpretation. When the
passage says that the snake was the most crafty of the animals,
there is an implication that each animal has a certain amount of
craftiness in itself, and that must surely include the snake. The
trickery that the snake uses to deceive Eve is therefore portrayed
as its own trickery, not the trickery of Satan speaking through the
The snake certainly symbolises Satan. Theologically, this passage
is teaching us that Satan was instrumental in tempting the first
human beings to fall into sin. But on the actual level of the story, it
is the snake as an animal that talks to Eve and tempts her to sin.
And this cannot reasonably be taken literally. To interpret this
passage in a literal way is to seriously misunderstand the type of
literature that is present here.
Given that the conversation between Eve and the snake should not
be understood literally, it seems likely that the tree of the
knowledge of good and evil, referred to in verses 3-5 (and in 2:9),
should also not be understood literally. Nor does the tree of life,
referred to in 2:9, sound as if it should be interpreted literally.
(5) Gen 3:8 tells us:
They [Adam and Eve] heard the sound of the LORD God walking in
the garden in the cool of the day.
It should be obvious that this is not meant to be taken literally.
Literally, God is spirit (John 4:24) and does not have a body with
which to walk around.
It is clutching at straws to claim that this verse refers to an
incarnational episode in which the divine Son of God clothed
Himself with humanity, a kind of precursor to the incarnation when
Jesus came as redeemer. It is so much easier just to take the text
as a symbolic account of the broken relationship between the first
sinful humans and God.
There are other parts of these chapters too which suggest, more or
less strongly, that Genesis 1-3 is not meant to be taken fully
literally, but I think I have given enough examples to make my
point. To insist that these chapters should be interpreted fully
literally is simply to misunderstand the type of writing that we have
To be sure, there is the danger of going too far the other way and
interpreting these chapters too symbolically. For example, other
passages in Scripture strongly suggest that Adam and Eve should
be understood as two historical people (e.g., Luke 3:8; Rom
5:12-19). It would be a mistake to understand them merely as
symbols of humanity.
One major reason I have for writing this article is a concern for
Christians to be balanced in their dealings with modern science.
We must never accept what scientists tell us if that means denying
what the Bible teaches. But, on the other hand, we need to watch
out for the danger of rejecting what scientists have to say because
we only mistakenly think that what they are saying conflicts with
Scripture, when in fact it doesn’t.
The standard scientific teaching about the origin of the universe is
that it originated 14 billion years ago. There seems to me to be
nothing in Genesis 1-3 that would conflict with this. Once we
recognise the high degree of symbolism in these chapters, it
becomes apparent that they tell us little, if anything, about when or
how God created the universe and all that is in it. These chapters
teach us that God made the universe, that human beings are
created in God’s image, that we fell into sin through the tempting of
Satan, that we have some degree of authority over the earth, etc.
etc. But they don’t really tell us how or when God made the
Mainstream biologists also teach, of course, that all biological life-
forms today, including humans, evolved from earlier species of
plants and animals. So what should Christians make of this?
Well, I think the scientific basis for so-called micro-evolution, i.e.,
evolution within species, is very strong. Nor does there seem to
me to be anything in this that need be seen as conflicting with the
I am much more unsure about evolution from one species to
another. From what I have seen, there may well be some good
evidence for this, and certainly God could have created in this way
if He wanted to. Nor am I aware of biblical passages that would
clearly conflict with some form of evolution between species that
God caused. Nevertheless, I don’t feel that I have the knowledge to
be able to make clear statements on this issue.
Even if we do accept that there has been evolution between
species, however, there are still massive problems with how
theories of evolution are typically portrayed and understood in
modern Western society. At least in the UK, where I live, whenever
theories of evolution or of the origin of the universe are referred to
in the mainstream media, there always seems to be an underlying
presupposition that people or the universe originated by chance.
This is never made explicit, but there always seems to be an
implication that God was not the creator. The seriousness of this
error, of course, can hardly be overstated.
However, as long as we are clear that God made all that exists, I
would caution Christians about being closed to theories of exactly
how He did this. If a theory conflicts with the Bible, then it should
be rejected. But we need to be careful not to be too quick to say
that a theory conflicts with Scripture before carefully considering
the matter. And, as we consider, we must beware of interpreting
Genesis 1-3 too literally.
Author Resource:- I have been a Christian for over 25 years. I have
a Ph.D. in New Testament from the University of Edinburgh. I am
a UK national and I currently live in the south of Scotland.
Please feel free to take my articles to share with others or to post
on your website etc. If you do post one of my articles for others to
read, please attach my name and keep the article unaltered, except
for Americanising the English spellings if that is necessary.


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