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Genesis - don't take it literally

David Brown


Genesis: don't take it literally

 

 

The first few chapters of the book of Genesis tell a familiar story of creation, Adam and Eve, and the garden of Eden.  Many believers have taken the story at face value, and it's easy to read it simply as an apparently factual tale.  But on a closer look, the Genesis story poses a problem for those wanting to believe in the divine origin of the Bible.  Doesn't science prove it wrong?  Doesn't evolution reduce the beginning of Genesis to legend?

Reconciling the early chapters of the book of Genesis with science has long been a bone of contention among believers.  The scientific evidence for the evolutionary history of life is massive, with morphological and fossil evidence now joined by overwhelming genetic evidence for evolution and common descent from simpler organisms.  If that's how the diversity of life today arose, then we need to rethink how we understand Genesis.  And many have done just that.  Plenty has been written from a Christian standpoint. There's no shortage of books and websites setting out how evolution and faith are compatible, provided one is prepared not to read Genesis as though it were a strictly historical narrative, and instead to understand it in a figurative, non-literal way while seeing evolution as the mechanism by which a creator God chose to allow the natural world to come into being. Several such sources are listed at the end of this article.

What is less often realised is that there's a good deal of Biblical evidence that the Genesis account isn't intended to be taken literally.  In this booklet, we'll look at some of that Biblical evidence, showing how it helps us reconcile the facts revealed by the study of God's world with the teaching of His word. If we take the Biblical and scientific evidence together, we find ourselves calling into question the increasingly vocal and well funded lobbying from evangelical and other groups which reject the foundations of modern biological science and demands a literal interpretation of the Genesis account of creation and the garden of Eden.  Indeed, both intellectual honesty and the evidence based approach to faith which Scripture advocates lead us to reject a purely literal reading of the opening chapters of the Bible.

Throughout, we'll work on the firm basis that God doesn't contradict Himself.  The evidence of the Bible, and the evidence of the created universe and life within it, will be in harmony and not in conflict.  This is often called the 'Two Books' principle - the principle, highlighted by Sir Francis Bacon[i] early in the 1600s and by many others before and since, that the 'book of God's word' (the Bible) and the 'book of God's works' - the natural world - are in agreement, telling complementary aspects of the same story.  Bacon gave some sound advice: [ii] 'To conclude therefore, let no man ....think or maintain, that a man can search too far, or be too well studied in the Book of God's Word, or in the Book of God's Works - Divinity or Philosophy. But rather, let men endeavour an endless progress or proficience in both'.  The 'two books' will agree: if we start to find otherwise, we should take another look at how we're interpreting the evidence, because we'll have got something seriously wrong.

 

Bible language and the natural world

 

The Bible uses a rich variety of literary styles - figurative, symbolic, dramatic, poetic as well as sober narrative - to convey its powerful message about mankind's need for God, about God's care for His creation and especially for men and women, and about the path to life in accordance with His purpose.  The language used to describe the natural world is evocative and moving, stressing the supremacy of God over nature. 

The LORD reigns, he is robed in majesty; the LORD is robed in majesty and is armed with strength. The world is firmly established; it cannot be moved. (Ps 93:1 NIV)

The language isn't of course literal: saying the earth cannot be moved' doesn't mean Copernicus was wrong, even though it's repeated in other Psalms:

He set the earth on its foundations; it can never be moved. (Ps 104:5 NIV)

The world is firmly established, it cannot be moved; he will judge the peoples with equity. (Ps 96:10 NIV)

Similarly, Isaiah was not teaching astronomy when he said

All the stars of the heavens will be dissolved and the sky rolled up like a scroll; all the starry host will fall like withered leaves from the vine, like shrivelled figs from the fig-tree. (Isaiah 34:4 NIV)

Even more obviously, the Biblical writers were not trying to make scientifically accurate statements - even by the standards of the knowledge of their own day - when they wrote:

Let the heavens rejoice, let the earth be glad; let the sea resound, and all that is in it;  let the fields be jubilant, and everything in them. Then all the trees of the forest will sing for joy; they will sing before the LORD... (Ps 96: 11-13 NIV)

Let the sea resound, and everything in it, the world, and all who live in it.  Let the rivers clap their hands, let the mountains sing together for joy; let them sing before the LORD, for he comes to judge the earth.  (Ps 98:7-9 NIV)

You will go out in joy and be led forth in peace; the mountains and hills will burst into song before you, and all the trees of the field will clap their hands.  (Isaiah 55:12 NIV)

The Bible doesn't offer scientific statements, and so would be entirely wrong to criticise it for inaccuracy when the record states

My mouth will speak words of wisdom; the utterance from my heart will give understanding (Psalm 49:3 NIV); or

The word is near you; it is in your mouth and in your heart, that is, the word of faith we are proclaiming: that if you confess with your mouth, Jesus is Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.  For it is with your heart that you believe and are justified, and it is with your mouth that you confess and are saved.  (Romans 10:8-10 NIV)

on the basis that it's the brain, not the heart, where reasoning and belief are to be located.   Similarly, we are not being taught meteorology when in the book of Job, the voice of God asks

Have you entered the storehouses of the snow or seen the storehouses of the hail, which I reserve for times of trouble, for days of war and battle?  What is the way to the place where the lightning is dispersed, or the place where the east winds are scattered over the earth?  (Job 38:22-24 NIV)

Moving to the New Testament, Jesus wasn't perpetrating an anatomical falsehood when he said

From within, out of men's hearts, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly. (Mark 7:21-22 NIV)

So we see the Bible using deeply poetic and figurative language to show that God reigns supreme over the natural world, and to stress the importance of 'heartfelt' (to use a modern metaphor) belief among disciples.  The language isn't concerned with scientific accuracy, and given that scientific literature as we know it was still many centuries in the future when the Bible was written, we wouldn't expect it to be.  The word of God has more important things to convey than literal scientific description.

 


The natural and the miraculous

 

How does God interact with the natural world?  In the Bible, God is presented as being involved with every aspect of the natural world and has everything under His direct control.  All that happens, happens because God wills it to happen.

Now even with the limited knowledge at their disposal, the Bible writers knew very well that natural processes were at work.  The writer of Psalm 139 could write

For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother's womb.  I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful, I know that full well.  My frame was not hidden from you when I was made in the secret place. When I was woven together in the depths of the earth, your eyes saw my unformed body. All the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be.  (Ps 139:13-16 NIV)

without contradicting the normal processes of gestation, or relocating them to some subterranean knitting circle.

Jeremiah says

When he thunders, the waters in the heavens roar; he makes clouds rise from the ends of the earth. He sends lightning with the rain and brings out the wind from his storehouses. (Jeremiah 10:13 NIV)

and we don't diminish the power and majesty of God by knowing that there are natural climate processes that give rise to thunderstorms, clouds, wind and rain.  Psalm 104 describes God's provision for animals and birds

He makes springs pour water into the ravines; it flows between the mountains.  They give water to all the beasts of the field; the wild donkeys quench their thirst.  The birds of the air nest by the waters; they sing among the branches.  He waters the mountains from his upper chambers; the earth is satisfied by the fruit of his work.  He makes grass grow for the cattle, and plants for man to cultivate - bringing forth food from the earth:  wine that gladdens the heart of man, oil to make his face shine, and bread that sustains his heart...
....These all look to you to give them their food at the proper time.  When you give it to them, they gather it up; when you open your hand, they are satisfied with good things.  When you hide your face, they are terrified; when you take away their breath, they die and return to the dust.  When you send your Spirit, they are created, and you renew the face of the earth.   (Ps 104:10-15, 27-30 NIV)

Jesus in similar vein says

Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. ....And why do you worry about clothes? See how the lilies of the field grow. They do not labour or spin.  Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendour was dressed like one of these.  If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, will he not much more clothe you, O you of little faith? (Matthew 6:26, 28-30 NIV)

Consider the ravens: They do not sow or reap, they have no storeroom or barn; yet God feeds them. (Luke 12:24  NIV)

There are natural processes behind all of these, but the writers knew that: they are not suggesting that God puts out bird-feeders or assigns an angel to be a bespoke tailor.  Similarly Jesus can state that the sun rises, and rain falls, because God wills it to:

He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. (Matthew 5:45 NIV)

without requiring us to suspend belief in the natural processes that bring about these things.

On a more spectacular scale, natural processes such as volcanic activity have been suggested as being behind Biblical events such as the plagues of Egypt and the events of the Exodus[iii].  Divine intervention isn't being ruled out if some of the miracles can be explained in such a way: the miracle is one of timing, and of God once again using natural processes to serve His purposes. Indeed, the Bible uses the same Hebrew word - pala, meaning marvellous or wonderful - to refer to 'spectacular' miracles, and to the normal operations of nature: all are the works of God.

So the Bible is quite clear: God is intimately involved with the natural world, and often works through natural processes to bring about His will.  It shouldn't surprise us to find the evidence suggesting that He brought about the diversity of plant and animal (and human) life in such a way.

 

Science is a good thing

 

If the world is brought about by God, it's not surprising to learn that we're encouraged to study it and find in doing so, evidence about the God who is behind it all. The natural world is a reflection of God, eloquently described in

The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands.  Day after day they pour forth speech; night after night they display knowledge.  There is no speech or language where their voice is not heard.  Their voice goes out into all the earth, their words to the ends of the world.  (Psalm 19:1-4 NIV)

Significantly, the psalm goes on to place learning of the natural world in parallel with learning from the law of God - the written word.

Job, in chapters 38 and 39 of the book bearing his name. is told to look at the natural world for evidence of God and His power.  In the New Testament, Paul's well known words in Romans unequivocally state that the evidence of the world points to God, not away from Him.

...what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them.  For since the creation of the world God's invisible qualities - his eternal power and divine nature - have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse.  (Romans 1:19-20 NIV)

Study of the natural world is positively encouraged

Great are the works of the LORD; they are pondered by all who delight in them (Ps 111:2 NIV)

These principles are very significant, because they show that the natural world is God?s witness about Himself.  If we reject the evidence of the natural world - including the evidence for evolution and common descent - we are rejecting God's own testimony about Himself and His work in the world.   Instead, we need to use both the Biblical and the scientific evidence to help us interpret both correctly and in harmony.  The 'two books' principle which we noted earlier should be our guide: if our interpretation of Genesis sets it at odds with the overwhelming evidence of science, we risk putting God in the position of planting misleading evidence.  Kenneth Miller[iv] puts it bluntly:

"What saddens me is the view of the Creator that their intellectual contortions force them to hold.  In order to defend God against the challenge they see from evolution, they have had to make Him into a schemer... Their version of God is one who intentionally plants misleading clues beneath our feet and in the heavens themselves.  Their version of God is one who has filled the universe with so much bogus evidence that the tools of science can give us nothing more than a phony version of reality.  In other words, their God has negated science by rigging the universe with fiction and deception."

Since Miller wrote those words, even more evidence of a long evolutionary history of life has come to light through studies of the human and other genomes, adding yet further weight to the signs of common descent.

A positive approach to what we would now term scientific inquiry is entirely consistent with how the Bible treats the basis of faith.  Faith as presented in the Bible is rational, not 'blind'.  The ancient Israelis were to trust God not just because he told them to, but because they could see what He had done for them and their nation in the past: much of the Old Testament rehearses the facts to prove that point to them.  In a similar way, we can use our rational capacities to illuminate, not obscure, our understanding of God.  Faith in the Christian sense isn't, as Mark Twain put it, 'believing something you know ain't true': it's profoundly reasonable.  Galileo was on the right lines when he said[v]

"I do not feel obliged to believe that the same God who has endowed us with sense, reason, and intellect has intended us to forgo their use."

 

Contemporary beliefs are used, not contradicted

 

Time and again in Scripture we find passages and sayings that reflect the beliefs and assumptions of the day.  We've already seen some - examples that speak as though the earth is stationary with the sun rising and setting (and in Joshua's time, standing still!) as the day progresses.  Perhaps surprisingly, when some of the beliefs of the day are patently false, even they are not corrected.  The obvious example is belief in demons and evil spirits.  Not only does Jesus not bother to correct these beliefs - he builds lessons upon them:

When an evil spirit comes out of a man, it goes through arid places seeking rest and does not find it. Then it says, 'I will return to the house I left.'  When it arrives, it finds the house swept clean and put in order.  Then it goes and takes seven other spirits more wicked than itself, and they go in and live there. And the final condition of that man is worse than the first.  (Luke 11:24-26 NIV)

Jesus was driving out a demon that was mute. When the demon left, the man who had been mute spoke, and the crowd was amazed.  But some of them said, By Beelzebub, the prince of demons, he is driving out demons.  Others tested him by asking for a sign from heaven.  Jesus knew their thoughts and said to them: Any kingdom divided against itself will be ruined, and a house divided against itself will fall.  If Satan is divided against himself, how can his kingdom stand? I say this because you claim that I drive out demons by Beelzebub.  Now if I drive out demons by Beelzebub, by whom do your followers drive them out? So then, they will be your judges.  But if I drive out demons by the finger of God, then the kingdom of God has come to you.  (Luke 11:14-20 NIV)

Clearly, Jesus has more pressing considerations in mind than to correct people's understanding of mental illness: he wants to demonstrate the power of God, and so to underline his own authority.  

Later on, he uses a current understanding of the afterlife in the parable of the rich man and Lazarus: the lesson about listening to the voice of Jesus while we have the chance is an important one but we are not obliged to believe that the Jewish idea of Abraham's bosom is literally true.  And just as we don't conclude the Bible is 'wrong' when it speaks of demons and possession by evil spirits, neither do we claim that when the Jerusalem municipal rubbish dump - the valley of Hinnom or Gehenna - is used as a vivid symbol of the fiery destruction of the wicked, it proves that those not acceptable to God will be consigned to eternal torment. And when it comes to Satan, we bend over backwards to show that the Bible is using a figure of speech, not warning us against a literal fallen angel dogging our steps in the hope of causing our downfall.

The conclusion so far is clear.  The Bible reflects the understanding of its day in speaking of the natural world and of God's interaction with it. Familiar symbols and figures of speech are repeatedly used.  Lessons are conveyed using beliefs and ways of thinking current at the time, without necessarily going to the trouble of correcting them where they don't conform to a later scientific understanding.  

God's sovereignty is not compromised by a knowledge of the natural processes underpinning the operation of the natural world, because God works through and is ultimately behind all those processes; processes that are part of His created order and serve His purposes.   No firm distinction is made between the natural and the miraculous: all form part of the 'wonderful works' of God.  Contemporary beliefs are not necessarily corrected, but used as the bases for vivid, memorable spiritual and moral lessons that are as relevant now as at the time they were first spoken or written.

 

The Bible isn't teaching science

 

It is very important to realize that the argument for a non-literal interpretation of the Bible, one that doesn't expect the account to be scientifically accurate, is not just something developed in response to evolutionary biology.  On the contrary, it's the more extreme 'young earth'creation position, with the idea that the geology of the earth and the fossil record are largely the result of Noah's flood, that's a recent climber to prominence.  Promoted by the Seventh Day Adventist George McCready Price in the early twentieth century, 'Flood Geology' became more widely known with the publication of 'The  Genesis Flood' by the theologian John .C Whitcomb and the hydraulic engineer Henry M. Morris in 1961.  A non-literal approach to the early chapters of Genesis has, by comparison, a long and distinguished history.

More than sixteen hundred years ago the Christian writer Augustine warned against looking for science in the Bible, and of the consequences for the credibility of the Gospel if this advice wasn't heeded:

"Usually, even a non-Christian knows something about the earth, the heavens, and the other elements of this world, about the motion and orbit of the stars and even their size and relative positions, about the predictable eclipses of the sun and moon, the cycles of the years and the seasons, about the kinds of animals, shrubs, stones, and so forth, and this knowledge he holds to as being certain from reason and experience. Now, it is a disgraceful and dangerous thing for an infidel to hear a Christian, presumably giving the meaning of Holy Scripture, talking nonsense on these topics; and we should take all means to prevent such an embarrassing situation, in which people show up vast ignorance in a Christian and laugh it to scorn. The shame is not so much that an ignorant individual is derided, but that people outside the household of faith think our sacred writers held such opinions, and, to the great loss of those for whose salvation we toil, the writers of our Scripture are criticized and rejected as unlearned men. If they find a Christian mistaken in a field in which they themselves know well and hear him maintaining his foolish opinions about our books, how are they going to believe those books in matters concerning the resurrection of the dead, the hope of eternal life, and the kingdom of heaven, when they think their pages are full of falsehoods on facts which they themselves have learnt from experience and the light of reason? Reckless and incompetent expounders of Holy Scripture bring untold trouble and sorrow on their wiser brethren when they are caught in one of their mischievous false opinions and are taken to task by those who are not bound by the authority of our sacred books."[vi] 

The reformer John Calvin was equally clear

"The whole point of Scripture is to bring us to a knowledge of Jesus Christ......Scripture provides us with spectacles through which we may view the world as God?s creation and self-expression; it does not, and was never intended to, provide us with an infallible repository of astronomical and medical information.  The natural sciences are thus effectively emancipated for theological restrictions"[vii]

"The Holy Spirit had no intention to teach astronomy; and in proposing instruction meant to be common to the simplest and most uneducated persons, he made use by Moses and the other prophets of popular language....the Holy Spirit would rather speak childishly than unintelligibly to the humble and unlearned."[viii] 

Galileo Galilei, famous for his clash with the Roman Catholic Church and the Inquisition, wrote a letter in which he warned against an over-literal view of Scripture:

"It seems to me very prudent ...to propose and of you to concede and to agree that the Holy Scripture can never lie or err, and that its declarations are absolutely and inviolably true. I should have added only that, though the Scripture cannot err, nevertheless some of its interpreters and expositors can sometimes err in various ways. One of these would be very serious and very frequent, namely to want to limit oneself always to the literal meaning of the words; for there would thus emerge not only various contradictions but also serious heresies and blasphemies, and it would be necessary to attribute to God feet, hands and eyes, as well as bodily and human feelings like anger, regret, hate and sometimes even forgetfulness of things past and ignorance of future ones. Thus in the Scripture one finds many propositions which look different from the truth if one goes by the literal meaning of the words, but which are expressed in this manner to accommodate the incapacity of common people" [ix]

But if the Bible isn't teaching science, what is it for?

The 1970s environmental book, 'Only One Earth' by Barbara Ward and Rene Dubos, had the subtitle 'The care and maintenance of a small planet'.  It's a description that could be applied to the Bible - because the Bible sets out how to run your life, how God wants His world to be run, and how believers can be part of His plan for the world.  It's above all practical; not just there to entertain or to amaze, but to guide what we do - and to enable us to develop a relationship with God.  That's important in the early chapters of Genesis: they're about God, the true God as distinct from the pagan deities worshipped at the time, not about the mechanisms by which biological systems developed.

We need to think about what the Bible says - as distinct from what other people think it says, and from the various add-ons that have accumulated over time (extra beliefs for instance that may be common but aren't actually supported by the text, or people's interpretations of Bible passages).  It's more a library than a single book, and contains a rich mix of literal, figurative and poetic language: to insist on treating it as a sober historical account of events is often to miss the point.

Then we should think about why the Bible says what it does.  If you ask 'why's the kettle boiling?' you might answer 'Because some of the water molecules have acquired sufficient thermal energy to overcome hydrogen bonding and undergo a phase transition'.  Or you might say 'Because I fancy a cup of tea.'  Both may be right - but the second explanation has more to do with purpose and practical usefulness, and it's that sort of explanation that has more in common with the reason the Bible's preserved for us.


The structure and aim of the Genesis story

 

Now we'll turn to Genesis.

We don't have to spend very long in Genesis chapter 1 to realize that it is a highly stylized account.   The series of six 'days' consists of two groups of three: as Alexander (2008) points out, the two sets are about creating 'form' and 'fulness', in place of the 'formless and empty' (in Hebrew, tohu and bohu) state of the world at the outset of the process.  Days 1-3 provide the new space to be filled, and days 4-6 fill respectively the heavens, the sea and sky, and the land.

Table 1:  The structure of Genesis chapter 1

Creating form

Creating fulness

Day 1: light, separated from darkness

Day 4: sun, moon and stars

Day 2: waters separated to form sea and sky

Day 5: aquatic creatures and birds

Day 3: sea and dry land

Day 6: land animals and humans

Day 7: rest

 

The chapter is showing God bringing order out of primeval chaos, through six action steps described in a tightly structured text.  It is not a scientific or chronological account: scientific writing wouldn't be invented for many centuries after the account was written.  The structure of the chapter is even clearer in the Hebrew than the English, since it is built around multiples of the number 7 - Alexander (2008), citing Wenham, points out that the Hebrew verses comprise multiples of 7 words with the first verse containing 7 words, the second verse 14 words, and the summary in 2:1-3, 35 words.  The suggestion is that Genesis might be taking a dig at Babylonian and Sumerian creation stories, with the seventh day set apart as holy in contrast to the Babylonian tradition held that the 7th, 14th, etc days of each month were unlucky.

The word 'day' is used in several different ways: as a synonym for 'light' in verse 5, in reference to each of the six 'days', and in summing up the whole process in chapter 2:4 with the phrase 'in the day that the LORD God made earth and heaven'.  Interpreting the 'days' figuratively isn't a new idea in response to modern science.  The Jewish writer Philo, contemporary with Jesus and Paul (ca 15 BC ? 50 AD), took the six days as a way for Moses to structure the account of creation (Philo thought God actually created all things in an instant).  Origen, in the early third century, wrote[x]:

"What person of intelligence, I ask, will consider as a reasonable statement that the first and the second and the third day, in which there are said to be both morning and evening, existed without sun and moon and stars, while the first day was even without a heaven? .? I do not think anyone will doubt that these are figurative expressions which indicate certain mysteries through a semblance of history."

The term used in Hebrew for 'create' - bara - is consistent with a lengthy, gradual process, since it's used elsewhere in the Old Testament to describe gradual processes (Psalm 51:10, speaking of David?s desire for God to transform his heart, is an example) as well as the creation of the natural world. 

Augustine, writing at the beginning of the fifth century, also took a figurative interpretation of the first chapter.  A non-literal view of the account was therefore current many centuries before Darwin.  In fact, since no-one supposes there to be a literal solid firmament above the earth, one could argue that all readers of Genesis are non-literalists to some extent.

A non-literal view of the Genesis creation account isn't, therefore, a reaction to Darwinism: it is a sound and logical approach to the text.  And there is certainly no good reason for insisting that the world is only a few thousand years old: well-informed Christian writers such as John Thomas, contemporary with Darwin, were amply justified in accepting the geology of their day[xi] , as was theologian Charles Kingsley in accepting Darwin's evolutionary theory.

Moving on, Genesis 1 and Genesis 2 (strictly, Gen 1:1 to 2:3 and from the middle of Gen 2:4 to 2:25) present two different creation stories.  Following Harlow (2010) we can compare the accounts as follows:

Table 2  Two creation accounts in Genesis chapters 1 and 2

 

Genesis 1

Genesis 2

Scene at the start

Dark, watery chaos

Empty ground, no plants but with water from springs

Sequence

Light, sky, land, plans, sun and moon, sea creatures and birds, land animals, humans

Earth and heavens, man, garden, trees, rivers, animals and birds, woman

Method of creation

God speaks

God forms and plants

God

Sovereign over creation

Very much involved in creation

Name of God

Elohim

Yahweh

Humanity

Unspecified number of males and females made simultaneously, given dominion over the earth

One ?adam?, then a woman, later; made caretakers of a garden

Duration

Six days

One day

 

Only if we set aside the notion that either is a factual account of history can we see the complementary richness of the two distinct stories, instead of trying to perform unconvincing verbal and intellectual gymnastics in order to try and 'reconcile' the two.

In summary, a literal reading places Genesis chapter 1 in contradiction to chapter 2, but if we take a different, non-literal view, the chapters offer different perspectives, from different writers, on the creation story.

 

Symbols in the Genesis story

 

Many of the features of the Genesis account mirror other ancient Near Eastern creation stories, and there are many features in common with older stories. Harlow (2010)[xii] examines some examples.  For instance, the Babylonian Epic of Gigamesh features a garden paradise, humans made out of clay, the idea of acquiring wisdom and becoming like the gods, a plant that confers immortality, gods keeping humans from attaining immortality, and nakedness as a symbol of a naïve primitive state.  The character Enkidu  bears a lot of similarity to Adam, as does the central character Adapa in the Myth of Adapa from the third millennium BC.The Sumerian Enki and Ninhursag  myth has an island paradise without death and a goddess acting as a 'lady of life'.

The Babylonian Atrahasis Epic parallels the early chapters of Genesis, with a well watered scene provided by God, humans modeled from clay, marriage instituted, rebellion against God, a flood sent on the earth, a chosen individual saved by obeying the command to build an ark, and offering a sacrifice on surviving the flood, leading to blessing from above?..the similarities are many.

But the differences matter too.  Genesis is not a mere rehash of earlier creation stories.  The Bible is concerned to show that the world is under the sovereignty of a single all-powerful God who is immeasurably greater than the sun, the moon, the stars or any aspect of the animal creation. It takes a deliberate swipe at polytheism and the ancient Near Eastern creation myths.  In Genesis, there is one all-powerful and caring God; in the pagan myths, the gods are capricious, belligerent and selfish.  Genesis underlines the supremacy of the true, sovereign God in contrast to the idea of sun, moon and stars as themselves divine; and the place of humanity not as a plaything or labour saving device for the gods but as the culmination of God's creative work and purpose.  Even the words used for the sun and moon - not the usual words, which could carry associations with pagan gods, but simply 'lights' - underline that they are brought into being for a purpose, and are subject to God.

So the Genesis writer is taking symbols and figures from ancient near eastern creation stories and, brilliantly, turning them around to teach theological truths.  It isn't teaching science and it isn't scientifically 'true': like in one sense the parables of Jesus and ideas such as satan, demons and the like, it is taking symbols and motifs from older creation myths and re-using, adapting them for the writer's own purposes.

In summary, Genesis is about the supremacy of one true, loving, personal God who is behind all things. The account uses - and subtly adapts - contemporary ideas and motifs to stress this basic truth: those ideas, and the account as a whole, are not attempting to chronicle historical events as if in a scientific style that hadn't even been invented at the time.

Moreover, the symbols recur in Scripture. The Bible uses recurring symbols in many ways, and looking out for them can often add to one's understanding of the biblical record and of how it all 'hangs together', despite being a compilation of many books by many writers over hundreds of years and a range of cultural, religious and social environments.  The Genesis story, chapters 2-3 in particular, is rich in such symbols:

  • A tree conferring life - inviting comparison with Revelation
  • Gold, cherubim - inviting comparison with the Tabernacle and later centres of worship including the picture in Revelation
  • The talking snake or serpent (a familiar symbol from ancient Near Eastern mythology) -  again echoed in Revelation

 

Letting Scripture interpret Scripture - often a good approach to take - would lend weight to the view that vivid symbols in early Genesis are just that - symbols rather than historical facts.

 

Dust and clay

 

Adam, or rather 'the adam', 'the man', is described in Genesis 2 as being formed 'from the dust of the ground'.  At first sight that might be taken to mean that if you'd been there to watch, you might have seen a cloud of dust, swirling around in the wind, gradually settling to reveal a fully formed adult male, mature and with a well populated brain, and famously complete with navel.  But is that what Scripture expects us to believe? It certainly isn't God working through the usual natural processes.

Let's look at similar descriptions elsewhere in the Bible.  Other people can be described as 'dust' without our assuming that they didn't undergo conception, development and birth in the normal way.  Abraham for example:

Then Abraham spoke up again: 'Now that I have been so bold as to speak to the Lord, though I am nothing but dust and ashes... '  (Genesis 18:27 NIV)

Job has a moving and poetic description of his dependence on God for his very existence:

Your hands shaped me and made me. Will you now turn and destroy me?  Remember that you moulded me like clay. Will you now turn me to dust again?  Did you not pour me out like milk and curdle me like cheese,  clothe me with skin and flesh and knit me together with bones and sinews? (Job 10:8-11 NIV)

but is certainly not suggesting that as a baby he had been 'directly' moulded from clay instead of being formed in his mother's womb.  Much less is he suggesting that human babies are some sort of dairy product.  Similarly Elihu uses the figure of clay:

I am just like you before God; I too have been taken from clay.  (Job 33:6 NIV)

Earlier we quoted Psalm 139:

For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother's womb.  I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful, I know that full well.  My frame was not hidden from you when I was made in the secret place. When I was woven together in the depths of the earth, your eyes saw my unformed body. All the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be.  (Ps 139:13-16 NIV)

The picture is again poetic and moving: but the psalmist undoubtedly had a normal birth.

The point is that ultimately we're all dust ' formed from the same simple elements that make up the world around us;

for he knows how we are formed, he remembers that we are dust.  (Ps 103:14 NIV)

In summary, careful study of Scripture makes it plain that we're all 'made from dust' or clay: we're all a product of the same simple elements that make up the world around us.  Human beings are part of the natural world, not housings for an inherently immortal 'soul'; we're 'of the dust of the earth', which is just the point Paul makes when he writes

The first man was of the dust of the earth...As was the earthly man, so are those who are of the earth... (1 Corinthians 15:47-48 NIV)

The creation of woman is if anything, even more clearly figurative than that of the man.  Rather than thinking of God carrying out chest surgery under general anaesthesia, the story describes the intimate relationship of woman to man, and the foundation of marriage as a union so close and so enduring (ideally!) as to amount to being 'one flesh'.

 

Who was Adam?

 

The story recounted in Genesis chapters 2 and 3 speaks of God in an anthropomorphic, a very 'human', way.  Once again it teaches a vivid lesson about obedience and disobedience to God, and about the catastrophic consequences of thinking we know better than God.

Depictions of God are clearly figurative, as they must be when the account is trying to describe the divine, a being, a reality outside the created universe of time and space.  We are not to take literally the idea of God being tired and needing a rest, or of creating a partner for the man by what amounts to trial and error.  Neither are we to think of God literally taking an evening stroll in the garden, or of the man and woman characters being able to hide from Him, and of His needing to call out to find them as though in a game of hide-and-seek.  Again, a non-literal interpretation of the story is far older than evolutionary biology: quoting Origen[xiii] again,

"And who is so foolish as to suppose that God, after the manner of a husbandman, planted a paradise in Eden, towards the east, and placed in it a tree of life, visible and palpable, so that one tasting of the fruit by the bodily teeth obtained life? and again, that one was a partaker of good and evil by masticating what was taken from the tree?  And 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"

There are several possible ways of viewing Adam and Eve. Some see them as literary characters in, as Harlow[xiv] puts it, 'a divinely inspired story about the imagined past that intends to teach primarily theological, not historical, truths about God, creation, and humanity.'  Others see them as literal common ancestors of the human race, specially created by God or specially selected from among a larger population and endowed with distinct characteristics.  In that event, they would have to be in the distant past: in order for the full genetic diversity of modern humanity to have developed, they would have to have lived much more than a few thousand years ago.  Still others view them as the first individuals to come to a knowledge of God, but living alongside other human beings, or as representative of the first community to gain such a knowledge.  The latter view is consistent with the fact that the names Adam ('man' or 'human') and Eve ('living one') are descriptive titles that indicate the two characters as representations of humanity.  In the Hebrew text, Adam is not used as a personal name until chapter 5.

For Christians who find difficulty in thinking of Adam and Eve other than as real people, it is entirely possible therefore to view them as historical figures while at the same time accepting their descent from other primitive humans.  For example, the conservative evangelical writer John Stott, while believing in the historicity of Adam and Eve, says[xv]

"...my acceptance of Adam and Eve as historical is not incompatible with my belief that several forms of pre-Adamic 'hominid' may have existed for thousands of years previously.  They made their cave dwellings and buried their dead.  It is conceivable that God created Adam out of one of them. ...Adam was the first homo divinus, if I may coin a phrase, the first man to whom may be given the Biblical designation 'made in the image of God'.  Precisely what the divine likeness was, which was stamped upon him, we do not know, for Scripture nowhere tells us.  But Scripture seems to suggest that it includes moral, social, and spiritual faculties which make man unlike all other creatures and like God the creator, and on account of which he was given ?dominion' over the lower creation."

Later, the Cain and Abel story quite obviously assumes the presence of other people in some numbers - people who Cain feared might kill him (Gen 4:14); people to populate a city (4:17); people among whom he could find a wife (4:17).  Simply assuming Adam and Eve must have been prolific in other sons and daughters is reading into the text details that just aren't there.  More likely perhaps - and supported by references in Genesis to farming, animal husbandry and other activities - is that Adam and Eve are to be located in the Neolithic period, perhaps 9,000 to 11,000 years ago.

In summary, the use of symbolic language and symbols familiar from elsewhere in Scripture clearly point to a figurative interpretation of the early chapters of Genesis, while a literal reading would lead us to thinking of God in a untenable way and to real difficulties of the 'where did Cain get his wife?' character.

 

The Fall

 

Those promoting a literal view of Genesis often point to Romans 5:12

Therefore, just as sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all men, because all sinned (Romans 5:12 NIV)

Paul is clearly speaking of Adam as a historical figure, just as Jesus is a historical figure.  But let's be careful. The Bible often personifies characteristics such as wisdom, folly and evil, so it may be that Paul is using the same personified picture as Genesis without bothering to explain that Adam there is representative of a human race who from the outset, from the earliest experience of a relationship with God, went against His wishes and commands.  After all, the point Paul is making is that 'all sinned' - everyone's responsible for their own sin, not that of others.  We are ourselves as fallible human beings guilty of contravening God?s principles: we can't simply blame it on a genetic inheritance from Adam.  This truth stands, whether one views Adam ands Eve as historical individuals or not.  It doesn?t even matter whether Paul himself thought Adam was a real person.

In the same way, other parts of the Bible teach lessons which are much more profound than whether the characters described are 'real people'.  As an example, if we wanted to encourage one another to help others in need, regardless of risk or cost to ourselves, we might well refer to the parable of the Good Samaritan.  To get sidetracked into a discussion of whether there was a real Good Samaritan or whether Jesus was making him up would be to miss completely the point of the story.

The Genesis story leaves us under no illusions about the human condition.  As 'earthly' as the rest of creation, mankind has the awesome privilege of knowing God, of having access to a covenant relationship with God; and the awesome responsibility of obedience to Him.  Mankind has shirked that responsibility, and broken the relationship: yet the God who defines Himself as love has reached out in a prototype Man, bridging the chasm and offering a chance for men and women to fulfil the destiny that is theirs from the dawn of creation: to reflect God's glory and be one with Him.

Does a non-literal view of the early chapters of Genesis detract from the awesomeness of God?  Absolutely not.  In fact, a God who can set up the universe 'just right' for life to develop, then know 'the end from the beginning' (Isaiah 46:10) over what for us is a span of billions of years is far more awesome than one who zaps the world into being in six days.  We cannot be sure about the processes the Creator used in bringing about the rich variety of life today.  Some Christians will probably continue to think of creation as a sudden event, or a series of such events.  But it's also possible, with the same respect for the Bible, to view creation as a gradual process, spread over aeons of time but all ultimately destined to fulfil the purpose of a God to whom 'one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day'.  

 

Summary

 

Let's summarise the conclusions we've reached.

Our foundation is that Scripture and science, rightly interpreted, will both support faith in God and so believers should have no reluctance to look at the science as well as at the Bible. According to Scripture, studying the natural world - science, in short - is to be encouraged.  It will point the inquirer towards, not away from, God, for 'the heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands'.  Evidence from the world around us complements the evidence of Scripture. The right interpretation of Scripture and of science will be one that sees them in harmony and not in conflict: the 'two books', of God's Word and God's works, must tell a consistent story, for God does not contradict Himself. 

We looked at Bible language.  The Bible uses evocative poetic and figurative language both in describing the natural world and in describing how God interacts with the world - language that can be very moving, although it is clearly not intended to be taken literally as scientific fact.  We might expect to find such language in the Biblical account of how the world came to be.

The Bible also describes God's involvement with the world, intimate though it is, in ways that clearly involve Him using natural processes to do so - processes associated for example with feeding animals and birds, or with determining the weather.  Neither the ancient Hebrews' knowledge of those natural processes, nor ours, detracts in any way from the reality of God's connection with them.  Those natural processes are there because God wanted them to be there.  No distinction is made between those 'acts of God' that can clearly be accomplished through appropriately-timed natural events, and those (rare) instances that as far as we know, require excursions outside the normal laws of nature or at least of probability.

 We saw that science is a good thing, because study of the natural world reveals something of God's works; and that contemporary beliefs are not necessarily corrected by Bible writers. The language of Scripture, like the parables of Jesus in particular, is designed to be memorable and vivid, using powerful metaphors and pictorial ideas to press home a point.  Examples include the way wisdom, folly and evil are personified.  Sometimes, ideas current at the time, such as belief in demons and evil spirits, are used without correcting them: the Bible writers are more concerned to teach key spiritual and moral lessons (about the supremacy of Jesus over human mental and physical suffering, for example, or the need to resist evil) than to convey a correct scientific understanding to people who wouldn't have been able to comprehend it anyway.

We have seen that the Bible isn?t teaching science, and that far from being a reaction to Darwin, a recognition of this and the adoption of a non-literal view of Genesis were both well established centuries ago.

We then looked at the structure of the Genesis story, and what it aims to achieve.  We saw that the structure of Genesis chapter 1 is very stylized, with the pattern of two sets of three days, suggesting that the record is teaching us a lesson other than chronological sequence.  In particular we've seen that a literal reading leads to clear contradictions between chapter 1 and chapter 2, as the sequences of events are quite different.

We considered the symbols that Genesis uses.  Looking more closely at the early chapters, we see just the sort of poetic, figurative language we might have expected. Many of the motifs and symbols used reflect various creation myths from the ancient Near East, but rather than just rehashing those stories the Bible subtly but brilliantly turns them around.  It does so for example to show that the sun. moon and stars, far from being deities in their own right, are no less and no more than parts of the true, transcendent God's creation; or that humanity, instead of being a plaything for the Gods or a labour saving device, is the culmination of God's creation.

Moreover, many of the ideas used in Genesis are taken up later in Scripture in a clearly symbolic way - the serpent as a metaphor for evil, for example, or trees as a source of life.  If we allow Scripture to interpret Scripture, it's logical that if such concepts aren't to be taken literally in (say) Revelation, they probably shouldn?t be taken literally in Genesis either.  Further, some of the pictures evoked by Genesis - God going for a walk in the garden, for example, or Adam and Eve hiding from Him in the bushes - can appear almost absurd if taken too literally, while aspects such as the shame associated with nakedness are clearly cultural in nature.

We considered the description of Adam as ?made from dust', and by referring to other passages of Scripture saw that this could be indirect: the key message is not that Adam appeared, fully formed, from a pile of dust on the ground, but rather that we're all made of the same 'stuff' as the rest of the natural world.  It is only through having a special, privileged relationship with God that we in any sense rise above and transcend our humble 'earthy'origins.

We posed the question 'Who was Adam?' and saw that features of the account - animal husbandry and the early mention of cultivation, the appearance of 'cities', the problem of Cain's wife and his fear that others would attack and kill him - suggest the presence of other people contemporary with those described in early Genesis, and a Neolithic background.  That said, we noted that Adam and Eve - whether a specific couple or a representative description of early humanity - have a special place in that they were evidently the first people to be allowed to enter into a covenant relationship with God.

If we read the early chapters of Genesis in an other than literal way, we can reject the false choice that both the fundamentalists and the atheists would like to force upon us - a choice between science and faith, one or the other.  The tragic result of imposing that choice on people is that many are turned away from faith altogether. The truth is very different: it is that science AND faith, evolution and a God who's behind it all, are quite compatible.

Once we have moved on from a simple literal reading of Genesis, the real grandeur of the narrative becomes clearer.  We see the wonderful panoply of the natural world, coming into existence under the sovereignty of an all-powerful God Who transcends our space and time: a God in whose sight creation culminates in humankind with the capacity to know Him, the opportunity to love and obey Him, and the potential to be united with Him as creation fulfils its destiny.  In the words of Sheila Harris[xvi]:

"Genesis chapter 1 is the glorious panoramic vision of God's whole purpose in creation, from the darkness of chaos to the final consummation of God's glory, manifested in a people who reflect His image, male and female, Christ and his bride.  It is a paean of praise to the Creator, structured after the pattern of a week of worship culminating in the Sabbath when God may finally rest from His labours, His work accomplished."  

Further reading

 

Denis Alexander, 'Creation or Evolution: do we have to choose?', Monarch Books, 2008

Francis Collins, 'The Language of God', Pocket Books, 2007

Darrel R Falk, 'Coming to Peace with Science', IVP, 2004

Karl W Giberson and Francis S Collins, "The Language of Science and Faith", SPCK, 2011

Daniel C Harlow, 'After Adam: Reading Genesis in an Age of Evolutionary Science', Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith 62 (3), 2010, p 179-195.  http://www.asa3.org/ASA/PSCF/2010/PSCF9-10Complete.pdf

John C. Lennox,'God's Undertaker: has science buried God?', Lion, 2009

Kenneth R Miller, 'Finding Darwin's God', HarperCollins, 1999

Andrew Perry, 'The Old Testament and History' (ch.5) in Thomas E Gaston (ed.), 'Reasons', Willow Publications 2011 (www.lulu.com/willowpublications)

Melvin Tinker, 'Reclaiming Genesis', Monarch Books, 2010


Websites:

Biologos Foundation:  www.biologos.org

Faraday institute:  www.st-edmunds.cam.ac.uk/faraday/index.php

Acknowledgement:

The author is grateful to Bob Burr for helpful insights into many aspects of this subject

 

David Brown, 2011                                     www.davidbrownuk.webs.com  /  davidbrown.solihull@gmail.com

 



[i] "There are two books laid before us to study, to prevent our falling into error; first, the volume of the Scriptures, which reveal the will of God; then the volume of the Creatures, which express His power." Bacon, 'The Advancement of Learning', 1605, Book 1.

[ii] The extended quotation adds some salutary advice: 'To conclude therefore, let no man upon a weak conceit of sobriety or an ill-applied moderation think or maintain, that a man can search too far, or be too well studied in the Book of God's Word, or in the Book of God's Works - Divinity or Philosophy. But rather, let men endeavour an endless progress or proficience in both; only let men beware that they apply both to charity, and not to swelling [pride]; to use and not to ostentation; and again that they do not unwisely mingle or confound those learnings together.' Bacon, op.cit.

[iii] For more detail, see Professor Colin Humphreys' book 'The Miracles of Exodus'(Continuum, 2003)

[iv] See Miller (1999) (listed above), p.80.

[v] Galieo Galilei, Letter to the Grand Duchess Christina (1615).

[vi] Augustine, The Literal Meaning of Genesis: An Unfinished Book', ca 401 AD, as translated by J. H. Taylor, S.J., Newman Press, New York, 1982.

[vii] John Calvin, paragraph added in 1543 to his preface to Olivetan's 1534 translation of the Bible; cited by Alister McGrath, 'The Foundations of Dialogue in Science and Religion', 1998.

[viii] John Calvin, 'Commentary on the Psalms' 136.7, cited by Alexander, op. cit., p 44)

[x] Origen's De Principiis (Book 4, Chap. 1, 16), trans. G. Butterworth (London: SPCK, 1936), cited at www.biologos.org, and see Robert Letham, 'In the Space of Six Days': The Days of Creation from Origen to the Westminster Assembly, Westminster Theological Journal,  61 (1999): 149-174. (accessible at http://www.meetthepuritans.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/02/Letham-Creation.pdf )

[xi] John Thomas, 'Elpis Israel' part 1, ch.2, paragraphs 5,6

[xii] Harlow (2010), listed above, p.182

[xiii] Origen's De Principiis (Book 4, Chap. 1, 16), taken from http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/anf04.vi.v.v.ii.html

[xiv] Harlow (2010) (listed above), p. 181

[xv] John R W Stott, 'Understanding the Bible', expanded edition, 1999, p.54-56 (cited by www.biologos.org)

[xvi] Sheila Harris, 'What is Truth', monograph, p 1-2, 2011

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