Question: Should we interpret Genesis Literally?

There are a number of reasons we should approach Genesis figuratively as opposed to literally.

[1] Genesis 1-2 consist of two separate creation accounts.
The two creation accounts in found in Genesis are mutually exclusive if taken literally in a modernistic sense. This means that one or both cannot be true. The evidence for this was laid out here but can be summarized as follows: God's name is different (Elohim vs YAHWEH-Elohim), the order of creation is different (e.g. animals before or after humans), the duration of creation is described differently (six days and one of rest vs "the day"), how God creates is different (by divine word: bar'a, or by fashioning: yatsar), the purpose of humans is different (rulers/stewards of the earth or caretakers of a garden), the primordial earth is different (watery-formless chaos that is ordered vs a desert turned into an oasis), and the image of God is different (transcendent in the first account but anthropomorphic and more primitive in the second where we must ask, does he not know none of the animals will be a suitable helper for Adam?). Karen Armstrong writes:

By giving us two contradictory accounts of the creation, the biblical editors were indicating that both J and P were writing fiction. They offered timeless truths that could not be rendered obsolete by new cosmological discoveries. If P wanted to show us how to regard the universe in relation to the divine, J was more interested in humanity. He turned the spotlight from God in his heaven to Adam in the garden. Above all he was concerned with the distance that seemed to separate God from humanity. How could human beings, who were sustained by the divine breath, feel that God was so remote? [In the Beginning]
[2] God is Portrayed as Naively Ignorant if Literally true.
God's behavior is comically naive and perplexing if the account is not figurative when it comes to finding Adam a mate or companion. Armstrong writes:
"When God had finished creating the animal kingdom, he paraded them all before Adam. . . . God's purpose was . . . to find a mate for Adam from among "all cattle," "the birds of the air," and "every animal of the field" (2:20). It is a comic picture. Like an eager matchmaker, God presented the inexperienced Adam with one animal after another. Bison? Elephant? Kangaroo? We are not surprised to hear that at the end of the day, "for the man there was not found a helper as his partner" (2:20). How could God have imagined for one moment that Adam would find a mate in this way? The God who appeared to be so omnipotent and omniscient in Chapter 1 was now unable to fathom the desires and needs of his creature." [In the Beginning]

[3] The Garden Story Reads Like Fiction.
God is portrayed anthropomorphically as a man walking in the garden who asks where the hiding Adam is, what he had done and is eventually so genuinely concerned they might eat of the tree of life and live forever, he drives them out of the garden and has its entrance guarded by an angel with a flaming sword. If God was simply playing coy and asking rhetorical questions one wonders why the angel wasn't sent to guard the garden immediately or why God is portrayed as coming to learn this. A talking snake, a magical tree granting eternal life and humans who do not know good and evil and the shame of nakedness, yet they are nonetheless given a command they are somehow expected to obey. More strangely, the punishment vastly outweighs the crime and some Christians even go so far as to think this is what brought death, disease and natural disasters into the world! Because two innocent children, albeit full-grown children, who did not know good or evil, were tricked by a talking snake to eat a piece of fruit in defiance of a God who did not realize none of the animals would be a suitable mate for Adam before parading them in front of him! How is the warning that they would die if they ate from the tree in middle of the garden supposed to be intelligible to two humans who do not know what death even is? In Genesis 1 we are created in the imago dei, in Genesis 3 we may have become more like God and the heavenly host only by sinning and disobeying God. Many an exegete has considered "the fall" humanity falling up. Many of these themes are common in ancient near-east mythology and admittedly, talking snakes, a primitive conception of God and a magical fruit tree granting eternal life all clearly resemble fiction.

[4] The First Creation Account Has An Obvious Literary Structure to it.
The events of days 1-3 (forming) correspond sequentially to the events of days 4-6 (filling). On day 1 light is separated from darkness and on day four the sun and moon are created. On day two the water above (sky) is separated from the water below and day five naturally brings two things corresponding to that, fish and birds. On day three dry land and vegetation appears and on day six land creatures are created.





One Light Separated From Darkness Four Luminaries (sun and moon)
Two Sky Separated From Waters Below Five Birds and Fish
Three Dry Ground Separated From Water Six Land Animals

Miller and Soden point out this has little to do with scientific chronology:
"Rather, the structure makes the point that both order and substance in the world originate with the purpose and plan of God." [In the beginning We Misunderstood]
There is a theological order to the first creation story. We know God alone ordered the world and this is meant to explain its observed regularity (e.g., repeating patterns such as seasons, sunrise, etc.). In fact, the common themes mentioned are interested in establishing, as John Walton puts it, "time, weather and food production" just as we see in many comparative mythologies. [Genesis as Ancient Cosmology, see pp. 162-165] Bill Arnold also sees Genesis 1:1-3 as very interested in establishing time and setting a framework for creation:
"These verses on the creation of "light" (io^r) are not a deeply philosophical treatise on the nature of physics, on which some interpreters rave about light as the first-fruits of creation, the sublimest element, and the finest of all elementary powers. Instead, this author intends to describe creation in a six-day pattern, moving inexorably to an all- important seventh. For this reason, the creation of light is first and fundamental to the rest, because it makes possible the first separations and divisions of creation; that is, light from darkness, day from night, and therefore the alternating sequence of days. What God has created in vv. 3-5 is time, which is more important than space for this chapter. Only through this orderly progression through the six days will God now bring order to the cosmos, and this prepares for the importance of the seventh day (2:1-3), which is paramount for this author." [Genesis New Cambridge Commentary, pg 39]
[5] If Genesis is Meant to be read literally it is false.
We know the descriptions of creation in Genesis 1-2 contradicts the findings of modern science and are therefore false if taken literally. That errors have been laid out here and the problems are insurmountable. In order for the accounts to make sense as part of our Sacred Scripture, we should not understand them literally in competition with science, history or each other. The Bible reflects the cosmology of its time and offers us a theological hierarchy and understanding of God and humanity in the midst of a pantheon of other deities and ancient near east mythologies. These are theological narratives meant to teach us truths about God and ourselves, not specifics in how exactly He created the world.

[6] Genesis Makes Perfect Sense in its original context.
A knowledge of surrounding ancient near east mythology will show that the Bible is heavily dependent upon its themes and it present a radically different and superior version of God. The parallels between the Biblical accounts and other religious mythologies are extensive and cast doubt on understanding the purpose of Genesis 1-2 as literal history. In fact, the primary points the two creation narratives make are entirely independent of whether or not the text is a literal description of the cosmos and history. To be clear, let me affirm without equivocation that Genesis is part of our Sacred Scripture and it teaches whatever truth God intended it to. In that capacity it is absolutely true and accurate. When we laser in from that zoomed out perspective, the question of what it is teaching becomes a bit more complicated and some of it really comes down to individual hermeneutics, models of inspiration and possibly even Christology. Any answer to this question will be highly nuanced. For some, if history didn't happen and the world wasn't created exactly as a modern-literalistic interpretation of Genesis would require, the entire Bible including the Gospel is compromised. For others, since the original context and purpose of Genesis 1-2 was not to address modern concerns, we are imposing the wrong questions on Scripture when holding it up to the light of modern science. Genesis serves as a statement teaching God's superiority and lack of rivals, amongst other things. It is absolutely true and cuts through a jungle of polytheistic tape that ensnared our ancestors. Granted what I see as the intended purpose of Genesis, I have no qualms with affirming it as true. Since its details are not meant to be accurate and precise scientific statements by modern standards, I will not judge its accuracy and merit by that standard. A work must be judged appropriately based on its literary genre, purpose and authorial intent. John Walton and NT Wright explain:
"In class, when I make a cultural allusion, its significance is lost if the class is not familiar with the movie, song or video game to which I am alluding. The line becomes a source of confusion to them because they are unaware of the connection I am referencing. Likewise, if Genesis is making allusions to the literary world of the ancient Near East (as observable in literature such as the Gilgamesh Epic) and we as readers have no knowledge of that literary world, we will miss the significance of the allusion." [The Lost World of Adam and Eve: Genesis 2-3 and the Human Origins Debate, pg 111]
Walton also brilliantly uses the analogy of the Hubble Space telescope and Vincent Van Gogh's Starry Night painting. One should no more try to do astronomy with the painting than one should seek scientific understandings of the universe from Genesis. Getting the genre and historical context of Genesis correct is crucial to interpreting it accurately. Once we situate Genesis in its proper context, the issue of "Did it happen like this?" becomes meaningless.

Some Further Reasons of Questionable Merit
Some exegetes have thought to show that the "days" in Genesis are not literal by appealing to other scripture and pitting it against itself. For example, it is sometimes asked if we must take the days of creation literally what are we then to make of Exod. 31:16–17 which depicts God as resting and being refreshed on the sabbath. Does God really need to rest? Must we literally believe that our omnipotent creator grew tired after creating things? Miller and Soden write:
"The verb "refreshed" is used three times in the Scriptures, including Exodus 23:12 ("Six days you shall do your work, but on the seventh day you shall rest; that your ox and your donkey may have rest, and the son of your servant woman, and the alien, may be refreshed") and 2 Samuel 16:14 ("And the king, and all the people who were with him, arrived weary at the Jordan. And there he refreshed himself"). The latter verse makes it clear that it is weariness that requires refreshment. But was God literally weary? Had he become spent during the week of creation? No, but he was describing his figurative workweek in a way that corresponded with human experience, so that mankind would also rest even as God had "rested." God is drawing an analogy here rather than an equation. If we do not understand God's "rest" and "refreshment" to be the same as man's, should we expect God's "days" to be the same?"
In the same light Miller and Soden entertain that idea that God's sabbath rest is still ongoing based on one of Jesus's disputes in John. Miller and Soden write:
"It is this concept of God's unending rest that informs Jesus' argument with some hostile Jews when he had miraculously healed on the Sabbath in violation of their tradition. Jesus said, "My Father is working until now, and I am working" (John 5:17). The point is that while God's Sabbath never ended, he still continued to uphold the world and especially to do good: if the Father worked on his Sabbath, the Son could work on the Sabbath. Hebrews 3 and 4 refer to that unending rest in its eschatological significance: "So then, there remains a Sabbath rest for the people of God, for whoever has entered God's rest has also rested from his works as God did from his. Let us therefore strive to enter that rest" (Heb. 4:9-11)."
While there may be some merit to this line of reasoning and I certainly can't explain every passage, I am still not fully convinced by it. Absolutely there are things we should understand figuratively in the Bible but as for the "days" in Genesis, it can equally be argued that they are meant to be read as actual days because the first creation account is an etiology for the sabbath and it intentionally mimics a human week. I think Genesis is purposefully casting God's creative activity as lasting a week including a day of rest to drive home the importance of the sabbath which is tied into the created order.

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