Q+A - Should Genesis be Read Literally and Historically?

First and foremost,  we have to approach Genesis for what it is, an ancient text.  Therefore, we must interpret it through a lens of what we know of the Ancient Near East and attempt to ask the questions the original author(s) and audience would have been asking, not what we (modern day readers) would be asking and wondering when it comes to the origin of all things.

So I think it’s imperative that we ask contextual questions uncovering what the original authors would have been trying to convey through the text of Genesis ch.1-11 (such as monotheism, human significance, and human and cosmological connectedness) and not laying on the text questions it wasn’t meant to answer (e.g., creationism vs. evolution, literal or non-literal, the age of the earth, the ever expanding cosmos, etc.).

There are many aspects of Genesis 1 that simply do not make scientific sense - for example, the sun was created on the 4th day when vegetation was created on the 3rd day.  When Christians speaks of 7 literal days and use the biblical time-line to date the age of the earth there are also significant scientific problems.  

Now, for those who really want to hold to a view of Genesis being literal history and a true account for the order of creation and the age of the earth, there are some suitable (but challenged) answers and/or theories to these questions. But to view the purpose of the Genesis text as answering these questions is a hermeneutical error.  Modern science did not play a role in the mind of the original audience.  We must be careful not to approach Genesis this way. 

As with all literature, there are interpretative rules which need to be applied.  For example, we do not read the newspaper the same we read Moby Dick and we do not read The Hobbit the same way we read Who Moved My Cheese.  Genre, type of literature, must play a big role.

Genesis 1 is song or a poem (rhythm and repetition), not historical narrative.  (for example):

  • the repetition of "it was good"
  • the building of the days - 1st, 2nd, 3rd, etc...
  • the Hebraic symbolism of 7 - being the number of completion

In comparison, listen to the introduction to Luke's Gospel, which is historical narrative: "Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed down to us by those who from the first were eyewitnesses and servants of the word.  With this in mind, since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, I too decided to write an orderly account for you..."

Clearly different and thus we must interpret them differently.

Also, something we must consider when reading Genesis, which is an Ancient Near Eastern piece of literature, are the other Ancient Near Eastern writing styles and cultures.  Archaeologist and other academic fields have uncovered many writings from times that predate the Hebrew culture - thus predate when our Bibles where written.

Most scholars agree, Genesis is an anthology - a collection of literary works chosen by the compiler or compliers (which one of them I believe to be Moses) over time. It is more highly unified than most anthologies, however, because all of the material falls into one congruent narrative. But it’s not like modern day history; it’s primarily a collection of what may be called hero stories – intermittent tales focused on a central character with whom the reader is to identify with – interspersed with genealogies. Even more specific, the first three chapters belong to a genre known as origin stories and the rest of Genesis also has affinities with the epic genre.

There are certain motifs that ring true in almost all Ancient Near Eastern literary findings on mythology, epics, and/or origins.  For example, in the Epic of Gilgamesh, the Epic of Atrahasis, and and the Tale of Adapa we find very similar themes and motifs found in the Bible:

  • tricky and evil serpents 
  • gardens
  • food that gives and takes away life
  • floods that kill of human race except one man, his close family/friends and some animals 
  • In Sumerian list of the Kings we find lineages with extremely long life spans - indicating the significance of their rule

For more about the Bible and how it's similar to other ancient wittings, listen to "Hello, My Name Is..." (from the Grace Church podcast).

The bottom line...I think the question of whether Genesis, and in particular Genesis 1 -11, being a historically accurate account of what happened or not is not a hill we should die on!  That's not the point of the text.

The text is to be read theologically and typologically:

  • It reveals to us the Maker of all things, the origin of all life - God 
  • It reveals that all of creation was wonderful and good
  • It reveals that all of humanity is significant and is the pinnacle of all creation -  for we, and we alone, are created in the image of God
  • It reveals that all of humanity - since Adam means "man" and Eve means "woman", rebelled against God's created order; we were expelled from God's presence (typologically expressed as a "garden"); and the shalom of God (peace and perfect order) was replaced with a brokenness and an ever present evil.  Thus, it reveals that life is not as it should be.

I think Christians far too often get their undies all in a bundle over things that we should not be overly concerned with.  We end up looking foolish and, even worse, arrogant and spiteful because of this.

And let's be rational objective about both views...

If God is eternal and sovereign, as Genesis describes no matter how you read it, literally or non-literally, couldn't he create something outside of the scientific norms?  Couldn’t he have created plant life one day and the sun the next?  Couldn’t he create a rock that's a 60 billion years in a nanosecond?  Couldn't he have created species to have such strong DNA similarities with only small percentages of difference which separate a human from a dog?  Couldn’t he do that?  I think so.

And if God is eternal and sovereign, as Genesis describes no matter how you read it, literally or non-literally, couldn't he have simply chosen to reveal himself to the Hebrew people in a way that was culturally relevant - using symbolism and motifs they were already familiar with?  Do you even think that a finite people could even understand how the only infinite Being actually created everything?  Do you you think they, or we for that matter, could even understand how he actually did it all?  Don't you think there will be always be a wonder to how God works and how things came and come together?  I think so.

All the scientific questions are extremely interesting and worth peacefully discussing and contemplating. But let's NOT superimpose modern questions, that really make little difference in the whole scheme of things, onto these wonderful ancient documents that were meant to reveal the only true God who made everything, the purpose of humanity, what went wrong in the world (i.e., why there is death, pain, heartache, and suffering), and how, in the Gospel of Christ, promised in Genesis 3:15 and as N.T. Wright expresses it, God is putting everything in the cosmos back to rights again.

For more on the message of Genesis and how we can apply it's truth to our life - check out our teachings from our series entitled, Genesis: The Promise, on the Grace Church podcast.

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As always, grace + peace to all of you.