Why Genesis 1 is Not Literal

The topic of whether we should take Genesis 1 to be literal or allegorical can be traced back for centuries. Some like to interject that recent scientific discoveries in geology, cosmology, and biology have forced Christians to change their interpretation in order to find harmony with science. But, is this true? Some of the most well-known Rabi’s and church fathers throughout history have written about this allegorical interpretation– namely, 4th century Saint Augustine, 1st century Philo, and 3rd century Origen of Alexandria.

Let’s set aside any other issues with taking Genesis 1 literally that don’t have to deal with scripture itself. There are numerous reasons why we should doubt Genesis 1 is a historical narrative. It’s not that we are reading an allegorical interpretation into the text (via eisegesis), we are reading the text and coming away believing it’s allegorical because that’s the only way it could internally make sense.

First off, let’s look at the internal contradictions of chapter 1 if we take it to be a historical narrative. You have a supposed account of six ’24 hour days’ yet the sun was not created until the 3rd day which would make the first 2 days impossible or, at best, very improbable. Some people at this point would interject that all you need for a day is to have “light” and “darkness” which were made in the first day, but this goes against the very definition of what a day is: “the interval of light between two successive nights; the time between sunrise and sunset” via http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/day. So, these first two days are either impossible or not 24 hour days.

We can also look at Genesis 1:11-12 to see some uncanny things happening if this is a historical narrative. Genesis 1:11-12 states, “Then God said, “Let the earth sprout vegetation, plants yielding seed, and fruit trees on the earth bearing fruit after their kind with seed in them”; and it was soThe earth brought forth vegetation, plants yielding seed after their kind, and trees bearing fruit with seed in them, after their kind; and God saw that it was good.” Now, the reason this is odd is because this verse is implying that the earth “brought” these things forth within this single day of creation. Anyone that knows anything about plantation or gardening  knows that it takes months for plants and vegetation to fully grow. This is problematic for the person who thinks these are 24-hour days. How could these plants and vegetations “come forth” in 24 hours? One would have to appeal to some miraculous intervention by God for this to be so, but then that wouldn’t be taking the “literal” or “face value” meaning of the text. I think this is also a good argument that suggests the author wasn’t actually writing about literal days.

You also have an internal contradiction on how God formed both plants and animals. For instance, Genesis 1:20 claims (KJV) that the sea “brings forth” the “moving creatures that hath life” yet, in the very next verse, Genesis 1:21 claims God supernaturally made every animal- “God created great whales, and every living creature that moveth.” There seems to be a contradiction within these two accounts.

Secondly, lets look at the contradictions between the two creation accounts of Genesis 1 and Genesis 2. In Genesis 1:24, we have man being created after all other animals. Yet, in Genesis 2:18-19, we have man being created before all other animals. You also have a contradiction between the chronological order of how man and woman were made– man and woman being created simultaneously in Genesis 1:27, while in Genesis 2:18-22 you have man created first, then woman second.

The contradictions alone should tell us to abandon the historical narrative view of Genesis 1. But, we can go further– looking into the literary devices used in Genesis 1 that can make a positive case for an allegorical interpretation. I’ll just quickly highlight a couple that standout:
-the seventh day God rests as a pure act. Meaning, God never actually rests which would be a metaphorical set-up for practicing the Sabbath.
-the sun and moon are commanded to “rule” over the day and night (v. 16 and 18) as if referring to animate people.
-the way the text is written (the constant repetitions of certain phrases and statements) implies a style which is very synonymous to a blend of prose and poetry (simply in how it’s constructed).
-there is some figurative language used throughout including anthropomorphic statements as if God is actually “speaking,” “seeing,” and “feeling” like humans do.

Two last quick notes- It seems somewhat absurd that God would create the earth in six literal 24-hour days when, in reality, units of time such as “hours,” “days,” and “weeks” are merely human constructs to measure time. Why would God use a human-made construct of time to create all of time and matter? It seems erroneous and somewhat uncanny. Also, there is a lot of controversy over the Hebrew word yom which Genesis 1 uses for “day.” And, as i’ve done some research on this word, it seems clear to me that we do not have to take this to be a literal 24 hour day (though it is used for that purpose other times in the OT). Hosea 6:2 uses the same word in the same sort of setting and it is undoubtedly used in a metaphorical way.




2 thoughts on “Why Genesis 1 is Not Literal

  1. McFarvo

    This is all well-and-good given/assuming that the Bible is true/infallible (if it is not, then there is no reason to cling to it). However, what if you do not assume the Bible is true? What if the burden of proof is on us to prove the Bible is true? What then? How we do respond to non-believers who claim that any problem in Genesis anywhere then invalidates the whole Bible, thus destroying Christianity?

    Had a discussion with an atheist. I was making the claim that parts of the Bible, including a lot in Genesis, is not meant to be literal. He claimed that’s eisegesis (not exegesis), the burden of proof was on me, I can’t use strawmen, I can’t appeal to ignorance, I can’t have confirmation bias, I can’t cherrypick what is literal vs non-literal to ad hoc explain/rationalize. He claimed it was meant to be literal (challenge: prove him wrong), so every factual inaccuracy thus invalidates the entire Bible, thus destroys all biblical religion. He focused in particular on Genesis 1 where God made light before ever making the sun, which of course doesn’t make logical/chronological sense.

    I was primarily talking about genetics, biological evolution, saying that God had no good reason to spend time crafting a scientific manual explaining these processes & facts when they are largely irrelevant (and certainly non-essential) to the narrative of God, Man, Sin, Israel, Gospel. Why explain “God made matter & energy, singularity, big bang, form stars, stars make elements, make planets, our star is the source of light & energy for our planet, formed over billions of years, life, speciation, etc.” vs the Genesis 1 & 2 accounts of creation.

    He then claimed that the burden of proof was on me to explain why God wouldn’t just tell the truth when it came to these matters. Why not say “I created the sun, which gives light to the Earth in the day” not all this weird out of order, highly figurative stuff.

    I conjectured that God thought His accounts to be the most suitable vehicles for delivering the truly important facts that 1) God exists, 2) God created, 3) Man sinned, etc. I guessed perhaps that the Bronze Age contemporaries held a paradigm that would make another explanation unpalatable, in addition to the monotheism. I don’t know why God did what He did. (He claims my assertions or speculations about “God/Master vs Man/Dog” or “explain it to an ant” or “the squirrel cannot fathom the blue whale” etc., but he rejects all “appeals to ignorance” or “God’s ways are a mystery to us”.) I pointed out his a priori assumptions of “God’s actions must be rational to us” or “our logic is infallible” or “if I was God, I’d do XYZ; God did not do XYZ, therefore God is not good or not real” etc., I pointed out the assumption that “one must always be literal when possible & as accurate to reality as possible always” i.e. poetry or figurative language is a no-no. He dismissed all of this.

    He claims that even 1 error in the Bible invalidates the entire religion. He can pick any place where God/author says/writes something that is not scientifically accurate & say “there! wrong!” & the burden of proof is on us to explain why a god would lie/expressthingsthatway (after all, adults of the Bronze Age were smarter than children of today, yet children of today are taught science). If those people had the capacity to understand a truthful creation story, why use one that is so flawed/illogical/nonsense?

    Given his out-of-hand dismissal of any of my speculation (as well as any of my analogies, and ofc he won’t let go of any of his assumptions or framework behind his logic). I told him, “hey, if it was not for the Holy Spirit working on my heart, I’d probably be an agnostic atheist too, man. We don’t choose what we believe. You don’t. I don’t. You’re swayed one way or another by things outside of yourself.” Of course, this is irrelevant to the argument.

    Anyhow, what are your thoughts? Why did God choose to write Genesis 1 & 2 the way He did?


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