Reading Genesis 1-3 Pt. I

We embark on the more theological part of the journey and the next couple of posts will be about reading Genesis 1-3.

The creationist Henry Morris argues that all true science and true religion are based upon Genesis, that all doctrines are based on Genesis, and that the book itself is based on its first chapter. Mark Isaak asks why, if creationists esteem Genesis so highly, do they not accept the serious, scholarly study of the book? Scholarly study of Genesis includes recognizing the different authors of Genesis and that the Flood narrative is comprised of two narratives, one by the Yahwist and one by the Priestly writer. J, the Yahwist, is the earliest source, from about the ninth or tenth century B.C., and comes from the southern kingdom of Judah. J uses the divine Tetragrammaton YHWH to speak of God. E, the Elohist, originates from about a century after J, from the northern kingdom. E only appears from Genesis 15 onwards. P, the Priestly source, is the latest at about the fifth century B.C. and provides a framework for the other sources. Bram Van de Beek explains the complexity of reading and interpreting biblical texts when he states that there exists a many-layerdness, which includes the symbolic universum of the reader, the symbolic universum of the writer(s), the experience of the writer(s), and the way the writer(s) perceived the experience. A literal reading disregards these aspects. Gordon Wenham warns against looking for answers to questions that the writer did not concern himself with, e.g. historical and scientific questions.

The claim made by Henry Morris that if “the Bible cannot be trusted on scientific and historical matters, then it cannot be trusted on matters of salvation and spirituality” is a non sequitor, because the Bible was never supposed to be a science or history book and it does not have to follow that if something is wrong in one area that it is necessarily wrong in all others. Van de Beek states that creationism does not defend the confession of God as Creator, but simply one theological model based upon one reading of Scripture which does not take the many-layerdness into account. Conor Cunningham points out that a mistake people make with regard to the Bible is that they think of it as “a self-enclosed, discrete text that can simply be opened, read, and understood.” Unfortunately the Bible cannot simply be read, taken at face value, and then be correctly understood and interpreted.

The Literal Reading of Genesis

Fundamentalism upholds a literal meaning of biblical texts, as Luc Plateaux explains: “fundamentalism denotes the attitude which attributes a literal meaning to the biblical texts (at least in translation), refusing the shifts in meaning which others accept by referring to cultural changes which have come about since the redaction of biblical texts.”  Plateaux goes on to say that:

To tell the truth, no one ever puts this attitude into practise completely. In the Bible there are always texts which are clearly narrative rather than exemplary. It can even be noted that at all times the biblical texts have always been more or less interpreted by the religious and inspired minds which have used them. Be this as it may, a relatively fundamentalistic attitude has long been prevalent in the reading of the Bible, giving numerous terms their literal meaning without excluding their message of revelation. This attitude has had the merit of preserving faithfully the form of this message at times when there was a danger that repetition from memory, or later re-copying, might distort it. However, as human civilization has been transformed by the acquisition of more precise knowledge about the universe, the earth and the living world, fundamentalist attitudes have come up against serious obstacles.

It is important to note that the literal reading of the Bible is never adhered to absolutely and that the texts have been interpreted and reinterpreted throughout the ages. From early times, the literal interpretation was not seen as the only way to interpret the Bible. The Church Fathers Origen, Gregory of Nyssa, and Basil of Caesarea, as well as the Jewish philosopher Philo of Alexandria, saw the creation narratives in Genesis as having a deeper “veiled” meaning which would be destroyed by a literal reading. During the Middle Ages, Scripture was interpreted according to a fourfold plan:

  1. The literal meaning, which is the straight forward or historical meaning.
  2. The allegorical meaning, which is the spiritual or symbolic meaning.
  3. The tropological meaning, which is the moral or ethical meaning.
  4. The anagogical meaning, which is the eschatological or heavenly meaning.

A fourfold pattern is also found in the Jewish exegetical tradition:

  1. Peshat, the plain meaning.
  2. Remez, the allegorical meaning.
  3. Dercsh, the homiletical meaning.
  4. Sod, the mythical or secret meaning.

Bailey notes that most modern-day Bible scholars do not agree with the literal, inerrant reading of the Bible that ignores the human element. Pennock agrees when he says that “[e]ven holding that the Bible is inerrant does not require that we think of it as giving a plainly literal account, especially with regard to scientific matters. Indeed, some argue that faith in a biblical inerrancy requires that we not use a literalist hermeneutic, because taking all biblical statements at face value leads to dozen of explicit internal self-contradictions.” It is probable that the writers of Genesis did not intend for the texts to be read in a literal fashion. Karen Armstrong states that the text of Genesis “was emphatically not intended as a literal account of the physical origins of life” and James E. Talmage, an Apostle of the Latter Day Saints, said the following in 1931: “The opening chapters of Genesis, and scriptures related thereto, were never intended as a textbook of geology, archaeology, earth-science, or man-science. Holy Scripture will endure, while the conceptions of men change with new discoveries. We do not show reverence for the Scriptures when we misapply them through faulty interpretation” (my emphasis). Misapplication and misuse of biblical texts is treating the texts without respect and responsibility. Davidson agrees when he states that “[t]he appeal of Genesis 1 is to the imagination; it is poetic, a hymn written by faith for faith. It is not a scientific hypothesis, nor does it need to be reconciled with any such hypothesis”.

Francisco Ayala argues that science cannot prove religious beliefs to be true or false and that “we should not interpret the Bible as an authoritative textbook on astronomy, geology, or biology.” It is not only in modern times with modern science that Bible scholars do not see the Scriptures as a factual source of scientific knowledge. In his commentary on Genesis, St Augustine warned Christians against attempting to use the Bible to settle matters of science.  In the early and medieval church, the Scriptures were interpreted as allegory. Johannes Kepler argued that the texts of the Bible regarding the natural world should not be seen as accurate science, because the Bible uses commonplace imagery to speak about theological truths. Galileo Galilei quoted Caesar Cardinal Baronius, who stated that “[t]he Bible tells us how to get to Heaven, but not how the heavens go.” During the Reformation a more literal stance was taken, but science was still accommodated. John Calvin taught that the Scriptures were dictated to human authors by God, but that God had to use language that those people would understand. Pope John Paul II wrote that “[t]he Bible itself speaks to us of the origin of the universe and its make-up, not in order to provide us with a scientific treatise but in order to state the correct relationship of man with God and the universe. …sacred Scripture wishes simply to declare that the world was created by God, and in order to teach this truth it expresses itself in the terms of the cosmology in use at the time of the writer.”  It is completely acceptable to think of God as accommodating the limited knowledge of humans in the time they are living. In light of the cosmology of the time, it would not have made sense to speak of evolution, natural selection, quantum physics, etc. As already stated, the Bible was never meant to be a book of science and to be unaccommodating to ancient cosmologies would imply that the correct cosmology would have to be taught first and it would then distract from the actual aim of Scripture.

Within the ancient cosmology, there are many aspects with which we do not agree today, due to our current understanding of the natural world. Examples of passages in the Bible which we do not regard as literal anymore due to scientific discoveries are numerous.  During the time the books of the Bible were written, the cosmology was geocentric, with the sun, moon, and stars moving over the earth from one side to the other. The earth was flat, standing upon pillars and had four corners. I Sam 2:8, Psalm 93:1, Psalm 104:5, and Eccl 1:5, among other verses, claim this cosmology, yet it is not taken literally today. Stanley Rice adds two more examples of the selected literalism when it comes to statements about the natural world: “when Job referred to “storehouses of the wind,” creationists do not build a creationist version of meteorology upon the belief there are actually big rooms where God keeps the wind locked up, nor that God opens up literal windows for rain as is written in Genesis 6.” If Christians who do not accept creationism are compromisers, then creationists themselves are compromisers when it comes to these aspects of ancient cosmology.

Theologians from across the field of denominations choose to accept science and the theory of evolution. In the following quote, critical thought is called on as a virtue that should be used by those who are believers. Ayala quotes the ecumenical Clergy Letter Project:

We the undersigned, Christian clergy from many different traditions, believe that the timeless truths of the Bible and the discoveries of modern science may comfortably coexist. We believe that the theory of evolution is a foundational scientific truth, one that has stood up to rigorous scrutiny and upon which much of human knowledge and achievement rests. To reject this truth or to treat it as “one theory among others” is to deliberately embrace scientific ignorance and transmit such ignorance to our children. We believe that among God’s good gifts are human minds capable of critical thought and that the failure to fully employ this gift is a rejection of the will of our Creator.

In the next installment we’ll look at the creation narratives themselves (one of my favourite parts of the research).


Ayala, F J. 2009. Charles Darwin: Friend or foe? Word & World 29/1, 19-29.

Bailey, D H. 2010. Creationism and intelligent design: Scientific and theological difficulties. Dialogue: A journal of Mormon thought 43(3): 62-81.

Cunningham, C. 2010. Darwin’s pious idea: Why the ultra-Darwinists and creationists both get it wrong. Grand Rapids: William B Eerdmans.

Isaak, M. 2007. The counter-creationism handbook. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Pennock, R T. 2002. Tower of Babel: The evidence against the new creationism. Cambridge: MIT Press.

Rice, S A. 2007. Encyclopedia of evolution. New York: Facts on File.

Van de Beek, B. 2005. Toeval of schlepping? Scheppingstheologie in de context van het modern   denken. Kampen: Uitgeverij Kok.

Wenham, G J. 1987. Word Biblical commentary. Volume 1: Genesis 1-15. Waco: Word Books.


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