The Doctrine of Creation (part 4)

September 22, 2008     Time: 00:35:11


Continuation of Genesis 1, in relation to modern science, the biological theory of evolution, origins of biological complexity.

We have been talking about the Doctrine of Creation and concentrating on the subject of creation ex nihilo – creation out of nothing. But, of course, the rest of the first chapter goes on to describe God’s creation of this wonderful environment for human beings to live in – a habitable earth where man might live. So we want to take up the interpretation of the remainder of Genesis 1, particularly in conversation with what modern science and the biological theory of evolution has to say about the origins of biological complexity. So let’s go ahead and read the first chapter of Genesis beginning with verse 2:

The earth was formless and void, and darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was moving over the surface of the waters. Then God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light. God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness. God called the light day, and the darkness He called night. And there was evening and there was morning, one day.

Then God said, “Let there be an expanse in the midst of the waters, and let it separate the waters from the waters.” God made the expanse, and separated the waters which were below the expanse from the waters which were above the expanse; and it was so. God called the expanse heaven. And there was evening and there was morning, a second day.

Then God said, “ Let the waters below the heavens be gathered into one place, and let the dry land appear”; and it was so. God called the dry land earth, and the gathering of the waters He called seas; and God saw that it was good. 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 so. The 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. There was evening and there was morning, a third day.

Then God said, “Let there be lights in the expanse of the heavens to separate the day from the night, and let them be for signs and for seasons and for days and years; and let them be for lights in the expanse of the heavens to give light on the earth”; and it was so. God made the two great lights, the greater light to govern the day, and the lesser light to govern the night; He made the stars also. God placed them in the expanse of the heavens to give light on the earth, and to govern the day and the night, and to separate the light from the darkness; and God saw that it was good. There was evening and there was morning, a fourth day.

Then God said, “Let the waters teem with swarms of living creatures, and let birds fly above the earth in the open expanse of the heavens.” God created the great sea monsters and every living creature that moves, with which the waters swarmed after their kind, and every winged bird after its kind; and God saw that it was good. God blessed them, saying, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the waters in the seas, and let birds multiply on the earth.” There was evening and there was morning, a fifth day.

Then God said, “Let the earth bring forth living creatures after their kind: cattle and creeping things and beasts of the earth after their kind”; and it was so. God made the beasts of the earth after their kind, and the cattle after their kind, and everything that creeps on the ground after its kind; and God saw that it was good.

Then God said, “Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness; and let them rule over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the sky and over the cattle and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.” God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them. God blessed them; and God said to them, “ Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth, and subdue it; and rule over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the sky and over every living thing that moves on the earth.” Then God said, “Behold, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is on the surface of all the earth, and every tree which has fruit yielding seed; it shall be food for you; and to every beast of the earth and to every bird of the sky and to every thing that moves on the earth which has life, I have given every green plant for food”; and it was so. God saw all that He had made, and behold, it was very good. And there was evening and there was morning, the sixth day.[1]

Now, the question that we face is how to interpret this Genesis account of creation. What we want to do here is to examine the account on its own basis. Rather than trying to impose modern science onto this account, or read it in light of modern science, we want to read the account as it would have been understood by the original people who read it. When we do that a number of different competing interpretations of the Genesis account emerge. What I would like to do is to go through some of these with you.

A very helpful website on this is [Editor's Note: Website No Longer Available] - this is a report from the Presbyterian Church in America on the question of the interpretation of the creation account in Genesis.[2] Although it is from a Presbyterian point of view, nevertheless it gives a very nice survey of the history of interpretation of Genesis chapter 1, of the various alternative interpretations that have been offered, and then an assessment of each interpretation’s strengths and weaknesses. So if you are interested in the subject that I am going to be briefly surveying, this is a very good site to go to if you’d like to read more.

The first and most straightforward interpretation of Genesis 1 is what we could call the Literal Interpretation, or sometimes called the Calendar Day or 24-Hour Day Interpretation. This says that God created the world in six literal, consecutive 24-hour days and that this occurred probably ten to twenty thousand years ago. The advantage of this interpretation is that it reads the text in a prima facie way; that is to say, it takes the text at face value. It takes the text literally to say exactly what it says. That could be thought to be an advantage of the Literal Interpretation. Here I think considerations of literary genre, or type, are absolutely crucial because it would be a mistake to read a literary text literally if the genre of that literary text isn’t the sort that is intended to be taken literally. Now, clearly, Genesis chapters 1 through 3 are intended to be historical on some level. Adam and Eve are, for example, presented as the first couple of the human race – the origins of the human race. And in the New Testament and the remainder of the Bible, Adam and Eve are treated as historical individuals; not just symbols of mankind but as actual people who are connected by descendants, by genealogies, to the remainder of the peoples in Genesis chapters 1 through 11 and ultimately even to Jesus Christ. So, for example, in the New Testament in passages like Luke 3:38 or Romans 5:12-19 and other passages Adam is treated as a genuine, historical individual who actually lived and who is connected by genealogical descendants to indisputably historical persons like Abraham and David and Jesus of Nazareth himself.

On the other hand, the Genesis narrative is undoubtedly also meant to be symbolic and metaphorical in certain respects. For example, the name Adam just is the Hebrew word for “man” – it means “man.” So, adam is not just an historical individual but he also represents humanity. And in the creation story that we have in Genesis 2, we clearly have metaphorical, or anthropomorphic, descriptions of God where God is walking in the garden and looking for Adam and Eve and saying “Where are you?” and they are hiding from God and God finds them. Or when God creates man, it says that he fashions him out of the dust of the earth and breathes into his nostrils the breath of life. Clearly, this is not intended to be literal CPR on Adam that God performed by blowing into his nostrils. So, there are also literary and metaphorical devices that are being used in these chapters as well.

Therefore, many evangelical exegetes, or students of the Scriptures, will say that these narratives are meant to be taken in a sort of poetic, historical sense. The underlying historical events actually happened but nevertheless it is told in poetic imagery or figurative speech that shouldn’t be pressed for literal precision. In fact, the whole narrative in Genesis 1 is an incredibly carefully crafted piece of Hebrew literature. It is really unique. It is not poetry, it is not a hymn, but it is not just straight forward prose either. It is a highly stylized piece of writing with certain parallelism – for example, “and God said . . . and God made . . . and it was so” and so forth. It is a very carefully stylistically structured chapter that exhibits a great deal of literary polish to it. It is not simply a scientific or police report of what happened.

So if Genesis 1-3 is a kind of historical, poetic genre of writing, that is to say historical events but using poetic or figurative language to describe it, then it would be making unwarranted demands upon it to interpret it literally – to take it as literal in its descriptions. Particularly, for example, pressing the Hebrew word, yom or “day” to mean a literal 24-hour period of time. “yom” is the Hebrew word for “day” and that could be used to refer to a 24-hour period but not necessarily. To give an illustration or an analogy, think how inappropriate it would be to apply a literalistic hermeneutic to the book of Revelation where clearly the monsters and the other figures that are described in Revelation are meant to be symbolic; for example, nation-states and alliances. When I first became a Christian, I thought the book of Revelation literally described sea monsters that would be coming up out of the ocean – nine-headed beasts and so forth. But as you begin to understand the type of literature that the book of Revelation represents you realize that the literature is highly symbolic and figurative. Or, another example would be the book of Daniel 9:24 when it speaks of seventy weeks that are going to occur before the coming of a predicted prince. These weeks are not meant to be literal weeks; rather they are meant to refer to years. So the crucial thing here, I think, would be the literary genre, or type, of Genesis as to whether we should take it literally. And when you look at it, I think there are plenty of indications that this is a poetic and, in many ways, symbolic narrative and not simply a literal account as the Literal Interpretation would have us believe.

One other strength of the Literal Interpretation I think actually comes from outside the book of Genesis and this is in the book of Exodus. If you look at Exodus 20:9-11 you have the author reflecting back on Genesis 1; in Exodus 20:9-11 it says,

Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a sabbath of the LORD your God; in it you shall not do any work, you or your son or your daughter, your male or your female servant or your cattle or your sojourner who stays with you. For in six days the LORD made the heavens and the earth, the sea and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day; therefore the LORD blessed the sabbath day and made it holy.

Here the passage says that God made the heavens and the earth, the sea and all that is in them, in six days. So literal creationists will say this is a proof text that shows that Genesis 1 is intended to refer to a six consecutive 24-hour day creation week. However, I think again that may be pressing the verse too hard. What the Exodus chapter, I think, is talking about is the pattern that is set down in Genesis – one of God’s laboring on the six creative days and then resting on the seventh – and that pattern is the same that Israel should observe in its literal work week. But that doesn’t mean to say that the pattern is the same so the periods or the times described in Genesis 1 are also, therefore, of exactly the same duration as our ordinary calendar days.

Notice in particular that the fourth commandment is repeated in Exodus 31:12-17:

The LORD spoke to Moses, saying, “But as for you, speak to the sons of Israel, saying, ‘You shall surely observe My sabbaths; for this is a sign between Me and you throughout your generations, that you may know that I am the LORD who sanctifies you. Therefore you are to observe the sabbath, for it is holy to you. Everyone who profanes it shall surely be put to death; for whoever does any work on it, that person shall be cut off from among his people. For six days work may be done, but on the seventh day there is a sabbath of complete rest, holy to the LORD; whoever does any work on the sabbath day shall surely be put to death. So the sons of Israel shall observe the sabbath, to celebrate the sabbath throughout their generations as a perpetual covenant.’ It is a sign between Me and the sons of Israel forever; for in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, but on the seventh day He ceased from labor, and was refreshed.”

It refers there to the seventh day as the day of God’s Sabbath rest. But when you read in Genesis 1, the seventh day is not a 24-hour period of time. It doesn’t come to an end with an evening and morning; God is in a sense still in his Sabbath rest. So why should the other days then be taken to be literal 24-hour periods of time but the seventh day isn’t to be taken in that literal way?

Moreover, in Genesis 2:4, we have the word yom used in a clearly metaphorical way – a non-literal way. In Genesis 2:4, we read, “This is the account of the heavens and the earth when they were created, in the day that the LORD God made earth and heaven.” In that passage, it refers to the entire creative week as a day! “The day in which the LORD God made earth and heaven.” So in the Genesis account itself it uses the word yom, or day, in a metaphorical sense to describe the entire creation week, not just a 24-hour period of time.

Also, the phrase in Genesis 1:5 where it says, “There was evening and there was morning, one day.” The word there for “one day,” yom echad, is also used in the book of Zachariah 14:7 where it refers to the day of the LORD which is clearly not meant to be a 24-hour day. It is not referring to a literal calendar day.

So all of these would provide examples, I think, to show that the word “day” isn’t necessarily to be used in the literal sense either in Genesis 1 or when in Exodus it is reflecting back on Genesis and using the pattern of God’s working over six days and resting on the seventh as the pattern that Israel should obey in its normal calendar week.

Those who take the Literal Interpretation of Genesis 1 and six consecutive 24-hour days will often claim that when the ordinal number is used with the word yom like “first day,” “second day,” “third day” that it always refers to a literal 24-hour day. So they will admit granted in Genesis 2:4 “day” can be used to refer to an indeterminate period of time but whenever you have an ordinal number (“first day,” “second day”) it refers to a 24-hour period of time. However, this I don’t think is a convincing argument at all. First of all because there is no grammatical rule in Hebrew that says yom followed by an ordinal number has to refer to a 24-hour period of time. If that is the case in the Hebrew literature we have, that may simply be accidental – it may simply be a reflection of the fact that our sources for ancient Hebrew are relatively limited and there just isn’t any occasion on which you have “first day” being used in a kind of metaphorical way. So it is not really a valid point grammatically – it may be simply an accident of history and literature that we don’t have passages where an ordinal number is used with yom to refer to anything other than a 24-hour literal day. But, in fact, the claim is false anyway because we do have examples of where yom is used with an ordinal number to refer to a non-literal day. Hosea 6:2 would be one such example where it says, “He will revive us after two days; He will raise us up on the third day, That we may live before Him.” Here the days are clearly not meant to be 24-hour periods of time but rather the third day represents the time of God’s restoration and healing after having been wounded and rent by the LORD’s judgment. So in fact it is simply false that yom is never used with an ordinal number to refer to a non-literal day. Hosea 6:2 clearly does. Another passage that is relevant here would be Luke 13:32 where Jesus says to go tell Herod, “Behold, I cast out demons and perform cures today and tomorrow, and the third day I reach My goal.” This is in Greek, obviously, but Jesus’ original speech was in Aramaic and here he uses “the third day” in some symbolic way not to indicate the day after tomorrow but at some time in the near future. So the whole notion that yom and an ordinal number always refers to a 24-hour period of time is simply mistaken.

But all of that aside, I think that the claim here on the part of the Literal Interpretation really is missing the point entirely. The point is that a 24-hour day can be used as a literary metaphor for a longer period of time. Even if yom means a 24-hour day that doesn’t even address the question of whether a 24-hour day couldn’t be used metaphorically for a longer period of time. Let me give you an analogy. Take the English word “arm.” Now, “arm” can have two senses. One the one hand it could mean a limb or an appendage attached to your shoulder and connected to your hand – that would be your “arm.” But in another sense, “arm” could also be used to mean weapon as someone who is carrying a concealed arm or who is an armed man – we don’t mean he has limbs, we mean that he has some sort of a weapon with him. Those would both be meanings of the word “arm.” Often the Scriptures will use the word “arm” in a metaphorical way to say something like this: “the arm of the LORD was with Israel” or “the LORD’s arm was mighty with the soldiers of Israel.” Now when it says the arm of the LORD, clearly it is using the word in the sense of limb, not a weapon. It is not referring to the arm of the LORD in the sense of a weapon. It is using the word to mean a limb, just like my arm. But! Nevertheless, that doesn’t mean that God has literal limbs – that God has literal arms as Mormons may think. Rather, it is a metaphor when it is applied to God. When it says that the arm of the LORD was with Israel, it means something like this: that God’s power was with them; that he was strengthening them and that God’s favor was upon them in strength and might. So in saying that “arm” means limb – if you could show that everywhere it is used the word “arm” means a limb – that wouldn’t say anything about whether or not that word might not be used metaphorically when applied to God to mean something else. In exactly the same way, even if in Hebrew literature yom were always used with the sense of the meaning of a 24-hour calendar day, that doesn’t even begin to address the question of whether a calendar day can’t be used metaphorically for something else. So I don’t think that those arguments in favor of the literal interpretation are compelling.

In fact, I want to argue that there are indications in the text itself that six consecutive 24-hour days are not intended by the author. I say this again not on the basis of modern science but on the basis of the text itself. For example, I have already referred to the fact that the phrase “and it was evening and it was morning” is not mentioned with respect to the seventh day. That suggests that the seventh day is still continuing. God is still in his day of Sabbath rest. He is no longer creating new things. God is still resting from the work of creation. If this seventh day can be more flexibly understood, then why couldn’t the others be flexibly understood as well? Moreover, there is something very peculiar when it comes to the third day. Look at Genesis 1:11-12., “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 so.” The earth brought forth vegetation. Notice here it does not say that God simply made these fruit trees and these plants bearing seed. Rather it says let the earth bring these things forth and it says the earth then brought forth vegetation and so forth. Now we all know how long it takes, for example, for an apple tree to grow from a tiny sapling to a mature tree in which it will then blossom and bear apples not to speak of something like a California Redwood or a Sequoia. So if the author were thinking here of a 24-hour period of time, he would have to be imagining something that would look like the time lapse photography on the old moving Walt Disney’s Living Desert where you see the plants burst out of the ground and grow up into full maturity and then pop out into blossoms and then the fruit would pop out on the branches in a matter of a short period of time. And I simply can’t persuade myself that the author of Genesis is imagining that kind of process like a film being run on fast-forward when he says the earth brought forth these trees bearing fruit of its kind and the plants bearing seed. So I think it is very plausible to think that the author here is imaging this happening over a period of some time.

Moreover, notice throughout the first chapter of Genesis that evening is mentioned before morning. It says it was evening and then it was morning. This is an unusual sort of ordering and it suggests a kind of sacramental or symbolic usage that points forward to Israel’s own way of reckoning holy days and months and years. For example, Sabbath, Passover – these would always begin on the evening before the next day. We might also ask why start the phrase with the evening on the first day when it says “and it was evening and morning, one day.” How could there by any evening that day if there was no previous day during which there was light? There would not be any evening to begin with on the first day. So again we have reasons to think here that the phraseology is not meant to be referring to 24-hour periods of time.

A problem that has bedeviled interpreters from earliest times has been the fact that on the fourth day the sun appears – God makes the sun on the forth day. But if that is the case, then one would ask how could the previous days been 24-hour periods of time if there wasn’t any sun to create solar days. Again that seems to be a kind of inconsistency if one is taking these as 24-hour days.

Also notice the sixth day when God creates Adam and Eve. This appears to involve more than just a 24-hour period of time because he goes on in chapter 2 to describe Adam’s activity on this day in naming all of the animals – the hundreds and thousands of animals that must have been known to ancient Israelites. Getting acquainted with their habits, realizing that he is alone and that there is no mate fit for him, falling asleep, Eve’s finally being created and then when Eve, at last, finally comes on the scene in chapter 2 and verse 23, the man says, “This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh.” And the word there “at last” is a word that connotes a period of time or a period of waiting. For example, it is used in the story of Jacob and Leah where Jacob finally, at last, leaves Laban after serving him for 14 years waiting for Leah and Rachel to be his wife. Also Jacob’s finally departing this life after he sees his son Joseph. The phrase “at last” is used in Genesis elsewhere to indicate a long period of time of waiting. So again that would suggest that the author didn’t see this description as being necessarily a 24-hour period of time.

So for these and other various reasons, I think one can quite legitimately approach Genesis 1-3 with greater flexibility than the Literal Interpretation would imply. This would imply, therefore, that the creation account is not meant to be transpiring over six 24-hour consecutive days but could well involve a much broader lapse of time than that.

This is not to deny that the Literal Interpretation is one legitimate interpretation. I think that it is a perfectly feasible interpretation of Genesis 1. But it is to say that we need not put ourselves in a box here and say that this is the only interpretation. I think that so-called Young Earth Creationists or advocates of the Literal Interpretation who regard anybody who takes a non-literal view of these passages as somehow unbiblical or compromising biblical orthodoxy are simply mistaken here and overly narrow. There are good indications in the text itself – wholly apart from modern science – that this isn’t meant to be taken literally. Historically, it is interesting that many of the church fathers and rabbis down through history did not take Genesis 1 to refer to six consecutive 24-hour days. People like Augustine and Origen and Justin Martyr and other of the church fathers took these not as 24-hour periods of time. There has always been among rabbis and Christian church fathers a latitude of interpretation, some of them take it literally, others take it figuratively and it has never been a kind of touchstone or proof text for orthodoxy to ask whether or not you believe the world was created in six consecutive 24-hour days. So although the Literal Interpretation is one possibility I think there are others as well and we will talk about some of those views next time.[3]



[1] Genesis 1:2-31, New American Standard Bible

[2] The link that Dr. Craig refers to is no longer available. The document has been moved to the following link: with a PDF version available at (accessed August 20, 2012).

[3] Total Running Time: 35:11 (Copyright © William Lane Craig)