Creation and Evolution (Part 2)

April 28, 2013     Time: 00:33:42

Last time we started a new section of the Doctrine of Creation dealing with the creation of life and biological complexity. We began to look at the key text in the Scripture concerning this – Genesis 1. I suggested that before we look at various alternative interpretations of Genesis 1, we need to keep in mind a couple of very important hermeneutical principles so as to not be led astray. One of these was that we always need to interpret a piece of literature according to the literary genre to which it belongs. Otherwise, we will be led into misunderstanding and misinterpretation if we interpret it according to standards belonging to another genre. Secondly, I suggested that we need to try to understand the original text in the way that the author intended it to be understood. We try to put ourselves within the author’s horizon and the horizon of his original audience and ask, “How would that original author and his audience have understood this text?” rather than try to read modern science back into the text and interpret it in ways that would be quite foreign to the original author and his audience.

Literal Interpretation

There are many different interpretations of the opening chapter of Genesis. The first that we want to talk about is the Literal Interpretation. The most straightforward interpretation of Genesis 1 is what might be called the Literal Interpretation. Sometimes this is called the 24-Hour Day Interpretation. For example, my doctoral supervisor Wolfhart Pannenberg was fond of quoting from the German Old Testament scholar Gerhard von Rad that the account that we find in Genesis 1 was intended to be a scientific account – primitive though it might be. Nevertheless, it was intended to give a scientific account of the origin of the world and of life in the terms of the science of the ancient world. So, for example, von Rad writes,

This account of Creation is, of course, completely bound to the cosmological knowledge of its time. But it is a bad thing for the Christian expositor completely to disregard this latter as obsolete, as if the theologian has only to deal with the faith expressed in Genesis 1 and not with its view of nature. For there can be no doubt that the Creation story in the Priestly Document [that is to say, in Genesis 1] seeks to convey not merely theological, but also scientific, knowledge. It is characterized by the fact, which is difficult for us to understand, that here theological and scientific knowledge are in accord with no tension between them. The two sets of statements are not only parallel, but are interwoven in such a way that one cannot really say of any part of Genesis 1 that this particular statement is purely scientific (and therefore without importance for us) while that one is purely theological. In the scientific ideas of the time theology had found an instrument which suited it perfectly, and which it could make use of for the appropriate unfolding of certain subjects – in this case the doctrine of Creation.1

That is from von Rad’s Old Testament Theology, Volume 1 and page 148.

Pannenberg thinks that this primitive science which is reflected in Genesis 1 has been obviously overtaken by modern science. So, it needs to be corrected. But he finds motivation in the biblical author’s approach for theology trying to integrate theology with a scientific view of the world.2 We may not be committed any longer to the author’s primitive and outmoded science of his day but nevertheless Pannenberg thinks that we should still follow the author’s example in trying to integrate theology with the science of our day so that science and theology become conversation partners in a dialogue for getting at truth.

Similarly, so-called Young Earth Creationism takes the aim of Genesis 1 to communicate scientific information about creation. Young Earth Creationists agree, in essence, with von Rad’s view of that. However, the difference between Young Earth Creationism and von Rad and Pannenberg is that they take the account to be accurate, not to be obsolete anymore. God created the world in six consecutive 24-hour days about ten to twenty thousand years ago. This interpretation takes the text in a prima facie way – that is to say, it takes it at face value. It takes the text literally in what it says, or at least as far as they can. Even Young Earth Creationists are not totally literalists. For example, some aspects of the narrative are not taken literally, such as the creation of the sun on the fourth day in Genesis 1. Very typically, Young Earthers will not embrace the view that there was plant life and life on earth prior to God’s creation of the sun; rather, the creation of the sun on the fourth day is interpreted to mean something like the sun appeared on that day – that it came out from behind the thick cloud canopy that had been enveloping the earth.

So the question then is whether the text before us is of a type that the author intends the reader to take it literally. It is interesting to me that von Rad gives absolutely no evidence for this. He just asserts it. He just says that this is meant to be an account that is a primitive scientific account integrated with theology. But he doesn’t give any evidence for thinking so.

Clearly, Genesis 1-3 are intended to be historical at some level. For example, Adam and Eve are presented as the first human couple – the origins of the human race. They are treated as historical individuals who actually lived. They are not just symbols of mankind. They are actual people who are connected to other people in Genesis like Abraham and his descendants by genealogies that link Adam and Even to indisputably historical persons. So it is clear that Adam and Eve are not just symbolic figures in this narrative. The author does think of them as real historical persons who have descendents that eventually lead to Abraham and the people of Israel. Moreover, we must not miss the forest for the trees here either. Don’t forget about the central figure of the passage in Genesis 1 – namely, God! God, himself! God is clearly not intended to be just a symbol or a mythological figure in this narrative. He is intended to be a real, personal agent who created the world and humanity and who goes on to call forth the nation of Israel to be his special people. So the central figure of this narrative is a literal personal individual who is the creator of the world and the God of Israel. So, as I say, at some level at least these events are taken to be historical.

On the other hand, the Genesis narrative is also undoubtedly, I think, meant to be symbolic and metaphorical in certain respects. For example, the name “Adam” in Hebrew just means “man.” In the beginning, God created man. And “Eve” means the mother of all living.3 So Adam and Eve are not just historical individuals like Janice and Jim. This is man and the mother of all living human beings. They represent humanity before God. They are symbolic, I think, and metaphorical for humanity. In the creation story, as it continues in Genesis 2, we have clearly metaphorical or perhaps anthropomorphic descriptions of God. God is depicted in human terms. For example, God is depicted as walking in the garden and looking for Adam and Eve. Adam and Eve are hiding from God and God calls out “Where are you?” and he is looking for them in the garden. Or, again, when God creates man, it says that he fashions him out of the dust of the earth and breathes into his nostrils the breathe of life. Now, clearly, this isn’t intended to mean that God literally bent down and performed CPR on Adam through his nose. Rather, this is using literary and metaphorical devices for describing his creation of humanity. In fact, the whole narrative in Genesis 1 is an incredibly carefully crafted piece of Hebrew literature. It really is unique. There is nothing like this in Hebrew literature elsewhere. Scholars are generally agreed that it is not poetry (it is not a Hebrew poem) nor is it a hymn exactly (though it seems to have strophe or verses). But it is not just straight forward prose either. This chapter is a highly stylized piece of writing that is constructed with certain parallels running all through it. For example, “And God said” . . . “And God made” . . . “And it was so.” You find this structure repeated over and over again through the chapter. It is a very carefully stylistically constructed passage that exhibits an enormous amount of literary polish. Even the number of the Hebrew letters in the chapter is carefully chosen. The very number of the characters is significant in Genesis 1.4 So this isn’t just a scientific report or a police report or a historical narrative of what happened. To think that is to have a very naïve view of the kind of literature that Genesis 1 is.

So most evangelical exegetes today (that is to say, most evangelical Scripture scholars) will say that these narratives are meant to be taken in some sort of figurative-historical sense. The underlying historical events actually happened, but nevertheless the narrative is told in poetic imagery and figurative speech that shouldn’t be pressed for literal precision.

If Genesis 1-3 is a kind of historical-figurative genre of writing; that is to say, it is covering historical events but it is using poetic or figurative language to describe them, then it would be making unwarranted demands upon this text to interpret it literally. In particular, I think, it would be unwarranted to press the Hebrew word “yom” – or “day” – to mean a literal 24-hour period of time. The fact is that yom exhibits the same sort of latitude that the English word “day” does. It can be used to describe a 24-hour period of time but it can be used more broadly as well. Like when we say “In Lincoln’s day, there were no automobiles yet.” Obviously there you are not referring to a 24-hour period. yom, in Hebrew, exhibits exactly that same sort of latitude.5 Also, the very phrase that is used in Genesis 1 for the first day – “yom ehad,” or “Day One” – is also used elsewhere in Scripture in a non-literal sense. For example, this phrase is used in Zechariah 14:7 to refer to the “day of the Lord,” that is to say, God’s judgment upon Israel which is clearly not meant to be just a 24-hour period of time. So the language in Genesis 1 should not be pressed to indicate literal 24-hour days.

On behalf of those who do interpret it literally, I think one of the best proof texts for interpreting yom as literal in Genesis 1 actually isn’t in the book of Genesis. It is in the book of Exodus. If you look at Exodus 20:9-11, the author is reflecting back on the Genesis narrative. He is looking back on this seven day creation week and reflecting on it. In Exodus 20:9-11 he says this,6

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.7

Here the passage says that in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea and all that is in them; so, defenders of the literal interpretation will say that this shows that Genesis 1 is intended to refer to a literal week of six consecutive 24-hour days. But I think that this interpretation may be pressing the passage in Exodus a little too hard. What the Exodus passage is talking about clearly is the pattern that is set down in Genesis. Namely, the pattern of God’s laboring for six days creating the world and then resting on the seventh day. That pattern is the same that Israel should observe in its literal work week. Israel should work for six literal days and then rest on the seventh day. But that doesn’t mean to say that because the pattern is the same that therefore the periods of time, or the days, described in Genesis 1 are therefore exactly the same length as our ordinary calendar days. Look at how the Sabbath commandment is repeated in Exodus 31:12-17 and compare that to the passage we just read. It says,

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.”8

Notice that in this passage it refers to the seventh day as the day of God’s Sabbath rest.9 It says “on the seventh day He ceased from labor, and was refreshed.” But when you read Genesis 1, the seventh day is clearly not a 24-hour period of time. It, unlike the other days, does not come to an end with evening and morning. God is still in the day of his Sabbath rest. God is still in the period of no longer being active in creating new things. So if the seventh day, though it is referred to as a day and is the model for Israel’s literal Sabbath day, isn’t to be taken literally as we know then why should the other days also be taken literally as 24-hour periods of time? It seems to me that it is more plausible to think that what is being emphasized here is the pattern of six days of labor followed by one day of rest and there isn’t any sort of intention to say that the length of God’s days is exactly the same length as our 24-hour calendar days. We know that is not true on the seventh day in particular.

Sometimes those who defend the Literal Interpretation of six consecutive 24-hour days will point out that when an ordinal number is used with the word yom as in “second day,” “third day,” and “forth day” then it always refers to a literal 24-hour day. When you use an ordinal number like “second,” “third,” “forth,” and “fifth” with yom then it is always referring to a literal 24-hour day. However, I don’t find this to be a convincing argument at all.

First of all, there is no grammatical rule in Hebrew that says that yom followed by an ordinal number has to refer to a 24-hour period of time. Even if it were the case that no where else in Hebrew literature that we have extant do we find yom followed by an ordinal number not referring to a 24-hour day, that could just be an accident of the Hebrew literature that happens to have survived. There is no grammatical rule that would require yom followed by an ordinal number to refer to a 24-hour period of time. This fact, if it were true, could just be a reflection of the relatively rare sources for ancient Hebrew literature that we have today and doesn’t really make a valid grammatical point. It is just an accident of history and what literature we have today.

But, secondly, in any case the claim is simply false. It is false. We do have passages where yom is used with an ordinal number to refer to a non-literal day. One such passage would be Hosea 6:2. In Hosea 6:2, 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 not meant to be 24-hour periods of time. It is talking about God’s judgment upon Israel – he has rent Israel, he has judged Israel – but on the third day he will raise us up. The third day is symbolic of the day of God’s deliverance and healing and restoration of Israel after it’s having been wounded and rent by the Lord’s judgment. So it is simply false that yom used with an ordinal number always refers to a 24-hour period of time. In Hosea 6:2, it is clearly not referring to a literal 24-hour period of time.

Thirdly, I think the claim here on the part of the Literal Interpretation is really 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 or something else.10 Even if yom means a 24-hour day, that doesn’t even begin to address the question of whether a 24-hour day might not be used metaphorically. Let me give you an analogy to make this clear. Take the English word “arm.” The English word “arm” has multiple meanings. One meaning would be a limb or an appendage connected to your shoulder and terminating in your hand. That would be your “arm.” But an “arm” can also be used to indicate a weapon, as when somebody is carrying a concealed arm or somebody is described as an armed man. In that case, we don’t mean that he has got arms or that he is carrying an arm under his suit jacket. We mean he is carrying a weapon with him. These are both English meanings of the word “arm.” Very often, the Scripture will use the word “arm” in a metaphorical way.11 It will say something like this: “The arm of the Lord was with the people of Israel.” Clearly, when it is saying the “arm of the Lord,” it means “arm” in the sense of a limb, not a weapon. It means a literal appendage – “the arm of the Lord was with the nation of Israel.” So it is using the word to mean a limb. But that doesn’t mean that, therefore, God has literal limbs as the Mormons think. Rather, it is a metaphor when it is applied to God. When the Scripture speaks of the arm of the Lord, it means something like the power of the Lord. The arm of the Lord being with them means God was on their side – his power was with them and he was fighting for them, strengthening them and giving them his strength and might. So if somebody were to try to prove that the word “arm” always literally means “limb” that wouldn’t even address the question of whether or not a limb might be used as a metaphor for something else as it is in Scripture. Similarly, in the same way, even if in Hebrew literature yom always has the meaning “24-hour day” that doesn’t even begin to address the question of whether or not an author might use 24-hour days as metaphors or symbols for something other than a calendar day.

So I don’t think that these arguments in favor of the Literal Interpretation are compelling.

What I have been talking about so far is the support that might be given for the Literal Interpretation and some assessment of that. Next I will turn to a critique of this view.

Question: In what way – what words and phrases would they use – to convince you that they were trying to tell you that it was a 24-hour day?

Answer: That is a very good question. I haven’t given any arguments yet for why I think that this passage may well be non-literal. All I have argued so far is that the evidence in favor of the Literal Interpretation isn’t compelling. But one could still say, “I will take it at face value unless I am given some reason to think otherwise.” I haven’t done that yet. All I am saying here is that when you look at the support that is given for the Literal Interpretation, it is not incumbent upon us in light of that evidence. But it could be read that way, that is true. Whether or not we do read it that way will be dependent upon how you react to what follows next time when I look at a critique of this view. To answer your question more directly, I suppose what it would take would be if these elements that I am going to talk about that look like earmarks or indications of non-literality were absent from the narrative then I think the arguments for literality would be more convincing.12 We will have to wait until I give the evidence on the other side.

Question: In Genesis 1:3, he says “let there be light.” In Genesis 1:14 he says “let there be lights.” This first light that they are talking about – what light is that? That is not the sun, it is not the moon.

Answer: That is part of the difficulty with the Literal Interpretation. If days are literally 24-hour days, how can they be that if there is no sun – if the sun isn’t created until the fourth day? That is why I said even those that espouse the Literal Interpretation typically back away at this point and say, “Well, the sun wasn’t literally created on the fourth day. That light that you are talking about in verse 3 was really the sun but it was eclipsed by the heavy cloud canopy and it was only on the fourth day that it became visible.” So this would be one of those indications, I think, that we are dealing with something that should not be pressed for literal precision or we get into this very difficult question that you’ve just asked. That question arises precisely as a result of interpreting it literally.

Followup: I wondered if it could have been the Shekinah Glory of God – the light of the world, Jesus Christ.

Answer: You could imagine that. Certainly the Scripture talks about God being glorious and I think the author of Genesis wouldn’t be unsympathetic to that. But then doesn’t that then evacuate all of the arguments the Literal Interpretationist is giving us for thinking yom ehad, and “second day,” and “third day” have to be literal 24-hour days? The Shekinah Glory isn’t going to give you 24-hour days.

Followup: I can’t imagine how long it takes to make something out of nothing. He’s God, so how long does it take him to do something from nothing.

Answer: Well, that wouldn’t take any time.

Followup: That’s right. OK, there will go. If it takes no time, he says let it be and poof there it is! And he says evening and morning.

Answer: Creatio ex nihilo doesn’t take time. But this narrative is one in which the creation of life and biological diversity is spread out over time and not created just instantly – boom – all in one instance.

What we have looked at so far is the Literal Interpretation. We’ve asked what evidence is there in favor of the Literal Interpretation. The best evidence, I think, would be the passage from Exodus but I don’t think that is compelling. So I don’t think the case has been made very strongly for a literal interpretation. Next time I am going to share some evidence on the other side which has already been hinted at in some respects as to why we might think that the author doesn’t intend us to take this as six consecutive literal 24-hour days.13


1 Gerhard von Rad, Old Testament Theology, Volume 1 (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2001), p. 148

2 4:59

3 10:01

4 TODO Provide a quick summary of what this letter count is and why its significant

5 14:57

6 Dr. Craig starts reading from verse 8

7 From New American Standard Bible

8 From New American Standard Bible

9 20:17

10 25:00

11 cf. Isaiah 52:10, 53:1

12 30:06

13 Total Running Time: 33:42 (Copyright © 2013 William Lane Craig)