Excursus on Creation of Life and Biological Diversity (Part 2): The Literal Interpretation

December 19, 2018

Lecture 2
The Literal Interpretation

Last time we began our excursus on the doctrine of creation and the origin of life and biological diversity. We are looking at Genesis chapter 1 with a view toward understanding the various interpretations of Genesis 1 that have been offered.

The first interpretation that we want to consider is the most straightforward interpretation of Genesis 1 – what we could call the literal interpretation (sometimes called the 24-hour day interpretation). For example, my doctoral mentor, the great systematic theologian Wolfhart Pannenberg, cites the eminent German Old Testament scholar Gerhard von Rad in support of the scientific character of Genesis chapter 1. Pannenberg argues that, primitive as it might be, nevertheless the intention of Genesis 1 is to give a scientific account of the origins of the world and of life. This is what von Rad has to say in his Old Testament Theology.

Before I read the quotation from von Rad, a word of background will be helpful in understanding what he has to say. Old Testament scholars have identified a number of hypothetical sources behind the Pentateuch. One of these is the so-called P document – a hypothetical written source that is supposed to have been written from a priestly perspective; that is to say, the perspective of someone involved in the Levitical sacrifices that are described in the book of Leviticus. Genesis 1:1 to 2:3 is usually identified as based upon this hypothetical P source. Von Rad will refer to this priestly document, and so that's what he's talking about when he says the following:

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 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]

Pannenberg thinks that such primitive science has now been overtaken by modern science, and therefore it needs to be corrected. But Pannenberg finds motivation in the biblical author’s approach to trying to integrate theology with a scientific view of the world. The science of the P author is now obsolete and no longer valid, but nevertheless his project of trying to integrate theology with science is a worthy one, and we should follow his example in trying to integrate theology with the science of our day.

Similarly, young earth creationists take the aim of Genesis chapter 1 to be to communicate scientific information about the origin of the world and humanity. The difference between young earth creationists and theologians like von Rad and Pannenberg is the young earth creationists take the account to be accurate. God created the world in six consecutive 24-hour days about ten to twenty thousand years ago. This interpretation 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 what it says.

This raises the question as to what do we mean by “literal?” By literal, I mean that it's not to be taken figuratively. The young earth creationist, Jonathan Sarfati, in his commentary on Genesis 1 to 11 says that young earth creationists are perfectly prepared to recognize metaphors and other figures of speech in Genesis 1 to 11. For example, when the flood narrative says that the windows of heaven were opened, they don't imagine this to mean that there are literal windows in the firmament. Rather, they recognize that this is a metaphor for rain. So by “literal” Sarfati means merely the grammatico-historical meaning of the text which doesn't exclude figurative language.

The problem with Sarfati’s characterization is that it ignores genre and is so general as to be almost useless. Even poetry should be interpreted literally in that sense, namely the grammatico-historical sense. What we want to know is whether Genesis 1 to 11 is to be read as a literal account of what actually happened.

Sarfati does defend a non-figurative interpretation of Genesis 1 to 11 on the grounds that it is of the genre of history. He identifies the genre of Genesis 1 to 11 as history. Now we're getting somewhere. The key chapter in Sarfati's commentary justifying his view that Genesis 1 to 11 belonged to the genre of history is chapter 2 entitled “Genesis is History, Not Poetry or Allegory.” Immediately one notes an insufficient range of alternatives. We may all agree that Genesis 1 to 11 is neither poetry nor allegory. These chapters are prose narrative. But that doesn't imply that they belong to the genre of history. Sarfati tends to conflate narrative prose with history. For example, he observes that the early chapters of Genesis frequently use a construction in Hebrew called the “waw-consecutive.” Waw is the Hebrew word for “and.” In the waw-consecutive you have a verb in the imperfect tense. This is a singular mark of a sequential narrative. A narrative typically begins with a perfect tense verb, and then it continues with imperfect tense verbs. Applying this to Genesis 1, the first verb in Genesis 1 is bara – create. In the beginning God created. That's in the perfect. The subsequent verbs are in the imperfect, and this is exactly what one would expect, Sarfati says, from a historical narrative. But it's also what one would expect from a non-historical narrative. Myths are narratives as are folk tales and legends. They relate a story involving a sequence of events, but they're not historical narratives. Sarfati conflates narrative style with historical narrative.

In the section of his chapter entitled “Numerical analysis of the literary genre of Genesis,” he cites a statistical study of the verb forms in narrative and poetic texts. The study shows that Genesis 1:1 to 2:3 is statistically classified as narrative with a probability of 0.9999 percent. From this he concludes, “This analysis shows that Genesis is almost certainly historical narrative and not poetry.” This is a non-sequitur. From its being narrative, it doesn't follow that it is history; only that it's not a poem. It is narrative prose, but it doesn't follow that it’s history.

Safari goes on to ask: if Genesis were history, how would you expect it to look? He says we can answer that from the style of the undisputed historical books in the Old Testament like Exodus, Joshua, Judges, and Genesis chapters 12 to 50. This argument, however, backfires, for such a comparison is precisely what leads scholars to differentiate Genesis 1 to 11 from such historical narratives. For example, the prominent evangelical Old Testament commentator, Gordon Wenham, observes that when Genesis 1 to 11 is compared with Genesis chapters 12 to 50 a striking difference emerges. Chapters 1 to 11 are full of parallels with ancient Near Eastern traditions so that it looks as though Genesis is reflecting these oriental sagas both positively and negatively. Genesis 12 to 50, by contrast, are quite different, says Wenham. Abraham and his descendants are the exclusive concern of these chapters, and there is no suggestion that the patriarchal stories are adaptations of oriental sagas. Hermann Gunkel, who was one of the earliest proponents of the view that Genesis 1 to 11 has a background in ancient Near Eastern myths, in his book The Legends of Genesis (1901), contrasted the early chapters of Genesis precisely with the Old Testament historical books and he remarks, “Contrast these narratives with Israelitish historical writing such as the central portion of the second book of Samuel, the most exquisite piece of early historical writing in Israel.”

Sarfati’s mistake may be that he restricts his analysis of literary genre to grammar and style. Those are the two elements that he considers in determining genre – grammar and style. But we must also reckon with the function of a literary text in the culture in which it was related. This is precisely the burden of Old Testament scholar John Collins’ new book Reading Genesis Well, which I highly recommend to anyone interested in this subject. Collins’ criticism of those who insist on what is called the “plain meaning of the text” which ignores function apply directly to Sarfati’s analysis.

The question is whether the text is of the type that intends the reader to take it literally. Von Rad gives no evidence at all for his view that Genesis 1 is primitive science. He simply asserts it. Clearly Genesis chapters 1 to 3 are intended to be historical on some level at least. Adam and Eve, for example, are presented in chapters 2 and 3 as the first couple of the human race – the progenitors of the entire human race. Adam and Eve are treated as historical individuals, not just symbols of mankind but as actual people who are connected to descendants by the genealogies in Genesis 1 to 11 and finally to indisputable historical figures like Abraham. And we mustn't overlook, after all, the central figure of Genesis 1 to 11, namely God himself. God is clearly not meant to be just a symbol or a mythological figure, but a real personal agent who created the world and humanity and then goes on to call the nation of Israel to be his special people. So the central figure of the Genesis narrative is a literal personal individual who is the creator of the world and the God of Israel.

On the other hand, the Genesis narrative is undoubtedly also meant to be symbolic or metaphorical in certain respects. For example, the name Adam (the name of the first man) just is the Hebrew word for man. And Eve is interpreted by the author to mean the mother of all living. So Adam and Eve are not just historical individuals, but they also represent humanity. Adam is, in a sense, every man created by God. In the creation story that we have in Genesis 2 we clearly have metaphorical or anthropomorphic descriptions of God. God is described as walking in the garden and looking for Adam and Eve and saying, “Where are you?” And they're hiding from God, and God must find them. Or, again, when God creates man, it says that he fashions him out of the dust of the earth and then breathed into his nostrils the breath of life. Clearly this is not intended to be a kind of literal CPR that God performs on Adam by blowing into his nose. So there are also literary and metaphorical devices that are plausibly being used in these chapters as well.

In fact, the whole narrative in Genesis chapter 1 is an incredibly crafted piece of Hebrew literature. It is really unique. As I already said, it is not poetry. It is not a hymn. But it's not just straightforward prose either. Collins calls it exalted prose. It is a highly stylized piece of writing with a certain parallelism that is characteristic of poetry. For example, you have repeated again and again “and God said . . . and God made . . . and it was so” on the various creative days. It’s a carefully stylistically structured chapter that exhibits a great deal of literary polish. Even the number of the Hebrew letters in Genesis 1 is carefully chosen. So it's not just a simple police report or a scientific report of what happened. Therefore, most evangelical exegetes will say that these narratives are meant to be taken in a sense that is both historical and figurative. The underlying historical events actually happened, but nevertheless the narrative is told in poetic imagery or figurative speech that shouldn't be pressed for literal precision.

So Genesis 1 seems to be a kind of historical but figurative genre of writing. That is to say, it covers historical events but using poetic or figurative language to describe them. If that's correct, then it would be making unwarranted demands on the text to interpret it literally; in particular it would be unwarranted to press the Hebrew word yom for day to mean that the world was created in six consecutive 24-hour days.


Student: Just for contextual reasons, when you say Genesis is not a straightforward prose, what does that mean?

Dr. Craig: In this case, what I mean is that it's highly polished. It exhibits, for example, this parallelism and other artistic qualities. It's not a poem. It's not Hebrew poetry. But it exhibits some of that style of poetry like the parallel lines, the repetition, the structure, the numbering of the letters. Many scholars have pointed out the recurrence of the number seven in the narrative, for example, as being perhaps theologically significant or multiples of seven. It's a highly stylized piece of writing. It's not like a police report so to speak.

Student: Ordinarily, when we think of something being metaphorical or analogous to something, there's something literal that it's being compared to. I'm not sure if that . . . could you comment on that not really being the case with Genesis? So, for example, when God calls the sea “the sea” and calls the Earth a name, I don't imagine that there's some literal event where God is giving a proper name to something or something that's analogous to that.

Dr. Craig: I think that that would be a good example of figurative language. God, in the beginning of the chapter, is a transcendent being beyond the universe who is not like the anthropomorphic deities of Israel's pagan neighbors – these humanoid deities cavorting with each other and doing physical things. God transcends the entire material universe and brings it into being by his word. So in that sense God doesn't have vocal cords so as to speak and say I'm going to call this Earth or I'm going to call this day. This is clearly, I think, as you say, a figurative language applied to God. Moreover, there's no reason to think that God would speak Hebrew. The narrative is told in the language of the author who's writing, and we read it in the language of our English Bibles. But God himself doesn't speak Hebrew, I think we can presume. In fact, Collins pointed out to me at a recent conference that there are certain kinds of anachronisms in Genesis 1 to 11 that also show its non-literal character. One example of this would be when Adam is presented with Eve as the helper that is suitable for him, he cries out, This is now bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh. She shall be called woman because she was taken out of man. The Hebrew words there for “man” and “woman” (ish and ishah) in fact didn't exist prior to the time of the monarchy. This is a development linguistically in Hebrew around 1000 BC or so. So Adam, in the primeval history, couldn't have made this pun because that didn't exist. It's an anachronism in the language of the author. So I think that these narratives are making deep theological points for us to understand, like, for example, the equal value of man and woman before God, the fact that the stars and the sun and the moon are not astral deities to be worshiped, they're mere creatures made by God. Human beings are made to know God and to fellowship with him. They're not created (as in Babylonian myths) as slaves to do the grunt work of the gods and to feed the gods. These Hebrew stories, even taken figuratively, are so different from these gross and often vile polytheistic myths of ancient Mesopotamia and Egypt. So they can make these theological points, I think, independently of interpreting a lot of the narrative literally.

Student: Just a fun nugget, in the Hebrew language I remember how Adam (adam) is made from the dirt, from the earth. The Hebrew word (one of them) for earth and the dirt is adamah. So Adam from adamah.

Dr. Craig: Yes, very good. What he points out is that the very name “Adam” resembles the Hebrew word for “earth,” adamah. Adam is created out of the dust of the earth, and there is a kind of pun there as well on the name of Adam. There's again a kind of symbolic significance there. It's not just a straightforward narrative that Adam was made out of dirt.

Student: Last week we were talking about the author of Genesis. I think this is a relevant continuation. From my understanding of the Chinese history which is long, the way history is captured is many, many revisions. In the beginning, maybe people communicate by tying knots on the rope and then they start drawing pictures. But the idea is preserved. God is able to move people to care about certain things they want to preserve. There is the ancient Book of Changes (I Ching) that was revised many, many times. Confucius did the last revision. So I figure maybe Genesis is also how things are important that people find a way to preserve and then God can move people to kind of get a little more revision with more understanding as he revealed more to them. I wanted to hear your opinion about this.

Dr. Craig: I think that what you're saying is certainly plausible. I'm not yet offering a critique of the literalist interpretation or endorsing a different interpretation, but just trying to say there's a range of alternatives here. I think what you've said is very plausible, and we'll talk more about that when we get to other non-literal interpretations. Just this week I was reading about Chinese mythology, and this is an area that, for Westerners, is as yet very under-explored and more work needs to be done on the kind of comparative stories that you have in the ancient Near East and those that are existing in China.

Student: I'm sure you're familiar with the work of John Walton at Wheaton. I've been reading a lot of his work lately. It's interesting. One of his theories is that Genesis is, of course, history, but that it's also an allegory of God setting up the earth as a temple – that he sets it up as the Garden of Eden as his dwelling place, there's the six days of work and one day of rest, and that the Earth and the universe are his temple. He also talks about that verb bara. Of course, in Hebrew each word has a lot more work than English verbs do, but he talks about that as being something where God is more ordering and defining and naming and putting things into their roles. Then when he rests on the seventh day, the rest is not really him kicking back in a hammock and resting at the beach. It's more like his rest is that peace that we get when everything is as it should be. I wonder what your opinion of Walton is.

Dr. Craig: We'll be talking about Walton’s so-called functional interpretation of Genesis chapter 1. So hang onto that until later. As for the temple motif, although I tend to be rather skeptical of this, there are a good number of scholars including Wenham who do think that the Garden of Eden is meant to be a sort of symbol of a sanctuary in which God would fellowship with man and woman in this pristine state, and they had to be, of course, driven out of it after their fall. So that would be an additional non-literal element in the narrative if you did accept that.


With that we will close today. We'll resume this discussion when we come back in January.[2]


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

[2]           [2]Total Running Time: 31:12 (Copyright © 2018 William Lane Craig)