Excursus on Creation of Life and Biological Diversity (Part 3): A Critique of the Literal Interpretation

January 09, 2019

Lecture 3
A Critique of the Literal Interpretation

We're talking about various interpretations of Genesis chapter 1, and we have begun our discussion of the literal interpretation of the first chapter of Genesis. Last time I explained that most evangelical exegetes will say that these narratives are meant to be taken in a sort of figurative and yet historical sense. The underlying historical events actually happened, but nevertheless the narrative is told in poetic imagery in figurative speech that shouldn't be pressed for literal precision. So if Genesis 1-3 is a kind of historical but figurative genre of writing (that is to say, it covers historical events but it uses poetic or figurative language to describe them) then it would be a mistake to make unwarranted demands upon the text by interpreting it literally.

In particular, I think, for example, that it would be unwarranted to press the Hebrew word yom for literal precision to mean that the Earth was created in six consecutive 24-hour days. For example, in Genesis 2:4 we have this word yom used in a clearly metaphorical 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 made the Earth and the heavens.” In this verse it refers to the entire creative week of Genesis 1 as a day. So in the Genesis account itself we find that it uses the word yom (day) in a metaphorical sense to describe the entire creation week and not just a 24-hour period of time.

One of the best proof texts to which literalists can appeal for thinking that a six-day creation is literal in Genesis 1 comes from another book of the Pentateuch outside the book of Genesis – namely Exodus. If you look at Exodus 20:9-11 you find the Pentateuchal author reflecting back upon Genesis 1 and he says as follows in Exodus 20:8-11:

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 that this shows that Genesis 1 is, in fact, intended to refer to a literal week of six consecutive 24-hour days. But I think that that may be pressing the passage too hard. What the Exodus passage is stressing is the pattern that is set down in Genesis 1 – the pattern of God’s laboring on six creative days and then resting on the seventh day. That pattern is the same that Israel should observe in its literal workweek. But that isn't to say that because the pattern is the same that the periods or the durations described in Genesis are also therefore exactly the same duration as our ordinary calendar days. Notice how this sabbath 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.”

Notice that this passage refers to the seventh day as the day of God's sabbath rest. But when you read Genesis 1, the seventh day is not a 24-hour period of time. It does not come to an end with the phrase “and there was evening and there was morning, the seventh day.” Rather, God is, in a sense, still in his day of sabbath rest. He is no longer creating. So if the seventh day, though referred to as “a day” and as the model for Israel’s sabbath day, isn't to be taken literally, then why should the other days before it be taken to be literal 24-hour periods of time?

Those who hold to the literal interpretation will often say that when an ordinal number is used with the word yom (like “second day” or “third day” and so forth) that then it always refers to a 24-hour period of time. But I don't find this a convincing argument at all. First of all, there's no grammatical rule in Hebrew that says when yom is used with an ordinal number it must refer to a 24-hour period of time. If no such examples are to be found in Hebrew literature that we have, that could simply be accidental. It could simply be a reflection of the fact that our stories or sources in Hebrew are relatively limited and there just isn't any occasion on which you have an expression like “second day” or “third day” being used in a metaphorical way. So it's not really a valid point grammatically speaking. It can simply be an accident of history or literature that we don't have passages where an ordinal number is used with yom to refer to something other than a 24-hour period of time.

Secondly, however, the claim is, in fact, just false anyway. We do have passages where yom is used with an ordinal number to refer to a non-literal day. Hosea 6:2 would be such an example. Hosea 6:2 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 24-hour periods of time. Rather, the third day represents the time of God's restoration and healing of Israel after having wounded and rent Israel through his judgment. So it’s simply false that yom is never used with an ordinal number to refer to a non-literal day. Hosea 6:2 clearly does.

But thirdly, I think that the claim here on the part of the literal interpreter is simply missing the point entirely. The point is that a 24-hour day can be used as a literary metaphor. Even if yom always refers to a 24-hour day, that doesn't even address the question of whether a 24-hour day couldn't be used metaphorically. Let me give an analogy. Take the English word “arm.” Now, in English, the word “arm” has two senses. In one sense, it refers to a limb of the body attached to your shoulder with a hand on the end. This would be your arm. But in another sense, the English word “arm” can refer to a weapon. For example, we might refer to someone who is carrying a “concealed arm” or we might talk about “an armed man.” When we talk about an armed man, we don't mean a man who has limbs. We mean a man who's carrying a weapon. So the word “arm” in English can have these two different meanings. Now, very often the Scriptures will use the word “arm” in a metaphorical sense with respect to the Lord. For example, it will say something like this, The arm of the Lord was with them. When I say “the arm of the Lord,” I'm clearly using the word in the sense to mean a limb. I'm not talking about the Lord's having a weapon. I'm using the word “arm” in the ordinary sense of an appendage or a limb. But that doesn't mean that it's to be taken literally when you apply it to God (as the Mormons do) and think that God has some sort of a humanoid body. Rather, it's a metaphor when it's applied to God. When the Scriptures say that the arm of the Lord was with the people of Israel, what it means is something like that God's power was with them or that he was strengthening them or that God's favor was upon them with strength and might. In saying that “arm” means limb, if you could show that everywhere the word “arm” is used in Scripture it means a limb, that wouldn't do anything to show that the word is not being used metaphorically to refer to something else. In exactly the same way, even if yom is always used in Scripture to refer to a 24-hour day, that doesn't even begin to address the question of whether a 24-hour day might not be used metaphorically for something else. So I don't think that these arguments in favor of the literal interpretation are at all compelling.


Student: Is there any problem interpreting it as 24-hour days for the first six days of creation?

Dr. Craig: I'm not saying that the literal interpretation is invalid or untenable. I think that it is a tenable interpretation. They could be read this way. But I am saying that it's not obligatory. I don't think that Bible-believing Christians have to read it literally.

Student: A couple of comments. First, I would say that if you go to the Genesis account when he details the first few days of creation, man wasn't there. We weren't there. I mean, whatever they wrote down was not from their own experience. If God told them, This is the way it was done, that's fine. And God could have created the world exactly as we see it in a split second. I mean, he's capable of more things. We don't need to go there. My comment is in the book of Deuteronomy. He also talks about the seven-year period in terms of doing your cropping, your farming, and he says six years you do all your planting and sowing and reaping; on the seventh you let the land sit and do nothing. Not only does he do that, but then he goes on to say, And you do that for six times. So he carried it from six and seven years up to forty-eight and forty-nine years. And the seventh year is the year of Jubilee – the fiftieth year. So it seems to me it's more like a pattern and not so much meant or intended to be taken literally. I'm not saying you can't but what's the purpose?

Dr. Craig: I find that very helpful, and I'm glad you’ve drawn our attention to it because it's not simply the workweek that has this six plus one pattern but, as you also say, the crop rotation and the Jubilee year. You also let your slaves go free or your indentured servants. There it's not the duration of the time so much as it is the pattern that's important. That's very helpful.

Student: What do you think, or what's your comment on, that it repeats “in the evening, in the morning” was the first day. “In the evening, in the morning,” the second day.

Dr. Craig: Good question. I am persuaded that that is indicative of a 24-hour day. There the day seems to go from morning until morning and that is a 24-hour day. But, as I say, that doesn't even begin to address the question of whether 24-hour days can't be used metaphorically for something else. So that would be like someone's trying to prove every time “arm” is used, it's a limb, and so therefore it's to be interpreted literally as a limb. What I'm suggesting is these 24-hour days that are described in Genesis needn't be interpreted literally even though I think you're quite right that that expression “and it was evening, and it was morning, a second day” does indicate that it's talking about a day and night 24-hour period.

Student: It's interesting to me – talking about that – that it says “evening and morning” because Hebrews never would have referred to evening to morning as a day. That's actually the night hours. It's telling us right away there's something poetic or non -literal happening there because it would have either been evening to evening the first day, or it would have been morning to evening the first day. But it never would have been evening to morning.

Dr. Craig: It's very curious, isn't it? I'm going to say something about that in a moment, but in this expression “it was evening, and it was morning” it is the evening of one day and then the morning is the morning of the next day. So it would be, for example, the evening of the second day but then the morning is the third day. It is curious and seems to be reckoning the days from morning to morning but expressing it in this way that, as you suggest, it was evening and it was morning.

Student: I was also going to mention, as far as trying to interpret this literally, it is interesting there are four different literal translations of the word yom. So it doesn't have to be a 24-hour day. It can be any hours of a day like when we say that Jesus was crucified on Friday – that was day one because it's just a few hours on Friday. It can be all of the daylight hours of a day. It can be the 24-hour day. Or it can be a finite but limited period of time in the past, like we would say “back in the day of Abraham Lincoln.” So even among people who want to insist on a literal interpretation, there are four literal interpretations. So the longer period is certainly possible.

Dr. Craig: Yes, well, I think here the expression about the evening and the morning is telling in terms of he's thinking of a 24-hour period.

Student: I was always intrigued with, when you go back to the creation days, on the seventh day it says we're still in God's rest, the seventh day. It always intrigued me because . . . I don't want to go as far as asking if that's a proof text but is that a proof text against a literal interpretation?

Dr. Craig: I am going to come back to that in a moment, and I think it does tend to cut against the literalist interpretation because the seventh day isn't a 24-hour period of time.

Student: It says we’re still in it, too.

Dr. Craig: We're still in the seventh day of God's sabbath rest where he ceased from creation.


That forms a nice segue to the next section.

Let me offer some critique now indicates of the literalist interpretation. What I want to argue here is that there are indications in the text itself that six consecutive 24-hour days are not intended by the author. I want to emphasize: I'm saying this not on the basis of modern science (this is not concordism), but rather on the basis of the text itself wholly in abstraction from what modern science might have to say.

For example, we've 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 ongoing. 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. So if this seventh day can be more flexibly understood then why couldn't the others be more flexibly understood as well?

Moreover, notice that throughout the first chapter of Genesis that evening is mentioned before the morning, as has already been said. The evening marks the first day and then the morning is the morning of the following day so that it is reckoned from morning to morning. A problem that has bedeviled interpreters from earliest times is the fact that God doesn't make the sun until the fourth day. But if that's the case then how could the previous days have been 24-hour days marked by an evening and a morning if there wasn't any sun to create solar days? One young earth creationist whom I have read on this writes:

It is only in the last few centuries that astronomers have realized that a day/night cycle needs only light plus rotation. Having day and evening and morning without the sun would have been generally inconceivable to the ancients.

Now, he takes this as therefore indicative of divine revelation – God put something into Genesis 1 that the ancients themselves would never have realized and understood. But, you see, that's concordism. That's to say that you read Genesis in light of modern astronomy which teaches that the Earth rotates on its axis – something that the ancient author and audience would not have understood or said. I think it's better to just take this non-literally – that it's a figurative story that needn't be taken in a literal fashion.

Furthermore, notice something very peculiar when it comes to the third day. In Genesis 1:11-12 we read:

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 said, Let there be trees and plants bearing seed and bearing fruit. Rather, he says, Let the Earth bring forth these things, and then the Earth brought forth vegetation, fruit trees, and so forth. We all know how long it takes, for example, for an apple tree to grow from a tiny sapling to a mature fruit bearing tree which will blossom and bear apples. If the author were thinking here of a 24-hour period of time, he would have to be imagining something that would look like time-lapse photography where you would have the seed sprout and the little plant burst out of the ground and suddenly grow up into a tree, the blossoms would flower, and then the fruit would pop out on the tree. I simply can't persuade myself that that's what this ancient author of Genesis is imagining. It would be like a film being run on fast forward if the Earth would bring forth vegetation bearing seed according to its kind, and fruit trees bearing fruit according to their kinds, in a literal 24-hour day. I think it's very plausible to think that the author here is not imagining this happening in a literal 24-hour period of time.

Also notice that when God creates Adam and Eve this appears to involve more than a 24-hour period of time. Because he goes on in chapter two to describe Adam’s activity on this day in naming all of the animals that God brings to him – the hundreds and thousands of animals that must have been known to ancient Israelites. Getting acquainted with their habits, realizing that he is alone, that there is no mate fit for him among these animals, falling asleep, Eve's finally being created, and then when Eve at last comes and is presented before Adam, he exclaims, This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh! The word here “at last” indicates that some period of time has gone by. There has been a period of waiting. Elsewhere this phrase is used in the book of Genesis to indicate a long time of waiting. So that would again suggest that the author didn't see this description as being necessarily transpiring in a 24-hour period of time.

For these and other reasons, I think that one can quite legitimately approach Genesis 1-3 with greater flexibility than the literal interpretation would allow. This would imply that the creation account is not meant to be transpiring over six consecutive 24-hour days. Again, this isn't to say that a literal interpretation is illegitimate. It's a perfectly feasible interpretation of Genesis. But it is to say that we shouldn't box ourselves in to thinking that this is the only legitimate interpretation. Young earth creationists who regard anybody who takes a non-literal view of these passages as somehow an unbiblical compromiser or courting heresy, I think, are simply mistaken and overly narrow. There are good indications in the text itself (wholly apart from considerations of modern science) that the text is not meant to be taken literally.

Historically, it's 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 St. Augustine and Origen and Justin Martyr and others of the church fathers took these not to be 24-hour periods of time. So there's always been among rabbis and Christian church fathers a range of interpretation. Some of them do take the passage literally, but others take it figuratively. It has never been a touchstone of orthodoxy to ask whether or not you believe that the world was created in six 24-hour days. So, although the literal interpretation is one legitimate interpretation, I don't think that it's the only one.

With that, we are out of time. We'll begin next time by taking any questions that you have over that critique.[1]


[1]           [1]Total Running Time: 29:23 (Copyright © 2019 William Lane Craig)