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#644 Must We Interpret Genesis 1-3 Literally?

August 18, 2019

Dear Dr. Craig,

In Defenders class July 7th, 2019, you argued for a nonliteral interpretation of Genesis 1-3 due to the descriptions of 1) creation of the world, 2) the creation of man and woman, 3) the watering of the world with springs, not rain, 4) the talking snake.

Now, your claim is that the description of these are not to be taken literally given,

i) the tension between the creation stories of chapters 1 and 2,

ii) the apparent anthropomorphic description of God as a man, sculpting Adam from the ground and performing a surgery to create Eve,

iii) the statement that there was no rain and a mist arose from springs to water it, and

iv) the talking serpent.

It seems to me that either you're wrong about this or I don't understand your claim (or both).

First, for something to be clearly false doesn't imply that a person would not believe it unless they saw it to be clearly false as well.

Secondly, the author of Genesis could have believed a) it rains now, and b) at the beginning of the world it didn't. a) and b) are consistent. You seem to suggest that the writer's knowledge of the water system would preclude his literal belief in the early chapters of Genesis, as well as, the creation sequence in chapters 1 and 2, and the human form, walking in the garden or creating Adam and Eve. Why think that the writer's of Genesis could not have believed in a difference between the way things were in the beginning and the time they wrote Genesis? Your argument form isn't clear to me.

Thank you,


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Dr. craig’s response


I’m grateful to receive at last a question concerning my current work on the historical Adam! But I think you spoke more truly than you realized, Sean, in saying “Your argument form isn't clear to me.” Your summary of my lesson is something of a jumble.

So let me try to clarify my argument. The question I’m asking is whether we have to take Genesis 1-3 literally. My claim is a modest one: No, these chapters can be plausibly interpreted figuratively.

In defense of my claim I argued that Genesis 1-3 conform to the folklorist’s notion of myth: a sacred narrative that tries to ground realities present to the author in events of the primordial past. This function of myth is called etiology, and Genesis 1-3 is full of etiological motifs.  Further, I showed that myths are often figurative in nature, not to be construed literally, and I gave some extra-biblical examples, including examples from the Ancient Near East.

So the question naturally arises, are the narratives of Genesis 1-3 meant to be taken literally? I argue that there are two factors which weigh strongly in favor of a non-literal reading of these narratives: (1) The narratives contain many fantastic elements, where “fantastic” is a technical term meaning “palpably false if taken literally.” Moreover, these elements are not just fantastic to us moderns but would have seemed fantastic as well to an ancient Israelite. It’s worth noting in passing that I do not categorize as fantastic miraculous elements in the narratives, since divine supernatural causation is perfectly plausible. (2) The narratives contain inconsistent elements which cannot both be true if taken literally. It is characteristic of myths, by contrast, that those who tell them are untroubled by different versions of the stories which are inconsistent with each other, since they need not be taken with a sort of wooden literality. The author of Genesis seems utterly unconcerned to iron out the inconsistencies between chapters 1 and 2 that commentators have struggled with for centuries. He doesn’t seem to care that they’re inconsistent, an attitude suggestive of an intended non-literal interpretation. Under each of the two points I give multiple examples, so that even if any one example is not probative, together they constitute a good cumulative case for non-literality.

Now to consider your objections to my first factor above:

First, for something to be clearly false doesn't imply that a person would not believe it unless they saw it to be clearly false as well.” Good point, Sean! That’s why in each case, I’m careful to appeal to examples of things that, not merely we moderns would find fantastic, but that ancient Israelites would have found fantastic, too. Consider the anthropomorphic descriptions of God in Genesis 2-3. The author of Genesis had just described God as a transcendent Creator of the entire physical realm in Genesis 1.1. So he knew that God does not have a physical humanoid body such as is described in Genesis 2-3, not to mention the pagan, polytheistic myths of Israel’s neighbors. So it is very plausible that he didn’t intend these anthropomorphic descriptions to be taken literally.

Secondly, the author of Genesis could have believed a) it rains now, and b) at the beginning of the world it didn't.” Sure, that’s possible. But is it plausible? It’s tempting to dismiss the absence of rain prior to man’s creation as fantastic on the basis of our knowledge of the enormous age of the earth. It is preposterous to think that it never rained during the Jurassic Age, for example. But, of course, the author of Genesis had no such knowledge. So I must make my case on the basis of how he would have seen things. My claim is that ancient Israelites had a good understanding of the water cycle.[1] Various Old Testament passages show that they knew that rain comes from clouds, which was common knowledge among other ancient peoples of the region. Rain was observed to fill the lakes, rivers, and streams. As farmers and herdsmen, they would have been aware of evaporation and the problems it poses. Given their understanding of the water cycle, then, it is implausible that they thought that the earth was once replete with seas, rivers, and springs (Genesis 1.9-10; 2.6, 10-14) and yet no water ever evaporated to form rain clouds! The description of a dry, barren earth devoid of rain, though coursing with rivers and streams filling the lakes and seas, is plausibly not meant to describe an actual epoch in the earth’s historic past.

As for my second factor, the inconsistencies between chapters 1 and 2 regarding the order of the creation of man, vegetation, and the animals, these cannot be resolved by simply saying things were different in the beginning, for both orders of creation cannot be literally true. In my lesson I shared some of the ways in which people have sought to harmonize the narratives and left it up to you to decide whether these interpretations are really plausible. Even if they are, the problem of why the author would not himself make the reconciliation but be so blasé about the inconsistencies remains unaddressed.

None of these considerations taken in isolation is a knockdown argument, but together they present a pretty strong cumulative case that a non-literal interpretation of Genesis 1-3 is a plausible option for the faithful biblical interpreter.


[1] For a good discussion, see Vern S. Poythress, “Rain Water versus a Heavenly Sea in Genesis 1:6-8,” Westminster Theological Journal 77 (2015): 181-91.

- William Lane Craig