Should the creation account in Genesis be read literally?

A little bit of background info may be necessary to explain some of the beliefs I’m already bringing with me to the table.

  1.  I was raised in the Lutheran Church.  Some may not know that there are divisions in the Lutheran church here in America.  I belonged to what is called the Missouri Synod (more conservative in general than the one you usually hear about in the papers, the ELCA–evangelical Lutheran church of America).
  2. The church I grew up largely regards (and I still do) apocalyptic literature as symbolic and figurative (though this is a whole ‘nother debate).  See this link for an LCMS explanation.
  3. The church seems to usually regard the creation account in Genesis as literal (but see the links here for an explanation from the LCMS).
  4. Former president of the LCMS A. Barry seemed to be a proponent of Intelligent Design.
  5. In Revelation and other apocalyptic literature, numbers are used in very symbolic ways (7 often being a number symbolizing completeness).  My question, as a child and teenager, was basically, “Why are the numbers considered to be symbolic in Revelation but not in Genesis?”
  6. The LCMS’s response to this question was as follows:

<<It is the nature of apocalyptic literature (like the book of Revelation) to use numbers, strange creatures, events described in unusual ways, etc. to provide a message to believers who are able to understand the “true meaning” behind the cryptic stories and symbols.  One of the messages of Revelation is that God’s will will be done in spite of all opposition.  He is in charge. He reigns. It is a message of comfort for the one who trusts in Jesus Christ as Savior and King.

The book of Genesis, on the other hand, does not contain the characteristics of apocalyptic literature.  It is written as historical literature. There is nothing in the book of Genesis itself (or in Genesis 1-3 in particular) that suggests that we are to take what is written here as anything other than a literal, historical account of how God created the world.  That does not mean, however, that the literal “seven days” of Genesis 1-2 may not also have an additional “figurative” or “prophetic” significance.  The number seven often signifies “wholeness” or “completion,” and it seems clear from Scripture that God chose to create the world in seven days both to highlight the “completeness” of his work of creation and to point forward to the final “completion” of his plan of salvation in heaven.  In this connection, it is interesting to note that the writer to the Hebrews refers to God’s resting on the seventh day and then refers to the fact that there remains a sabbath rest for the people of God (Heb. 4:1-11). That “sabbath rest” is eternal life in heaven, won for us by the life, death and resurrection of our Savior, Jesus Christ.>>

Maybe I’m just picky, but that was never good enough for me.  Why is all of Genesis supposed to be read as a historical, step-by-step account?  I can see the argument for much of the book.  However, man was not around (according to science OR the Old Testament) to actually see the Earth being created.  Man, in Genesis, is not created until day 6.  Naturally that means whoever wrote the account (Moses, according to most believers) was relying on information from elsewhere.  (Most would say that ultimately that information came from God.) 

Something about the argument from my church just didn’t sit well with me.  It bothered me for years.

Then I realized that being non-literal doesn’t make it non-historical (woo!  look at all those negatives).  Also, something can be non-chronological and still be historical.

Is it possible that Genesis does describe events that actually happened in a logical but non-chronological way?

I believe so.

Enter the framework interpretation (ironically, something pointed out in the footnotes of my old handy-dandy Lutheran NIV Study Bible…basically the same as the NIV Study Bible published by Zondervan with more “Lutheran-esque” notes tossed in here and there). 

Genesis 1:2 describes two problems: the earth was both formless and empty.  The following verses describe (historically but not chronologically) how those two problems are solved.

The first three days produce form by separating light from dark, sky from sea (waters above and below), and land and sea.  The next three days fill these forms: creating the sun and moon, birds and fish, land animals and plants.

To sum up:

Days of Forming

Days of Filling

Day 1–light and darkness

Day 4–sun, moon

Day 2–sky and sea

Day 5–sky and sea animals

Day 3–land and sea, plants created

Day 6–land and sea animals, humans, plants used for food

Logical, but not chronological.

This framework stresses the orderliness and completeness of God’s creative work. 

A similar approach has been called “the worldview approach” (an excellent thought-provoking read).  This interpretation points out that many ancient cultures wrote in a similar manner; for example, the number seven was also important to the Mesopotamians.  It was customary to divide six days of work into 3 pairs.  Hence the framework as seen above (two parallel triads of days) is not suprising.  The author of Genesis was simply writing in the prose-narrative style of his day.

A slightly different framework interpretation describes the first three “triads” (first three days) as representing “creation kingdoms” and the next three represent the “creature kings” that rule those kingdoms.  When read in this way, it makes the seventh day that much more climactical, as this reading shows with clarity that it is God who is the ultimate King in control of the Universe.  All of the created kingdoms and kings are subordinate to God, who takes his rest as the Creator King, on the 7th (Sabbath) day.  The one true God is depicted as sovereign and transcendent over ALL OTHER THINGS.  This would have combatted the competing worldviews of the day (polytheistic, pantheistic, etc) quite effectively.

 By not reading the creation account as a literal, chronological narrative, one solves the problem of the two seemingly-conflicting stories in Genesis 1 and 2.  There is also no conflict with science; the framework interpretation quite easily fits what science teaches about the age of the earth.  A literal 24-hour interpretation clearly goes against science. 

If God is the author of both the Word and nature, then we should expect there to be no conflict between the two when properly interpreted.

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8 Responses to “Should the creation account in Genesis be read literally?”

  1. […] up.  You know how it is.  In the meantime, I have another post with some thoughts on Genesis here. Possibly related posts: (automatically generated)Should the creation account in Genesis be read […]

  2. […] to be compatible with most creationists.  Many creationists insist the Genesis creation account be read literally, even though there is nothing in the text that demands it be read in such a way.   Many […]

  3. […]  Should the creation account be read literally? Possibly related posts: (automatically generated)Creation, Gardening and the New Worldpreaching study: mark 6:35-44, pt 2 […]

  4. Hi. Three issues that I constantly struggle with and am confronted with by non believers are the following:

    1) The Bible seems to imply that God created humans as they currently are, while evolution states that present day humans descended from species that were not like present day humans.

    2) The Bible seems to imply that God created the earth in a short time period, while anthropological evidence suggests that the earth has been around for quite a long time

    3) The story of Noah and the Ark does not seem to be supported by anthropological evidence.

    As a scientist and Christian, these are the three biggest issues I struggle with. I don’t believe Genesis should be read literally, but how can I know that it shouldn’t? Also, the evidence that humans descended from some earlier species seems compelling. And the story of Noah and Ark doesn’t really seem to make sense (e.g., how did the earth repopulate so quickly with just the folks and creatures that were on the Ark? Why isn’t there evidence of mass extermination on a global level of the humans and other species that were not placed on the Ark?)

    Please help clarify

  5. M.D.H.:

    Good questions. I promise I will try to address them at some point this week. Things are quite busy here! In the meantime, any others who wish to share their thoughts are, of course, welcome to do so.

  6. M.D.H.,

    I apologize for the late response. My husband and I are expecting our first child any day now, and that along with work, etc, has kept both of us extremely busy!

    1) The Bible seems to imply that God created humans as they currently are, while evolution states that present day humans descended from species that were not like present day humans.

    Can you clarify this statement? How and where does the bible imply that God created humans as they currently are?

    The Bible seems to imply that God created the earth in a short time period, while anthropological evidence suggests that the earth has been around for quite a long time

    The Bible does seem to say this if you take into account the “days” being literal days as we think of them now (24 hour periods). As I mentioned in this post and elsewhere on my blog, I don’t feel there is any reason to read the creation account in such a manner.

    The story of Noah and the Ark does not seem to be supported by anthropological evidence.

    This is one issue I haven’t delved into as deeply, but I lean toward the story being allegorical. There certainly doesn’t seem to be much historical or scientific reasoning to support a GLOBAL flood, in any case.

    As a scientist and Christian, these are the three biggest issues I struggle with. I don’t believe Genesis should be read literally, but how can I know that it shouldn’t?

    I don’t think this is something I can answer for you, unfortunately. However, I would refer you to the bible itself, prayer, and reading some of the works of the early church fathers and what some modern-day theologians have to say themselves. For example, in “The Literal Interpretation of Genesis” St. Augustine argued that the days in the creation story should not be read as a literal passage of time.

    Good luck in your studies, and let me know if I can be of any more help.

  7. A fellow LC-MSer born and bred Says:

    ATN,

    I think you’re on to something interesting here. I especially resonated with your initial question:

    ‘My question, as a child and teenager, was basically, “Why are the numbers considered to be symbolic in Revelation but not in Genesis?”’

    You may find this article worth reading:

    http://home.att.net/~spiritword/Adams/spirit_6.htm

  8. Thanks. I’ll check that link out as soon as possible…though being a parent to a 3 month old does not always afford one much time to do such things! 🙂

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