Common arguments about the creation account (Part 1)

In this and the next post I will evaluate some common Scriptural arguments about how to interpret the Genesis creation account. I will answer common objections raised against my interpretation, and evaluate common arguments put forth for my position.

Now, as I mentioned before, there has already been so much written on this topic that I cannot possibly cover every part of the discussion in full depth. So, in establishing my interpretation, my goal has been to introduce relatively new, rarely mentioned lines of thought. But I must also demonstrate that I have considered the old, commonly seen biblical arguments relating to my position. Each argument below deserves a full post at a minimum, but then I would be repeating much of what others have already written. So instead I will be giving a relatively short reply to each of the following common arguments, again trying to be as original as possible in my thoughts:



"Other Bible verses, such as Exodus 20:11, states that the world was created in six days. This is even given as a rationale for working for six literal days and resting on the seventh literal day."

A reference to "created in six days" does not necessarily make the days literal. It is simply a reference to the fact that the creation story has "six days" as an element in it. This remains true even if it's tied to the commandment to work for six literal days and then to rest on the Sabbath. Some examples will illustrate my point:

Even within Genesis, there is the story of Jacob's dream at Bethel. Jacob runs away from his home after deceiving his father and brother to steal the blessing of the firstborn. He falls asleep on the road, and in his dream he sees a ladder going up to heaven, along with angels, and God himself. God assures Jacob that he will be blessed. In the morning he wakes up and names the place "Bethel", meaning "House of God".

Later in the story God appears to Jacob to give him further directions, and God himself actually calls that place "Bethel" - House of God. So, does that mean that this place is now literally the house of God, with a bed and a kitchen for the One who cannot be contained in the highest heavens? Of course not. God is simply referencing Jacob's experiences at Bethel without intending for the words to have literal meaning. Just because God references something that can be taken literally doesn't mean that it has to be taken literally.

But what about the fact that God proscribes the fourth of the ten commandments based on the "six days"? Doesn't that mean the six days are literal? Not at all. Consider the sacrament of communion (also known as Eucharist, or the Lord's Supper). As Jesus instituted this sacrament, he took bread, broke it, and said, "this is my body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of me". He also took a cup and said "this cup is the new covenant in my blood; do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me". Now, does the fact that Jesus instituted this sacrament mean that Jesus's words here are literally true? Certainly not in the sense that we are to be cannibals. But this is what would be required if we use an absolutely literal interpretation of "eat Jesus's flesh and drink his blood". So "six days" doesn't necessarily have to be literally true, even if it has a commandment based on it, just as "eat flesh/drink blood" isn't literally true, even if it has a sacrament based on it.

The biggest problem I see with all this, though, is that none of these verses are meant to be interpreted this way. Exodus 20:11 is mainly about keeping the Sabbath, not about the details of the creation account. The story of Bethel and the Last Supper isn't about the creation account either. But when we examine John 1 - the one truly relevant passage that actually is about the creation account - we get the very strong sense that there are many elements in the Genesis creation story that are not to be interpreted literally.



"How could there be a literal, 24-hour day before the Sun was created on the fourth day?"

This line of thinking supports my interpretation, but of course it's not a knockout blow for a literal interpretation. In general, there are few "knockout blows" in argumentation. From a literal point of view, I have heard it said that there could simply be a light without a source which was created on the first day, and that the Earth's rotation in reference to that light gave the days and the nights. I have also heard people say that everything was supernatural during the creation week anyway, so all this doesn't matter. Now, while this and other similar interpretations give a possibly plausible explanation, it does seem awkward. It gives lie to the idea that the literal interpretation is simple and clean, while any figurative interpretation must be convoluted. A day without a Sun as marked by a light that's not coming from the Sun which is still somehow a 24-hour day is not simple or clean.

In reality, the topic itself - the creation of the world - is profound and abstract by its very nature, and there is no easy way to understand it. This is one of the reasons that I think that Genesis describes the creation event metaphorically; nobody could understand it otherwise. Even the tiny sliver of creation that we think we understand by our sciences are out of reach for a vast majority of humanity, who are not experts in any scientific fields. How then could anyone understand the entire creation of the universe "literally"? But what we cannot understand directly, we can grasp by symbols and metaphor. If you believe that the Bible was written to make sense, especially to its original readers, then it makes a lot more sense to think that the creation story contains metaphors. God chose to give us a symbolic story of profound meaning that we can actually understand, rather than a poor, literal, scientific account of creation that hardly scratches the surface of what's really going on, which we still can't understand.

Furthermore, employing such awkward answers for the sake of a literal interpretation means that you are abandoning any relationship between science and the creation event, including some very convincing evidence for the existence of God. If you go down this route, you cannot use the fact that the universe had a beginning to argue for the existence of God. You cannot admire God's handiwork in setting the parameters of the Universe to allow us to exists. You cannot glorify God by understanding and harnessing our evolutionary impulses to his will. These are all aspects of creation through which we can glimpse God, but these thoughts only hold up if we can trace back our origins and creation through science. Giving up all this is regrettable, given that Romans 1:19-20 clearly states that what can be known about God are visible through his creation, even for the ungodly.

So, in a literal interpretation, there can still be 24-hour days before the creation of the Sun. But such an interpretive scheme does not deliver on anything like a simple, clean interpretation that it promises, while the sacrifices demanded by this interpretation are costly indeed.



"The Hebrew word for 'day' ('yom') is always meant literally when it is preceded by a number, as in 'first day', 'second day', and so on. Therefore the days in the creation story are literal. This is doubly emphasized by the phrase 'and there was evening and there was morning', which is repeated each day."

To begin with, it is not true that a number preceding "yom" always makes it a literal, 24-hour day. A counterexample will suffice to prove my point. Hosea 6:1-3 reads:
Come, let us return to the Lord;
for he has torn us, that he may heal us;
he has struck us down, and he will bind us up. 
After two days he will revive us;
on the third day he will raise us up,
that we may live before him. 
Let us know; let us press on to know the Lord;
his going out is sure as the dawn;
he will come to us as the showers,
as the spring rains that water the earth.
Verse 2 has clear examples of "day" preceded by a number, which are nevertheless used figuratively.

Note that the context here is determined by applying the principles of Bible interpretation, rather than by just looking for a certain combination of words. While it's true that having a number attached to "day" makes it more likely that it's meant literally, this is hardly the only or even the most important consideration. As for the repeated "and there was evening and there was morning", I personally feel that this formulaic repetition makes it less likely that this is meant literally. How many literal uses of "day" are there that repeatedly emphasize evening and morning, day after day? Don't they usually just state what day it is?

So there is much more to consider beyond just looking for a combination of a number and "yom". When we consider all these factors, there are very good reasons to think that "day" is not meant as a literal, 24-hour day.



My next post will continue to consider more arguments, such as the "no death before Adam" argument, the "who did Seth and Cain marry?" argument, and more.


You may next want to read:
Common arguments about the creation account (Part 2) (Next post of this series)
Orthodoxy vs. living out the Gospel: which is more important?
The simple essential meaning of the Genesis creation story (Previous post of this series)
Another post, from the table of contents

The simple essential meaning of the Genesis creation story

Image: Creation window, Chester Cathedral, by William Starkey
In attempting to understand the Genesis creation story, it's easy to get lost in the many different interpretations and get discouraged. You may begin to wonder, "what hope do we have of understanding the rest of the Bible if the first chapter is already this confusing?"

On a related note, if you don't hold to a strictly literal interpretation of the creation week in Genesis, you must answer the question, "what then do you think is the true meaning, if it's not literal?" Not answering this question is a common pitfall I see in non-literal interpretations. People will spend a lot of time explaining why Genesis 1 cannot be literal, but then make no attempt at explaining it in a different way that gets at the actual meaning.

This then opens the way to the charge that "if you don't interpret Genesis literally, then you'll start allegorizing any biblical passage to say anything you want". This is a fair criticism, if all you do is state that "it's not literal" without providing a better interpretation. Having stated what a passage doesn't say, you must also explain what a passage does say.

All of the above issues could be resolved in a single stroke by providing the simple, noncontroversial, essential meaning of the creation story. Here it is:
The creation story in Genesis 1:1-2:3 tells us that God is the creator of all that exists. He created everything to be good - using order, reason, and patterns in every step of creation. As the pinnacle of his work, he created us - human beings - in his own image, as masters over his excellent creation. 
The next few chapters of Genesis tells us that despite all this, we humans sinned by disobeying God. We thus fell away from him, but God did not totally cut us off. Despite our sins God still cares for us and continues to interact with us. The rest of Genesis, and the Bible, is the story of these interactions between God and humanity.
That's it. These are the facts that everyone who accepts Genesis can agree on. They are simple yet immensely important, befitting the first chapter of the first book of the Bible. They conform to the adage that important doctrines are based on simple interpretations. They are far more important than debates over evolution or the age of the earth, although this is sometimes forgotten in the heat of the controversy.

Given this interpretation, you don't have to get discouraged by the many conflicting viewpoints about the creation story. They are all just tangential footnotes in comparison to this enormous meaning that everyone agrees on. The important things continue to be simply understood.

This also answers the question, "how do you interpret Genesis 1, if you don't interpret it literally?" The above meaning works perfectly well in a figurative interpretation of the Genesis creation story. It also answers the accusation that anything goes in a non-literal interpretation, which is plainly untrue. Consider: when Jesus said "I am the bread of life", he was clearly speaking metaphorically, yet there is a simple, correct interpretation that everyone can agree on - that Jesus is crucial for our spiritual well-being. So "bread of life" cannot be interpreted in whatever way we want, despite it being clearly metaphorical. Why should the passage in Genesis be different? By providing the above simple, plain, and correct meaning to the creation story, we show that non-literal interpretations can in fact arrive at firm, correct conclusions, and cannot be used to say whatever we want.

Now, none of this is to say that the above meaning is the entire meaning in the story, or to even say that any additional meanings are not important. If I had intended to say that, I would not be writing this whole series of posts on how the Genesis creation story should be interpreted. There is certainly much more to be discovered about the meaning in Genesis 1. Some of the better known non-literal approaches are the framework interpretation, and the metaphorical interpretation at the end of Saint Augustine's "Confessions". Of course, there's much more to be said about the "bread of life" metaphor, too. We shouldn't stop trying to understand more about the Bible just because we found the simplest level of understanding. So all these interpretations, along with the purely literal interpretation, should be considered, weighed, and rejected or accepted, yet we must do so without losing sight of the simple essential meaning of the Genesis creation story.

In my next post, we will go back to considering some of these more controversial interpretations, and examine common arguments made about interpreting the first few chapters of Genesis.


You may next want to read:
Common arguments about the creation account (Part 1) (Next post of this series)
How is "light" used in the Bible, particularly in the creation story? (Previous post of this series)
The Gospel: the central message of Christianity (part 1)
Another post, from the table of contents

How is "light" used in the Bible, particularly in the creation story?

Image: The Creation of Light, by Gustave Doré
In my previous post, I mentioned that the creation of light in the first day of Genesis 1 is a strong hint that this passage should be interpreted metaphorically. Light is simply too powerful as a symbol to discount this interpretation. In order to back up my claim, I have examined every verse that mentions "light" in the Bible, and categorized them according to their usage of that word. It turns out that the Bible uses "light" figuratively far more often than it uses it literally. There are two main results: first, a literal reading is not to be given priority over a figurative one simply because it's literal. Second, while it is not strictly incorrect to interpret the light in Genesis 1 literally, the figurative interpretation is more compelling and more in line with the usage of "light" in the rest of the Scriptures.

This post is written to present these findings. It is fundamentally a post about how to interpret one word in the opening passage of the Bible. To tackle this question, I went back to our basic principles: the Bible should be interpreted as a whole, and difficult verses should be interpreted in terms of simple verses. So I examined every verse that mentions "light", taking particular care in any verses connected to Genesis 1. I then interpreted and categorized them, and drew what insight I could from this comprehensive catalog of every mention of "light" in the Bible.

This involved interpreting hundreds of verses. I could not look at each of them in full depth, so I categorized them along just two dimensions. First, I looked at the role that light has in each verse, and categorized it as "central" or "peripheral". Second, I interpreted the verse and categorized how "light" should be understood, labeling it as "literal", "figurative", "both", or "ambiguous".
"Central" means that the concept of light is one of the main topics of the verse in question. Light is a crucial element in interpreting the text. Obviously these verses should be given greater weight in evaluating how "light" should be understood in the Bible. 
"Peripheral" means that "light" is mentioned in the verse, but it's not the main topic. The text could easily be understood without the reference to light, or with a different appropriate word substituted instead. 
"Literal" means that "light" in this verse is a physical light that actually exists and actually shines. But, if the verse is in a fictional story such as a parable, I still categorized a physical light in the story as "literal" although it didn't exist in real life. 
"Figurative" means that "light" is used to represent something else in this verse, such as perception, truth, awareness, et cetera. 
"Both" means that there is a literal light in this verse, but that light also clearly symbolizes something else as well, so both methods of interpretation are applicable. 
"Ambiguous" means that I could not determine the sense in which "light" was used in this verse. 
This gives eight possible combinations of categories. The following is a list of these eight combinations, and an example of a verse that fits into that combination, provided to help you better understand how I classified the verses.
"Central" and "literal": Exodus 25:37. This is a passage about the construction of the lampstand for the Tabernacle. The function of the lampstand is to give light, and the specific verse is on setting up the lampstand to perform that function. So this is a literal light, and the verse cannot be interpreted apart from this light-providing function of the lamp. 
"Peripheral" and "literal": Genesis 44:3. This passage describes Joseph's brothers leaving Egypt "as soon as the morning was light". "Light" here is clearly talking about the literal light that makes the morning bright, but it's not crucial to the story. Even if the verse had simply read "as soon as it was morning", its meaning would hardly change.
"Central" and "figurative": Matthew 5:14. This is the 'salt and light' verse. We are not literally light, but the nature of light - its visibility and its power to illuminate - is the primary topic of discussion, so "light" plays a central role in this verse. 
"Peripheral" and "figurative": Psalms 56:13. In this verse David is giving thanks to God for saving his life. The phrase he uses - "light of life" - is clearly figurative, and he could have instead used "gift of life", "blessing of life", "breath of life" or any other metaphor without changing his meaning. He also could have simply said "life". 
"Central" and "both": Acts 22:6. This is Paul recounting his conversion story. The light that shone around him is real and it plays an important role in his story, and he mentions it multiple times. In general, if several references to "light" are clustered together, it's a major clue that it plays a central role in the story. Moreover, light also has clear symbolic meaning here, as the presence of Jesus, as Paul "seeing the light", et cetera. 
"Peripheral" and "both": Acts 9:3. This is the same story of Paul's conversion. But the way that Luke tells the story here, the light simply marks the beginning of the story and he doesn't mention it afterwards. He could have simply began with "suddenly Saul fell to the ground and heard a voice say to him", and it would not significantly change our interpretation of the story. This demonstrates that the same event could fall under different categories in different verses, depending on how a particular verse tells the story. 
"Central" and "ambiguous": Revelation 8:12. I'm not going to pretend to understand Revelation. But the idea that the light-giving celestial bodies are "struck" involves light in a central role, as this event comprises the entirety of the consequence of the fourth trumpet, which seems important.
"Peripheral" and "ambiguous": Isaiah 13:10. This is about the "day of the Lord", in an "oracle concerning Babylon". I do not know how to interpret it. I have labeled it "peripheral", because although the language is nearly identical to the one used in Revelation 8:12, the wider context around the verse makes it clear that the main point of the passage is that it will be a bad day, so the exact meaning of "light" is not as important.
As you can see, there is some room for subjectivity in some of my interpretations. It is, after all, just my interpretation. There is also room for improvement in the categorization. I do not actually believe that Bible verses, or any expression of language, can be neatly categorized as being "literal" or "figurative". There can be lots of splitting of hairs in the detailed depths of interpretation. However, I do believe that my interpretations are generally correct, and as we'll see my conclusions are sufficiently robust that even if a few verses were misinterpreted it doesn't affect the conclusion.

In order to categorize all these verses, I had to select a particular translation of the Bible. I chose the ESV, as it's a popular translation that's held in high regard by the people I trust, yet I am not personally all that familiar with it. This reduces the possibility of me choosing a translation to affect the outcome of this study, or of my familiarity influencing the interpretation of particular verses.

According to BibleGateway, there are 219 verses in the ESV that contains the word "light". Of these, 11 verses do not apply to our interests. I have labeled these as "n/a". Some of these verses only have "light" appearing in the section headings but not in the actual text of the verse itself. Others use a homonym of "light", used in the sense of weight, or to come upon something - example of texts like this are "this is a light thing in the sight of the Lord", or "we shall light upon him as the dew falls on the ground". The remaining 208 verses can then be categorized into the eight combinations listed above.

All above-mentioned procedures were decided before I started interpreting any verses, to prevent the possibility of me changing the rules in the middle to suit my own conclusions.

The detailed results, including the individual categorization of all 219 verses, can be found in the spreadsheet linked below:

Spreadsheet: How "light" is used in the Bible

This is the number of verses that fell under each of the eight category combinations:

central + literal: 5
central + figurative: 49
central + both: 10
central + ambiguous: 12
peripheral + literal: 21
peripheral + figurative: 98
peripheral + both: 4
peripheral + ambiguous: 9

In total, "light" is used purely figuratively in 147 out of 208 verses (70.7%), whereas it's used literally ("literal" and "both" categories summed up) in 40 out of 208 verses (19.2%). Even if we count all the ambiguous cases outside Genesis 1 as being literal, that only bring it up to 54 out of 208 verses (26.0%). The Bible, as a whole, uses "light" in a purely figurative sense a large majority of the time.

If we only consider the "central" category, where "light" is a main topic of the verse, "light" is used purely figuratively in 49 out of 76 verses (64.5%), whereas it's used literally ("literal" and "both" categories summed up) in 15 out of 76 verses (19.7%). Even if we count all ambiguous cases outside Genesis 1 as being literal, that only brings it up to 20 out of 76 verses (26.3%). The Bible, as a whole, uses "light" in a purely figurative sense a large majority of the time when it's a main topic in a passage.

So, depending on exactly which numbers you look at, the Bible uses "light" purely figuratively about three times more often than it uses it literally. This difference is so great that a few misinterpretations on my part would not have significantly altered the result. This leads directly to my first conclusion: a literal reading of the Bible is absolutely not to be given priority over a figurative reading by default. This would actually lead to the wrong interpretation in a large majority of these verses mentioning "light", as we have just seen. The Bible clearly uses "light" figuratively much more often, so if anything we should default to the figurative meaning when we're attempting to interpret an ambiguous verse.

In fact, in the course of interpreting these hundreds of verses, I noticed that this was happening to me automatically. My mind defaulted to the figurative meaning as I read through passage after passage where this was the correct interpretation, whereas the rarer verse where the literal interpretation is correct would give me pause due to its rarity. Furthermore, insofar as one can notice these things, I did not notice that my mind first attempting a literal interpretation, then trying the figurative interpretation only after the literal interpretation failed. Instead my mind grasped the correct interpretation from the surrounding context, without trying the two types of interpretation sequentially. This makes sense: as C.S. Lewis said, the limits of human language means that any abstract concept can only be discussed metaphorically. Therefore the correct interpretation of any work of language is not determined by trying for a literal interpretation first, then a figurative interpretation only as a backup. Instead it is determined simply by the topic and the context. This also agrees with the consensus of linguists today, who reject the idea of a sequential approach to language interpretation.

So, literal readings are not intrinsically better than figurative readings. They are not intrinsically more clear or more respectful to the Bible. On the flip side, figurative readings are not intrinsically inferior, nor are they only a fallback position after the literal interpretation has failed, nor should you feel as if you're eroding the authority of the Scriptures in any way if you employ them. Instead, the proper interpretation should be determined by applying the established principles of interpretation, such as context and consistency, without regard to whether the interpretation is literal or figurative. And when these principles are applied to a word of overwhelming metaphorical power like "light", it is more natural and intuitive to try a figurative interpretation first. This point of view is verified by how the Bible itself actually uses "light".

All that is not a conclusion, of course. It is only a starting point. It shows that you should give a significant amount of due consideration to interpreting "light" in Genesis 1 figuratively, but you do not necessarily have to conclude that this interpretation is correct. The correct interpretation will be determined by the topic and the context of Genesis 1. However, before we go on to consider the specific context of Genesis 1, I want to point out that virtually no amount of restricting the general context of the Bible could possibly reverse the result that the Bible uses "light" figuratively much more often than it uses it literally. In fact, even if you were to throw out all the data from Psalms on the grounds that Genesis 1 is not poetry (which is debatable), and also throw out all the data from the Gospel of John on the grounds that John clearly had a thing for using "light" figuratively (which is absurd), the above result would still hold. The remaining part of the Bible uses "light" figuratively in 109 out of 168 verses (64.9%). If we further only consider the verses where "light" is a central topic, then it's 33 out of 60 verses (55.0%) . In contrast, even by the most generous count ("literal" + "both" +"ambiguous" outside of Genesis), the Bible uses "light" literally in only 52 out of 168 verses (31.0%) in the remaining part, and in 20 out of 60 verses (33.3%) in the remaining "central" verses. The Bible still uses "light" figuratively much more often than it uses it literally.

The only way to resist this result is to decide beforehand that Genesis 1 is written as a history, and to restrict ourselves to only those verses in the Bible that are part of the historical books. Then the majority of the few remaining verses will refer to "light" literally. But this seems to me to be a clear violation of the sound principles of Bible interpretation.

But apart from looking at the entire Bible for a general context, what is the specific context for the first chapter of Genesis? How can we interpret the "light" in Genesis 1 in that specific context? My answer is my previous post: The seven days of creation in Genesis are a prologue, which is poetic and highly abstract in nature. Its closest parallel is John 1, which also starts off with a poetic and highly abstract prologue. And this parallel between Genesis 1 and John 1 is reinforced even more by our study of "light" in the Bible: In addition to John 1 containing one of the most extensive discussions on creation outside of Genesis 1, it also references "light" the most often outside of Genesis 1. Genesis 1 and John 1 respectively contain 7 and 5 "central" references to "light" - more than any of the other chapters in the Bible. This is, of course, only expected, as they are meant to be parallel passages, so that the interpretation of John 1 can serve as the key to Genesis 1. If you want to understand "light" in Genesis 1, consider its meaning in John 1: they are likely to have similar interpretations.

But how about an interpretation of Genesis 1 within the context of the book of Genesis? Well, "light" is hardly mentioned in Genesis outside its first chapter. This makes perfect sense if the creation week is a prologue. A prologue would have its own symbols and word choices which would set it apart from the rest of the text, as I mentioned in my previous post.

Alright, how about in the context of the Pentateuch? Here the case for a literal interpretation of "light" in Genesis 1 becomes stronger. In the first five books of the Bible, outside Genesis 1, there is no reference to "light" in a purely figurative sense. Furthermore, there are several references to a literal light serving as a spiritually significant symbol, such as the light from the pillar of flame that lead the Israelites out of Egypt, or the light from the golden lampstand in the tabernacle. Something like this, I believe, is our best bet for interpreting "light" in Genesis 1 if we must remain literal: a physical light which has a great deal of spiritual significance. There must at least be some symbolic meaning, as the Bible never spends so much time on literal lights with no figurative meaning.

This "literal light symbolizing something spiritual" would be a decent interpretation, if we were to look only to the Pentateuch for our context. It is for this reason that I don't say that it would be strictly wrong to interpret "light" in Genesis 1 literally - as I previously said, it's a position that I disagree with but still respect. However, on the whole, I don't think that this explanation holds up against the overall frequency with which the Bible uses "light" in a purely figurative sense, or the unbreakable link between Genesis 1 and John 1 and the figurative interpretation that suggests.

So, upon examining every Bible verse which contains the word "light", we see that the Bible uses the word figuratively most of the time, demonstrating that the figurative use is in fact the norm and that it is not automatically better to interpret a word literally rather than figuratively. Furthermore, the references to "light" ties together Genesis 1 and John 1 even more strongly than before, and hints that the seven days of creation are in fact an abstract prologue, like the first 18 verses in John 1. While there is some precedence that the creation of light in the first day could refer to a literal, physical light which also has spiritual, symbolic significance, this requires a very specific context for interpreting "light": looking at only the Pentateuch, instead of the Bible as a whole or Genesis in particular. Overall, there is simply more evidence for interpreting "light" figuratively rather than literally when we look at all the verses in the Bible that mention "light".


You may next want to read:
The simple essential meaning of the Genesis creation story (Next post of this series)
Interpreting Genesis 1 by looking through John 1 (Previous post of this series)
Key principles in interpreting the Bible
Another post, from the table of contents

Interpreting Genesis 1 by looking through John 1

Image: from And Like Gold Refined
Genesis chapter 1 needs no introduction.

I am currently attempting to construct an interpretation of this immensely important passage, which has ever been a difficult and controversial endeavor. A standard practice when we run into such difficulty is to look to other parts of the Bible which could clarify our passage: we apply adages such as 'Scripture interprets Scripture', 'New Testament interprets Old Testament', and 'clear passages interpret vague passages'. Ideally, this other passage used to interpret Genesis 1 would be an easily interpreted New Testament text that clearly references the Genesis creation story. This ideal passage actually exists: it is John 1.

The parallels between John 1 and Genesis 1 are impossible to miss. They begin with the same words, invoke the same themes (creation, light, life), and as we'll see, employ the same stylistic structure. The authorial intent in John 1 to parallel Genesis 1 is so clear that John 1 should be, by all rights, the primary passage through which we interpret Genesis 1. It is arguably the longest passage outside Genesis itself which talks about the creation event, and is one of the very few passages in the entire Bible which can match the gravitas of Genesis 1. If we believe in the unity of the Scriptures, we must interpret Genesis 1 in light of John 1.

And yet, I have seen virtually no attempts to interpret Genesis 1 this way. I do not know why. This is all the more surprising in light of other verses, such as Exodus 20:11, which I have seen applied to interpret Genesis 1. Compared to Exodus 20:11, John 1 is longer, addresses the topic of creation more directly, and parallels the style and structure of Genesis 1 more closely, yet in my experience, it is referenced less often.

So, what features of John 1 are particularly relevant to Genesis 1?

First, note that John 1 begins with a series of highly abstract, symbolic statements. They are fortunately easy to interpret, since we know that they all refer to Jesus. None of the statements in the first part of this chapter are to be taken literally. John 1 begins with "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God". Here we understand that there weren't a bunch of letters somehow floating around God. Even interpreting "Word" as "reason" or "logic" falls short of the true meaning which can only be accessed symbolically. The same goes with verse 4 and 5: "In him was life, and the life was the light of all men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it". Christ is not literally light (he is not a bunch of photons) or literally life (he is not the abstract concept of "life"), but these are things that represent him.

John 1 continues in this abstract, symbolic fashion for the first 18 verses. It does make some firm statements which could be said to be "literally" true, such as verses 12-13, or verse 6 where it mentions John the Baptist by name. But even these statements are highly conceptual and very general in scope, and the abstract symbolism of the first few verses are thoroughly mixed in with them. Furthermore, John 1 doesn't even mention Jesus by name until verse 17, and even that passage begins with this well-known mix of abstractions, poetic symbolism, and concrete reality: "And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us..."

In fact, the nature of the topic in the first part of John 1 is so abstract, conceptual, and symbolic that the passage cannot be read literally. It would become absurd if you tried. "The Word became flesh" would then mean something like "the letters turned into sausages" in this ridiculous sense. This is a limitation of human language: we do not have a separate way of talking about nonphysical things other than to employ literal language metaphorically. We have no other option if the topic itself is not purely physical, and this metaphorical reading is not automatically inferior to a literal reading simply because it's metaphorical.

After this abstract start, the writing style finally settles down in verse 19, and the down-to-earth narrative begins. The change is actually very abrupt. After 18 verses of highly conceptual words like "the beginning", "Word", "God", "light", "life", "glory", "grace", and "truth", verse 19 says, "And this is the testimony of John, when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, 'Who are you?'" In a single verse, we have a specific people group (Jews), occupation (priests and Levites), city (Jerusalem), and the start of a simple dialog, which are all to be interpreted literally. After this sudden transition from "abstract" to "concrete", the story continues on in this comparatively mundane, literal fashion for much of the rest of the book.

This sudden change in style, and the corresponding change from an abstract to a concrete topic, strongly suggests that the first 18 verses of John are something like a prologue. This is not surprising - after all, prologues are a common literary tool.

How does this interpretation of John 1 - which is quite certain and noncontroversial - carry over into Genesis 1?

Extremely well. We're using John 1 as a key to unlock Genesis 1, and it turns out to be a perfect fit. John 1:1-18 is the prologue to the gospel story, and it introduces Jesus as God's incarnate Word. Genesis 1:1-2:3 is the prologue to the whole Bible, and it introduces God as the Creator of the world.

Like in John, the Genesis prologue - which consists of the seven days of creation - is abstract and symbolic, and is not meant to be taken literally. Although the symbols are not as obvious as in John 1, two things stand out as pretty clear metaphors: the light that God created on the first day, and God's rest on the seventh day. For how could you ignore the profound meaning that "light" has as a metaphor, and only interpret it as some photons zipping around in space? And what could it even mean that God "literally" rested?

Also like in John, the statements made in this prologue are very broad and non-specific, especially compared to the text that comes right afterwards. Note, for example, that the humans are not named as Adam and Eve in chapter 1: they are only said to be made male and female. No animals, no plants, no places, not even the sun and the moon are specifically named. This, combined with the poetic repetition of many phrases over the days of creation, give the whole story that abstract, conceptual feeling, standing apart from the concrete, detailed, mundane world that we experience.

Contrast that with the passage that immediately follows this prologue - the so-called "second account of creation" that starts on Genesis 2:4. Like in the book of John, there is a dramatic, instantaneous change in the style and the level of detail of the story. The style settles down from the poetic and all-encompassing first chapter, and there are numerous mundane details sprinkled into the story. The text mentions specific rivers, trees, and places, and even points out where to find gold and gemstones. Just this change would be good evidence that the creation week should be interpreted differently than the remainder of Genesis. But additionally, consider that the exact same change happens in John, and it becomes very clear that the prologues in Genesis 1 and John 1 are parallel passages that should be interpreted in the same manner - metaphorically.

So it's best to look at Genesis 1:1-2:3 as a kind of prologue. Let's examine some other well-known prologues, to see that Genesis 1:1-2:3 does in fact belong to this class of writing, and to better understand how to interpret it.

"A Tale of Two Cities" opens thus:
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way - in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.
The book then starts the actual narrative after this prologue, dropping the broad, abstract generalizations and providing many more details. It gets down to the business of establishing the setting and introducing characters and so forth. Also noteworthy is the poetic use of repetition to set itself apart from the rest of the book, alerting the readers that it should be interpreted differently than the text that follows. All of these are features found in the Genesis creation story, and nearly all of them are also found in John 1.

Here is "Romeo and Juliet"'s prologue:
Two households, both alike in dignity,
In fair Verona, where we lay our scene,
From ancient grudge break to new mutiny,
Where civil blood makes civil hands unclean.
From forth the fatal loins of these two foes
A pair of star-cross'd lovers take their life;
Whose misadventured piteous overthrows
Do with their death bury their parents' strife.
The fearful passage of their death-mark'd love,
And the continuance of their parents' rage,
Which, but their children's end, nought could remove,
Is now the two hours' traffic of our stage;
The which if you with patient ears attend,
What here shall miss, our toil shall strive to mend.
Again, note the paucity of details, the poetic structure, and the broad, general language. Other than the single mention of "Verona", this story could be set anywhere. Note also that different rules of interpretation apply here: the main script would rarely break the fourth wall this explicitly and acknowledgement that this is a play. Of course, after this prologue, the abstract generalizations are dropped, and the details are filled in.

Some may say that the two examples above cannot be compared to Genesis 1, as they belong to very different types of writing. That may be, but prologues are so widely used that they can actually cover over this gap. They were used in ancient Greek literature, which often began by invoking the muses for inspiration. They are still being used today. The work in question doesn't even have to be literature: in Disney's film "Frozen", the song "Frozen Heart" conforms to all the above-mentioned patterns and thus serves as the prologue to the movie. In fact, prologues are not even restricted by the fiction/nonfiction divide: here is the preamble to the Constitution of the United States:
We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.
The features here should be familiar by now: the scarcity of details, the broad, sweeping language, the sudden change in style and language structures that sets it apart from the remaining text, and the corresponding need for a different interpretive lens. Lastly, the tendency for prologues to be more poetic than the remaining text is displayed well here - even though the U.S. Constitution is a legal document, the founders could not help but add small literary flourishes to the preamble, such as "a more perfect Union" and "the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity". The same tendency can even be seen in some science textbooks, which occasionally wax poetic in a "prologue" about science, nature, and truth before it actually gets to teaching you specific things.

So, what have we learned by looking at these well-known prologues? Several things: prologues are set apart from the remaining text by a markedly different style and structure. They do not give specific details, but make broad, general statements instead. They are more abstract, metaphorical, and poetic than the remaining text. And lastly, all this requires prologues to be read differently, through a more metaphorical, abstract interpretive lens.

All of this applies to the creation week in Genesis 1:1-2:3, which perfectly conforms to these patterns that are well established by other famous prologues. But most importantly, these same patterns are also found in John 1, which is the most relevant passage in the Bible for interpreting the Genesis creation story. The explicit parallels between Genesis and John leave no room for ignoring John when we interpret Genesis. The unity of Scripture requires that we interpret these two passage in the same way - and John 1 clearly employs metaphor and symbolism to express highly abstract ideas in a broad, sweeping prologue to the rest of the book.

We therefore conclude that both Genesis and John begin with a prologue, which is more abstract, poetic, and metaphorical than text that comes afterwards. This means that we should not interpret the "days" in the creation week as literal 24-hour periods. Furthermore, we should not attempt to extract specific scientific facts or chronology from the seven days of creation, as prologues intentionally leave out details to make broad, "big picture" statements instead.

What, then, is the actual meaning of Genesis 1, if it's not meant to be read literally? That will be the topic of a post in a few more weeks. But meanwhile, the next week will examine the use of the word "light" in Genesis 1, in relation to how it's used in the rest of the Bible.


You may next want to read:
How is "light" used in the Bible, particularly in the creation story? (Next post of this series)
Interpreting the Genesis creation story: an introduction (Previous post of this series)
Key principles in interpreting the Bible
Another post, from the table of contents