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

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