In this century the understanding of how to read the Genesis creation stories divides Christianity. We make the mistake of reading it with modern minds, minds which often elevate scientific truth above all other forms of expressing truth. This causes many to reject Genesis as unscientific, whereas some also place Genesis as the ultimate scientific authority. Both of these result from an inability to properly appreciate that Genesis must be understood in light of its historical context – as a product of the ancient Hebrews.
Starting from the text alone, as many prefer, we can look at the language used and what we find is that it describes things as people see them. One example of this is that ‘God made the two great lights’ (Gen 1.16 NRSV) something we know to be factually incorrect – the Moon is not a light, nor is the Sun a particularly large star (many are bigger).
Many theologians throughout history have acknowledged this point. St. Augustine said, “Perhaps Sacred Scripture in its customary style is speaking with the limitations of human language in addressing men of limited understanding.” He even stated, “The narrative of the inspired writer brings matter down to the capacity of children.” John Calvin made similar remarks, saying, “For, to my mind, this is a certain principle, that nothing is here treated of but the visible form of the world. He who would learn astronomy and other recondite arts, let him go elsewhere. Here the Spirit of God would reach all men without exception and therefore….the history of creation…is the book of the unlearned.”
It should be clear from the text alone that Genesis is a theological account of creation, accessible to all, but not a mere scientific description. The structure of Genesis 1 should reinforce this point. The first 3 days contain acts of separation; the second 3 days contain parallel acts of filling the spaces.
Throughout the history of both Christianity and Judaism the creation accounts have been read as symbolic (in varying degrees) by many scholars. Early Jewish commentaries on Genesis favoured symbolic readings, seeing the creation as instantaneous instead (a view Augustine later espoused). Philo, a prominent Jewish scholar, was a contemporary of Jesus and Paul (let us not forget that Jesus was a Jew). He explained how the days of creation, the image of God, Adam and Eve, and the garden of Eden were all symbolic, describing them as “no mythical fictions…but modes of making ideas visible.”
Genesis creation was read as an extended figure of speech, though this did give rise to the Alexandrian school perhaps over-allegorising Scripture at times. Origen is known for considering every part of Scripture to be allegorical; ironically he believed this because he believed every word was chosen by the Holy Spirit (the position of most modern literalists). Below is a paraphrased example of an allegorical interpretation of the first day from Augustine (he considered many possibilities).
“The light which God created on the first day is the spiritual creation, which became light by the reflection of God’s glory – The darkness, which God divided from the light, represents the still soul without God’s light.”
He goes on to describe the firmament as Scriptures, a shield for protection; the sea as the human race, the land as the good soul; the plants are works of mercy and charity; the lights are wisdom and knowledge; the creatures are signs and sacraments; winged things are teachers; and so on.
The Reformers reacted against excessive allegorisation, favouring instead the literal, though even then their interpretations did not match modern ones (seeing them instead as adapted to common usage).
Historical and cultural context is important for interpretation; Genesis must be viewed in light of contemporary understanding. In this light the account becomes theological polemic. It was designed to refute other common beliefs and mythologies, and glorify the one true God.
The modern Christian mind does not have to contend with polytheistic beliefs, but the early Hebrews did. Contemporary myths started with ‘theogony’, explaining where the gods came from. Genesis instead starts with God already existing – a clear contrast for those in the ancient Near East.
Another example is found in the word choice. The Hebrew words for Sun and Moon were not used (v16) instead they are referred to as greater and lesser lights. The Hebrew words for Sun and Moon were also the names of contemporary pagan gods, whose followers often worshipped the celestial bodies. The ancient Hebrews were often tempted to do the same (Deuteronomy 4.19 and 17.2-3). The Genesis narrative undermines their divinity and even shows us that we do not serve these ‘gods’, but these ‘lights’ serve us as light sources and calendar markers.
An important message for the ancient Hebrews was that God did not need to defeat sea monsters (which sometimes symbolised chaos) in order to create, as many contemporary gods did. He created the sea monsters (the word ‘bara’ is used only with the heavens and earth, with mankind and with sea creatures). Many more references to this are made throughout the Bible (e.g. Leviathan) as the Bible uses the same material but in a different theological context.
Another message worth mentioning is the position of humanity. In Mesopotamian creation stories the humans are made to be the slaves of gods, an afterthought made to build temples and bring sacrifices. In contrast the Genesis narrative shows that man is the conclusion of creation, made in God’s image and given a position of responsibility.
Many more examples of this type can be given to show the mythological nature of Genesis, but this can become too esoteric unless we apply it to ourselves. It is often not worthwhile to learn of other interpretations unless we can apply them, so how can we read Genesis 1-3?
We can find truth in the allegorical readings of the early church; Augustine saw the likeness of God symbolising the gift of reason by which to understand God’s truth – a reading which still rings true. He also saw God’s rest as symbolic of the rest we shall take in eternity when our work in the world is done.
We can also raise our hands in agreement with the ancient Hebrew polemic reading. There is one God, creator of all, over whom chaos holds no sway. The order of creation is permanent and all chaos will one day be vanquished. Humans have a prime place and responsibility in creation. These messages contain eternal truth.
We can go further, reading each creation story as a sacred poem (though the actual Hebrew poetry starts in Gen 1.27). The first account speaks of order and reliability in an interconnected creation; the second is more about our relationships with each other and with God. The first two chapters are a celebration of the goodness of creation; chapters 3 and 4 introduce sin, evil and suffering. The sins introduced here are our own sins (not trusting God, lying, projection of faults, not taking responsibility etc.) the Genesis creation accounts are about us!
We can therefore read Genesis as a theological narrative about God and as a story about ourselves. It can speak to us as an ancient Hebrew anti-mythical polemic, as a deep symbolic allegory, as a personal sacred poem, as theological essences elevating meaning over fact, and as a pointer towards the need for Christ. It was never a scientific treatise and should never be read as such, this is a categorical error which rejects fruitful textual analysis and diminishes spiritual insight into one impoverished dimension.
Genesis is just as relevant to Christians today as it was when first compiled. Let us read it as truth seekers instead of reducing it to a point of contention as it has in recent years. If taken absolutely literally the creation accounts become reduced to a historical account deep in the past. Read symbolically and it contains depths which we can constantly explore and discover more from; truly the living word of God.