When we read any passage in the Bible, it is very important that we interpret it as it is supposed to be interpreted. If a passage is meant to be understood literally, then taking it purely figuratively is obviously going to lead to wrong conclusions about what it is saying. Similarly, if a text is meant to be understood figuratively, then to take it purely literally would be a big mistake.
It is very common for readers of the Bible to go wrong in both of these ways.
On the one hand, there are those who deny literal interpretations to passages that should be understood literally. Sometimes even passages that refer to key components of the Christian faith, like the resurrection of Jesus or His future return, are interpreted purely symbolically. This leads to extremely serious error.
On the other hand, there are those who take literal interpretations of passages that should be taken purely figuratively. In fact, many Christians today seem to think that interpreting literally means holding true to what the Bible teaches, while interpreting figuratively means compromising on biblical truth.
This is actually a serious mistake. The Bible contains a lot of non-literal teaching. The Psalms, for example, constantly use vivid metaphors. Books like Daniel and Revelation use powerful apocalyptic imagery. And it is noteworthy too how in John’s Gospel we repeatedly find Jesus making statements that those listening to Him misunderstand precisely because they take His words literally (see John 2:19-21; 3:3-4; 4:10-15, 31-34).
One part of the Bible that Christians often interpret too literally is the first three chapters of Genesis. Many believers, who are rightfully distressed by godless theories of how the universe and mankind originated, seem to think that one way to oppose these theories is to insist on a fully literal interpretation of Genesis 1-3.
In fact, a close reading of these chapters shows that it is a mistake to take them fully literally. Let’s look at some reasons why this is the case:
Daylight created three days before the sun
In Genesis 1:3-5, we are told:
‘3 Then God said, ‘Let there be light’, and there was light. 4 God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness. 5 God called the light ‘day’, and He called the darkness ‘night’. And there was evening and there was morning, one day.’
However, in verses 14-19, we read:
‘14 Then God said, ‘Let there be lights in the canopy of the heavens to separate the day from the night, and let them serve as signs to mark seasons and days and years; 15 and let them serve as lights in the canopy of the heavens to give light on the earth’, and so it happened. 16 God made the two great lights, the greater light to govern the day and the lesser light to govern the night; He also made the stars. 17 God placed them in the canopy of the heavens to give light on the earth, 18 and to govern the day and the night, and to separate the light from the darkness; and God saw that it was good. 19 There was evening and there was morning, a fourth day.’
We see in verses 3-5 that on the first day God creates light that He calls ‘day’, i.e., day-time as opposed to night-time. However, we read in verses 14-19 that on the fourth day He creates the sun, moon and stars. But the light that gives us day-time obviously comes from the sun!
These verses stand as a strong piece of evidence that we are not supposed to understand Genesis 1 as a purely literal account. On the level of the text, six 24-hour days are referred to. But the reader is surely not supposed to think that these are literal 24-hour days on which God did His creating. Instead, these six days are far better understood as a literary device that provides a framework for God’s creative activity. When Genesis was written, Jews worked for six days of the week and rested on the seventh. God is therefore portrayed doing likewise.
On the first day in Genesis 1 the focus is on God’s creation of light, darkness and 24-hour days. And on the fourth day the focus is on His creation of the sun, moon and stars. The point that is being made is that God created all these things: light, darkness, the 24-hour day, sun, moon and stars. But the text is not meant to be taken as a literal, chronological account of when God made them.
Sometimes Christians who insist on taking all these verses literally come up with forced interpretations in an attempt to hold on to their view. For example, it is sometimes said that God created the sun on the first day, but the sun appeared from behind clouds on the fourth day.
Solutions like these are extremely unconvincing:
In verses 14-19 God seems clearly to be portrayed creating the sun on the fourth day. Note how verse 16 says that God ‘made’ the sun, moon and stars on that day. And note too how verse 17 tells us that He ‘placed’ them in the canopy of the heavens on that day.
And in verses 3-5 God seems clearly to be portrayed creating the light for day-time (which, in reality, comes from the sun) on the first day.
The fact that there is an overlap between what is created on these days is not a problem, because the chronology in the text is a piece of art that is not meant to be taken literally.
After God’s activity on the first day of creation in 1:3-5 has been outlined, there follows immediately the sentence, ‘And there was evening and there was morning, one day.’ Similar sentences, referring to evening and morning and giving the number of the day in question, are also found after the other five days of creation (1:8, 13, 19, 23, 31).
It might be thought that the explicit references to evening and morning suggest that God literally created in six 24-hour days. However, there is no need to think this. It is true that in the story line God is portrayed creating on six consecutive 24-hour days. But, as I have already said, these days can easily be understood simply as a literary device that is used to give a framework for God’s creative work, and the references to evening and morning can just be seen as part of this device.
The earth producing vegetation and animals
Genesis 1:12, referring to the third day of creation, states:
‘The earth produced vegetation, plants yielding seed according to their kinds, and trees yielding fruit with seed in it according to their kinds. And God saw that it was good.’
And then Genesis , referring to the sixth day of creation, states:
‘Then God said, ‘Let the earth produce living creatures according to their kinds: livestock and creeping things and animals of the earth according to their kinds’. And so it happened.’
It is interesting that these verses speak about the earth ‘producing’ plants and animals. There may well be a hint here that natural processes were involved in God’s method of creating these things. If so, it seems reasonable to think that these processes would have taken much longer than a literal 24-hour day.
The snake that speaks to Eve
In Genesis 3:1-5 we read:
‘1 Now the snake was more crafty than any animal of the field which the LORD God had made. And it said to the woman, ‘Did God really say, ‘You are not to eat from any tree of the garden?’’
2 The woman said to the snake, ‘We are allowed to eat fruit from the trees of the garden. 3 But God has said, ‘You are not to eat fruit from the tree that is in the middle of the garden, and you are not to touch it, or you will die.’’
4 The snake said to the woman, ‘You certainly will not die. 5 For God knows that on the day you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.’’
Some Christians try to interpret this passage literally. There are two ways in which this is attempted.
First, there are those who claim that the passage refers to Satan manifesting himself as a snake and speaking to Eve.
This interpretation is very problematic, however:
To begin with, we must note that the first sentence of verse 1 tells us that the snake was more crafty than any animal of the field. The way that the snake is set alongside other animals and compared to them surely shows that we should understand the snake in the same way that we understand the other animals. The other animals are surely understood to be real animals. So in the first sentence of verse 1 the snake should be understood as a real animal too.
In the second sentence of verse 1 we read, ‘And it said to the woman’. The subject of this clause is the snake that has been referred to in the first sentence. Because the snake in the first sentence is a real snake, this means that the snake that speaks to Eve must be a real snake. In the story line, then, a real snake speaks to Eve.
However, if this passage were simply about Satan manifesting himself as a snake, there would be no real snake involved. It would just be some sort of appearance of a snake. Therefore, the fact that the story line refers to a real snake seems to rule out the idea that this passage is about Satan manifesting himself as a snake to Eve.
There is a second way in which some Christians try to make this account literal. This second method acknowledges that the account portrays a real snake speaking to Eve, not just an appearance of a snake. But it claims that the passage refers to Satan speaking through the snake in a way similar to the way God speaks through Balaam’s donkey in Numbers 22:28-30.
There is also a huge difficulty with this interpretation:
When the passage says that the snake was the most crafty of the animals, this implies that each animal has a certain amount of craftiness in itself. And this obviously includes the snake.
Therefore, the craftiness that the snake uses to deceive Eve is surely portrayed as its own craftiness. But if Satan is simply speaking through the snake, it would be Satan’s craftiness that was involved, not that of the snake. So the passage is surely not about Satan speaking through the snake.
Both attempts to understand this account literally therefore fail.
The snake in this passage certainly symbolises Satan. The passage is teaching us that Satan was instrumental in tempting the first human beings to fall into sin. But on the actual level of the story, it is the snake as an animal that talks to Eve and tempts her to sin. And this cannot reasonably be taken literally. To interpret this passage in a literal way is to seriously misunderstand the type of literature that is present here.
We should also note carefully that in Revelation 12:9 and 20:2 Satan is described as ‘the ancient snake’, which is surely a reference back to this passage in Genesis. These verses in Revelation fit perfectly with a symbolic interpretation of the snake in Genesis 3.
The tree of life
Genesis 2:9 and , 24 refer to ‘the tree of life’.
There is great difficulty involved in understanding this tree literally.
Importantly, we need to take account of the references to the tree of life that are found in the book of Revelation. This tree is referred to in Revelation 2:7; 22:2, 14, 19.
Revelation 2:7 states:
‘To the person who overcomes, I will grant to eat from the tree of life that is in the paradise of God.’
The tree of life here is a symbol of God’s provision of abundant spiritual life to those who reach heaven. It should certainly not be taken literally.
Revelation 22:1-2 says:
‘Then he showed me the river of the water of life, as clear as crystal, coming from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city. And on each side of the river stood the tree of life . . .’
The Greek of these verses is rather obscure in places, and English versions translate and punctuate differently. Regardless of any obscurities, however, the tree of life in this passage cannot be understood literally.
Revelation 22:14 tells us:
‘Blessed are those who wash their robes, so that they may have the right to the tree of life . . .’
Once again, it is completely implausible to take the tree of life in this verse literally.
‘And if anyone removes any of the words of the book of this prophecy, God will remove that person’s share in the tree of life . . .’
Yet again, the tree of life in this verse should certainly not be taken literally.
In Revelation, then, the tree of life cannot be taken literally. To think that people in heaven will actually eat the fruit of a literal tree of life would be literalistic interpretation at its most absurd.
It is very important to recognise, however, that the end of Revelation clearly corresponds in a significant way to the beginning of Genesis. The work of Christ on the cross means that the final outcome of the universe will have much in common with how things were before the fall of mankind into sin.
So, given the correspondence between the end of Revelation and the beginning of Genesis, and given that the tree of life in Revelation cannot be interpreted literally, we have a strong piece of evidence that the tree of life in Genesis 2:9 and 3:22, 24 is not supposed to be interpreted literally.
God walking in the garden
Genesis 3:8 tells us:
‘They [Adam and Eve] heard the sound of the LORD God walking in the garden in the cool of the day.’
This should surely not be interpreted literally. Literally God is spirit (John ) and does not have a body with which to walk around.
Some claim, however, that this verse refers to an occasion on which the divine Son of God clothed Himself with humanity, an incarnation that was a kind of foreshadowing of the incarnation when Jesus came as redeemer. The footsteps that Adam and Eve heard, it is claimed, were therefore the literal footsteps of Jesus Christ.
This is a very forced interpretation.
First, it is theologically questionable whether an incarnation was really possible in any meaningful sense without a virginal conception.
Second and much more importantly, when we are looking for solutions to things, it makes sense to take the easiest solution. And it is so much easier to understand this verse as a symbolic account of the broken relationship between the first humans and God than as an incarnation.
There are other parts of Genesis 1-3 too, which suggest that these chapters are not meant to be taken fully literally. But I think I have given enough examples to make my point. To insist that this part of the Bible should be interpreted completely literally is simply to misunderstand the type of writing that we have here.
How Christians relate to modern science
One reason I have for writing this article is a concern for Christians to be wise and balanced in their dealings with modern science.
The standard scientific teaching about the origin of the universe is that it originated 14 billion years ago. There seems to me to be nothing in Genesis 1-3 that would conflict with this. Once we recognise the high degree of symbolism in these chapters, it becomes apparent that they tell us little, if anything, about when or how God created the universe and all that is in it. These chapters teach us that God made the universe, that human beings are created in God’s image, that we fell into sin through the tempting of Satan, that we have some degree of authority over the earth, etc. etc. But they don’t really tell us how or when God did His creating work.
Mainstream biologists also teach, of course, that all biological life-forms today, including humans, evolved from earlier species of plants and animals. So what should Christians make of this?
Well, I think the scientific basis for so-called micro-evolution, i.e., evolution within species, is very strong. Nor does there seem to me to be anything in this that conflicts with the Bible.
I am much more unsure about evolution from one species to another. From what I have seen, there may well be some good evidence for this. And certainly God could have created in this way if He wanted to. Nor am I aware of biblical passages that would clearly conflict with some form of evolution between species that God caused. Nevertheless, I don’t feel that I have the necessary knowledge about this issue to make clear statements on it.
Even if we do accept that there has been evolution between species, however, there are still massive problems with how theories of evolution are typically portrayed and understood in modern Western society. At least in the
, where I live, whenever
theories of evolution or of the origin of the universe are referred to in the
mainstream media, there always seems to be an underlying assumption that people
or the universe originated by chance. This
is never made explicit, but it always seems to be implied that God was not the
creator. The seriousness of this error,
of course, can hardly be overstated. UK
However, as long as we are clear that God made all that exists, we should not be closed to theories of exactly how He did this. If a theory certainly conflicts with the Bible, when the Bible is properly interpreted, then it should be rejected. But we must not be too quick to say that a theory contradicts Scripture before carefully considering the matter. And, as we consider, we must beware of interpreting Genesis 1-3 too literally.