Theology, philosophy, math, science, and random other things

Interpreting the Genesis creation story: an introduction

Image: by Ian Bailey-Mortimer

First, we need to lay down some foundations. I've written several posts on how we should interpret the Bible. I have said that:

The Bible, like scientific data, is sacred and infallible. We approach it accordingly.  

This leads us to certain well-established principles of Bible interpretation. 

Furthermore, the Bible should be interpreted using science when appropriate.

I have also written on the proper role of science and its relationship to Christianity. I have said that:

God infuses every human field of study, including all the sciences. Everything is ultimately based on God, and about God. 

Therefore, Christianity provides the firm foundation for doing science, and science in turn reveals to us a great deal of about God. 

Furthermore, science taken as a whole provides overwhelming evidence for the God.

With these as the foundations, I can finally begin this series of posts on the Genesis creation story. In this post I will lay out my interpretation, and give a short introduction for the posts to come. In those future posts I will further explain and defend my interpretation.

Here are the key points in my understanding of the creation story:

The seven-day creation week in Genesis 1:1 - 2:3 is not meant to be taken literally. It instead serves as a highly abstract, symbolic, and non-chronological introduction to the rest of Genesis and the whole Bible. Its primary purpose is to inform us that God created everything to be "very good", and that we are made in his image. 

Starting from Genesis 2:4, where the "second creation story" starts, the stories are pretty much "literal". From this point on in Genesis, there is a continuity of narrative all the way to the end of the book. Genesis 2-11 should therefore be interpreted the same way we interpret any of the stories about the patriarchs, in a very "literal", down to earth, matter-of-fact sense. 

This means that I also believe that Adam and Eve were historical persons who lived several thousand years ago. They are ancestors to all humans alive today, although they were not the only humans living in their time. By virtue of being their descendants we also bear the image of God, but also share in their original sin. 

Noah's flood was a local flood. 

On the science side of things, I hold to the standard Big Bang cosmology and the theory of evolution, which says the universe and the Earth are billions of years old. Standard scientific stuff. I believe that mainstream science is basically correct on these matters. My position is very much like the one taken by the BioLogos foundation, although my interpretation is more specific on certain points than they're willing to go. 

"But wait", you say. "How could you believe in a historical Adam and Eve, and also in modern science? Anatomically modern humans appeared 200,000 years ago, yet you say that Adam and Eve lived several thousand years ago?" That's right. It turns out that you don't need to be the first member of a species in order to be the ancestor to all the current members of that species. All this will be explained in the future posts.

These ideas are not set in stone. They are a working hypothesis that represents my best attempt at interpreting the Genesis story. I believe this interpretation to be correct, free from flaws and compatible with all biblical and scientific data. I can still be convinced to refine or reject this interpretation if sufficient scientific or biblical evidence warrants it. However, for me to completely reject this interpretation would require a great deal of evidence, as they would have to outweigh the considerable evidence I believe I already have for this interpretation.

In particular, although I had argued earlier that science should be used to interpret the Bible, I believe that my interpretation can stand simply on its strong scriptural support alone. Therefore, over the course of this series of posts, I will avoid mentioning science when the main point of a post is to interpret the Bible. Of course, if you do consider science in addition, my interpretation becomes more certain still.

At this point I would like to reiterate that we, as Christians, can disagree on this topic while still being loving, and that living out the Gospel is more important than being right. I have a number of people who disagree with me on this very controversial issue whom I respect. And I don't mean that in a flippant sense, like a bigot might say "I have friends who are [blank]". These are people in my personal life whom I deeply respect, whose knowledge of the Bible exceeds my own in many areas, whose walk with Christ are deeper than mine, whose actions I would consider to be a better witness than mine, and whose life I would like to live. Yes, we disagree on this important issue of interpreting the Genesis creation story, but that doesn't prevent us from loving and being in fellowship with one another through Christ.

Having said all that, the following are the remaining posts in this series, where I will explain and defend the interpretation that I've outlined in this post. Since so much has already been written on this topic, I will not reiterate all the usual arguments, instead focusing on what I hope will be original and rarely mentioned lines of thought.

Interpreting Genesis 1 by looking through John 1: John 1 is the best biblical tool we have for interpreting the Genesis creation story. When we interpret Genesis in this light, we see that the seven days of creation are a poetic prologue to the rest of the Bible, written using an abstract, symbolic, "big picture" style - which is exactly how the Gospel of John also starts.

How is "light" used in the Bible, particularly in the creation story?: By looking at every verse in the Bible that mentions "light", we see that the Bible uses that word figuratively much more often than it uses it literally. This fact, combined with some other data on how the Bible uses "light", indicates that the "light" in Genesis 1 should be interpreted figuratively. 

The simple essential meaning of the Genesis creation story: In the midst of discussing the controversial details, we must not forget that the creation story has a simple, important message as the first passage of the Bible: God is the creator of the universe who created all things to be good. He made us in his image to rule over the rest of creation. Although we then sinned and fell, God still cares for us and interacts with us. The rest of the Bible is the story of that interaction.

Common arguments about the creation account (Part 1): I consider some often-heard arguments about the Genesis creation account, such as "Exodus 20:11 says the world was created in six days", "How could there be a literal day before there was a Sun?", and "The Hebrew word for 'day' is always meant literally when it's paired with a number". 

Common arguments about the creation account (Part 2): I consider some more common arguments, such as the "no death before Adam" position taken by some young earth creationists, the problem of sexual reproduction necessitating incest if Adam and Eve were the only human in the beginning, and many other such issues.

Adam and Eve were historical persons. Who were they? (Part 1): Adam and Eve are ancestors to all of humans today and the first fully human beings. But this does not mean that they were the first biological humans, or that they were the only humans in existence in their time. Because they are our spiritual ancestors, we, too, are made in the image of God, but we're also affected by their original sin.

Adam and Eve were historical persons. Who were they? (Part 2): The idea that Adam and Eve are recent common ancestors to all of humanity works very well in fitting all the data, but it raises some questions as well. In particular, it implies that there were "merely biological humans" who were not made in the image of God. I explore and resolve this issue by making one major modification to my model - by expanding the method of propagation for the "image of God" beyond just biological means.

Adam and Eve were historical persons. Who were they? (Part 3): I consider how the descendants of Adam and Eve could have spread throughout the Earth, addressing issues such as whether they could have spread quickly enough, or how they could have gotten to the Americas or reached isolated peoples. I then evaluate the certainty of this model, and address how it might change in the future.

Interpreting other Bible passages (Part 1: Cain and Abel): How does this model explain some of the other tricky passages in the Bible? In this post I look at Genesis 4, and look at several elements in the story that makes more sense in my interpretation than they do in rival interpretations. Who was Cain afraid of? Who was his wife? Why did he build a city? What does it mean that people "began to call upon the name of the Lord" around when Enosh was born? My interpretation deftly handles all these questions, while they are often troublesome for other interpretations.

 Interpreting other Bible passages (Part 2: Nephilim, Noah, etc.): I continue exploring the fit between my model and the other passages in the Bible, such as the story of the Nephilim, Noah's flood, tower of Babel, and the theologically important verses in the New Testament which touches on the creation story.

The biblical timeline of the universe: In this concluding post for the series, I lay out the timeline of the major events in the history of the universe, and connect them to the Gospel narrative, as well as to the important parts of this series of posts. 

Show/hide comments(8 Comments)

8 comments on “Interpreting the Genesis creation story: an introduction”

  1. Well, I'm glad you distinguish so clearly between facts and interpretations, because on this point I disagree with your interpretation; I believe the days are literal periods of time lasting 86400 ISO seconds each, as observed from here on earth. But before engaging in detailed discussion on this point, I'll wait for your explanation and defense.

  2. Many findings imply high level civilizations existed hundreds of thousand years ago or even billions of years ago, then, who are they? Are there historical and geological evidences of the flood? There are still many contradictions between the Biblical account and scientific evidences.

  3. I'm glad that you can clearly state your position, and I'm very thankful that you can feel free to disagree with me. I very much value your interpretation, and it's one that I have a great deal of respect for, as I mentioned. I'm looking forward to the future discussions!

  4. Well, we'll see. I hadn't heard of some of your ideas before, and they seem pretty far fetched to me. Others, like how to interpret the flood, I think I have a decent interpretation for. We'll see how this plays out as we discuss things over the coming weeks!

  5. And it's precisely *because* of that respect (which is mutual) that we can discuss the matter. In your previous posts, you've laid a solid groundwork of interpretation principles which we can both agree on, so everything up above that can be discussed on that basis. If you were physically here in our house, we'd be having one of those awesome Sunday evening discussions - Bibles, commentaries, concordances, laptops, etc, etc, etc, all strewn around the table, and the dialogue moving so fast that if you don't say your piece now, the topic will have shifted before you get around to it 🙂 But geography is somewhat critical, and so we'll have to content ourselves with discussion via blog comments.

  6. Hello! I wonder if I could ask the following question:
    I've heard some people say that Genesis is not speaking about God creating from "nothing." Instead God creates from a pre-existing chaos, people argue this is what the text implies. What do you think?

  7. Hi! Welcome to my blog!

    The question of whether God created from "nothing" is not so clear just from Genesis, but I think there's ample support for it in the rest of the Bible. For example, Romans 4:17 says that God calls into being things that do not exist, and Hebrews 11:3 says that God created by making the things we see through things that are not visible. So I think that the weight of scriptural evidence is firmly on the "created from nothing" side.

    Also, I see that you ended up on this post, but all my posts related to the Genesis creation story have been consolidated and updated in a new post, which is better to read. You can find it at:

    I hope you check it out!

Leave a Reply