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
Another post, from the table of contents