Interpreting the Genesis creation story: an introduction
Interpreting Genesis 1 by looking through John 1
How is "light" used in the Bible, particularly in the creation story?
The simple essential meaning of the Genesis creation story
Adam and Eve were historical persons. Who were they?
The relational propagation of the image of God
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:
I have also written on the proper role of science and its relationship to Christianity. I have said that:
With these as the foundations, I can finally begin this work on the Genesis creation story. Here are the key points in my interpretation:
The seven-day creation week in Genesis 1:1 - 2:3 is not meant to be taken literally. It's a prologue: it serves as an 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 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, or the first members of the biological species. By virtue of being their descendants, we also bear the image of God, and 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 that the Earth and the universe are billions of years old. Standard scientific stuff. I believe that mainstream science is basically correct on these matters. My position here may be characterized as theistic evolution, although my interpretation is much more specific on certain points.
"But wait", you say. "How could you believe in a historical Adam and Eve, and also in modern science? Anatomically modern humans appeared some 300,000 years ago, yet you say that Adam and Eve lived only 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 an ancestor to all the current members of that species. This is an important point, which will be more fully explained in the appropriate sections.
These ideas represent my best attempt at interpreting the Genesis story. I believe them to be correct, free from flaws, and compatible with all biblical and scientific data. They are not yet completely set in stone. But I have a great deal of evidence for my interpretation, and for me to wholly reject it would require counter-evidence on a scale that is unrealistic to expect. Since I initially proposed these ideas, I have only grown more certain of its correctness, as they have grown in evidence in the form of significant external validations and more recent research.
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 issue, whom I deeply respect. And I don't mean that flippantly: these are people in my personal life 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, 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.
I will further explain and defend each point of my interpretation in the remainder of this work. Here is the summary of the contents in the sections to come:
Interpreting the Genesis creation story: an introduction: This section. Here I lay out some prerequisites for Bible interpretation, and summarize the whole work.
Interpreting Genesis 1 by looking through John 1: John 1 is the best biblical tool we have for interpreting the Genesis creation story. In this light, we see that the seven days of Genesis 1 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?: This is a case study in how the Bible uses the word "light". We examine every verse that mentions "light", and find that the Bible uses that word figuratively much more often than it uses it literally. The often made claim that we should prioritize literal interpretations over figurative ones is shown to be wrong.
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. He 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.
Adam and Eve were historical persons. Who were they?: Adam and Eve are ancestors to all humans alive today and the first fully human beings. But they were not the first biological humans, or the only humans around in their time. Instead, they were recent common ancestors for all of us living today. Because they are our spiritual ancestors, we, too, are made in the image of God, but we're also affected by their original sin.
The relational propagation of the image of God: The idea that Adam and Eve are recent common ancestors works very well in fitting all the data, but it also raises some questions. In particular, it implies that there were non-Adamic biological humans who were not made in the full 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.
An aside on the image of God: We take a short detour to explore the idea of the "image of God" and its broader implications. In particular, I develop a general principle for how to treat any entity which may bear the image of God to any extent. This principle can then be applied to numerous classes of beings, including the non-Adamic humans.
The worldwide propagation of the descendants of Adam and Eve: 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 overall certainty of my model, and address how it might change in the future.
Interpreting other Bible passages (Part 1: Cain and Abel, Seth and Enosh): How does this model explain the other tricky passages in the Bible? Here I look at several story elements in Genesis 4. 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"? My interpretation deftly handles all these questions, while they are often troublesome for its rivals.
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, the Tower of Babel, and the theologically important verses in the New Testament which touches on the creation story.
Common arguments about the creation account: I consider some often-heard arguments about the Genesis creation account: "the Hebrew word for 'day' is always literal when paired with a number", "other passages say the world was created in six days", and "How could there be a literal day before there was a Sun?". I also consider the "no death before Adam" argument, the problem of incest, and many other issue.
The biblical timeline of the universe: In this conclusion for this work, I lay out the timeline of the major events in the history of the universe, and weave them into the Gospel narrative.
Interpreting Genesis 1 by looking through John 1
|Image: from And Like Gold Refined|
Genesis chapter 1 needs no introduction.
But interpreting this immensely important passage has ever been a difficult and controversial endeavor. A standard practice when we run into such difficulty is to look to other parts of the Bible which could clarify our passage: we apply adages such as 'Scripture interprets Scripture', 'New Testament interprets Old Testament', and 'clear passages interpret vague passages'. Ideally, this other passage that aids us in Genesis 1 would be an easy-to-interpret New Testament text that clearly references the Genesis creation story. This ideal passage actually exists: it is John 1.
The parallels between John 1 and Genesis 1 are impossible to miss. They begin with the same words, invoke the same themes (creation, light, life), and as we'll see, employ the same stylistic structure. The authorial intent in John 1 to parallel Genesis 1 is so clear that John 1 should be, by all rights, the primary passage through which we interpret Genesis 1. It is arguably the longest passage outside Genesis itself which talks about the creation event, and is one of the very few passages in the entire Bible which can match the gravitas of Genesis 1. If we believe in the unity of the Scriptures, we must interpret Genesis 1 in light of John 1.
And yet, I have seen virtually no attempts to interpret Genesis 1 this way. I do not know why. This is all the more surprising in light of other verses, such as Exodus 20:11, which I have seen applied to interpret Genesis 1. Compared to Exodus 20:11, John 1 is longer, addresses the topic of creation more directly, and parallels the style and structure of Genesis 1 more closely, yet in my experience, it is referenced less often.
So, what features of John 1 are particularly relevant to Genesis 1?
First, note that John 1 begins with a series of highly abstract, symbolic statements. They are fortunately easy to interpret, since we know that they all refer to Jesus. None of the statements in the first part of this chapter are to be taken literally. John 1 begins: "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God". Here we understand that there weren't a bunch of letters somehow floating around God. Even interpreting "Word" as "reason" or "logic" falls short of the true meaning which can only be accessed symbolically. The same goes with verse 4 and 5: "In him was life, and the life was the light of all men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it". Christ is not literally light (he is not a bunch of photons) or literally life (he is not the abstract concept of "life"), but these are things that represent him.
John 1 continues in this abstract, symbolic fashion for the first 18 verses. It does make some firm statements which could be said to be "literally" true, such as verses 12-13, or verse 6 where it mentions John the Baptist by name. But even these statements are highly conceptual and very general in scope, and the abstract symbolism of the first few verses are thoroughly mixed in with them. Furthermore, John 1 doesn't even mention Jesus by name until verse 17, and even that passage begins with this well-known mix of abstractions, poetic symbolism, and concrete reality: "And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us..."
In fact, the nature of the topic in the first part of John 1 is so abstract, conceptual, and symbolic that the passage cannot be read literally. It would become absurd if you tried. "The Word became flesh" would then mean something like "the letters turned into sausages" in this ridiculous sense. This is a limitation of human language: we do not have a separate way of talking about nonphysical things other than to employ literal language metaphorically. We have no other option if the topic itself is not purely physical, and this metaphorical reading is not automatically inferior to a literal reading simply because it's metaphorical.
After this abstract start, the writing style finally settles down in verse 19, and the down-to-earth narrative begins. The change is actually very abrupt. After 18 verses of highly conceptual words like "the beginning", "Word", "God", "light", "life", "glory", "grace", and "truth", verse 19 says, "And this is the testimony of John, when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, 'Who are you?'" In a single verse, we have a specific people group (Jews), occupation (priests and Levites), city (Jerusalem), and the start of a simple dialog, which are all to be interpreted literally. After this sudden transition from "abstract" to "concrete", the story continues on in this comparatively mundane, literal fashion for much of the rest of the book.
This sudden change in style, and the corresponding change from an abstract to a concrete topic, strongly suggests that the first 18 verses of John are something like a prologue. This is not surprising - after all, prologues are a common literary tool.
How does this interpretation of John 1 - which is quite certain and noncontroversial - carry over into Genesis 1?
Extremely well. We're using John 1 as a key to unlock Genesis 1, and it turns out to be a perfect fit. John 1:1-18 is the prologue to the gospel story, and it introduces Jesus as God's incarnate Word. Genesis 1:1-2:3 is the prologue to the whole Bible, and it introduces God as the Creator of the world.
Like in John, the Genesis prologue - which consists of the seven days of creation - is abstract and symbolic, and is not meant to be taken literally. Although the symbols are not as obvious as in John 1, two things stand out as pretty clear metaphors: the light that God created on the first day, and God's rest on the seventh day. For how could you ignore the profound meaning that "light" has as a metaphor, and only interpret it as some photons zipping around in space? And what could it even mean that God "literally" rested?
Also like in John, the statements made in this prologue are very broad and non-specific, especially compared to the text that comes right afterwards. Note, for example, that the humans are not named as Adam and Eve in chapter 1: they are only said to be made male and female. No animals, no plants, no places, not even the sun and the moon are specifically named. This, combined with the poetic repetition of many phrases over the days of creation, give the whole story that abstract, conceptual feeling, standing apart from the world we experience, which is concrete, detailed, and mundane.
Contrast that with the passage that immediately follows this prologue - the so-called "second account of creation" that starts on Genesis 2:4. Like in the book of John, there is a dramatic, instantaneous change in the style and the level of specificity. The sweeping, poetic style of the first chapter settles down, and numerous, mundane details are sprinkled into the story. The text mentions specific rivers, trees, and places, and even points out where to find gold and gemstones. Just this change would be good evidence that the creation week should be interpreted differently than the remainder of Genesis. But additionally, consider that the exact same change happens in John, and it becomes very clear that the prologues in Genesis 1 and John 1 are parallel passages that should be interpreted in the same manner - metaphorically.
"A Tale of Two Cities" opens thus:
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way - in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.
The book then starts the actual narrative after this prologue, dropping the broad, abstract generalizations and providing many more details. It gets down to the business of establishing the setting and introducing characters and so forth. Also noteworthy is the poetic use of repetition to set itself apart from the rest of the book, alerting the readers that it should be interpreted differently than the text that follows. All of these are features found in the Genesis creation story, and nearly all of them are also found in John 1.
Here is "Romeo and Juliet"'s prologue:
Two households, both alike in dignity,
In fair Verona, where we lay our scene,
From ancient grudge break to new mutiny,
Where civil blood makes civil hands unclean.
From forth the fatal loins of these two foes
A pair of star-cross'd lovers take their life;
Whose misadventured piteous overthrows
Do with their death bury their parents' strife.
The fearful passage of their death-mark'd love,
And the continuance of their parents' rage,
Which, but their children's end, nought could remove,
Is now the two hours' traffic of our stage;
The which if you with patient ears attend,
What here shall miss, our toil shall strive to mend.
Again, note the paucity of details, the poetic structure, and the broad, general language. Other than the single mention of "Verona", this story could be set anywhere. Note also that different rules of interpretation apply here: the main script would rarely break the fourth wall this explicitly and acknowledgement that this is a play. Of course, after this prologue, the abstract generalizations are dropped, and the details are filled in.
Some may say that the two examples above cannot be compared to Genesis 1, as they belong to very different types of writing. That may be, but prologues are so widely used that they can actually cover over this gap. They were used in ancient Greek literature, which often began by invoking the muses for inspiration. They are still being used today. The work in question doesn't even have to be literature: in Disney's film "Frozen", the song "Frozen Heart" conforms to all the above-mentioned patterns and thus serves as the prologue to the movie. In fact, prologues are not even restricted by the fiction/nonfiction divide: here is the preamble to the Constitution of the United States:
We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.
The features here should be familiar by now: the scarcity of details, the broad, sweeping language, the sudden change in style and language structures that sets it apart from the remaining text, and the corresponding need for a different interpretive lens. Lastly, the tendency for prologues to be more poetic than the remaining text is displayed well here - even though the U.S. Constitution is a legal document, the founders could not help but add small literary flourishes to the preamble, such as "a more perfect Union" and "the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity". The same tendency can even be seen in some science textbooks, which occasionally wax poetic in a "prologue" about science, nature, and truth before it actually gets to teaching you specific things.
So, what have we learned by looking at these well-known prologues? Several things: prologues are set apart from the remaining text by a markedly different style and structure. They do not give specific details, but make broad, general statements instead. They are more abstract, metaphorical, and poetic than the remaining text. And lastly, all this requires prologues to be read differently, through a more metaphorical, abstract interpretive lens.
All of this applies to the creation week in Genesis 1:1-2:3, which perfectly conforms to these patterns that are well established by other famous prologues. But most importantly, these same patterns are also found in John 1, which is the most relevant passage in the Bible for interpreting the Genesis creation story. The explicit parallels between these two passages leave no room for ignoring John when we interpret Genesis. The unity of Scripture requires that we interpret them in the same way - and John 1 clearly employs metaphor and symbolism to express highly abstract ideas in a broad, sweeping prologue to the rest of the book.
We therefore conclude that both Genesis and John begin with a prologue. This means that we should not interpret the "days" in the creation week as literal 24-hour periods. Furthermore, we should not attempt to extract specific scientific facts or chronology from the seven days of creation, as prologues intentionally leave out details to make broad, "big picture" statements instead.
What, then, is the actual meaning of Genesis 1, if it's not meant to be read literally? We will come to that question soon enough. But meanwhile, let us hammer home the point of this section, by doing a case study on the use of the word "light", in Genesis 1 and in the rest of the Bible. This will help us to further understand some principles of Biblical interpretation.
How is "light" used in the Bible, particularly in the creation story?
|Image: The Creation of Light, by Gustave Doré|
I mentioned that the creation of light on the first day of Genesis 1 is a strong hint for the passage being metaphorical. Light is simply too powerful as a symbol to discount this interpretation. In order to back up my claim, I have examined every single verse that mentions "light" in the Bible, and categorized them according to their usage of that word. It turns out that the Bible uses "light" figuratively far more often than it uses it literally. There are two main results: first, a literal reading is not to be given priority over a figurative one simply because it's literal. Second, while it is not strictly incorrect to interpret the light in Genesis 1 literally, the figurative interpretation is more compelling and more in line with the usage of "light" in the rest of the Scriptures.
"Central" means that the concept of light is one of the main topics of the verse in question. Light is a crucial element in interpreting the text.
"Peripheral" means that "light" is mentioned in the verse, but it's not the main topic. The text could easily be understood without the reference to light, or with a different word substituted instead. Obviously these verses should be given lesser weight in evaluating how "light" should be understood in the Bible.
Second, I interpreted the verse and categorized how "light" should be understood, labeling it as "literal", "figurative", "both", or "ambiguous".
"Literal" means that "light" in this verse is a physical light that actually exists and actually shines. But, if the verse is in a fictional story such as a parable, I still categorized a physical light in the story as "literal" although it didn't exist in real life.
"Figurative" means that "light" is used to represent something else in this verse, such as perception, truth, awareness, et cetera.
"Both" means that there is a literal light in this verse, but that light also clearly symbolizes something else as well, so both methods of interpretation are applicable.
"Ambiguous" means that I could not determine the sense in which "light" was used in this verse.
This gives eight possible combinations of categories. The following is a list of these eight combinations, and an example of a verse that fits into that combination, provided to help you better understand how I classified the verses.
"Central" and "literal": Exodus 25:37. This is a passage about the construction of the lampstand for the Tabernacle. The function of the lampstand is to give light, and the specific verse is on setting up the lampstand to perform that function. So this is a literal light, and the verse cannot be interpreted apart from this light-providing function of the lamp.
"Peripheral" and "literal": Genesis 44:3. This passage describes Joseph's brothers leaving Egypt "as soon as the morning was light". "Light" here is clearly talking about the literal light that makes the morning bright, but it's not crucial to the story. Even if the verse had simply read "as soon as it was morning", its meaning would hardly change.
"Central" and "figurative": Matthew 5:14. This is the 'salt and light' verse. We are not literally light, but the nature of light - its visibility and its power to illuminate - is the primary topic of discussion, so "light" plays a central role in this verse.
"Peripheral" and "figurative": Psalms 56:13. In this verse David is giving thanks to God for saving his life. The phrase he uses - "light of life" - is clearly figurative, and he could have instead used "gift of life", "blessing of life", "breath of life" or any other metaphor without changing his meaning. He also could have simply said "life".
"Central" and "both": Acts 22:6. This is Paul recounting his conversion story. The light that shone around him is real and it plays an important role in his story, and he mentions it multiple times. In general, if several references to "light" are clustered together, it's a major clue that it plays a central role in the story. Moreover, light also has clear symbolic meaning here, as the presence of Jesus, as Paul "seeing the light", et cetera.
"Peripheral" and "both": Acts 9:3. This is the same story of Paul's conversion. But the way that Luke tells the story here, the light simply marks the beginning of the story and he doesn't mention it afterwards. He could have simply began with "suddenly Saul fell to the ground and heard a voice say to him", and it would not significantly change our interpretation of the story. This demonstrates that the same event could fall under different categories in different verses, depending on how a particular verse tells the story.
"Central" and "ambiguous": Revelation 8:12. I'm not going to pretend to understand Revelation. But the idea that the light-giving celestial bodies are "struck" involves light in a central role, as this event comprises the entirety of the consequence of the fourth trumpet, which seems important.
"Peripheral" and "ambiguous": Isaiah 13:10. This is about the "day of the Lord", in an "oracle concerning Babylon". I do not know how to interpret it. I have labeled it "peripheral", because although the language is nearly identical to the one used in Revelation 8:12, the wider context around the verse makes it clear that the main point of the passage is that it will be a bad day, so the exact meaning of "light" is not as important.
As you can see, there is some room for subjectivity in some of my interpretations. It is, after all, just my interpretation. There is also room for improvement in the categorization. I do not actually believe that Bible verses, or any expression of language, can be neatly categorized as being "literal" or "figurative". There can be lots of splitting of hairs in the detailed depths of interpretation. However, I do believe that my interpretations are generally correct, and as we'll see my results are sufficiently robust that a few misinterpreted verses won't affect the conclusion.
In order to categorize all these verses, I had to select a particular translation of the Bible. I chose the ESV, as it's a popular translation that's held in high regard by the people I trust, yet I am not personally all that familiar with it. This reduces the possibility of me choosing a translation to affect the outcome of this study, or of my familiarity influencing the interpretation of particular verses.
According to BibleGateway, there are 219 verses in the ESV that contains the word "light". Of these, 11 verses do not apply to our interests. I have labeled these as "n/a". Some of these verses only have "light" appearing in the section headings but not in the actual text of the verse itself. Others use a homonym of "light", used in the sense of weight, or to come upon something - example of texts like this are "this is a light thing in the sight of the Lord", or "we shall light upon him as the dew falls on the ground". The remaining 208 verses can then be categorized into the eight combinations listed above.
All above-mentioned procedures were decided before I started interpreting any verses, to prevent the possibility of me changing the rules in the middle to suit my own conclusions.
The detailed results, including the individual categorization of all 219 verses, can be found in the spreadsheet linked below:
This is the number of verses that fell under each of the eight category combinations:
central + literal: 5
central + figurative: 49
central + both: 10
central + ambiguous: 12
peripheral + literal: 21
peripheral + figurative: 98
peripheral + both: 4
peripheral + ambiguous: 9
In total, "light" is used purely figuratively in 147 out of 208 verses (70.7%), whereas it's used literally ("literal" and "both" categories summed up) in 40 out of 208 verses (19.2%). Even if we count all the ambiguous cases outside Genesis 1 as being literal, that only bring it up to 54 out of 208 verses (26.0%). The Bible, as a whole, uses "light" in a purely figurative sense a large majority of the time.
If we only consider the "central" category, where "light" is a main topic of the verse, "light" is used purely figuratively in 49 out of 76 verses (64.5%), whereas it's used literally ("literal" and "both" categories summed up) in 15 out of 76 verses (19.7%). Even if we count all ambiguous cases outside Genesis 1 as being literal, that only brings it up to 20 out of 76 verses (26.3%). The Bible, as a whole, uses "light" in a purely figurative sense a large majority of the time when it's a main topic in a passage.
So, depending on exactly which numbers you look at, the Bible uses "light" purely figuratively about three times more often than it uses it literally. This difference is so great that a few misinterpretations on my part would not have significantly altered the result. This leads directly to my first conclusion: a literal reading of the Bible is absolutely not to be given priority by default over a figurative reading. This would actually lead to the wrong interpretation in most cases with "light", as we have just seen. The Bible clearly uses "light" figuratively much more often, so if anything we should default to the figurative meaning when we're attempting to interpret an ambiguous verse.
In fact, in the course of interpreting these hundreds of verses, I noticed that this was happening to me automatically. My mind defaulted to the figurative meaning as I read through passage after passage where this was the correct interpretation, whereas the rarer verse where the literal interpretation is correct would give me pause due to its rarity. Furthermore, insofar as one can notice these things, I did not notice that my mind first attempting a literal interpretation, then trying the figurative interpretation only after the literal interpretation failed. Instead my mind grasped the correct interpretation from the surrounding context, without trying the two types of interpretation sequentially. This makes sense: as C.S. Lewis said, the limits of human language means that any abstract concept can only be discussed metaphorically. Therefore the correct interpretation of any work of language is not determined by trying for a literal interpretation first, then a figurative interpretation only as a backup. Instead it is determined simply by the topic and the context. This also agrees with the consensus of linguists today, who reject the idea of a sequential approach to language interpretation.
So, literal readings are not intrinsically better than figurative readings. They are not intrinsically more clear or more respectful to the Bible. On the flip side, figurative readings are not intrinsically inferior, nor are they only a fallback position after the literal interpretation has failed, nor should you feel as if you're eroding the authority of the Scriptures in any way if you employ them. Instead, the proper interpretation should be determined by applying the established principles of interpretation, such as context and consistency, without regard to whether the interpretation is literal or figurative. And when these principles are applied to a word of overwhelming metaphorical power like "light", it is more natural and intuitive to try a figurative interpretation first. This point of view is verified by how the Bible itself actually uses "light".
This is a very robust conclusion. Virtually no amount of restricting the general context of the Bible could possibly reverse it. In fact, even if you were to throw out all the data from Psalms on the grounds that Genesis 1 is not poetry (which is debatable), and also throw out all the data from the Gospel of John on the grounds that John clearly had a thing for using "light" figuratively (which is absurd), the above result would still hold. The remaining part of the Bible uses "light" figuratively in 109 out of 168 verses (64.9%). If we further only consider the verses where "light" is a central topic, then it's 33 out of 60 verses (55.0%) . In contrast, even by the most generous count ("literal" + "both" +"ambiguous" outside of Genesis 1), the remaining part of the Bible uses "light" literally in only 52 out of 168 verses (31.0%), and in 20 out of 60 verses (33.3%) among the "central" verses (the remaining 7 verses are the ones in Genesis 1). The Bible still uses "light" figuratively much more often than it uses it literally.
The only way to resist this result is to decide beforehand that Genesis 1 is written as a history, and to restrict ourselves to only those verses in the Bible that are part of the historical books. Then the majority of the few remaining verses will refer to "light" literally. But this seems to me to be a clear violation of the sound principles of Bible interpretation.
All this is not a conclusion, of course. It is only a starting point. It shows that you should give a significant amount of due consideration to interpreting "light" in Genesis 1 figuratively. But you do not necessarily have to conclude that this interpretation is correct: again, the correct interpretation will be determined by the topic and the context of Genesis 1.
So what is the specific context for the first chapter of Genesis? And how should we interpret "light" in this passage? My answer is the previous section: The seven days of creation in Genesis are a prologue, which is poetic and highly abstract in nature. Its closest parallel is John 1, which also starts off with a poetic, abstract prologue. And this parallel between these passages is reinforced by our study of "light": outside of Genesis 1, John 1 has the most frequent mentions of "light" in the Bible. They contain 7 and 5 "central" references to "light" respectively - more than any other chapter in the Bible. This is, of course, only expected, as they are meant to be parallel passages, so that the interpretation of John 1 can serve as the key to Genesis 1. If you want to understand "light" in Genesis 1, consider its meaning in John 1: they are likely to have similar interpretations.
Alright, how about in the context of the Pentateuch? Here the case for a literal interpretation of "light" in Genesis 1 becomes stronger. In the first five books of the Bible, outside Genesis 1, there is no reference to "light" in a purely figurative sense. Furthermore, there are several references to a literal light serving as a spiritually significant symbol, such as the light from the pillar of flame that lead the Israelites out of Egypt, or the light from the golden lampstand in the tabernacle. Something like this, I believe, is our best bet for interpreting "light" in Genesis 1 if we must remain literal: a physical light which has a great deal of spiritual significance. There must at least be some symbolic meaning, as the Bible never spends so much time on literal lights with no figurative meaning.
This "literal light symbolizing something spiritual" would be a decent interpretation, if we were to look only to the Pentateuch for our context. It is for this reason that I don't say that it would be strictly wrong to interpret "light" in Genesis 1 literally - as I previously said, it's a position that I disagree with but still respect. However, on the whole, I don't think that this explanation holds up against the overall frequency with which the Bible uses "light" in a purely figurative sense, or the unbreakable link between Genesis 1 and John 1 and the figurative interpretation that it suggests.
So, upon examining every Bible verse which contains the word "light", we see that the Bible uses the word figuratively most of the time, demonstrating that the figurative use is in fact the norm, and that a literal interpretation is not to be considered automatically better. Furthermore, the references to "light" ties Genesis 1 and John 1 together even more strongly than before, and hints that the seven days of creation are in fact an abstract prologue, like the first 18 verses in John 1. While there is some precedence that the creation of light in the first day could refer to a literal, physical light which also has spiritual, symbolic significance, this requires a very specific context for interpreting "light": looking at only the Pentateuch, instead of the Bible as a whole or Genesis in particular. Overall, there is simply more evidence for interpreting "light" figuratively rather than literally when we look at the whole Bible.
The simple essential meaning of the Genesis creation story
|Image: Creation window, Chester Cathedral, by William Starkey|
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, you must answer the following question: "what then 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 draws out 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 passage to say anything you want". This is a fair criticism, if all you do is state that "it's not literal". Having stated what a passage doesn't say, you must also explain what it 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 only meaning in the story, or to even say that additional meanings are not important. If I had intended to say that, I would not be writing this whole thing 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.
|Image: Creation of Adam by Michelangelo, public domain|
Adam and Eve were exactly who the Bible says they were: humans created in the image of God, having been endowed with a living soul by God's breath. They are the ancestors to all humans alive today. Through them, we too bear the image of God, but we're also impacted by their sin and its consequent curse.
As such, they are of seminal importance in understanding our spiritual history, and form the crucial component in the Genesis creation story and my interpretation of it. Now, as I've said before, Genesis 1:1-2:3 uses a broad, abstract, metaphorical language befitting its placement as the prologue to the whole Bible. But starting with Genesis 2:4, the language settles down to the matter-of-fact style used for the remainder of Genesis, and the stories thereafter should be interpreted "literally". So, Adam and Eve were historical persons. They lived in a physical Garden of Eden, where they ate a real fruit, after being deceived by a snake that actually talked.
At this point it's important to remember what the Bible does NOT say about Adam and Eve. These are common but unfounded assumptions that people often read into the story, assumptions which in fact cannot be true based on our understanding of history and science. So: the Bible does NOT say they were the first members of the species Homo sapiens sapiens. That is a designation that did not even exist until modern taxonomy, and it would be ridiculous to use it in our interpretation of Genesis. The Bible also does NOT say that they were the only anatomically modern humans God created. It actually often hints at the existence of other humans outside their family. The Bible only says that Adam and Eve were the ones to be created in the image of God. I am here making a very clear distinction between biological humans and spiritual human beings. Biological humans evolved around 300,000 years ago, according to our current best estimates, but Adam and Eve lived some 6,000 to 12,000 years ago, depending on how you interpret the genealogies. Adam and Eve were not the first biological humans or the only ones that lived in their time, but they were the first complete spiritual human beings - biological humans who were also ensouled bearers of the full image of God.
You may object that I have divided the human race into two classes: "spiritual human beings" and mere "biological humans", which I suppose can be termed "mere animals" if one were in an inflammatory mood. I will come back to this point later, but for now, it is of little practical importance. Everyone you meet, every individual you've read about, everyone that appears in the Bible or in history, and every person that you've ever felt a human connection to, are all descendants of Adam and Eve, and all spiritual human beings. This distinction therefore cannot be used to justify any kind of discrimination or oppression.
But what happened to this race of non-Adamic biological humans? Did they die out? No, their biological progeny continues, and they're doing very well. They were fully biologically human, after all. Characters in the Bible like Cain's wife, or Seth's wife, came from this group of people. Like with Cain and Seth's wives, they all eventually mated with a descendants of Adam and Eve, and thereafter their children are counted among the spiritual human beings. This processed continued on, until the entire human population is now descended from both the biological humans, and also Adam and Eve. Since they far outnumbered the two people living in the Garden of Eden at the time, our biological heritage - our genes - comes mostly from this group of people. But our spiritual heritage comes from Adam and Eve.
But how could Adam and Eve be ancestors to all the humans alive, if they only lived 6,000 to 12,000 years ago? Isn't this all rather contrived? Not at all. It is actually perfectly natural for a population to have a relatively recent common ancestor. It would be contrived if such a common ancestor did not exist - That would basically mean that the "population" was in fact two or more populations. And the scientific time estimates for the most recent common ancestor (MRCA) for all humans is shockingly recent - possibly as little as 2,000 to 4000 years ago by some estimates. Needless to say, this timeframe agrees remarkably well with the biblical timeframe for Adam and Eve.
This discovery of a recent common ancestor is relatively new but well-established science. I will illustrate the all the important points below as they come up, but you should still understand the bigger picture, and know that none of this is something that I'm just making up. You can check out the Wikipedia article on the subject, the original Nature paper that it cites, or S. Joshua Swamidass's book for more information.
|Image: by me. Feel free to use, just link back to this post.|
So humanity could have had biologically started 300,000 years ago, yet really have a recent common ancestor as little as 2,000 years ago? Absolutely. Consider this simplified example: there is an isolated village in the mountains, numbering several hundred individuals. They have been around for a thousand years, isolated from everyone else and marrying among themselves. But one year, all their menfolk die, due to some sex-selective plague, or perhaps a catastrophe at a village-wide male-only ritual. Now it looks like the village will die out from the failure to reproduce. But one man, an outsider, wanders upon the village and settles there. He then dutifully impregnates all the women of the village for a generation, until his sons could take over, and the village is saved from extinction.
So the village existed for a thousand years, yet the most recent common ancestor of the village was this man from the outside, in just the last generation.
How about a more realistic example? The descendants of Genghis Khan are said to number in the tens of millions, and that's just counting the men along the patrilineal (father to son) line. They form a nontrivial fraction of the entire world population. You can easily imagine that in another millennium, this group of people will move around, mix, and marry other people, to the point that everyone in the world will be a descendant of Genghis Khan.
At this future point, the human race would still be some 300,000 years old, but their MRCA would be Genghis Khan, who would have lived less than 2000 years ago. Also, this would not imply that Genghis Khan and his mates were the only people to exist in their time, or the only ones to contribute to the gene pool of the world population. In fact, even with Genghis Khan being the MRCA, his genetic contribution to any given individual at this point would be quite small or nonexistent (as a "genetic ghost"), as it went through many intervening generations where it was mixed and diluted with other people's genes.
So, Adam and Eve were a recent common ancestor (RCA) to the human race. Note that they don't necessarily have to be the MOST recent common ancestor (MRCA); they could have been an ancestor to the MRCA, for instance. Note also that the biblical Adam and Eve are almost certainly not the mitochondrial Eve or the Y-chromosomal Adam. These individuals are the ancestor to only the members of their own sex, following only the matrilineal or patrilineal lines. This is a strong restriction on leaving descendants: for instance, if a couple only had a son, who then only had a daughter, this would break both the matrilineal and patrilineal lines, whereas the MRCA could still trace their descendants through this line. Because of this same-sex restriction, the lines of ancestry for mitochondrial Eve and the Y-chromosomal Adam converge far too slowly, making these individuals far older than the MRCA and too old to be the biblical Adam or Eve.
Lastly, there is the question of when, exactly, Adam and Eve became the common ancestor to the whole world. As I mentioned above, I believe that every person in the Bible, and everyone that we have a written historical record of, is a descendant of Adam and Eve. This means that their descendants had to spread to each of the major civilizations before it began to flourish, and probably spread out to nearly everywhere by the time of Christ.
The relational propagation of the image of God
|Image: Creation of Eve by Michelangelo, public domain|
So, Adam and Eve were recent common ancestors to all of humanity. This means that they were almost certainly NOT the first humans, or the only humans to have lived in their time. Instead, they were the first humans to have been ensouled by God and created in his image. As their descendants, we too bear the image of God, but are also affected by their original sin. This model accounts for everything the Bible says about Adam and Eve, as well as all known history and science.
Now in the previous section, I said that I will be making one major modification to my model, and mentioned that I will come back to the issue of "merely biological humans" - people who were not directly descended from Adam and Eve, and possibly do not bear "the image of God".
The modification is about these non-Adamic humans. To be frank, the existence of this group of people - whom you may be tempted to call 'soulless' or 'animals' or 'sub-human' if your intent was to degrade them - is the issue in my theory that bothers me the most. But remember that this issue has no practical consequences: I think the descendants of these non-Adamic humans have long been thoroughly mixed with the descendants of Adam and Eve, so that everyone alive now is fully human. Therefore this issue cannot be used to justify any kind of oppression or discrimination.
But how about in history? Well, I believe that Adam and Eve became common ancestors to humanity early enough, so that anyone you read about in history, or anyone recorded in the Bible, is still their descendant and therefore fully human. So this issue of non-Adamic humans also cannot justify any kind of historical oppression, even the ones that happened thousands of years ago.
But didn't the descendants of Adam and Eve interact with these people at some point in prehistory? Doesn't my model, in fact, require many rounds of sex and child-rearing between the fully spiritual humans and their non-Adamic counterparts, so that their descendants could be brought into Adam and Eve's lineage? Well, yes. What happened in these interactions?
Let's look at a specific scenario: what would happen if a full human adopted a non-Adamic child? Say that Adam and Eve came across a lost baby and took him in as their own, out of compassion and pity. Would this child then be fully human? Would God grant him a soul, and would he bear the image of God?
First, none of the other spiritual qualities propagate that way. For example, sin doesn't propagate that way. The Bible says that "bad company corrupts good character". God also commands Israelites to not even make treaties with the Canaanite nations that he's driving out before them, because their ways were evil and infectious. Both are examples of sin propagating through non-biological means. Even in our day to day lives we see that sin propagates through human relationships, rather than just from parent to child.
The new life we have in Christ also doesn't propagate that way. Faith comes through hearing the word of God preached. Again, the medium of propagation is the connection from one person to another, the relationship between two people. It does not necessarily follow genetic lineage. Of course, our parents are the people who influence us the most, and both our sins and our faith are most often transmitted to us through them. But we should not confuse this for biological heredity.
Also, consider that Luke, in his genealogy, says Adam was the "son of God", in exactly the same way he says that Seth was the "son of Adam". The same genealogy also says that Jesus was the "son of Joseph". Obviously, these father-son relationships are not based on a biological connection. But this genealogy is the same one that's in Genesis - the one that traces the descendants of Adam. In fact, the genealogy in Genesis begins by explicitly invoking the image of God, and connects it with Seth being a likeness and image of Adam, clearly implying that the image of God propagated from Adam to Seth. It is this very method of propagating the image of God that Luke expands to include non-biological fatherhood.
All these things suggests that the image of God is transmitted, not through purely biological means, but through relationships - in particular, the kind of nurturing, mentoring, teaching, and influencing relationship that a father would have with his son, born out of love. This most often happens between parents and their biological children, but the biology only exists to serve the relationship. God, as the one from whom all fatherhood on heaven and on earth derives its name, saw fit to design our biology to enable the relationship, so that we could better understand and draw near to him.
So yes, a non-Adamic child adopted by Adam and Eve would inherit the image of God, and become a full human being. In fact, I believe that any relationship born of love, where one person shapes the identity of the other through that love, can serve as a conduit for propagating the image of God. As I said, this most often happens between parents and their biological children, but it can also happen between parents and an adopted child, a teacher and a student, a master and an apprentice, a commander and his soldiers, or between spouses, depending on the circumstances. Through all relationships of this kind, the image of God propagated throughout the human race over time.
At this point, you may say, "isn't this a lot of improbable speculations just to get your theory to work? Why doesn't the Bible explicitly mention any of this?" First, I don't think this is improbable. The main idea, that the image of God - the essence of our spiritual identity - is propagated through relationships, is a simple idea with solid biblical backing, as I documented above. I do admit that there is some speculation, and that the Bible doesn't explicitly endorse this view. But before you use these as reasons to dismiss the theory, consider the following:
By now, you may have noticed the parallel between the question of the non-Adamic people, and that of the "unreached people groups". What is the status of the people who never hear the Gospel? Are they, or can they be, saved? What degree of faith in God, or in Jesus Christ, do they need? What if they lived before Christ? Does it matter? What if they only heard a poor presentation of the Gospel once in passing? These are important questions, and answering them necessarily involves some speculation. Yet the Bible doesn't explicitly speak on the issue, despite its importance.
The same is true for the the question of non-Adamic people. The Bible doesn't discuss the question explicitly. Instead, God tells us to love our neighbors, which is a far more simple, practical, and effective course of action. It is also one of the oldest and best-known moral laws, discernible even by the ungodly, even before the law of Moses. In obeying this law, the question of non-Adamic people would have been rendered moot. How should these outsiders be treated? Could they even be distinguished from the "fully human" children of Eve? It didn't matter - none of it was of any practical consequence. The children of Adam and Eve were to love these outsiders anyway, and in doing so, they would have naturally passed on the image of God, turning these biological humans into fully spiritual human beings. In bearing the image of God who freely made them in his likeness, they would freely pass on that likeness to all those they came across.
Now, did the descendants of Adam and Eve actually obey this moral imperative? Not really. Overall, they were probably no kinder to these outsiders than we are to one another. In fact, the two groups of people probably became indistinguishable several generations after Adam and Eve, so their cruelties upon one another were probably just ordinary human cruelties. But in acting so, they were violating God's moral law, even if the offense was against non-Adamic people. So, even in the early, prehistoric days, when the two groups of people both existed and could theoretically be distinguished, there would have been no justification for discrimination or oppression.
And with this understanding, we can even tackle potential modern difficulties. Say that we discover an isolated people who are not descended from Adam and Eve. Say that we somehow knew for certain that they were "merely biological humans". This is all pretty much impossible, but let's pretend that it's true for a moment. Could we then oppress or exploit them, since they are not fully human? Absolutely not. Instead we are to love them as our neighbor, as we love ourselves. We are to teach, guide, and empower them, thereby enabling their incorporation into the rest of humanity. We are to preach the Gospel to them. We are to do this with all due respect for their culture and their right to self-determination. We will thus impart the image of God onto them, making them fully our equals.
Why? Are they not merely animals? Something similar could be said of Adam, the origin of our own full humanity - he was merely dust. God did not give Adam a soul because Adam was worthy, but instead to make him worthy. Christ died for us while we were still sinners. We rightly say that humans have value because we bear the image of God. Then, as God's image, we are to imitate him, who gave out that same soul-granting image to unworthy piles of dust, to lowly sinners. Freely we have received; freely give.
We Americans have a well-known line in our Declaration of Independence: "all men are created equal". The idea is that SINCE we are all equal, we ought THEREFORE to be treated equally by the government, in our rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. As political ideas go it's not terrible, but it falls far short of the glorious grace of the Gospel, of the God who saves sinners and declares them all to be one in Christ. The idea is that EVEN IF we are inherently unequal to begin with, and all undeserving, he will STILL lift us all up to be one in Christ. That is the God we are to imitate, the God whose image we bear.
So, that settles the question of these non-Adamic humans once and for all. At no point in time or space is there ever a justification for using the distinction between "mere biological humans" and "descendants of Adam and Eve" for oppression or exploitation. Since the image of God is propagated through any archetypal father-son relationship, where one person shapes the identity of the other in love, the proper response by the descendants of Adam and Eve would have always been to love and grow the "biological humans", to thereby impart the image of God upon them.
The worldwide propagation of the descendants of Adam and Eve
|Image: by me. Feel free to use, just link back to this post.|
To summarize: Adam and Eve were not the first humans, or the only humans to live in their time. Instead, they were the first ones to be made in the full image of God, and they eventually became recent common ancestors to all of humanity. "Ancestors" here should be understood in the spiritual sense: we inherit from them both the image of God and the effects of their original sin. Because this is a spiritual heritage, its propagation is not limited to biological reproduction. It can be transmitted through any loving relationship that shapes the identity of the beloved. This most commonly takes place between parent and child, but it can also happen in any other analogous relationship.
Interpreting other Bible passages (Part 1: Cain and Abel, Seth and Enosh)
|Image: Cain kills Abel by Palma Giovane, public domain|
We've now covered all the major points in my interpretation of the Genesis creation story: the seven-day creation week is a prologue to the whole Bible. It employs an abstract, broad language to describe God's act of creation, and it's not to be taken literally. The purpose of this prologue is to declare a simple, profound truth: God created everything that exists, and he placed us humans at the apex of his work, as beings made in his image.
The concrete, "literal" story narrative then begins on Genesis 2:4, and this transition is marked by a clear change in the language. The stories that come thereafter should all be interpreted "literally" - so Adam and Eve were really tempted by a serpent in the Garden of Eden, and they fell by eating from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. This happened several thousands of years ago - in accordance with the traditional dating of Adam and Eve, but long after the Big Bang and human evolution had already taken place as mainstream science describes.
Adam and Eve would then go on to become the spiritual ancestors to all of humanity. This does not mean that they were the first biological humans to exist, or the only humans around in their time, or the only humans responsible for humanity's current genetic diversity. Rather, it means that Adam and Eve were a recent common ancestor to all humans, when tracing "ancestry" through spiritually formative relationships. As their descendants, we inherit from them the image of God and the consequences of their fall.
All of this is in excellent agreement with the Bible and mainstream science, as I have outlined throughout this work. It may seem like this model requires many additional components outside the text of the Bible, but this is only due to its unfamiliarity. My theory requires no more extra-biblical components than its rival interpretations, these components are simple and reasonable, and none of them are of any practical, doctrinal significance. It therefore adheres to both the principle of parsimony, and the idea that important doctrines are based on simple interpretations.
To further demonstrate the agreement between my theory and the biblical data, I will comb through the remainder of the Bible outside the creation story, and test my model against the relevant passages. I will naturally focus on the book of Genesis. I intend to show that my theory explains many difficult Bible passages better than its rivals, and preserves all the important theological truths related to the creation story.
Right after Adam and Eve's exile from the Garden, we have the story of Cain and Abel. There are several tricky elements in this story, but they're all easily explained in my theory. I've already touched on the question of Cain's wife: my theory explains who she was in a straightforward, sensible way: she was just another biological human who was not descended from Adam and Eve. But if Adam and Eve were the only humans God created, that would mean that God intended humans to reproduce by incest from the very beginning, as a part of his "very good" plan. This would then have completely unacceptable implications for our theology, given how often the New Testament cites the 'creation order' to make its arguments.
There is also the fact that Cain built a city after his exile. Again, this makes little sense if the city is to be populated by other descendants of Adam and Eve, who are all Cain's close relatives at this point - the very people that he's suppose to be afraid of. Furthermore, "building a city" is not something that one person does by himself: Cain must have lead a group of people. So... Cain lead a group of his close relatives - who knew him to be a murderer - and got them to follow him into exile, build a city with him, then live with him? And aside from all that, how large could the human population have been at this point anyway? Was it large enough to justify a city?
Cain's city makes much more sense in my model: Cain, after getting cut off from his family, uses his advantages - such as his mark protecting him from harm, and his knowledge of spiritual matters - to become a leader of other biological humans. Since he's cut off from his own family, and afraid of other family groups, he uses his leadership to build a city - where family or tribal ties are less important. All this happens easily and naturally in my model.
After Cain's story is wrapped up, the Bible switches back to Adam and Eve, who have a new son named Seth. Seth then had a son named Enosh - which means that Seth had a wife. As I said before, this is not a problem in my theory, but it runs into the incest problem if Adam and Eve were the only humans God created.
At this point, right after Enosh is introduced, there's this little-noted sentence in the Bible: "At that time people began to call on the name of the Lord". What could this mean, if Adam and Eve were the only humans God created? Isn't Enosh a mere two generations from Adam? Wasn't Adam still around as the patriarch of the entire human race? Even the murderous Cain knew that God was real and had made sacrifices to him. Why would anyone NOT call on the name of the Lord before this time?
My theory deftly handles this troublesome little sentence: it means that people in general - humans who were not descended from Adam and Eve - began to call on the name of the Lord. Adam and Eve's spiritual influence had spread out to the people who were not their descendants, and they were now beginning to worship God. This makes perfect sense in my theory, as it's only what's naturally expected to happen.
Interpreting other Bible passages (Part 2: Nephilim, Noah, etc.)
|Image: Noah's Sacrifice by Daniel Maclise, public domain|
We now come to the story of the Nephilim at the beginning of Genesis 6, when the "sons of God" associated with the "daughters of humans". These Nephilim passages are famously difficult to interpret, and there is no one obviously correct explanation among the usual candidates. But my theory offers this interpretation:
The "sons of God" were the descendants of Adam and Eve, fully spiritual men bearing the image of God. Most of the "humans" to whom daughters were born were non-Adamic people, who would have significantly outnumbered the descendants of Adam and Eve at this time. As the population of both groups increased, they started interacting with increasing frequency. Marriages between them were very common, and there was nothing wrong with that, as it was a part of God's plan to make Adam and Eve ancestors to all of humanity.
Now as I previously mentioned, the descendants of Adam an Eve enjoyed many mundane, material advantages that flowed down from their spiritual identity, for good or for ill. They would have been wealthy, powerful, respected, and influential among their less spiritual neighbors. And as powerful, fallen men have done throughout history, they indiscriminately slept with any beautiful women they wanted. It was easy for them to take these women from among the relatively weaker outsiders. These unions then produced children. Now, this was not according to God's plan: remember that in my model, the image of God is propagated through spiritually formative relationships, such as fatherhood. But these men, who slept with any women who caught their fancy, would have made terrible husbands and fathers. Many of their children would have then grown up with the warped spirit that comes from having a bad father. As this process repeated itself over several generations, the people born and raised in this wicked way multiplied. Eventually, their wickedness would bring about God's judging flood.
Now, of course I can't be certain of all this. The fact is that the Bible simply doesn't give us enough information in this short passage at the beginning of Genesis 6. This is a problem for any interpretation of the Nephilim. However, my interpretation has the advantage that it flows quite naturally from its basic assumptions: Given that fully spiritual but fallen humans lived alongside other biological humans, this is exactly what you'd expect to happen. It also has the advantage that the elements of the story do not pop out of nowhere: in my model, "sons of God" and "daughters of humans" were present from the very beginning, and the interaction between these groups were mentioned in the earlier parts of Genesis.
That now brings us to Noah's flood. Interpreting the flood with the full treatment it deserves would take a lot more writing, and I'd be mostly repeating what others have already said. But for the sake of completeness, I will briefly mention that my model requires the flood to be localized, and that I trust the expertise of others when they say that a local flood fits with the language of the biblical text.
Now, I don't know Hebrew, so I'm not qualified to judge these statements by experts. But I can say that a local flood agrees well with the established principles of Bible interpretation: it makes no sense to interpret the flood with the modern meaning of "globally", when the original author and audience were not aware of the globe of the Earth. The animals also make more sense in a local flood: if you were to apply the modern taxonomical definition of 'every animal', and the modern definition of 'the whole Earth', it's simply impossible for all the animals fit in Noah's ark. Of course, reading the text this way is a pretty blatant violation of the rules of Bible interpretation: you're completely taking these words out of their ancient context and reading into them our modern meaning. If you instead interpret the story as the original author, audience, and characters would have understood them, then everything fits: the flood was local. The animals were only of the types that were endemic to the region, as classified by one family with an ancient understanding of biology. So polar bears and koalas were not on the ark. Probably no tigers, giraffes, moose, or elephants either. And all types of rats, mice, and squirrels might have been classified as one kind of animal. The ark was sufficiently large in this case, and it needn't be responsible for the biodiversity of the whole planet.
After the flood narrative, there is the story of the tower of Babel, in which God scatters the people over the face of the earth. In my theory, this is one of the events that allows Adam and Eve be become the ancestor of humanity much more quickly than would otherwise be expected. Also, note that these people would have been scattered into areas that were already populated with other biological humans. This explains a curious feature of the flood narrative - that there are similar, but not identical, flood myths found all over the world. As the descendants of Noah spread out after Babel, they would have carried with them the story of the flood. It would have been the most catastrophic, dramatic, and morally important event in their history. But as they then mixed with the locals in their new area, the story would have been distorted and sometimes forgotten: if all four of your grandparents tell you the same flood story about how the world was nearly destroyed, you'd be sure to tell it to your children in the same way, as part of the oral history of your people. But if only one of your grandparents, who used to live in a different part of the world, told you the flood story, it's much more likely to be distorted, syncretized, mythologized, or forgotten - and this is the way we find the story today.
So, there are many verses that are explained best by my model, while there are no verses which give my model any exceptional difficulty. All this, combined with the biblical texts that I discuss at length elsewhere in this work, means that my model is in excellent agreement with the whole of Scripture. In fact I believe it to be the most biblical model among its rivals - otherwise I would not believe it.
As I said previously, there are people in my personal life whom I respect - many who are more knowledgeable and more godly than I - who hold to a different model for the Genesis creation story. I respect their views and the other ways of interpreting Genesis. I will therefore always be open to modifying my thinking - pending better exegesis, clearer interpretations, better understanding of the original language, and a better historical and cultural understanding of the biblical authors and audience. But with the best evidence I have now, with the best understanding of the Bible I can currently attain, and having done my due diligence, I believe that my model, among its rivals, is the closest to the truth.
Common arguments about the creation account
"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 just 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 must then be interpreted that way.
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 particularly relevant to the topic of creation. 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: it always comes down to the hard work of actually weighing the accumulated evidence.
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 this reasoning only worksif 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.
"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."
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.
"1 Corinthians 15 clearly states that Adam was the 'first man'. This directly repudiates your interpretation, which requires other human beings to have existed before him."
For since death came through a man, the resurrection of the dead comes also through a man. For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive.[...]So it is written: “The first man Adam became a living being”; the last Adam, a life-giving spirit. The spiritual did not come first, but the natural, and after that the spiritual. The first man was of the dust of the earth; the second man is of heaven. As was the earthly man, so are those who are of the earth; and as is the heavenly man, so also are those who are of heaven. And just as we have borne the image of the earthly man, so shall we bear the image of the heavenly man.
"Biological evolution and an old earth implies that there was death before Adam, but Romans 5:12 clearly indicates that death entered the world through Adam's fall. Otherwise, how could God have created the world and called it 'very good' if it involved the many deaths and extinctions that evolution requires?"
Romans 5:12 is focusing on spiritual death. In Romans 5, the death that came to all men through Adam is contrasted with the life we all receive in Jesus Christ. Actually, the passage makes a point of saying that the gift is not like the trespass, that the effect of Christ's actions are far greater than Adam's sin. Now we Christians, living after Christ and his cross, still must all physically die one day. So, if the greater effect - caused by Christ - still does not prevent us from dying physical deaths, why would the lesser effect - caused by Adam - include both physical and spiritual death? Was Adam's sin greater than Christ's sacrifice?
But what if Romans 5 is talking about both physical and spiritual death together? Is that not the most natural reading? Just as Adam's sin caused spiritual death, and therefore physical death as an eventual consequence, Christ's sacrifice gives spiritual life, and therefore our physical resurrection as an eventual consequence. This is a solid interpretation; in fact 1 Corinthians 15:21-22 strongly supports it. But this still doesn't change the fact that spiritual death is the chief concern, that even after Christ's work on the cross, we must physically die before our resurrection. It therefore seems reasonable that even before Adam's fall, people and animals had to physically die.
All this means that physical death is not the great evil that we must guard against at all costs. That's spiritual death, the second death, the permanent separation from God. In the grand scheme of things, physical death matters less than the smallest bit of our sins. For in Christ even that smallest bit of sin is removed, whereas we must still undergo our physical death.
So, according to evolution, some part of creation that did not yet have contact with Adam - the bearer of the image of God - died merely physical deaths. This is not some great evil. It is no more evil than water flowing down a slope or the second law of thermodynamics. Evolution and its associated physical death can take place without impinging upon the goodness of God, because there was no fully ensouled creatures before Adam to experience it. Verses like Romans 5:12 rightly focus on the death brought on by Adam, but this only began to matter because Adam was the first creature to have a God-breathed spirit. These verses are mostly about spiritual death, with the attendant physical death only starting to matter because it was now starting to happen to spiritual beings.
But could it not be argued that any death would be a flaw, that all of creation should have lived forever in perfection before the fall? No: Eden is not the New Jerusalem. It is only 'very good', not perfect. Our pre-fall state will pale in comparison to our post-resurrection state. This is made most obvious by the fact that Adam fell, whereas in Christ we are secure forever. Therefore there is no reason to postulate the lack of physical death before Adam, when it remained even after Christ. It will only disappear in a new heaven and a new earth, where the old order of things will have passed away.
"How could the human race have propagated itself from just Adam and Eve? Who was Cain's wife, or Seth's wife? A literal interpretation would involve lots of incest, which is contrary to God's commandments."
Many who hold to a literal, 7-day creation will say "Cain and Seth married their sisters" without batting an eye. I personally find this to be far more problematic than "death before Adam". I mean, God explicitly commands us not commit incest. It seems unlikely that his "very good" design for humanity involved reproduction by incest from the very beginning.
I've heard it said that because Adam and Eve had perfect, universally representative genes, there was none of the usual deleterious effects of incest in the next few generations, and this was why incest was allowed. But this strikes me as a dangerous way of thinking. So, if we could mitigate the negative genetic effects of incest, God would approve of it? This way of thinking gets even more muddled if we expand it to other sexual mores: when would adultery be allowed, for instance? And would modern-day incestuous relations be okay with the use of birth control, or with genetic screening? Would it in fact be desirable, since it's going back to the pre-fall, original intent that God had for humanity?
Accepting evolution allows us to believe that God was consistent in forbidding incest. It also allows us to discover greater truths about human reproduction and sexuality that's hidden within the scriptures. With this proper understanding we can take a firm stances against the errors of the world.
"We're the children of God, not the descendants of monkeys!"
If God could make children of Abraham from stones, he can also make sons and daughters of God from monkeys. It is, in fact, good to be reminded of our animal nature, so that we can better trust and glorify God as he makes us into his full-grown children.
Remember that God did not choose Israel because they were a numerous people, or because their ancestors had always served God. He chose them because he loved them. Likewise, he probably did not choose the monkeys that were our ancestors because they were so very smart, or good looking, or well behaved. But just as God did his amazing works through Israel despite their lowly origin, he's accomplishing great things with humanity, despite the fact that we're just a species of great apes. This should make us better appreciate that we're the children of God, rather than dismissing what God can accomplish even through beings like us.
"2 Peter 3:8 says that for God, a thousand years is like a day. The days in the Genesis creation accounts could easily be long periods of time."
While this is certainly true, and a good reminder that God is not bound by time as we are, I find this line of thinking too literal, trying too hard to "proof-text" using a passage that's not directly related to the Genesis creation account. It's a decent verse for a day-age theorist, and while that's not a view I currently hold, it's one that I'm somewhat sympathetic to (Hugh Ross was influential in some of my early thoughts). But in the end, the meaning of the creation week is best settled by the Bible itself, and John 1 remains the best passage to aid us in its interpretation.
"The Bible means what it says. As a general rule, a literal interpretation is to be preferred over a figurative one. A figurative interpretation should only be adapted if a literal interpretation fails. Allowing an allegorical interpretation for the Genesis creation account would lead to allegorizing away the meaning in all the other key passages of the Bible."
Once again, I'll say that this is a view I can respect. It's born out of a desire to take the Bible seriously and a zeal to be faithful to God's word, and things would certainly be simple if interpreting the Bible was always as easy as taking a passage literally. However, as I mentioned before, I disagree with nearly all of the claims made about Bible interpretation in this view: no, a literal interpretation should NOT automatically be the default. An allegorical interpretation, while it may be more difficult than a literal one, can NOT be made to say absolutely anything, and does NOT lead to losing all meaning in the Bible. In fact we rely on a figurative interpretation in some very important passages to say very firm things, such as in John 1.
My model is a synthesis of many fields of inquiry. The study of the Bible is its first and foremost component, but it weaves in multiple historical and scientific fields as well. These then all combine to form one tight, coherent picture.
The creation of life:
Life perhaps began around 4 billion years before Christ. There is still much that science does not know about this event, as we're faced with the monumental difficulty of solving a molecular mystery from billions of years ago. Regardless of the details, God planned and guided this event so that, as with everything else, it would serve the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
The creation of humans:
Life evolved for many eons, until God created anatomically modern humans around 300,000 years before Christ, and behaviorally modern humans around 50,000 years before Christ. In this way, God prepared fitting vessels for his own Incarnation, and for the other fellow bearers of his image.
The creation of Adam and Eve:
God imparted his image onto two specific humans, Adam and Eve. Though they sinned and fell away from God, he did not abandon them. He had chosen before the foundation of the world to have his plan work through their sins instead. They would go on to become the ancestors to all humans, passing on to everyone the image of God, and also their original sin. But out of their descendants, after several thousand years, came the one to redeem them all: Jesus Christ.
The death and resurrection of Jesus Christ:
And here is the climax of the story: the singularity at the heart of existence, the purpose for which Christ came into the universe. Everything had been for this event. In the beginning, when God created physics, he decreed that a sufficient force could drive a nail through Christ's hands. When God created the Earth, he placed the iron atoms that would make up the spear that pierced Christ's side. When God created life, he planned the evolution of the trees that would form Christ's cross. When God created humans, he gave us brains sufficient for processing life, love, death, and resurrection. And when Adam and Eve fell, God declared that the seed of the woman would crush the serpent. Everything in all the universe was for this moment.
As with the beginning of Genesis, the Bible mostly uses imagery and symbolism to show us the ending of the story, in the Book of Revelation. We do not know much of the details, but the big themes are clear. They are all in accordance with Christ's finished work on the cross, so that he may truly be the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. Here are the broad strokes we know: the world, as we know it, will end. Everything will be made new. And God himself will be with us.
You may next want to read:
Bayesian evaluation for the likelihood of Christ's resurrection
The Gospel: the central message of Christianity
Another post, from the table of contents