Interpreting Genesis 1: Part 3

I’m continuing my blog series on why Genesis 1 should not be interpreted in a literal fashion. I discussed in previous blogs on this subject the internal incoherence between the lights and the lack of light source and the highly poetic and stylized nature of the chapter. Another reason why one should not interpret Genesis 1 in a literal fashion comes from the implausibility of all that Adam is said to do on the sixth day. Genesis 1 lists things that occur on day six and many things are listed in Genesis 2. This interpretation of all that Adam does hinges on whether or not the second cosmogony is an expansion of the sixth day found in Genesis 1 (I’m assuming this for the sake of the argument. Good reasons exist to not view this is an expansion but a second account all together). Discussing all that is done on the sixth day, James L. Miller writers

A plain reading of Day Six reveals that too many events happened on this day for it to be realistically a period of less than 12 hours (remember literally evening and morning is the period from dusk till dawn). From Genesis 2, we learn much of what had to have happened on that Day Six. God planted the Garden of Eden and had it grow to maturity (so there would be fruit on the trees) and no mention is made of this happening instantaneously. The text does not say God created the plants and trees mature. Also all the animals were created by God and then brought to Adam to be named by him. Adam also named the birds. During this same day, the text indicates Adam had time to get lonely – the word for ‘Now’ in Genesis 2:23 could be translated ‘At long last!’It is a word that shows Adam’s relief. Why would he be lonely if he had only been created a few hours? Patience is a virtue, not a vice. So how would unfallen Adam not have patience, and how could he be dissatisfied with all that God had given him in such a short time? Especially bearing in mind he was in perfect fellowship with God and had so much to see and do. Then in the same few hours, Eve was created as well. The great Reformed theologian, Herman Bavinck makes the point that it is unlikely this would all happen in a few hours. It is simply not feasible that Day Six was a literal 24-hour day.

A philosophy graduate planning to do phd work in Europe lists the numerous things that are said to be done based upon Genesis 1 and two on the 6th day. Max Andrews lists:

  1. God creates the various living creatures along with wild animals and animals that become domesticated [nephesh/soulish creatures] (Genesis 1:24-25).
  2. God creates Adam in the divine image (Genesis 1:26-27; 2:7).
  3. God gives Adam a mandate of dominion over creation (Genesis 1:28).
  4. God makes the plants available as a food source for man (Genesis 1:29-30).
  5. God plants a garden and puts the man in it (Genesis 2:8).
  6. God gives Adam instruction concerning obedience to God’s specific commands (Genesis 2:9, 16-17).
  7. God commissions Adam to cultivate the garden (Genesis 2:15).
  8. God commissions Adam to name or classify the animals (Genesis 2:19-20).
  9. God declares Adam’s need for a suitable helper (Gen. 2:18, 20).
  10. God induces sleep and performs surgery on Adam (Genesis 2:21).
  11. God creates Eve (Genesis 2:22).
  12. God ordains that Adam and Eve enter into a divinely constituted marriage relationship (Genesis 2:23-25).

One can see that this list of things would readily seem to exceed a normal dusk till dawn type of day.Young Earth Creationists have typically responded in two ways to this observation:

  • Response 1: It wouldn’t take that long because either (A) Adam didn’t name all the animals or (B) he named types of species of animals.
  • Response 2: Adam was some sort of superhuman enabled by grace to do above and beyond what we could do now.

Ken Ham, the most famous proponent of Young Earth Creationism says

First, we know from Genesis that Adam named only land animals on the sixth day (and he named them before Eve was created on that same day, by the way). This means that he definitely named them within 24 hours, at most! Second, remember from the previous question that Adam named only “kinds” of land animals and then, only the cattle, birds of the air, and beast of the fields. Adam really named far fewer animals than we think! One more thing—Adam was the most intelligent man that ever lived. God made him with a perfect brain and a perfect memory. It wouldn’t take him long to think of the names and to then remember which animal was which! He had plenty of intelligence and plenty of time to name them all in one day!

Response 1: A- It is true that Adam did not name every animal upon the face of the earth. The text says he named all land animals and all birds (“…the Lord God formed every beast of the field and every bird of the air, and brought them to Adam to see what he would call them. And whatever Adam called each living creature, that was its name. So Adam gave names to all cattle, to the birds of the air, and to every beast of the field. But for Adam there was not found a helper comparable to him.” [Gen. 2:19-20]). But, this is still a large number of animals! Current scientific estimates suggest that there are well over a million species of land animals alone (There are over 10,000 species of birds alive today (go here). Also, the fossil records reveals that 99.9% of all species have become extinct (go here). Even disregarding all of the species that have gone extinct, the numbers are just too high. It seems highly implausible that Adam would name each species or kind of animal.

B- Some YECers will object that he did not name all species but named a higher order in the standard taxonomic hierarchy (like a class, order, or genus). The categorization was created by the Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus in the early seventeen hundreds. Though I have used the category of species, it does seem to be an anachronism to use taxonomic terms created some thousands of years after a text was written. To be honest, we do not completely know what is meant by the passage’s use of “kinds” in Genesis 1:25. But, this does not take away from the argument because the text uses universal language when describing how Adam named the animals (every beast of the field and every bird of the air, and brought them to Adam… to all cattle, to the birds of the air, and to every beast of the field). The text goes out of its way to express Adam’s authoritative role over the other aspects of the animal kingdom by naming all of the animals. It is likely that the text should not be pressed too far in hopes of making Adam a modern-day taxonomist.

Response 2- Adam was perfect and had the ability to do all this with ease and speed. I find this argument border lining the idea that Adam (prefall) was superhuman. If Adam was superhuman, why did God have to instruct him to do certain things?  Adam is told and commissioned to do certain things within the two accounts. Why would a man with perfect intelligence need to be told anything? Wouldn’t he just know? If he lacked something in the area of knowledge, how can he be said to be perfect in knowledge as claimed by YECers? It seems, though morally untainted by sin, that Adam was a normal human who had needs just like any other person (the text points out a need for community). Adam and Eve would even have the natural ability for death just like all others. The reason why Adam and Eve did not die was because they had access to the antidote for death, the tree of life in the garden. The first man by nature is susceptible to death but his continued sacramental eating from the tree of life renews life and prevents aging and death. The tree of life allows humanity to transcend its original mortality and move to a higher dimension, life beyond the creation to eternal life and immortality (Gen. 2:9, 3:22). The tree of life that guaranteed healing and unending blessings is mentioned in Gen. 2:2,3:22, 24, Prov. 3:18, 11:30, 13:12, 15:4 and in later Jewish eschatological writings (Esr. 8:52, Rev. 2:4, 22:2). I find it hard to imagine that Adam would not have normal, creaturely limitations like all the rest of us: he would have a pain in his stomach if he tried to swim miles across a river, he would get tired in the hot sun naming animals, he would sweat and probably need a bath after tilling the ground, and a host of other things. The argument that because Adam’s ontology was above and beyond anything we can now do so it would not be hard for him to do all that is said to be done on the sixth day adds to all that we have to posit for an interpretation of the text, it seems best to just take the account at “face value” and say it just seems too much for one man to do. The simplest explanation with the least amount of contingencies is to be preferred (occam’s razor).

For this reason and the others mentioned in previous blogs, it seems wise not to interpret Genesis 1 in a literal fashion.


11 responses to “Interpreting Genesis 1: Part 3

  1. i do think of all arguments this one is pretty silly.. pretty simple if you ask me. only problem with the literal view is the “scientific evidence” out there. but.. the thing is i’ve heard a lot of good arguments from credible scientists for a young earth view. I’ve also heard arguments from credible scientists for old earth.. so i just go with the plain meaning of the text. no reason (hermenteutically) to interpret it any other way then literal. text gives us no reason to do so.. (jc interpreted it literally.. .Paul interpreted it literally..)

    • The argument is no more silly than Adam petting a T-Rex. I will agree though that if my blog series depended on this one post, I would admit exegetical and philosophical defeat and write about something else. But it doesn’t. I’m building an inductive case based upon a host of arguments. This is only the third post. If your second statement was even remotely true, there would not be credible OT scholars and people throughout Church history with a different viewpoint on Genesis other than the YEC view (Augustine, Anselm, Aquinas, William Shedd, Charles Hodge, John Sailhamer, Bruce Waltke, C. John Collins, Francis Collins, Peter Enns, Trempur Longman III, Allen Ross, C.S. Lewis, Denis Lamoureux, John Walton, Karl Giberson, Alister Mcgrath, John Polkingham, Meredith Cline, Hugh Ross, N.T. Wright, and most of the Anglican, Eastern Orthodox, and Roman Catholic theologians today. Even Jewish interpreters had a different viewpoint on Genesis 1 [Philo, Rashi, and Maimonides).

      Also, concerning the good arguments from “credible” young earth scientists, much of their work is not peer reviewed by the National Science Foundation or any other association of scientific thought and research. It is one thing to write a blog or an article on a polemical YEC website. It is another to stand before a scientific, research body and say things like “dinosaurs and humans coexisted together” or that the “earth is 6,000 years old.” If the “plain meaning of the text” is Young Earth Creationist thought than one will be left with contradictory and scientific disarray. Don’t pretend that you do not bring philosophic presuppositions to the text of Genesis 1. No one does. You’ve been condition by the YEC polemics just as much as I have been conditioned by reading some of the foremost OT scholars today. As the series continues, I’ll continue to give hermeneutic and philosophic reasons for viewing Genesis 1 in a non literal fashion. Concerning your last parenthetical statement, I wholeheartedly agree that Paul believed Adam and Eve to be historical people in space-time history. But, if you think Paul was a young earth creationist, you’re misreading Paul by reading your own interpretation and theology into him.

    • What do you mean by literal? If by literal you mean somewhat historical (this actually happened in space-time history), well I agree it is “historical.” But, something that is historical in the ancient near east (ANE) is not historical in the sense of 21st century historiography.

      1-“historical” in this sense is not the same as prose, and certainly does not imply that Genesis 1-11 has no figurative or imaginative elements,
      2- historical is not the same as “without motif, themes, and symbolism” of the ancient context
      3- historical is not the same as “complete” in detail” or “free from ideological bias,” neither of which is possible of desirable anyway, and
      4- historical is not necessarily the same as “told in exact chronological sequence” unless the text claims this for itself.

      If you mean literal as “everything happened exactly like it says” without any further explanation, then no I do not take it as literal in that sense. That would lead to scientific, logical, and theological nonsense.

  2. So, all of Gen 1-11 is motifs, themes, symbolism, not told in “complete” detail, or free from ideological basis and is not told in chronological sequence?

    • No. It is in some way “historical” but historical is defined by those four negative statements. It is history “before” history (protohistory). It happened but what we might have seen if we were actually there would look vastly different from what the text literally reads.

  3. That makes more sense. So, how long does the prehistory last? Through chapter two, eleven, do we know?

  4. Pingback: Interpreting Genesis 1: Part 4 « Austin's Blog·

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