If Genesis isn’t Literal, is the Bible Reliable?
In the aftermath of my review of the Bill Nye vs. Ken Ham Debate, I’ve been explaining why a pastor is not a 6-day Creationist. I reject Young Earth Creationism not because I have any expertise in science (I most assuredly don’t), but because I don’t read Genesis 1-11 as a historical, scientific account of the creation of the world. To read those texts that way – as Young Earth Creationists do, is to misread these texts, to read them through the lens of our modern culture rather than as their original audience would’ve read them.
The goal for we Christians who live in the modern world and read this ancient collection of texts is to learn how to think like our ancient fathers and mothers. We don’t want to assume the Bible was written for us. It was written for them, and they preserved it for us. So it’s entirely possible that something that seems totally normal for them would be completely lost on us.
When I offer that into conversation, however, I always get variations of the same question:
If Genesis 1 isn’t historical, then is any part of the Bible trustworthy?
The implication is that Genesis 1 can only be read historically/scientifically. That if we say that creation didn’t happen the way Genesis 1 says it happened, then we’re undermining the authority and trustworthiness of not only Genesis, but the whole Bible. Obviously, I don’t hold to that idea – the Bible is authoritative for me, and Genesis is one of my favorite texts, and the foundation of much of my theology. Even though I don’t read it historically/scientifically.
With that said, here are 5 reasons not reading Genesis 1-11 as a historical, scientific text doesn’t undermine the truth or authority of Genesis 1-11 (or the whole Bible).
1. Non-Historical doesn’t Mean Untrue
These conversations often begin something like, “How do we know what’s historical and what’s just myth or poem?” The underlying assumption is that if a text is historically accurate, then it’s more reliable, more truthful or more important than something mythic or poetic.
That’s a bad assumption. Consider, for instance, Jesus’ parables. No one (that I’ve met) thinks there was a historical Good Samaritan. Or a historical Prodigal Son. Or that Jesus grew up down the street from a woman named Rebekah who had 10 gold coins and lost one once.
We understand that parables are stories that Jesus made up to illustrated truths about God’s kingdom. But does the fact that Jesus’ parables aren’t historical mean they’re somehow less important? That the spiritual truths in them don’t matter? Not at all. In fact, Jesus’ parables are so powerful they’ve become some of Christianity’s most cherished and influential texts.
So if Genesis 1 (or the story of Jonah or Psalm 34 or Elijah’s showdown at Mt. Carmel) isn’t a historical text, that doesn’t automatically mean it’s unimportant or unspiritual. More to the point, God can work through any genre of literature to communicate salvific truth.
If it’s in the Scriptures, then whether it’s history, legal code, letter, poem, myth, apocalypse or any of the other genres, we confess that it’s God-breathed and useful to teach, correct, prepare and equip God’s people.
2. Are Miracles really Unbelievable?
But still the question: How do we know which is which? After all, we’re not dealing with one or two passages here. Quite a bit of the Bible is narrative, and stories are what press the issue of historicity. How do we know whether a narrative is historical or something else? Obviously, that’s a complicated question, but from the outset we should make a plain observation.
Just because something is miraculous doesn’t mean we should automatically toss it out.
That is what a person who holds a naturalistic worldview would do. No 6-literal-day creation, no big fish swallowing a guy, no fire falling on Mt. Carmel or commanding she-bears, and certainly no resurrection from the dead. The universe is a closed system, and if there is a god, s/he doesn’t intervene.
But the central confession of the Christian faith is that Jesus’ physical body came back from the dead. As Paul tells us in 1 Corinthians, if Jesus’ physical body didn’t come back to life and exit the tomb, then Christians are all fools, and should be pitied more than anyone else in human history.
If we celebrate Jesus’ resurrection, then we’re embracing an open system.
God can and does act in human history. So miracles shouldn’t be off-limits for Christians.
We don’t reject the historicity of a text just because it has some sort of miraculous event in it. So why do we?
3. Reading according to Genre is Reading Literally
So it comes back to the question of genres. I want to know if a story about 6 literal days of creation is meant to be read historically, scientifically, mythically, parabolically or any of the other options available to me. How do I do that?
We’ve had a lot of brilliant, faithful people inside the Christian tradition who’ve been trained in how to read and understand ancient literature. Who get inside and understand ancient worldviews. And they’ve helped us to read this text the way an ancient Israelite would’ve read it. They’ve helped us to hear what God was saying to his people then so we can discern what God is saying to us now.
Reading according to genre is reading a text literally – as it was originally meant to be read. To read it as literature.
I met a guy once who stubbornly declared over and over that the world is a flat square. His reasoning was that in Revelation, the Bible talks about the “four corners of the Earth”. So this man said that if that’s how the Bible describes the Earth, that must be what the Earth is. No matter what evidence to the contrary.
Then I saw four angels standing at the four corners of the earth, holding back the four winds so they did not blow on the earth or the sea, or even on any tree. – Revelation 7:1
That position is (to most of us) self-evidently foolish. We know that is indeed what the Bible says, but we also recognize that “four corners of the Earth” is metaphorical language. It was never meant to be taken as a scientific description of the Earth, so to read it as such is to misinterpret the Bible. It’s not being faithful to God’s Word. It’s being faithful to a particular (and wrong!) method of interpretation, one that doesn’t respect the original intention of the author.
The correct way to read Revelation 7:1 is as a metaphor because that’s what the original author intended. That example is obvious, but many narratives, including Genesis 1-11 are less obvious to our modern eyes.
What of those genres we’re less familiar with? And in cases like Genesis 1 where translation obscures genre?
4. Learning to Read according to genre takes training and practice
Ultimately, this is what concerns me about Mr. Ham’s approach to the Bible. He doesn’t know Hebrew. He hasn’t had any formal training in how to read the kinds of ancient documents that comprise the Bible. And he seems unwilling to consider that he might have the genre of Genesis 1-11 wrong, despite the fact that people who’ve spent a lot more time on that question than he has are telling him otherwise.
When Ken Ham says to hundreds of thousands of people, “No matter what the evidence says, I’m going to believe X because the Bible says so,” I get very nervous. Not because I don’t believe in miracles, not because I am a science expert. But because the Bible doesn’t say that. Not to the best of my knowledge, and I’ve spent a lot of time working on that from a Biblical studies perspective. A lot more time, it seems, than Mr. Ham has. (On the flip side, I’d never get into a scientific debate with Mr. Ham – he’s spent way more time there than I have).
I don’t want that to sound elitist. The point isn’t that reading according to genre is impossible. It’s also not that you have to earn a PhD in Hebrew to do it. There are tons of resources out there that help us, and we can all become students of the ancient world in which the Bible was written.
Does that take work? Yes. But you can learn this.
5. You Can Learn to Understand Biblical Genres.
There are a couple of great resources for helping us understand the genres early in Genesis – I highly recommend:
- The Lost World of Genesis One by John Walton
- The Evolution of Adam by Peter Enns.
- Lots of commentaries on Genesis also address these interpretive issues, including Walter Brueggemann’s excellent volume in the Interpretation series and the JPS volume on Genesis.
Learning to read genres in the Bible is a lot like how we learn to read genres in our world today. We easily distinguish more or less unconsciously among science fiction, legal code, novels, short stories, letters, emails, tweets, and dozens of other kinds of literature. It’s easy for us because we grew up with it and it seems normal to us.
So too with the genres of the ancient world. The more time we spend reading them, immersing ourselves in the ancient world, the more these make sense to us. We can also spend time reading other ancient documents, learning how people then saw the world. Reading other ancient apocalypses (we have dozens of them) helped me to understand the Revelation better. Reading the Babylonian creation epic, the Enuma Elish, the Epic of Gilgamesh, and the fragments of the Canaanite creation stories we have has helped me to get a better grasp on Genesis 1-11.
These resources help us learn how to read genres the ancient world would’ve naturally understood.
What’s at stake for Christians in this argument is the authority and reliability of the Bible. My particular denomination – the Church of the Nazarene – holds the position that the Bible is wholly without error in all matters regarding salvation. That’s the most important thing for me: that no matter how we read Genesis (or Elijah or Jonah or Acts or Philemon!) we understand that there is a God who loves us and who became one of us to rescue us from our Sin and rediscover the life and love we were originally created for.