The “Is Genesis Literal?” Reference

So much has been said already about Genesis that it almost seems a waste to write anything further. But, having studied the subject for a while, I want to provide something of an overview of the contentious issues about Genesis for newcomers to the discussion. Each of these points could merit a post unto themselves, even a book, but the idea here is to get you, the reader, acquainted with what you should be trying to study when deciding how you interpret Genesis.

1. There are two creation stories

Genesis chapter 1 through about chapter 2 verse 3 is the first creation story. In the Hebrew, there’s a pretty marked distinction between the two. In the first, it uses the word “Elohim” for “God.” In the second, beginning in chapter 2 verse 4, it uses the word “Yahweh-Elohim.” You can see this even in your English Bibles: in most versions, any time the Hebrew uses “Yahweh-Elohim,” it will say “the LORD God.”

2. The two stories are not in the same order

You might balk if you weren’t ready to hear this, but if you parse through the order in which God (or the LORD God) creates things, it becomes pretty clear right away. I’ll list off the first few things God creates from each story with their scripture references so that you can check this for yourself.

  1. Heavens and Earth in both stories (1:1/2:4), but the second story has the ground and water already in place (no plants; 2:5-6)
  2. Light/darkness (1:3-5) versus Adam (2:7)
  3. Sky/water (1:6-8) versus Garden of Eden (2:8)
  4. Dry land/seas (1:9-10) versus animals (2:19)
  5. Plants (1:11) versus Eve  (2:22)

That’s where the second story is done telling you about creation, whereas the first story is only half done; however, there are already several contradictions if the stories are taken literally. Men and women are not alive till the very end of the first story. The plants and animals should come before man in the second.

3. These stories are myths

That doesn’t mean “these are stories made up by ignorant, uncivilized people.” Myths defined people groups. Myth gave people a sense of identity and a way of relating to the world.

In particular, the various narratives in Genesis are counter-myths set against their cultural backdrop in Mesopotamia. Myths like the Enuma Elish and the Epic of Gilgamesh have significant parallels to the stories in Genesis. The meanings of the Genesis stories come alive when we realize the differences between them and other stories: where the gods create the world through a haphazard process of division in the Enuma Elish, Elohim creates the world in an orderly and planned process of division.

4. The Old Testament is a compilation

It may seem odd for the author of Genesis to slap several different and seemingly-contradictory stories about the same thing right next to each other. It turns out, though, that there wasn’t just a single author of Genesis — or even of the Old Testament in general. Most, if not all, of the books in the Old Testament consist of fragments which scholars are still analyzing to this very day.

There are various hypotheses as to how these fragments ended up in the same volume, but no one is entirely certain. The Documentary Hypothesis is the most influential of these, and it serves as a framework for the work that still goes on today, even though it has serious problems. It is right about one crucial thing, however: a variety of different editors all picked up and wrote down pieces of Hebrew myth and literature, and that all eventually ended up in the Old Testament.

5. New Testament references don’t mean these stories are literal

It is true that both Jesus and Paul reference Adam. For some strange reason, this has seemed to infer to some people that Adam must have been a real person, but examine for a moment the logic of such a sentiment. If someone were to have recorded Jesus referring to Batman, then, would we also assume that Batman is a historical figure? The historicity of Adam depends on his cultural function.

Interestingly, in Matthew 19 where Jesus quotes from Genesis, he does so from both stories, which, as shown earlier in point 2, can’t possibly both be literal.

6. A literal fall is not necessary to account for sin

St. Augustine introduced us to the concept of original sin, and in doing so, he set Christianity veering off on an unnecessary tangent. Adam’s fall was never an “origin of sin” story until we read that into the passage. Instead, it was a prelude to the various other, similar sins we would see throughout the Old Testament: wherever people attempted to make a name for themselves or to become like God of their own accord, God counted this as sin. When people received their name from God (like Abraham), the Old Testament counts this as righteousness. Thus, taking the fruit to become like God is setting the stage for the Old Testament; it is not how sin came into the world.

7. Historical Adam is not necessary for Jesus

While it is true that the Gospel of Luke accounts for Adam in the lineage of Jesus, the role of such a genealogy can easily blow right past our modernist view of history which consists of facts and figures about the past. Genealogies established legitimacy in the Hebrew culture. Genesis 5, which gives much of the genealogy of the Hebrew people, is something akin to the Sumerian King List, which tried to establish the legitimacy of a ruler by placing him on the list (and also giving him an impossible lifespan much like Genesis 5).

The genealogy in Luke functions the same way: it is not an account of the historical nature of Jesus’ ancestors; it is a statement that Jesus is continuing that story which began (mythically) in Adam.

Closing comments

A simple one or two paragraphs on each of these topics is far from comprehensive, but now that you know what to look for, you can do your own research. Let me know in the comments if there is anything else you want covered, and I may put together a part 2.


About Chris Attaway

Raised in the digital wilderness of the pre-Internet 2.0 era, Chris Attaway is a true gamer and Internet citizen. After a stint studying computer science, his life got flipped turned upside down, and he ended up studying philosophy to help him sort out his life. Now the black sheep in a family of engineers, he has set out to get his footing in the world of freelance journalism. With interests ranging from gaming and technology to LGBT rights, race and politics, Chris is a diverse and skilled writer who always tries to give a fair shake to his subjects.
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3 Responses to The “Is Genesis Literal?” Reference

  1. Ken Nichols says:

    I believe in a pseudo-mythical creation story. In other words, I’m still not willing to just throw the whole thing out as a story designed to give us a direction for the relationship between God and man. But I also don’t think it’s COMPLETELY literal, simply due to the fact that this would have started as an oral traditional either until Moses or someone just before Moses wrote it down. I believe both versions are there because that’s what Moses received and He didn’t know which was the “correct” one so He just put them both in.

    I think creation was ordered, and took some fixed period of time. I don’t know if was DAYS, but I don’t think it was millions of years, either. It could have been something in between. But the point is that it was God-directed, not just random.

    I think there was a literal first man and woman and that they did something that chose knowledge over faith. That something (or the punishment/curse that followed) damaged Adam’s very physical nature, making death inevitable. Was there a serpent? Maybe. Could have been some other mythical beast that Lucifer inhabited. The point is there WAS a catalyst that had a hand in man’s fall – it wasn’t JUST Adam and Eve.

    Do I have ANY reasons to believe how I do? No, not concrete ones. It just makes sense to me at this point in my life. I know I could be completely wrong. It could be completely literal and that would be fine with me. It could be a complete myth, and my faith is still grounded just fine. The only thing I hold fast is that anyone’s beliefs in regards to Genesis are not foundational – they do NOT effect their ability to accept a relationship with Christ, who has removed the curse of sin from us so we may again enter into God’s presence and live eternally as we were designed to do. Praise HIM!

    • There are lots of ideas like yours floating around, but the information provided here is a summary of the near-universal scholarly opinion on the subject. You should decide for yourself what to believe, but the wisest thing you can do when interpreting a passage is to look to the people who have studied it extensively.

      Once you have interpreted a passage, however, there is a next step which historical criticism cannot provide to you: reflection. You must reflect on the spiritual and existential significance of a passage. No one can explain that for you.

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