By considering the Genesis creation narrative in light of Biblical revelation, several perspectives become clear that show why it should be interpreted figuratively, and why we have such a hard time recognizing this.
If we take Genesis as historical, then it’s clear that the initial passages are literature intended to teach us about the Creator. The author (presumably Moses) could have had no direct knowledge of creation, but it would be reasonable for him to have written such a narrative to introduce Israel to their God. This would have been consistent with other cultures at the time — creation narratives were typically used to establish religions. In this case there is no reason to assume that the narrative reflects anything about the creation processes itself.
If, however, we choose to believe that the narrative describes the creation events in addition to the Creator, then we must recognize that it had to have been given through divine revelation. This places it in the category of prophecy. Since there is no descriptive text, we can’t assert from just this passage whether it is a figurative prophecy (ie, Numbers 12:6) or its literal interpretation (ie, Daniel 7:16–17). It may seem like simple narrative, but that is a structure often used in figurative prophecy. So we should look to other Scripture to interpret these passages.
Two other passages point to the creation time frame: Exodus 20:11 and Exodus 31:17. They make it clear that God Himself is interpreting the passage at least partly figuratively, for He did not need to rest and be refreshed. (It’s common to assert that “rest” in Exodus 20:11 and Genesis 2 means “cease”, but this contradicts God’s interpretation in Exodus 31:17, and much other use in Scripture.) We can also note that all other revelations of grand historical or cosmic events in Scripture are highly figurative. These observations lead toward a figurative interpretation of the creation account. The fact that young-earth arguments never mention the revelatory nature or Exodus 31:17, indicates they are reading a young-earth perspective into Scripture, rather than letting the Word speak as the Author intended.
When weighing these ideas, it’s important to keep a couple spiritual perspectives in mind. This is assuming that one considers the Word, and our understanding of its truths, to have spiritual aspects. It seems to be more common to stick to secular, natural analysis as taught by Western science and philosophy, but I prefer to go beyond that.
First, our natural minds struggle with figurative descriptions of spiritual truths (ie, Ezekiel 20:45-49, John 16:29). So we must consider questions such as these prayerfully, with an ear towards the Spirit’s perspective (John 16:13). In other words, we should assume that our natural minds will not like a figurative description, so we should intentionally strive to approach this with the mind of Christ (1 Corinthians 2:12-16).
Second, we can build on that by realizing that we may need spiritual sensitivity to discern the truth of these passages. In fact, Jesus illustrates this. There were times when those around Him mistakenly took his words literally instead of figuratively. It’s instructive to observe His reaction, and note that He described their problems in terms of spiritual insensitivity: unbelieving (John 6:51-52, 64a), hard hearts (Mark 8:14-17), blind eyes (Matthew 15:10-14), and lack of faith (Matthew 16:5–8).
So although it’s easier to keep a secular mindset and simply look for verses that match our existing perspective, consideration of the whole of God’s Word, both other verses and spiritual perspectives, reveals that a more complete understanding is necessary.