People often state that they are taking the plain and literal meaning when reading Genesis, but it’s important to ask which parts are being talked about. When some parts are taken literally, it becomes harder to take other parts with their plain meaning. It’s not a matter of contradiction, but of consistency in approaching Scripture.
The previous post mentioned the difference between Genesis 1 and 2, which highlights an important aspect of taking these two chapters with their plain and literal meaning. We touched upon the fact that they were difficult to reconcile, and in fact, that one needed sophisticated and subtle reasoning to conclude that Genesis 2 was describing the same events but with a different focus. For example, the obvious difference in chronology can be reconciled by a suitable choice of verb tense for “formed”, even though such a choice is not mandated. A result of this is that it was not actually possible to take the plain and literal meaning of Genesis 2, because that conflicts with the plain and literal meaning of Genesis 1. It seems impossible to take both chapters together without introducing some subtle (ie, non-plain) and/or figurative meaning into one of them. It turns out that this is not limited two these two chapters, but that the same problem shows up elsewhere in Genesis.
For example, consider the creation of light in Genesis 1. It is often pointed out that the use of evening and morning precede the creation of the sun, and that this creates an apparent contradiction. This contradiction can be resolved in many ways, but invariably, the result is a different meaning of “evening” and “morning”. In other words, we cannot take them at their standard, plain meaning without the existence of the sun or some similar localized light, which is not described in Scripture. To reconcile the terms, it’s necessary to either modify their meanings or to introduce extra-Biblical details. In either case, the plain and literal meanings are no longer used.
Similarly, consider the events of Genesis 2:19-20. God determines to find a helper for Adam, and the general context indicates His intention to test all possibilities exhaustively. The use of the phrases “every beast of the field”, “every bird of the heavens”, “every living creature”, and “all livestock”, reinforce that idea and emphasize the diversity of animals to be included. However, this happened in a single day: day six, according to Genesis 1:26-27, 31. Given the diversity of life on the planet, even just in fields, it’s very difficult reconcile the literal 24-hour nature of day six with the plain description of God’s exhaustive search; it would simply take more than 24 hours to name every type of animal. This can be reconciled by taking the 24 hour time frame literally, but then altering the comprehensive description given in Genesis 2 to be regional, or taking only a subset of all animals, or by giving Adam superhuman powers, etc. Or, the passages can be reconciled by taking the plain and literal meaning of God’s exhaustive search, but extending the time frame of day six, perhaps in some way similar to Joshua 10:12-13, or by taking the 24 hour time frame figuratively. In either case, the plain and literal meaning of one of the passages must be discarded, and extra-Biblical assumptions made.
Although these passages are often pointed to as contradictions, that’s really not the case. They are only contradictory if one insists on taking them all at face value, with their plain and literal meaning. The mere fact that these passages are often brought up, shows that the most straight-forward interpretations are difficult to reconcile. By relaxing the requirement of plain and literal interpretation, there are many ways to resolve the conflicts. One simply has to introduce extra-Biblical information, choose very specific Hebrew verb forms, carefully re-interpret context, and so on. So the questions become: Which passages have unexpected meanings, what extra-Biblical information is to be included, and how much figurative language is to be allowed? The real issue is how one makes decisions on all these. Simply ignoring all these issues and claiming plain and literal interpretation is inconsistent.