Why Genesis 1 is Figurative, Simply and Biblically

Nebula-smThere is a simple way to see how the Bible itself points to figurative interpretation of Genesis 1. To see it, one must approach the text with the heart of a Berean, with a mind that’s open to questions, but even more open to the Word. Discerning the nature of the text requires neither science nor fancy theological analysis. Understanding comes from recognizing the passage’s spiritual origin, rather than treating it as purely human-generated, and paying attention to what it really says, rather than what people claim it says. Open your eyes, and take a look at Genesis 1 from a Biblical standpoint.

When we look at the text, we need to know what we are looking for. Are we trying to prove a point, or are we seeking truth? In this case, science has raised a question about the traditional interpretation of Genesis 1, and we are seeking to answer that question from Scripture. Asking questions is fine, but we have to seek answers with the right motive.

In this case the question is whether the creation account in Genesis 1 could be figurative, because traditional literal interpretation is at odds with scientific investigations.

The question mainly has to do with the first chapter of Genesis. Looking closely at the text, some key differences become apparent that set it apart from the rest of Genesis. The narrative flow suddenly breaks, jumping backwards in time. The literary style shifts abruptly, and the name of God changes. Compared to the simple narrative of the following text, Genesis 1 has a profoundly majestic style that many hear as something different than mere history. This shift doesn’t necessarily prove anything, but it does set Genesis 1 apart as a text that can stand on its own.

Another thing that sets the text apart is that, unlike other historical narratives, the initial chapter had no human witness. Therefore, the narrative must have been given supernaturally; it is a divine oracle. In the Old Testament, God communicated supernaturally through prophets, and such communication was almost always figurative. The profound majestic style of Genesis 1 is much more in line with a figurative divine oracle than literal historical narrative.

These observations show that a figurative nature is reasonable, but it is made certain by the text itself. At the end of the creation account, God rested, a statement echoed in Exodus 20:11. The term used can mean several things, but the proper interpretation is that He ceased and got His energy back. We know that this is the proper interpretation because it is the one that God told Moses to proclaim in Exodus 31:17. This is clearly figurative, because God does not tire as a human. In other words, the interpretation that God told Moses to proclaim is one that takes Genesis 2:2-3 figuratively.

Here is the difference between humbly seeking truth, and simply trying to prove a point. There are two verses outside Genesis that explicitly mention six days, and they are not the same. Anyone trying to justify traditional thought would only choose those verses that support their desired belief, but anyone seeking truth would consider both. Hence, creationism arguments frequently quote Exodus 20:11, but almost always ignore Exodus 31:17. But if we have the heart of a Berean, then we will listen to all of God’s counsel and carefully consider both verses.

In summary, we see that Genesis 1 is set apart from the rest of the narrative as a supernatural divine oracle that God Himself takes figuratively. This means that the text gives no concrete timeframe, so we look to science for physical understanding. There is no conflict between the science of creation and the Biblical text, in fact science is giving us a better and better view of God’s eternal power.

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15 Responses to Why Genesis 1 is Figurative, Simply and Biblically

  1. bruce r bloomberg says:

    We really need, first of all, to look at the Hebrew version of Gen.,1,1. If you can shelve your 21st. century mind-set for the moment, the first word, (in an English font), bereshith, commonly translated as ‘in the beginning’,,,, Jesus said he is the beginning. Check, there is a lack of a definite article in that word in Hebrew. Also, the root word ‘rosh’ means head, as in headwaters, or start, it might be better translated as in starting. The second word,’bara’, means, according to Strong’s, select or choose, create being diminutive since nothing is until God selects to use it. Which leads to the fallacy of the ‘Ex Nihilo’ idea. Further, the use of the term ‘literal’ to mean physical, boxes in your thinking, leaving you with it’s either physical or figurative, e.g., mathematics is very real, very literal, it works, and there are consequences, but the medium in which math dwells is in reason. Is reason literal ? There are physical consequences in living a life without purpose, without a reason to be. If gen.1, is figurative, it stands to reason the rest of the Bible must be, God being the author. Is Jesus then figurative ? Now you have lapsed into Gnosticism. The word light is a good example. Throughout scripture the word light is understood to mean understanding, and our language is structured that way, when you shed light on something it becomes clear. It is how we think and communicate ideas. So in Gen,1,3 when God commands light to shine, it, (because of single authorship), must mean understanding. This medium of understanding runs throughout scripture and involves it seems, all so-called figures, nouns and verbs. It is not about what is seen, the physical, but is very, very real.

    • jim0211 says:

      Bruce, thanks for pointing out the different aspects of “literal” interpretation. I wasn’t being precise in my use, for sure. More taking the common usage. I agree that the unseen (ie, spiritual) is very, very real. In fact, it is the reality, and what we physically perceive is temporary shadow.

  2. Jon says:

    Just to clarify, you mentioned that Genesis 1 is set apart in style. Does that mean you take Genesis 2 and 3 literally? The reason I ask is because I think there are some theistic evolutionists who still believe in the special creation of humans.

    • jim0211 says:

      Great question, Jon. I was really talking about literary style, rather than literal or figurative interpretation. The intention of pointing the change out was not to categorize either section of text, but to suggest that they can be considered separately. But to answer your question: No, I do not take Genesis 2 and 3 literally.

  3. “In the Old Testament, God communicated supernaturally through prophets, and such communication was almost always figurative.” Please provide examples. If you’re leaning to chose the major or minor prophet books, I would warn you not to because Genesis 1 does not follow the bicolon, tricolon and quadcolon pattern of Hebrew poetry that prophecy usually follows.

    • jim0211 says:

      Thanks for the perspective, Graham. I would point to the prophetic books, as well as passages such as Numbers 12:6, but perhaps more like the retrospective figurative narrative of Ezekiel 16, rather than poetry. You point out that prophecy “usually” follows one of those poetic styles, so lack of such use wouldn’t seem to necessarily prove anything. On the other hand, I’m not familiar with those terms, so perhaps am missing something.

  4. What is the difference between Exodus 20:11 and Exodus 31:17

    • jim0211 says:

      Hi Aaron, basically Exodus 31:17 adds the detail that the result of God’s resting was that He was refreshed, a clear anthropomorphism. That detail is not evident in Exodus 20:11, although if you dig into that verse, you’ll find that a different Hebrew word is used for “rest” than in the other two verses. From what I can tell so far, it may echo the same anthropomorphism in a more subtle way. So, God told Moses to proclaim (vv. 31:12-13) this statement about the Sabbath. In doing so, He told Moses to proclaim an interpretation that was figurative.

      Here are the two verses:

      For in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day. Therefore the LORD blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy. (Exodus 20:11)

      It is a sign forever between me and the people of Israel that in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, and on the seventh day he rested and was refreshed. (Exodus 31:17)

      I should have included the verses themselves to make this more clear; thanks for pointing this out.

      • Your logic is off as both verses clearly state God rested. you are also saying you can read God’s mind there is NO evidence God intended a figurative application to his words.

        you also have to have more than your rejection of a literal application as proof God was speaking literally. Jesus, the apostles, the prophets never once intimated that God spoke figuratively about his act of creation so where is the real evidence that supports your point of view? Your eisegetical work doesn’t count.

      • The second paragraph of my previous post should have the word ‘figuratively’ after the first mention of God instead of the word ‘literally’

      • jim0211 says:

        I’m not sure what you mean about reading God’s mind. Note that different Hebrew words are used in the two “rest” statements. I hope to explore what is really being said in a future post.

        However, I disagree that there is no evidence that God intended a figurative application. Read Exodus 31:12-18. There, God instructs Moses to speak to the Israelites about the Sabbath. One of the things He has Moses say is the clearly figurative statement in verse 17, when referring to the events in Genesis 1. It is at least some evidence of a figurative interpretation being intended. Where in Scripture is any evidence that a literal interpretation of Genesis 1 to be intended? The most common reason given for preferring a literal interpretation is not a Scriptural one, it is that it is the most natural perspective. In other words, it is the way that seems most correct to the secular mind. But Scripture even describes how we struggle with spiritual truths being shared figuratively, and how we should not rely on only the natural mind. (See Ezekiel 20:45-49 and John 16:29, also 1 Corinthians 2:14-16) And for Jesus’ perspective on figurative speech, you might take a look at: https://creationreality.wordpress.com/2014/01/20/creation-and-the-mind-of-christ/

  5. Stephen says:

    I think the correct interpretation of the hebrew word Napash in this context is: God “enjoyed” or “was satisfied” with the work of his hands. Making the case for figurativeness of Gen 1 by using Ex 31:17 is sketchy at best. http://books.google.com/books?id=vkQ3ugAQQNcC&pg=PA174&lpg=PA174&dq=napash+refreshed&source=bl&ots=RdIKL8ecAX&sig=bwRaxDlYkr6C9lxUADbvDzS0cuE&hl=en&sa=X&ei=p_LzU72FD4WLyATRjICwDw&ved=0CCEQ6AEwAQ#v=onepage&q=napash%20refreshed&f=false

    • jim0211 says:

      Great observation, Stephen, but your reference seems to be an uncommon one. The Hebrew verb there is only used in two other places: Ex. 23:12 and 2 Sam. 16:14. Neither of those fit with the meaning you suggest. In fact, one of the references listed in the book you point to, BDB, actually says this:

      …Niph. Impf. 3 ms. יִנָּפֵשׁ Ex 23:12 (E) 2 S 16:14; וַיִּנָּפַ֑שׁ Ex 31:17 (P);—take breath, refresh oneself. (Brown, F., Driver, S. R., & Briggs, C. A. (2000). Enhanced Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew and English Lexicon. Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems.)

      So I don’t know where the author of the book you are referencing gets his interpretation. I don’t have TWOT, but checked 11 other references, and they all agree with the BDB reference above. I’m happy to provide the list if you like, but here, for example, is Vine’s:

      B. Verb. Napash means “to breathe; respire; be refreshed.” This verb, which is apparently related to the noun nepesh, appears 3 times in the Old Testament (Exod. 23:12; 31:17). The other appearance is in 2 Sam. 16:14: “And the king, and all the people that were with him, came weary and refreshed themselves there.” (Vine, W. E., Unger, M. F., & White, W., Jr. (1996). Vine’s Complete Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words. Nashville, TN: T. Nelson.)

      Now, I’m not a Hebrew scholar, so please explain if I am missing something. But every reference I’ve been able to dig up describes the word the same way. Also, the commentaries I’ve been able to find that specifically address that perspective, describe the passage as an anthropomorphism (a type figurative description).

      It’s true that few people recognize the implications of this figurative language, but I’m not the only one. Because of the typical human discomfort with figurative language (ie, Ezekiel 20:45-49 and John 16:29), it’s generally not hard to find references that argue against virtually any figurative interpretation of any passage, if you look specifically for that. But just because you find something on the Internet, does not make it true. 🙂

      I agree that the point I make isn’t a slam-dunk, but when you combine it with the nature of the text (a supernaturally revealed description of cosmic events), I think the burden is on those who prefer a literal interpretation. Why do so, other than that it seems better to the natural mind, and fits with other human tradition? Neither of those are a good Biblical basis on which to build an interpretation.

  6. Andrew Boone says:

    This is interesting, but I think there’s a much better explanation. Check out my interpretation here:


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