While discussing the creation narrative with someone recently, they made reference to taking the plain sense of Genesis 1-3 and, based on a popular saying, stated that one should take the plain sense as the intended meaning whenever it makes common sense. However, there seem to be several items in the creation narrative for which the plain sense meaning does not make common sense. Amazingly, rather than seeking a different sense as the popular saying would suggest, people often choose to add to or modify the Scripture, forcing it to make common sense. Here are some examples of such items.
To start with, consider the creation of light in Genesis 1. The use of “evening” and “morning” precede the creation of the sun, creating an apparent contradiction. This contradiction is often resolved by, for example, assuming the presence of another light source such as the shekinah glory of God, or taking a different meaning of “evening” and “morning”. In other words, we cannot take those words at their standard, plain meaning without the existence of the sun or some similar localized light that is not described in Scripture. To reconcile the terms, it’s necessary to either change meanings or add to Scripture.
Since the plain sense meaning of the passage doesn’t make common sense, why not seek another sense that is consistent with Scripture? After all, light and dark are used throughout Scripture in figurative ways that could be applied here.
At the end of the initial creation narrative, Scripture states that God rested. After a period of labor, the normal use of this English word includes the sense of recovering one’s energy, catching one’s breath. However, many commentators point out that the associated Hebrew word, shabat, really has the meaning of “cease”, which is how it’s often translated elsewhere. But, as pointed out in an earlier post, when the particular form of shabat used here is used in reference to the Sabbath, it does include the sense of refreshment. Perhaps that’s why most translations render it “rested” in Genesis 2:3-4. In addition, Exodus 31:17 makes this even more clear by giving a Scripture-based interpretation: “‘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.'”
Clearly God doesn’t need to catch His breath, so this is a case where the plain sense meaning of Genesis 2:3-4 doesn’t make sense. Again, why take an unexpected meaning for shabat and ignore Exodus 31:17 in order to force a literal meaning? Why not take the verses as figurative (ie, an anthropomorphism) since such references to God are common in Scripture?
Another example arises when we encounter the different sequence of events in Genesis 1 and 2. It’s possible to reconcile the difference by by translating “formed” as “had formed” in Genesis 2:19. Although technically possible, most translations don’t do that because it is an unusual choice given the original Hebrew. In other words, one cannot take the plain sense meaning of both Genesis 1 and 2 together. To remove that difficulty, some insist on using the unusual translation so that the narratives match. However, it’s also possible to take the plain meaning of the text by allowing some figurative language, perhaps as in Genesis 1 where we’ve seen other reasons for it.
When faced with this example of the plain sense not making common sense, why force the text into a strained consistency, rather than allow the normal meanings to be expressed? It turns out that this is not limited to these two chapters, as the next example shows.
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 sense meaning of God’s exhaustive search, but lengthening 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 sense meaning of one of the passages must be discarded.
In all these cases, the bottom line is that the plain sense meanings don’t make common sense, so one must make a decision about how to interpret the passage. One approach is to take the Word as it is, and seek whatever understanding is best. The other approach is to modify the passage so its plain meaning makes common sense. Perhaps because many people have a natural bias against figurative speech (ie, Ezekiel 20:45-49 and John 16:29), it’s common to state that literal meaning should be expected unless there is a clear expectation set otherwise in the text itself, which isn’t the case in Genesis.
However, it’s not that simple to me. The Bible is not a human book, and clearly requires spiritual sensitivity to understand properly (1 Corinthians 2:14-16). After all, the rule about common sense would not have worked when listening to the incarnate Word, so maybe we shouldn’t expect it to work when reading the written Word. Of course, that only makes sense when we recognize the single divine Author at work in both cases.
At any rate, it seems clear that the opening passages of Genesis include multiple items that don’t fit the mold of common sense statements, requiring us to read with discernment. So the next time someone professes a YEC outlook and mentions taking the plain sense meaning of Scripture, ask them why they don’t apply that idea to Genesis.