Discerning Literal from Figurative Parts of Genesis

15th-century BibleOne complaint about a figurative interpretation of the first half of Genesis is that it calls into question one’s interpretation of the rest of the Bible. If one doesn’t believe the straight-forward narrative statements in Genesis 1-11 are literal, then why should one believe any of the straight-forward narratives in the Bible? For example, if we take the first half of Genesis figuratively, is there any reason to take the second half as literal history?

This question is often used by young earth creationists to challenge old-earth views. They apply the reasoning blindly through remaining books, making it seem that rejecting a young earth perspective leads to rejecting the truth of Scripture itself.

Most counter arguments for this have to do with the nature of the narratives themselves, but I think there’s another interesting detail that’s worth considering. By reflecting on some of the physical artifacts that span multiple books of the Bible, we discover a reason to think of the second half of Genesis as literal even if we conclude that the first half is figurative. This becomes another way to halt the slippery slope reasoning described above.

Before looking at the Biblical clues of a literal Genesis, it’s worth noting that accepting the second half of Genesis as literal does not necessarily mean the first half is. Many people assume there is some unspoken rule that books can’t be mixed genre without clearly stating such, but there’s really no such mandate. Even Jesus would move between literal and figurative, so if the incarnate Word didn’t seem to follow such a rule, why would we expect the written Word to do so? In this case, that’s especially reasonable considering the vast difference in styles between the two halves, and the fact that the only thing that joins them is a genealogy.

So considering Genesis 12-50 as a starting point, is there any particular reason to think of it as literal history? After all, the roughly 400 year break between those events and the narratives in Exodus leaves a lot of room for legends to have formed. Similarly, there is a lot of room between the end of Joshua (which basically finishes the exodus narratives) and the time of the kings. Although Judges is between them, it is just an independent collection of narratives that provide no clear link between the conquest and the much later narratives in Kings.

So while there may be literary reasons for insisting on natural history, there seems to be little narrative continuity.

However, there are some interesting narrative links that are more obvious if we start in Kings and work backwards. Consider 2 Kings 18:4, where we read of the bronze snake that Moses made in Numbers 21:9. Now, Kings (1 and 2) are part of the Bible that are universally viewed as historical. So we have a clearly historical reference to something that was produced in the time of the Exodus. This clearly links the Exodus narratives to the well-established historicity of Kings through a physical artifact.

Similarly, In Exodus 13:19, we read of Joseph’s bones being taken out, just as he requested in Genesis 50:25. Later, in Joshua 24:32, they are buried in Shechem. This even more clearly places them in the Exodus narratives, and provides similar continuity through a physical artifact.

So Genesis 12-50 is validated through a link into the Exodus narratives, which are themselves validated through a different link into the historical Kings narratives. Other than the connecting genealogy, there is no such physical link between the two halves of Genesis. It turns out there is no reason to worry that accepting a figurative Genesis 1-11 leads to rejecting all Scripture.

Maybe this is a minor point, but I find it intriguing that God provided connections to solidify the historical nature of Genesis 12-50, even as He also provided clues of a figurative Genesis 1-11. Once again, considering Genesis in the context of other Scripture provides a consistent interpretation.

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