Do we have to take Genesis literally?

Some people would insist that we have to take Genesis literally (as history.) I don’t but I don’t believe it invalidates Jesus’s existence, His miracles, or that He died and rose again. I struggle with that question “the why believe the Bible?” think some have presented that here.

I can’t take Genesis as literal history because the scientific evidence doesn’t support it.

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Hi Emily,
I think it is more insightful to allow the Scriptures to be interpreted completely in their own context. That is what we call exegesis (exe- = out, -gesis = draw) which means to draw out the original intention of the writer from the text. The opposite is to impose our own conceptions and demands on the text. That is what we call eisegesis (eise- = into). Nobody is immune to eisegesis but we can diminish it by properly informing ourselves about the context of the original audience of the Scriptures: Ancient Near-Eastern (ANE) cultures.

For example, we know that Genesis 1 was written in the context of a conversation with origins narratives of neighboring ANE cultures that adhered to paganism. There are many indications internal to Genesis 1 that have led biblical scholars to believe that it was written as a polemical text to correct and supervene pagan notions of the world as originating from a war between multiple gods. Origins history was therefore indeed at stake, because it was telling them (and tells us today):

The “who” of Creation: a transcendent God instead of multiple gods,
the “how” of Creation: at God’s word instead of through a war of gods,
and the “why” of Creation: for God to create something good and even very good.

Genesis is therefore about history, but not in same sense as we would expect in our Western context. Based on that idea, I would suggest an alternative statement to yours:

I can’t take Genesis as literal history (in the modern Western sense) because proper exegesis doesn’t support it.



I totally support what Casper says, and in addition, we can look at how the Bible holds together. If chapters 1 and 2 are both taken literally, and both apply to the whole world, then there is a conflict in the order of events. (Were plants before or after humans?) Part of exegesis is finding what the author meant - and we can presume that he didn’t intend for us to have a problem in the first two pages of his book! He must have been seeing it with a different lens from the literal one - for at least one of the two accounts. We also come unstuck with the concept of “day” as the sun doesn’t appear till day four. Whereas, if we see the references to ANE cultures and also consider the literature style to be something like poetry in structure - it not only makes sense, but it really does hold together - with a clear message in the discourse markers (such as “And it was good”) as to how great our Creator God is, the power of His spoken word and what He thought of His creation! Interpreting Genesis this way does not detract at all from the gospel message.

Being literal and being true are not the same thing. Jesus described himself as a gate. That is not literally true, but it is truth!

I totally support the points above by Casper and Mary. It is helpful to try to forget all we’ve been told about the creation story and to read it as if you were among its original recipients. As stated above, it becomes clear that the two creation stories in the opening chapters of Genesis are not in “literal” agreement. Even those who believe that those stories are the output of different authors believe that a single editor/redactor carefully assembled Genesis as we have it today. That author made no attempt to harmonize the apparent contradictions (order of creation mentioned above, etc.). It seems logical that the original audience would have understood that the stories were not intended as literal historical accounts, but as stories telling far more important truths.

Other indicators in the creation stories that the author did not intend them to be taken as literal historical accounts are:

  • That God needed to rest on the seventh day. That is not a “literal” description of our all-powerful God.
  • That a single river divided to water the known world of that day. “Literal” rivers behave exactly the opposite; forming from smaller tributaries, however, the theological meaning of water as a source of life flowing from God is found throughout Scripture.
  • That God failed in his first attempt to create a suitable helper for man by creating animals, so he tried again and created woman.
  • That “the man and his wife heard the sound of the Lord God as he was walking in the garden.” Again, not a literal description of God.
  • That God could not find the first couple (Where are you?), and didn’t know what they had done (“Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten from the tree that I commanded you not to eat from?”).

There are other examples (magic trees, talking snakes, etc.), but it seems logical to assume that the author’s intent was to convey truths of great theological importance, unique from the beliefs of other ANE cultures, and not to provide a literal account of creation. I believe the original recipients would have recognized his intent.


If we took everything in the Bible at face value, since Jesus said “I am the way and the truth,” when Pilate asked, “What is truth?” Jesus could have said, “You’re lookin’ at it.”

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The Bible seems to mock gently those who take things too literally. When Jesus told people that they must be born again, that they had to eat his flesh and drink his blood, that he had water that would make people thirst no more, and so on, they misunderstood him.


2 Corinthians 3:6:

He has made us competent as ministers of a new covenant–not of the letter but of the Spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.

Basically, strict literalism is an approach to reading the Bible that the Bible itself rejects.


Yes, my favorite example is…
5 When they went across the lake, the disciples forgot to take bread. 6 “Be careful,” Jesus said to them. “Be on your guard against the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees.” 7 They discussed this among themselves and said, “It is because we didn’t bring any bread.” 8 Aware of their discussion, Jesus asked, “You of little faith, why are you talking among yourselves about having no bread? 9 Do you still not understand? … 11 How is it you don’t understand that I was not talking to you about bread? But be on your guard against the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees.” 12 Then they understood that he was not telling them to guard against the yeast used in bread, but against the teaching of the Pharisees and Sadducees. (Matthew 16:5-12)
It just strikes me funny… Jesus becoming exasperated because when he says “yeast” they think he’s literally talking about yeast (after they “discussed this among themselves”).


Jesus regularly explained his statements to his listeners. Were many people in Jesus’ time unfamiliar with figurative language, or did something in Jesus’ original language get lost in translation to Greek, that the Gospel writers felt they needed to clarify?

Keep in mind that, especially in Hebrew culture and literature, we can’t assume that order of presentation is necessarily order of chronology. So the differences in Genesis 1 and 2 in terms of order no longer bother me. The problem of demanding a consistency of order is a cultural bias which modern readers often impose upon the text but which the ancients wouldn’t have been troubled. (I ran into similar issues with Navajo [??] story-telling characteristics. Not all cultures worry about chronology and even verb tenses!)

For me, Genesis 1 and 2 are two very different stories about viewpoints and purposes. While Genesis 1 is kind of a “big picture” look at creation, Genesis 2 describes the planting of a special garden area as the abode for humans where they will get to know their Creator. It isn’t a creation story per se. It is a relationship story: How humans lost the relationship with God that they were created to have and enjoy. Genesis 2 is NOT describing the entire world, just one area in Eden. (That’s why there are no weeds and thorns there. You don’t want them in a garden, but they existed elsewhere, outside the garden, just as death did. Of course, lots of death existed inside the garden, but mostly plant death! It is also known as FOOD.)

Perhaps @Christy could tell us if there have been any sort of major studies comparing languages and trying to quantify the relative ubiquity of figurative language, idioms, etc. in various tongues. (My linguistics education was long ago and no doubt inferior on these types of topics.) I’ve heard missionary colleagues talk about how some cultures have a tough time understanding non-literal descriptions. They just aren’t as accustomed to expressions like “raining cats and dogs”. (To them it seems almost like lying.)

Of course, I also know that sometimes western visitors to various cultures will initially get various impressions about a language and culture—but later on they will discover that there were levels of figurative language (for example) that was flying right over their heads. (And as Christy reminded us with that ESV review by Mark Strauss the other day, even Hebrew scholars sometime totally fail to catch important Hebrew idioms when translating!)

Brain flash: I think I recall a Star Trek episode were a culture ONLY used figurative language and inscrutable allusions with figures of speech that were very hard for outsiders to understand. It was as if their language NEVER spoke literally. (Of course, that was a fictional exaggeration but it was fun to think about.) Nothing was said in a direct manner. (Example: “Eve weeps” would translate as “I am regretful”, because every speaker in the culture would know the story of Eve, so a reference to her weeping would be a way to refer to having regret for something.)

Anyway, I just wonder if scholars have published some sort of statistical indexes to indicate how heavily various languages depend upon various kinds of features, such as figurative speech. (For example, I HAVE seen detailed measurements and comparisons of how INFLECTED a language is versus WORD ORDER DEPENDENCE. Thus, English is relatively uninflected but very heavily oriented towards auxiliaries and careful word order.**)

** I remember long ago when some professors would speak as if Greek was so inflected that one could scramble a sentence and one could still figure it out. And while that is partially true (though difficult!), it ignores the fact that word order in Koine Greek is still important. It just doesn’t have the same role as word order in English.

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I have no idea. Just thinking of the difficulties of obtaining those kind of statistics on a large scale, I would think not. It would not be as simple as running a bunch of text corpi through a computer program.

I do know some theorists have posited that metaphor is a foundational scheme of thought. Vega Moreno is the only person I have read on this topic, but I’ve heard of “metaphor studies” referred to as branch of research now. It comes out of an interdisciplinary intersection of cognitive psychology, pragmatics, and communication theory.

I was thinking it might exist as a META-STUDY, where various dissertations done on German, French, and English texts (or other very well studied languages, hopefully from different families like Semitic Languages, Mandarin, Sanskrit vs. Greek, etc. generated statistics which could be compared.

It might be interesting to contact Wycliffe and ask about this. They believe very strongly that all people should have the Bible in their own language. I would be surprised to find any people group that didn’t have the capability to understand figures of speech.

It is simply a matter of curiosity on my part.

That is definitely my reaction to the idea. Yet, I have observed some very unexpected cultural traits in my day. Some cultures have no understanding of numbers and find it impossible to learn basic arithmetic. Moreover, in some cultures, resorting to non-literal speech can be seen as dishonest or crazy. (Now I’m not saying that such cultures are always totally CONSISTENT about this. But I’ve seen cultures with lots of practices that I don’t understand.)

I used to think that the idea of a culture [my memory is failing me; it is a word like Pirana perhaps??? They are in the Amazon basin] without numbers and the ability to count and learn arithmetic is a myth—but it is well documented. So I guess I’m open to most anything.

Can you point me to some documentation?

I have heard of stuff like that. It’s true that a language can affect the way we think and learn. But I’m pretty sure that even Homo erectus found 10 giant hyenas (Pachycrocuta) more threatening than just one. And I’m pretty sure that they understood that gathering a large amount of berries was of more value than a few berries. Heck, even some animals have rudimentary arithmetic skills, something once thought impossible.

Exactly. The missionary who dealt with them wrote of how they realized that their failures to grasp exact quantities was prompting other tribes to cheat them at trade. So the men of the village asked the missionary to teach them counting. He really tried but they finally gave up. They couldn’t grasp basic number concepts. So it must be like language: there is a window during childhood.

The name that comes to mind (of the tribe) was the Piraha. (???)

Here it is:

Daniel Everett was the missionary I remembered. From what I recall, he eventually became an atheist.

Regarding the question above, "Were many people in Jesus’ time unfamiliar with figurative language?"
I’m not a Hebrew [or Aramaic] scholar by any stretch, so I can’t comment on the linguistics, but since the Jewish Scriptures are full of poetry with figurative language (“the mountains and hills will burst into song before you, and all the trees of the field will clap their hands” comes to mind) it seems like the ancient Hebrews and Jesus’ first century Jewish audience should have been able to recognize figurative language. One reason that people cling to literal interpretations when a figurative one is intended (such as is the case with the creation story, in my opinion) is the influence of parents or other authority figures (pastors, Sunday school teachers, etc.). That was a hurdle faced by Jesus in that he was not delivering the type of Messianic message that 1st century Jews had been taught to expect, so he was rejected by most. Perhaps the same is true today regarding the interpretation of the creation story. Many “Bible-believing” Christians have been taught that a literal interpretation of the creation story is necessary and that evolution is godless by definition. That is a difficult paradigm to overcome.


And then there is the Song of Songs…

“Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone.” -Colossians 4:6

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