Do we have to take Genesis literally?

Good points, Daryl. And I keep running into the fundamentalist misunderstand of Perspicuity of Scripture. They keep operating as if everything in the Bible should be easy to understand to a prayerful reader—and to the average 10 year old. This baffles me because Bible scholars have debated so many aspects for centuries…and the Apostle Paul spoke of seeing through a glass but darkly and the disciples complained that Jesus didn’t speak “plainly.” I often wonder if the perspicuity fans are reading the same Bible I am. I run into mysteries CONSTANTLY when I read the Bible.

After a lifetime in the Bible, I can only say that the complexity continues to become apparent to me.

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There’s an excellent article on the perspicuity of Scripture in the Jan/Feb 2017 issue of Christianity Today. The author began reading the Bible… “as I was about to enter college. With very few assumptions, and with no theological or spiritual commitments.” His conclusion was, "To my utter surprise, the Bible proved itself to be clear to me, even though I knew almost nothing about it. What the Bible made plain was that I was loved, sought, convicted, called, and redeemed by the true and living God who came to save the world–including me–in Jesus Christ. The clarity of Scripture was not an abstract principle; it was an apt description."
Perhaps not everything in the Bible is easy to understand, but God’s message to humanity is clear. Sometimes the lack of preconceived notions (“very few assumptions, and with no theological or spiritual commitments”) is an advantage to understanding Scripture. The scribes and Pharisees were the Bible experts of Jesus’ day, but they couldn’t see the forest for the trees (“You study the Scriptures diligently because you think that in them you have eternal life. These are the very Scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life.”)

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Exactly. The Bible succeeds in exactly the ways God intended. The Gospel comes through unambiguously. It pains me that some Christians manage to hate other Christians for not interpreting Genesis 1 in the same way. I think Genesis 1 is mainly a contrast against all other cosmologies of Israel’s neighbor: Israel’s God created everything. The length of the day and the age of the earth are not the purpose of the text. And in most of the history of the church, nobody was all that obsessed with those details.

Pharisees were not restricted to the first century. We keep falling into the love of tradition and being dogmatic about “we vs. them.”

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Yes, I agree (“not the purpose of the text”). The ‘church father’ Origen said the following 1800 years ago…
"What person of intelligence, I ask, will consider as a reasonable statement that the first and the second and the third day, in which there are said to be both morning and evening, existed without sun and moon and stars? … I do not think anyone will doubt that these are figurative expressions which indicate certain mysteries through a semblance of history."
So people recognized the figurative nature of the creation story centuries before Darwin.


How then do you explain the fact that some animals have a concept of numbers?

Alex the African Grey Parrot

Other species as well.

One of many very good questions related to the mysteries of the Piraha. I tried to nail down more details years ago and I got a lot of conflicting opinions. Apparently they are a controversial topic. They consist of only about 200 people.

I think they rank something like #2 in all human languages for the fewest phonemes! (And I think that they only use three vowels. ??) And because it deals in so few, the hunters can actually talk by means of whistles.

Those stats alone have always amazed me: that some languages get by with very few phonemes. Hawaiian is probably the best known of those.

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Hi James and beagle lady. This passage about the letter of the law killing and the spirit giving life is one of the most beautiful life giving passages in all of Scripture. This passage is not about taking the Bible literally or not. it is the gospel. Let me explain using an analogy:

Child A is raised in a difficult family with an alcoholic dad. the Dad tells the child,“you better clean up those dishes and scrub the toilets or you are sleeping in the shed with the mice and rats tonight!” That child works really hard to avoid the punishment and despised his dad.

Then there is a second child B who is raised in a wonderful family with a loving, kind and forgiving Dad. The Dad has rules and stipulations for all children in the home to follow for sure. Afterall, how loving would it be for a dad to just let that child run wild with no boundaries? Some of his stipulations are that children are to respect their elders, love their neighbors such as helping the elderly neighbor across the street , participate in various tasks, not fight, or have attitudes of selfishness or arrogance before others. However amidst that set of principles to live by, that Dad LOVES all of His children! he cannot wait to get home from work to see them, be with them, take his wife and kids for icecream, playing kickball, going boating on the family pontoon and others. And he is perfectly willing to even pay for the broken glass after that child admits that he threw a ball through the window. Correcting that child may come and is always firm but is always loving and affirming with encouragement to do better next time. When that child recognizes the boundary and how such a loving Dad seems to want what is best, they play in the backyard with a smile and with freedom and enjoyment as they do so within those boundaries.

Child A may obey the Dad out of fear and live a miserable existence. That child recognizes that the Dad is so harsh that it is as if the child can do no right. The child lives but is as if dead because nothing can appease such a hating dad. This is representative of “The letter kills”

Child B loves honors and obeys the Dad even better. Where the first child may find himself spitting in the dad’s soup when he is not looking, Child B puts the dad’s soup in the microwave to warm it before he comes down after his shower. This child is loved, knows that he is not perfect and may mess up from time to time, but that Dad has a forgiving and understanding heart. This child may tend towards even closer allegiance to the laws precepts and ordinances of that childs household out of love for his father. These are not burdensome whatsoever. Mom and Dad don’t consume the kids with too many duties. And it is a joy for the kids to serve the family and love neighbor with kindness in honor of such good and loving parents!

Child B respresents the Christian gospel. My wife and I used 1Jn 4:19 as our marriage verse which says that “We love because He first loved us.” That is the gospel. God so loves us that he sent His one and only Son to die for us that we might have eternal life with Him forever! He did not send his Son to condemn the world but to save it. When one by faith comes into a saving relationship with Jesus Christ, our Maker, love and joy are fruits of that relationship and from these come desires to long to abide by His teaching in His Word! That person is reborn into a family where the family head is the most loving, caring person in the entire universe, the God who reveals Himself in His inerrant Word we call the Bible.

I have tried to understand when and how numbers and geometric concepts became part of human understanding, but the best I can come up with (I think Plato may have discussed this but my memory is hazy) are examples such as breaking one stick into two, and continuing with this to understand the many instead of the one. Perhaps there are many ways of understanding this, such as categorising lots of things instead of a few. Fascinating topic.

I tend to agree that that passage does not address literalism so much as it addresses fundamentalism and the thought process common in the Pharisees, which was more literalistic, so perhaps there is a connection of sorts. However, you point is well taken.

Alas, if only real children responded like your second scenerio, but regardless of how you interpret the fall, we live in a fallen world and even the best of homes produce their prodigals. We must be thankful for grace, and practice grace as we have been instructed.

Perhaps the direct teaching of Jesus is a more instructive text for interpretation on scripture. He often turned the meaning of the text to reveal its truth, much to the discomfort of the religious leaders of the day.

thanks Phil: I believe this passage does not address literalism whatsoever. When it came to the moral law which is exacting and specific in the OT, Jesus did not remove it but He increased the gravity of it. He says that adultery is sin (exacting OT moral law) but when a man thinks lustfully he commits adultery in his heart. He increases the gravity of the law.

And the Pharisees did not have a problem with literalism. they had a problem with the “why?” they were performing obedience. Jesus told people that the Pharisees were right on much of the outward performance, but wrong about how their performance became a rigorous religious duty that illuminated them and man at the expense of disregard to loving God through which comes a compassion for the lost and justice for the downtrodden.

It is so interesting to me that where the Pharisees made unbiblical sub laws for care in the process of self illumination of their religiosity of following God’s laws out of a legalistic mindset…Jesus says that they wore phylacteries on their heads and long tassels all to show off their self! Could you imagine the self-righteousness exuding? From this it would be safe to say that they were probably following the letter of the law pretty well which was good, but doing it in an attitude of uplifting man and not God which is really really bad.

And with Jesus, He was proclaiming that one who understands God’s greatest and love for His people and understands that God is so loving that He will indeed give people a new heart and spirit capable to love God back_…that this indeed also promotes following the letter of the moral law!_ In other words, the Spirit given helps to overcome sin tendency for obeying God wholly.

Some laws such as animal sacrifice and keeping the literal Sabbath were fulfilled and ended by Christ’s death burial and resurrection because He was the sacrifice anticipated and He is now our Rest. I believe it is a good thing to take a day of literal rest from our labors on one day of the week for practical purposes and to celebrate God’s Rest through Jesus, but this is not some necessary law either becasue Jesus fulfilled it. On the other hand, when it comes to the moral law, it becomes fulfilled when a person’s heart of stone is turned to a heart of flesh by the gospel where love for God gives increasing desire to live a life of holiness in honor to Him which is obedience to the moral law. Holiness is abiding by the Word of God from Genesis to Revelation!

I would not call myself a literalistic theologian necessarily, but I do literally observe those passages which do not seem to give wiggle room for reinterpretation. And when there is a question about the passage on what way to go, I typically go with the Passage and not my interpretation.

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I think we need to look at how the word “rested” is translated. The Hebrew for this is Shavat , which is more accurately translated as abstained.

Gooney, My question to you would be, if rested “is more accurately translated as abstained,” then why do all the popular translations say “rested” (ESV, HCS, KJV, NAS, NIV, NKJV, NLT, NRSV). Perhaps it is because words have a range of meaning and the specific meaning of any word is best determined by context. Here is the context…

By the seventh day God had finished the work he had been doing; so on the seventh day he rested from all his work. Then God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it he rested from all the work of creating that he had done.

It seems that translators settled on “rested” because it makes the most sense (“he rested from all the work of creating that he had done”). It makes sense that someone would rest after working. Many still regard the Sabbath as a day of rest, by which they mean rest, not a day of abstention. We know that God didn’t literally need to rest, but that’s my point, that the creation stories in Genesis are full of indications that the author did not intend us to take them literally, but as stories designed to teach timeless theological truths. A few of the other indications are evenings and mornings before the sun is created, the sound of God walking in the garden, God’s search for the man (“Where are you?”), and God being unaware of what the man had done ("Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten from the tree that I commanded you not to eat from?”), etc. The stories do not present themselves as literal accounts and should not (in my opinion) be interpreted as such. To do so misses the actual intent of the stories.


Thanks for your reply Daryl. Jews today still follow their laws for “abstaining” from a list of work duties on the Sabbath as do many Christians. Today the Sabbath is used for resting, worship, praying and fellowship. We all know that our wonderful Creator God didn’t need a “rest”.
In Hebrews 4:4
For he has somewhere spoken of the seventh day in this way: “And God rested on the seventh day from all his works.” Hebrews was written in Greek which uses the word “katepausen” This word translated can mean ‘(cause to) stop, bring to an end,’5 ‘to cease one’s work or activity. When I finish a project I rest from it. I do think that having a good rest on the Sabbath from the labours of the week is a good idea and God knows we need that time to recoup.

Yes, I agree that my example of the Sabbath being a day of rest was a poor one because, as you point out, it is a day for abstaining. I also agree that it is possible that the author of Genesis may have only intended to indicate that God was abstaining on the seventh day. The NET Bible uses “ceased” instead of rested…

By the seventh day God finished the work that he had been doing, and he ceased on the seventh day all the work that he had been doing. God blessed the seventh day and made it holy because on it he ceased all the work that he had been doing in creation.

I still think “rested” is a better choice because nearly every other translation uses rested in that context (as I stated above), however, I agree that it is not the best example of anthropomorphism in the creation stories. There are better examples within those stories that the author did not intend us to take them literally (as I also stated above). That was my main point.

Thanks for your reply.

“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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