Interpretation of Genesis 1–3 Is Neither Literal Nor Figurative By Ardel Caneday

Ardel Caneday presents an interesting view -here

What are your considered thoughts on Ardel’s article?

I started but I disagree with the first premise so I stopped.

If we were to read Genesis 1-3 as the author(s) wrote it we would have to read it as literal history. I am convinced that is what it was originally written as. Therefore the rest of the article cannot give any other valid means of reading it.

I am guessing that the author is suggesting an alternative view of why it was written, perhaps I should have discovered what it is but clearly I disagree with it so I will not concur with his conclusion about how to read Genesis 1-3

Whatever reasons that might be assigned, one thing is clear. The author(s) do not have the modern view of the cosmos and or science and are happy to believe in fantastic trees with special abilities, talking snakes, and a God who curses the world. I, for one, will not comply with those understandings.


Interesting article, and I actually agree with him as the the original authors belief of it being presented as historical and literal, but while he mentioned it in a cursory fashion, he fails to give proper weight to how God accommodated the limited understanding of that author, and inspired him to write in such a way that revealed truth about God and creation within the limited understanding of the author and the original audience.
The articles author also seems to err in equating meaning found in a fictional novel to the Bible. Certainly, there are ways that they are similar and lessons learned from one can be applied to the other, but ultimately, the depth and layers of meaning present in scripture is not the same as an earthly inspired work of literature.
The ultimate question that we must answer, is that of how do we deal with it when the literal writing conflicts with what we know to be reality. Genesis tells of a 3 tiered earth, with a a hard firmament separating water above from water below, and the sun and moon and stars traveling in that space along with the birds of the air. It ignores a spherical globe with a day being a rotation in relation to the sun, and dawn and evening being continuous at some point along the globe and not a discrete event each day.
Will stop here for now.


He really lost me at the end when he attributed Genesis 1 to Moses. If that came at the beginning I would have not read any further. How can you take seriously anyone’s view of Genesis 1-3 when they don’t understand the most rudimentary concepts about the formation of the Pentateuch?

I find “literal” and “figurative”to be troubling even though I use them because we are thousands of years removed from the Biblical authors who lived in pre-scientific and (lets be honest) pre-“historical” times. Most people were illiterate. Only a select few were analyzing these stories like we do. Most just listened to them. But isn’t there an article on biologos by NT Wright pointing out the trouble in these terms? Here is an audio but I remember reading an article.

I have no idea what was in the mind of the author of Genesis 1 as he created his story. He wasn’t a modern, fact-literal westerner. Did he think what he wrote was true? I would say so but in a prescientific culture what was “true” scientifically? I think descriptions of a flat earth or firmament in the sky, though false today, were truly believed by the Biblical writers. That is the whole idea of accommodation. God speaks through the worldview of patriarchal, misogynistic, slave-owning, pre-scientific, polytheistic, iron-age war-mongers. The point is to look through the Biblical window and glean what it tells us about God on the other side. We need to not try to view the smudges and cracks in the window as literal word of God binding and true for all time. This guy’s whole approach to the Bible is just more of the same old conservative evangelical and fundamentalist variety I see everywhere. It adds nothing new despite him trying to use semantics to wiggle around “figurative” and “literal.” Just word games.

He does raise a valid question at the end which would be curious to answer. If we believe God in scripture is telling us one thing but science is telling us something else, what will we do? Trust science and reject the Bible? Or accept the Bible and reject science? Or maybe a middle ground. Say I don’t know what’s going on here and abstain?

I have always found the days of Genesis to be “literal” (whatever that means) days because it’s an etiology for the sabbath. Likewise the flood is global or universal to me in the sense that it completely undoes creation… and without it there just is no need for the ark or pairs of animals to repopulate the earth. Even if you say "global from the authors persecutive it doyens’;t change the fact that the biblical author thought the flood covered EVERYTHING and was universal. Life was destroyed and had top repopulate. Now whether or not the original author (or authors) of the two flood accounts in Genesis believed this to be historically true like some do today, I have no clue.

But none of these authors are modern historians or scientists and the Pentateuch was clearly and unequivocally put together by someone who allowed a plethora of contradictions to stand side by side. I just finished writing a piece yesterday (and managed to get it online today):

How does Fussing Over Details in Genesis 1 Misunderstand the Pentateuch?

I have come to learn that Christians fussing over the details of creation are mostly reading the Pentateuch through a modern lens with modern concerns. Many Christians today misunderstand what the Pentateuch is and simply read it incorrectly. They ask of it questions it did not intend to answer and while fussing over its errors and inexactitudes, they miss a huge, glaring elephant sitting in the center of the room. I myself missed that elephant for years.

I do my best to point out the elephant in the room most Christians miss. The basic idea is there are a ton of doublets and retellings of the same story in the pentateuch with contradictory details the editor who put the final version together left in tact. The author of sacred scripture just let those inconsistencies stand. He didn’t care about providing a factually correct depiction of the past though I’m sure he thought what he was writing/editing together was true. I defend that with copious examples and use that to springboard into the fact that we should not approach the Bible, especially the primeval history, with scientific or historical concerns. A few quotes:

  • Joel Baden: "The compiler did not resolve the vast majority of contradictions between the sources. If he had, of course, we would never have known that there were sources to begin with. Even so, the extent of contradiction that the compiler allowed to stand in his combined text is extraordinary. [The Composition of the Pentateuch, 221]

  • Bill Arnold: “While it may seem odd to us at first that an editor retained such discrepancies, we may assume that the sources or traditions underlying the whole had already attained authoritative status, and the editor valued the traditions enough to retain the inconsistencies, which were not problematic in ancient literature.” [Genesis Baker Exegetical Commentary, 96-97]

  • The Jewish Study Bible: "One aspect of narrative in Genesis that requires special attention is its high tolerance for different versions of the same event, a well-known feature of ancient Near Eastern literature, from earliest times through rabbinic midrash. The book presents, for example, two accounts of Abram/Abraham’s attempting to pass his wife off as his sister (12.10-20; 20.1-18; cf. 26.1-11, where Isaac does the same), two accounts of God’s making a covenant with him (ch 15 and 17), and two accounts of how Jacob’s name was changed to Israel (32.23-33; 35.9-15). In these instances, most modern biblical scholars see different antecedent documents that editors (known as redactors or compilers) have combined to give us the text now in our hands. ****This could not have happened, however, if the existence of variation was seen as a serious defect or if rigid consistency was deemed essential to effective storytelling."

If it is believed that scripture is inspired, the author who put these traditions side by side, at the behest of God, had no issues with errors existing in the text side-by-side and made very little attempt to correct them. Fussing over the days in Genesis and trying to fit it in with modern science is just silly and anti-biblical.

I tried to provide an alternative interpretation of Genesis 1 but the article is like 11 pages long so I’ll stop here. You can peruse it if interested.

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I’ll have to read it tomorrow. But I’m pretty sure I’ve heard similar arguments based off of what I see.

I disagree. I think given the fact that genesis 1 and 2 are completely separate accounts the editors at least knew it was not literal. I also know that ancient people understood the concept of poetry, fiction and so on. They understood genre. I think some ancient Jews really believes that the earth was 6k years old…. If they even thought about it that way. But I doubt they believed it because of genesis 1.

I think ancient people were aware that genesis 1-3 was a myth. First I guess it depends on how you view it.

Genesis 1 seems to be a type of poem. It’s not a historical narrative. It’s separate from genesis 2-11 I believe.

Then we have genesis 2-3. It seems to be the same story. A story of a golem brought to life by the spiritual winds the god as he breathed out his life. It brought the mud man to life and he named all the animals and was found to be alone. So God put him to sleep, cut him in half and each half became man and woman. They are naked in a garden with all they could hope for. But there are two magical trees there. One grants eternal sustained life. The fountain of youth or such. The other gives you wisdom but will kill you. The woman gets tricked by a flying talking serpent. The serpent gets cursed and must crawl along the dirt. The thing the man was made from. The thing the less shrewd animals were made of.

I feel like they weee aware the story was a myth. Maybe some truth to it in a literal sense but I just can’t buy into them , the adults, thinking genesis 2-3 was a historical narrative and not a myth.

Isn’t the answer accommodation? But I find belief in accommodation inconsistent with belief that a mature Adam and earth with be deceptive on God’s part. If God left us scripture , the Bible is his book (sola scripture?) that says many things that just are not true, that can be viewed as deceptive as anything. Maybe that is why young earth creationists are so vocal and staunch in their views. They don’t want to make God out to be deceptive which accommodation easily leads to depending on how you define inspiration. Figured I would sneak my pet-peeve in with Christians finding a mature creation deceptive! But as always, I think it’s the model of inspiration we adhere to that needs to change. Viewing God as the chooser of every word is the problem to me.

Well put, Vinnie. On a tangent, it would be interesting to interview other religions that still are active about their creation stories, and see if their adherents see those as literal, figurative, or otherwise.

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Perhaps the answer is more like a further series of questions

  1. Why should the author have any authority over something that he is not aware of?
  2. Why should scripture be compared or weighed against modern knowledge and understanding so that one negates the other?

And a sub-question

What do you think inspired means?


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Good questions. We all are guilty of trying to mold the scripture into what we want it to be rather than let it speak for itself.
Ultimately, the question of how to deal with conflicts for me is hold to the old adage of “all truth is God’s truth.” You then accept that you are either looking at one wrong or the other. Quite honestly, when you do that, I am hard pressed to find an example of something that puts you in conflict. Any nominations of an example to look at?

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Does chance exist.

Scripture would seem to indicate not. But I think there are textual anomalies to make this a universal assertion as opposed to making it Israel or Judaism specific.


I read Caneday’s article. Learned scholars have devoted their lives to these questions so I am impressed by both sides and speak humbled and probably foolishly. I don’t think I understand his main point, that Genesis is neither literal or figurative. Is he saying it is not an ‘either-or’ thing? At one point I think he says, “Instead, we are obliged to acknowledge that we are to read the text as written, which includes literal and symbolic aspects that are properties belonging to the author’s descriptive portrayal of reality.” If he is saying it is literal and figurative I think I get that.

In terms of his point that asking if we should interpret Genesis 1-2 literally or figuratively as the wrong question, I do not know if this is accurate.

I am working my way through Wenham’s Autobiography in which he talks about Barr and the liberal conservative struggles over the Bible. His “Redating Matthrew, Mark and Luke” and “The Easter Enigma” are solid scholarly attempts that strengthen the conservative viewpoint. So, when Caneday quotes Barr he is bringing us into the center of the conservative/liberal conversation.

With regard to ‘days’ I have never felt compelled to interpret this in Genesis as a literal 24-hour period. Some scholars say we must cut a diamond with a diamond, so to speak, to understand scripture we need scripture. 2 Peter 3:8 But do not forget this one thing, dear friends: With the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day.

The more I marvel at the James Webb pictures of the beginning of the Big Bang and marvel that our God is greater than the vast universe he created, are not all things possible?

For us mortals Time is a concept we are a prisoner of, but not forever. God sits outside of time and created it.

The debate is not fruitless. If you’ve read Andrew Parker’s The Genesis Enigma and the Light Switch Theory of evolution, such debate of figurative and literal makes us struggle. I thought isn’t it possible that God allows ‘seeming’ contradictions to invite our scientific curiosity. As Parker writes about the evolution of the eye which he postulates as the key to understanding the Cambrian explosion, he marveled how wise is the Genesis account of the 4th day. Not that the sun was created the sun and lights but that were not visible until the eye was created.

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“Readers are obligated to comprehend how an author represents the world being portrayed textually, whether the realm portrayed is fictional or real.”

Incorrect. We are not so obligated. We are free to read it in whichever way we find meaningful. Besides it is common practice for authors to write fantasy in the style of a true historical account. This does not obligate us to believe the world they describe is real in some other universe. AND many good authors understand this well and deliberately leave aspects of their story open to a variety of interpretations. I see no reason to dumb down God or the Bible’s human authors as the author of this blog demands.

Hard “firmament”, could be a translation error. “Expanse” is also used in many translations, and it seems to fit much better.

Genesis 1:7-8 (WMBB)

God made the expanse, and divided the waters which were under the expanse from the waters which were above the expanse; and it was so. God called the expanse “sky”. There was evening and there was morning, a second day.

I find it interesting how such “water shield” over the atmosphere would have affected the life during pre-flood times. Higher air pressure (huge reptiles were able to fly, health benefits), shielding UV radiation etc.

This would also give a good explanation for rain during the flood “…on that day all the fountains of the great deep burst open, and the sky’s windows opened”.

Edit. About the “hard firmament”, Genesis 1:20 (KJV) says “… and fowl that may fly above the earth in the open firmament of heaven”. This speaks also against “hard firmament”.

This will be one of my shortest responses…
Not a single biblical theme or text has been quoted in the OP article …pathetic conclusion at best.

I would never base doctrine on hearsay, we have the bible for a reason…it explains itself and it does this across 66 books!

The same physics that describe the phenomena of air pressure, flight, and interaction with light, preclude the existence of any water canopy over the atmosphere.


That was my guess, which is why I refused to read it.

If someone is going to make an unorthodox proposal they should briefly describe it before forcing people to plow through the convolutions to reach it.


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I’m not impressed.

This statement is good:

"We do not have the authority to determine how we are to read the text; this authority is embedded into the text by the author. "

But he then goes into gymnastics over whether the text is to be interpreted literally or figuratively or whether the author meant it one of those ways – a silly distinction since we should interpret it as the author meant it!

And he totally fails to address the question of the literary genre, which is where we must turn to discern the author’s intent – and the literary types involved don’t fall into either “literal” or “figurative”.

I call it barely worth the effort of reading.


But then you’re not actually reading what was written, you’re just using it to bring forth your own ideas.


Even though im obviously YEC biased, my limited knowledge of the atmosphere around us (through over 1000 hours of flying paragliders see link to one of my more outrageous flights below), i do tend to think Ron probably has a point on this. My curiousity does like the idea that perhaps the environment was different preflood such that huge animals such as dragons might actually have really existed and were able to fly…

Dont ever try the above crazy sketchy landing at home btw…I am flying a competition wing and have a lot of experience. it was critical to ensure that the wing flew over my head and went up the rock slope to ensure it was well away from waves. I know of guys who have nearly drowned in these situations (myself included when i was a new pilot)

I am also the only paraglider pilot in the world to have ever flown a paramotor east down the Sydney Victor 1 to Wollongong (that link below)

The reason why i share my paragliding videos…i never truly understood how marvelous Gods creation really was until i got to immerse myself in it from just above the trees…its such a wonderful world we live in (despite the corruption of sin).

and if you like river cruising, then this video is one for you


I am usually unimpressed by a lot of learned scholars in the Biblical field. If you spend your life’s work constrained by an axiom, such as inerrancy, it’s akin to a scientist studying Phlogiston theory as their lives work. You will learn som things and get thing right, but essentially all your research is misdirected from the start. I think there are informed scholars who think critically and much less informed scholars trapped in echo chambers.

I wasn’t entirely sure on some o those point myself which is why I believe I described it as “warped games” somewhere in here. It was anti-climactic to me.

I think we just have to wrestle with scripture and use all our faculties of reason. We need to look at creedal Christianity, the rest of the Bible, history, science, surrounding mythology and so on. I don’t think Scripture intends to give us easy answers.

As far as Wenham goes, I just don’t see how one can escape literary dependence between Matthew, Mark and Luke. The wording and order is too similar and we can see how Matthew changes Mark in places. The synoptic problem and Markan priority are a fundamental staple of the field.

From a canonical perspective, 2 Peter 3:8 may be important to this discussion but from a historical-critical perspective, it has no baring on what Genesis meant in its ancient, original context. I think Peter’s comment can be true and I understand its point without any reference to Genesis 1. It is defending am much more serious problem, the failure of Jesus to have returned when expected to by the early Church.

I think the author means real days because the account is an etiology for the sabbath. He is describing a week. The author has no idea how old the earth is. He just breaks God’s creative acts into 7 days. 3 of forming, 3 of filling, one of rest. The events of days 1-3 (forming) correspond sequentially to the events of days 4-6 (filling).

Day 1: light from darkness → Day 4: the sun and moon are created.
Day 2: water above (sky) separated from below Day 5: five naturally brings two things corresponding to that, fish and birds.
Day 3: dry land and vegetation appears Day 6: land creatures are created.

Miller an Soden write: “Rather, the structure makes the point that both order and substance in the world originate with the purpose and plan of God.” [In the beginning We Misunderstood]

Genesis 1 has no interest in the actual age of the earth as we understand it. It has no intention of even teaching that IMO.

I agree on the Jame’s Webb part. The universe is amazing. Scary and horrible at times but also stunningly beautiful and majestic. As far as time, I don’t know where God sits in relation to it. Time may be a part of his being. For me the whole idea of creating something is a temporal action. There was nothing and then there was something created. This presupposed the concept of time to me. I don’t know how to adequately view or talk about anything truly outside time.

That is a new one to me but interesting. High Ross says the account is given from the perspective of the Earth’s surface. The atmosphere went from opaque to transparent and the sun and moon appeared visible. Tying day 4 to the formation of the eye looks like another attempt at making Genesis 1 something it is not, an accurate scientific account or an account consistent with science. Even if we get clever and try to reimagine a few things like this the account just doesn’t fit in with what modern science tells us.

I think Genesis 1 is just about God and how He is greater than all the other gods and the actual Creator. People worshiped astral deities, but they are just lamps in the sky and mark the seasons that God spoke into existence, the great sea monsters or leviathan is just a fish God created. It’s about the primacy of God over all these primal forces and ancient deities and beliefs. I am convinced the best way to truly understand Genesis is to read the surrounding Mesopotamian mythology. How Genesis 1 chooses to recast everything is the point of the story to me. It also tells us the form and function of reality were determined by God and we are the climax of His creation, made in His own image.