Just wondering: literal language and referent in Genesis 1-3?

I’m currently reading Stephen G. Dempster’s fantastic book Dominion and Dynasty: A theology of the Hebrew Bible, which is part of D.A. Carson’s “New Studies in Biblical Theology” series. (InterVarsity Press, 2003).

Dempster is trying to look at the Jewish Old Testament (the Tanakh, which is essentially just a different ordering of the same books) with a “wide-angle lens”—moving past the diverse genres of the OT to find its thematic unity. In other words, D and D observes how each individual text (e.g. Malachi) fits into the literary structure of the Text (the whole Tanakh).

He emphasizes the function of the Creation narrative as (a) the establishment of mankind’s rule over the land as Yahweh’s vicegerents (dominion), and (b) the promise of a line (or ‘seed’) of descendants to inhabit that land (dynasty), and alludes in passing to his view on the historicity of the story:

“If the text is written in realistic narrative, there is also a pervasive symbolism. The river of life, stressing God’s presence, flowing from the ‘temple,’ is echoed later in the Text … The command not to eat of the tree of knowledge—the one ‘thou shalt not’—can be seen in some ways as an encapsulation of the commandments given later at Sinai, which would be kept in the sanctuary. While having many and various interpretations, the tree of knowledge of good and evil probably signifies the violation of commandment, represented in a quest for moral and epistemological autonomy” (p. 63).

And later:

“A serpent … suddenly appears, urging the woman to reject the imposition of any limits and flatly contradicts God. Literalistic commentators who describe this text as belonging to an age when people still believed in talking animals fail to see its theological depth” (p. 68-69).

So it got me thinking: is the Creation story historically true?

Now, I mean this in two senses. The first is comprehensive—are Adam and Eve historical persons, and was there a literal garden? Essentially, is the narrative fundamentally a historical event? As admittedly conservative, I lean very strongly toward the affirmative.

The second sense is more particular—was there literally a talking snake, was the tree of knowledge of good and evil actually a tree, and was Adam and Eve’s sin eating a physical fruit? Or are these simply metaphors for spiritual realities—the presence of evil in the garden, Adam and Eve’s sinful longing to be like God, and their partaking in forbidden desires?

In other words, there seems to be three options: (1) The Historical Approach: Both the narrative and its language are to be read literally; (2) The Ahistorical Approach: The Creation story is an entirely metaphorical event deeply embedded in Jewish literary form and Ancient Near East (specifically Egyptian) historical context, and intended to flesh out spiritual truth(s) about God; (3) The Literal-Metaphorical Approach: The narrative actually occurred in space-time history, but the language describing the event is often metaphorical—the author uses poetic style and and symbolism to point toward a spiritual reality (e.g, the snake symbolizes the presence of evil, the tree represents Adam and Eve’s rebellion, etc).

I don’t have a strong opinion on this one. I’m only beginning to work through these issues.

So I’m just wondering: How should we read Genesis 1-3? Strictly literally, strictly metaphorically, or some mixture of the two? Offer your opinion in the comments. If there are more than three options, by all means suggest them.


3 thoughts on “Just wondering: literal language and referent in Genesis 1-3?

  1. I’ve been struggling with the same questions. Right now, my take is that the Genesis creation story is literal in that the events, people, and objects occurred in some form that we would recognize them to be what they are if we saw them; however, I think our understanding of what those events, people and objects might have been has been obscured by (particularly) a modern understanding of that story that is supported by neither a historical understanding (see Gregory of Nyssa) nor the text itself.

    Of course, the real answer is that I just don’t know and neither does anyone else, but I find these are useful questions to ask because they force us to dig even deeper into Scripture and the faith of all Christians in all times.

  2. good thoughts. i think that’s right. it’s too much of a leap for me to believe that the entire story is completely metaphorical, which is where a growing number of scholars are going. this approach is understandable, as we shouldn’t wrench the Pentateuch out of the historico-literary context of the Ancient Near East, and we certainly ought not to think of it as a strictly historical account with no theological takeaway (viz., Moses, the first journalist or something, just reporting the FACTS).

    but there’s just too much weight in (1) the regular references to the garden of Eden throughout the Bible and (2) the inclusion of Adam in OT genealogies and, most notably, Romans 5 (as a parallel to Jesus). the idea that Eden/Adam are merely mythical in these subsequent references seems untenable, dangerous (vis-a-vis Christ), and super lame — who cares about typological fulfillment (read: Christ as the second Adam, the new heaven and new earth, etc.) if there’s no actual type in the first place?

  3. While I agree that the Creation account could be partially a metaphor without changing the meaning of the text, why would it need to be a metaphor? Certainly other portions of the Pentetuch (written by the same human author) cannot be metaphor without doing damage to the essential message of the Gospel: A global flood really did cover the earth and destroy all human and animal life upon it; God really did scatter mankind across the planet by confusing our language; an old woman named Sarai really did have a baby who was nearly sacrificed by his father in response to a direct order from God; and on and on through the founding of the nation of Israel as a theocracy on the banks of the Jordan River. If any part of the work is a metaphor, then any part of the rest of it could be a metaphor as well. So Genesis cannot be metaphor at all; it has to mean just what it says.

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