When we read any passage in the Bible, it is very important that we interpret it as it is supposed to be interpreted. If a passage is meant to be understood literally, then taking it purely figuratively is obviously going to lead to wrong conclusions about what it is saying. Similarly, if a text is meant to be understood figuratively, then to take it purely literally would be a big mistake.
It is very common for readers of the Bible to go wrong in both of these ways.
On the one hand, there are those who deny literal interpretations to passages that should be understood literally. Sometimes even passages that refer to key components of the Christian faith, like the resurrection of Jesus or His future return, are interpreted purely symbolically. This leads to extremely serious error.
On the other hand, there are those who take literal interpretations of passages that should be taken purely figuratively. In fact, many Christians today seem to think that interpreting literally means holding true to what the Bible teaches, while interpreting figuratively means compromising on biblical truth.
This is actually a serious mistake. The Bible contains a lot of non-literal teaching. The Psalms, for example, constantly use vivid metaphors. Books like Daniel and Revelation use powerful apocalyptic imagery. And it is noteworthy too how in John’s Gospel we repeatedly find Jesus making statements that those listening to Him misunderstand precisely because they take His words literally (see John 2:19-21; 3:3-4; 4:10-15, 31-34).
One part of the Bible that Christians often interpret too literally is the first three chapters of Genesis. Many believers, who are rightfully distressed by godless theories of how the universe and mankind originated, seem to think that one way to oppose these theories is to insist on a fully literal interpretation of Genesis 1-3.
In fact, a close reading of these chapters shows that it is a mistake to take them fully literally. Let’s look at some reasons why this is the case:
Daylight created three days before the sun
In Genesis 1:3-5, we are told:
‘3 Then God said, ‘Let there be light’, and there was light. 4 God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness. 5 God called the light ‘day’, and He called the darkness ‘night’. And there was evening and there was morning, one day.’
However, in verses 14-19, we read:
‘14 Then God said, ‘Let there be lights in the canopy of the heavens to separate the day from the night, and let them serve as signs to mark seasons and days and years; 15 and let them serve as lights in the canopy of the heavens to give light on the earth’, and so it happened. 16 God made the two great lights, the greater light to govern the day and the lesser light to govern the night; He also made the stars. 17 God placed them in the canopy of the heavens to give light on the earth, 18 and to govern the day and the night, and to separate the light from the darkness; and God saw that it was good. 19 There was evening and there was morning, a fourth day.’
We see in verses 3-5 that on the first day God creates light that He calls ‘day’, i.e., day-time as opposed to night-time. However, we read in verses 14-19 that on the fourth day He creates the sun, moon and stars. But the light that gives us day-time obviously comes from the sun!
These verses stand as a strong piece of evidence that we are not supposed to understand Genesis 1 as a purely literal account. On the level of the text, six 24-hour days are referred to. But the reader is surely not supposed to think that these are literal 24-hour days on which God did His creating. Instead, these six days are far better understood as a literary device that provides a framework for God’s creative activity. When Genesis was written, Jews worked for six days of the week and rested on the seventh. God is therefore portrayed doing likewise.
On the first day in Genesis 1 the focus is on God’s creation of light, darkness and 24-hour days. And on the fourth day the focus is on His creation of the sun, moon and stars. The point that is being made is that God created all these things: light, darkness, the 24-hour day, sun, moon and stars. But the text is not meant to be taken as a literal, chronological account of when God made them.
Sometimes Christians who insist on taking all these verses literally come up with forced interpretations in an attempt to hold on to their view. For example, it is sometimes said that God created the sun on the first day, but the sun appeared from behind clouds on the fourth day.
Solutions like these are extremely unconvincing:
In verses 14-19 God seems clearly to be portrayed creating the sun on the fourth day. Note how verse 16 says that God ‘made’ the sun, moon and stars on that day. And note too how verse 17 tells us that He ‘placed’ them in the canopy of the heavens on that day.
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