Interpreting the Bible: Genesis

The Bible is claimed by many to be a message from the divine being to humanity. This is an extraordinary claim which has enormous ramifications for the world if it is true. It is also arguably the most influential collection of writings in the history of humanity. How it influences us relies on how it is read, so a correct understanding of how to read the Bible and assess its claims is critical to the individual and to humanity as a whole. This essay will explore two of the dominant readings: the literal approach and the theological approach, looking specifically at how they relate to the first creation story in Genesis.

There are numerous ways to interpret the Bible. These interpretations are called readings. Because of the nature of language; there are at least as many readings of the Bible as there are readers. Each individual who picks up the collection of writings comes with their own set of assumptions, prejudices and even their own ideas of what certain words mean. This issue is magnified by the fact that the majority of people reading the Bible are reading translations which carry the assumptions and prejudices of the translators, in a canon selected by people who were again using their prejudices and assumptions to determine which books would be included, and nobody has access to the original documents which were written thousands of years ago. Another issue is that (short of divine intervention) no modern reader is able to speak with the original authors of the texts. These barriers make it difficult to know what is the best way to read the Bible.

The literal approach, also known as the historical approach and Christian Science, begins with the premise that if God intended to communicate with humanity through the written word that writing would be perfect and factual in every way. Some literal readers take this to mean that God would also protect his message through human translation, so that modern language translations can also be considered perfect and inerrant. Others prefer the idea that the original documents which have been lost were perfect and without error, and since they have been lost some minor transcription and translation errors have occurred but the message as a whole remains largely intact.

A literal approach to Genesis will seek to determine the events which happened in Genesis One by viewing the text alone, and then take meaning from that as historical events. In the literal reading, the focus tends to be on what God creates and the order in which it is created. He creates the heavens and the Earth, light, Heaven, land, plants, stars, the sun and the moon, moving animals, birds, sea creatures, land animals, and finally man and woman who would dominate all the other living things and eat all the plants. All of this he creates in six literal twenty four hour days despite creating the sun and the moon, which are our measure for a twenty four hour day on the third day of creation.

The theological approach begins by asking the question “What does the text say about God and the world?”. The issue of empirical fact is considered secondary to the message being communicated through the story. This approach treats the creation story as allegorical and makes the claim that the question of whether the story is truth or fiction is irrelevant to the message being communicated, much as with the parables of Jesus in the New Testament. Finding the theological meaning of the text requires a little more work than the literal approach because the theologian must look into the context of who is writing the story, who it is being written to, and what were the dominating ideas of reality at the time of writing, both within Israel and amongst her neighbours.

Themes and meanings that may be uncovered through a theological approach may include some of the following. God creates order out of chaos, rather than out of nothing. The ancient Jews were scared of water and the sea because to them it was a symbol of chaos and represented the demonic, the spirit of God hovering above the water shows that God is order, and separate from the chaos, and he draws the dry land itself from the chaos. The whole seven days of creation involve God separating things. This is important because the Jews have a lot of cultural beliefs about keeping things separated. The positioning of the creation of the Sun and the Moon on the fourth day, directly in the middle and the use of the terms meaning “greater lamp and lesser lamp” rather than the proper names of the Sun and the Moon is a deliberate statement that these heavenly bodies are not gods to be worshiped or which can have an effect on our daily lives, but are merely objects in the sky which produce light. There is significance that on the seventh day, God creates rest, suggesting that we work so that we may rest, rather than resting so that we may work.

By removing the need to make scripture line up with observable reality by altering one’s perception of both the language in the scripture and of external reality as a whole, the theological approach allows the reader set aside the apparent conflicts and focus on the deeper meaning. The literal approach seems to require altering the interpretation of the text to fit with observed reality, and there seems to be a high risk of missing the original intended meaning when this is done. In my own personal reflection on the ideas above, I find the theological approach far more appealing than the literal approach.

3 thoughts on “Interpreting the Bible: Genesis

  1. Interesting, I’d never heard that theory before. Makes sense I guess, though it’s a pretty grandiose way to go about it. 😉

    Periods of time… it was something that made sense to me and I had discussed this with a few people who said their understanding was the word used was “period of time” rather than “the time it takes for the earth to turn on its axis” but they probably knew about as much as me re: the original. Most people have read King James or later, which is hardly a faithful reproduction of the original text.

    More food for though. Thank you again.


  2. Nice read.

    I was brought up with the message that the bible was something that needed to be interpreted, and that it would hold a different meaning for everyone. (The 70s were heady times.) Over the years as my understanding of religions, science and human nature has developed, that message has been strengthened for me.

    I can see that a 24 hour period doesn’t work for “on the first day”, and look at that as a meaning “in the first time period”. This time period could have been milliseconds or millennia. Creating plants and creatures could have been achieved through evolution and selective breeding. If god exists, or existed, his “day” may be thousands of years. After all, no one could comprehend what god could be if he was not able to be seen by human beings. Maybe he was seen to create man in his image because he presented himself to believers in that way.

    This is the only way I can come close reconciling my understanding of scientific facts and the religious teachings from early life. I could not participate in a religion that ignored facts because they read the bible literally. Perhaps if more religious organisations recognised this, there would be more people attending church today (and yes, I mean today – it’s Good Friday after all).

    Throughout the years, people claiming to be believers of Christian-based religions have bullied and killed others in the name of god. They have taken pagan ceremonies and distorted their nature to become symbols of Christianity (once again I look to Easter – a celebration of the spring – new life, symbols of fertility etc – named after Eostre, a pagan goddess). I admit it’s been a while since I read the bible but I don’t believe god ever said anything about destroying people and their cultures. Correct me if I’m wrong. But clearly the interpretations are there, and I don’t see anything literal about that.

    Then there is the question of what has been lost and, just as importantly, what has been added. The bible tells us that human beings are sinful by nature, they lust for power and they distort the truth. How many prophets and priests have done that through the ages?

    I think everyone’s experience of god and spirituality is and should be different, and this is the reason that churches are not the thriving places they could be. Churches should be places of fellowship for people with like ideas. They shouldn’t be a place to spoon feed information, they shouldn’t try to direct people and they shouldn’t try to be a substitute for spiritualality.

    Thanks for the food for thought.


    1. The problem with interpreting “days” as “periods of time” is that the language clearly states that they are days in the 24 hour sense of the word. Reading it as “periods of time” is fine if that is what you want to do, but since the order does not appear to be chronological anyway I don’t see any reason to change the meaning of day when the whole book seems more analogous that literal anyway.

      If the book is analogous and is actually describing the creation of the Jews as a nation and their temple (as many theologians believe) rather than the actual creation of the universe, there really is no conflict with science. They are both “true” but in different ways.


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