Should Genesis be taken literally

Creationists are accused of believing that the whole Bible should be taken literally. This is not so! Rather, the key to a correct understanding of any part of the Bible is to ascertain the intention of the author of the portion or book under discussion.

The philosophy that focuses upon the “nature and function of literary texts” is termed literary theory.[i] Historian Keith Windschuttle claims, “Rather than explaining what individual works mean, literary theory attempts to analyse the figures and conventions that enable works to have the forms and meanings they do.”[ii]

Despite the clarity of this definition, literary theory has been found to be an extremely difficult and complex body of thought and writing to comprehensively specify, because it has quite broad application to very disparate academic disciplines. Its interdisciplinary use is recognized within art, film, gender and social studies, philosophy and politics. Nonetheless, as Jonathan Culler insists, “The main effect of [literary] theory is the disputing of ‘common sense’.” [iii] According to Culler this means that literary theorists reject the following:

1) the conception that the meaning of an utterance or text is what the speaker ‘had in mind’

2) the idea that writing is an expression whose truth lies elsewhere in an experience or a state of affairs which it expresses

3) the notion that reality is what is ‘present’ at a given moment

Just like progressives, they know more about what the writer was writing about than the writer himself! So without any particular supportive evidence to say that such authors believe they know more than the writers as well as all the linguists and theologians worldwide who have for most of their lives studied the ancient languages and the societies in which they were used in, we can dismiss them as being politically or atheistically motivated.

The Bible gives us principles of interpretation in 2 Corinthians 4:2 and Proverbs 8:8–9: Rather, we have renounced secret and shameful ways; we do not use deception, nor do we distort the word of God. On the contrary, by setting forth the truth plainly we commend ourselves to every man’s conscience in the sight of God (2 Corinthians 4:2).

All the utterances of my mouth are in righteousness; There is nothing crooked or perverted in them. They are all straightforward to him who understands, And right to those who find knowledge (Proverbs 8:8–9).

In other words, we are to read and understand the Bible in a plain or straightforward manner. This is usually what people mean when they say “literal interpretation of the Bible” (this phrase is common among those not well-versed in hermeneutics[iv]). I try to use the term “plainly” so I don’t confuse people.

Reading the Bible “plainly” means understanding that literal history is literal history, metaphors are metaphors, poetry is poetry, etc. The Bible is written in many different literary styles and should be read accordingly. This is why we understand that Genesis records actual historical events. It was written as historical narrative.

Reading the Bible plainly/straightforwardly (taking into account literary style, context, authorship, etc.) is the basis for what is called the historical-grammatical method of interpretation, which has been used by theologians since the church fathers. This method helps to eliminate improper interpretations of the Bible.

The Bible obviously contains: Poetry, Parables, Prophecy, Letters, Biography, Autobiography/ testimony, and Authentic historical facts. We will touch briefly on all of these in relationship to Genesis 1- 11. The author’s intention with respect to any book of the Bible is usually quite clear from the style and the content. Who then was the author of Genesis, and what intention is revealed by his style and the content of what he wrote?

The verb ‘write’ occurs 11 times in the Pentateuch. On one occasion it is made more precise:

‘Then the Lord said to Moses: “Write down these words …” And [Moses] wrote on the tablets the words of the covenant—the ten commandments.’[v]

The method of writing ‘on the tablets’ is specified. It is interesting that one Hebrew word for ‘write’, cheret, means ‘cut into’ or ‘engrave’, suggesting the method of writing. Its derivatives can mean either ‘chisel’ or ‘pen’, or perhaps more accurately, ‘stylus’

The archaeologists indicate that writing was most commonly performed by cutting the words into soft clay, but occasionally it would be chiseled into stone.[vi]


A Babylonian tablet fragment found at Nippur, an ancient Babylonian site in the same general location that Abraham came from. The area outlined in black is a record about the Flood. There are more than 300 known records of the Flood world-wide, with about 30 of them in writing. Some are remarkably close in their details to the original—the biblical account


A creation tablet found at Ebla in Syria and dating to the third millennium BC. It ascribes the great works of creation to one great being, ‘Lugal’, literally ‘the Great One’. It shows that both the creation story and the art of writing were well known to man up to 1,000 years before the time of Moses. It further shows that the liberal idea that the early chapters of Genesis were first put into writing hundreds of years after the time of Solomon is clearly fallacious.

The Lord Jesus Himself and the Gospel writers said that the Law was given by Moses (Mark 10:3; Luke 24:27; John 1:17), and the uniform tradition of the Jewish scribes and early Christian fathers, and the conclusion of conservative scholars to the present day, is that Genesis was written by Moses. This does not preclude the possibility that Moses had access to patriarchal records, preserved by being written on clay tablets and handed down from father to son via the line of Adam–Seth–Noah–Shem–Abraham–Isaac–Jacob, etc., as there are 11 verses in Genesis which read, ‘These are the generations [Hebrew: toledoth = ‘origins’ or by extension ‘record of the origins’] of … .’[vii] As these statements all come after the events they describe, and the events recorded in each division all took place before rather than after the death of the individuals so named, they may very well be subscripts or closing signatures, i.e. colophons, rather than superscripts or headings. If this is so, the most likely explanation of them is that Adam, Noah, Shem, and the others each wrote down an account of the events which occurred in his lifetime, and Moses, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, selected and compiled these, along with his own comments, into the book we now know as Genesis[viii]

Chapters 12–50 of Genesis were very clearly written as authentic history, as they describe the lives of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and his 12 sons who were the ancestral heads of the 12 tribes of Israel. The Jewish people, from earliest biblical times to the present day, have always regarded this portion of Genesis as the true record of their nation’s history.

So what about the first 11 chapters of Genesis, which are our main concern, as these are the ones that have incurred the most criticism from modern scholars, scientists, and sceptics?

Are any of the Chapters Poetry? To answer this question we need to examine in a little more depth just what is involved in the parallelism of ideas that constitutes Hebrew poetry.

Let us consider Psalm 1:1, which reads as follows: ‘Blessed is the man that walks not in the counsel of the wicked, nor stands in the way of sinners, nor sits in the seat of scoffers.’ Here we see triple parallelism in the nouns and verbs used (reading downwards in the following scheme):

walks counsel wicked
stands way sinners
sits seat scoffers

As well as this overt parallelism, there is also a covert or subtle progression of meaning. In the first column, ‘walks’ suggests short-term acquaintance, ‘stands’ implies readiness to discuss, and ‘sits’ speaks of long-term involvement. In the second column, ‘counsel’ betokens general advice, ‘way’ indicates a chosen course of action, and ‘seat’ signifies a set condition of mind. In the third column, ‘wicked’ describes the ungodly, ‘sinner’ characterizes the actively wicked, and ‘scoffers’ portrays the contemptuously wicked.

Other types of Hebrew poetry include contrastive parallelism, as in Proverbs 27:6, ‘Faithful are the wounds of a friend, but the kisses of an enemy are deceitful’, and completive parallelism, as in Psalm 46:1, ‘God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in time of need.’[ix]

Are any of the first 11 chapters of Genesis poetry? Answer: No, because these chapters do not contain information or invocation in any of the forms of Hebrew poetry, in either overt or covert form, and because Hebrew scholars of substance are agreed that this is so.

Are any of the chapters Parables? Answer: No, because when Jesus told a parable He either said it was a parable, or He introduced it with a simile, so making it plain to the hearers that it was a parable, as on the many occasions when He said, ‘The kingdom of heaven is like … .’ No such claim is made or style used by the author of Genesis 1–11.

Are any of the chapters Prophesies? Not in their full context, although two promises of God are prophetic in the sense that their fulfilment would be seen in the future. One of these is Genesis 3:15, which was the pronouncement by God to the serpent (Satan) in metaphorical form: ‘And I will put enmity Between you and the woman, And between your seed and her seed; He shall bruise you on the head, And you shall bruise him on the heel.’ (NASB). Many have interpreted the ‘seed’ in this verse as the Messiah, including most evangelicals and even the Jewish Targums hence the Talmudic expression ‘heels of the Messiah’. The Messiah would suffer wounds to His feet (on the Cross), but would completely destroy Satan’s power. This verse also hints at the virginal conception, as the Messiah is called the seed of the woman, contrary to the normal biblical practice of naming the father rather than the mother of a child (cf. Genesis chapters 5 and 11, 1 Chronicles chapters 1–9, Matthew chapter 1, Luke 3:23–38).

The other is Genesis 8:21–22 and 9:11–17, ‘And the LORD said in His heart, I will not again curse the ground any more for man’s sake … and the waters shall no more become a flood to destroy all flesh.’

Are any of these chapters Letters, Biography, or Autobiography/ Testimony? This is where we need to consider some of the subscripts mentioned above. If Adam knew the events of Creation Days 1–6, they must have been revealed to him by God, as Adam was not made until Day 6, and so he could have known them only if God had told him. This view is reinforced by the words, ‘These are the generations of [NIV: ‘This is the account of’] the heavens and of the earth when they were created …’ in Genesis 2:4a. The details of Day 7, the rest day, are included before this in Genesis 2:2–3, thereby completing (as we might expect) the record of a full seven-day week, before this subscript or closing signature appears.

Then follow the events of Genesis 2:4b–5:1a. This section tells us about Adam, his wife Eve, and their sons, and reads very much like a personal account of what Adam knew, saw, and experienced concerning the Garden of Eden, and the creation of Eve (chapter 2), their rebellion against God (chapter 3), and the deeds of their descendants (chapter 4 to 5:1), albeit written in the third person[x]. This section ends with the words, ‘This is the book of the generations of Adam.’

Is it feasible that Adam could have written Genesis 1:1–2:4a as the result of his pre-Fall conversation with God, and Genesis 2:4b–5:1 as the record of his own experiences? There is no problem concerning his ability to have done so. Adam was created a mature man, endowed with all the DNA, knowledge and skill he needed to perform all the tasks assigned him by God. No cave-man he! Adam knew enough horticulture ‘to dress and to keep’ the Garden of Eden (Genesis 2:15), and ample intelligence to recognize and name the distinct kinds of animals (Genesis 2:19). He (and Eve) could converse with God without ever having learned an alphabet, and there is no reason to suppose that he was not fully skilled in writing also[xi].

The purpose of Genesis 2:18–25 is not to give another account of creation but to show that there was no kinship whatsoever between Adam and the animals. None was like him, and so none could provide fellowship or companionship for him. Why not? Because Adam had not evolved from them, but was ‘a living soul’ whom God had created ‘in His own image’ (Genesis 2:7 and 1:27). This means (among other things) that God created Adam to be a person whom He could address, and who could respond to and interact with Himself. Here, as in many other places, the plain statements of the Bible confront and contradict the notion of human evolution.

There is therefore enough evidence for us to conclude that Adam most probably was the author of Genesis 2:4b–5:1, and that this is his record of his own experiences with respect to events in the Garden of Eden, the creation of Eve, the Fall, and in the lives of Cain, Abel, and Seth.

The next section is from 5:1b to 6:9a, and deals with the line from Adam to Noah, ending with, ‘These are the generations [or origins] of Noah.’

The next section is from 6:9b to 10:1a, and deals mainly with the Ark and the Flood, ending with, ‘Now these are the generations of the sons of Noah, Shem, Ham, and Japheth.’ The wording of this subscript suggests that this portion was written by one of Noah’s sons, probably Shem, as Moses was descended from Shem. These chapters read very much like an eye-witness account because of the intimacy of detail which they contain.

Such meticulous details are the stuff of authentic eye-witness testimony. They have the ring of truth.

There is thus a substantial body of evidence that these portions of Genesis delineated by subscripts were written by the persons named therein, for the purpose of making and passing on a permanent record.

So then, were these first 11 chapters written as a record of authentic historical facts?

Answer: Yes, for the reasons given and several more which will be dealt with in a later article.

[i] Ferretter, L., Towards a Christian Literary Theory, Palgrave MacMillan, Basingstoke, UK, p. 4, 2003.

[ii] Windschuttle, K., The Killing of History: How a Discipline is Being Murdered by Literary Critics and Social Theorists, Macleay Press, Sydney, p. 232, 1994

[iii] Culler, Jonathan, Literary Theory: A Very Short Introduction, Oxford University Press, Oxford, p. 4, 2000.

[iv] The study of the general principles of biblical interpretation. For both Jews and Christians throughout their histories, the primary purpose of hermeneutics, and of the exegetical methods employed in interpretation, has been to discover the truths and values of the Bible.

[v] Exodus 34:28.

[vi] Wiseman, P.J., New Discoveries in Babylonia about Genesis, Marshall, Morgan and Scott, London, 1946; p. 36.

[vii] See Genesis 2:4; 5:1; 6:9; 10:1; 11:10; 11:27; 25:12; 25:19; 36:1; 36:9; 37:2

[viii] The seminal author on the colophon concepts was P.J. Wiseman, Creation Revealed in Six Days, Marshall, Morgan & Scott, London, 1948, pp. 45–53. For an excellent evaluation of this by a evangelical linguist see The Oldest Science Book in the World, by Dr Charles V. Taylor, Assembly Press, Queensland, 1984, pp. 21–23, 73, 121.

[ix] This discussion of Hebrew poetry was adapted from J. Sidlow Baxter, Explore the Book, Vol. 1, pp. 13-16.

[x] The use of the third person is no problem. Moses wrote the long account of his own life in Exodus to Deuteronomy in the third person, and many classical authors like Julius Caesar also wrote in the third person

[xi] Adam and Eve knew how to sew fig-leaf ‘aprons’ for themselves (Genesis 3:7). Within a few generations, Adam’s descendants founded a city (Genesis 4:17), were tent-makers, cattle farmers, musicians with the ability to make both stringed and wind instruments, and metallurgists with the ability to smelt the ores of copper, tin and iron and then to forge all kinds of bronze and iron tools (Genesis 4:20–24). Dr Henry M. Morris comments in The Genesis Record (Baker Book house, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 1976, pp. 146–147):

‘It is significant to note that the elements which anthropologists identify as the attributes of the emergence of evolving men from the stone age into true civilization—urbanization, agriculture, animal domestication, and metallurgy—were all accomplished quickly by the early descendants of Adam and did not take hundreds of thousands of years.’


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