Should we Read the Creation Story “Literally”? Part 2

In Part 1 of this series, we argued that the opening verses in Genesis use figures of speech to convey truth.  Through these figures of speech, God is telling a true story that makes sense both in both ancient cultures and in our culture. 

Now we want to extend this argument into the following few verses.  In this post, we will explore the image of God speaking, and, in the next post, we plan to address the topic of the “days” of creation.  Again, I hope my thoughts can help clear some of the fog that has surrounded these controversial topics.

“And God said …”

Genesis 1 uses the phrase translated “God said,” or “he said” some 11 times.  In addition, the English translations says 5 times that God “called” or “named” something, and 2 times the account says God “blessed”, once referring to creatures of sky and sea (1:22), and once referring to human beings (1:28).  To these we may add 7 times that the story uses the phrase translated, “God saw that it was good,” the last time adding that it was “very good” (1:31)

When Scripture describes God acting like human beings – speaking, calling, seeing, feeling, regretting, etc. – the story is teaching us through a type of analogy, another figure of speech.  In this type of analogy, we learn something we don’t know by comparing it to something we do know. Teachers, for example, sometimes explain gravitational pull by bringing magnets to class.

Because God is above and beyond us, we can only know Him through these kinds of analogy.  How does the eternal, invisible, all-knowing, all-powerful, always-present God implement His will on our planet?  How does He communicate His will?  In His story, God chooses to teach us His ways by comparing them to human ways.

A Fact, not a Process

When, therefore, the Genesis story uses the phrase, “God said,” it uses a human trait to teach us something larger and more profound, a truth that we might not grasp otherwise.   It expresses the foundational fact that God is behind all that is.  He is the reason why there is something rather than nothing, why there is order rather than chaos.

On the other hand, if we press the literal meaning of this analogy too far, we lose this bigger point. In fact, we end up with some rather strange images: human speech before humans even exist, a cultural language spoken before there are any cultural languages, soundwaves echoing through space and time that have not yet formed; etc.

As we interpret the Bible, strange implications like these are clues that figures of speech are present.  We should not force the story into a mechanical explanation.  Genesis is not telling us, for example, that God sent sound waves into the unformed cosmos which eventually moved things into order.  The proper way to interpret, the real meaning of the story must consider the figurative language used to tell it.    

Deeper Truths

If, however, we appreciate this analogy of God speaking, we learn several important truths.

Perhaps most importantly, we learn that God wants to communicate with us.  God is accommodating Himself to our human limits by using human speech.  While God Himself is not limited by space and time, He is willing to enter our world to make Himself known.  God does not leave us on our own to figure these mysteries out by ourselves.  God communicates what human experience and human reasoning can never discover by themselves.

We also learn from this analogy that God’s will is absolute.  When God “says”, it happens.  There are no uncertainties here.  God gets what God wants.

One more truth should also be mentioned.  The story here begins a theme that winds its way the whole way through Scripture.  A key to this theme appears in the opening words of John’s Gospel:

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” John 1:1-5 (NIV, 2011)

Genesis and John both open “in the beginning”.  However, the plural Divine words spoken in Genesis now become the singular Divine “Word” in John.  In the original language of the New Testament, this term translated, “word,” describes a logical, rational organizing force.  John, therefore, is making a powerful claim, that Jesus is this powerful, rational, organizing force.  The force is a person, this Person of Jesus! 

Jesus is therefore the fullest revelation of God, because He is God.  Along with the Father and the Spirit, He participates in creation.  He is behind the cosmic forming and filling.  Here, then, in Genesis, at the very beginning, a thematic seed is planted that will develop into the full story of Jesus, the Son of God and the Word of God.  We can only appreciate the beauty of this story if we are willing to see the analogy present in this short phrase, “God said.”

I hope things are just a bit clearer.  Again, we will plan to address the issue of the days of creation in our next post.  Until then, may God bless you in your quest.

In His Service,