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.