Beware of Taking Genesis 1-3 Too Literally


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 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 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 make the mistake of giving illegitimate spiritualising interpretations to things that are supposed to be taken 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, resulting in extremely serious error.

On the other hand, and at the other extreme, there are those who insist on taking every biblical passage literally whenever it is conceivably possible to do so. This, however, fails to reckon with the fact that Scripture is full of non-literal language. 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 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 us look at some reasons why this is the case:

(1) In Gen 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 expanse of the sky 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 expanse of the sky 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 expanse of the sky 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, in verses 14-18 He creates the sun, moon and stars on the fourth day. 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 first symbolic day the focus is on God's creation of light, darkness and twenty-four hour days, while on the fourth symbolic 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 twenty-four hour day, sun, moon and stars. But the text is not meant to be taken as a literal chronological account of when God made these things.

Sometimes Christians who insist on taking all these verses literally come up with forced interpretations that involve, for example, God's creation of the sun on the first day, but the sun's appearing from behind clouds on the fourth day. Solutions like these are very implausible. In the text God seems clearly to be portrayed creating the sun on the fourth day and creating the light for day (which, in reality, comes from the sun) on the first day. The fact that there is an overlap is not a problem because the chronology in the text is not meant to be taken literally. The six days of creation are simply a literary device used to frame the description of God's act of creating.

After God's activity on the first day of creation in 1:3-5 has been outlined, there follows immediately the sentence, 'And there was evening and there was morning, one day.' Similar sentences, referring to evening and morning and giving the number of the day in question, are also found after the other five days of creation (1:8, 13, 19, 23, 31).

It might be thought that the explicit references to evening and morning suggest that literal twenty-four hour days are being described in chapter 1. There is no need to think this, however. 'Evening and morning' can easily just be part of the literary device that uses symbolic days.

(2) On each of the seven days that are referred to in 1:3-2:3, the Hebrew word yom, meaning 'day', is used (1:5, 8, 13, 19, 23, 31; 2:2, 3). But if we look at 2:4, we find yom used again with reference to 'the day that the LORD God made earth and heaven'. The whole period of the six days of creation in 1:3-31 is now referred to as a single day.

Given that yom in 2:4 does not refer to a literal twenty-four hour day, it becomes easier to think that the days of 1:3-2:3 do not have to be literal twenty-four hour days either.

(3) Gen 1:12, referring to the third day of creation, states:
The earth produced vegetation, plants yielding seed according to their kinds, and trees yielding fruit with seed in it according to their kinds. And God saw that it was good.

And then Gen 1:24, referring to the sixth day of creation, states:
Then God said, 'Let the earth produce living creatures according to their kinds: livestock and creeping things and animals of the earth according to their kinds'. And so it happened.

It is interesting that these verses speak about the earth 'producing' plants and animals. There may well be a hint here that natural processes were involved in God's method of creating these things. If so, it seems reasonable to think that these processes would have taken much longer than a literal twenty-four hour day.

(4) In Gen 3:1-5, we read:
1 Now the snake was more crafty than any animal of the field which the LORD God had made. And it said to the woman, 'Did God really say, 'You shall not eat from any tree of the garden?'' 2 The woman said to the snake, 'We are allowed to eat fruit from the trees of the garden. 3 But God has said, 'You are not to eat fruit from the tree that is in the middle of the garden, and you are not to touch it, or you will die.'' 4 The snake said to the woman, 'You certainly will not die. 5 For God knows that on the day you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.'

It would be a big mistake to take this passage literally. We have here an animal that plots against and speaks to Eve! But animals obviously don't literally do this!

Those who insist on trying to interpret this passage literally sometimes claim that it refers to Satan literally manifesting himself as a snake and speaking to Eve.

This interpretation is very problematic, however. Note in verse 1 how we are told that the snake was more crafty than any animal of the field. The way that the snake is set alongside other animals and compared to them surely shows that we should understand the snake on the same level as the other animals. The other animals are surely understood to be real animals, so the snake should be understood as a real animal too, not simply as a manifestation of Satan in the form of a snake.

Others who insist on a literal interpretation acknowledge that the text depicts a real snake, but claim that the passage refers to Satan speaking through the snake in a way similar to how God speaks through Balaam's donkey in Numbers 22:28-30.

There is also a huge difficulty with this interpretation. When the passage says that the snake was the most crafty of the animals, there is an implication that each animal has a certain amount of craftiness in itself, and that must surely include the snake. The trickery that the snake uses to deceive Eve is therefore portrayed as its own trickery, not the trickery of Satan speaking through the snake.

The snake certainly symbolises Satan. Theologically, this passage is teaching us that Satan was instrumental in tempting the first human beings to fall into sin. But on the actual level of the story, it is the snake as an animal that talks to Eve and tempts her to sin. And this cannot reasonably be taken literally. To interpret this passage in a literal way is to seriously misunderstand the type of literature that is present here.

Given that the conversation between Eve and the snake should not be understood literally, it seems likely that the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, referred to in verses 3-5 (and in 2:9), should also not be understood literally. Nor does the tree of life, referred to in 2:9, sound as if it should be interpreted literally.

(5) Gen 3:8 tells us:
They [Adam and Eve] heard the sound of the LORD God walking in the garden in the cool of the day.

It should be obvious that this is not meant to be taken literally. Literally, God is spirit (John 4:24) and does not have a body with which to walk around.

It is clutching at straws to claim that this verse refers to an incarnational episode in which the divine Son of God clothed Himself with humanity, a kind of precursor to the incarnation when Jesus came as redeemer. It is so much easier just to take the text as a symbolic account of the broken relationship between the first sinful humans and God.

There are other parts of these chapters too which suggest, more or less strongly, that Genesis 1-3 is not meant to be taken fully literally, but I think I have given enough examples to make my point. To insist that these chapters should be interpreted fully literally is simply to misunderstand the type of writing that we have here.

To be sure, there is the danger of going too far the other way and interpreting these chapters too symbolically. For example, other passages in Scripture strongly suggest that Adam and Eve should be understood as two historical people (e.g., Luke 3:8; Rom 5:12-19). It would be a mistake to understand them merely as symbols of humanity.

One major reason I have for writing this article is a concern for Christians to be balanced in their dealings with modern science. We must never accept what scientists tell us if that means denying what the Bible teaches. But, on the other hand, we need to watch out for the danger of rejecting what scientists have to say because we only mistakenly think that what they are saying conflicts with Scripture, when in fact it doesn't.

The standard scientific teaching about the origin of the universe is that it originated 14 billion years ago. There seems to me to be nothing in Genesis 1-3 that would conflict with this. Once we recognise the high degree of symbolism in these chapters, it becomes apparent that they tell us little, if anything, about when or how God created the universe and all that is in it. These chapters teach us that God made the universe, that human beings are created in God's image, that we fell into sin through the tempting of Satan, that we have some degree of authority over the earth, etc. etc. But they don't really tell us how or when God made the universe.

Mainstream biologists also teach, of course, that all biological life-forms today, including humans, evolved from earlier species of plants and animals. So what should Christians make of this?

Well, I think the scientific basis for so-called micro-evolution, i.e., evolution within species, is very strong. Nor does there seem to me to be anything in this that need be seen as conflicting with the Bible.

I am much more unsure about evolution from one species to another. From what I have seen, there may well be some good evidence for this, and certainly God could have created in this way if He wanted to. Nor am I aware of biblical passages that would clearly conflict with some form of evolution between species that God caused. Nevertheless, I don't feel that I have the knowledge to be able to make clear statements on this issue.

Even if we do accept that there has been evolution between species, however, there are still massive problems with how theories of evolution are typically portrayed and understood in modern Western society. At least in the UK, where I live, whenever theories of evolution or of the origin of the universe are referred to in the mainstream media, there always seems to be an underlying presupposition that people or the universe originated by chance. This is never made explicit, but there always seems to be an implication that God was not the creator. The seriousness of this error, of course, can hardly be overstated.

However, as long as we are clear that God made all that exists, I would caution Christians about being closed to theories of exactly how He did this. If a theory conflicts with the Bible, then it should be rejected. But we need to be careful not to be too quick to say that a theory conflicts with Scripture before carefully considering the matter. And, as we consider, we must beware of interpreting Genesis 1-3 too literally.

Written by Max Aplin -- I have been a Christian for over 25 years. I have a Ph.D. in New Testament from the University of Edinburgh. I am a UK national and I currently live in the south of Scotland.


  1. Thought provoking article.But my own thoughts on the issue are quite simple:God created heaven and earth and all that is in it.The first man,Adam sinned and therefore all have sinned.The details of how all these came about may be just too awesome for us mere mortals to understand.Our's is to believe

    1. I agree with you Benjamin Ugbe but not totally. In my own humble view, you are completely correct except that we should still strive to understand and balance the facts of science with the truth of the scriptures. I agree the details may be and are awesome, but I believe the Holy Spirit enables our understanding too. In this way, we are able to reach and preach the gospel to people who only believe and would hear nothing but scientific facts, by presenting these Biblical truths.

    2. While I do agree with you, there is a need to be careful how we interpret spiritual things in the face of advances in science.Remember the Bible commends those who believe ...and clearly states that for some,it what we believe will not make sense..

    3. True! In this matter, the Bible's exhortation to be wise in all things and seek understanding is most relevant. "Wisdom is the principal thing; therefore get wisdom: and with all thy getting get understanding." (Prov 4:7) I agree totally with you that we must be careful how we interpret.

    4. A sure recipe for success,Godly success

    5. Yeah this is a proven recipe for success


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