I believe the Bible.
I believe it is the inspired Word of God.
I believe that Genesis -- specifically Genesis 1-11 -- is an inspired text which says just exactly what God wanted it to say, and which is an integral part of the whole biblical revelation. Specifically, it is an integral part of the whole of the book of Genesis. I think it is central, and very important theologically,
Yet I think that very much of the message of Genesis 1-11 is independent of whether or not one thinks it should be read in the manner that folks call "literal." These passages provide important, basic theological concepts which have uniquely formed the entire Judeo-Christian tradition, and those concepts are (IMO) clear and understandable, for the most part, irrespective of what one thinks of the "literal"ness of these texts.
This post won't be helpful to everyone -- and some, I fear, will be outraged by it, though I'm sure I don't really understand why. It aims to argue that the idea of "literal" or not "literal" is of limited usefulness in trying to understand the text of Genesis 1-11 as that text is intended to be read. There is no particular need to read it in the way folk call "literal" (or not) to fully submit our hearts and minds to the teaching this text gives us. But (whether or not we suppose that it is a record of events which could have been photographed and that if photographed would have looked like the things -- ground, serpent, fruit, tree -- that occure in the narrative) to understand and receive the full force of this teaching we must engage in careful contemplation of the symbolism of the account.
About the word "literal"
I must say in advance that I have never really understood the approach of reading the texts in the way that is called "literal": that is, I really don't know what people mean, or think they are doing, when they do what they call reading the texts "literal"ly. On the whole, I think that "literal" reading is mainly a re-reading of the texts which relies on the presuppositions about reality which come out of 18th and 19th century rationalism -- largely materialist rationalism -- and which is not well-aligned with what seems to me the intention of the Genesis texts and their author.
Thus, my difficulties with readings which call themselves "literal" is in large part that I don't find them to be self-consistent readings which proceed in harmony with the intention of the Genesis text.
The general approach of emphasizing the "literal"ness of the early Genesis texts -- and some other OT texts -- seems to be that of supposing that there is an exact history (or history and geology, or mechanics of creation, etc.) which it is the intention of the text to convey, and that the actual Genesis text -- the actual words of the Genesis text -- are merely a means to the end of presenting that exact history. What that supposed historical sequence is supposed to do for us is less clear.
Consider Cain and His Wife for a Moment
A useful point for illustrating what I mean is the perennial question "where did Cain get his wife?" People who ask this question often devise some kind of historical explanation -- never mentioned in Genesis -- like this:
Adam and Eve had various sons and daughters, not just those mentioned in the text of Genesis, and God had not yet forbidden incest, so Cain married one of these. As these incestuous unions occurred, perfectly legitimately, as God had not forbidden them, the earth was populated. Thus Cain married one of his sisters, or perhaps a niece. No problem.For those who like such flights of fancy, they seem to solve a problem that the Genesis text presents us with. But in my view, they don't do that at all. The Genesis text -- as it seems to me -- obviously has no interest in the question of where Cain got his wife. The text does seem to be interested in lots of things: the wandering character of Cain, the deterioration of humankind among the descendants of the first human beings after their fall, the association of the fallenness of humanity, represented by Cain, with violence and conquest, and lots of other things. But it does not, in my eyes, show interest in some hypothetical (unmentioned) geneology which would provide an in-principle detailed and realistic account of where Cain's wife came from.
I think that it is much more useful to think about what the essential points are that the Bible is making -- here, in the details it gives about Cain. The symbolism and generally meaningful portraits of humanity in its fallenness bears a lot of thinking about. That's where I think the text is meant to lead us; where it's main areas of fruitfulness lie, as means of trying to hear what God is saying to us in these early chapters of Genesis.
More Important: Consider the Text that says
"Adam was formed of the dust of the Adamah"
A further and important example of this is the texts in Genesis 2, 3, and 4 which deal with "the ground" -- either literally (that is, using the letters of the word for ground) or by implication (that is, by talking about processes of gardening and cultivation, etc.).
Before we start with "ground" though, we need to clear up "man" or "adam". There is no separate word for "man" (in the sense of humanity) in the Bible, so far as I can tell. (I am no scholar!) There are words for "human male" and "human female" -- but these are used infrequently. Mostly when the word "man" occurs in English translation, the Hebrew word is "adam". Thus in Genesis 1:26-27, where God says "let us create man in our own image" and "so God created man in his own image", and God creates humanity male and female in His image, the word used for man is "adam". Thus, the word "adam" is used, here, and elsewhere, in the sense of "humanity", and not just in the sense of the guy in the garden of Eden. Similarly at 8:21, after Noah's sacrifice, Genesis states "the Lord said in his heart, 'I will never again curse the ground because of man, for the imagination of man's heart is evil from his youth.'" the word used for "man", that is for humanity, is "adam". Apparently the word "adam", like the word "adamah" means something reddish brown, and is derived from the word for blood, "dawm". At points in the Genesis 3 story -- as where God says "Adam, where are you?" -- the word seems to refer to an individual; at other points the reference seems broader.
Now God, in Genesis 2:7, makes "adam" (man) from the dust of the "adamah" (ground). This is anticipated in 2:6 (where it says there were as yet no plants because these was no man -- adam -- to till the ground -- adamah), and followed up in 2:9 (with 2:6 echoed in 2:15) in 2:19, and especially in 3:17-19 and 3:23. It comes up again, arguably, in the story of Cain, at 4:10, 11, 12, 14. All these texts are dealing with the "ground" (adamah) in the context of the formation of humanity, and of the fall and its consequences.
What Kind of Reading Brings Out
the Meaning God Intended the Text To Have For Us?
"What, exactly, is that all about?," one might ask! What indeed?, I would reply. These are deep, thoughtful texts, placed in a very rich and complex narrative, without a simple and single interpretation, which we are meant to ponder deeply. I have thought about them a lot, and I think they say a great deal which we might all agree on -- irrespective of what we think Genesis is or is not saying about earth's detailed geological, biological, and human history -- a great deal which is meant to teach us much about God's ways, and our brokenness and sin, and God's redemption, and so on. But there is not a single, univocal, message: more a rich theological trove which, as we read it faithfully, will instruct us very much.
But I want to get back to how we describe this kind of encounter with the text. Emphasizing the fact that "ground" (adamah) and man or humanity (adam) are closely connected in the text (and both connected with blood, dawm) is what I think could properly be called a literal reading of Genesis 2 and 3 and 4: it's a reading that takes seriously the actual text of Genesis, and that goes so far in its seriousness as to pay attention to the letters of the text -- for instance to the fact that man (adam) and ground (adamah) are almost identical words.
You may note that here I do not put literal in quotation marks. Why? Because here we are using this word exactly: here we mean by it a reading which is paying strict attention to the actual words of the text, and even to the letters of which the words are composed. (The word "literal" is an adjective which, originally, means "in regard to the letters" of a word.) The real point though, is not so much that we are concerned with the similar sounds and letters of "adam" and "adamah" -- though that is very important. The point is that we are interested in the text itself, the words God has given us in Genesis, not some reconstruction of what went on, which leaves the details of what Genesis actually says languishing to the side.
In fact, we are starting to read the text of Genesis as one reads any complex writing: with attention to exactly how the author (or, if you prefer, the text itself) expresses himself, and to the words and images which are used. One does not start by assuming that the text, the narrative, is a surrogate for a set of events whose approximate shape one knows in advance, but rather starts by assuming that the text (or, if you prefer, the author) is competent to speak for itself. Then one looks at the significance of the the images, the connotations of the word, the sequence, the repetitions, any dissonances, and so on, in an attempt, a serious attempt, to understand what it is that the text, the author, is trying to convey.
Such an attempt cannot assume, in advance of looking at the text of Scripture itself that the text must be of a particular genre: the way in which the text is to be taken, the kind of writing (genre) that it is, emerges from a careful reading of the text itself. ("Scripture interprets Scripture"!)
Thus, the whole significance of the Garden, the tree, the name of the tree, and so on emerge from the total context of the Genesis 2-4 passage, and of the purpose of creating humanity (adam) to till the ground and (as it later appears) name the animals as God's vice-regent or deputy or steward. All the separate details work together to develop a powerful theological account of humanity's creation, purpose, relationship to God, fall, ruptured relation to God, brokenness and sin, and so on. The Genesis 2-4 account is not just a collection of historical details, but a powerful account which explains to us the basics of our origins and problems, God's purposes in making us, how we have messed these up, and -- incipiently -- where God intends to go with humanity from there. Such a reading derives not just from the context of the early chapters of Genesis, of course, but from the whole theology and narrative of the entire Bible!
A Faithful Reading Has, IMO, Not Very Much to Do
With Whether or Not We Understand the Text in the Way
Which is Often Called "Literal"
If one for some reason feels compelled to reckon that the tree, the garden, the ground, the serpent, the leaves, and so on refer to specific physical objects which were visible, and of which God could have made a movie (had He at that time had a video camera) well, no problem. It doesn't radically affect the vital, powerful and important theology which this central Biblical narrative gives to us. If one for some reason feels compelled to reckon that the tree, the garden, the ground, the serpent, the leaves, and so on were not physical objects, but are instead God's chosen way of expressing the reality of what was going on relationally and spiritually (and thus were not the kinds of things which had an existence which could have been photographed) well, no problem. That also, IMO, doesn't radically affect the vital, powerful and important theology which this central Biblical narrative gives to us.
That doesn't mean that there are no wrong and no right ways of reading these texts. There are many reasons for supposing that the serpent is the Evil One, satan, the devil. The view that "the fall was really a fall upward into greater knowledge" is a view (which one hears occasionally) so much in conflict with what the text is obviously saying -- the text clearly views the fall as a disaster, and as resulting in huge confusion and loss, including loss of comprehension -- that I always marvel how people could come up with such a silly interpretation.
My fundamental point, however, is that what we need is a close, faithful reading of the Genesis text, which tries to learn from its actual words and images and form, in the context of the whole of Scripture. Nothing about that particularly requires that this be a reading of the sort folk call "literal." Just as there are very silly readings by folks who think they are going beyond what the text actually says -- and they'd probably proudly call this a reading that is not what they too call "literal"), so there are some folk who suppose that they hold to what they call a "literal" reading are often, in my experience, not very interested in trying to examine the text closely to see what it may be that God is teaching us here. Some such folks give the impression that all the text is talking about is God's power to do whatever He purposes. Of course the text does say that -- regardless of whether or not you think there is a physical serpent or garden -- but there would be no point in taking a couple of chapters to say so. The chapters are there, and are written as they are written, because they are clearly conveying to us a lot of complex truths, and we need to ponder them carefully.