“All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work..” (2 Timothy 3:16-17 NIV)
Creekside is reading Beginnings this season—the first five books of the Bible in a format without chapter and verse numbers. Naturally, the subject of truth came up in my small group as we were discussing the first chapters of Genesis. We all agreed that Genesis was never meant to be a science textbook, but keeping in mind the verses above, we couldn’t simply say the stories were mythical or “didn’t happen like that.” It led us to a deep discussion about what God was trying to tell us through the origin story, deducing from what he caused to be put in or left out.
You’ll probably recognize Genesis 1:3-5 (NIV), and if you’re reading this article, you probably agree that all of Scripture is true. But what does it mean for these verses to be “true”?
And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. God saw that the light was good, and he separated the light from the darkness. God called the light “day,” and the darkness he called “night.” And there was evening, and there was morning—the first day.
Many Christians hold that the Genesis account of creation is literally true. God created everything, or at least the earth, in 144 hours as we currently define hour. Now, God is God, so I believe he certainly could have done so. But in this passage, God separates light from darkness, even though he doesn’t create the sun and moon until later. What would “evening” and “morning” on “the first day” mean if there isn’t yet a sun to shine on a rotating planet?
My mother loves to explain that something can be “literarily” true, even if it’s not literally true. Consider Carl Sandburg’s poem “Fog,” which opens with the famous line,
The fog comes on little cat feet.
Obviously clouds of fog don’t have feet, let alone feet shaped like a cat’s. Yet the poem remains popular because it communicates effectively and concisely through the use of literary device. We expect a poem to use figurative language and don’t consider it less true for doing so.
That’s when we go back to God’s purpose for Genesis. It opens, “In the beginning… God.” He made it. He made day and night, sky and water, land and plants; then he populated them with the sun, moon, and stars, with birds and fish, with animals and people. It’s beautiful literary symmetry. It shows that God took special care when creating people, making them in his image, breathing life into them, and charging them with specific responsibility to “subdue” and “rule over” the earth (Genesis 1:28 NIV). It also shows that God cares about all of creation and considers it good, which is something we should keep in mind as we decide how we’ll rule.
A literal interpretation of Scripture is the simplest, so it’s not wrong to start there, but we have to keep in mind the genre of the book, such as poetry or narrative, and the literary devices employed in that genre. I was transformed by realizing how easily something can express truth without specifying it literally, and I hope you found my example helpful. Whatever your beliefs about the process of creation, Genesis gives you the answer to the all-important questions of who and why. And that’s the truth.