“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)
When I was in grade school and we were first learning about “literature,” my teacher put up posters around her classroom that illustrated different literary devices. The one entitled “Metaphor” had a picture of grey clouds and the text of Carl Sandburg’s poem “Fog,” which opens with the famous line,
The fog comes on little cat feet.
For some reason, I can still picture that poster and remember the line. Now, as an adult considering the poem, I want to ask you, “Is it true?”
I think we would all immediately agree that it isn’t literally true; obviously the clouds of fog don’t have feet, let alone feet shaped like a cat’s. Yet part of the reason the poem remains so popular is that it communicates effectively and concisely through the use of literary device. No one would criticize Sandburg for not using literal description. (Can you imagine? “The fog is cold, wet, grey and quiet.” Just doesn’t have the same ring to it.) I don’t think the fact that the poem uses figurative language makes it any less true.
So what if you read a passage like this?
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.
You probably recognized Genesis 1:3-5 (NIV). What if I ask you, “Is it true?” If you’re reading this article, you probably agree that all of Scripture is true and even useful. But what does it mean for these verses to be “true”? Thinking about that question gave me a new perspective on a formerly confusing set of verses.
Some people insist 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 that he certainly could have done so. But the sequence doesn’t seem to make sense. God first creates light, but he doesn’t create the sun and moon until day 4. What would evening and morning on “the first day” mean if there isn’t yet a sun to shine on the rotating planet?
Recognizing a seeming inconsistency doesn’t mean we have to just give up on Biblical inerrancy. My mother loves to explain that something can be literarily true, even if it’s not literally true – just as the fog does have “little cat feet” without literally having feet.
The people who composed and passed down the Genesis account of Creation weren’t intending to write a science textbook. They were intending to show that God did it! In the beginning God. He made it. He made day and night, sky and water, land and plants; and 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 take into account when we decide how we’ll rule.
I think that defaulting to a literal interpretation of Scripture is the simplest, so it’s not wrong to start there. I was also 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 – how it happened and how long ago – Genesis gives you the answer to the all-important questions of who and why. And that’s the truth.