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Let There Be Light

How to Read Genesis 1–3

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Guest Contributor

ABSTRACT: The beginning of the book of Genesis is not, as some claim, a mythical or poetic account of creation. It is historical narrative, telling the same story that unfolds in the patriarchs, the exodus, and the establishment of Israel. And, being from God, it speaks truly. Modern readers may not learn everything they would like to know about creation from Genesis 1–3, but they will find everything they most need to know. They also will find an account of creation unlike anything outside the Bible. Compared to the creation myths of Israel’s neighbors, Genesis stands majestically alone.

How do we interpret Genesis 1–3 in a sound way? It is not so easy to find out just by listening to and reading modern interpreters. There are many voices, and they disagree with one another.

I have only one main piece of advice. We learn how to read Genesis 1–3 wisely in the same way that we learn to read the rest of the Bible wisely. And how is that? By taking to heart what the Bible itself says. Several aspects of biblical teaching need to be taken into account.

Let us begin with a foundational issue: the nature of God.

Who God Is

Does God exist? And what kind of God is he? Is he a God who can create the world, in the way that Genesis 1 describes? Is he the kind of God who could fashion the first woman from the rib of Adam, as Genesis 2:21–22 describes? Is he the kind of God who can speak in an audible voice from the top of Mount Sinai (Exodus 19:9–20:22; Deuteronomy 5:2–22)? Is he the kind of God who can multiple five loaves and two fish, so that they feed five thousand men (John 6)?

Most of elite culture in the modern Western world does not believe in a God like that. Rather, the culture is deeply influenced by philosophical materialism, which says that matter is the ultimate constituent of the world. If some kind of a god exists, he is not involved in the world in the way that the Bible describes. He is not a God who speaks or who works miracles.

In addition, some people are influenced by New Age mysticism. They believe in various kinds of spiritual influence. But their “god,” if they call it that, is an aspect of nature.

The issue of God is monumentally important. If God is not a God such as the Bible describes, then either the Bible is a lie or it has to be radically reinterpreted. And that is what people do. Much of the academic study of the Bible at major universities of the world takes place under the assumption that the way we read the Bible must harmonize with modern ideas about the world. Hence, this academic study corrupts the Bible. And then this corruption travels out into general culture.

But in fact, God exists — the same God that the Bible describes. Therefore, the elite people in Western culture are walking in the dark about God. It is the culture, not the Bible, that has to be radically reinterpreted. Genesis 1–3 is one text — a crucial text — that shows the massive difference between the Bible’s view of God and common modern Western views.

The first point, then, is that when we read the Bible, we need to reckon with who God is.

The Divine Authorship of the Bible

A second issue concerns the nature of the Bible. It is the word of God. It is what God says.

One principal reason for the diversity of readings of Genesis 1–3 is an underlying diversity of opinion about what kind of text the Bible is. Much of the academic study of Genesis takes place with the assumption that God is not the author of Genesis. In effect, academics deny the divine inspiration of the Bible. This denial follows directly from the prior assumption that God does not speak. According to modern Western thinking, either God does not exist, or he was not involved in the writing of Genesis in a special way. Or, if he was involved somehow, he deferred pretty much to the human author or authors. One way or another, these people discount divine meaning and search only for human meaning.

Clearly, the issue of divine authorship makes a difference in what meanings come out at the end, because a misjudgment about who the author is leads to a misjudgment about what he means. Or, according to some postmodern interpretive approaches, verbal texts and the readers who interact with texts float in a sea of meanings, more or less independent of either God or human authors. But this kind of multiplication of meanings is a mistake, because it discounts the unique authority of God to say what he means and to do so with unique authority.

So it is worthwhile asking whether the Bible teaches divine authorship. It does, in any number of places. Second Peter 1:21 says, “No prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.” This verse affirms a role for human authors: “men spoke . . .” But it emphasizes that the more ultimate and decisive author is God: “men spoke from God”; and “they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.” Jesus himself affirms the divine authority of the Old Testament in a number of places and a number of ways (Matthew 5:17–20; 19:4–5; 26:54; John 10:35). Interested readers can consult any number of books by evangelical authors, showing how the Bible affirms its own divine authorship and authority (2 Timothy 3:16).

Since God is a God of truth (John 3:33), his word is truth (John 17:17). He can be trusted. The Bible can be trusted, because it is his word. That must be our attitude as we read Genesis 1–3 — and every other passage in the Bible.

So here, in the fact of divine authorship, we have a second central principle in interpreting the Bible. We read and study it with respect and trust, rather than distrust. Just as we must reinterpret modern Western culture in its view of God, so, for the same reason, we must avoid imitating the distrust that the culture has toward the Bible. We avoid also the human temptation to pick and choose the meanings that please our prior preferences, or picking and choosing to believe only those parts of the Bible that line up with our preferences. That picking and choosing makes sense only for people who have already rejected God.

The Genre of Genesis

Next, let us ask what kind of a book Genesis is. In accord with the richness of who God is, what God says in the Bible includes a variety of forms or genres of literature. God chooses a variety of ways of communicating, in order that we may absorb what he says and grow in communion with him in a variety of complementary ways. The book of Psalms, for example, is a collection of poetic songs and prayers. In the Gospels, we find sermons of Jesus (such as the Sermon on the Mount, Matthew 5–7), parables, records of miracles, records of healings, and the record of the crucifixion. The Bible has prophetic books like Isaiah that contain exhortations, recollections of God’s past dealings, and predictions about the future. There are historical books, such as 1–2 Kings, that have a record of past events in the history of Israel.

Each literary section of the Bible was crafted by God, as well as by the human author (2 Peter 1:21). It is exactly what God designed to say, not only in its contents, but also in all its details, including the features of genre. If we respect God, then we should take into account how he chooses to communicate. It would be a mistake, for example, if an interpreter were to treat Jesus’s parable of the lost sheep (Luke 15:3–7) as if it were a prosaic nonfictional account that is merely about one shepherd and one sheep. It is a fictional story with a spiritual point. The point is indicated at the end: “Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance” (Luke 15:7). Jesus also indicates near the beginning of the parable that it is hypothetical, rather than an actual case in real life: “. . . if he [the shepherd] has lost one of them [the sheep], . . .” (Luke 15:4).

So what kind of genre is Genesis 1–3? We need to start by considering the book of Genesis as a whole. It is the book as a whole that guides our understanding of each part within it. The book as a whole has some embedded poetry (Genesis 49:2–27). But as a whole, it is Hebrew prose narrative. It is similar in character to the other Old Testament books of narrative, such as Numbers, Judges, 1–2 Samuel, 1–2 Kings, Ezra, and Nehemiah.

One crucial question involves the distinction between fiction and nonfiction. Is Genesis fiction or nonfiction narrative or some combination? Several types of indications confirm that it is nonfiction. Genesis functions together with Exodus to set forth a continuous development of events that lead to the growth of the nation of Israel. The nation is real. The implication is that the growth towards that endpoint is also real. There is no literary indication of a separation in nature between events that happened in the real world, in the times when Genesis was read to Israelites, and events that happened earlier. Next, key characters, such as Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, are referred to in later parts of the Bible with the assumption that they are real, rather than being fictional like the lost sheep in Jesus’s parable. Later historical narratives, such as in 1–2 Kings, refer to earlier records, with the obvious implication that someone who was interested could check the records to see (e.g., 1 Kings 11:41; 14:19, 29).

There is a further complexity in distinguishing between fiction and nonfiction. It is possible for a human speaker to deceive people. He can pretend to give nonfiction when he is actually making up a story. An example of such deceit occurs in 1 Kings 13:11–19. A man, described as “an old prophet” who “lived in Bethel,” invited a prophet from Judah to come back to his home to eat. To induce the prophet from Judah to come, he falsely told him that he had had a message from an angel instructing him to invite him home. This narrative in 1 Kings is revealing, because it shows that people in the ancient culture of the time knew the difference between fiction and nonfiction just as much as we do. And they depended on that difference at crucial times. This principle is illustrated not only in 1 Kings, but in Genesis itself, when Pharaoh and later Abimelech reproach Abraham for not telling the truth (Genesis 12:18–19; 20:9–10).

So now, how do we treat the book of Genesis? It presents itself as nonfiction, like the material in Numbers and 1–2 Kings. But could it be pretending? Could it be deceiving? In the case of a merely human author, we cannot be absolutely sure. Because Genesis has God as the divine author, in addition to a human author, we can be sure. God does not deceive. So Genesis not only presents itself as nonfiction. It is in fact about events that happened in the past.

The idea of a combination of fiction and nonfiction does not work, for the same reason that the theory that Genesis is fiction does not work. A combination of fiction and nonfiction is possible for a human author. But Genesis gives no warning to readers that it is such a combination. It presents itself as nonfiction. And that is decisive in coming to a conclusion. It is nonfiction. The events described there are events in the real world, not in an imaginary world, and not made-up events injected in a confused way into the midst of other events in the real world.

The principle we take away is that the events described in Genesis 1–3 happened in the real world.

The Ancient Near East

Modern discussions about Genesis 1–3 sometimes bring into the picture parallels in literature found in the ancient Near East. There are a number of literary pieces from outside Israel that claim to tell how the world came to be as it is. (Two of the main ones are the Enuma Elish and the Atrahasis epic.) They are stories about the gods — in the plural. The ancient Near East as a whole was polytheistic. People believed in many gods. The gods could get in fights. Or they could have sex and propagate other gods as their sons or daughters. It is disgusting, even blasphemous, when compared with the sober narrative in Genesis 1.

It is right to take into account that God, in his wisdom, knew all about the ancient Near East. He providentially controls everything in the world (Psalm 103:19; Lamentations 3:37–38; Daniel 4:34–35), though he does not morally approve of everything that is said or done by human beings. In his wisdom, he addressed the ancient Israelites in ways that made sense. But he is able to say something new and different. The ancient Near Eastern environment does not swallow up his words, in such a way that the words just affirm the environment.

In addition, it is easy to exaggerate the parallels between Genesis 1 and the ancient Near East. It is natural for there to be some obvious overlap in references to the world. Whether true or false, stories about how the world began are going to refer to major visible pieces of the world. So we are going to hear about water and earth and sky. But the contrasts between the Bible and the ancient Near East are notable.

The first contrast is between the gross polytheism of the ancient Near East and the sublime monotheism of Genesis 1. God corrects ancient Near Eastern thinking and practice, rather than merely reaffirming it.

Second, the genre is different. Genesis 1 is not a self-standing narrative. It is embedded in a larger narrative — namely, the book of Genesis — that leads all the way up to the brink of the exodus from Egypt. The narrative continues in the book of Exodus. Real people, rather than mythology, comprise its subject matter.

Moreover, as we observed earlier, Genesis is prose. The main ancient Near Eastern accounts are poetic. This obvious feature is too often minimized in a desire to find parallels.

Finally, Genesis 1 does not directly attack polytheism and idolatry. There are passages in the Old Testament that do attack idolatry directly (Deuteronomy 7:25–26; 11:26–28; 12:29–31; Isaiah 46; to name a few). Genesis 1, however, does its work indirectly. It does not directly criticize idol worship. Rather, it presents in a positive way the truth about the one true God who made all things. Genesis 1 implies that, since everything other than God is made by God, these things that are made are not supposed to be worshiped. The consequence of this approach is that Genesis 1 is further removed from the competing ancient Near Eastern narratives. It does not ask for a direct comparison. Rather, it stands majestically alone.

There is nothing like Genesis anywhere outside the Bible. For that reason, it needs to be read and interpreted in its own right. We should respect how it differs from the ancient Near Eastern cultures around it.

What to Do with Modern Science?

Next, let us ask how we deal with claims coming from modern science. The upset over some of these claims is undoubtedly one of the motivations for people who search for new interpretations of Genesis 1–3. Some people are looking for ways to make peace with modern scientific claims by reinterpreting Genesis 1–3 in such a way that it then fits within the framework of modern science.

We cannot in a short article deal with every aspect of this complex, challenging issue. For thoroughness, it needs book-length treatment.1 But we can make some brief observations.

First, modern scientific research and reflection has many benefits. But it is not immune from influence from the surrounding cultural atmosphere. In particular, philosophical materialism has an influence. It puts pressure on scientists to treat the world as reducible to matter and motion, and to deny the existence of God in practice. Clearly, the implications of this framework are inevitably going to clash with the Bible, because the two worldviews, the modern one and the biblical one, are in conflict.

Second, as a result of the influence of worldview, Christians need to inspect critically claims coming from scientists, rather than blindly accepting everything that waves the banner of the prestige of science. It does not mean that scientists are deliberately concealing the truth. But they are typically not consciously inspecting the influence of their own worldview assumptions. They may take for granted assumptions (such as philosophical materialism) that are not in fact true.

Moreover, in many areas of the sciences, as investigation continues to develop, scientists dispute among themselves. It is easy to ignore minority voices, but not wise to do so.

Third, it is wise to distinguish experimental sciences from historical sciences. In experimental sciences, as the label suggests, scientists conduct experiments. They postulate regularities on the basis of repeated observation under controlled laboratory conditions. The impressive practical benefits of the sciences derive almost wholly from experimental sciences.

Historical sciences, by contrast, are investigations that try to reconstruct the past. Direct experiments cannot be conducted on the past, because the past is permanently gone. And here it gets challenging, because there are key events in the past that occurred only once in the whole history of the universe. Man came on the scene once. Each new kind of animal appeared once. The universe itself came into being once. These events are exceptional. And, since God exists, they may be miraculous events. They may be outside the scope of the regularities that experimental scientists can currently observe.

The main takeaway principle here is not too quickly to decide that current scientific opinion about the past is completely aligned with what actually happened, nor that investigations into current regularities (“scientific laws”) will ever be able to explain unique past events brought about by God. We should be patient, rather than panicked, if we hear of some apparent discrepancy between the claims in the Bible and the claims being made by some modern scientists.

Use of Analogies in Genesis 1–3

Finally, it is wise to take into account the ordinary way that God uses in speaking to his people in Genesis 1–3. He does not need to impress anyone with some highly technical display of scientific knowledge. After all, he is God. All the technical knowledge, like all human knowledge whatsoever, ultimately comes from him. What he does in Genesis is to speak to ordinary people about what they most need to know. They need to know that he is the almighty God. They need to know that he created everything that they can see, and even what they cannot see. He created things at least partly for the benefit and blessing of human beings. The creation displays his power and his glory (Psalm 19:1–6).

So in Genesis 1–2, God largely describes what he did by using analogies with providential works that he continues to do today. For instance, he created the whole system by which plants reproduce according to their kinds (Genesis 1:11–12). He did it in an initial, once-for-all act of creation. But the pattern of making new plants continues in his providential work today. These analogies between today and the events of creation help ordinary people to understand what God did.

If we take into account God’s address to ordinary people, it helps to steer us away from either overreading or underreading Genesis 1–3. We overread it if we try to find technical detail about exactly how God did what he did. What he did in Genesis 1 is analogous to what he does day by day in providential control now. But because this description involves analogy rather than identity, we cannot infer the details beyond what the analogies give us.

We also should beware of the danger of underreading Genesis 1–3. This underreading takes place if we merely focus on the main point — God is God, and he made everything. That is true enough. But whatever God says in Genesis 1–3, including each detail, offers something to learn. Nothing is to be merely discarded or set aside merely because it is not the main point.

Events in Space and Time

The basic guidelines for interpreting Genesis 1–3 derive from Scripture itself. If we follow the guide of Scripture, we will read Genesis 1–3 with understanding. We will not have all our questions answered, because Genesis 1–3 does not say everything that could be said about the details of how God did things. Much remains mysterious. But we do gain from Genesis 1–3 a true understanding of reality. God created the world and mankind. Adam and Eve rebelled in the garden. Those were real events in space and time.

  1. Vern S. Poythress, Redeeming Science: A God-Centered Approach (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2006); Poythress, Inerrancy and Worldview: Answering Modern Challenges to the Bible (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2012); Poythress, Interpreting Eden: A Guide to Faithfully Reading and Understanding Genesis 1–3 (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2019). 

is an author and professor of New Testament interpretation at Westminster Theological Seminary. His most recent books include Knowing and the Trinity: How Perspectives in Human Knowledge Imitate the Trinity (P&R Publishing, 2018) and The Mystery of the Trinity: A Trinitarian Approach to the Attributes of God (P&R Publishing, 2020). He has degrees from Westminster, Cambridge, Harvard, and Caltech.