Saturday, 8 June 2013

Why Biblical Literalism is Untenable - 6

In the last post, I demonstrated that special creationists are inconsistent in their literal reading of the creation narratives and the parts of the Bible which they believe are making fact-statements about the natural world. If they were entirely consistent, they would be insisting that the Earth was flat, covered with a solid firmament and was the centre of the universe.

This inconsistency not only makes it impossible to take their hermeneutical model seriously as there is no reason advanced as to why the references to a six day creation should be taken literally while the references to geocentrism explained away, but also hints that the Bible accommodates a pre-scientific world view, as the cosmology found in the early chapters of the Bible is consistent with that held by the Ancient Near Eastern contemporaries of the ancient Hebrews.

One of the most compelling demonstrations that Biblical literalism is a failed method of interpreting the creation narratives is the flat-out contradiction that exists between the creation narratives in Genesis 1 and Genesis 2 when both are interpreted as literal, chronological accounts of creation. 

In  Genesis 1, we have:

1. Creation of light
2. Creation of firmament to separate waters above from waters below
3. Separation of dry land from sea and appearance of plant life
4. Creation of sun, moon and stars
5. Creation of sea life and bird life
6. Creation of land animals and humans

Genesis 2 however has the following sequence of creation

1. Adam
2. Garden
3. Land animals and birds
4. Eve

Harmonising a literal chronological reading of Gen 1 with Gen 2 is impossible, as we have events on days 3 and 5 occuring on day 6 according to the sequence of events in Genesis 2. Any attempt to argue that Gen 2 is referring to the creation of events only in the Garden of Eden is special pleading - Genesis 2 reads very much as a creation story, rather than an amplification of events in Genesis 1.

There are further difficulties for a literal reading of the creation narratives. Look at Gen 2:4-7:

In the day that the Lord God made the earth and the heavens, when no plant of the field was yet in the earth and no herb of the field had yet sprung up—for the Lord God had not caused it to rain upon the earth, and there was no one to till the ground; but a stream would rise from the earth, and water the whole face of the ground—  then the Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being.

When analysed, Gen 2:4-7 is outlining two problems, and the Divine  solutions:

  • No wild plant grew on the earth because it had not rained
  • No cultivated plant existed  because there was no one to cultivate it

The solution for both problems respectively was rain, and the creation of a man to cultivate the ground, respectively. This makes integrating the narratives into a six day creation time sequence difficult, particularly since in this time sequence, the creation of plants takes place on day 3, less than a day after day 2, where the dry land was separated from the water.  The Biblical scholar Meredith Kline points out the folly of trying to maintain a literal chronological reading of both creation accounts due to this problem:

The results, indeed, approach the ludicrous when it is attempted to synchronize Gen. 2:5 with Genesis 1 interpreted in terms of a week of twenty-four-hour days. On that interpretation, vegetation was created on what we may call  "Tuesday". Therefore, the vegetationless situation described in Gen. 2:5 cannot be located later than "Tuesday" morning. Neither can it be located earlier than that for Gen. 2:5 as- sumes the existence of dry land which does not appear until the "third day". Besides, would it not have been droll to attribute the lack of vegetation to the lack of water either on  "Sunday" when the earth itself was quite unfashioned or on "Monday" when there was nothing but water to be seen? Hence the twenty-four-hour day theorist must think of the Almighty as hesitant to put in the plants on "Tuesday" morning because it would not rain until later in the day! (It must of course be supposed that it did rain, or at least that some supply of water was provided, before "Tuesday" was  over, for by the end of the day the earth was abounding with that vegetation which according to Gen. 2:5 had hitherto been lacking for want of water.) [1]

The problem with harmonising the creation accounts extends beyond trying to harmonise the sequence of creation events. There are fundamental differences in the portrayal of God, the time taken for creation to occur, the method of creation and how humanity is depicted. OT scholar Peter Enns observes that:

These two stories are clearly significantly different, and they cannot be harmonized by saying that the first gives the overview and the second fills in some of the details. The presence of two different creation accounts is troublesome for readers who assume that Genesis 1 and 2 are historical in nature and that the Bible’s first priority is to recount history accurately. Yet the divergence of these stories cannot be reasonably questioned. To stitch them into a seamless whole would dismiss the particular and distinct points of view that the authors were so deliberate in placing there. The differences between the two creation accounts are further complemented by differences seen in other Old Testament passages such as Psalms 77:16–20; 89:5–37; Job 9:4–15; 26:5–14; 38:4–38; and Isaiah 40:12–31; 44:24–28. It does not seem to be a concern of the biblical writers to provide God’s people with a “unified” story of creation. [2]

When a literal reading of the creation accounts brings them into open conflict, it is arguably evidence that this approach is of no exegetical use, and should be abandoned. Rather than see Genesis as a literal account of how God created, it is not unreasonable to see it through the eyes of the original audience - particularly given that it describes the universe in terms of how it was understood in the ANE - and see what God was trying to tell the original audience.

This article first appeared at my Facebook page here


1. Kline M "Because It Had Not rained"  Westminster Theological Journal  (1958) 20:146-57.
2.  Enns, Peter. The Evolution of Adam - What the Bible Does and Doesn't Say About Human Origins. Baker Books, 2012. p 52