How to Interpret Genesis

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“But there are many well-educated, bright, and Godly Christians that don’t hold to a Young Earth Creationist position. Why should I believe what you are saying when there are brilliant apologists, Pastors, and theologians that say Genesis doesn’t teach what you say it does. And don’t just say it’s because what the Bible obviously says, because everyone says that!”

Ever heard that one before? If you’ve been around the creation/evolution debate for more than a week, of course you have.

Do We Need Experts to Tell Us What the Bible Says?

It is true that some passages of Scripture seem quite difficult to fully grasp for the lay Christian, and even the Apostle Peter commented about Paul’s letters that “There are some things in them that are hard to understand . . .” (2 Peter 3:16). However, declaring that because some passages are hard to understand somehow means the majority of the Bible needs special knowledge beyond what the average person understands simply isn’t justified. It would be like saying because there are some very difficult math equations that the average person can’t understand 2+2 = 4.

Obviously, if there is no definite way to interpret the majority of the Bible by the average person then even basic fundamentals of the faith, like Christ’s death and resurrection would be “open for interpretation.” Efforts to translate the Bible into every language, putting them into the hands of every believer so that they can be “good Bereans” and compare the Word of God vs the preaching of men (in order to be able to discern false teaching), is a basic principle understood by most. The perspicuity (clarity) of Scripture is assumed in verses like 2 Corinthians 4:2:

[W]e do not use deception, nor do we distort the word of God. On the contrary, by setting forth the truth plainly we commend ourselves to every man’s conscience in the sight of God.

How Should We Interpret Scripture?

Despite the fact that many liberal theologians in the past and, unfortunately many modern Christian academics today, are telling believers that they don’t necessarily have to take the Bible as plainly written, the vast majority of Christian scholars throughout history have held the opposite view, for reasons that become obvious upon examination.

Imagine someone writing an email to you and at the end telling you that you should not take what they are saying as plainly written. Should you take that statement as plainly written as well? The idea itself is self-refuting nonsense. Similarly, if the Bible stated (anywhere) that we should not take it as plainly written, it would be valueless.

Literally?

The objection that because the Bible contains parables and symbolic imagery means “you shouldn’t take the Bible literally” is missing the point. Taking the Bible as plainly written does not mean taking the Bible literally: it means to discern the message being conveyed in the ordinary sense. Obviously, someone out with a friend that said they were so hungry “they could eat a horse” would be understood to be “very hungry” rather than wanting to go buy a Clydesdale for supper. And poetic paramours declaring the love of their life as “their moon and their sun” aren’t saying she’s an orbiting natural satellite and/or an enormous ball of flaming superheated gas they happen to own.

Similarly, when we read the parable of the sower, we understand it is an allegory about the Kingdom of God where everything in the story represents something else (sowing grain = gospel sowing; birds = satan; plants withering in the heat = people abandoning beliefs due to persecution; plants reproducing many more = Christians sharing with others who convert and share with others, etc.). So there is always an overall plain meaning, even when something is written symbolically. However, the majority of the biblical text is not poetic but rather historic, including Genesis 1–11.

The Historical-Grammatical Method

The historical-grammatical method of interpreting Scripture seeks to discover the biblical authors’ original intended meaning. It does not allow for allegorical interpretations to be imposed on the text because each person using that method would actually be claiming their mind as the source of authority over the text itself. This highlights the difference between exegesis and eisegesis.

Exegesis is a method of interpretation that strives to understand the original meaning from the biblical text itself. Eisegesis is an interpretation of Scripture that reads the interpreter’s own thoughts and ideas into the text. Exegesis seeks to discover “what the text means” rather than “This is what I want the text to mean.” Let’s face it, we’ve all had times when God says things in his Word that are convicting and hard to hear. For any Christian that truly wants to know what the Scriptures are saying (and not what they want or feel they should say), this is crucial.

What Does Genesis Mean?

Despite droves of modern theologians attempts to overturn what the vast majority of the Church Fathers, the Reformers, and the average lay Christian has understood Genesis 1–11 to clearly mean for hundreds of years, those who understand what the original Hebrew plainly says is quite clear.

Probably, so far as I know, there is no professor of Hebrew or Old Testament at any world-class university who does not believe that the writer(s) of Genesis 1–11 intended to convey to their readers the ideas that:

  • creation took place in a series of six days which were the same as the days of 24 hours we now experience
  • the figures contained in the Genesis genealogies provided by simple addition a chronology from the beginning of the world up to later stages in the biblical story
  • Noah’s flood was understood to be world-wide and extinguish all human and animal life except for those in the ark.

If one is looking to see what “the experts” believe about the subject, this quote is from James Barr, Oriel Professor of the interpretation of the Holy Scripture from Oxford University, England. Note that Barr is a non-Christian, and consistent with his neo-orthodox views, he does not believe Genesis. However, he obviously understood what the Hebrew so clearly teaches and noted that is consistent to what the text (not the study notes) of 99% of every English version plainly says. Concepts like gap theory, day-age theory, and theistic evolution, etc. were not derived from the text itself and were not seen in Bible commentaries before the 1800s. It was only the perceived need to harmonize the Bible with the alleged age of the earth derived from secular scientific presuppositions that led people to think anything different.

The Power Is in Your Hands

Here is the challenge for Christians who take the Bible as their authority. Simply pick up your Bible and read Genesis 1–11. Now, without imposing any ideas from outside the Bible in areas like anthropology, astronomy, biology, geology, etc., what would you come away from it believing? Would you believe God used billions of years of evolutionary processes, including all of the death and suffering that it would obviously entail in order to arrive at human beings who sinned and were punished with consequences that were already part of their current existence? Did God really use death and suffering to create before Adam sinned?

Remember God’s warning should Adam disobey his commands and rebel against him? “[Y]ou shall surely die” (Genesis 2:17). And although this assuredly meant a spiritual death for Adam and his offspring, it also included physical death as well: “[F]or you are dust, and to dust you shall return” (Genesis 3:19).

The Hebrew text of Genesis 2:17 can be literally translated “dying you shall die.” Adam and Eve died spiritually when the fall occurred (Genesis 3), and their bodies began to break down, which lead to their eventual physical death. And this is the state we all find ourselves in upon arrival into this world: spiritually dead with a clock ticking downward towards our last breath when we die. Remember this as you think this through:

If death existed before sin, then death isn’t the payment for sin. And if death isn’t the payment for sin, then Jesus’ death does not pay our sin debt!

Don’t Be Intimidated—Trust in God’s Word

While being able to respect the value that intelligent and well-meaning experts may bring to our understanding of Scripture, in the end we must reject any interpretation of the Bible that contradicts the plain reading of it. And this is not a matter of “simply having blind faith.” One can be intellectually sound and have a robust scientific and theological understanding of these issues. Answers in Genesis has many PhD scientists and theologians that bring clarity to the challenges against Scripture that skeptics bring. And we encourage you to take advantage of the tremendous amount of resources we have available for all ages to assist you in learning how to understand and defend God’s Word.

Just remember that in the end, whether a pastor, Christian professor, scientist, friend, or noteworthy intellectual of some sort says differently: If what they say contradicts the plain reading of Scripture, it should be rejected. As 2 Corinthians 5 says,

We destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ . . .”

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