How Should We Interpret the Bible, Part 2: Is Genesis 1–11 Historical Narrative?


The last chapter showed why the historical-grammatical approach is the best way to interpret the Bible. Tim Chaffey, AiG–U.S., now explains why Genesis should be interpreted as historical narrative.

In the previous chapter, the term “hermeneutics” was defined, and it was shown why it is so important to accurately interpret the Word of God. The best method of interpretation is known as the historical-grammatical approach. Not only did the people in the New Testament utilize this method when interpreting the Old Testament, but also it is the only system that provides a series of checks and balances to keep us on track as we interpret.

We looked at the following six key principles to follow when interpreting the Bible:

  • Carefully observe the text
  • Context is key
  • Clarity of Scripture
  • Compare Scripture with Scripture
  • Classification of the text
  • Church’s historical view

While by no means an exhaustive list, these are some of the major principles to keep in mind while studying and interpreting God’s Word.

The remainder of this chapter will be dedicated to examining the statement made by Dr. Dembski cited at the outset of the previous chapter and to determining the literary style of Genesis 1–11.

Application of the Hermeneutical Principles

Let’s briefly consider how well Professor Dembski’s quote from the introduction of the previous chapter fits the description of the creation of Adam and Eve as described in Genesis 2. Was he careful to observe the text, examine the context, assume the clarity of Scripture, compare Scripture with Scripture, properly classify the text, and compare his conclusions with those who have gone before him?

Here is the quote again:

Any evils humans experience outside the Garden before God breathes into them the breath of life would be experienced as natural evils in the same way that other animals experience them. The pain would be real, but it would not be experienced as divine justice in response to willful rebellion. Moreover, once God breathes the breath of life into them, we may assume that the first humans experienced an amnesia of their former animal life: Operating on a higher plane of consciousness once infused with the breath of life, they would transcend the lower plane of animal consciousness on which they had previously operated—though, after the Fall, they might be tempted to resort to that lower consciousness.1

Shortly before this quote, Dembski proposed that the world was full of death and suffering but that God created an oasis of perfection (the Garden of Eden) in which Adam and Eve were allowed to live.2 Is this consistent with Scripture? Did he carefully observe the text?

In Genesis 2:7, the verse which describes the creation of Adam, we immediately run into a problem. It states, “And the Lord God formed man [Hebrew: ’adam] of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living being.” The following verse, Genesis 2:8, reveals that after God made Adam, He created the Garden of Eden and put Adam in it. So Dembski is right that Adam came from outside the garden and was subsequently moved into it. However, contrary to Dembski’s claims, Adam was already fully human while he was still outside the garden. The immediate context reveals that Adam was made from the “dust of the ground,” so he did not evolve from ape-like ancestors.

There are some other problems. According to Genesis 2:21–22, the first woman (Eve) was made from Adam’s rib once Adam was in the garden and after he named the animals. She was not an animal who came from outside the garden, nor did she become fully human when she entered the garden or receive amnesia about the past the moment she entered it. So this interpretation does not pay attention to the details of the text of Genesis 2. Also, in the context, Genesis 1:31 indicates that everything God had made was “very good.” This sharply contrasts with Dembski’s view of a world that was already full of pain and “natural evils.”

Dembski’s interpretation also runs counter to the clarity of Scripture (at least in the early chapters of Genesis). A plain reading of the text reveals that Adam was made from the dust of the ground, placed in the garden, told to name the animals, and put in a deep sleep during which God made the first woman from Adam’s rib.

The Bible consistently shows that death did not exist prior to Adam’s sin.

When we compare Scripture with Scripture, we find other reasons why Dembski’s interpretation fails. The Bible consistently shows that death did not exist prior to Adam’s sin.3 Also, in Genesis 3:18–19 God explained that, as a result of Adam’s sin and God’s Curse, the ground would bring forth thorns and thistles (the ground that was cursed was outside the garden from which Adam and Eve were expelled), making Adam’s work more difficult, and that Adam would eventually die. Yet, since Dembski apparently accepts a view of theistic evolution (the notion that God used evolutionary processes to bring man into existence),4 he promotes the idea that thorns and death pre-existed Adam by hundreds of millions of years. He seeks to solve this dilemma by claiming that Adam’s sin was retroactively applied to all of creation.5 Nowhere does the Bible state anything like this. Throughout its pages, the Bible reveals there was no death before sin because death was brought into the world by man.

The literary style of Genesis, based on the classification of the text, was also ignored by Dembski. As will be demonstrated in the next section, Genesis was written as historical narrative, and it should be interpreted as such. Although many claim to believe in the historicity of the events in Genesis 1–11, they simply reclassify the text as something other than history. For example, some view it as poetic or mythological. It is not enough to simply claim that one believes Genesis is historically accurate. One must also recognize that it was written as historical narrative and interpret accordingly. The strange ideas proposed by Dembski reveal he does not interpret the early chapters as historical narrative.

Dembski’s interpretation of these chapters is rather unique. It certainly has not been a standard or well-accepted position throughout church history, and I only know of one other person who has discussed something similar.7 While this principle of considering the church’s historical view does not disprove his view by itself, it illustrates the need to carefully examine his beliefs before accepting them.

Also, we should ask why Dembski has come up with this novel view. Dembski answered that question when he wrote, “The young-earth solution to reconciling the order of creation with natural history makes good exegetical and theological sense. Indeed, the overwhelming consensus of theologians up through the Reformation held to this view. I myself would adopt it in a heartbeat except that nature seems to present such strong evidence against it.”8

This statement reveals his motives. The young-earth creationist position is clearly presented in the text of Scripture, but he does not accept it because he believes scientists have shown the earth and universe to be billions of years old. As such, he does not allow the Bible to be the authority in this area. Instead, he has placed man’s ever-changing views in a position to override the plain words of the God who knows all things, cannot lie, and has revealed to us how and when He created. By his interpretation, Dembski is reading into (eisegesis) the Bible what he would like it to mean, rather than reading out (exegesis) of the Bible what it actually teaches.

Several other problems could be cited, but these are sufficient to show that Dr. Dembski has failed to accurately interpret the passage about the creation of man. The early chapters of Genesis are written as historical narrative. When you follow the well-accepted principles of interpretation, then it is easy to see why, until the onslaught of old-earth philosophy in the early 1800s, Christians have predominantly believed that God created everything in six days approximately six thousand years ago.9

Interpreting Genesis 1–11

By allowing man’s ever-changing ideas about the past to override the plain words of Scripture, many people have proposed that Genesis 1–11 should be viewed as mythical, figurative, or allegorical, rather than historical narrative. Since these people believe in millions and billions of years of death, suffering, disease, and bloodshed prior to Adam’s sin, they search for ways to reinterpret the Bible’s early chapters in a manner that will allow their views. As a result, the accounts of Creation, the Fall, the Flood, and the Tower of Babel are often reinterpreted or dismissed.

Did God intend for these chapters to be understood in a figurative, mythical, or allegorical manner?

We must remember that our goal is to discover the AIM (Author’s Intended Meaning) of the biblical text. Did God intend for these chapters to be understood in a figurative, mythical, or allegorical manner, or did He intend to tell us precisely (though not in all the detail we might want) what He did in the beginning and in the early history of the earth? The Bible provides abundant support for the conclusion that these chapters are indeed historical narrative.

First, although many commentators have broken Genesis into two sections (1–11 and 12–50), such a distinction cannot be found in the text. Some have even argued that the first 11 chapters represent primeval history and should be interpreted differently than the final 39 chapters. There are several problems with this approach. Genesis 12 would make little sense without the genealogical background provided in the previous chapter. Further, since chapter 11 includes the genealogy of Shem (which introduces us to Abraham), this links it to the genealogy in Genesis 10, which is tied to the one found in Genesis 5.

Second, Todd Beall explained another link between chapters 11 and 12, which demonstrates one should not arbitrarily insert a break in the text at this point. He wrote, “Genesis 12 begins with a waw consecutive verb, wayomer (‘and he said’), indicating that what follows is a continuation of chapter 11, not a major break in the narrative.”10 Also, chapter 11 ends with mention of Abraham, and chapter 12 begins with Abraham.

Third, Genesis seems to be structured on the recurrence of the Hebrew phrase eleh toledoth (“This is the book of the genealogy of . . .” or “This is the history of . . .”). This occurs 11 times throughout the book: six times in Genesis 1–11 and five times in chapters 12–50. Clearly, the author intended that both sections should be interpreted in the same way—as historical narrative.

Fourth, the New Testament treats Genesis 1–11 as historical narrative. At least 25 New Testament passages refer directly to the early chapters of Genesis, and they are always treated as real history. Genesis 1 and 2 were cited by Jesus in response to a question about divorce (Matthew 19:4–6; Mark 10:6–9). Paul referenced Genesis 2–3 in Romans 5:12–19; 1 Corinthians 15:20–22, 45–47; 2 Corinthians 11:3; and 1 Timothy 2:13–14. The death of Abel recorded in Genesis 4 is mentioned by Jesus in Luke 11:51. The Flood (Genesis 6–9) is confirmed as historical by Jesus (Matthew 24:37–39) and Peter (2 Peter 2:4–9, 3:6), and in Luke 17:26–29, Jesus mentioned the Flood in the same context as he did the account of Lot and Sodom (Genesis 19). Finally, in Luke’s genealogy of Christ, he includes 20 names found in the genealogies of Genesis 5 and 11 (Luke 3:34–38).


These are just some of the reasons why Genesis 1–11 should be understood as literal history. Jesus and the New Testament authors viewed it as such,11 and the internal consistency of Genesis demonstrates its historical nature. Consequently, to interpret Genesis 1–11 in the same way Jesus did, you must treat the passage as historical narrative and follow the standard principles of interpretation. When you do this, it is clear that God created everything in six normal-length days approximately six thousand years ago.


  1. Dembski, The End of Christianity, 155.
  2. Ibid., 153.
  3. See Dr. Terry Mortenson’s article “Young-Earth Creationist View Summarized and Defended” at Accessed February 16, 2011.
  4. Actually, Dembski is very confusing in his section on Adam and Eve (pp. 155–159). Some statements seem to reject evolution, but many other statements seem to accept it. At the very least, he seems to indicate that theistic evolution is compatible with the theodicy he is proposing.
  5. For a full refutation of Dembski’s view, see Terry Mortenson’s article “Christian Theodicy in Light of Genesis and Modern Science: A Young-Earth Creationist Response to William Dembski” at Accessed January 26, 2011.
  6. See Chapter 18, “What About the Framework Hypothesis?”
  7. Because he also sought to reconcile the ideas of long ages and the biblical teaching that death came as a result of Adam’s sin, Charles Spurgeon once briefly stated as a possibility the concept of death as a result of Adam’s sin being retroactively applied to the death of animals for long periods of time prior to the Fall. Charles H. Spurgeon, “Christ, the Destroyer of Death” (preached on December 17, 1876), The Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit, Vol XXII (Pasadena, TX: Pilgrim, 1981), pp. 698–699.
  8. Dembski, The End of Christianity, 55.
  9. For more information on this dramatic shift in interpretation of Genesis 1–11 in the early 1800s, see Terry Mortenson, The Great Turning Point: The Church’s Catastrophic Mistake on Geology—Before Darwin (Green Forest, AR: Master Books, 2004).
  10. Todd S. Beall, “Contemporary Hermeneutical Approaches to Genesis 1–11” in Terry Mortenson and Thane H. Ury, Coming to Grips with Genesis: Biblical Authority and the Age of the Earth (Green Forest, AR: Master Books, 2008), p. 145.
  11. For more on Christ’s and the apostles’ view of Genesis 1–11, see chapters 11 and 12 in Mortenson and Ury, Coming to Grips with Genesis.


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