Interpreting Genesis 1 “literally”

A heroic portrait of St. AugustineOver on his Naked Bible blog a couple of weeks ago, Michael Heiser suggested that many “‘literal creationists’ are actually only selective literalists.” I agree with Mike on this (how many people who want to take Genesis 1 “literally” also want to take Psalm 74:12–17, another creation text, “literally”?). I do, however, want to explore the vocabulary of “literalism” just for a moment, bringing Mike’s post into conversation with St. Augustine.

I’ve spent quite a lot of time over the last few years with Augustine’s writings on Genesis. He has a fascinating and complex approach to Genesis 1, shaped in large part by his desire to show the consistency of scripture with scripture, and the consistency of scripture with science (that is, the “science” of the late fourth century AD). On the former score, Augustine had learned from Sirach 18:1—in its Latin version, qui vivit in aeternum creavit omnia simul—that God had created all things simultaneously. (The Greek version, ὁ ζῶν εἰς τὸν αἰῶνα ἔκτισεν τὰ πάντα κοινῇ, has a different connotation.) How could the work of creation happen both simultaneously and in six days? For Augustine, the seven days of creation were very different from a week in our ordinary experience. Indeed, Augustine proposed that we ought not think of six separate days at all in the creation week, but one day repeated six times:

And thus throughout all those days there is just the one day, which is not to be understood after the manner of those days that we see measured and counted by the circuit of the sun, but in a different kind of mode which has to allow for those three days that were mentioned before the fashioning of these lamps in the sky. This  mode, you see, does not just operate as far as the fourth day, so that from then on we should be thinking of these usual ones, but right up to the sixth and seventh. Hence the night and day, between which two God divided (Gn 1:4), are to be taken in quite a different sense from this night and day, between which he said that the lamps he created were to divide, when he said, And let them divide between day and night (Gn 1:14). (The Literal Meaning of Genesis IV, 26, 43b; trans. Edmund Hill, On Genesis [Hyde Park: New City Press, 2002])

How, then, can one understand the cycle of evening and morning in the creation week?

And so in this account of the creation of things the day is not to be understood as the form of the actual work, nor the evening as its termination and the morning as the start of another work, … Instead, that “day which God has made” is itself repeated through his works, not in a bodily circular motion but in spiritual knowledge, when that blessed company of angels before anything else contemplates in the Word of God that about which God says Let it be made; and in consequence this is first made in their own angelic knowledge when the text says, And thus it was made, and only after that do they know the actual thing made in itself, which is signified by the making of evening. They then refer this knowledge of the thing made to the praise of that Truth where they had seen the idea of making it, and this is signified by the making of morning. (Literal Meaning of Genesis IV, 26, 43a)

As Augustine sees it, the cycle of day and night in Genesis 1 describes spiritual, angelic knowledge and praise, not the material, celestial motions that produce the ordinary sequence of day and night that we perceive with our senses.

You’ll notice, however, that neither Augustine nor I said above that that the light of Genesis 1:3–5 “represents” spiritual knowledge, for to say that would be to imply that the light of “day one“ is metaphorical. Yet Augustine insists this is not so:

And please let nobody assume … that none of this can be said strictly and properly but that it all belongs to a kind of figurative and allegorical understanding of day and evening and morning. Certainly it is different from our usual way of talking about this bodily light of every day, but that does not mean that here we have the strict and proper, there just a metaphorical, use of these terms. (Literal Meaning of Genesis, IV, 28, 45a).

“Now hold on a dad-blamed minute,” objects our modern would-be literalist. “The book says ‘light’ and it literally means ‘light.’’ “I quite agree,” replies Augustine, “but you see, it literally means the light of spiritual knowledge, not the light of sense perception.” Augustine’s interlocutor has the same thinks s/he’s a literalist, but thinks Augustine is reading the text figuratively. Augustine thinks he’s reading the text literally, and that his interlocutor is failing to actually read the text literally. Just as Augustine and his interlocutor disagree over the literal meaning of the light and darkness, the evenings and mornings of Genesis 1, so too they disagree over the literal meaning of the word literal. For our modern literalist, literal means something akin to historically accurate. For Augustine, historical accuracy is only one species of accuracy; Genesis 1 does not seek historical accuracy, but spiritual accuracy. For Augustine, this is not “allegorizing” the text or taking it “figuratively”; it is taking the text literally—since by literally, Augustine means as its author intended:

And when we read in the divine books such a vast array of true meanings, which can be extracted from a few words, and which are backed by sound Catholic faith, we should pick above all the one which can certainly be shown to have been held by the author we are reading … (Literal Meaning of Genesis I, 21, 41)

As it turns out, I happen to think that Michael Heiser gets rather closer than either Augustine or our modern “literalists” to an accurate approximation of “the [meaning] which can certainly be shown to have been held by the author we are reading” in Genesis 1. Augustine, for example, mapped Genesis 1 onto an Aristotelian-Ptolemaic cosmic geography rather than appreciating the text‘s participation in ancient Near Eastern notions of cosmic geography. (I don’t think Augustine would be overly bothered by this observation, else he would not have written, “I am certainly not insisting on this [line of reasoning] in such a way as to contend that nothing else preferable can be found” [Literal Meaning of Genesis IV, 28, 45].) But that’s not really the point I’m trying to make here.

This is, rather, a plea that we follow Augustine and divest ourselves of the notion that interpreting a text literally means taking it as an historically accurate account of things that happened in time and space. If the text isn’t an historical narrative, then treating it as an historical narrative is not properly a literal interpretation. Now, I realize that discerning an author’s intention in this regard can be tricky—but not as tricky as you might think, if you attend to ancient genre conventions. That discussion, however, must wait for a future post.

2 thoughts on “Interpreting Genesis 1 “literally”

  1. Patrick

    There’s a new book out on this subject and it is specifically for the layman. “In the Beginning, We Misunderstood”. I think it’s an awesome work myself that every church needs in it’s library.

    Simply put, the cosmology of Genesis is Egyptian and Baylonian cosmology . The authors go to pains to demonstrate this and then to demonstrate why it makes sense it would be this way and the theological/spiritual warfare Genesis’ author was participating in to rid the Jewish reader of their Egyptian and Babylonian leanings and into a total reverence for the true creator God, Yahweh.


Leave a Reply