The online Bible teaching ministry of John Brand

Why we need to take Genesis 1-2 literally (2)

In the first post in this series we considered the TEXTUAL reason by we need to take a literal view of the opening chapters of Genesis. Now we look at the hermeneutical reasons for doing so.


It is amazing how experienced and gifted Christian teachers and preachers inconsistently apply basic rules of interpretation when they read the first chapters of Genesis.  

Let’s just focus on three vital hermeneutical principles:

The meaning of any passage of Scripture is the meaning intended by the original author and as would have been understood by the original readers.

Even scholars who reject the literal 24-hour approach recognize that “the original Israelite audience would have understood the word “day” in the context of Genesis 1 to have been twenty-four-hour days”. [1]

Using the grammatical-historical rules for discovering the intention of the original, divinely inspired human author and how his words would have been understood by his original readers, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that we are supposed to take Genesis 1 and 2 at face value.

Context determines meaning

As we have already pointed out, the clear context of the use of the word yom is not an indefinite period of time but a period of time defined by “there was evening and there was morning”.

As far as I know there is no professor of Hebrew or OT at any world-class university who does not believe that the writer of Genesis 1-11 intended to convey to their readers the idea that creation took place in a series of six days which were the same as the days of 24 hours we now experience…” (Professor James Barr, a Scottish Old Testament scholar who was Professor of the Interpretation of Holy Scripture and Professor of Hebrew at Oxford University of Oxford and not an evangelical Christian)


Genesis 1 is, like most of Genesis, written as historical narrative and, while it may be stylized in certain ways because it reflects a Hebrew way of writing, that does not give us warrant to interpret it in any way other than literally, which was clearly the intention of Moses and is how his original readers/listeners would have understood it.

You will probably be aware that it is, today, extremely popular to say that the first eleven chapters of Genesis are not narrative, chronological history, but poetry.  However, the evidence for this is, in truth, non-existent.

…there is no indication of figurative language in Genesis 1.  If the narrative is to be considered imagery, one would expect to encounter many of the essentials of figurative language (e.g., schema, metaphor, and other trophes), but there are none. [2]

…Genesis 1 is not written according to the canons of Hebrew poetry with various types of parallelism….the first eleven chapters are written as historical narrative much the same way that I and II Chronicles are written.  That is, they are theological interpretations of actual states of affairs that have occurred in the space/time cosmos. [3]

…in not one of these many instances where the Old or New Testament refers to Genesis is there the slightest evidence that the writers regarded the events or personages as mere myths or allegories.  To the contrary, they viewed Genesis as absolutely historical, true, and authoritative. [4]

In fact, right up until the mid 19th century, the Church was virtually unanimous in its belief that the opening chapters of Genesis were historical narrative. 

The account as it stands expects the impartial reader to accept it as entirely literal and historical. The use made of it in the rest of Sacred Scriptures treats every part referred to as sober fact, not as a fancy-picture. [5]

I would contend that the early chapters of Genesis, the first three chapters of Genesis, are given to us as history. We know that there are pictures and symbols in the Bible, and when the Bible uses symbol and parable it indicates that it is doing so, but when it presents something to us in the form of history, it requires us to accept it as history.

D Martyn Lloyd-Jones

We have no right to be selective as to which parts of Genesis we interpret literally and which parts we understand figuratively or metaphorically.   There are many who say that Genesis 1 and 2 should be understood figuratively but that it gets literal from chapter 3 onwards, for example. That is simply a bad and flawed way to handle the biblical text, or indeed any piece of literature.

There is an old adage that goes, ‘if the plain sense makes sense, seek no other sense’.

R C Sproul wrote, later in his ministry:

For most of my teaching career, I considered the framework hypothesis to be a possibility. But I have now changed my mind. I now hold to a literal six-day creation…Genesis says that God created the universe and everything in it in six twenty-four-hour periods. According to the Reformation hermeneutic, the first option is to follow the plain sense of the text. One must do a great deal of hermeneutical gymnastics to escape the plain meaning of Genesis 1-2. 

In the early church there was a tendency by some to spiritualise or allegorise much of Scripture in order to accommodate the influence of Greek philosophy. Today, an accommodationist approach is very popular among Christians who desire to reconcile Scripture to some scientific theory. The problem is that in order to do so you have to reject the plain sense of Scripture, indulge in what Sproul calls “hermeneutical gymnastics”, and that’s always a mistaken approach.   Scientific theories come and go, Scripture stands true for all time.

The plain sense of Scripture, of necessity, locks us into accepting the opening chapters of God’s word as being literally true and we dishonour him when we take any other approach.

Let’s heed Luther’s wise words

…therefore, as the proverb has it, he (Moses) calls “a spade a spade,” i.e. he employs the terms “day” and “evening” without allegory, just as we customarily do… Moses spoke in the literal sense, not allegorically or figuratively, i.e. that the world, with all its creatures, was created within six days, as the words read. If we do not comprehend the reason for this, let us remain pupils and leave the job of teacher to the Holy Spirit.

[1] John Walton. The NIV application commentary Genesis, p. 154

[2] Currid, J. (1987). A Cosmology of History from Creation to Consummation.

In H. (ed), Building a Christian World View II (pp. 44-45). Philadelphia: Presbyterian and Reformed.

[3] Kelly, D. (1997). Creation and Change. Fearn: Christian Focus p42

[4] Morris, H. M. (1981). The Genesis Record. Darlington: Evangelical Press p44

[5] Leupold, H. C. (1984). Exposition of Genesis. Darlington: Evangelical Press

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