On the Use of Metaphor in Genesis One

What kind of days these were it is extremely difficult, or perhaps impossible, to determine” (Saint Augustine, City of God 11.7).

We live in an age when the Bible is surely under attack by those who reject its authority. In response, many well-meaning Christians feel compelled to defend the Bible against such attacks by insisting on the “literal interpretation of the Scriptures,” beginning right with Genesis 1. To this point, we simply can not dismiss the Bible because we dislike what it says. But is the appropriate objective really to defend the “literal interpretation of the Scriptures,” or is it to defend the faithful and correct interpretation of the Scriptures as the Biblical writers originally intended them to be understood? One might think these objectives are identical, but depending on how one values the use of metaphor in Holy Scripture, the answer may be surprising.

My contention is that no one interprets everything in the Bible in a strictly literal sense anyway, and a good look at Genesis 1 demonstrates this. Furthermore, unlike fairly recent debates concerning God’s purpose for human sexuality and marriage, the debates over how to interpret such matters as the “days” of Genesis 1 have been with us for centuries. In contrast, the Genesis teaching on sexuality and marriage has a strong and unified consensus behind it throughout church history.

In the 5th century A.D., Saint Augustine dedicated a book on The Literal Meaning of Genesis in order to tackle the subject of how to rightly interpret this early part of the Bible, including those controversial “days” in Genesis 1, hundreds of years before Charles Darwin was ever born. Augustine’s conclusion, noted above from the City of God, is but one example to show that those who love God’s Word for multiple centuries have puzzled over at least some of the details in the first book of the Bible. Augustine wrote The Literal Meaning of Genesis specifically to refute attempts to over-allegorize Genesis, so this should not be taken as an excuse to interpret the Bible any way we want. Instead, we must seek the most faithful reading of the text as originally given and submit to its teachings.

But before I get into the subject at a deeper level, it might help to gain an overview of the different options regarding how different Christians have interpreted Genesis 1.  Our lead pastor, Travis Simone, sat down with me during a “Table Talk” session during the worship service last week to discuss the topic.

The Use of Metaphor in Genesis One

Much of the Bible is written plainly, to be understood by the untrained reader. Nevertheless, the ancient writers of Holy Scripture were masters at the use of metaphorical language. As we are learning more and more about the ancient world, we are discovering just how brilliant these writers were, which gives us greater confidence in the inspiration of the Bible by the Holy Spirit. But questions still remain as to what is the best way to remain faithful to what the ancient writers intended to say, and Genesis is no exception. When should a phrase or word be understood “plainly” or “literally,” and when should a word be understood in a more metaphorical, symbolic sense? This is a great question.

As a general rule of thumb, most Bible scholars argue that a more literal reading of a text is to be preferred over and against a more metaphorical understanding. Nevertheless, deeper study of the context of the passage in question demonstrates that there are times where a metaphorical reading is to be preferred instead of a literal one.

Genesis 1:2 provides a good example of where the context makes the case for metaphor imperative in order to properly understand the text. Keep in mind that we are at the very beginning of God’s creative work in the previous verse (verse 1):

“The earth was without form and void, and darkness was over the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters (ESV).”

The ESV translation gives the impression that it is the Holy Spirit who is somehow “hovering over the face of the waters” (the NIV translation does this, too). But compare this with the NRSV:

“the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters (NRSV).”

The NRSV translates “Spirit of God” as “wind from God.” So, why is that? The Hebrew word for spirit and the word for wind are the same, but the meaning is different between these different translations. Does the NRSV have something against the Holy Spirit?

Hardly.

This verse has been difficult to translate for a number of reasons. But let us consider the wider context for this verse as an example of one of these reasons. When understanding the verse as referring to the “Spirit of God,” one runs into a major problem. Taking the verb “hovering” (or “swept“) literally, one may conclude that the “Spirit of God” is some type of bird, or some other aspect of the created order, a type of hovercraft over the great oceans. For example, the same word for “hovering” (transliterated in Hebrew as rachaph) can be found in Deuteronomy 32:11 for an eagle that flutters over its young. But an interpretation of the Holy Spirit as a literal bird can not be the case here in Genesis.

In describing the baptism of Jesus by the Holy Spirit, Luke 3:22 reads much like Genesis 2:1, but with a bit more detail:

“and the Holy Spirit descended on him in bodily form, like a dove; and a voice came from heaven, “You are my beloved Son;with you I am well pleased (ESV).”

At first, it appears that the Holy Spirit is taking on some creaturely form, as one might conclude in a straight, literal reading of Genesis 1:2. But notice how Luke adds that the Holy Spirit descends like a dove. This is an indication of metaphor. Luke is therefore stressing the fact that the descent of the Holy Spirit is to be understood metaphorically, not literally.

In theological terms, this shows that while there is an incarnational ministry of the Holy Spirit, the Holy Spirit Himself never becomes incarnate.  Only God the Son, the Second Person of the Trinity becomes incarnate. Jesus is “God the Son” becoming flesh among us.  Jesus is NOT, nor is anyone or anything else, “God the Holy Spirit” becoming flesh among us. There is a big difference.

So while it might be appropriate to understand the Spirit of God as appearing in Genesis 1:2, we are warned not to take it as meaning that the literal Spirit of God is literally hovering over the waters. Both the ESV and NRSV translations are possible, but they understand the metaphorical language from different angles.

What then is the point of the metaphorical language? Genesis 1:2 is ultimately drawing a contrast between the Biblical vision of God as Creator with inferior pagan understandings.  Ancient pagan understandings of God viewed the “deep waters” as either some type of god or some other rival to the authority of the gods.  This is not so with Genesis.  Genesis teaches us that the “deep waters” stand subject to the work of God as the un-Rivaled and Ruling Creator, hovering over the waters, and “ready for action” (see Gordon Wenham, Word Biblical Commentary: Genesis 1-15, p. 17).

What About the “Evening and Morning” Bracketing the “Day?”

In several places in Genesis 1, the various “days” of Genesis are bracketed by the phrase “there was evening and there was morning” (verses 3, 8, 13, 19, 23, and 31). Many commentators contend that this demonstrates the case that each day in Genesis 1 is a literal 24-hour period. No metaphor is needed to try to “explain away” the meaning of the text, as some would argue.

Granted, this is a very strong argument. But if you look at the wider context, by applying the principle of comparing Scripture with Scripture, the argument is not necessarily as convincing as it first seems. In Daniel 8, we learn of Daniel’s vision concerning the ram and the goat, and the interpretation provided by the angel Gabriel. Scholars of the Book of Daniel disagree as to the length of time being described by this prophetic vision of the future. Most would agree that the vision is not meant to cover a single 24-hour period. Interestingly, Daniel 8:14 specifically refers to the entire vision as being “2,300 evenings and mornings.” But observe how the entire vision is summarized near the end of the chapter:

And the vision of the evening and the morning which was told is true: wherefore shut thou up the vision; for it shall be for many days (Daniel 8:26 KJV).

Now, modern translations will typically translate this as “the evenings and mornings,” but the KJV translation captures the phrase “the evening and the morning” literally from the Hebrew, just as you find in Genesis 1. So, if one follows a more literal translation of Daniel 8:26, it makes it very difficult to believe that the Biblical phrase “the evening and the morning” always means a 24-hour period throughout the Old Testament in every case. Therefore, some scholars argue that the evening and the morning should be understood in a metaphorical sense in Genesis 1, as opposed to a literal sense.

Why might this be the case? It could be that the author of Genesis understood the “days” of Genesis 1 to be God-divided days as opposed to merely sun-divided days. In other words, God the Creator is the one ultimately who marks time, whereas the sun serves the Creator. The evening and the morning is therefore an idiomatic expression demonstrating that it is God who has ultimate authority over time.

This metaphorical explanation will not convince everyone, but it is worth considering in view of the wider context of Holy Scripture.

Interpretation Requires Humility

What is the point of all of this? Christians have been wrestling with some of the more subtle interpretation matters of Genesis 1 for a long, long time. We are still learning much about our Bibles, and we can continue to learn more and more and not be needlessly threatened by challenges to more fundamental, essential doctrines of the faith. When we think about the proper way of interpreting the Bible, such as in the first chapter of Genesis, it bears keeping in mind that the language and imagery of the Bible is flexible according to the purpose of the human writer, and most importantly, it is submissive to the purposes of the Divine Author Himself. To dogmatically insist that “the literal interpretation of Scripture” is always the objective when reading the Bible risks misinterpreting the Bible in a tragic way. Therefore, a godly approach to the most faithful way of understanding the Scriptures is to submissively approach God’s Word, interpreting it literally or as metaphor in a responsible way that respects the context, as God directs us in humility.

About Clarke Morledge

Clarke Morledge -- Computer Network Engineer, College of William and Mary... I hiked the Mount of the Holy Cross, one of the famous Colorado Fourteeners, with some friends in July, 2012. My buddy, Mike Scott, snapped this photo of me on the summit. View all posts by Clarke Morledge

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