The Hidden Consensus
Reading Genesis 3 Literally
What is the literary mode of the Bible's account of Creation and Eden? Is it literal or figurative? And if it is figurative, to what degree is it figurative?
Evidence tells us that in the early Christian Church, most theologians and leaders believed that the Creation account was at least partially, if not wholly symbolic. Many modern Christians, however, especially in America, say that this account must be read literally. They feel it is dangerous to treat portions of the Bible metaphorically when they are not explicitly stated to be metaphorical.
But here's the rub. Even those who say we should read these chapters literally do not, themselves, read them literally.
My claim is this:
No Christian actually interprets these passages in a strictly literal manner,
and this should be both acknowledged and applauded.
Take a look at Genesis 3, where mankind fell from communion with God and was expelled from Eden.
Now the serpent was more crafty than any other beast of the field that the Lord God had made. He said to the woman, "Did God actually say, 'You shall not eat of any tree in the garden'?"
What is the strictly literal interpretation? The strictly literal interpretation is that the deceiving serpent was actually an animal -- the Bible plainly says that the talking serpent was one of the beasts of the field that God created. The literal interpretation doesn't at all point to the serpent being an angel in disguise, let alone Satan.
The figurative interpretation, however, is that the talking serpent represents Satan, and this is the interpretation explicitly endorsed by Scripture. In Revelation 20, we're told that Satan himself is the "ancient serpent."
Some so-called literalists attempt to reconcile this apparent conflict by saying that the serpent was possessed by Satan. But that's not a literal reading -- Scripture says that that the serpent was crafty among beasts of the field. It does not say that Satan was crafty, and thus disguised himself as a serpent. Nothing in Scripture tells us that Satan himself ever inhabited the body of an actual animal; the "snake-possession" interpretation is the invention of certain Christians, not God's Word.
Now, I hope you aren't emotionally troubled at this point. There's no reason to hesitate from reading the Bible as intended, even if it doesn't jive with the "traditions of men" we're accustomed to.
Let's continue. The symbolism becomes even clearer when we take a look at God's curse upon the serpent:
The Lord God said to the serpent,
"Because you have done this,
cursed are you above all livestock
and above all beasts of the field;
on your belly you shall go,
and dust you shall eat
all the days of your life.
What is the strictly literal interpretation? The strictly literal interpretation has God cursing the serpent above all livestock and beasts of the field. It is a curse upon an animal, devaluing it in relation to other animals. In fact, the literal interpretation is the story of "why the snake crawls about on its belly," a divine punishment upon this "crafty animal" for deceiving mankind.
The figurative interpretation is that God cursed Satan for his deception, devaluing him beneath all of God's creatures and crippling him. The snake losing his legs is an elegant allegorical tale, symbolic of this underlying reality.
The curse continues:
I will put enmity between you and the woman,
and between your offspring and her offspring;
he shall crush your head,
and you shall bruise his heel."
What is the strictly literal interpretation? The strictly literal interpretation is the promise that snakes will nip at people's heels, and that people will crush snakes' heads.
But throughout Christian history, this promise has been universally interpreted as symbolic prophecy. Satan will "nip at the heel" of Eve's offspring, but Eve's offspring will "crush his head." And who is Eve's prophetic offspring? Christ Himself, according to the common Protestant interpretation.
In 230 AD, early Christian theologian Origen Adamantius said, "I believe every man must hold these things for images under which a hidden sense is concealed."
Compare the strictly literal version with the metaphorical version of Genesis 3:
|Historical, Literal Reality|
|Snake deceived mankind|
|Cursed above other animals|
|Condemned to slither|
|Will bruise people's heels|
|Will be crushed by people|
|Image|| ||Underlying Historical Reality|
|Talking snake|| ||Satan|
|Snake deceived mankind|| ||Satan deceived mankind|
|Cursed above other animals|| ||Cursed above other creatures|
|Condemned to slither|| ||Power crippled|
|Will bruise people's heels|| ||Will attack the Messiah|
|Will be crushed by people|| ||The Messiah will triumph|
Which interpretation makes more sense? Which interpretation has the support of Scripture elsewhere? Which interpretation has the support of the majority of early Church leaders and theologians? The answer to all three is the metaphorical interpretation.
Proposing a Further Consensus
If we all agree that the serpent is metaphorical, why push for literalism elsewhere in the Creation account? The story of the serpent is part of a larger apocalyptic (or, revelatory) tale -- the story of the beginning. Thus, a consistent view of this Creation story is consistently metaphorical. The Creation-Days and their unusual numerology represent something. The Tree of Life and Tree of Knowledge represent something. The consumption of the forbidden fruit represents something.
As long as we retain the essentials of the story -- the meaningful images that convey to us God's goodness, our fault, our dilemma, and our hope -- there's no reason to resist reading Creation metaphorically, and every reason to embrace what it appears was intended.
(c) 2009 The Truth Problem.