Genesis 1-3: History or Allegory?

Guest post written by Eric

Many of the posts in this blog, and even more so the discussions that usually follow, have highlighted the differences between Mormonism and traditional or evangelical Christianity. However, there is at least one area where evangelicals may differ more among themselves and Mormons may differ more among themselves than the two religious traditions differ from each other. And that has to do with how to understand the first three chapters of Genesis: Should the accounts of the Creation and of the Fall be viewed as real events that happened in history, or should they be viewed primarily as allegory?

How believers in the Bible answer that question could have significant implications. For evangelicals, those implications were detailed in an excellent cover story, “The Search for the Historical Adam,” published last year in Christianity Today magazine. The article pointed out that while the traditional Christian view, included in some denominations’ statements of faith, is that Adam and Eve were the historical parents of the human race, that belief is about to collide (if it hasn’t already) with research into genetic diversity that shows that the existing human race could not have descended from two individuals a few thousand years ago. Just as in the past century or two science has forced most educated Christians to abandon a belief that the Earth is less than 10,000 years old, the article suggested, it is becoming just as clear that defending any idea of two common human ancestors is scientifically untenable.

Part of what is at stake for many adherents of evangelicalism (Catholicism too) is the understanding of original sin being traceable to Adam (and Eve too, although she’s mentioned less often). Also, the writings of Paul develop complex arguments seemingly based on the historicity of Adam, and the genealogy of Jesus in the Gospel of Luke traces Jesus’ earthly lineage to Adam.

Even though we Mormons don’t believe in the doctrine of original sin, the problem of Adam and Eve is no less acute for us, since we also accept the New Testament as scripture. Additionally, many church leaders, including Joseph Smith, have clearly assumed the historicity of Adam and Eve. Smith even said the Garden of Eden had been located in what is now Missouri.

For many evangelicals, and probably an even higher percentage of Mormons, to question the historicity of the Creation and Fall accounts strikes at a foundation of the Christian faith. Such a view is behind the attempt of many evangelicals to promote intelligent design, which claims that there is scientific evidence of a Creator; smaller numbers, usually from the fundamentalist wing of evangelicalism, have fought against any teaching in public schools that advanced forms of life developed over millions of years. And while the LDS church has no doctrine denying evolution, it isn’t difficult to find Mormons who interpret verses such as Moses 6:48 to support a belief that no death existed before the Fall, which if true would seem to preclude evolution.

But there are evangelicals and Mormons who disagree with the prevailing views. Most prominent among such evangelicals is DNA scientist extraordinaire Francis Collins, who believes that humankind came about through the randomness of natural selection, that while God set life in motion, how we turned out was a matter of chance. Brigham Young University biologist Steven Peck seemingly has adopted a similar view, and has written that he is proud to have descended from apes. Yet both men have reconciled their faiths with what they see science clearly telling them.

Is there a necessary conflict between science and believing that the first three chapters of Genesis are part of the inspired word of God? I am writing to suggest that the answer is no.

In my view, science becomes a problem for the believer in the Bible only when we try to understand the Bible as telling us something the authors never intended to teach us. The Bible (and for us Mormons, other scripture) isn’t intended to be a scientific textbook. And the text of Genesis 1-3 gives us clues that neither is it intended to be seen as history, but rather as a way of conveying divinely inspired truth about the relationship between God and humankind.

In other words, Genesis 1-3 teaches truth even if it isn’t history.

In a comment earlier in this blog, blog host Tim said:

I don’t deny that inerrancists generally reject theistic evolution. What I’m saying is that if the internal textual evidence were clearer (similar to the parables), it wouldn’t be a rejection of inerrancy to say that Genesis 1-3 are an allegory. There is a difference between literalism and inerrancy.

I would argue that such textual evidence does exist, opening the way for us to take Genesis 1-3 seriously without taking it literally. My interest in doing so isn’t intend to weaken anyone’s faith in Genesis; on the contrary, I’m concerned that by trying to make Genesis say more than God intended it to, we set up an unnecessary barrier to faith.

Here, briefly, are what I see as some of the signs that Genesis 1-3 shouldn’t be viewed literally:

  • The account is full of blatant symbols that suggest a truth that goes beyond history, among them the tree of life, the tree of knowledge and a villain in the form of a despised animal. Even the name Adam is simply a Hebrew word for “man” (or “human”), and Eve’s name comes from a word meaning “living.” In this way, the story is written to apply to every man and every woman rather than to two specific individuals.
  • The structure of the creation account in Genesis 1 seems to be written in an order designed for literary purposes. For example, the first day parallels the fourth, the second day parallels the fifth, and the third day parallels the sixth. It would make no sense as history to make plants before the sun, but it does make sense if the writer is trying to evoke a sense of order and awe.
  • A creation account starting in Genesis 2:4 directly contradicts the order of events in the account beginning in 1:1. It makes more sense to see the accounts as having two different purposes than it does to reconcile the factual details.
  • There’s a huge disconnect between Genesis 3 (which ends with the ejection from Eden) and Genesis 4 (which tells of Cain and Abel). The latter presupposes the existence of an agrarian society as well as of other human populations, which makes no sense with a literal reading of what comes before.

So if Genesis 1-3 doesn’t teach science or history, what does it teach? For starters, that God had a purpose in creating us. That God gave us free will, and that our decisions have consequences, including the misery that sin brings. That what God created is good. That the making of humankind is the pinnacle, even the ultimate purpose, of God’s creation. That we were created in God’s image.

I’m not suggesting that there are no problems with taking an allegorical approach to understanding Genesis 1-3. But in our quest to know what “really happened,” it becomes easy to lose perspective on the broader truths of what God is using this ancient, inspired writing to teach us.

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18 thoughts on “Genesis 1-3: History or Allegory?

  1. John Morehead left a comment on a different topic that I think is relevant to this discussion:

    It is a real shame that American evangelicalism confuses hermeneutical issues with a high view of Scripture.

    The most important question we need to ask in approaching any scriptural passage is “What is the genre?”

  2. The two best resources on this issue are “The Lost World of Genesis One: Ancient Cosmology and the Origins Debate” by John Walton and “The Evolution of Adam: What the Bible Does and Doesn’t Say About Human Origins” by Pete Enns. I have read them both and recommend them highly.

    They both seek to solve the problem by taking the text seriously. All too often “allegorical” usually means “I don’t believe that crap, so I’ll make it say what I want it say through allegorical pixie dust.” Both Enns and Walton are top notch Old Testament scholars, both deal with the issues in a serious way, both try and figure out what Genesis would have meant in its original context, both are broadly Evangelical, and both reach similar conclusions.

    Now back to my self imposed exile.

  3. Eric

    Understanding that there are any number of historically accepted allegory / analogy interpretations for the creation naritive dating back to Augustine, why is anything but a young earth 6 24 hour day view turning into heresy?

  4. Gundek — I think it gets back to what David Clark said:

    All too often “allegorical” usually means “I don’t believe that crap, so I’ll make it say what I want it say through allegorical pixie dust.”

    So I think that many of those who insist on a literal reading (and I’ve known plenty in both the evangelical and LDS camps, although the LDS literalists I’ve known tend to talk of 1,000-year days instead of 24-hour days) tend to view attempts to allegorize as the equivalent of saying it’s not true. I think some are also persuaded by a slippery-slope argument: If you’re saying this is allegory, then you must also think the story of Noah and the ark is allegory. And if you think that’s allegory, then the Captivity and Exodus must be allegory. And, ultimately, the Resurrection must be allegory. I don’t buy the argument, but it’s out there. The fact that there are theological liberals who believe exactly that doesn’t help.

  5. I agree with your assessment, I would only add theological illiteracy to the list. I think many are simply unaware that many orthodox theologians, that had the highest views of the inspiration of scripture, understood Gen 1&2 differently than 6 24 hour days. They honestly believe theirs is the only historical belief.

  6. Pingback: Genesis « Earthpages.ca

  7. Pingback: 10 Reasons to Believe in a Historical Adam « ~ BLOGGER.GUNNY.G.1984+. ~ (BLOG & EMAIL)

  8. The question that sticks with me is: When does the poetry stop and the real history begin?
    (Cain and Abel?
    Abraham and Isaac?
    Noah and the Flood?
    Nephi and Laban?
    Jesus in the Garden?)

    and Ultimately . . . .does it matter?

  9. Eric, I just saw this post now after replying earlier on the other thread. Counter to Clark, Enns does not edify me. Go figure. I would concede with Gundeck over the many viewpoints among orthodox men in history. So I should be charitable over the issue.

    Jared, does it matter? Yes. I think it matters a great deal.

  10. Jared C — I limited my argument to the first three chapters of Genesis mostly because I think that’s where the strongest argument can be made that the text itself (and not, for example, simply knowledge of history or science) suggests that it should be understood as allegory.

    Beyond that, I’m not sure how much it matters whether there was a worldwide flood (extremely improbable) or merely a local one (or even none at all), or if the story of the Tower of Babel is merely an allegory for the dangers of trying to supplant God (we know that’s not how languages really came about). But Christianity has always taken the position that it is a faith grounded in history — throughout history, we Christians really have believed that God intervened in history in a tangible way. To deny that would deny the faith.

    Speaking for myself only, and not trying to develop any elaborate theology about it, I wouldn’t be bothered if I found out that the Exodus didn’t happen in all the details as recorded, or if the Bible contains exaggerations about Israelite military prowess and that sort of thing; in other words, even if it’s infallible in matters of faith and practice it’s not unbiased history. Even so, I generally take everything from Genesis 12 onward at more or less face value, but I don’t sweat many historical details as they aren’t important to me.

    But some details are vital: At the extreme, Christianity would make no sense to me, and my faith in Jesus Christ as the Son of God wouldn’t be worth building my life around, if there were no physical Resurrection. Of course, my belief that much of Scripture is indeed to be understood literally extends to far more than that.

  11. @Jared —

    I don’t think the poetry ever stops. You have more and less poetical works. But even on the non poetical works you have a lot of bad history. For example Chronicles is clearly intended as a proto-history yet it is recounting legends in a dryer format to advance specific political causes. I’d argue that is what Luke/Acts is doing as well. Books like Maccabees from the intertestimonial period are likely the most historically accurate and those got dropped from the Protestant canon.

    Take the city of Ai where it is pretty obvious what happened. It was a ruin long before there was a Judaism and there were legends of its conquest that had come from the ruin. People constructing a history from legend attribute the conquest of Ai to Joshua and that’s what goes in the bible.

    Adam and Eve is just an incredibly well known story that strikes many Christians as too implausible. 100 years ago the virgin birth created a similar reaction, though interestingly that one seems to have gotten less troublesome with time.

    Even for more liberal Christians (Eric’s post was a well written and terrific example) ultimately they want to draw a line somewhere. The problem is how to draw that line without getting mixed up in battles further upfield. The fundamentalists aren’t wrong what’s applied to Adam and Eve can be easily applied all up and down the entire bible, “ Perhaps, in the nature of things, analytical understanding must always be a basilisk which kills what it sees and only sees by killing.

  12. If the Creation and Adam and Eve stories aren’t historical but allegorical, I think that it is a fair question to ask of those who hold to that view, “So, did humankind ‘fall’? And if so, when and how? If we are the product of evolution, (Theistic or overwise), why should we accept the concept that humankind “fell” at all? If we believe that Jesus died to save humanity from sin,
    where did that sin come in? Is evoution ongoing in the human race, and if so, how it it that humankind is ‘falling’ upward?”

    Um, maybe that’s more than one question…

  13. I don’t see how evolution (theistic or otherwise) or an allegorical understanding of the first part of Genesis is inconsistent with their being a fall. I certainly believe what Paul taught, that all have sinned.

  14. Daniel — You might be interested in reading this editorial from Christianity Today: No Adam, No Eve, No Gospel. On the second page, it suggests (but doesn’t endorse) one approach that might reconcile conflicting views.

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