Take Those Days Literally!

I have no doubt that the days mentioned in the first chapter of Genesis are “literal days”. They each involve morning and evening, and so we can be even more specific: they are days according to traditional Jewish reckoning, beginning at sundown. Personally, I think that these literal days are part of a larger, extended metaphor of a divine “work-week”, but that isn’t the issue I want to focus on here.

There is at least one other place in the Bible where it is just as clear that literal days must be in view. In Matthew 12:38-40, Jesus is recorded as saying that the Son of Man will be in the belly of the earth for three days and three nights. Not ‘days’ in a broad, partial sense, but days and nights, in the literal sense.

From a scholarly perspective, this detail is a reinterpretation of the “sign of Jonah” by the author of Matthew’s Gospel. Originally, the “sign of Jonah” meant “no sign” since Jonah had given no sign (compare Mark and Luke on this point). And we already know from his genealogy that Matthew was interested in the symbolic value of numbers rather than numeric precision.

For those who claim to be Biblical literalists, scholarly considerations of that sort shouldn’t matter. Instead, self-proclaimed “Biblical literalists” should be arguing for the celebration either of Good Thursday or of Easter Monday.

But I have a better suggestion. If you are someone that wants a perfect Scripture that speak inerrantly and with precision, please go elsewhere. Stop trying to force Christianity and the Bible into this mold. It just doesn’t fit, and in trying to force it to, you do harm to the reputation of the Bible and its appreciation by those who actually read and study it, in detail, and are genuinely interested in understanding it on its own terms.

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  • Deane

    Amen, James!And in the words of the late, great James Barr (extended quote, because he is sooooo gooooooood):”What is the point at which the fundamentalist use of the Bible conflicts with the use of it by other people? The ‘plain man’, asked this question, will commonly say that a fundamentalist is a person who ‘takes the Bible literally’. This, however, is far from being a correct or exact description. The point of conflict between fundamentalists and others is not over *literality* but over*inerrancy*. Even if fundamentalists sometimes say that they take the Bible literally, the facts of fundamentalist interpretation show that this is not so.”What fundamentalists insist is *not* that the Bible must be taken literally but that it must be so interpreted as to avoid anyadmission that it contains any kind of *error*. In order to avoid imputing error to the Bible, fundamentalists twist and turn back and forward between literal and non-literal interpretation. The dominant fundamentalist assertions about the bible, namely that it is divinely inspired and infallible, do not mean that it must be taken literally, and are not so interpreted in the conservative evangelical literature; what they mean, and are constantly interpreted as meaning, is that the Bible contains no error of any kind – not only theological error, but error in any sort of historical, geographical or scientific fact, is completely absent from the Bible.”In order to expound the Bible as thus inerrant, the fundamentalist interpreter varies back and forward between literal and non-literal understanding, indeed he has to do so in order to obtain a Bible that is error-free.”To take a well-known instance, most conservative evangelical opinion today does not pursue a literal interpretation of the creation story in Genesis. A literal interpretation would hold that the world was created in six days, these days being the first of the series which we still experience as days and nights. Not at all, according to conservative evangelical sources; on the contrary, they are full of warnings about the dangers and difficulties involved for those who take the word *day* literally. In ‘The New Bible Commentary’ (Inter-Varsity Press, 2nd ed. 1954, p77), EF Kevan tells us that there are “serious difficulties” in taking them as ordinary days, ie taking ‘day’ literally. “Others” conceive of these days as “days of dramatic vision, the story being presented to Moses in a series of revelations spread over six days”; this “immensely interesting suggestion” cannot be regarded as more than conjecture, but is clearly ruled out by the commentator as impossible. “Many” maintain that each day represents not a twenty-four hour period “but a geological age”. In favour of these thoughts is advanced that hoary instance of Ps 90.4, “a thousand years in thy sight are like yesterday”, which is supposed to show that “in other parts of Scripture the word ‘day’ is employed figuratively of a time of undefined length”. This thoroughly non-literal interpretation has, indeed a “difficulty”, namely that each “day” is represented as having an “evening” and a “morning”, which might suggest very much the sort of day we are still having. But, says Kevan, “this may perhaps be but a purely figurative way of saying that the creation was characterized by clearly defined epochs” (my italics). This last seems, then, to be the approved interpretation. But all of those surveyed by Kevan adopt not a literal, but symbolic, interpretation of the seven-day structure of Gen 1.”If we pass to ‘The New Bible Commentary Revised’ (Inter-Varsity Press 1970), the interpretation of Genesis has been taken over by Meredith G Kline, but there is not return to a literal interpretation. “Exegesis indicates that the scheme of the creation week itself is a poetic figure and that the several pictures of creation history are set within the six work-day frames not chronologically but topically” (p82a). Thus the story gives a “normative disclosure” of the divine at of absolute creation ex nihilo and of a “specific, terminated creation era” (p81). It tells us that God reated the world out of nothing and that he did this in a specified period which came to an end. But the scheme of the six-day sequence is poetic figure, which means that it does not correspond to any actual sequences in the process of creation. We move to yet another venerated conservative publication, ‘The New Bible Dictionary’ (Inter-Varsity Press 1962), and JA Thompson there tells us (pp271f): “Gen 1 has an artificial literary structure and is not concerned to provide a picture of chronological sequence but only to assert the fact that God made everything.” *Only* that God made everything! How are the mighty fallen! and how ridiculous a mouse has the mountain of fundamentalist interpretation brought forth! What radical ‘liberal’ or wild ‘modernist’ did not believe ‘only’ that Godhad made everything?”We see, then, that a symbolic and non-literal interpretation of Gen 1 is preferred, and it is now only very extreme fundamentalists whoassert that a literal interpretation of the six days of creation is obligatory, or even desirable.”The reason for the preference is plain. It has nothing to do with a softening of the fundamentalist rejection of the critical approach to the Bible; on the contrary, that rejection remains unaltered. What has happened is that the scientific evidence for the long duration of the beginnings of the world has become too strong to withstand.”A literal interpretation would mean pitting the Bible against scientific truths which fundamentalist intellectuals now themselves accept; this would in turn force the admission that the Bible in this respect had been wrong. In order to avoid this, the conservative interpreter moves over into a non-literal exegesis; only this will save the inerrancy of the Bible. A hundred years ago, probably less, most fundamentalists would have insisted on literal interpretation; if science said that this was impossible, they would just have damned science, or asserted that its claims had not been proved, that they were no more than unfounded speculations and hypotheses. As the scientific approach came to have more and more assent from fundamentalists themselves, they shifted their interpretation of the Bible passage from literal to non-literal in order to save that which for them was always paramount, namely the inerrancy of the Bible.”In fact the only natural exegesis is a literal one, in the sense that this is what the author meant. As we know from other parts of Genesis, he was deeply interested in chronology and calendar, and he depicted the story of creation in a carefully and deliberately arranged scheme of one week, as Kevan, cited above, rightly sees, the ‘evening’ and ‘morning’ phraseology clearly indicates that he thought of a day such as we understand a day to be; but that is only one of the multitudinous details of the story which show that the seven-day scheme is essential to his way of describing creation. About the actual processes of the origin of the world as we know them he knew, of course, nothing, and set against our knowledge of these processes his account is certainly ‘wrong’. Since, on the other hand, the processes and sequences which are known to us through modern science were certainly totally unknown to him, this ‘wrongness’ is quite irrelevant in our understanding the story. But for the fundamentalist any kind or degree of wrongness in the Bible would be catastrophic. In order to avoid the consequence he has tried every possible direction of interpretation other than the literal.”(in “Fundamentalism” (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1977) pp40f, under the heading “Being Literal”.)

  • Dr. McGrath,Do you have any suggestions of books/sources relating to the reconciliation of sin and evolution. I am what some might call a evangelical christian, but my recent readings on evolution have been rather convincing (i.e. Dr. Francis Collins). However, I am having difficulty reconciling the concept of sin and the need for a redeemer (Christ) with evolution. Essentially, if the world was in a state of decay and disorder before the rise of man, the idea that man’s sin polluted creation and thus caused its current decay (I am paraphrasing Romans) does not fit as neatly as I once imagined. Any books or other sources on the subject would be appreciated.

  • I am often puzzled by the YEC insistance of a creation “yom” having to be 24-hours, when defining a day as sundown to sundown never results in precisely a 24 hour day (March 21 and September 21 probably come closest though). 6 months of the year, a yom measures a little more and 6 months it’s a little less.An evangelical would say this is splitting hairs, but they are also the ones saying “literal 24-day,” when in the Bible, there is no such thing. Approximately 24 hours sure, but then what of Days 1 to 4? I submit that because they are yom’s, there was a sun.Personally, I think the hovering of the Holy Spirit recorded in Genesis 1 provides a physical foundation of a potentially literal “yom” that can be billions of years long, removing the need for both symbolism and unfounded interpretations for the Hebrew word ‘yom’.If I may respond to Jeff’s comment, I do not believe that the animal death required by evolution implies sin, lest God be guilty of subscribing sin in the Sacrificial laws. Regarding decay and disorder polluting the creation before Adam’s sin, what of Satan’s presence in the Garden before the fall? If Satan’s pre-fall presence does not contradict the doctrine of original sin, then I submit that evolution does not contradict it either. We should all agree that Christ’s sacrifice was focused on redeeming the sin of man (not of nature, and not of Satan). In my opinion, if we focus on that, then evolution has no logical consequence in regards to the Gospel’s truth.

  • I finally got around to answering a question and following up on these interesting comments – in a separate post.