This is something that is largely considered to be “off limits” in many Evangelical Christian circles. I can recall in my first few years of becoming a Christian, I was told explicitly by others “Evolution has to be false if the Bible is true,” and there was immense social pressure to adhere to this claim. God created the universe in six twenty-four hour days, Adam and Eve were real, historical people who lived a few thousand years ago, and if you were to deny any of that, all of Christianity falls to pieces and the Bible is diminished into a book of imaginary stories. Eventually, this reading of Genesis no longer made sense to me, not only in light of established science, but just in reading the text itself and the troubling questions that emerged from trying to take it literally. How could there have been a morning and evening on the first three days of creation if there was no sun until the fourth day? How did Adam and Eve eating fruit lead to 30,000 children dying of starvation every day? How could two humans populate the entire world in only a few thousand years? When Adam and Eve hide, why does God ask “Where are you?” if God already knows everything?
In my study of church history, I came to see that the opening chapters of Genesis were not read literally until very recently. There has a been a growing resurgence of Christians taking the creation stories seriously without taking them literally, but they are frequently decried as “heretics” or “compromisers.” Yet, many of the ancient church fathers were committed to reading the creation stories in a non-literal way. Augustine, Irenaeus, Tertullian, as well as others all took non-literal approaches to these texts. Origen of Alexandria was one of the most important Bible commentators for the first few centuries of the the church’s existence, and he criticized a literal reading of Genesis as “foolish,” asking “What intelligent person can imagine that there was a first, second, and third day, evening and morning, without the sun, the moon, and the stars?” Origen concludes “I cannot imagine that anyone will doubt that these details point symbolically to spiritual meanings by using a historical narrative which did not literally happen.” (See Origen, De Principiis, 4.1.16) And yet, we have multitudes of Christians today insisting that it must be taken literally, or it must be discarded.
So how then should we read it? Here is what I would tell you. The first chapters of Genesis were not written to communicate history or science. Creation stories had an entirely different purpose in the Ancient Near East. They were written to give people a vision of their place in the world, and to help them make sense of existence. In other words, they gave people a narrative in which they could live their lives. This is not an outdated idea, as people today still live within functional narratives that cause them to see the world in a certain way. Perhaps the most powerful element of all creation stories is that they present a way of understanding what it means to be human.
One creation story that was written before Genesis is the Babylonian creation tale, known as the Enuma Elish. This story has its own way of explaining humanity. The god Marduk kills the goddess of primordial chaos, Tiamat, and forms the heavens and earth from her body. He then kills one of Tiamat’s sons, a rebellious god named Kingu, mixes Kingu’s blood with clay, and fashions humans from this bloody soil. Marduk creates humans to be slaves, in order to do the dirty work so that the gods could be free to enjoy leisure. The picture of what it means to be a person in this story is that human beings are innately worthless and consigned to endure the evil curse of labor without any meaning. Likewise, when Babylonians were asked why they were so violent and cruel, they would respond “This is the true nature of the universe. It was birthed out of violence.”
The Genesis creation stories were written in response to this story, saying that the heart behind the universe is not violent betrayal and the usurping of power, but a divine goodness that is instilled in creation. The format used in the opening chapters of Genesis clearly resembles the Enuma Elish, but it tells a completely different story. Instead of God mixing the blood of a dead god with clay to make people, the God in Genesis simply breathes his own life into humanity with no struggle. Rather than making them slaves, this God makes them his image-bearers, meaning that humans are to be his ambassadors, and that they bear irrevocable worth. Contrary to seeing work as a bad thing, this God works, creates, cultivates, and then creates humans to be his co-creators, stewards, and caregivers to the creation. This presents an entirely new way of being human.
When read this way, the power of the creation stories becomes much more evident. The writer(s) here did not give a scientific account of the creative process, but instead shows the reader how they should view the world. The whole of creation is sacred, all of the world is God’s cathedral, and we are called to be its caretakers. If we are good stewards of the earth, we reap the benefits. If we abused what has been entrusted to us, we will face the consequences.
But what about Adam and Eve? As always, the most important thing to determine about any literature before you attempt to draw conclusions is what kind of literature it is that you are reading. To put it simply, the Adam and Eve story does not read like history, it reads lyrically, as a parable or poem. The Hebrew word for Adam (אָדָם, adame) means “mankind, or humanity,” and the Hebrew word for Eve (חַוָּה, ha’vah) means “life, or life-giver.” These names are given to the characters because they are meant to represent something universal to the human experience, not because they were historical people.
We have all walked through situations where, we undoubtedly knew that boundaries were set up, and we decided to cross them anyway. We then experienced great trauma, estrangement, and regret. These instances or seasons altered our lives forever. Whether you are religious or not, it isn't difficult to understand that this is something integral to the human predicament. The point of this story with Adam and Eve is that we can find ourselves within it, akin to Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan or Prodigal Son. It is not hard to find yourself in the Adam and Eve story - because it is meant to be everyone’s story. The Good News is that you can also find yourself in the person of Jesus, and continue becoming more fully human. The story doesn’t end with Adam and Eve, it ends with Jesus.
Sometimes, in order to take the Bible seriously, you cannot take it literally. Let us reconsider how Genesis should be read, and let us finally admit that it has been held captive by literalism for the past two centuries. Rather than feeling an irrational pressure to shun science, Christians can affirm science and let it inform how they interpret the Bible. Likewise, we ought to embrace the interpretive challenges that come with a continuously unfolding understanding (and lack of understanding) of our universe. The journey of following Jesus is not to somehow figure everything out, but to become fully alive, and that is Good News for us all.