Updated: Mar 17, 2022
By Luke Lancaster
In light of various scientific conclusions, many suggest that Genesis 1-3 contradicts science. This immediately creates two separate camps: those who believe in science and those who believe in faith. But what if this separation is not actually called for? I, along with many biblical scholars, would argue that Genesis 1-3 is not teaching scientific truths, but rather theological truths. Just as the last book of the Bible, the book of Revelation, has figurative imagery to convey theology, so also the first book of the Bible. There are four factors that indicate the symbolic character of Genesis 1-3: the figurative statements, the apparent contradictions, the differing creation accounts in Scripture, and the similarity to the Temple.
There are multiple figurative statements throughout Gen 1-3, the most notable of which is the seven days of creation in Genesis 1. In Hebrew, to swear an oath is to "seven-oneself." The point seems to be that God's creation in seven days is a theological grouping to teach that God made a covenant with creation. The seven days also seem to model the creation of the Temple, which ancient near eastern peoples saw as the microcosm of the world. The Temple took 7 years to build (1 Kings 6:38). The Temple was inaugurated in the 7th month, during the Feast of Booths, which lasted for 7 days (1 Kings 8:65; Deuteronomy 16:13). The Tabernacle of Moses was created via six commands (Exodus 25-40), again relating to the creation of the world in six commands. Many of the early Church Fathers understood that the days may be figurative and not literal. So, the truth which the author of Genesis is trying to get at is that the world is God's Temple, not that God literally created in seven literal days.
Other examples of figurative statements are scattered throughout Genesis 1-11. The creation of man by God breathing into the dust of the earth sounds very symbolic (Gen 2:7), the point being that God is the author of life and that man is mortal - like dust. The names of “Adam” and “Eve” mean “man” and “life,” possibly indicating that they are more of an archetype for the first humans, rather than a strict literal reality. The formation of woman from a "rib" (Gen 2:21-22) seems to symbolically suggest the closeness between man and woman. A talking snake (Gen 3:1) is probably a figurative picture of the Devil's craftiness in tempting man (Revelation 12:9). Trees do not normally give off eternal life and ethical knowledge, so the Jews probably understood them to be symbols. Because of these things, I would argue that the Garden of Eden (and the rest of Genesis 1) is a "highly symbolic narrative," as Scripture scholar Gordan Wenham said (p. 399).
Another argument for the symbolic poetry of Genesis is the contradictions. If a document is poetic, then absurd contradictions naturally occur when one takes the document literally (rather than it was intended). Genesis 1-3 has a few contradictions if it is taken literally. For example, God creates light on day one of creation (Gen 1:3) and then the sun on day four (Gen 1:14). If the sun is our source of light, then how could there be light before the sun? And how can there even be the notion of a 24/hr "day" when the sun cannot rise and fall until day four? Consider also the chronological creation of man and animals in Gen 1 and 2, which would be contradictory as well. For in Gen 1, God creates animals first (Gen 1:24) and then man and woman afterward (Gen. 1:27), but in Gen 2, God creates man first (Gen 2:7) and then the animals (Gen. 2:19), and then finally the woman (Gen 2:22). Gen 1 and Gen 2 contradict each other if they are taken literally! Finally, God walks around the garden of Eden (Gen 3:8) when Scripture constantly says that God does not have a form (Deut 4:15-16). Rather, God is like the formless fire that appeared to Moses on Sinai or the burning bush. To take all this literally creates contradictions, so the literature must not have been intended to be literal.
There are differing creation accounts in Scripture, so Gen 1-2 was probably figurative and not like a science-textbook. Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger (now Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI) said as much in an interview with him published in the book Salt of the Earth: “[I]t is obvious even in the Bible that this is a theological framework and is not intended simply to recount the history of creation. In the OT itself there are other accounts of creation. In the Book of Job and in the wisdom literature we have creation narratives that make it clear that even then believers themselves did not think that the creation account was, so to speak, a photographic depiction of the process of creation. It only seeks to convey a glimpse of the essential truth, namely, that the world comes from the power of God and is his creation. How the processes actually occurred is a wholly different question, which even the Bible itself leaves wide open.” The genre of Gen 1-3 is not scientific literature.
According to Scripture scholar Gordan Wenham, the description of Eden is very similar to the Tabernacle of Moses and Solomon’s Temple, which may indicate that Gen 1-3 is a poetic Temple story, rather than a literal history book. For instance, God walks around the Tabernacle or Temple (Lev 26:12; Deut 23:15; 2 Sam 7:6-7) as in Eden (Gen 3:8). Adam and Eve exit Eden from the East (Gen 3:24) which mirrors how Israel exited Jerusalem to Babylon in the East. The heavenly Temple according to the prophet Ezekiel even specifies that the Temple is entered from the East (Ez 43:1-5). The command to Adam to “till” and “keep” the Garden of Eden (Gen. 2:15) are two Hebrew words used for the priestly ministry within the Tabernacle/Temple (Num 3:7-8, 8:26, 18:5-6). Adam is portrayed as a priest offering sacrifices in the Temple of Eden.
The sewing together of fig-leaves/tunics for Adam and Eve (Gen 3:21) mirror the tunics of priests made by Moses (Ex 28:41, 29:8, 40:14; Lev 8:13). The menorah lamp within the Tabernacle (Ex 25:31-35) is shaped like the tree of life. The Torah, placed within the Ark of the Covenant within the Temple, gives knowledge of good and evil just like the tree of knowledge of good and evil. Touching the Ark leads to death (2 Sam 6:6-7), just as eating from the tree of knowledge leads to death (Gen 2:17). A cherubim angel guards the gate to the Garden of Eden (Gen 3:24) just as cherubim guard the Ark of the Covenant (Ex 25:18-22) and the Temple (1 Kings 6:23-28). All of these connections could very well indicate that Adam and Eve’s exile from Eden is a story about the Temple and the Babylonian exile. Israel was sent out of the Temple during the Babylonian exile, so Gen 3 could be a symbolic narrative teaching Israel that their sin and subsequent exile into Babylon is nothing new, for sin entered into humanity from the very beginning.
As seen, there are many reasons to suggest that Genesis 1-3 is not strictly literal. The figurative aspects of Gen 1-3 are probably the greatest arguments to reveal this. A close second would be the different creation accounts within Scripture. This is not to say that there could be no real history being described in Gen 1-3, but rather that truths are being clothed in a highly symbolic fashion. Consider the book of Revelation, which conveys truths about the Roman empire ("the beast") and its vicious persecution of Christians, but it does so in a figurative manner. Or consider the story of the boy who cried wolf - it conveys a truth about honesty to everyone, regardless of its historical accuracy. Gen 1-3 could be doing the same.