There is an old joke about this country Church which is having a business meeting to vote on purchasing chandeliers. After much deliberation one elder deacon stands and offers his aged wisdom. He says “Sirs I know many of you are wanting to buy these chandeliers for our church, however there ain’t none of us got enough education to spell so’s we can order it from Sears & Roebuck. Further aint nobody knows how to play it, if we had it. And to be honest I just don’t see why we would spend all that money when we need lights in the Church so bad…”
Very often, its all a matter of perspective – this is certainly true when it comes to how we interpret scripture. This is most especially true when it comes to how we interpret prophetic and allegorical passages. To interpret a passage is to essentially ask the question: “what does it mean?” With prophetic, allegorical passages we may need to expand our answer here to include more than one dimension of application. For one thing, we need to consider why the author, inspired as they were, chose to use allegory and symbolism to begin with? Why does the author use nonliteral language, rather than just simply spell out the meaning for us? While there are perhaps a few motivations for using symbolic, nonliteral language, one major reason is that what we might terms “straight-forward” statements cannot fully embody the essence of what is being communicated. The old adage is that “a picture is worth a thousand words”, and this applies to word-pictures as well. When an author chooses to communicate in symbolism and allegory, he intends to communicate a three dimensional picture of truth – one that cannot be adequately communicated in the one dimensional mechanism of strict wooden literalism. It is because of this that we must be careful when “developing the negatives” of these passages, that we do not then try to stuff them into a one dimensional interpretation. In other words if the author chooses to speak to us in the language of symbolism and allegory, we should not then interpret these passages and say “this, and this alone, is what the meaning is.” Very often the meaning is multiplicitous; it may contain several pictures of truth. The issue at hand is that even among those who manage to see the rich imagery of scripture, they tend to try to distill it once again into a rigid formula. So while we have escaped the hermeneutical trap of wooden literalism, we have fallen into it again with our interpretation; essentially creating a second tier literalism.
So with that being said we move on to ask: what is Genesis 1 about? What is the subject? Is it about the creation of the universe? Is it about the purpose of God in the Cosmos? Is it about God’s Covenant with Israel? Is it about God’s plan for the ages? Is it about the origin and destiny of humanity? Is it prophetic? Perhaps the answer to all of these questions is yes. Now I do not mean to indicate here that the interpretation of Genesis 1 is an open ended endeavor. I do not think Genesis 1 has anything to do with ice cream truck delivery routes; for instance. There is clearly a scope to work with. But when we look at Genesis 1 we notice several elements that are sort of interweaving themselves. Covenant, numerology, liturgy and prophecy – all of this using the language of cosmology and biology. This being the case, perhaps its not too far fetched to say that this chapter touches all of these in some way. It seems that many have moved away from the wooden literal understanding of Genesis; which I think is very well. However, it seems at times that we are eager to move into wooden symbolism.
Jesus often taught in parables, which is a form of allegory. A parable is a story intended to teach something of importance, and it does so by drawing parallels between the higher principal and a subject that the hearer can relate to. Jesus taught about shepherds, farmers, sheep and vines. He used these familiar things to related a greater reality. He demonstrated the love of the Heavenly Father, the value of truth and the call to the Kingdom – all using the language of agriculture and everyday life. In order for these stories to actually work however, there must be some sort of parallel between them and the spiritual truth they seek to reveal. If shepherd’s regularly abandon their sheep, for instance, then comparing the Father to a shepherd who seeks the lost sheep really fails to make the point. There must be some degree of substance then for an allegory to work.
In Genesis 1 the point is clearly to communicate a greater truth. There is no doubt that the author wants to teach us about Covenant. It also seems that he wants to show us something about God, man and our place in the created order. It seems that this chapter wants to do both. This is in keeping with Hebraic thought. God is, after all the sustainer, provider and creator. The Hebrew sees the cosmos as an oracle of God, something that reveals God to mankind. Paul affirms this: “For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. Ever since the creation of the world his eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through the things he has made. So they are without excuse” Rom 1:19, 20 If the creation reveals the mystery of God, then is it too much to think that the author of Genesis 1 seeks to use the rhythm and poetry of creation to reveal the structure of the Covenant? In fact what we see in Genesis 1 is a dynamic relationship. The author uses the Covenantal language to interpret the creation, and uses creative imagery to vindicate the Covenant. To the author the Mosaic Covenant is only a microcosm of God’s faithfulness to all creation. The Cosmos is His tabernacle and the sun, moon and stars are His priesthood; carrying out His service in the heavens. The rhythm of life is His liturgy – and mankind is the sacrament of creation – dust and breath, the body and spirit, the bread and wine, mysteriously as one. (Of course this is perfectly revealed in Christ.) Now of course the language of Genesis 1 does not lend itself to literalism on either account. It is not a literal account of cosmology, nor does it say outright “this is liturgical and related to the Covenant.” Rather all of this is left for the the reader to discover. To bring this to a fine point, it is a mistake to say “Genesis 1 says God made the sun, moon and stars on the fourth day so bless God that was when they were created”; enter Answers In Genesis and Ken Hamm. It is however just as much a mistake to exclude any sort of cosmological reference. To do so would be to miss the depth of the symbolism.
Genesis 1 is a beautiful chapter rich in symbolism and poetic mechanism. When it is seen in its true light, it is perhaps one of greatest poetic masterpieces of all time. However if we are not careful we will find ourselves with an updated version of the same one dimensional sort of view that we have had before. Which may be a bit better, but is not the fullness of what God, in His wisdom, left us in this wonderful piece of inspired literature.
By: W. L. Vincent, 2016