Genesis 1-3 – Part I: Literal or Allegorical?

This article first appeared on Catholic Stand.

One day, God called my wife and me to journey up a mountain to be with Him and His family. When we arrived, the saints greeted us, and then we all gathered around the table to eat. Before we ate, God spoke to us, and we spoke to Him. At one point, He admonished us to be trees that bear good fruit and to purge all evil fruit from our lives. We made a joyful noise in response. Then we sat quietly and waited for the steward of the feast to feed us. We gazed upon our Lord for a few minutes and ate. After supper, we thanked God for His food and for giving us this time together. Then we traveled back down the hill, into the wilderness, to tell our estranged family members about the glorious time we had with our Father.

THE MASS ANALOGY

Now, anyone who is Catholic would probably recognize that my story is about going to Mass. “One day” stands for all the Masses my wife and I have ever attended. “Up the mountain” refers to our ascent to visit God at the Mass. Also, our parish is literally on a mountain to the east of our home. “Journey” not only refers to our drive there but may also symbolize our spiritual movement to be with God.

“Saints” means our brothers and sisters who were also at Mass. The “table” is the altar. God speaking to us refers the liturgy of the word. The joyful noise is singing. The steward is the priest through whom Christ works to feed us. “Feeding” represents our eating of Christ in the Eucharist. Traveling back down the hill and into the wilderness represents our returning to the world to share the good news about God.

So, in essence, the whole story is true, but I told it in an allegorical manner. I am describing God’s call to us, our need to turn to Him and away from sin, and our mission to share the truth about God with others.

ALLEGORICAL LANGUANGE IN GENESIS

When reading Genesis 1-3, the two creation accounts and the Fall, we should keep in mind that God is communicating true events, however they happened, in an allegorical way. Understanding Genesis chapters 1-3 is supremely important for understanding the rest of Scripture and salvation history. Accordingly, this article will explain why we should not take Genesis 1-3 literally. Rather, we should accept it as truth revealed through historical allegory. (The Catechism provides some edifying information about this subject as well.) So, let’s start “at the beginning,” so to speak.

Genesis 1:1 – “In the beginning, God created ….” In the beginning of what? In the beginning of creation. Before creation, only God existed. Therefore, Genesis is telling us that God created everything that exists ex nihilo, meaning “from nothing”. Also, God is in the singular to teach us that God is one and that a multitude of gods does not exist. Remember, pagan cultures with their polytheistic practices surrounded the Israelites, and God was creating a people for Himself.

Genesis 1:2 – “The Spirit of God was moving ….” That is, God did not simply create and then abandon (deism). He creates and then forms His creation. The Spirit moving over creation signifies God’s love for creation. Imagine a parent who cares for, or moves toward, his or her child versus one who abandons or moves away from that child. Also, the expression that God “was moving” is another indication that God is communicating a historical allegory, since God does not move, as such. Rather, He moves creation into existence without moving Himself. He is the Unmoved Mover, as the theologians call Him.

Notice that Genesis 1:4 says, “And God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness.” God does not say the darkness was good, or evil for that matter. Now, darkness is not evil but is an allegory for evil. It is a privation of light (allegorically, a defect), which God allows but does not create. Similarly, evil is a privation of goodness that God allows but does not create.

Notice also that God only works in the light. After He finishes His work each day, Scripture says, “and there was evening and there was morning, the Xth day.” Thus, Genesis is teaching us that God’s work is good. If He worked in darkness, it would be as though He were hiding something or doing something evil.

Also, God separates good from evil and God is light (Isaiah 9:21 John 1:5). This is another indicator that the Genesis account is an allegory. God does not literally work twelve hours and then rest for twelve hours every day. Rather, He is pure act and power; He does not change (Malachi 3:6James 1:17Hebrews 13:8).

Genesis 1:5 – “God called the light day and the darkness night.” Day (Heb: yom) means light in general and night means darkness, not a 24-hour cycle. This is not talking about the time of the sun and the moon, which occurs in 1:14, when God makes the sun and the moon. Genesis 2:4 says, “In the day that the Lord God made the earth and the heavens ….” Here, “day” means an age or group of days. Thus, the use of “day” also shows the allegorical nature of the creation story. St. Augustine wrote,

Seven days by our reckoning, after the model of the days of creation, make up a week. By the passage of such weeks, time rolls on, and in these weeks one day is constituted by the course of the sun from its rising to its setting; but we must bear in mind that these days indeed recall the days of creation, but without in any way being really similar to them.

Genesis 1:5-25 – These verses are telling us that God forms, fills, and gives order to creation. God separates the earth from the sky, ground from water, and night from day. And He fills the earth with vegetation and moving creatures, the sky with birds, etc., and the seas with swarms of living creatures. We must not assume that Genesis is telling us how God did this.

Genesis 1:16 – “God made two great lights, the greater light to rule the day and the lesser light to rule the night.” Even in the night, there is light. When we have darkened our souls with sin, the true Light presents Himself dimly, waiting for us to turn to Him.

At the end of each day, Genesis says, “And God saw that it was good.” In other words, everything God makes is good.  God does not make evil in any way. Evil is a privation or abuse of good, an absence of a good that should be present. Good is proper to everything that God makes.

Genesis 1:26 – God creates man “in His image and likeness.” Our souls are pure spirit (image), and God creates us to reflect His goodness (likeness), which includes the abilities to know, understand, and will for good ends (love). Also, if God works, and His works are good, and He makes us in His image and likeness, then He makes us for good works (Ephesians 2:10). Something is good when it functions as it ought (1 John 3:7).

Thus, if God is good, then we, whom He makes in His image and likeness, are good when we function as we ought. When God reconciles us by grace through faith and baptism, He instructs us to continue in the faith by rejecting sin and by doing good works.

Genesis 1:27 – “God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created him; male and female he created them.” God is pure spirit, not male or female. Therefore, God making us in His image has nothing to do with gender. However, “male and female He created them” joins with the phrase “in the image of God He created him” because God endowed man with His creative power to create other persons. In other words, God gives humans the ability to create persons, others made in His image and likeness, when one man and one woman join in sexual union.

Genesis 1:28 – God gives humanity a positive command to multiply and exercise dominion over the earth. St. Thomas Aquinas (Summa Theologiae pt. 1, q.94, a.3) says that, before the Fall, man had all knowledge necessary to understand natures and to govern the earth. He also had supernatural knowledge to direct his life to the supernatural end, which is God.

Genesis 1:31 – After God made man, “God saw everything He made, and behold, it was very good.” Of all the creatures He created on earth, God endows only man with universal understanding. For example, man does not simply know one dog, he understands the essence of all dogs, etc. This ability to understand universals allows him to care for all creation. Also, man, made in the image and likeness of God, is the pinnacle of creation. He possesses the ability to commune with God via acts of the intellect and will and to care for creation.

GOD’S RESTING POINTS TO REDEMPTION

Genesis 1:1-2:3 is the first of two creation stories in Genesis. It merely shows us that God creates from nothing, that His work is good, that we are the pinnacle of His work, and that we should have one day in which we abide in His rest. And God’s “resting” simply means that He completed creation.

If I rest after building my house, I do not rest from caring for it from that point forward. God’s resting equates to Jesus’ words, “It is finished,” on the Cross on Good Friday. God finished His work at the end of the sixth day. Similarly, at the end of the sixth day, Friday, Jesus finished His redemptive work on the Cross.

On the seventh day, Jesus rested in the tomb. Then, on the Eighth Day, Sunday, Jesus made all things new at the moment of His Resurrection. God calls us to participate in this Eighth Day, to be a new creation in Christ.

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