The Bible as Metaphor; Metaphor as Truth?: The Creation Stories

This post belongs to a series examining Marcus Borg’s historical-metaphorical reading of Scripture. Here we look at his concentration on meaning as a means to fruitful dialogue between disagreeing parties. The meaning of these creation stories can remain stable even if we disagree on whether they are literal. You can read my brief intro to historical-metaphorical reading here. I disagree with Borg in a number of ways. I also have written a prologue to this series on why we should read those with whom we disagree. In the next post, I will discuss Borg’s reading of the Easter stories of the gospels as potentially divisive. 

“In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.”

From the very start, the Bible makes a bold claim. Indeed, it is a controversial claim with competition. There are non-religious objections from modern science. There is also strife within the Christian community over how to interpret the creation stories found in Genesis. They have become a fault line over which Christians will divide themselves. How do we move forward? Marcus Borg’s Historical-Metaphorical method of reading works very well in regard to the Genesis creation accounts. He focuses on meaning rather than what actually happened. People who believe the stories are literal will disagree with his methods. That’s fine, but I am interested in his focus on meaning. Everyone is looking for how the story should affect our lives in the present. We are given Scripture in order for it to affect and guide our relationship with God in the here and now. Otherwise, what would be the point of reading? We may widely disagree on the literalness of the stories, but can we agree on what they mean?

For some, “day” means day, and by “day” they mean 24 hours. There are many — mostly on the more conservative side of the theological spectrum — that insist on reading Genesis as a literal account of the earth’s origin. These are the young-earth creationists. They demand a literal reading as the only reading that preserves their notions of biblical inerrancy. Anything less than a literal reading is a compromise. As such, they can be a very vocal and dividing constituency.[1]

A wide range of Christians choose to read the primeval history of Genesis in more symbolic ways. The days do not have to be literal. The ancient Israelites were communicating religious truths rather than literal scientific facts. Some have proposed that Genesis 1-2:3 should be viewed through a literary framework of God creating a world of order with domains and functionaries — this is my own preferred view. Some hold that Adam and Eve are simply symbols of humans in general rather than historical figures. Whatever the individual arguments, I get the sense — at least I hope — that the majority of Christians probably belong in this non-literal camp.

Too often, these two camps do not get along. Each one insists that their way of reading the Bible is correct. I myself can fall into this trap. I admit to having little patience for literalists. It is a fault to be corrected. Our preferred way of interpreting the creation accounts can become idols. The way we interpret the Genesis accounts may reflect how we interpret the Bible as a whole. We can have discussions about that. However, if we are trying to determine what the Genesis stories mean for our lives today, exactly what good does it do to argue over their literalness? What if you win the argument insisting that Genesis 1 is a literal account? That’s great, how exactly are these past events supposed to influence how I live today? My point is that asking, “what do these stories mean?” moves us past the arguments over literalness.

Borg’s proposed meanings to the Genesis creation stories provide a good starting point. He posits that the stories teach that God is the creator and source of everything. God created the world as good. These stories are “world-affirming.” Humans are the climax of God’s good creation. However, humans also live in a fallen state where things have gone awry.[2] I think that is a pretty good start at determining the meaning of the creation accounts. Do any of these things hinge on the story being literal or metaphorical? Does the meaning change if these stories were written by a number of authors and editors over the course of centuries or by Moses in one go? I cannot see how the meaning of the stories would change depending on the answers to those questions. Some literalists might insist that you can only trust the truth of the meaning if the events actually happened as told. That is a personal decision for an interpreter. I do not see how logic or general experience dictates that as the case.

My primary point is that these two divergent camps can come together and discuss the meaning of the creation accounts. The question of what is revealed about God, humans, and the world is not dependent on whether the story is literal or metaphorical. Focusing on that meaning could lead to fruitful dialogue on the passage and a more unified Christian community.

[1] This post was never meant to be a critique of the literal reading of Genesis, but I feel remiss if I do not mention somewhere that I feel that a literal reading of Genesis is incredibly misguided at best and destructive to the wider Christian witness at worst. In short, the literalists at organizations like Answers in Genesis assume a position on biblical inerrancy and then try to supplant scientific arguments with their “biblical” evidence. In reality, they are arguing with a very similar epistemology to that of scientific naturalists. They insist that their evidence is legitimate in the same way as scientific interpretation of observed data. They even preform scientific experiments designed to confirm their literal interpretation of the Bible. They impose a modern framework upon Genesis and thus commit an interpretive violence on the text. Therefore, I argue, they are reading the Bible incorrectly and inviting undue ridicule for Christianity for all the wrong reasons.

[2] This is a summary taken from Marcus Borg, Reading the Bible Again for the First Time: Taking the Bible Seriously but not Literally (New York: HarperOne, 2001), 72-81.

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