Saturday, August 1, 2009

Days of Creation: Literal or Figurative?


Alice C. Linsley

Today I'll take up the second question sent in by a reader of Just Genesis. The question is: "Do you believe in a literal 6-day creation?"

Answer: While Genesis is a reliable source of anthropological information about the ancient Afro-Asiatics, it is not a scientific text in the empirical sense. It emerges from an ancient and eastern worldview and must be understood in that context. In that context the number 6 is symbolic and the days of creation are not necessarily 24-hour days, as St. Augustine recognized in his The Literal Meaning of Genesis translated and annotated by John Hammond Taylor, S.J. (Newman Press, New York, 1982, Volume I, Book 8, Chapter 2, pp. 35-36.)

St. Augustine begins his study of Genesis by laying down the following principle: “If anyone wishes to interpret in a literal sense everything written in this book, that is to understand it only according to the letter of the text, and in doing this he avoids blasphemy and explains everything in agreement with the Catholic faith, not only is he not to be discouraged, but he should be considered an outstanding interpreter worthy of great praise. But if there is no way of understanding a passage in a devout sense worthy of God without assuming that it has been set forth in figures and enigmas, we should remember that we have the authority of the apostles, who solved so many enigmas in the books of the Old Testament, and we should stay with the kind of interpretation which we have adopted with the help of Him who bids us ask, seek and knock. Thus, our purpose should be to explain all these figures of things according to the Catholic faith, whether the matter belongs to history or prophecy, without prejudice to a better and more exact treatment which we or others, whom the Lord is pleased to enlighten may subsequently undertake.”

St. Augustine held that we should be willing to reconsider our ideas about creation/reality as new information becomes available, but he never entertains the idea that new information might contradict biblical revelation. He is almost unique among the Church Fathers in interpreting the six days of creation in a figurative sense, but as an African he was aware of the figurative quality of sacred story telling among Africans.

St. Augustine explains: "The sacred writer was able to separate in the time of his narrative what God did not separate in time in His creative act." In his view, the six days of creation convey the logical order of and relationship of created things, rather than a passage of time. He wrote, "But in the beginning He created all things together and completed the whole in six days, when six times he brought the 'day' which he made before the things which He made, not in a succession of periods of time but in a plan made known according to causes."

Though most of the other Fathers don't agree with him, they always treat St. Augustine's view with great respect. They recognize that the Hebrew word "yom", meaning "day" is used elsewhere in the Bible to indicate an unspecified period of time.

The Question of Chronology

While Genesis 1 appears to be a chronological telling of creation and a chronological accounts of the lives of the Patriarchs, detailed study reveals that some events must be understood to have taken place at nearly the same time or prior to the events being described. For example, the narrative of Abraham’s wives has Sarah’s burial before it speaks of Abraham’s marriage to Keturah. This creates the impression that Abraham married Keturah after Sarah died, but that is not the case. Abraham married Keturah after he settled in the land of Canaan, his mother’s homeland. This second marriage enabled Abraham to gain territory in Canaan.

For St. Augustine this idea was so important that he included this in his Christian Instruction, explaining: “In the Scriptures some things are related in such a way that they seem to be following the order of time or occurring in chronological succession, when actually the narrative, without mentioning it, refers to previous events that had been left unmentioned. Unless we understand this distinction, we shall fall into error. For example, we find in Genesis: ‘And the Lord God planted a paradise of pleasure in the east; and there He put the man whom He had formed. And out of the ground the Lord God made to grow every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food.’ This last mentioned event would seem to have occurred after God had made the man and placed him in paradise. After both these facts have been mentioned briefly (that is, that God planted a paradise and there ‘placed man whom He had formed’), the narrative turns back by means of recapitulation and relates what had been planted and that God brought forth out of the ground all manner of trees fair to behold and pleasant to eat of.” (St. Augustine, Christian Instruction 2:36.52)

The Symbolism of the Number Six

The number six is significant because it represents the material world. In Jewish mysticism six pertains to the flesh, reproduction, and the land. Among the ancient Afro-Asiatics it carried the same meaning as its factors are 2 and 3. In Genesis the number two represents a kingdom or territory established through the first-born sons of the ruler-priests by their 2 wives. The lines of these 2 sons intermarried, insuring that the Son of God would be born to their priestly families. Isaac, first-born of Sarah married a half-sister, just as his father Abraham married a half-sister when he took Sarah as his wife.

The number three represents a confederation or tribal unity. This is why we find 3 sons listed so often in Genesis. Consider these examples:

Gen. 4 - Cain, Abel, Seth
Gen. 4 - Jubal, Jabal, Tubal
Gen. 7 - Ham, Shem, Japheth
Gen. 11 - Haran, Nahor, Abraham
Gen. 22 - Huz, Uz, Buz

The number six then symbolizes man's dominion over the Earth and the fruit of the union of man and wife. Nothing new is created after the 6 day. All of creation is complete, but awaiting day 7, the Sabbath.

This brings us to another point about the six "days" of creation. They are followed by the seventh which refers to union, as in marriage. Genesis 1 says that God's creative work lasted for six days and that God rested from all His work on the seventh day. The number seven in association with God at rest (sabbath) portrays the concept of completion or perfection of a relationship between Master and Servant, or between Creator and Creation, or between Husband and Bride. We find evidence for this throughout the Afro-Asiatic world.

There were seven urns at the wedding in Cana of Galilee where Jesus Christ turned water to wine. In Jewish weddings the Sheva Brachot (7 marriage blessings) are recited under the huppah and the wedding feast lasts 7 days.

Related reading: Biblical Evidence of an Old Earth; On Gaps and Overlaps; Millions of Years Between Genesis 4:1 and Genesis 4:17

6 comments:

Michael said...

"Though most of the other Fathers don't agree with him, they always treat St. Augustine's view with great respect. They recognize that the Hebrew word "yom", meaning "day" is used elsewhere in the Bible to indicate an unspecifified period of time."

This is an interesting point. Generally speaking, in the Orthodox world Augustine is rarely if ever looked to for his theology. The Fathers may have respected him but they definitely chided him (if ever so gently) about his theological work. So I would find it difficult to give him much weight in this area.

It has been awhile, but I also seem to recall someone suggesting that Augustine believed that the earth was created fully formed instantaneously. So while he was against a literal six day creation, he may not have been opposed to it in the way people typically imagine.

I personally think the arguments for or against a particular view of the early chapters of Genesis is best made without reference to Augustine in any more than a passing manner. I think there is good reason why the Orthodox have never put much emphasis on his theology while nonetheless noting his exemplary life.

But that is just me. Thanks for the post.

Alice C. Linsley said...

Augustine belongs to the Church East and West. His Platonism poses a problem for the empirical-materialist West more than the metaphysical East, but is not inconsistent with much of St. Paul's thought, also clearly informed by Plato.

In other words, prejudice against Augustine among the Orthodox is not universal. In fact, some Orthodox point to St. Augustine as a leading proponent of the doctrine of divine illumination. You may read more about that here:
http://jandyongenesis.blogspot.com/2008/05/st-augustine-on-divine-illumination.html

Augustine believed that everything in the universe was created simultaneously by God, a very Platonic view. He is explicit that God did not create over the course of six consecutive 24-hour days. He writes, "The sacred writer was able to separate in the time of his narrative what God did not separate in time in His creative act." In his view, the six days of creation convey the logical order of and relationship of created things, rather than a passage of time. He wrote, "But in the beginning He created all things together and completed the whole in six days, when six times he brought the 'day' which he made before the things which He made, not in a succession of periods of time but in a plan made known according to causes."

Michael said...

Yes Augustine belongs to the Church, which is why I didn't put any East/West distinctions in my post, to keep the reader from making any value laden judgments along that line and not keep the parameters before the schism that occurred centuries later.

Nevertheless, despite your reference to David Bradshaw, I think my original point about the rare use of Augustine theologically in the Church stands. While there might be Orthodox who are prejudiced against Augustine, I don't think this is an issue of prejudice. It seems to me Augustine will need some serious rehabilitation from patristic sources in a number of areas before he is held up as a theological light.

At any rate, I don't have a dog in this fight. The Church recognizes him as a Father and that is that.

Timothy Hicks said...

I tend to think the days are 24 hours, while at the same not to be taken literally, but in another fashion. The first three days have an evening and a morning even though sun isn't created until Day 4. The light gets separated from the darkness in Day 1, and then again in Day 4. And on Day 7, no mention of the evening and morning at all. Seeing how the evenings and mornings are attached to the days (except for day 7), and one can't logically except a literal evening and morning for three days without a literal sun and moon, it would seem to follow that the days must be a literary device, rather than epochs or 24 hour increments. The definition of "day" in it's true sense isn't 24 hours, but rather the time it takes the sun to go full circuit around the earth. Which isn't really possible for Days 1-3.

Augustine's view is interesting, but I tend to gravitate more towards John Walton's view, where Genesis is referring to God bringing order, structure, stability (perhaps even binary distinctions), to the universe. Rather than an origins story about how the material parts for the house was built, but rather the more meaningful story of how it became our home. If you pay close attention most of Genesis actually spends more time referring to reasons, purposes and roles for the Creation rather than how it is they got there. God is constantly naming things, separating them, giving out blessings and instructions to His creatures.

To me, that's what Genesis 1 is about. The "rest" is not relaxation in the sense that it's the opposite of "work", in the way we think of work. But rather the opposite of "unrest". Jesus says, "Come unto me all ye who labor and are heavy laden and I will give you Rest." ... Which isn't implying that we are going to have a more "leisurely" life, but rather one that's full of order and stability, because we are on the side of the Light, and not of darkness.

P. S, not sure what you mean by God's uncreated light? While I tend to think that the light spoken of wasn't material/physical light, I also don't really think it was referring to God either. Rather it talks about the establishment of time (Day and Night). I'm not sure if God is ever called in the Bible as "day", aside from Daniel who calls God, "the ancient of days", but that's referring to his immortal/everlasting nature.

-Tim

Alice Linsley said...

Michael, Most people are not aware of the Eastern Church's debt to Augustine who believed in divine illumination.

http://jandyongenesis.blogspot.com/2008/05/st-augustine-on-divine-illumination.html

Alice Linsley said...

Timothy, As you know the Hebrew word yom is used elsewhere in Scripture to mean an unspecified period of time.

There are gaps and overlaps in the Genesis narrative. In fact, there appears to be a gap of millions of years between Genesis 4:1 and Genesis 4:17. See these articles:

http://jandyongenesis.blogspot.com/2014/02/millions-of-years-between-gen-41-and.html

http://jandyongenesis.blogspot.com/2013/11/genesis-on-gaps-and-overlaps.html

http://jandyongenesis.blogspot.com/2014/10/evidence-of-old-earth-part-1.html

http://jandyongenesis.blogspot.com/2014/10/evidence-of-old-earth-part-2.html