When biblical literalists declare, as several writers recently have in the Adventist Review, that there is one and only one way to read the creation account in Genesis, the question I always want to ask them is: Which creation account? Although I have read some elaborate apologetic attempts to harmonize Genesis 1 and 2 on strictly literalistic grounds, these seem to me to invariably do great violence to the text. The conclusion I have come to from my straightforward reading of Genesis is that a non-literalistic approach to the creation is not only permitted but in fact encouraged — and maybe even required — by the Genesis narrative itself, entirely apart from questions about faith and science or evolutionary theory. Here are the reasons I have come to this conclusion:
Accepting for the sake of argument that we can bend the text to make the two creation accounts in Genesis fully conform on purely linguistic grounds (e.g., getting Genesis 2 to say that the animals were made before rather than after Adam despite the plain implication of verses 18 and 19), literalistic conflations of Chapters 1 and 2 cannot be sustained on purely narrative grounds without producing a picture of God's creative activity that is inadvertently comic and that greatly detracts from the theological power and grandeur of both creation stories. Here is what we must picture happening in the daylight hours of day six by a reading that combines Chapters 1 and 2 into a single narrative with an eye more to "scientific" correspondence and strict chronological sequence than to things like literary technique and complimentary theological meanings:
God creates Adam out of the dust of the ground and breaths into him the breath of life. Adam arises and is promptly overwhelmed with feelings of ennui and loneliness. At once a massive stampede of animals (the text clearly says "every" beast of the field and bird of the air) comes crawling, flapping, jumping, slithering, charging, and scurrying past the bewildered man. The end result is that we now have names for land animals and birds but that Adam is left feeling as despondent as ever. God at this point induces sleep in the man (and it is a "deep" sleep, so not apparently something that happens instantaneously), removes rib, creates woman, revives Adam, offers introductions, and places the two of them in the garden. Note: Adam and Eve were not created in the garden to begin with, and 2:8 indicates that the garden was not made until after Adam, which would mean that on day six not only humans were created but also the tree of life, etc. Humanity, in other words, no longer receives a special day of creation to itself by any plain, literal reading of the two texts as elaborations of a single chronological record.
If one were a mathematician one might at this point start calculating how many seconds or milliseconds Adam had to name "every" beast of the field and bird of the sky during this frenetic first day of his existence. (There are 1440 minutes in a day and some 9000 species of birds alone, but the text very clear says "every" bird and beast of the field was brought before Adam, and we must also assume that there has been no significant evolution of new species since the creation.) I am not a scientist or mathematician, however, so will simply attend to the lesson we have gained by conflating Genesis 1 and 2 on "scientific" rather than theological grounds. The most important insight we have gained, it would seem, is that man cannot survive for a single day without a woman.
But can one really be a literalist who holds to a firm "Thus saith the Lord" on both Chapters 1 and 2 without strain or contradiction? Or is the effect of being a literalist on Chapter 1 that one must be evasive and equivocal on the language of Chapter 2? One might say (as some writers do) that Adam didn't really name all of the beasts of the field and birds of the air but only a few representative samples, or perhaps only the ones in his particular vicinity of the garden. Alternatively, one might equivocate on "beasts of the field" and try to restrict its meaning to a more manageable number of domestic animals (goats, donkeys, hamsters, llamas, Indian peafowls and so forth) even though in 3:1 it is clear that reptiles are also included. In any case, one must somehow make Genesis 2 say something other than what the text very plainly appears to say, not because one is really concerned with listening to the text on its own terms but because one has a prior commitment to an unbending literalism, so that all other textual questions must be subordinated to the task of producing absolute "scientific" or chronological harmony - no matter what the text says.
The conclusion I have come to from paying careful attention to Genesis as well as the work of reliable biblical scholars is that (as one prominent literalist conceded but without further explanation when I presented him with the problem) "the Hebrew mind didn't always see order and sequence as we do." The evidence from Genesis is that the Genesis writer (or writers, or redactor as the case may be) was simply not interested in constructing a seamless chronological narrative of origins that is "scientific" or "historic" in the sense a modern scientist or historian or biblical literalist would demand (what CNN would have captured had it been there with its cameras rolling).
Unbending literalism — what Jacques Ellul described as fidelity to a “paper pope” that “transforms the freedom of faith into an arrested system that cannot avoid being scholastic in intellectual form” — may thus be faulted for having a tin ear when it comes to reading texts that are primarily concerned with literary and theological parallelism but are not overly burdened with matters of historical chronology and timing. Even more seriously, the posture of many literalists as the sole possessors of Truth and the only believers who take the authority of Scripture seriously begs the question: Is it in fact the authority of Scripture in all of its richness, power, and often enigmatic diversity we are being asked to be true to? Or rather the authority of a rigidified hermeneutical system and its guardian caste at any cost?
This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/1789