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I think we can all agree that the entire Bible is not meant to be taken literally. Consider the Song of Solomon (what would his lover look like if we take it literally?) or the book of Revelation.

So I would like to understand the case for believing the Genesis creation account, among all Biblical texts, is one that is intended to be interpreted literally. I'm not interested in scientific evidence for a young-earth in these answers. I'm interested in Biblical or historical reasons why this text, as a whole (as opposed to individual words), should be considered literal.

I would also discourage answers that address specific words in the Genesis account (such as the Hebrew 'yom'), but if that is the strongest evidence you have, then I won't consider it an invalid answer.

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Not trying to take sides either way here, but it seems to me that it's not "this one account among all Biblical texts." The Song of Solomon is obviously poetry filled with flowery images, but most of the Bible, especially the parts that convey a historical narrative of some kind, are intended to be read literally. –  Mason Wheeler Sep 16 '11 at 22:59
    
One has to be somewhat careful when lumping things into simple literal vs. figurative categories. Things like idioms seem to kind of skirt the boundaries of both of those broad categories. For example, if I say I hopped into my car and drove to the store....I probably didn't literally hop into my car, but my statement would still be more literal than not (assuming I really did go to the store, and I'm not trying to convey some sort of metaphorical spiritual journey with that statement). –  Steven Nov 14 '12 at 21:41
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Proverbs 1:1 explains that what follows are the proverbs of Solomon. Song 1:1 explains that what follows is the song of Solomon. Revelation opens by explaining that these were the things John saw and heard, etc. Genesis 1:1 opens the book by declaring "In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth." Genesis 2:4 "This is the account of the heavens and the earth when they were created." It's clearly intended to be read as an historical account. The only reason it is not read that way is when the reader has a preconceived notion that it couldn't possibly be history. –  Jas 3.1 Nov 14 '12 at 21:55
    
@Jas3.1: That's clearly a false explanation, as for centuries the church has read it as a non-literal account. The concept of a literal 7-creation days has only existed for about 150 years. –  Flimzy Nov 16 '12 at 1:58
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@Flimzy I do not mean that the early allegorists were ignorant because they disagreed with me ... I am merely referring to the well-established reality that they were not well-trained in genre identification and did not value genre identification. The church has made some progress in recent years in recognizing things like "proverbs are not promises" and "poetry is not historical narrative". Among those who have been trained in basic genre identification (and are thus not ignorant) there are YEC's and non-YEC's. But the latter reject YEC because of a preconception that YEC couldn't be true. –  Jas 3.1 Nov 19 '12 at 19:04
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3 Answers

The short version is that there are many places in the Bible that quote/reference the creation account in the book of Genesis literally (Exodus 16:16, Exodus 20:11, Exodus 31:17, Leviticus 23:3, Deuteronomy 5:13, Luke 13:14, etc).

The most obvious is the "reasoning" given for the 4th Commandment:

Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a sabbath of the LORD your God .. For in six days the LORD made the heavens and the earth, the sea and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day

Furthermore, death was not introduced into creation until Adam sinned (Genesis 3:17-19, Romans 5:12, 8:20-22). Without death, you cannot have fossils.

The first of the genealogies of the Bible, which starts with the first man (Adam) and goes through Noah, is given in concrete years of the age of the father when the son was born. While I suppose you could elect to say that the first 5 days of creation were figurative, certainly from day 6 on is distinctly not figurative - otherwise the reckoning of Adam's age at the birth of Seth would be irrational.

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No textual reason for interpreting Genesis figuratively

Whenever we ask why we should take something in the Bible as literal, we must start by asking ask why we should not take it as literal. Does the text give us any reason to interpret it as being figurative? In the book of Revelation, and other places where mortal man is given a glimpse of eternity, descriptions employ the use of comparison quite frequently. It was like this or had the appearance of that. The Genesis account employs no such language.

(By the way, the assumption that the Song of Solomon is figuratively is certainly debatable.)

The Order of Genesis

In fact, the Genesis account is written as if it were an actual account with a very logical order. There are six distinct units in which creative works take place. Each of these units is described as a day, with an evening and a morning. (The Jewish and Muslim traditions still follow this pattern by marking sundown as the beginning of the next day.)

Genesis 1:2 identifies the nature of the earth:

The earth was without form and void, and darkness was over the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters. Genesis 1:2 ESV

I have heard this original state of "without form and void" paraphrased as unformed and unfilled. The first three days of Genesis are dedicated to forming while the second three days are dedicated to filling. What is formed on the first day is filled on the 4th days, whatever is formed on the 2nd day is filled on the 5th, and so forth. So, there are specific divisions that represent a very orderly process, which aligns better with an actual record rather than a figurative story.

Confirmation of Scripture

As Warren noted, other places in Scripture affirm the six days of creation.

Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a sabbath of the LORD your God .. For in six days the LORD made the heavens and the earth, the sea and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day. Exodus 20:8-11 NASB

Problems with figurative interpretations

Finally, the figurative interpretation breaks down. If a days is a billion years, then how did flowers get pollinated when there were no bees in existence for another billion years? Also, if the sixth day is a billion years from Adam, then we have not yet reached the 7th day of God's rest, since we have a genealogy from Adam that is roughly 6,000 years. Fictitious characters do not have genealogies. No one can trace his lineage back to Elmer Fudd or Pecos Bill, yet the Bible details a genealogy from Adam to Jesus Himself.

What reason is there to take it as figurative?

So, we might ask, from where does anyone get the notion that the Genesis account ought to be taken figuratively. Quite simply, it comes from teachings based on a portion of scientific inquiry that purports irrefutable evidence of an old earth.

It is fairly easy to see that a literal interpretation of Genesis does not fit with a very old earth. The assumption is made, for whatever reason, that it must be the irrefutable scientific evidence that is correct. The question, then, is what to do with Genesis, and this is answered by reinterpreting it figuratively.

The main problem with this is the assumption of the truthfulness regarding the selective data that purports irrefutable evidence of an old earth. The problems and inconsistencies in the evidence are not given to the general public, but appear to be deliberately withheld. Neither are the lines of scientific evidence that point to a young earth given to the general public. To be truly scientific, all the evidence and all the data should be made available to all students. Theological assumptions made by individual scientist, whether they be Theistic or Atheistic, should be withheld. True science has no ax to grind other than the truth it seeks to find, so it should welcome all inquiry and debate.

Conclusion

So, the Genesis account does not give any indication of requiring figurative interpretation. It actually details a very logical and orderly creation. Other places in Scripture reference the six days of creation. Finally, the figurative interpretation doesn't make any sense.

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I found this answer useful even if I disagree with every claim in the conclusion! The strongest reason to suspect that Genesis 1 was intended to be taken as figurative is that it clearly fits in the the creation story genre. –  Jon Ericson Nov 14 '12 at 19:57
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@Steven Perhaps, but a figurative writer would not need to be as constrained by logic and order. –  Narnian Nov 14 '12 at 21:42
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@Narnian: Saying this as a YEC, I'm still not sure I agree with the conclusion you draw from that point. There are a myriad of examples, but the story of the 3 little pigs comes to mind. It's a logical and orderly progression (I'm rusty on details, but I think it even uses days as logical separation points), and yet, I don't think there's any reason to read it literally, because of that. It's a minor quibble, though; I thought yours was a good answer. –  Steven Nov 14 '12 at 21:54
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@Steven Yes, figurative writings can be orderly, but they don't need to be. A Once upon a time story does not need to explain anything in an orderly fashion. –  Narnian Nov 14 '12 at 21:57
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I disagree with the very first premise. Whenever reading any work, the appropriate question to ask is not "Should I interpret this literally?" which poses a false, binary answer, but "How should I interpret this?" which allows one to truly appreciate the work as it was intended to be written. –  Flimzy Nov 16 '12 at 2:03
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If you ask me, the Earth is only a few thousands years old. In the creation.com magazine, one of the issues uncovered astronomical evidence for a young Earth. When a satellite orbited Mercury, it was found to have a decreasing magnetic field. This magnetic field cannot exist if Mercury were millions of years old.

Also, the number of supernovae in our galaxy match with a 6 thousand year old universe, not a 13.7 billion year old universe.

The 13.7 billion year old universe is believed to have begun with a "big bang", a singularity of infinite density. When it exploded, time, matter, energy and space were created. Before then, nothing else existed.

The Bible says that in the beginning, "the Spirit of God hovered over the waters". This cannot fit with the big bang theory. Since the Bible is always true, the big bang theory is false and therefore the young Earth interpretation of Genesis is correct.

Besides, if God can do anything, He can certainly create the universe in less than a week.

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Welcome to Christianiy.SE. Could you expand on what you mean by the verse about "hovering over the waters" being inconsistent with anything but a young earth interpretation? –  Caleb Nov 14 '12 at 11:44
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Notice the while "the Bible is always true", interpretations of the Bible often are not correct. For instance, everyone assumed the Messiah would come as a conquering king, but he came first as a baby who grew up to be a man who was slaughtered like a Passover lamb. The important bit of Genesis 1 is that God created everything. Everything else is secondary. –  Jon Ericson Nov 14 '12 at 17:53
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btw, the magnetic field wasn't found to be "decreasing" - the 2008 readings were simply lower than the 1974 readings... and guess what: mercury's magnetic field is hugely impacted by the solar wind. Basically, that is a debunked theory, based on someone (D. Russell Humphrey specifically) trying to fit a creation model onto existing data. BTW, having two data points does neither a: prove a "rapidly diminishing" field (a lot of things fluctuate in a region; you can't measure twice and draw a line), nor b: as a result, prove a creation model. All it says is "this was different". –  Marc Gravell Nov 15 '12 at 13:12
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