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Spring 2014 · Vol. 43 No. 1 · pp. 4–19 

What Time Is It? Interpreting Genesis 1–3

Ken Esau

Some biblical/theological issues have ebbed and flowed over the last decades but the relationship between the scientific study of the origins of the universe and our understanding of the early chapters of Genesis has reached new levels of enthusiastic discussion. In 2013, Old Testament scholar John Walton, on behalf of BioLogos, 1 spent five months touring North America and countries like the Ukraine, Kenya, and Philippines, spreading a message that commitments to biblical inerrancy need not be in conflict with scientific discoveries. 2 Some of this comes in response to recent research from the Human Genome project claiming that humans originated from no fewer than about 10,000 “original” humans some 100,000 years ago. 3 There is a raft of new books on the subject, 4 a new openness by some evangelical pastors to defend positions perhaps unthinkable only a few decades ago, 5 and a polarization which has led a number of academics to part ways with their schools over the issue. 6

Is this a defining moment for the church as it faces theologically threatening scientific claims about the origins of the human race?

While the topic of human origins has become increasingly controversial, more and more people are entering the debate and traditional lines are shifting. This article will confine itself to an overview of the interpretive {5} options available to those seeking to understand what the early chapters of Genesis tell us. Those interested in related scientific questions will need to look elsewhere. 7 Furthermore, this discussion is limited to interpretive methods and will not explore the rich theology contained in these chapters. 8 Jonathan Wilson’s suggestion that the message of Genesis is “not that God made it in a certain number of days, or a certain number of years ago, or by a certain process. . . . [but] that the universe is God’s work of creation, perfectly fit for the flourishing of life” 9 is certainly instructive, but we will be focusing here on how different individuals connect (or do not connect) the theological “truthfulness” of these chapters with their historical/scientific “truthfulness.”


We could frame the debate around the question, What time is it? Ecclesiastes 3 declares that there is a time “to embrace and a time to refrain from embracing.” Is this a time to embrace certain ideas related to science or a time to refrain from embracing? We could ask, in other words, Is it Galileo time or Gandalf time?

“Galileo time” refers to the time when the church finally realized that when the Bible says “the world cannot be moved” (1 Chr 16:30; Ps 93:1), or the sun and moon “stood still” (Josh 10:13), or “the sun rises and sets and then hurries back to its place” (Ecc 1:5), this never did mean that the earth was the center of the universe and literally stood still while the sun and planets circled it. Galileo’s heliocentric universe model was considered heresy until one day the church changed its mind and said, “Maybe the Bible never meant it that way.” Is that where we are today? Are we extracting historical truth from verses that were never meant to be taken literally? And if so, shouldn’t we wake up to this fact, and the sooner the better? 10

Or is this “Gandalf time”? In the Lord of the Rings movie trilogy Gandalf stands on the narrow bridge over the abyss, sword and staff in hand, blocking the path of the fiery Balrog. Realizing that giving in here would spell defeat for the whole mission, Gandalf stands firm and defiantly declares, “You shall not pass!!” Is this a defining moment for the church as it faces theologically threatening scientific claims about the origins of the human race? If so, we should resist scientific theories and Christian compromises to the bitter end—because biblical authority, and ultimately the gospel, are at stake. If it is Gandalf time, we will look back at this moment and either celebrate our courageous resistance or lament our cowardly accommodation. {6}


Discussion of the early chapters of Genesis has often been polarized, pitting those who advocate a literal reading against those who favor a figurative reading of these texts. While confessions of faith describe Scripture with words like “inerrant,” “infallible,” or “reliable,” these adjectives do not provide much guidance on how to read these chapters, since individuals on both sides of the issue are happy to embrace them. I suggest that it might be more helpful to use “true” as the key category to clarify the issues at stake. I use the word in its commonsense meaning of “conforming to the evidence” or, in reference to historical events, as “having actually happened.” 11 Many people tend to think of Scripture simply as “true” and express confusion when we raise historical or scientific questions. We will certainly want to ask exactly what “true” might mean, but the term may be helpful in advancing the conversation past the stalemate we find ourselves in.

The Bible implicitly claims that certain events are true historically (e.g., Jesus lived, died, rose from the dead, and ascended to heaven) and that the theological implications of those events are also true (e.g., Jesus is Israel’s Messiah, his life fulfilled and completed Israel’s story, and YHWH’s gospel is centered on Jesus). We could say with some confidence, then, that these events are doubly true in the sense that they carry both historical and theological truth. The truth of the theological assertions is somehow deeply connected to the historical truthfulness of the narrative itself. In reference to Jesus’ resurrection, for example, Paul argues that certain theological truths are entirely dependent upon the historical veracity of the resurrection (1 Cor 15:14–19). One is not possible without the other.

Other texts in the Bible are obviously intended to be singly true rather than doubly true—their theological truths do not depend on the historical veracity of the story they narrate. That is to say, a biblical text could be untrue historically/scientifically yet true theologically. The Bible clearly contains such narratives. The parable of the good Samaritan (Lk 10:30–35) is a good example. The story is true theologically because it illustrates obedience to the command to love one’s neighbor, but it is highly unlikely that Jesus was speaking of a real event that unfolded exactly as described. Had Jesus’ original listeners asked, Where exactly on the road did this happen? On which day of the week did this happen? Where was the inn where the Samaritan stopped? they may well have been told that those questions miss the point. Or, if archeologists found a place near the Wadi Qilt road that could have been used by bandits to hide, or unearthed evidence of an inn near Jericho, their discoveries would contribute nothing to the parable’s theological truth or to our edification. It does not matter if the event {7} happened or not. The story is effectively true in one sense only—it is theologically but not historically true. 12

So, we have framed how we will deal with the larger question. We are asking whether the early chapters of Genesis—chapters 1–3 specifically—were designed to be doubly true (historically and theologically) or whether they were meant to be understood as singly true (theologically but not historically). Note that this is not specifically a science question and does not depend on whether or not a particular scientific view of origins is deemed accurate. This is a biblical interpretation question that needs to be answered, even if scientists change their models of cosmic or human origins.


Deciding whether a section of Scripture is singly true or doubly true is a genre question. C.S. Lewis famously said, “The first qualification for judging any piece of workmanship from a corkscrew to a cathedral is to know what it is—what it was intended to do and how it is meant to be used.” 13 Ultimately we are asking, What did the author or authors try to communicate? And like other authors, biblical authors reveal their intentions by the genre they select. We open a chemistry textbook and know that this will not be a journey into great literature because previous experience with text books tells that its genre will likely be academic prose. We won’t expect a geography or history lesson from Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings if we understand that he writes in the epic fantasy genre. Movies are classified by genres—documentaries, romantic comedies, action thrillers, fantasy, and so on—and making genre mistakes can lead to some awkward date nights or children’s birthday parties. The genre tells us whether we should be prepared to be excited, frightened, amused, informed, or inspired.

Biblical scholars have long said that the early chapters of Genesis must be interpreted according to their genres. They argue that many of us make genre mistakes when we read the first chapters of Genesis. We think we are looking at one thing but are actually looking at another. Determining the genre of Genesis 1–3 will determine what we take away from this material. Are these chapters straight historical nonfiction or are they something else?

It is common today to explore literary connections between these early chapters and the kinds of documents that circulated among ancient Israel’s neighbors—documents which explain the origin of something (viz., etiology) or specifically the origins of the cosmos (viz., cosmogony). Ancient Near Eastern etiology and, more specifically, cosmogony are documented in the Enuma Elish, the Atrahasis Epic and various Egyptian writings. This genre was very important because it answered the central worldview questions—Who are we? Why are we here? Who created us? We employ {8} something analogous to a cosmogony genre when we explain to our children who they are and where they came from. We could, of course, show them their pre-birth development in a series of ultrasound pictures, or we could explain that they were knit together by God before they were born; that God created them in his image; that He and we their parents loved them even before they were born; that they were created to live life fully in Jesus and to serve Him with every breath for the rest of their lives. One could argue that this is the key conversation—far more important than looking at ultrasound pictures.

So etiologies and cosmogonies are not primarily interested in when and how questions, but why and what and who questions. For some, the early chapters of Genesis are like ultrasound pictures while for others they reflect typical ancient cosmogonies and need to be treated as such. J.I. Packer expresses the latter opinion when he suggests that “Genesis 1 and 2 . . . tell us who without giving many answers about how. . . . It was to show us the Creator rather than the creation and to teach us knowledge of God rather than physical science.” 14


Scholars make three key arguments when they assert that the genre of Genesis 1:1–2:3 15 is a genre similar to ancient cosmogony rather than to an ultrasound picture. The first is that Israelite understandings of the universe reflect many common ancient ideas which are obviously not doubly true judged by what we know today about the world. The Israelite portrayal of the earth being set on “pillars” (cf. 1 Sam 2:8; Job 9:6; Ps 75:3) with the “waters below” being below the surface of the earth (cf. Ex 20:4; Ps 29:10) and Sheol (the place of the dead) set in the ground (cf. Num 16:33; Job 17:16) is not dissimilar from Egyptian and Mesopotamian cosmologies. Like Genesis 1 itself, many Egyptian and Mesopotamian cosmogonies speak of a “dark, watery, chaotic, sea,” a deity speaking the universe into being, the appearance of light prior to the luminaries, culminating in a deity putting everything in order and resting. 16 Genesis 1:6–8, 14–17 likewise describes a solid firmament in the sky separating the “waters above” from the “waters below” and holding the sun, moon, and stars in place. 17 It is apparent that the biblical account, while reflecting some of the prevailing ideas of the ancient world, is actually speaking into and correcting the misguided theological foundations of those portrayals. Still, both the Genesis creation story and the Egyptian and Mesopotamian stories evidently share the same genre.

A second argument is that many literary features in these chapters suggest a concern with something other than standard historical narrative. These chapters are not “pure Hebrew poetry” since they lack the central {9} feature of Hebrew poetry (viz., parallelism), but neither are they historical narrative, in spite of the normal waw-consecutive imperfect verb form used here. This has led to a variety of unusual genre identifications: “exalted prose narrative,” 18 etiology/cosmogony, 19 having a “poetic character,” 20 and “historical parable.” 21 These are unusual, that is, for stories commonly thought to be plain historical narrative. For example, it is almost universally recognized that Genesis 1:1–2:3 contains a special literary patterning or framework around a 3 + 3 + 1 structure, intimating that God is creating to reverse the “formless and empty” (tohu wabohu) and dark condition of the created order described in verse 2. Therefore, in the first three creative days, actions of separation provide the key “forms” (light and darkness, water and sky, dry ground and sea). Since these forms are “empty,” God “fills” them in the following three days. On day four, paralleling day one, the “greater light” (sun) fills the “light” while the “lesser light [moon] and the stars” fill the “darkness.” The creation of water creatures and “every winged bird” on day five fill the empty water and sky created on day two. The only “empty” place left is the dry ground of day three, which is filled with “living creatures” and finally the “humans” on day six.

All of this culminates in the seventh day, which stands out from the pattern as a special day. On this first Sabbath day, which in a sense does not end, God rests, possibly because he is a ruling and sovereign monarch, not because he is tired, demonstrating also how those in his image will eventually celebrate Sabbath rest because they too are royalty rather than slaves. Day seven is the pinnacle of the creative week—just like the Sabbath day was the pinnacle of Israel’s worship week. The narrative does not provide much warrant for understanding these days as long epochs in history since they clearly describe an “evening and morning” for all but the final “day.”

In addition to this 3 + 3 +1 pattern, the text is replete with repetition (“let there be,” “and God made,” “and God saw that X was good,” etc.). Rikk Watts notes that while this is clearly not typical Hebrew poetry with its attendant parallelism, there is a “poetic character” to Genesis 1 that is very different from ordinary historical narrative:

Usually we associate this kind of repetition with poetry. But we have examples of ancient Hebrew poetry (e.g., Exod 15; Num 23–24; Deut 33; Judg 5), and Genesis 1 is clearly not the same thing. But equally, if not more so, neither is this repetition characteristic of straight narrative, as a quick glance at even Genesis 2 or 1 Samuel will reveal. That modern translators and the vast majority of commentators recognize the poetic character of Genesis 1 is indicated by the printed format used in nearly all modern versions of the Bible. 22 {10}

A third clue to the genre of our text is that it gives us two creation stories that cover some of the same ground but in conflicting ways. It does not seem possible to assert that both of these stories are doubly true. In Genesis 1:1–2:3 we have a creation narrative of seven days while the remainder of chapter 2 gives us a narrative of only a single day (“in the day that the Lord God made the earth and the heavens” 2:4b ESV). In chapter 1, animals are created first, followed by humans, while in chapter 2 the order is reversed. In chapter 1, vegetation precedes the creation of humanity, while in chapter 2 there is no vegetation prior to the creation of Adam. 23 In chapter 1, everything is patterned after a sacred week culminating in Sabbath, which marks the proper temple worship of God. 24 In chapter 2, the temple imagery centers around the sacred garden and the divine “image” placed there to tend and guard it. In chapter 1, God creates merely by speaking a word while in chapter 2, he forms the human from the dust and even breathes into his nostrils—what Pahl calls an “evocative, intimate image.” 25 These stories are theologically compatible, but it is not as easy to assert that they are historically compatible, which is why many argue that they cannot both be doubly true.


But what about Genesis 2:4–3:24? Does the genre change at this point to a more typical historical narrative, or is it still “poetic in character,” or does it continue as a “historical parable”? Those who say this section is only true theologically would highlight several clues in the text. The first is that the human is named “the man” or “the human” (ha adam) 26 because he is taken from the ground (adamah), and the first woman is identified as simply “woman” (isha) because she is taken from “man” (ish). Advocates of the singly true view maintain that these names are a clue that this story is about representative or paradigmatic humans, not specific historical characters like David or Ruth. 27 Christian in Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress would be a literary example of a representative human being.

The kinds of activities that take place on that day provide a second genre clue. The “man” is put into a deep sleep and the “woman” is made from a rib taken from his side. John Goldingay suggests that this act clearly points to a “historical parable” genre, since any other option implies that the human in the story would literally have lost a rib as a result of this event. 28 Singly true advocates would argue that this reading allows us to focus on the theological richness of this story without having to deal with nonsensical questions about the number of ribs the first human had or whether snakes originally had legs and vocal chords before they were cursed by God (cf. Gen 3:14). {11}

A third clue is the numerous extraordinary, fantastical elements in the story. A talking serpent, two magical trees, naked humans living without fear in a garden, and God having a human-like form such that he could be heard “walking in the garden” (Gen 3:8 ESV) immediately suggest that the story is meant to be read as something other than historical description, reducing the likelihood that it is doubly true. In addition, that the serpent was closely tied to imagery of the Egyptian Pharaoh who wore a cobra on his crown also suggests a larger parabolic meaning behind this text. 29

The main argument against treating Genesis 2:4–3:24 as “historical parable” 30 is that the textual and theological implications of moving in this direction are unacceptable. This section cannot be anything but doubly true, it is argued, since both Paul (Rom 5:14; 1 Cor 15:22, 45; 1 Tim 2:13–14) and Jesus (Mt 19:4–5) apparently understood the story to be historically true. In addition, to deny the historical veracity of Genesis 2–3 is like denying the historical veracity of the resurrection, say critics. 31 If Adam was not historical, then much is at stake, including the gospel itself. Al Mohler summarizes the objections this way:

If Adam was not a historical figure, and thus if there was no Fall into sin and all humanity did not thus sin in Adam, then Paul’s telling of the Gospel is wrong. Furthermore, Paul was simply mistaken to believe that Adam had been a real human being. . . . If there is no historical Adam, then the Bible’s metanarrative is not Creation-Fall-Redemption-New Creation, but something very different. 32

Mohler would argue that the grave dangers courted by those who dismiss the historicity of Genesis 2 and 3 make resistance to their “skeptical” views a matter of life and death. It is, without a doubt, Gandalf Time.


Evangelicals approach the early chapters of Genesis in various ways. Young Earth Creationists (YECs) hold tenaciously to the double truthfulness of the early chapters of Genesis. They posit a six-24-hour-day story of creation and a world that is between 6,000 and 10,000 years old. No death existed before Adam and the Eve 33 ate from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, an action that constitutes the historical Fall. Fossils and the formation of geological features like the Grand Canyon are all dated from the time of Noah’s flood. A video camera could have recorded these creative events, along with a naked couple in a garden and a talking serpent coiled around a tree. Presumably the camera would have captured dinosaurs inside or outside the garden. (Of course they would have been herbivorous prior to the Fall.) In other words, YECs assume that the genre of Genesis 1–3 is historical nonfiction through and through. The author {12} of Genesis provides us with both a proper creation theology and an exact description of how and maybe even when creation occurred.

Young Earth Creationism does not usually begin by identifying the genre of these passages. Rather it starts by conceptualizing the kind of text we need to protect our confidence in Scripture. 34 YECs would argue that Genesis 1–3 must be doubly true in order to maintain our commitments to scriptural inspiration and authority. As Kurt Wise, a Harvard trained geologist and young earth creationist, asserts,

Although there are scientific reasons for accepting a young earth, I am a young-age creationist because that is my understanding of the Scripture. As I shared with my professors years ago when I was in college, if all the evidence in the universe turned against creationism, I would be the first to admit it, but I would still be a creationist because that is what the Word of God seems to indicate. 35

If you get the genre right, you cry loudly at a funeral and cheer loudly at a wedding. If you get it wrong, regardless of your noble motives, you could look profoundly silly. YECs are doing something loudly. They are either right or they are profoundly wrong—there is no in-between. They are motivated by the conviction that the Word of God must never be compromised and thus deserve our respect. Even so, their assumption that the text must be literally, historically true as well as theologically true leads them to take to a Gandalf-like stance toward anyone who disagrees.


Option two is to see Genesis 1 as essentially doubly true and then to see chapters 2–3 as fully doubly true. This perspective is commonly known as “Old Earth Creationism” (OEC). OECs look carefully at Genesis 1:1–2:3 for ways to reconcile a strong commitment to Scriptural authority with a physical world that appears to be billions of years old. Some insert a long time gap between Genesis 1:1 and Genesis 1:2 in order to account for these billions of years and to provide a context for the fall of Satan from heaven. But in verse 2 we are back to 24-hour days as God takes the mess that was left from his first destruction of the earth and “re-creates” our world. The “earth became formless and empty” would be the preferred translation. There is, in a sense, a double fall—Satan’s fall which ruined the first and very old creation, and then Adam and Eve’s fall much later. This gap or restoration theory considers Genesis 1 as essentially doubly true, even as it allows for an extremely lengthy intervening epoch at the end of verse 1.

A variation of this option reads the words “day” in Genesis 1 to mean long epochs, not 24-hour periods. This “Day-Age theory” tries to keep Genesis 1 doubly true while allowing for an earth that is billions of years {13} old. During each epoch, God stepped in and created a new type of species rather than having them evolve randomly into many other types. 36

These two versions of the second option are flexible in how they read Genesis 1 in order to allow for a creation much older than merely six to ten thousand years, but both consider Genesis 2–3 to be a fairly straightforward historical narrative that is also theologically true.


Option three sees Genesis 1 as true in the theological sense only, while maintaining a commitment to Genesis 2–3 (Adam and the woman as the first human pair) as essentially doubly true. This position is being adopted by a growing number of evangelicals, but it is not clear how its two affirmations fit together.

Tim Keller walks this fine line, accepting that Genesis 1 is true in only one sense but arguing that biblical authority requires that we not do the same for Genesis 2 and 3. He maintains a commitment to the historicity of Adam and Eve because it appears that Paul believed this: “When you refuse to take a Biblical author literally when he clearly wants you to do so, you have moved away from the traditional understanding of . . . biblical authority. . . . [T]hat doesn’t mean you can’t have a strong, vital faith yourself, but I believe such a move can be bad for the church as a whole, and it certainly can lead to confusion on the part of laypeople.” 37

Bruce Waltke also fits in this camp. He argues that the “historicity of both figures [Adam and Jesus Christ] is foundational to Paul’s doctrine of human redemption through Christ Jesus.” 38 It is this appeal to Paul and his portrayal of the gospel that has led many to conclude that Adam and Eve must be historical figures. They argue that all human beings must be biologically connected to Adam in order to participate in his sin and require the redemption Christ offers. 39

Also in this group is John Walton, who sees the story of Adam’s creation from the dust and Eve’s from his side as figurative. Walton is known for his argument that Genesis 1 is not about the how or when of creation but a record of how God established the functions of time and space and so on. 40 He is thus able to accommodate whatever means God used to create the world. Turning to chapters 2 and 3, he argues that Adam and Eve are “real individuals living in a real past, but they are neither the first people nor the biological/genetic ancestors of all.” 41 God could have taken two individuals from a band of evolved hominids—a male and a female—and put them in a garden where they lived out the story of Genesis 2 and 3. 42 The designation “essentially doubly true” fits because the pair that ate the forbidden fruit would be the historically true and archetypal (not necessarily biological) ancestors of all humans today who are fallen and in need of the gospel. {14}

Walton and those similarly minded make two different genre decisions: they see Genesis 1 as cosmogony, fraught with theological truth but short of scientific or historical truth, and they regard Genesis 2–3 as essentially a perfect blend of historical nonfiction and theological narrative—largely based on what Paul says in Romans 5 and 2 Corinthians 15.


The fourth option is to regard the first three chapters of Genesis in their entirety as only true theologically and with little if any scientific/historical value. Bible scholar and theologian Peter Enns is a leading proponent of this position. He suggests that we reconsider the idea that the Adam and Eve narrative is about the first human couple and reflect on the possibility that it may be about the story of Israel as a nation. 43 He also questions whether Paul’s understanding of human origins requires us to accept his comments as the final word on the subject. 44 Tremper Longman, III, affirms that we need not connect the historicity of Adam with the truthfulness of our theological claims about sin or redemption:

The description of how Adam was created is certainly figurative. The question is open as to whether there was an actual person named Adam who was the first human being or not. Perhaps there was a first man, Adam, and a first woman, Eve, designated as such by God at the right time in his development of human beings. Or perhaps Adam, whose name after all means “Human,” is himself figurative of humanity in general. I have not resolved this issue in my own mind except to say that there is nothing that insists on a literal understanding of Adam in a passage so filled with obvious figurative description. The New Testament’s use of Adam (Romans 5 and 1 Corinthians 15) does not resolve the issue as some suggest because it is possible, even natural, to make an analogy between a literary figure and a historical one. 45

John Goldingay makes a similar argument: “In Romans 5, Paul compares Adam’s sin, which affects everyone as sinners, and Christ’s death, which affects everyone as recipients of God’s grace, and people sometimes reckon that all humanity needs to be physically descended from Adam for his argument to work. But everyone is not physically descended from Christ, so the parallel would not require all humanity to be descended from one original pair.” 46 Denis Lamoureux dispenses with the genre argument and suggests that God accommodated his “inerrant spiritual truth” to the early human mind by expressing it in the terms of ancient science. 47 The authors of Genesis were “wrong” about the science but not wrong about {15} the theology they advocated—a stance he claims may redirect our focus to what is centrally important:

I want young men and women to know that there is a Christian view of origins that accepts evolution and recognizes that our faith does not rest on the existence of Adam. Should they become convinced that humans evolved, they will be equipped never to lose a step in their Christian walk, because our faith is based only on Jesus Christ, His sacrifice on the Cross, and His bodily resurrection from the dead—and not on a historical Adam. 48

Some would applaud this group for being consistent in dealing with Genesis 1–3. Others would say that they are letting the Balrog cross the bridge—they bring the gospel itself into question as they implicitly deny the absolute authority of the Word of God.


So, what time is it? Perhaps it is Galileo Time, in which case we must wake up and realize that the Bible meant to say something much different in Genesis 1–3 than we have assumed. Or is it Gandalf Time and we are called to face the enemy squarely and proclaim, “You shall not pass!!”? It is difficult to be optimistic that this debate will be resolved with further study and dialogue. On one side some flatly assert that “Denial of the historicity of Adam, like the denial of the historicity of Christ’s resurrection, destroys the foundations of the Christian faith. 49 And on the other side are voices concerned that the Christian church is losing countless thoughtful men and women who feel forced to choose between intellectual suicide and a life without faith. “Everyone today recognizes the error of the church at the time of Galileo in constraining its scientists’ understanding of cosmology. Are we at a similar transitional moment in connection to evolution?” 50 It is safe to assume that all four options discussed above are represented in the Mennonite Brethren Church. My hope is that recent attempts by preachers, teachers, and writers to address the issue will provide opportunity for greater dialogue, clarity, and mutual understanding. 51


  1. BioLogos is a big player in this discussion. Its mission is to present “evolution as God’s means of creation, so that the Church may celebrate and the world may see the harmony between science and biblical faith.” From the mission statement on the BioLogos website, accessed March 4, 2014,
  2. For a sampling of Walton’s presentations, see the online “BioLogos Forum: Science and Faith in Dialogue,” accessed Jan 20, 2014, {16}
  3. Francis Collins, The Language of God (New York: Free Press, 2006), 126; Richard Ostling, “The Search for the Historical Adam,” Christianity Today (June 2011), accessed January 20, 2014,
  4. For a sampling of new books on this subject, see Gerald Rau, Mapping the Origins Debate: Six Models of the Beginning of Everything (Downers Grove: IVP, 2013); Karl Gilberson and Francis Collins, The Language of Science and Faith (Downers Grove: IVP, 2011); Peter Enns, The Evolution of Adam (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos, 2012); J. Daryl Charles, ed., Reading Genesis 1–2: An Evangelical Conversation (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2013); Ardel Caneday and Matthew Barrett, eds., Four Views on the Historical Adam (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2013); Johnny V. Miller and John Soden, In the Beginning . . . We Misunderstood (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel, 2012); C. John Collins, Did Adam and Eve Really Exist? (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2011).
  5. For example, Tim Keller pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church, author of “Creation, Evolution, and Christian Laypeople,” BioLogos, accessed January 17, 2014:
  6. Both Bruce Waltke (formerly at Reformed Theological Seminary, Florida) and Michael Pahl (formerly at Cedarville University, Ohio) are no longer teaching at these evangelical institutions in large part because of their interpretations of the early chapters of Genesis.
  7. See Rau, Mapping the Origins Debate; Francis Collins, The Language of God; or Denis Alexander, Creation or Evolution: Do We Have to Choose? (Oxford: Monarch, 2008).
  8. For a helpful and concise summary of theological insights from these chapters, see Michael Pahl, The Beginning and the End (Eugene, OR: Cascade, 2011).
  9. Jonathan Wilson, God’s Good World: Reclaiming the Doctrine of Creation (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2013), 169–70.
  10. For a brief summary of the events surrounding Galileo, see Tremper Longman, III, “What Genesis 1–2 Teaches (and What It Doesn’t),” in J. Daryl Charles, ed., Reading Genesis 1–2, 119–20.
  11. It is, of course, important to nuance what “true historically” can mean in terms of its connection with actual historical events. Do we have a video recording, a photograph, or an “impressionistic” painting? For a discussion of these options, see V. Philips Long, The Art of Biblical History (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1994), 58–86.
  12. While “singly true” could theoretically also apply to texts where an event has historical truth but not theological truth, that is not how the expression will be used here. This version of “singly true” (historical but not theological) has been embraced by some in order to deal with troubling biblical texts like those related to God’s commanding of the destruction of the Canaanites. See for example, Eric Seibert’s Disturbing Divine Behavior (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2009). For a discussion of the strengths and weaknesses of this approach, see Direction (Fall 2011). {17}
  13. C.S. Lewis, A Preface to Paradise Lost (London: Oxford University Press, 1942), 1.
  14. Cited in Bruce Waltke, Old Testament Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2007), 194–5.
  15. Genesis 2:4 includes a toledot formula which most scholars agree begins a new section rather than ends a previous one (see also Gen 5:1; 6:9; 10:1; 11:10; 11:27; 25:12; 25:19 36:1; 37:2). For a detailed study of this formula, see Matthew Thomas, These are the Generations: Identity, Covenant, and the ‘toledot’ Formula (New York: T&T Clark, 2011).
  16. See Miller and Soden, 78–80, 119–23.
  17. See Denis Lamoureux in Four Views on the Historical Adam, 51–53. For an alternative view, see Richard Averbeck, “A Literary Day, Inter-Textual, and Contextual Reading of Genesis 1–2,” Reading Genesis 1–2, 20.
  18. For C. John Collins, “the best name for its style is ‘exalted prose narrative,’ and its purpose is quasi-liturgical, to enable its readers to celebrate God’s work of creation as a magnificent achievement. To call such a text ‘scientific’ is confusion.” Four Views on the Historical Adam, 74.
  19. Pahl, 11.
  20. Rikki Watts, “Making Sense of Genesis 1,” accessed January 17, 2014,
  21. John Goldingay’s preferred term. See his Genesis for Everyone: Part 1 (Louisville, KY: John Knox, 2010), 41.
  22. Watts, “Making Sense of Genesis 1.”
  23. In “What Genesis 1–2 Teaches” Longman notes that the NIV tries to harmonize this by translating the verb in Genesis 2:8 as “had planted” and that the ESV translates the Hebrew eretz in Genesis 2:5–6 as “land” rather than “earth” to allow for vegetation elsewhere but not in this local area. Reading Genesis 1–2, 108.
  24. Pahl, 19.
  25. Ibid., 27.
  26. John Walton notes that in Hebrew the definite article “is never attested on a personal name,” which is why he moves in the direction of seeing this use here as archetypal, although he still affirms that Adam and Eve were real historical figures. Four Views on the Historical Adam, 91.
  27. See the short video by Alister McGrath, “What are we to make of Adam and Eve?” accessed January 18, 2014,
  28. Goldingay, 41.
  29. See Pahl, 37.
  30. Todd Beall, however, disagrees with the genre argument entirely, suggesting that it is simply an excuse to deny the “doubly true” nature of Genesis 1–2: “Although the inescapable conclusion is that Gen 1 is narrative prose, some scholars still try to label Gen 1 as some sort of special genre, presumably so that they can have hermeneutical justification for taking it as more figurative than literal.” Reading Genesis 1–2, 49. {18}
  31. For a brief overview of this argument, see J.P. Versteeg, Adam in the New Testament: Mere Teaching Model or First Historical Man, 2nd ed. (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2012).
  32. Al Mohler, “Adam and Eve: Clarifying Again What is at Stake,” accessed January 20, 2014, Robert Strimple says much the same: “But, mark it well, without a doctrine of the Fall there is no hope of Redemption. There is no ‘Good News!’ There is no Biblical Christianity! That’s what is at stake here, nothing less than that.” “Was Adam Historical,” accessed January 20, 2014,
  33. Although Eve is only identified as “woman” in this section until Gen 3:20, it is common to use her later name Eve in discussions about Genesis 2–3, so I will follow that convention here.
  34. This appears to be the normal pattern as evidenced by William D. Barrick who begins his discussion with a clear statement of his “assumption” that “the declarations of Genesis bear the stamp of divine truth, historical fact, and historiographical accuracy.” Four Views on The Historical Adam, 200. Todd Beall, however, in his presentation in Reading Genesis 1–2, engages the genre question and argues that there is no real genre difference between Genesis 1–2 and the rest of the book (47–49).
  35. Kurt Wise, “In Six Days,” accessed January 20, 2014, Simon Turpin is of a similar mind: “The debate over whether Adam was historical is ultimately a debate over whether we trust what the Scriptures clearly teach. If we cannot be certain of the beginning, then why would we be certain about what the Scriptures teach elsewhere? The uncertainty of truth is rampant in our culture partly due to the influence of post-modernism which is why many believe the issue over Adam’s historicity is unimportant.” Turpin, “The Importance of an Historical Adam,” Answers Research Journal 6 (2013), accessed January 20, 2014,
  36. Hugh Ross is arguably the most well-known advocate of this perspective, which he refers to as “progressive creationism.” See the “Reasons to Believe” website:
  37. Tim Keller, online “BioLogos” paper, “Creation, Evolution, and Christian Laypeople,” 9.
  38. Bruce Waltke, Old Testament Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2007), 250.
  39. For a fairly detailed discussion of the importance of a “historical” Adam, see Versteeg’s Adam in the New Testament.
  40. See Walton’s online “BioLogos” presentation, “Genesis Through Ancient Eyes.”
  41. John Walton in Four Views on the Historical Adam, 115.
  42. Ibid., 113–15.
  43. Peter Enns, “Understanding Adam,” 1, accessed January 20, 2014, {19}
  44. For a response to Enns, see Richard Gaffin’s “Translator’s Foreword” to Versteeg’s Adam in the New Testament, ix–xxv.
  45. Tremper Longman, III, “Is There a Historical Adam?” accessed January 20, 2014,
  46. Goldingay, 58.
  47. Denis Lamoureux in Four Views on the Historical Adam, 53.
  48. Ibid., 38.
  49. William Barrick in Four Views on The Historical Adam, 223.
  50. Longman, “What Genesis 1–2 Teaches,” 120.
  51. See for example, the January 2011 issue of the MB Herald which explored some of these questions, although it included no article from a Young Earth Creationist. The heated tone of letters and online comments/blogs that resulted, demonstrates that beneficial conversation around this issue is still elusive.
Ken Esau is the Program Director for Biblical Studies and Old Testament faculty member at Columbia Bible College in Abbotsford, BC, where he has taught since 1991. His primary teaching interest relates to the overarching Old Testament narrative and its links to the New Testament. This article grew out of a presentation for the British Columbia Mennonite Brethren “Pastors Study Day 2013” on the question of how to interpret Genesis 1–3.

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