Jesus tells the following parable in Matthew:
“The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, which a man took and planted in his field. Though it is the smallest of all seeds, yet when it grows, it is the largest of garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds come and perch in its branches.”
Almost everything about this parable is a lie.
First – there wasn’t an actual man who planted an actual seed. Jesus made him up. Second – the mustard seed isn’t the smallest of seeds. Orchid and begonia seeds are smaller. And third – other garden plants are taller than the mustard plant. Sunflowers, for example, can reach up to 27 feet.
So, if all of this parable is a lie, then scripture is wrong. If it’s wrong, it’s fallible. If it’s fallible it can’t be the word of God. And if it’s not the word of God, you’ve wasted your life eating peppermints in a hard pew every Sunday.
Of course, you probably don’t read the parable that way.
You probably reason that Jesus was speaking to people who lived in Israel 2,000 years ago. That he used images that were familiar to them to speak about complex spiritual truths. And that he used fiction to drive the truth home. In other words, as you read it, you put this parable in context. You know it’s not a science lesson – it’s about the kingdom of heaven, after all.
But what about the creation story in Genesis?
What if – just like Jesus’ parables – the story was made for a particular audience at a particular time? What if the creation story isn’t supposed to be a science lesson? What if it’s about who we are in relation to God? Why do some people read one part of the bible as figurative (the parables) yet insist on reading another part (the creation story) literally?
A lot of it has to do with the Greek influence in our culture. The Greeks believed that the job of language was to reveal objective truth. So, for example, if I write about a cat, my job as the writer is to conjure up a clear and factual image of a cat for the reader. In Hebrew thinking, on the other hand, the job of language was to illustrate moral or spiritual truth. It doesn’t get hung up on facts. Instead, Hebrew writing is concerned with moral dilemmas and wresting with what is the right thing to do before God – who alone is ultimate truth.
Somewhere along the way, we Westerners forgot this. We approach ancient Hebrew texts with the wrong set of glasses – a post-Greek way of thinking – and it warps our view. That’s the opinion of many Jewish scholars, at least, who view the creation story as allegory. But it’s also the view of many modern and ancient Christian theologians.
In fact, St. Augustine himself said that the Bible shouldn’t be interpreted literally if it contradicts what we know from science and our God-given reason. In his fifth-century text on Genesis, St. Augustine wrote:
“With the scriptures it is a matter of treating about the faith. For that reason, as I have noted repeatedly, if anyone, not understanding the mode of divine eloquence, should find something about these matters [about the universe] in our books, or hear of the same from those books, of such a kind that it seems to be at variance with the perceptions of his own rational faculties, let him believe that these other things are in no way necessary to the admonitions or accounts or predictions of the scriptures. In short, it must be said that our authors knew the truth about the nature of the skies, but it was not the intention of the Spirit of God, who spoke through them, to teach men anything that would not be of use to them for their salvation.”
In other words, St. Augustine argued that if you want to know about science, you should ask a scientist. If you want to know about salvation, you should read the Bible. Many contemporary theologians have taken the same position including Meredith G. Kline (an Old Testament scholar at Westminster Seminary), Henri Blocher (a professor of systematic theology at Wheaton College), Bruce Waltke (one of the translators of the NIV) and Pope John Paul II.
Many of those who have read the account of Genesis in Hebrew agree with another point raised by Augustine: that the “six days” mentioned in the creation story are not meant to be literal days. The word in the original Hebrew that we translate into “day” is “yom,” which can mean a literal day, but can also mean “a period of time.” In fact, in the telling of the creation story, “yom” refers to four different time periods. If you read the word in context, some argue, the “days” of Genesis aren’t clearly defined at all – again, because the creation story was meant to be read as allegory, not science.
Oceanographer and Engineer Gordon J. Glover, in his book Beyond the Firmament: Understanding Science and the Theology of Creation has put it this way:
“Christians need to understand the first chapter of Genesis for what it is: an ‘accurate’ rendering of the physical universe by ancient standards that God used as the vehicle to deliver timeless theological truth to his people. We shouldn’t try to make Genesis into something that it’s not by dragging it through 3,500 years of scientific progress. When reading Genesis, Christians today need to transport themselves back to Mt. Sinai and leave our modern minds in the 21st century. Genesis is not giving us creation science. It is giving us something much more profound and practical than that. Genesis is giving us a Biblical Theology of Creation.”
This is an important point. Too often, we read scripture unaware that we’re carrying centuries of intellectual baggage with us in the process. An ancient Jewish audience listening to Jesus would understand the mechanics of oral storytelling – the figurative language, allegory and the centrality of the moral message – just like we understand the mechanics or the “grammar” of movies. What we have to work to understand, now, was easily understood then.
We need to look at Genesis the same way. We need to embrace the difference between “truth” and “facts” – and get used to the idea that something can be true without being factually accurate. Is the kingdom of heaven like a mustard seed? Not really. That’s a metaphor. It’s poetry. But it’s true, nevertheless.
Once we strip away the centuries of Greek influence, the theological controversies of the past and the insipid anti-intellectual influence of mainstream American evangelicalism, not only are we liberated from trying to reconcile it with science (something Augustine and others have said we shouldn’t do, anyway) but we are also freed to understand the creation story’s deeper, more profound beauty.
I see Genesis 1 as a love letter. Like poetry or music or art or fiction, the truth it conveys to us – that God loves us and wants us to live with him – is more profound, more beautiful and, ultimately, more true than anything we will ever read in any science textbook.