The Seven Days of Creation: figurative or literal?

The following text is an excerpt from my book:
Noah’s Flood: Literal or Figurative?

Now let’s go back to the beginning of Genesis, and apply a combined literal and figurative approach to some of the stories that preceded the great Flood event. The seven days of Creation are often portrayed as offering only two possible interpretations: entirely literal or almost entirely figurative. I say “almost entirely figurative” because we are obliged by faith to believe that God did in fact create all that exists, other than the only uncreated thing: God himself.

[Genesis 1]
{1:1} In the beginning, God created heaven and earth.

It would be utter heresy for any Christian to accept any scientific or religious theory claiming that the universe (Creation) has always existed. However, a scientific theory such as the Big Bang, would be acceptable, as long as the believer holds that an act of God began the process, and that the providence of God guided all that followed.

The approach that I propose combines faith and reason in order to interpret Sacred Scripture. But any conflict between faith and reason, between doctrine and scientific theory, must place faith above reason, and doctrines of the faith above scientific theories and hypotheses. The use of a figurative interpretation to resolve conflicts in Biblical exegesis between faith and reason is only tenable as long as the interpretation does not contradict a teaching of the Faith.

Given that an act of God brought the universe (in whatever initial form) into existence, and that the providence of God guided all that followed, one can interpret the seven days of Creation in Genesis as having both literal and figurative elements. My interpretation is that the seven days represent, not seven lengths of time of approximately one day, but seven stages or categories within the one plan of God for Creation.

{1:1} In the beginning, God created heaven and earth.
{1:2} But the earth was empty and unoccupied, and darknesses were over the face of the abyss; and so the Spirit of God was brought over the waters.

The main goal that God had in creating the universe was to produce persons who are like God, having reason, free will, and the ability to love. The creation of the angels is not mentioned explicitly in the seven days, but it is implied in the first verse: “In the beginning, God created heaven and earth.” The creation of heaven, placed even before the description of the creation of light, implies that God created angelic persons first. For the term heaven is used in Scripture in three ways: (1) the heavens (sky, sun, moon, and stars), (2) the spiritual abode of the angels, and (3) “the heaven of the heavens” which is eternal life with God.

So verse 1:1 in Genesis implies that God began by creating the angels. But verse 2 then implies that certain angels fell from grace (becoming devils), for it says that “darknesses were over the face of the abyss”. The abyss is a term that can refer to the deep oceans. But the oceans had not yet been created. The term abyss is also used to refer to Hell, the ‘deepest’ place in Creation. When the angels were created, they were holy and without sin; they were beings of light (figuratively speaking). When certain angels fell from grace, they lost all grace and became beings of darkness. So the “darknesses” (plural) were the fallen angels, and they are said to be “over the face” of Hell in that they are destined for Hell due to their free will decision to rebel against God. Thus, the creation of the angels, and the fall of some angels, occurred very early in Creation.

{1:3} And God said, “Let there be light.” And light became.
{1:4} And God saw the light, that it was good; and so he divided the light from the darknesses.
{1:5} And he called the light, ‘Day,’ and the darknesses, ‘Night.’ And it became evening and morning, one day.

The first ‘day’ divides light from darkness. In the Big Bang theory, understood from a Christian perspective, the universe began with an exceedingly great ‘bang’ of energy, which we can certainly liken to light. After rapid expansion, the universe was comprised of energy (‘light’) and matter (‘dark’). The division is figuratively expressed as Day and Night in Genesis. Of course, we can also apply this distinction between Day and Night to our solar system, to the passing of days and nights prior to any life on earth. And the distinction between light and dark also implies, even to the mind of the human authors of Genesis, that God created the whole universe, not only the earth, but also all the ‘lights’ in the heavens (stars, planets, etc.).

This was the first phase of Creation, from its inception at the Big Bang, to the formation of the earth, prior to any life on earth. All of this is compatible with scientific theories, at least those that allow for a discrete Creation-event at the very beginning, whether it is called the Big Bang or something else.

According to science, the Big Bang occurred about 13.7 billion years ago, and the earth formed about 4.5 billion years ago. I have no problem accepting this timing for the start of Creation and for the formation of the earth. The story of Creation in Genesis is the literal account of how God created all that exists, including the earth and its animal and human inhabitants. But the account makes heavy use of figurative elements, because those events occurred in pre-recorded and very ancient history. So the division of the process of creation into days is a figure used to order the stages and categories of events in this process. It reveals nothing about the length of time that each step required.

{1:6} God also said, “Let there be a firmament in the midst of the waters, and let it divide waters from waters.”
{1:7} And God made a firmament, and he divided the waters that were under the firmament, from those that were above the firmament. And so it became.
{1:8} And God called the firmament ‘Heaven.’ And it became evening and morning, the second day.

This next stage and all the subsequent stages in this description of God’s plan for Creation applies particularly to the earth. The division of light and dark is followed by the division of the waters above (clouds, water vapor in the air, falling rain) and the waters below (oceans, lakes, rivers, wells). From a scientific point of view, this would refer to the cooling of the earth, so that waters collected on its surface, and so that a cycle of evaporation, rainfall, and more evaporation began. In order to provide optimum conditions for life to begin on earth, temperatures had to be within a moderate range, and water had to be available on the surface.

In Sacred Scripture, the term ‘heaven’ or ‘the heavens’ sometimes refers to the sky and all that is visible in the sky (stars, planets, sun, moon). At other times, ‘heaven’ refers to the ‘place’ where holy souls are united to God in the Beatific Vision. Sometimes this Heaven is called the “heaven of heaven” or the “heaven of the heavens” by Sacred Scripture:

[Sirach]
{16:18} Behold: the heavens, and the heaven of the heavens, the abyss, and the entire earth, and the things that are within these, will be shaken by his gaze,
{16:19} together with mountains and hills, and the foundations of the earth. When God casts his gaze upon them, they will be struck with trembling.

[Psalms]
{113:23} Blessed are you by the Lord, who made heaven and earth.
{113:24} The heaven of heaven is for the Lord, but the earth he has given to the sons of men.

[Nehemiah]
{9:6} You yourself alone, O Lord, made heaven, and the heaven of the heavens, and all their host, the earth and all things that are in it, the seas and all things that are in them. And you gave life to all these things. And the host of heaven adores you.

The third figurative day of Genesis expresses yet another ancient event, the beginning of life on earth:

{1:9} Truly God said: “Let the waters that are under heaven be gathered together into one place; and let the dry land appear.” And so it became.
{1:10} And God called the dry land, ‘Earth,’ and he called the gathering of the waters, ‘Seas.’ And God saw that it was good.
{1:11} And he said, “Let the land spring forth green plants, both those producing seed, and fruit-bearing trees, producing fruit according to their kind, whose seed is within itself, over all the earth.” And so it became.
{1:12} And the land brought forth green plants, both those producing seed, according to their kind, and trees producing fruit, with each having its own way of sowing, according to its species. And God saw that it was good.
{1:13} And it became evening and the morning, the third day.

After the earth cooled, and water could collect on its surface, the continents formed. With dry land and water on its surface, the earth was ready for life to begin. Although science does not admit this point, I believe that God initiated life on earth, in its most rudimentary form, by miraculous intervention. The start of the universe required a miraculous act of God to create something from nothing. Similarly, the start of life on earth may also have required a miracle. For living things are very substantially different from non-living things.

Theologically, it would be tenable to hold that the providence of God initiated life on earth. But I see no reason to reject the possibility of a miracle. God does not perform miracles without a reason. But neither does He perform miracles only when absolutely necessary. The Saints were able to obtain miracles from God in a wide range of different situations.

The Biblical text does not describe life as beginning with microscopic single-celled organisms, as science holds. But neither does the Bible reject such a possibility. The scientific evidence is strong, and it does not contradict the teachings of faith, and so we should accept the reasonable theories and even the reasonable hypotheses of science.

The ancient authors of Genesis were inspired by the Holy Spirit. But He made use of them as true human persons, not as mere inanimate writing instruments. And so they were inspired to write only truth, but it was the truth as they understood it in human terms. Sacred Scripture is inerrant, but it does not contain all truths. The ancients did not know many concepts that are widely known today. This does not imply that they erred, nor does it imply that science errs. We must simply apply the correct interpretation, taking into account the limited knowledge of the human authors of Scripture.

{1:14} Then God said: “Let there be lights in the firmament of heaven. And let them divide day from night, and let them become signs, both of the seasons, and of the days and years.
{1:15} Let them shine in the firmament of heaven and illuminate the earth.” And so it became.
{1:16} And God made two great lights: a greater light, to rule over the day, and a lesser light, to rule over the night, along with the stars.
{1:17} And he set them in the firmament of heaven, to give light over all the earth,
{1:18} and to rule over the day as well as the night, and to divide light from darkness. And God saw that it was good.
{1:19} And it became evening and morning, the fourth day.

The creation of the sun and the moon are placed on the fourth ‘day’, but the plants are created on the third ‘day’. You cannot have plants without a sun. So, the order of the events of creation in Genesis is not chronological. But it is not supposed to be. The stories of the Bible, though entirely true, do not necessarily present each event in chronological order.

The creation of the sun, moon, and stars is placed later than the creation of the earth and its plant life because the order is based on the role that these things will have for human persons on earth. God created all that we need: day and night, land and water, plants, and now the seasons of the year. The sun rises and sets, determining the length of a day. The phases of the moon determined the length of the month in ancient lunar calendars. The stars determine the season of the year by the constellations.

In a sense, within the context of this Biblical story, the creation of the sun, moon, and stars is mentioned twice. On day one, day and night are created. This represents one of the most basic distinctions in creation: light and dark, or perhaps we could say, energy and matter. But on day four, the creation of sun, moon, and stars is considered according to a particular purpose: to govern the division of time into days, months, and years. It is not that these things were created twice, but rather they are considered twice according to their different purposes in Creation. The seven days of creation are categories of created things, according to their purpose.

{1:20} And then God said, “Let the waters produce animals with a living soul, and flying creatures above the earth, under the firmament of heaven.”
{1:21} And God created the great sea creatures, and everything with a living soul and the ability to move that the waters produced, according to their species, and all the flying creatures, according to their kind. And God saw that it was good.
{1:22} And he blessed them, saying: “Increase and multiply, and fill the waters of the sea. And let the birds be multiplied above the land.”
{1:23} And it became evening and morning, the fifth day.

From a Biblical point of view, animals (including fish, birds, insects, etc.) have a living soul, though not an immortal soul. The distinction for the ancients was that these living things move, indicating a soul, and the plants do not move. Even so, plants and animals are all living things, created by God. The reason that the animals are given a later place in the progress of the seven days of creation is that they are a higher life form. Animals are more like people than plants are. In fact, man is a type of animal. And so the order of events continues to be ontological, according to the nature and the role of each thing, and not chronological.

But on the fifth day, in this figurative account, God only created animals in the water and animals in the air. The ancients would categorize together all life that swims in oceans or lakes as fish (even aquatic mammals), and they would categorize together all flying things (birds, bats, insects). This type of categorization is simple and practical. But of course it differs from the modern approach of using genus and species to categorize animals.

The reason for separating the animals of the waters and the animals of the air (fifth day) from the animals of the earth (sixth day) is that the ordering of the days is figurative. It is not necessarily in chronological order. Some of the creation events attributed to each day are in order. For example, the creation of the universe and then the earth obviously must be placed before the creation of life on earth. But some are not in chronological order, but rather are separated according to the categorization of the different parts of Creation. For the fifth day, the animals of air and water are described. And for the sixth day, the animals of land and the human race is described.

The creation of mankind is placed last for a reason. First, God created the angels, created beings that are purely spiritual. Next, God created the material universe; things that were merely material, not spiritual. Then God created living things, that are material and yet have life and even a type of soul. Finally, God created the human person, which combines a material body with a spiritual and immortal soul. There is a progression from merely material, to material and spiritual, to full persons who are both matter and spirit. And this summit of creation harkens back to the very beginning, when spiritual persons (angels) were created first.

{1:24} God also said, “Let the land produce living souls in their kind: cattle, and animals, and wild beasts of the earth, according to their species.” And so it became.
{1:25} And God made the wild beasts of the earth according to their species, and the cattle, and every animal on the land, according to its kind. And God saw that it was good.

On the sixth day, God created the animals of the land, and then human persons (who are a type of ‘animal’ that inhabit the land). The order of creation is, to one extent, chronological, in that human persons were created last, after every other type of creature on earth. But then, too, the order is not chronological, in that land animals are placed after the creatures that inhabit the air or the sea. This separation of land animals into the sixth day, and air and sea animals into the fifth day organizes Creation by the habitat of each creature. It is a broad and simple categorization. The use of the term “day” to express this categorization is a figurative element.

But God did literally create all that exists. He may have created the animals by initiating life on earth and then guiding evolution. By adopting this interpretation, we make use of both faith and reason, of both theology and the other (lesser) sciences. But if any assertion by any science contradicts the teachings of our Faith, we must put faith above reason. This is not so difficult to do, since our Faith is entirely reasonable. Though we must never forget that some truths of faith are Divine Revelation, beyond the reach of the reason of fallen sinners, even (for the mysteries of faith) beyond the reach of right reason.

{1:26} And he said: “Let us make Man to our image and likeness. And let him rule over the fish of the sea, and the flying creatures of the air, and the wild beasts, and the entire earth, and every animal that moves on the earth.”
{1:27} And God created man to his own image; to the image of God he created him; male and female, he created them.
{1:28} And God blessed them, and he said, “Increase and multiply, and fill the earth, and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and the flying creatures of the air, and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.”
{1:29} And God said: “Behold, I have given you every seed-bearing plant upon the earth, and all the trees that have in themselves the ability to sow their own kind, to be food for you,
{1:30} and for all the animals of the land, and for all the flying things of the air, and for everything that moves upon the earth and in which there is a living soul, so that they may have these on which to feed.” And so it became.
{1:31} And God saw everything that he had made. And they were very good. And it became evening and morning, the sixth day.

Also on the sixth day, God created mankind. Each human person is like God in that we have intellect, free will, and the ability to love. We also have an immortal soul, which continues for eternity; in this way, we partake of the Eternity of God. All Creation is like God to some limited extent. All Creation is good, and so each created thing, and Creation as a whole, is a finite reflection of the infinite Goodness of God. But the human person is more like God than any of the lower animals, the plants, or the inanimate things in the universe.

Why does God say “our image and likeness”? The Jews did not understand that God is Three Persons. Their faith was the first to understand that God is One Being, who has a personal relationship with humanity and a concern that we do good and avoid doing evil. And they did understand that there is a certain plurality in God, a fullness to the one Divine Nature that is fittingly expressed by the royal “we”. In addition, the expression might include the holy angels of God, who had the Beatific Vision of God even before mankind was created. And, finally, the expression anticipates the salvation of many souls, who would join God in Eternity, beyond Time and Place.

by
Ronald L. Conte Jr.
Roman Catholic theologian and
translator of the Catholic Public Domain Version of the Bible.

Forgiveness and Salvation for Everyone
available in print (paperback, 510 pp.) and in Kindle format.

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