The Story of Israel

Unit 1B


The use of figurative language in the Bible

We may misread the Genesis creation account if we assume that every verse in the Bible must be read in a literal fashion. Over one-third of the Old Testament is written in poetic language, in particular the Psalms and Prophets, but throughout other books as well. Many passages in scripture are written in figurative language. For example, Isa. 55:12 reads, “The trees of the field will clap their hands,”  a statement obviously not meant to be taken literally but nonetheless true, expressing all nature glorifying the creative work of God.

Likewise, the great red dragon described in the book of Revelation should not be understood as a creature who really exists in our world. The writer John identifies this image as a symbol for Satan (Rev. 12:9). Symbolism can express truth in imaginative and powerful ways without being a literal description.

Recognizing some biblical texts as figurative language does not in any way question the truth of the passage, as scripture communicates truth in different ways. Jesus himself spoke in metaphors which contain truth but would be grotesque if taken literally. For instance, Jesus’ statement, “He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood …” (John 6:54) does not advocate cannibalism, but is symbolic language for participating fully in the life of Christ.

Understanding how and when the Bible uses figurative language is crucial to reading the scriptures properly as they were intended to be read. A literal reading is not always a more accurate or more faithful reading.

Read Gen. 1

The Bible begins with the story of God creating the universe (“the heavens and the earth”).

Genesis gives no indication of how long ago “in the beginning” occurred. The popular date of 4004 BC, proposed by Bishop Ussher in the 17th century, was printed in some King James Bibles, leading some readers to believe this was the actual date, but the Bible itself provides no time frame.

Since God created both time and space, it would not matter if creation occurred thousands or billions of years ago.  “A day for the Lord is like a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day” (2 Peter 3:8). God is not limited by our conception of time.

Genesis describes creation using figurative language to communicate to the people in ancient times in ways they would understand. How can we understand this story today? Learning about the creation accounts from other cultures helps us to recognize the common ideas held by people in the ancient world. They are not like our modern scientific understanding of the world, and were not meant to be read in that manner.

Genesis uses imagery similar to the creation stories of other cultures, but at the same time it presents a very different account of creation. In Babylonian creation stories, gods battle each other; Marduk defeats the monstrous Tiamat and rips her body apart, out of which he creates the world. Male and female gods mate, giving birth to other gods and parts of the world such as the sea and sky.

But in Genesis there is only one God who creates everything by His omnipotent will. This belief in monotheism sets the Hebrew scriptures apart from most other creation accounts.

The book begins with unusual imagery. As depicted in Genesis, before the first act of creation, God’s spirit hovers over a body of water, “the deep” as some translations say. Does this mean that the universe was filled with water before God began to create? Genesis never says God created the water; it already exists when He begins his mighty work with the creation of light. Where did the water come from? These natural questions are our first clues that this must be figurative language.

In ancient times, the sea was considered a fearful, uncontrollable force. In creation stories around the world, the sea represented primordial chaos before a creator brought everything into order. Similar imagery is found in Egyptian, Babylonian, Greek, Roman, Asian, and Native American creation stories. In all these accounts, the sea of chaos exists before a deity begins to create the world. So the image of God hovering over the waters would not have been surprising to ancient readers.

The Bible teaches that “All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made” (John 1:3). Genesis depicts the waters as already existing, which would be contradictory if taken literally, but the idea makes sense if we understand this to be figurative speech.


“And God said, Let there be a firmament in the midst of the waters, and let it divide the waters from the waters.”

People in ancient times imagined the world differently from our scientific view today. Many cultures thought the sky was a dome covering the earth. Egyptians pictured the sky as the goddess Nut whose body stretched over the earth. Sumerians and Persians thought the dome was made of crystal or metal. The Cherokee believed the sky to be solid rock, from which the earth hangs by four ropes.

Egyptian goddess Nut whose body forms the sky


The word in Genesis 1:6 translated as firmament or expanse in our English Bibles is the Hebrew word raqia, meaning “that which has been hammered or beaten out” like a metal bowl. Several modern versions accurately translate the word as “vault” (New International Version) or “dome” (New Revised Standard, Contemporary English Version).

Other passages in scripture use similar language. Job 37:18 says that God made the skies “hard as a mirror of cast bronze.”

This dome of heaven divides the waters above from the waters below. Other texts describe how windows in the dome open to allow rain to pour through from the waters above (Genesis 7:11, 2 Kings 7:2, Psalm 104:13). Psalm 148:4 says, “Praise him, you highest heavens, and you waters above the heavens.” Obviously, none of this language should be read literally, as we know that outer space is not filled with water held back by a dome. The Bible uses these poetic ideas which were common in ancient times to express the beauty and wonder of creation.

Some Old Testament texts use similar symbolism to describe heaven being supported by pillars (Job 26:11) or being stretched out like a tent (Ps 104:2, Isa 40:22). In other passages the Bible describes the earth resting on pillars: “For the pillars of the earth are the Lord’s, and He set the world on them” (1 Sam. 2:8; also Ps. 75:3). Zech. 12:1 and Job 38:4-6 speak of the “foundation of the earth” rather than the world floating in space.

Some texts say that the world doesn’t move (1 Chron. 16:30, Ps. 75:3; 93:1; 96:10; 104:5), but we know it rotates on its axis and revolves around the sun. So is the Bible mistaken? Not if we understand these as poetic images which should not be read as literal descriptions in the sense of modern scientific knowledge. These are not examples of errors in the Bible, but are errors in how the Bible is sometimes read.

“Even though the Bible is the word of God for all generations, the particular form its message takes accommodates itself to the time and circumstances of its original audience. Consequently, while the underlying issues addressed by Genesis 1-2 are timeless and of great importance, the perspective from which the text communicates those issues reflects a particular time and culture” (Terry Briley).

The text says that the sun, moon, and stars are “set” in this sky dome like jewels. The ancients thought these heavenly bodies were attached to celestial spheres that rotated in the heavens. If we read this verse literally, it would not make sense to us today; we know that the sun and moon are not set in our atmosphere.

Again, though, Genesis makes a sharp contrast with other creation accounts. The text avoids calling the sun and moon by name, referring instead to the greater and lesser lights, as “sun” and “moon” were also the names of gods in pagan cultures. Genesis says that God created all the heavenly bodies; they are not deities in themselves and are not deserving of worship.

Artist’s depiction of how people in the ancient world understood the universe


There are other clues that the details of the text should not be understood literally. God creates light on the first day before the sun and stars, the sources of light, on the fourth day. Early Christian theologians in the third and fourth centuries recognized this apparent discrepancy, and explained this as figurative language. Long before modern science, they came to this conclusion simply by studying the text itself. Recognizing the creation story as poetic, symbolic language is not some modern heresy but has been the practice of the church for hundreds of years.

Someone might ask, “Couldn’t God have created light itself first and then designated its source after?” Yes, an almighty God could have done so if he chose, but it’s evident by observing the natural universe that he didn’t design it that way. Nature itself reveals evidence of God’s creative activity, and he obviously made a universe where light comes from a source like the sun. Why would he have started creating in a way that he ended up changing? It makes more sense to think that God knew what he was doing from the beginning and created the universe the way he wanted, rather than speculating about how light could have existed without any source, something there is no example of in nature.

The entire chapter follows poetic form, with repeated phrases “evening and morning” dividing the sections. These are not 24-hour days. Periods of evening and morning depend on the earth’s rotation in relation to the sun, which is not created until the fourth day in the account.

The Hebrew word yom, “day,” can signify more than a 24-hour period. Gen. 30:14 and Prov. 25:13 refer to the “day of wheat harvest,” meaning a season, not one day. In Isa. 4:2, “day” refers to a future era. Many prophecies speak of a Day of the Lord when He punishes Israel or their enemies, not restricted to a literal day.

Another poetic device is parallelism. The order of creation is recorded in symmetrical fashion to add to the beauty of the text. On day 1 God creates light; on day 4 he creates the sources of light (sun, moon, stars). On day 2 he creates sea and sky; on day 5 he creates fish and birds which live in the sea and sky. On day 3 he creates land; on day 6 he creates animals and humans who live on the land.

Let’s be clear. It’s not a question of whether God has the power to create the universe in six days. Of course, he does. But one might ask, why take six days? Why not in one second? The real question is whether he actually chose to do it that way.

This has nothing to do with doubting the power of God or the truth of scripture. It’s about how we should read the Bible. When the text itself provides clues that it should not be read in a literal fashion, insisting on a literal reading is actually misreading the Bible and ignoring its intended message. It also raises unnecessary questions in the minds of those who accept our modern understanding of the universe.

We know that God created us with minds and the ability to reason and investigate nature through science. These are avenues of finding the truth as well, and they raise legitimate questions about the age of the universe.

In our present culture, when some Christians insist on a six-day creation a few thousand years ago, this places stumbling blocks in the way of faith for people who accept the consensus of science about the age of the earth. This is unfortunate since faith and science do not have to be in conflict if we understand the Genesis account of creation as a beautiful, literary masterpiece of poetic language which at the same time declares that God has created everything, no matter how he did it.

Read Gen. 2

There are actually two accounts of creation in Genesis 1 and 2, which differ in details, depending on the author’s emphasis. This provides another clue as to its literary nature.

Ch. 2:4 begins not with watery chaos but parched, barren land. Where are all the plants created on day 3 if this chapter follows the first chronologically? The second account specifically indicates no vegetation of any kind: wild or cultivated, edible or inedible. These two accounts are meant to complement one another but are not identical. They are like two portraits drawn by different artists, each highlighting different aspects of the creation, neither one meant to be read in a literal fashion.

Both chapters place humanity in the proper context within the world. In Gen 1 man is the climax of creation brought forth on the sixth day. In Gen 2 man is the centerpiece of creation, and appears before plants and animals which are provided for him. (Some translations such as the New International Version obscure this distinction in 2:19 by adding the word “had formed” implying that the animals had already been created before man, but this meaning is not indicated in the original Hebrew). Each version of the creation serves a different purpose but both contain important theological truth.

“The second account, like the first one, focuses on God’s intention in creation. The extended description of the creation of humanity in Genesis 2 communicates two important needs that God addresses. In Genesis 1 the plants appear on day 3 because it makes sense in the “days” format to associate them with the appearance of dry land. In Genesis 2 the sprouting of plants does not occur until after the creation of Adam to highlight humanity’s vital role in ruling over and caring for the creation. Second, the creation of the animals, along with Adam’s naming them, comes between the formation of Adam and the formation of Eve to highlight the absence of a suitable helper for Adam and God’s creation of Eve from Adam. Just as Adam was essential to fulfill God’s desire for a suitable being to represent him in the creation, so Eve was essential to Adam’s ability to fulfill that mission. … Genesis 1-2, therefore, reveals the nature of God and his relationship to creation, highlighting the role of humanity. These foundational chapters are designed for this purpose, and they accomplish it extremely well. They are not designed to address the kinds of questions that are prompted by the findings of modern science. If God had desired to address these questions, he could have done so, but such information would have made no sense in an ancient Near Eastern setting” (Terry Briley).

God creates man from the ground. Note the wordplay in Hebrew: adam which means “man,” and adamah which means “ground.” Again, this is figurative language, using symbolism similar to other creation stories in the middle east. In the Sumerian Gilgamesh epic, the god Arura creates the human Enkidu from clay. In Egypt, the god Khnum forms man on a potter’s wheel. Potter and clay images are found in scripture as well: Isa 29:16, 45:9, 64:8, Rom 9:21.

Writing in the 2nd century, the Christian theologian Irenaeus said, “If then you are the work of God, await the hand of your fashioner … Offer him a soft and pliable heart and retain the shape which he gave you. Retain the moisture he gives you, for if you turn dry and hard, you will lose the imprint of his fingers” (Ad. Her. 4.39.2).

What does it mean to say that humans are made in God’s image? The Bible never defines this idea specifically, but there are many possibilities, including the ability to communicate and form relationships, to reason, to create (the first quality we learn about God). Human life has inherent dignity and value because of this divine image within us. All people, whether or not they acknowledge God as their creator, are made in His image and thus deserve our respect and fair treatment.

God created men and women who are different. Both sexes have equal dignity and value, but their differences are important to God. God created us to need one another; He created us for community. Human beings were designed to be incomplete without this community. We can serve one another, meet the other’s needs with our different abilities and create a community of mutual interdependence. In the NT, Paul uses the image of the body to describe how the different parts of the church help and support one another (1 Cor. 12).

The doctrine of creation also speaks to us about our responsibility to maintain the earth in good condition. God gave Adam and Eve “dominion” over all other living things (Gen. 1:28). We are stewards of God’s good creation, and should take pride in caring for the earth and preserving its natural beauty.

Unfortunately, current political ideology has surrendered concern for the environment to the far left, whereas Bible-believing Christians should be at the forefront in our efforts to protect the world that God has put under our stewardship.

So, some may ask, “Is Genesis 1-2 not true?”

Do not misunderstand. The opening chapters of Genesis contain profound theological truths:

  • God as sole and supreme creator of all things
  • Creation by God’s design, not a cosmic accident
  • Everything was created as good and pleasing to God
  • Man and woman made in God’s image, created for a higher purpose and a relationship with Him and each other
  • The origin of evil is found in human choice, not in God’s creation

We profess that the entire Bible is God’s true revelation without insisting that every verse is literally true, as not all poetic or symbolic passages were meant to be read in a literal fashion. A thoughtful examination of scripture can identify poetic passages which were intended to be read figuratively, and historical or doctrinal passages which we should read in a literal way according to their context.

We remain faithful to the message of scripture when we recognize different types of literature in the Bible and read each passage as it was meant to be read. Likewise, Christians who understand the Genesis creation account to be figurative language are not therefore liberals or heretics, but instead we seek to read these chapters in their historical and literary context.

Genesis and modern science:

Recognizing the use of figurative language in some passages of the Bible helps us understand that Genesis is not in conflict with our modern scientific conception of the world. The purpose of these first chapters is to affirm the belief that God created everything, not to give a precise explanation of how He did it. God’s creative power lies beyond human comprehension and scientific theory.

Unfortunately, some well-meaning Christians today have polarized the discussion into an either-or debate: creation versus evolution. According to this approach, one either believes in six 24-hour days of creation a few thousand years ago, or one surrenders to the position of atheistic evolution. However, this distinction is not where the line should be drawn.

As we have seen, the Bible doesn’t give the age of the earth or how long God took to complete creation. The crucial difference between Darwinian evolution and Christian doctrine is not the length of time but that God directed the process with a purpose in mind; there was an intelligent design behind the process.

Darwin proposed that all life developed by “natural” selection without the intervention of God. In contrast, Genesis teaches that human beings are not the result of a long chain of biological accidents. Our lives have meaning and purpose because God created us in His image. If we keep this distinction in mind, it does not matter how long the process of creation took. We can recognize the six days of Genesis 1 as poetic imagery and remain faithful to scriptural truth that God is the creative source of everything which exists.

For more reading on this topic of faith and science, the site has some helpful articles.

Some sincere, well-intentioned Christians promote the idea of “Creation Science” in an attempt to prove that the earth was created only a few thousand years ago. Unfortunately, the arguments they propose are not based on scientific evidence and verifiable testing but mere speculation.

One of the major arguments of Creation Science is that the Genesis flood caused the various geological strata, fossilization of life forms, and extinction of the dinosaurs in a few weeks rather than millions of years (Henry Morris, The Genesis Flood, 1961). They argue that the standard scientific method of dating rocks by measuring radioactive decay is inaccurate, as decay rates were altered and distorted by the Flood, but they offer no evidence for this assertion. Radioactive analysis of moon rocks confirms findings on earth as to its age, causing critics of this idea to ask if the flood also covered the moon.

Creation Science supposes, again without evidence, that the speed of light traveling from distant stars billions of light years away has changed as well, or that God created the light waves in transit: “The seeming age of the stars is an illusion. Either the constancy of the speed of light is an illusion or the size of the universe is an illusion” (North, The Dominion Covenant: Genesis 1987). “One suggestion is that the speed of light has been slowing consistently over the last 300 years, which extrapolates to a speed 500 billion times faster 6000 years ago. If this is true, light from a 5 billion light-year star (assuming the distances actually are that great) would have reached us in 3 days” (Creation Research website:

However, they offer no evidence or experimental research to support this astounding “suggestion.” Denying the reality, constancy, and measurability of the observable universe undermines the very foundation of science, and the reliability of the laws of nature God created.

Creation Scientists say God created the earth to appear billions of years old, planting fake bones in false strata of earth (first proposed by Philip Gosse in 1857); others attribute this dinosaur deception to Satan. – Personally, I don’t know which is worse: describing God as the ultimate deceiver who leads people astray with false evidence, or giving Satan credit for having some part in God’s creative activity. Our God is a God of truth, not lies.

Creation science accepts certain discoveries as valid while attacking other things which rely on the same underlying scientific principles. It therefore suffers from a lack of consistency. For instance, most creation scientists accept the medical uses of and validity of the information provided by MRI scans. They also attack the idea of radioisotopic dating methods which show the earth as being very old. Yet, these procedures rely on the same nuclear science principles for their validity, so choosing one while denying the other is not scientifically justifiable.

Dr. Francis Collins, director of the Human Genome Project and a faithful Christian, worries that sincere Christians who misuse science in the name of “truth” are actually distorting truth and bringing ridicule on the Christian cause. Read his book The Language of God for an excellent example of a Christian scientist who respects both the scientific method and the Bible.

A final word about figurative language: While we may recognize that the creation account in Genesis is written in figurative language, we should not jump to the conclusion that all scripture falls into this category. The Bible makes many claims that certain thing literally happened. As we will see in our OT study, the plagues of Egypt, the parting of the sea, the miracles performed by Moses and the prophets are recorded as actual history, not poetic, symbolic language.

Likewise, in the NT Paul emphasizes that the resurrection of Jesus truly happened; if it did not, he says, our faith is futile (1 Cor 15: 14). Biblical Christianity is a historical religion which claims to be the ultimate truth.

The Names of God

The basic word for “God” in the Old Testament is El or the plural form Elohim (the same word for the chief Canaanite god).

God has several names or titles. The most common name is Yahweh, which the old King James translation incorrectly spelled as Jehovah. In Hebrew the name is spelled with four consonants and no vowels: YHWH. In most English translations today, Yahweh is represented by “LORD” in all capital letters. Below is the name in ancient Hebrew (with letters written from right to left).

Yahweh is similar to the Hebrew verb “I am” which God calls himself when he speaks to Moses through the burning bush (Exodus 3). This is God’s way of describing himself. He is pure existence, Life itself, Being, not created but the source of all that exists.

Other titles for God include:

        Adonai, “Lord”

        El Shaddai, “God Almighty” (Gen. 17:1)

        El Olam, “God Everlasting” (Gen. 21:33)

        El Roeh, “God who sees” (Gen. 16:13)

        Yahweh Sabbaoth, “Lord of Hosts or Armies” (1 Sam. 17:45)

In Genesis, the narrator uses the name Yahweh frequently, but the characters typically use a form of El. Yahweh did not become common until God spoke to Moses in Exodus 6:3.


Read Gen. 3

This chapter describes the origin of sin in the world. Many people throughout the ages have raised the question of how could evil appear in a perfect setting such as Eden?

The story of Genesis reveals that sin comes from the misuse of freedom. God created humans with free will and the ability to choose whether or not to obey Him. Freedom itself is a great gift, allowing us to express ourselves in creative acts (resembling the creativity of our God) and in forming loving relationships, as seen in these first chapters. However, freedom also allows for the possibility of disobedience. The serpent enticed Eve with the idea that she could be like God. The temptation of being our own god is the fundamental sin of humanity.

A Christian theologian in the 2nd century, Irenaeus argued that Adam’s original nature was not perfect, but instead innocent and childlike. Only God is unchanging perfection; everything else God created is in a state of becoming. “God creates and man is in process of being created. The one who creates is always the same … but the person who is found in God grows and advances toward God.” Thus Adam was not created perfect, but was designed to develop and mature towards perfection.

God intended humanity to grow more and more like Himself, but this process was halted by sin. The child ceased to progress towards the destiny God had planned for him.

Irenaeus describes the “fall” in terms of childhood: immature, weak, vulnerable, easily led astray. The fall was in a sense inherent in creation in that man as creature is finite and thus fallible: “Created things must be inferior to Him who created them. … Man could not achieve perfection, being an infant.”

Promising they would become like God, Satan offered Adam and Eve immediately what God intended to give them once they were ready for it.

Note the figurative language in this passage. In v. 8 the text describes God “walking through the garden.” The Bible often describes God in human form, a literary device called anthropomorphism, another example of figurative language not meant to be read literally. Other examples include references to God’s hand (Gen. 49:24, Ex. 7:4-5), arm (Num. 11:23), feet, nostrils, mouth (Ps. 18:8-9). All these are analogies to help us understand something about God in human terms, but not meant as literal descriptions (as if God had a body).

The text never identifies the forbidden fruit as an apple. This popular idea was imagined much later during the Roman times. The Latin word for apple “malum” is the same as the word for bad or evil. The Bible never makes this connection.

STUDY BREAK: Enjoy this updated version of The Temptation of Adam and Eve.

Genesis 4-11 continue to follow the development of human sinfulness, focusing on three stories: the murder of Abel by Cain, Noah and the flood, and the Tower of Babel. For the sake of our survey, we will next skip ahead to ch. 12 and the story of Abraham, father of the Israelites.