Russell and Duenes

Figurative vs. Literal Language

with 8 comments

In commenting on Genesis 1-2, I wrote that I was open to a more figurative interpretation so long as such an interpretation bore some relation to reality. One of my commentors responded:

I think we’re in disagreement about the interpretation of figurative literature. Just because something is figurative, does not mean it can “be sculpted and shaped into anything whatever”, or that it “bears no relation to reality”. You used figurative language in your post, after all! Your “wax nose” metaphor- is it meaningless and devoid of reality? Or, is it a way to express a meaning in more concise, memorable way than a literal approach would be able to do?

Indeed I did use the figurative expression “wax nose.” And this fits my criteria. It bears some relation to reality. A “wax nose” is something that can actually exist, and because such a nose is made of wax, it can be easily shaped and re-shaped. That’s the reality it points to. But were I to talk about a “wax nose” to figuratively describe, say, the chiseling of Mt. Rushmore, then I would not be using figurative language. I would be talking nonsense. The figure of a “wax nose” bears relation to a specific kind of reality.

How about the 23rd Psalm? Does God really protect you with a staff? Do you take that literally? If not, does it bear no relation to reality? Figurative literature conveys meaning in a different way, but it is by no means inferior to literal prose.

God does not protect me literally with a staff, but the imagery of a staff bears a relation to reality in that a staff was used by a shepherd to protect and keep his sheep. So we take the true life reality of a shepherd using his staff and we say that it points to God’s protection of me, and his protection of me in a certain way. That’s why the Bible uses different images like fortress, tower, shadow of wings, stronghold when talking about God’s protection. A “staff” and a “strong tower” do not convey the same meaning, even though they are both figurative.

Now to the point. Some say that Genesis 1-2 are figurative and point only to the fact that God created everything and created man specially in His image. And the reality that this “creation story” is supposed to point to is God creating some undefined stuff, and then over billions of years superintending random genetic mutations, birth defects, massive death, creatures becoming ever more human-like until one day, after billions of years of no humanity, breathing His image into a monkey-like creature which became “man,” who then lives for about 100,000 years before anything else revelatory happens. The problem is, the stories in Genesis 1-2 bear no relation to the process I’ve described, other than saying, “God did it.” That’s not figurative like “staff” is figurative or “wax nose” is figurative. That’s saying that Genesis 1-2 contains a nice story, but that story is nothing like the reality that actually took place over billions of years. So on this view, the poetry of Genesis 1-2 and the reality of neo-Darwinian evolution bear no resemblance to each other at all. That’s why I believe this view of “figurative” language breaks down.

At least a “sunset” describes something we see phenomenologically. Genesis 1-2 describe nothing of reality on the above view, except, as I said, that God created and created in His image (which part, I guess, is not supposed to be figurative, so again, I think we see a selective literalism). Genesis 1-2, if figurative, should describe something like it in reality, which I would take to mean, to take one example, that death wasn’t occurring until after mankind sinned. The poetry of Genesis 1-2 conveys this point, but neo-Darwinism denies it, theistic or not.


Written by Michael Duenes

January 12, 2011 at 9:43 pm

Posted in Duenes, Theology

8 Responses

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  1. Mike, I’m not sure where to start and stop agreeing with you. I do agree that it doesn’t make sense to say that Genesis 1-2 is a figurative way of referring to intelligent design. It seems to be that there the choices are: 1) It’s a literal outline of creation with the intent of declaring God the Creator, or 2) It’s not about how the earth was created but about something else.

    I’m not the right one to lay out the choices well, so don’t take this as a debate (but a suggestion for more thought). Perhaps it’s not about whether God created the earth, but about a) whether the earth is ordered by God versus being a chaotic playground gods, b) whether this God has authority over the gods, c) our relationship to God (versus the lack of relationship with unloving gods who do what they will), and d) our relationships with each other.

    On the face, Genesis 1-2 might be a literal outline. It might have taken the creation tales of that age and re-told them in a way that completely changed the answers to A-D, or it might be both.

    Are you willing to consider that Genesus 1-2 was written, or given, to answer these different questions? And, if so, would you consider that it might answer questions a-d without intending to literally, or scientifically, describe a step-by-step creation?

    If so, then I wouldn’t be inclined to worry about how the earth was created, scientifically speaking, and still the message about God’s nature, love, and authority (versus random chaos, unloving gods, and fear) would be very applicable to the way I live.


    January 13, 2011 at 5:21 am

  2. Sorry for my sloppy typing, and I probably could have written more clearly. Hoping you can work it out… ; )


    January 13, 2011 at 5:23 am

  3. I haven’t read original first posts, but I do think that the way your “relation to reality” criterion is week. One might reply that the evolutionary process cannot be literally explained, just like God’s protection of us cannot be literally explained. Thus, instead of explaining all of the procedure, God gives the conclusion (“God did it”) via an etiological story. Likewise, another very complicated concept, God’s protection of us, is merely stated as “shepherd and staff” analogy. There is no connection to God other than analogy in the shepherd metaphor, just as there is no connection to evolution in the Genesis 1 or 2. (Frankly, since biological history is mostly pre-human, there’s no reason to think that the Bible would include it.)

    Also, I would go so far as to question (thought not necessarily decide) whether the garden of Eden story is literal or figurative. I think it doesn’t matter for interpretive purposes, unless we are attempting to use that part of Genesis as history, which, I think, is the wrong genre. It’s an interesting question nonetheless.

    Joshua House

    January 13, 2011 at 6:26 am

  4. D-

    I agree with Andy. The “reality” of the figurative interpretation of the creation story are the themes Andy talks about- God is one, nature is His creation, it is all good, people are special, He wants a relationship with them, the roles of sin and redemption, etc.

    I think it’s amazing that all these themes are included in a short story. It would be very difficult to espouse these themes in as concise and memorable manner using literal prose.

    Also, these were all radical themes at the time Genesis was written. They would have been the main points listeners would have heard, as they were so contrary to the other pagan religious themes of the day. They wouldn’t have been focused on “Gee, there were days and nights before there was a sun”, etc, in my opinion.



    January 13, 2011 at 10:53 am

    • B – You and Andy have made some salient points. I’ll have to think on them some more. Again, I would be inclined to agree with you, but the rub for me is, can a neo-Darwinian account of things, even if God is in the picture, comport with the biblical notions you’ve described? Can we say that all creation “is good” when it is red in tooth and claw for millions of years? Can we say that people are special when most of earth’s history occurs without us even being around? If God wants a relationship with us, why was the universe around for billions, if not trillions of years without us? Who was he relating to then? How does “sin” enter into the picture on a neo-Darwinian account, since death is right there from the beginning? What would sin even mean on such an account?

      This are the questions that snag my mind.


      russell and duenes

      January 13, 2011 at 10:04 pm

      • Mike,

        I don’t think you intend to think this way, but it almost sounds like your method of pursuing truth is by starting with the implications and working back to it. What if the best we can hope for is a paradox from where we stand?

        Here are some quick reflections on your questions.

        Can we say that all creation “is good” when it is red in tooth and claw for millions of years?

        I would struggle with these questions based on 5000 years of history anyway, and based on the Old Testament itself. And “tooth and claw” in nature (and human nature when left alone) is still disturbing today. Think Lord of the Flies. On a side note, we must love it, based on what the National Geographic Channel shows. Also, what is “good” according to Genesis: the basic building blocks of life, or what we and nature do with them?

        Can we say that people are special when most of earth’s history occurs without us even being around? If God wants a relationship with us, why was the universe around for billions, if not trillions of years without us?

        Special enough for God to spend a long time anticipating our arrival and eventual recognition of Him. What is time to God? Is there not relationship within God, according to Genesis 1?

        How does “sin” enter into the picture on a neo-Darwinian account, since death is right there from the beginning? What would sin even mean on such an account?

        We may have to de-simplify some thinking about sin. This isn’t an answer, but here some rough thoughts. Wasn’t sin present from the beginning within humanity? Scripture suggests to me that God was working on our redemption from before the Fall. God knew humanity would turn away from him. Sin was within us, not outside in the devil, but tempted out (it’s what comes from within that defiles). Perhaps, as recognition dawned and humanity became aware of God, humanity also became aware of alternatives–independence from God. Sin, in Genesis, refers to this movement without saying it literally happened specifically at one moment in history in a garden in a conversation between a woman and a snake.

        What more have you thought in the meantime?


        January 18, 2011 at 10:24 pm

      • Good thoughts, Andy. I have some more, and will post them soon. Finals week right now, so duty calls.


        russell and duenes

        January 18, 2011 at 10:43 pm

      • Andy,

        I’m curious about your position that sin existed within man prior to “the Fall”, and that it was tempted out. It seems to me that you are regarding sin as a thing. I would contend that sin is actually not a thing, but rather a description of a state of being. Just as happy or sad are not things, but rather describe a state of being. When we were originally created, God looked upon us and declared that we were “good”. Not in part, but in whole. If sin is a thing, and existed in us from the moment of our creation, I would have trouble not seeing that as a contradiction to God’s declaration of us. When we exercise the freedom to reject the image of God, than we become something else, and this state of existence is referred to as sin, or having missed the mark (or fallen short of) of the glory of God.

        I would be cautious in applying “it’s what comes from within that defiles” to support your conclusion that sin was in man from the beginning. If you are referring to Jesus saying, “It’s not what goes into your mouth that defiles you; you are defiled by the words that come out of your mouth.” -Matthew 15:11, you might be miss-using this verse a bit. To me, Jesus is not declaring that sin comes out of us from the inside, but that lot’s of other things come out of us, things like harsh words, cruel thoughts, covetous desires, etc. and that those things put us into a state of existence which is not in the image of God, which is sin.

        I don’t mean to attack you on one point that you made. It just got me thinking:)

        Brian Gillette

        September 21, 2012 at 12:32 pm

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