When I was a Protestant I took the view (like many or most of my theologically conservative coreligionists) that Genesis 1 must be interpreted literally in this sense: the seven days of creation must be understood as literal, consecutive 24-hour days. I often said that before moderns got the idea that the earth was really old, everybody held this same view. You can imagine my chagrin, perhaps, when I learned that neither Aquinas nor St. Augustine agreed with me (neither did Aristotle, but that is a completely different story). By the time I learned this I was pretty much past the initial humbling realization that much of what I believed for 20+ years as a Protestant was wrong, so it was more amusing than anything to learn that I was wrong again.
But this post is not supposed to be autobiographical. Instead, I want to consider a particular problem associated with the claim that Genesis 1 must be interpreted as speaking of literal 24-hour days. There are other difficulties than the one I shall be discussing, but I think this one is fairly severe. Here is the relevant portion from Genesis 1 (verses 6-8):
God said, ‘Let there be a vault through the middle of the waters to divide the waters in two.’ And so it was. God made the vault, and it divided the waters under the vault from the waters above the vault. God called the vault ‘heaven’. Evening came and morning came: the second day. [NJB]
The key word in this passage is vault, sometimes translated as “firmament,” “expanse,” “canopy,” or something like that (I think I may have seen dome used once, too). The Hebrew word thus variously translated is described thusly in Brown-Driver-Briggs (the canonical Hebrew-English lexicon):
1) extended surface (solid), expanse, firmament
1a) expanse (flat as base, support)
1b) firmament (of vault of heaven supporting waters above)
1b1) considered by Hebrews as solid and supporting ‘waters’ above
It seems to me that if one is going to have his literalist cake by insisting upon seven 24-hour days in Genesis 1, he is also going to have to eat that literalist solid dome in the sky. Why? Because picking and choosing which parts of the chapter you will take literally is special pleading and ad hoc. If you think you have good reason to say there were seven literal 24 hour days, you are going to have to explain why there is not also a solid dome in the sky.
I suppose the average literalist will respond to my challenge by saying that we can make a principled distinction between the two because we know there is no solid dome: ergo the passages in the Bible that suggest otherwise must be taken figuratively. Unfortunately, this response is pure eisegesis. Responsible exegesis will ask what the original author meant to communicate to the original recipients, and in this case using a word that (for the ancient Hebrews) meant a solid dome is exactly what will be communicated to them: a solid dome in the sky. There is just no other way an ancient Hebrew would understand this passage if the chapter is to be taken literally.
I suppose that some literalists, feeling the vise begin to pinch, might try to claim that only portions of Genesis 1 are to be taken literally, while others are figurative; he might also try to say that the original audience could distinguish the two. My reply to this is that it is a mess of pure ad hockery. In the desperate attempt to save the 24 hour days, such a proposal is like pushing the entire Bible under a modernist bus.
No. The literalist does not get to have his cake and eat it too. He must make a choice: either Genesis 1 is entirely literal or it isn’t. Given that there are other problems with a strictly literal reading of Genesis (see here, for example), and given that Genesis 1 is not the only place in the Bible where a solid dome is judged to be in the sky (see Job 37:18, for example), and given that non-literal interpretations of Genesis 1 go back as far as St. Thomas Aquinas and St. Augustine, there is no reason to be stuck in this Catch-22. All that is necessary is to abandon a hermeneutic approach to Genesis 1 that is problematic at the very least.