The opening chapter of the Bible tells an amazing story. It draws on the oldest of stories, likely repeated in various forms across generations by ancient orators before being recorded for the fledgling nation of Israel. Though ancient in origin, its message has spread across the globe and permeated the consciousness of even the most technologically advanced cultures. It touches on the deepest of human questions about where we came from, how we are related to others from distant times and lands, the nature and character of the material world, and, most importantly, who is responsible for bringing the world into existence.
In modern times, however, the richness and beauty of this story is too often overwhelmed by acrimony, with verbal wars fought over the appropriate interpretation of the text. The conflict would be easier to understand if the battles were principally between those who believe in the inspiration of the Bible and those who do not, but it isn’t that simple. The discord runs deep within the ranks of those who hold to the authority and divine inspiration of the Scriptures. Even among those who self-identify as biblical inerrantists, views can radically differ, with fortified theological trenches dug to separate Christian from Christian. Churches have split and friendships have been lost over disagreements on how this singular text should be understood.
It is our belief that much of this conflict derives from a failure to fully embrace what the church has long affirmed about the nature of the Bible as a whole. When reading beyond Genesis, many Christians have recognized the Bible is not a one-dimensional script, but often contains layers to its message— layers that will sometimes be apprehended only after the third or tenth or hundredth visit. Gregory the Great, an early pope and theologian, captured this sense well in his study of Job, describing the Bible as “a river in which a lamb could walk and an elephant could swim.” He recognized some themes in Job that were obvious from a superficial reading, and some that could only be plumbed by careful study, approaching it from multiple perspectives.
Few Christians would disagree with Gregory’s assessment of Job or of the Bible in general. Yet when it comes to Genesis, the discussion suddenly changes. If listening in on a typical conversation over the proper understanding of the creation story, one may come away with the impression that there is one and only one way to understand it. Moreover, there is often an accompanying sense of urgency, that to get it wrong on Genesis 1 is to get it wrong on all of Scripture. To truly believe the Bible means to betroth oneself to the one true meaning, forsaking all others. Borrowing from Tolkien, the faithful seek to find the One Interpretation to Rule Them All.
But what if we approached Genesis 1 with the same search for richness— that it too may contain layers of truth, each complementing and expanding on the others? Is it possible that more than one angle or emphasis or theme could be simultaneously valid? We are not suggesting something mystical or some sort of free-for-all in which a passage can mean something different for every reader. On any biblical subject, there will never be a shortage of interpretations that are simply wrong, whether because of logical inconsistencies or human bias overprinted on a biblical text. So what exactly do we mean by layers of truth?
As an illustration, consider this example from God’s creation. Suppose that we explore a mineshaft and come across a beautiful mineral formation. Upon examination, we find that it is composed chiefly of the elements calcium and fluorine, with pinkish crystals taking the shape of interconnected cubes. A scratch test demonstrates that it is harder than calcite and softer than apatite. All this contributes to identifying the mineral as fluorite. This characterization represents one layer of truth—one that excludes competing options such as misidentifying it as quartz, or errant claims that it is made of lead and silicon.
But something surprising happens when we consider this sample in a different light. Not metaphorically speaking, but literally—a different light. If held under shortwave ultraviolet light (invisible to the human eye), the pink crystal suddenly glows blue! The mineral is phosphorescent, absorbing ultraviolet light and emitting it back as a visible shade of blue. Our previous identification does not suddenly become false because of this new discovery. It is still true that it is made of calcium and fluorine. It is still shaped in cubes. And it is still genuinely pink under normal light. It is still fluorite. But under the new light, another layer of truth about this mineral becomes evident. It is an understanding we would never have discovered without looking for it. The example could be extended even further, for varieties of fluorite exhibit even more colors under longwave ultraviolet light, and may even display yet another color when heated (thermoluminescence). Each represents a different layer of truth that expands our understanding and appreciation of this mineral.
Layered Truth in Scripture
A critical aspect of our mineral example is the complementary nature of each discovery. Blue coloration under one light does not challenge or negate pink coloration under another frequency of light. If asked whether our fluorite crystal is pink or blue, we might playfully answer Yes!
We find an analogous principle at work in Scripture. Two examples follow—one looking forward to a promised messiah and one looking back to events from Israel’s history.
Example 1: Isaiah’s Messiah
Early in the book of Isaiah, the prophet speaks of a messiah who will come as a conquering king. A child will be born who will sit on the throne of David, establishing his kingdom forever (Isa. 9:1–7). The description of this coming king includes breaking the rod of the oppressor, burning up opposing armies as fuel for a divine fire, and dividing the spoil. Such words were likely the reason why many of the Jews expected Jesus—if he was truly the Messiah—to take up the sword against Rome, and why the mother of James and John asked that her sons be seated to Jesus’s right and left in his coming kingdom.
The misunderstanding of the true ministry of Jesus came, in part, from focusing on only one of the messianic layers in Isaiah. Reading ahead, the same prophet speaks of a gentle servant who will not raise his voice in the street, or snuff out a smoldering wick until justice is established on earth; a man who will be a light to the Gentiles, opening eyes that are blind and free- ing captives from prison (Isa. 42:1–9). And still another layer is revealed in the well-known “suffering servant” passage of Isaiah 52:13–53:12. Here we find a description of the Messiah lacking physical beauty, despised and rejected, a man who would know suffering and pain, who would be crushed by God for our iniquities and cut off from the land of the living.
Isaiah was not confused whether the Messiah would come as conquering king, gentle healer, or propitiatory sacrifice. All are true, each representing a different layer of understanding, leading to a deeper, richer understanding of how the Messiah did and will yet come.
Example 2: Sarah and Hagar, history and analogy
A second example draws attention to different perspectives from different biblical authors on the same set of characters and events: Sarah and her maidservant Hagar. In Genesis, God promises a son to Abraham, but his wife Sarah is barren. Not trusting things to change, especially given her advanced age, Sarah gives Hagar to Abraham to produce a son on her behalf (Gen. 16). Years later, Sarah herself conceives and gives birth to her own son (Gen. 21). At one level (one layer), this is a simple narration of historical events and interactions with God in Israel’s past. At another level, it provides a moral lesson that God is faithful and sufficient to fulfill his promises, even when it seems impossible to us. Still another layer is God’s intention of setting a people apart for himself, starting with the intentional selection of Abraham and Sarah.
But what if someone were to suggest that while this story is indeed historical, we can also now understand it allegorically? You might protest that it cannot be both, until being reminded that the “someone” we speak of is the apostle Paul (Gal. 4:21–31). Without denying the historical nature of the text, Paul nonetheless ascribes a deeper, symbolic meaning to the story, saying “this may be interpreted allegorically: these women are two covenants” (Gal. 4:24). Hagar (the slave woman) represents the old covenant, and her son represents children born according to the flesh (the present Jerusalem). Sarah (the free woman) represents the new covenant, and her son represents the children born of promise (the Jerusalem above). Thus, the same story conveys different layers of truth: historical, moral, and symbolic. Each layer of understanding adds to the richness of the text.
With all this in mind, we will explore a series of possible layers of truth derived from the opening chapter of Genesis. No layer will be presented in competition with the others, as is commonly found in books with titles like Four Views on [insert theological issue]. Rather, they are presented as complementary perspectives. One might think of these layers like overlapping tiles on a roof. In one sense, each tile is independent of the others. A single tile exists on its own as something real and genuine. But one tile does a poor job of shedding rain. When joined with others, the entire structure beneath is sheltered from the storm. The image of overlapping tiles serves as an apt metaphor for a second reason. While each layer will draw out something unique from the creation story, the textual or archaeological support for one layer will sometimes also serve to support another. Arguments used to defend each layer will overlap.
We said possible layers above, for we will not suggest or argue with certainty that every detail of every layer we describe was intended by the original writer or by the ultimate Author. You may find as you read that some of the layers or their parts resonate with your understanding of God’s character and written Word, while finding others less convincing. Our primary thesis, that Genesis 1 contains layers of truth, is not dependent on all of our proposed layers being accepted, or that every element within each layer be affirmed. It is not an all-or-nothing proposition. The manifold beauty of the text should be apparent even if only a subset of the layers is embraced.