The young-earth creationists face an uphill battle in their righteous war against heresy. For one thing, the text they believe relates the history of the world is mostly out-of-whack with everything we know about the history of the world. What’s more, the text they say MUST BE READ LITERALLY actually has most of the reliable markers of a figurative text: obvious metaphors like trees whose fruit has magical powers and talking animals whose ability to speak is not treated as a miracle, characters who have no names (Eve is known only as “the woman” until the end of Genesis 3; Adam essentially has no name, since his name means “the man”), an indeterminate time and place (yes, the text seems to make an effort to describe its setting; then again, the description doesn’t fit any geographical location that we know of), etc.
But, there’s no need to despair. For God left his brave warriors an ace in the hole — a reassuring confirmation of their enduring correctness to give them comfort and strength in their long and lonely fight. And, actually, God — being the good God that he is — gave the young-earthers two aces in the hole. You can find them in the Bible at Exodus 20:11 and 31:17:
“For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.” — Exodus 20:11
“It is a sign forever between me and the people of Israel that in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, and on the seventh day he rested and was refreshed.” — Exodus 31:17
I’ll be honest with you: I do see these two texts as legitimately difficult challenges for both the old-earth and allegorical Genesis views (both of which I firmly hold). This is because I believe that — since the Bible is an ancient and complicated book — we should seek to interpret it holistically, and allow the parts of scripture that are more clear help us interpret the parts of it that may be less clear.
This is why I, for example, think the fact that scripture says nothing about Adam and Eve being responsible for animal carnivorism in the natural world is a serious weakness in the young-earth exegesis. I mean, if all death and evil and pain and suffering in the natural world really is due to nothing more than the actions of the first two people, we should reasonably expect the biblical authors to have reflected on that far more than they do (you know, like once or twice, at least).
But it is also why I must acknowledge that these two verses in Exodus seem to teach that Genesis 1 means exactly what the young-earthers say it means.
Now, this isn’t to say that the YEC view of the Bible doesn’t have problems of its own; it’s got them out the wazoo. But that doesn’t change the matter at hand: Do Exodus 20:11 and 31:17 represent a death blow for the allegorical view of Genesis?
I say absolutely not. And here’s why.
First of all, as I’ve already said, I think we should let scripture help us interpret scripture. And, since Jesus (the author and finisher of our faith) often provided perspectives on the Jewish law that were profoundly counter-intuitive, I think we should — whenever possible — look to his example for guidance in how to understand the Old Testament.
Jesus discussed many things besides the Torah, though — as a rabbi — his perspective on the text colored much of what he said and did, and he was frequently questioned on his views. Fortunately, one of the Old Testament teachings he specifically addresses is the one contained in both of the Exodus passages. And — apologies to the young-earth faction — but he doesn’t take it literally:
So, because Jesus was doing these things on the Sabbath, the Jewish leaders began to persecute him. In his defense Jesus said to them, “My Father is always at his work to this very day, and I too am working.” For this reason they tried all the more to kill him; not only was he breaking the Sabbath, but he was even calling God his own Father, making himself equal with God.
The context here, of course, is that the Jewish leaders were angry because Jesus was working — rather than resting — on the Sabbath. Like the YECs, they interpreted Exodus 20:11 superficially; it says God literally rested, and so, they, too, should literally rest.
But Jesus pointed out that their interpretation was bunk. God has never actually “rested” — not on the seventh day of Creation Week or any other time in history. Therefore, those parts of both Genesis and Exodus that say that he did should not be read literally.
Interestingly, you can reach this same conclusion without even going to the New Testament. For whatever reason, the word for “rest” is different in Exodus 20:11 than the word translated “rest” in Genesis 2:3. The Exodus word (nuwach) was typically used in scripture to refer to the actions of material beings (soldiers, slaves, even beasts of burden). God clearly has no need to “rest” as soldiers and cattle rest, so we must admit that “nuwach” clearly is not being used literally here, lest we risk imposing some kind of anthropic limitations upon God — who is a spiritual being.
This need for caution is made even more plain in Exodus 31:17, which says, “on the seventh day [God] rested and was refreshed.” Obviously this “refreshment,” and the implicit need for refreshment, are not literal, either.
Critics will argue — and right they will be — that these arguments address only part of the text in question. They do not directly concern whether or not the “days” of Genesis 1 should be read as literal 24-hour days that occurred sometime within the memory of modern man. However, since the central teaching of these verses is contained in statements that are plainly non-literal, why would we presume the more incidental parts of these passages (“For in six days the Lord made…,” e.g.) are literal?
I suppose it would not be completely unthinkable for the Holy Spirit to have hidden a truth that is as vital as YECs say it is within the introductory clauses of verses that otherwise convey moral and theological teachings through symbolism and metaphor.
But it would be pretty strange.