The next thing I want to importantly address about the Genesis story of creation is how we are supposed to read it literally. If we have to understand this story nonliterally then we have to first agree about its literal meaning--including all the contradictions and the problems the story raise--because the nonliteral meaning is decoded from how figuration is used in its literal sense. This is going to be today's main topic of discussion.
Two creation works or one creation event?
The thing about this story this time is that there have been two competing ways through which we can read Genesis chapter one literally based on how we relate the first verse, the second and verses 3-31. I have arbitrarily named those readings "two creation events" and "one creation event."
The verses of Genesis chapter one can be organized into three divisions thus: Genesis 1:1, Genesis 1:2 and Genesis 1:3-31. The first sentence in the Bible (1:1) reports that in the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. The second verse (1:2) then goes a length of stating how the earth was formless, void and darkness was upon the face of the deep. The other division of the first chapter of the Bible (1:3–31) narrates a six days creation event. Now the question can be how do you relate these three divisions of Genesis chapter one so that they may give a cohesive and meaningful message?
The two creation events
The one reading of the first chapter usually goes this way:
(1) Verse 1 is read as telling that there has been an initial or perhaps abrupt creation of heaven and earth.
(2) Verse 2 then is understood to detail that the created earth and heaven (mentioned in v.1) were unfinished and not fit for human habitation. They then remained in that condition for some longer time. Sometimes the assumption is that something bad happened to them resulting to their imperfection.
(3) The verses of 3-31 are then treated as describing the completion of this unfinished universe or otherwise the re-creation of the corrupted universe.
Just at the surface of it, you note that the above treatment of the first chapter of the Bible presupposes two creation events. The first event being the abrupt creation of the universe thought to be mentioned in 1:1. The next episode is a re-creation or perhaps the completion of this unfinished universe narrated by the verses of the creation week (1:3-31.) These creation events are separated by an interlude of chaos thought to be mentioned in 1:2.
One creation event
Now, let us turn to another rather not so popular way we can look at the verses of Genesis. The first chapter of Genesis can also be read with Genesis 1:1 now understood to introduce a theme that would be expanded on the verses of 1:3–31. In other words the whole era of "Six Days of Creation" is called "The Beginning." On the other hand v.2 would be telling the state of the universe immediately before creation. This verse would be describing the condition of those aspects of the universe which motivated the creator to commence his work. So another organization of the first chapter of the Bible then can be thus:
(1) Genesis 1:1 is a short introduction. This first statement of the Bible introduces the theme of creation.
(2) Genesis 1:2 on the other hand briefs us with the state of the universe before any creation work was done. The passage singles out those parts of the universe that directly needed the divine intervention.
(3) Genesis 1:3–31 gives the details of the creation act.
Now, which is which? Well, what can be said about the first view is that it contradicts the Bible. A closer inspection of the first chapter reveals very clearly that the Bible does not want every reader to always think along the line presented above. The one thing with the first line of reading is that it presupposes that the heavens existed (in an imperfect condition) before the start of the week of creation. But what you learn is that the verses of the creation week (i.e. Genesis 1:3-31) themselves tell loud that the heaven was inexistent before the week of creation. That is, before the creation week heaven was not yet created altogether. There were not any sky, sun, moon and stars at all. According to these verses, the sky was made in day two of creation, when the sun, the moon and the stars came to being at day four. The meaning of this then is that there has never been any kind of creation besides that specified in the week of creation. The other important passage of the Bible affected by the first reading is Exodus 20:11. This passage states that "in six days God created the heaven and the earth and rested on the seventh." The point here is made clear, the heaven and the earth were not created before the week of creation but during that week.
The thing with the second line of reading is that it contradicts, now not the Bible, but how we generally think about God. Almost everyone thinks the Bible says that, other than God, there was virtually nothing before God created anything. But the second reading seems to change the story. Certain things do already exist before any stated work of creation. According to this line of reading at creation the planet earth and water were already extant. The only creation we are sure of is that of the heavens and life. The saying that the waters (which covered the earth) were gathered together for earth to appear does not state the creation of the essence of the earth nor of water. In effect the phrase "God created the earth" which could be found elsewhere in the Bible, if read in the context of the Genesis creation story, must be understood to mean God remodeled or restructured the earth.
The way forward
The point of view of understanding Genesis literally that I am going to adopt is what I dubbed the one creation event. The one reason is simply that this reading does not so grievously contradict the other passages. It only clashes with our mindset about the theme of creation. But should our mindset dictate what the scriptures are really saying? Not at all! The other reason is that it is this form of reading which accommodates my described nonliteral method of reading. We will read the first verse as a heading of the entire first chapter of Genesis. The second verse here is viewed as summarizing the state of the universe immediately before any stated creation work. The beginning stated in verse one refers to the entire term of creation illustrated by the verses of 3:1–31.