Even self-identified evangelicals, who tend to read the Bible more conservatively than most other groups, do not speak with a unified voice regarding the process of creation. Clearly, young-earth creationism, which argues that the world was created in six 24-hour days, is widely promoted on a popular level. Less publicized is that a large number of evangelical thinkers prefer a different range of options. Let me briefly survey some options before turning to Genesis.
For example, like many other evangelical scientists, Francis Collins, former director of the Human Genome project, affirms evolution. A 2009 Pew Forum poll suggests that roughly a third of evangelical Protestants agree. More surprisingly, this approach among some evangelicals did not originate recently. For example, one of Darwin's leading U.S. defenders in the 19th century was a committed evangelical. Harvard biologist Asa Gray, featured on a U.S. postal stamp in 2011, never persuaded his friend Darwin that evolution displayed divine design, but Gray defended evolution.
Some prominent evangelical theologians today (such as Alister McGrath) support evolution, but even late 19th- and early 20th-century conservative theologians such as Calvinist B. B. Warfield and Baptist A. H. Strong allowed that God could have used evolution as a mechanism of creation.
More surprising is William Jennings Bryan, the Democratic politician known for arguing against evolution in the famous 1925 Scopes Trial. He allowed for the universe to be very old, viewing the six "days" in Genesis as longer eras, as did some earlier conservative theologians such as Charles Hodge. (In private Bryan apparently even allowed the possibility of evolution prior to humanity's creation.) Supporters observe that the term "day" applies to three different periods of time in Genesis's opening scene. Indeed, long before modern geological discoveries made such "days" an issue, the fifth-century theologian Augustine suggested that the "days" in Genesis 1 were not literal 24-hour days, but could represent much longer periods of time.
Nevertheless, some evangelical theologians such as J. I. Packer note problems with the day-age approach and prefer a more literary approach. They view Genesis 1 as figurative for a work week. Emphasizing that the passage is not meant to be a scientific report, they, like those mentioned above, reject six 24-hour days. This approach leaves open the scientific questions.
Coming to the point in this post's title, how would Genesis itself invite readers to approach it? What were the accounts' genre or literary type? Would Genesis's ancient audience have understood the stories about creation in the same way that they understood stories about the patriarchs or, later, kings?
To take some examples: in contrast to stories about Abraham or Jacob, whose names fit their putative period, the human characters in Genesis 2 are called "Man" (the meaning of adam) and something like, "Life" (Eve). The trees bear not figs or dates, but "life" and "the knowledge of good and evil." The narrative includes a talking serpent. Unlike the only other account of a talking animal in ancient Israelite literature (Balaam's donkey), it reports no miracle as facilitating it. Apart from some Israelite parables, nowhere else in the Bible do we read anything like this: a talking serpent convinces Man and Life to pluck a fruit that is Knowledge. Not surprisingly, many biblical scholars, including evangelical biblical scholars, suspect some figurative language here. Modern questions aside, is it possible that this way of reading the narrative is closer to how it was meant to be read?
Sometimes ancient writers recognized that they had to communicate in different ways about the primeval past; fewer details were available than for recent events. To this observation, some readers today respond, "You can't treat these chapters differently than the rest of Genesis!" But what if they are different from the rest of Genesis? Creation narratives were a distinct genre, which flourished in the ancient Near East, especially in the early second millennium B.C.E. No rule requires that an entire book must consist of the same genre. For example, Exodus, the biblical book that follows Genesis, contains both narratives and laws. Much later, the Gospels contain both narrative memories of Jesus and a different kind of narrative, namely Jesus's parables.
While some of Genesis's modern defenders have forced it to discuss the same issues as modern science, Genesis's original audience had different issues. Genesis probably challenged surrounding cultures' creation stories, which usually emphasized multiple deities, which sometimes even battled each other. Genesis instead affirms a single creator, and humans as the pinnacle of God's creation; it warns that disobeying God has consequences, even from the start.
Even had available terminology existed then, Genesis presumably was not meant to teach much about, say, quantum physics.
The one chapter of the Bible I sampled when I was an atheist was Genesis 1. I was appalled, and got no further in the Bible until my Christian conversion. Eventually I learned that some issues I had brought to the passage risked obscuring its real point. Many who respect Genesis today know better than to treat it as a scientific manual. They believe that today's expanded knowledge of the universe can enlarge our appreciation for the magnificence of God's work already depicted in Genesis. The universe is unimaginably more vast, and the information content involved in life unimaginably more complex, than Genesis's first hearers could have guessed. Given the level of our abstract reasoning, humans are indeed the most complex entities we know. I suspect that ancient Israelites would hardly have complained about such findings. Such discoveries would have reinforced for them God's creative magnificence all the more.
Of course, theists and non-theists differ as to whether a deity was involved. Some debates between us are not necessary, however, at least not so far as Genesis is concerned. Genesis was written in Hebrew to an ancient audience that was interested far more in who created than in the details of how creation took place. Perhaps young-earth creationism, in its zeal to defend the truth of Genesis, has inadvertently obscured its message.