The Genre of Genesis 1

Dear Reader,

This is part of my continuing series on Christian views of creation. I hope that I have shown that the two biggest questions we must about creation ask are how and when. The when in particular becomes a point of contention and so I am looking more specifically at how Young Earth Creationists (YEC), who believe the earth was created in six 24-hour days no more than 10,000 years ago, interpret Genesis 1. In my most recent post on this topic, I tried to ferret out what some of the questions we should be asking are. Here once again are the big ones I want answers to:

  1. What is the genre of Genesis 1?
  2. What is the purpose of Genesis 1? What is it meant to convey?
  3. Based in the answers to numbers one and two, are the other uses of yom which Answers In Genesis (AIG; some of the main proponents of YEC) refers to really comparable to what we have here?

The Genre of Genesis 1

When we read Genesis 1, we must ask what kind of literature it is and what the conventions of that type are and how they affect meaning in this passage. When YEC makes its arguments about how many times yom occurs with numbers or with the word “night“, they are making some assumptions. First and foremost they are assuming that we are dealing with similar usages that can be compared. For a good explanation of why genre is important see “The Genesis of Everything, Part 2: The Genre of Genesis 1” by John Dickson at biologos.org.

When I have heard this issue discussed by YECs, they tend to talk about either prose versus poetry or myth versus history. And it is not that these are not valid categories, but I think they simplify the issue too much. There is a lot of room between prose and poetry and Hebrew tends to blend the two anyway. And when we speak of myth, we tend to use it dismissively as if to say “if it is myth it is not true but if it is history it is completely true.” When scholars speak of myth, they make no judgment (officially at least) but only mean that it is a story which explains how things came to be the way they are. And when we speak of history we must also ask what we mean by it.

Proponents of YEC claim that Genesis 1 (and all of Genesis 1-11, a section often up for dispute) is history. “Historical narrative” is the phrase they like to use (see, for one example, Tim Chaffey, “How Should We Interpret the Bible, Part 2: Is Genesis 1-11 Historical Narrative?” from answersingenesis.org). I can’t help wondering what they mean by this though. I think we tend to have very modern sensibilities which expect historical narrative to be very literal, to tell events in order and to be almost scientific in its use of things like numbers. But these are all modern ideas and there is evidence in the Bible itself that its authors a) did not always tell events in order (consider the differing order of events in the gospels) and b) did not use numbers in the precise, literal way we do. Often numbers were symbolic as they are in Revelation; most of us do not take the assertion that 144,000 will be saved literally. Nor do we take Jesus literally when he says to forgive one’s brother 7 times 70 times. In poetry and proverbs, sequential numbers are used as synonyms. Think of Proverbs 6:16, for example:

“There are six things that the Lord hates, seven that are an abomination to him” (ESV)

Does the author here mean that the Lord hates and abominates six things but that there is one that He abominates but doesn’t hate? Of course not. Six and seven are being used in parallel as synonyms, just as hate and abominate are synonyms (see this post on parallelism if you want more info on how Hebrew poetry works). And if two different numbers like 6 and 7 can be used as synonyms, we know we are dealing with a very different attitude toward numbers than our modern one.

So even if we do end up saying Genesis 1 is “historical narrative” I think we need to ask what the rules of that narrative would be in the Hebrew Bible and not assume that it will follow all our rules.

But I am not at all convinced that I would call Genesis 1 historical narrative. Genesis 1 strikes me as a very different sort of text from the rest fo the Bible. Even in its narrow context of Genesis 1-11, this first chapter of the Bible stands out. Genesis 2 tells of creation in a very typically Hebrew narrative style, and chapters 3-11 continue this style. But chapter 1 is written very differently, very carefully. It is hard for me to look at it and not think that it was written specifically to be an introduction to what follows. It is as if the human author (through whom God worked of course) wrote what follows and then said to himself, “Now, we need a great introduction to all this, something really good to start it all off” and thus he came up with this very structured text which sets the stage, so to speak, for everything that comes after. In my mind, Genesis 1 is completely unique in the Hebrew Bible (and as I said above, we have nothing extra-biblical to compare it to). It is a very structured, repetitive passage. The repeated elements (such as “and there was evening; and there was morning; day –“) serves to punctuate and separate each section. They are refrains which remind us of poetry though to say Genesis 1 is simply poetry is also not a complete or satisfying answer. It is more formal than any psalm. Indeed, it is so stylized than one begins to think that the stylization of it is pointing us to the purpose of the chapter itself.

This is also the conclusion of Dickson. He notes how many times the number seven appears in this chapter (not just in the seven days, but again and again in the Hebrew word counts). One is left with the impression that this is a very carefully crafted piece of literature. I love how Dickson sums this up:

“The artistry of the chapter is stunning and, to ancient readers, unmistakable. It casts the creation as a work of art, sharing in the perfection of God and deriving from him. My point is obvious: short of including a prescript for the benefit of modern readers the original author could hardly have made it clearer that his message is being conveyed through literary rather than prosaic means. What we find in Genesis 1 is not exactly poetry of the type we find in the biblical book of Psalms but nor is it recognizable as simple prose. It is a rhythmic, symbolically- charged inventory of divine commands.” (John Dickson, “The Genesis of Everything, Part 2: The Genre of Genesis 1” from biologos.org)

So What Is God Trying to Do in Genesis 1?

If the numbers and structure of Genesis 1 are doing something besides telling us how many days creation took, we must ask what the purpose of this chapter is. What is God trying to tell us through it? Now it should be noted that whether there is deeper meaning to the chapter or not does not tell us if the creation did take a literal seven days. But if there is added meaning to it all, I personally feel less compelled to take the seven days literally. That is, it does not preclude a literal interpretation but it also does not necessitate it.

So if God in Genesis 1 is not giving us (just) a literal historical account of how creation happened, what is He trying to do? We must remember that Genesis 1 had an original audience who was not us. It was written first for the ancient Israelites who lived amongst many pagan, polytheistic peoples, peoples by whose religions they were constantly being tempted. Now I am making an assumption here. I am assuming that this story was written for and had to make sense to its original audience. This is not to say that it has nothing to say to us now. I believe God is great enough to make it fit their needs and ours and everyone’s in between.

The people’s among whom the Israelites lived had their own creation accounts. One of the most famous is the Babylonian epic Enuma Elish. It also has a seven part creation, but as with most of these pagan stories, its creation is the work of many gods and it is a very messy affair. It is a chaotic creation in which monsters like the Sea must be defeated (and it is by no means sure they will be). There is a lot of conflict and uncertainty about it all.

In contrast to this, Genesis 1 presents a very calm, orderly creation. There is only one God who is responsible for all of it. He wills it and it happens. There is no question of whether He will be successful. He battles no one. He is above the fray, so to speak, and everything He says comes to pass. Nor is chaos a force to be reckoned with. God has no counterpart; He also has no opponents to defeat. He is master of the darkness and the Sea from the beginning. And creation in the end is not what’s left when the fighting is done; it is an orderly creation with everything in its proper place as God planned all along. For a wonderful, longer and better explanation of all this, see “The Literary Genre of Genesis, Chapter 1” by Bruce K. Waltke.

So what is the original purpose of Genesis 1? By its very orderly structure and its stylized format, it shows us that God is in control, that His creation is in no part an accident, that it never was up for grabs, and that it is orderly. Just as every word in Genesis 1 is worked out and in place, so too everything in God’s creation is ordered according to His immutable will.

Bringing It All Together

I hope that I have shown that there is more to Genesis 1 than a surface reading reveals. The more I have looked into it, the more in awe I am of God’s Word and of His works. I have in this post attempted to provide answers to the first two questions I asked above, the genre and purpose of Genesis 1. The third one may come in a later post. I don’t have a label for the genre of this chapter. It is not quite poetry. It is also not just another historical narrative like so much of the Hebrew Bible is. It is something quite unique. And it is that way for a reason. Its very style points to its purpose. That purpose is to show the omnipotence, sovereignty and orderly character of the one Creator. Now I do understand, as I said above, that this does not preclude a literal seven-day interpretation. But I hope you also see that there is so much more here. Personally, when I see the bigger picture of what is going on here, I don’t feel the need to take the seven days literally. I am fine with taking them symbolically (which I don’t think means I am not taking the passage literally, by the way; I am taking it as it was meant to be read or heard by its original audience). There is a lot of symbolism and deeper meaning here and though I am not sure Dickson meant to make the comparison, I am not sure he is so far off when he talks about Genesis 1 in the same breath as apocalyptic pieces like Revelation. Is there a word for apocalyptic writing that is about the past and not the future?

Genesis 1 and the Modern Audience

I said that we must consider what Genesis 1 meant to its original audience. But I also think it still speaks to us today. In fact, I think its central message is just what we need to be hearing in the very atheistic, evolutionary environment we are in. We need to hear that there is a Creator God. And we need to hear that He had a plan which was fulfilled perfectly, that there is no randomness in God’s world. Whatever the hows of creation, I do believe nothing has happened without His fore-knowledge and will. It is funny to me that we are just at the same point the ancient Israelites were, having to fight those who claim that the world came about through conflict and random, out of control acts. I am absolutely committed to the ideas that there is one Creator God who is absolutely sovereign and that there is nothing random or out of His immediate control in all His creation. In comparison to such things, whether creation took seven days or millions of years seems of little importance to me and I hate to see Christians become subjects of derision because of their insistence that it is all about the length of creation when there is so much more at work here.

Nebby

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2 responses to this post.

  1. […] I have discussed creation and evolution in a number of previous posts (see here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here; I told you there were a lot, and technically that series of posts is […]

    Reply

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