Is Genesis 1 Poetry?

Last night Twitter and Facebook were abuzz with posts and reflections, or reactions, to the Ken Ham and Bill Nye debate about creation and evolution. Since I follow a rather diverse crowd on my Twitter feed, I saw a litany of these reactions. One point that came up several times was that Genesis 1 is just poetry and not meant to be taken literally. Matthew Paul Turner made this point in this post:

I entirely agree that Genesis 1 isn’t meant to be scientific. Being written in a pre-scientific, pre-modern era the text and author simply lacked any scientific framework. Though we can say the text is observational it is not scientific. Nevertheless…Genesis1

Now, I did give this idea of the text being poetry some pushback. Genesis 1 (well 1:1-2:3 is the proper citation) is not poetic. It has aspects of poetry in it, but the text itself lacks common poetic features. So, how do I come to this conclusion?

When I was taking my second semester of Hebrew at seminary, we translated Genesis 1-4 as part of our classwork. Part of this translation was consulting multiple technical commentaries to aid our translations. So I read most of the technical commentaries written by Hebrew scholars as I translated Genesis 1:1-2:3. Most of the scholars I consulted pointed out that the entire text lacks a poetic structure though there are elements of poetry in the text.

In listening to these scholars (both Jewish and Christian voices here), we see that there are a number of key features about the Hebrew text that draw it away from being poetry:

  • The first of these is that the literary form of the Hebrew is the same as Genesis 12 – 50 and other historical narrative passages in later texts like Exodus, Judges, 1 & 2 Kings, etc.
  • A second point concerns the lack of parallelism in the text of Genesis 1:1-2:3. If the text was going to poetic, it should contain examples of this. However, they are lacking in this complete passage.
  • Another, third, point is that the verbs conform more to recounting a narrative than forming a poetic stanza. For more information about this read Andrew Witt’s thesis on verbal forms in Hebrew poetry, he has some great points.
  • Fourth, the text just doesn’t read like poetry. It lacks rhyme, meter, and other examples of poetic devices. Now, verse 27 does reflect these, much like the Song of Adam in 2:23. Yet this isn’t present elsewhere in the passage of 1:1-2:3. For more information see this excellent post.
  • Finally, in considering the literary structure of the passage it is likely more chiastic than poetic. There are various ways into this, but the structure seems to indicate an ABC – X -C’B’A’ chiasm between 1:1-2:3. This doesn’t entirely remove the poetic possibility, but it does constrain that interpretation.

My takeaway is that just because the text isn’t poetry doesn’t mean it isn’t allegorical, it also doesn’t mean that it must be read literally. Once we’ve arrived at the nature of the literary genre that a text has we then must make the move, via interpretive method, to understand how to read the text. That is, ultimately, a theological decision.

creationLikewise, just because someone might read this, or any other text, as poetic doesn’t mean that it is, by default, allegorical. The book of Job is a great example of a Hebrew epic poem. Almost all Old Testament prophetic passages are poetic, including some about Jesus’ ministry on earth. That certainly wasn’t an allegorical event.

As I’ve mentioned before, I believe the text of Genesis 1:1-2:3 is a preface to the rest of the book given the literary arrangement of Genesis.

So, when it comes to reading Genesis 1, we can see that it isn’t entirely Hebrew poetry and that even where it is does not mean we can dismiss the text as, by default either literal or allegorical. We can’t leverage the text inappropriately to support our personal theological position on the nature of creation. Theology and hermeneutics are still valuable disciplines.

What we should be left with is that the focus of the text isn’t so much on the process, but the Person who is creating. (and yes, I am leveraging the text to support my read…)