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…)

Feb 2014



Is Genesis 1 a Preface?

At lunch yesterday I read through Jason DeRouchie‘s recent article in The Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society “The Blessing-Commission, the Promised Offspring, and the Toledot Structure of Genesis.” (Yes, the title is as intriguing as the article.)

Though this is terribly concise, DeRouchie’s article explores the literary system of  Genesis whereby its author(s) used the phrase ‘eleh toledot (“these are the generations of ” or “this is the account of”) to begin new sections of the biblical book. The phrase ‘eleh toledot occurs in the following places:

Toledot Chart

In his piece DeRouchie goes on to discuss the difference between the toledot as chapter headings as opposed to colophons, or types of sub-headings. He ends up discussing how he sees several of these toledot structures as dominant section headers with sub-headers. It is a fine journal article.

So, I noticed that the first place the toledot phrase occurs is Genesis 2:4. Now this is interesting, since the content of 2:4-25 form a second account of creation, this one focused on the Garden of Eden, the author of the text has chosen to mark this with the toledot function. Here’s the text:

Standing at the beginning of this new section, the toledot structure is not a backwards referent to 1:1-2:3. As most contemporary commentators have pointed out, as reflected in some translations, the first account of creation does go from 1:1-2:3, not 1:1-31.

For the author of this section to have included a significant literary device such as the toledot feature, it is perhaps reflecting that the first account is, indeed, prefatory. That is, Genesis 1:1-2:3 reflects a preface to the book of Genesis that stands outside, or before, the rest of the content of the text.

The difference between Genesis 1:1-2:3 being a preface as opposed to an introduction is important. If prefatory matter stands outside the rest of the book in terms of linear progression, explaining the events leading up to the first true scene of narrative history in 2:4, than what is in the preface does matter to the text but is not entirely congruent with the aims of the remainder of the text. As someone else has put it: the preface is the book about a book and the introduction is about the content of the book. 

If we look at Genesis 1:1-2:3 as a preface, it details content or ideas that led up to the events that begin the actual narrative in 2:4.

Though this doesn’t mean we have to discard existing theories of interpretation, it does, perhaps, help us better understand the literary intent of the author in that first section. It does not appear that the first section (Genesis 1:1-2:3) is a foreword, that is a text written by another to discuss the rest of the text.

As we consider the first section the structure and pattern of the text appear, at least to me, to be written to first show how the God of Israel stands above and beyond the gods of pagan kingdoms. Then it also speaks about how glorious the God of Israel is in His creative act.

It should also be noted that YHWH, the Hebrew proper name for God, first appears in Genesis 2:4 whereas Elohim is the primary word used in 1:1-2:3 to refer to God.

So, is Genesis 1 a preface? If it is does it impact our interpretive approach at all? Does it allow us to see there is a larger literary function of the passage rather than a static, linear accounting that automatically flows into Genesis 2, then 3, etc?

The toledot structure appears to be important to the author of Genesis. Maybe it should be equally as important to us as we consider interpretive decisions and how they relate to our overall theology.