The last post of this series took a look at Gen 1 from the perspective of Hebrew narrative and we saw that the chapter has a grammatical structure giving strong indication that this is a narrative text. In this post, however, we’re going to look at the poietic shaping of this text and see how it contributes to the meaning the author intends to convey.
Visual Metaphors of Interpretation
Before we begin to look at the text as having poetic shaping, let’s consider the implications for reading the text strictly as an “episodical narrative.” When I say episodical narrative I mean a narrative which simply tells us what happened in the order it happened. I have a hunch that very often we bring this kind of reading strategy to the text. In the case of the Gen 1 creation account we would end up with a reading of the text that gives us a straightforward account of how long it took God to create the universe, what he created, when he created it, and in what order everything was created. If I could give a visual metaphor for this type of reading it would look like this:
You’ll notice that my visual metaphor bears some resemblance to a timeline. Let me suggest that there is likely no such thing as an episodical narrative in all of the Old or New Testament. For sure there is no biblical book, not even Chronicles, that comes anywhere close to being an episodical narrative. Every book of the Bible, narrative or poetic, has some kind of shaping that helps us to understand the author’s intent in writing the book. With that in mind, let’s take a look at the poetic shaping of the Gen 1 creation account.
There was a time when I thought that if I could read the Psalms in their original language then I would be able to see the rhyme and rhythm (or meter) hidden in these awkward “poems.” Since then I’ve learned some Hebrew and discovered that Hebrew doesn’t rhyme and likely doesn’t have much meter either. So what is poetic about Hebrew poetry?
There are three things that characterize Hebrew poetry: parallelism, terseness, and imagery. Terseness means it says a lot in a few words. It does this by the nature of the Hebrew language but also by the leaving out or eliding of words. A verse that in English is made up of 10-20 words, will be 5-8 in Hebrew because in English we often need to fill in what’s missing. But the more important characteristic of Hebrew poetry is parallelism because parallelism is where we find the author manipulating the text in order to enrich the meaning of the verse. There are all kinds of ways that parallelism is used in Hebrew poetry. The most basic example can be seen in Psalm 113:2-3:
Blessed be the name of the Lord from this time forth and forevermore!
From the rising of the sun to its setting, the name of the Lord is to be praised!
Here you have the same essential thought communicated in two adjacent lines. The fact that it is not exact shows that Hebrew parallelism doesn’t merely repeat but builds one thought on another.
This is basic parallelism but there is a myriad of ways that Hebrew authors exploit parallelism to shape their texts. For example instead of having near synonymous lines, they could be antithetical. Instead of having parallel words or thoughts, they could build parallelism around any number of grammatical features (gender, definiteness, morphology) or even sounds. We can also have a kind of syntagmatic parallelism where the first and second lines work together to create one complete thought. Authors can also build more complex patterns such as an A-B-C-B-A pattern where each letter represents a line and where the A lines are parallel, the B lines are parallel and the C line serves as a highlighted thought. Or they can build an acrostic where each line begins with a letter of the alphabet starting with the first letter of the alphabet and proceeding all the way to the last letter.
Perhaps the most famous example of this is Psalm 119. In Psalm 119 there are 22 separate poems building one big poem. In the first poem (Ps 119:1-8) each line begins with an aleph (the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet). In the second poem each line begins with a bet (the second letter) and so on through the whole alephbet. The whole thing together gives a sense of thoroughness, completeness, and determination. If you read the psalm you can see how the structure contributes to the overall idea of the psalmist’s desire to make God’s law a part of his life through and through. Psalm 119 is a good example of the fact that the form is just as important as the content in terms of communicating the sense of the text.
The Prose-Poetry Spectrum
We tend to think of texts as either poetic texts or prosaic (narrative) texts. After all, something is either a poem or it is not a poem, right? It either rhymes or it doesn’t rhyme. But the fact that the two are not always distinct could perhaps be illustrated by the poem that I sent in our Christmas greeting. Did you notice that it was a poem? If you read Christmas cards like I do (blah, blah, blah, blah … Love, Mom and Dad) you might not have. If you want to take another look then you can find it here. In my poem I tried to keep the poetic nature of the verse just below the surface, at least for the first verse, by writing out the Christmas poem like this:
Two thousand years ago the angels sang in heaven
so everyone in the world could know the coming
of the King. What was too good to be true was
received by only a few who heard the angels and
knew the coming of the King.
Written this way it looks at first glance to be two prosaic (non-poetic) sentences. As a poem, it should have been written like this:
Two thousand years ago
the angels sang in heaven so
everyone in the world could know
the coming of the King.
What was too good to be true
was received by only a few
who heard the angels and knew
the coming of the King.
(I’m going to get some mileage out of our Christmas greeting by using it in another post in which I explain how I meant it to be a mimesis of Christmas—or a Christmimesis.)
I hope that helps introduce the concept that the line between prose and poetry is not necessarily clear. If you combine this example of mine with the idea that Hebrew poetry isn’t based on rhyme but on parallelism, then it becomes pretty clear that the division between poetry and prose can be easily blurred. In fact, we should think instead about a spectrum with prose on one end and poetry on the other. Texts can exhibit various degrees of poetic or prosaic nature so that it’s not always clear whether we should classify a text as poetic or prosaic, or even as “poetic with prosaic features” or “prosaic with poetic features.”
Poietic Features in Genesis 1:1-2:3
The original Greek word from which our word poetry comes is poiesis and it means “to make.” In Plato and Aristotle poiesis gets explained as the creation of something that was not there before and is usually related to art (techne). Aristotle, for example talks about poiesis in the making of plots (muthoi). An important facet of poiesis is that form and content work together to create meaning—just as we saw in Psalm 119. This is why it’s appropriate to apply the idea of poiesis to the shaping of words, or “wordsmithing,” in order to produce a new perception (meaning or emotion) of reality. When we look at Genesis chapter 1 in this way we’ll find that we have a shaping of words to create a new perception of reality. Gen 1 is poetic! How so?
One type of poietic or poetic shaping we find in Gen 1:1-2:3 shows up in the form of an inclusio. An inclusio is two parallel lines: one occurring at the beginning of a text and one at the end. These two parallel lines mark off the beginning and end of the text, giving it a sense of wholeness or completeness. In the case of Gen 1:1-2:3 take a look at the first of these two encompassing lines:
Gen 1:1 In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.
There are five Hebrew words and four key parts to this first sentence. The five words (not counting two non-translatable words) in the order in which they appear in Hebrew are “In the beginning,” “created,” “God,” “the heavens and the earth.” Gen 2:1-3 leaves out the “In the beginning” element but repeats the other elements of this verse:
The heavens and the earth and all their host were completed.
God completed on the seventh day the work which he did.
He rested on the seventh day from all his work which he did.
God blessed the seventh day
and he sanctified it for on it he rested from all his work which God created to do.
If you look over 2:1-3 on its own you will see that there are various repetitions or parallelisms shaping the text. Notice the repetition of “to complete,” “the seventh day,” “work,” “he did” (the same word appears in “to do,” and finally “he rested.” But in comparison to Gen 1:1 we also find some deliberate shaping in that we have here repeated the three main ideas from Gen 1:1 (Wenham notes that they are in reverse order). Because Gen 1:1 and 2:1-3 are connected through their parallelism, they create a sort of envelope around the whole text separating off the six days of creation and giving a sense of completion to them.
Again, form and content are working together.
Parallelism (or Repetition) within the Six Days of Creation
Genesis 1 is well known as a text that masterfully combines both prosaic and poetic features. We saw the prosaic or narrative features in the previous post in this series when we talked about a verb sequence made up of a qatal verb which gives the background information and which is followed by a series of vayyiqtol verbs which form the backbone of the narrative because they indicate the main events taking place in time. Now, for our poetic analysis we want to look just at these vayyiqtol verbs that appear in the six days of creation (Gen 1:3-31) and see how their arrangement gives us some clues as to how Moses has shaped the text.
First let me note that not all of the verbs in the text are vayyiqtols. For example in Gen 1:5a the translation reads “God called the light ‘day’ and the darkness he called ‘night’” In this sentence only the first verb (God called) is a vayyiqtol and carries the main action. In a sense, the second clause (the darkness he called night) is complimentary, or subordinate, to the first in a way that doesn’t come through in English.
As an aid for visualizing the structure of the text I’m going to assign each vayyiqtol verb a letter and then I’m going to order the verbs according to how they appear in the text. Here’s a key to explain the lettering system:
A God said
B and it was (so)
C God saw (that it was good)
D God divided1; God made/created2; the land brought forth3; God put4
E God called
F And it was evening/morning
G God blessed
According to this key, day 1 will be ordered like this:
A (Gen 1:3a: God said)
B (3b there was light)
C (4a God saw)
D1 (4b God divided)
E (5a God called)
F–F (5b and there was evening, and there was morning).
If we follow this approach for each day and leave only the shorthand it turns out looking like this:
We’re going to be looking for patterns that are being followed from day to day but first I need to make two quick notes on my shorthand because I set some ground rules and in two places I departed from those rules. First I said I was going to assign a letter for every different word that appears as a vayyiqtol but you see that for the letter D I actually have five different words. The reason I grouped these all as one is because they all function pretty similarly in the text as being God’s acts of creating or the effects of those acts. If someone wanted they could separate them all out with different letters, it doesn’t make any difference to the point I’m trying to make. The other exception is that you will notice on day six there is a segment where I have three verbs together (G–A–A instead of G|A|A, or three separate lines for each). This is similar to the way I’ve done “there was evening and there was morning” which I labeled as F–F. The reason I did the G–A–A this way is because the two A’s actually make up the blessing (letter G). It says “God blessed them” and then follows the quote which contains what he said to them when he blessed them. This all belongs together as a piece. Also, by keeping them together we more readily notice something real happening in the text, something that I will shortly point out.
But this brings up a note about the kind of patterning that we’re looking for here. We’re not looking for a secret code or any kind of rigid pattern hidden in the text. We’re just trying to pay close attention to general trends, or shaping, or poiesis, that is at work in the text. What I think we find is an ordering that may, on the one hand, be chronological, but it is not ordered according to a logic of time, it is ordered according to a poetic shaping, that works together with the content to convey the author’s intention. (And let us not forget that it is the author’s intended meaning that is inspired and thus carries God’s authority.)
Before we get going, you might want to try first of all and make your own observations about what kind of patterning is in the text.
The very first thing you’ll notice is that there is no nice neat perfect order followed every day. That’s perfectly correct and that’s OK, that’s not what we’re looking for. We’re looking for trends or general patterns. This is after all a narrative text with some poetic shaping (or poetic with narrative shaping?). So if we’re just looking for some general, less rigid patterns then we’ll notice that every day starts with A and ends with F-F. Now you may say, of course it ends with F–F since F–F describes the end of a day of creation and transitions to the next. How else would it end? But please note that he didn’t have to end each day in such a formulaic way and the fact that he did is an indication that he is shaping and patterning this text. Generally a narrator would have opted for more variety. He probably wouldn’t have even thought of always using the same phrase unless he was being intentional about giving structure to the text. Likewise, he certainly did not have to start every day with A, “God said,” but he did.
The next thing you’ll notice is that besides A and F, which show up every day at the beginning and end, a lot of these letters show up frequently, some even every day, and others almost every day. Some of these also appear to be somewhat formulaic—like “God saw that it was good.” There are only a couple that show up only once or twice (the various D’s and G).
So far I think we’re led to the conclusion that there does seem to be some authorial shaping going on even if it’s not a nice neat structure.
Now look at the A’s. If you set aside the G-A-A of day 6 (which we said is all part of the blessing of G), then we’ll notice that the A shows up a second time on day 3 and on day 6. Just like on each of the other days, on days 3 and 6 the letter A (God said) initiates the creative activity of its respective day. But then instead of coming to completion with the F-F sequence, it’s as if we start the day over with another creation act on the same day. Do you see what I’m saying? Every day goes
A > act of creation > F-F
except days 3 and 6 which follow this pattern:
A > act of creation > A > act of creation > F-F
In other words, on days 3 and 6 we have one day with two segments of God’s creative activity.
When we notice this and think of the Hebrew tendency to create parallel structures, we might begin to wonder if the author doesn’t intend days 3 and 6 to be related to each other in some way. If we follow up on this line of thought then we will look at days 1-2 as possibly related to days 4-5. Let’s explore this by taking a step back from our vayyiqtol patterning and look at the patterning at the level of the day.
Again, if 3 and 6 are similar, and if we’re trying to think like Hebrews, then we might wonder if there isn’t something about days 1 and 4 that’s also similar. The same applies to days 2 and 5. Let me invite you to go back to the actual text and read day 1 followed immediately by day 4. Can you see any similarity between these days? What do they have in common? Now do the same for days 2 and 5. Do the same for days 3 and 6.
Did you find the similarity between days 1-3, 2-4 and 3-6? If not, go back and identify what was created on each day and compare what was created on day 1 to what was created on day 4 then 2 and 5, and finally 3 and 6.
Now if you’ve found the similarity you’re still not done. We need to know what kind of similarity it is. What is the relationship between what was created on day 1 and day 4, day 2 and day 5, day 3 and day 6?
Here’s what I see (not to say I invented this way of reading the text because I didn’t—I learned it from Dr. Richard Averbeck who also got it from exegetes before him). On day 1 God created light. On day 4 God created the light-giving bodies in the heavens. On day 2 God separated the waters above from the waters below which means he created the sky and the oceans. On day 5 he created birds and fish. On day 3 God created the dry land and in a second creative act he created the vegetation that is on the dry land. On day 6 God created animals and then in a second creative act he created people.
If you didn’t see the relationship before you probably do now (unless this post has gotten so long that it’s no longer possible to invest your attention). The animals and people created on day 6 inhabit the vegetation-producing land created on day 3. The fish and birds of day 5 inhabit the sky and seas of day 2. And indeed, the heavenly bodies of day 4 inhabit the light of day 1. On the first set of days (1-3) God creates the environment that he fills on the second set of days (4-6).
Given what we’ve just noticed about the relationship between the days we can see that there is a sort of parallel relationship between days 1-3 and days 4-6. But we also have some movement going on from day 1 to day 3, from day 4 to day 6 and overall from day 1 to day 6. For example, we noticed that days 3 and 6 have two creative acts on the same day. So within our sub-grouping of day 1-3 we have a completion vector that points us in the direction of day 3. The same is true of our day 4-6 sub-grouping. Also, if you consider just the statements “And God saw that it was good,” you see that we have movement from day 1 to 6 since on day 6 we have the statement two times and now the final statement says “and it was very good.” This and other factors in the text point not only to a relationship of creating an environment and filling that environment but a movement toward a climax with the creation of humanity.
That gives us something to meditate on. You can imagine all kinds of implications that readily arise from this in terms of the significance of who we are, who God is, how we relate to him, and how we relate to creation.
Comparing Visual Metaphors
Think back to our visual metaphor that we suggested for an episodical reading of this text. How well do you think this metaphor succeeds at capturing the meaning of this text?
I don’t think very well at all. There’s much more going on here than just God created light on the first day, sky and sea on the second day, dry land and vegetation on the third day, and so on.
Dr. Averbeck likes to use the visual image of a nest. (He gets this from verse 2 where the text says that “the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.” That word “hovering” is used only two other times in Scripture, one other time in the Pentateuch where it describes an eagle protecting its young like Yahweh protects his people.) I’m not sure that the nest is the most appropriate picture of what’s going on in this text (I may discuss a potentially better picture in the next post in this series) but it certainly captures some truth about what this text is conveying. What we have here is not so much a story of where things came from, as a story of how they are ordered, that is, their relationship one to another and to their creator. So let me offer this visual metaphor as a way of seeing this text (I wish I were more artistic):
In this case what we have is not so much answers to the questions: When did creation take place? Where did everything come from? or How did everything come about? Instead we have answers to questions like: Who is the creator? What is he like? What is my relationship to him? What is my relationship to the created world? And in this case we find that God created an orderly universe that is meant to be the perfect environment in which people can experience fullness of life in harmony with God and all of his creation. In other words, the first creation was to be an eternal Sabbath rest. People were meant to eternally enjoy God and the beauty and provision of his creation.
This kind of interpretation does far more than just provide us information about what happened, it gives us a worldview. The first set of questions that I related above, the ones arising from the chrono-logical metaphor, are scientific questions. The second set of questions are worldview questions. It’s true that scientific questions have implications for our worldview but that does not negate the fact that worldview questions are prior to scientific questions (more someday in a series on wisdom).
Intelligent Design in the Creation Account
To close of this section I want to point out how really important it is to recognize the poietic shaping of a text. Poetic shaping is much more than just giving the text a nice pleasant form or the calling forth of emotion.
In an episodical narrative we have nothing more than the chronicle or bare record of events that occurred in the past. There is no assertion or construal of a relationship between those events. That is the case even if those events have a cause and effect relationship because cause and effect occurs without the interference of an intelligent being (not counting the first cause). On the other hand, when we have poetic shaping, the author has asserted his control and has imposed a structure on the events. We might say that an episodic narrative is haphazard, it is the outcome of chance. Poetic shaping on the other hand, reveals the author’s hand in putting the text together. We might say it is a manifestation of intelligent design. In that case, the structure of the text serves to point us to the author’s intention, to the meaning he has embedded in the text.
There are two different kinds of interpretation at work in these two visual metaphors. In the first metaphor, the chrono-logic metaphor, interpretation involves an accurate understanding of the historical events that took place followed by the reader deducing the significance of those events. This is precisely what is taking place in the debate about the gap that may or may not exist somewhere in Gen 1:1-3. The proponents of the various theories are trying to deduce from the text what actually happened in support of their theory and in order to deduce the theological implications of those historical facts. This is not how the Bible is to be interpreted and that is why both sides of the argument are fundamentally flawed (even if they end up being right).
A different mode of interpretation takes place in poetic texts. In such a text we have not only a sufficiently accurate record of events (accurate for the purposes of the author though sometimes with much less of the historical detail than we moderns feel we need to support our mode of interpretation) but we have also embedded in the text the authoritative interpretation of the significance of those events. Did you get that? The theological significance of the text is not left up for the reader to deduce from the historical detail provided by the author. The significance of the historical event is located at the nexus of form and content. This nexus is fashioned by the author.
Do you see how this runs contrary to our modern sensibilities? We want the author to be objective and to convey mere facts. “Just the facts, ma’am, just the facts,” says sergeant Friday. This is not how history writing of any kind works, let alone history writing that took place long before Descartes left his brain too long in the oven (we often historically attribute to Descartes the artificial separation between the objective and subjective—he came up with his theories after meditating all day in an oven or maybe a stove-heated room).
Well, we’ve covered a lot of ground in this post while only scratching the surface of what’s going on in Genesis 1:1-2:3. If you’re interested in reading more I recommend the Genesis commentaries by Kenneth A. Matthews (New American Commentary), Gordon Wenham (Word Biblical Commentary), or John Sailhamer’s The Pentateuch as Narrative. Next time (four weeks, at least), we’ll be bringing in the Ancient Near Eastern background to see how it influences our interpretation of the text.
Other posts in the series: Genesis and the Big Gnab Theory
- Genesis and the Big Gnab Theory
- Genesis 1:1-3: The Creation Account and Hebrew Narrative
- Genesis 1:1-2:3: The Creation Account as Hebrew Poiesis
- Genesis 1:1-2:3 in Its Ancient Near Eastern Context
- Creation – Temple – Creation
- Genesis 1: Cosmology or Cosmogony?