In my posts on Genesis 1 I say that the creation account is history and that it is literature. Is it possible to cross the impassable divide? At first, it seems the obvious answer is no. Historical fiction, after all, even though it’s cast in a real historical setting, is still fiction.
The Creation Account is Historical Narrative
Some might argue that the creation account in Genesis 1 is not history at all. This is not a common view among evangelicals, but among theologians in general there are some who hold such a view. For me, it’s important to begin by affirming that I consider Genesis 1 to be an historical account of creation.
One of the most important features of the Genesis 1 creation account is the predominance of the Hebrew verb tense that marks a narrative sequence. This verb tense is sometimes called the “waw consecutive” or “wayyiqtol” tense but here we’ll call it the narrative tense. When these verbs are put together in a string one after another, they create a sequence of action that is typical of Hebrew narrative. Here’s an example from Genesis 1 where the verbs in the narrative tense are in bold (the Hebrew word “and” is a part of this verb tense):
And God said, “Let there be light.”
And there was light.
And God saw the light, that it was good.
And God divided between the light and between the darkness.Genesis 1:3–4
Some scholars are prone to make two mistakes when they find a narrative sequence. One mistake is to jump to the conclusion that because the author is using the narrative tense, then we must be reading historical narrative. The verb tense is a solid indicator of narrative but it is not necessarily historical narrative. For example, in 2 Sam 12:1–4, Nathan uses the narrative tense but tells David a fictional or hypothetical narrative.
The second mistake is to conclude that the text is chronological. Yes, the text is sequential and the sequence indicates a kind of logic, but there is more than one kind of logical sequence.
We see a good example of this is in the middle of Genesis 2. Genesis 2 uses the narrative verb tense throughout but describes the creation of man (7–17), then animals (19–20) and then woman (21–22). If the narrative tense is an indicator of chronology, then Genesis 2 asserts that God created man, then animals, then woman in that order. But the same narrative tense in Genesis 1 indicates that God creates animals then man and woman in that order. In that case, Genesis 2 would contradict Genesis 1. Clearly, the Hebrew narrative tense is not always chronological.
So what does this mean? Is Genesis 1 neither chronological nor historical? I’ve already argued that it need not be chronological. But what about historical? If not chronological then not historical, right?
Not quite. For most people reading this post the idea that Genesis 1 is history is not controversial. I definitely agree that Genesis 1 is historical narrative. Even though Moses is not making claims about the order of creation, he is making claims that are rooted in historical reality and in events that took place in time. There is a God who exists apart from creation and who created all that exists. There is nothing that exists that was not created by him. God did create people as the pinnacle of creation and he did create them without sin and in his image. He did create them because he wanted them to experience his goodness and blessing. He did create them to take care of his creation. All these things are true and happened in time and space just as Moses gives account in his historical retelling of creation in Genesis 1.
Beyond that, Genesis 1 provides the historical setting for all that follows in Genesis and the rest of the Bible.
The Creation Account is also Poetic
So if Genesis 1 is historical narrative, then it is not poetic, right?
Not quite. In previous posts in this series I explain that there is more than one symmetrical structure shaping Genesis 1. There is a symmetrical structure in the six days of creation and there is even a symmetrical structure that envelopes the whole text using the introductory verse of Gen 1 and the seventh day of rest in Gen 2:1–3.
Symmetry is created by textual parallels. For example I pointed out that the first day of creation has a structure that is parallel to the fourth day. Likewise, day 2 is parallel to day 5 and day 3 is parallel to day 6. This kind of parallelism is characteristic of Hebrew poetry. In fact there are three characteristics of Hebrew poetry—it is 1) terse, 2) figurative and 3) full of parallelisms.
Does that mean that Genesis 1 is poetry? Not exactly, but it does mean it has poetic features. This is where things get tricky. I’ve just said that Genesis 1 is historical narrative and now I’m saying it has poetic features. Can historical narrative have poetic features?
For us, the answer to this question is no. In fact, in the middle of the twentieth century there was a big debate among philosophers of historiography about whether or not history writing could be in the form of story. At first, many philosophers said no, because they felt that story (they called it narrative because it’s story with a plot) is too poetic and distorts the scientific or objective truth value of history writing. Eventually, most came around to realize that you can’t separate story from history writing and now they’re still trying to figure out how history writing can be, to some degree, poetic.
For the Hebrews and all the other cultures of the ancient Near East, this was never a problem. For them, the best kind of history writing and even most history writing is poetically shaped history. You can see this very clearly in the Bible. Every single historical book of the Old and New Testament is, in some way, poetic—even Chronicles!
Take the book of Judges. Here’s a book that seems like straightforward historical narrative. And it is! Hebrew historical narrative, that is, and that means it has poetic features. When I say it has poetic features I’m not just talking about the song of Deborah in Judges 5. I’m talking about the fact that the book has a double introduction and a double conclusion that use parallelisms to create a double envelope around the whole book. Sound familiar? In Judges, the first introduction is parallel to the second conclusion and the second introduction is parallel to the first conclusion. This illustration might make the A-B-B’-A’ symmetrical pattern more clear:
Just like the inclusio I talked about in Genesis 1, this inclusio also serves as a lens through which we are to interpret the six major judge cycles in the core of the book.
Dogs and Cats, Living Together?!
The combination of historical narrative and poetic features is just simply a fact of life in Hebrew. You might find this disturbing.
“a disaster of biblical proportions…dogs and cats, living together, mass hysteria!”Ghostbusters
As much as this may disturb you, or seem counterintuitive, all of Scripture testifies to the fact that these two things have lived happily together since the creation of people. The question for us is not whether Genesis 1 is both poetic and historical. This is just simply a reality we have to face. Instead, the question is what do we do with this text that is both poetic and historical?
The poetic features of the text mean that the text is not straightforward, chronologically sequential narrative and yet the fact that it’s historical narrative means it’s supposed to be conveying truth about historical reality. How do we know when the text is making a claim about reality (e.g. God created everything) and when it is not (e.g. the events are not recorded in chronological order)?
This is not as difficult as it seems at first glance. The key is to pay attention to the poetic devices the author is using and let them guide the interpretation. The poetic devices show us both what the author is trying to claim and what the author is not claiming. How does that work exactly?
First off, what are poetic devices? Let’s start with a very general definition by contrasting poetry with prose. The difference between prose and poetry is that prose does not use poetic device and poetry does.
When my son arrives home from a camping trip I ask him how the trip went. The trip might have been great but he’s not really interested in telling me about it. So he gives me the bare details, recalling what happened and when. “We left home at about 3, got to LR at about 4, hiked up to the cabin and got there just as it was getting dark. We made up our hammocks and went to sleep. We slept until about…”
You get the idea. This is prose. Prose gives “just the facts, ma’am, just the facts.”
Poetry is different because it uses various techniques to shape the text into something other than a plain description of what happened and when. Again, Genesis 1 is a really good example of this as I explain above and in the Structural Symmetry post of this series. Here’s a quick view of that structure again but this time instead of looking at the syntactical structure, we’ll look at the content of each day:
This diagram highlights the parallels in content that connect days 1 and 4 (light and lights), 2 and 5 (sea and sky and what lives in them) and also 3 and 6 (land and what lives on land). This symmetry is an example of a poetic device that gives poetic shape to the text. The result is a text with poetic features.
The Two Functions of Poetic Devices
The symmetrical structure is a poetic device that does two things at once. It shows us what the author is trying to communicate (I like to say it “steps into” or “pushes into” reality) and it also shows us what the author is not trying to communicate (it “steps away” from reality).
Let’s start with stepping away from reality. The structural symmetry of Genesis 1 is the organizing principle by which Moses decided how to order the events of creation. One can imagine Moses sitting down to write about creation and asking himself, “How should I organize my account of creation?” or “What order should I put things in?” The symmetry we see in the text, this poetic device, clearly indicates that he decided to order his account so that days one and four are parallel, days two and five are parallel, and days three and six are parallel. That is the primary reason he placed the creation of light on day one and the creation of the lights on day four, and so on.
To say this another way, based on what we see going on in the text we must conclude that Moses decided to order his account of creation primarily using the poetic device of symmetry. The poetic device is the very thing that reveals to us what logic Moses used to organize the text. Because Moses decided to use the organizing principle of symmetry rather than chronology we can say that he has stepped away from chronology.
Does that mean the events are definitely not organized chronologically? No! It could be that symmetry and chronology coincide. The point is, however, that the patterned ordering of the narrative tense verbs shows us clearly that Moses intended to use the principle of symmetry as the organizing principle of the text. If that is the case, is it possible that he does not order events according to chronology? Yes, and we should leave that option open unless the text has other features that would indicate he maintained a chronological reading. But again, in another post on the days of creation I explain why his use of “days” and “there was evening and there was morning” are not necessarily meant to indicate ordering or length of time.
I want to make this point really clear. We feel uncomfortable with figurative readings of the text because we think that once we start to read figuratively in one place, then there’s no stopping. Next thing you know the resurrection of Christ is not a real historical event but just a figurative way of saying “new life.” Then “new life” just means I’m a better person, not that I have hope for eternal life. But that is not the case! The poetic devices used by the author are there in the text. They are textually verifiable and provide a control by which we understand when the author intends to “step away” from reality (and when he does not).
Now let’s go back and look at “stepping into” or “pushing into” reality. How does poetic device communicate something to us about reality?
By observing the poetic devices that Moses uses in Genesis 1 I become aware of claims he is making about creation that go beyond mere historical claim. All historical prose does is tell us about historical reality. But when Moses uses poetic device he does much more than just tell about history, he makes claims about what the historical events mean. In other words, he is making theological claims about a worldview.
To illustrate this, suppose that all Moses is doing in Genesis 1 is giving a straightforward chronological account of how God created. In that case, here are some claims we can make based on the historical logic of the text or based on what the text specifically and literalistically says:
- God created light on day 1 (etc. for each day of creation)
- God created plants before he created the sun (and so on for many more chronological claims).
- It took God six days to create everything.
- What God created was good, even very good.
- God created people in his image.
These are essentially historical claims about events that happened and the order in which they occurred. Statements like “God created everything good” go beyond historical claim but we can draw these conclusions only because the text states them explicitly.
Now consider some of the claims that I can make when I pay attention to the poetic devices in the text:
- All of creation is meant to be a good environment for people, where they experience blessing
- God created people without sin
- The one and only holy God created people to live in intimate relationship with Him forever.
These claims go well beyond historical claim and they are not explicitly stated in the text. But they are also not derived from the text based on some loose figurative logic.
Consider for example the claim, “God created people without sin.” The closest the text comes to stating this explicitly is with the statement “in God’s image he created them.” But it’s actually difficult to draw this conclusion just from Genesis 1. However, if we understand that Moses is telling us that creation is a temple where people live in the presence of a holy God, then the direct implication is that people were created without sin.
The theological claims, though not stated explicitly in the text, are based on the logic of the poetic devices. These are not our loose hunches. These are the primary claims Moses is making and the claims we understand by paying attention to the poetic devices he uses to construct this text. When we don’t pay attention to the poetic devices, we miss much of the nuance of the text and we quite possibly miss the main message. In fact, I believe that many young earth creationists who insist on a literalistic reading of Genesis 1, so distort this text with their interpretation that they make the text say things it doesn’t (in efforts to concord with science) and even completely miss its main message. That is tragic.
In short, we saw above that the poetic devices indicate when God steps away from reality but it is these same poetic devices that step into reality and reveal the author’s theological claims. The poetic devices are not there just to make the text pretty, they provide the key to properly interpret the text.
The poetic devices are not there just to make the text pretty, they provide the key to properly interpret the text.
I mentioned earlier that figurative readings make us nervous because once we start reading figuratively it seems like there’s no stopping and nothing is history. Here’s that problem again in a slightly different form. Once we allow figurative readings, then our imaginations can go rampant. Maybe the sun and moon and stars represent heavenly beings. Maybe days are phases in human history. Maybe light is God’s goodness and righteousness. Some of these might sound good, even biblical, but if anything can be figurative in any way, who decides?
Again, we need to drive home this point, figurative readings are not arbitrary. They are controlled by the author and specifically by the poetic devices we clearly find in the text.
More Than History but not Less
The Bible, as a literary work, is not less than history. It is both history and literature. Is that important?
It’s very important.
The literary nature of the text is important because it allows the text to make claims that go beyond simply a report of what happened. Literature makes theological claims. We saw this above when I listed some of the claims we could derive from the text if we read it as history and then another set of claims if we read it for its full literary value. These theological claims are the literal meaning of the text. They are exactly the claims the author intended to make and they depend upon the literary nature of the text.
The historical nature of the text is important because it grounds us firmly in historical reality. Christianity is a religion that claims God is involved in time and space. If Christ did not raise from the dead, our faith is vain and we are still in our sins. Pretty thoughts about eternal life don’t save us, Christ’s historical death and resurrection save us.
This is where the historical and the literary meet. The theological claims of the text rest on the veracity of the historical account. If the text is not historically accurate in the way the text claims, then the theological claims cannot stand. The theological claims rest on the veracity of the implicit historical claims.
The Next Question
All this literary stuff seems kind of new. Actually, it is. Theologians didn’t pay close attention to literary theory until the middle of the last century. This raises a question. In all of Christian history, has anyone ever read the text this way before? And if not, shouldn’t we be alarmed?
At seminary, our professor of the History of Christianity course used to joke that if a physicist comes up with a completely new theory she wins a Nobel prize but if a theologian comes up with a completely new theory he gets burned at the stake. It makes sense. Aren’t we in danger of heresy if we start teaching a new doctrine that the church has never before believed? That’s the question for the next post.
- The Evangelical’s Creation Conundrum: Navigating the Scylla and the Charybdis
- Designed for Order: The ANE Wisdom Worldview
- The Fear of Yahweh is the Beginning of Wisdom: The Israelite Wisdom Worldview
- Consilience: The Unity of Science and Scripture in the Matrix of Wisdom
- Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star, How I Wonder When You Are
- The Structural Symmetry of the Six Days of Creation
- Creation is a Temple: Reading Creation through the Proper Interpretive Lens
- Creation is a Temple: The Temple as a Meme in the Ancient Near East and Genesis 1
- Creation is a Temple: Moses’ Brilliant Literary and Theological Move in Genesis 1
- When a Day Might not be a Day
- Reading Genesis 1 as Literature and the Three Problems it Creates for Evangelicals
- How Can the Creation Account in Genesis 1 be Both History and Literature?
- Did the Church Really Get This Text Wrong for Two Thousand Years?
- The Paradox of Perspicuity: How Would a Regular Person Ever Understand Genesis 1 This Way?