Is Genesis Poetry? (response to a high school student)
by Richard Peachey
Hi, S------. I apologize for taking this long to get back to you. I've had a fairly demanding week in a particular teaching assignment. But I mentioned that I would address the issue of whether Genesis is poetry, so I'd like to do that now. What I say below will draw on the material in my article "Five Arguments for Genesis 1 and 2 as Straightforward Historical Narrative" but will also include additional material.
In asking the question about the genre (type of literature) seen in Genesis, we have to understand that this book (like most of the Old Testament) was originally written in the Hebrew language. So our question must be, Does Genesis constitute Hebrew poetry? English poetry displays various features such as rhyme (similar sounds at the ends of lines), but Hebrew poetry shows its own distinctive characteristics (some of which may also be found in English poetry). Does Genesis have the specific characteristics of Hebrew poetry?
Note that even if Genesis were judged to be Hebrew poetry, that would not entail that its contents are not true and historical. Some of the psalms, which are definitely poems, are nonetheless strongly historical in that they recount, at length, key episodes in Israelite history. Psalms 105 and 106 are outstanding examples of poetry which is also highly historical. But since some people appear to be labeling Genesis as "poetry" as part of an attempt to reduce its credibility as true and historical, it is worth exploring in some detail this question of the genre of Genesis.
Now, no one denies that parts of Genesis are poetic in structure. The speech of Adam (2:23), the judgments of God (3:14-19), the boast of Lamech (4:23-24), and other sections of discourse (speech) in Genesis, especially 49:2-27, are generally accepted as poetic. Also, Genesis 1:27 could be considered poetic due to the parallel structure of the lines. None of this affects the argument that, in general, Genesis is prose (I would call it specifically "straightforward historical narrative") rather than poetry.
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(1) The most striking feature of Hebrew poetry is parallelism (sometimes called "balanced lineation"). This means that the second line will typically either restate or enhance (expand on) the first line. (This is sometimes referred to as the rhyming of thoughts rather than of sounds.) If the second line involves a restatement, this can be either positive, repeating the same idea in different words ("synonymous parallelism"), as in Psalm 35:4, or negative, giving a comparable thought but from an opposite perspective (antithetical parallelism), as in Proverbs 10:1. With a few exceptions (already noted), parallelism is absent from Genesis.
(2) Another noteworthy feature of Hebrew poetry is the frequent absence of the direct object marker, which is found more pervasively throughout Hebrew narrative. The direct object in a sentence is the person or thing receiving the action of the verb. In the sentence, "Tom kicked the ball," the direct object is "the ball," which is the thing receiving the action of the verb "kicked." In Hebrew narrative the particle אֶת (eth) is often written just before the direct object in a sentence. This is done because Hebrew word order is flexible, and word order alone does not always clearly indicate the direct object, as it would in English. Hebrew poetry often (not always) omits this particle, but in Genesis 1-2 it is found 40 times, including those instances in which the particle is incorporated as part of a personal pronoun (1:1 [2x], 4, 7, 16 [4x], 17, 21 [3x], 22 [2x], 25 [3x], 27 [3x], 28 [2x], 29 [2x], 30, 31; 2:3 [2x], 5, 6, 7, 8, 10, 11, 13, 15, 19, 22, 24 [2x]). For more detail on these first two points, see Old Testament scholar Robert McCabe's comments here, pp. 33-37.
(3) A standard feature of Hebrew narrative is the use of the "waw consecutive" to describe sequential acts or events. In Hebrew, the letter ו (waw, pronounced "vuv" [rhymes with "love"], and transliterated in English as either "v" or "w") is often prefixed to a verb. This letter carries the meaning "and," but when prefixed to a verb it also has the effect of changing a verb in the past tense to the future tense (roughly speaking), or vice versa. For example, יֹאמַר (yo'mar) means "he will say," but וַיּאׄמֶר (vayyo'mer), with a prefixed waw, means "and he said." This feature is often found in Hebrew prose, but is typically less used in poetry. (A notable exception is found in poetic material that is extensively tied to history, such as Psalms 105 and 106.) The "waw consecutive" appears 75 times in Genesis 1-2 (1:3 [2x], 4 [2x], 5 [3x], 6, 7 [3x], 8 [3x], 9 [2x], 10 [2x], 11 [2x], 12 [2x], 13 [2x], 14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19 [2x], 20, 21 [2x], 22, 23 [2x], 24 [2x], 25 [2x], 26, 27, 28 [2x], 29, 30, 31 [3x]; 2:1, 2 [2x], 3 [2x], 7 [3x], 8 [2x], 9, 15 [2x], 16, 18, 19 [2x], 20, 21 [4x], 22 [2x], 23).
(4) A scholarly study conducted by Steven W. Boyd for the Institute for Creation Research has provided strong statistical support for Genesis as historical narrative, based on textual use of verb forms. See here for the full report (technical and lengthy but worth the effort). A less technical summary is available here. The study considered the ratio of preterite verb forms to the total of finite verb forms. A variety of Hebrew passages acknowledged to be either narrative or poetry were assessed, and the narrative ones were generally found to have a much higher ratio of preterite to finite verbs. Genesis 1:1-2:3, with high statistical reliability, was found to nest well within the numbers calculated for the acknowledged narrative texts. (Psalms 105 and 106, which are obviously historical though poetic, were unusual among the poetic passages in having quite a high ratio of preterite to finite verbs.)
(5) Other features often found in Hebrew poetry include:
• extreme brevity of expression (often only three or four words per line; average about six)
• omission of definite article ("the")
• omission of the relative pronoun ("which")
• omission of common prepositions ("in"/"by"/"with," "to"/"for"/"of," "like"/"as")
[The above four features of Hebrew poetry are captured under the terms "condensation" or "highly compressed expression."]
• lots of "figuration" including symbolical language and imagery (e.g., simile, metaphor)
• "intensification" or emotional heightening (e.g., exclamations, hyperbole) • dramatization (e.g., "I/you" discourses, vocatives
• "transposition" or unusual word order (e.g., verb late in the line)
• some distinctive vocabulary
(For more on these points see Ernst R. Wendland. "Genre Criticism and the Psalms." In Robert D. Bergen [ed.]. 1994. Biblical Hebrew and Discourse Linguistics. Dallas, TX: Summer Institute of Linguistics. pp. 386-387.)
Such characteristics do not uniquely determine Hebrew poetry, but they tend to be more common in poetry than in narrative. These features are not particularly prominent in Genesis 1-2.
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Today's leading theistic evolutionist is Francis S. Collins. He comments on the genre of Genesis several times in his book The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief (2006. New York: Free Press [Simon & Schuster]). [My comments are given in red.]
[Regarding Genesis:] "Unquestionably the language is poetic." (p. 83) [This is false, as I have shown above. The reality is, such a claim is eminently questionable!]
"There is no question that this is a powerful and poetic narrative recounting the story of God's creative actions." (p. 150) [Powerful, yes. Poetic, no, as I have demonstrated.]
". . . the first few chapters of Genesis, the book of Job, the Song of Solomon, and the Psalms, have a more lyrical and allegorical flavor, and do not generally seem to carry the marks of pure historical narrative. . . . the first chapters of Genesis had much more the feel of a morality play than an eyewitness report on the evening news." (p. 175) [No one disputes that Job, Song of Solomon, and Psalms are Hebrew poetry. But Genesis is quite different, as I have indicated.]
"In looking closely at chapters 1 and 2 of the book of Genesis, we have previously concluded . . . that this powerful document can best be understood as poetry and allegory rather than a literal scientific description of origins. . . . consider the words of [famous geneticist] Theodosius Dobzhansky . . .: '. . . It is a blunder to mistake the Holy Scriptures for elementary textbooks of astronomy, geology, biology, and anthropology. Only if symbols are construed to mean what they are not intended to mean can there arise imaginary, insoluble conflicts.' " (p. 206) [People who talk about allegory or symbolism in Genesis should be asked what the symbols represent, and how they know. Collins's words "rather than a literal scientific description of origins" and Dobzhansky's talk about "conflicts" indicate that the real problem for them is that Genesis, read straightforwardly, does not line up with current assertions by scientists. But what is the internal evidence, within the text itself, for designating Genesis 1-2 as poetry? For sure, the Bible is not a "science textbook" but it is a historical document that speaks reliably, indeed with divine authority, to various matters being pontificated on by today's scientists.]
"The real dilemma for the believer comes down to whether Genesis 2 is describing a special act of miraculous creation that applied to a historic couple, making them biologically different from all other creatures that had walked the earth, or whether this is a poetic and powerful allegory of God's plan for the entrance of the spiritual nature (the soul) and the Moral Law into humanity." (p. 207) [The Bible presents special acts of creation as the source of all living things, so humans are not different on that account. Their difference is that they were created in God's "image" and "likeness," and that fact distinguishes them from the rest. Collins here appears to be on the edge of questioning the actual historicity of Adam and Eve, and thus his evolutionism is working to undermine, for him and those he influences, the historical foundation of the gospel itself.]
"Many sacred texts do indeed carry the clear marks of eyewitness history, and as believers we must hold fast to those truths. Others, such as the stories of Job and Jonah, and of Adam and Eve, frankly do not carry that same historical ring." (p. 209) [OK, so now it becomes clear that Collins actually is doubting the historical reality of Adam and Eve, as well as of other Old Testament figures who are treated as real and historical by Jesus and the New Testament writers.]
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Edward J. Young (1907-1968), a conservative Bible scholar with a PhD in Hebrew and Cognate Learning, taught Old Testament at Westminster Theological Seminary from 1936 to 1968. Those who would detract from the historicity of Genesis sometimes point out that Young called Genesis 1 "semi-poetic." But it's important to understand what he meant and what he did not mean by this expression. The quotations below are from his book Studies in Genesis One (1964. Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian & Reformed Publishing).
"Genesis one is a semi-poetic account of creation, told as straightforward narration." (p. 40)
"We use the term semi-poetic merely to stress the elevated character of the language. Inasmuch as true parallelism in the verses is lacking Genesis one cannot legitimately be designated poetry in the Hebrew sense." (footnote, p. 40) [Perhaps it would have been better if Young had referred to the elevated character of the concepts or the events. The language, i.e., the Hebrew wording itself, is not complex or unusual — but the reality of a transcendent, omnipotent Creator bringing the universe and living things into existence in six days by His mere spoken word is certainly a truth to marvel at!]
"Genesis one is written in exalted, semi-poetical language; nevertheless, it is not poetry. For one thing the characteristics of Hebrew poetry are lacking, and in particular there is an absence of parallelism. . . . The Bible does contain poetic statements of creation, namely, Job 38:3-11 and Psalm 104:5-9. . . . The latter two passages are poetic for they contain parallelism, and it is this feature which is lacking in the first chapter of the Bible." (pp. 82-83)
"Genesis one is not poetry or saga or myth, but straightforward, trustworthy history, and, inasmuch as it is a divine revelation, accurately records those matters of which it speaks. That Genesis one is historical may be seen from these considerations. 1) It sustains an intimate relationship with the remainder of the book. . . . 2) The characteristics of Hebrew poetry are lacking. There are poetic accounts of the creation and these form a striking contrast to Genesis one. 3) The New Testament regards certain events mentioned in Genesis one as actually having taken place. We may safely allow the New Testament to be our interpreter of this mighty first chapter of the Bible." (p. 105)
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Henri Blocher, a proponent of the currently fashionable Framework Hypothesis which reads the early chapters of Genesis as not necessarily historical, suggests that Genesis 1 may be "a unique blend of prose and poetry" (1984. The Opening Chapters of Genesis. Downers Grove, IL: Inter-Varsity Press. Translated from the French by David G. Preston.)
"Is it prose or poetry? The choice is a gross oversimplification. Even Young who wishes to see in Genesis 1 only 'straightforward history', recognizes without any sense of inconsistency that the chapter 'is written in exalted, semi-poetical language'. It is clear that we do not find here the rhythms of Hebrew poetry, nor its more or less synonymous parallelism. The reader of the original, however, is sensitive to the rhythm of the sentences [but Blocher has just previously admitted the absence of "the rhythms of Hebrew poetry"], he notices a number of alliterations [such can be found within historical narratives] and one phrase which is confined to poetry, 'beast of the field' [couldn't the later poems have picked it up from this early narrative?]. Albright saw in the refrain '(God saw) that it was good' a cry of wonder, the sign of an antecedent poetic form [so Albright makes the dubious suggestion that this wording could have been derived from some (unknown) earlier poem]. The word 'hymn' comes to many writers. Whether it is a strophic hymn in prose or a hymn which is a unique blend of prose and poetry, Paul Beauchamp, the most sensitive of analysts, wisely concludes: 'By the importance of repetition [this is not diagnostic of poetry: see Numbers 7 for some very repetitive historical narrative] and of its corollary, silence [say what?], our text is indeed close to poetry, but its movement towards a solution places it in the order of prose'. Following his lead we can say that the genre is composite." (p. 32) [Thus does Blocher, by means of hints, suggestions, and speculations, try to nudge what is obviously prose (even for him) in the direction of poetry. All of this in the hope that he might be able to legitimize a non-historical interpretation of Genesis 1-2.]
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See also the following useful articles:
David C. Scaer. 1977. "The Problems of Inerrancy and Historicity in Connection with Genesis 1-3." Concordia Theological Quarterly 47(1):21-25. <http://www.biblicalstudies.org.uk/article_genesis_scaer.html>
W. Gary Phillips and David M. Fouts, "Genesis 1-11 as Historical Narrative." <http://www.ankerberg.com/Articles/science/SC0100W1.htm>
All the best, in Christ,