Genesis Creation Story: Poetry or History or What?
Some time back, my Uncle Cran sent me a link to the above website, suggesting, "I thought this article might interest you."
The article is titled "Genesis Is History, Not Poetry: Exposing Hidden Assumptions about What Hebrew Poetry Is and Is Not," and it's written by James J. S. Johnson, J.D., Th.D., for the Institute for Creation Research. I didn't find time to read it for a couple of weeks. Its basic point, as I discovered a couple of days ago, is that Hebrew poetry employs a poetic device that I've always known as Hebrew Parallelism, but which Johnson classifies as Informational Parallelism:
Unlike the rhyme and rhythm of English poetry, Hebrew poetry is defined by informational parallelism -- parallelism of meaning. The paralleled thoughts may emphasize good and bad, wise and unwise, reverent and blasphemous. They may or may not recount historical events, although time and place, if mentioned at all, are less emphasized than in narrative prose. This informational parallelism -- using comparative lines and phrases -- portrays similarities and/or contrasts, or comparisons of whole and part, or some other kind of logical associations of meaning.He offers this example:
Psalm 104:29 Thou hidest thy face, they are troubled:He then explains:
thou takest away their breath, they die, and return to their dust.
Psalm 104:30 Thou sendest forth thy spirit, they are created:
and thou renewest the face of the earth.
Note how both lines in verse 29 show parallel similarity of meaning, as do both lines in verse 30. Yet verse 29 informationally contrasts with verse 30 -- verse 29 tells how God controls the death of certain creatures (like leviathan, mentioned in verse 26), but verse 30 tells how God controls the life of His creatures. In order to get the full meaning of either verse 29 or verse 30, the total parallelism must be appreciated. This is the hallmark of Hebrew poetry.That's informative, and I'm obliged to Johnson for the point that the parallelism is "informational" . . . though I wonder if that's always the case (and also if this is a conventional expression for this poetic technique). Anyway, I recently wrote back in reply to Uncle Cran:
I finally found a moment to read the article.Since writing that to Uncle Cran, I've realized that I ought to give an example of what I mean, and because I brought up the issue of the first chapter of Genesis as poetry, let's take a look, using the traditional King James Version:
Clearly, the man is right that Genesis doesn't employ "informational parallelism" characteristic of Hebrew poetry. I doubt that this settles the issue, however, for what is contained in the very category "poetry" could be disputed. He has a rather narrow view of English poetry, for example, that doesn't seem to include free verse -- which doesn't make use of rhyme or fixed rhythm. I would bet that one could argue about what ought to be included as "poetry" in Hebrew. Arguably, the first chapter of Genesis is poetry of a different sort than that which uses Hebrew parallelism. There is parallelism of a different sort, however, as one can readily see.
Moreover, just because some text is not "poetry" doesn't make it "history."
But thanks for the link. I learned the concept of "informational parallelism" (which I'd always known as "Hebrew parallelism"), so I'm obliged.
1:1 In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.This doesn't sound like history to me, and even if there's none of the Informational Parallelism of the sort that Johnson talks about, there is another kind of parallelism in the repetition of phrases -- e.g., such as "Let there be" -- and the entire chapter seems poetic rather than strictly historical. Historically speaking, if that's the right expression here, the sequence seems odd to me, with God creating light and dividing darkness from light to create night and day before creating the sun, moon, and stars. Where's the light coming from before these luminaries are created? And the more closely I look, the more questions I have. Everything seems to begin with water and darkness, and the orderly world that God sets about creating requires a separation of waters by forming a "firmament" that keeps the waters divided into waters above the heavens and waters below the heavens. I could continue, and a close reading raises all sorts of interesting questions, but I don't see that I'm reading a document about history. And the chapters that immediately follow this first one seem to present a somewhat different story of creation, including a garden with a tree of knowledge and a tree of life, along with a talking serpent. Are these really intended as history, or are they 'mythic' elements? But these are vexed questions, so I'll stop here.
1:2 And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness [was] upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.
1:3 And God said, Let there be light: and there was light.
1:4 And God saw the light, that [it was] good: and God divided the light from the darkness.
1:5 And God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And the evening and the morning were the first day.
1:6 And God said, Let there be a firmament in the midst of the waters, and let it divide the waters from the waters.
1:7 And God made the firmament, and divided the waters which [were] under the firmament from the waters which [were] above the firmament: and it was so.
1:8 And God called the firmament Heaven. And the evening and the morning were the second day.
1:9 And God said, Let the waters under the heaven be gathered together unto one place, and let the dry [land] appear: and it was so.
1:10 And God called the dry [land] Earth; and the gathering together of the waters called he Seas: and God saw that [it was] good.
1:11 And God said, Let the earth bring forth grass, the herb yielding seed, [and] the fruit tree yielding fruit after his kind, whose seed [is] in itself, upon the earth: and it was so.
1:12 And the earth brought forth grass, [and] herb yielding seed after his kind, and the tree yielding fruit, whose seed [was] in itself, after his kind: and God saw that [it was] good.
1:13 And the evening and the morning were the third day.
1:14 And God said, Let there be lights in the firmament of the heaven to divide the day from the night; and let them be for signs, and for seasons, and for days, and years:
1:15 And let them be for lights in the firmament of the heaven to give light upon the earth: and it was so.
1:16 And God made two great lights; the greater light to rule the day, and the lesser light to rule the night: [he made] the stars also.
1:17 And God set them in the firmament of the heaven to give light upon the earth,
1:18 And to rule over the day and over the night, and to divide the light from the darkness: and God saw that [it was] good.
1:19 And the evening and the morning were the fourth day.
1:20 And God said, Let the waters bring forth abundantly the moving creature that hath life, and fowl [that] may fly above the earth in the open firmament of heaven.
1:21 And God created great whales, and every living creature that moveth, which the waters brought forth abundantly, after their kind, and every winged fowl after his kind: and God saw that [it was] good.
1:22 And God blessed them, saying, Be fruitful, and multiply, and fill the waters in the seas, and let fowl multiply in the earth.
1:23 And the evening and the morning were the fifth day.
1:24 And God said, Let the earth bring forth the living creature after his kind, cattle, and creeping thing, and beast of the earth after his kind: and it was so.
1:25 And God made the beast of the earth after his kind, and cattle after their kind, and every thing that creepeth upon the earth after his kind: and God saw that [it was] good.
1:26 And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth.
1:27 So God created man in his [own] image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them.
1:28 And God blessed them, and God said unto them, Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth.
1:29 And God said, Behold, I have given you every herb bearing seed, which [is] upon the face of all the earth, and every tree, in the which [is] the fruit of a tree yielding seed; to you it shall be for meat.
1:30 And to every beast of the earth, and to every fowl of the air, and to every thing that creepeth upon the earth, wherein [there is] life, [I have given] every green herb for meat: and it was so.
1:31 And God saw every thing that he had made, and, behold, [it was] very good. And the evening and the morning were the sixth day.
I admit that I'm no expert on Hebrew poetry, so any experts out there are welcome to offer opinions on the characteristics of Hebrew poetry and the various sorts of Hebrew prose.
Also, what sorts of literature are these opening chapters of Genesis?