Monday, July 25, 2011

Genesis Creation Story: Poetry or History or What?

History, Not Poetry?

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:
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.
He then explains:
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.

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.
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:
1:1 In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.

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.
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.

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?

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At 4:28 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm no expert in Hebrew poetry, but this occurs in Classical Chinese poetry (especially with regulated verse poems) and prose (to a lesser extent) as well.

At 4:50 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

You mean "Informational Parallelism"?

Jeffery Hodges

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At 4:51 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Yes informational parallelism as well as structural parallelism.

At 4:55 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

By "structural parallelism," would you mean the sort of parallelism that one finds in Genesis 1?

Jeffery Hodges

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At 5:06 AM, Blogger Kevin Kim said...

Sounds like a job for Elisson.

Word verification: "puticon." Would sound vulgar were it French.

At 5:13 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

That led me to his 'poem' -- neither history nor science, but an imperative! Obviously, the man for the job!

Jeffery Hodges

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At 5:29 AM, Blogger ilTassista Marino said...

Hebrew poetry (...) any experts out there are welcome to offer opinions

Maybe Jew scholars may be asked for their opinions, but most probably there have been & there are many different interpretations; and rightly so, imho.

It is quite interesting, however, that in Marc Chagall's 105 etchings for the Jewish Bible (the Tanak; what Christians call "Old Testament"), he completely skipped the six days of creation, as well as the days in Eden. In fact, after a symbolic image showing an angel who carries Man in his arms, N. 2 already shows Noah inside the Ark.

In an essay published online some months ago (in Italian), I had tried to work out a possible explanation. Basically, Chagall 'spreads' those primordial events throughout the whole of Israel's history. That sounds quite like the Greek-Roman myths, describing events which "never happened, but always happen," as an ancient author said.

- - -

Word verification: biblogy

At 5:45 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Thanks, Dario. I await further revelations . . .

Jeffery Hodges

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At 6:02 AM, Blogger ilTassista Marino said...

Well, I...

... oops! Word verification: "luenda," meaning "(sins) to be purified, expiated" in Latin.

Which of us may Blogger be referring to?

At 6:52 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God . . .

Jeffery Hodges

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At 7:25 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Easy really Jeff, just think about it. If it all begins with water and dark it is History.

Chapter 1: Evolution.


At 8:38 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

It looks more like cosmology, poetically rendered, but based on the views of the ancient Near East.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 10:10 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Here's an example of the parallelism I was talking about:

花開花謝春何管 화개화사춘하관
雲去雲來山不爭 운거운래산불쟁


At 11:17 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

This is structural parallelism, I take it?

I assume that the parallelism isn't "informational."

But I do wonder if the second line might be intended to assist in interpreting the first line. Flowers more likely blossom in sunlight than under clouds, and the mountain is perhaps indifferent to the clouds, but what does that say about the spring? It's indifferent to whether the flower blooms or not?

Jeffery Hodges

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At 3:23 PM, Blogger Robert Brenchley said...

I wonder whether 'poetic' is being used as a code for something else - metaphorical, symbolic, something like that?

Gen 1 begins with God bringing order out of chaos - dividing water and land, light and darkness - then proceeds to spontaneous generation - God commanding land, sky and water to bring forth creatures and lights; eavenly bodies seem to be on a par with plants and animals. It doesn't look like history to me!

At 5:13 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Yeah, I didn't use "poetic" very precisely.

As for "spontaneous generation," that's an interesting suggestion. God is depicted as saying "Let there be . . ." -- as though the creative force within things needed merely permission.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 8:29 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

When it comes to the origin of matter, energy, and the entire universe, all is speculation.
I read once that someone commented to the effect that ".....There are likely as many theories of cosmology as there cosmologists, and each will fight for his or her own notion, as a mother for her child..."
Since no human being was there at the beginning, all is speculation.
It seems to me that the account of beginnings in Genesis is a logical and reasonable one, if you assume that there is actually a creator.
The question of how matter and energy came into existence is still an unsolved problem.
The first and second laws of thermodynamics apply.


At 12:08 AM, Anonymous Scott A. said...


I recommend the foremer preacher I've mentioned before who has 5 year program going through the Bible.

He spends a good bit of time looking at the first chapter and talking about creation theories.

He is a fundamentalist, but he doesn't talk about it in terms of narrative - if by which we mean a roughly chronological story - with a time flow.

It isn't history that way. For example, the story of the creation of Adam (and Eve) is told twice. 1:26 and then 2:7.

I forget exactly how he described it, but it is as if the author is focusing on areas of a snap shot. One is the overall view first and then directing the eye to a specific element to bring it into focus in detail.

He also argues for Gap Theory - that Verse 1 is seperate from verse 2 and following in a similar effect as the snap shot described above. That there is a huge gap between the original creation of the physical universe and the orderly, logical (re)creation of the earth as described in the 6 days.

I was interested to see that the New King James version 2:4 has "history" as a translation and a note saying "Hebrew toledoth, literally generations".

Arguing that the author meant it to be viewed as a history - not as wholly symbolic.

The reason I'm commenting concerns the snap shot idea of telling a narrative. It made me think of modern printing and type-set techiques: How today, using computers, we can plot a 1 cell table down on the left or right margin of our primary text to give the reader extra information or go more indepth or provide a special focus - without disrupting the flow of the overall text too much.

It is a more effective method that a similar one used by Coleridge in Rime of the Ancient Mariner. I remember discussing the poem in a class once and whether the annotations at the side, which are omitted in some printings, are important for interpreting the story or not -- or are they central to the story or not.

Basically I mean, sometimes authors are telling a story but want to add emphasis at certain points and in a certain way for the reader. In Genesis 2, the creation of Adam is told again to narrow the focus on him and mankind, which is what the rest of the book is going to be about, but before it got there, it went through a quick rendition of events far above mankind, and if gap theory is correct, verse 1 was a quick hitter saying God created everything at one point and verse 2 fast forwards us to the time he reshaped the earth to get down to the issue of creating mankind.

At 1:59 AM, Blogger ilTassista Marino said...

God is depicted as saying "Let there be . . ." -- as though the creative force within things needed merely permission

Jeffery! This only happens in English, with this specific verbal construction.

At 6:42 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Uncle Cran, scientists do speculate, but some speculations are better than others. Those that are simpler, more coherent, and fit the facts better are generally preferable.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 6:48 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Thanks, Scott, for calling attention to this resource.

I've heard of a gap theory, though I think that it suggested two creations. I forget the details . . . something to do with pre-Adamites, I think.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 6:57 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Dario, is "Let there be . . ." a mistranslation of the qal imperfect?

The translation seems to be a possible one.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 2:30 PM, Blogger ilTassista Marino said...

is "Let there be . . ." a mistranslation of the qal imperfect?

Well, not a 'mistranslation,' but a somewhat overemphatic one, just because of the different features of the two languages. In the Genesis verses it is about a iussive form, 'asking' someone to do something. But the verb "to let" is not expressed. In fact, where in English the phrase "Let there be" (three words) occurs, the Hebrew text has only three letters: YHY, i.e. the verb HYH (to be) preceded by Y that means a possible action, or in the future. In Latin it was easy to translate it simply and literally by "fiat."

A corollary. The very name of God, YHWH, comes from this construction, conveying the concept: "I Am the One Who Makes (you) Be."

At 2:39 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

I see. The jussive does not necessarily imply permission for someone to do something, but is usually a request that someone do something.

But the jussive does leave the impression of co-action, doesn't it?

Jeffery Hodges

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At 2:57 PM, Blogger ilTassista Marino said...

the jussive does leave the impression of co-action, doesn't it?

Of "commanded action," rather, because of the 'strength' of that Y at the beginning of a Hebrew verb. Or, more in general, something to-be. The point in Genesis 1 is that God doesn't need 'a thing' in order to create the universe.

It is true, however, that the very phrase "to create out of nothing" was just employed in the very late text of II Maccabees (7.28), which was not accepted in the definitive canon of the Jewish Bible. Nor in Protestant Bibles, I think?

At 3:06 PM, Blogger ilTassista Marino said...

"Till heaven and earth pass, one jot [Y] shall in no wise pass from the law."


At 3:07 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Right. Maccabbees is not canonical for Protestants.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 8:36 AM, Blogger theswain said...


Several points to make, so hope you bear with me.

First, there is no such thing as "informational Parallelism" in reference to Hebrew poetry. I checked several grammars, commentaries on the Psalms, translations, and Robert Alter's Art of Biblical Poetry just to be sure I wasn't misunderstanding or misremembering. After that I did a web search and interestingly the only place "informational parallelism" occurs on the web is in relation to discussions defending the historicity of Genesis 1. In short, they made it up to defend their position.

The proof of that is in the pudding, so to speak. Look at the example of "informational parallelism" from the Psalms he gives. If you look at the context of the quotation of verses 29 and 30, you will note that the verses preceding regard how created things look to God (in a psalm celebrating God's greatness, power, and majesty), they look to Him for food, he turns his face away, they recoil, and then of course we have the description of ultimate divine power: over life and death itself (verses 29-30). Is this informational? I suppose one could say that, though one could argue that the furthest thing from the psalmists mind at that point would be to inform God (who is after all the intended audience of this poem of praise) about His own nature. But the feature is the parallelism, not that it is "informational."

The author rejects the notion of Genesis 1 being poetic on implied notions and the one explicit one. The first implied notion is that if we label Genesis 1 poetry, it can not therefore be history. But these are not mutually exclusive categories. Second, the author implies that if historical in genre that means it is history in our modern sense. Yet this too is problematic. Many a tale never happened but is told as if it did. An historical genre need not mean anything in terms of what actually occurred in the past.

Finally, the explicit claim made is that Genesis 1 is not poetry because it does not contain sentence level parallelism. Except it does. All those statements about "let there be...and there was. And God saw...." are parallelisms!!!! The famed structure of the days are parallels (1 and 4, 2 and 5, 3 and 6)! Some have argued that verse 2 is a intensive parallel of verse 1. Throughout the chapter there are a number of alliterations, a number of repetitions, and even a few rhymes (which as you know are often memory cues in oral traditions) and other poetic features.

In short, the author's claim falls short, way short. This doesn't mean that Genesis 1 is poetry. But nor is it strictly prose. Just as comparing this chapter to a psalm will reveal differences between an undoubted poetic text and Genesis 1, the same is true if we compare the same chapter to a section of pure, prosaic narrative with it's spare style that leaves so much up to the reader. It really is a hybrid chapter, a poetic prose narrative.

At 8:36 AM, Blogger theswain said...

To continue:

I also am not at all sure what DHR's issue with "let" is. In modern English, "let" plus the infinitive for of the verb is the only way now to express the English jussive and hortatory subjunctives. The verb in Hebrew is best taken as a jussive. Ta Da! Translate a jussive use with a jussive use! No overwroughticity or overemphasis need be read into it. Nor is it particularly noteworthy that where modern English has three words, one of them being simply a linguistic marker and meaningless, whereas the original has three letters since such a feature would be expected in translating from a more inflected language to an all but non-inflected language as modern English now is. Jussives, even in Hebrew, express a desire, wish, or command. In the case here of a superior being, like God or even a god, expressing his wish, well, I would think almost any premodern audience would have heard that as "your wish is my command!" That is, the Hebrew jussive here *may* be softer than an imperative, but only by a hair's breadth (which besides the imperative only occurs in second person).

I won't get into the issue of "definitive canon" and Maccabbees here....that is another whole ball of wax too often misunderstood even by professionals.

At 8:49 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Larry, thanks for checking out that "informational parallelism" stuff. I had wondered about that but didn't have time to investigate.

I had also noticed the same parallelism in Genesis that you call attention to, so thanks for developing that extensively.

Thanks, too, for the extra grammatical analysis on the jussive.

By the way, I go by "Jeffery."

Jeffery Hodges

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