genesis 1 is not poetry

What can I say? Genesis 1 is not poetry, nor is it some weird hybrid of poetry and prose. Genesis 1:27 alone is poetry, but the rest of the chapter is pretty much stock-standard biblical Hebrew narrative in regards to its syntax. It is not poetry!

Why is this an issue? It’s an issue because debates about Genesis 1 seem to align figurative reading (of some sort) with poetry and literal reading with prose. This is a manifestly false disjunction. It is perfectly possible to have “literal” poetry, and it is quite common to have figurative prose. In other words, the whole argument is daft!

Aside from this, it’s worth making a few specific points about Genesis 1 in the context of such debates:

  • Whatever genre Genesis 1 is, it is not historiography (by which I mean the sort of text we find in much of the remainder of the pentateuch). The repetition, symbolism (including numerical symbolism), and the aetiological elements are unlike anything that we find in (what can loosely be termed) biblical historiography. This does not mean Genesis 1 must be figurative, but it does mean we cannot simply assume that it is “literal.”
  • A significant problem with modern readings of Genesis 1 lies in the dominance of scientific readings. Young-earth creationists read it as though it presents scientific information, those who believe the universe is billions of years old condemn Genesis 1 on the grounds that it conflicts with what they know from science. These groups dominate debate and both seriously misread the text!
  • Genesis 1 was written in the ancient Near East in a foreign language to a people with a very different cosmological view of the world, not to correct their cosmology, but to tell them about God and their place in his world. Much of what makes it strange to us was merely the language and ideas used to communicate to those people. There is no indication that it set out to correct their cosmology, rather that it used those ideas (just as it used Hebrew because that was what the people understood) to communicate its message. Consequently it does not endorse their cosmology, but needs to use it in order to successfully convey the message the text does endorse.
  • Some proponents of the young earth position speak as though non-literal texts cannot contain any factual information. This, too, is a fallacy. Jesus’ parables were fictional tales that sought to teach specific lessons. Fables are the same, as are numerous other figurative narrative genres. Furthermore, there’s no reason why figurative narratives cannot include historical elements. So, for example, Job may have been a historical figure, but the account of his life in the Book of Job can hardly be literal (who goes around speaking only poetry, after all?).
  • To realise just how strange Genesis 1 is (or ought to be) to us, I’ve reproduced my foreignising translation in toto below. This aims to avoid domesticating the text (which many modern translations do) so that we cannot escape from seeing just how difficult it really is to reconcile the chapter with modern thought.

So here’s the complete translation of Genesis 1:

When God began establishing the sky and the land, the land was uninhabitable, and darkness covered the surface of the primaeval depths. But the spirit of God stirred over the surface of the waters and God said, “Let there be light!” And there was light. God recognised that the light was good, and God separated the light from the darkness. God named the light “day” and he named the darkness “night.” Then there was evening and then morning, a first day.

Then God said, “Let there be a barrier between the waters which will separate the waters, and let the barrier separate the waters which are below the barrier from those which are above the barrier.” And it was so. Then God named the barrier, “sky,” and there was evening and then morning, a second day.

Then God said, “Let the waters under the sky be collected to one place so that dry ground appears.” And it was so. Then God named the dry ground “land” and he named the collected waters “seas.” God recognised that it was good.

Then God said, “Let the land sprout plants: crops and fruit-trees producing varieties of fruit containing its seed.” And it was so. So the land produced plants—varieties of crops and varieties of trees bearing fruit containing its seed. God recognised that it was good, and there was evening and then morning, a third day.

Then God said, “Let there be lights on the barrier of the sky to separate between the day and the night, and let them mark the times for days and years, and let them be lights on the barrier of the sky to shed light on the land.” And it was so.

God made the two great lights—the greater light to govern the day and the lesser light to govern the night — and the stars. God placed them on the barrier of the sky to shine on the land, to govern the day and the night, and to separate between the light and the darkness. And God recognised that it was good. And there was evening and then morning, a fourth day.

Then God said, “Let the waters swarm with swarms of living things, and let flying things fly over the land, in front of the barrier of the sky.” And God established the great sea-monsters and all the varieties of squirming living things with which the waters swarm, and all varieties of winged flying things. God recognised that it was good.

And God blessed them with the words, “Be fruitful, multiply, and fill the waters in the seas, and let the flying things multiply on the land.” And there was evening and then morning, a fifth day.

Then God said, “Let the land produce varieties of animals—varieties of cattle, creeping animals, and wild animals.” And it was so. God made the varieties of wild animals, varieties of cattle, and all varieties of animals which creep over the ground. God recognised that it was good.

Then God said, “Let us make humankind as our representation to be our proxy so they may rule over the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky, the cattle, and over the entire land as well as all of the creeping animals which creep over the land.”

So God established humankind as his representation,
as the representation of God he created that one,
male and female he created them.

Then God blessed them with the words, “Be fruitful, multiply, fill the land and subdue it. Rule over the fish of the sea, the flying things of the sky, and all the animals which creep over the land.” And God said, “Now I give you all the crops which are on the land and all trees bearing fruit containing its seed—these shall be your food. To all the wild animals, to the birds of the sky, and to the animals which creep over the land which are alive, [I give] every green plant for food.” And it was so.

God recognised that all which he had made was now very good. And there was evening and then morning, a sixth day.

Then the sky and the land was finished, and all their entourage. By the seventh day God had finished the work which he had done, so he rested on the seventh day from all his work which he had done. And God blessed the seventh day and made it sacred, because on it he rested from all his work which God established.

To see the commentary that goes along with this translation, and its introduction, see the following pages:

  1. Introduction to foreignising translation
  2. Genesis 1 — part 1
  3. Genesis 1 — part 2
  4. Genesis 1 — part 3

13 thoughts on “genesis 1 is not poetry

  1. Personally I think Genesis 1 is a theological opening statement. One that needs to be read with the view of Moses standing on a hill, addressing the Israelite s telling them their story. I find it fascinating that the creation story of God continually shows that God created that which the Egyptians worshiped. Sun, moon, creatures, water etc..

  2. Useful translation. Thanks. I’d push for “idol” instead of “representation” if you really want to nail the Ancient Near Eastern comparison – I reckon Chapter 2 treats the creation of man in the terms and format of an idol vivification within an ANE temple – so Adam is the representative who speaks for Yahweh in his temple garden – and the verb used for the forming of Adam out of dirt is elsewhere used for the building of idols – it makes the prohibitions against making images, and the prophetic rebuke of Israel for going after idols a pretty interesting anthropological indictment.

  3. Although the word “idol” is probably theologically overloaded – but there needs to be something, I think, to capture the parallel between what we were supposed to do, and what ANE religions created idols to do…

  4. When people talk about Genesis 1 being narrative, I usually point to Nathan’s narrative of the rich man in 2 Samuel 12. The ambiguity of reference – literal?, metaphoric? – is the essence of the dramatic tension.

  5. Nathan, thanks for the comment. With “representation” I’m trying to reflect the widely accepted use of these terms on statues of kings which were erected throughout their realms in order to represent their authority. Perhaps the most famous example is the statue of Hadd-Yithʿi at Tell Fekheriyeh which includes cognates of both the terms used in Gen 1.

    Chris, I too use Nathan’s words to David as an example of narrative that is clearly not “literal.”

  6. There’s a very fine, almost invisible, line distinguishing god and king in the ancient near east. There’s no doubt that’s in the mix though – the OT narrative has a really nice flavour if every rebuke about making images of gods is read as a failureto be the image of the God who speaks. A guy named something Kutsko wrote a spectacular commentary on Ezekiel seeing disobedience and exile (and God’s ‘absence’) as pointing to a massive anthropological failure on Israel’s part, that required a move from idol shaped ‘stone hearts’ to hearts shaped by the living God. All set up in Genesis 1.

  7. The thickness of the “fine line” varies depending on where you are in the aNE. It’s certainly finest in Egypt (where Pharaoh was divine), but somewhat broader elsewhere. Yet one interesting feature of Gen 1 is that it portrays the first humans in a manner that sounds more reminiscent of gods in the surrounding nations than people (i.e. they are effectively immortal and rule the world). In Mesopotamia in particular, human beings were made to alleviate the gods’ workload.

  8. Yep. I get that, except that I think in many cases the cosmogonies (as texts) were generated essentially as royal propaganda (not in all cases), and often, in the application of these texts, there was again an invisible distinction between serving the gods and serving the nation-state/god-king. I was thinking more of Gudea than Egypt…

  9. Nathan, you’re probably correct, of course it’s sometimes difficult to distinguish between possibly competing functions – a text that exalts Marduk, for example, doubtless served the purposes of those in power at some point. As time passes things get murkier still.

  10. It feels like we’re quibbling over very obscure details though, in terms of this post. It’s simply an example of how exploring the ANE context can be theologically enriching and get you a more complete understanding of the Old Testament.

  11. Martin, as you may remember, I am a fan of foreignizing translations. There is much about your translation I like. The same goes for your exposition. I am very largely in agreement with you – and you knew that already.

    Here are a few critical comments that your readership may appreciate. They are not going to surprise you, and you will respond to them with your usual eloquence. But here they are.

    I believe it is fair to call the text you translate a cosmological narrative. It also fair to think of it as a anti-text to other narratives of the time. As I have put it elsewhere:

    Gen 1 is a cosmo-logical treatise the ordered literary form of which mimics the orderliness of creation. Unlike other creation accounts, it does not narrate a theomachy. It is not a tale of conflict among the gods the outcome of which was the creation of humanity, as in Enuma Elish and Atrahasis.

    Per Gen 1, the cosmos is, neither in origin nor in fact, the product of opposing divine principles. It is the product of a single, sovereign mind. It is imbued with order, symmetry, and purpose.

    It is also a matter of great interest that the sun and the moon are not created until late in the sequence; furthermore, they are reduced to insensate objects, a greater and lesser light. They are not imbued with agency or character. Gen 1 is a monotheizing text of the first order.

    Your take on the syntax of the first paragraph of the narrative is interesting. Perhaps you are restructuring a bit? Moreover, your translation of one of the key verbs of the narrative by “establish” such that God established sky and land and sea monsters seems a bridge too far.

    I now remember we conversed about this text 5 years ago. Here is (one of) the links:

    http://ancienthebrewpoetry.typepad.com/ancient_hebrew_poetry/2007/11/a-literary-tran.html

  12. John, great to hear from you (as always)! I agree with most of what you write without hesitation, they’re very helpful observations. I’m not too hung up on “establish” and I think we also discussed it on the pages linked at the bottom of the post.

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