Is the Genesis Creation Account Poetry?
Liberal theologians have long sought to recast the Genesis record of origins by a variety of exegetical manipulations. One of these is the theory that the Mosaic narrative in Genesis 1 and 2 is not a document of prose-oriented history. Instead, it is alleged to be poetry.
It is contended that history narrative as a discipline did not exist before the era of the Greeks. Instead, historical information was conveyed through various genres, one of which was poetry.
These scholars labor under the illusion that a poetical interpretation relieves the Mosaic record of its conflict with modern “science,” especially in the matter of the earth’s age in contrast to that of human history.
The fact is, however, numerous portions of sacred scripture are framed in poetic language, and yet are anchored in genuine history (cf. Num. 24; Psa. 148; 1 Tim. 3:16b). Yet such are acknowledged as documents that are divine in origin and authoritative in force (cf. Psa. 82:6; Jn. 10:34). The poetic segments of the Bible are as inspired as are law narratives or those commonly recognized as historical testimony.
Poetry is merely a literary form. On its own, it has nothing to do with history—pro or con. It may or may not reflect a historical background.
Dr. Oswald Allis, cofounder and longtime professor of Old Testament at Westminster Theological Seminary, noted:
[I]t has been clearly shown that the dividing line between prose and poetry is not fixed and sharply defined but that elevated or impassioned prose may approximate very closely to poetry, especially that it is often marked by that basic characteristic of Hebrew poetry, balanced repetition or parallelism (1974, 109).
The Motive Exposed
With the advent of Darwin’s theory of evolution, and the billions of years which were postulated as necessary for that alleged process to be achieved (cf. Jastrow 1977, 112), the religious community, ever mesmerized by the speculations of “science,” came to the stark realization that the biblical record of earth history could never be harmonized with the escalating theories of geologic dogmatism.
Thus desperate measures to reconcile the biblical view of origins with naturalistic theories gradually were conceived. The gap theory, i.e., the notion that a span of billions of years passed between Genesis 1:1 and 1:2, captured the imagination of some. The idea that the “days” of the creation week were not literal days, but rather embraced epochs of time, likewise became faddish. (Yet see Exodus 20:8-11 where the “days” of the creation week are depicted as ordinary days—just like the sabbath.)
Eventually (shortly after the dawning of the twentieth century), others began to suggest that Genesis 1 and 2 are somewhat poetic in nature. Though they insist this view does not compromise the historicity of the Mosaic record, admittedly the poetry genre does allow for a greater degree of interpretative flexibility. With some writers, this accommodates an exegetical manipulation that is easier to reconcile with their perception of science. (For a brief analysis of this view, see Grudem 1994, 300-304.)
It has been argued that in the ancient world few people wrote in prose. Supposedly, the Egyptians were virtually the only example of such. For thousands of years, it is claimed, people wrote almost exclusively in poetry, though elements of history were woven within the poetic fabric. Some scholars thus began to contend that the first chapter of Genesis reflects a song format.
It also has been asserted that the first two chapters in Genesis “are cosmology, not history”—as if a cosmological (i.e., creation oriented) theme could not be historical, even if conveyed by an inspired writer. Some insist, therefore, that while the events of Genesis 1 and 2 are historical in basic substance, they were not written in the genre of history. A number of elements within this view warrant examination.
The History of History
As noted above, the allegation that “the first two chapters of Genesis are cosmology, not history” is inaccurate. First, these questions are appropriate:
- When did this interpretative contrast between cosmology (the structure and origin of the universe) and history commence?
- By whom was the distinction initiated?
- What are the criteria that delineate the former from the latter?
I submit this view reflects a false premise, and is both artificial and subjective.
It is artificial in that it subtly suggests no one could write a history of the origin of the universe; yet a writer, under the influence of the Spirit of God (as Moses was) certainly could have (cf. 2 Pet. 1:21b). Jesus once asked, “Have you not read, that he who made them from the beginning of the creation, made them male and female?” (Mt 19:4; cf. Mk. 10:6).
The contrast between cosmology and history is subjective since it concocts an arbitrary rule for identifying a bona fide historical document, and appears to deny that cosmology and history can overlap.
Second, as mentioned earlier, the assertion that history as a discipline did not exist before the Greeks is inaccurate. The fact is, as noted by Professor R. Laird Harris, it now is conceded that written history extends back at least to 3000 B.C.—centuries before Greek civilization became a literary force (2003, 666).
The late Dr. Samuel Kramer, America’s foremost scholar on ancient Sumer (the earliest known civilization of Mesopotamia), in his book, History Begins at Sumer, declared that among the thousands of tablets recovered from Sumer there was a significant display of “a variety of types and genres which, considering their age, is both startling and revealing.” These included myths, epic tales, hymns, lamentations, collections of proverbs, fables, and essays (1959, xx; also see Barker 2003, 1631ff). Humankind has always been interested in its history. It is unrealistic to think that the ancients rarely wrote historical narrative.
Third, the acknowledgment that the Egyptians wrote historical prose significantly weakens the argument that Genesis 1 and 2 are poetry, not prose. Moses, the author of the Pentateuch, was reared for forty years in Egyptian culture as the adopted son of Pharaoh’s daughter; thus he was afforded the finest of Egyptian education (Ex. 2:10; Acts 7:21-22; Heb. 11:23-28). Is it not reasonable, therefore, to conclude that Moses was familiar with literary prose? Note the following observation by John J. Davis, former president and professor of Old Testament and Hebrew at Grace Theological Seminary.
Since “Moses was learned in all the wisdom of the Egyptians and was mighty in words and in deeds” (Acts 7:22), it is not unreasonable to assume that he had the intellectual capacity and training to be the primary author of Genesis. Archaeological light on Egyptian education indicates that as Moses grew in the royal court, he would have received much formal training in reading and writing the hieroglyphic and hieratic scripts, in copying texts, and in writing letters and other formal documents (1975, 26).
The scholars involved in the major translations of the Scriptures have made a conscious attempt to separate the prose portions of the biblical text from those of a more poetical nature. Obviously there is a degree of subjectivity involved in the process. In biblical prose the typeface, line by line, takes a uniform format. When the translators feel that poetic literature is in view, varying procedures are employed in the typesetting process to indicate such.
For example, the American Standard Version (1901) has the text paragraphed, thus the verse numbers appear randomly throughout each paragraph. When a poetic section is referenced, the verse numbers are all justified to the left of the column (cf. ASV, RSV, ESV). Contrast, for example, Genesis 1 and 2 with chapter forty-nine. Quite obviously, then, the translators did not view the first two chapters of the biblical record as poetic. In marked contrast, see the textual format in the New International Version (1978).
Scholarship: Conservative vs. Liberal
I think it is fair to say that the poetic view of the Genesis record is relatively new compared to the overall historical understanding of this biblical text. A recent writer dates this poetic interpretation to 1924 (Chaffey 2011). For the most part it seems almost unnecessary to point out that conservative scholarship has long rejected the idea that the first chapters of Genesis are poetry.
In The Bible Commentary edited by F. C. Cook (produced between 1871 and 1881), Harold Browne, Bishop of Ely, wrote regarding the first three chapters of Genesis: “There can be no reasonable doubt, that the writer of Genesis puts forth his history as history” (1981, 48).
Though his material is now somewhat dated due to the growth of material resulting from archaeological discoveries, E. H. Plumptre (1821-1891), a renown British classical scholar and biblical commentator, has illustrated the high level of historical writing even in the pre-Moses patriarchal period (1959, xiii).
In addition, noted German scholar C. F. Keil, in his commentary on Genesis, has an informative introductory section titled, “Historical Character of the Books of Moses” (Keil 1980, 28-32).
McClintock and Strong’s Cyclopedia states:
But Genesis is neither like the Vedas, a collection of hymns more or less sublime; nor like the Zendavesta, a philosophic speculation on the origin of all things; nor like the Yih-king, an unintelligible jumble whose expositors could twist it from a cosmological essay into a standard treatise on ethical philosophy . . . . It is a history, and it is a religious history (1969, 776).
H. C. Leupold, longtime professor of Old Testament theology at the Evangelical Lutheran Theological Seminary in Columbus, Ohio, in his scholarly two-volume set of commentaries on Genesis, wrote:
We may at this point take issue with the claim commonly raised in our day that Genesis, as to its contents, as well as other older Biblical books falls into the category of poetry rather than history. . . . We are utterly out of sympathy with such an attitude; for it does not conform to the facts of the case. Nothing in the book warrants such an approach. It is rather a straightforward, strictly historical account, rising, indeed, to heights of poetic beauty of expression in the Creation account, in the Flood story, in the record of Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac, in Judah’s plea before Joseph, and the like. But the writer uses no more of figurative language than any gifted historian might, who merely adorns a strictly literal account with the ordinary run of current figures of speech, grammatical and rhetorical (1978, 12-13).
The professor also points out that classifying the text as poetry allows for a greater “variety of interpretation” than a recognition of prose would permit.
In other words, this scholar is suggesting that motive has a lot to do with the poetry interpretation. One of the leading proponents of the poetic interpretation of Genesis 1 and 2 openly confessed that the value in this view is “to rebut the literalist interpretation of the Genesis creation week propounded by the young-earth theorists” (Kline 1996, 2).
Consider the testimony of the celebrated Edward J. Young. Professor Young (1907-1968) studied at Stanford University, Westminster Theological Seminary, Leipzig University, and Dropsy College (PhD). He taught Old Testament at Westminster Theological Seminary for more than thirty years. He has been characterized as a man of “profound scholarship, which included wide-ranging linguistic skills” (Douglas, 1995, 434). This learned scholar wrote:
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. The remainder of the book (i.e., The Generations) presupposes the Creation Account, and the Creation Account prepares for what follows. The two portions of Genesis are integral parts of the book and complement one another. (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 (1964, 105).
Professor Davis again:
Genesis is an example of classical Hebrew prose and generally reads with considerable consistency and smoothness (33).
In the last three decades the pressure of “scientific opinion” has increased to the point that some biblical scholars have made sweeping concessions, abandoning a literal interpretation of the text in favor of a mythical or poetic interpretation (37).
With reference to the initial passages of chapter one, Davis says:
That the text is prose and not poetry is evidenced by the frequent use of the waw consecutive; this is the grammatical device normally employed to describe sequential acts (38).
Prominent Old Testament scholar Walter Kaiser Jr., distinguished professor of Old Testament at Gordon Conwell Theological Seminary, has discussed the matter of whether the creation account of Genesis 1 can be classified as poetry. He declared that it cannot be said “that Genesis 1 is poetic in form.” He went on to argue that there are a number of “grammatical and syntactical forms in Genesis 1 and 2 that can only be found in prose literary genre, not in poetry.” Further, he observed that while Genesis cannot be classified as history in the modern sense of that expression (i.e., facts independently verifiable by two or more sources), nonetheless it is a record of “actual events” in the history of humanity (1996, 89). Thus the assertion that Genesis 1 and 2 were written in poetry rather than prose is without substance.
We are compelled to add that the Genesis creation record is confirmed to be historically credible by numerous complementary inspired testimonies in both the Old and New Testaments, including that of the Son of God himself (cf. Psa. 33:6-9; Mk. 10:3-8; 2 Cor. 11:3; 1 Tim. 2:13-14). There are some twenty-six citations from the book of Genesis in the New Testament.
Secular Cosmology vs. History
Let me comment on a statement cited earlier, namely that “the first two chapters in Genesis are cosmology, not history” (emphasis in original). Secular cosmology (a scientific study of the possible origin and structure of the universe) and history are separate fields of discussion. Moses was not a scientist commenting on some alleged natural mechanical process for the origin of the universe; he was writing under the guiding force of the Spirit of God (cf. Jn. 5:47), and speaking of divine fiat action. This is history—sacred history.
In his commentary on Genesis, Harold Stigers, former professor of Old Testament at Wheaton College, discussed the attempt of modern scholars to identify the Genesis record with ancient cosmogonies. Regarding this matter he emphatically stated:
[T]he Bible story of creation is not a cosmogony! Conclusions founded on such a characterization cannot stand (1976, 18; emphasis in original).
Cosmogony (in this sense) would be an attempt to find a naturalistic explanation for the origin of the universe.
Genesis supplies a supernatural explanation—“In the beginning God . . .” This is sacred history, not speculation.
Regarding the issue whether the Genesis record is history, Dr. Allen P. Ross (PhD, University of Cambridge) was the author of the commentary on Genesis in The Bible Knowledge Commentary. In his introduction, he discusses this question: “Is Genesis history?”
Therein, he quotes Norman Porteous (distinguished Old Testament scholar in Scotland) to the effect that the reason many modern scholars disregard Genesis as history is due to the reality that “Israel’s religious traditions made frequent reference to supernatural interventions,” and that such is enough to “make the historian look askance at them and assume that the actual course of events must have been quite different” (1985, 19; emphasis added).
If space allowed, it might be helpful to discuss the various characteristics of Hebrew poetry. Different categories of similar features are referenced by studies dealing with this subject matter. Some of these are synonymous parallelism, antithetic parallelism, constructive parallelism, etc.
Traditionally the literary character of Genesis 1 and 2 has not been identified as poetry. The common reader, surveying the first two chapters of Genesis, would never conclude that these narratives were Hebrew poetry. (For further study on this point, see Taylor 1981.)
Frequently young teachers and writers are influenced by certain sources and adopt positions that have their ultimate roots in infidelity. They themselves would never dream of espousing the aberrant views that lie beneath their “scholastic” speculations, yet they have brought this theological baggage, unwittingly perhaps, with them from the dark and distant land of a rationalistic influence.
- Allis, Oswald. 1974. The Five Books of Moses. Nutley, NJ. Presbyterian & Reformed.
- Barker, Kenneth. 2003. Summer. Wycliffe Bible Dictionary. Carles Pfeiffer, Howard Vos, John Rea, eds. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson.
- Browne, Harold. 1981. Genesis. The Bible Commentary. Vol. 1. F. C. Cook, ed. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker.
- Chaffey, Tim. 20011. What’s Wrong with the Framework Hypothesis? June 21. (http://www.answersingenesis.org/articles/2011/06/21/framework-hypothesis##)
- Davis, John J. 1975. Paradise to Prison—Studies in Genesis. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker.
- Douglas, J. D. 1995. Twentieth-Century Dictionary of Christian Biography. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker.
- Grudem, Wayne. 1994. Literary Framework View. Systematic Theology. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.
- Harris, R. Laird. 2003. Genesis. Wycliffe Bible Dictionary. Charles Pfeiffer, Howard Vos, John Rea, eds. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson.
- Jastrow, Robert. 1977. Until The Sun Dies. New York, NY.
- Kaiser, Walter, Jr. et al. 1996. Hard Sayings of the Bible. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.
- Keil, C. F. 1980. Commentary on the Old Testament—The Pentateuch. Vol. 1. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans.
- Kline, Meredith G. 1996. Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith 48. March. (http://www.MeredithKline.com/files/articles/PSCF3-96Kline.html)
- Kramer, Samuel. 1959. History Begins at Sumer. Garden City, NY: Doubleday Anchor.
- Leupold, H. C. 1978. Exposition of Genesis. Vol. 1. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker.
- McClintock, John and James Strong. 1969. Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological, and Ecclesiastical Literature. Vol. 3. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker.
- Plumptre, E. H. 1959. General Introduction. Ellicott’s Commentary on the Whole Bible. Vol. 1. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.
- Ross, Allen P. 1985. Genesis. The Bible Knowledge Commentary—Old Testament. John F. Walvoord, Roy B. Zuck, eds. Wheaton, IL: Victor Books.
- Stigers, Harold G. 1976. A Commentary on Genesis. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.
- Taylor, Charles. 1981. Linguistics, Genesis, and Evolution. (http://www.answersingenesis.org/articles/cm/v4/n1/linguistics-genesis-and-evolution)
- Young, Edward J. 1964. Studies in Genesis One. Philadelphia, PA: Presbyterian & Reformed.
About the Author
Wayne Jackson has written for and edited the Christian Courier since its inception in 1965. He has also written several books on a variety of biblical topics including The Bible and Science, Creation, Evolution, and the Age of the Earth, The Bible on Trial, and a number of commentaries. He lives in Stockton, California with his dear wife, and life-long partner, Betty.