Genesis 1 – It’s Almost Poetry

I became acquainted with the Angolan novelist Ondjaki in an interview not long after he won the Jose Saramago prize in 2013. The interviewer asked if the stories in the earlier Good Morning Comrades, and the award winning Gramma Nineteen and the Soviet’s Secret were true. Ondjaki carefully didn’t answer the question. Later when reading the books I came to understand how complicated the question and answer was. Truth and facticity are not the same things. “Just the facts” don’t always convey the truth because reality is more complicated than just the facts as we can grasp them. Listen to any politician and you quickly realize that facts are frequently used to avoid, obscure, and even obliterate the truth. Listen to a poet and you understand that what is true often transcends the events that convey the truth.

Similarly, the “facts” of Genesis 1 can easily get in the way of its truth. More often than not a presupposition of what the truth of the matter must be is imposed on the text and the text is then molded to fit into the particular version of the truth the reader wants to find. Consider three words in Genesis 1: 11, 20, 24, in which God tells the earth and sea to bring forth living creatures. “Let the earth bring forth grass …” (v 11). “Let the waters bring forth abundantly the living creatures” (1:20). “Let the earth bring forth living creatures after his kind.”

I’ve always found it amusing to point these three verses out to Christians who assume they adhere to a very literal interpretation of scripture. The KJV (quoted above) sounds very friendly to evolutionary theory because it attributes the direct agency of creation to the land and sea and only indirect agency to God. This is not to say that the earth is Creator; that is always applied to God. With this interplay in mind, let’s look at Gen 1:24-25 again, this time from the NRSV:

[24] And God Said, “Let the earth bring forth living creatures of every kind: cattle and creeping things and wild animals of the earth of every kind.” And it was so. [25] God made the wild animals of the earth of every kind, and the cattle of every kind, and everything that creeps upon the ground of every kind. And God saw that it was good.

Note that in this translation (which is typical of English translations) the origination of creation is clearly attributed to God while the agency of creation is attributed to the earth, not of its own volition, or by chance, but according to God’s command. But is this translation an accurate rendering of the text?

The first extant translation of Hebrew scripture into another language is a translation into Greek, called the Septuagint three or so centuries before the birth of Christ. This is especially valuable because Hebrew, being a Semitic language, is radically different both in structure and thought process, to languages that grow out of the Greek and Latin lines, such as English. Rather than tense and mood, the force of verbs is expressed through something called stems and verb forces. This system is utterly disconnected from how we typically parse verbs. The Septuagint offers us an invaluable insight into how Semitic scholars translated their own language into Western form.

I will assume that my readers do not read Greek, so I will not quote the Septuagint directly. Rather I will quote a contemporary English Language version called “The Saint Athanasius Academy Septuagint, which is a very literal translation into English. “Let the earth bring forth (blastao) the herb of grass …” (Gen. 1:11). “Let the waters bring forth (exagageto) creatures having life …” (1:20). “Let the earth bring forth (exagageto) the living creature according to its kind …” (1:24). If one wanted to quibble, it might be argued that the first word, blastao, would be better translated “sprout” or “produce.” But again, the command is not given to the plants, but to the earth itself. “Let the earth produce or sprout plants …”

So we find that the translation is correct. But what does it mean? The answer to that question depends on what sort of literature Genesis 1 was intended to be in the first place. In the previous essay I noted that Augustine rejected the idea of interpreting Gen. 1 literally. A century before Gregory of Nyssa similarly didn’t treat it as a literal description of what happened but rather believed it was an allegory. Neither give a precise explanation of why they didn’t believe it was to be taken literally. That is interesting in itself. The fact that they didn’t feel the need to defend their position implies that it was obvious to them that it should not be read literally. Their opinions likely have something to do with its literary structure.

It would be a stretch to call Gen. 1 a poem but it does have a Semitic poetic structure. The opening words are no doubt familiar: “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters …” (Gen 1:1f, NRSV) This is the initial creation, creation in an instant, creation in a Word. For whatever reason God chose not to make a beautiful, complete, well-formed, and static creation. Rather God’s initial creation was a “formless void” about which his Spirit (ruach, which can be translated as wind, breath, or spirit) blows. The rest of Gen. 1 then describes, in a highly formalized way, using the categories of “separation” and “filling” how this formless void was ordered and became “very good.”

Realm Separation Population
Heavens Day 1
Light and Dark
Day 4
Sun, moon, and stars
Waters Day 2
Firmament/Waters
Day 5
Fish and birds
Land Day 3
Sea/Dry Land
Day 6
Land animals

Day six also includes the creation of man. Genesis never explains or defends its own structure, but we can assume that this part of creation is described separately because man is unique. While formed from the earth man is created directly by God (rather than being brought forth by the earth). Second, the Divine Wind (ruach) is breathed into him whereas in v. 1 the Divine Wind (the two uses of ruach in this chapter) blows over the formless void.

The sparse, impersonal character of the first chapter also brings attention to this poetic structure. Genesis 1 is declarative while Gen. 2 is narrative. The first chapter is impersonal, referring to God with the impersonal and generic title, “Elohim,” and the first created person with the equally impersonal “the earth creature.” The second chapter, on the other hand, describes creation through characters: God has a name (Yahweh — God’s personal name that contemporary religious Jews never say out loud). Adam and Eve are sympathetic characters in the second story. The serpent serves as a memorable and villainous foil who interacts subtly with Eve. While the first chapter is tightly crafted in its poetic structure, chapter two is a rambling narrative. The first paints the backdrop, the second assumes the backdrop (in the form of the Garden) and offers us the first human drama. Both are creation stories, but with fundamentally different interests and scope.

At this point I also point out that the cosmology of Gen. 1 is not only different, but simply incompatible, with what we know about the universe. It was assumed by early Semitic cultures that there was a hard dome over the earth. Scholars committed to a treating Gen. 1 as a text completely compatible with observational science have tried to soften or change this understanding of the firmament, but Paul H. Seely, in a monograph that appeared in the ultra-conservative Westminster Theological Journal [53 (1991) 227-240] demonstrates quite conclusively that the firmament (Hebrew: raqia) was conceived in the ancient biblical world as a hard dome. The sun, moon, and stars were either lights that slid across the bottom of the dome, or holes in the dome. And, in the Genesis account, the waters were divided above and below the dome. Below the dome they formed the seas, lakes and rivers; above the dome were the “storehouses of heaven” (i.e. Mal. 3:10) where rain was kept.

A second somewhat related point, is the close connection of sky and sea in the ancient Hebrew world. Although the sea is portrayed as part of the ordered universe in Gen. 1, the Hebrews never trusted it. Sky, and to an even greater extent, sea, if not the embodiment of chaos, were on the very outer edges of order. “Leviathan,” the great sea monster, was not so much an embodiment of evil as it was the embodiment of chaos and the unknown. Given that Hebrews were very much people of the land, and the belief that the firmament was a dome, the idea of three realms, all created, ordered, and populated by God — the land (where we live), the heavens (God’s abode), and the sea and sky (that unknown, still seemingly chaotic and certainly frightening place that existed between the land and the heavens) — was a powerful theological statement as to the ultimate power and authority of God.

And a third and final point: Grass, shrubs, and trees were not conceived as living in quite the same manner as the fish and animals. They are not creatures, per se, and thus are not created on the sixth day along with the land animals. Rather they are a part of the earth. God tells the earth to bring them forth on the third day.

In summary, although Gen. 1 offers a picture of an orderly creation with everything in its place, and ultimately “very good,” it is not a summary that matches what we know nor is it a conception of the world with which we are familiar, beyond the clear and unambiguous statement that God is ultimately the creator of everything. If you want to nit pick, it doesn’t even quite match the order of events in Gen. 2.

This is a reminder that we need to allow scripture to speak on its own terms. We should never try to force it into our framework. It is accurate in what it is trying to say, but not necessarily in line with what we might want it to say. This is more apparent to us in the Psalms, for instance, where it is more obvious that the text is poetry, and thus we more naturally allow for poetic license. Even the strictest literalist does not believe that trees have hands, much less clap them on a regular basis (Isaiah 55:12, another bit of biblical poetry). And yet anyone with the least bit of poetic sense realizes just how true a description of reality that is. So it is with Gen. 1. We need to allow this text, which is clearly structured in the popular parallel poetic fashion of the Semitic world, to be what it is trying to be rather than force it into a style (in this case, scientific rationalism) which is utterly foreign to it. That does violence to the trueness and literalness of scripture in a profound way because it forces scripture into our tarnished image and opinion of the day rather than allow it to reflect God’s image.

When we allow it to be what it is, what we find is a remarkably powerful affirmation of the power of God over everything. This power of God over everything, was in doubt, after all, among those who wanted to relegate the oceans to an utterly chaotic existence. Gen. 1 says that is not the case. Even the sea is ordered by God. That, given the context, is an amazing statement of faith in an all-powerful God.

When I taught confirmation class to Junior High kids they would often enter into the process as adversaries to the church and the faith. (Isn’t that what Junior Highers are supposed to start doing? Reject everything their parents stand for and begin to create an identity for themselves?) All my pastorates but one were in the Midwest and the other was in interior Alaska which might be even more conservative than the Midwest. Even though six day, young earth creationism is not the norm out there in the world, the parishioners I served seemed to assume that this was what the Church believed in. My Junior High catechumens were no different. It was inevitably one of the issues on which they would take a stand when they explained that they weren’t sure they believed all this church stuff.

I took great delight in saying, with all the gravitas I could muster, that the creation story of Genesis 1 actually taught evolution. I would pull out a King James pew Bible (not so much because of the translation, but rather because it was old and dusty with a slightly musty smell — nothing said, old-and-out-of-date-church like an ancient King James Version pew Bible) and have one of them read Gen. 1:24. Then I would ask them, “According to this verse, what brought forth the animals? God or the earth?” Of course someone would inevitably say, “God!” because that’s always the right answer in church. But I would have them read it again until the sense of it finally began to sink in.

That moment often changed the dynamic of confirmation class. With that secret knowledge (that even their parents didn’t know) that just maybe the Bible taught evolution, we could begin to have a serious conversation about living God who is active in our world instead of what they had come to perceive as old, musty, and dead religion.

But does Genesis 1 actually teach evolution?

Hardly!

Genesis 1 can be legitimately used as a defense of evolutionism to same degree as it can be used to support creationism. This text is an enigmatic description of Creation that has almost nothing to do with modern Rationalism and Enlightenment Rationalism’s two warring children, Atheistic Evolutionism and Biblical Creationism.

On the other hand, the character of Gen. 1 described above is why Gregory and then Augustine, both living long before the existence of modern evolutionary theory, were convinced that Gen. 1 was not literally true in the way we use that term today. It is profoundly true in so many different ways; it is a multifaceted gem that describes the majestic Creator in all his awesome glory. To try to turn it into a science text is to turn it into a macabre caricature of isolated modern man peering out into what he mistakenly assumes is the great emptiness of space and time. I encourage all of us to not do that. God is majestic. This text is majestic. Let’s keep them that way.

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