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Is Genesis 1-2 symbolic poetry or chronological history?
The Book of Genesis is subject to one of the greatest debates in modern history. It describes the beginning of man, sin, nations, languages, Israel, and the Judeo-Christian worldview. One of the most controversial questions discussed in the Genesis debate is, “How long did it take God to create the world?”
Other topics that arise in this discussion are questions on the nature of the word “day,” the poetic nature to Genesis one, the literalism of the story and many others. In order to provide adequate answers to the above topics, one must start by answering, “What kind of literature is Genesis?” How one approaches the book of Genesis will dictate the understanding of Genesis. For instance, if Genesis is poetic in nature, then potentially everything in Genesis can have a poetic element. There would be no need to take “day” as a literal twenty-four-hour day for that wasn’t the author’s intention. On the other hand, if Genesis is a detailed account of history meant to be taken literally and chronologically with no poetic element, it would be absolutely essential to the truth of Genesis to take “day” as a twenty-four-hour day.
But what if Genesis is a combination of the two? What if the framework of Genesis is meant to be taken as a poetic narrative with historical truths at its core? Or, what if Genesis is meant to be taken as a historical narrative with poetic elements for literary purposes? It isn’t news to the theologian that A.N.E. (Ancient Near East) writers would sacrifice accuracy for rhythm or utilize certain principles when telling their story. When Jewish commentators, like Ibn Ezra or Rashi, come upon passages that seem to be out of chronological order, like the clash between Numbers 1:1 and 9:1 or the age of Isaac and Joseph in Genesis 37:35, they would invoke a famous escape clause, “there is no before and no afterwards in the Torah.” (b. Pesah 6b) Additionally, Jewish commentators understood the writer(s) or editor(s) of the Torah would often “make a general statement followed by the details. One of Hillel’s rules, kelal uperat, that could be translated by this simple formula: ‘The general first, the particular afterwards.’” (Koninklijke Brill NV, 2012) pg. 12).
It means that chronology is put secondary to the story and the author’s intent. They are not writing to give the audience a historical timeline of events, but telling a story about their history. It is one thing to accomplish to the audience a certain fact, it is another thing to intend to accomplish a certain fact to the audience. For instance, if it wasn’t Moses’ intention to describe the exact length of time it took God to create the world, but instead intended to establish His authority for their work week and Sabbath Day as an Israelite, it would certainly change one’s understanding of Genesis one. In other words, Moses may not be writing Genesis one in such a way to describe chronological history, but relative authority. Remember, Moses didn’t write the Torah and then give the commands. Moses gave the commands and then, over time, wrote the Torah.
If Moses were to be asked, “Moses, did God really create the world in six twenty-four hour days?” Moses may respond, “My dear friend, I didn’t write Genesis one for that purpose. My intention was to establish an authority and structure for our week. I wanted to give you a good theological foundation for what we should be doing.” Or think of this challenge, “Moses, was it really possible for Adam to name ‘all’ the animals of creation? How could that be possible in twenty-four hours? Even if Adam spoke a name every five seconds from midnight to midnight, it still wouldn’t be enough time! And he also had surgery in the creation of Eve!” Moses may respond, “My dear friend, I didn’t write that with that intention! I’m simply showing you that man has authority over the animals. I’m not instructing you on how long it took Adam to name all the animals!”
It is also true that even in strict historical records, meant to be taken as literal history, one finds elaborations, exaggerations, rounded numbers, and somewhat of a disregard for the details in order to serve various literary purposes. Simply put, the story needed to sound good. We find this kind of poetic history in the book of Psalms. Psalm twenty-two takes the reader upon a journey to the hill of Calvary where the cry of Christ meets the cross. One could say the factual claims of the poem are true. This same hermeneutic may be applied to Genesis chapter one, but should it?
Until next time!
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