Interpreting Genesis 1: Part 1

In the past, I have written various blogs devoted to origins and creation (herehereherehere…and here). I have come to understand and accept that I am unapologetically an old earth creationist (a position that accepts the biblical fact of God’s responsibility for creation and accepts the framework or timetable offered by the best science and history of the day). I am open to theistic evolution but do not make a clear judgment call concerning the view. This post begins my blog series on interpreting Genesis in a non literal fashion. I use the term “nonliteral” to my own dissatisfaction. I really do think you interpret Genesis 1 literally- as it was meant to be literally interpreted.  There is a tangible difference in interpreting Genesis 1 as literal and as literally as it is supposed to be interpreted. The issue when interpreting Genesis 1 that will change discussion, exegesis, and debate really is one of hermeneutics: What type of genre is Genesis? Is Genesis 1 a hymn, myth, science, theology, or a bare account of history (I suggest Bruce Waltke’s Old Testament Theology for an exhaustive discussion)? While Genesis 1 is essentially history found within a narratival portion of Scripture, it is unwise to interpret the account as straightforward history. Genesis 1 is highly stylized and seems to suggest that it should be interpreted as poetic prose (story told through the vehicular lenses of poetry). The rest of this blog will focus on looking at the section of Scripture and pointing out some points that validate my interpretive scheme.

Genesis 1 exudes Poetic Artistry

In his work Words of Delight: A Literary Introduction to the Bible, Leland Ryken notes that “no story of the Bible is told with such self-conscious artistry as this one (Gen. 1). The very style of the story is a fit form the content, which consists of God’s great artistic act of creation…Genesis 1 contains such an abundance of artistry that it is difficult to discuss the story without using the terminology of visual art and music to describe the literary effects.” Within the story, there are poetic semblances of recurrence, symmetry & design, variety, a unified progression, a climax, and a sense of wholeness & completeness.

Recurrence is a repetition of themes, words, motifs, or ideas within a piece of literature. Genesis 1 is full of common recurrence. The story begins with the common formula, “And God said, “let…”  and closes with a common refrain, “And there was evening and there was morning…” Repetition increases a story’s ability to create aesthetic pleasure and response. Stories are constructed in such a way to elicit certain feelings, thoughts, and responses in the reader. I can remember in the past when a local college pastor taught on Genesis 1 and being moved to wonder because of a certain way he presented the text. The speaker hushed the room for the reading of Scripture and invited a band of people upon stage with him to read the text. The extra people on stage would only speak when their repeated phrase found in Genesis 1 came up. The pastor read the story as the multitude of people would chime in on certain phrases as they appeared within the story. The effect was creating a crescendo of voices that all said various things about God’s acts in Genesis 1. The recurrence within the story lends support to the observation that this likely isn’t merely a record of God’s acts at the beginning of history. Other repeated phrases reinforce the effect: Let there be…; God called…; and it was so; God saw that it was good. If the reader is unaware of how much Genesis 1 intentionally repeats itself, go here to see the recurrence.

Genesis 1 contains symmetry and design. The story consists of a fixed pattern that underlines each day of creation. The author does not just report a record of events but describes them within a poetic form to elicit a certain response, a sense of majesty.

  1. Announcement (And God said…)
  2. Command (Let there be, or let it be gathered, or let it bring forth)
  3. Report (And it was so, or, And God made)
  4. Evaluation (And God saw that it was good)
  5. Placement in a temporal framework (And there was evening and morning, a [ordinal stated] day)

The writer sat down and decided how best to convey truth and does so using poetic eloquence, design, and artistic mastery in hopes the reader would understand something about the Sovereign God in the story’s symmetry and design. Dr. Ryken rightly notes though the symmetry and design are coupled with a sense of variety. He says, “The fixed pattern is played off against variety. Only one of the days of creation (4th) contains five elements in sequence. Four of the other days repeat at least one of the ingredients, and the second day omits the evaluation. Only two days (the 1st & 5th) follow an identical pattern. The artistic principle at work is obviously variety in unity, or freedom within form.” Balance is also seen within the story as one looks at the days. The basic pattern is three balanced pairs of days in which three settings are first created and then filled with appropriate creatures in the same sequence. There is an explicit framework within the unfolding of days. God forms and then fills those days. Bruce Waltke comments that “the chronological framework demonstrates logic and order to God’s creation. It also indicates progression.” Creation itself is also balanced with how things come about within the story- God’s instantaneous voice (And God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light (v. 3)) and acts of biological generation (“plants yielding seed” and “fruit trees bearing fruit in which is their seed”). God is orderly and creates things in a specific manner with exact care and concern. There is a method and productivity to God’s design.

The story possesses a unified progression meaning each act of creation builds upon something that preceded it. Each day lays the foundation for God’s mighty act that would come after the one mentioned. The unified progression brings forth the vision of an artist painting a beautiful picture first painting the mountains and hills then moving on to add a tree here or there to end the story putting creatures in various places upon the canvas. The painting reaches its highest pinnacle or climax with the insertion of man within it.  Again Dr Ryken points out:

The progression moves in stately progression to the climax, which is also the finale-the creation of people…The paragraph devoted to the creation of people is by far the longest in the chapter, and the five elements already noted are repeated until they explode into a total of fourteen units. The sheer abundance of details breaks the pattern that has been established.

The story moves from a progression of sequences to a climax or finale, the creation of man. Though the story’s main character is the Sovereign God who speaks things into immediate existence, it also stresses the value, position, and dignity of the participants in the climatic mountaintop-man and woman. A reader walks away with awe and respect for man’s position because of the way the story is told.

Finally, the story conveys a sense of wholeness and completeness. Ryken again rightly calls attention to this:

This is especially evident in verses that conclude the story, the first three verses of Genesis 2 (Thus the heavens and the earth were finished, and all the host of them. And on the seventh day God finished his work that he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all his work that he had done. So God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it God rested from all his work that he had done in creation.) Here we find the first evidence in the Bible of the tendency to associate the idea of completeness with the number seven and the conception of a week. Here, too, is the note of rest after labor and celebration after the hero’s performance of his mighty feat…The Bible’s story of creation begins with the evocative phrase in the beginning. It rises to a majestic display of God’s creative power and artistry. And it ends on a note that God finished his work which he had done (Gen. 2:2). No other story in the Bible better embodies the paradox of majesty in simplicity.

The story is finished and the painting is complete. It is ready for sale. It is ready to be marveled at by all who pass by in eager expectation.

There are quite a lot of other literary and poetic vehicles within Genesis 1. Consult various commentaries to see them brought out. The fact that Genesis 1 has so much conscious artistry lends credence to the idea of interpreting it in a nonliteral fashion. There’s a reason for telling a story in such a way. When we read statements such as “You (Yahweh) crushed the heads of Leviathan (Psa. 74:14a),” it is wrong to interpret them as God actually dueling out with a great sea creature. Instead, the reader is meant to think “Wow…God is mighty, sovereign, God will take care of you and fight for you, God is the ruler and king. None stands near him.” This is not to say that if a story has rich artistry that it should always be interpreted in a nonliteral fashion. But, deducing the genre from the text will cause the reader to see and understand the story differently. The Gospels’ accounts of Resurrection are different than the story of creation in Genesis 1.  They are different types of literature with different types of intentions and backgrounds. They both still tell and teach truth. Just in different, tangible ways. Genesis 1 teaches important truths and messages about who we are and who God is. God is king. God is sovereign. Man has dignity, worth, and immense measures of value. God is orderly and works all things for good. God is responsible for the beauty and magnificence we see around us. God is able. God is good.

J.I. Packer rightly states:

Genesis 1 and 2, however tell us who without giving many answers about how. Some today may think this is a defect: but in the long perspective of history our present-day scieitific preoccupation with how rather than who looks very odd in itself. Rather than criticize these chapters for not feeding our secular interest, we should take from them a needed rebuke for our perverse passion for knowing Nature without regard for what matters most; namely, know Nature’s creator. The message of these two chapters is this: “You have seen the sea? The sky? Sun, moon, and stars? You have watched the birds and fish”? You have observed the landscape, the vegetation, the animals, the insects, all the big things and little things together? You have marveled at the wonderful complexity of human beings, with all their powers and skills, and the deep feelings of fascination, attraction, and affection that men and women arouse in each other? Fantastic, isn’t it? Well now, meet the one who is behind it all!” It is as if these chapters say: now that you have enjoyed these works of art, you must shake hands with the artist; since you were thrilled by the music, we will introduce you to the composer. It was to show us the Creator rather than the creation, and to teach us knowledge of God rather than physical science, that Genesis 1 and 2, along with such celebrations of creation as Psalm 104 and Job 38-41, were written.

There are other reasons that I interpret Genesis 1 in a nonliteral way. Those are for subsequent blogs. Stay tuned.

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One response to “Interpreting Genesis 1: Part 1

  1. Pingback: Interpreting Genesis 1: Part 4 « Austin's Blog·

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