Evolution v. Creation Metaphor Watch: Did the Author of Genesis 1 Think That He Was Writing Poetry—or History?

In one respect, the tension between evolutionists and creationists is not over the nature of science, but over the nature of genre.

In other words, did the author of Genesis 1 mean to write something in the genre of POETRY—or was he attempting to set down an account of HISTORY—of the literal beginnings of time?

There is a very good reason to think that the author meant to write poetry, as a simple look at the structure of the text reveals, for the first three days of creation MIRROR the second three days of creation:

  • On the first day of creation God said “let there be light,” as well as darkness, and on the fourth day of creation he made the moving inhabitants of those realms (the sun, moon, and stars).
  • On the second day God separated the waters above the earth from the waters below the earth, and on the fifth day he made the moving inhabitants of those two realms (the birds and sea creatures).
  • On the third day God made the dry land and plants appear, and on the sixth day he made the moving inhabitants of that realm (the animals and man).

In other words, the author clearly structured his creation story in such a way that the “stage elements” were created on the first three days (light, waters above and below, and the land and plants) and the “actors”—the things that move about—on the second three days (sun, moon, stars, birds, fish, animals, man).

Put another way: the author poetically structured his narrative around things that “are” and things that “move”—between stage and actors.

Shakespeare, if he had ever noticed this element to the first chapter of Genesis, would have liked it, for:

All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players thereof.

And why would the author of Genesis structure his narrative thus?

For one very good reason: He lived in a largely oral culture—that is, one low in literacy—and seems to have felt the need to make his story memorable—and thus easy to be told by a storyteller to a group.

A simple memnonic device such as that described above would assure that the story could be recalled easily. If you just remember, for example, on what day the dry land appears (the third day), then you can remember on what day the “actors”—the animals and man—show up (the sixth day).

I’d like to note that I wrote this entire blog post without looking at the first chapter of Genesis. I didn’t need to. Once you know the “trick” of the story—its poetic structure—you can’t forget it.

And there is an obvious benefit to reading Genesis poetically, for it frees one from all the knots of difficulty that the text implies from a literal reading (such as how the earth and plants could have arrived in the universe before the sun, moon, and stars).

After learning that the structure of Genesis 1 is poetically motivated, it is very difficult to go back to an insistence on reading the text literally—and weakens the tension inherent in trying to arbitrate between the demands of science and the demands of faith in the Bible.

Clearly the author of Genesis did not intend for his story to be read literally.

But if one nevertheless still posits a literal reading of Genesis, even in the face of its evident poetic structure, one is in the peculiar position of claiming, not just that Genesis is right and conventional science wrong about the origin of the universe, but that God made the universe to match a small group of people’s oral poetic storytelling structure.

Is that really a viable position?

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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7 Responses to Evolution v. Creation Metaphor Watch: Did the Author of Genesis 1 Think That He Was Writing Poetry—or History?

  1. Ken says:

    Although Genesis 1 has been interpreted many ways, literal and not, by Christians and Jews, I think the idea that life was created by God was generally accepted until modernity. In the ancient near east, there were disagreements over which god created the world, but not over the idea of divine creation itself.

    I cannot tell what is at stake here for you. Do you believe life was created, or just happened? Are you in some way involved in the contemporary debate between “creationists” and “evolutionists?”

    You wrote, “After learning that the structure of Genesis 1 is poetically motivated, it is very difficult to go back to an insistence on reading the text literally.” In the past did you read it literally and now you don’t?

    What is true in Genesis 1?

  2. santitafarella says:

    Next year is the 150th anniversary of the publication of The Origin of Species, and at the college I work at they are doing some discussions, lectures, and forums etc. on Darwin in celebration. I volunteered to participate in one of these—and thus to talk about the issue from some English Lit. vantage point. Thus I’m using my blogging about it as a way to think through the metaphors etc. before the presentation next year—killing, as it were, two birds with one stone (blogging on some interesting subjects and prepping for next year’s event).

    As for my own period of belief—yes, I had one, as a teenager—but now I am an agnostic.

  3. Ken says:

    I imagine that the anniversary event will be very interesting, and that it will be fun to participate, even though I imagine there will be some tension.

    I enjoy reading your literary analyses of Darwin’s writings. I am sure they will be well received, although they may make some of the scientists uncomfortable.

    About the question you raised in the title of this posting, I would offer the following answer:

    I think that Genesis 1 reflected a generally accepted cosmology of the ancient near east when it was written. It was in that sense history and science for its day. I think the text made two main claims. One is that the God of Israel was the god who made the world, which seems to have meant the god who created order from chaos (the one who slew the sea monster.) This claim was probably what today we would call a political claim. The other claim is that the Sabbath was part of the created order, which means, from our perspective, that he was making a religious claim.

    Some of the most interesting contemporary analyses of the origins of the Bible suggest that it began as political propaganda and that it became religious, as we think of it, much later. James Kugel, a popular Harvard professor, makes an interesting argument that its meaning as scripture can be traced to the first few centuries of the common era when the Jewish and Christian canons were settled. It is then that these ancient writings became the book we call the Bible and whatever the words may have originally meant, their meanings to these canon makers can be established. To them, the days in Genesis were not generally thought to be literal days, but the text did mean to them that God created the world.

    Another thing I find very interesting about the ancient near east is that the alphabet itself was considered sacred. The letters contained all wisdom. The poetry and the symmetry of the Bible reflects the importance the writers associated with the words on the page. Something like this was still at work in the minds of those who assembled the canon in the first few centuries of the common era.

    Darwin’s writings reflected the cosmology of his century. Even though the cosmology is largely the same today as in his century, some things have already changed. Your literary analysis sheds light on these changes and on how much his writings reflected the time and place in which he wrote.

  4. Duke Zayas says:

    It’s 7:30 am and I’m having my coffee- no newspaper, just this article as I was searching for Genesis and Genre. I have to thank you for the most interesting morning read in a while. Your comments are careful and appear to be well thought out. What a Brooklyn, NY.

  5. Duke Zayas says:

    Sorry, the above should have ended: “What a brief, refreshing, and informative read. Peace, from Brooklyn, NY.” Apparently I need more coffee. : )

  6. santitafarella says:

    duke,

    thanks for your kindness and encouragement.

  7. Logic says:

    You did not read the entire book becuase it sounds poetic to you? Or becuase you can’t comprehend a writing that is divine, which no naturalist person (not spiritual) can reach its wisdom and understanding? I see to you brother, when God created heaven, earth was not yet created. The 365days a year of the Earth was not yet existed. The day of God is not the same day of humans.

    This is fact and scientific, the universe is not infinite and not endless. It will come to an end. Ask the astrophysicists and they will tell you how long the universe will live. It’s not forever. What is eternal is the place where God’s throne is located. That God is infinite, and He created you and the universe. He will then destroy what He had made. And where will you be when that time comes? In the shadow of human theories? Which until now are still unproven?

    I’m an astronomer, but also an spiritualist.

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