The Genesis of Everything, Part 2: The Genre of Genesis 1
Note: Today's post is the second of a four-part series by theologian, historian and Christian apologist Dr. John P. Dickson, dealing with the history and interpretation of Genesis 1. Dickson's paper first appeared in 2009 as "The Genesis of Everything: An historical account of the Bible’s opening chapter," at Christians in Science and Technology (ISCAST), an Australian organisation dedicated to exploring the interface between science and the Christian faith. As that title suggests, it urges us to treat the early chapters of Genesis as a literary and historical statement, and listen carefully to it on those terms.
In the first post, Dr. Dickson surveyed how Genesis was interpreted in a non-literalistic fashion by esteemed Christians and Jews throughout history. In today's post, he examines the genre of Genesis 1.
The Genre of Genesis 1
With the rise of literary criticism modern biblical scholars have begun to appreciate more fully the importance of genre for interpreting ancient texts. When you and I pick up the daily newspaper we have no problem moving from news-report, to editorial, to satire, to TV guide, to comics, and so on. We do not need side notes indicating the transitions. We all understand the literary forms and read the relevant pieces appropriately.
Ancient people operated in much the same way. Within the Bible alone we can discern not only poetry and prose but also legal formula, historical report, parable, aphorism, prophecy, hyperbole, creed, hymn, epistle, prophetic lament, homily and apocalyptic. All of these must be read differently and were so by ancient audiences. The notion that the ancients were simpletons who only knew how to operate in literalistic mode is as facile as it is false.
The example of ‘apocalyptic’ in Revelation
‘Apocalyptic’ offers a good parallel for the present discussion. In the book of Revelation, the closing text of the Bible, the writer narrates cosmic visions replete with symbols and codes involving numbers, colours and even animals (the famous ‘666’ or ‘mark of the Beast’ comes from the book of Revelation).
A literalistic interpretation of, say, Revelation 19—to take just one example—would have us believe that Jesus will return to earth one day with eyes of fire, riding a white horse, wearing a blood-stained robe upon his back and multiple crowns upon his head.6 Some modern Christians may sincerely expect things to pan out this way, but such a concretization of the images would never have entered the minds of ancient believers.
Scholars long ago pointed out that large sections of the book of Revelation correspond to the ancient literary device known as ‘apocalyptic’, in which numbers, colours, animals and so on, were employed with specific referents. The writer of Revelation would never have predicted that audiences one day might approach his work literalistically.
A similar situation pertains to the first book of the Bible. Genesis 1 is not written in apocalyptic, of course, but it is composed in a style quite unlike the ‘historical narrative’ of, say, the Gospels in their accounts of Jesus’ resurrection. There is no getting around the fact that the Gospels writers were claiming to write history at that point—whether or not readers end up accepting what is reported. Genesis 1, on the other hand, is not written in the style we normally associate with historical report. It is difficult even to describe the passage as prose. The original Hebrew of this passage is marked by intricate structure, rhythm, parallelism, chiasmus, repetition and the lavish use of number symbolism. These features are not observed together in those parts of the Bible we recognize as historical prose.
This observation must be given some weight. While on literary grounds one cannot say that the world was not created in six days, one can safely conclude that the concerns of Genesis 1 lie elsewhere than providing a cosmic chronology. The genre of our text suggests that the author intended to convey his meaning through subtle and sophisticated means, not through the surface plot of the narrative (i.e. creation in six days).
Number symbolism in Genesis 1
A full account of all of the literary devices in Genesis would be inappropriate in this journal—and would certainly exceed the word limit— and they are well described in numerous technical studies and commentaries.7 I will, however, draw attention to the number symbolism present in our passage. This provides a compelling example of the unusual nature of the text and of the way the author seeks to convey his message through means other than the surface-level plot.
It is well known that in Hebrew thought the number seven symbolises ‘wholeness’ as a characteristic of God’s perfection. A well-known example is the seven-candle lamp stand,8 or Menorah, which has long been a symbol of the Jewish faith and is the emblem of the modern State of Israel.
In Genesis 1, multiples of seven appear in extraordinary ways. For ancient readers, who were accustomed to taking notice of such things, these multiples of seven conveyed a powerful message. Seven was the divine number, the number of goodness and perfection. Its omnipresence in the opening chapter of the Bible makes an unmistakable point about the origin and nature of the universe itself. Consider the following:
- The first sentence of Genesis 1 consists of seven Hebrew words. Instantly, the ancient reader’s attention is focused.
- The second sentence contains exactly fourteen words. A pattern is developing.
- The word ‘earth’—one half of the created sphere—appears in the chapter 21 times.9
- The word ‘heaven’—the other half of the created sphere—also appears 21 times.
- ‘God’, the lead actor, is mentioned exactly 35 times.
- The refrain ‘and it was so’, which concludes each creative act, occurs exactly seven times.
- The summary statement ‘God saw that it was good’ also occurs seven times.
- It hardly needs to be pointed out that the whole account is structured around seven scenes or seven days of the week.
The artistry of the chapter is stunning and, to ancient readers, unmistakable. It casts the creation as a work of art, sharing in the perfection of God and deriving from him. My point is obvious: short of including a prescript for the benefit of modern readers the original author could hardly have made it clearer that his message is being conveyed through literary rather than prosaic means. What we find in Genesis 1 is not exactly poetry of the type we find in the biblical book of Psalms but nor is it recognizable as simple prose. It is a rhythmic, symbolically- charged inventory of divine commands.
Literary style and the question of ‘truth’
None of this should trouble modern Christians, as if truths expressed by literary device were somehow less true than those expressed in simple prose. We have already raised the examples of parable and apocalyptic. Outside of the Bible, we also recognize the capacity of images to convey truth. When Romeo says, ‘What light through yonder window breaks? It is the East, and Juliet is the sun!’ we all understand what is being said. The statement is no less real than if Romeo had said, ‘Juliet is at the window and she is pretty’. Only someone unacquainted with the English literary tradition would quibble over the ontological discrepancies between a woman and the sun.
Did God create ‘light’ on Day 1 of creation? He might have. But this is not the point of Genesis 1:3. The highly ‘literary’ presentation style of our passage makes it unlikely, in my opinion, that the author intended for us to link his surface plot of a seven-day week with a sequence of physical events in time. Again, the example of the book of Revelation comes to mind. It is universally agreed amongst scholars that the number of Jews present in Revelation’s picture of the heavenly kingdom (144,000) is symbolic not actual. Being a multiple of 12 (the number of the tribes of Israel) the 144,000 figure conveys the idea of a complete number of Israelites. This is recognized even in popular circles, though I note that Jehovah’s Witnesses interpret the number literalistically.
6. Revelation 19:11-13: I saw heaven standing open and there before me was a white horse, whose rider is called Faithful and True. With justice he judges and makes war. 12 His eyes are like blazing fire, and on his head are many crowns. He has a name written on him that no one knows but he himself. 13 He is dressed in a robe dipped in blood, and his name is the Word of God.
7. A good introduction to the literary characteristics of Genesis 1 (with ample bibliography) can be found in Wenham’s Genesis 1-15 (Wenham 1987 pp. 1-40).
8. In Revelation 1 in the New Testament Jesus is described as holding ‘seven stars’ and walking amidst ‘seven lampstands’. These are images of his divine authority over the cosmos and the church.
9. Please remember, I use the word ‘chapter’ loosely. It is commonly noted that the opening literary section of Genesis runs from 1:1 through to 2:3. Appropriately, the NIV places the heading for the second section at 2:4. For the details see Wenham (Wenham 1987 p. 6).
In the next post, Dr. Dickson examines the purpose of Genesis 1.
John Dickson is founding Director of the Centre for Public Christianity. He has a degree in theology and a doctorate in ancient history, specializing in the birth of Christianity. An ordained Anglican minister he is also a Senior Research Fellow of the Department of Ancient History, Macquarie University (Sydney, Australia), where he teaches a course on Christian origins. He has hosted two nationally televised documentaries (The Christ Files and Life of Jesus), authored over a dozen books and is a busy public speaker.