Is Genesis 1 poetic?

I believe Genesis 1 is poetic in structure, although not in strict Hebrew form, which is perhaps not surprising given its potential age.  At very least it is highly stylised prose.  It is designed to convey greater truth than mechanisms or timeframes of creation.  A review of the chapter supports the view that it is filled with symbolism and a deliberate pattern.  C. A. Hill summarises the case as follows:

“An even closer look at Genesis 1 reveals the carefully constructed and intricate harmony of the original Masoretic Hebrew text.  After the introductory verse (v. 1), the section is divided into seven paragraphs, each of which pertains to one of the seven days.  Each of the three nouns that occur in the first verse (“God,” “heavens,” and “earth”) are repeated throughout the chapter a multiple of seven times: “God” occurs 35 times (7 x 5), “earth” is found 21 (7 x 3) times, and “heavens” appears 21 (7 x 3) times.  Each verse after the first contains three pronouncements that emphasize God’s concern for humankind’s welfare (three being the number of emphasis), namely the type phrases “Let us make man,” “be fruitful and multiply,” and “Behold I have given you every plant yielding seed.”  Thus, there is a series of seven corresponding dicta of triads (threes).  The terms “light” and “day” are found seven times in the first paragraph, and there are seven references to “light” in the fourth (parallel) passage.  “Water” is mentioned seven times in paragraphs two and three; “beasts” seven times in parallel paragraphs five and six; the expression “it was good” appears seven times—the seventh time “very good” for emphasis, etc.  To suppose that all of this is a mere coincidence is not possible—the text was purposely constructed this way using preferred numbers and prosaic symmetry.”[1]

The obvious links and even more importantly, the striking contrasts, between Genesis 1 and the cultural myths of the ancient near east demonstrate the chapter has a strong and interesting polemic value as well (for example the downplaying of the sun and moon as merely created objects).  As bro Les Body writes:

Though Genesis shares many of the theological presuppositions of the ancient world, most of the stories in these chapters are best read as presenting an alternative world-view to those generally accepted in the ancient Near East.  Gen 1-11 is a tract for the times, challenging ancient assumptions about the nature of God, the world and mankind.’[2]

The chapter demonstrates the care and wisdom of God in providing an environment for humanity of order and fruitfulness, wherein they were to be God’s image bearers.  Even a casual reading highlights the link between the whole creation and humans.  The record highlights the creation of fruit trees, fish and domesticated animals.  The sun, moon and stars are created to regulate the seasons.  This implicit focus is explicitly stated in Gen 1:29-30 it was all created and given to humanity.  The capture concludes with the instruction to humanity to fill the earth as the imagers of God – those who would represent Him (the initial declaration of His purpose in line with Num 14:21).

As to the meaning of Gen 1, I understand the chapter to be literally true in the sense that it describes what God did rather than literally true in terms of how and when He did it.

As bro Alan Eyre wrote:

“Personally, I believe that there must be much deeper spiritual truths God intended to convey in the original documents in Genesis, both for its first readers and for us forty centuries later, than to provide a substitute curriculum for modern geology, biology, and physics courses”[3]

Bro Whittaker (who definitely did not accept evolution in any way) makes a great point

It is surely obvious that if in this Creation account God’s omniscience had described to the last detail just how this amazingly complex world, animate and inanimate, came into being, then no-one – neither ancient Israelite nor clever sophisticated modern scientist – would have made much sense of it. So God has said in His Word: This is how I want you to think of Creation. This is the concept of origins that is best for you. Be content to think of things as happening like this[4]

The brilliance of inspiration crafted Gen 1 as a truth transcending science.  If God gave a scientific description of how He created no generation would ever understand it – something all of us could agree with surely.  In Gen 1 we have a timeless record which assures us of God’s control, creative power and purpose.

For another perspective on the meaning of Gen 1, see bro David Brown’s blog on “How to read Gen 1“.  While COD doesn’t share the same views (eg we accept the serpent, along with Adam and Eve were literal).

 

[1] Hill, C. A. “Making Sense of the Numbers in Genesis” Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith Vol 55 Num 4 page 246 Dec 2003

[2] Boddy, Les The Agenda of Genesis 1

[3] Eyre, Alan (2015) Should Christadelphians reject the sciences, become biblical literalists, or teach‘young earth creationism’?  Open letter

[4] Whittaker  “Commentary on Genesis 1-2-3-4” Biblia (pp. 16–17) (1986)

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