I would like respond to an article entitled: Why Genesis Chapter One is Not Poetic which can be reviewed at the following link:

http://theologica.ning.com/profiles/blogs/why-genesis-chapter-one-is-not

In this article the author takes upon himself the task of proving to us that Genesis chapter one simply cannot be poetic. The author begins by stating correctly that poetry is common throughout the Old Testament, although I find it interesting that he attempts to imply that it is isolated to a few particular books, rather than admitting the reality that it can nearly be found in every book ot the Old Testament. What he is attempting to do here is imply that there are some books of scripture that are historical narrative and other poetry. This is simply a misrepresentation of the reality. In reality the writings of the Old Testament do not fall neatly into the literary forms common to the Grecian systems that influence the New Testament writers. The writers of the OT frequently blend prose, poetry and history without indication of the change. There would be few but the utterly obstinate who would deny that the Song of Lamech for instance was not in poetic form, however it is seemingly woven right into the narrative.

After implying that the poetry of the Bible is neatly contained in books of poetry, the author then goes on to put forth a list a criteria that he claims will “easily” identify Hebrew poetry. I find that assessment rather interesting seeing that experts in Hebrew studies will admit that such an endeavor can be difficult. At any length we will look at the criteria given and then compare it to what can be derived from Genesis chapter one. Seeing as the criteria is enumerated we will use that format to make easy reference to the response.

1. First, it has its particular rhythm or meter. Each line typically has two halves with three elements each, though this pattern is varied often. 

Before I respond I would like to quote Dr. T. Witton-Davies, who was Professor of Hebrew at the University College of North Wales:

“…the poetry of the Hebrew is not in the strict sense metrical, though the writers under the influence of strong emotion express themselves rhythmically, producing often the phenomena which came later to be codified under metrical rules…Poets wrote under strong impulse, usually religious, and without recognizing any objective standard, though all the time they were supplying data for the rules of prosody. Those who think that Old Testament poets had in their minds objective rules of meter have to make innumerable changes in the text. Instead of basing their theory on the original material, they bring their a priori theory and alter the text to suit it…If, however, there were among the ancient Hebrews, as there was among the ancient Greeks, a code of prosody, it is strange that the Mishna and Gemara should be wholly silent about it. And if some one system underlies our Hebrew Bible, it is strange that so many systems have been proposed. It should be remembered too that the oldest poetry of every people is nonmetrical.”

He goes on to say:

“Another factor which led to the neglect of the poetical element in the Old Testament is the undoubted fact that Biblical Hebrew poets were less conscious as poets than western poets, and thought much less of the external form in which they expressed themselves. Biblical poetry lacks therefore such close adherence to formal rules as that which characterizes Greek, Arabic or English poetry. The authors wrote as they felt and because they felt, and their strong emotions dictated the forms their words took, and not any objective standards set up by the schools. Hebrew poetry is destitute of meter in the strict sense, and also of rhyme, though this last occurs in some isolated cases … ”

In other words this assertion is false in regards to Hebrew poetry. There can be a rough sort of meter to Hebrew poetry, but to suggest that the pattern he puts forth is the defining feature of Hebrew poetry is completely contrived. I might say that the use of a guitar is an indicator of music, but I would not say that only that which uses a guitar can be considered music; which is precisely what the author argues. Further his suggested meter is one of many and as Dr. Davies states is an a priori assumption and is not based on the source material.

2. It does not rhyme, but has “rhyming meaning,” this is what is known as parallelism. Often the three elements in the first half are matched with three elements in the second half, known as synonymous parallelism. This is only one type, however, but there are several types of balancing corresponding meaning, as the example below will show.

He here correctly states that there are differing sorts of parallelism.  This is significant because according to the experts in the field, parallelism is the hallmark and defining trait of Hebrew Poetry.  And while we could perhaps outline each of them, suffice to say here that there is ample example of both parallelism and rhythm throughout Genesis one. We certainly find repeated phrases such as “and there was evening, and there was morning – one day.” Further we find parallelism as in the “in the beginning God filled the heavens and the earth” and “the earth was formless and empty and God moved upon the expanse.” Also we see the parallel between Day 1 and 4, 2 and 5 and 3 and 6. In days 1-3. For instance on Day 1 God creates light and on day 4 God creates the sun, moon and stars. On day 2 God creates the water and on day 5 he fills the water with living things. On day 3 God creates land and on day 6 God creates man. Each day is again concluded by the repeated evening and morning phrase. The parallelism is unmistakable which again makes its poetic structure unmistakable.

3. Also there are characteristic grammatical features. For example, the article and the direct object marker ‘eth are used much less frequently, as is the conjunction “and.”

The author is again a bit selective here. While we do find such indicators, they are not the sole defining mark. Further even if they were we find such grammatical features in Genesis one. Such as the use of the Hebrew term for one (echad) rather than first on the initial day. Also there are three uses of the term (yom) in the passage.  These along with many other grammatical devices certainly qualify this passage as poetic, even in light of the authors attempt at narrowing the definition.

4. Generally, there is an archaic feeling to it, with older, otherwise obsolete words being prominent. Some words are considered “poetic” and occur in preference to certain prosaic words. One example below is bal, a negative which is used in poetry in preference to the ususal lo’, the negative of prose.

This is rather ambiguous and speculative. What the author is trying to do is create a strict criteria for Hebrew poetry that simply does not exist. An archaic feel? This is not a criteria that I have seen by any scholar of Hebrew. To quote Dr. Davies again: “Biblical poetry lacks therefore such close adherence to formal rules as that which characterizes Greek, Arabic or English poetry.” It seems rather clear that the author is approaching this chapter with the presumption that it must be a historical narrative and then is conjuring criteria in order to make that the case.

5. In addition to all this there is prominent use of figurative speech, particularly visual metaphors, personification, anthropomorphism and such. This is one reason why I insist on pointing out that Genesis chapter one is NOT poetry. Understand, prose does not mean it is to be taken as literal, as prose may well be used figuratively. However, to mistake the chapter for poetry prejudices the question in terms of how to interpret the passage.

This is perhaps my favorite assertion and the one that most clearly demonstrates the circular reasoning and presumption of those who want to protect their Sunday school story. Of course there is no figurative language if we insist that the passage is a historical narrative. This being the case we could assert that God took all day long to say “let there be Light.” Perhaps the slowest command ever uttered. We could also assert that God worked on the universe a whole week (a week incidentally that is based on Earths orbit around the sun which was not created until day 4). We could assert that He got really tired on Saturday and took some time off. Who knows what He did the next day after that? We could assert that God creates visible light on day 1 but there are no sun, moon and stars to give off light until day four. That the earth floated aimlessly in space with no heat or light until 4 days into a week where there is no sun rise or sunset to designate the 24 hours that define both morning and evening. Of course there is no figurative language. Notice also that the author says that “This is one reason why I insist on pointing out that Genesis chapter one is NOT poetry.” Thus one of his major reasons for stating that Genesis one is not poetry is essentially that he has come to the a priori assumption that it is not poetry.

After laying out his criteria for poetry which is largely based on presumption and opinion, and quite frankly in contradiction to scholars, he proceeds to make what are supposed to be points. The entire section on a supposed pattern for poetry is purely speculative. Again I quote Dr. Davies “Those who think that Old Testament poets had in their minds objective rules of meter have to make innumerable changes in the text. Instead of basing their theory on the original material, they bring their a priori theory and alter the text to suit it…” So his entire layout is completely contrived. In fact I would encourage the reading of the article by Dr. Davies which explains that an concept of meter or pattern has been reverse engineered by those looking to find it.

In order to try to suggest that Genesis one is a “procedural discourse”, which is another term that he has imposed upon Hebrew literary styles, he suggests that Genesis 1 should be read in comparison to the building of the Ark of the Covenant in Exodus 37.

7 And he made two cherubim of gold. He made them of hammered work on the two ends of the mercy seat, 8 one cherub on the one end, and one cherub on
the other end. Of one piece with the mercy seat he made the cherubim
on its two ends. 9 The cherubim spread out their wings above,
overshadowing the mercy seat with their wings, with their faces one
to another; toward the mercy seat were the faces of the cherubim.

The first point to be made here is that it is very probable that the writings of the Old Testament were repeated orally from parents to children long before they were written. This being the case it is not surprising to find segments of the narrative that take on poetic flow. There are many such instances throughout the Old Testament, which strengthens the overall concept that poetic passages are to be expected. If we find parallelism in this passage, which I am not convinced we do, then what we have discovered is another instance of poetry woven into the OT narrative, not rather proof that parallelism is not a hallmark of Hebrew poetry. This passage, while certainly having a rhythmic flow, does not however demonstrate parallelism. Parallelism is when the same concept or action is repeated in a different manner. Where is that taking place here in this passage? We see that the term cherubim is repeated as the details of its construction are listed, but we are not seeing concepts or actions repeated. Now it is difficult here to tell whether the author is denying the parallelism in Genesis one or whether he is denying that parallelism is a hallmark of Hebrew Poetry. Either would be abjectly false.

In conclusion, the author here sounds as if he has a clue what he is talking about if you are unaware of the nature of Hebrew poetry and are looking to substantiate a preconceived notion about the creation of the universe. However if a person takes an objective view of the first chapter of Genesis, it is clearly written in poetic form. This does not mean it is totally ambiguous and conveys no message as those who oppose such a view will imply. It simply means that in order to derive the truth of it, we need to stop forcing it into a wooden literal narrative. We need to read it as it was intended to be read. The “historical narrative” view of Genesis one causes us to have to defend a view of the universe that the writer certainly had no notion to convey.

[1] T. Witton-Davies, Professor of Hebrew at the University College of North Wales, Hebrew Poetry, http://www.bible-researcher.com/hebrew-poetry.html

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