The most recent in Rob Bell’s Nooma series has caused quite a stir. In the video (which I have seen), he refers to the “creation poem” and then starts explaining the Genesis 1 creation account.
Nathan Neighbor, an outspoken defender of all things emerging and a pupil of Erwin McManus, writes (you can see his entire statement here):
Lastly, anyone who has done any type of study on Genesis would know that it is written in ancient poetry form, closely resembling the literary style of early writings and oral tradition. If this statement negates the validity of the scriptures, then calling Psalms a song collection, or Ecclesiastes a framed wisdom autobiography would do the same. It is a far leap in logic to say that becasue Rob Bell bleives [sic] Genesis is written in poetry form, he denies the literal account of creation.
I probably have not done “any type of study on Genesis.” I do not want to get into issues of oral tradition and the authorship of the Pentateuch. However, I believe that with some basic guiding principles, a simple reading of the Genesis 1 creation account will reveal that in fact it is not of the poetic genre.
Before we start, allow me to make two disclaimers.
1. I recongize that poetry is a biblical genre and is used to convey divine truth.
2. I believe that genre identification is one of the most important steps in any hermeneutical process. If we don’t properly identify the genre of a piece of literature, we will not be able to properly understand the truth claim of the text. For example, the truth claim in a parable is not bound up in whether there really ever was a prodigal son, etc. (for more information see The Art of Biblical History by V. Phillips Long).
Principles for Identifying the Poetic Genre
In his book How to Read the Psalms, Dr. Tremper Longman III, gives two basic guidelines for identifying the poetic genre. It should be noted that while the elements explained below are present in prose, they occur in higher concentration in poetry.
As opposed to western poetry that is driven by rythm, Hebrew poetry is dominated by parallelsim. Parallelism can appear in many forms. Consider the three following examples from Longman (although there are many more):
a. Synonymous – when the corresponding lines say essentially the same thing, but using different words. Consider Psalm 2:
Why do the nations conspire
and the peoples plot in vain?
The kings of the earth take their stand
and the rulers gather together
against the Lord
and against his Anointed One.
b. Repetitive or Climactic – where the lines still say essentially the same thing, but they build to a climax
Ascribe to the Lord O mighty ones
Ascribe to the Lord glory and strength
Ascribe to the Lord the glory due his name
Worship the Lord in the splendor of his holiness.
c. Chiasm – this common literary device can be seen in a pair of lines or in the larger structure of an entire book (like Judges).
It should be noted here as well that Hebrew poetry is full of ellipsis. Longman gives the following example (Psalm 107:32):
Let them exalt him in the assembly of the people
and praise him in the council of the elders (107:32)
Frequently…the second phrase will omit a part of of the first clause with the understanding that the omitted part of the first clause is to be read into the second clause. Usually it is the verb which is omitted.
This includes metaphor, simile, personification, anthropomorphisms, etc.
Again, the presence of one or more of these characteristics is not enough to conclusively call a piece of literature poetry, as these are often used historical narrative or prose. There must be a high concentration of these elements in order to positively render literature a piece of poetry.
Is the Genesis creation account poetry?
I have a very basic understanding of the Hebrew language. I attempted to read through the creation account using my A Reader’s Hebrew Bible. Surprisingly, it was not that difficult for me. Why is that? Because the ellipsis and imagery, elements that are necessary in order to classify literature as poetry, were virtually non-existent. Consequently, from my simple study, I am assured that the Genesis account is not poetic in its genre.
But don’t just take my word for it…
On the 5th page of his book, The Art of Biblical Poetry, Robert Alter states that the first line of poetry in the Bible is Genesis 2:23:
Then the man said,
”This at last is bone of my bones
and flesh of my flesh;
she shall be called Woman,
because she was taken out of Man.”
What’s the big deal you may ask?
Robert Alter is a professor of Hebrew and Comparative Literature at arguably the most liberal institution in America…the University of California Berkeley.
Need I say more?