Wednesday, August 27, 2008

The Creation Poem... or is it?

I never realized there was so much controversy over the genre of Genesis chapter 1. I was talking with a youth pastor friend of mine and he criticized Rob Bell's perspective that Genesis chapter 1 is indeed a poem. I was a bit surprised and I asked him why it was not poetry. He said bluntly, "be cause it's just not Hebrew poetry..." with no other explanation except pointed out that it's just not the same as the poetry we see in the Psalms or elsewhere. This was not a problem for me because I simple blamed the differences on the fact that they are separated by as many as a thousand years. I have long carried the presupposition that the Genesis 1 account should be attributed as poetry if by any literary genre. Because of my curiosity and because of my presupposition that Genesis 1 is a poem I decided to do some research. I read the passage, re-read it, read it in Hebrew, and read it again just so that I was familiar with it. Probably because I had trained myself to, I picked up on the patterns and repetitions in the chapter all of which suggest poetry to me. Then I looked for journal articles.

I found one article in The Old Testament Student journal from 1884 called "The Hebrew Poem of the Creation" by a Union Theological Seminary professor of Hebrew Bible named A. Briggs. In his article he argues that
"The Poem of Creation [Genesis 1] has all the characteristic features of Hebrew poetry. The feature of parallelism which Hebrew poetry shares with the Assyrian and ancient Akkadian, is characteristic of our poem in its varied forms of synonym, antithesis and synthesis."
Briggs spends several pages going verse by verse pointing out the poetic structure and the similarity it has with other Biblical poetry (such as PSalm 104) and other ancient near-eastern creation poetry. This article was so convincing that it seemed as though the search was over. But I continued reading different articles.

I found another article, ten years later in date than that of Briggs, entitled "The First Hebrew Story of Creation" from The Biblical World journal by an author named William R. Harper. I was surprised after reading Briggs that Harper had a different opinion even though he was obviously familiar with Briggs argument (I found Briggs' article in Harper's footnotes). Harper writes "some have suggested that the whole passage [Genesis 1] is a poem. Much may be said in favor of this position, but when all has been said the position is one which does not maintain itself." But then he does not support his argument. He never addresses any of Briggs' arguments but simply leaves it at the essential statement "it's not a poem." because Harper never expounds any further i am left wondering how and in what ways he finds disagreement with Briggs. How could someone who has heard systematic and comprehensive argument that Genesis 1 is poetry come off saying, "the position is one which does not maintain itself"?

Also in my reading I checked out Gerhard Von Rad's commentary on Genesis. He writes "Anyone who expounds Genesis chapter 1, must understand one thing: this chapter is Priestly doctrine... it's doctrine has been carefully enriched over centuries by very slow growth." He goes on to argue, staying very dependent on the conclusion that it is Priestly doctrine, that "What is said here is intended to hold true entirely and exactly as it stands." Von Rad seems to be saying that the chapter cannot be poetry because of its origin as Priestly doctrine, he seems to argue that the chapter as a whole must be taken literally. But as he continues his interpretation he interprets it nothing like you would a narrative. In fact, Von Rad's interpretation seems to interpret the chapter as you would a poem except never allowing any word to go unnoticed or perceived as accidental on merely symbolic. For Van Rad the genre seems undetermined beyond that it is a theological piece compiled and enriched over many years. Von Rad's interpretations of the chapter, taking every word and sentence seriously, may not be poetic or allegorical interpretations but they are certainly not classical literalistic interpretations. He allows the terms and words to function as theological arguments. Though Von Rad writes "There is not trace of the hymnic element in the language" he seems to interpret the whole chapter as a lense into a greater truth rather than simple face value, much like one would interpret poetry.

I found it interesting that I could find no specific genre classification in any of the articles which denied that Genesis 1 is poetry. It seems that whenever someone chooses to ascribe a genre to the passage, poetry is the only verdict. Most will agree that it is not wisdom literature, simple historical narrative, apocalyptic literature, epistle, or any other Biblical genre. So when all has been said, the chapter is either poetry or it is something we are not ready to classify specifically. The only thing with which none have yet argued as far as I have searched is that the closest relatives to this Biblical creation story are ancient near eastern creation poems (see Gerhard Von Rad, Genesis a Commentary Bloomsbury Street London ,SCM press LTD, 1972. page 50. Also see A. H. Sayce, "The Babylonian and Biblical Accounts of the Creation" The American Journal of Theology, Vol. 9, No. 1 [Jan., 1905], pp. 1-9). It seems only logical that if the chapters closests relatives are poetry then it is safe and fair to consider the chapter poetry.

Many people have an issue with the interpretation of Genesis 1 as poetry because they really need, for theological and scientific reasons, the text to teach about a literal seven day creation. This seven day creation argument happens to be my only problem with a literal reading. But what I have discovered is that even the scholars who disagree with the poetic classification of Genesis 1 do not often interpret the text in such a way that it must conclude that the earth was created in seven literal days. Nowhere in Von Rad's, nor in Harpers' works, nor in any of the other scholarly articles which I have read do they list seven day creation as one of the key points of the passage. It simply is not the point of the passage and that concept simply does not translate into ancient near eastern thought in such a way that it should be deemed essential.

Nevertheless the debate continues and my research will continue...

2 comments:

nate said...

Man, what an interesting post Wes. I vaguely remember discussing this with my Hebrew prof.

I am way out of touch with old testament scholasticism, but I would suggest, whether it is poetic or not (I am leaning it is...slightly), it doesn't affect the original intent. If the author was an ancient mad scientist with divine insight on the creation of the world or motivational speaker to an enslaved people group (my take on it, for the record), I see very little significance in which style he employed.

WES ELLIS said...

Nate,
right, good thoughts. I later discovered, after writing this post, that the Briggs from the article is the same as that of the BDB Lexicon.
-Wes