The Value of Literary Genre (The Language of Creation Part 5 of 5)

the language of creation

A consideration raised by the Clergy Letter Project is that the creation account is not to be read literally but allegorically or figuratively. The Letter states: “Many of the beloved stories found in the Bible – the Creation, Adam and Eve, Noah and the ark – convey timeless truths about God, human beings, and the proper relationship between Creator and creation…Religious truth is of a different order from scientific truth. Its purpose is not to convey scientific information but to transform hearts.” (Clergy Letter Project, 2004) People holding to this view often claim that the literary genre of Gen 1 and 2 is poetic rather than prose. They therefore suggest the account cannot be a literal, accurate, straightforward, and chronological summary of the actual events; it is simply using figurative, allegorical, metaphorical language to teach us “timeless truths.”

 

A survey of parallel accounts written in both prose and poetry, however, demonstrates that regardless of a passage’s literary genre, (poetic or prose), it is still to be understood in a literal fashion. For example, God’s commanding of Moses to strike the rock so that water would come out of it (Exod 17:6) offers an example of prose that was retold in a literal but poetic fashion by later, biblical writers. Asaph uses very concrete words to describe the historical fact of the rock being struck and water coming out, such as: “we have heard”, “our fathers have told us”, (Ps 78:3) “(God) appointed a law…to make known”.  He makes it abundantly clear that striking the rock was a very real, historical event and that the events occurred as stated. There is no sense of allegory whatsoever in his language even though he retells the account using poetic parallelism (chiasmus A, B).

  • Give ear, O my people, to my law; (A) Incline your ears to the words of my mouth. (B)
  • He divided the sea and caused them to pass through; (A) He made the waters stand up like a heap. (B)
  • He split the rocks in the wilderness, (A) and gave them drink in abundance like the depths. (B) He also brought streams out of the rock, (A) and caused waters to run down like rivers. (B)  (Ps 78:1, 15. 16)

 

The striking of the rock and water coming forth is reiterated in Psalm 105:41 where another Psalmist states: “He opened the rock, and water gushed out; it ran in the dry places like a river.”  Both of these writers have interpreted the events in Exodus literally and straightforwardly. (See also Paul’s recounting in 1 Cor 10:1-6)

 

Exodus 15:1 is another example of poetry as historical fact a song (poetry) to the Lord: “Then Moses and the children of Israel sang this song to the LORD, and spoke, saying…” Exodus 15 is the poetic form of chapter 14 which was written in prose – that is, a plain straightforward kind of language. What we must not miss, however, is both the prose in chapter 14 and the poetry in 15 tell a true and historic account of what happened at the crossing of the Red Sea. A historic account expressed in poetry in no way precludes it from also being an accurate and true account.

 

Therefore, whether or not Genesis creation account is poetry or prose or even a mix of both makes no difference. We see this proven by looking at other biblical passages that speak of creation. For example, after taking the children of Israel out of Egypt, God led them to a place called Mount Sinai. We read in Exodus 20 which is written as prose, He gave them the law and therein he states that he created everything in six days and rested on the seventh. “Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is the Sabbath of the LORD your God.” (Exod 20:9) Certainly God is talking about a regular workweek. The people were to work six (literal) days and then they were to take a day off, something very different from the custom of the peoples around them, who generally didn’t take any days off. God gives the reason and history behind the seven-day week: “For in six days the LORD made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested the seventh day.” (Exod 20:11, 31:15, 17) God unequivocally declares that He created everything in only six days. Like the other times that a cardinal number appears before the word day (yom יום), here too it is used as a literal 24-hour day. God makes perfectly clear how long he took to make the universe (just in case anyone should be confused). If these days are not taken as literal days then neither can the Sabbath be taken as literal. Yet the Sabbath as a literal day, starting at sunset Friday evening and lasting until the following Saturday evening, has always been considered a literal span of 24-hours so we can safely conclude that the six days of creation are also to be taken literally.

 

There is no way to circumvent this declaration: the Sabbath, the seventh day of the week, observed for 24-hours every week, is a sign between the Jewish people and God. The Israelites knew exactly how long it was – for not knowing would cost them their life. The Sabbath was/is 24 hours and therefore, so are all of the other days of the week, which is how long it took God to create the heavens and the earth. Hence God himself interprets the former revelation given in Genesis one and two as literal.

Framework Hypothesis

The framework hypothesis posits that the layout of the creation events is not chronological but theological and thus we cannot understand the days (and creative events) as being literal. For example Gordon Wenham, a proponent of the framework hypothesis argues that, “…the distribution of the various creative acts to six days, has been seized on and interpreted over-literalistically…The six day schema is but one of several means employed in this chapter to stress the system and order that has been built into creation.” (Wenham 1987: 39, 40) Yet the fact that the Genesis creation account is beautifully written does not detract from the author’s intent to convey a literal and factual account.

 

This is confirmed by many biblical scholars, who do not believe that Gen 1:1-2:3 is the actual scientific explanation of where we came from, yet nevertheless argue on the basis of linguistic and literary criteria that the Genesis creation account was written as a literal rendering of what the author believed to have truly happened and hence the days of Gen 1 and 2 are literal, definite periods of time. Old Testament scholar Gerhard von Rad states, “The seven days are unquestionably to be understood as actual days […]” (von Rad 1972:65).

 

Oxford Hebrew professor James Barr, who does not actually believe Genesis as factual, states emphatically concerning the writer’s intent, “the creation ‘days’ were six literal days of a 144-hour period” (Barr 1978: 40). Barr later adds in a 1984 letter:

…so far as I know, there is no professor of Hebrew or Old Testament at any world-class university who does not believe that the writer(s) of Gen 1–11 intended to convey to their readers the ideas that: 1) creation took place in a series of six days which were the same as the days of 24 hours we now experience, 2) the figures contained in the Gen genealogies provided by simple addition a chronology from the beginning of the world up to later stages in the biblical story, 3) Noah’s flood was understood to be world-wide and extinguish all human and animal life except for those in the ark.’ (Barr 1984)

Gerhard F. Hasel in his article The “Days” Of Creation in Genesis 1 likewise notes the conclusion of liberal scholars:

 

the creation “days” cannot be anything but literal 24-hour days. They are fully aware of the figurative, non-literal interpretations of the word “day” in Gen 1 for the sake of harmonization with the long ages demanded by the evolutionary model of origins. Yet, they insist on the grounds of careful investigations of the usage of “day” in Gen 1 and elsewhere that the true meaning and intention of a creation “day” is a literal day of 24 hours (Hasel 1994, emphasis mine).

 

Hasel further argues how:

 

the ‘literary genre’ redefinition of the creation account is intended to remove the creation account from informing modern readers on “how” and “in what manner” and in what time God created the world. It simply wishes to affirm minimalistically that God is Creator. And that affirmation is meant to be a theological, nonscientific statement which has no impact on how the world and universe came into being and developed subsequently. (Hasel 1994)

 

Thus what Wenham and others have discovered about the literary style of Genesis only serves to magnify its author, God, and the literary considerations in no way detract from a literal interpretation of the days and events contained therein. Furthermore and for the record, Walter Kaiser states in his study on Genesis 1-11; “we are dealing with the genre of historical narrative-prose, interspersed with some lists, sources, sayings, and poetical lines.” (Kaiser 1970: 61) Therefore the attempt to relegate it as non-literal literature is an unwarranted effort to dismiss the biblical cosmology as myth.

Conclusion: The Language of Creation Proves a Literal Seven-Days Creation

The biblical creation account can only be describing a period of seven literal 24-hour days. The linguistic foundation is found in the usage of the word day (yom יום) because every time it is used in conjunction with a cardinal or ordinal number, the meaning is always and without exception limited to the period of a regular and literal 24-hour day. God Himself reiterates that He created the heavens and the earth in six days, which is why He instructs man to work six days and then to take the seventh off. We know from history that the Hebrews have always taken the six-day workweek literally and have considered the seventh day to be a day of rest. Because God tells us twice in Exodus (20:11 and 31:17) that those were literal days, our only plausible conclusion regarding the six (plus one) days in Genesis is that they are to be taken as literal, 24-hour days. There is wide acceptance that the writer of Genesis believed that God created in six literal days. We need not and cannot conclude that they were six indefinite periods of time, at least not if we are to take everything else in the Bible seriously.

 

The only reason to conclude that the six days of creation were long periods of time is if we seek to harmonize the Bible with the model of (geological, chemical and biological) evolution. However, if we simply seek to allow Scripture to interpret Scripture, then the interpretation of Genesis 1 is clear: God created the heavens and the earth in six literal 24-hour days and rested on the seventh. We therefore conclude that there is no room for a biblical interpretation which includes an evolutionary process of billions of years during creation; God emphatically declares to have done it in six, literal days.

 

Part One Part Two Part Three Part Four

Bibliography

Barr, James (1978). Fundamentalism. Philadelphia: Westminster Press.

Barr, James (April 23, 1984). Letter to David C.C. Watson: Oxford.

Bozarth, G. Richard. (Sept. 1979). The Meaning of Evolution. American Atheist Magazine.

Brown Driver Briggs (BDB), (1996).  Hebrew Lexicon. Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers.

Buth, Randall (1994)."Methodological Collision Between Source Criticism and Discourse Analysis, The problem of 'Unmarked Temporal Overlay' and the pluperfect/nonsequential wayyiqtol" in Biblical Hebrew and Discourse Linguistics, ed. Robert Bergen, (S.I.L., 1994: 138-154).

Buth, Randall (2005).  Living Biblical Hebrew, Introduction Part Two, Mevasseret Zion: Biblical Language Center.

Clergy Letter Project. Retrieved August 20, 2006, from www.butler.edu/clergyproject/religion_science_collaboration.htm

Collins, C. John (1995). The Wayyiqtol As ‘Pluperfect’: When And Why Pages 117-140 Tyndale Bulletin Vol.46.1 (May 1995).

Fields, Weston W. (1978). Unformed and Unfilled. Collinsville, Illinois: Burgener Enterprises.

Harris, R. Laird, Gleason L Archer Jr., & Bruce K. Waltke, (1980). Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament. Chicago: Moody Press.

Joüon, P., & T. Muraoka (2005). A Grammar of Biblical Hebrew. Roma: Editrice Pontificio Istituto Biblico.

Kaiser, Walter C. (1970). The Literary Form of Gen 1-11, New Perspectives on the Old Testament. ed. J. Barton Payne Waco, TX: Word Books.

Kautzsch, E. and A. E., Cowley, eds (1910). Gesenius’ Hebrew Grammar, 2nd. ed. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Keil & Delitzsch (1866). Commentary on the Old Testament. Eerdmans: Grand Rapids (1973 reprint).

Hasel, Gerhard (1994). The “Days” Of Creation in Gen 1: Literal “Days” Or Figurative “Periods/Epochs” Of Time?  Retrieved September 5, 2006, from www.grisda.org/origins/21005.htm

Orr, James ed. (1913) International Standard Bible Encyclopedia. (electronic version: The Word Bible Software).

Pipa, Joseph A. Jr. From Chaos to Cosmos: A Critique of the Framework Hypothesis. Westminster Theological Seminary/California. (Draft January 13, 1998). Retrieved March 12, 2007, from http://capo.org/cpc/pipa.htm

Ramm, Bernard (1950). Protestant Biblical Interpretation. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books.

Roberts, A. & J. Donaldson, eds. (1885). Translations Of The Writings Of The Fathers Down To A.D. 325. Buffalo: The Christian Literature Publishing Company. The Word Bible Software.

Ross, Hugh (1991). The Fingerprint of God. 2nd ed. Orange, CA: Promise Publishing.

Von Rad, Gerhard (1972). Gen: A Commentary. Philadelphia: Westminster Press.

Wenham, Gordon J. (1987). Gen 1-15, Word Biblical Commentary, vol. 1. Waco, TX: Word Books.