The Literary Structure of Genesis 1

Is Genesis 1 poetry to be sung or is it reliable history to be taught?

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I recently heard from a friend that he had heard a teacher say that the first chapter of Genesis was Hebrew poetry. I had not heard this before, so I took a few weeks to investigate this topic further, and have come to the conclusion that the first chapter of Genesis does not exhibit the usual characteristics of poetry found primarily in Psalms and Proverbs. The usual claim that this chapter is poetry relies upon the parallelism of Days 1-3 with Days 4-6.

For example, Hebrew poetry typically consists of a series of couplets or triplets that exhibit complementary, climactic, or antithetic-parallelism:

Psalm 119:105,

“Thy word is

1.) a lamp unto my feet,

2.) and a light unto my path.”

In Genesis 1, however, we do see parallelism, but not the same as that of Hebrew poetry. On the first 3 days God creates the different environments of the earth, and on the latter three days He makes the creatures who are to live and rule in each environment. Hebrew poetry is successive in its parallelism while in Genesis, the parallelism is separated by several verses.

This difference is accounted for by the fact that Hebrew poetry such as Psalms, Proverbs, and portions of Isaiah were songs and it’s always easier to sing a text that repeats its phrases one after the other in parallel harmony. Genesis is structured, but it’s not structured for the purpose of singing. Rather, it’s structured for the purpose of teaching, similarly to how we structure school textbooks today with charts and maps. Nothing in history happens randomly; everything has a reason. The structure of this chapter, therefore, is intended to paint a picture in peoples minds about how God created the world.

Another claim that this passage is poetry rests on the fact that it is structured within a seven day framework. This is cited because the proponents of this theory say that this was the pattern of labor which the Hebrews were accustomed: to work six days and rest on the seventh. However, the command in Exodus 20:9-11 says the exact opposite:

Six days shalt thou labour, and do all thy work: But the seventh day is the sabbath of the LORD thy God: in it thou shalt not do any work…. For in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that in them is, and rested the seventh day: wherefore the LORD blessed the sabbath day, and hallowed it.

The Hebrews were commanded to accustom themselves to a seven day week because that was the pattern set by God in the creation.

See Related Article by Michael Kelley: “Are Humans Really 98% Similar to Chimpanzees?

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