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The genre of Genesis 1: an historical approach

Introduction: a heated debate

It is well known to anyone with even a cursory interest in the topic of ‘origins’ that the Bible’s opening creation account (Genesis 1:1 – 2:31) has been the subject of a very heated debate in recent years between so-called ‘six-day creationists’ and those branded ‘scientific materialists’. These labels are frequently used in a pejorative sense, so let me flag that my use of these epithets is one of convenience not criticism.

The six-day creationists insist, largely on the basis of Genesis 1, that the universe was created in just one week about 6000 years ago and that no other interpretation of the biblical material is possible for those seeking to be faithful to Scripture as divinely inspired. The scientific materialists retort, largely on the basis of the scientific data, that such a view is patently false and that the universe is close to 14 billion years old. Therefore, the Judeo-Christian account of our origins, they say, must be dismissed as irrelevant for our day. There are, of course, innumerable ‘middle-positions’ that are less relevant to the argument of this article.

In what follows, I hope to demonstrate that both sides of the debate—as they typically present themselves—make a similar mistake. They form their conclusions about the biblical account of creation in isolation from the conclusions of many mainstream contemporary biblical historians. And it is as an historian that I wish to address this theme.

Literalistic or literal?

Six-day creationists and scientific materialists approach the opening chapter of the Bible in a ‘literalistic’ fashion. I use the word literalistic deliberately, as I want to distinguish between literalistic and literal. A literalistic reading takes the words of a text at face value, interpreting them with minimal attention to literary genre and historical context. A literal reading such as the one I adopt, on the other hand, gives serious consideration to both the literary style and the historical setting of a text. It tries to understand not only what is said but what is meant—i.e., what the original author intended to convey. Sometimes in literature what is meant and what is said do not have a 1:1 correspondence. In metaphor, for example, what is meant is greater than what is said (‘The Lord is my shepherd,’ Psalm 23:1). In hyperbole what is meant is less than what is said (‘If your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away,’ Matthew 5:30). One can read such literary devices literally—trying to discern what the literature intends to convey—without reading them literalistically.

Both six-day creationists and scientific materialists approach Genesis 1 as if the original author had intended to narrate the mechanics of creation in historical prose. I believe this is a mistaken, literalistic reading. For over a century now, a great many biblical historians have detected in the Bible’s opening words a style other than simple prose and a purpose other than to explain how the universe was made. These two issues – genre and purpose – are critical for understanding this foundational portion of the Jewish and Christian Bible. In what follows, then, I want to unpack what many modern scholars are saying about these issues and demonstrate that, properly understood, Genesis 1 teaches nothing scientifically problematic for the modern enquirer. I emphasise the adverb ‘scientifically’, since there is plenty in Genesis 1 that is theologically and existentially confronting. That is the aim of the text, as I understand it.

But, first, an important clarification: I must emphasise that this paper assumes no particular view of human origins. The questions explored are literary and historical, not scientific. My rejection of the literalistic reading of Genesis 1 offers no direct support for old-earth, progressive creationism (or ‘theistic evolution’, as it is sometimes called), nor is it intended to do so. In fact, the case made below is consistent with virtually any scientific account of origins. To put it starkly but no less accurately, even if science ended up proving that the universe was created in six days around 6000 year ago, this happy correspondence between the scientific data and the surface structure of Genesis 1 would not affect my interpretation of the text at all. I would still insist that the opening chapter of the Bible does not aim to teach a particular cosmic chronology and that to suggest otherwise misconstrues the author’s original intention.

An analogy may help. Let’s take Jesus’ famous parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:30 – 37). Suppose that some clear historical evidence were discovered that around AD29 a certain fellow from Samaria was traveling along the Jerusalem-Jericho road and came upon a Jewish man stripped of his clothes and beaten half to death. The Samaritan promptly tended to his wounds and paid two denarii for his care at a nearby guesthouse. Would this chance discovery—perhaps in some passing report by Josephus or Philo—have any bearing on the actual point being made by Jesus in the parable, where precisely such details are narrated? The answer is: no. It would certainly be a happy coincidence if one of Jesus’ didactic illustrations turned out also to be a true story, but it would not alter the fact that the ‘parable’ itself—a well-known literary device of Jewish antiquity—was never intended to be heard as a historical narrative. The point here is not that Genesis 1 is also a parable. Not at all. I am simply emphasizing that some parts of Scripture, rightly interpreted, commit us to no particular view of the factuality of what is described. I do not believe that Genesis 1 teaches a six-day creation but this is neither an endorsement of theistic evolution nor a denial of six-day creationism. It is simply a literary and historical statement. I am happy to leave the science to the scientists.

Some parts of Scripture, rightly interpreted, commit us to no particular view of the factuality of what is described.

Interpreting Genesis 1 in the Pre-Scientific Era

Before I give an account of what contemporary scholars are saying about the genre and purpose of Genesis, I want to establish for readers that a non-literalistic interpretation of Genesis 1 is by no means a recent phenomenon. Skeptical friends have often put it to me that my interpretation of Genesis 1 is really just an act of acquiescence to the troubling conclusions of modern science: “‘It is now clear that life emerged over a period of billions of years,” they say, “so now you are trying to appear respectable by picking and choosing how you read the Bible.”’ Richard Dawkins has echoed this criticism with great flair recently2. Interestingly, six-day creationists say the same thing. They insist that the non-literalistic reading of Genesis 1 is the result of biblical scholars losing their nerve or being taken captive to the spirit of the age.

It is important to realise that the precedents for a non-literalistic reading of Genesis 1 can be found in the very distant past. What follows is not intended as a proof or validation of my interpretation; it is simply a counter-argument to the above suggestion. Genesis 1 was being interpreted in a non-literalistic fashion long before modern science became a ‘problem’ for some Christians.

The Jewish scholar Philo

The prolific Jewish scholar, Philo, who lived and worked in Alexandria in the first century (10BC – AD50), wrote a treatise titled On the Account of the World’s Creation Given by Moses. In this work, Philo says that God probably created everything simultaneously and that the reference to ‘six days’ in Genesis indicates not temporal sequence but divine orderliness (On the Creation 13, 28). It is perhaps important to note that Philo was not marginal. He was the leading intellectual of the largest Jewish community outside of Palestine.3 How widespread his views were we do not know, but his discussion of the topic reveals no hint of controversy.

The Greek ‘Fathers’

Philo is followed in this interpretation by the second century Christian theologian and evangelist, Clement of Alexandria (ad 150-215), for whom the six days are symbolic (Stromata VI, 16). A generation later, Origen (185-254), the most influential theologian of the third century—again, an Alexandrian—understood Days 2-6 of the Genesis account as days in time. However, he regarded Day 1 as a non-temporal day. He reasoned that without matter, which was created on the second day, there could be no time; hence, no true ‘day’.4 What is interesting here is that a leading Christian scholar of antiquity was comfortable mixing concrete and metaphorical approaches to Genesis 1.5

The Latin Fathers and beyond

Moving to Latin-speaking scholars, the fourth century Bishop of Milan, Saint Ambrose (AD339-397), taught a fully symbolic understanding of Genesis 1.6 Moreover, his greatest convert, and perhaps history’s most influential theologian, Saint Augustine, famously championed a quite sophisticated, non-literalistic reading of the text. Augustine understood the ‘days’ in Genesis 1 as successive epochs in which the substance of matter, which God had created in an instant in the distant past, was fashioned into the various forms we now recognise.7 Augustine’s view was endorsed by some of the biggest names in the medieval church, including the Venerable Bede in the 8th century (Hexaemeron 1, 1), St Albert the Great (Commentary on the Sentence 12, B, I) and the incomparable Thomas Aquinas (II Sentences 12, 3, I) in the 13th century.8

It must be said that such views were not the majority position during this period. The literalistic reading appears to have been the dominant one from the 5th-century through to today. Be that as it may, the larger point I wish to make is that a non-literalistic interpretation of Genesis 1 is not necessarily a nervous, modern reaction to the rise of contemporary science. It is a viewpoint (even if a minority one) with a long and venerable history in both Jewish and Christian traditions.

Having said this, there are aspects of the modern interpretation of Genesis 1 that only became possible in the 16th – 19th centuries, at precisely the time of the scientific revolution. This is no coincidence. The Renaissance and Enlightenment periods precipitated a literary revolution in parallel with the scientific one. This was a time of increasing sophistication in the historical-critical analysis of ancient texts in their original languages, and out of such analyses have come particular conclusions about the genre and purpose of Genesis chapter 1.

The Genre of Genesis 1

With the rise of literary criticism modern biblical scholars have begun to appreciate more fully the importance of genre for interpreting ancient texts. When you and I pick up the daily newspaper we have no problem moving from news-report, to editorial, to satire, to TV guide, to comics, and so on. We do not need side notes indicating the transitions. We all understand the literary forms and read the relevant pieces appropriately.

Ancient people operated in much the same way. Within the Bible alone we can discern not only poetry and prose but also legal formula, historical report, parable, aphorism, prophecy, hyperbole, creed, hymn, epistle, prophetic lament, homily and apocalyptic. All of these must be read differently and were so by ancient audiences. The notion that the ancients were simpletons who only knew how to operate in literalistic mode is demonstrably false.

The example of ‘apocalyptic’ in Revelation

‘Apocalyptic’ offers a good parallel for the present discussion. In the book of Revelation, the closing text of the Bible, the writer narrates cosmic visions replete with symbols and codes involving numbers, colours and even animals (the famous ‘666’ or ‘mark of the Beast’ comes from the book of Revelation).

A literalistic interpretation of, say, Revelation 19—to take just one example—would have us believe that Jesus will return to earth one day with eyes of fire, riding a white horse, wearing a blood-stained robe upon his back and multiple crowns upon his head.9 Some modern Christians may sincerely expect things to pan out this way, but such a concretization of the images would never have entered the minds of ancient believers. Scholars long ago pointed out that large sections of the book of Revelation correspond to the ancient literary device known as ‘apocalyptic’, in which numbers, colours, animals and so on, were employed with specific referents. The writer of Revelation would never have predicted that audiences one day might approach his work literalistically.

A similar situation pertains to the first book of the Bible. Genesis 1 is not written in apocalyptic, of course, but it is composed in a style quite unlike the ‘historical narrative’ of, say, the Gospels in their accounts of Jesus’ resurrection. There is no getting around the fact that the Gospel writers were claiming to write history at that point—whether or not readers end up accepting what is reported. Genesis 1, on the other hand, is not written in the style we normally associate with historical report. It is difficult even to describe the passage as prose. The original Hebrew of this passage is marked by intricate structure, rhythm, parallelism, chiasmus, repetition and the lavish use of number symbolism. These features are not observed together in those parts of the Bible we recognise as historical prose.

One can safely conclude that the concerns of Genesis 1 lie elsewhere than providing a cosmic chronology.

This observation must be given some weight. While on literary grounds one cannot say that the world was not created in six days, one can safely conclude that the concerns of Genesis 1 lie elsewhere than providing a cosmic chronology. The genre of our text suggests that the author intended to convey his meaning through subtle and sophisticated means, not through the surface plot of the narrative (i.e., creation in six days).

Number symbolism in Genesis 1

A full account of all of the literary devices in Genesis would be inappropriate here and they are well described in numerous technical studies and commentaries.10 I will, however, draw attention to the number symbolism present in our passage. This provides a compelling example of the unusual nature of the text and of the way the author seeks to convey his message through means other than the surface-level plot.

It is well known that in Hebrew thought the number seven symbolises ‘wholeness’ as a characteristic of God’s perfection. A well-known example is the seven-candle lamp stand, or Menorah, which has long been a symbol of the Jewish faith and is the emblem of the modern State of Israel.11

In Genesis 1, multiples of seven appear in extraordinary ways. For ancient readers, who were accustomed to taking notice of such things, these multiples of seven conveyed a powerful message. Seven was the divine number, the number of goodness and perfection. Its omnipresence in the opening chapter of the Bible makes an unmistakable point about the origin and nature of the universe itself. Consider the following:

  1. The first sentence of Genesis 1 consists of seven Hebrew words. Instantly, the ancient reader’s attention is focused;
  2. The second sentence contains exactly fourteen words. A pattern is developing;
  3. The word ‘earth’—one half of the created sphere—appears in the chapter 21 times;12
  4. The word ‘heaven’—the other half of the created sphere—also appears 21 times.
  5. ‘God’, the lead actor, is mentioned exactly 35 times.
  6. The refrain ‘and it was so,’ which concludes each creative act, occurs exactly seven times;
  7. The summary statement ‘God saw that it was good’ also occurs seven times;
  8. It hardly needs to be pointed out that the whole account is structured around seven scenes or seven days of the week.

The artistry of the chapter is stunning and, to ancient readers, unmistakable. It casts the creation as a work of art, sharing in the perfection of God and deriving from him. My point is obvious: short of including a prescript for the benefit of modern readers the original author could hardly have made it clearer that his message is being conveyed through literary rather than prosaic means. What we find in Genesis 1 is not exactly poetry of the type we find in the biblical book of Psalms but nor is it recognizable as simple prose. It is a rhythmic, symbolically-charged inventory of divine commands.

Literary style and the question of ‘truth’

None of this should trouble modern Christians, or skeptics for that matter. It may be that you choose to dismiss the bible’s relevance and worth but such a choice should not stem from this particular issue. It is not as if truths expressed by literary device are somehow less true than those expressed in simple prose. We have already raised the examples of parable and apocalyptic. Outside of the Bible, we also recognise the capacity of images to convey truth. When Romeo says: ‘What light through yonder window breaks? It is the East, and Juliet is the sun!,’ we all understand what is being said. The statement is no less real than if Romeo had said, ‘Juliet is at the window and she is pretty.’ Only someone unacquainted with the English literary tradition would quibble over the ontological discrepancies between a woman and the sun.

Did God create ‘light’ on Day 1 of creation? He might have. But this is probably not the point of Genesis 1:3. The highly ‘literary’ presentation style of our passage makes it unlikely, in my opinion, that the author intended for us to link his surface plot of a seven-day week with a sequence of physical events in time. Again, the example of the book of Revelation comes to mind. It is universally agreed amongst scholars that the number of Jews present in Revelation’s picture of the heavenly kingdom (144,000) is symbolic not actual. Being a multiple of 12 (the number of the tribes of Israel) the 144,000 figure conveys the idea of a complete number of Israelites. This is recognised even in popular circles (though I note that Jehovah’s Witnesses interpret the number literalistically). Likewise, the literary nature of Genesis 1 suggests to me and to many other biblical historians that the original author of the text, whatever his thoughts of the mechanics of creation, did not intend to convey them in this text. Many will disagree with this conclusion on theological and (perhaps) scientific grounds. I respect their right to differ and remain open to learning more about this supremely important passage of Jewish and Christian Scripture.

Dr John Dickson is Director of the Centre for Public Christianity and Honorary Associate of the Department of Ancient History at Macquarie University (Australia). 

Footnotes

  1. Genesis 1:1-2:3 is the literary unit under discussion, even though I will frequently refer to it as ‘Genesis 1’ or the ‘opening chapter of the Bible.
  2. Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion. London: Bantam Press, 2006, 237-238.
  3. For a concise history of the Jewish community of the intellectual centre of Alexandria (and Philo’s place in it) see Binder, D. D. Into the Temple Courts: The Place of the Synagogues in the Second Temple Period. Vol. 169, SBL Dissertation Series. Atlanta: SBL, 1999, 246-254.
  4. In this, Origen echoes Philo who argued similarly about Day 1 (On the Creation 15, 26-27, 34-35).
  5. Origen Homilies on Genesis 1.1. See The Fathers of the Church: A New Translation 5, 71 (Origen: Homilies on Genesis and Exodus), trans. Ronald E. Heine. Washington: The Catholic University of America Press, 1982.
  6. For a history of interpretation of these sections of Genesis see Gregory Allen Robbins (ed.), Genesis 1-3 in the History of Exegesis: Intrigue in the Garden. New York: The Edwin Mellen Press, 1988. A detailed account of patristic (both Greek and Latin) interpretations of Genesis 1 is also found in Appendix 7 of St Thomas Aquinas Summa Theologiae, vol. 10. London: Eyre & Spottiswoode, 1967, 202-210.
  7. Augustine, The Literal Meaning of Genesis, 1.1, 1.29. See The Works of Saint Augustine: a translation for the 21st century, part I, vol. 13. New York: New City Press, 2002.
  8. For Aquinas’ own careful and even comparison of Augustine’s view of creation with other ancient Fathers see Summa Theologiae Ia. 74, 1-3. Excellent articles on the interpretation of the ‘Six Days’ (Hexaemeron) among medieval theologians are found in Appendices 8 and 9 in St Thomas Aquinas Summa Theologiae, vol. 10. London: Eyre & Spottiswoode, 1967, 211-224.
  9. Revelation 19:11-13 – I saw heaven standing open and there before me was a  white horse, whose rider is called Faithful and True. With justice he judges and makes war. His eyes are like blazing fire, and on his head are many crowns. He has a name written on him that no one knows but he himself. He is dressed in a robe dipped in blood, and his name is the Word of God.
  10. A good introduction to the literary characteristics of Genesis 1 (with ample bibliography) can be found in Wenham, G. J., Genesis 1-15. Waco: Word Books, 1987, 1-40.
  11. In Revelation 1 in the New Testament Jesus is described as holding ‘seven stars’ and walking amidst ‘seven lampstands.’ These are images of his divine authority over the cosmos and the church.
  12. Please remember, I use the word ‘chapter’ loosely. It is commonly noted that the opening literary section of Genesis runs from 1:1 through to 2:3. Appropriately, the NIV places the heading for the second section at 2:4. For the details see Wenham, Genesis 1-15, 6.

Next

The purpose of Genesis 1: an historical approach

John Dickson on what a Babylonian creation myth reveals about the purpose of Genesis 1.