Is Genesis One a Poem?

Is Genesis One a Poem?
by Jack Cottrell (Notes) on Thursday, October 7, 2010 at 3:13pm

QUESTION: I showed a video by Rob Bell to my youth group. In the video Bell says that Genesis 1 is a poem written to set up the Sabbath. Some parents objected to my showing the video. They assume that since Bell says Genesis 1 is a poem, he must be saying that it is not an actual historical account of creation. What do you think? Could this crucial passage be poetry? And if it is, how does this affect our interpretation of it?

ANSWER: I have not seen the Bell video, so I am not sure what he is implying when he affirms that Genesis 1 is poetry. I am sure that some people make this claim as a not-so-subtle way of denying that this creation account is historical truth. I don’t know if that is Bell’s agenda or not. If his purpose is to provide an excuse for rejecting the factual claims of Genesis 1, that is his business. The important point, however, is this: even if one could show that Genesis 1 is poetry, that in itself is NOT a sufficient reason for saying that it cannot therefore be historical in nature.

I am not sure whether this chapter is poetry or not. But even if it is, this would merely be a judgment about its form, not necessarily its content. Poetry as a form of literature can serve the purposes of both truth and fiction. Some of the world’s greatest literary works are fictional poems, e.g., Edmund Spenser’s “The Faerie Queene,” John Milton’s “Paradise Lost,” Dante Aligheiri’s “The Divine Comedy,”, Homer’s “The Odyssey” and “The Iliad,” and the anonymous “Beowulf.” Some of these poetic works may have an historical core or premise, but are fleshed out in symbolic or allegorical details that are pure fiction. (Some poems nothing but fiction, of course, e.g., “Twas the Night Before Christmas,” by Clement Moore.)

On the other hand, historical events can well be written in poetic form without sacrificing the truth or facticity of those events. Examples of this are harder to find, since poets do have a tendency to take liberties with some of the details as they compose. We could cite “The Battle of New Orleans” by Thomas English, or “Paul Revere’s Ride” by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Paul Curtis’ “The Holy Infant” is more simple and to the point. No one claims infallibility for such poets, of course.

What is more important is that we can turn to the Bible’s own book of poetry, the Psalms, and find poetic descriptions of historical events. For example, Psalm 22 includes a wonderfully prophetic picture of the scene at Calvary, told as being from the lips of the crucified Christ Himself (see vv. 12-21). That His enemies are described poetically as bulls (v. 12) and dogs (16, 20) does not affect the historicity of the description one bit. Another example is Psalm 104, which is a marvelous poem about God’s work of creation and providence; it is packed with information and doctrinal truth in poetic imagery. Exodus 15 may also be cited as another example, one that celebrates the Israelites’ crossing of the Red Sea and the destruction of their enemies.

There are good reasons to doubt that Genesis 1 is meant to be poetry, even in its form. When you compare it with the acknowledged Biblical (historical) poems just mentioned, you can see an obvious contrast in the language. Genesis 1 has no flowery imagery; it presents itself as a simple, straightforward recitation of facts. (For stark contrast, one should compare it with the so-called Babylonian creation myth, the astonishingly-gross “Enuma Elish.”) In any case, when anyone raises the kind of question with which we began above, we should simply explain that the following are two different issues: (1) whether Genesis 1 is a poem; and (2) whether the factual claims of Genesis 1 are true or false. One can accept the former without implying the latter. Whether Bell is doing this or not, I do not know.

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