I suspect the title has already polarized you—or if not that, it has at least evoked something of a gut response for you. The issues of creation and science tend to do that for people! But please let me set the context of this discussion: this is not a discussion about science and creation.
This discussion is about one aspect of the literary nature of Genesis 1 on its own terms, in the context of Genesis as a whole and the rest of the Bible; Genesis 1 is not poetry, it’s not even poetic, and it certainly is historical.
In almost every informal discussion I’ve ever had about Genesis 1—and often enough in teaching contexts too—someone will inevitably assert that Genesis 1:1-2:3 is poetry or poetic. I’m sure many of you have heard it too. And, depending on the Bible translation or publisher, you may find that the text is arranged with extra indents or in other ways to indicate that, whatever else this chapter is, it isn’t narrative like the rest of biblical narrative (my ESV doesn’t, but my NIV does).
And fair enough of the translators, in some ways. Genesis 1 is a highly structured text! But my point is this: structure is no sign of poetry, nor is it a sign of poetic inclinations. Any number of texts in everyday life reflect highly structured patterns, and yet we wouldn’t call them poetry. In the Bible, too, we encounter narratives, such as the majority of 2 Kings or Judges, which are heavily structured around certain patterning.
On the other hand, when we think about the ‘standard features’ of poetry (not that there really are any)—like heightened imagery (metaphor, simile), sensory evocation, wordplay—then we find Genesis 1 lacking. It reads as narrative, albeit a highly structured one.
Further, and more importantly, when it comes to standard Hebrew poetic forms—especially parallelism, ‘non-standard’ vocabulary and ‘unusual’ verb patterning—these are also absent from the text (with the exception of 1:27). As my old Ancient Near East history lecturer once put it, anyone reading the text would fail a first-year Hebrew exam if they called Genesis 1 a type of Hebrew poetry.
The question we need to therefore ask is: what is driving this desire to see Genesis 1 as poetry? In the discussions I’ve had with people, the reason for asserting Genesis 1 as poetry is almost always so that elements of the structure can be argued to be non-literal (i.e. it didn’t really happen like that in history), particularly the day structure (i.e. that it didn’t really happen in six or seven days in history) and the separation between what was created on what day.
But as far as that question is concerned, so what if the chapter was poetry? Poetry is not the opposite of historicity. Poetry is a literary form, and historicity is a comment on the content and purpose of a text. To conclude that something didn’t happen on the basis of poetics is to confuse categories.
This confusion between literary genre and history-as-event needs to be reiterated. ‘Poetry’ and ‘narrative’ are general comments about types of literature. Historical poetry is as much in evidence throughout the ages as narrative fiction. It’s in the Bible, too; Philippians 2:5-11 is poetry, but it certainly is history too, as is Psalm 106, and…
To label a text as ‘poetry’ is to say nothing of its historical value. In other words, the tension that people are trying to alleviate by calling Genesis 1 ‘poetry’ or ‘poetic’ is not alleviated; it is simply a confusion of categories. What they are doing is something else entirely, which gets hidden by the terminology.
This confusion hides the fact that (as I said before) what people are really suggesting is that elements of the structure should not be taken as referring to historical reality: that it is, rather, just a stylistic device (albeit one that communicates the point of an ordered creation).
But there is a danger to that methodological approach to Genesis 1. No one I’ve met has gone down this path, but methodologically speaking there is no reason why they couldn’t, or even shouldn’t. If one says that the structure of Genesis 1 is such that it renders the day references non-literal (i.e. non-historical, it didn’t really happen like that), what is the safeguard to retain the literal (i.e. historical, it really happened like that) nature of the rest of the structure? Particularly in reference to God creating by speaking, and God creating a good creation?
Theologically, there are many elements of this chapter that we want to hold as being historical (i.e. really happened), and this false category conflict has obscured that. Theologically, we hold that God created—and he alone—and he created ex nihilo (from nothing). We hold that God created a good creation and that he created by his word. The entire nature of Trinitarian interaction with this world and salvation history, and the nature of God himself, hangs on these being real truths—things that happened in history (even if at the very beginning of history).
One can argue, of course, that we can hold these ideas about God as creator from other places in Scripture. Granted, but what if those other places in Scripture are exegeting this passage (‘intertextuality’)? And in either case, why these things and not seven days in creation? The Sabbath is occasionally justified by referring to God creating in seven days (e.g. Exodus 20, but not Deuteronomy 5). Why should we maintain some theological truths and intertextual theologizing based on the structure of Genesis 1, but not other aspects of the structure?
I’m not trying to solve creation/science issues. I’m simply trying to clear away some category confusions, and highlight what is at stake theologically when people adopt what is often a hidden methodology when they approach Genesis 1. But having taken out a couple of spanners from the works, let me throw another couple in.
Genesis 1:1-2:3 is not the only account of the act of creation in Scripture, some of which have no sense of it occurring in seven days (including Genesis 2). Nevertheless, other places explicitly refer to the days in creation, and use it to make conclusions; it is God’s basis for the Sabbath, for instance, as noted above.
Or again, it is worth noting that Genesis 1:1-2:3 falls outside of the significant ‘generations’ structure of Genesis (which begins at 2:4). That is, there is a historical framework that structures the book that Genesis 1:1-2:3 stands outside of. But that doesn’t prove anything in and of itself, it’s just a piece of evidence. The question we have to ask is, ‘evidence of what’?