A Different Genre for Genesis 1


I’ve recently been chewing on a different genre of Genesis 1 and would love some feedback on it. Iron sharpening iron…

We usually see people discussing Genesis 1 from two common points of view. One side says it is some type of metaphor, poetry, story, legend etc., while the other side says it is literal. Of course there is a spectrum here, and many accept some as literal and some as figurative, etc. It recently struck me that there is a whole other type of genre that could be considered, and I’ve had no luck finding anyone who has written about it from this perspective.

A fully separate genre in the Bible is the genre of genealogy. Looking at the Bible, we learn several rules about this type of writing:

  1. It is meant to be factual and historically accurate, but it goes by its own rules. Time and years can be “telescoped.” Generations can be skipped without being accounted for. Grandsons can be called sons. One can be “begat” from a distant grandfather. This is important: many people see these as errors, but they are simply accepted rules for writing genealogies. The writer of Matthew was not simply ignorant when he skipped two known people in the line of Christ, he did it on purpose. Which brings me to the next point.

  2. Genealogies are “history with a purpose.” They are meant to prove something about the future, and prove something about the past. About the future, they could be proving how long it will be until some event happens. About the past, they could be proving a historical bloodline and right to a throne. They can be proving a lineage as accurate, without trying to count every year or every person. It is a true history, but a larger history. A history with a point that is besides the point of filling in all the details.

In this way, genealogies don’t really fit in the genre of history, but they don’t really fit in the genre of metaphor. They are a distinct genre with their own rules.

I was studying them, and studying the genealogy of Genesis 5, when I made a connection of phrases. Notice the language that denotes a genealogy:

Gen. 5:1 This is the book of the generations of Adam. In the day that God created man, in the likeness of God made he him; 2 Male and female created he them; and blessed them, and called their name Adam, in the day when they were created. 3 And Adam lived an hundred and thirty years, and begat a son in his own likeness, after his image; and called his name Seth: 4 And the days of Adam after he had begotten Seth were eight hundred years: and he begat sons and daughters:

See it again in Matthew:

Matthew 1:1 The book of the generation of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham. 2 Abraham begat Isaac; and Isaac begat Jacob; and Jacob begat Judas and his brethren;

Again for Noah’s genealogy:

Gen. 6: 9 These are the generations of Noah: Noah was a just man and perfect in his generations, and Noah walked with God. 10 And Noah begat three sons, Shem, Ham, and Japheth.

The same language, these are the generations of so and so, is used over and over to denote a genealogy. Just do a search for generation and you’ll see them all.

But you’ll notice the FIRST use of the term. It’s not in Gen 5 for Adam’s genealogy, as I suspected. It’s in Genesis 2:

Gen. 2:4 These are the generations of the heavens and of the earth when they were created, in the day that the LORD God made the earth and the heavens, 5 And every plant of the field before it was in the earth, and every herb of the field before it grew: for the LORD God had not caused it to rain upon the earth, and there was not a man to till the ground. 6 But there went up a mist from the earth, and watered the whole face of the ground. 7 And the LORD God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul.

What if the reason Genesis 1 seems to baffle everyone by being not quite history, and not quite metaphor, is because it is a different genre altogether, the genre of the genealogy?

Is it possible that Genesis 1 is the first genealogy… the genealogy of the creation?

If this was the case, genealogical rules fit very well:

  1. It is giving true history, but time and years are flexible. Generations and spans of time can be skipped, and although the connection from Adam back to the beginning would be literally true, it would be much more flexible in its time, like the flexibility of a genealogy.

  2. Genesis 1 would be “history with a purpose.” It would be meant to show something about the future (7 days, sabbath, 7,000 prophetic years, etc.) and meant to show something about the past, namely the connection of lineage of the earth and heavens itself, from where it is today, back to God as the beginning of the lineage. It would show God as the rightful heir of heaven and earth using a kingly lineage from the King Adam (who was given dominion over all the earth), back to the first King, God.

Has anyone ever seen Genesis 1 referred to as the genealogy of heaven and earth? I’d love to read on it if there’s something out there. If this case could be followed through and proven Biblically possible, it would connect with Biblical literalists (conservative-minded Christians) as it would appease their plea to keep strictly to scripture, and it would leave plenty of room for science to work within the unspecific details of time and form in genealogies.

(George Brooks) #2


Can I have a large fries with that serving of deliciousness? All of a sudden I feel like going to church again …

(Jay Nelsestuen) #3

That is amazingly insightful. I’ve never thought about it like that. I might have to sit on it for a while and get back to you.

(Christy Hemphill) #4

In discourse analysis, we speak of embedded text types within macrotexts (or genres within genres, if you like). So for example in a hortatory text (like a sermon where the point is to urge people to act a certain way) you will find embedded narratives (a story to illustrate a point) or embedded expository texts (an explanation of a verse or a historical context). It would be wrong to say that because the sermon has a story, it is a story, or because it has an explanation, it is an explanation. Those are embedded in the larger genre, the sermon. But if you were analyzing the language used, you would find different linguistic conventions and features would be used in the different embedded text types, so in order to analyze them well, you would need to know what kind of text you were in at the moment and how it served the communicative purpose of the whole.

Within each language community, specific conventionalized forms develop for the right way to do certain things in certain kinds of texts. Fairy tales begin with “Once upon a time” and end with “happily ever after.” Legal documents use redundant phrasing called legal doublets not used anywhere else. (terms and conditions, will and testament, heirs and successors). Conventionalized forms can help you identify the structure of a text.

All that preface to say I don’t think identifying something as history entails that it cannot have other conventionalized text forms embedded in it (genealogies, prayers, oracles).

Many commentaries see the 'elleh toledot introduction (used eleven times in Genesis) as a unifying literary device which divides the larger narrative of Genesis into a prologue (creation, the only instance the phrase is not followed by a name) and ten episodes that introduce a name and close with this named person’s death.

Other than using the 'elleh toledot opening, I don’t see what makes Genesis 1 like a genealogy at all. Genealogies by definition chronicle generations in a particular family.

It seems like when you say “Genesis is history” you are imposing certain cultural ideas of how history must be told. I think Genesis is history. But it is a history that is not told according to modern western conventions of history telling. So we need to ask, what was the ancient author attempting to accomplish by telling history this way? What would the ancient audience have expected and taken away from the telling? I don’t think they would have taken away that it was a genealogy.


Thank you for your linguistic insight into this subject. It’s great to have experts who can weigh in on ideas.

I appreciate your first three paragraphs explaining that a history such as Genesis can also have other genres such as genealogies built in. That seems to be the conclusion you’re making from those paragraphs. I agree.

Down to the meat of the answer: You ask:

“What would the ancient audience have expected and taken away from the telling?”

…then answer…

“I don’t think they would have taken away that it was a genealogy.”

I’m not sure where you get your conclusion. Not to be harsh, but it seems from your opinion. I just don’t see any other evidence given. Do you think that they would not have seen a genealogy because you do not see a genealogy? Or is there some other historical or linguistic or anthropological reason for your conclusion? When I look at this, I see exactly where they would have seen this as a genealogy, based on comparing the scripture with the scripture. Let me explain:

  • Every other time the phrase “these are the generations” is used in Genesis, it is following or preceding a genealogy.

  • You say: “Genealogies by definition chronicle generations in a particular family.” I agree but add further: Specifically ALL of the Genesis genealogies together chronicle a SINGLE particular family, that of Israel, of whom and to whom the book of Genesis was written. It is quite literally not just the genesis of earth, but the genesis of the nation of Israel, and the family of the Hebrews, with some branches of ‘cousins’ along the way. It ends with Joseph in a coffin in Egypt. Tracing it backwards, every single genealogy answers the question… and where did THEY come from? And where did THEY come from? …

In that way, Genesis 5 answers where the whole family came from, by tracing the lineage back to Adam. But then there’s one more question, isn’t there? It’s a question we all naturally ask: And where did ADAM come from?

Genesis 1 as a genealogy would naturally answer that question. Adam came from God, who, in the beginning WAS. No further genealogy needed.

  • You say that Genesis 2:4 is a prologue, because it is the only instance of the phrase “these are the generations” that is not followed by a name. I beg to differ… watch for the name: Gen. 2:4 These are the generations of the heavens and of the earth when they were created, in the day that the LORD God made the earth and the heavens,

Did you see the name?

(Chris Falter) #6


I think this is spot-on. Many OT scholars of every theological inclination have been saying this for some time btw.

Hmm… there is one more genealogy between them. It’s the one you mention next.

I haven’t studied the OT in Hebrew, so what I am about to say is an opinion from the pews: It looks to me like the first genealogy is that of the heavens and the earth, which sets the stage for the second genealogy–that of Adam and Eve.

Since a genealogy has its own rules–it’s not necessary to include all the details, it doesn’t even have to conform with modern journalistic standards–there is no Biblical reason to interpret Genesis 1 - 3 literalistically. That leaves plenty of space for scientific research to fill in details.

It seems that this is the track you are following. Have I understood your proposal, NYK?

And let me add me gratitude for your generous spirit in working with us here on the Biologos forum. We do not necessarily begin with agreement on all points, nor do we necessarily agree 100% on all the points when we conclude, but we’re learning a lot from each other, and the discussion is being conducted with genuine humility and peace. It’s good to have you here, NYK!

Chris Falter

(Christy Hemphill) #7

Yes, exactly. I agree with you here. But an origin story is larger than a genealogy. I think I’m just tripped up by your use of that word. I always thought that genealogies as a form minimally needed a list of named ancestors. Clearly, the Hebrews did not see God as their ancestor because they did not see themselves as divine. And they did not see themselves as being birthed or fathered by earth or the heavens (I don’t think. Maybe someone with more knowledge of Hebrew or ANE cultures will weigh in.

I guess just because God is listed as the source and creator doesn’t mean he is the ancestor. And it is the account of the heavens earth and where they came from, not where God came from so I guess I don’t see how the Lord being mentioned further in the sentence makes a point.

(George Brooks) #8


This is not how I have interpreted what @nobodyyouknow posted in the OP.

One, I believe he is referring to a much larger slice of Genesis… on the basis that the stories of the Patriarchs is a form of genealogy. I could be wrong about that. Mr. Body, how much of Genesis do you consider open to interpretation as a Genealogy?

Two, rather than imposing cultural ideas on Genesis, I see him as offering a view or perspective that could have been a logical expectation at the time of the writing of Genesis.

We’ve always said that the Bible (either book) shouldn’t be interpreted as a History. But it doesn’t offer much coherence when seen as a religious document (religion as a ‘metaphysic’ ) either.

We’ve always needed a more appropriate “model” to interpret Genesis with! Table of Nations may be the highpoint of Genealogy in Genesis!


Thank you for raising questions, it definitely helps me to sharpen each point, and see where the questions might come in. I will address each point here.

  • You state: “I always thought that genealogies as a form minimally needed a list of named ancestors. Clearly, the Hebrews did not see God as their ancestor because they did not see themselves as divine.”

Have you seen how Luke wrote Jesus’ genealogy? It concludes… Luke 3:38 Which was the son of Enos, which was the son of Seth, which was the son of Adam, which was the son of God.

There’s God right in the lineage, the actual ancestor of Adam. They indeed very much saw themselves as fallen sons of God. I could go on and on on this point. The references to God as their father are plenteous.

  • You state: “And they did not see themselves as being birthed or fathered by earth or the heavens”

Yes, but I did not say that Adam was fathered by the heavens and neither does Genesis 1. I said that all in Genesis 1 was part of the genealogy going back to God as its/their father. A unique quality of the Hebrew genealogies is that they are two-dimensional. That is, they don’t just run vertically (such as father/son), but also horizontally (brother, brother, sister, cousin). They branch within a single instance of a genealogy.

So it does not follow that what was created on day 4 must necessarily be the “son” of what was created on day 3. There is space for them to be “brothers” from God or they could be “sons” from the previous day. From the language, I would lean, initially, but could be persuaded otherwise with further study, toward saying that the created objects ALL are given to show that their direct father is God, although there IS FLEXIBILITY for them to be SHOWN as having God as a direct father, while being actually “born” of an earlier creation (leaving the space for evolution or common descent). Also, genealogies often attribute as sons they who are actually grandsons or great grandsons. The point not being direct fatherhood, but actual lineage.

Rather than showing that “they saw themselves as birthed or fathered by the earth or heavens,” I’m saying that this being a genealogy would show their general kinship with the creation (reiterated explicitly in ch. 2), and also show that while they were formed from the creation (also reiterated explicitly in ch. 2), their father was God (again stated explicitly in ch. 2).


That’s totally reasonable, it’s a very new way to look at it. But I think it makes sense. Let me frame it this way: If you were to attempt to write the genealogy of the heavens and the earth, how would you go about it? It would make sense to link that which was brought into existence by God, in type, to a father begetting a son. All the objects of creation would match all the sons of a father. All the days of creation would match the flexible chronology of a genealogy to show the passage of time.

I think if you read Genesis 1 with the viewpoint of a genealogy in mind, and with the viewpoint that all of the objects and beings of that chapter are being show as coming from God, you’ll see that it reads quite nicely as a genealogy.

To your point, that an “origin story is larger than a genealogy,” I would agree and say that proves my point, since Genesis has famously puzzled everyone by reading rather sparse for a creation epic. As a genealogy, however, it reads very straightforward, with flourishes of explanation added into various parts, as genealogies are wont to do. Read this one from Gen. 10 and see how remarkably it reads like Genesis 1.

Gen. 10:6 And the sons of Ham; Cush, and Mizraim, and Phut, and Canaan. 7 And the sons of Cush; Seba, and Havilah, and Sabtah, and Raamah, and Sabtecha: and the sons of Raamah; Sheba, and Dedan. 8 And Cush begat Nimrod: he began to be a mighty one in the earth. 9 He was a mighty hunter before the LORD: wherefore it is said, Even as Nimrod the mighty hunter before the LORD. 10 And the beginning of his kingdom was Babel, and Erech, and Accad, and Calneh, in the land of Shinar. 11 Out of that land went forth Asshur, and builded Nineveh, and the city Rehoboth, and Calah, 12 And Resen between Nineveh and Calah: the same is a great city. 13 And Mizraim begat Ludim, and Anamim, and Lehabim, and Naphtuhim, 14 And Pathrusim, and Casluhim, (out of whom came Philistim,) and Caphtorim.

So maybe the hesitancy to read Genesis as genealogy comes not from the idea that genealogies minimally must contain names and a lineage, but from the false idea that genealogies ONLY contain names and a lineage. The Hebrew genealogies are replete with stories and narratives embedded within the lineages.

This, I might add, a sharp linguist once told me, would be a great example of an embedded text type within a macrotext. :smile:

So when you say that “an origin story is larger than a genealogy,” I would argue that a genealogy is in fact a type of origin story itself, and one, I might add, that is unique among the Hebrew people. One that, if you study genealogies, predated the earliest ANE genealogies and was more innovative than theirs as well, as the Hebrews included branching families and narrative embedded text before these other civilizations did.

(Christy Hemphill) #11

But why do you conclude it is a narrative embedded in a genealogy, and not the other way around?


However you classify it, the mere presence of the genealogical form and content is what is at the crux of my point: including this as a genre opens up new possibilities of interpretation for the passage that even YECs accept.

YECs accept telescoping time in genealogies, but not in strict histories. By seeing the genealogy in Genesis 1, it opens the door for them to accept much longer than 24-hour days in Gen. 1, while still giving them a framework of interpretation that they already accept.

I don’t want to sound like I’m twisting it to make it palatable to them, however. The case for Gen. 1 being a genealogy is very strong, I believe, whether you classify it as genealogy embedded in narrative or the other way around. Once again, see Gen. 2:4: These are the generations of the heavens and of the earth…

Sidebar: Here’s some more discussion on the flexibility of classification of genealogies, by the way, from The Birth Report Genre in the Hebrew Bible by Timothy D. Finlay, professor at Azuza Seminary:
"On occasion, a unit may have two or more main purposes, one of which is genealogical in nature, and thus may be classified as a genealogy or as some other type of literature, according to the particular aims of the classifier. For example, Gen. 29:31-30:24 is a unit which could be classified as a genealogical account, but it also has characteristics found in annunciation type-scenes. "

(Jay Johnson) #13

The Sumerian King List would be comparable in containing more than just a list of names, as well as the tremendously long times of rulership vis-a-vis the long lives of the patriarchs.

You may already be aware of these, but here are a couple of articles you may find helpful in your discussions with YEC believers. W.H. Green’s Primeval Chronology shows that the genealogies of Genesis cannot be used to construct any sort of chronological timeline. It was written in 1890. Meredith Kline’s Because It Had Not Rained, written in 1960, demonstrates that a literal understanding of the days of creation as 24-hr days is not consistent with Scripture. Both authors are conservative and arrive at their conclusions simply by comparing Scripture with Scripture.

Edit: Kline’s piece also has some thoughts on genre toward the end. Worth reading


Thank you for the links, I’ve read Green but had not read Kline. Much appreciated.

To the part of my post that you quoted: I should not have said the Hebrew genealogy IS unique, but rather WAS unique. Of course innovation is copied and it doesn’t remain unique to this day. Gritting my teeth Thank. You. For. Correcting. Me. :wink:


Kline was a great and thorough read, thank you for the link.


Personally speaking, if I want to explain to a YEC believer, or anybody else, that “the genealogies of Genesis cannot be used to construct any sort of chronological timeline”, I like to move forward at least a century in terms of the best scholarship and take them through the clear evidence in the antediluvian numbers themselves (i.e., all of the ages in the Adam to Noah portion of the genealogy) that they can’t be actual “literal” ages of those patriarchs. I’m not referring to the absurd magnitude in many hundreds of years but because:

(1) The numbers reflect the sexegesimal number system used in Mesoptomia until around 2000 B.C.

(2) They have symbolic meanings with heavy reliance on multiples of 60 years and 60 months (which thereby spawns multiples of 5 years), for example, just to mention a few of the symbolic patterns going on there. Of course, the special nature of 60 as the basis for their base-60 number system and the fact that 60+60=120 explains why 120 years was considered the ideal age at death for a virtuous hero. This explains why both Moses and Joseph were assigned those ages. (Personally, I doubt that they ACTUALLY died at age 120. Perhaps they did, and most likely they were at least quite old, but we just can’t take the numbers from that era of those cultures as for-certain “literal” numbers. This is a good example of how the text doesn’t have to be “literal” in order to be true. If people in that culture understand someone dying at age 120 to indicate that they were a great hero and were wonderfully blessed by God to fulfill his purposes for them, we should accept the text on its own terms and understand it as communicating an important truth! (I think of it as a kind of “number idiom.” Of course, a “symbolic number” is more conventional nomenclature.)

(3) The fact that the final digit of all of the antediluvian ages is always from the set of digits {0,2,5,7,9} and never from the set {1,3,4,6,8} should be a huge red flag that something special is going on. If the Adam-through-Noah genealogy ages were actual ages, we would expect them to be randomly distributed but they aren’t. Indeed, the chances of all of those aforementioned numbers ending in a {0,2,5,7,9} and never in a {1,3,4,6,8} is about one in a billion. So that should be a huge red flag that these are numbers meant to communicate a symbolic message and not an actual age.

Come to think of it, I don’t see these facts mentioned a lot on forums, but I was reminded of them earlier today. I think I first recall them from the 1970’s when computers started crunching such numbers.

I’m curious, though. Are these views on the Adam-to-Noah ages generally accepted as explaining antediluvian longevity by most Biologos forum participants? I’m assuming that young earth proponents on this forum reject them but everybody else is at least open to them?? Just wondering.

(Jay Nelsestuen) #17

What you say makes sense to me. I haven’t spent much time studying the genealogies in depth. I’m just now trying to work out my view of the historical Adam. But symbolic numbers makes sense. Add to that gaps in the genealogies and you’ve made a real mess of any type of straightforward chronology (which must mean there isn’t any straightforward chronology).

(Casper Hesp) #18

I hear you.

I also like the example of the genealogy of the Japanese imperial house given by @dscottjorgenson on a different thread:

It seems that as Westerners we have to come to terms with the awkward fact that “raw facts” are mostly a recent invention.

(George Brooks) #19


I think we’ve all bumped into proposals and assertions dealing with the “symbolism” of the ages of the patriarchs, but this is my first encounter with the {0,2,5,7,9} proposition.

Do you have a proposal for why those numbers are used? Or is it merely that Any limited number pattern is intended to flag the reader?

(Christy Hemphill) #20

There was a nice write up by Jim Stump a few years ago on the long life spans in Genesis: http://biologos.org/blogs/jim-stump-faith-and-science-seeking-understanding/long-life-spans-in-genesis