Are the opening chapters of Genesis really poetic?

(Mark Twombly) #1

Continuing the discussion from Poetically Harmonizing Genesis with Science:

Thank you for your thorough post. I have 2 succinct questions:

  • How do you reconcile the theory of evolution with the use of the word ‘kind’ in Genesis 1:24-26? God seems to be uniquely crafting individual types of creatures, with man being unique and distinct from all other living things.
  • What other examples do we have of Hebrew poetry that is like the opening chapters of Genesis? The primary example of Hebrew poetry we see is in the book of Psalms, and those that speak of creation (e.g. 19 and 33) seem to be of quite a different type and genre than the opening chapters of Genesis.

Thank you,

Mark Twombly
Somerset, NJ

(George Brooks) #2


I think [JONAH} is a very comparable lyrical narrative of an event that was not literally true.

[TYPO: My apologies, @marktwombly … I meant JONAH … not Noah!]

(Mark Twombly) #3

Except that:

  • Genesis 8-9 give specific durations of time and a specific age for Noah
  • Isaiah thought Noah was literally true (Isaiah 54:9)
  • Jesus thought it was literally true (Matthew 24:37-38, Luke 17:26)
  • Peter thought it was literally true (1 Peter 3:20)

How can you explain that?


(Christy Hemphill) #4

You don’t. You think that Genesis isn’t describing evolution in any way, because it was a totally unknown concept. Nothing in the Bible describes plate tectonics, germ theory, or relativity either. Why would you expect an ancient culture to be accurately describing modern scientific discoveries?


And when you do insist that Genesis is somehow scientifically accurate, you are buying into the falsehood that only science has real value and significance.

(Phil) #6

Good questions Mark. My thought is the the long ages of Noah and that era may indicate that this is not a historical rendering but is an epic story. As to whether Jesus et al held that they were historical, we often speak of literary characters as being real even though we know they are not flesh and blood, even biblically we speak of figures in parables as though they were real. I’m not sure that is what is happening here, however, and my thought is that these men were products of their time, and accepted the current concepts of cosmology, interpretation of Torah, etc., and their purpose was not to introduce new concepts of historical interpretation,but rather to put forth spiritual truth. Even Jesus who was fully God, emptied himself of supernatural knowledge in order to be fully human. What think you?

(Christy Hemphill) #7

[quote=“marktwombly, post:3, topic:5149”]
Genesis 8-9 give specific durations of time and a specific age for Noah [/quote]

Hebrew numerology has some mysteries that remain mysterious.

[quote] Isaiah thought Noah was literally true (Isaiah 54:9)
Jesus thought it was literally true (Matthew 24:37-38, Luke 17:26)
Peter thought it was literally true (1 Peter 3:20) [/quote]

They are referring to people and stories that form a part of their cultural history. Maybe everyone accepted that there was an element of mythology involved in the histories, or maybe they were just wrong about some of the details, but God didn’t care because the main points still stand. (You could make a true and insightful point about spiritual realities using Frodo Baggins in your example, if you wanted. The story of Frodo reads just like a narrative history. You can’t really tell if the person making the point knows that Frodo is fictional or not, just because they allude to him to make their point.) Jewish people also told stories about a miraculous rock that followed the wandering Israelites around the desert providing water, and Paul references this as what you would call “literal truth” in 1 Corinthians 10:4.

(Jo Helen Cox) #8

Thank you for asking questions about my ideas. I hope I can adequately answer them.

Many people define the word “kind” as species or at most genus. That is not how the Hebrews used their word. Read Leviticus 11. How many things mentioned are species or genus? Not many, most are very generalized. The fish section has so little differentiation that some things included are probably not what we would call fish. The Hebrews grouped things that shared similar physical attributes (like they lived in water). That is exactly how we start in the classification of life, and everything else.

Genesis 1 is even less specific than Leviticus 11. No species are named. It does not group by genus. We would call the groups Kingdom, Class, or Order, with Family as the most specific grouping (grass). I find this very inspired. All other creation stories I’ve read include species known to the writer, those inclusions cannot be reconciled with evolution. This text does not require the first animals to look like the animals the writer knew. The animal groups mentioned in the text are the collective or culmination of prolific life on earth.

With that understanding we can interpret the generalization in Genesis 1 as God crafting entire lineages of life, each to their kind. Evolution theory says similar animals can reproduce, but as groups disburse they become less similar as they evolve separately. When there are too few similarities the creature’s offspring become sterile or can no longer reproduce between groups. That understanding is in the text, where reproduction is limited to kinds. The writer understood that about plants and animals. Evolution theories tell us why it is true.

Genesis 1 ends with the creation of human-kind, but this may or may not be the species Homo sapiens. If kind is interpreted as the entire lineage of a type of creature, then human-kind includes our entire lineage of hominids and our lineage all the way back to the first life form. How the naturally evolved human-kind became unique is detailed in the garden story. Genesis 1 calls the garden events “Image of God.” In Genesis 3:22, God said Adam and Eve was now like Him, but only after eating the fruit.

Good question. I am obsessed with Gen 1. I found word pattern that looked like circles. I googled poetry circular and found circular poetry, which matched the pattern in the text. I showed it to a poet, who exclaimed, “I finally understand circular poetry!”

I am not a poet. I do not read Hebrew. I have not found any scholarly source that identifies Genesis 1 as circular poetry or even the consideration of this type of poetry as Hebrew (I would like to know if someone has). I have found many attempts to make Gen 1 into other kinds of poetry found readily in scripture. These interpretations have all been rejected because the poetic style is not actually in the Hebrew. The main problem is the correct meter, which is inconsistent or missing in the text. Circular poetry does not require meter. It does not require rhyme either. This style simply must start and end at the same place with a logical progression in between. It can be a single word progression or any type of sentence. Grammar is even optional.

However, and not sure if this is true, the entire Bible may be circular in nature. Gen 1 starts with God made everything. Revelation ends with Jesus as the Alpha and Omega. In between there is lots of progression. Just thinking…

I have read that some people think the Flood story and Babel story have chiastic structure though they are more prose than poetry. If you look up chiastic and bible you should find other places it is used.

But I expect an inspired text to use words that accept all those scientific discoveries and not reject them. Genesis 1 does not reject any of them, and its wording is amazingly close to current ideas.

We should not expect a short text to include a dissertation on everything or even mention all the cool things we have discovered in the last few decades. We can only look at the words used to determine if they relate to current understanding. They do, and if read as circular poetry, they even match as to the order of the natural creation.

Not true. I buy into the idea that God is the creator of each thing described in science. If He inspired Genesis 1, then He could describe what He made. If God did not inspire reality into the words of a text talking about physical reality, than why should we believe spiritual reality is in a text that does not mention spiritual anything except God?

Stating “only science has real value and significance” is just as wrong as saying science is evil. They are two sides of the same plug nickle.

I had not heard that before. Paul’s statement is much more understood now. Thanks!

(Mark Twombly) #9

Thanks to all for chiming in.

What I believe is relevant here is one’s view of the Bible. Perhaps I misunderstand, but many of the comments here seem to reflect the view that the Scriptures, and in this case Genesis specifically, are merely the words of men with limited knowledge at that time. As a Christian, I believe the Bible is - not merely contains - the word of God, and as such I believe what 2 Peter 1:21 tells us, namely, that ‘men moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God.’ While I understand and agree to a point that Genesis is not meant to explain the science of creation, we cannot deny the accuracy of what is stated based on our assertion of the ignorance of those who wrote it at the time. If in fact the Bible is the word of an eternal God, then we would have to acknowledge that, compared to God we are equally ignorant and in need of the divine revelation that the Scriptures give.

This brings me to ask the question of all: What is your a priori assumption here? Much of this reads to me as if science is unconditionally true and we must interpret Scripture by it. Logically this cannot be true since science changes and has changed dramatically to the point where we can point to past scientific assertions (e.g. that the universe had no beginning) now as patently false. This is not and cannot be true of the Bible since a) it (not our interpretations of it) is unchanging, and b) it cannot be false if we actually believe it to be the word of God. As Proverbs 30:5 reminds us that ‘every word of God is tested’, meaning proves itself to be true.

Ultimately, our a priori assumptions are a matter of faith. Where does your faith ultimately rest?

Thank you for the dialogue and your kind consideration.

(Phil) #10

Mark, what is your belief, and your definition of inerrancy? Even those who hold to inerrancy often qualify it by adding “in the original manuscripts” (none of which exist) or otherwise. Also, we have translations of translations with multiple manuscripts that they are derived from. Hebrew was essentially a dead language, how do we know how those words were originally defined and used?
I ask that because those are valid issues to struggle with, not that I have the answers. Ultimately, I think you have to accept the somewhat fluid definition of the scripture being " perfect as to purpose" and that gives room for some ambiguity. We like things black and white, but seldom get what we want, but get what we need, to quote Mick and Keith.


Unfortunately all we have is our interpretation. Yes we do have collections of early Hebrew and Greek manuscripts, but these are not the original texts. Even if you read the original Hebrew and Greek languages you still must interpret what you read to understand the message of the original author. And this is quite a challenge and can change as you indicate.

My interpretation of His Word must agree with my interpretation of His Creation. God is the Author of both. If the interpretations don’t agree I have to decide which needs to change. Since both are subject to change I can’t decide a priori which one is correct.


So God created the firmament, hard as a molten mirror, to separate the waters above from the waters below, and set the sun, moon and stars in the firmament. Right?

(Larry Bunce) #13

Science began with assumptions about the world from the ancient Greek philosophers as well as what was written in the Bible. The ancient Greeks believed the world had existed forever, and there was no scientific evidence to suggest otherwise. Early scientists also had no evidence to suggest that the world was older than the few thousand years indicated in the Bible.

The development of an age estimate for the earth and the universe required several centuries of observation and experiment. To equate the findings of modern science with the consensus of 400 years ago would be like saying that an army of cavemen wielding clubs and rocks would have a 50-50 chance of defeating a modern, nuclear equipped army. It is always possible that any scientific discovery can turn out to have been mistaken, but the achievements of modern science make it very unlikely that science will return to a belief in a flat earth surmounted by a solid celestial dome in which the stars, planets, sun and moon rotate around the earth.

Nuclear theory relies on indirect observations about subatomic particles, which have never been observed directly, and which are entirely too small to be seen with optical microscopes. We might conclude that atomic theory is only a tentative guess as to how atoms work, but when the findings of atomic theory allow us to make the A-bomb and the H-bomb, we have to conclude that atomic theory is on to something.

Genesis contains a talking serpent, a tree of life, and a tree of the knowledge of good and evil. What more did the authors of Genesis have to add to make it clear that this is an allegory? Medieval morality plays include a character named “Everyman,” obviously symbolic for the average human. If we applied the same logic to the medieval morality play as some do to Genesis, we would conclude that Everyman was originally a literal human named Avery Mann, and totally miss the original meaning of the play.

(Jo Helen Cox) #14

No. You mix in a definition from the Book of Job (not Job’s or God’s) into Genesis 1 and insinuate I believe in ancient cosmology. Couple the Hebrew’s tendency for poetic definitions with other cultures myths for several thousand years and we end up not really knowing what was believed by the writer of Genesis.

Genesis 1:6-8 is the creation of Earth. Yes, Earth is mentioned in Day 1, but how else would this writer describe the beginning of the universe. Earth did not start out like we see it today. It is an accumulation of rubble that did not have an ocean and probably did not have much of an atmosphere. One of the current theories on how Earth got oceans is a time of intense meteor/asteroid bombardment that brought in most of the surface water. But that water would have evaporated on impact. Water separated from the heavens to form an atmosphere first. Atmosphere let Earth cool, and keep it from totally freezing. Water came out of the atmosphere to fill basins until we were a water world.

I see a writer who saw layers. The scientific reality is that there are layers. There is ocean, air at the ground, sometimes several cloud layers, a layer of sky above the clouds, and then the place where sun, moon, and stars are could be one or several layers. God constructed layers. The writer’s vision saw how these layers formed. However, he did not have words for what he saw.

In Genesis 1:14-16 the same word (i am guessing) is used to describe only outside Earths atmosphere.

I do not believe the waters mentioned in Genesis 1:2 are the same as the myths of a primal ocean. The words let that belief exist, but the text does not actually describe a primal ocean, it just says God hovered (fluttered) over the waters. If Day 1 is interpreted as the Big Bang, then God hovered over the initial ocean of plasma, which physicists describe as a fluid-like energy. God’s movement produced photon’s form. The entire universe lit up in light.

(Christy Hemphill) #15


I believe the Bible is the inspired and authoritative word of God and the primary tool the Holy Spirit uses to instruct believers in faith and godliness. But I wouldn’t say my faith “rests on the Bible” because that would basically be saying my faith rests on my own understanding of what the Bible means. My faith rests on the Person and work of Jesus Christ, who was God the Father’s ultimate and best revelation and who relates to believers in a personal and intimate way through the Holy Spirit. I am not of the camp that approaches Scripture like a buffet where you pick and choose the stuff you like and toss what doesn’t fit your taste into the garbage. I think you need to come up with solid exegetical reasons for suggesting interpretations and applications, and it’s never a valid move to just dismiss something the Bible says out of hand with “because… science” or “because… outdated cultural norms” or “because…that sounds silly to me” That said, I don’t have a problem with the evolutionary model and I don’t cover my head or refrain from wearing jewelry, so I believe many times a valid exegetical response does not require adherence to a literal reading.

I don’t think when the Psalms say, “Your word is perfect,” it means the canonical Scriptures are perfectly accurate in all they say. I think it is an expression of worship for a perfect God. I think God chose to adopt a people (the Israelites first and now everyone who comes to him through Jesus) and he chose to speak into and through their culture and history and in doing so he claimed their history to tell his grand story of salvation. But I don’t think that means God dictated Scriptures to the authors or that the authors were ever completely free from their human limitations. Just like when God became incarnate, he chose to take on a particular culture and live in a particular time and limit himself to what humans can feel and think. I don’t think Jesus was ominiscient when he was on earth. How much less were the human authors of the books that became canon?

I don’t think “science” is unconditionally true. Scientists are humans and are limited and fallible. But I think God has made truth available in the natural world and there is no good reason to doubt the reality of what scientists can objectively prove through physics and math and chemistry. If scientific facts contradict an idea people got from the Bible, I think that is grounds for re-visiting what we thought the Bible meant and asking if maybe it was trying to teach something else and we got sidetracked by an irrelevant detail.

Biblical interpretation is messy stuff. I prefer to maintain an attitude of humility about it and admit that there are multiple areas that I could have gotten wrong instead of deciding my understanding is God’s truth. There is plenty I understand well enough to be challenged by and to have no excuse for not getting busy obeying, so I don’t need to lose sleep over the bits that don’t make perfect sense to me, and I don’t have to wait around until I have all the round pegs jammed into their square holes theologically speaking in order to live right.


The Hebrews had the same ancient cosmology as their neighbors. The firmament is consistently described as a dome over the earth with windows in it. The Hebrew raqia word suggests beaten metal.

(Jo Helen Cox) #17

I understand that was the cosmology of the time. It was the cosmology until, Copernicus dashed our important centerness plus lots of centuries for the masses to comprehend and the church to stop teaching it as biblical truth. That does not change the high possibility that God can use the same words to express our understanding of the universe.

Guessing here, raqia is the word translated firmament, vault, or dome, right? I will have to think about how beaten metal fits the universe like a stretched tent suggests expansion. Probably the same. When one beats metal it expands. It also makes sound and intersecting waves have to do with the beginning. Hum…


The reference to beaten metal can be understood when you realize that is how metal was made into smooth plates for the altar or bowls. Remember Aron used a hammer when he made the golden calf.

Stretching a tent refers to pitching a tent. The edge of the material is held to the ground with tent pegs and then ropes are used to lift the material and stretch it tightly. Tent pegs and tent ropes are mentioned many times in the OT. Think about being in the tent and seeing the material stretch over you head, like the blue vault of the sky.


Yes. raqia is the Hebrew word that is often translated as firmament, dome, expanse, or whatever in our Bibles.

Old Testament scholar Pete Enns wrote an excellent article on this. Well worth checking out.

(Jon) #20

This is one of several features of Genesis 1 which convinced me that it is speaking more literally than figuratively, and is more narrative than poetry.