Genesis 1 as ANE royal chronicle

In my ancient near east studies I encountered a type of literature that Genesis 1 fits pretty well. The lecturer called it a “royal chronicle”, a type of literature that uses poetic language and imagery in an organized framework to tell of a mighty accomplishment of a great king in an easy-to-remember arrangement and theme. If, as I think is the case, that first Creation account is a royal chronicle, then the issue of the days becomes intriguing to modern minds because we don’t think this way: within the telling of the account/chronicle, the days are to be taken as literal days, but apart from the chronicle they are not meant literally. So for examining the account in order to understand the mighty accomplishment of Creation by the king Elohim, we can treat the days as literal, but for matters apart from that we definitely shouldn’t.
This is reinforced by the fact that the Genesis account follows the order of events from the Egyptian creation mythology very closely, but the Egyptian account puts it all in one brief period less than a day, while the Hebrew account divides the material poetically into three days of making spaces and three days of filling them.


This is a good analysis of how figurative language works. Yes, in some sense “normal days” are being used to structure the narrative. But the whole narrative functions on a figurative level, so it isn’t meant to be documenting measurements of time.


I’d be interested in learning more about this royal chronicle genre. Could you point us to more info on it?

“Figurative” isn’t really a good way to describe the first Creation account. The simplest example is that the things God said, since a major part of the theme is “God spoke; it happened”, are to be taken as “real” – not literal, since there was probably no sound, meaning that what God is reported as saying is – in limited human language – what He actually said.

The interesting thing is that the account seems to be three different kinds of literature at once. “Royal Chronicle” is the simplest of them since it addresses things on the level of “What God did”. The next (thanks to Prof. John Walton) is a “Temple Consecration” story: It follows the ancient near eastern pattern for establishing temples, first building it and framing the space; second filling it with things that show the glory of the deity; and third the deity entering the temple and taking up “rest” – and “rest” didn’t mean a total cessation of work, it meant that the project at hand had been finished and what was left to be done was to sit back and be in command.
The third type is the one I kind of like best: Polemical attack. The writer takes the Egyptian creation account and uses it for a timeline, and then starts changing things. In the Egyptian view, the sky, the Earth, the land, the sea, the sun, etc. were all gods, but in this account they are merely things that the real God made to serve His purpose. In the Egyptian account, darkness/night is an enemy, but the writer here takes “evening, and morning”, which describe the boundaries of the darkness, and makes them just a part of the divine rhythm, not something the gods have to fight against to keep Creation in existence, but effectively just another creation of the real God. For that matter, in the Egyptian version time exists totally apart from the gods; they exist within time and are subject to it, but the Genesis writer takes the two items by which humans mark time and announces that God established them to mark time, indicating that this God is not limited by or subject to time; it’s something He commands.
It’s worth noting that these two items, the sun and the moon, were among the greatest gods of the Egyptians, and the Hebrew writer seriously demotes them: they don’t get named, they only get described in terms of their functions!
Another thing that existed independently of the gods in the Egyptian version of Creation is light: there’s no explanation for it, it’s just there, preceding the gods themselves coming into existence. The Genesis writer, though, turns this also on its head; this God didn’t come into existence after light did, He called light into existence, giving a command to something that did not yet exist and by that command creating it (the Hebrew can be rendered as, “Light – BE!”; there’s a verse somewhere that refers to God as speaking to things that ‘were not’, and thus they ‘were’).
I sometimes summarize this form of the account as “All your gods are belong to Elohim!” because of how it takes god after god from the Egyptian pantheon and declares that they aren’t gods at all, they’re things that the real God made and thus serve His purpose.
I tell atheists that it took a master writer to put together an account that is three things at once, when they make the “silly story by bronze-age goat-herder” pronouncement; the first Genesis Creation account is masterful literature – if you take the time to bother to learn ancient literary forms.


To my chagrin, I have nothing. I found out a couple of years ago that the tag “royal chronicle” has become a technical term that refers to something else, i.e. a listing of major events during a king’s reign – something like what we have in Kings and Chronicles, but not so bare-boned. Just BTW, looking into that confirmed something scholars already knew, that when giving genealogies the ancient folks often skipped generations where the person was a failure or embarrassment of some sort; some chronicles have been discovered where kings we know occupied the throne for a while aren’t listed.

I have yet to discover what they’re calling this literary type these days since the label “royal chronicle” now points to something more mundane because it doesn’t care about being poetical or memorable. When I web-search for ancient near eastern literary types, the results tend to be dominated by Prof. John Walton at Wheaton College (I think he’s still there; I haven’t heard about a move) and by YEC arguments that all of Genesis is meant as history. But maybe this is a wake-up call to get my fingers and eyes in gear and sift through those results to learn what they’re calling it now!

Sure it is. Figurative just means using language in a way that is not intended to be interpreted literally.

I agree that the text is doing all the things you mention, but the third thing you mention, a polemic against other gods isn’t really a genre or text type, it’s a purpose. And yes, authors can do multiple things with one text and texts can serve multiple functions in a culture.

If you ever get into academic publishing, you’ll find out scholars make up terms all the time. Sometimes they catch on, but lots of times they don’t or someone else uses the same term to mean something different. It’s not like there are all these super narrowly defined text types that exist and all texts have to neatly fit in some category. The whole abstraction of “genre” is just a way of talking about culturally conventional ways of doing something with a text that fall within certain norms and patterns.

It’s still interesting that there are other examples of using a framework to speak of a kingly accomplishment, since God is anthropomorphized as a ruler in the Genesis 1 narrative. I’m sure you’ve probably studied “The Framework View” of Genesis 1. The whole idea of the text being three days devoted to realms/domains and three days devoted to the appointed rulers or inhabitants of the realms has been noted for a long time.


You would likely appreciate The Manifold Beauty of Genesis One, which describes those aspects of the account, and four more. I’ll add a more complete citation once I find our copy.

Christy, just digging around some online, I found a fair number of references to things called “royal chronicles,” but I haven’t been able to find any formal definitions of the term. OED (print) was fruitless, or set with type too small to be fruitful. None of our encyclopedias (electronic or print or digitized).
Sorry. I thought it was an interesting direction. A christian college or uni might have tools we don’t.

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Right. It wouldn’t surprise me if one Bible scholar co-opted the term in a paper and it isn’t widely used. The interesting part is that other ANE lit follows a similar framework pattern to talk about a king’s accomplishments.

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Does this resonate with what you were taught?

Is this as well as a cosmic temple narrative? What isn’t it?

Sure it is. Figurative just means using language in a way that is not intended to be interpreted literally.

My university English Lit professor would cringe at that broad and loose definition!

I’m sure you’ve probably studied “The Framework View” of Genesis 1. The whole idea of the text being three days devoted to realms/domains and three days devoted to the appointed rulers or inhabitants of the realms has been noted for a long time.

I encountered that first in German, which I had to learn enough to read sources in grad school, and sadly promptly forgot out in the ‘real world’. There’s a book in my storage on it in English by someone named Bloch, or Blocher, or something like that.

A bit spendy for a ebook! (Kindle isn’t much better.)

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The speaker at the seminar when I heard it gave a half dozen examples – I really wish all my old notes weren’t in storage or I could reference them.

When trying to track the term down later I found it used by several German scholars for something much more like what we see in Kings and Chronicles, just a bit more stylized: name of king, length of reign, significant events, good or bad.

That’s the next story, though it surprised me at how much of it I came to on my own. But it does fit in that then we have two kingly stories in a row: God as deity and king in all of Creation, and Adam as priest-king in a special temple/garden.

Then he/she would need to get up to speed. I have two MAs in applied linguisitcs, and I am using the term the way it is used Dancygier & Sweetser (2014), who are pretty much the authority at the moment, at least in the realm of cognitive semantics. I don’t act like I know what I am talking about all the time, but when it comes to figurative meaning, I’ve actually published on the topic and done the reading, and I really do know what I’m talking about. :nerd_face:


The idea of Genesis as a royal chronicle isn’t without merit. But taking Elohim to refer to some human dictator doesn’t work at all in the story. The royal chronicles of many cultures do not typically replace the gods with human royalty but instead provide justification for human royalty by giving them some relationship with the deity or deities. The metaphor of power derived from the example of human dictatorship does not justify making the deity out to be a human personage.

Dictator is not the same thing as ruler.

I’m writing a Bible study for BioLogos with my friend Catherine on the Image of God and yesterday we interviewed Richard Middleton. He always has interesting things to say about the ANE context of Genesis 1 and 2. One thing he mentioned was that kings (and sometimes priests) were considered the image of the gods because they were seen as a connection point where heaven meets earth. They were the embodiment of divinity and ruled as the deity’s representative. So the Genesis narrative plays on that idea with all of humanity being the image of God and commissioned to rule as God’s representatives. The anthropomorphizing of God as a ruler is there, partly because that’s how gods were conceptualized. The gods ruled from heaven, which was the holy of holies in the cosmic temple idea. But contrary to ANE expectation, the ruling God of the world doesn’t install a single representative human in the form of a human king or a priest as his image in his temple, the cosmos, he installs ALL humans as his image.

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Only according to one of the given meanings. I like the word because it refers directly to the nature of power used as one who makes things happen by giving commands. I don’t think this can logically apply to God, whose power does not derive from an expectation that commands to others will be carried out.

That equals “religion is a total scam” as far as I am concerned – religion concocted as a tool of power. I follow a rule of thumb that when something seems designed to serve a particular purpose, then that purpose is the most likely and believable origin. Thus in the effort to find a more authentic meaning of religion I automatically filter out such aspects of it. Anything putting particular people the position to speak for God would fall into that category. It is one of the reasons I choose Christianity over other Jesus religions because it sees Jesus as God Himself rather than simply speaking for God. Otherwise I couldn’t take Jesus very seriously – just another human puffing himself up.

I can believe in that only with regards to human abilities NOT according to some divinely appointed authority. Like… we are the only species on the planet capable of caring about and seeing to the welfare of other species and indeed the earth as a whole. The problem with authority is that it is too easily assumed without any knowledge or ability in which case it becomes something evil and destructive.

This thought only works for Christianity because Jesus is God Himself.

This sounds like what Kings and Chronicles call the “annals” of the kings of Israel and Judah, presumably the source materials for the biblical texts. A similar practice was long-established in the ANE. For example, during the Ur III dynasty (~2000 BC) royal scribes would list the king’s accomplishments during the year and give the year a name. These “name years,” as Assyriologists call them, tell a story in themselves. These were mostly scribal records kept in the royal archives, though. They weren’t stories to be memorized and retold to the general public.

Gen. 1 has some similarities to a royal chronicle, mainly in recording the “accomplishments” of each day, but it also has other features of ANE mythology.