The first step in evaluating a text from a literary perspective is to determine what genre best describes the text. To decide what genre a text belongs to, simply ask what kind of writing it is. For example is it fiction or non-fiction? Is it history or mystery? Is it romance or comedy? The kind of genre will help us determine what to expect from the text. For example, we have different expectations when we read a newspaper than when we read a novel.
Some have suggested that Genesis one is myth. This statement is true, if by myth one means a class of metaphysical writing intended to address questions of origin and meaning. But the classification does not fit if one means a class of fanciful writing that is necessarily untrue in any sense. Some have suggested that Genesis one is a hymn. Yet the chapter lacks the typical elements of Hebrew poetry, specifically parallelism between lines. Is Genesis one history? Not by the standards of today’s academic historical writing. But certainly a historical event, the beginning of the universe, is being described. Is it science? Recall our discussion in the last lesson. The language, subject matter, purpose and standards of Genesis one are not those of the scientific disciplines. Is it theology? Yes, but not if one defines theology as dry, abstract propositions about God. So how best do we class Genesis one? One author (Waltke) has suggested that Genesis one is an
'artistic, literary representation of creation.'
So what are the implications of this classification? We must temper our expectations of the text in keeping with its genre, being careful not to expect what the genre does not promise (scientific information), nor missing what it intends to communicate (the nature of God, man, etc.).
Genesis one also employs certain literary devices to shape its account of creation. Certain recurring formulas appear throughout the chapter:
- announcement: 'And God said ...'
- command: 'Let there be ...'
- fulfillment: 'And it was so ...'
- execution: 'And God made ...'
- approval: 'God saw that it was good ...'
- naming/blessing: 'God called/God blessed ...'
- chronological frame: 'a second day ...'
These formulas occur regularly and organize the account. Not coincidentally, there are seven each of formulas 3 — 7. ‘Seven’ in various places in the Hebrew Bible carries the symbolic weight of completion or perfection.
Interestingly there is a correspondence among the days of creation as described in Genesis one. The first set of three days correspond to the second set with the seventh day set off by itself. The days one and four, two and five, three and six are paired. It seems clear that there is some connection between what is made in those pairs of days. For example, light appears in first day and the light giving celestial bodies in the third. The correspondence can be described as that between habitat and inhabitants or realms and regents. The first set of three days also may be seen as God ordering the environments and the second set as God filling the ordered environments.
This careful organization of the days is quite obviously a literary construction meant to give an imaginative order to God’s work of creation. However, as explained earlier, we should not read the account as a careful scientific explanation of the origins of the universe. It is unlikely that even in the pre-scientific age readers missed the incongruity of having light without sun, moon and stars!