Making Sense of the
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Tripping over Genesis

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I’m always intrigued by people who maintain that the Bible must not be read “literally” because it is really just (take your pick) – fable / allegory / metaphor / myth. Engaging in this kind of literary interpretation may appear to be enlightened, but it is almost never backed by any real conceptual substance or textual-historical analysis. No one stops to define allegory or distinguish it from metaphor or fable. Even fewer stop to show how these specifically apply. Unfortunately, use of these terms becomes a convenient way of disengaging with thoughtful and rigorous examination of the Biblical texts.

This uncritical approach is nowhere more evident than the way people read the very beginning of the Bible, Genesis. With a blithe wave of the hand, a so-called literal reading of Genesis is dismissed as Neanderthal and ignorant. And at a couple of levels I do understand where this comes from. The science and history of origins has become a major focus of modern culture for at least a century now. And frankly, many fundamentalist Evangelicals have promoted a one-dimensional approach to the Bible that is often unhelpful. So while I profoundly disagree with such dismissive contempt for the Genesis text, I can appreciate where it comes from…

But that is why I am writing this relatively short blog today. I write extensively about all of these subjects in my book, so if you want more information, please get a copy! For the moment I want to ever-so-briefly function like a museum docent. By calling our attention to a few features of the way the Genesis text is setup, we can leave behind superficial perspectives of it. Sometimes it helps to see the way a text, like a painting or gothic cathedral, is put together to appreciate it more. Let’s take a look together, shall we?

First of all, I want to point out that Genesis is an intricately and densely layered text – meaning there are a handful of textual outlines that work in concert together. While there is a sense in which it reads as a relatively straight-forward historical narrative (not a moral fable), there is much more than meets the eye at first glance. Let me point out just a few of these outlines with short reflections along the way…

1. Major literary segments:

A. Genesis 1:1 – 2:3, Exalted Prose (Poetic) Narrative / Prologue

B. Genesis 2:3 – 11, Primeval History of Humanity & Nations

C. Genesis 12-50, Redemptive History Through Abraham’s Family

***Reflection: One of the biggest canards I hear over and over again is that there are two different and conflicting creation stories in Genesis. Not true at all. As will be discussed below, Genesis 1:1 – 2:3 functions as a different kind of literature than 2:4 and following. It has a distinctly different and deliberate structure that is all its own. A markedly different literary structure begins in Genesis 2:4. This is nothing but a signal in the text. It is meant to alert us to a shift in voice – so that we will use different literary tools in our analysis. The point of this outline is critical because it colors the way we handle Genesis 1 in conversations about the science of origins. It also influences the way we read the narrative of the primeval flood account in contrast to the narrative of Abraham. For the moment, let’s just observe that calling the whole text fable or allegory is radically insufficient and intellectually lazy.

2. Historical demarcations:

***A trigger phrase is used over-and-over again in Genesis to bracket different parts of the story. That phrase is “These are the generations of…” Here is the list for your quick review:

A. Heaven and Earth, 2:4-4:26

B. Adam, 5:1-6:8

C. Noah, 6:9-9:29

D. Sons of Noah, 10:1-11:9

E. Shem, 11:10-26

F. Terah, 11:27-25:11

G. Ishmael, 25:12-18

H. Isaac, 25:19-35:29

I. Esau, 36:1-37:1

J. Jacob, 37:2-50:26.

3. Parallelisms between old (pre-flood) and new (post-flood) worlds:

Screenshot 2015-07-12 08.19.31

***Reflection: Without delving too far into the theology of it, the Genesis text pivots around the idea of the death of the old world and the resurrection of a new world. The Noahic flood and covenant highlight the fusion of God’s judgment and mercy on humanity in order to continue the original project of merging heaven and earth.

Finally, I want to call out two literary devices that are used in the way the texts are structured.

4. Genesis 1 Song: 

My personal favorite is the way Genesis 1:1 – 2:3 is setup as “exalted prose narrative.” It uses a parallel system of triplets and couplets as a way of calling attention to the fact that it is highly stylized – not be seen as a newspaper or diary-like account of history. It also makes use of a lyrical refrain, “And God saw that it was good,” to point us to the day where this benediction is not given. Take a quick look at these textual maps of the 7 days of creation in Genesis 1.

Screenshot 2015-07-12 08.35.06

Now check out where the missing refrain of “And God saw that it was good” appears:

silent day

Or if the couplet / triplet matrix is making you dizzy, look at it this way:

Screenshot 2015-07-12 08.40.12

***Reflection: It couldn’t be more clear the Genesis 1 functions like a song or a poem. Think of it as the overture to a stage musical. That is not to say that it leaves behind historical concerns because the Bible is quite clearly a religion of space and time – of God acting in history. Nevertheless, making Genesis 1 the battleground for a “literal” 6 day creation is somewhat wrong-headed in my view because it ignores would shouldn’t be ignored. The structure of the text itself is drawing our attention to some basic framework issues concerning God and the universe – and His plan for it. The reason there is no benediction refrain on Day 2 isn’t hard to see… God’s plan was to merge heaven and earth together – and He was using humankind to do it.

5. Noahic Chiasm:

Everyone is familiar with the flood story of Noah. But not everyone is familiar with the way it is structured as a literary chiasm. It uses thematic symmetries to point to a central idea. Take a look:

Screenshot 2015-07-12 09.01.49

***Reflection: The center of the chiasm is that “God remembers Noah.” At the very apex of judgment – at the moment of despair, God’s mercy breaks through. This is no accident. This becomes the heart of the story of the Bible. In fact, it points to the cross of Jesus Christ.

My time is out and I’m sure your patience for this exercise is officially exhausted. Hopefully the point is clear enough. Interpreting Genesis “literally” is a rigorous exercise – one that requires time and energy. Merely calling Genesis a fable or myth doesn’t hold water. It is disingenuous at best and dishonest at worst. Let’s stop tripping over Genesis and start interpreting it.

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