One should approach the opening chapter of Genesis as they would any other portion of the Bible; namely, by trying to understand it within its proper context and in light of other Scriptures. Does the text present itself as straightforward and historical, or poetic and allegorical? With the pervasive advances of naturalistic evolution both inside and outside of the visible church those kinds of questions have become increasingly frequent as it relates to Genesis 1. As a result, many have jettisoned a straightforward reading of the opening chapter of the Bible in order to accommodate evolutionary theory and, in turn, argue that the Bible says something it was never trying to say.
So one question that Christians ought to be ready to answer is: Is the opening chapter of Genesis exalted poetry? Progressive Creationists like Tim Keller assert that it is. In an attempt to affirm the reliability of Scripture while maintaining a belief in evolution, they argue that the author did not intend to teach that God made the world in six twenty-four hour days. And while Keller would argue that his conclusion is not “to make room for any particular scientific view of things” he nonetheless states, “to account for evolution we must see at least Genesis 1 as non-literal”. But is it accurate to say that the inspired author was not intending to communicate that God created everything in six twenty-four days? When reading through Genesis 1 does one come to the conclusion that poetry and not history is being communicated? What follows, then, are a series of brief explanations and responses concerning why Genesis 1 should be read as historical narrative as opposed to allegorical exalted poetry.
Genesis 1 lacks parallelism
If Genesis 1 were ‘exalted poetry’ you would expect it to have the kind of parallelism that is typical of Hebrew poetry versus a strict progression of information and chronological development. You would expect to see something like this, “The LORD is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? The LORD is the strength of my life; of whom shall I be afraid?” (Ps 27:1). The parallelism is seen in how (a) the LORD is described in both of the opening portions of David’s questions, and (b) twice David asked of whom he should be afraid? Does Genesis 1 have such parallelism? Consider the opening two verses for instance,
In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was without form, and void; and darkness was on the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters. (Gen. 1:1-2)
The account is straightforward. We are simply told what happened (vs.1) and then we are given ‘historical descriptions’ of that state of things at the very beginning (vs.2). It’s the kind of thing you’d expect from Old Testament historical narrative.
Now, following the example of Richard Phillips, let’s compare the opening two verses of Genesis 1 with Exodus 15 – the opening portion of Moses’ song. This comparison is particularly fitting seeing as Keller likens Exodus 15 to Genesis 1. But, having read the opening verses of Genesis, you will quickly notice the difference between the two:
“I will sing to the Lord, for He has triumphed gloriously! The horse and its rider He has thrown into the sea! The Lord is my strength and song, and He has become my salvation; He is my God, and I will praise Him; My father’s God, and I will exalt Him.” (Ex. 15:1-2)
When you compare the two it’s not difficult to see how one is a poetic expression of historical events while the other is not; Exodus 15 has the ring of poetry and Genesis 1 the style of history. Genesis opens as a ‘matter of fact’ account of the events of creation. There is no hint of allegory or parallelism. It is a descriptive, sequential account; the kind that is seen throughout Genesis; and the exalted uniqueness of the chapter is not because it is written in a style of poetry that denies its blatant chronology, but simply because it is dealing with the uniqueness of the creation week.
Semi-Poetic Language Does Not Eradicate Historicity
Keller cites Edward J. Young as a conservative Hebrew expert who reads the six-days of Genesis 1 as historical yet admits that they are written in an “exalted, semi-poetical language.” But even if one allows for such an observation and identification, particularly given the nature of the majestic uniqueness of the event recounted in Genesis 1, an important point must be made – semi-poetic language does not eradicate historicity. For example, the opening verses of John’s Gospel undoubtedly use some measure of poetic language: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through Him, and without Him nothing was made that was made” (Jn. 1:1-3). There’s plenty of more poetic language in the verses that follow. But we, nonetheless, take it at face value; we consider it legitimate history. Therefore, to say that because Genesis 1 contains refrains of “God said” and “Let there be” and “it was good” it must mean that the writer wanted to communicate poetry and not history, by no means creates a compelling case for saying that what the inspired author was really doing was – writing non-historic poetry!
Repetition Does Not Necessitate Poetry
Some argue that the “let there be” expressions and “evening and morning” repetitions indicate that the style of Genesis is poetic and not historic. But there are other portions of narrative texts that have extensive refrains and upon reading them we do not jettison interpretations of legitimate history. One quick reading of Numbers 7 shows a series of refrains repeated throughout nearly the entire chapter. For example, read Numbers 7:12-17. There you will see a detailed description of the offering Nahshon the son of Amminadab (vs.17). And if you wanted to memorize what he brought (i.e. one silver platter, the weight of which was one hundred and thirty shekels, and one silver bowl of seventy shekels, etc.) you would have repeated opportunities because the same offering is attributed to subsequent tribal representatives with only slight variations later in the chapter. In Numbers 7 we find repetition, not poetry, and certainly history.
Compare Genesis 1 with an overtly poetic account of creation
If you read Psalm 104 right alongside of Genesis 1 you would see a stark difference in the type of writing that you are reading. When one sees the psalmist refer to God stretching out the heavens like a curtain (Ps. 104:2) that is different than reading the straightforward statement “God created the heavens and the earth” (Gen. 1:1); and likewise “He appointed the moon for seasons; the sun knows its going down” (Ps. 104:19) is different than, “Then God said, ‘Let there be lights in the firmament of the heavens to divide the day from the night; and let them be for signs and seasons, and for days and years; and let them be for lights in the firmament of the heavens to give light on the earth’; and it was so” (Gen. 1:14-15). Having an account like Psalm 104, where the events of creation are poetically depicted, helps us to see the historical nature of Genesis 1 even further.
Listening to Genesis 1
How, then, should Genesis 1 be interpreted? Given the fact that the chapter is replete with chronological markers such as “evening and morning” and days listed as “first”, “second”, “third”, and so on, I think it would be wrong (and dangerous) to impugn inaccuracy to God’s revelation as though what was said in Genesis 1 could be excused as untruthful because it was poetry. God couldn’t have made it plainer. He didn’t have to call the light “day” and the darkness “night” but He did. He didn’t have to say that the six successive days of creation lasted for the same duration (evening and morning), but He did. The text doesn’t offer any indication that what was written should not be understood plainly; rather, it is often naturalistic and/or anti-supernatural paradigms that lead someone to impress unintended meaning upon God’s Word rather than simply hearing what God said. For example, God is clearly able to use created light as a means of separating light from darkness and having evenings and mornings on days one through three before He created the sun on day four. To force a reinterpretation of the text because such a reality does not coincide with human observation is to make empiricism the arbiter of interpretation. God has given a much more reliable option – His Word. Subsequent revelation would bear witness to a literal understanding of Genesis 1 as well. Consider Exodus 20:8-11:
8 “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. 9 Six days you shall labor and do all your work, 10 but the seventh day is the Sabbath of the Lord your God. In it you shall do no work: you, nor your son, nor your daughter, nor your male servant, nor your female servant, nor your cattle, nor your stranger who is within your gates. 11 For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and hallowed it.
In Exodus 20 the historicity of Genesis 1 is attested to. The seven days of the week, comprising six days of work and one day of rest (vs.9), have their basis in the days of creation and the seventh day of rest (vs.11). As Douglas Kelly put it:
Apparently, mankind is so important to the infinite God that He arranged His creative activity specifically to set the structure for human life. That must be a major reason why God created over six days rather than in a split second (or a hundred billion years).