Fr. Robert Barron has well noted that the Bible is not a book, it is a library. Contained within its pages are works of history, poetry, prayer, prose, theology, liturgical instructions, cosmology, philosophy, parables, moral tales, genealogy and so forth. How exactly to read its pages and understand them is often a matter of understanding the genre.
The word Genre is from French, genre, meaning “kind” or “sort.” It also stems from Latin: genus and the Greek: genos, γένος). Genre is the term for any category of literature, as well as various other forms of art or culture e.g. music, based on a set of stylistic criteria.
Now some one may ask you, “Do you read the Bible literally?.” Fr. Barron points out, that’s like someone asking you, “Do you interpret the library literally?” Of course you would say, it depends on what section I’m in. If I’m in the science or history section I may read the book there literally. But if I am in the poetry or novel section, or in the children’s storybook section, I would not likely read the books there literally. I would understand that they are using stories and images to make a point, but not like science or history does.
So we know how to exercise some sophistication when it comes to the library. But many loose this sophistication when it comes to the Bible. Often we can fail to distinguish literary forms and thus force a book or passage to be what it is not.
The Book of Genesis, especially the early chapters suffer a lot of this sort of failure to appreciate the literary forms. Many want the creation stories to be science or exact history when in fact they are more poetic and theological, than scientific. They advance the real and true point that God alone created everything there is out of nothing and did so in an intentional and systematic way in which he is involved at every stage. This is the sacred and theological truth set forth by the Genesis accounts.
But this does not mean the text proposes to be in the form of a science textbook. Take, for example, the accounting of the “days” of creation. Although light is created on the first day, the Sun and moon are not created until the fourth day. So what does it mean to speak of a “day” when the very sun by which we measure a day is not even existence for the first three “days?” Further, the notion of light apart from the Sun, is somewhat an abstract concept.
If some one asks me if I read the account of creation literally I ask them, “Which one?” This usually leads to a puzzled look. But but the fact is that Genesis sets forth two accounts of creation that are very different.
- In the first account (Gen 1:1-2:4) we see a period of seven days which begins with the creation of light, then the sky and the ocean, then vegetation, then the sun and the moon, then, fishes and birds, then the animals and finally Adam and Eve.
- The second account of creation (Gen 2:4-25) does not mention days or a time frame. It begins with the creation of Adam, then the planting of a garden, then the animals, then the creation of Eve.
Hence, we have two very distinct versions of the creation. In no way can they be harmonized yet, neither are they in absolute conflict. They both describe the same event from a different angle and with a different focus on detail. Neither account alone contains all the details. But, together they contain all God wants us to know about the creation of the cosmos. If asked to describe my recent visit to the Holy Land I could start at the beginning and give a day by day account. Or I could choose to start at the end or culmination and work backward. Or, I could just give highlights. Or I could sort out the trip along themes such as Old Testament sites and New Testament sites etc. I might also select the data for a given audience and present different aspects to different audiences. And so, the options are quite many. Now all of what I say is true, but it is selective and thematic based on the audience and my purpose.
So here again, a little sophistication is required in dealing with the accounts of creation. If we have a literalistic and wooden notion of history we can err by trying to make Genesis what it is not. It does not conform to the modern genre of historical writing which tends to be strictly chronological and comprehensive. These Genesis accounts are quite willing to speak to us poetically and selectively of creation and even to reverse the timeline. This is because their purpose is not to give us a blow by blow account of exactly how God did everything. Eaxact times and dates are not the point. God as purposeful sole and sovereign creator is the point. God who is present and active at every stage is the point. The dignity of the Human person are also the point. The first account accomplishes this by making man the culmination of the creation story. The second account makes this point by beginning with man and having every formed around him and for him.
The catechism of the Catholic Church says of these accounts:
Among all the Scriptural texts about creation, the first three chapters of Genesis occupy a unique place. From a literary standpoint these texts may have had diverse sources. The inspired authors have placed them at the beginning of Scripture to express in their solemn language the truths of creation – its origin and its end in God, its order and goodness, the vocation of man, and finally the drama of sin and the hope of salvation. Read in the light of Christ, within the unity of Sacred Scripture and in the living Tradition of the Church, these texts remain the principal source for catechesis on the mysteries of the “beginning”: creation, fall, and promise of salvation. (CCC # 289)
This all leads to an odd little question that was asked on Fox News not long ago. Fr. Jonathan Morris was asked a question: “How did Adam and Eve’s kids have kids?” The questioner seems to imply that since only Cain and Abel are mentioned (no girls) how could there be other kids? Father Jonathan Morris usually is well prepared and gives good television interviews on a variety of subjects. In this case he does a poor job but essentially makes the point that there are just some things that Genesis doesn’t cover and hence we cannot really answer the question.
But notice the premise of the question: The questioner presumes Genesis is an exact and fully inclusive history like modern histories. Therefore, since only Cain and Abel were mentioned, then only Cain and Abel existed. But this premise is flawed since Genesis is not proposing to be a complete, seamless and chronological account. Hence, just because daughters are not mentioned, does not mean that they did not exist. Genesis 4:17 does mention the wife of Cain and other women are mentioned in the genealogy that is in Genesis 4. (Now the problem of incest is too long for here and will be the subject of another post. It is wrapped up in the question of monogenism and polygenism).
I think if Father Morris had handled the question based more on the nature of the Genesis account his answer would have made more sense. The fact is, that Genesis does not propose to give us all the details or answer all our questions. Something is left to the reader and to ordinary sophistication which recognizes that Genesis is historical but not written in the form of modern histories. Hence we cannot expect all the details and must presume the presence of other children (esp. daughters who were born to Adam and Eve).
So, in the end, how about a little sophistication in our understanding of Scripture!
Here is the video of Fr. Morris struggling fro an answer. Again, please note he is usually better prepared. I suspect it was late at night, given the title of the show: “Red Eye” which I have never seen.