Genesis and Genre – A Brief Consideration of the Need to Understand Literary Form

blog10-8The Bible has within its pages many literary forms: history, poetry, prayer, prose, theology, liturgical instruction, cosmology, genealogy, philosophy, parable, moral tale, and so forth. How exactly to read its pages and understand them is often a matter of understanding the genre.

The word genre comes directly from the French word meaning “kind” or “sort.” Further back, it stems from the Latin word genus and the Greek word genos (γένος). Genre is the term for a category of literature, art, or culture (e.g., music) based on a set of stylistic criteria.

Now someone might ask me, “Do you read the Bible literally?” That’s like someone asking, “Do you interpret the library literally?” I would respond by saying that it depends on what section I’m in. If I’m in the science or history section, I might well read a book there literally. But if I’m in the poetry, fiction, or children’s storybook section, I would not likely read a book there literally. In those sections I would understand that stories and images are being used to make a point rather than merely to present facts.

We know how to exercise some sophistication when it comes to the library, but many seem to lose this perspective when it comes to the Bible. Often we can fail to distinguish literary forms and thus try to force a book or passage to be what it is not.

In reading the Book of Genesis, especially the early chapters, many fail to appreciate the different literary forms. They want the creation stories to be science or exact history when in fact they are more poetic and theological than scientific. The stories 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 was involved at every stage. This is the sacred and theological truth set forth by the Genesis accounts.

The text does not propose to be in the form of a science textbook. Consider, 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 define the length of the day does not even exist yet? Further, the notion of light apart from the Sun, is a somewhat abstract concept.

If someone asks me if I read the account of creation literally I ask them, “Which one?” This usually leads to a puzzled look. But the fact is, Genesis sets forth two accounts of creation that are very different.

  1. In the first account (Gen 1:1-2:4) we see a period of seven days. First there is 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.
  2. The second account of creation (Gen 2:4-25) does not mention a time frame. It begins with the creation of Adam, then the planting of a garden, then the creation of animals, and then the creation of Eve.

Hence, we have two very distinct versions of creation. In no way can they be harmonized, yet neither are they in absolute conflict. Each describes the same event, but from a different angle and with a different level of 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 the visit I made 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 and work backward. Or instead of responding chronologically, I could just present some highlights. I could also describe the trip according to themes (e.g., Old Testament sites and New Testament sites). I might select the method of presentation depending on the particular audience. Each of my responses would be true and yet they are all different. My response would depend on my purpose and the audience to whom I am presenting.

So then a little sophistication is required in dealing with the accounts of creation. If we take a literal and rigid 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 comprehensive and strictly chronological. These Genesis accounts are quite willing to speak to us of creation poetically and selectively, even reversing the timeline. This is because their purpose is not to give us a blow-by-blow account of precisely how God created everything. Exact times and dates are not the point. The point is that God is the purposeful, sole, and sovereign Creator. God, who is present and active at every stage, is the point. Another important point is the dignity of the human person. The first account accomplishes this by making man the culmination of the creation story; he is created on the seventh day. The second account makes this point, but by beginning with man and having everything 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 interesting question that I was asked recently by a parishioner: “How did Adam and Eve’s kids have kids?” The questioner seemed to imply that since only Cain and Abel were mentioned (no females) there couldn’t have been other kids. In other words, the premise seemed to be that Genesis represents an exact and fully inclusive history, like modern history texts. Since only Cain and Abel were mentioned, then only Cain and Abel existed. But this premise is flawed; Genesis is not meant to be a complete, seamless, chronological account. Just because daughters were not mentioned does not mean that they did not exist. Genesis 4:17 does mention the wife of Cain. Other women are mentioned in the genealogy that is in Genesis 4. (Note the problem of incest is too long to be addressed here and will be the subject of another post. It is wrapped up in the question of monogenism/polygenism.)

The fact is, Genesis does not propose to give us all the details or to answer all of our questions. Something is left to the reader: a sophistication that recognizes that Genesis is historical yet not written in the form of modern history texts. We cannot expect all the details and must presume the presence of other children (especially daughters born to Adam and Eve).

So, in the end, there must be some sophistication used in understanding of Scripture. Genesis is neither a scientific account nor was it written in the way of a modern history text. It does speak of historical facts, but in a selective and poetic manner. Accepting this distinction is critical, lest we go down all sorts of rabbit holes, expecting Genesis to provide a complete and seamless account that it does not propose to give in the first place.