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.

20 Replies to “Genesis and Genre – A Brief Consideration of the Need to Understand Literary Form”

  1. Always learning something here, thank you. So when does the Bible become a historical document? Abraham?

    1. The end of Genesis 11/beginning of Genesis 12 (the story of Abraham and his origins in “Ur of the Chaldeans”)is generally acknowledged by most Scripture scholars as the first point in Genesis that we start seeing arguably datable events, civilizations and locations.

      1. I hasten to add: Not that the events of Genesis 1-11 did not happen or that the people mentioned there did not exist– we can surely believe that they did. It’s just that before the time of Abraham, the Scriptures give us no explicit historical context to place them in. They merely existed sometime in the distant past before Abraham.

      2. Is this ‘consensus’ of the scholars any more meaningful than the so-called consensus of climate scientists that we are all headed for doom unless we stop burning fossil fuels? Who cares what is currently fashionable among ‘scholars’ at a particular point in time? What’s going to be the next flavour of the month among ‘scholars’? And who are these ‘scholars’? How many of them are Catholics? How many of them are even Christian?

  2. When confusion enters my life, your posts are a stabilizing gift. Thank you, Msgr Pope.

    I’m not a scripture scholar so bare with me. In chapter 2 of Genesis it begins with the ending of the first story of creation on the seventh day with rest. The second story or the generations of creation continues directly afterwards. The placing of the seventh day connecting the two stories makes me think that it is the foreshadowing of Sunday becoming the gifted day of rest, or the eighth day as I read about in Pope Benedict’s book, The Spirit of the Liturgy. Sunday becomes the day God allows us to once again eat from the Tree of Life and walk with Him in the garden while at Mass. Along with refraining from work on Sunday we kind of experience a weekly preview of heaven. What a blessing to be commanded to take the day off and enter a heavenly experience. It fills me with joy.

    Genesis chapter 1-3 have become part of my favorite readings of Holy Scripture. They have been a great gift to me in my role as woman in this false feminized world.

    God’s blessings be with you.

  3. In teaching, I compare the Books of the Bible to the sections of a newspaper. You don’t read the comics the way you would read the editorial the way you would read an opinion piece, etc. I think it is God’s way of keeping the study of the Bible alive, fresh, and constantly relevant.

  4. Msgr: It is always great to read your posts. There is always something that can renew the spirit. Thank you for your wisdom and diligence in putting forth such great posts.

  5. Thank you, Father, good information. One correction – Adam was created at the end of the 6th day. I believe humans are invited into the 7th day – the purpose of our existence – although many of use choose to remain in the 6th day.

    1. And on the morning of the eight day, man woke God from his slumber and said, “I’m bored, what should I do today, huh, huh?” 🙂

  6. Msgr. Pope: Excellent! If only more people paid attention to the different genres of Scripture.

    Quick question, can you flesh out your commentary on the literal sense a bit more. My understanding is that all of Scripture has a literal sense from which the spiritual senses are then derived. In other words, aren’t the genres of Scripture and the senses of Scripture different things?

  7. Thanks for the post, Msgr. I really enjoy your blog here – a much needed common sense outlook on the world through the eyes of faith.

    As an English major who was raised reading the Bible, I find this whole subject to be frustrating. I have good friends who cross the spectrum on this topic: hard-core literalists, centrists who don’t really land anywhere, and left-leaning readers who use the “genre” answer in regard to Genesis to mean pretty much anything they want.

    I appreciate and agree with the general point of your post here, but I find discussions on the Book of Genesis to be extraordinarily muddled. In saying, for instance, that the Bible should be approached as genre, there is an assumption that the books of the Bible can be neatly classified. However, as I discovered in my own studies, the farther back one goes in history, the less clear “genre” becomes. In fact, “genre” as we understand it, is a relatively recent invention of Western thought, a process of simplification that has produced a myriad of sub-genres like detective fiction, fantasy, sci-fi, romance, and countless other “genres” that were effectively blended even a century ago.

    So when we say that we have to read Genesis as a “genre”, it is effectively begging the question – which “genre”? And that is extraordinarily hard to answer because no genre or genres effectively contains the book of Genesis. Is Adam naming the animals beast fable? Is the eating from the tree myth? If so, why the detailed geographic information at the start of Chapter 2? Why the seamless transition into Chapter 4 (for there is no hard line between the first three chapters and the fourth)? Why is chapter 4, the story of Cain and Abel, told in very straightforward narrative language, especially if it is of a piece with the tree story?

    I don’t bring all this up to prove a point of view, but I do feel that this whole issue is far more complicated than an easy statement like “read it according to the genre” allows. True, this tends to work for a good many books of the Bible, but not for the first part of Genesis. It’s the reason Genesis studies are currently in shambles with no clear framework that stands up to scrutiny (the four authors perspective having fallen from favor in the last decade or so).

    It is really past time for the Magisterium to stop kicking the ball down the road and establish a hermeneutic that somehow embraces the historical burdens that Genesis must bear if the faith is to have any meaning and also integrates the poetic and mystical elements that are intrinsic to the text. It is far too easy for people today to sideline the debate with easy answers like “it’s literal” or “it’s just a myth”… neither answer does due justice to the text.

  8. I’ve not posted on your blog before Msgr but very much enjoy reading your posts. I find some informative, others inspirational and they are all, what I like most in these troubled times, orthodox!

    Having done Jeff Cavin’s excellent Great Adventure Bible Timeline study, I am aware of the notion of the first 11 chapters of Genesis being poetical in nature as you rightly assert.

    One thing though that has puzzled me ever since this was brought to my attention. Knowing how important the genealogies (toledot) were to the Hebrew culture, what are we to make of the genealogies in the early chapters of Genesis (which are partially re-presented in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke)? Are they mere fabrications – names just plucked out of nowhere? What do biblical scholars have to say on this, as I’ve not been able to find anything. Thanks

  9. This question is not designed to pick holes in anything. It’s just an honest attempt to find the truth. We say that the story of creation is not intended to be science. Okay. But what about Adam and Eve? Is that bit meant to be taken ‘literally’? How do we judge what is meant to be taken ‘literally’ and what is not meant to be taken ‘literally’ in the first three chapters of Genesis? (This is quite important because there are those who say that the whole of the three chapters must be taken figuratively. How do we reject that claim if we accept that the story of creation is just figurative? Those who deny the existence of Adam and Eve usually thereby deny the Fall, original sin and the need for human redemption.)
    On the subject of Adam and Eve’s grandchildren I look forward to your dealing with the problem of incest. It would also be interesting to find out how different racial groups came to exist.

  10. Some of the books in the Bible are intentionally fiction, from which we are supposed to draw lessons (e.g. Job, Tobit); the Song of Songs is poetry.
    Part of the book of Daniel may be fiction, for that matter; but fiction from which we are supposed to draw lessons.

  11. Dear Msgr. Pope,

    Thank you for your priesthood and this website. The above article states “Since only Cain and Abel were mentioned, …” in Genesis, but Gen 5:4 states “Adam lived 800 years after the birth of Seth, and he had other sons and daughters.” Since we are all descendants of Adam and Eve, brothers and sisters married each other initially. This act was not prohibited by God until much later (perhaps because mutations in the human genome were accumulating after sin came into the perfect world and causing birth defects).

    Thank you, Rick Mudd

  12. Dear Msgr,

    At every Catholic seminary on earth, I have no doubt that seminarians are instructed just as you were when it comes to interpreting Genesis figuratively in order to accommodate the theory of evolution. Yet when you look at all of the doctors and fathers of the church, they were young earth creationists, yes, even Augustine and Thomas Aquinas, contrary to modernist claims.

    The fact that the Holy Scriptures go to great lengths to established definitive genealogies, not only in Genesis (especially chapter 5) but also in Luke chapter 3, shows that these early chapters cannot be merely allegorized without doing grave damage to the intent of the primary author, God, and the secondary author, Moses.
    To realize the strict inerrancy with which we are bound to interpret the Holy Scriptures, please read the mostly forgotten and ignored encyclical Spiritus Pariclitus by Pope Benedict XV, available on the Vatican website.

    The following quote is from Professor James Barr, Regius Professor of Hebrew at the University of Oxford, who does not, by the way, believe the accounts in Genesis himself:
    ‘Probably, so far as I know, there is no professor of Hebrew or Old Testament at any world-class university who does not believe that the writer(s) of Genesis 1–11 intended to convey to their readers the ideas that: (a) creation took place in a series of six days which were the same as the days of 24 hours we now experience (b) the figures contained in the Genesis genealogies provided by simple addition a chronology from the beginning of the world up to later stages in the biblical story (c) Noah’s flood was understood to be world-wide and extinguish all human and animal life except for those in the ark. Or, to put it negatively, the apologetic arguments which suppose the “days” of creation to be long eras of time, the figures of years not to be chronological, and the flood to be a merely local Mesopotamian flood, are not taken seriously by any such professors, as far as I know.’

    Those who refuse to ascertain the literal reading of Genesis are forced to accept death before sin, and therefore make God the author of death, disease, and destruction, contrary to the Holy Scriptures, which clearly state that God called his initial creation “very good” (Gen 1:31) and “God did not make death,
    and he does not delight in the death of the living” (Wis 1:13). The only Biblical way to understand all evil and death in this world and the consequent necessity of redemption by the God-man Jesus Christ is through the fall of our first Parents, Adam and Eve via the temptation of Satan:

    “For God created man incorruptible, and to the image of his own likeness he made him. But by the envy of the devil, death came into the world” (Wis 2:23,24).

    “Wherefore as by one man sin entered into this world, and by sin death; and so death passed upon all men, in whom all have sinned…. For if by one man’s offence death reigned through one; much more they who receive abundance of grace, and of the gift, and of justice, shall reign in life through one, Jesus Christ…. For as by the disobedience of one man, many were made sinners; so also by the obedience of one, many shall be made just” (Rom 5:12,17,19).

    For a good source of reliable information in the interpretation of Genesis in accordance with Holy Tradition as given to us through the deposit of faith, please visit the Kolbe Center for the Study of Creation.

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