Thinking About Genesis 1-2, Part 3

Thinking About Genesis 1-2, Part 3

Part 3: The Days in Genesis 1 Do Not Have a Literal Function, but a Literary Function

In my my last post, I argued that a literalistic reading of the creation story in Gen 1 contradicts the creation story of Gen 2. To alleviate the tension between these two creation stories, I suggested in that post that we need to understand the “days” of Gen 1 literarily, not literally. In this post, I will point out what many scholars have noticed, namely, that there are strong clues within the literary structure of Gen 1 that reasonably lead us to believe the “days” are functioning in a (somewhat) poetic manner. By attending to these, and other, literary features, the tension between the two creation stories fades away.

While we cannot say that Gen 1 is, strictly speaking, poetry, it is no exaggeration to say that it is a masterful composition. Truly, Gen 1 exhibits a clear cadence and palpable rhythm. Kyle Greenwood, a noted Hebrew scholar, describes the creation story in Gen 1 as a “neat literary package,” possessing “stylistic beauty.”[1] He says, “While it is a stretch to call Genesis 1 ‘poetry,’ it is clear that it is highly stylized prose.”[2]

Likewise, Gordon J. Wenham, while noting that “Gen 1 is not typical poetry,” is clear when he declares that it “is not normal Hebrew prose either.”[3] He calls Gen 1 “unique,” saying that it “invites comparison with the psalms that praise God’s work in creation.”[4] He describes it as “a great hymn” and “elevated prose.”[5] It is true that scholars are hesitant to claim that Gen 1 is, strictly speaking, poetry. However, there is an overall consensus that it has a much swankier feel than everyday, run-of-the-mill prose. The literary structure of Gen 1 makes this very clear. So, without further ado, let’s dive into the text.

Genesis 1 begins with, “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth” (v.1). Immediately following this statement is a description of how the earth exists in a chaotic mess: “The earth was formless and void, and darkness was over the face of the deep” (v.2a).

Here you have a two-fold problem: The earth is (1) “formless” and (2) “void.” In Hebrew, these words are tōhu and bōhu, respectively. The first word, tōhu, conveys the idea of being without form or shape; the second word, bōhu, speaks of something being empty or “void,” as many translations have it.[6] The creation story, therefore, begins with the earth being described as being in a state of formlessness and emptiness. But then the story takes a turn for the good, for the very next thing we read is how “the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters” (v.2b). This is a strong hint that the two-fold problem of formlessness and emptiness is about to be resolved. But how?

To answer that question, the author employs a string of “days” in a fanciful manner to show that God solves these two problems.

Here is how things play out:

On days 1-3, we see the creation of light and darkness (Day 1), the waters and the sky/firmament (Day 2), and finally the seas along with the dry land/earth with vegetation (Day 3).

And then on days 4-6, we see the creation of the “greater light” (the sun) and the “lesser light” (the moon) (Day 4), the sea animals and birds (Day 5), land animals and humans (Day 6).

If you noticed, I grouped the days of creation into two groups of three. This might seem odd, but it actually makes sense of the rhythmical parallels within the text itself. Before I get to that, let me first highlight a point that often goes unnoticed by the average Christian. We are accustomed to think that the days of creation are merely sequential (e.g., Day 1 is followed by Day 2, which is followed by Day 3, etc). This way of thinking is not unreasonable on the surface. The days of creation, after all, are numbered in such a way that they demand, on some level, to be read sequentially. However, there is more going on in the text literarily that must not go unnoticed.

For example, many scholars have observed how Days 1, 2, and 3 run rhythmically parallel to Days 4, 5, and 6. We might chart out the creation events like this:

Day 1: Light and DarknessDay 4: Sun and Moon
Day 2: Waters and Sky/FirmamentDay 5: Sea Animals and Birds
Day 3: Seas, Dry Land, VegetationDay 6: Land Animals and Humans

Construing the six days of creation in a manner similar to what I have above is a common way scholars make sense of the sequence and literary logic of those days.[7] If you notice, Day 1 corresponds to Day 4 such that Day 4 serves to bring everything created on the first day to completion and fulfillment. Similarly, Day 2 corresponds to Day 5 such that everything created on Day 5 fills up what is empty on Day 2. Indeed, Day 3 corresponds to Day 6 in the same way.

Take, for example, Day 1. On that day, God said, “Let there be light” (v.3). Once there was light, there also existed darkness. And so, God “divided the light from the darkness” (v.4). God then “called the light ‘day,’ and the darkness he called, ‘night’” (v.5). But by the time Day 4 comes around, the text gives a clear mirroring echo back to Day 1, saying, “And God said, ‘Let there be lights in the firmament of the heaven to divide the day from the night” (v.14). In some ways, this is merely a restatement of Day 1.[8] This is not insignificant. Then we read how, “God made two great lights; the greater light to rule the day, and the lesser light to rule the night” (v.16).

What’s happening here is that, on Day 1, we have a framework of sorts laid out (e.g., the emergence of light and darkness, day and night), but Day 4 fills in that framework with bodies of illumination, namely, the sun and the moon, that give order to the stuff of Day 1. My point is merely to show that there is a designed literary structure that reveals a mirroring of language, events, and thought between Days 1 and 4. The same goes for Days 2 and 5 and Days 3 and 6.

But wait… there’s more.

If you remember, the creation story began with a two-fold problem: a formless and empty earthThis two-fold problem is solved by means of the following six days. If you look carefully, you will notice how the first three days solve the problem of formlessness. In those opening three days, the earth takes shape; it gets a framework and structure. Before Day 1, the earth was without form and shape; by the end of Day 3, it has form and shape. Next, notice how the last three days solve the problem of emptiness. Days 4-6 are ordered literarily such that the empty cosmos is filled up. Space is filled with various objects and creatures: sun, moon, sea creatures, birds, land animals, and human beings. I like how Kyle Greenwood describes it. He says, “The heavens were adorned with luminaries, the waters were adorned with fish and birds… and the earth was adorned with animals and humans.” [9]

What we can conclude, then, is that the days of creation do not merely go one, two, three, four, five, six. To the contrary, the focus must be on the one-four, two-five, three-six literary sequenceThis reading makes the best sense of the two-fold problem in Gen 1:1. While most evangelicals insist on a literal-sequential logic for the days in Gen 1 (which, again, we have shown in the last post to have serious problems), it is arguably better to focus on the literary-sequential logic of Gen 1.

One last thing. What is beautiful about the first creation story is how it was structured to begin and end. With Gen 1:1 marking the start of the creation story and Gen 2:1-3 concluding it, these two texts bookend the entire creation account. One scholar, for example, has noted how the sequence of key words in Gen 1:1 is flip-flopped in Gen 2:1-3.[10] For example, Gen 1:1 states, “God created the heavens and the earth,” but Gen 2:1-3 mirrors that sequence by stating it in the reverse: “Thus, the heavens and the earth were finished…which God created and made.” Wenham says this is an “inverted echo”[11] and that it displays a “chiastic pattern,” which “brings the section to a neat close.”[12]

There are many other things to say about Gen 1’s literary structure and style, but we don’t have space to go into more details than what we already have. Given the precise literary structure of Gen 1, and given the problems with the literal interpretation mentioned in the last post, we can conclude that, perhaps, it is best to understand this first creation story not as a literal, historical account of how creation came about but rather as a cadenced hymn about the God who created.


*This is a slight revision of an article I posted originally at Trinityhaus.

[1] Kyle Greenwood, Scripture and Cosmology: Reading the Bible Between the Ancient World and Modern Science (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2015), 106.

[2] Greenwood, Scripture and Cosmology, 106.

[3] Gordon J. Wenham, Genesis 1-15, eds. David A. Hubbard and Glenn, vol. 1a (WBC; Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1987), 10.

[4] Wenham, Genesis, 10. He is clear, though, when he says, “it seems unlikely that it was used as a song of praise as the psalms were” (p.10).

[5] Wenham, Genesis, 10.

[6] On this, see תֹּ֫הוּ and בֹּ֫הוּ in Francis Brown, Samuel Rolles Driver, and Charles Augustus Briggs. Enhanced Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew and English Lexicon (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1977). See also Ronald F. Youngblood (“2494 תהה,” in Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament, eds. R. Laird Harris, Gleason L. Archer Jr., and Bruce K. Waltke [Chicago: Moody Press, 1999]), especially noting how he follows W.H. Griffith Thomas (Genesis—A Devotional Commentary, 29), saying that a good translation is “without form and void” or “unformed and unfilled.”

[7] See e.g. Greenwood, Scripture and Cosmology, 105-106.

[8] I don’t recall exactly who first brought this to my attention, though I believe this is a common observation among scholars. 

[9] Greenwood, Scripture and Cosmology, 105; see also 106.

[10] Wenham, Genesis, 5-6.

[11] Wenham, Genesis, 7.

[12] Wenham, Genesis, 5.

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