Is Genesis 1 Poetry?

The notion that Genesis 1 is poetry has been around for a while now. I must say, I'm not totally convinced that it is poetry but there may be a number of reasons to think that it is. Of course, this is much easier to discern in the Hebrew than in any other text; if it is poetry, English definitely does it injustice! Here are a few reasons to think it might be poetry (to listen to me pronounce these words/phrases, click on the button that follows them):

1. Alliteration - Gen. 1.1 begins with two "B" sounds: בראשית (sounds like: bey-ra-sheet) and ברא (sounds like: bah-rah).

2. Repetition - Gen. 1.1 repeats a number of sounds. For instance, it repeats the "ra" (and "b") sounds in the first two words (see above). Of course, the two definite-article markers sound exactly the same: את (sounds like: eight). Towards the end of 1.1 we find the conjunction ו (sounds like: vay), which shows up only a few spaces later at the beginning of verse 2. Then we have the last word of verse 1 which is the same as the first full word of verse 2: הארץ (sounds like: ha-er-ets). In verse two, there is also the repetition of to phrase צל-ףני (sounds like: al-pan-ay).

3. Rhyme - The third and fifth words rhyme: אלהים (sounds like: El-o-heem) and השמים (sounds like: ha-sha-my-eem). These two terms, coupled with both uses of את also create a nice sounding rhyme. Something very similar happens towards the end of verse 2, there we find אלהים (sounds like: El-o-heem) again and then, המים (sounds like: ha-meem). In verse two, we also have the nice rhyme of תהו (sounds like: toe-hu) and ובהו (sounds like: va-bo-hu). To listen to my reading of verses 1 and 2, cick the button.

I could offer more on this but I do not feel the need to do so. From a textual point-of-view, it seems that at the very least, it is possible that the first two verses could be poetic. Indeed, the verses have a number of poetic features. But here's the thing, if these verses are poetic, does that mean that they are empty-and-void (nice wordplay, I know) of historical meaning? To put it differently, does the fact that this is poetry (if it is) mean that it cannot be describing an actual historical event? I think not. I mean, we eulogize historical events via poetry and song all of the time. Think of the Star Spangled Banner. It is very mythic and poetic but it is based on a historical event.

The reason I bring this up is because many people play the "poetry" card on Gen. 1.1 to negate the fact that it is historically based. What I'm suggesting is that one cannot turn to the poetry argument to try to make this point. I find it quite humorous that Darwinists and Evolutionists often pull out the poetry card in an attempt to strengthen their case. In fact, if one wants to poke holes in that their argument, they need only cite some of Darwin's own work. Here's some poetry from Darwin, pertaining to the creation of the world found in his 1792 work, The Economy of Vegetation (HT: sah):

"When high in ether, with explosion directions
From the deep craters of his realms of life,
The Whirling Sun this ponderous planet hurl'd,
And gave the astonish'd void another world."

Here's yet another one of Erasmus Darwin's poems, this one was penned in a work of his titled The Botanic Garden:

"Organic Life beneath the shoreless waves
Was born and nurs'd in Oceans pearly caves;
First forms minute, unseen by spheric glass,
Move on the mud, or pierce the watery mass;
These, as successive generations bloom,
New powers acquire and larger limbs assume;
Whence countless groups of vegetation spring,
And, breathing realms of fin, and feet and wing."

My point is that in every case where poetry crops up in the Bible, one cannot appeal to the argument that there is no historical basis behind it. This is a patently flawed argument. Indeed, there exists poetry in the Bible with no historical basis behind it at all (especially in the Psalms) but there is also poetry rooted in history. If Genesis 1.1 and following is poetic, then it seems we have to take the latter route. So, it is time to quit trying to play the poetry card to discredit the history that lies behind the opening verses of Genesis. And really, Darwin could have told us that!


  1. Thanks for the add. Like your site too, and any person that gets a couple jabs in at Chris Tilling (look alike meter) is good enough for an add to my blog roll. That you are a fellow Asburian just makes it even better!

  2. Owen, glad you like the site. Hopefully we'll can converse with each other from time-to-time.

  3. It is absolutely a valid point that poetry can be based on historical events and recount things that actually occurred. One (possibly poetic) element of the creation story in Genesis 1, however, seems to preclude using it as a source of information about chronology. I am referring to the parallelism between days 1-3 and days 4-6.

    Of course, this passage is also something other than 'history' in the sense that there was no human being around to witness the events described, and thus such a text is certainly not going to provide the sort of information historians look for in sources, irrespective of whether it is prose or poetry.

    The big issue, though, is less about whether this chapter is history and more about whether it reflects a pre-scientific worldview. Given the mention of the dome, and of the splitting of waters to make the sky and seas (as found also in the Enuma Elish), the question seems relatively easy to answer, unless one is determined to force the Bible to speak the language of a modern scientific era rather than the language of the time in which it was written.

  4. James,

    The parallelism you've laid out is not actually how the Genesis account is set up. Note this chart: Chart

    Here's a clear and concise bit on this from Mr. Grudem's Systematic Theology:

    ‘First, the proposed correspondence between the days of creation is not nearly as exact as its advocates have supposed. The sun, moon, and stars created on the fourth day as “lights in the firmament of the heavens” (Gen.1:14) are placed not in any space created on Day 1 but in the “firmament”… that was created on the second day. In fact, the correspondence in language is quite explicit: this “firmament” is not mentioned at all on Day 1 but five times on day 2 (Gen.1:6–8) and three times on Day 4 (Gen.1:14–19). Of course Day 4 also has correspondences with Day 1 (in terms of day and night, light and darkness), but if we say that the second three days show the creation of things to fill the forms or spaces created on the first three days (or to rule the kingdoms as Kline says), then Day 4 overlaps at least as much with Day 2 as it does with Day 1.

    ‘Moreover, the parallel between Days 2 and 5 is not exact, because in some ways the preparation of a space for the fish and birds of Day 5 does not come in Day 2 but in Day 3. It is not until Day 3 that God gathers the waters together and calls them “seas” (Gen.1:10), and on Day 5 the fish are commanded to “fill the waters in the seas” (Gen.1:22). Again in verses 26 and 28 the fish are called “fish of the sea”, giving repeated emphasis to the fact that the sphere the fish inhabit was specifically formed on Day 3. Thus, the fish formed on Day 5 seem to belong much more to the place prepared for them on Day 3 than to the widely dispersed waters below the firmament on Day 2. Establishing a parallel between Day 2 and Day 5 faces further difficulties in that nothing is created on Day 5 to inhabit the “waters above the firmament”, and the flying things created on this day (the Hebrew word would include flying insects as well as birds) not only fly in the sky created on Day 2, but also live and multiply on the “earth” or “dry land” created on Day 3. (Note God’s command on Day 5: “Let birds multiply on the earth” [Gen.1:22].)

    ‘Finally, the parallel between Days 3 and 6 is not precise, for nothing is created on Day 6 to fill the seas that were gathered together on Day 3. With all of these points of imprecise correspondence and overlapping between places and things created to fill them, the supposed literary ‘framework,’ while having an initial appearance of neatness, turns out to be less and less convincing upon closer reading of the text.’

  5. James, concerning the rest of your statement, you make some good points. I do find it suspicious that you argue against reading our scientific worldview back on to it but at the same time, you read your it using modern historical/literary tools. Anyways...

    I tend to take the view that whether or not this fits our modern scientific or even historical criteria, for the writer of Genesis, this portion was, in their mind, based on a historical event (even if described poetically).

  6. Thanks for the reply. I don't see the fact that the seas form on the following day as a problem for the parallelism I detect. The gathering of water into one place is part of making dry land appear, and wouldn't impact fish in any obvious way. As an aside, the gathering of water into a single place called 'seas' reflects the viewpoint of an author living on the Eastern Mediterranean, for whom the world is centered on a single area where there are multiple seas, with land stretching off in all directions as far as has been explored.

    I don't see a conflict between using tools of historical-critical study and recognizing that the author of the text had a different view of the natural world or cosmos than I do. In fact, historical critical study has helped make us aware of how thinking has changed over time and thus increased our sense of historical change more generally.

  7. P.S. I hope that you will participate in, and spread the word about, a blog-a-thon on Evolution weekend.

  8. James,
    I am not an evolutionist, though I do not find discussion of the issue offensive or out of place amongst Christian folk. That said, as a pastor and blogger, I'm not so sure that I will participate in the evolution weekend. I'm not so sure that blogging on it would be all that beneficial and as one who believes along creationist lines (with a great number of nuances--I do not blindly subsrcibe to everything that party says!!!) I probably won't preach on the subject, besides, I have a great sermon series of Mark going on and I don't want to interrupt that.