An old post in Hypotyposeis “Origen on Creation” reported post by a Chris Heard, “Absurdities” as genre markers (Nov. 28, 2008), in which he contends that Genesis ought to be read non-literally because the original audience would have heard it so:
I submit to you that “absurd” chronologies and geographies serve in biblical narratives as genre markers informing readers that the discrete textual unit in which these markers appear is not to be taken as “history,” but must be read in a “non-literal” mode. * * * But my point is that the person(s) who wrote Genesis 1, and expressed their creation faith in a schematic seven-day creation story, weren’t so foolish as to suppose that they were giving a precisely accurate timeline of the deity’s creative acts—and they told us so right there in the text.
“N. T. Wrong,” dismisses this as “modernist apologetics” in The Absurdity of Genesis 1 – Just-So Stories – Literal Meaning; Non-Literal Apologetic Interpretation (Nov. 28, 2008); ideas that none of the ancients would have had, on reading Genesis. Carlson points out a passage from Origen, writing in his On First Principles 4.3.1 (trans. Henri DeLubec [Harper & Row, 1966], p. 288) as follows:
4.3.1 Now what man of intelligence will believe that the first and the second and the third day, and the evening and the morning existed without the sun and moon and stars? . . . I do not think anyone will doubt that these are figurative expressions which indicate certain mysteries through a semblance of history and not through actual events.
The post is useful, and rightly points up the genre markers that we should expect to find in ancient texts. The issue of ancient attestation of genre markers in texts deserves wider scrutiny.
For Heard’s argument to work — which is Origen’s — we need to have some evidence that the original audience of Genesis would have understood this, rather than a Hellenistic audience. I don’t think we have enough data on Genesis itself to answer that for or against; but such data might exist with respect to later Old Testament books, and be instructive.
I suspect that Heard has a point, although the argument probably needs to be more nuanced and based on a little more than just Origen. Such an argument looks odd to us, because we don’t use myth for teaching purposes in our day, and so we are ill-equipped to recognise that it *was* widely so used and what the rules of the game were. We can tell from Plato’s “Laws” that it was so used; and Cicero’s letters discussing the dramatis personae of the Tusculan Disputations make it clear that there *were* rules.
These examples off the top of my head, of course, and neither evidently applicable to Hebrew literature — about which I know nothing — but offered as a start.