Genre markers in Genesis

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.


8 thoughts on “Genre markers in Genesis

  1. Hey Roger,

    I think one would be hard pressed to show that Genesis is not meant to be taken as “literal” history given genre considerations. Of course Origen’s point about creation days is valid, but in the book of Revelation 22:5-6 there is no more light because God illuminates the New Heavens and New Earth. Since Revelation is a “recreation” it appears that maybe the passages in Genesis 1 are more literal than we think.

    Also, if God did create in 6 days I imagine that the world during that time would be a rather different place than the one we experience.

    As far as NT Wrong is concerned, I have always wondered who he is. Oh well…


  2. Origen’s interpretation of the six days as one day is indeed apologetic — an ancient apologetic attempt to reconcile Gen 1 with Gen 2.4. Whereas Gen 2.4 talks about the single “day” on which the Earth was made, Gen 1 talks about 6 days. So Origen interpreted the “six days” as figurative, in order to harmonize what he saw as a contradiction.

    Origen does the same thing in Against Celsus 6.50. The same apologetic recourse to metaphor is again seen in Philo, On the Creation 13 and R. Nehemiah in Genesis Rabba 12.4. Other ancient interpreters took a different tack – they argued that the six days were literally correct and the one day wasn’t (eg Chrysostom, Homilies on Genesis 3.3). When it comes to apologetics, after all, the interpretation doesn’t matter so much as the result which is achieved.

    This is a quite different question to the question Chris Heard originally asked: whether Genesis 1-3 has “genre-markers” which indicate that the passage as a whole is in the genre of a myth. I say it does not, and the attempt to find such markers is a modern apologetic approach to the text. The recourse to ‘metaphor’ in order to interpret various passages in Genesis 1-3 as being in the genre of “myth” arises from newly gained modern scientific knowledge.

    By contrast, in ancient times, when it could be posited that there were other sources for light on Earth than the sun, there was no need to have recourse to metaphor. The usual recourse was to literally explain the light as coming from a source other than the sun. The ancient reception of Genesis 1 demonstrates that they usually took the first chapter of the Bible quite literally in its statement concerning the time of the creation of light — out of denial of any necessary causal connection between the sun and light on earth. Light, in the understanding of the ancient authors of Genesis 1, could just as easily be literally created before the sun as after it.

    A common interpretation of Genesis 1 was that God created “light” on Day 1 without revealing it yet. It was only revealed on Day 4. So Jubilees 2.2 explains that on Day 1 God prepared the light “in the knowledge of his heart”. The light was literally created in the divine realm, but was not literally set in place in the firmament. Likewise, 11QPsa (11Q Hymn to the Creator) explains that God literally divided light from darkness on Day 1, but that this was prepared “in the knowledge of his heart”. As another example, utilising Psalm 104.2, others explained that the “light” of Day 1 literally came from God’s own glory or shekinah, literally distinguished from the light which came literally from the sun and moon on Day 4. So Genesis Rabba 3.4. And as a final example, b. Ḥagigah 12a makes the claim that the “light” of Day 1 was a miraculous light which would have allowed people to see from one end of the earth to another. But, alas, after Adam’s fall, that light has been kept for the messianic age.

    Today — because such explanations lack any scientific credibility — modern apologetic interpretation has recourse to “metaphor”.

    The view that passages in Genesis 1-11 constitute mythic or legendary genres is a foreign imposition on the text, which has become the commonly accepted view very much due to a distinctly modern desire to “save” the text.

  3. Thank you for this comment, and the references that it contains.

    Unfortunately, without seeing the entire data base, it’s hard to evaluate all the claims made about ancient views of Genesis. I’d much rather SEE all the ancient views of Genesis, directly. Can I ask whether you have done this, or whether this material is derived from somewhere else?

    The final comment does not seem to follow from the statements made.

  4. Richard,

    I have surveyed much of the ancient commentary on Genesis myself. And I completely agree with your decision to withhold your own evaluation of my conclusions before reviewing this body of reception. The generalization that the primeval history was understood as mere ‘myth’ as opposed to ‘history’ does not hold up in the light of the full available data, and I encourage any systematic survey of this data.

  5. No hassle!

    Interested to hear that you’ve looked at all the data yourself. Do you have a list of references? It would be rather interesting to compile all this data into a webpage. I imagine one could start with all the patristic commentaries on Genesis; although I’m not quite sure that these would necessarily answer this question. After all, if you’re doing a commentary, you don’t necessarily want to address that issue every time.

    Patristic sources would be one choice. I know much less about Jewish sources.

  6. I don’t have any ready list of references, and I certainly don’t make claim to have examined all of the data. I’d just search through the on-line Early Church Fathers, and start with the obvious Jewish reception, such as the Talmud & Gen Rab. Once you’ve read those, you could find secondary sources which discuss them, and which undoubtedly will provide many more primary sources. From memory, there are some very conservative online Creationist sites that have amassed a great number of ancient sources on Gen 1-3. Those would be useful, if you were to ignore their comments.

  7. Many thanks for these suggestions. Yes, I think some such exercise needs to be done before we can really discuss this one sensibly.

    Interesting thought about creationist sites; thanks.

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