The Bible contains four basic genres of literature: historical narrative, poetry, prophetic, and epistolary. The genre classification of Genesis 1 is very important for our understanding of the overall message of Scripture, because the chapter deals with so many foundational details, including the character of God, the nature of creation, and the backdrop for how we understand sin and redemption.
For example, in Genesis 1:26-28 God is recorded as having a very important conversation with Himself. If this conversation literally happened, then the passage is an early and potent evidence for the concept of the triunity of the Godhead. On the other hand, if the conversation can be dismissed as figurative language – as anthropomorphism, for example – then perhaps we would not conclude that the conversation actually happened, but that it was instead simply a poetic expression.
Clearly Genesis 1 is neither prophetic nor epistolary, as it makes no statements regarding the future beyond its immediate context, nor is it addressed to any particular recipients. So the genre question regarding Genesis 1 is between historical narrative and Hebrew poetry. That Genesis 1 is Hebrew poetry is a fairly common view, but not necessarily because of the literary characteristics of the chapter, but rather because of the nature of the propositions themselves. But does this chapter contain enough actual poetic characteristics to be considered poetry, or is it more obviously historical narrative?
Hebrew poetry is discernible by a number of literary devices – especially parallelism (the repetition of one thing in two or more different ways). Parallelism is evident in passages like Psalm 119:105: “Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path” (NASB). What is particularly striking about Hebrew poetic parallelism is that it usually occurs within close proximities – in other words, within narrow, rather than broad contexts.
Genesis 1 lacks these parallelisms. There are certainly propositions connected by the Hebrew vav, which often functions as the English conjunction and. But in each of these cases in Genesis 1, the propositions following the conjunctions are not poetic restatements of the earlier propositions, but rather communicate resulting conditions of the earlier propositions. To illustrate, let’s examine each vav conjunction in the first 5 verses, represented by the English and in the list below.
1:1 heavens and the earth – two different entities, no restatement.
1:2 and the earth was – prefixes the noun, followed by a verb, no restatement.
1:2 formless and void – without form and empty, two distinct characteristics, no restatement.
1:2 and darkness was over the surface of the waters – not a restatement, having nothing to do with the previous descriptions, but adding detail.
1:2 and the Spirit of God was moving over the surface of the waters. – unless we are to understand that the darkness and the Spirit of God are synonymous, then there is no parallelism here either.
1:3 and God said – again, followed by a new verb, no restatement.
1:3 and there was light – followed by distinct verb, a result of the former statement, not a restatement of it.
1:4 and God saw – new verb describing God’s action.
1:4 and God separated – verb distinct from that of the previous proposition (separating is not a restatement of seeing).
1:5 and God called the light day
1:5 and the darkness He called night
1:5 and there was evening
1:5 and there was morning – in none of the four instances of the vav in verse 5 is there restatement of a previous proposition.
These samples show no correspondence to Hebrew poetry at all.
It is also helpful to note an important grammatical principle of Biblical Hebrew: a literary device called the vav consecutive: when the first verb is in the perfect tense and subsequent verbs are imperfect, the vavs are consecutive, and denote a continuous narrative in the past. (Incidentally, in prophetic literature, there is continuous narrative referring to the future, which is indicated by the first verb in the imperfect, and subsequent verbs in the narrative in the perfect.) Let’s take a quick look at the verbs in these same five verses.
1:1 (bara, created) – perfect
1:2 (hayetah, it was) – perfect
1:2 (merakepet, was hovering) – piel intensive
1:3 (wayyomer, and He said) – imperfect
1:3(yehiy, let there be) – imperfect
1:3 (yehiy, and there was) – imperfect
1:4 (yereh, and saw) – imperfect
1:4 (wayabedel, and caused to be divided) – hiphil imperfect
1:5 (wayiqerah, and called) –imperfect
1:5 (qarah, called) – perfect
1:5 (wayehiy, and it was) – imperfect
1:5 (wayehiy, and it was) – imperfect
Verse 1 makes a statement, that God created the heavens and the earth. Verse 2 introduces an explicative narrative, with vav consecutives up to the middle of verse 5. The perfect verb in verse 5 is followed by vav consecutives with the time stamp (it was evening and it was morning one day). Simply put, the series and placement of vav consecutives and time stamps makes this a series of historical narratives.
In short there are several overwhelming evidences that Genesis 1 is historical narrative and not poetic:
- Genesis 1 does not contain the parallelism that is characteristic of Hebrew poetry.
- Genesis 1 does contain repeated instances of the vav consecutive, indicating continuous narrative of the past.
- Further, Genesis 1 does also contain sequential time stamps (evening and morning, one day-second, etc.)
The text of Genesis 1, taken at face value, should be recognized as historical narrative and not poetic. This is very significant for our understanding of the things discussed in Genesis 1. God’s character is as described. The heavens and earth were created as described – including humanity. What follows in Genesis is grounded on the platform of historicity, so what we understand from the Biblical record about God, humanity, sin, and salvation is reliable and based on historical truth.