Is Genesis allegory or poetry?
Published: 16 February 2014 (GMT+10)
A reader of Russell Grigg’s article Did Adam sin out of love for Eve? has claimed that the Genesis account is allegory; another has claimed it is poetry. We present these comments together with Russell’s responses to each interposed.
Ross M., New Zealand, 7 February 2014
“This is a fundamental problem with taking Genesis 3 as an exact literal description of an event. Paul says Adam was not deceived; then why DID he eat it? This is a legitimate question that you have not answered. But if you allow that it is some sort of allegory, then you see that that question is simply not addressed, as outside the point the story is making. This realisation helps us to see the real points more clearly, namely that humanity very quickly disobeyed God; the main blame attaches to Satan; and the consequences were swift and devastating.”
Thank you Ross for your feedback.
There is actually a fundamental problem with ‘de-literalizing’ Genesis 3 and taking it as an allegory. It opens the door to allegorizing virtually anything and everything we may not agree with in Scripture. For example, is the resurrection of Jesus not literal but an allegory? If so, we are in big trouble, because the Apostle Paul says: “if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins” (1 Corinthians 15:17). What about the virgin birth of Christ? Is that an allegory? Or any miracle recorded in the Bible? Is hell an allegory? If so, what about heaven? See Should Genesis be taken literally?
The importance of the account of Adam and Eve being literal/factual is that it shows how sin entered the world, and that God’s judgment on sin entailed pain, suffering, and death, not just for Adam and Eve, but also for all mankind. It explains how and why we are “dead in trespasses and sins” (Ephesians 2:1–3). It further shows the reason why the Lord Jesus Christ, the Second Person of the triune Godhead, entered our world as a man, to die on the cross to pay the penalty for our sin, and so provide eternal life for all who believe (John 3:16). It also shows the reason for Jesus’ dictum: “You must be born again” (John 3:3–8). See Why would a loving God allow death and suffering?
As to Why DID Adam eat the fruit? What the Genesis account tells us is that God said to Adam: “Because you have listened to the voice of your wife and have eaten of the tree … , cursed is the ground because of you … .” Just what it was that Eve said to Adam that had such a huge effect on him, God has seen fit not to tell us. The only reason that Adam advanced for eating the fruit, when questioned by God, was: “The woman whom you gave to be with me, she gave me the fruit and I ate” (Genesis 3:12). Some theologians, as well as readers of this website, have suggested that Adam ate out of love for Eve. Our only comment on this was to say that “Adam doesn’t cite his love for Eve, he blames Eve.”
The Bible holds Adam totally responsible when it says: “sin came into the world through one man” and names that man as “Adam” (Romans 5:12, 14). All of which is further support for the factualness and literalness of the Genesis 3 account, and of its ‘non-allegoryness’ (!).
Illustrated by Caleb Salisbury
Mary M., Australia, 7 February, 2014
An awful lot of conjecture about infinite possibilities, with nothing but two poetic tellings of an ancient story. Don’t get me wrong I believe in specific creation by God, I do not however fail to recognise the bible for what it is; spiritual writing, in some cases written records of ancient oral tradition.Thank you Mary for your feedback.
There is no point filling in massive ponderables of what anyone else was thinking, feeling, or doing in between the lines if a poetic account. The point of poetry is to get the point; expression of what matters most is the aim of art, including poetry. So considering that the creation accounts in Genesis are clearly ancient near-eastern poetic forms, stop reading them like court transcripts.
The Hebrew poetic form is distinctive and fascinating, in that it comprises parallelism (i.e. repetition of the subject matter with different words) rather than repetition of the sound (rhyme) or repetition of the timing (metre) as in traditional English poetry. An outstanding example of this Hebrew poetic style is seen in Psalm 19:7–9 as follows:
7 The law of the Lord is perfect, reviving the soul;
the testimony of the Lord is sure, making wise the simple;
8 the precepts of the Lord are right, rejoicing the heart;
the commandment of the Lord is pure, enlightening the eyes;
9 the fear of the Lord is clean, enduring for ever;
the rules of the Lord are true, and righteous altogether.
Notice that there are six different names for the law, six different adjectives to describe it, six different verbs for what it does, and six different parts of the body (or something very similar like time) that it affects. Identifying this poetic form in the Psalms makes reading them a delightful and mentally stimulating exercise. It is also one reason why the Psalms do not lose their piquancy when translated into other languages (cf. the English Psalm just quoted), as happens with English poetry, which usually loses its rhyme and metre when translated.
Interestingly there are, in fact, one or two Psalms that echo the Genesis 1 creation story, e.g. Psalm 148:
1 Praise the Lord!
Praise the Lord from the heavens; praise him in the heights!
2 Praise him, all his angels; praise him, all his hosts!
3 Praise him, sun and moon, praise him, all you shining stars!
4 Praise him, you highest heavens, and you waters above the heavens!
5 Let them praise the name of the Lord! For he commanded and they were created.
6 And he established them for ever and ever; he gave a decree, and it shall not pass away.
7 Praise the Lord from the earth, you great sea creatures and all deeps,
8 fire and hail, snow and mist, stormy wind fulfilling his word!
9 Mountains and all hills, fruit trees and all cedars!
10 Beasts and all livestock, creeping things and flying birds!
11 Kings of the earth and all peoples, princes and all rulers of the earth!
12 Young men and maidens together, old men and children!
13 Let them praise the name of the Lord, for his name alone is exalted;
his majesty is above earth and heaven.
14 He has raised up a horn for his people, praise for all his saints,
for the people of Israel who are near to him.
Praise the LORD!
The parallelism in these lines is obvious, as is the purpose of the writer, namely to praise God for his creation. Equally obvious is the fact that Genesis is not written in this style. Why not? Because the purpose of Moses in writing Genesis was not to produce a paean of praise as here, but to create a reliable literal historic record, and to do so he wrote in Hebrew prose. See Should Genesis be taken literally?
The points are: God is supreme, I control and [am] creator of all. God’s authority is undeniable, humans are in some manner "made in Our image" (God speaking to other someone).
Yes, in Genesis 1:26, when God said, “let us make man in our image …” God does indeed appear to be speaking to someone, to be consulting. Who could it have been? Since the Lord needs no other counsellor (Romans 11:34), any such consultation must have taken place within the Godhead—between God the Father and God the Son, together with God the Holy Spirit. So what was there for God the Father to discuss with the God the Son? With the creation of man, God was about to initiate that chain of events which would lead inexorably to the future crucifixion and death of the Lord Jesus Christ on the Cross as an atonement for the sin of mankind. In His earthly life, Jesus affirmed His willingness to do the will of the Father in this regard in the Garden of Gethsemane (Matthew 26:39, 42). Did He perhaps also do so in the heavenly council, immediately before God created Adam?
God provided all that people, animals, and plants need to thrive. God set up order. God sets law for governance of animal and human action.
Man is not a cousin of the animals nor the product of slime, as per the theory of evolution. God endowed man with a mind capable of hearing and understanding God’s communication with him, emotions capable of responding to God in love and devotion, and the capacity for having spiritual communion with God through prayer, praise, and worship. God introduces the very first man, Adam, with solemnity, dignity, and the honour of an intimate deliberation on the part of the Godhead.
Humans fail to keep law, the result is a separation from constant intimacy and from the ease of living where alleles are provided.
What humans have, written on their hearts and minds, because we are made in the image of God, is God’s moral law, summarized by Jesus as loving God with all our heart, soul, strength, and mind, and loving our neighbour as ourself (Luke 10:27).
Humans must now work for their food, etc. There is an observation by God that friction will occur from now on between man and woman, not an order or justification, but an observation of what will be.
As a result of the sin of Adam and Eve, God pronounced, not ‘an observation’, but judgment. Life degenerated into pain in childbirth for women, and painful toil for men. And henceforth there would be death—both physical and spiritual. God’s remedy for the latter is that we must be ‘born again’ (John 3:3–8).
Let the bible speak, listen to the words of the authors, the words of people who sought God despite the fall, despite their own human failings, stop trying to see things in it which simply do not exist.
Even better would be to start trying to see things in it that do exist, like God’s communication to us of the history of our world and of mankind, and the reason why we all need a Saviour from sin, whom He has provided in the death and resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ.
I have been surprised by the discussion on this, just goes to show how true the account is because people are still falling for Satan’s old tricks, "did God really say?" or slightly rephrased does/did "God really mean, surely its spiritual?” or even “is the Bible really the word of God” Yes God really did and said the things recorded in the Bible even though we might think it is totally unjust, mean etc. or just plain just don’t like it. This only goes to show our shallow spirituality and understanding of just who God is. Yes God is able to use imperfect humans to record His Word perfectly, Yes God is able to preserve His Word despite many attempts by man to get rid of it. Yes God has spelt out in the clearest language possible, repeatedly just exactly what he meant, because just look at all those who continually want to believe something other than the plain text. Yes we are all rebellious against God and none of us deserve salvation, but God knowing all things, worked out a way to make it freely available to all, and the start of that master plan is recorded as HISTORY in Genesis.
Mary says, "I do not however fail to recognise the bible for what it is; spiritual writing, in some cases written records of ancient oral tradition.", but she fails to read the Bible for what it says. Genesis 5:1 says, "This is the book of the generations of Adam." KJV or "This is the written account of Adam’s family line." in NIV or "This [is] an account of the births of Adam" YLT. I see nothing here that says oral tradition. The creation was perfect, and I'm sure a perfect creation would have people writing things down. And if they had not yet started making paper, would not a perfect Adam, and close following ancestors, have a near perfect eidetic memory. I figure that Noah went onto to the ark with a pile of historic manuscripts. And these were passed down to Moses who formalized them, and through all this God had His divine hand on the work. If he created life, then keeping track of a few papers is hardly a problem!
The way I read , Adam wasn't blaming Eve so much as he was blaming God. "The woman that YOU gave me . . ."
Seems to me Jesus understood it to be literal...... 'course, many don't believe Jesus was 'literal'....I'm reasonably sure they'll quickly 'change their tunes' once they seem Him face to face at the Judgement!
CMI is a tremendous help to all of us non-scientists, in providing facts--truth--about God's word. Thank you for a marvelous resource!
Another tremendous help which you are providing is to show that there ARE answers to the objections and accusations that are made to the Biblical record--and that there ARE respectful, honest, and factual ways of presenting those answers. This also is a major contribution.
Mary M says "Let the bible speak, listen to the words of the authors, the words of people who sought God despite the fall, despite their own human failings, stop trying to see things in it which simply do not exist."
Frankly, if this criticism applies to anyone, it is to those who claim the historical account found in Genesis is poetry/allegory!
Thank you for your ministry. I believe the literal history in the Bible. It is so disheartening sometimes watching the TV seeing talking heads discounting out of hand any creation that leaks through. They are relentless.
It is interesting one of these people sees Genesis as allegory and the other as poetry, while Jesus Himself regards it as history. If that's how He sees it this is good enough for us, to say the least. It is absolute foolishness and arrogance for anyone to claim to know more than Jesus—our Lord, Creator and Saviour.
I have always taken Genesis as a historical and factual account—which it is—it's the proto-gospel and the foundation on which the rest of the Bible rests—critics see this which is why they try to destroy its history and chronology. Sadly many Christians in the church do not see it that way—by not having sound doctrine they fulfill Bible prophesy—many prophesies are being fulfilled in our lifetime and it is possible the Age of Grace is drawing to a close sooner than we might think.
Genesis is a fascinating book where Moses gives us an account of the main events in history right from creation in six days through to
Joseph's death in Egypt.
Indeed if all this was poetry or allegory what would they make of our seven day week-six days work and one of rest as per the model of God's creation?
Anyone thinking Genesis to be poetry and allegory needs to read it over and over again and be open to the Holy Spirit showing them its real meaning-God's true and inerrant Word. As Paul means, any other reading of the text means we're still sinners and deep trouble.
Scripture interpreting scripture is the only way to read and understand the Bible—if God is using poetry or allegory anywhere such as the poetic psalms, He makes it perfectly clear. You can't take the words out of context and force them into your own interpretation , based on man's speculation instead of God's revelation, without violating Revelation Ch 22 v.19.
All the events described in Genesis are literal history. They are also intrinsically allegorical and prophetic in nature.
The event most obvious is the one of God telling father Abraham to go and sacrifice his promised son Isaac at a place on Mount Moriah. As Jesus said,…
«‘Your father Abraham was overjoyed to see my day; he saw it and was glad.’ The Jews protested, ‘You are not yet fifty years old. How can you have seen Abraham? Jesus said, ‘In very truth I tell you, before Abraham was born, I am.'»
Another closely related literal event occurred when God put the first man Adam to sleep, in order to take a rib from his side and build it up into the first woman/bride Eve. In this event too is captured the forthcoming literal death and resurrection of the Son of God, for the purpose of creating the bride of Christ with the flow of blood from his side, which is the Church.
Those who infer that these literal events described in Genesis are all fictional are surely displaying evidence of their disbelief in the Word of God. The fact that all these stories have found fulfilment in the deeds and acts of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, is surely irrefutable evidence that they were literal events engineered by our Creator to reveal, from the beginning, his purposes and intentions.
Thank you Russell for your trademark clear exposition.
Adam was indeed not deceived () as Eve was. Adam made his own deliberate decision, eyes wide open, in direct rebellion to God's personal command; he therefore ate in full willing realisation of what he was doing.
That is why he is the first Adam (head of the fallen human race) and why only the Son of God could be the second Adam (head of the saved).
Even if I hadn't heard that there was a Bible the evidence would clearly show me that all things had been created, just as we make (create) things, and that the creating was done only thousands of years ago.
If I had never heard of Noah's flood I would still see it's evidence everywhere. It's all so obvious - why can't people see it? Maybe they don't want to.
Maybe that's why people like ideas such as Genesis poetry when obviously it's true history.