Genesis is history!
Posted on homepage: 6 July 2015 (GMT+10)
Our ministry supports the authority of the Bible from the very first verse. However, some opponents of biblical (‘young earth’) creation also claim to believe in the authority of Scripture, but claim that Genesis 1–11 is poetry or allegory. Others rebuke us by claiming, “Genesis is not a scientific textbook”. If I’m in a playful mood, I’ll reply, “Thank goodness, because scientific textbooks become outdated in a few years”. Otherwise I reply that we claim it’s really a book about history—events that really happened in the past.1
To justify this, it’s important to show what type of book Genesis is.2 To do this, we should compare Scripture with Scripture.
Other biblical writers treat Genesis as history
As we have shown in a number of articles, the rest of the Bible treats Genesis as real history.3 The other writers of the Bible, both in the Old and New Testaments, treat the people, events, time frames,4 and even the order of events, as real, not merely literary or theological devices.5 And the reality of the history is foundational to crucial teachings about faith and morality.6 Furthermore, it’s clear that the New Testament authors presupposed that their readers, as new converts in the first churches, received detailed instruction in Genesis.7
What does biblical history look like?
Let’s ask opponents the question: just suppose, for the purposes of the argument, Genesis is history, how would you expect it to look? We can answer from the style of the undisputed historical books such as most of Exodus, Joshua, Judges, etc.
Hebrew grammar experts have shown that historical narratives in the Old Testament have a very distinctive verb pattern. They start with a type of verb called a qatal (perfect) and continue with another type of verb called the waw (vav,8 ו) consecutives, or wayyiqtols.9 This verb type is frequent in the historical books of the Old Testament.
Apply this to Genesis 1, the first verb, ברא bārā’ (create), is qatal, while the subsequent verbs that move the narrative forward are wayyiqtols (ויאמר wāyyō’mer (‘and … said’), ויהי wāyehi (‘and there was’), וירא wāyyāre (‘and … saw’). Thus this has just the pattern one would expect from a historical narrative.
Furthermore, Genesis 1–11 moves seamlessly on, with no change in style, to Genesis 12–50. No one doubts that the latter is intended to be read as history. Therefore any doubts with the former don’t stem from the grammar and style of the text itself. Rather, they come from considerations outside the text, such as long-age uniformitarian geology and evolutionary biology.
What would poetry look like?
So what would Genesis look like if it were poetry? Hebrew poetry, such as the Psalms, has a different style.10 The defining characteristic of Hebrew poetry is not rhyme or metre, but parallelism. That is, the statements in two or more consecutive lines are related in some way. For example, in synonymous parallelism there is one statement, then it is immediately followed by another statement saying the same thing in different words. Psalm 19:1–2 nicely illustrates this:
The heavens declare the glory of God,
and the sky above proclaims his handiwork.
Day to day pours out speech,
and night to night reveals knowledge.
In antithetical parallelism, the first statement is followed by a statement of the opposite, as in Proverbs 28:1 and 7:
The wicked flee when no one pursues,
but the righteous are bold as a lion.
The one who keeps the law is a son with understanding,
but a companion of gluttons shames his father.
In synthetic or constructive parallelism, the first statement is extended by the next one, e.g. Psalm 24:3–4:
Who shall ascend the hill of the Lord?
And who shall stand in his holy place?
He who has clean hands and a pure heart,
who does not lift up his soul to what is false,
and does not swear deceitfully.
However, parallelism is absent from Genesis, except where people are quoted, e.g. Genesis 4:23–24. However, they stand out from the rest of Genesis—if Genesis were truly poetic, it would use parallelisms throughout.11 In fact, the Bible has a poetic celebration of God’s creative work of Genesis: Psalm 104―so if we want to see what a poetic account of creation looks like, that’s where to look. For example, Psalm 104:7, 11 illustrates parallelism perfectly:
At your rebuke they fled;
at the sound of your thunder they took flight.
They give drink to every beast of the field;
the wild donkeys quench their thirst.
Also, Hebrew scholar Dr Steven Boyd has shown that different types of verb (perfect and imperfect) are frequent in Hebrew poetry, but not in historical books. So from his verb analysis, he found that the probability that Genesis 1:1–2:3 is narrative (not poetry) is 0.99997.12
Structural similarities of Genesis and other passages
One of the passages most similar to Genesis 1 in structure is Numbers 7. Both are structured accounts, both containing the Hebrew word for day יוֹם (yôm) with a numeric—indeed both are numbered sequences of days. In Numbers 7, there are 12 consecutive numbered days, where a representative of each of the 12 tribes of Israel brought an offering for the altar:
The one who brought his offering on the first day was
Nahshon, son of Amminadab of the tribe of Judah. …
On the second day Nethanel son of Zuar, the leader of
Issachar, brought his offering. …
On the third day, Eliab son of Helon, the leader of the
people of Zebulun, brought his offering. …
On the twelfth day Ahira son of Enan, the leader of the
people of Naphtali, brought his offering. ….
The day-numeric parallel is even stronger as Numbers 7 not only numbers each day, but also opens and closes with ‘in the day that’ referring collectively to the entire sequence, which no one doubts are ordinary-length days. This refutes the false claim that “in the day that” (כיום bəyôm13) in Genesis 2:4, summarizing Creation Week, shows that the Genesis 1 days are not normal-length, as this is a Hebrew idiom for ‘when’ (as many English translations render it).14
Further, no one claims that Numbers 7 is merely a poetic framework for teaching something theological and that it is not history. There simply is no grammatical basis for denying the same for the Genesis 1 days. Both are straightforward history.
Numbered days = ordinary length days
Note that the numeric for Days 2–6 in the Creation Week account in Genesis is in the Hebrew form of an ordinal number,15 as it is with all of the numbered days in the Numbers passage—i.e. the days are numbered second (שני shenî), third (שלשי shlishî), fourth (רביעי rveî‘yî), fifth (חמישי chamîshî) and sixth (ששי shîshî).
But there’s a key difference with Day 1 of Creation Week. That’s because Genesis 1:5 does not say “first day” (which would be יום ראשון yôm ri’shon)—i.e. day with an ordinal number—but instead “one day”, (יום אחד yôm echad)—i.e. day with a cardinal number.16 This is the first moment in recorded history that anyone has spoken the word ‘day’ with a numeric—and so the cardinal number is apt. A day can be only a “first” if there are other days; but at the beginning of Creation Week, there was only that one day. Also, God himself in Genesis 1:5 is defining what a day is: a darkness (night) and light (daytime) cycle, “there was evening and there was morning, one day”. One rotation of the earth equals one day. The whole creation was completed in the time it took for the earth to rotate just six times. Six ordinary-length earth-rotation days.17
The great theologian Basil (AD 329–379) pointed this out long ago in a homily on Creation Week:
“Why does Scripture say ‘one day’ not ‘the first day’? Before speaking to us of the second, the third, and the fourth days, would it not have been more natural to call that one the first which began the series? If it therefore says ‘one day’, it is from a wish to determine the measure of day and night, and to combine the time that they contain. Now 24 hours fill up the space of one day—we mean of a day and of a night; and if, at the time of the solstices, they have not both an equal length, the time marked by Scripture does not the less circumscribe their duration. It is as though it said: 24 hours measure the space of a day, or that, in reality a day is the time that the heavens starting from one point take to return there.”18
Genesis really is history. This is what the other Bible writers understood. And rightly so, as shown by the great similarity in style and verb patterns to other undoubted historical books of the Bible. Further, it looks nothing like the poetic books like Psalms.19 (Adapted from the author’s new book The Genesis Account: a theological, historical and scientific commentary on Genesis 1–11, see below).
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References and notes
- Sarfati, J., “But Genesis is not a science textbook”, Creation 26(4):6, 2004; creation.com/textbook. Return to text.
- A classic explanation is Grigg, R., Should Genesis be taken literally? Creation 16(1):38–41, 1993; creation.com/literal. See also Sarfati, J., Refuting Compromise, ch. 2, Creation Book Publishers, Atlanta, 2004, 2011; as well as the articles under creation.com/genesis. Return to text.
- A new resource documenting this is Genesis Verse-by-Verse, creation.com/genverse. Return to text.
- Wieland, C., Jesus on the age of the earth, Creation 34(2):51–54, 2012; creation.com/jesus_age. Return to text.
- Sarfati, J., Genesis: Bible authors believed it to be history, Creation 28(2):21–23, 2006; creation.com/gen-hist. See also Batten, D., and Sarfati, J., 15 Reasons to Take Genesis as History, Creation Book Publishers, 2006. Return to text.
- Sarfati, J., Why Bible history matters, Creation 33(4):18–21, 2011; creation.com/bible-history-fall-ark. Return to text.
- Cosner, L., What the New Testament doesn’t say, creation.com/nt-doesnt-say, 11 September 2012. Return to text.
- In modern Hebrew, the letter ו, when functioning as a consonant, is pronounced like our v, but in biblical times, it was pronounced like our w. The same sound shift occurred in Latin: when Julius Caesar said “Veni, vidi, vici” (I came, I saw, I conquered), he pronounced it “Weni, widi, wiki.” Much later Ecclesiatical (Church) Latin pronounces it “Veni, vidi, vichi.” Return to text.
- Joüon, P. and Muraoka, T., A Grammar of Biblical Hebrew: Part Three: Syntax, p. 390, Pontifical Biblical Institute, Rome, 1991. Return to text.
- See also: Is Genesis poetry/figurative, a theological argument (polemic) and thus not history? creation.com/fh. Return to text.
- Kaiser, W.C., Jr., ‘The literary form of Genesis 1–11’ in Payne, J.B., New Perspectives on the Old Testament, Word Inc., Waco, Texas, USA, pp. 59–60, 1970. Return to text.
- Probabilities range from 0 (impossible) to 1 (certainty). Boyd, S.W., The biblical Hebrew creation account: New numbers tell the story, icr.org, November 2004. See also Boyd, S.W., A proper reading of Genesis 1:1–2:3; in: De Young, D. (Ed.), Thousands … Not Billions, Master Books, Green Forest, AR, pp. 157–170, 2005. Return to text.
- Actually, in Numbers 7, the phrase is bayyôm, where the ‘a’ in bayyôm represents the definite article, ‘the’, meaning ‘on the day [xth]’, unlike bəyôm, which lacks the article. Return to text.
- McCabe, R.V., interview in Creation 32(3):16–19, 2010; creation.com/mccabe; Graves, D.G., “… when Yahweh God made the earth and the heavens,”—a proposal for the right translation of כיום [bəyôm] in Genesis 2:4, J. Creation 23(3):119–122, 2009. Return to text.
- Ordinal numbers are used to refer, for example, to the order of runners finishing a race—first, second, third, etc., as opposed to cardinal numbers: one, two, three, etc. Return to text.
- An English Bible version which reflects this distinction is the NASB. Return to text.
- And this numbering pattern, including the deliberate use of the definite article for Day 6 (and Day 7 in Genesis 2:2–3, as well as for all the days in the Numbers passage) further emphasizes this. Sarfati, J., The numbering pattern of Genesis, J. Creation 17(2):60–61, 2003; creation.com/numbering—after Steinmann, A., אחד as an ordinal number and the meaning of Genesis 1:5, Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society (JETS) 45(4):577–584, 2002. Return to text.
- Basil, Hexaëmeron 2:8, AD 370, newadvent.org/fathers/32012.htm; see also Genesis means what it says: Basil (AD 329–379), Creation 16(4):23–53 September 1994; creation.com/basil. Return to text.
- For a detailed critique of some of the compromising attempts to deny the history of Genesis based on literary style, see Kay, M., On literary theorists’ approach to Genesis 1 (two parts), J. Creation 21(2):71–76; 21(3):93–101, 2007; creation.com/literary-theory-1 and creation.com/literary-theory-2. Return to text.