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Is Genesis poetic?

Bible-Genesis

Doesn’t Genesis explain the “why” and ‘science’ the “how”?

Published: 27 July 2019 (GMT+10)

W.N. from Canada writes:

Good morning,

As someone who takes by faith that God created the universe and all that is in it, as Hebrews would instruct us, it would seem though that in the Genesis account, we are not provided with detail of the “how”. Is this not the scientific question? Seeking to understand more of the “how?”

And as the scientific endeavour continues, and as we come alongside other scientists looking for answers, what if we indeed wade in along with them to uncover the “how”?

We can marvel at God’s powerful working behind it all, while others may not.

Similarly, when an injury is healed, or cancer reversed, others may not see God’s brilliance at work, but that would not reduce their contribution to understanding the processes at work, nor the medicines that are crucial in the process.

It would seem that Genesis does not tell us the “how”. And that the scientific method, that pursues the “how”, does not consume itself with the acknowledgment of God at work. But of course, that doesn’t nullify their pursuit.

W.N.

CMI’s Shaun Doyle responds:

Thanks for writing in.

The idea that ‘Genesis doesn’t tell us how God created’ is one of those vague half-truths that fails to address the specifics of either the passage or the issue that the statement is trying to comment on. To be precise, we want to know whether Genesis contradicts the prevailing ‘billions of years’ framework for the history of nature. For that, we need to know: what does Genesis 1 tell us about the history of nature, if it tells us anything? There are good reasons to think Genesis 1 does indeed refer to the past (see Genesis as ancient historical narrative). And there are several crucial historical questions Genesis 1 does answer.

  • Who created? God.
  • What did God create? The heavens and earth in their vast array.
  • By what means did God create? He spoke, and things came to be.
  • How long did God take to create? Six days (e.g. Exodus 20:8–11).
  • When did God create? At the beginning (with no prior beginning for any class of creature explicitly mentioned in Genesis 1, which includes the earth, the sky, all forms of animals and plants, and all stars).

This tells us a lot about what happened, and what it tells us contradicts the mainstream ‘billions of years’ framework in myriad ways. But does any of this tell us about how God might have manipulated matter and energy during Creation Week to achieve His creative ends? Not really (see Does the Bible tell us how God created?). The only clues to such things are e.g. a separation between waters (to create the sky on Day 2), and perhaps the idea that the sea and land brought forth animals, marine creatures, and plants. We can also infer from Genesis 1 that each of these classes of creature were reproductively mature when God made them; i.e. the creatures God made at first didn’t go through what would be their ordinary growth process. Nonetheless, Genesis 2 does tell us that God made Adam from the dust and Eve from Adam’s rib. Still, that’s the most detail we get for anything God made on the material process of making the creatures, and even that is nowhere near enough to reconstruct a mechanistic cause-effect narrative of what happened.

Moreover, in order to uncover the ‘how’ of creation, it is important to consider more than Genesis 1 on its own. Genesis 3 records the Fall of man, which explains how death, disease and suffering came into the world. Without that the uninformed scientist assumes things have always been that way, but that is wrong. Further, Genesis 6–8 records the global Flood, which explains ‘how’ the fossils came to be buried the way we find them in the rocks. Without Genesis the uninformed scientist assume that the fossils reveal evolution over millions of years, but again that is the wrong conclusion.

And let me clarify a few misnomers. First, just because we think God acted miraculously within history to create the world in the space of six 24-hour days does not mean that we thereby think God is otherwise uninvolved with His creation. Such a detached ‘interventionist’ deity is not the God of Scripture (see Defining arguments away—the distorted language of secularism, Whose god? The theological response to the god-of-the-gaps, and Deism and divine revelation). God didn’t only create all things by His powerful Word (John 1:1-3), but also upholds all things by His powerful Word (i.e. Jesus; Colossians 1:16-17). In other words, we affirm that God providentially superintends over the whole structure of nature, keeping it running from moment to moment. This doesn’t preclude Him from acting directly in history, as any Christian must confess with respect to (at the very least) Jesus’ resurrection. In other words, God does miracles in history in addition to sustaining the cosmos (see God, miracles, and logic). Indeed, we would draw a clear line between Creation Week and the rest of history:

Because creation finished at the end of day 6, biblical creationists would try to find natural laws for every aspect of operation science, and would not invoke a miracle to explain any repeating event in nature in the present (Miracles and science).

For more information, please also see Historical science and miracles.

W.N. from Canada responded (in blue) and Shaun interspersed his responses.

Dear W.

Thanks for your response. My responses are interspersed below in black.

Hello Shaun,

Thank you for your note to my inquiry.

You noted some things that we can infer.

You mentioned that God made everything in mature state. Can we stand solidly on this inference?

Yes. God made everything in six consecutive days (Exodus 20:11), plants were made on Day 3 (Genesis 1:11–12), and were ready for human and animal consumption on Day 6 (Genesis 1:29–30). Plants take longer than three days to mature when they grow ordinarily. Therefore, they did not grow by ordinary means in Creation Week, but had to have reached a functionally mature state by supernatural means. See Genesis means what it says: Basil (AD 329–379).

Again, is not Moses, giving a poetical description. The details of the “how” are not included, so can we be content with that?

“The details of the ‘how’” may not be included in Genesis 1 (depending on what you mean by that statement), but the timeframe of God’s creative activities is. And the timeframe in Genesis 1 isn’t poetic. Indeed, Moses elsewhere gives us a very non-poetic summary of God’s creative activities in Genesis 1 (on God’s lips, no less), and includes the timeframe: “For in six days the LORD made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them” (Exodus 20:11). Can we be content with what God actually tells us about what He actually did, and how long it actually took Him? See Is Genesis poetry / figurative, a theological argument (polemic) and thus not history? 

As to the mechanistic details of the ‘how’, it’s not Genesis 1 that raises those sorts of questions so much as it is the observational data of e.g. astronomy. How do we explain that in the context of Genesis 1? Sure, we can legitimately say ‘God did a miracle’ and leave it at that. However, the astronomical data seems to imply a more complex mechanistic history to that. So, as I said in Distant starlight and the days of Genesis 1:

“Nevertheless, it is good to try and figure out how it happened, or at least develop plausible theories on how it could have happened given the observational data we have. It shows we think Genesis 1 occurred in the real space-time-matter world, and is not some ‘religious’ idea that has nothing to do with the real world. It also shows that the observational evidence really is consistent with Genesis 1. And it shows we’re not against science per se. Please see Modern science in creationist thinking.”

Indeed, I don’t even think the description of the scene in Genesis 1 is poetic. It’s quite a mundane description of God’s creative activities from the point of view of one on the earth.

I would be interested in hearing your response to John Lennox presentation I mentioned previously. He is a passionate follower of Christ.

You didn’t mention Lennox in your previous comment. Anyway, for what we think of his take on Genesis 1, please see Who is being divisive about creation?

W.

Kind regards
Shaun Doyle
Creation Ministries International

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Readers’ comments

Nicholas K.
Very good comprehensive response from Shaun Doyle covering points raised by W.N. Also many thanks for the link to Saint Basil on Creation. His homilies on Creation are truly excellent and show his clear understanding of God's Creation account in Genesis 1. He explains in clear , common sense language, what God intended us to understand from His Word and puts paid to the notion that the Early Church and Fathers believed in a non-literal /historical Creation account.
Dr. John C.
In response to your article here there are a couple of things to point out I think that are very important.

First Genesis 1 is not specific on if the number of days in creation are God's days or Man's day's. We can assume that God told Moses (author of Genesis) what he did or that the story was told through generations. Either way, it is not reveled the exact interval of time. I am under the impression, supported by science that it is God's days meaning many 1000's and possibly many millions of years.

Second, Genesis 2 says God mad man and woman from the dirt of the earth. It was not till Genesis 3 that God made Eve from Adam's rib. Who was the first woman God created? There are references to her in Isaiah that indicate should could have aligned with Satan and been the serpent. The serpent the largest and most wise of all creatures of course was a dragon.

Regards.

Dr. John C.
Shaun Doyle
On 'God's days vs man's days', see Why is CMI so dogmatic on 24-hour creation days?. Yom can't mean 'an indefinite time period for the numbered days of Genesis 1 because Genesis 1:2-5 defines the 'one day' (yom echad) of Genesis 1:5 (and thus all the other numbered days of Genesis 1) as a daytime-nighttime (light-dark) period.

No, Genesis 2 says that God made a man from the dirt; it says nothing about God making a woman from the dirt. However, Genesis 2:21-22 (not Genesis 3) does speak of Eve being created from Adam's rib. In fact, there is only one woman mentioned in Genesis 2-3: Eve. The woman who was made from Adam's rib (2:21-22) and naked with her husband (2:25) is the same woman with whom the serpent initiated a conversation in the very next verse (3:1). That woman ate from the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil (3:6), was punished with increased pain/suffering in childbearing (3:16), and was named 'Eve 'by Adam (3:20). The serpent in Genesis 3 is not described as a woman, and was not mentioned before Genesis 3:1.

On Isaiah 34:14, there is only one instance of the word לִילִית (lîlîṯ) in the entire Old Testament, and it's meaning as the name for a demon is dependent on its derivation from the name of a demon in other Semitic languages. Others have speculated, not unjustly, that the word relates to the Hebrew לַיְלָה (lǎylāh), and might simply refer to a night creature. There's too little information to go on to be sure ether way, though. But most importantly, there's no indication of a relation between Isaiah 34:14 and Genesis 2-3. There's nothing here to hang an entire pre-Eve marital history for Adam on.
Dean R.
Yes, death before the fall is not supported by Scripture and the closest 'science' has come to resurrection power is cryogenics which again is man trying to mimic or compete with God and get a name that is above every name instead of looking to the name above all names (Jesus). And now we as a race are considering living on Mars and looking to the moon as a mining project instead of appreciating its set purpose as a lesser light for days and months,tides etc. Science is not just the why but also a wild goose chase and a place of many deceptions that mirror the original deception in Eden.
Shaun Doyle
Please see Cryonics, the soul and immortality for more information on cryonics.
Chris S.
Whilst we are perhaps convinced that the Genesis creation account is historical and not poetic, it appears to be an excellent point of logic that even if the Genesis account was proved to be 100% poetic (or polemic for that matter), this in no way proves that Genesis is not also a historical account. Logic does not dictate that it has to be one or the other.

Tennyson's poem, "The Charge of the Light Brigade" is a poem about a real, historical military battle; it is both history and poetry at the same time.

Thus it is employing a logically faulty "false dilemma" to suggest that Genesis is poetic and thus can not be historical.
Shaun Doyle
Agreed. Judges 4 (narrative) and 5 (song) is a biblical example of different genres speaking of the same historical events.
Richard P.
I believe there is a major problem in considering that science may address the "how" of creation, namely that it seems to be built on a presupposition that God is confined to naturalistic processes, constrained by the physical laws He has Himself ordained. Science only studies that which is measurable, testable and repeatable, which does not apply to creation, so how could the scientist establish how God did it?
Isn't it actually true that Genesis says more about "how" God created than "why" anyway? 'God said, "Let there be light"; and there was light.' So the "how" was nothing less than an outworking of His sovereign power. Science can show that along with that must have gone the design of concepts such as photon, wavelength, energy, etc., but the "how" is simply that God willed it, so it must be. Suppose instead 'God said, "Let there be light"; and nothing happened.' Then He would not be God. God created by being God: what He wills into existence must be - Rev. 4:11. Any attempt by us to reduce this to a process we can understand should be addressed by reading Job 38:1-40:5.
David G.
If Genesis 1 is poetry (which it is not), this would not itself bear on its facticity. For example, the Australian folk song 'Waltzing Matilda' is poetry, but that doesn't mean there were no jumbucks, tucker bags, troopers, or swagmen. Nor does it not mean there was no late 19th century drought. Indeed, in ancient times, poetry was typically the form of conveying stories (including about actual events) What is inferred by the claim is that Genesis is figurative or symbolic. However, it doesn't use figurative or symbolic language, it uses historical. If it was 'merely' figurative, then it would tell us nothing about the real world, because it uses concrete language it embeds itself in the real world and sure, it is not about the details of creation, but is clear on the 'how' God's word, because this is intimately connected to the why: God creating in love. The other details of Genesis 1 are also essential to its theological significance, but only because they happened in the world which is the setting of its theological significance. It is modern philosophical conceit that pretends to be able to separate the two.
Jean P.
Psalm 33: 9 . He spoke and it came into being.

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