Is Genesis poetry? and Who was the father of hermeneutics?
Published: 20 November 2010 (GMT+10)
Zoe K. from Australia wrote in with questions about who originally advocated a poetic understanding of Scripture, and who is considered the father of hermeneutics. Her letter is printed in full followed by a response from Lita Cosner.
I have been working on a treatise for 18 months as a challenge to our church’s move into theistic evolution. Your website has been brilliant, but I have a special question. Today, certain theologians are claiming that Gen 1–11 is mythical Hebrew poetry. They cite literary devices as their authority. I would really love to get some information on this. From my understanding Friedrich Schleiermacher is considered the father of hermeneutics. My question: By whom and at what point did this idea of Hebrew poetry enter theology? Someone must have first come up with it. This is a major branch of my inquiry for which I need answers. Any help is greatly appreciated: an article/book maybe? Many thanks.
As far as I can tell, the first person to advocate a major non-literal interpretation of Genesis (that is, claiming that Genesis itself has characteristics which mark it as non-literal) was Dr. Arie Noordzij of the University of Utrecht in 1924; he was the first proponent of the Framework Hypothesis (which was popularized several decades later by Herman Ridderbos). There was a related, but much less popular and short-lived, as well as obscure, interpretation advocated before that, but I haven’t been able to find any specific information on it. The German universities had been liberal long before that, but these Genesis compromises were actually the creation of neo-Orthodox theologians who didn’t want to chuck out the entire Bible, even if they thought that modern science showed that the Bible couldn’t be literally correct about creation, miracles, etc. They were, in their own misguided way, actually trying to save Christianity. But back to the topic at hand …
The importance of the framework theory is that it argued that the structure of the narrative (and it is a structured narrative) means that it is not historical. From there, it’s a slight push to say that it has poetic, exalted language, and that its structure is quasi-poetic. This is where most compromising Hebrew scholars stay; they leave it to the popular self-proclaimed scholars and to the shallower pastors to make the totally unfounded leap to say “Genesis is poetry”.
It is important to note that no major Hebrew scholar says that Genesis is poetry, see James Barr’s quote. This is because Genesis has all the grammatical marks of being a historical narrative. For example, the early chapters of Genesis frequently use the construction called the ‘waw consecutive,’ usually an indicator of historical sequence. Genesis 1–11 also has several other trademarks of historical narrative, such as ‘accusative particles’ that mark the objects of verbs, and terms that are often carefully defined. And the Hebrew verb grammar of Genesis 1 has a particular feature that fits exactly what would be expected if it were representing a series of past events. That is, only the first verb is perfect (a type called qatal), while the verbs that continue the narrative are imperfect (a type called wayyiqtol or waw consecutive). In Genesis 1, the first verb is bara (create) which is perfect, while the subsequent verbs that move the narrative forward are imperfect. But parallelisms, which are characteristic of Hebrew poetry, are absent from Genesis, except where people are cited, e.g., Genesis 4:23. If Genesis were truly poetic, it would use parallelisms throughout.
That is, the exalted language used does not negate the grammatical constructions that indicate that Genesis is history (such as the numbering pattern, waw consecutives, the use of yôm with a numeric and evening/morning) It’s important to note that Numbers 7 is very similar to Genesis 1: both have “refrains” including a sequence of consecutive numbered days, but no one doubts that Numbers 7 was intended as historical narrative (see also Genesis was written as history). John’s prologue could be said to have the same sort of “exalted, semi-poetical” language, but that does not mean that he did not intend to teach the pre-existence and deity of Christ. (I’m getting what follows from commentaries, etc; I always feel the need to add the caveat that I have no first-hand knowledge of Hebrew, since my specialization is in New Testament.) The New American Commentary has a particularly good section if you have access to a library that has it, even though the author is not a biblical creationist (in many ways, having such a ‘hostile witness’ is better than a biblical creationist’s argument, because here you’ve got someone who doesn’t agree with you on six days, etc, who is nevertheless saying that it means to be a historical narrative). To quote some relevant pieces (forgive the very extended quote):
“Ancient myth reflects this ongoing pattern of struggle between the forces of plenty and those features of nature that threatened prosperity. The vehicle of literary myth expressed this understanding of the world’s processes describing the lives of the gods. Myth was not just entertaining fable; it conveyed a heavenly imitation of earth, like a cosmic mirror that reflected terrestrial, human experience. … Against this backdrop the Genesis account speaks volumes regarding the uniqueness of biblical revelation. Indeed, “revelation” was required to liberate antiquity from its superstitions and fear of the world that was viewed as a playground for capricious deities. …
“If chaps. 1–2 are theological story, without correspondence to history, the creation account says nothing about cosmos of covenant-history, for both are intertwined with history. … Yet Genesis remains in a narrative arrangement, unlike the mythopoetic style of Mesopotamia. Though it shows some hymnic echoes, the presentation of 1:1–2:3 is cast in a historical framework, analogous to the human week, and not in the genre of descriptive praise. … This praise of God the Creator is tied to the historical deeds of God, who delivered Israel from its enemies.”
“Some have supposed that chap. 1 is a liturgical text, but there is no compelling evidence of such a creation ritual in Israel. Moreover, the polemical tenor opposing the myth-ritual practices of the ancient Near East obstruct a liturgical explanation for its composition. Rather, we must turn to the voice of the poets to discover how Israel integrated creation theology into the life of worship.”1
See Is Genesis poetry?. I think you’ll find many of the articles on our Genesis and Creation Compromises questions and answers pages to be helpful. Also, this off-site article has a good, succinct explanation. Andrew Kullikovsky’s new book Creation, Fall, Restoration has some very good information. Also, Refuting Compromise covers a lot of this, and is an invaluable resource in general.
As for who deserves the title “Father of modern hermeneutics”, to assign the title to any one figure would be simplistic; modern hermeneutics, like most disciplines, developed over time with input from many individuals (the ones I’m going to bring out are just some of the most major ones; if you’re interested in finding out more there’s an excellent chapter by F.F. Bruce in New Testament Interpretation: Essays on Principles and Methods edited by I. Howard Marshall). The generally recognized pioneer is the 16th century Lutheran Matthias Flacius Illyricus; his Clavis Scripturae Sacrae discussed hermeneutical principles and was really the beginning of scholarly hermeneutics, admitting only the grammatical sense of Scripture (meaning he only admitted a symbolic meaning when Scripture itself demanded it). Hugo Grotius in the late 16–mid–17th century was the first to try to exegete the text objectively, meaning that his goal was to find out what the text said, not explicitly adhering to a specific framework based in dogmatics—so much so that he was accused of rationalism. He was the first to argue that the various books of the Bible could not be completely understood apart from their historical context. (Many of these principles are now the stuff of beginning hermeneutics courses and so basic to what we do that we hardly think about them, but these principles were revolutionary when they were introduced.) In the 18th century, Semler was very influential in hermeneutics (as much as we disagree with his theology).
Schleiermacher’s work was in the 19th century, 300 years after
the first “father of hermeneutics”. His major contribution was going
beyond the historical method to ask, assuming that the historico-critical work reveals
the author’s intentions for his own day, what does this message mean for its
readers and hearers today? But there is a danger of eisegesis with this approach.
While I think Scheiermacher is vastly overrated by a certain segment of the Church,
I would say that his work has some use, though it must be handled carefully and
critically (as all scholarship should be).
So in conclusion, no major Bible scholar says that Genesis is poetry; they say that it is a structured narrative with exalted, quasi-poetic characteristics that set it apart from the mundane ordinary narrative. But the grammar of Genesis does not suddenly change when it gets to Genesis 12; it all has the characteristics of historical narrative. I am guessing the people who call Schleiermacher the father of hermeneutics, ignoring the previous three centuries, want to put him up as some sort of model. But he was a non-believer, and an example of extreme rationalism—not an example that any church leader should want to follow.
- K. A. Mathews. Genesis 1 – 11:26. New American Commentary (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 2001), p. 118–122. Return to text.