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Yes, Genesis really is historical narrative

Waw-consecutive verbs and the rest of Scripture say so

Published: 28 December 2019 (GMT+10)

Steve R. asks us how to answer a Bible translator who tries to avoid the clear teaching that Genesis is historical narrative. We first ask the motivation for this, second, point out that we should never allow rare exceptions to overrule the general case, and third, the two-fold reason why Genesis should be interpreted as historical narrative whereas the translator addressed only one.

 Yom-hebrew

Hi CMI,

I have a question about the “waw-consecutive” grammatical construction.

I shared information, with a Christian translator who works for the Wycliffe organization, on that construction being associated with Hebrew narrative as per the books Thousands Not Billions The Genesis Account, and Refuting Compromise

His response was to point to the following three passages which (he tells me) all use that construction:

  • Psalm 18
  • 2 Samuel 12:1–4
  • Judges 9:8–15

He then comments about these:

To be clear, I’m not arguing Genesis 1 is poetry (it’s not, it’s highly elevated narrative), but I wanted to point out that we have at least three biblical examples above where the so called ‘historical narrative’ grammatical construction is clearly not meant to be understood as literal history.

How would you respond to his reasoning that the waw-consecutive is narrative, but not necessarily historical?

Thanks for any insight that you can offer,
—Steve R.

Dear Mr R.

Thank you for writing to CMI.

What motivates compromise?

The first thing I would ask this translator is, “Why do you want to avoid treating Genesis as history?” Is there some insight from the biblical text that Josephus, Basil the Great, and most other Church Fathers (even Augustine and Origen), Thomas Aquinas, and all the Reformers (including Luther and Calvin) overlooked? Or is there a perceived need to fit in with uniformitarian long ages or evolution? Many who deny the straightforward reading are up-front with this, as documented in Refuting Compromise, ch. 1. That is, way too often the reasoning is something like:

While the text seems to teach creation in six ordinary days a few thousand years ago, this contradicts modern science such as radiometric dating.”

Hard cases make bad law

Second, it is a basic rule of understanding any book that the clear passages must explain less clear ones, and that rare exceptions should not override the vast majority of cases. Hence Dr Boyd’s argument in Thousands Not Billions and elsewhere was statistical/probabilistic, and we have said as much, e.g. in Now a Creationist:

A statistical analysis by Hebrew scholar Steven Boyd showed that perfect and imperfect verbs are dominant in undoubted poetic passages, while preterites [= wayyiqtols or waw-consecutives] dominate in undoubted historical narrative. And his analysis showed, “the probability that Genesis 1:1–2:3 (X1 = 0.655) is a narrative is 0.999972604.”

In this case, the exceptions are not quite what this translator claims anyway.

Psalm 18

There are some waw-consecutives there, which is exceptional for the Psalms as Dr Boyd documented, albeit not perfusing the chapter as it does in Genesis. And why would many of them not be literal in any case, e.g. (waw-consecutives in bold):

v. 1: And he [David] said, “I love You, O LORD, my strength.”

v. 7: Then the earth reeled and rocked; the foundations also of the mountains trembled and quaked, because he was angry.

v. 14: And he sent out his arrows and scattered them; he flashed forth lightnings and routed them.

2 Samuel 12:1–4

This is the account of the prophet Nathan sent by God to David. Nathan told David of a rich man who killed and ate the only lamb of a poor man. Here, Nathan intended David to take it as historical narrative. That was the whole point, to make David righteously angry. So this is a point in favour of taking Genesis 1–11 as history, not against! Once the story had served its desired purpose, Nathan revealed that the rich man was really an illustration of David himself, for having Uriah killed to marry Bathsheba, and pronouncing God’s judgment. There is no such comment in Genesis or anywhere else in the Bible that tells us that it means something other than it says.

Wikipedia.orgLuther-Calvin
The great Reformers Martin Luther and John Calvin taught that Genesis is straightforward history.

Judges 9:8–15

This is clearly stated to be a story told by Jotham, the youngest son of Jerubbaal, aka Gideon. The context after Gideon’s death, as with the death of other judges, the Israelites reverted to paganism. Another son of Gideon, Abimelech, hired a band of thugs to kill 70 of his brothers, also Gideon’s sons, and Jotham was the only survivor. The leaders of Shechem made Abimelech king. So Jotham tells them about intelligent talking trees deciding on a ruler, ending with a curse if the discussion were not in good faith.

The fact that this account has talking trees should be a clue, and not everything reported in the Bible (such as this speech) is endorsed by the Bible. Then Jotham explains the point: the leaders of Shechem had also acted in bad faith by anointing a mass-murderer, and pronounced a curse. Eventually all Abimelech’s thugs were killed, and Abimelech met an ignominious end with his skull crushed by a millstone thrown by a woman.

Two-fold argument for Genesis as history

Third, this translator considers only one angle, the literary genre. For a similar case, William Lane Craig falsely claimed that I had only considered this angle. But as I responded in that article, and explained in Genesis is history! and Genesis: Bible authors believed it to be history, that’s far from the only angle. This is still an important point, because too many people do claim Genesis is poetic. But we see that even your opponent realizes that it’s narrative.

The other, and perhaps even more important reason to believe that Genesis is a historical narrative, as opposed to a non-historical (mythical?) one, is that the rest of the Bible treats it this way. That is, the people, events, and even the order of events is treated as history by Jesus, the Apostles, the Old Testament writers. And they expected their readers and hearers to understand it the same way.

Since that is demonstrated in the articles above, what is left for the compromisers? That the Bible authors, and Jesus Himself, were really following cleverly devised myths, despite their clear derision of such (2 Peter 1:16)?

Summary

Genesis should be taken as historical narrative because:

  1. The genre is narrative, not poetry.
  2. The rest of the Bible treats it as historical, not mythical or allegorical.

So it is perfectly in order to call Genesis “historical narrative”.

Regards,
Jonathan Sarfati, Ph.D.

Helpful Resources

The Genesis Account
by Jonathan Sarfati
From
US $39.00
From Creation to Salvation
by Lita Cosner
From
US $14.00

Readers’ comments

David G.
I wonder about the notion that Genesis 1 is ‘highly elevated narrative’. It is either narrative or it is something else.

Simply, it is narrative, but it is highly structured narrative, with a recurrent pattern for each day, by and large. Each day is dimensioned and classified (‘evening and morning’–type days), is counted (like a record count in a database), has an ‘end of record’ marker, and a multi-part content piece.

Such a repetitive structure gives the text an aesthetic grandeur, for sure, but it reads oddly more like a data structure than anything else, to my mind.
WR B.
Curiously, the writer to CMI suggest, Psalm 18 is not narrative history, and no one there objected. Maybe the verb construction shows David thought he was reciting history. In vs.1, obviously it is meant to be historic, David actually spoke these words. It is an historic account of his word. Then, with the specific verb usage, David is saying, vs. 7 and vs. 14, the rocking and reeling of the earth, and the flashes of arrows relate to a specific event when God also stepped in to save His anointed Savior’s blood line, Noah and Shem, in the Flood, as David desired God to save him. In both cases, it was saving the blood line of the Redeemer, which Satan seemed to want to destroy. David used many of the same descriptive words in Psalm 29, which also need to be considered as Flood narrative.
Benard O.
Such a great study.
Mark Dougherty D.
By comparing the total number of (1) imperfect Waw Consecutives, (2) Signs of the Direct Object, and (3) Waws" (Hebrew ‘ands’) in Genesis 1:1–2:3 with Psalm 18:1–51, it is easy to see the difference between a Hebrew historical narrative and Hebrew poetry. Of course there are other syntactical features; such as, parallelism and poetical couplets and triplets.

  1. 27 Waw Consecutives in Genesis one—3 in Psalms 18

  2. 17 Signs of the Direct Object in Genesis one—1 in Psalms 18

  3. 78 Waws (Hebrew ‘ands’, not including the Waw consecutive in Genesis One—56 in Psalms 18

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