Is Genesis poetry / figurative, a theological argument (polemic) and thus not history?
Critique of the Framework Hypothesis
Published: 30 November 2007 (GMT+10)
(extracted and adapted from chapter 2 of the Creation Answers Book)
The ‘framework hypothesis’ is probably the favourite view among ostensibly ‘evangelical’ seminaries that say they accept biblical authority but not six ordinary days of creation.
It is strange, if the literary framework were the true meaning of the text, that no-one interpreted Genesis this way until Arie Noordtzij in 1924. Actually it’s not so strange, because the leading framework exponents, Meredith Kline and Henri Blocher, admitted that their rationale for this bizarre, novel interpretation was a desperation to fit the Bible into the alleged ‘facts’ of science.
For example, Kline admitted in his major framework article, ‘To rebut the literalist interpretation of the Genesis creation “week” propounded by the young-earth theorists is a central concern of this article.’1
And Blocher said, ‘This hypothesis overcomes a number of problems that plagued the commentators [including] the confrontation with the scientific vision of the most distant past.’ And he further admits that he rejects the plain teaching of Scripture because, ‘The rejection of all the theories accepted by the scientists requires considerable bravado.’2
Clearly, the framework idea did not come from trying to understand Genesis, but from trying to counter the view, held by scholar and layman alike for 2,000 years, that Genesis records real events in real space and time.3
Are the Genesis 1 days real history?
Genesis is, without any doubt whatsoever, most definitely written as historical narrative. Hebrew uses special grammatical forms for recording history, and Genesis 1–11 uses those. It has the same structure as Genesis 12 onwards and most of Exodus, Joshua, Judges, etc., which no one claims is ‘poetry’ or not meant to be taken as history. Genesis is not poetry or allegory.
Genesis is peppered with ‘And … and … and … ’ which characterises historical writing (this is technically called the ‘vav—ו, often rendered as waw—consecutive’).
The Hebrew verb forms of Genesis 1 have a particular feature that fits exactly what the Hebrews used for recording history or a series of past events. That is, only the first verb in a sequence of events is perfect (qatal), while the verbs that continue the narrative are imperfects (vayyiqtols).4 In Genesis 1, the first verb, bara (create), is perfect, while the subsequent verbs are imperfect.5 A proper translation in English recognises this Hebrew form and translates all the verbs as perfect (or past) tense.
Genesis 1–11 also has several other hallmarks of historical narrative, such as ‘accusative particles’ that mark the objects of verbs. These are not translated into English (e.g. Hebrew ‘et’ in Genesis 1:1). Terms are often carefully defined. Also, parallelisms, a feature of Hebrew poetry (e.g. in many Psalms), are almost absent in Genesis.6
The rare pieces of poetry (e.g. Genesis 1:27 and 2:23) comment on real events anyway, as do many of the Psalms (e.g. Psalm 78). But if Genesis were really poetic, the whole book would look like these rare verses and it doesn’t.
Advocates of the Framework idea argue that because Genesis 2 is (they say) arranged topically rather than chronologically, so is Genesis 1. Therefore, they argue, the days are ‘figurative’ rather than real days. But this is like arguing that because the Gospel of Matthew is arranged topically, then the Gospel of Luke is not arranged chronologically.
It is also logical (and in line with ancient near eastern literary practice) to have an historical overview (chapter 1) preceding a recap of the details (chapter 2) about certain events already mentioned. Chapter 2 does not have the numbered sequence of days that chapter 1 has, so how can it determine how we view chapter 1?
Hebrew scholars concur that Genesis was written as history. For example, the Oxford Hebrew scholar James Barr wrote:
‘ … probably, so far as I know, there is no professor of Hebrew or Old Testament at any world-class university who does not believe that the writer(s) of Gen. 1–11 intended to convey to their readers the ideas that
- creation took place in a series of six days which were the same as the days of 24 hours we now experience
- the figures contained in the Genesis genealogies provided by simple addition a chronology from the beginning of the world up to later stages in the biblical story
- Noah’s flood was understood to be world-wide and extinguish all human and animal life except for those in the ark.’7
Barr, consistent with his neo-orthodox views, did not believe Genesis, but he understood what the Hebrew writer clearly intended to be understood. Some criticize our use of the Barr quote, because he does not believe in the historicity of Genesis. That is precisely why we use his statement: he is a hostile witness. With no need to try to harmonize Genesis with anything, because he does not see it as carrying any authority, Barr is free to state the clear intention of the author. This contrasts with some ‘evangelical’ theologians who try to retain some sense of authority without actually believing it says much, if anything, about history—‘wrestling with the text’, we’ve heard it called.
Hebrew scholar Dr Stephen Boyd has shown, using a statistical comparison of verb type frequencies of historical and poetic Hebrew texts, that Genesis 1 is clearly historical narrative, not ‘poetry’. He concluded, ‘There is only one tenable view of its plain sense: God created everything in six literal days.’
Some other Hebrew scholars who support literal creation days include:
- Dr Andrew Steinmann, Associate Professor of Theology and Hebrew at Concordia University in Illinois.8
- Dr Robert McCabe, Professor of Old Testament at Detroit Baptist Theological Seminary in Allen Park, MI.9
- Dr Ting Wang, lecturer in biblical Hebrew at Stanford University.10
Are there triads of days?
One of the supposed major ‘evidences’ for a poetic structure is an alleged two triads of days. In this view, Moses arranged the days in a very stylized framework with days 4–6 paralleling days 1–3. Kline suggests that Days 1–3 refer to the Kingdom, and Days 4–6 to the Rulers, as per the following table:
|Days of Kingdom||Days of Rulers|
|Day 1:||Light and darkness separated||Day 4:|| Sun, moon, and stars
|Day 2:||Sky and waters separated||Day 5:||Fish and birds|
|Day 3:|| Dry land and seas separated,
plants and trees
|Day 6:||Animals and man|
But even if this is true, it would not rule out a historical sequence―surely God is capable of creating in a certain order to teach certain truths. Also, other theologians argue that the ‘literary devices’ are more in the imagination of the proponents than the text. For example, the parallels of these two triads of days are vastly overdrawn. Systematic theologian Dr Wayne Grudem summarizes:
‘First, the proposed correspondence between the days of creation is not nearly as exact as its advocates have supposed. The sun, moon, and stars created on the fourth day as “lights in the firmament of the heavens” (Gen. 1:14) are placed not in any space created on Day 1 but in the “firmament” … that was created on the second day. In fact, the correspondence in language is quite explicit: this “firmament” is not mentioned at all on Day 1 but five times on day 2 (Gen. 1:6–8) and three times on Day 4 (Gen. 1:14–19). Of course Day 4 also has correspondences with Day 1 (in terms of day and night, light and darkness), but if we say that the second three days show the creation of things to fill the forms or spaces created on the first three days (or to rule the kingdoms as Kline says), then Day 4 overlaps at least as much with Day 2 as it does with Day 1.
‘Moreover, the parallel between Days 2 and 5 is not exact, because in some ways the preparation of a space for the fish and birds of Day 5 does not come in Day 2 but in Day 3. It is not until Day 3 that God gathers the waters together and calls them “seas” (Gen. 1:10), and on Day 5 the fish are commanded to “fill the waters in the seas” (Gen. 1:22). Again in verses 26 and 28 the fish are called “fish of the sea”, giving repeated emphasis to the fact that the sphere the fish inhabit was specifically formed on Day 3. Thus, the fish formed on Day 5 seem to belong much more to the place prepared for them on Day 3 than to the widely dispersed waters below the firmament on Day 2. Establishing a parallel between Day 2 and Day 5 faces further difficulties in that nothing is created on Day 5 to inhabit the “waters above the firmament”, and the flying things created on this day (the Hebrew word would include flying insects as well as birds) not only fly in the sky created on Day 2, but also live and multiply on the “earth” or “dry land” created on Day 3. (Note God’s command on Day 5: “Let birds multiply on the earth” [Gen. 1:22].)
‘Finally, the parallel between Days 3 and 6 is not precise, for nothing is created on Day 6 to fill the seas that were gathered together on Day 3. With all of these points of imprecise correspondence and overlapping between places and things created to fill them, the supposed literary “framework,” while having an initial appearance of neatness, turns out to be less and less convincing upon closer reading of the text.’11
Does Genesis 2:5 teach that only normal providence (nothing miraculous) was used?
Kline rightly states that God did not make plants before the earth had rain or a man (although this is talking about cultivated plants not all plants13). So, Kline asks, what’s to stop God making them anyway because He could miraculously sustain them? The answer, according to Kline, is that God was working by ordinary providence:
‘The unargued presupposition of Gen. 2:5 is clearly that the divine providence was operating during the creation period through processes which any reader would recognize as normal in the natural world of his day.’14
Note that Kline admits that this alleged presupposition is not argued in the text. This would explain why no Bible scholar saw this for thousands of years. Then he makes another amazing leap to say that there was ordinary providence operating throughout Creation Week:
‘Embedded in Genesis 2:5 ff. is the principle that the modus operandi of the divine providence was the same during the creation period as that of ordinary providence at the present time.’15
But this is desperation. Even if normal providence were operating, it would not follow that miracles were not. In fact, there is no miracle in the Bible that does not operate in the midst of normal providence. Michael Horton points out that those who reject God acting in the normal course of events do it from an a priori philosophical assumption and not from anything in the text.16
Kline’s claim above that the processes operating during the creation were the same as today reminds us of 2 Peter 3: about the scoffers who will come in the last days denying that God created the world in the manner described in Genesis (covered in water) and that the world was destroyed by the Deluge. These scoffers will say, ‘everything continues on as it has since the beginning’ (verse 4). That’s exactly what Kline says, sadly.
A miracle is properly understood not as a ‘violation’ of providence but an addition.17 So when Jesus turned water into wine (John 2), the other aspects of ‘providence’ were still operating. Perhaps Jesus created the dazzling variety of organic compounds in the water to make the wine, but gravity still held the liquid in the barrels, taste buds were still working in the guests, their hearts pumped blood without skipping a beat, etc.
Furthermore, Genesis 2:5 shows that normal providence was not operating: note that ‘God had not caused it to rain upon the earth’. If creation happened over billions of years (by Kline’s version of ‘normal providence’), how could there have been no rain? And if there had been no rain for eons of time since plants appeared, how did they survive? This only makes sense if the time-frame of Genesis 1 is real so there are no eons of time, only days.
So Kline incorrectly presupposes normal providence as God’s sole modus operandi for Genesis 2:5, wildly extrapolates it to the entire Creation Week, and further presumes that normal providence excludes miracles. This error is compounded by failing to note the narrow focus of Genesis 2 on man in the Garden (it is not a ‘second account’ of Creation).
Is Genesis merely a theological argument (polemic)?
While Genesis 1 certainly refutes various errant ideas about God, it refutes those ideas precisely because of the real events. For example, it has an implied argument against sun worship because God actually created light without the sun (Day 1), before He created the sun (Day 4). The contention depends on the historicity of the events.
Is Genesis 1 an argument for the Sabbath? Exodus 20:10–11, which clearly teaches the Sabbath commandment, cites the historical events of Genesis 1 as the basis for the commandment. That is, the works of God recorded in Genesis presage the commandment. The history forms the basis of the commandment—God’s having created in the historical framework of a real ordinary week of seven days gives the basis for us structuring our lives around six days of work and a seventh day of rest. It is rather difficult to see how God’s days of creation could have been figurative but the days of our working week are real.
The writings of the framework advocates are marked by lack of clarity. Take a statement by Blocher, for example: ‘It [the framework idea] recognizes ordinary days but takes them in the context of one large figurative whole.’ But, cutting through the verbal fog, what they really mean is that they deny that the days occurred in real space-time history.
About the only thing that gives any logical coherence to their views is a clear opposition to the calendar-day understanding of Genesis. Sadly, this mess of porridge has been far too widely promoted to undermine the historicity of Genesis.
Over and above all these arguments, the Framework Hypothesis suffers from the same problems as all other attempts to make the Bible compatible with the imaginary millions of years of historical ‘science’: it puts death and suffering before the Fall, before Adam sinned and ushered death and suffering into God’s ‘very good’ Creation (Genesis 1:31).18 This undermines the whole sweep of scripture, from Paradise Lost to Paradise Gained, which is the big picture of the wonderful Gospel of Jesus Christ.
- Kline, M.G., 1996. Space and time in the Genesis cosmology. Perspectives on Science & Christian Faith 48(1):2–15. Return to text.
- Blocher, H., 1984. In the Beginning, IVP, p. 50. Return to text.
- For other critiques of the framework hypothesis, see creation.com/framework. Return to text.
- Joüon, P. and Muraoka, T., 1991. A Grammar of Biblical Hebrew: Part Three: Syntax, p. 390, Pontifical Biblical Institute, Rome. Return to text.
- See also a statistical analysis of the Hebrew verb forms by Hebraic scholar Stephen Boyd, 2004. The biblical Hebrew Creation account: New numbers tell the story. ICR Impact 377. Return to text.
- Kaiser, W.C., Jr., 1970. 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. Return to text.
- Barr, J., Letter to David C.C. Watson, 23 April 1984. Return to text.
- Steinmann, A., 2002. אחד [echad] as an ordinal number and the meaning of Genesis 1:5, JETS 45(4):577–584; etsjets.org/files/JETS-PDFs/45/45-4/45-4-PP577-584_JETS.pdf. Return to text.
- McCabe, R.V., 2000. A defense of literal days in the Creation Week, Detroit Baptist Seminary Journal 5:97–123; www.dbts.edu/journals/2000/McCabe.pdf. Return to text.
- Sarfati, J., 2005. Hebrew scholar affirms that Genesis means what it says! Interview with Dr Ting Wang, Lecturer in Biblical Hebrew, Creation 27(4):48–51; creation.com/wang. Return to text.
- Grudem, W., 1994. Systematic Theology, Zondervan, Grand Rapids, MI, USA, p. 302. Return to text.
- Kline, M.G., 1958. Because it had not rained. WTJ 20:146–157. Return to text.
- Kruger, M.J., 1997. An understanding of Genesis 2:5, CEN Technical Journal (now Journal of Creation) 11(1):106–110. Return to text.
- Kline, Ref. 12, p. 150. Return to text.
- Kline, Ref. 12, p. 151. Return to text.
- Horton, M.S., 2002. Covenant and Eschatology: The Divine Drama, Westminster John Knox. Return to text.
- See Sarfati, J., 2006. Miracles and science, creation.com/miracles. Return to text.
- Sarfati, J., 2005. The Fall: a cosmic catastrophe—Hugh Ross’s blunders on plant death in the Bible, TJ (now Journal of Creation) 19(3):60–64; creation.com/plant-death. Return to text.