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How should Christians interpret Genesis 1-11?

The first 11 chapters of Genesis are vitally important for us to obtain a clear grasp of. These 11 chapters are the ones that have incurred the most criticism from modern scholars, scientists, and skeptics. Let's take a look at some of the following proposed interpretations of Genesis 1-11: as poetry, parables, prophecy, letters, biography, or autobiography/personal testimony.

Are any of these chapters poetry?

To answer this question we need to examine in a little more depth just what is involved in the parallelism of ideas that constitutes Hebrew poetry.

Let us consider Psalm 1:1, which reads as follows:

“Blessed is the man that walketh not in the counsel of the ungodly, nor standeth in the way of sinners, nor sitteth in the seat of the scornful.”

Here we see triple parallelism in the nouns and verbs used (reading downwards in the following scheme):

walketh counsel ungodly
standeth way sinners
sitteth seat scornful

As well as this overt parallelism, there is also a covert or subtle progression of meaning. In the first column, “walketh” suggests short-term acquaintance, “standeth” implies readiness to discuss, and “sitteth” speaks of long-term involvement. In the second column, 'counsel' betokens general advice, 'way' indicates a chosen course of action, and 'seat' signifies a set condition of mind. In the third column, 'ungodly' describes the negatively wicked, 'sinner' characterizes the positively wicked, and 'scornful' portrays the contemptuously wicked.

Other types of Hebrew poetry include contrastive parallelism, as in Proverbs 27:6, “Faithful are the wounds of a friend, but the kisses of an enemy are deceitful,” and completive parallelism, as in Psalm 46:1, 'God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in time of need.' [3].

And so we return to our question. Are any of the first 11 chapters of Genesis poetry?

Answer: No, because these chapters do not contain information or invocation in any of the forms of Hebrew poetry, in either overt or covert form, and because Hebrew scholars of substance are agreed that this is so (see below).

Note: There certainly is repetition in Genesis chapter 1, e.g. “And God said…” occurs 10 times; “and God saw that it was good/very good” seven times; “after his/their kind” 10 times; “And the evening and the morning were the …day” six times. However, these repetitions have none of the poetic forms discussed above; rather they are statements of fact and thus a record of what happened, and possibly for emphasis—to indicate the importance of the words repeated.

Are any of these chapters parables?

No, because when Jesus told a parable He either said it was a parable, or He introduced it with a simile, so making it plain to the hearers that it was a parable, as on the many occasions when He said, “The kingdom of heaven is like…” No such claim is made or style used by the author of Genesis 1-11.

Are any of these chapters prophecy?

Not in their full context, although two promises of God are prophetic in the sense that their fulfillment would be seen in the future. One of these is Genesis 3:15, which was the pronouncement by God to the serpent (Satan) in metaphorical form: “And I will put enmity Between you and the woman, And between your seed and her seed; He shall bruise you on the head, And you shall bruise him on the heel.” (NASB). Many have interpreted the “seed” in this verse as the Messiah, including most evangelicals and even the Jewish Targums [4] hence the Talmudic expression “heels of the Messiah[5]. The Messiah would suffer wounds to His feet (on the Cross), but would completely destroy Satan's power. This verse also hints at the Virginal Conception, as the Messiah is called the seed of the woman, contrary to the normal Biblical practice of naming the father rather than the mother of a child (cf. Genesis chapters 5 and 11, 1 Chronicles chapters 1-9, Matthew chapter 1, Luke 3:23-38).

The other is Genesis 8:21-22 and 9:11-17,

“And the LORD said in His heart, I will not again curse the ground any more for man's sake… and the waters shall no more become a flood to destroy all flesh.”

Are any of these chapters letters, biography, or autobiography/personal testimony?

This is where we need to consider some of the subscripts mentioned above.

If Adam knew the events of Creation Days 1-6, they must have been revealed to him by God, as Adam was not made until Day 6, and so he could have known them only if God had told him. This view is reinforced by the words, “These are the generations of [NIV: ‘This is the account of’] the heavens and of the earth when they were created…” in Genesis 2:4a. The details of Day 7, the rest day, are included before this in Genesis 2:2-3, thereby completing (as we might expect) the record of a full seven-day week, before this subscript or closing signature appears.

Then follow the events of Genesis 2:4b-5:1a. This section tells us about Adam, his wife Eve, and their sons, and reads very much like a personal account of what Adam knew, saw, and experienced concerning the Garden of Eden, and the creation of Eve (chapter 2), their rebellion against God (chapter 3), and the deeds of their descendants (chapter 4 to 5:1), albeit written in the third person

[6]. This section ends with the words, “This is the book of the generations of Adam.”

Is it feasible that Adam could have written Genesis 1:1-2:4a as the result of his pre-Fall conversation with God, and Genesis 2:4b-5:1 as the record of his own experiences? There is no problem concerning his ability to have done so. Adam was created a mature man, endowed with all the DNA, knowledge and skill he needed to perform all the tasks assigned him by God. No cave-man he! Adam knew enough horticulture “to dress and to keep” the Garden of Eden (Genesis 2:15), and ample intelligence to recognize and name the distinct kinds of animals (Genesis 2:19). He (and Eve) could converse with God without ever having learned an alphabet, and there is no reason to suppose that he was not fully skilled in writing also [7].

But what about the supposed
“contradictions” found in these first 11 chapters?

References

[3] This discussion of Hebrew poetry was adapted from J. Sidlow Baxter, Explore the Book, Vol. 1, pp. 13-16. Return to text

[4] Aramaic paraphrases of the OT originating in the last few centuries BC, and committed to writing about 500 AD. See F.F. Bruce, The Books and the Parchments, (Westwood: Fleming H. Revell Co., Rev. Ed. 1963), p. 133. Return to text

[5] A. G. Fruchtenbaum, Apologia 2(3):54-58, 1993. Return to text

[6] The use of the third person is no problem. Moses wrote the long account of his own life in Exodus to Deuteronomy in the third person, and many classical authors like Julius Caesar also wrote in the third person. Return to text

[7] Adam and Eve knew how to sew fig-leaf 'aprons' for themselves (Genesis 3:7). Within a few generations, Adam's descendants founded a city (Genesis 4:17), were tent-makers, cattle farmers, musicians with the ability to make both stringed and wind instruments, and metallurgists with the ability to smelt the ores of copper, tin and iron and then to forge all kinds of bronze and iron tools (Genesis 4:20-24). Dr Henry M. Morris comments in The Genesis Record (Baker Book house, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 1976, pp. 146-7):

“It is significant to note that the elements which anthropologists identify as the attributes of the emergence of evolving men from the stone age into true civilization—urbanization, agriculture, animal domestication, and metallurgy—were all accomplished quickly by the early descendants of Adam and did not take hundreds of thousands of years.” Return to text

Author: Russell Grigg, M.Sc. (Hons.), Creation Ex Nihilo Dec. 93 - Feb. 1994, Vol. 16 No. 1, pp. 38-41. Supplied by Creation Ministries International

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