Is Genesis 1 Word For Word Literal?: A Look At Oral Tradition and Poetic Narrative

Grand_UniverseThe Old Testament is a text that has provided Christians and Jews alike with stories that reveal God and a series of stories of the ancient days of Judaism as they sought to understand God and the world around them. Though oral tradition was the means for the transmission of story, the stories were eventually written down to be studied and learned from. Within the Old Testament is the Story of Creation in Genesis 1. Here, one of the literary genres of the Old Testament is on clear display: Poetic Narrative. It is here, in the poetic narrative, that the writer of Genesis presents the story of how God created the world and everything in it in a fashion that is easy to read and share with others. The intent of this blog is to demonstrate instances within the story of Creation in Genesis 1 that resemble poetic narrative, the historical setting presented, and the implications it has on preaching the story itself.

Before getting into how the poetic narrative presents itself in Genesis 1, it must first be established that the Creation narrative itself has historical placement and underlying themes that appear to resemble other popular stories of creation around at the time. Most notably, Walter Bruggemann alludes to the Enuma Elish which is the Mesopotamian account of creation and notes that this text is similar while at the same time it was tweaked by the Israelites to accommodate the faith of Israel[1]. This can be seen as problematic for some faith believers, but on the whole it should not be entirely surprising. It can be pretty readily accepted that these stories were initially passed down through oral tradition and that opens the door for changes and alterations as it is shared. What is so striking to this writer is the fact that the Jewish story of Creation is entirely monotheistic and seems to have set a precedent in the ancient world: the worship of a single, all powerful God. This becomes even more impressive when one comes to the understanding that this story likely reached the form we have today during the sixth century exile of the Jews which put them at odds with the Babylonians who saw many gods in power over the world[2]. To maintain the truth of this story in the face of such opposition is impressive and a testament to early dedicated faith that has stood many tests of time.

J. Coggins notes of Genesis 1: “It fulfills none of the criteria which would be necessary for a modern historian to regard it as historical, and only the preconceived notion that everything in the Bible must necessarily be factually accurate could have led to any other conclusion.”[3] The most obvious fact on display here is that no one was present at the time of God’s Creation. Interestingly enough, this writer would argue that the Babylonians simply misunderstood what occurred and their story was in need of correction, but this claim is admittedly based on faith and personal understanding of the Bible.

At this point, the text can examined further. The story of Creation in Genesis 1 clearly resembles a poetic nature.Take a look at the poetic narrative formula used in verses 3-31: “God said, let there be ____. And there was ____. /And God made ____.God saw that it was good. God called ___.There was evening and there was morning, day ____.” This is the formula present in the New Revised Standard Version with slight (minimal) variation, however other translations follow a very similar structure in this case. It is the monotheistic God who creates order, life, and determines the value of it (good or bad).

Easy to see here is an easy to follow, easy to write formula. Since these stories were passed down orally at first, it makes sense that they were set up in this format. Obviously, one can make the case that elements were added later when it was written down, but the base is still present. The empty spaces in the formula provide an opportunity to interchange words. Arguably, a Christian can fit just about any word (that represents a necessity to life) in this formula and it would be accurate. For example, one may wish to use the word “oxygen” and the message of the story would still remain the same: God decides something is necessary, God speaks it into being, God declares it good.

Some attention has been given to the fact that these stories are largely resulting from former oral traditions. This point is especially made clear in the repetitious nature of the Genesis Creation story. It becomes important here to recognize what an oral tradition is.  Oral traditions were spoken and sung throughout generations and were probably changed through the generations as people adapted to changing environments and culture, yet there are elements that remain constant and unchanged such as names, continual cultural practices, or topographical features[4]. The character in this Genesis 1 is God by a pretty obvious observation and as mentioned prior, He creates and sustains all things. He is sovereign for the Jewish people and now for the Christians as well.

The impact this study has on preaching a sermon on Genesis 1 can vary. Consider that a mother will often read her child a nursery rhyme or a story to help comfort them. No attention is necessarily paid to how this story was formed, only that the story is presented now as it stands in the present. One can get caught up in splitting hairs and picking instances out that may be added or taken away, but the average congregation is not interested in the historical narratives quite as much as a student or scholar is.

That said, it sometimes becomes necessary to share the history behind text, but only if it is easy to get across. In this instance, it may be helpful to communicate that the Creation account was an oral tradition passed down through generations until it was written down by Moses (according to tradition). However, the average churchgoer is almost certainly aware of this and if they are not, most Bibles allude to the fact in Book introductions. Even if a particular Bible does not, there are plenty of verses in the Old and New Testaments that speak of Moses writing the first several books of the Bible (again, tradition).

Knowing that it is a story that was passed down would shape a sermon as far as getting the main points across here. In this way, the preacher pays homage to the oral traditions behind Genesis 1 in that, they too, keep the main elements present when giving their sermon. During academic studies, the meaning and intent behind certain words and phrases are studied well in depth, but a sermon is not the place for an intensely detailed study. Perhaps a Bible Study situation would be a much better environment to engage detailed research and to challenge those participating to step out of their comfort zones of Scripture understanding and history.

There is something to be said about Scripture. It molds the reader, evaluates the reader, and challenges the reader. In a world with very minimal scientific understanding, Genesis certainly presents a poetic narrative that does its best to present God as the Creator of all things and it has stood the test of time throughout the many centuries the narrative has been shared.  Christian scholars can debate the meanings of words, the order of events, and the parallels with other documents from the time period of Genesis, but they cannot and will not come to the conclusion that God did not create all that man sees.

This is an important realization one must embrace. Just as there are oral traditions, there are faith traditions as well. God as the Creator is certainly a large tradition of faith that Christians have as a result of oral tradition. Conceding the reality that the Creation account came about through oral tradition is not to make a case that it is false or that the account should not be accepted. This writer would argue the exact opposite. In fact, this writer feels it is impossible to be a Christian and not believe that a monotheistic God created all that is present in and around us. It is important to mention again that the repetitious nature of Genesis 1 certainly played a heavy role in how easy it was to pass down the oral tradition and spread the story. The fact that they remembered what God had done by repetition is no different than how anyone learns how to fish, fix a car, ride a bike, or even write a paper. Repetition seems to be a key element in learning how to do just about everything or communicate how these things are or were done. The impact this study has on sermon preparation may vary, but is ultimately minimal in most situations. The historical setting of Genesis 1 reveals why the poetic narrative was employed to share the story through oral tradition until it was written to be preached as a story in a sermon setting. The message is clear: One God, One Creator, One Sustainer, One Hope.

[1]Walter Brueggemann, An Introduction to the Old Testament: The Canon and Christian Imagination, 2nd

ed., (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2003): p. 54.

[2] Walter Brueggemann, An Introduction to the Old Testament: The Canon and Christian Imagination, 2nd

ed., (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2003): pp. 56-57.

[3] R. J. Coggins, Introducing the Old Testament, (Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 1990), eBook Collection (EBSCOhost), EBSCOhost (accessed September 9, 2014): p. 34.

[4] David Carr, An Introduction to the Old Testament: Sacred Texts and Imperial Contexts, (Wiley-Blackwell, 2010): p. 38.


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My name is Charlie Tinsley and I blog about The Bible. I post theology and have leaned towards an emphasis on domestic violence and forgiveness. I serve as Ambassador for the state of Virginia in the National Association of Adult Survivors of Child Abuse. I hold a Masters of Divinity from Eastern Mennonite Seminary and Bachelors Degree in Science in Religion Summa Cum Laude with a Biblical Studies Minor from Liberty University. I have studied in the two “major fields” of theological thought. I am married and have been for several years and I currently reside in Virginia.

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