Is Genesis poetry? and Who was the father of hermeneutics?

Genesis question

Zoe K. from Australia wrote in with questions

by Lita Cosner

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 1–11is 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.

Dear Zoe,

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…

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