Literary Structure of Genesis 1


In this article, we turn our attention to what exactly is happening in the text of Genesis 1 with regard to its textual structure. I am unable, in this small space, to interact with all of the views on Genesis1; therefore, what I view to be the strongest will be presented at this time. This paper is not meant to be exhaustive by any means, nor will it engage with several of the robust criticisms of this view, but will serve simply as a primer to demonstrate the kind of readings of the chapter which many find most compelling, myself included. In his 1958 book Kingdom Prologue, Meredith Kline developed and argued for the view that has come to be known as the Framework Model (FM). Since then, this view has been adopted by many scholars, including Bruce Waltke (1991), Mark Futato (1998), Mark Ross (1999), and Lee Irons (2001). Kline argued that the structure of the text follows a kind of non-literal literary pattern that sees the first 3 days as spheres/kingdoms, which were then populated in days 4-6. Proponents of FM will often point to some of the contradictions that arise from a strictly historicist chronological approach to the days, as well as other theological problems. For example, what sort of ethical problems arise if God created the earth, not just with the appearance of maturity, but with the illusion of having a history that it did not in fact have?

 In addition, how can there be three literal 24 hour earth days (one complete rotation in reference to the sun) when God does not create the sun and moon until day 4, expressly  with the purpose of marking out days and “to separate day from night” (1:14)?

 We will not be able to explore these questions within this paper, but for now, let me note that Kline would also argue that there is an inadequate understanding of providence that takes place in YEC views of Genesis 1 when he writes, "The view that Genesis 1 is chronological operates with the assumption that God did not operate through normal providence in creating the world.”

 While some will have problems with the appearance of maturity, anyone who believes that Adam could be created as mature should have no problem. The dilemma arises not in the appearance of maturity, but in the illusion of a false history. If the Earth did not exist for as long as science shows us that it does, then that would mean that God created the earth with craters from meteor impacts that never happened. It would be like creating Adam not only mature but with scars on his body with cuts that he never endured. That kind of pointless deception seems to provide a real ethical dilemma.

 Most YEC will attempt to say that God is the light, or that God is all powerful and could make any light. What an omnipotent God could do is not in dispute. The issue is that on the literalist’s own view, it is not until day 4 that we have the sun and moon, which God himself would need to be read as saying were necessary for the separation of day from night and the marking out of earth days. This is a much more severe contradiction than the oft parroted objection as to how there could be light before there is the sun.

 Against such a view since it describes a time on the earth when the earth was without vegetation because there was not yet rain. This demonstrates that divine providence was at work during the creation period. Thus Genesis 1 cannot be strictly chronological (Kline 1958, 146-57). Mostly, however, the case for FM is positive rather than negative. It is not primarily a response to the problems of YEC that drive FM, but a concern for understanding the sensus literalis of the text within redemptive history.

 The question is not concerning the problems with a YEC view of the meaning of םי,  yôm, but what meaning the original meant for his immediate audience to take from the text, in their direct historical setting. The first thing that Kline et al. would like to draw our attention to is the genre of Genesis 1. If Genesis 1 is a straightforward account of history (we will argue shortly that it is not), then it may be placed alongside the hard sciences and ask the question of how the cosmos materially came into being. That is, Genesis 1 would be, on this view, the kind of literature that asks the same questions as the astronomy or geology text books. However, if Genesis 1 is not strictly historical narrative, then it would be placed within the social sciences, because its primary concern would be with who was involved. At this point, however, for the hard literalist readers, this will lead them to make a sharp distinction between literal and allegorical. So far I have been careful to not describe the passage as allegorical or symbolic but rather “non-literal.”

 It is my view that the author was not using allegory – the creation of the light is not some allegory or symbol meant to represent some mystical spiritual truth, such as the gospel being a light to all the nations of the earth or something along those lines.

 Rather, the author of Genesis was telling us exactly what he meant – YHWH created the light and the luminaries. This, as we will see soon, was meant to serve a sharp and severe polemical purpose against the pagan concepts of deity that surrounded them and that they would soon encounter when they entered the land of Canaan.

 R.C. Sproul defines sensus literalis thusly:

“What is meant by sensus literalis is not that every text in the Scriptures is given a “woodenly literal” interpretation, but rather that we must interpret the Bible in the sense in which it is written. Parables are interpreted as parables, symbols as symbols, poetry as poetry, didactic literature as dactic literature, historical narrative as historical narrative, occasional letters as occasional letters. That principle of literal interpretation is the same principle we use to interpret any written source responsibly.” [ R.C. Sproul, “Knowing Scripture,” TableTalk Magazine, Jan 2011: 6-7.]

 Later readers may look back on the days and use the creation of light as illustrative in understanding the gospel and its reach to the nations, such as Paul in 2 Cor. 4:6, but this is demonstrative of a different type of hermeneutic that I do not have time to delve into now.

The days, then, are not allegory or symbolism, but they point us to the very real truth that God is Creator, and the text simply tells us this in a highly stylized manner. At this point, something should be said about how the “formless and void” clause of Gen. 1:2 is an important interpretive feature for a literary-polemical approach to the text. When we come to the earth in Genesis 1:2, we find that the earth is “formless and void” (הֹבָ הֹת, tōhû wābōhû). Here, a land (ץֶֶא, ʾere ṣ) lies without function, entirely uninhabitable; in order for God to have a relationship with people, there must be a habitable area for that to occur. We will take a brief moment to look at how these terms are used elsewhere in the Old Testament. What does it mean that the earth is formless and void then?

הֹת, tōhû, is used in other contexts to refer to a place that is entirely uninhabitable – a completely barren place. Deut. 32:10 states, "in a desert land he found him, in a barren land and howling waste (tōhû).” The concept here is that of an absolute barren wasteland that cannot sustain life. הֹב bōhû is also used in Isa. 45:18 speaking directly of creation, “For thus says the Lord, who created the heavens he is God, who formed the earth and made it he established it; he did not create it empty (bōhû),he formed it to be inhabited!” Here Isaiah is giving us a glimpse into exactly what bōhû meant in Genesis 1:2. It is contrasted with the land being inhabited and, indeed, inhabitable. When God created the land, he intended for it to be inhabitable and to be inhabited by people, and not remain uninhabited/empty/void (bōhû). Jeremiah places these terms together to describe the land after the exile in Jer. 4:23-26: “I looked on the earth, and behold, it was without form and void; (tōhû wābōhû) and to the heavens, and they had no light. I looked on the mountains, and behold, they were quaking, and all the hills moved to and fro.”

“I looked, and behold, there was no man, and all the birds of the air had fled. I looked, and behold, the fruitful land was a desert, and all its cities were laid in ruins before the Lord, before his fierce anger.” Jeremiah compares the exile of the land (ʾere ṣ) to an act of un-creation – that the devastation that occurred in the Assyrian and Babylonian conquests of the land had returned it to a state of tōhû wābōhû, of being formless and void. The idea that Jeremiah was presenting was not that the land had ceased to exist but that it had returned to an uninhabited state of barrenness. The hope held out in Jeremiah of a return to the land would be that God would make the land habitable again and allow Israel to re-inhabit the land. The return to the land was compared to an act of creation.

 We can now see why Kline and Waltke describe the structure as following this sort of pattern, where a sphere is made to be inhabitable, and then it becomes inhabited:

Creation Kingdoms (Kline)/Static Spheres (Waltke)(Forming the Formless)Creature Kings (Kline)/Sphere Populations (Waltke)(Filling the Void)

Day 1: Light Day 4: Luminaries

Day 2: Sky (“Waters above”)

 Day 5: Fish and Foul

Day 3: Seas, Dry Land, Vegetation

 Day 6: Animals and Man

Kline and Waltke both show us the relationships between the parallel triads of days. The first three days show the creation and preparation of kingdoms/spheres as a kind of environment, and in the following three days, populating those environments with the proper inhabitants of those environments. This means that days 1-3 are dealing directly with forming what was formless.

 There is another important aspect to this that is best understood when we remember that the author was likely Moses and that he was writing to Israel in the plains of Moab, about to begin the conquest of the land. He is reminding them that if YHWH has the power to make a completely formless and void earth into an absolute garden paradise, then could he not also take the land (the ץ א) of Canaan and prepare it for them to inhabit? YHWH who could prepare a garden for Adam could easily take a land that is already formed and inhabited and deliver it over to them as a land of flowing milk and honey.

 Seas are mentioned as being created in day 3, likely to distinguish them from land. Logically, if the waters above and below were separated, the seas were disambiguated from the other waters on day 2, which would answer one objection to the view, that day 5 might not be analogous if the fish are paired with day 2 but the seas are not created until day 3.