Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Narrative and Poetry in Genesis

It is interesting to note that when one is reading through Genesis there are "tags" which indicate something important just happened. These tags are poetry. In English, the basis of poetry is rhyme. In the Japanese form of poetry called Haiku, the basis of poetry is syllables. In Hebrew poetry, the basis for poetry is word pairs. Thus, various forms of parallelism make up poetry throughout the Old Testament (a great source with which to gain a better understanding of Hebrew parallelism is the introduction section of Expositor's Bible Commentary, Vol. 5, by Wilem VanGemeren). Most of the time, in English bibles, poetry is formatted differently and can be identified simply by noticing the change in format.

Throughout the book of Genesis, after most of the narrative sections there is a short (usually short - sometimes long) section of poetry. This indicates to us something to the reader. When a poetic section is encountered, the reader is to experience it as poetry. They are to allow the images to infiltrate their emotions and imagination. These sections of poetry may have also been used as mnemonic devises. As the Old Testament was relayed to generations upon generations, the stories were told and then essentially finished with a poem (or perhaps a song?). Thus, perhaps these poetic pericopes helped in the remembering of the story and the order of the stories.

Do not misunderstand what I am saying. I am not saying that Genesis 1-11 is poetry, as some Christian leaders teach. I am saying that Genesis is mostly historical narrative with some poetry interlaced throughout the entire book at integral points. Identifing these poetic sections provides a two-fold interpretive result. First, it shows that the narrative sections are in fact to be understood as historical narrative (or they would be written as poetry). Second, it should force us to take note of these important poetic sections.

See the visual aid below (click the picture to enlarge):

This brief investigation of the poetic sections of Genesis should teach us a few lessons:

1) The bible is an amazing work of art. God could have inspired the writers to write the accounts of the Old Testaments in saints in bland, journal-like entries. Instead, the stories are filled with action, emotion, and intrigue written in such a way as to evoke an emotional response from the reader.

2) When we read the stories of the Old Testament, it is critical we read them as the original audience read them. If we read over the poetic sections like it was just another part of the story, we are missing not only the beauty of the passage, but we are missing something of its meaning, as well.

3) The poetic sections should slow down our reading through Genesis. They are "pit stop" on the interpretive road; places for us to stop, lean back, and let our minds dwell on the preceding story. We should allow the poetry do what it was intended to do: stir our imaginations and emotions.

The mix of narrative and poetry throughout Genesis brings us to a deeper apprecation of artistry and understandability, while also bringing us to humble realization that we serve a great and good God, the same God who brought all things into existence as described in Genesis.