Search This Blog

Monday, June 11, 2007

Singing Morning Prayer (AAPB)

Yesterday (Sunday) as we were singing Morning Prayer, I was reflecting on the elephant hurled by a commenter on this blog, of ‘genre’ criticism. This has come up a couple of times as though the mere mention of this critical approach will somehow bring to heel the dogs of the literary scallywags who accept the direct meaning of Genesis 1.

Morning Prayer went on, and we got to Psalm 95. This is what we today would call poetry: but a 'song' to the Hebrews. I don’t think the word ‘poetry’ is known in the OT. The genre boosters would have, I think, that as soon as a piece is defined as ‘poetry’, it ceases to make meaningful reference to the real world. If they didn’t then they wouldn’t keep insisting that the identification of genre (‘list’ in the case of Genesis 1, which is a sub genre of ‘narrative’), which they don’t identify when it comes to Genesis 1, despatches the topic of interpretation of the passage.

Of course two things are confused here: what the text says, and what it means. Gunkel, Von Rad, Barr et al insist that the text says that God created in six normal ‘evening and morning’ type (i.e. 24 hour) days. They think it means little outside the tribe, it being, to them, a tribal myth and having little if anything to do with the real world (I’ll leave you, dear reader, to untangle the ontological conundrum this last phrase entails for the Christian). But that’s what the authors meant to communicate. That falls into line with most readers’ views until materialism reared its banal head in the 1800s.

But, let’s look at a couple of what we might call poems, and see what their being poems does for their relation to the real world.

Psalm 95 first. What I’ll do is comment on the factualness or not of each line or idea.

O come, let us sing for joy to the LORD,

FACT: there is a “Lord’ to whom we can sing, and joyfully.

Let us shout joyfully to the rock of our salvation.

FACT: God is our rock (a metaphor for stable one) and the source of our salvation.

Let us come before His presence with thanksgiving

FACT: it is possible to come before his presence with thanksgiving.

Let us shout joyfully to Him with psalms.

FACT: what is not factual about this?

For the LORD is a great God And a great King above all gods,

FACT: I think that line is all factual.

In whose hand are the depths of the earth,

FICTION: the depths of the earth are well known to not be in God’s hands. Deep drilling for oil has not detected hands at any depth, let alone the deepest. Alternatively, this might be a metaphor to the factual statement of God’s disposing power over the planet.

The peaks of the mountains are His also.

FACT: If you accept the Bible’s statements about God (including Genesis 1 as being factual) then this is factual. Not only the peaks, mind you, but the slopes, cliffs and ledges too! Of course, if Genesis 1 is not factual, then this is a mistake.

The sea is His, for it was He who made it,

FACT: according to the Bible, God is he who made and therefore owns the sea. If you don’t follow Genesis 1, then this of course is another mistake. Take your pick.

And His hands formed the dry land.

FACT if your beliefs are biblically informed, fiction if they are not. Taking the latter view: it is well known that dry land is formed by the recession of the sea and subsequent drying by solar action and not by hands. Hands big enough have never been seen. It could of course be a metaphor. Metaphors are a well-known means of communicating and most primary school graduates can detect them; indeed, use them.

Come, let us worship and bow down,
Let us kneel before the LORD our Maker.
For He is our God,

FICTION: As this is poetry, I guess we must deduce that the Lord is not our Maker, nor our God and we cannot worship, bow down or kneel before him. However, I have seen people do all of these things on their presumption that God is their maker!

And we are the people of His pasture and the sheep of His hand.

Clearly FICTION. We are not people of pastures and certainly not sheep.

Today, if you would hear His voice,

FICTION: God does not have a normally audible voice. Although Paul the apostle might contest that.

Do not harden your hearts, as at Meribah,
As in the day of Massah in the wilderness,
"When your fathers tested Me,


They tried Me, though they had seen My work.


"For forty years I loathed that generation,
And said they are a people who err in their heart,
And they do not know My ways.
"Therefore I swore in My anger,
Truly they shall not enter into My rest."

FACT, fact and more fact.

So, what does the genre of ‘song’ do for the facticity of most of the content of Psalm 95? Not a lot!

We could apply the same to Waltzing Matilda.

What in the following does not have a real world counterpart: billabong, jumbuck, squatter, trooper, waltzing, matildas (a world war 2 small tank), billy, boiling (in most parts of the earth water will be able to be boiled), tree, shade, one, two, three (these are well known natural numbers and occur in many songs, either alone or together), and so on.

So, the genre of Waltzing Matilda (song/poem) does not let us escape that most of it has a real world referent! That is, it is written on a highly factual framework. Indeed, if one were familiar with the 1890’s depression in Australia, the song would be close to a news report in content. Did it really happen? I don’t know, did it?

The thing is, the song doesn’t claim to be reportage. Genesis 1 does (and is treated as such elsewhere in the Bible). But there is nothing in the song, or Psalm 95, for that matter, which is counter-factual.

Now, what would it tell us if Genesis 1 was poetry? It is not, by the way. Its literary structure is list like and nothing like what we like to call ‘poetry’ in the Bible. Compare Ps 95, as a case in point. Compare it on the other hand to the many lists in the Bible! Does it contain other literary devices? Probably. All literature contains literary devices. It is unavoidable: that’s the way of literature. Commit to written words and you would be hard pressed to avoid them. So, it tells us nothing that Genesis 1 has a particular genre, unless that is explicated for our enlightenment. It tells us nothing that Genesis 1 has particular literary devices; especially when it is recognised that before typographic conventions were developed, literary devices substituted to give structure to the text. Today, of course, we’d just select the whole list of days in our word processor and make it a ‘bulleted’ list, as below.

In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. (TITLE)

· <> The earth was formless and void, and darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was moving over the surface of the waters. God said, "Let there be light"; and there was light. God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness. God called the light day, and the darkness He called night. And there was evening and there was morning, one day.
· <>Then God said, "Let there be an expanse in the midst of the waters, and let it separate the waters from the waters." God made the expanse, and separated the waters which were below the expanse from the waters which were above the expanse; and it was so. God called the expanse heaven. And there was evening and there was morning, a second day.
· <>Then God said, " Let the waters below the heavens be gathered into one place, and let the dry land appear"; and it was so. God called the dry land earth, and the gathering of the waters He called seas; and God saw that it was good. Then God said, "Let the earth sprout vegetation, plants yielding seed, and fruit trees on the earth bearing fruit after their kind with seed in them"; and it was so. The earth brought forth vegetation, plants yielding seed after their kind, and trees bearing fruit with seed in them, after their kind; and God saw that it was good. There was evening and there was morning, a third day.
· <>Then God said, "Let there be lights in the expanse of the heavens to separate the day from the night, and let them be for signs and for seasons and for days and years; and let them be for lights in the expanse of the heavens to give light on the earth"; and it was so. God made the two great lights, the greater light to govern the day, and the lesser light to govern the night; He made the stars also. God placed them in the expanse of the heavens to give light on the earth, and to govern the day and the night, and to separate the light from the darkness; and God saw that it was good. 19 There was evening and there was morning, a fourth day.
· <>Then God said, "Let the waters teem with swarms of living creatures, and let birds fly above the earth in the open expanse of the heavens.” God created the great sea monsters and every living creature that moves, with which the waters swarmed after their kind, and every winged bird after its kind; and God saw that it was good. God blessed them, saying, "Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the waters in the seas, and let birds multiply on the earth." There was evening and there was morning, a fifth day.
· <>Then God said, "Let the earth bring forth living creatures after their kind: cattle and creeping things and beasts of the earth after their kind"; and it was so. God made the beasts of the earth after their kind, and the cattle after their kind, and everything that creeps on the ground after its kind; and God saw that it was good. Then God said, "Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness; and let them rule over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the sky and over the cattle and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth." God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them. God blessed them; and God said to them, " Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth, and subdue it; and rule over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the sky and over every living thing that moves on the earth." Then God said, "Behold, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is on the surface of all the earth, and every tree which has fruit yielding seed; it shall be food for you; and to every beast of the earth and to every bird of the sky and to every thing that moves on the earth which has life, I have given every green plant for food"; and it was so. God saw all that He had made, and behold, it was very good. And there was evening and there was morning, the sixth day.

Seeing most translators are free and easy with interpretation through typography, perhaps in generations to come we’ll see translations with bulleted lists, numbered lists, and so on . . how kewl would that be?!

What we learn from the vague references to ‘literary devices’ or ‘genre’ is precisely nothing that would detract from the factual content of Genesis 1. Unless we are given precise reasons! You might also note the distinct narrative style that dominates the passage: the recurrent ‘then God said’ is a characteristic of narrative accounts of events. The numbering of days gives precision to the account which is repeated in other numbered passages and use of numbers elsewhere in the Bible and by my accountant; and in a manner atypical of myth, for instance (although the Taxation Commissioner does regard some accounts as largely myth).

On a similar theme in the Sydney Morning Herald “Spectrum” section one of the questions this week in ‘Big Questions’ was “who was God talking to when he said ‘let there be light’, and so on.”

Of course, the answer is: he wasn’t ‘talking’ to anyone, but as a simple spiritual being (simple as in having no parts), God’s only mode of action is by will, and is propositional, Therefore he is telling us his method of creation: by speaking. Refer also to Hebrews 11:3. The word for ‘word’ here is “reemati’: his ‘word’ of speaking, not of being. That is, not ‘logos’. The significance is that Hebrews tells us that God’s ‘method’ of creation is speaking. Note the rest of the verse too.

Back to the ‘genre’ idea. The forerunner of ‘genre’ criticism was form criticism. This was introduced to the world by Hermann Gunkel. He was a refreshing break from the source criticism guys (JEDP) whose tedium had dominated then recent scholarship, largely to much heat and little light, and his innovation was the view that the ‘forms’ of the OT were based on long oral traditions, reduced to writing at the time of the exile. Great assumption Hermann!

The genre critics go one better by claiming that the genre, or type of the passage will determine our reading of it (Gunkel said the same thing, but he thought there were only two genres; narrative and poetry). Not bad, as far as it goes, but where it goes when it comes to Genesis 1 (or most other chapters in Genesis) is straight to narrative. I’ve been through that above. There is nothing in the text that should persuade us that it is anything but a straightforward account of actions producing events in real time and space, after time and space were created, of course, in Gen 1:1. It uses a style to delimit a list without using typographical bullets (which hadn’t been invented, because, of course, it was before the time of real bullets); that is, a recurrent termination of each day. It uses consecutive language introducing each day, furthering the delimitation of the list elements, but also ensuring we understand the passing of time and movement of events, and it counts the days, just to make sure we don’t miss the point. Over this it tells us, in the terminal delimiter, that the days are ‘evening and morning’ type days. Its as though the writer has gone over the top to make the point: here is a list of events taking place on 6, six, VI, half a dozen . . days, one after the other.

If you don’t want to accept this, then don’t but please don’t try to pretend that Genesis 1 is anything other than what it is (I refer to Meredith Kline, John Dickson, John Polkinghorne, Philip and Peter Jensen and the entire cast and crew of ISCAST: the “Institute for Sacrificing Christianity by Acquiescing to Social Trends” to name a few).