The Nature of God
Who God Is
How To Read Genesis 1-3
The Genre of Genesis
Next, let us ask what kind of a book Genesis is. In accord with the richness of who God is, what God says in the Bible includes a variety of forms or genres of literature. God chooses a variety of ways of communicating, in order that we may absorb what he says and grow in communion with him in a variety of complementary ways. The book of Psalms, for example, is a collection of poetic songs and prayers. In the Gospels, we find sermons of Jesus (such as the Sermon on the Mount, Matthew 5–7), parables, records of miracles, records of healings, and the record of the crucifixion. The Bible has prophetic books like Isaiah that contain exhortations, recollections of God’s past dealings, and predictions about the future. There are historical books, such as 1–2 Kings, that have a record of past events in the history of Israel.
Each literary section of the Bible was crafted by God, as well as by the human author (2 Peter 1:21). It is exactly what God designed to say, not only in its contents, but also in all its details, including the features of genre. If we respect God, then we should take into account how he chooses to communicate. It would be a mistake, for example, if an interpreter were to treat Jesus’s parable of the lost sheep (Luke 15:3–7) as if it were a prosaic nonfictional account that is merely about one shepherd and one sheep. It is a fictional story with a spiritual point. The point is indicated at the end: “Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance” (Luke 15:7). Jesus also indicates near the beginning of the parable that it is hypothetical, rather than an actual case in real life: “. . . if he [the shepherd] has lost one of them [the sheep], . . .” (Luke 15:4).
So what kind of genre is Genesis 1–3? We need to start by considering the book of Genesis as a whole. It is the book as a whole that guides our understanding of each part within it. The book as a whole has some embedded poetry (Genesis 49:2–27). But as a whole, it is Hebrew prose narrative. It is similar in character to the other Old Testament books of narrative, such as Numbers, Judges, 1–2 Samuel, 1–2 Kings, Ezra, and Nehemiah.
One crucial question involves the distinction between fiction and nonfiction. Is Genesis fiction or nonfiction narrative or some combination? Several types of indications confirm that it is nonfiction. Genesis functions together with Exodus to set forth a continuous development of events that lead to the growth of the nation of Israel. The nation is real. The implication is that the growth towards that endpoint is also real. There is no literary indication of a separation in nature between events that happened in the real world, in the times when Genesis was read to Israelites, and events that happened earlier. Next, key characters, such as Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, are referred to in later parts of the Bible with the assumption that they are real, rather than being fictional like the lost sheep in Jesus’s parable. Later historical narratives, such as in 1–2 Kings, refer to earlier records, with the obvious implication that someone who was interested could check the records to see (e.g., 1 Kings 11:41; 14:19, 29).
There is a further complexity in distinguishing between fiction and nonfiction. It is possible for a human speaker to deceive people. He can pretend to give nonfiction when he is actually making up a story. An example of such deceit occurs in 1 Kings 13:11–19. A man, described as “an old prophet” who “lived in Bethel,” invited a prophet from Judah to come back to his home to eat. To induce the prophet from Judah to come, he falsely told him that he had had a message from an angel instructing him to invite him home. This narrative in 1 Kings is revealing, because it shows that people in the ancient culture of the time knew the difference between fiction and nonfiction just as much as we do. And they depended on that difference at crucial times. This principle is illustrated not only in 1 Kings, but in Genesis itself, when Pharaoh and later Abimelech reproach Abraham for not telling the truth (Genesis 12:18–19; 20:9–10).
So now, how do we treat the book of Genesis? It presents itself as nonfiction, like the material in Numbers and 1–2 Kings. But could it be pretending? Could it be deceiving? In the case of a merely human author, we cannot be absolutely sure. Because Genesis has God as the divine author, in addition to a human author, we can be sure. God does not deceive. So Genesis not only presents itself as nonfiction. It is in fact about events that happened in the past.
The idea of a combination of fiction and nonfiction does not work, for the same reason that the theory that Genesis is fiction does not work. A combination of fiction and nonfiction is possible for a human author. But Genesis gives no warning to readers that it is such a combination. It presents itself as nonfiction. And that is decisive in coming to a conclusion. It is nonfiction. The events described there are events in the real world, not in an imaginary world, and not made-up events injected in a confused way into the midst of other events in the real world.
The principle we take away is that the events described in Genesis 1–3 happened in the real world. (part 4 tomorrow)
Taken from an article from the works of Vern Poythress, author and professor of New Testament interpretation at Westminster Theological Seminary. His most recent books include Knowing and the Trinity: How Perspectives in Human Knowledge Imitate the Trinity (P&R Publishing, 2018) and The Mystery of the Trinity: A Trinitarian Approach to the Attributes of God (P&R Publishing, 2020). He has degrees from Westminster, Cambridge, Harvard, and Caltech.