Sunday, 28 September 2014

Genesis: poetry or prose?

Some weeks back I mentioned a comment that Michael Gungor made in an interview,
But now that I am a songwriter, I see this whole thing as absolutely absurd. Genesis is a poem if I’ve ever seen one.
So because he is a songwriter and therefore writes poems to music, he claims this authority for recognising poems including in other languages and culture. The problem is that other poets as well as authorities on Hebrew literature disagree with him.

Hebrew poetry is predominantly marked by parallelism: both synonymous and antithetic parallelism. Phrases are repeated or contrasted for emphasis. A synonymous parallelism from Proverbs 9
The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom,/
and the knowledge of the Holy One is insight.
An antithetical one from Proverbs 20
Love not sleep, lest you come to poverty;/
open your eyes, and you will have plenty of bread.
A more complex parallelism from Psalm 1 using both forms
Blessed is the man/
who walks not in the counsel of the wicked,/
nor stands in the way of sinners,/
nor sits in the seat of scoffers;/
but his delight is in the law of the Lord,/
and on his law he meditates day and night.
A second feature is acrostics used in some poems such as Psalms 34, 111, 112, and Lamentations.

A third feature is the predominance of certain verb forms. Stephen Boyd notes that there are 4 finite verbs forms in Hebrew and that narrative uses the preterite verb form as its predominant finite verb form. Classifying narrative and poetry by other features in non-disputed texts shows that on average narrative uses the preterite form for ~50% (range ~20%–80%) of its finite verbs and poetry uses the preterite ~4% (range ~0%–20%).

It is worth mentioning that chiasm is a feature of Hebrew writing. It is an overarching structure somewhat resembling parallelism and is used frequently in narrative.

Genesis as a whole is hardly a poem though it contains poetry. Perhaps Gungor was implying the early chapters of Genesis were poetry (given the context of the interview)? No English translation lays out the whole of Genesis 1–3 as poetry. The New International Version does structure Genesis 1 in list format but it does not use its list format for poetry; rather for inventory in narrative. Other translations use a narrative layout.

Genesis 1–3 does not consist of parallelism thru-out, though it contains short parallelisms in the poetical passages included within, such as
So God created man in his own image,/
in the image of God he created him;/
male and female he created them.
Genesis 1–3 does not use acrostic.

And Genesis 1 uses the preterite form for 66% of its finite verbs.

Lastly, the unstated implication seems to be that poetical statements are not true, or at least that poetry is symbolic or metaphorical and not literal. Even though metaphor is frequently a feature of poetry, poetry can be literal and metaphor can be a feature of prose. The song of Miriam in Exodus 15 relates the delivery of the Israelites from the Egyptians and recounts the earlier narrative; it is supposed to be understood relatively literally. Jotham's fable of the trees in Judges 9 is narrative yet it is supposed to be understood figuratively. The context of the passage and not just the style of writing is important for interpretation.

Genesis 1–3 is historical narrative and is not poetry.

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