Creation in Genesis 1-3 (Part 2a-Literary Features)

In addition to analyzing specific grammatical forms (as was done with the preposition bereshit in part one of this series), it is also crucial when interpreting a text to properly identify its narrative boundaries and to examine the literary forms and techniques which structure it and give it meaning.[1] I thus intend to provide here a brief analysis regarding some of the literary features which indicate narrative boundaries and which provide structure and meaning for the creation narratives of Genesis 1-3. The implications of these literary features concerning Israelite beliefs about creation will be discussed further in the next segment.

Where does the creation story which begins in Genesis 1.1 end, and what noticeable literary features structure the account within these limits? As most readers familiar with this story are aware, the account is guided by intervals of days. Each day of God’s creative labor is concluded with the formulaic phrase “(And) there was evening and there was morning, day…”. This refrain is found six times, once for each day of God’s creative activity. Additionally, a seventh (final) day provides a description of God’s rest from his physical creative labors.[2] The dividing of creation into intervals of days is an important literary element in the text that provides structure and lends important clues for its interpretation. For now I will simply reiterate that the stories’ last day of creative activity ends at verse thirty-one when day six is concluded, while its seventh (and final) day, on the other hand, narrates God’s rest from his creative labors, as well as his sanctifying the seventh day. Thus, the author has deliberately structured this story of creation to fit a one-week interval, with six days describing God’s physical creative labor, and a seventh (final) day describing God’s cessation from his physical creative acts.

Yet if we continue reading into chapter two there follows yet another account of God’s creative acts.  Moreover, this second account of God’s creative acts, significantly, lacks the deliberate narrative structure and formulaic phrasing of the first account. It is clear, therefore, that there must be a literary break between God’s resting on the seventh day of the first account (and hence the final day, since the story is specifically ordered to fit a one-week interval) and this second account of God’s creative deeds. In my judgment, literary and textual considerations favor the conclusion that the creation story that begins in Genesis 1.1 ends at Genesis 2.4a. [3] This is suggested, for instance, by the fact that the first account appears to be framed through a literary technique which is termed inclusio by biblical scholars. Inclusio typically consists of a unique phrase, group of words, or clause that is repeated at the beginning and end of a narrative section, and which separates it from what comes before and after. It is a somewhat common literary feature in biblical literature (see, for example, Genesis 11.1 and 11.9 or Psalm 8.1 and 8.9). For our purposes, only in Genesis 1.1 and 2.4a do we find the word pair “heaven(s)…earth” (in that specific order) together with the verb b-r-’. This, significantly, may be contrasted with Genesis 2.4b which immediately follows, and which, importantly, switches both the order of the phrase (“earth …heaven(s)”) and uses an entirely different verb (‘-s-h) for its description of the creative act.  This last fact is additionally significant because Genesis 2.4b onward never uses the verb b-r-‘ to describe God’s creative acts; only the first account of God’s creative acts uses this verb. This will be discussed further in another segment.

Notes

[1] For this post I have drawn upon Marc Zvi Brettler’s book How to Read the Jewish Bible (New York, New York: Oxford University Press, 2007), pages 13-17 and 29-47.

[2] The seventh day, for reasons to be discussed later, is given special prominence in the story, and so it varies in some ways from the rather formulaic descriptions of the six days that describe God’s physical labors. For instance, it lacks the special formula noted above which concludes each of the other days.

[3] It must nevertheless be mentioned that some scholars believe that Genesis 2.4a serves as the beginning of the following narrative section rather than as a conclusion or summary to the preceding story. This is argued on the basis that the phrase “these are the generations of…” is elsewhere found another nine times in the Book of Genesis as an introduction to new narrative sections. However, Genesis 2.4a is clearly modeled on the specific creation terminology found in the preceding narrative of Genesis 1 and not that of Genesis 2.4b onward. Thus, in accordance with many modern biblical scholars, I find it likely that a redactor inserted this phrase to separate the two creation accounts (see Richard Friedman, The Bible with Sources Revealed, (New York, New York: HarperCollins, 2003), 35) and modeled it on the language of the Genesis 1 account. In any event, there is still a clearly defined literary break that exists at this point in the text, and the separation must be made at this clause regardless of whether one ultimately views it as belonging to the preceding narrative section or starting the following section (or both).

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5 responses to “Creation in Genesis 1-3 (Part 2a-Literary Features)

  1. Thanks, YD. I’ve just started reading Robert Alter’s translation of The Five Books of Moses, so this is of particular interest to me. Here’s a question: Why does the first creation account spill over into Chapter 2? When was Genesis divided into our current chapters, and do scholars have any theories as to why that last part was cut off from Ch. 1 and glued onto J’s account in Ch. 2? Also, do many scholars accept Harold Bloom’s idea that J’s account may have originally started with Yahweh fighting the sea monster?

  2. David, the chapters and verses were added much later, in the 15th century, IIRC. Rumor has it that is was done without much thought, which is why sometimes the chapter breaks are in very disruptive places.

    For the OT, at least, the paragraph markers (such as at the beginning of en 2:4) are the oldest such divisions, being indicated by spaces and new lines in mss going back to the Dead Sea Scrolls (though mss vary somewhat in where they divide them.)

    I’m unfamiliar with Bloom’s discussion here, but there are are certainly other hints and allusions throughout the OT to the combat myth.

  3. Thanks, Nitsav. That’s interesting that the divisions occurred as late as the 15th century.

    I’m not surprised that you’re not more conversant with Bloom, since I’ve heard that The Book of J wasn’t well received by biblical scholars (especially his argument that J was a woman). He does mention your point about the combat myth, but I’m not sure how he came to his conclusion that J initially began the narrative there. He also speculates that R, being uncomfortable with the combat myth, cut it out.

  4. David,

    Thanks for stopping by. I am glad you are enjoying the series. And you have great questions and observations!

    I actually plan on discussing ancient Near Eastern parallels to the Genesis creation accounts in another segment (probably part 4 or 5). So stay tuned.

    As for the chapter and verse divisions, Nitsav is right. Modern chapter and verse divisions are indebted largely to separations that occurred in the late Middle Ages and thereafter. Moreover, you are correct that sometimes these later divisions do not match the more natural separations that seem to be suggested by the texts themselves.

    Best wishes,

    TYD

  5. David,

    I realized I never addressed your question as to why the last part of P was cut “off from Ch. 1 and glued onto J’s account in Ch. 2.” It seems likely to me that the text was divided at that point because it also corresponds to a natural division in the text, namely the end of the six creative days. I could be wrong, but I’ll bet that’s the case.

    Best wishes,

    TYD