Re: Gen 1-11 as history

George Murphy (
Tue, 17 Aug 1999 08:23:51 -0400

This was intended for the list. George inadvertently sent it only to me.
I had forgotten that George had mentioned the article on Hebrew Poetry in
the Interpreter's Dictionary of the Bible. I vaguely remember that there
is a similar article (maybe the same one) in The Interpreter's One Volume
Commentary on the Bible. -weh

Bill Hamilton wrote:
> Glenn wrote to George
> >I wouldn't beat a strawman if you wouldn't be like jello and squish away
> >everytime I drive a point home. I have repeatedly asked you to define with
> >clear and proper definitions of the criteria for which parts of the Bible
> >are historical and which aren't. You don't seem to have any clearly defined
> >definitions. Thus You shift around quite a bit because your 'definitions'
> >are subjective.
> George:
> What Glenn is asking for is reasonable. If it's too difficult to give an
> answer, perhaps you could post some resources that would help us understand
> what is and isn't poetry in the OT. I find myself caught between the sides
> in this and other similar discussions. Clearly there is a danger of
> writing off something important if we are too free with the labels "poetry"
> and "allegory". On the other hand we're in danger if missing important
> truths if we insist that something intended to be allegorical is literal
> history.

Glenn's request isn't at all unreasonable. I noted earlier Gottwald's
in _The Interpreter's Dictionary of the Bible_, "Poetry, Hebrew", which
addresses it.
"The fundamental formal feature of canonical poetry is the correspondence of
thought in half lines, known as parallelism of members. The thought may be
repeated, contrasted, or advanced. It may be figurative, stairlike, or
inverted.The paralellism may be both within lines and between lines. Meter,
insofar as it exists, is a by-product of the paralleled lines. Hebrew is an
explosive, staccato, sound-conscious language, and the devices of
assonance, paranomasia [roughly, puns] and onomatopoeia are used to great
aesthetic advantage."
There is also a section "Characteristics of Hebrew Poetry" in the New
Oxford Annotated
Bible which may be useful.
These or similar resources are helpful for identifying & understanding
poetry. However, an answer to the request is inherently squishy because
the definition
of poetry is pretty squishy. Aristotle (_Poetics_) says that poetry arose
from natural
human gifts for imitation and melody & rhythm. Lawrence Perrine in _Sound
and Sense:
An Introduction to Poetry_ says, "Initially, poetry might be defined as a
kind of
language that says _more_ and says it _more intensely_ than does ordinary
Thinking especially of biblical poetry, Sigmund Mowinckel said, "The oldest
poem in the
world was a repetition of the same emotionally loaded sentence."
It's easy to see then how one might call Genesis 1, with its repetitive
structure of days & refrain "God saw that it was good", "poetry", even
though it doesn't
fit the stricter characteristics set out by Gottwald. (But, as I cited him
about 1/3 of the Hebrew Scriptures _is_ poetry, including parts which
aren't obviously
so in many English versions.) In the same way we've probably all heard (or
may use
ourselves) alliteration, puns &c in ordinary speech without that speech
thereby being
"poetry" in a narrow sense. (Think of John Wheeler's propensity for phrases
like "charge
without charge" &c.)
Without trying to be too stringent as to definitions, I would simply argue
truth can be conveyed, & sometimes conveyed best, by what is unarguably
poetic, also
sometimes by more prosaic speech enlivened with poetic elements. It's also
important to
point out that poetry in the narrow sense can be used to convey something
close to
historical narrative - think of "Paul Revere's Ride" - so it isn't really
the use of
poetry which is at issue.
The more fundamental question, which has been the underlying subject of
considerable debate here, is whether or nor fiction, or not prosaic or
poetic, can
convey truth, & whether parts of Scripture are fiction, either wholly or in
("historical novels").

George L. Murphy