Is Genesis 1-3 Literal? Historical? Poetical?
The PCA’s Report of the Creation Study Committee makes this important observation: “In order to be clear about where we agree and where we disagree, we must first be clear on just what we mean by the words we use. A number of terms appear in discussions of Genesis 1—3, and the various parties may actually mean different things by them. A theme running through this discussion is the problem created by there being several meanings available for these terms, and we must decide which sense of the word is relevant to our discussion.
Here are a few of the words that they tackle in their report:
As Protestants we say we believe in the importance of the “literal” interpretation of a passage. But what do we mean by that? The term comes out of medieval discussions of the various meanings of a text, such as the “literal,” the “anagogical,” the “allegorical,” and so on. The Reformers stressed the “literal” meaning as the one of primary interest. In this context they meant that we ought to care about the meaning the author intended; we should ask, “what would a competent reader from the original audience have gotten from this text?” Now, it is important to recognize that this puts no requirements on us, say, for excluding such things as figurative descriptions, anthropomorphisms, exaggerations, and so on: instead we try to follow the conventions of the particular literary form we are studying.
We must make this proviso because there are other meanings of the word “literal” that can confuse us. For example, often when we say “take a statement literally” we mean that we take it in its most physical terms, without allowance for figures of speech such as metaphor. This is the “literalistic interpretation,” and we owe it no loyalty at all. We find literalism of this kind amusing if our children apply it to idioms such as “raining cats and dogs,” and we find it frustrating when we are discussing the meaning of “all” in Romans 5:18. It is not difficult to marshal exegetical arguments to suggest that by the word “all” in Romans 5:18 Paul meant “all those represented by the respective covenant head,” and we may legitimately claim that this is in fact the intended or properly “literal” meaning. This helps us to see that the properly literal meaning of a text need not be the same as the meaning that lies on the surface.
What does this mean for our interpretation of Genesis 1—3? Quite simply, it keeps our attention on the communication act between Moses and the generation of Israelites he led into the Sinai desert. That is, part of the argument in favor of our interpretation should be its relevance and intelligibility to competent readers from the original audience. This will also have a bearing on the validity of some kinds of harmonization.
In ordinary language, when we say that an account is “historical” we mean that it is a record of something the author wants us to believe actually happened in the space-time world. There is no question but that the Genesis 1 account should be taken as being “historical” in this sense: after all, this is how every Biblical author who refers back to it treats it (e.g. Exod 20:11; Heb 11:3; Rev 4:11; Isa 40:26; Jonah 1:9). Again, we must be careful to understand what that does and does not say. This does not decide ahead of time such things as whether the manner of description is free from “figurative elements” (i.e. that the account demands what we have called a “literalistic interpretation”), or whether the account is complete in detail, or whether things must be narrated in the order in which they occurred (unless the author himself tells us).
We have no difficulty in harmonizing the Gospel accounts by allowing that the different authors may have grouped things by logical rather than chronological reasons; and this does not take away in the least from their “historicity” (nor does a properly “literal” interpretation require anything else from us).
Confessional Presbyterians have not hesitated to affirm, not only that the narrative of Genesis 1—3 claims historicity for itself, but also that it is in fact historically true, and thus worthy of our belief.
In popular speech we tend to contrast the “poetical” with the “historical” (or “factual”), as well as with the “literal,” because we take “poetical” to mean that it need not refer to something in the external world.
A good example of the popular definition at work comes from J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Fellowship of the Ring, in the chapter “A conspiracy unmasked.” Merry and Pippin have just sung a song whose refrain is, “We must away! We must away! We ride before the break of day!” In response Frodo says, “Very good! But in that case there are a lot of things to do before we go to bed. . .” To this Pippin replies, “Oh! That was poetry! Do you really mean to start before the break of day?”
On the other hand, at the literary and linguistic level, the focus is on the kind of language and literary style: there may be rhythm; but especially there will be imaginative descriptions and attempts to enable the reader to feel what it was like to be there. Quite often the language is harder to process than ordinary prose; it may be repetitive or allusive. These linguistic features reflect the different communicative purposes of poetic language: e.g. to celebrate something special, to mourn over it, to enjoy the re-telling, to enable the audience to see things differently. To call something “poetical” in this way is not of itself to deny its historicity, for example (consider Judges 5; Psalm 105; 106).
Some have referred to the language of Genesis 1:1—2:3 as “poetical,” and they may in fact mean poetical in the linguistic and literary sense; however, many people hear that as a denial of its historical truth value, because they interpret the statement in light of the popular definition. As a matter of linguistic detail it is probably not strictly correct to call the language of this passage “poetical” anyhow. A better term would be “exalted prose narrative”: this captures the feeling of celebration that competent Hebrew readers find in the narrative, and the highly patterned use of language, while at the same time it keeps our eyes on the fact that at the grammatical level we have a narrative.
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