The Literary Structure of Genesis 1

Let us now look at the literary form of Genesis one [9]. Most scholars agree that this chapter has the form of a narrative. First, it does not have the parallelism (repeated lines with the same meaning) that is characteristic of Hebrew poetry. Second, the events of the various days are connected using verbs having a form (the wayyiqtol form) that is characteristic of a narrative. The wayyiqtol form consists of an imperfect verb prefixed by the Hebrew letter waw (vav). “waw” is often translated as “and”. The first wayyiqtol verb occurs in verse 3 (And God Said). Wayyiqtol verb forms are typically used to describe sequential events occuring in the past.

Genesis 1, however, is not a typical narrative. It does not involve any human speakers or observers, only God. The narrative is told in a very patterned way involving several repeated phrases:

  • And God said
  • And God saw it was good
  • And there was evening and there was morning
  • And it was so

It should be noted that the Hebrew phrase translated as "and it was so" does not imply immediate fulfillment. For example, exactly the same Hebrew phrase is used in 2 Kings 15:12 where it is translated as “And so it came to pass.”

This was the promise of the Lord that he gave to Jehu, “Your sons shall sit on the throne of Israel to the fourth generation.” And so it came to pass.

In Genesis one the plants and animals are referred to using very broad categories. Plants are grouped into small plants and trees. Animals are grouped into livestock (domestic animals), wild beasts, and creeping things (mice, lizards, spiders). No species except man is given its proper Hebrew name. In addition, the sun and moon are referred to as “the greater light” and “the lesser light”; names not used anywhere else in the Old Testament. Although there is a Hebrew word for sky, this passage uses the poetic term expanse. In summary, the language used to describe God's creation was not technical in nature, even by Hebrew standards.

Verses 1 and 2 of Genesis one contain no wayyiqtol verbs. They contain the perfect tense verbs “created” and “was” as well as the participle “was hovering.” The normal use of verses such as these, preceding the narrative and in the perfect tense, is to describe background information or events occurring prior to the narrative. It was also pointed out in reference [8] that the verb position in these two verses is not typical. In a Hebrew narrative the verb is usually the first word of the sentence. In verses 1 and 2 the verb is in the second position. The author contends that placing the verb in the second position is a way of specifying an already completed action. Thus, there is considerable evidence that the events of verses 1 and 2 occur prior to the first creation day in verse 3. Some have treated verse 1 as a summary of the following narrative. However, the grammar does not appear to support this and it is difficult to square this position with the commonly held doctrine that God created everything out of nothing (the earth was already existing in verse 2).

The first word of verse one, bereshith (in beginning), is the Hebrew title for this book. The Hebrew word reshith for beginning is broader than its English equivalent. Now that most scientists accept the “Big Bang” theory for the origin of the universe, it is common to associate this with the beginning described in Genesis. However, this is probably not what the author of Genesis had in mind. The Hebrew word for beginning usually refers to an initial period of time rather than a specific point in time. For example, it was used for the initial period of Job's life prior to the great catastrophes he experienced later in life. It was also used for the initial period of a king's reign prior to the official starting date (usually the beginning of the following year).

The phrase “the heavens and the earth” in verse one is an idiom whose meaning is very close to the English words “universe” or “cosmos”. The second verse of Genesis one describes the state of the earth as the narrative begins (formless and empty). The narrative begins in verse 3.

The Old Testament Scholar John Collins calls the Genesis creation account an Exalted Narrative and cautions against being “literalistic” in our interpretation. It is said that the ancient Hebrews did not allow anyone to expound on the first chapter of Genesis until they were at least 30 years of age. They obviously recognized that this was a difficult passage. Maybe, we too should show some humility in approaching this passage.