(June 28, 2012) Most Old Testament scholars have classified most of Genesis (chapters 4-50) as historical narrative. They may have to rethink this because a new book shows that Genesis is also poetic. This applies not only to the creation account, but also to the stories of Adam and Eve, Cain, Noah, Abraham, Jacob, and Joseph. This poetry is outlined in the newly published book, Return to Genesis: What Ancient Poetry Reveals About Christ, the Church, and the Kingdom by Martin Pierce.
Since Genesis is predominantly historical, the poetry isn’t as obvious as the kind that we see in books such as the Psalms and Proverbs. The poetry in Genesis typically extends over multiple chapters, and is rich in symbolism. As a result, most of it has gone unnoticed until now.
The trend in Christian scholarship has not been to look for symbols and metaphors, but whenever possible, to interpret the Bible literally. This is mostly due to a fear of subjectivity. Symbols and analogies defy precise definitions. Another fear is that the more we see metaphors and symbols in Bible stories, the more difficult it will become to defend those stories as actual history. It’s simpler, and seemingly more objective to adopt a literalistic approach.
As a former literalist, Mr. Pierce is sensitive to these criticisms. He responded to them at length in Part 1 of Return to Genesis. He argues that we need to know symbols, metaphors, and types in order to recognize and interpret the Bible’s abundant poetry. Unlike English language poems, Hebrew poetry emphasizes meaning (e.g., parallelisms) over form (e.g., rhyming syllables). Naturally, an interpreter’s main objective should be to uncover the intended meaning behind every text.
Again, symbols can be highly subject to interpretation. Some people still wonder what the Beatles were really trying to communicate through their Abbey Road album cover. However, the Bible is unlike contemporary art or literature, which may or may not contain symbolic meanings. Return to Genesis lays out poems in Genesis which are so highly structured that they lend objectivity even to symbolic interpretations. For example, we find in Chapter 19 an impressive set of 25 consecutive parallels which compare or contrast Abraham and Sarah with Adam and Eve. When symbols are presented in this context, it eliminates considerable doubt about what the author had in mind.
The most significant poem that Mr. Pierce has discovered in Genesis would likely be what he calls “The Creation Cycles.” This poem, which encompasses Genesis 1 and 2, consists of 32 elements. What’s most impressive about it is that these elements are aligned in a matrix of two overlapping four-by-four structures. This presents multiple parallel relationships.
You may be wondering, if Genesis is filled with symbolic meaning, what’s it about? This question can only be briefly answered here…
Christians won’t be surprised by some metaphors, such as Egypt having been a type of the world. Others are likely to be more controversial. For example, animals can represent unbelievers in some cases. Some men are compared to predatory animals. Women are often compared to land, especially in relation to fertility. This was a common metaphor in ancient agricultural societies. Mr. Pierce has appropriately explained the context of these metaphors, leaving no excuse for supremacist or misogynistic attitudes on the part of any Christian or Jew.
We learn from the creation cycles poem that God’s creation encompassed not only the material and biological world, but also the provision of spiritual blessings. The creation cycles end with a loving married couple that was blessed in every possible way.
Although the patriarchs were sinners, they longed to restore what Adam and Eve had lost. Adam and Eve were expelled from the garden because of sin, but Abraham and Sarah figuratively returned to it—not by attaining perfection, but by faith. It fell upon Jacob to symbolically restore the creation of Genesis 1. He left home destitute, and later returned from the east with family and flocks. After having wrestled with God, he became a new man.
Unfortunately, Jacob came up short in the area of parenting skills. Most of his sons didn’t behave like God’s covenant children. On the contrary, they sought to murder their brother Joseph. With those rascals in line to inherit the Abrahamic blessings, the patriarchal quest could have seemed pointless.
At this low point in the narrative, Joseph figuratively rose from the dead (more literally, from a pit) to become the de facto ruler of Egypt. Through his inspired counsel, he saved multitudes from starvation, including his undeserving half-brothers. Although Joseph’s reign didn’t last long, it presents a picture of heaven and earth in harmony. The pharaoh (representing people in power) accepted wise counsel from Joseph, the lowly prisoner; the unjustly oppressed prisoner was set free; Joseph (a type of Christ) married an Egyptian (representing Gentiles/anybody); the hungry were fed; former enemies (i.e., Joseph and his half-brothers) were reconciled; the pharaoh (the government leader) honored Jacob (the spiritual leader); and the Hebrews (representing Christians) lived separately from, but at peace with the Egyptians (unbelievers). In other words, all was well with the world.
This story serves as one example of why we need to better appreciate the Bible’s poetry and symbolism. Mr. Pierce commented, “From a literalistic perspective, we can only learn so much from Joseph’s story. By contrast, the poetry reveals that Joseph extended the Garden of Eden typology from a husband and wife to a broader world of both fallen and redeemed people, and of rulers and subjects. This is highly relevant for Christians today.”
Martin Pierce is the founder of Christian Era Publishing (http://www.christianerapublishing.com). On June 18th, 2012, he issued a press release in which he declared war on literalism, sectarianism, and divorce.
Return to Genesis (ISBN 978-0-9850315-0-3) can be purchased at Amazon, or you can receive $7 off the book through the end of July 2012 by applying discount code 67KBN6HH at Createspace (https://www.createspace.com/3868591).