When discussing the nature of Genesis 1, many people feel it’s important to take into account the literary genre. The idea is that, once the genre is identified, it will provide some guidance as to whether the passage should be regarded as literal or figurative.
For example, one typical approach identifies the text as the genre of historical narrative, and concludes that it should be interpreted literally because that genre doesn’t include room for figurative interpretation. A different approach looks at the structure of the text and concludes from the style that it is typical ancient near east creation mythology, and so is obviously figurative. There are plenty of other examples, but these two give the general sense.
One thing that all the approaches seem to have in common is that they focus on natural elements of the text. Things like the use of words, literary structures, proximity to other texts, etc. These apply just as well to non-inspired (ie, secular) texts as they do to Scripture because they disregard spiritual elements. However, if we know something about the spiritual nature of a text, shouldn’t that also be taken into account?
One such example has to do with the nature of God’s voice in different sorts of revelation. Consider the following text:
I saw the ground break in two like torn paper, and the land before me moved as if separate from the earth, gliding before me from one side to another.
Now given this text, imagine two scenarios. In one, the text is prefaced with the statement “This is from the Lord — an oracle revealed to me in a vision…” In the other scenario the text is prefaced by “An account of events witnessed by myself and others during the great earthquake…”.
Now, even though in both cases we might accept the resulting text as inspired, guided by the Holy Spirit, they still should be treated differently. In the first case, the fact that the text is a supernatural revelation means we have to be open to figurative nature since such texts are often figurative throughout Scripture. It would be important to use other context and Scripture to determine the proper genre. In the second case, the fact that the text is personal testimony means we should assume events happened as described, since records of testimony are used that way throughout Scripture.
Comparing these, we see the natural assumption that a narrative describes actual events is reasonable when the human author states that that is the case, but it is not reasonable if the narrative were stated to be the result of a prophetic vision.
In the case of Genesis 1, there is no preface, nor any other reference to the origin of the narrative, so we don’t have a clear statement as in the example above. However, we can be certain that the text is the result of supernatural revelation. Even if we accept that it was written by Moses, that doesn’t mean it was revealed to him. (Jesus basically makes this point in John 7:22.)
We don’t know the details, but we do know that it must have been supernaturally conveyed because no human was present at the events. It is an example of the first scenario above, rather than the second. As a result, we cannot simply claim that Genesis 1 is the same genre as other nearby text that may not have been supernaturally conveyed, and so we cannot claim that it should necessarily be interpreted the same way.
The fact that the text is a different genre than simple historical narrative doesn’t necessarily mean anything by itself, but it does indicate that we need to look at the text with an open heart, and also look at other related Scripture, before making any judgment.*
It turns out that there are details within the text that point to a figurative nature, consistent with a supernaturally revealed passage. For example, careful examination reveals the reference to God’s rest is clearly figurative, something that has been explored in other posts (here and here), and clearly indicated by considering both six-day references in Exodus. This observation in the text is matched by looking at the cultural context. There we find that it matches other Ancient Near East creation accounts, but with significant differences that show the unique nature of the one true God.
All these elements — spiritual, analytical, and historical, come together to paint the same picture. The genre of Genesis 1 is different from the text around it — it is a supernaturally revealed divine oracle that God Himself points to figuratively, given in a form that would be familiar to many at the time.
* Another claim that some make is that the text isn’t clearly marked as figurative, and so that shouldn’t be an option. This doesn’t change the fact that there are figurative elements within the text itself. But in addition, Jesus did not always clearly announce His use of figurative language. If the incarnate Word didn’t, why would we expect the written Word to? Again, even considering such a question requires inclusion of spiritual perspectives.
The picture above is of a ground fault rupture in Point Reyes that resulted from the 1906 earthquake. One can only image what it would have been like to watch the ground rupture and slide across one’s field of view.