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Saturday, April 28, 2007
  Genesis 1:27 prose or poetry? And other issues.
Genesis 1 is highly polished and condensed language. Although full of repetitions each has its place and purpose. What's more the words carry huge theological weight (as the preface to the Bible) as von Rad put it: "These sentences cannot easily be overinterpreted theologically."

Today I'll focus on 1:27, the heart of the account of the creation of humanity (1:26ff.) Although there has been debate it seems to me clear that the chapter is prose not poetry.1 However, the arguments are much less clear for 1:27.

I won't repeat (except particularly good phrases ;-) John's fine presentation, just summarise it:
  • 1:27 is formed of three lines each of 2+2 word units
  • these elements are not co-ordinated, mere juxtaposed
  • "each part repeats and at the same time builds on the preceding part" (I am less careful than John, so I'll call it parallelism!)
This gives the verse a very strongly poetic "feel". But:
  • the sign of the accusative is repeated three times in one verse!2
  • the vayyiqtol form of verb is rare in poetry
  • the rest of the chapter is highly repetitive too
  • John sees (if I understood right) the four beat lines as atypical of poetry - here I disagree with him, I think four beat (I'd prefer to say word unit) lines are commoner in more recent poetry, perhaps especially of the 2+2 sort we have here.
So, is it prose or poetry?

Yes!

By which I mean that a hard and fast distinction between prose and poetry is no more appropriate in Hebrew than in English. And this verse stands somewhere near the centre of the blurry boundary zone between them. (As does much prophetic speech.) I'll acknowledge that I have oversimplified in the past, simply calling this verse "poetry". [I am about to start yet a second sentence with a conjunction, grammarians beware ;-) - why is English so pernickety about unnecessary detail?] But, I would have erred equally (if oppositely) if I had called it "prose". It is both and neither.

Which means, I think, that we are to take its "parallelism" quite seriously:

וַיִּבְרָא אֱלֹהִים | אֶת־הָאָדָם בְּצַלְמוֹ
בְּצֶלֶם אֱלֹהִים | בָּרָא אֹתוֹ
זָכָר וּנְקֵבָה | בָּרָא אֹתָם

and he created | God || the human | in his image
in the image | of God || he created | him
male | and female || he created | them

The repetition of different forms meaning "he created" (or perhaps - see John's post - "formed") the common subject ("God", repeated by the verbs "he created") as well as the rhythm give a strongly parallelistic feel already.

So, in what does the image of God consist in humanity? Evidently not appearance or any other such surface and changeable quality - for it is in humanity as "male-and-female", as the puzzling change from singular to plural ("him" to "them") signals. It can only be in this very unity in diversity. Sexuality is both the "image of God", and as Jerome reminds Christian theologians: "Sexual categories do not apply to the Godhead." [* to another post ]



1. On this and other scholarly and technical matters do see John's article/posts "Is Gen 1:27 Poetry?" and the more recent "Genesis 1:26-28 - Exegetical Odds and Ends", Wayne's post "translating the poetry of Gen. 1:27" and the fine discussion it elicited in the comments and David Clines (1968) classic "The Image of God in Man". [RETURN]

2. See my posts: The new magical imperial toolkit: percentages, prose and poetry and The new magical imperial toolkit: part 2 [RETURN]

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