Dealing With The Genre Of Genesis And Its Opening Chapters -- By: Vern Sheridan Poythress

Journal: Westminster Theological Journal
Volume: WTJ 78:2 (Fall 2016)
Article: Dealing With The Genre Of Genesis And Its Opening Chapters
Author: Vern Sheridan Poythress

Dealing With The Genre Of Genesis
And Its Opening Chapters

Vern S. Poythress

Vern S. Poythress is Professor of New Testament Interpretation at Westminster Theological Seminary.

Some time ago, when I decided to reflect on the genre of Genesis, I stumbled upon something odd. By and large, the scholarly world does not seem to devote much disciplined attention to its genre.1 There are some exceptions, of course. This lack of attention is odd, because scholars routinely affirm the importance of genre. So what happens when we do pay attention? I think it is revealing.

I. What Is Genre?

First, let us clear away some underbrush. What do we mean by “genre”? It can have a range of meanings, and that is at least part of the problem. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary gives as meaning 1 “a category of artistic, musical, or literary composition characterized by a particular style, form, or content.”2 I suppose a definition like that one can be a reasonable starting point. But there are ambiguities. Are we supposed to be focusing on style, or

on form, or on content, or on all three equally, or on any one of the three that we choose? To some extent “style” and “form” may overlap in meaning, but what about content? A focus on content seems different.

Suppose we say that, whenever two pieces of discourse have similar content, they belong to the same genre. That choice does not lead to expected results. For example, Exod 14:15–31 and Exod 15:1–18 are both about the crossing of the Red Sea and the defeat of Pharaoh’s army in the sea. They both have the same “content,” loosely speaking. But do we normally say on that basis that they belong to the same “genre”? No. The first is prose narrative, while the second is a poetic song. Similarly, Judg 4:12–22 and 5:2–31 both have the same content, namely, the defeat of Sisera and his forces by the Israelites under Barak (and, of course, Jael). But the first is prose narrative, and the second is a poetic song. The Gospel of Matthew and Acts 10:37–41 both have as their content the life, death, and resurrection of Christ. But the first is a Gospel and the second is part of a sermon.

Suppose we ask about the genre of Gen 1. The closest match in terms of cont...

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