I remember sitting in my seat in Creative Writing class as a sophomore in college, and our professor teaching a unit on poetry that would eventually end with us writing a poem for an assignment. In the unit of study, our professor said something along the lines of, “Many people think poetry is strictly a bunch of abstract feelings, but the most powerful poems use more concrete items in order to define the abstract.” This has to be the best bit of advice I’ve gotten on writing poetry. Let me give you an example of what is meant by this lesson.
My absolute favorite poem is “The Cold Within” by James Patrick Kinney. You can read it here. What makes this poem powerful is not that it’s written strictly about abstract feelings such as bitterness, pride, hatred, resentment, prejudice, etc… Rather, what makes it powerful is that the author uses a dying fire, the dead of winter, 6 people, 6 logs, and an unknown location as a venue to express abstract feelings such as bitterness, pride, hatred, so on and so forth. By using a concrete illustration of something we can experience, see, hear, touch, etc… we can understand the underlying abstract emotions the author is trying to express to us.
Now, hypothetically speaking, if I were to teach this poem to a classroom full of students, one question that would be interesting to ask is, “Is this poem literally about 6 humans stranded in the cold?” If the consensus was ‘yes’ then our attention would more likely than not shift to asking follow-up questions, such as: Where were the 6 humans located at the time this poem took place? How did they get stranded there? Where did they each get their log? Who, when and how were their bodies found? If the consensus of the class was, ‘no, this poem is not a literal event’, we would strictly read it as a story to illustrate the abstract thoughts I mentioned in the last paragraph would be the focus of our discussion.
Now, why do I explain this? Because the question I want to answer in this blog is: Does it matter whether or not I believe Genesis 1 is a literal event or not? So let’s take a look…
The interesting thing about what we call the Creation Story is that it really isn’t a story, it’s a Hebrew Poem. Therefore, I do not believe The Creation Poem is meant to be taken literal, rather, I believe Moses was taking something extremely abstract and assigning something very concrete to it so we could somewhat grasp the ungraspable. How better could one explain how powerful God is? How better could one explain the creativity of God? How better could one explain the ultimate Deity? How better to explain… something so beyond human understanding?
And what better way to give hope to a group of people who live in a world full of pain, full of hurt, of devastation, of turmoil, of sin, etc… It would serve as a marvelous reminder that God is greater than this world! He is more powerful than anything down here! No matter how hopeless things look, it’s not hopeless. He’s greater than humanity, greater than the world, greater than all!
We can also read this poem as being literal, although more likely than not, our focus is going to shift from God’s Being and character to the physical capabilities of God creating the world instead. We would likely start asking follow-up questions such as: Was it a literal 24 hour day or did it take years? How is it possible that there was light and dark before there was a sun or a moon was created? Did Satan fall in between the 1st and 2nd verse of Genesis 1 and that’s why the world was formless? Because of these types of questions, I hesitate a bit when it comes to reading Genesis 1 as literal. Too often this can spark debates against Evolution, and once that takes place, we’ve lost the beauty of the poem because we are out to prove something rather than stand in awe of Someone.
We often give the authorship of The Creation Poem to Moses. We also know that one very common and powerful way to pass on information in Biblical times was through storytelling. So, this is how I picture The Creation Poem when I read it at the beginning of The Bible.
I picture the Israelites while wandering in the dessert and one evening after they had finished up their supper of manna, a small group of them sat together around a campfire under the starry, dark, sky. I picture Moses being the grandfather figure of the group. I picture the children begging Moses, “Tell us a story! Tell us a story!” I picture Moses starting a very dramatic discourse, “In the beginning… God created the heavens and the earth.” I picture the children’s eyes getting big as they imagine a Being that big. I picture them asking questions like, “How big is God? Is He bigger than the sky?” or, “How Mighty is God? Does He have big muscles?”
I imagine the children being amazed when Moses said, “God spoke, ‘Let there be light’ and there was!” Who could possibly just speak something into existence? That’s amazing!
As Moses described God creating the waters, the sky, the sun, the land, the animals, etc… I see the children asking, “If God never saw a tree then how did He know what it looked like?” or “How did He know how to put it together?” And when Moses says we were made in God’s image, I picture them asking, “What is God’s image?”
I picture that as the children went to sleep that night, they had one profound understanding of a God that was creative, that was Almighty, that interacted with His creation, Who was able to do the impossible by just speaking things into existence, that He was so big He is beyond human imagination, and a God that is powerful enough to get them out of any mess in life.
And just stop and think for a moment, this is how our Bible begins! Before the creation of Adam and Eve, before the Fall of humanity, before Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, before Ruth and Esther, before David, before the Law and the Prophets, before Jesus is born on earth, before Paul, before John on Patmos; God’s character and Being is identified as being something beyond anything our little minds can comprehend, and so therefore, we can trust Him with our lives.
Now, that is one powerful image of God!