Quite a few of my students have gone off to seminary after graduation from college, and recently I’ve been hearing how the presence of a syntactical construction known as the “waw [pronounced vav] consecutive” (sometimes called the wayyiqtol) in Genesis 1 proves that the text is historical narrative that must be interpreted literally. This curious notion is now apparently being taught at one or more conservative Reformed seminaries.
As everybody who has studied biblical Hebrew at one time or another knows, the combination of the Hebrew conjunction waw with an imperfect verb is common in Hebrew narrative texts, which often take the form of “and” clauses strung together with the logical or temporal connections between them inferred from the context. Thus it is, as is often noted, a characteristic of Hebrew narrative.
To be sure, the narrative of the days of creation in Genesis 1 contains quite a few of these waw-consecutive constructions (“And God said . . . And God saw. . . And God separated . . . And God called,” etc.). That is to say, it is narrative rather than poetry, and, given the current polarization over evolution, it is not surprising that for some time now literal six-day young-earth creationists have cited this as proof that Genesis 1 is literal historical narrative and not poetry or in any way figurative (e.g., here). What seems to be new, however, is the presence of such arguments in the conservative Reformed academic context.
But the genre identification of Genesis 1 as narrative is, as far as I can tell, uncontested—Genesis 1 is obviously not written in the Hebrew poetic parallelism we are familiar with from the book of Psalms. And just for the record, I’m tired of hearing people carp about how Tim Keller views Genesis 1 as “poetry.” He doesn’t. Rather, he follows Jack Collins’ perfectly reasonable contention that Genesis 1 should be viewed as “exalted prose narrative.”
Simply put, the problem with this waw-consecutive argument for the literal interpretation of Genesis 1 is that it proves too much. Hebrew waw consecutives are found in narrative contexts that are intended to be interpreted literally, and in narrative contexts that manifestly are not to be taken literally. For example, Nathan’s Fable in 2 Samuel 12:1-4 utilizes waw consecutive construction. Jotham’s Fable in Judges 9:8-15 does as well, but such texts are obviously symbolic and illustrative rather than literal records of actual events. The key question at issue in the interpretation of Genesis 1 is not whether the text is narrative, but the referent of the narrative, and the mere presence of waw-consecutives does not settle that. Such questions must be decided on other grounds.
Of course, the proponents of this argument might respond by saying that that their contention regarding literal interpretation only applies to “historical narrative” texts rather than narrative fables, or parables, or historical narratives with evident literary shaping, or whatever, but that is simply to beg the question of what Genesis 1 is all about.
So, let’s not make the unfounded argument that the presence of waw consecutives in Genesis 1 means that the text must be interpreted as a literal, journalistic historical narrative—unless, of course, we also want to say that the story of the rich man and the poor man’s lamb in Nathan’s fable actually happened.
To step back a bit, this episode is yet another example of how scholarship can be driven by cultural conflict rather than by solid exegesis and careful thought. A late teacher of mine by the name of James Barr did a fine job of alerting the theological community to the dangers of lexical nonsense with his magisterial The Semantics of Biblical Language (Oxford UP, 1961), and who can forget his devastating critique of a popular preacher’s conceit in his famous article entitled “Abba Isn’t Daddy”! As a result, many of us are now much more careful about sloppy lexical argumentation. Let’s be just as careful about the alleged implications of syntax.