Addendum to Previous Post re. Tim Keller

A couple of friends have contacted me after reading the previous post on this blog.  They point out that Tim Keller sometimes does indeed speak of Genesis 1 as “song” or “poetry” (thanks Daniel and Dominic!).  For example, in The Reason for God (p. 94) Keller writes, “I think Genesis 1 has the earmarks of poetry and is therefore a ‘song’ about the wonder and meaning of God’s creation.”

By contrast, Keller writes the following in “Creation, Evolution, and Christian Laypeople” (p. 4):

So what genre is Genesis 1? Is it prose or poetry? In this case, that is a false choice. Edward J. Young, the conservative Hebrew expert who reads the six-days of Genesis 1 as historical, admits that Genesis 1 is written in ”exalted, semi-poetical language”. On the one hand, it is a narrative that describes a succession of events, using the wayyigtol expression characteristic of prose, and it does not have the key mark of Hebrew poetry, namely parallelism. . . .

On the other hand, as many have noted, Genesis 1’s prose is extremely unusual. It has refrains, repeated statements that continually return as they do in a hymn or song. There are many examples, including the seven-time refrain, “and God saw that it was good” as well as ten repetitions of “God said”, ten of “let there be”, seven repetitions of “and it was so,” as well as others. Obviously, this is not the way someone writes in response to a simple request to tell what happened. In addition, the terms for the sun (“greater light”) and moon (“lesser light”) are highly unusual and poetic, never being used anywhere else in the Bible, and “beast of the field” is a term for animal that is ordinarily confined to poetic discourse.  

He then goes on to agree with Jack Collins that in Genesis 1 “we are dealing with prose narrative.”

How do we make sense of this?  I don’t think that there is much room for development in Keller’s thought because The Reason for God came out in 2008 and the article referenced above appeared in 2009.  Nor do I think Keller is being deceptive.  Rather, the issue appears to be one of context.  In the article we see Tim Keller the former seminary professor seeking to do justice to the complexity of the technical issue in question, while in The Reason for God we have Tim Keller the thoughtful preacher in application mode.  In his judgement the category of “song” is useful for understanding the practical implications of the text.

So, I stand by what I wrote about Keller’s position on the genre of Genesis 1, while recognizing that there are some interpretive complexities here.

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