Conrad Hyers on the Narrative Form of Genesis 1

Chaos (cosmogony)
Chaos (cosmogony) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This is something few people get, or accept. It is also why I don’t buy Young Earth Creationism and yet still maintain a high view of Scripture. The language of Genesis 1 (different in order and style from Genesis 2) cannot be removed out of the ancient context.

A basic mistake through much of the history of interpreting Genesis 1 is the failure to identify the type of literature and linguistic usage it represents. This has often led, in turn, to various attempts at bringing Genesis into harmony with the latest scientific theory or the latest scientific theory into harmony with Genesis. Such efforts might be valuable, and indeed essential, if it could first be demonstrated (rather than assumed) that the Genesis materials belonged to the same class of literature and linguistic usage as modern scientific discourse.

A careful examination of the 6-day account of creation, however, reveals that there is a serious category-mistake involved in these kinds of comparisons. The type of narrative form with which Genesis 1 is presented is not natural history but a cosmogony. It is like other ancient cosmogonies in the sense that its basic structure is that of movement from chaos to cosmos. Its logic, therefore, is not geological or biological but cosmological. On the other hand it is radically unlike other ancient cosmogonies in that it is a monotheistic cosmogony; indeed it is using the cosmogonic form to deny and dismiss all polytheistic cosmogonies and their attendant worship of the gods and goddesses of nature. In both form and content, then, Genesis I reveals that its basic purposes are religious and theological, not scientific or historical.

via The Narrative Form of Genesis 1: Hyers.

This is why any debate on interpretations of Genesis 1 must begin and end with an examination of the passage, including context, language, and canonical parallels.

This originally appeared in the Journal of the American Scientific Affiliation 36.4 (1984) 208-15.

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8 Replies to “Conrad Hyers on the Narrative Form of Genesis 1”

  1. “it is radically unlike other ancient cosmogonies in that it is a monotheistic cosmogony; indeed it is using the cosmogonic form to deny and dismiss all polytheistic cosmogonies and their attendant worship of the gods and goddesses of nature”…
    And that might explain the much later cosmology in “Secret Book of John”, a push back from OT cosmology by some Gentiles/Roman God believers/Pagans with 256 Aeons.

    1. Genesis 1 is, ironically, younger than some of the other polytheistic sections of the Old Testament. What’s more, the NT writers were henotheistic, etc… and yes, i do think there is some pushback when everything started going mono-

  2. Joel,

    “This is the second of two essays on interpreting the creation texts, the first of
    which appeared in the September 1984 issue of the journal.”

    Might you have a link to the first essay referenced above?

  3. I knew Conrad Hyers personally. I interviewed him for my book which features the testimonies of Christians who left fundamentalism (Leaving the Fold). He spoke here at Furman on the theology of Batman and Robin, and also wrote books on the connection between comedy and religion (all the world’s religions), and wrote a book about a school of Zen that resembled the Evangelical born-again-like experience, the book is titled, Once-Born, Twice-Born Zen, a tip of the hat to William James’ distinction between once-born, twice-born Christians in his book, The Varieties of Religious Experience, one of Hyers’ favorites that he read even back in his Bob Jones University days. His book, The Meaning of Creation also played a role, though not the only role, in helping me leave young-earth creationism behind.

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