The short answer is: We are guessing. No early manuscripts are formatted. In fact, we are guessing about far more than one might imagine. The autographs (originals) and all early copies didn’t even have spaces between words, much less poetic line breaks. Those manuscripts are just a stream of capital letters with no punctuation or formatting of any kind:
So not only are we guessing when we format Philippians 2:6-11 as verse, we are guessing when we punctuate something as a question instead of a statement. For that matter, we are even guessing where one sentence ends and another begins.
But there are guesses, and then there are guesses. Competence in original language diction clears up practically all questions about breaks between words, and competence in original language grammar clears up almost all questions about sentences, questions, and exclamations. It’s even pretty easy to figure out something grammatically subtle, e.g., when a rhetorical question expects a negative or positive response from the implied reader. At this level, knowing the original language well allows someone to parse an undifferentiated stream of capital letters into intelligible words, phrases, and sentences with a high degree of certainty. Guesses, but highly educated guesses.
Still, as you move up the chain of abstraction from letters, to phonemes, to words, to phrases, to sentences, and especially to paragraphs and sections, the guesses become less and less certain, and the guesser benefits less and still less from competence in the original language. The jump to paragraphs and sections is especially tricky because at that level you are making interpretive decisions that depend very little on the structure of the language itself, and very much on the structure that arises out of what the language is being used to *do* in this particular case. The next leap after that is to a decision about the nature of the work as a whole, and this, as Katie pointed out, is a question of genre—the ultimate guess with the highest stakes for understanding. But what I’m trying to point out in a very verbose way is that questions about genre are actually layered on top of a bunch of other questions. And it’s guessing all the way down.
The more I have come to understand about the many educated guesses that get made along the way, the more I have come to appreciate that my ability to read the Bible is dependent upon, and places me in relationship with, and puts me in debt to many generations of scribes, copyists, translators, and interpreters. Even when we read alone, we never really read alone.
Now for the second and much more difficult issue:
I would never have thought of the creation story as a poem. I love it! But I would not have recognized it. -- JD
This is just an immensely interesting and complicated question.
Poetry can mean a lot of things. I’m guessing that you are asking how we know that Genesis 1 is a poem in the structural sense. But when I say that Genesis 1 is poetry, I don’t (in the first place) mean anything that has to do with rhyme or meter, or even verse structure. There is some of that in there--especially the structure part--but that is not the most important sense in which it should be called poetic. Primarily, it is poetic in the sense that it uses language in extraordinary ways because it is trying to tell the truth about something that cannot be directly described using ordinary language in an ordinary way.
I have written a book about the sense in which the Bible as a whole should be read as a kind of poetic testimony. By this I mean that the Bible is concerned with truth, and even “literal” truth (if by “literal” you mean “real,” as most people do), but the most important truths are very hard to tell, and impossible to tell straight. When it comes to such things, one must, as Emily Dickinson insisted, “tell it slant.” Partly, this is because when you try to tell it straight you always end up saying way too much and way too little at the same time. (There is, you see, no non-poetic way to describe the problem with using non-poetic language to talk about God). So, the meta-genre of the Bible is poetic testimony, and this is because the Bible is concerned with the hardest kind of truth to tell. It uses the best and most precise tools available given the difficulty of the task. There is nothing we have learned in a scientific age that makes these ultimate truths more accessible to us, or easier to talk about. There is nothing we know in our modern sophistication that obsoletes the Bible’s poetic way of talking about these truths. In sum: the Bible is an attempt to tell the big truths about life, the universe, and everything; it uses poetry to do that; it is poetic testimony.
This larger question about poetry as the meta-genre of the Bible is interlaced in complicated ways with other uses of the word poetry that relate to the first question, above. In grade school they teach you that poems rhyme. Later you find out they don’t have to. And then at some point you start to realize that poetry is simply every use of language that breaks free from the tyranny of brute materialism and tries to get at the “something more” that ripples beneath the surface of the apparent. In terms of formal literary structure, poetry can mean verse, but poetic uses of language tend to show up most pervasively and powerfully in various forms of story. (Stories are, at root, metaphors that go on and on—all the while opening up beautiful, terrible, and astounding connections between our lives and the characters and events being narrated.)
Even in the case of a story like Genesis 1, there are multiple kinds of “poetry” involved. There is some actual verse in there, and there is a structure born of repetition, which is the most basic poetic devise. But/And in the large sense the entire chapter should be read as a theological story/poem with God as the protagonist, rather than a straightforward descriptive account of past happenings. This is not as hard to recognize as you might think. If it is hard to see, this may have something to do with assumptions about the Bible that have been beat into you from an early age. (I have some experience with this too!) Sometimes the best way to break the spell and get at the obvious poetic quality of the language in scripture is to juxtapose the poetic language of the biblical text with language from another genre that tries for scientific precision. Try this:
In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters. In the afternoon the wind from God was light and variable, 10-15 miles per hour, out of the southwest. Then God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light. And God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness. God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day.
I expect you felt a little disoriented when you hit the genre shift. That disorientation was not just about encountering words that don’t belong. It was about encountering a *use* of language that is out of place. The problem with non-poetic readings of Genesis 1 is that they pretend that the language is being used like that weather report, i.e., as a precise and dispassionate report of past happenings.
This is getting long, so let’s turn to some details about the passage and see how both senses of the word “poetry” are in play here.
The most obvious clue to the poetic structure of Genesis 1 is the repetition of the phrase: “And there was evening and there was morning, the x day.” Note that these “days” are not being reported in the normal, descriptive way. How infuriating these accounts would be for that meteorologist who tried to slip that line into the prologue above! Why waste ink telling us these days had evenings and mornings? Maybe it would be helpful to know the time of the sunrise and sunset in the location where the purported events happened. But that is simply not the kind of talk we get. Rather, we get, after a highly stylized and infuriatingly vague report about extraordinary happenings, a reminder that this day, like all days, had an evening, and a morning, and that this day finds its significance by being numbered among a sequence of six days in which God made exactly everything.
This is simply not a literal, descriptive use of language. One can very quickly begin to sound like a fool for pointing this stuff out, but there it is. We get three evenings and mornings before we even get a sun! But setting all that aside, we know already that days have mornings and evenings and don’t need to be told it, especially not in reverse order (i.e., “evening and morning”), and, weirdly, *after* all the events of the day have been reported. Perhaps these words function here in some way other than the literal? Yes. Books have been written about how they function, but the function is, broadly speaking, poetic. The phrasing serves to break this entire “poem” up into lovely, memorable units of meaning. To follow just one implication, this makes the story/poem 1) effective as liturgy, with lines for the leader, and a pleasing refrain that everybody can join; such that 2) the story eventually becomes a set piece that is constitutive of the identity of the people who tell it; such that 3) it may be committed to memory by a precocious child who absorbs it without knowing how; such that 4) it may one day be chanted faintly by an old woman on her death bed, speaking her trust in God even as the light fades from her darkening eyes.
These words are not a precise report about past happenings—they tell the secret of God's relentless and ongoing work for order and meaning against the forces of chaos and nihilism. The truth at stake in these words is so much more weighty than some ridiculous attempt to refute modern geology and evolutionary theory with scriptural “proofs" about six, literal, 24-hour days of creation.
Or, to take another example, look at vv. 26 and 27:
Gen. 1:26 Then God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.”
27 So God created humankind in his image,
in the image of God he created them;
male and female he created them.
Sure, there are clues in the Hebrew that point toward this being composed as verse. But would we really need the versified formatting to know that v. 27 is a little poem? Note that read literally, very little new information is supplied. In the preceding sentence we have learned already that: 1) God made people; and 2) they were made in God’s image. Read woodenly, the only thing being added here is that people come in two genders.
Why not just write:
Gen. 1:26 Then God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.” 27 By the way, humankind consists of two genders: male and female.
I tried to put that in a particularly non-poetic way in order to highlight the problem with this way of reading. The same information is communicated, but a great deal is lost, and the loss relates to the poetic function of the language as we have it in the original. Here I mean poetry in every sense. Broadly, it is poetic testimony to the ultimate truth about human origins. On another level, there is rhyme (specifically, a rhyme of meaning between the first and second line, formally called parallelism). There is reversed syntax that causes the reader to slow down and absorb what is being said in a more deliberative register. And there is repetition of information already given, causing us to ponder it anew. Verse 27 as we have it functions to cap the story of creation with a flourish. The language is heightened poetic language even compared to the poetic feel of the larger context. This is a way of saying that everything has been pointing toward this climactic moment. What matters most about this whole story is that we are made by God, that in some mysterious and profound way God has crafted us most carefully of all creation so as to be like God, and that it is as one humanity consisting of both female and male that we collectively image our Creator.
The fact that the lines are broken up as “poetry” is the least of it. But it is true that the structure of the language itself calls for such formatting. This is clear in the original. It is also pretty clear in translation.
Assistant Professor of Homiletics
Brite Divinity School