At the Beginning of Our Beginning – Genesis 1
Whenever I teach poetry, I tell about reading the Bible in German for the first time. A friend had given me Martin Luther’s 1534 translation in a practical paperback edition from a German publisher known for their reference works in yellow, unadorned covers. The text itself was equally unadorned, for a Bible: no verse numbers, cross-references, or explanations in the margins. This was the Bible as a work of literature.
I began, as always, at the beginning and soon encountered a short passage in italics, which I assumed meant the words were somehow in question. The modern English translation of Scripture I usually read often indicates in some equally noncommittal way—a little squiggle before the text, a note in tiny letters in an obscure corner of the page—that a passage isn’t as reliable as the rest of the text. The story of the adulterous woman about to be stoned in John’s gospel, for example—which isn’t in the oldest source texts and is thus of questionable authority—is in italics beginning with John 7:53, “Then they all went home,” and ending where Jesus tells the woman, “Go now and leave your life of sin” (8:11 NIV). Having become a believer and Bible-reader after acquiring two graduate degrees in how texts operate, I’ve always been interested in, and not a little alarmed by, such textual problems.
According to the prefatory notes of the Luther Bible, though, the editors used italics merely to indicate passages originally in verse. Some indication of verse was necessary, they felt, because most poetic moves—such as line breaks, word play, and alterations of normal syntax—don’t survive translation. Readers have to be told that the passage they’re looking at was sung, not merely spoken, in the original.
Though my usual Bible sets the passage in from the left margin and breaks it into lines, I had never before read the words as verse, and the experience of doing so for the first time was transformative. It was a little song on the subject of God’s creation of people just like him:
So God created mankind in his own image,
in the image of God he created them;
male and female he created them. (Genesis 1:27)
To start a discussion about how poetry works, I ask my students, “Why would the writer use poetry here and nowhere else in the first chapter of Genesis?”
Eventually we decide that verse is more emphatic and full of feeling than prose, as well as more beautiful and thoughtful and concise—especially when the poetic burst comes, as here, in the midst of a passage in prose. The sudden poetry takes readers by surprise and focuses their attention on something important. Sadly, we lose most of this effect when we read the Bible, as most do, in translation.
In this instance, God has just created everything in the world and proposes to those present at the creation—his Son, the Spirit, and who knows what other inhabitants of heaven—“Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness” (1:26). The Bible’s first poem pretty much repeats this information, adding little to our experience or understanding of it, unless we read it as poetry.
It could be that the writer of Genesis—arguably Moses—is excited by the idea of fellow humans being created in the Creator’s image. That would make sense, since, as I’m always telling beginning writers, “Humans prefer to read about humans.” I’m inclined to believe, though, that the enthusiasm expressed here is, in fact, God’s.
“Look what I have done!” he seems to be saying through his human interpreter. And when, in Genesis 2, we see the delightful details of that creative act—God touching us, breathing into us, setting us down in a special garden made just for us, giving us jobs similar to his own—we can see that something special is going on here.
“You have to see this!” the sung words seem to be exulting, and God’s poetic ecstasy previews what he will soon have to say about this ultimate product of his creative efforts. It’s not just good this time; it’s very good (1:31).
It thrills me to think of God’s enthusiasm for us, so like a mother’s for her newborn baby. For a moment, in the excited outpouring of love that this little poem in Genesis encapsulates, our Father seems as completely unaware as any human parent would be of the future misbehaviors and miseries that will beset this new creation. For a moment, we are, simply, held and admired. God seizes up a handful of dirt, breathes it alive, and is—in that moment, at the beginning of our beginning at least—well pleased with the results.
Patty Kirk is Writer in Residence and Associate Professor of Creative Writing at John Brown University in Siloam Springs, Arkansas. She and her husband Kris live in eastern Oklahoma and have two daughters, Charlotte and Lulu, who are in college. She is the author of five books, most recently The Easy Burden of Pleasing God and The Gospel of Christmas: Reflections for Advent. PattyKirk-Writer.Blogspot.com.