God’s Word is inspired by God, but it is also written by men. And in many cases, these men show incredible literary skill in penning God’s Word. One thinks of Psalm 119’s acrostic praise of God’s Word or Jonah’s detailed use of chiastic structures as examples of authors employing literary devices to shape and structure their God-given, God-inspired words.
The same is true in Genesis 3–4. In a section that is often whisk-away as myth or relativized as poetry, we find that the historical details of Cain and Abel are written with incredible attention to literary style (i.e., history in poetic form). The number of words, the narrative parallels between the first family (ch. 4) and the first sin (ch. 3), and the repetition of expression are just a few ways Moses employs poetics structures to stress the main points of this historical narrative.
In a day when bold and italics were not available and space was limited, these structures evidence the main point of his writing. Moreover, they capture the way in which human authorship is “fully human” (i.e., marked by conventions of human speech). Divine inspiration does not cancel out man’s humanity in his writing. Rather, it improves his acuity, frees his will, and empowers his words. This is what Peter means when he says “men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit” (2 Peter 1:21).
Genesis 3–4 as a Test Case
Considering this, we look at Genesis 3–4 as an example of this literary design, where Moses under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit wrote with incredible attention to detail—hence allowing us to interpret with great detail. What follows are some of the observations Gordon Wenham has made to show the lexical and structural detail of Genesis 3–4.
Writing about the literary unit of Genesis 2:4–4:26, Gordon Wenham (Genesis 1–15) observes the specific ways words were counted in Genesis,
The coherence of this block of material is indicated by the opening heading “This is the history of the heaven and the earth” and by the use of numerical symmetry within it. Throughout the Pentateuch, the sevenfold use of divine speech formulae is commonplace (Labuschagne, VT 32  268–96), and with in this chapter is is the number seven is clearly significant (cf. vv 15, 24). Unusually full details about Lamech, the seventh generation from Adam (18–24), may illustrate another convention associated with biblical genealogies, a tendency to draw attention to the seventh generation (Sasson, ZAW 90  171–85). Indeed various keywords In the narrative appear a multiple of seven times. Within 4:1–17, “Abel” and “brother” occur seven times, and “Cain” fourteen times. Within the whole of 2:4–4:26, “earth,” not “land of,” is mentioned seven times, “land” fourteen times, and “God” the LORD” or “The LORD God” some thirty-five times, exactly matching the thirty-five occurences of “God in 1:1–2:3. The last verse of chap. 4, “At that time people began to call on the name of the LORD,” thus contains the seventieth mention of the deity in Genesis and the fourteenth use of the key word “call” (cf. Labuschagne, VT 32  270). (96)
In addition to the lexical details, the fall narrative also shows similarities between Genesis 3 and 4.
Not only is the overall pattern of this story similar to the account of the fall, but many of the scenes are closely parallel. The central scene in each case is a terse description of sin (3:6–8 // 4:8) which contrasts strikingly with the long dialogs before and afterwards. The following scene in each case where God investigates and condemns the sin is remarkably similar: cf. “Where is Abel your brother? // Where are you?” 4:9; 3:9: “What have you done? 4:10; 3:13; “You are cursed from the land,” cf. “You are more cursed than all domesticated animals; The land is cursed because of you” 4:11; 3:14, 17. Also cf. 4:12 with 3:17–19. The marking of Cain (4:15) is clearly analogous with the clothing of Adam and Eve (3:21). Both stories include with the transgressors leaving the presence of God and going to live east of Eden (4:16; cf. 3:24). (99)
The value of highlighting Wenham’s comments about Genesis 3–4 is that it opens our eyes to see the manifold designs of the two authors of Scripture—God and, in this case, Moses. For those who take seriously every jot and tittle of Scripture, this attention to detail in the writer makes it possible to pursue such detail in our interpretation. Indeed, in the New Testament Jesus makes an argument based on a verb tense (Matthew 21:31–32) and Paul on the singular form of a word, rather than the plural (Galatians 3:16). We too should consider carefully the very finest details of Scripture, for they reveal to us the divine intention by means of the literary conventions of the inspired human author.
How Does This Apply?
How might we apply these observations? Let me suggest a couple ways:
- Historically, such literary design reminds us that Moses was schooled in Egypt and was no dummy. Literary devices are not new inventions, and from the beginning of the Bible we see repetition, chiasm, typology, etc. at work.
- Canonically, these lexical and parallel details teach us that the Bible is far more than a rushed journalistic attempt to recount redemption. Just as God imbedded genetic code in every cell, so he imbedded in Scripture grammar and syntax that reveal his purposes.
- Hermeneutically, therefore, we should not despise a close reading of Scripture that makes much of these details. Rather, we should expect that the human author employed such devices to preserve the meaning of his inspired word.
- Theologically, in keeping with our doctrine of verbal, plenary inspiration, we should read every word as divinely inspired and thus designed to communicate truth in unison with the rest of Scripture. That is to say, we should expect authors to write with an awareness of what they’ve already written and what others have written. Thus, a logical conclusion from our doctrine of Scripture is that every piece of Scripture is in someway related to every piece—thus making intra-canonical connections normal and needed when interpreting the Bible.
All in all, Genesis 3–4 shows how truth is revealed in Scripture—through the beautiful confines of literary forms. Often this takes the form of meticulous word counts and parallel storylines. While the modern reader is not trained to read this way and modern readers are often dubious about this close reading of Scripture, students of the Bible learn to read Scripture on its own terms. And thus, by paying attention to Scripture we learn how to become faithful interpreters.
May God grant us eyes to see and ears to hear what the inscripturated Word of God is saying to us.
Soli Deo Gloria, ds