Genesis’ primeval history and historicity

20 Sep

If you want to start a heated debate, just walk into a typical Evangelical church and say that you believe in Darwinian evolution.  That would either start a debate, or just get you thrown out as a heretic.  The topic of evolution for conservative Christians, specifically Evangelicals and fundamentalists, is a huge issue, but why?  You don’t hear too many of these Christians attacking quantum physics as a great attack on their faith.  But that is precisely the issue.  Evolution is perceived as an attack on the Christian faith itself.  Why is that? Well, it’s because of the interpretation of Genesis that is held.  So to Genesis we go…

I remember reading in a textbook in college (by Gordon Wenham) that one of the key questions in interpreting the beginning of Genesis (chapters 1-11, often called the “primeval history” by scholars) is the question of genre.  What genre of literature one believes they are dealing with has massive implications with the resultant interpretation.  An example would be Jesus’ parables.  When someone heard the story of The Good Samaritan, no one thought, ‘I should find this guy and meet him, he seems real nice,’ or when hearing the story of the prodigal son, thought, ‘I wonder where this family lives.’  Because they knew they were dealing with a certain type of story (and then literature when it was written down), namely parables, no one sought to understand or seek after any historicity behind the text, because that simply would be to miss the point.  Even the most confident literalist does not take these stories to be historical in nature.  So as you can see, genre greatly affects what expectations one brings to a text when reading and interpreting it.

So, when seeing how different Christians interpret these Genesis chapters in drastically different ways, it makes far more sense when one understands that they each come to the text with very different ideas about what genre they are dealing with. But unfortunately, what is in reality a debate about which genre to understand the text as being, is understood and talked about by many Evangelicals as a debate between believing the truth of the bible or not believing it.  But before you can get into the question of whether the bible is true, you must ask the question(s) of what the bible is really claiming.  Unfortunately, when some are defending a certain interpretation of the bible (early Genesis, specifically) they do it with all the vigor and ferocity as if they were defending the whole bible, Christianity, or God Himself.  This has often led to some less than charitable approaches and tones in debates on interpretations of Genesis.

So how does one go about understanding what precisely the literary genre of Genesis 1-11 is?  On first glance, it appears to be straightforward history, a simple telling of things that happened in the past.  (Although I may question the idea of history being “straightforward”, because history is always told in particular contexts by particular people with particular views for particular reasons).  However, when one does more reading of other pieces of literature from the time and culture Genesis was written (the Ancient Near East, or ANE) the more Genesis looks and feels at home with them rather than in the modern world.  For example, there were many different flood and creation stories in the ANE, most of them existing before Genesis was written (even with an early date of the composition of Genesis), and they each were telling the story of the flood in different ways with different implicit values (for example the role and purpose of humanity).  There were many different creation stories with many similar elements; Genesis shares some of these elements and differs in others.

Here is an example of the similarity of another flood story, The Epic of Gilgamesh, in which Gilgamesh is told a story by Utnapishtim, who was tipped off that the great gods were going to send a flood because they were angry.  Utnapishtim is told to “take the seed of all living things aboard the ship” and then told the details on how to build his ship.  And then he said, “all my family and kin I made go aboard the ship.  The beasts of the field, the wild creatures of the field.”  The doors are closed and the flood begins, but after six days and six nights, the storm calms.  Then, he opens the hatch, looking across the water,

“there emerged a mountain region.  On Mount Nisir the ship came to a halt.  Mount Nisir held the ship fast, allowing no motion.  One day, a second day, Mount Nisir held the ship fast, allowing no motion…  When the seventh day arrived, I sent forth and set free a dove.  the dove went forth, but came back; since no resting place for it was visible, she turned around.  Then I sent forth and set free a swallow.  the swallow went forth, but came back; since no resting place for it was visible, she turned round.  Then I sent forth and set free a raven.  The raven went forth and seeing that the waters had diminished, he eats, circles, caws, and turns not round.  Then I let out all to the four winds and offered a sacrifice.  I poured out a libation on the top of the mountain… the gods smelled the savor”

Now compare this to Genesis 8:1-22, keeping in mind that the Gilgamesh story is the older one:

But God remembered Noah and all the beasts and all the livestock that were with him in the ark. And God made a wind blow over the earth, and the waters subsided.  The fountains of the deep and the windows of the heavens were closed, the rain from the heavens was restrained, and the waters receded from the earth continually. At the end of 150 days the waters had abated, and in the seventh month, on the seventeenth day of the month, the ark came to rest on the mountains ofArarat. And the waters continued to abate until the tenth month; in the tenth month, on the first day of the month, the tops of the mountains were seen.  At the end of forty days Noah opened the window of the ark that he had made and sent forth a raven. It went to and fro until the waters were dried up from the earth. Then he sent forth a dove from him, to see if the waters had subsided from the face of the ground. But the dove found no place to set her foot, and she returned to him to the ark, for the waters were still on the face of the whole earth. So he put out his hand and took her and brought her into the ark with him. He waited another seven days, and again he sent forth the dove out of the ark. And the dove came back to him in the evening, and behold, in her mouth was a freshly plucked olive leaf. So Noah knew that the waters had subsided from the earth. Then he waited another seven days and sent forth the dove, and she did not return to him anymore.  In the six hundred and first year, in the first month, the first day of the month, the waters were dried from off the earth. And Noah removed the covering of the ark and looked, and behold, the face of the ground was dry. In the second month, on the twenty-seventh day of the month, the earth had dried out. Then God said to Noah, “Go out from the ark, you and your wife, and your sons and your sons’ wives with you. Bring out with you every living thing that is with you of all flesh—birds and animals and every creeping thing that creeps on the earth—that they may swarm on the earth, and be fruitful and multiply on the earth.” So Noah went out, and his sons and his wife and his sons’ wives with him. Every beast, every creeping thing, and every bird, everything that moves on the earth, went out by families from the ark. Then Noah built an altar to the LORD and took some of every clean animal and some of every clean bird and offered burnt offerings on the altar. And when the LORD smelled the pleasing aroma, the LORD said in his heart, “I will never again curse the ground because of man, for the intention of man’s heart is evil from his youth. Neither will I ever again strike down every living creature as I have done.  While the earth remains, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night, shall not cease.” (ESV)

So you have two different stories, with very different ideas about some things (one God or many gods, the reason for the flood, and some of the details), but with some strong similarities, such as a deity sending a flood, a man building a boat to escape the flood, bringing other people and animals inside to escape the flood with him, a wind blowing and the flood subsiding, the boat becoming stuck on a mountain, sending out a bird to see if there is dry land anywhere, eventually a bird not coming back, and then leaving the ark and offering a sacrifice to a god/gods that smelled good to him/them.  Now are these similarities pure coincidence? Probably not.

Another quick example.  In the Enuma Elish story, the world is created when the god Marduk defeats the goddess Tiamat, who is the personification of the primeval ocean.  Marduk kills her and creates the world by splitting her (the waters) in two, with one half of the waters below the land, and one half of the water being above the sky, held back by the sky-firmament (personified as Esharra).  So you have the world created by dividing waters, with some above the sky, and some below/besides the land.  Now look at Genesis 1:6-10, keeping that what is often translated as “firmament” is here in the NRSV, more accurately, translated as “dome”)

And God said, ‘Let there be a dome in the midst of the waters, and let it separate the waters from the waters.’ So God made the dome and separated the waters that were under the dome from the waters that were above the dome. And it was so. God called the dome Sky. And there was evening and there was morning, the second day.  And God said, ‘Let the waters under the sky be gathered together into one place, and let the dry land appear.’ And it was so. God called the dry land Earth, and the waters that were gathered together he called Seas. And God saw that it was good.

This is but one of many, many small, but significant parallels between the literature of the ANE and Genesis.  While Genesis does indeed have a drastically different view of some things (the number of and character of deity/deities, the purpose of humans, whether to to the unwanted work of the gods, or to be fruitful, multiply, and rule the earth on behalf (in the image of) the god), it also seems to be a drastically similar type of literature.  So what does this say to our original question of genre?  Looking at these ANE examples of literature, called mythology or myths (not myth in the sense of something blatantly and deceptively false), they function as ways of explaining the ultimate origins of things and relations of the gods to each other and the purpose of man.  They serve to answer the “big questions” of life.  One of my professors from college, Eric Smith, describes these stories, these myths, as being the ANE’s “speculative philosophy,”  meaning these stories are told as a way of answering these questions and explaining life as we now know it.  Looking at things this way, one can see Genesis’ primeval history as being in the literary genre of ANE myth, and still believing that they are true (even if not entirely historical; for example, I believe there is truth in Jesus’ story of the prodigal son, but it is not historical)

So, if you understand Genesis chapter one as an ANE creation narrative about the ancient Hebrew’s God, told to explain who the real creator is, His relation to His creation and what He created mankind for, then questions of whether this literally happened in precisely this manner around 6-8ooo years ago, become besides the point.  Six days is a literary motif, and the story is told in ancient ways of understanding the world (it’s cosmology, or understanding of how the world is ordered).  It is precisely not told in ways that correspond with modern understanding of the world and science.  So is Genesis claim that the Hebrew’s god, YHWH, is the real creator still true? Absolutely.  Is mankind created by this god to be fruitful, multiply and rule this creation on behalf of Him?  I certainly believe so.  But was the world created by separating some water from other water, sticking a solid sky dome there to keep the upper waters off the earth, and the lower waters gathered into oceans? Well, probably not.  There have been space ships and satellites that have gone past the earths’s atmosphere, and there’s not actually a solid dome up there holding back some water.  Keeping in mind that Genesis was written to explain truths that are still true today, but was written in ANE literary styles and genres, with ANE-type understandings of how the world is ordered, is very helpful.  With this approach, you can read Genesis 3 as a true, if not historical, account of mankind’s falling out with God, explained by a story about a man, a woman, a garden, some trees, and a talking snake, and yet not have any problem with believing the overwhelming scientific evidence that points against a single human couple 6-8000 years ago that served as the ancestors of all of humanity.  When you understand that God speaks in the bible in literary genres and ways that make sense to the people and cultures to whom it was originally written, you don’t feel like you have to defend a literalist, historical, interpretation of Genesis.  You’re free to follow the evidence where it leads, knowing that God is the creator of everything, but the actual creation process may have looked a bit different than the creation story told in Genesis (though we’ll never know for sure).

Question: Do you believe that God can and does accommodate Himself when He communicates (specifically through the Scriptures) to the people He is specifically communicating to, by using their ways of thinking about and communicating things, even if subsequent peoples will discover that those ways of thinking aren’t exactly accurate? (this is what is often called the accommodationist view of Scripture)  Do you believe that you can believe in the “truth” of Genesis without believing in the historicity of all of it?  Are you comfortable with understanding Genesis to be a literary genre other than straightforward history? Please comment.




Some definitions:

History is “the intellectual form in which a civilization renders account to itself of its past” Johann Huizinga

Historiography is writings about history and the study of historical writings, i.e. the study of how civilizations have rendered accounts to themselves about their past, rather than studying whether or not they actually happened. (for example, studying the variety and development of flood narratives in the Ancient Near East, rather than the scientific plausibility of a global flood)

Historicity is the correlation between the claims made in historiographical writings and the actual events themselves in reality.


Readings from the Ancient Near East by Baker Academic, edited by Bill T. Arnold and Bryan E. Beyer

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