Lesson 4 of 6
In Progress

Introductory Issues in Genesis

The canonical placement of Genesis

Besides being a book about beginnings, Genesis and its concern about creation constitute a fundamental theological category for every other biblical book. Only in relationship to creation can God’s subsequent actions in and through Israel be properly understood: God’s purposes with Israel and the church are universal in scope. God’s work in redemption serves creation, the entire creation. God’s redemptive work does not occur in a vacuum; it occurs in a context that has been shaped in decisive ways by the life-giving, creative work of God.

Creation stories in the ancient Near East

Creation literature is not unique to Israel. Sumerian, Mesopotamian, Egyptian, and Canaanite creation accounts (or remnants thereof) have been unearthed in the last two centuries. From these findings, it is apparent that Israel participated in a culture with a lively interest in questions regarding creation. While Israel may have drawn on these accounts directly, scholars now more commonly speak of a fund of images common to the ancient Near East with more indirect influence on Israel’s reflections. Parallels include the primordial waters; the divine rest; creation as separation; images of the creator as potter, farmer, and speaker of the word; and the textual sequence in Genesis 1-9.

Flood stories in the ancient Near East 

Numerous versions of the flood story circulated in the ancient Near East. The most widely known today occurs as part of the Mesopotamian Gilgamesh Epic. An older, but less complete, version may be found in the Atrahasis Epic. The similarities of the latter with the basic creation-flood structure of Genesis are particularly striking: they include early disruption of humankind, including the long-lived patriarchs; the gods sending a flood to stop the human disruption; and the saving of a hero. At the same time, questions of dependence of the Genesis story on these accounts remain unresolved, though the biblical account is far more like the Mesopotamian accounts than any other known flood accounts.

Floods in the ancient Near East 

The stories are set in the Tigris-Euphrates River valley (in modern Iraq), which was periodically flooded in ancient times. No known archaeological remains provide evidence for a worldwide flood, but those who experienced such floods may have interpreted them as floods that covered the then-known world (as the biblical accounts do). No dating of the biblical flood is possible, though there was a major flood in that world around 3000 B.C.E. No credence should be given to the occasional rumors regarding the discovery of Noah’s ark.

Genesis 1-11 and modern science 

These chapters are prescientific in the sense that they predate modern science, but not in the sense of having no interest in those types of questions. The texts indicate a genuine interest in questions of the “how” of creation (for example, God’s use of the earth and the waters in mediating creation; 1:11, 20, 24), and not just questions of “who” and “why.” The authors recognize that the truth about creation is not generated simply by theological reflection; various fields of inquiry are needed in order to speak the full truth about the world. Not everything in these chapters can be made congruent with modern knowledge about the world (for example, the age of the earth; the source of light). At the same time, the texts remain an important paradigm of the way in which to integrate theological and scientific realities in a common search for the truth about the world.

Genesis and history

Most scholars understand that, from a historical perspective, Genesis is a very mixed set of materials. The texts are placed basically in a chronological order (before 1500 B.C.E. or so) and they are presented as moving steadily toward the time of captivity in the land of Egypt (at the beginning of the book of Exodus). Moreover, the stories in Genesis are remarkably free of pretense, describing the Israelite ancestors in terms that are often quite unattractive (think of Jacob). This suggests honesty on Israel’s part in its appraisal of its own past history. At the same time, Israelite authors and editors no doubt used their imaginations freely in the telling and retelling process (for example, in constructing the words of a private conversation). Whatever the results of historical research, however, it is important to understand that, not unlike parabolic literature, the truth of the material is not necessarily tied to its historicity.

Genesis and its readers 

Texts are not autonomous, independent of those who read them, nor can they communicate without a reader. So, to at least some degree, meaning is not found simply in the mind of the author nor is it inherent in the text. The meaning of the text is the result of the conversation between the text and its readers. As a result, no single meaning is available in any text; indeed, meaning changes over time, even for the same reader, because readers change (the meaning an interpreter sees in, say, Genesis 1-2 is somewhat different from what she or he saw a generation ago, not least because the interpreter has changed over the years). Meanings of texts, then, will always be open-ended to some degree; they are not fixed and stable. At the same time, while the texts can mean many things, they cannot mean anything. Constraints on meaning possibilities exist, including the text itself, historical background information, and the many and diverse communities within which readers and texts reside.

Genesis and the theological task 

The book of Genesis is filled with theological reflection, that is, reflections about God and the divine-human relationship. The word “theology” for what the Bible contains has been suspect in scholarly circles, not least because that word is thought to introduce subjective factors into an “objective” or “descriptive” enterprise. But it has increasingly been evident that every reader of the text, from whatever angle, introduces subjective factors into biblical study, whether admitted or not. At best, one might strive for a relatively objective approach. Theological analysis is not innately any more subjective than historical or literary study. In view of such analysis, most scholars recognize that it is no longer appropriate to distinguish between what the text meant and what the text means. All questions asked of the text are contemporary questions, and all results of our work are, finally, constructive.

Genesis as literature 

Genesis is literature, and hence needs to be studied as a literary work among other literary works. Basic to such a study of the book is seeing how the text itself “works”: How do its various literary and rhetorical features function in the present literary whole? Special attention needs to be given to such matters as language and style, surface and deep structures of the text, rhetorical devices, literary genres, and narratological features such as repetition, irony, plot, depiction of characters, and especially point of view. An instance of the latter may be seen in Genesis 18:1-2, where the narrator speaks of the appearance of the Lord, while Abraham sees three men.

Genesis genealogies

Israel was concerned about kinship interrelationships and tracking family origins and “pedigrees,” especially for important figures. Major portions of seven chapters of Genesis consist of genealogies. There are ten so-called Priestly genealogies in Genesis (2:4; 5:1; 6:9; 10:1; 11:10; 11:27; 25:12; 25:19; 36:1, 9; 37:2) and they provide one basic structure for the book. They are supplemented by a few others (for example, Cain, 4:17-26). The historical value of these genealogies is much debated, but the Genesis authors/editors probably understood them as providing some sort of historical anchor for the larger story. These genealogies demonstrate that Israel was thought to be kin to all of the surrounding peoples, linking all into one creational family.

Genesis narratives 

Little consensus has emerged regarding the proper label for the narratives. It is reasonably clear that they are not historical narrative in any modern sense, though they do possess features associated with history writing (for example, a chronological framework set in the ancient past). The designation “story” (or story of the past) is perhaps most helpful in determining how these materials functioned for ancient readers. “Theological narrative” may also be a suitable designation, given the extent to which God is a character who is active in the lives of people and the world throughout.

Sources for the book of Genesis 

In addition to ancient Near Eastern sources, for several hundred years it has been common to view the book of Genesis (as well as other books in the Pentateuch) in terms of differing sources (for example, the Yahwist, the Elohist, the Priestly Writer, the Deuteronomist). The confidence with which scholars speak of the details of these sources has faded considerably over recent years. Yet, the book of Genesis is commonly referred to as a composite document, consisting of sources that span centuries, having been edited in several major ways over much of Israel’s history. Genesis probably received its present form sometime during or shortly after the Babylonian exile (587-538 B.C.E.).

Type of literature

There are basically two types of literature (genres) in Genesis, namely, narrative and genealogy; some poetic pieces are present throughout (for example, Genesis 49). The identification of the type of literature being studied is very important for interpreting the texts in appropriate ways. A key question to ask of every text is: What kind of literature am I reading now?

Understandings of sin in the ancient Near East 

Extensive parallels exist in the ancient Near East to the understanding of sin (if not the specific “fall” story) that is evident in Genesis. A universal and pervasive understanding of human sin can be discerned in several ancient Near Eastern texts, a number of them from prebiblical times. One example from an invocation to the Babylonian goddess Ishtar may illustrate the point: “Forgive my sin, my iniquity, my shameful deeds, and my offence….Loosen my fetters; secure my deliverance….Let my prayers and my supplications come to thee. Let thy great mercy be upon me. Let those who see me in the street magnify thy name…” (James B. Pritchard, ed., “Prayer of Lamentation to Ishtar,” in Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament, 3d ed. with supplement [Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1969] 385). Such research makes clear that Israel drew on such understandings for its own theological reflections regarding sin. We are the inheritors of a rich theology of sin from the prebiblical world, though this is seldom acknowledged.