The story of Genesis is familiar to the most of the Western World. Creation and the Fall (Gen 1-3), Cain and Abel (Gen 4:1-16), Noah’s Ark (Gen 6-9), the Tower of Babel (Gen 11:1-9), Sodom and Gomorrah (Gen 19), and the Joseph story (Gen 37-50) are all tales heard in Sunday school and/or referenced in movies, theatre and music. Any curious reader of the Bible has also read these passages because naturally, one prefers to start at the beginning of any great story. It also whets the appetite of human interest because we are all curious as to our origins. Religion seeks to answer questions and fills the gaps in our knowledge to such things beyond our own observable universe.
Genesis, first and foremost, is about one thing before it is about anything else: man’s salvation history.* Genesis focuses on 1) introducing the protagonist, God, 2) his creative work of the universe, 3) His favorite work in creating Man, 4) Man’s rejection of God and introduction to the conflict of Sin, and 5) the establishment of Covenant with one family/tribe and how they will assist in the blessing of the nations until order is restored.
These next few blog posts will address the tales in Genesis mentioned above. It will require a month or so to research and write a summary of the topics described and provide a bibliography for further research and reading if you so desire. I can also provide more sources on these subjects as well. On the subject of Genesis as Narrative however, Genesis is a literary work of art. It is both simple in its complexity and complex in its simplicity.
The author (or authors) intricately and intentionally used a variety of literary techniques that go well beyond “children’s stories.” Those that enjoy it in its original Hebrew no doubt pick up on these techniques during a reading of the text. The use of poetry, prose and even genealogy are all skillfully woven together in this work and everything written is plainly intentional.
Critics of the Pentateuch (or Torah, the first five books of the Bible) used to highlight aspects such as repetition used in the Bible as a jumping off point for Source Criticism. They would often condemn the writers and redactors for forgetting that certain words and phrases are mentioned more than once as the redactor compiled and copied the manuscripts. However, we now know that these repetitions (once thought as mistakes) are actually skillful techniques used in a pre-literate, oral society in order to maintain cognitive memory practices in reciting the text to one another.
This is a foreign concept to the Western World because we only imagine something as “publishable” or as “proof” when it is written down. There is no such thing as an oral contract in this day in age. We do not trust people by their spoken word, but instead we have to take further legal means by putting things on paper. The concept of a completely “Oral Bible” make us uncomfortable because we view the world with an extremely conflicting paradigm.
The language of the Bible was written this way because the words are meant to be recited and memorized. This is why you see repetition of a word or phrase, and in Hebrew you see literary tricks like onomatopoeia and alliteration. These techniques were all used intentionally to help the reader or listener to memorize the passage easier. With this knowledge in mind, one can easily imagine shepherds tending to their flocks in the wilderness, camping out under the stars, and reciting these “tales of old” to their families and companions. Tales they heard and memorized from their fathers and grandfathers about how the stars were placed in the heavens, how a man named Joseph went from a shepherd like them to a Vizier ruling over all of Egypt, and how God will one day return to make the world new again, to be a like a beautiful Garden, where they can have their fill of any tree. The stories were memorized and without the interference of modern day distractions we could possibly accomplish these things as well.
The book of Genesis also contains elements of other contemporaneous cultures such as Egypt, Anatolia and Mesopotamia within its language because, naturally, those were the cultures surrounding Ancient Israel in those times. The Joseph story has elements of Egyptian names, cultural references and loan words because the setting of most of the Joseph story takes place in Egypt. If Moses were indeed the writer, being of the Egyptian royal household, then he would be intimate with Egyptian culture and language in order to tell the story correctly.
Now, with all of that said, we can now proceed with our theme of “Genesis Among the Myths.” One may have heard of other creation and flood stories from other cultures such as from Mesopotamia and Egypt. From a surface level reading of these texts, one could compare these myths to the Bible and see some assumed similarities. It was important to establish Genesis as narrative in order to better understand the medium in which the text is written in light of other Ancient Near Eastern literary texts. Next month I will address the passage in Genesis 1 and 2 regarding the Creation account. I will attempt to explain what the author is doing with the text and compare it to some other creation accounts in the Ancient Near East.
[Disclaimer: I will not be dealing with the issue of literal 6-day creation because, unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately), it is not my area of expertise. I am an archaeologist and biblical scholar, that is more within the discipline of astrophysics.]
For further reading in the subject of Genesis as Narrative, please see these books. I highly recommend Robert Alter’s pioneering monograph conveniently entitled The Art of Biblical Narrative. It’s a very readable book and a great introduction to the Bible as a cohesive story.
Alter, Robert. The Art of Biblical Narrative (Basic Books, 1981).
Fokkelman, J. P. Reading Biblical Narrative (Westminster: John Knox Press, 1999).
Long, V. Philips. The Art of Biblical History (Zondervan, 1994).
Sailhamer, John. The Pentateuch as Narrative (Zondervan, 1992).
*Notice I designate the Bible as “man’s salvation history” rather than defining it as history in our postmodern, western mindset. I already discussed this briefly in my first blog post. View it here.