The Genre, Historical Context, and Purpose of Genesis 1-11

***I am starting to develop what will hopefully eventually become some webinar courses later this fall. I want to offer inexpensive “courses” on various books of the Bible that will help anyone who hasn’t gone to graduate school for Biblical Studies, and who finds so much of the Bible rather daunting or hard to truly understand, to be able to really sink their teeth into the Bible and get a more comprehensive grasp of various Biblical books. One course, quite obviously, will be on Genesis 1-11. So in this post, I want to share some thoughts I am going to address in that particular course in regard to how to understand Genesis 1-11 as a whole. Enjoy. And by all means, if there is a specific book in the Bible you’d like me to cover, let me know.

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Genesis: O Where to Begin?
The book of Genesis is about beginnings: the beginning of creation, of humanity, and of civilization itself. Now, many of us in the modern western world simply assume the “beginning” the writer had in mind was the beginning of the material universe, and that Genesis 1 is giving us a scientific account of exactly how God did it. Therefore, many of us tend to read it according to the assumptions and parameters of the creation/evolution debate: Is Genesis 1 literal history? Is it scientifically accurate?

With that assumption, people tend to go in one of two directions: either they conclude that “modern science is right” about the origins of the universe, and the “Bible is wrong,” and they end up discounting the truthfulness of the Bible as a whole; or they insist that the “Bible is right” about the origins of the universe, and modern science is an atheistic tool to tear down our Christian culture.

The Third Way: Consider the Context
Let me suggest that neither direction is the way to go. The problem with both of those views is that they both assume that when God inspired Genesis 1-11 back then and there, that He was really addressing the questions that we in the modern world have right here and now. Neither view takes the time to step back and say, “Wait, Genesis 1-11 was originally addressed to people in ancient Israel, living in the ancient Near East (ANE)—how would they have understood it? What was it saying to them?” 

And the fact is, the ancient Israelites were not modern people living in our scientific age. They were living in the ancient world, surrounded by pagan cultures, and were concerned with a whole different set of questions and issues than we are concerned with today. Simply put, if you were an ancient Israelite, and you heard or read Genesis 1, you would NOT be thinking, “Wow, this totally refutes Darwinism!” And the reason why you would not be thinking that is because that is a modern debate, and you are living in the ancient world, and Genesis 1 is addressed to you, and it isn’t addressing modern scientific questions that you would have no idea about.

So we need to realize that the key to understanding Genesis 1, Genesis 1-11, or anything in the Bible for that matter, is to try to read it from the perspective of the original audience. We need to ask, “What did this mean to them? We need to “get in the sandals” of the people of ancient Israel and read the Bible from their point of view. For what God inspired, He first and foremost inspired to reveal something to them in their own culture and situation. Once we do that, we will then be in a better position to truly translate and apply what God revealed back then and there to our lives here and now.

The Genre of Genesis 1-11
The book of Genesis essentially comes in two parts: Genesis 1-11 (known as the primordial history) and Genesis 12-50 (the stories of the Patriarchs: Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph). Now even though all of it is pretty much narrative, the fact is Genesis 1-11 is considerably different than Genesis 12-50. Once we get to Abraham in Genesis 12, we find clear and recognizable names of cities, lands, geographical landmarks, and things like that. But we don’t have those things in Genesis 1-11. There is nothing you can pin down geographically or historically. Furthermore, there are numerous things in Genesis 1-11 that sound quite similar to stuff we find in other ancient Near Eastern stories that no one considers to be history.

Given that, the natural question becomes, “Well, what kind of writing is Genesis 1-11? What is its genre?” That’s really important to get straight, because understanding the literary genre of any writing or text will determine how you read it. And if you get the genre wrong, you will probably misinterpret it.

Now, I do not believe Genesis 1-11 was intended to be understood as a scientific or historical account. I think it needs to be understood as mythological literature. Now I realize that when I say that, danger signs and red flags start appearing in your head. Believe me, when I hear other people call Genesis 1-11 a “myth,” red flags appear for me too, because I don’t know what they mean when they say that. So, allow me to take a minute to explain what I mean by that.

The obvious problem with using the term, “myth,” is that some people immediately think I am saying Genesis 1-11 “is not true” or “is a fairytale.” But properly understood, “myth” is nothing more than a particular genre of literature, just like poetry, parables, and histories are distinct genres of literature. And in the ancient world, when people talked about their gods and their views regarding ultimate purpose and meaning, they didn’t write histories; they used the genre of writing that we now label as “myth.”

Case in point, the Epic of Gilgamesh contains a flood story that is really similar to the Noah story in Genesis 6-9. Therefore, since everyone labels Gilgamesh as an ancient Near Eastern myth, and since the Noah story is a lot like that, I believe it is proper to say that the Noah story fits into the same genre as Gilgamesh. Yet, I would say that Gilgamesh is not true and the Noah’s story is true—not because Gilgamesh got its facts wrong and the Noah story got them right, but because what it was teaching about the gods and mankind was wrong.

The Purpose of Genesis 1-11
And that brings us to the purpose of Genesis 1-11. Although it is of the same genre, Genesis 1-11 is very different in a number of ways than ANE mythological literature. And for that reason, it is perhaps too simplistic to just say that Genesis 1-11 is “mythological literature.” For although it comes in the literary packaging of ANE myth, Genesis 1-11 ends up blowing apart the pagan worldview of the ANE. To the point, if you were an Israelite living in the ANE, familiar with the ANE myths, and then you were presented with the early chapters of Genesis, you wouldn’t be thinking, “Gee, I wonder if it was a literal six days or not? How long ago was that?” You would be struck by how different Genesis 1-11 was. You would see that it was subverting everything the ANE world believed about the gods, creation, and mankind.

You see, ANE myths were decidedly non-historical; they were about the realms of the gods who existed outside of history. In the ancient world, there really was no such thing as “history writing,” because human beings were not seen worthy enough to tell of their history. You simply had myths about the gods and the recorded annals of kings—but the concept of writing “history” about normal people like nomads, shepherds, prostitutes, and slaves was just nonexistent. At most, the ANE myths were told to solidify and justify the rule of an empire or ruler, who just wanted to maintain their power and continue to oppress the majority of what they deemed to be worthless humanity.

But what we see happening in Genesis 1-11 is something different: it starts by looking a lot like other ANE mythological literature, in that it uses that literary genre. But it ends up subverting the ANE worldview and revealing a radically different vision of God, creation, and mankind. Part of that radically different vision is the teaching that mankind is made in God’s image, and therefore has inherent dignity and worth. And therefore, because human beings have inherent dignity and worth, that means that human history is worth telling.

And so, very subtly, in the course of those eleven chapters, Genesis 1-11 takes the reader from that world of myth, and proceeds to “set the stage,” so to speak, for something that had never been done before: the telling of human history. Beginning in Genesis 12, we are ushered into that human history, namely the life of Abraham and his descendants, and from that point on, the Bible bears witness to the fact that the one Creator God has entered into a covenant with humanity within history. That history is played out on the stage that Genesis 1-11 has constructed regarding the nature of God, creation, and humanity itself.

But we must realize that the stage is not the same thing as the play. And we must remember that in order to get to the writing of history, there has to be some sort of segway or bridge from the writing of myth to the writing of history. I believe Genesis 1-11 serves that very purpose.

The Importance of Reading Genesis 1-11 in its ANE Context
Having said that, it should be obvious that I think that the way Genesis 1-11 is often used within the current “creation/evolution debate” is misguided. The fact is, the ancient Israelites were not modern 21st century Americans. They were not wrestling with the modern scientific questions we wrestle with today. They were an ancient people, living in a completely different culture, asking completely different questions about life than we tend to do today. They were living in the ancient Near East, and the ancient Near East was a thoroughly pagan and polytheistic culture.

The people at that time were taught there were many gods, and that those gods were petty, violent, and dangerous. They were taught that they themselves were insignificant, slavish peons who were at the mercy of those violent and petty gods. They were told that you had better offer your sacrifices and pay homage to those gods, not because they were “good” or “loving,” but because if you didn’t, the gods could strike down your insignificant life in a flash. That was the kind of culture that the ancient Israelites were a part of, so we need to be sure we interpret Genesis 1-11 in light of that reality.

Now, the authorship of the Torah (Genesis-Deuteronomy) is traditionally ascribed to Moses. That means the time period we have to consider when reading, not only the Torah, but Genesis 1-11 specifically, is that of the Exodus. Since the ancient Hebrews lived in the pagan world of the ancient Near East, and since they had lived in pagan Egypt for the previous 400 years, it is pretty safe to assume that they were deeply influenced by those cultures.

In fact, in light of what happens with their worship of the golden calf at Mount Sinai, so shortly after their leaving of Egypt, I think it is safe to assume that for all practical purposes, the ancient Hebrews were effectively pagans themselves. They might have had some memory of the God of Abraham, but they clearly had no qualms about crafting images and idols and bowing down to them, not only at Mount Sinai, but throughout the history of ancient Israel.

Therefore, in light of all that, put yourself in the sandals of the ancient Israelites. Upon reading Genesis 1-11 for the first time, what would strike you as important? How would you have read and interpreted Genesis 1-11? If you read it with what I’ve just said in mind, I think you will see that, beginning with Genesis 1, God comes out with guns blazing, ready to blow holes in the pagan worldview of the ancient Near East, and then establish a truly biblical worldview that establishes the most fundamental teachings and themes that run throughout the entire Old and New Testaments.

6 Comments

  1. Do you think it would change the interpretation much if the Torah is an Exilic or even post-Exilic document, as Enns believes? Or at the very least, does it change things if the version we have today is an Exilic reinterpretation of documents that only possibly have their origin with Moses?

    1. Well, I tend to think that Genesis 1-11 very well could have been written in the Babylonian Exile, and then added as a “prologue” to the Torah.

      But whether or not it is pre-exilic or exilix, I dont really think that would change the meaning of Genesis 1-11. Abraham, after all, came from Mesopotamia. The creation story, flood story, and Babel story all clearly have connections to Babylon and their literature, and would be able to speak to the overall ANE worldview that pervaded the region in some form or another.

  2. The picture of Genesis 1-11 providing a bridge from myth to history is pretty compelling. Having said that, do you think that there is any truth being taught about pre-human creation, particularly in Genesis 1? Certainly not physical history, but do you think it is revealing any spiritual truths? Seems like it could be using existing ANE motifs to teach about the origin of evil, the existence of other spiritual beings, etc.

    1. Well, I think what is being taught is essentially a unique “worldview perspective.” Namely, that there is one God, not many; that creation has purpose and is good and orderly; and that mankind, being made in God’s image, has inherent dignity and worth. And I think, in terms of Genesis 3, what it is teaching about evil isn’t so much the “origin” of evil, as it is the reality that evil exists and human beings sin. I also think it certainly implies that any other spiritual beings out there are subservient to the one true Creator God.

      1. Of course it has spiritual truths. Everything in the holy scriptures has an inner meaning and there are 4 levels of interpretation according to our Holy Fathers. Read about saint Maximus the Confessor’s sayings about 6th, 7th and 8th Day. They are all written in Philocalia.

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