Are the early Genesis stories historical accounts?

Before I “took the road less traveled by” into historical linguistics, I was highly interested in ancient history, especially as it related to the Old Testament. I wanted to learn Sumerian, Egyptian, Akkadian, Ugaritic, and of course Hebrew so that I could study the Ancient Near East (ANE) and how it related to the Bible. The more I read on my own, the more I realized that such studies did not confirm the Bible as a purely divine record of history. ANE archaeology and history demonstrate the ANE heritage of the Bible; but once we acknowledge the ANE context of the Bible, we should not expect to see those aspects which differ from 21st century Western ideals to be omitted from it and should likewise not expect to see our modern ideals in place. Sadly, it is difficult for readers of literature to approach any text fully aware of the ideals, mindsets, and motivations of the authors even when contemporaneous with them, much less when separated by changes to culture, social context, and language wrought by millennia of intervening time; the unconsciously anachronistic depositing of ideas and concepts foreign to the author and original audience are also hard to identify and purge from our readings.

Readers of this blog should know that I believe the Bible is no less subject to anachronistic misinterpretation than other literary works, and I would point out to those who disagree that there are myriad cases in which they themselves make provision for this problem – any time they insist on doing anything beyond a surface reading that doesn’t take into account the history and culture of the people involved with the writing of the Bible. Educated evangelicals in particular have a tendency to eat up any book they can get their hands on that purports to show the Bible in its original context, provided the conclusion is “conservative” and is treated as upholding the historicity of the Bible. I myself tend to do this even today, and with some just cause: zealous secularist debunkers approach the text looking for erroneous information they suppose invalidates the message of Scripture. For most evangelicals, an appeal to historical/cultural contextualization is especially lauded when it is used to clear up apparent challenges to scientific inerrancy. Take for example Edwin Thiele’s observation of Judah and Israel’s alternating usage of accession and non-accession year dating in recording regnal lengths in First and Second Kings, a situation somewhat perplexing to anyone advocating the “plain reading” approach. This has caused some conservatives (especially fundamentalists) to attack Thiele’s explanation as an end-run around God’s intention to provide us all truth provided we use a plain, literalist hermeneutic (witness one such person reviewing Thiele’s book, Mysterious Numbers of the Hebrew Kings, on Amazon).

The “plain literalist” hermeneutic is useful for upholding the current ideals of historiography in the Old Testament narratives. The problem is that this is a dreadfully anachronistic endeavor: the modern genre of historiography was not developed before a Greek movement that took place centuries after the supposed origin of the stories, and even then it took quite a while for those ideals to saturate Greek historiography and then the rest of the world through Hellenism. It’s not that those before the turn of the first millennium A.D. were incapable or too ignorant to write history the way we expect it in our post-Enlightenment world. It’s just that they had different ideals for what they wanted from a story. Cold, dispassionate, scientific history without any foreseeable application failed to supply the meaning or entertainment they demanded from their stories. They wanted colorful stories that gave them meaning, not history for history’s sake. Modernists, however, tend to believe that an exact recounting of history is the highest or most important use of narrative. As I wrote elsewhere, “The difference between the ancient and the modern motivations for and method of speculation about unknowns is that the ancients used mythological stories in order to apply meaning to the subject of their speculation and we tend to use scientific enquiry to sever meaning from the subject, and are thus generally skeptical that any meaning can or should be applied. The ancients were content to be ignorant of the mechanics of how, as long as they knew why. Modernists feel satisfied to have discovered the natural causes, the how’s, and seem convinced that this abolishes meaning.”

But the use of mythology to convey meaning is not something that disappeared without a trace with the onset of the Age of Reason. Gordon Glover likes to point out that the American tall tales about such figures as Paul Bunyan and Pecos Bill are not intended to explain topographical features such as the Grand Canyon, but they do acknowledge the existence of those features as integral aspects of the frontier and use fantastic stories about their creation as entertaining vehicles of meaning to illustrate character virtues such as strength and courage which have now successfully been associated with the frontiersmen who tamed the wilderness.

Would it be so scandalous if the Israelites, like all their neighbors, had little use for a cold recounting of geological, astronomical, and biological history, preferring stories chock-full of meaning? What would be wrong if God saw it fit to communicate the truths most relevant and significant to them in the way most familiar to them? The self-centeredness of the objection that this genre isn’t as relevant to us is readily apparent and needs no comment here.

ANE scholarship has long pointed out the similarities between the early Genesis stories and the myths of the ANE, from the obvious Utnapishtim/Noah parallel to shades of Enki and Ninhursag in the Garden narratives. Nevertheless, literalists have a few preferred methods of explaining these parallels away. First, they will deny any similarity of style between the Genesis narratives and the ANE myths. Other times they will insist that the similarities are merely chance or so general and vague that they are hardly significant. Lastly, when the parallels are undeniable, they break out their ace in the hole: they claim that Genesis is the original, historical basis for the ANE stories, regardless of the fact that the latter predate Genesis by as much as a millennium.

I want to share a few of my thoughts on these literalist responses.

Let’s consider the claim that Genesis is “obviously” an historical narrative. The biggest problem is that, since the genre of mythology has become unproductive in our culture, our default is to assume a literal, historiographic reading of narratives unless a particular narrative explicitly declares itself to be non-history, someone has told us that it is non-history, and/or there are cues implicit in the text, e.g. formulas such as “Once upon a time…”

Now, obviously, the text of Genesis doesn’t say that it’s not history, but mythology and most other types of non-historical narrative never do. The cues for mythology are subtle and often wholly disguised to modern readers, especially given the nature of the Bible: fantastic occurrences and descriptions of supernatural events are commonplace even in the historiographic portions of Scripture (talking snakes are no more miraculous than resurrections), so we don’t automatically assume that the Genesis mythology is non-history on that basis. And if we’re waiting for someone to tell us that early Genesis is mythological – well, our most respected Christian leaders insist that the Genesis narratives are history and, in fact, that those who deny this are theological liberals, which is immediate grounds for dismissing anything else said. Unfortunately, many who read what I’m writing now will do just that.

There is also the important issue of the ambiguity of generic classification. Tell someone that Genesis 1-11 is mythology and they’ll often come back, “Why stop there?” It’s an understandable question: unless we are able to identify genre, we will not know where to demarcate distinctions in genre and will often consequently subsume works from multiple genres under one we understand better – in our case, history. Classifying genre is not a no-brainer, but there are real literary indicators, and there is no excuse for pretending they don’t exist, ignoring them, or indiscriminately charging those who do recognize them with attempting to compromise the authority of the Bible. The patriarchal stories, while by no means modern historiography, are definitely removed from mythology in intent, structure, and source: that’s why Genesis 1-11 is usually called aside and given the extremely imprecise label “mythology”. The narratives in Genesis 2-4 are the most clearly adapted from mythology, but even they have not been left in pure mythological form such as we find in the Akkadian or Sumerian stories: the editor (traditionally Moses) has systematically revised the material to emphasize and characterize the Jewish God and to show the Jews their heritage.

But we certainly have reason to believe that the Garden narrative contains material that should not be expected to convey actual historical/scientific information. In any other work of ancient literature, we would recognize thematic emphases such as immortality, temptation, and the origin of evil as archetypal material more at home in mythology than in historical narrative; we would not think for a minute that an extrabiblical ANE story that explained woman’s travail in childbirth, the cause for the necessity of backbreaking labor, and why snakes don’t have legs purported to be a scientifically historiographic account; we would see references to “the tree of life” and “the tree of the knowledge of good and evil” and recognize an undisguised morality tale. But because we’ve somehow got this notion that mythology is pagan and synonymous with “lies”, too many of us refuse the possibility that it is present in our holy scriptures. But this is absurd: mythology is no more pagan by nature than poetry or record-keeping, which are both applications of literature that predate the Bible and originated in pagan lands, and no more full of lies than an allegory; those of us Christians who insist on reading the Bible in its original cultural and literary context affirm the theological veracity of early Genesis. So what are we so afraid of? Isn’t the theology what really matters?

Of course the greatest part of the objections levied against a non-historical interpretation is the issue of references to Genesis 1-11 outside of Genesis. For instance, in Exodus we read, “For in six days God created heaven and earth…” But what is the creation story invoked to demonstrate? Here Genesis 1 is used as the theological basis for the seven day week: the literalness of the days is no more demanded than the historicity of Wendy in Peter Pan when a couple decides to names their daughter “Wendy” after her. In actuality, the seven day week predates the people of Israel’s occupation of Canaan and was apparently begun in Mesopotamia (ancient Babylon or perhaps even Sumer) as a fourfold subdivision of the lunar month, wherein the seventh days were originally considered unlucky; compare the Hebrew adoption and revision of this system that resulted in the Sabbath becoming the holy day. Given the pagan background of the week, it is no surprise that the Jewish leaders felt they needed to show the holiness of the institution of the week by tying it to something that YHWH had done, namely, the creation of the universe. Of course, the structure of Genesis 1 is itself analogous to the seven-day consecration period of the temple; note also the importance in the Old Testament of the number of completion, number 7. So we have all these things tied in together, a uniquely Israelite complex of sacred symbology and numerology. Hardly does this demand even a late Israelite/Jewish misunderstanding of the origin of the seven day week: Genesis 1 was being used for higher purposes than a bit of mere historical trivia.

More troubling to literalists are Jesus’ comments in Mat 19.4-6.

He answered, “Have you not read that the one who made them at the beginning ‘made them male and female,’ and said, ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.”

Now keep in mind that Jesus’ point was that divorce was against God’s design. Did Jesus chase a rabbit here? What does an out-of-the-blue reference to the creation of Genesis 1 have to do with anything? Well, look at it this way: Jesus’ point was not to cite an historical, biological dissertation on the differentiation of the sexes at the beginning of the universe. Rather, notice the inverse parallelism: divorce is against God’s plan because, although in His design our race is divided into two down the gender line, He was not content for us to continue as individual islands. Marriage and family is essential to God’s economy. God made men and women as separate sexes, then joined them in sex/marriage, so woe unto anyone separating them again. His point stands wholly independent of the historical, biological particulars of how humans are made up of two genders, although it bears mentioning that from the beginning of humanity 200,000 years ago, we were indeed already male and female.

Then we have Jesus’ comments about the days of Noah in Luke 17, used as an analogy for the coming of the Kingdom in “the days of the Son of Man”. If He had referenced the days of a universally recognized mythological figure instead of Noah, we would not think for a second that Jesus was affirming the historicity of the figure and the stories associated with him, because the historicity of a narrative is not a prerequisite for its applicability as an analogy or metaphor – after all, universal applicability is one of the hallmarks of a good myth. It was only natural that Jesus would use the stories of the Jews to communicate with the Jews.

[The other usually cited NT reference to Genesis is Paul’s juxtaposition of Adam and Christ in Romans and 1 Corinthians, which I have dealt with elsewhere (1, 2).]

Now, of those that I mentioned, the most interesting argument against a non-historical interpretation of Genesis is to ascribe the parallels between ANE literature and the Bible to a reliance of the former upon the latter: in other words, the biblical stories that seem similar to ANE literature do so because the events recorded as perfect history in Genesis echo faintly throughout ANE literature. I held this attractive stance until I began to realize that it wasn’t just the characters and plot devices “echoing” through ANE literature: the literary form, the emphases and themes addressed, also matched one another quite well. We’d have to say that the historical events of Genesis just happened to look like the mythology of people groups all over the world; then, those events passed into legend, and were obscured sufficiently so that only some of the material remained; and then those much-altered legends became myth and, coincidentally (because God wouldn’t try to fool us), at this point they happened to retain their mythological characteristics to such a degree that they matched the actual historical events of Genesis that only coincidentally appeared to be mythological. Eh…possible, I suppose. Are there any other things to consider that might make better sense of this?

I think so. One of the clearest indicators for me was eminent Sumerologist Samuel Noah Kramer’s observation about the Sumerian myth “Enki and Ninhursag”, which contains a number of creation metaphors often cited as parallel to the Genesis story, some interesting and others easy to chalk up to the universality of certain mythological themes and imagery. Even acknowledging a genetic relationship between the stories, it’s easy to claim that the Biblical version was the original. That is, until you come to one aspect that Kramer notes in his important History Begins at Sumer.

…Most remarkably, this myth provides an explanation for one of the most puzzling motifs in the Biblical paradise story – the famous passage describing the fashioning of Eve, the mother of all living, from the rib of Adam. Why a rib instead of another organ to fashion the woman whose name Eve means according to the Bible, ‘she who makes live’? If we look at the Sumerian myth, we see that when Enki gets ill, cursed by Ninhursag, one of his body parts that start dying is the rib. The Sumerian word for rib is ‘ti’ . To heal each of Enki’s dying body parts, Ninhursag gives birth to eight goddesses. The goddess created for the healing of Enki’s rib is called ‘Nin-ti’, ‘the lady of the rib’. But the Sumerian word ‘ti’ also means ‘to make live’. The name ‘Nin-ti’ may therefore mean ‘the lady who makes live’ as well as ‘the lady of the rib’. Thus, a very ancient literary pun was carried over and perpetuated in the Bible, but without its original meaning, because the Hebrew word for ‘rib’ and that for ‘who makes live’ have nothing in common. Moreover, it is Ninhursag who gives her life essence to heal Enki, who is then reborn from her. (pp. 144)

Now by no means do I take this to mean that the Garden material is a direct descendant of the Sumerian myth; for one thing, the Genesis source came long after the Sumerian civilization passed off the stage of history. But the Sumerians left their cultural and literary footprints all over the Akkadian (and later Babylonian) world much in the same way that the Romans carried the Greek myths and traditions with them the whole lifetime of the Roman Empire. No matter how it happened, that there is a Nin-ti/Eve connection seems to me undeniably compelling. And if this is the case, it won’t work the other way: one can’t argue that the Nin-ti character was taken from Eve because the linking factor is a linguistic pun (quite common in Sumerian myths, and especially this one) that only works in Sumerian, and would have been lost in Akkadian, Canaanite, Hebrew, or any other language when it was translated.

I can’t tell you how confused I am by the assumption that we aren’t taking Genesis 1-11 seriously when we deny its place as historiographic narrative. On the contrary, we believe that the non-historical literature in the Old Testament should be taken quite seriously, as seriously as any other genre in Scripture. What we don’t take seriously is the modernist elevation of modern cultural norms over those of the ancients such that we are supposed to wrest literature written from within an ancient mindset by men with that mindset to other people sharing that mindset and insist that the literary forms of the Bible conform to our norms regardless of how useless our preferred account would have seemed to the original audience. Many are upset that God would put within His book a form of literature that requires us to dig a bit deeper past our own cultural values, but I submit that it would have been much more of a problem if God had spoken to His earliest followers in a form they could not recognize or relate to. Like the “appearance of age” arguments, these radical attempts at “conservatism” do more harm to the character of God than the beliefs they’re trying so hard to dismantle.

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