It really all began in Bible college. I took intro to the Old Testament and intro to the New Testament in my first year. Naturally, in the first semester of our OT class, we began to comb through the Torah. But in my NT class, surprisingly, we spent more time in the OT and then in the intertestamental period then I was expecting. For a while, I was a bit confused. I didn’t want to spend time in Genesis 1-3 or Exodus, let’s just talk about Jesus and the Gospels. However, as time went on, I began to realise how important it was to understand that the New Testament is really just the culmination, fulfilment, and climax of everything the Old Testament was working towards. Essentially, the New Testament makes the most sense only in light of the Old Testament in the same way that the Avengers: End Game only makes sense in light of all the prequels. Thus, my love for the Bible truly started to evolve. I was now beginning to see that the Bible wasn’t just a collection of random independent books with neat little stories that we can enjoy or live by. Instead, it is (as the Bible Project says), a unified story that leads to Jesus. Eventually, it was Tim Mackie and the Bible Project that went even further in showing me the importance of the Old Testament story, mainly, the role Genesis 1-11 plays. In fact, I’ve developed a love so much for Genesis 1-11 that if I ever were to go into scholarship, it would have to be related to this section of Scripture. Until then, I must sate my curiosity with blogging about it.
Genesis 1-11 is one of the most vital sections in all of Scripture. In it contains the theological mythos of the world, the introduction of God, and the purpose of humanity. Every other story in the Hebrew Bible and the Christian New Testament can find its source in these eleven chapters. Before jumping in, however, we must consider two things first. Context and genre.
When you study any section of the Bible, three questions must come to mind. 1. Who is the author, and who is the intended audience? 2. What is the context of this verse or passage (canonical and historical)? 3. What is the literary genre (historical, narrative, poetry, apocalyptic, wisdom, epistle)? These questions can help us to conclude the authors intent of the passage and how and what the original audience would have received. Answering these questions doesn’t necessarily guarantee an accurate interpretation of Scripture, but it does get as a long way towards that goal. Let’s take a super easy one, for example. The book of Romans. We know the author (the Apostle Paul), the audience (Christians, perhaps both Gentiles and Jews in Rome), the date of the letter (A.D. 55-57), and the genre (epistle). Now, the theological purpose of the letter is somewhat debated. However, these facts give us a fair understanding of what Paul would have been writing about, why he wrote them, his possible influences and meanings of contended passages. Because Romans genre is epistle, we’re going to find less symbolism and poetry and more of a style that conveys a precise sense, theology, and purpose to his readers. We can do the same work with the book of Genesis, albeit with more ambiguous results.
First, Genesis is one part of a larger collection of books or scrolls as they would have been in the ancient world. We know this collection as the Torah or Pentateuch; Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy. Authorship is a bit tricky. Unlike Paul’s epistles where he actually tells his audience that it’s him writing it (or at least had a scribe he dictated to), Genesis doesn’t actually tell us who wrote it. Furthermore, many books in the OT didn’t necessarily have an author per se. This is because, in the ancient OT world, the ability to write and preserve information was scarce (they were reserved for royal and priestly offices). Tradition speculates that Moses was the author of Genesis and with good reason. The Torah is often attributed to Moses throughout the rest of the Hebrew Bible (Josh 1:7-8; 2 Chron 25:4; Neh 13:1). The New Testament and Jesus Himself seem to attribute the Torah and Genesis to Moses as well (Matt 19:7, 22:24; Mk 12:26; John 1:17, 5:46, 1:23). Whether or not they believed Moses literally penned every word or not is fairly debatable, but what we can say is that Moses had a major hand in its origins and content. This now leads us to context.
If Genesis originates with Moses, then his cognitive environment would have had an impact on the composition of the text. The entire Exodus story and Israel’s journey going into the Promised Land would have been drawing on the Genesis 1-3 story of God giving land (Eden) to Adam and Eve, with the test in Genesis 3 mirroring God testing Israel in the wilderness and a lot more we’ll explore in further posts. However, this is only the first cognitive environment we need to consider.
The final form of Genesis (and the Torah) that we have wasn’t shaped and put together until sometime after the Exile. This further complicates our mission to determine its context as there is a world of difference between the events of Genesis, the Exodus story and the exilic or post-exilic period. These different worlds can have vastly profound impacts on how Genesis is to be understood. This is because as people living in or just out of the Exile, they would have interpreted Genesis in light of that event. Genesis 3, for example, is about living in the land (Eden) and being exiled from it because of sin. Isreal living in the Exile would have immediately picked that up and read that as their own story.
Furthermore, the ancient near east (ANE) was the world of the Old Testament. This means that what the ANE believed would have impacted how the authors of the Old Testament thought and wrote. Therefore, what the ANE world thought of temples, gods, relationships, family, and the cosmos would have influenced the culture of the OT. In turn, this would affect the authors perspective on certain issues (this is called one’s “cognitive environment”). Abraham himself was brought out of a pagan ANE world to start a unique family and people for God’s own purposes. Not everything Abraham did would be considered righteous or holy. Let’s not forget that Abraham was on a constant struggle to shed ANE cultural norms and expectations and live according to the promises of God. So then, what I’m ultimately arguing here is that God deliberately used each and every author’s cognitive environment as a means to shape His message.
So then, the book of Genesis as we know it today passed through Moses and was preserved by oral tradition until finally formed in or sometime after the Exile. Genesis could then be considered (especially chapter 12-50 – even the entire Torah) as Israel’s origins. Chapters 1-11 could be regarded as the origins of the whole world. So broadly speaking Genesis’ genre is historical. However, how we study history in the 21st Century and how the ancient world preserved history was different. I would categorise Genesis 1-11 as mythological theological history. What I don’t mean by this is that Genesis 1-11 didn’t happen. Instead, the primary point of these chapters is the divine truths the author is presenting. Mythological doesn’t mean fiction in this context. The mythological genre can be better understood as parabolic or allegorical. The events in Genesis 1-11 happened. However, the events recounted in the narrative bring out a theological point rather than a detailed account of the past. As Tremper Longman III says, “The book of Genesis is not a history-like story but rather a story-like history.”
So to wrap up Part I:
- Authorship: Genesis’ origins were likely with Moses but its final form as we know it was put together sometime during or after the Babylonian Exile.
- Context: The ANE world, the time of Moses, and the Exilic period do have a considerable impact on how one should understand the text (something more we’ll get into the next post).
- Genre: I believe the genre of Genesis 1-11 should be understood as mythological theological, historical narrative. It is an account of the history of the world, but a theological one told literarily through the use of story.
In the next part of this series, we will start by looking at Genesis 1.
- The NIV Application Commentary Genesis by John H. Walton
- Genesis (The Expositors Bible Commentary): by John Sailhammer
- The Dictionary of the Pentateuch (IVP) eds. T. Desmond Alexander and David W. Baker
- Genesis (The Story of God Bible Commentary) by Temper Longman III
- This video by the Bible Project