Introduction to Genesis
Let me start by saying that I am the least qualified of all people to write a series on the book of Genesis. I am no scholar. This is not my area of expertise. I am an utter novice at Biblical studies. Alas, I am moved to write because plenty of other people with even less serious study of the book of Genesis have no qualms about writing about it to their heart’s content. (In particular, I’ve found in my own research that the most returned results on a google search about Genesis tend to come from Creationist institutes, which are deeply unhelpful.) My hope is that this series could be a help to the church and an encouragement to the saints, representing a summary of some of the big disagreements about the book of Genesis. In particular, I am writing for those at my local congregation, Aletheia Church of Boston, who may be going through the Roots book and are searching for answers to some of their tougher questions.
With that in mind, I am going to spend a week on each section of the Roots book, though I’m starting a bit late so I may have a good deal of catching up to do. As I post, I will update this page so that there are links to the entire series here. I gladly welcome comments and feedback from those who are more knowledgeable about the book of Genesis! Suggestions may work their way into the posts after they are published, with grateful acknowledgments, of course.
a. What does “authorship” even mean?
One of the first questions people ask is always who wrote the book of Genesis. One thing it’s important to keep in mind for the entire Bible is that authorship is manifestly unimportant. We really have no clue who wrote the book of Hebrews, or some of the psalms. There is much debate about the author of 1 & 2 Timothy, of Ecclesiastes, and a great number of other books of the Bible. Good, brilliant Christians disagree on these issues. When it comes down to it, the human author is largely irrelevant, because the Scripture derives its authority not from the name recognition of its human author, but from the fact that it is inspired by God.
It’s also vital to note that whatever we think about “authorship,” the word “author” when applied to Biblical texts cannot mean what it means to us today. Certainly Moses did not sit down with a typewriter or Macbook and write down his story word for word. Communication of the scriptures was achieve through transmission via oral tradition for several centuries before the words were written down.*
b. Traditional Christian Interpretation
The traditional interpretation is that Moses is the author of Genesis and the entire Pentateuch (the first five books of the Bible: Genesis, Exodus, Deuteronomy, Numbers, and Leviticus). There are a number of texts in the Bible which indicate partial Mosaic authorship (i.e. that Moses was the author) and this is why he has traditionally been understood as the author of these books even though they make no direct claim themselves to be recorded by Moses. [Contra Paul, for example, who often begins his letters with his name.]
However, even the traditional Christian interpretation has acknowledged that some of parts of the Pentateuch appear to be the additions of a later editor, such as the description of Moses’ death. There are other considerations that should point to the actions of an editor, for example Deuteronomy begins with, “these are the words Moses spoke” – a framing phrase vouching that the coming content is from Moses. So how much of Genesis and the Pentateuch was written by Moses and how much was written by an editor?
To begin, we must look at the passages of scripture which assert Moses’ authorship. It is clear within the Pentateuch that certain passages are attributed to Moses. For example, Deuteronomy 31:24–26 tells us that “After Moses finished writing in a book the words of this law from beginning to end, he gave this command to the Levites who carried the ark of the covenant of the Lord: ‘Take this Book of the Law and place it beside the ark of the covenant of the Lord your God. There it will remain as a witness against you.'” It is widely accepted that Moses did author these parts which explicitly describe the process of his writing, in particular the Ten Commandments and other laws. There are many passages which do not explicitly attribute their text to Moses.
For a justification of Mosaic authorship over the entire Pentateuch, conservative scholars point to other verse in scripture. 2 Kings 21:8 says, “And I will not cause the feet of Israel to wander anymore out of the land that I gave to their fathers, if only they will be careful to do according to all that I have commanded them, and according to all the Law that my servant Moses commanded them.” 1 Chronicles 15:15 says, “And the Levites carried the ark of God on their shoulders with the poles, as Moses had commanded according to the word of the Lord.” Nehemiah 10:29 says, “join with their brothers, their nobles, and enter into a curse and an oath to walk in God’s Law that was given by Moses the servant of God, and to observe and do all the commandments of the Lord our Lord and his rules and his statutes.” Jesus says in Luke 5:14, “go and show yourself to the priest, and make an offering for your cleansing, as Moses commanded, for a proof to them.” Paul explains in Romans 10:5, “For Moses writes about the righteousness that is based on the law, that the person who does the commandments shall live by them.”
c. Traditional Jewish Interpretation
The word translated as law in the passages above is torah in Hebrew. The Jewish Study Bible explains,
“Yet ‘law’ is not the only possible translation of torah, and the Torah should not be typified as a book of law. The Heb term torah also means “instruction’ or ‘teaching’ as in Prov. 1:8…. Teaching is not confined to law; indeed narratives or stories are as effective a medium of instruction… Given the predominance of narrative in significant portions of the Torah, especially in Genesis, the beginning of Exodus, and Numbers, it is best to understand the biblical term torat moshe, the earliest extant term for these five books, as ‘the instruction of Moses.'”
“The view that the Torah is the divine word mediated by Moses was the standard view through the Renaissance. This view is explicitly contradicted by the Torah’s narrative, as was sometimes (though rarely) recognized in the Middle Ages… Abraham Ibn (son of) Exra, a 12th-century CE exegete, noted that Gen. 12.6 states that “The Canaanite were then in the land.” The word “then” suggests that when the author of this passage wrote it, the Canaanites were no longer in the land. In other words, the text must have been written after the time of Moses, because during Moses’ time the Canaanites were still in the land.”
It’s unclear, however, whether such small textual modifications were additional edits (like Moses’ death or Deut. 1) or represent a narrative written primarily by later editors.
d. Modern Interpretation – JEDP
“These sources are best known by the letters J, E, D and P, and the documentary hypothesis is sometimes called the “JEDP hypothesis.” In general, these four letters stand for the four particular traditions that developed in different times and places by Israelite theologians, and were woven together by redactors (another word for editor) to form the Pentateuch as we know it. Redactors honored each of these traditions by including them, perhaps not in their entirety, even though the resulting composition was filled with tensions and contradictions.”
J stands for Jahwist, and this narrative strand uses the name Yahweh for God most consistently. E stands for Elohist, and this narrative more consistently uses Elohim for God’s name. The Deuteronomist supposedly wrote the book of Deuteronomy (with little other integrated texts). The Priestly narrative is mostly concerned with chronology, genealogy, ritual, worship and law. Whether or not one concludes that these sections were written by different authors, it is worth noting that there are different structures and concepts repeated through Genesis, and our detailed attention to scripture in this way can offer surprising and worthwhile insights into the Word of God.
e. Evidence for Multiple Narratives
- The different names used for God (Yahweh vs. Elohim)
- The different names for tribes and places
- Different theological positions.
For now, we’ll just go into point 3 – doublets. Peter Enns lists several examples in his book The Evolution of Adam: Genesis 1 and 2; Gen 15 and 17; Gen 12, 20, and 26; Exod 3 and 6; and Exod 17 and Num 20. The narratives have different perspectives to offer, but we must still grapple with why exactly we are told the same stories twice in different (and sometimes in seemingly contradictory ways). This will be covered more as we approach these particular subjects.
f. Conclusions on Authorship
There are no easy answers to the question of who authored the book of Genesis, but this ought not preclude our viewing it as Holy Scripture. As Tremper Longman explains:
“But when it comes down to it, it is both impossible and unnecessary to differentiate Mosaic and non-Mosaic material in any detail. It is impossible because the text isn’t interested in signaling to the reader in every case who might be responsible for what. It is unnecessary because in the final analysis the authority of the text is not located in Moses but in God himself.”
Chapters and verses were only added to the Bible in the 13th century. Their divisions do not always represent the natural divisions of arguments or stories contained within scripture. Scholars generally note that there are two sections to Genesis: Genesis 1:1—11:26 and 11:27—50:26. The former is about ancient history from creation to Babel, and the latter begins the “patriarchal narratives” with the story of Abraham.
b. Myth as a Genre
Merriam-Webster defines myth as “a usually traditional story of ostensibly historical events that serves to unfold part of the world view of a people or explain a practice, belief, or natural phenomenon.” Unfortunately, the modern connotation of myth also includes “an unfounded or false notion.” This means that when we hear something like “Genesis is myth” we think it means “Genesis is just made up.” Instead, we should think of it as “Genesis is written in a genre that intends to explain how the world came to be.” The first section of Genesis (ch. 1-11:26) was likely written in this explanatory genre.
Biblical scholar Peter Enns notes that “historical events are recounted in a manner that reﬂects ancient literary conventions.” This may explain why the creation myth in Genesis bears some similarities to other creation myths of the era. Such similarities need not worry us.
I have therefore no difficulty in accepting, say, the view of those scholars who tell us that the account of Creation in Genesis is derived from earlier Semitic stories which were Pagan and mythical. We must of course be quite clear what “derived from” means. Stories do not reproduce their species like mice. They are told by men. Each re-teller either repeats exactly what his predecessor had told him or else changes it. He may change it unknowingly or deliberately. If he changes it deliberately, his invention, his sense of form, his ethics, his ideas of what is fit, or edifying, or merely interesting, all come in. If unknowingly, then his unconscious (which is so largely responsible for our forgettings) has been at work. Thus at every step in what is called–a little misleadingly–the “evolution” of a story, a man, all he is and all his attitudes, are involved. And no good work is done anywhere without aid from the Father of Lights. When a series of such re-tellings turns a creation story which at first had almost no religious or metaphysical significance into a story which achieves the idea of true Creation and of a transcendent Creator (as Genesis does), then nothing will make me believe that some of the re-tellers, or some one of them, has not been guided by God.
Genesis 1-11 is myth, as Lamentations is poetry, as Daniel 12 is apocalyptic, as Luke is history. And I would argue that just as the Song of Solomon is true poetry, so Genesis is true myth. (Whatever the heck that means.)
c. The Principle of Accommodation
With that in mind, it’s clear that Genesis is not a scientific manual, especially given that empiricism as a method of analyzing truth about the world was not within the realm of categories they would use.
Denis Lamoureux, a biologist and scholar of the scripture at the University of Alberta, explains helpfully:
“Jesus taught the Word of God using the words of humans. In order to deliver the Gospel as eﬀectively as possible, He accommodated to the intellectual level of the men and women around Him. Notably, the Lord often used parables. These are stories in which the events that are mentioned never actually happened. This is powerful evidence that divine revelation is not limited to only literal and historical statements. Jesus also employed an imperfect ancient science, like the size of the mustard seed, to teach about the kingdom of God. But instructing in this way does not undermine the inerrancy of the spiritual messages. Rather, this technique makes the Gospel more accessible to an ancient audience… when the Holy Spirit inspired the writers of the Bible, He accommodated. He lowered Himself and met them and their readers at their level.”
Acknowledging that this principle of accommodation helps make sense of why God didn’t see fit to give a clearly scientific account of creation in Genesis. Had he delved into the details of the Big Bang, ancient readers would have simply been confused. By delivering the testimony of God’s powerful creation in a way that his listeners could comprehend, Genesis affirms God’s goodness, power, and majesty without undermining modern scientific truths.
III. The Value of Genesis
Genesis is the starting point. One cannot understand what’s going on in a story without understanding how the story began. Thus, we see that we will fail to understand the overall narrative of the word of God without understanding how it all began. In this respect, the opening three chapters of Genesis are arguably one of the three most important in scripture (as are the last three chapters of Revelation). This will become patently clear as we proceed through Genesis, and in particular, as we deal with Genesis 1. But that must wait for the next installment.
IV. How to Read Genesis
Just kidding! I’m not going to give you this yet. Not only because Genesis has different genres in its different parts (which I’ll cover as we hit them) but also because I’m out of time. But the best serial writers always have cliffhangers to draw you in for the next week, right? Briefly, I’ll quote from the ESV Study Bible, “Chapters 12–50 focus on one main family line in considerable detail, whereas chs. 1–11 could be described as a survey of the world before Abraham.” So soon (hopefully in less than a week), I’ll begin exploring this “survey of the world!”
Thoughts? Rebuttals? Suggestions for corrections? Tell me in the comments!
* More helpful resources for those interested: the introduction found in the ESV Study Bible. (I highly recommend this to anyone looking for a good study Bible.)
*The running analogy for this is something along the lines of “well, how do you know the text didn’t change over time? Isn’t it just like a giant game of telephone?” All of my friends would deliberately (and often poorly) change words when we played telephone, or deliberately whisper extra quietly so that the next person was truly guessing. This is a far cry from the deliberate story-telling and intentional transmission of religious stories through oral memorization.