What is historical in Genesis 1-11?
September 1, 2014
During the height of the biblical theology movement in the middle of the last century, it was common to make a rather sharp distinction between the primeval period of Gen. 1-11 and the Abrahamic patriarchal period of Gen. 12-50. On this view, the primeval history is heavily mythical in its construction of ancient realities, replete with numerous etiologies (e.g., the tower of Babel as the origin of diverse languages), whereas the ancestral history is the beginning of history proper, more or less, focused as it is on Israel’s lineage from Abraham. Or to put it another way, the former is universal and therefore prone to mythical media of interpretation; the latter is particular and therefore historically contingent and “real” as we think of history, though not without “embellishments.”
This view was popularized by OT scholars like John Bright, and others at Union Seminary in Richmond, and Bernhard Anderson at Drew and Princeton, both of whom wrote OT surveys that were widely used at seminaries across the country. To this, we could add the “biblical archaeology” movement of William F. Albright and George Ernest Wright. For a nice summary statement, we can quote the old Metzger-edited New Oxford Annotated Study Bible (NRSV):
The primeval history reflects a “prehistorical” or mythical view of the movement from creation to the return of chaos in a catastrophic flood and the new beginning afterwards, while the ancestral history can be read, at least to some degree, in the context of the history of the Near East in the latter part of the second millennium (1500-1200 B.C.). The primary purpose of the book, however, is not to present straightforward history but to tell the dramatic story of God’s dealings with the world and, in particular, to interpret Israel’s special role in God’s purpose.
However, this consensus (and it did basically form a consensus in the mainline, as far as that was once possible) would eventually come under significant criticism. Evangelicals had long been critical of the divide between non-historical and historical, splitting the book of Genesis where the text gives no such indication of a shift to real history. The primeval history presents itself as just as historical as the Abrahamic history, especially indicated by the genealogies (albeit stylized in some way) in the primeval history. From the opposite vantage point, criticism came from within the mainline Protestant guild and elsewhere. The archaeological data became more contested, just as postmodern exegesis emerged to uncover the (alleged) ideologies and agendas that shaped the purported history(ies) of Israel. By the time we get to Walter Brueggemann’s An Introduction to the Old Testament, first published in 2003, things are rather different. Brueggemann never tires of reminding the reader that we have no knowledge of what really happened (e.g., exodus, conquest, temple, monarchy, etc.). It is all imaginative reconstructions, but that’s alright in Brueggemann’s account because we are called now to recapture the same imagination that inspired their confidence in God.
As for myself, I am not clear on how to precisely answer the question of historicity in the primeval chapters of Genesis or even the rest of the Pentateuch and historical books, though obviously the stakes are higher when speaking of Israel’s history. Brueggemann is a bridge too far, to say the least, and it appears that Peter Enns (like Kenton Sparks) is following the same path. The evangelical criticism itself would have to be modified today in the light of John Walton, Kevin Vanhoozer, and others’ (“progressive inerrantists”) recognition that ancient historiography may not follow the same conventions as modern historiography, which would bring them closer to the old biblical theology guys mentioned above, albeit with a sharper interest in preserving historicity where that appears to be the unambiguous affirmation of the text, not merely incidental. My inclinations are with the progressive inerrantists, as well as the biblical theology movement, though with some significant reservations with how the latter legitimates historicity.
I was inspired to write this post after browsing through Alice Linsley’s blog, Just Genesis. Linsley is a “biblical anthropologist,” that is, an anthropologist who brings her research to the text of Scripture for illumination of the context, especially the kinship ties. I can hardly render a judgment on the quality of her work, but it is fascinating. She argues for a “meta-historical” reading of Gen. 1-3, but she sees a shift to history proper, by and large, soon thereafter — thanks to anthropology and other research into ancient ethnic groups. So, for example, you should see her posts, “Are Adam and Eve Real?” and “Adam and Eve as Archetypal Ancestors.” Also, a good overview is “Objections to the Fundamentalist Reading of Genesis.” Her most recent index is very helpful. By the way, she is a former Episcopal minister and
convert to Eastern Orthodoxy revert to Anglicanism.
Image: “The Garden of Eden with the Fall of Man” by Jan Brueghel the Elder and Peter Paul Rubens. They collaborated on this work at Rubens’ studio in Antwerp, (Spanish) Netherlands, now Belgium, in the 1610’s.