In my previous post, I talked about the importance of genre. Whenever we read anything, we identify (either consciously or not) the genre of what we are reading. Sometimes it is natural and easy because we are so used to certain types of writing (whether a novel or a textbook or a newspaper editorial), but sometimes we need to be self-conscious about identifying the genre. When it comes to the Old Testament, don’t be fooled by the excellent readable English translations that we have at our disposal. These books are ancient Near Eastern literature and we need to study them in their “cognitive environment.”
To do so is particularly important as we consider the truth claims of the Bible. As I also claimed in the previous post, God’s Word is completely true in everything it intends to teach. Genre triggers reading strategy and helps us see what message the author wants us to learn from his words.
So, what is the genre of the Flood story? To answer that question we will focus on Genesis 6-9, of course, but we should note first that Genesis 1-11 is a unit within the book of Genesis as a whole, so the question of the genre of the Flood story is connected to the broader question of the genre of the so-called “Primeval Narrative”.
The book of Genesis may be divided up in different ways (I’ll be referring to toledot in a minute), but one obvious division is:
- The Primeval Narrative (Genesis 1-11)
- The Patriarchal Narrative (Genesis 12-36)
- The Joseph Narrative (Genesis 37-50)
There are continuities that unite these three sections and we will take those seriously, but there are also significant stylistic differences that signal different levels of interest in reporting historical details. These continuities and differences will come out in my following comments. My focus will be on how Genesis 1-11 relates to Genesis 12-50.
For starters, let’s talk about two points of continuity.
First, those toledot I mentioned a moment ago. Toledot is a Hebrew word that is translated something like “account” in our English translations. The word occurs in a formula that can be translated something like “This is the account of X,” where X is, with the exception of the first occurrence, a personal name. These formulae are best understood as referencing written and/or oral documents that the author of Genesis used to write the book. After all, even granting that Moses is the author of Genesis, he would have used earlier sources to talk about the distant past. We should further note that the “toledot of X,” is about the offspring of X. So the toledot of Terah (Gen. 11:27) introduces the story of Abraham, Terah’s son (Gen. 11:27-25:11).
The first toledot occurs in Genesis 2:4 and then occurs eleven more times, four times in the rest of Genesis 1-11 (5:1; 6:9 [the toledot of Noah], 10:1; 11:10) and six times in the rest of the book (11:27; 25:12, 19; 36:1, 9; 37:2). In other words, the toledot formula does, in my opinion, show a continuity of genre between Genesis 1-11 and Genesis 12-50.
Further, I would say that the toledot formula indicates a consistent interest in history, recounting past events. This is true of Genesis 1-11 as much as Genesis 12-50.
The author’s choice of verbal form supports this interest in the past, though perhaps not as strongly. In short, the narrative employs the Hebrew waw-consecutive verbal form that is typical to narrate past events. The caveat, of course, is that the waw-consecutive can also be used in a non-historical narrative like a parable. I think the continuity with the rest of Genesis (and indeed with the redemptive history that follows) established by the toledot formula renders it much more likely that the use of the waw-consecutive intends to tell us about past events.
Many would point to the genealogies in Genesis as compelling evidence of the literal historicity of the whole book. After all, the stories in Genesis 1-11 are connected by various genealogies (for instance, Gen. 4:17-5:32; 10; 11:210-26). My only hesitation comes from my recognition that ancient Near Eastern genealogies aren’t constructed on purely genetic/historical purposes. As R. R. Wilson concluded as he studied biblical genealogies in relationship to other ancient Near Eastern genealogies, “genealogies are not normally created for historical purposes. They are not intended to be historical records. Rather, in the Bible, as well as in ancient near Eastern literature and in the anthropological material, genealogies seems to have been created for domestic, political-jural, and religious purposes, and historically information is preserved only incidentally” (Genealogy and History in the Biblical World [New Haven: Yale University Press, 1977], 199). Remember we need to read these genealogies in their “cognitive environment” and not with modern expectations. That said, while not strictly historical, I think they are partly historical.
So, as I read Genesis 1-11, including the Flood Story, I believe the “genre signals” are telling us that these stories (creation, Fall, Flood, Tower of Babel) refer in some way to real events that happened in the past.
That important point made, we also need to acknowledge “genre signals” that show the author does not intend for us to take these descriptions as literal, precise depictions of these real events.
First, Genesis 1-11 contains many obviously figurative descriptions of real events. We have already mentioned two in previous posts. As the early church fathers and many others up to the present day have said, you cannot have a literal twenty-four hour day without a sun, moon, and stars. Thus, in Genesis 1, though these celestial bodies are not created until the fourth day, the first three days are called days with “evenings and mornings.” It is particularly this phrase that is the kicker, since though (as some have tried to argue) God could certainly have found another light source to turn on and off for a twenty-four hour cycle, it still would not have been a literal evening and morning.
In Genesis 2, God creates the first man from the dust of the ground and his breath. But, since God is a spiritual being and does not have lungs, this description is clearly figurative. We could go on with other examples (and in our next post we will give examples from the Flood story), but a fair reading of Genesis 1-11 will recognize that it uses figurative language much more extensively than in the chapters that follow.
Second, Genesis 1-11 has an intense interplay with ancient Near Eastern texts, particularly creation and flood stories. We reserve the latter for the next post and here will talk about the creation. Today, we have the benefit of studying Genesis 1-2 in the light of ancient Near Eastern accounts of creation, in particular compositions like Enuma Elish, Atrahasis, and the Baal myth.
There are similarities, yes, but there are also intentional differences. We will illustrate with the creation of the first man in Genesis 2:7. In the Bible, the first man is created from the dust of the ground (creation element) and the breath of God (divine element). The Enuma Elish and Atrahasis both picture the gods creating humans from the ground (clay) and divine elements (the blood of a demon god and the spit of the gods). This connection is more than a coincidence. Thus, rather than being a literal depiction of how God created the first human (which makes no sense as a literal description anyway), it makes more sense to see Genesis 2:7 a figurative depiction that claims it was Israel’s God (not Marduk or some other deity) who created humans, and that humans themselves are not originally corrupt but have a dignified origin.
Third, we raise the issue of what I call sequence concord. If Genesis 1-11 were interested in giving us a precise, literal description of “what happened” it would demonstrate more interest in the sequence of events.
That lack of interest is seen most dramatically by comparing the two creation accounts (Gen. 1:1-2:4a; 2:4b-25). For example, it has long been recognized that in the first account you have the creation of humans after vegetation and in the second, God makes humans and then plants the Garden. If Genesis were so interested in giving us a literal depiction of the process of creation, we need to ask: why there is conflict in the sequence?
Fourth, notice that Genesis 1-11 begins with creation and takes us all the way to Abraham. That is an incredibly long period of time. I know that with this point, I am only speaking to old-earth creationists, because-young earth creationists don’t think this period of time is as long, but for those of you who do understand that the genealogies of Genesis don’t intend to give us the information we need to date creation, you will agree with me on this point. Genesis 1-11 presents the deep, deep past and covers vast amounts of time quickly. The narrative skids to a halt in Genesis 12 and shows much more interest in historical detail when we come to Abraham.
But for those of us who are not strict literalists when it comes to the far distant future in the Bible, we might also see that there is a similarity between the largely figurative depiction of real events in the far, far distant past (Genesis 1-11) and the far, far distant future (Revelation).
The signals that the author of Genesis 1-11 sends to us lead to the following conclusion. Genesis 1-11 talks about the past: real space-and-time events. God did create everything and everyone. There was a Fall from innocence. And there was a flood (see next two posts). However, Genesis 1-11 does not give us a literal, detailed, precise depiction of these events. Rather the author uses figurative language and interplay with ancient Near Eastern texts to describe these events in order to communicate its important message to its readers.