Is Genesis real history?
We believe Genesis is a true account that, like other ancient narratives, uses vivid imagery to describe past events. It is also silent on questions of science.
Man from dust, woman from rib. A talking snake. Two mysterious trees. A massive flood. Confusion of languages. What do we make of these stories? Did it all really happen as described by the early chapters of Genesis? Is Genesis giving us accurate history?
Any account of past events can be considered history. Genesis recounts past events—such as God’s creation of the world and human beings—so in this sense, Genesis is history. However, Genesis is theological history and uses figurative language in some of its descriptions. The author of Genesis is not interested in telling us how God created (in material terms) or how long it took.
We believe Genesis is a true account that, like other ancient narratives, uses vivid imagery to describe past events. It is silent on the scientific questions we might wish it to answer. A close reading of the text provides clues that indicate where a plain sense meaning is not intended. For example, in Genesis 1, there are three evenings and mornings with no sun, moon, and stars, so these are not regular days as we understand them (though they function that way in the text; they are literary days). Or consider Genesis 2:7, when God forms Adam from dust and breathes into his nostrils. This language must be somewhat figurative, because we know from other passages in the Bible that God is Spirit with neither hands nor lungs.
Inspiration and authority of Genesis
Genesis is the inspired word of God, but no human observer was present during the creation of the world, and God did not simply dictate a transcript of phenomena or events to the author of Genesis. Inspiration does not work that way.
In Genesis 1, we have an Israelite author’s account of God’s creative acts communicated to an Israelite audience. We believe that the understanding of the narrator in Genesis is God-given and therefore we accept it as offering an authoritative and true understanding of the world. However, it was not intended to enable us to reconstruct the creation events according to the scientific understanding of today or meet the demands of our modern worldview.
The genre and literary style of Genesis
Asking about history is asking about genre. Often when people identify Genesis as history they are arguing against identifying it with other genres (such as myth) or other forms of literary packaging (such as poetry). They might think that identifying Genesis as myth or poetry undermines or compromises its truth claims. But truth can be conveyed through a variety of genres or literary packages. We need to ask how Genesis delivers its truth claims—what the narrator’s intentions are.
The book of Genesis packages its truth claims largely in narrative, interspersed with genealogies. Chapters 1–11 describe the founding of the human race, leading up to God’s covenant with Abraham. Chapters 12–50 recount significant developments in the story of Abraham’s family, the ancestors of Israel, thus providing the backdrop to the covenant God made with Israel at Sinai. The early events described—including the side-by-side accounts of creation (ch. 1–2) and Adam and Eve’s primal act of disobedience (ch. 3)—are the opening episodes of the human story that lead to the story of Israel.
We can benefit from investigating how narratives in the Old Testament and the ancient world packaged truth related to past events. Even when their narratives deal with real events, the events are narrated as a means to a theological end.
Means to a theological end
Narratives—ancient or modern—are rarely bare chronicles of events as they happened. Take a reality TV show, for example. When an episode is filmed, multiple cameras are used to capture many events and conversations. The director then selects, arranges, and edits the raw footage to produce a coherent story consistent with the show’s agenda. Neither the director nor the viewers would expect to be able to reconstruct the raw footage from the finished product. The situation is similar in any historical account, which is a selective telling of events to serve a particular purpose. The case is no different with ancient narratives such as Genesis.
Ancient authors were more interested in the meaning of events rather than the details of the events. In that sense these narratives are not like most modern historical narratives. If we were to try to reduce their recorded event to a series of propositional truth claims, we would miss the entire point of their narrative.
When ancient narratives are interpretations of the past, they are generally not written simply to describe the past. Rather, they serve the present. Their work may be based on real events and real people, but their narratives do not explore “what really happened” in the style modern readers tend to expect. Rather, ancient narratives address the world of the narrator’s time, shedding light on that world and providing a perspective for the hearers to embrace. It is this perspective on the world, not the details used to reconstruct the events of the past, that the narrator wishes to convey to his audience.
Case study: the flood of Genesis 6–9
Let’s apply this approach to one of the most famous stories in Genesis: the story of Noah and the Flood, found in Genesis 6–9. The Genesis Flood story is likely based on a set of even more ancient stories about an actual catastrophic regional flood event in the ancient Near East. These older legends were part of the cultural backdrop in which Genesis was written. The inspired author is re-casting these older stories using ancient literary conventions, in order to teach about the seriousness of sin and the merciful love of God for his creation. The story, based on a past flood event, is told using hyperbolic language to serve these theological points.
Like all of Genesis, the Flood story is part of God’s revelation to humankind. It informed Israel’s understanding of God’s relationship to creation and to Israel as his chosen people. This is a revelation of God to the people of Israel, not a revelation about the bare facts of science or natural history. In trying to reconstruct the details of “what really happened,” many have missed the theological point of the story.
The story of Genesis
The narratives of Genesis focus on conflict and resolution. God’s purpose from the beginning is to have his presence fill the earth; humans are to image God and subdue the earth, i.e., bring about order and fruitfulness in creation (Gen 1–2). Conflict enters the story when humans rebel against God (Gen 3). Shalom is shattered, and the earth is cursed. Further degeneration takes place (Gen 4–6) until God brings judgment and mercy (Gen 6–9). Humans then attempt to restore God’s presence (Gen 11) before God launches his own initiative to re-establish his presence on Earth (the covenant).
Genesis 1–11, then, is the founding story of humanity, ending in crisis. These narratives give a real and true assessment of God’s initial purposes and the human plight. Genesis 12–50 is the founding story of the nation with whom the covenant is eventually made at Sinai. The covenant establishes the relationship to Abraham and his descendants, provides the structure for living in God’s presence, and lays the foundation for God’s presence to be established on earth.
All narratives have purposes and perspectives. Genesis is a collection of ancient narratives, written and compiled by those who share the culture and literary styles of the ancient world. Like the narratives of their ancient Near Eastern neighbors, these narratives eliminate all details except those the narrator thinks are important to shape the message for his particular purpose.
The creation narratives are not included in Scripture so that we can receive a direct transmission from God about the phenomena of pre-human history; they are there because the inspired author’s interpretation of his present situation, through his narration of the events of the past, reveals truth about God and God’s purposes.
The truth of Genesis must not be judged by whether we can use it to reconstruct the “plain facts” of creation. The author wrote about past events (e.g., creation of the cosmos and humanity, humanity’s initial innocence and rebellion), but did so using evocative imagery. While all Christians can read the Bible profitably, our theological understanding is enriched as we learn more about the original audience and cultural context of Genesis. In turn, we see the continued significance and relevance of the text for our own lives.
Did we help answer your question? Try these related questions for more:
If you enjoyed reading this Common Question, we recommend you check out the following:
Trees | Living Symbols of Praise
Kate Boyd | Science and the Messy Middle