The astonishing Genesis 1-11

The word from my pastor is that our church will be basing its Sunday teaching for the next few months on Genesis 1-11 – the “Protohistory” (in Gordon Wenham’s usage) or, to quote another OT scholar, “the Old Testament of the Old Testament.”

It’s hard for me not to get insanely enthusiastic about this, having worked on this corpus pretty solidly for the decade in which I wrote my two books, both of which arose from its teaching. No doubt I’ll be called on to do a bit of the preaching, but I suspect much of my preparation will be spent in deciding, or being advised gently, what to leave out. Anyway, since The Generations of Heaven and Earth was published three years ago now, and much of the intervening time has been spent writing on the more depressing matter of the mass deceptions we have been undergoing, I’m glad to take the opportunity to wave the flag, to my Christian readers across the world and anyone else, for this first chunk of the Bible.

The first thing to say is these chapters are incredibly ancient. Sadly, discussion of their undoubted literary links to ancient Babylonian and Sumerian texts has tended to involve claims that Genesis just copied the Epic of Gilgamesh, or angry denials of such claims. But once one gets over the fallout from the increasingly outmoded Documentary Hypothesis of the nineteenth century, one can embrace the argument that archaeologist Kenneth Kitchen makes. He points out that the typically ancient features of the Protohistory, such as the greatly inflated ages of the individuals, taken together with the Mesopotamian origins of the Patriarchs whose stories follow it, actually make it one of several equally respectable traditions, all dating in their present form from the first half of the second millennium BC. That’s old. But in turn, all these accounts seem to derive from the world’s very earliest literary culture of mid-third millennium Mesopotamia, and to embody probably oral traditions handed down from even earlier, such as the Shuruppak flood of around 2,900BC.

Kitchen’s observation makes much more sense than the entirely unsubstantiated idea that exiled Jews, in the sixth century or later, arbitrarily purloined what they found in ancient Babylonian libraries, to ground a new-fangled Jewish religion.

It is, then, at least as likely that the cults of the Sumerian city-states adapted an original factual tradition (as Spenser adapted the Arthurian legend for the court of Elizabeth 1), as that the Yahwist line of Seth did. For those who accept the inspiration of Scripture overall, it takes no great leap of faith to accept that this family preserved the epic intact, and that Abraham, or perhaps Jacob, carried it into Canaan. From there it came to Egypt on cuneiform tablets or proto-Hebrew parchments, or perhaps on the lips of Israel’s bards. I favour the written form, because Moses could access it in its alien Mesopotamian form 400 years later in Egypt.

This means that our Bible’s opening narrative has been preserved as a coherent whole from the earliest dawn of human literature. And although it is not “historiography” in the modern sense, it preserves the very earliest way of doing history that has come down to us, that is retelling great events in epic terms appropriate to their foundational importance.

Incidentally, personally I exclude the creation account of 1:1-2:4 from this epic tradition. I see that account rather as coming directly from the prophetic insight of Moses, who also edited the Protohistory, for example, by dividing it into the so-called “toledots” that mark the whole of Genesis. That’s another story, but one worth summarising briefly here. The creation account acts as a theological preface to Genesis, to Moses’s Torah corpus, and indeed to the whole Bible. Its function is to demonstrate the complete sovereignty of the true God over his cosmos (in contrast to the squabbling deities of the heathen, who arise from creation), and to paint the cosmos as a temple for his worship, the sole image in that temple being mankind. And so the very first chapter of the Bible defines monotheism, shows the complete dependance of nature on God (not us!), and gives a clear understanding of mankind and his earthly role.

By making the 7th day an unending sabbath, it also shows that there is more to come under God’s reign. And so the creation story is also intended, in my view, to present that good, familiar, but intrinsically perishable, creation, as the “stage” on which the drama of a new creation will play out. The subject of the Bible is, almost in its entirety, this new creation.

For the Protohistory is not simply an ancient account to explain the first origins of the world. Instead, from its commencement in chapter 2 it is the record of Yahweh’s intention to form a new, spiritual, creation, through mankind – a creation in which humanity will be a co-ruler of all things (in some sense), not just the earth, with God for eternity.

But it is a story, in the true sense of being a narrative of villains, difficulties and heroes, of which the rest of Scripture forms the plot and denouement. The most astonishing thing is that all the significant themes that are addressed by the gospel of Jesus Christ are introduced in these few chapters from several millennia BC. Indeed, even Christ himself is foretold, together with his suffering, for example in the prophetic oracle to the serpent in 3:14-15.

But before that, the new creation project is introduced through the Eden narrative, and covenant-relationship with God (using, for the first time, his covenant-name of Yahweh) is established with Adam, and secondarily Eve, by means of the command. That project involves a new intimacy with God in a sacred space separated from the earth, sacred service, access to eternal life and, by implication, the learning of true wisdom only through obedience.

The apparent stymying of that new creation through sin is, as we all know, set out for the first time (and defined in terms of doubting and disobeying God’s word). The escalation of sin and folly occupies the rest of the Protohistory.

But Eden also demonstrates Satan as the personal enemy of God’s purposes for mankind, and for those with ears to hear, shows his modus operandi in the world, the hold he has over sinful man (and the apparent moral hold he has over God in accusing people to save himself – how can God punish him if he suspends the sentence of spiritual death on humanity?). The final doom of Satan is included in the prophecy of 3:14-15, as well as its source in a future son of Eve.

We even understand the mercy of God in witholding judgement until a day at the end of history, from the covenant with Noah in chapter 9. Additionally the universalism of the gospel is shown through laying out the genealogical solidarity of Adam with not only Israel, but all the nations – a universality echoed in the call of Abram in chapter 12. Who would have expected a universal religion arising at the same time that Sumerian city states each saw themselves as the throne of Deity?

And so these sometimes difficult chapters set out for us the whole range of problems that God has to solve in the rest of the Bible. There is the problem of sin, and notably of its forgiveness, with justice, so that God’s original plan for man in the cosmos should not fail. There is the impediment of Satan, the highest of the spiritual creation, with his just claim against sinful man standing in the way of his punishment for deceiving Eve.

And not to be forgotten is how to correct the interruption of God’s plan to renew the whole creation as a spiritual, rather than merely natural, cosmos, through man. Creation itself groans over that delay, Paul tells us in Romans. One way to see that is as the tearing of the “firmament” separating heaven and earth in the original temple “not made with human hands,” just as the death of Jesus tore the veil of the Jerusalem temple and symbolically united God and man.

You see, the eschatological hope of eternal life, face to face with God, in a new heavens and a new earth, is actually introduced in Genesis 1-11. When you know how to read it, it’s all there, except the surprise ending, and even that is hinted at.

The end and solution of all these issues turns out to be, of course, the second Adam who is also the son of the first Adam. Neat, huh?

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About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
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6 Responses to The astonishing Genesis 1-11

  1. Robert Byers says:

    Good luck with anything they might ask you to help on as you said.
    I must represent those bible believing Christians who DENY any human influnce in scripture. starting with chapter one, verse one. Just an example. the long lives was true. After the flood in the most civilized area they remembered these long lives but corrupted them into crazy long ones. NOT the other way around where the bible got the idea from the folks there. There is no evidence for any influence from anyong affecting genesis.
    Its all true and was dictated to some dumb human writer possibly in a daze.

    • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

      Just to say that “divine dictation” is a Muslim version of inspiration, rather than an orthodox Christian one! The NT writers, and even Jesus, refers both to “Moses” (and other prophets) and “the Holy Spirit” as authors, in some cases using both for the same quotation.

      • Robert Byers says:

        It must be that moses means only as the lawgiver and in print but not the author of the laws. The laws were from God. I never heard in evangelical circles here anything but the bible being only from God/trinity and not from mere men.

        • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

          “Mere men” are not the same as “men carried along by the Spirit,” as 2 Peter 1:21 says. But 1 Peter 1:10 shows how those same prophets were actively involved in their ministry, “searching intently and with great care, trying to find out the time and circumstances to which the Spirit of Christ in them was pointing…”

          And so when Luke (Luke 1:1-4) explains that he has carefully investigated the story of Jesus, and that it “seemed good to him to write an orderly account,” it is hard to think of those words being divinely dictated and having nothing whatsoever to do with the research he did, nor his authorial decision.

          Likewise, Paul’s letters are responses to events in the churches, and include his own pastoral and didactic reactions. That they are Scripture because they are the ultimate work of the Holy Spirit is not in doubt (2 Peter 3:16), but to see him as a passive recipient of dictation, merely reciting it as Muhammad is said to have done, does him an injustice as an apostle of Christ.

          • Robert Byers says:

            In all your examples I think we can still see a exclusive invention as from the spirit/trinity and so above mankind. Twa ut is the purpose to say no human ideas is relevant to the bible. I think saying its god dicated makes understanding better.
            I don’t have confidence in Like or moses or anything before genesis was written. Evangelicals would understand historically only the trinity is the author. No human error can be tolerated and so no human contribution as we are useless in such matters s these.
            i do think your a wee bit wrong here. inerrancy is only from God etc. So no credit to mankind.
            God is the writer, lyrics, instruments, singer, aprodcer, and all tech. All royalties to God. Not Luke . I know you agree with the spirit guiding but its still only the spirit. very close to a trance dictation.

            • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

              Ah I see – so you have in mind something like Paul going into a trance, and the Spirit saying, like Gabriel to Muhammad:

              “Now about virgins: I have no command from the Lord, but I give a judgment as one who by the Lord’s mercy is trustworthy. Because of the present crisis, I think that it is good for a man to remain as he is. Are you pledged to a woman? Do not seek to be released. Are you free from such a commitment? Do not look for a wife. But if you do marry, you have not sinned; and if a virgin marries, she has not sinned. But those who marry will face many troubles in this life, and I want to spare you this.

              “Now, Paul, Wake up!”

              I have to say, that process seems a little – dishonest – if Paul in reality contributed no thought or judgement to his written judgement.

              But if his whole apostleship was of the Holy Spirit, as it was, that would include his actual thinking and, hence, his actual teaching.

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