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Back to the Bible - Revisiting the Old Testament
After wandering through the more obscure books I am finally getting to the best part of the OT, the stories! Stories I heard over and over again in various form as a child. I repeatedly read the ten volume set of Arthur S. Maxwell’s The Bible Story which presented a somewhat bowdlerized Adventist version of most of the stories in the Bible. Those lavishly illustrated books laid the foundation of my early understanding of Bible stories. But there were some stories, like Tamar’s seduction of her father-in-law after the Lord killed first her husband and then her brother-in-law who infamously “spilled his seed on the ground” rather than impregnating her (Genesis 37), that were either left out or minimized. At least I don’t recall hearing about them until I read the Bible for myself.
With biblical stories there is always the question of whether they are “true.” Claims are often made re: archaeological evidence which confirms elements of life in the second millennium BCE Near East as described in the Bible. But archaeology can tell us little about the existence of ancient individuals and the details of their lives. To date there have been no archealogical discoveries that prove the actual existence of the Patriarchs.
The Bible is not a history text. It was not written by historians seeking to present an objective view of events but by people endeavouring to demonstrate the revelation of God in history. According to Samuel Sandmel, “Biblical narrative is not so much history as philosophy of history. . . . (The focus is) the significance of events rather than events themselves. . . . All biblical history is theological” (p.320).
This does not, as it is all too easy to assume, mean that the “Bible isn’t true;” only that judging it on the same basis as we might evaluate a historical account of the Civil War is not helpful. Whatever religious truth may be in the Bible has little relation to whether or not creation of the world happened in six days, a snake persuaded Eve to eat forbidden fruit, a man named Abram journeyed from Ur to Palestine in the second millennium BCE, or a Hebrew named Joseph saved Egypt and the much of the ancient Near East from famine. Those stories are about the relationship of God and the people he chose. Historical facts that give context to the stories are indeed interesting, but don’t add all that much to the meaning in those stories.
Reading Genesis now I can see Rabbi Sandmel’s wisdom in recommending beginning with the non-narrative books. Having first read the other books, especially the prophets, I have a clearer understanding of the theology which shaped the stories I’m now reading.
Genesis is the first book of the Pentateuch (Christian) or Torah (Jewish), five books which are traditionally referred to as “the books of Moses,” although Moses was not their author. Only Deuteronomy, which is a record of Moses’ speeches, refers to Moses in the first person. There is nothing in the other four books that would indicate Moses’ authorship.
Most non-fundamentalist biblical scholars subscribe to some form of the so-called “documentary hypothesis,” a rather complex theory which I won’t try to explain except to say that it maintains that four or more sources were woven together to form the narrative books of Genesis through Kings. Material was compiled and redacted over several centuries. Narratives were added without deleting earlier material or attempting to reconcile conflicting accounts, which explains why there are differing versions of incidents, duplications, inconsistencies, and contradictions throughout the narrative. Perhaps whoever was responsible for the text as we now know it sought to assemble all the available stories without attempting to reconcile differing details. Ancient writings, as well as myth, and folklore, which a great deal of Genesis is, were not concerned with consistency to the degree that we are. It may be that the apparently contradictory stories in the Pentateuch represent an early form of midrash, a tradition more fully developed in later Judaism which embellished, often in quite fanciful ways, biblical stories. In any case, it is interesting to note the many instances of more than one version of a story.
Genesis - “the beginning” - is about origins. The first part, chapters 1-11, is primeval history describing how the world and the people in it came to be, the origin of evil, and why things are as they are. It consists of a series of mostly disconnected episodes which occur over many centuries. Chapters 12-50 relate stories of the patriarchs, the ancestors of the Israelites, over four generations beginning with Abraham and concluding with the story of Jospeh and how the children of Jacob/Israel came to be in Egypt. In terms of literary form, Genesis begins with myth, proceeds into elements of folklore, then a multi generational, but still somewhat disconnected, family saga which concludes with a fully developed coherent plot in the novella like story of Joseph.
The documentary hypothesis which contends that multiple source documents are represented in OT books originated in the observation that there are two divergent accounts of creation in Genesis 1:1-2:3 and Genesis 2:4-24. Genesis 1:1-2:3 is the most familiar, with six days of creation culminating in “male and female created he them.” The second account (2:4-24) makes no mention of days of creation. Man is created after the earth and heavens but before vegetation or animals. Eve is created last of all from Adam’s rib. There are interesting parallels with other ancient creation myths. God’s use of the plural in referring to himself may be a trace of polytheism. But the Genesis creation story is unique in known ancient literature.
In reading the story of the Fall this time I noticed that God’s purpose in expelling Adam and Eve from Eden was to prevent them from becoming divine beings. In eating the fruit of the forbidden tree “the man (no mention of Eve) had become like us, knowing good and evil; and now, lest he put forth his hand and take also of the tree of life, and eat, and live for ever” he was cast out of the Garden of Eden “to till the ground from which he was taken” (3:22-23). So God kept Adam and Eve in their place as created beings.
In the story of Cain and Abel (4:2-16) there is no indication as to why Abel’s sacrifice of a sheep was more acceptable to God than Cain’s “offering of the fruit of the ground.” The story likely reflects tensions between nomadic shepherds, which the Israelites were, and farmers. After the murder of his brother, Cain built a city in “the land of Nod, east of Eden.” Along with the age old puzzle of where Cain found a wife, I wonder where he found enough people to populate a city. Again the association of the first city with the first murderer probably reflects the attitude of pastoral Israel towards the settled population of cities.
There is a lengthy account of Cain’s descendants followed by another for the lineage of Adam and Eve’s third son, Seth along with often obscure references to their deeds. Highly unlikely ages are listed for individuals. Ten generations are recorded from Adam to the Flood. Interestingly the account of a world destroying flood in the Babylonian Gilgamesh Saga also lists ten generations prior to the flood along with even more fantastical ages for the individuals it names. In Genesis Enoch, the seventh generation from Adam, is said to have “Walked with God; and he was not, for God took him” (5:24), a mysterious statement which became the basis for various esoteric traditions, including the non-canonical book of Enoch quoted in the New Testament (Jude 13). In another parallel, the Babylonian list of pre-flood generations also states that the seventh pre-flood hero was “taken by god” (Oxford Annotated Bible footnote to Gen. 5:24).
Chapter 6 contains another mystery. It relates how “the sons of God saw that the daughters of men were fair; and they took to wife such of them as they chose” whereupon God reduced the human lifespan to “a hundred and twenty years.” The next verse states that “the Nephilim were on the earth in those days, and also afterward, when the sons of God came into the daughters of men, and they bore children to them. These were the mighty men that were of old, the men of renown” (6:2-4). There are other OT references to the Nephilim. Like Enoch, these mysterious verses, which seem to refer to divine beings of some sort and are probably a fragment of ancient mythology, have over the centuries been the subject of much speculation.
Whoever the “sons of God” and the Nephilim may have been, after ten generations of increasing wickedness the Lord ran out of patience with his creatures: “ ‘I will blot out man whom I have created from the face of the ground, man and beast and creeping things and birds of the air, for I am sorry that I have made them.’ But Noah found favor in the eyes of the Lord” (6:7-8) and was saved along with his family.
As with the creation there are two differing narratives of the flood God sent to destroy most of his creation. In one account two of “every sort” of animal, male and female, are brought into the ark (6:19-20). In the other there are seven pairs of clean animals and only one pair of unclean (7:2-3). The number of days the flood lasted as well as the time before Noah and company emerged from the ark also differ in the two accounts. There are many details in both that match those in flood story of the Babylonian Gilgamesh Saga, which was composed sometime in the mid-second millennium BCE from older source material. Scholars believe that, even if the Genesis flood story wasn’t directly derived from that of Gilgamesh, the two at least have a common source.
With all life other than that preserved in the ark gone, Noah and his wife along with their three sons and their wives emerged from the ark to repopulate the earth. God blessed Noah and told him what to expect going forward. No longer will animals be unafraid of people, for, there being no plants left to eat, they would now be eaten by humans; only consumption of their blood was forbidden. God made a covenant with Noah and his sons which included included the well known rainbow promise along with commandments, known in Judaic tradition as the Noahide Laws, to which all humanity is subject since everyone on earth is a descendant of the family with whom the Lord made that covenant.
The post-flood story moves on to say that Noah “was the first tiller of the soil,” ignoring the post-fall curse which sentenced Adam to do just that, and relate a strange episode in which Noah got drunk from wine made from his grapes and “lay uncovered in his tent.” His son Ham saw him and told his brothers who covered Noah up without looking at him. When he awoke he cursed, not Ham but Ham’s son, Canaan. There may be some confusion in the text, but the curse may be an explanation of why God told the Israelites to dispossess the Canaanites who resided in Israel’s promised land (9:20-27).
There is a lengthy genealogy of Noah’s descendants and how they populated the earth, which for the writers of the Bible constituted the Near and Middle East. The story of the Tower of Babel (a phase not actually in the Bible!) explains the origin of different languages. In the kind of punning wordplay that occurs over and over again in the OT, Genesis turns the Akkadian name of Babylon, Babilim meaning “gate of God” into the Hebrew Babal, which means “to jumble or to confuse.”
The genealogy in Genesis 11 ends with Terah and his son Abram who “went forth from Ur of the Chaldeans to go to the land of Canaan” but settled along the way in Haran where Terah died.
© 2021 James Moyers