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Who What Why Wednesday: Genesis 1-11

The Who What Why Wednesday series will answer questions I get, either online or in person. Leading off the series will be a question about the first 11 chapters of the Christian Bible. 

Question: Many Christians believe Genesis to be a literal historical account, inspired by God. What is your opinion of Genesis, particularly chapters 1-11, which deal with Creation, the Great Flood, and the Tower of Babel.

 My position is that textual analysis indicates that these chapters are not meant to be read as history.  Genesis 1-11 does not read like anything remotely resembling a literal, historical account. It is literature, encompassing varied genres such as allegory, myth and legend. It opens with a myth, which covers the origin of the world, giving way to fable, which teaches a moral lesson using elements such as talking animals and symbols from nature—trees in this case, giving way to legend, in which people with human attributes accomplish extraordinary things giving away to something much closer to the general Western notion of history in later chapters.

The text has a man called “Human,” a woman called “Mother” a talking animal specifically named as being the Devil elsewhere in the Bible, a tree that can grant everlasting life, another tree that can grant knowledge, an omnipotent, omniscient and omnipresent God that walks around in bodily form and says that he is surprised and what appears to be two completely different creation stories. Then, it has Cain who upon killing Abel is already worried about being an and having his life put in danger (by who?) before going off to found an entire city of people whose origins are unexplained, and who simply “exist.” Soon afterward, there are angels sleeping with human women and creating some kind race of giants who conveniently get wiped out in a world-wide flood without leaving any evidence behind.

Few would think the accounts were historical if they encountered them for the first time in an archeological dig. If we found something like this in China or North America, everyone would agree that the work should be compared to similar literature from the same general geographic location and time period, yet some people want to exempt anything in the Christian Bible from such scrutiny.  The early chapters of Genesis have all the hallmarks of traditions that are told around the campfire from one generation to the next until differing traditions are merged into a more canonical written form.

Further, I don’t think we’re giving the ancient Israelites much credit if we take their literature as history or prophecy and any other such thing.  It would be like future generations digging up tales of Paul Bunyan and claiming that we really believed that a giant lumberjack and big blue ox roamed the upper Midwest in a bygone era. Even without contrary science, the literal view fails on textual analysis alone in my opinion. 

Finally, the historical angle is just not supported by the evidence.  Fields of study as diverse as biology, physics, chemistry, climatology, geology, astronomy, cosmology, anthropology, linguistics, archaeology and genetics have found it to be every bit as far-fetched as the Book of Mormon’s notion that Native Americans are descended from Israelites.  This is not some one-off miracle where you have to decide whether or not the eye-witness accounts concerning an empty tomb are reliable.  Everyone knows that such a thing does not generally happen, but many accept that it could have happened once.   A world in which Genesis 1-11 actually happened, however, would be fundamentally different from the one we observe. It is far more reasonable to work back from what we do know than to simply believe and stop searching.