About Genesis

by Matt Carter


Genesis is a book of history, and as such must begin, as all histories do, in the middle. Given that the book opens with "In the beginning," it may seem strange to read that it begins not with the beginning but with the middle. The middle I am referring to here, however, is present before Moses begins with his "in the beginning" opening. In this middle sits Moses the divinely inspired but still very real writer trying to articulate to Israel their past, present, and future. The historical genre attempts to use the past to explain the present and shape the future, and Moses' history is no exception. So the real question is not whether Moses' history in Genesis begins in the middle but what is God trying to say to us through Moses' history? Why might God have used Moses as a historian? Why isn't this poetry or wisdom literature? What difference does it make that Genesis is a history? These are some of the questions we should carry with us as we read through Genesis.


Primeval History

The first 11 chapters of Genesis are known as Moses' primeval history. These chapters give the history of the entire world from its creation to the days of Abraham. That is a lot of ground to cover, considering that Moses most likely lived around 2000-1800 BCE. Even the most conservative estimates about the age of the Earth make that about 4,000 years of history in 11 chapters. Think about all of the people who would live and events that would happen in 4,000 years. So, Moses left out a lot of stuff. Why?

We can begin to answer this question by thinking about what Moses was trying to do with his history. The literary traditions of the time and place of Moses help us to think about his purpose. Moses not only knew about these literary traditions, he knew about the other primeval histories that were popular during his time. Actually, he not only knew about these other primeval histories, he interacted with these other primeval histories in his Genesis primeval history.

Moses was not the first historian of the world's origins. There were actually a lot of these floating around the ancient Near East during Moses' time. The most well-known of these histories is probably the Gilgamesh Epic, but the Babylonians had both a creation story and a flood story. There were other creation accounts in Egypt and Canaan too. Remember, Moses was well-educated in the royal courts of Egypt during his youth. So, how did Moses interact with these other histories and why?

Before considering an answer, we must also remember that Moses' original audience for his primeval history also began in the middle. The Israelites also had an existing history that, like Moses', involved a lot of Egyptian and Ancient Near Eastern influence. That meant that Moses had to interact with these existing histories simply to make himself understood by his audience. 

So, Moses' interactions with these other histories was both positive and negative. The negative interaction was to correct false beliefs and tell the historical truth to Israel about its relationship to God. It was positive in the sense that Moses had to use the same way of telling primeval history that these other histories used just to be understood by his audience. One particular literary text that Moses seems to have positively interacted with a lot was rediscovered and published in 1965 as Atrahasis: The Babylonian Story of the Flood

Moses seems to have followed the threefold literary structure of the Atrahasis Epic, which begins with the creation of people, their subsequent corruption of the world, the rectification of this problem with a judgement flood, and ends with a new world order. Moses used this same storyline to tell a very different primeval history to the people of Israel.

Remember that histories are stories about the past to explain the present and shape the future. How does this storyline in Atrahasis Epic do this? Do we know how it works? This history works by telling its readers that the universe operates by supernatural order and wisdom, and that it is the responsibility of every member of society regardless of status to conform to this divine order. They learn this by remembering what happened when people did not conform to this divine order. So, one of the functions of the Atrahasis Epic was to keep everybody, from slaves to royals, in obedient order. These stories justified both the existing social, cultural, and religious structures as well as the enforcement mechanisms that were undoubtedly used to maintain this order.

Why would Moses use this as his literary structure for his primeval history? This seems like a recipe for social coercion and systemic abuse. Moses uses this literary structure to convince his Israelite audience that God created and ordered a good world, and that Moses' leading of captive Israelites out of slavery into the promised land was in concert with that good divine order. Remember, Moses faced significant opposition from Israelites who believed Moses had led them astray. His purpose was to convince them that Moses' program was the way of God just like the creation of the world. In the rest of the Pentateuch, Moses goes to great lengths to ensure that people were not subjected to the sorts of systemic abuses that Israelites had suffered in Egypt.

Moses showed Israel that moving towards Canaan was like moving towards God's ideal creation in Gen 1:1-2:3. Egypt was a place of corruption and hardship, just like the world's corruption had brought hardship in Gen 2:4-6:8. The flood and new order of Gen 6:9-11:9 with Noah showed Israel  the new order and blessings that would come with following Moses to Canaan. Canaan was the divine inheritance of Israel if they would only turn away from Egypt and its corruption.

For further investigation of this topic, you could read the Atrahasis Epic.

Moving Towards Shalom

One of the ways that action occurs throughout Genesis is in terms of movement towards shalom. One way of understanding what shalom means is to imagine what that word would have meant to enslaved ancient Israelites who were themselves trying to imagine life beyond slavery. All of the dominant worldly pagan wisdom of their day told them that it was really important to maintain the existing social and economic world order in which they were enslaved, because if they did not really bad things like a catastrophic flood would happen to them. The message was basically that nothing significant could be done for an Israelite to move her out of slavery, because her enslavement is the will of the gods. 

An enslaved person knows in their core that their enslavement is wrong. An enslaved person will try to escape their bondage. The pagan world's wisdom does not try to teach enslaved people that somehow being enslaved is good. That just would not work. Instead, its message for the enslaved was that escape is futile and that your enslavement is probably due in some way to your own inadequacy or powerlessness. It would tell an enslaved person that the sense of injustice and hope you can feel deep in your bones is just not how the world works.

Shalom in Genesis functions as a way of telling those enslaved people that this worldly wisdom is a lie. Life, love, peace, and justice are the threads from which the world is woven. This shalom is the real supernatural order, and our hope is in God who alone can restore this world order. 

As you move through Genesis, try to imagine how what you read about God, his creation, and what it says about all people tells a radically different story to these enslaved Israelites about the way the world should work. Think about how shalom, Sabbath, and Canaan are deeply related to each other. As you read, think about movement and action in this narrative in terms of being towards or away from shalom and life.

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