Re: Gen 1-11 as history

George Murphy (
Sat, 14 Aug 1999 08:21:47 -0400 wrote:
> I suggest, therefore, that the genre of Gen 1-11 is substantially no
> different than that of Gen 12-50. This is not to say they are identical in
> genre. There are differences; but, from the viewpoint of the history of
> interpretation, I think we have to say that Gen 1-11 was intended by the
> human authors to be taken as essentially historical.

You're certainly right that in the history of interpretation virtually all of
Genesis was seen as historical narrative. Without disparaging our ancestors in the
faith, I think we have to say that this is one area in which we have simply learned
things that they didn't know - that cultures of the past, understandings of what it
meant to write history (or whether there even was such a concept) &c have been quite
different from our own. We have a sense of historical distance that they didn't.
Reading Luther on Genesis, e.g., one gets the impression that the patriarchs were pretty
much like pious 16th century German burghers.
Putting down 2 different accounts of the same phenomena next to one another,
accounts which simply don't agree as historical narrative, & not providing any
footnotes, glosses, "harmonies" &c seems a very strange procedue to us. Apparently it
wasn't for the biblical writers and (perhaps more significantly) for the redactors,
editors, or whatever, who put the text in its canonical form. We can't get completely
into their minds and know just what they intended by doing that. But we need to make
some attempt to do that & not simply impose the criteria & assumptions of modern
historical writing on them.
It would be a mistake to suggest that between Gen 11 & 12 there is a complete
break between myth, saga, &c & straight history. 1-11 contains some historical material
& the following chapters includes material which isn't. (E.g., we find duplicate
accounts of some things & 3 accounts of the risking of the matriarch.) But we can begin
to see some differences. Chapters 12 & following take place in a clearly defined
geography While geographical details are generally peripheral in 1-11. The people in
12 & ff have real characters, do distinctive things, and _say_ things. OTOH, we are
really given nothing about what kind of person Noah was except that he was righteous,
& he doesn't get to say anything during the flood story at all.
I.e., we can see differences, though they aren't completely sharp. & this
continues through the canon - e.g., comparing Samuel-Kings with Chronicles. & in the
gospels we have historical material, but history which is redacted for theological
purposes. Again, we have to try to understand the fact that the early church did make
the 4 gospels, rather than some "harmony" like Tatian's in the 2d century, canonical.

George L. Murphy