Re: [asa] Re: Reading Genesis theologically NOT historically

From: Murray Hogg <>
Date: Sat Oct 03 2009 - 15:58:45 EDT

Hi Dick,

I have to say that almost every time I make reference to Genesis as "not historical" I feel somewhat of a pang of conscience that I haven't, as yet, had time to come to grips with your work on the subject.

I can only say that the idea that the primordial narrative of Genesis (i.e. chapters 1-11) are "Jewish history" as opposed to "human history" strikes me as PRECISELY the sort of thing we routinely see in pre-modern "histories" and, so, PRECISELY the sort of thing I would expect Genesis 2-11 to be.

Here, as usual, I point to Australian Aboriginals as a prime example of the point. For them the creation story is ALWAYS told with reference to a particular tribe and with reference to THEIR particular place in the world - there is, in other words, ALWAYS a tendency to have what we might call a parochial view of the universe.

Curiously, such habits persist even though these tribal groups are fully aware that there are other groups who are not accounted for by the creation story.

To give a poor but hopefully helpful analogy - it's as though the English had a creation myth which dated the creation of the world in 1066 with William the Conqueror as the first human from whom all Englishmen are descended whilst AT THE VERY SAME TIME recognizing that there exist Scotsmen who trace THEIR descent from the very first human who, in Scottish mythology, is known as Robert the Bruce.

What people fail to grasp is that ancient peoples are not benighted moronic sub-humans with no grasp of the fact that their tribe is NOT the only tribe on the planet. They are perfectly aware that their origins stories don't, by-and-large, serve as a universal human story and that they don't, by-and-large, account for OTHER tribal groups origins. Rather they regard their stories as "our story" whilst those of other tribes are "their story" and there is scant consideration given to reconciling the two. I am reminded of a remark of Nabokov: "Once I asked a Crow Indian friend why a Shoshone Sun Dance I had recently witnessed differed in certain respects from the Crow version.'Oh,' was all he would speculate, 'I guess that must be their way.'" (A Forest of Time: American Indian Ways of History, Cambridge U. Press, 2002, p.ix - recommended reading, by the way, for anybody who wants to actually come to grips with what it means to recount "history" in a pre-modern tribal setting).

What's critical here (and very relevant to the remarks in your post) is that the tribal stories connect to persons, events, and places which are significant in the tribal context. Indeed, it's precisely to draw out the SIGNIFICANCE of particular persons, events, and places that such stories are told and retold. They don't, by and large, show too much concern with particular details or with chronology, and there's often little qualm about introducing "mythic" elements. If one takes Homer's Iliad, for instance, I have little doubt that it was inspired by real persons involved in real events in real places: but it isn't "history" as we know it.

The relevance? Simply that I would expect that Genesis 2-11 shows something of this spirit. I personally couldn't credit the idea that the narrative is fabricated out of whole cloth as that's NOT how tribal people function. So it seems to me not just plausible, but quite necessary, to imagine that some real persons, events, and places lie behind the narrative. Only the narrative is far more focused on the SIGNIFICANCE of such persons, events, and places than current historians would consider appropriate - the INTERPRETATION of history is so too the fore that the history itself is by-and-large submerged.

A good example here is the Tower of Babel episode. The idea that at the time "the whole earth had one language and one speech" stands in stark contrast to the table of nations already recounted in chapter 10. It should be OBVIOUS that the author of Genesis was WELL AWARE that the claim about "one language" is simply not factually accurate - on 3 occasions Gen 10 speaks of people groups divided "according to their languages" (vvs. 5, 20, 31). CLEARLY the concern is to narrate something other than what we would regard as "history" - but that doesn't mean the account is an utter fabrication with NO connection to the persons, events, and places of tribal significance.

All this is why I am not quite happy with the sort of dichotomous position taken by Bernie: i.e. either Genesis is historically true (according to the dictates of modern historiography) or it's "wrong". The reality is far more complex and I have no doubt that one CAN establish significant tie ins between the Genesis text and the contemporary ANE texts, inscriptions, etc of the surrounding cultures. But, of course, those texts, inscriptions, etc, are themselves not "history" as we would understand it, so adding an extra layer of difficulty.

The bottom line is that I am ALMOST 100% in agreement with your evaluation of Gen 2-11, viz; that it is "a fairly accurate although highly selective representation of the history of the Adamite/Semite race during the 3,000 year period leading up to Abraham."

Two elements of this I affirm without hesitation; (1) that the account is "tribal specific" - so even if it occasionally adopts universal language (as it does in the Noaic Flood or Tower of Babel stories) we shouldn't be surprised to find that the brute historical details are other than the story narrates (as I keep repeating the stories are told for their significance to the tribe NOT because there is ANY interest in historiography - this is a form of "history" but not as we know it) - I don't say such stories ARE historically inaccurate, only that historical accuracy isn't the point, and thus not the measure of their "truth"; and (2) that the account is a "highly selective representation" - all history, of course, is selective, but Gen 2-11 (as with all tribal stories) is so to an exceptional degree.

I also affirm the claim that it is "a fairly accurate...history" with the same broken record caveat: this is not "history" as we know it - it certainly contains fairly accurate historical details, and it will, no doubt, tie in with other ANE records, but - if I may harp on and on and on about the point - the issue to the original "owners" of these stories is not to record an accurate account of ANE history, rather it is to tell "our story" - i.e. the story of those people, events, and places which are of significance to THIS tribe - and in a manner that presses home the issues of importance to the tribe - NOT the issues which are important to modern Western students of ANE culture.

Anyway, I have gone on far too great a length - I do hope one day to read your book as, from what I have gleaned from your postings on this list, I suspect I will have far more praise than criticism when I do. I suspect that we are, if not on the same page, at least at about the same end of the book.


Dick Fischer wrote:
> Hi Murray:
> I think all of us on this list would readily agree that regardless of
> whether Adam was real or made up it would be impossible at that late
> date for him to have commenced the human race. The place and timing is
> all wrong unless you posit hundreds of missing generations. The error
> in my opinion very early in Christianity was that Jewish history was
> accepted as human history. And nothing was known about anthropology to
> apply a damper on that mistake.
> So if we can accept that Adam was God’s emissary to mankind and was to
> bring all humanity under the umbrella of God’s grace through his
> intended example of sheer obedience, then the only question is whether
> there was such a person or whether he is fictional.
> As you all know I fall on the side of all of Genesis 2-11 being a fairly
> accurate although highly selective representation of the history of the
> Adamite/Semite race during the 3,000 year period leading up to Abraham.
> There are too many historical tie ins with ANE literature to ignore.
> What I think we are overlooking is that we have only a tiny fraction of
> the literature and historical writings that were produced ever since the
> Sumerians invented writing. We do have some of the clay tablets
> produced prior to the destruction of Sumer around the time Abraham
> departed for the land of Canaan.
> The use of papyrus increased portability but it wouldn’t last. The only
> reason we have Genesis at all is thanks to countless Hebrew scribes who
> throughout the centuries laboriously copied the sacred scrolls.
> Ancillary material has almost all been lost. The library at Babylon was
> destroyed. The library in Jerusalem was destroyed. Whatever may have
> been in Rome was destroyed.
> So today we have only a small amount of corroborative evidence that
> attests to the historicity of Genesis. The city Cain built was named in
> the Sumerian King List. Jubilees corroborates Genesis even naming the
> wives of the patriarchs. Josephus in his section about Adam talks about
> Cain and Abel, then he says about Adam: “He had, indeed, more children,
> and among them Seth. As for the rest, it would be tedious to name them.”
> That indicates to me Josephus knew the names but didn’t record them.
> Would those names have bee the same or similar to the names written on
> Egyptian pyramids that did include Seth? Alas, we will never know.
> All the Genesis motifs are incorporated in ANE literature and on
> cylinder seals. Genesis has a “tree of life” and cylinder seals show
> angels and kings tending the sacred tree. The serpent too is part of
> the culture having stolen the life giving plant and thereby gaining
> eternal life. Adam (Atum, Adapa, Adamu) is corroborated. Cain, Abel
> and Seth are corroborated, Enoch, Lamech (Su-kur lam), Noah (Ziusudra,
> Atrahasis, Utnapishtim), Terah and Abraham are all corroborated.
> You all can debate whether the science of the day is good, bad or
> indifferent, but the history looks to be fairly accurate or at least it
> can be substantiated. So in lieu of any reasons or contrary evidence
> that would negate their depiction of history I would give Genesis the
> benefit of the doubt.
> Dick Fischer
> <>

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Received on Sat Oct 3 16:00:45 2009

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