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Gordon Wenham: Genesis 1–11 is Proto-History — An Excerpt from “Genesis: History, Fiction, or Neither?”

Categories Old Testament Book Excerpts

9780310514947What genre is Genesis 1–11? Is it history, fiction, or neither? A new book provides clarity by exploring the first eleven chapters of the Bible, which are often fraught with disagreement and confusion.

Genesis: History, Fiction, or Neither? offers a vigorous discussion of primeval history from three distinct perspective. One of those voices is Gordon Wenham, who argues the authors of Genesis wrote in typically ancient ways that did not intend to produce history:

I argued that the backbone of Gen 1 – 11 is an expanded linear genealogy...This interest in chronology and the causal explanation of the sequence of events in the dim and distant past makes protohistory a better description of Gen 1 – 11 than myth on the one hand and history on the other..

Read the excerpt below and engage this important resource yourself to gain deeper insights into the important discussion of the genre and nature of Genesis 1–11.

…Recovering the message of Gen 1 – 11 is more important than defining its genre. A secure definition of its genre would clarify the interpretation of this text somewhat, but not fundamentally alter our understanding of it. I have advanced reasons for holding that protohistory is a better category for its genre than other proposed alternatives. I argued that the backbone of Gen 1 – 11 is an expanded linear genealogy: ten generations from Adam to Noah and ten generations from Noah to Abram. Most figures in these genealogies are simply known by their names and their age when they fathered their first-born and their age at death. But a few of them have extra details attached to them such as Lamech’s prayer for his son Noah or the observation that Enoch walked with God. At other times the additional comments balloon into long accounts about the garden of Eden or the flood, but this does not obscure the point that these stories are add-ons to the chronological backbone of the genealogy. This interest in chronology and the causal explanation of the sequence of events in the dim and distant past makes protohistory a better description of Gen 1 – 11 than myth on the one hand and history on the other.

This conclusion is compatible with our analysis of three of the episodes attached to the genealogy. The angel marriages story reads at first like myth, in that it deals with divine activity in a way that modern readers usually regard as fantasy. But, I argued that for the ancient reader this was not the case. They believed certain great historical figures were indeed human/divine hybrids and that cult prostitution acted out such unions in real life. The flood and the reduction of the human life span to a maximum of 120 years demonstrated to biblical man that this was not just imaginative fiction or myth. Similarly, the flood story is primarily a didactic narrative showing the seriousness of sin, especially cult prostitution and violence. It also explains the origin of the rules on meat eating, promotes the procreation of children, and introduces the law of talion to prevent unlimited revenge and an explosion of violence. The Genesis flood story retells a familiar ancient Near Eastern tale to teach a new theology and ethic.

Genesis shows that there is only one supreme God whose all-powerful control of events warrants the description almighty. And whereas most ancient Near Eastern deities were rather lax in their morals, the God of the Genesis flood is supremely interested in good behavior. These ancient versions of the flood story have been termed mytho-historical because of their interest in causality and chronology. These features are even more prominent in Genesis, but to avoid the misleading associations of myth, I have called the accounts protohistorical. (pgs 95–97)

Genesis: History, Fiction, Or Neither?

Edited by Charles Halton

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