Appropriately named, as it is a book of beginnings, Genesis finds itself as one of the most contested books of the Bible. Jews and Christians traditionally hold it as historical narratives of the origins of mankind, while others posit it as simply beautiful prose. Did the events described within its pages, especially those of chapters 1 – 11, actually occur or are they mythology, borrowed heavily from Mesopotamian and Egyptian influence?
This paper will discuss three areas of contention concerning Genesis: Authorship, Dating of the book, and Historical setting. While these areas will be discussed, and arguments for and against traditional Judeo-Christian beliefs concerning Genesis will be explored, it is not the purpose of this paper to be apologetic. Simply, this is a brief Survey of the book of Genesis. It is the presupposition of the author of this paper that Genesis, as all Scripture, is inspired, inerrant, and infallible. Whether or not the author of Genesis borrowed from the superpowers surrounding it is irrelevant to its authority, as it would only influence writing style.
After exploring the three areas of contention amongst scholars, this paper will then discuss the message and purpose of Genesis, major divisions within the book, and key theological themes. After reading this paper, it should be understood why Jews and Christians still hold to its historical value without simply trumpeting the author’s presuppositions.
The authorship is one of the more heated arguments concerning the book of Genesis. Jewish and Christian traditions credit Moses as the author, referring to Genesis as the first book in a collection of five that Jews have called “The five fifths of the law of Moses”.(NIV, 2) Christians typically call the collection the Pentateuch or “The five books”, credited first to Origen. (Wegner, 42)
Mosaic authorship was held without contention until around the 18th century. (McKeown, 1) From the 18th to the 20th centuries, scholars developed what is known as “The Developed Document Hypothesis”, which states that The Pentateuch is a patchwork of four separate documents: J (for YHWH (J for the German version)); E (for Elohist (From Elohim)); D (from Deuteronomical); and P (from Patrichal). (McKeown, 7) Scholars have also rejected Mosaic authorship based on the recording of his death in Deuteronomy 34 and other references that could not have been written by him, (ie: Gen 36:31 mentions a “king” in Israel and Gen 14:14 mentions the city of Dan, which was not named Dan during the time of Moses). (McKeown, 8) Finally, scholars have long held that written records did not exist during the time of Moses. (Wegner, 75)
While support of Mosaic authorship is inconclusive and circumstantial at best, it cannot be completely rejected as arguments against it have weak validity. The Developed Document Hypothesis has not held up against source-criticism and literary research. The two earliest documents, J and E, cannot be conclusively shown to have ever existed as separate documents. (McKeown, 8) Neither do the documents, along with arguments based on passages such as the recording of Moses’ death, prove that he did not write the bulk of the Pentateuch. (McKeown, 8) Finally, the thought that writing did not exist at the time of Moses has been proven inaccurate through archeological discoveries of pictograms, cuneiform, and other early forms of writing. (Wegner, 75)
While authorship of Genesis has been difficult to determine, herein lays the position of this paper. While the evidence might not hold up against critical research, the presupposition of all Scripture breathed by God finds strong evidence for Mosaic authorship in a simple statement from the New Testament. Acts 15:1 refers to circumcision as “the custom taught by Moses.” The first recording of circumcision is found in Genesis 17. (NIV, 2) It is not concrete proof, but it is enough for the author of this paper to hold to the traditional belief that Moses wrote the bulk of the Pentateuch.
Dating of the book:
Along with authorship, dating Genesis has proven to be difficult. If Moses is assumed the author, 1 Kings 6:1 helps us establish a time-frame. The reference states that the fourth year of Solomon’s reign is the same as the 480th year after Israel left Egypt. Since the fourth year of Solomon’s reign was around 966 B.C., it places the Exodus around 1446 B.C. (NIV, 2) Moses is most likely to have written the bulk of The Pentateuch during the 40 years in the wilderness, which puts dating between 1446 – 1406 B.C. (NIV, 2)
If, however, The Pentateuch is a mesh of documents posited by the Document Hypothesis, J has been dated to the 10th century B.C. while E is believed to be near the 9th or 8th century B.C. D is held to be around the time of King Josiah and heavily influenced by the 8th century prophets, and finally P is dated near the 5th century B.C. (Mckeown, 7, 8)
The difficulty of dating the book, it seems, is implicitly tied to authorship. It cannot be dated for certain until the problem of who wrote it is resolved. Since this paper holds to Mosaic authorship, though, it would put the dating of The Pentateuch between 1446 – 1406 B.C.
“Genesis was written for a people who lived in a world dominated by superpowers such as Egypt and Babylon.” (McKeown, 12) The influence of these two powers can be felt in everything, including culture and religion. (McKeown, 12) Genesis 1 – 38 reflects the heavy Mesopotamian influence, while 39 – 50 reveals Egyptian impact. Such is the basis for Israeli customs.
Several Mesopotamian myths parallel Genesis (ie: Enuma elish, Gilgamesh, and Atrahasis). Also, the Mari letters of the 18th century B.C. chronicle customs, languages, and personal names common during the patriarchal times. (NIV, xxiii, 1) The Nuzi tablets, mid 2nd century B.C., shed light on customs such as adoption and birthrights. (NIV, xxiii, 1)
The Egyptian “Tale of Two Brothers” parallels Genesis 39, the story of Joseph and Potipher’s wife. Other, more general, parallels in Egyptian literature can be found in “The Story of Sinuhe” and “Report of Wenamun.” (NIV, 2)
Genesis provided a much needed boost of faith in the One True God in the midst of heavy polytheistic cultural influence. While much of Egypt’s and Babylon’s cultural impact is seen, the theological fundamentals of Genesis is distinct from anything at the time. (McKeown, 12)
Message and Purpose:
Primarily, Genesis is a book about relationships: from God and creation, to God and humankind, and finally with humans to humans. Throughout the text, the complexity of relationships is shown, with the faithfulness of God emphasized. Not only did its monotheistic view distinguish it from all other literature at the time, but also its portrait of raw human emotion. (ie: Gen 16:5). (Alter, xlv, xlvi)
With Egyptian and Mesopotamian culture influencing every aspect of Israeli life, the people needed to be reminded of their origins and God’s faithfulness. He alone was (and is) the one true God and they were (are) His people. The encouragement of Genesis helped solidify Israel as a nation distinct amongst all other nations.
A quick glance over Genesis can easily reveal a dividing of the book into two main sections: Chapters 1 – 11, and 12 – 50. The first 11 chapters are more universal in nature and focus on the “primeval history”. The second set of chapters deals with one family line. As McKeown points out, the first 11 chapters are not merely introductory and unrelated to chapters 12 – 50, but give a basis that establishes how God deals with mankind, including Abraham’s lineage. (McKeown, 2)
Aside from the basic division of Genesis into two sections, many scholars have divided Genesis into ten main sections, based on what is called the “Toledot Formula”, which translates into “These are the generations of…” (McKeown, 2) These divisions can be found at verses: 2:4; 5:1; 6:9; 10:1; 11:10; 11:27; 25:12; 25:19; 36:1; and 37:2. (NIV, 2, 3) The literary designations of these sections can be labeled:
- The account of the heavens and the earth – 2:4 – 4:26
- The written account of Adam’s line – 5:1 – 6:8
- The account of Noah – 6:9 – 9:29
- The account of Shem, Ham, and Japheth – 10:1 – 11:9
- The account of Shem – 11:10 – 26
- The account of Terah – 11:27 – 25:11
- The account of Abraham’s son Ishmael – 25:12 – 18
- The account of Abraham’s son Isaac – 25:19 – 35:29
- The account of Esau – 36:1 – 37:1
- The account of Jacob – 37:2 – 50:26
(NIV, 3, 4)
The first five sections can be grouped together in the primeval designation suggested earlier, while the last five sections can be equally grouped together in what is known as the patriarchal period. These five sections can also be grouped into three sections that deal with a cyclical family generation as: Abraham – Isaac, Isaac – Jacob, and Jacob – Joseph. Within these are mixed the descendents of Ishmael and Esau. (NIV, 3)
Key Theological Themes:
The primary theme of Genesis is the faithfulness of God. Although His creation rejected Him, (Gen 3:1 – 11:32), God set in motion His plan of salvation through the choosing of a nation set apart for Himself (12:2-3). Secondarily is the theme of man’s utter need for God’s grace and salvation. Adam and Eve rejected God by eating the fruit (chapter 3) and mankind rejects Him to worship themselves and/or the Mesopotamian gods around them (chapters 6 – 11). Even the patriarchs doubted God’s faithfulness to keep His promises (12:11 – 13; 15:2-3; 26:8), yet He kept His promises throughout the book of Genesis (and beyond).
Throughout, Genesis describes attributes of God as He reveals Himself to His people: God the Creator (Gen 1:1 – 2:3); God, holy and just (6:1 – 11:9); God, personal and loving (12:1 – 50:26); God, ever faithful (12:2 – 50:25). Genesis also provides the origin of man’s sinfulness (Gen 3) and God’s plan of salvation for all mankind (12:2-3). Thirdly, it provides the basis for faith and grace being the work of God, given as gifts to man (15:4-21).
Although the points of authorship and dating of the book have yet to be concretely resolved, the book of Genesis has still clearly revealed itself as more than simple beautiful prose based on the cultural influences of Egypt and Babylon. The people of Israel are set apart in its pages as a people of one God who puts the work of His plan for all mankind on His own majestic shoulders, and not in the hands of people. This distinction drastically deviates from all other literature and cultural phenomena of the Ancient Near Eastern time period. It is the presupposition of the author of this paper that the reason for this distinction is that Genesis is God’s self-revelation to His people. It is the basis of their origin, and the basis of their hope secured in a faithful and more than capable God to keep His promises to them, and to their future generations. It is also the basis for all hope the Christian has in Him, knowing that He has not backed away from His word since the beginning of time.
NIV Study Bible, Kenneth L. Barker, rev. ed. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2002
The Journey from Texts to Translations, Paul D. Wegner, fourth ed. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic. 1999
Genesis, Robert Alter. New York, NY: W. W. Norton and Company, Inc. 1996
Genesis: The two horizons Old Testament commentary, James McKeown. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co. 2008