When we read Genesis, what exactly are we reading? The distinctions and categories we modern readers bring to books and narratives (fiction or nonfiction; science or folk tale; history or literature; poetry or prose; author’s original text or quoted source) may not serve us well when we read the Old Testament, a collection of ancient literature. Its writers used different conventions. What were they? What exactly are we reading when we read Genesis?
This seems like an important preliminary question to discuss before diving into the Old Testament, but I find surprisingly little discussion of it by LDS authors. After quoting a few scholarly commentators, I’ll consider what some LDS authors say about genre. I’m going to focus on Genesis 1-11, which contains accounts of the Creation (Genesis 1-2), Adam and Eve in the Garden (Genesis 3), Cain and Abel (Genesis 4), Noah and the Flood (Genesis 5-9), and the Tower of Babel (Genesis 11), punctuated by several genealogies that appear (to the modern reader) rather out of place in such a narrative (Genesis 5, 10, and 11).
Marshall D. Johnson, in Making Sense of the Bible: Literary Type as an Approach to Understanding (Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2002), emphasizes the “diverse kinds of literature within the Bible, each with different perspectives,” and recommends focusing on “the basic literary forms as a first step toward understanding” (p. 3). The literary form that Genesis falls under in his classification is historical and quasi-historical narratives, which “have a retrospective function. They interpret the past from the perspective of the authors’ present” (p. 35). He summarizes the accounts in Genesis 1-11 as “an edited record of ancient Israelite traditions regarding origins” (p. 36). Okay, an edited narrative giving an interpretation of the past is helpful, but this raises new questions: Whose interpretation? Who were the editors? What did they edit and what guided their editing?
In The People of Ancient Israel: An Introduction to Old Testament Literature, History, and Thought (Harper & Row, 1974), J. Kenneth Kuntz addresses some of these questions. He describes “the Yahwist” (his name for the author of the J material found in Genesis 2-11) as a scribe or scholar who was part of King Solomon’s extended court and who used Genesis 2-11 to tell a story of “universal human origins,” setting the stage for the subsequent story of Israel starting in chapter 12. The Yahwist “was a creative theologian who maintained that what had originally been created as beautiful and good had in time become corrupt” (p. 214). “His mythology declares that man is not the master of his own being and that a transcendant power sustains the world and guides its inhabitants” (p. 224). And what literary form or genre does Kuntz think the Yahwist used to express his or her theology and view of human origins?
The Yahwist chose myth as the vehicle for communicating the truth he felt compelled to convey. But to label his work in Genesis 2-11 “myth” is not to imply that it is inferior. Let us be clear as to what we mean by myth. … [I]t is a highly figurative way of speaking that usually offers profound commentary on reality. The myths of ancient Near Eastern man were not geared to the purely imaginary. … In his mythology, ancient man tried to interpret the real in terms of the ideal, to view isolated happenings as continuous situations. Thus no sharp distinction is made between dreams, hallucinations, and ordinary vision. [p. 214.]
A more recent treatment is Walter Brueggemann’s An Introduction to the Old Testament: The Canon and Christian Imagination (Westminster John Knox, 2003). He notes that the early narratives were “appropriated by Israel from older, well-developed cultures” that functioned “as founding statements for society, authorizing, legitimating, and ordering certain modes of social relationships and certain forms of social power.” He continues:
[S]cholars have referred to these materials, both in the Old Testament and in their cultural antecedents, as “myths.” The usage of that term does not imply “falsehood,” as the term might be taken popularly. Rather, after the manner of Joseph Campbell, the term refers to founding poetic narratives that provide the basic self-understanding of a society and its raison d’etre, foundational formulations of elemental reality that are to be regularly reiterated in liturgical form in order to reinforce claims of legitimacy for the ordering of society. [p. 29.]
Brueggemann notes the obvious distinction between narrative and genealogies in the early chapters, commenting that the genealogies “reflect kinship groups as a way of establishing rootage and legitimacy. It is clear, however, that these genealogies are not to be taken simply as reportage on kinship, but that kinship is used in them metaphorically to characterize many other relationships, social, political, and religious” (p. 30).
So he sees the early chapters of Genesis as a “founding poetic narrative” for Israel that provides “the basic self-understanding” of Israel’s overlapping kingship, society, and religion. Amazingly, Genesis still retains that role of cosmic founding narrative for modern Christians, including Latter-day Saints, although our interpretation of that narrative has evolved. In a similar fashion, we LDS add the canonized Joseph Smith story as a “founding poetic narrative” for the LDS Church as an institution and a claim to legitimacy by way of restored priesthood authority.
Robert Alter, in his Genesis: Translation and Commentary (W. W. Norton, 1996) explains how even our conception of the word “book” can distort understanding of the narratives in Genesis.
The biblical term that comes closest to “book” is sefer. … [I]ts primary sense is “scroll,” and it can refer to anything written on a scroll — a letter, a relatively brief unit within a longer composition, or a book more or less in our sense. A scroll is not a text shut in between covers, and additional swathes of scroll can be stitched onto it, which seems to have been a very common biblical practice. A book in the biblical sphere was assumed to be a product of an anonymous tradition. … [L]ater prophecies by different prophet-poets could be tacked onto the earlier scrolls, and earlier scrolls perhaps might even be edited to fit better into a continuous book with the later accretions.
As a translator, Alter comments as well on the textual features that distinguish the early chapters of Genesis from the accounts that follow. “The human actors in these [early] stories are kept at a certain distance, and seem more generalized types than individual characters with distinctive personal histories.” He notes the recurrent use of “formal symmetries, refrainlike repetitions, parallelisms, and other rhetorical devices of a prose that often aspires to the dignity of poetry …” (p. xliv-xlv). Surprisingly, Alter rates the King James Version more highly than the many modern English translations for reproducing in English many of these distinctive features of the Hebrew text and thus conveying a better English equivalent of how the text actually reads in Hebrew.
The KJV text of the LDS Bible does not set off poetic verse from prose or group passages by topic or paragraph. There seems to be little attempt to convey anything about genre or literary type of a given chapter or passage to the reader. The Bible Dictionary offers some material on New Testament literary types (with entries for Epistle, Gospel, and Apocalypse) but little or nothing for Old Testament literary types (no entry for Law, Myth, Poetry, or Wisdom). There is, of course, an entry for Genesis, which notes the genealogies but seems to take them at face value; declares “Moses as the original author of Genesis”; and if anything seems to depict the genre of the text as simple history.
The introductory chapters are a history of the world as a preparation for the history of the chosen seed. The object of the book is to teach religious history.
Victor Ludlow’s Unlocking the Old Testament (Deseret, 1981) starts with this promising overview: “The Old Testament is a collection of books, including histories, genealogies, laws, biographies, dramas, poems, proverbs, hymns, and prophecies” (p. 1). But literary type doesn’t enter into his discussion of the material in Genesis at all.
Sidney B. Sperry’s The Spirit of the Old Testament (Deseret, 2d ed., 1970) likewise opens with a reference to the diversity of the Old Testament (“… that body of literature … which records in the form of history, law, prophecy, psalms, and wisdom …”). Sperry does comment on the literary merit of Genesis, “one of the great books of mankind.” He does distinguish the material in chapters 1-11 from the balance of Genesis, noting that starting with chapter 12 “we find the narrative of Genesis going more and more into detail about the lives of his subjects.” However, he does not discuss anything about what it was those earlier chapters (lacking as they do detail on the lives of the subjects) were up to rhetorically.
My best hope for a discussion of the general topic was the recent Jehovah and the World of the Old Testament (Deseret, 2009) by Holzapfel, Pike, and Seely. Literary conventions and types are certainly part of that different world of the Old Testament. The authors point out quite early that scriptural texts were not affordable books owned for private reading.
The prophets and their scribes wrote their messages down so they could be read in public. … [P]eople did not purchase a copy of Genesis or Malachi for their own personal library (this phenomenon did not begin until the Hellenistic period, about 300 B.C.). [p. 3.]
This observation echoes commentary in the scholarly literature stressing the liturgical roots of some Old Testment texts, including Genesis 1.
The book’s coverage of Genesis 1-11 does not address genre or myth directly, but includes several suggestive sidebar discussions. One sidebar gives four paragraphs on Enuma Elish, the Babylonian creation epic. Another, titled “Ages of People in Genesis,” gives seven paragraphs discussing both the traditional view (“Those who consider the claims of longevity in Genesis to be generally historical credit such long life spans to different environmental conditions … or to God’s will”) and the not-so-traditional view (“People who consider the Bible as epic literature and not historic reporting generally consider the extraordinary ages reported in Genesis … to be legendary or idealized, not literal”). The authors also include discussion of the Sumerian King List, which gives the life span of some early kings in the tens of thousands of years. The sidebar concludes, “Generally, Latter-day Saints accept the historical basis to the long ages of people mentioned in the Bible ….”
The technique of giving both a traditional and a scholarly view of a disputed issue, along with details, works well. It accomplishes several rather tricky goals such a book should aspire to: (1) it discusses, rather than avoids, difficult issues; (2) it presents a scholarly explanation of the difficult issue to the general reader; but (3) does it as an alternative rather than a definitive explanation, thus not alienating readers who prefer traditional explanations. Perhaps not all readers appreciate this sort of scholarly balancing act; I do. It is not often attempted, and rarely done well. Let’s hope this raises the bar for others who publish scriptural commentaries at Deseret Book. Imagine a manuscript returned to an author with a request for additional discussion of scholarly views on the topic.
As pixels are free, I’ll go ahead and give another example from the book, a long three-paragraph sidebar titled “Flood Stories.” It is accompanied by a stunning image of the 16,854-foot Mount Ararat (aka Agri Dagi) in Turkey, which with no additional commentary explains why it remains an item of discussion by Ark enthusiasts. I’ve never much cared for illustrated books, but the maps, images, and photographs in this large-size book are truly impressive. Anyway, here’s the final paragraph from the sidebar on the Flood, following earlier paragraphs summarizing Babylonian flood epics, including the Gilgamesh version.
There are several scholarly theories about the relationships of these stories to the biblical story. Some scholars believe that the accounts report the same story; others believe there is a literary dependence between the stories. Scholars noting the similarities between the biblical flood story and those extant in Mesopotamia have suggested two possibilities to explain this phenomenon: (1) both stories derive from a common, ancient source; (2) the Israelites adopted the story from the Mesopotamians. Most scholars accept proposition two as the more likely explanation, suggesting that the Israelites became familiar with the story during the Babylonian captivity and inserted it into their scriptures. Because the flood story is also alluded to in the book of Moses, Latter-day Saints tend to accept the first proposition.
So while literary genre or type is not addressed directly in the discussion of Genesis in the main text of Jehovah and the World of the Old Testament, the extensive discussions in the sidebars certainly raise it indirectly (without using the m-word). It helps the careful reader answer the question posed at the beginning of the post: What exactly are we reading when we read Genesis?