Genesis and Genre

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.

LDS Commentary

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?

49 comments for “Genesis and Genre

  1. February 25, 2010 at 7:14 pm

    so Dave, you’re trying to use the words of several Biblical scholars, and broad *hints* from Mormon authors to say (behind your hand) that the Genesis stories are myths?

  2. February 25, 2010 at 7:25 pm

    No, BiV, I think what I’m saying is that applying modern categories to ancient literature is problematic. History as we understand the term is essentially a modern category of narrative. So someone writing a book about Genesis either ought to defend using modern categories in their analysis or explain what ancient literary forms or types are (in their opinion) represented by the narratives in Genesis.

  3. February 25, 2010 at 7:37 pm

    Dave, I’m all for literary forms (as you know), but I think the minute you start trying to separate the Genesis stories from strict historical fact, you create a problem in mainstream Mormonism. How, for example, is Adam going to come back to hand over priesthood keys at Adam-ondi-Ahman if he is figurative?

  4. February 25, 2010 at 7:46 pm

    I think you’re both mything the point. :P

  5. February 25, 2010 at 9:26 pm

    No BiV, I don’t think I am creating a problem for anyone. If you approach the text with an assumption (e.g., Genesis is all strict historical fact), then start spinning out difficulties that your assumption causes, maybe you should reconsider your assumption. That’s the whole point of considering genre as a first step in understanding a narrative account: it provides guidance as to how you should approach the text.

    You might also clarify whether this is really a problem for you, BiV (that is, you do personally think of early Genesis as strict historical fact and are troubled by the fact that some scholars suggest otherwise) or whether you are thinking this should be a problem for someone else (maybe those “mainstream Mormons” you referred to). In which case your problem has nothing to do with Genesis — your problem is that you are trying to stir up problems for other people.

  6. Jonathan Green
    February 25, 2010 at 9:32 pm

    No, BiV, you’re exaggerating the degree to which Mormonism is invested in the historicity of Genesis. For one, it is not equally invested in every part of Genesis. I’m not saying there’s no investment, and your example of Adam is perhaps the case with the highest degree of investment. But does mainstrain Mormonism fall to pieces if the lands were not actually divided in the days of Peleg? I don’t think so.

    Also, even where decreasing historicity might be problematic, I don’t see how it’s an insoluble problem. Not all problems are existential crises. Many Mormons are often told in an authoritative fashion that the creation account is symbolic, I believe. Thinking about myth–a word I used in the primary class I was teaching last week, by the way–is only a significant problem if Mormonism has no intellectual capacity within itself to deal with it. I don’t think that’s the case.

    So I think it’s OK to talk about genre in Genesis without renouncing our faith.

  7. February 25, 2010 at 10:11 pm

    Dave, I may be trying to stir up problems–that is what I am wont to do. Here’s my issue with this post. I am on the side of literary analysis of Genesis. And I agree with many of the Biblical exegetes who see the stories as myth, such as the ones you have quoted. But notice how when you get to the LDS sources, it is more difficult to quote them as actually saying anything. And neither are you, in your post. Its almost like because of our investment in historicity we can’t quite come right out and say: “These stories are allegory.” We have to pussyfoot around, as you so masterfully have done above.

  8. Dan
    February 25, 2010 at 10:26 pm

    fascinating topic Dave. I like the belief that Genesis is not strictly accurate mostly because the writers of the time would not be as overly concerned about strict historical accuracy as we would these days.

  9. SUNNofaB.C.Rich
    February 25, 2010 at 10:45 pm

    How invested in the historicity of the Book of Mormon are you Jonathon?

  10. February 25, 2010 at 10:57 pm

    Note though, Dan, that you’re still assuming it’s history. Just sloppy “inaccurate” history.

    #8, the genre of Genesis doesn’t have anything to do with the Book of Mormon.

  11. Jonathan Green
    February 25, 2010 at 11:53 pm

    BiV, I don’t know why you’re trying to insult Dave. He wrote a review of how Mormon writers treat the question of genre in Genesis. It’s a nice post! He actually made about half the points you bring up. But you seem to be upset that he didn’t write a manifesto denouncing the Gospel Doctrine manual.

    Nitsav, I believe Genesis is fairly close to your field, if I remember correctly. Of the three genre terms that have been tossed out so far–history, myth, allegory–I’d guess that “history” best describes what early audiences of Genesis thought they were hearing, although “myth” might be better; both are better than “allegory,” but neither of the terms as we use them is really accurate. But what’s your take?

  12. February 26, 2010 at 12:05 am

    Jonathan, I am sorry that I’m being read as insulting Dave. Far from it. I am pushing him a bit, to try to see if mainstream Mormons are ready to come right out and say that Genesis stories are figurative. I see this in myself and I see it in Dave’s post–we like to quote non-Mormons but we are hesitant to assert this position ourselves. (Notice how mushy the second half of the post becomes!) Basically that is the ONLY “point” I brought up.

  13. February 26, 2010 at 12:41 am

    This problem is responsible for some tension between my co-teacher and me in our Gospel Doctrine class, although I don’t think he’s aware of the tension (he simply asserts his position assuming that there can be no other point of view; I sometimes leave class so frustrated by some teaching what I think is false, or at least unofficial, but I’m so averse to making waves in class that I haven’t directly dealt with the problem). We’re both mainstream Mormons by anybody’s definition.

    The problem becomes acute when anybody takes an absolutely black and white approach, whatever the specific position.

    My co-teacher is absolutely black and white in his view that Genesis is history, composed with the same standards and techniques as modern history, and he consistently interprets scripture literally. To suggest that the genre is anything but history sounds to his ears as if I’m saying “scripture isn’t true.” He can’t conceive of a truth beyond the literal surface.

    BiV, this may or may not be what you mean, but it’s what you say: you want “to see if mainstream Mormons are ready to come right out and say that Genesis stories are figurative.” That is as black and white as my co-teacher, only instead of complete literal truth you sound as though Genesis is entirely figurative with no element of literal history, however disguised.

    There’s no need for a Mormon to go to either extreme. George Washington didn’t cut down the cherry tree, but he was still a real person. I’m willing to accept that Adam and Noah and the rest were real persons, regardless of the degree to which the stories they star in are history or allegory or something else.

    While I don’t have the knowledge or training to answer Dave’s question of what exactly we are reading, it’s a great question. The mere fact of raising it makes me seek to understand what I’ve assumed Genesis to be and to consider other possibilities.

  14. February 26, 2010 at 1:38 am

    I think the problem is the false dichotomy between assuming history is all just facts versus it’s all figurative with no connection to reality. Heck, those poles don’t even cover history as done recently such as the 19th century let alone the ancient world. Don’t believe me? I remember reading a history of Europe that was popular in the 19th century (forget the name now) Part of the narrative was showing how all the Catholic nations were doomed because they were Papists and not Protestants and basically giving a typological sort of presentation of history through that lens.

    I suspect that’s what Ardis is getting at. But the problem is that there are “black and white” folks on both sides. The “demythologizing” movement that sees it all as figurative is just as problematic IMO for the reasons others have already mentioned.

  15. February 26, 2010 at 2:24 am

    Re: Mainstream Mormonism (#3, #5, #12, and #13): There is a paragraph in Mormon literature (click here) that claims Moses, in Gen. 1:27, spoke with finality for all time and all people because God had shown him everything pertaining to this planet.

    I believe mainstream Mormon thought about Genesis has some of its roots in this paragraph because the accuracy of Genesis as a whole is related to the accuracy of Gen. 1:27.

    Therefore, I believe Bored in Vernal (#3) has a point.

  16. Ugly Mahana
    February 26, 2010 at 7:21 am

    Ummm. As far as translated correctly and all that. (Else, why the Book of Moses?)

  17. February 26, 2010 at 8:54 am

    I think BiV has a point as well, since there’s a strong tradition of viewing Genesis this way in Mormonism, which finds its ideological embodiment in R. Gary :)

    That said, I once spent a semester teaching a Genesis course for Institute. I had about 10 students, most of them PhD students in Chemistry, Physics, and Biology. They specifically wanted to know how I viewed Genesis 1-9 in light of my training, so we spent about a month (4 2-hour classes) mostly on creation and the flood. Obviously I can’t lay that all out here.

    In short, though, I agree that none of our modern genre terms really fit. “Myth” comes closest but requires a good bit of unpacking, since it carries so much negative baggage. Ultimately, when I have time to explain it, I prefer “myth” because it’s become fairly clear to me that the function of the creation accounts (and later the flood account which is closely connected to the creation account of Gen 1-2:4a) was to instill and promote a particular worldview over and against others, not provide historical/scientific data. That’s making a categorical division that I’m not sure Israelite minds would instantly grasp, but a modern one.

    Speaking to R. Gary’s comment, J. Reuben Clark’s comment to Joseph Fielding Smith speaks to me. They had quite the argument over evolution, but at its root, it was really over how to read scripture.

    “You [JFS] seem to think I [JRC] reject the scriptures, or some of them. I do not intend to do so, but obviously I am no more bound by your interpretation of them than you are by mine. …

    Now, as to what the earlier brethren have said–where they have declared themselves as speaking under inspiration and by the authority of the Lord, I bow to what they say. But where they express views based on their own understanding and interpretation, then none of us are foreclosed from exercising our own reasoning powers, inadequate though they may be; but the earlier views do not foreclose us from thinking. This is particularly true, where we come to interpreting their interpretations.”

    I’m not aware of President of the Church making revelatory statements about the nature or genre of the creation accounts. They cite them, they interpret them, and talk about them, but always with an assumption or presupposition that isn’t explicitly addressed, usually towards a historical genre.

    Reading Genesis as a non-historical account does not entail rejecting Genesis, abandoning its original interpretation/value (since I think this is closer to how an Israelite would have understood it), or questioning its “accuracy.”

    Those who view Genesis as history end up focusing on or defending those parts that seem inconsistent with that viewpoint (i.e. with evolution, or age of the earth, or Eve being made from a rib.) Those who view the creation accounts as myth and competing with other non-Israelite accounts are often able to bring out points that I think would have been much more significant and obvious as well as important to an actual Israelite.

    Seely, Pike and Holzapfel hint at this when they say “the power and significance of these [creation] stories can best be appreciated when they are compared with the ancient creation stories that were known in cultures surrounding ancient Israel.” I suspect they did not go farther in this direction because of cultural and perhaps hierarchical constraints. Deseret Book doesn’t really publish anything that pushes the envelope (except of good taste), and Joseph Smith’s statement about tradition has hold here;
    Mormons sometimes “fly to pieces like glass as soon as anything comes that is contrary to their traditions: they cannot stand the fire at all.”

  18. Bob
    February 26, 2010 at 9:02 am

    #15: Thank you for the link. It reads more like a Proclamation on the Origin of Earthly Man tha a “A paragraph in Mormon literature” (?)
    I like this line in it__ ” The latest inquiry of this kind that has reached us is in relation to the origin of man. It is believed that a statement of the position held by the Church upon this subject will be timely and productive of good.”
    I agree with this line. After 100 years, I think the Church needs to reaffirm that this is the Church’s positon, or provide a new one.

  19. February 26, 2010 at 9:08 am

    That JRC quote is taken from a fascinating chapter in his biography, excerpted online.

  20. February 26, 2010 at 10:11 am

    Nitsav, re: bowing to what they say. In saying this, JRC knew that much inspired prophetic utterance comes by authority without being announced as such. For example, he expressed frustration with those “who insist that unless the Prophet of the Lord declares, ‘Thus saith the Lord,’ the message may not be taken as revelation.”

  21. Bob
    February 26, 2010 at 10:29 am

    #20:”he expressed frustration with those “who insist that unless the Prophet of the Lord declares, ‘Thus saith the Lord,’ the message may not be taken as revelation.”.”
    You mean like Hugh B. Brown?

  22. Larrin
    February 26, 2010 at 10:59 am

    Nitsav, I immediately thought of that quote when I read this blog. That quote, being, “the power and significance of these [creation] stories can best be appreciated when they are compared with the ancient creation stories that were known in cultures surrounding ancient Israel.”

    Jehovah and the World of the Old Testament is an excellent book. I just wish the authors would have said all that they could have on some subjects. Of course, this likely would have made the book less feasible.

  23. Daniel
    February 26, 2010 at 4:01 pm

    Nitsav, you wrote:

    “I prefer ‘myth’ because it’s become fairly clear to me that the function of the creation accounts (and later the flood account which is closely connected to the creation account of Gen 1-2:4a) was to instill and promote a particular worldview over and against others, not provide historical/scientific data. That’s making a categorical division that I’m not sure Israelite minds would instantly grasp, but a modern one.”

    Are you quite sure the more appropriate term would not be “ancient Israelite propoganda”?

  24. February 26, 2010 at 4:18 pm

    To the extent that “propaganda” has political ramifications, derogatory or deceptive connotations (as I understand it to), then I reject the term.
    If you simply mean anything meant to propound a certain viewpoint, then sure, but it’s so broad a term as to be meaningless.

    I’m not sure how this furthers the conversation.

  25. Daniel
    February 26, 2010 at 4:56 pm

    Are you saying the creation accounts, as characterized by you, served no “political” function and had no “political ramifications”?

    Are you saying there is nothing “deceptive” about deliberately “[instilling] and [promoting] a particular worldview over against others” without regard for “fact” (or what we might today call “historical” or “scientific” data)?

    Upon what non-arbitrary basis can the “derogatory” nature of such an endeavor be rejected?

  26. February 26, 2010 at 5:07 pm

    Daniel (Dan from above?), negotiating worldviews is rarely a question of facts. Israelites, like the cultures around them, had no scientific worldview or historical facts to reject, as you seem to accuse them of.

    The function of these narratives was primarily religious, though to some extent polities were identified with their religions, national gods and so forth.

    I don’t understand why the semantics of this term are so important to you. Help me out here.

  27. February 26, 2010 at 5:10 pm

    …scientific worldview or historical facts **at least as moderns understand those concepts**…

  28. February 26, 2010 at 5:12 pm

    I should point out that the other worldviews competed against similarly lacked “scientific” data and hard historical “facts.”

  29. Daniel
    February 26, 2010 at 5:40 pm

    “negotiating worldviews”…

    …I’m not sure I understand — are you or are you not saying the creation accounts served no “political” function and had no “political ramifications”?

    And are you or are you not saying there is nothing “deceptive” about deliberately “[instilling] and [promoting] a particular worldview over against others” without regard for “fact” (or what we might today call “historical” or “scientific” data) – or whatever the ancient equivalent might be?

    Or are you denying that the ancient Israelites HAD any kind of equivalent to what we call “historical fact” or “scientific data”?

    Unfortunately for us (you and I are both included), we ARE “moderns” (though we try to convince ourselves we are perhaps “post-moderns”?) We have no choice but to view the creation accounts through our “modern” lenses. If doing so leaves us blind to the “truth” (whatever that might look like) about the function served by those accounts in Israelite societies, then we must be bumping up against a temporal, cultural, and linguistic incommensurability. And if we are, then the relevance of the creation accounts to our modern/postmodern lives is seriously questioned. In short, either those accounts are revelant to us “moderns” or not. If they are, we must view them and JUDGE them from our modern/postmodern perspective.

    And from the modern/postmodern perspective, creation accounts that were “concocted” to serve the purpose of “[instilling] and [promoting] a particular worldview over against others” — especially when some of those “other” worldviews were systematically destroyed in what we moderns would call “genocide” (1 Sam. 15) – seems at least “derogatory” and more like “propoganda” than anything we should be taking any moral or ethical meaning from.

  30. Bob
    February 26, 2010 at 5:56 pm

    I am not getting this post. If the first part of Genesis is just Myth or Genre to meet the needs of the ancient Israelite, and only he can understand it. Why should we spend more than an hour studing it? Why not form our own Myth or Genre for the Modern man? Or use the Greeks, which has more stuff in it?

  31. February 26, 2010 at 6:24 pm

    If those accounts served a political function, it was tertiary at best. (Translation: a very very weak yes, if you like, but I still don’t see the relevance.)

    I don’t understand your invocation of such emotionally-charged language as “propaganda” “deception” “blind””concocted” etc. These all require intent, and the way you frame this makes no sense in an ancient setting. What Israelite mastermind knew scientific realities and historic facts, but chose to deceive and blind some unnamed victim by this concocted propaganda?- is the kind of thing I’m getting from your comments.

    “We have no choice but to view the creation accounts through our “modern” lenses.”

    I completely disagree. I have a choice about how I read them. I can insist that they speak my language, or I can try to learn theirs. They were not meant for us, as we are not their original audience. We are, so to speak, listening in on an ancient Israelite conversation. If we want to understand what’s being communicated, we need to speak the language and understand the cultural encoding and genre conventions within that culture.

    Put another way, is it deceptive for God to speak to us in ways we can understand? If not, why can He not speak to the Israelites in ways *they* understood?

    To flatly reject these accounts because they don’t speak to us in the way we expect, or to demand that they do so (or we’ll plug our ears!) is culturally arrogant, religiously naive, and counter-productive.

    If you want some reading on this, I suggest the first few chapters of Mark Brettler’s How to Read the Bible, and John Barton’s Reading the Old Testament, as well as Peter Enn’s recent Inspiration and Incarnation: Evangelicals and the Problem of the Old Testament.

  32. February 26, 2010 at 6:44 pm

    While the Moses-saw-everything view is popular among church members, I don’t think that it really works. Did Moses really see everything and then just decide not to tell anyone basic and important facts like the earth goes around the sun, and by the way, guys, boil your water.

  33. Daniel
    February 26, 2010 at 6:46 pm

    Nitsav, the language I used is not “emotionally-charged”, unless you are coming from a different culture than mine. But then we must wonder who is being “culturally arrogant, religiously naive, and counter-productive”.

    I understand the squishy notions of “listening in on an ancient Israelite conversation”, but must ask:

    If those accounts were not meant for us, doesn’t that make my point? i.e., they are not relevant?

    Presumably, we study these accounts in order to apply them to our own lives – in the (modern) here and now.

    If we really want to be “productive”, we must try to derive _applicable_ understanding from them. After all, we don’t study Genesis in pursuit of some esoteric “trivial pursuit enlightenment” do we? THAT would be counter-productive!

    I also have to disagree with your notion that the political function of the creation accounts is “tertiary at best”. Invoking the flavor of your own arguments, we must understand that ancient Israel did not distinguish between “political” and “religious” the way we moderns do. As such, it is artificial and inconsistent with your thesis to say the “political” function of these accounts was “very very weak” and the accounts served “primarily” a religious function. The creation accounts, as well as the Exodus accounts, were deliberately “concocted” (created by mixing or combining various ingredients in a new way) in order to unite and give identity to a people, and to “instill and promote a particular worldview over against others” for that people, for the sake of their solidarity. While that may be admirable, from the Israelites perspective, it didn’t work out too well for the Amalekites.

  34. February 26, 2010 at 6:55 pm

    OK Daniel, what specific political function(s) did the P account of creation serve? It has to be primary, not secondary or tertiary.

    “If those accounts were not meant for us, doesn’t that make my point? i.e., they are not relevant?”

    What does it mean to “liken unto ourselves”?

  35. February 26, 2010 at 6:59 pm

    “we must understand that ancient Israel did not distinguish between “political” and “religious” the way we moderns do. ”

    Indeed, and I alluded to that in #26. This does not mean that we can’t use “religious” or “political” as descriptive terms or that the concepts they describe are inapplicable to Israel.

  36. February 26, 2010 at 7:12 pm

    Kaimi Wenger, re “I don’t think that it really works.” The section titled “The Fight Goes On” in this Ensign article works very much for me.

  37. Bob
    February 26, 2010 at 7:25 pm

    #33: Nor, do I think the modern Middle East makes a distinguish between the “political” and “religious” the way we moderns (Americans) do.

  38. Daniel
    February 26, 2010 at 7:29 pm


    That much is certain! And that is part of the point, for me. The “modern” Middle East cultures are much more closely in touch with the ancient Abrahamic conversation than we are. And I think we would agree that is not necessarily always a good thing.

  39. Larrin
    February 27, 2010 at 10:39 am

    Kaimi, your question goes back to the question of whether Moses actually wrote Genesis.

  40. Dan
    February 27, 2010 at 1:55 pm


    No that is a different Daniel.

  41. Brad Dennis
    February 27, 2010 at 5:00 pm

    Excellent post! I really liked how you filled in the major Christian and Mormon thought about Genesis.

    As for the discussion on Genesis’ mythology vs. historicity… there is an element of false dichotomy within it. The characters in Genesis may have actually existed (although no known outside sources corroborate this), and stories could have been elaborated up, in a very literary way, to emphasize key points about reality.

    Although I personally treat the Genesis account as largely mythological, I have no problem with someone believing it to be historical. By emphasizing the moral lessons taught in Genesis, we can build upon common ground.

    The church leaders, it should be pointed out, do not try to preach the historicity of Genesis. While the notion that these are historical events is embedded in their underlying narrative, they do not in any way overtly attempt to go up against mainstream modern science and history. I get the sense that they leave this issue an open question.

    What I do not like is Mormons who insist that this is not an open question, who challenge in inquisition-like style Mormons who are agnostic about its historicity, and who attempt to radically reinterpret science and history in order to accommodate their narrow view. To these Mormons I bid good luck in an exercise of futility.

  42. February 27, 2010 at 5:29 pm

    Indeed Brad. (I think we were in Jerusalem together, btw.)

    Says Peter Enns,

    “I question how much value there is in posing the choice of Genesis as either myth or history. This distinction seems to be a modern invention. It presupposes- without stating it explicitly- that what is historical in a modern sense of the word, is more real, or more value, more like something God would do…. Again, it is interesting to me that both sides of the liberal/conservative debate share at least to a certain extent these kinds of assumptions. The liberal might answer, ‘ Yes, it is myth, and this proves it is not inspired, and who cares anyway?’ The conservative might answer, ‘Well, since we know that the Bible is God’s word [or in LDS terms, it’s “true” or “accurate”], we know it can’t be myth.’ And so great effort is expended to drive as much distance as possible between the Bible and any ancient Near Eastern literature that poses problems.”” I&I, 49.

  43. Bob
    February 27, 2010 at 6:14 pm

    A Myth is only a story used to get you though the day. It can be true, it can be false.
    For Jews and Christians, The beginnings of Genesis has been such a myth. It has been a helpful myth, but slowing, all are moving to Evolution and the Big Bang as our modern myth.
    Again, I say read the creation story of Genesis. But I see no need to study it for years, unless you are holding to God did it in 6 days.

  44. Larrin
    February 27, 2010 at 7:18 pm

    Why can’t a myth be inspired?

  45. Bob
    February 27, 2010 at 7:35 pm

    #44: I am guessing you mean a myth inspired by God (?)
    Good question. Do you mean just Bible myths? Or does he control all our perceptions/stories? If he created the 6 day myth, is he now inspiring the Big Bang story? I don’t have an answer.

  46. Larrin
    February 27, 2010 at 7:37 pm

    Bob, I’m referring to the question of whether God reveals things to us based on our own experiences and circumstances or whether divine inspiration is independent of these things.

  47. Bob
    February 28, 2010 at 9:45 am

    Larrin, When I read the OP, I had questions.
    Should we study the myths of long ago (and if so, in how much detail). Or should we be create new ones based on our sports, movies, GAs talks, etc.?
    Should we still try to have one story that fits all?
    Or, because we now live in a pluralistic age, should we all have our own stories that we live by?
    Either way, I think the stories/myths should open discussions between us__ not arguments.

  48. March 5, 2010 at 8:39 pm

    I’m getting the sense that in ancient Israel nobody really cared whether the Eden story was “true” or not. They didn’t think of history quite like we do, as a textbook full of facts about past events. Instead, whether true or not, it sufficiently explained man’s relationship to God and the mortal journey we all face.

    The story of Adam and Eve seems to be more about us than it is about Adam and Eve.

    Going back to the subject of “myth”, I wonder if we would profit from a discussion about what “myth” is NOT.

  49. March 5, 2010 at 9:15 pm

    James, ditto your point about Adam and Eve. It is striking how much the rest of the Old Testament canon ignores Adam, Eve, and the Garden, but how central they are for so many modern Christians.

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