Genesis 1-11 represents a separate literary unit from 12-36 and 37-50 (Westermann 1974). Within this unit, usually referred to as the ‘primeval history’, we find several tales of characters and events that, at even the most casual of careful readings, immediately look, taste, and smell an awful lot like their ANE counterparts, save some very interesting details. For the purposes of understanding, we’re going to call Gen 1-11 “The Flood”.
In brief outline, Genesis 1-11 looks like this:
- 1:1-2:3 – Creation Story 1, (P)
- 2:4-3:24 – Creation Story 2, (J: Toledot of Heaven and Earth)
- 4:1-26 – Cain and Abel
- 5:1-32 – Toledot from Adam-Noah
- 6:1-8 – Prelude to the Deluge
- 6:9-10 – Toledot of Noah
- 6:11-22 – First flood prep story (2 of every)
- 7:1-5 – Second flood prep story (7 of clean pairs, 2 of unclean)
- 7:6-9:17 – Flood story
- 9:18-29 – The cursing of Canaan
- 10:1-32 – The “Earth” as it was known (i.e. a ‘map’ given to us in the form of a toledot)
- 11 – the Tower of Babel
From the onset, it should be clear that many of these stories either have no overlap and are simply stitched together, or the only overlap is contained in the various Toledot found throughout. Westermann (ibid, 1-11) notes that the entire group of stories, from 1-11 is meant to frame the deluge (flood story). In other words, it’s not just the bit about Noah in chapter 5 that leads us to the flood, but everything from the disobedience of Adam through the tower of Babel is a self-contained ‘quilt’ of engagement with ANE myths meant to tell “the story” of the flood, which everyone knew to have happened.
Too many scholars to list have pointed out what has become obvious to anyone who reads the two epics, that Genesis 1-11 and Enuma Elis are two peas in a semitic pod, one Eastern (AKK), the other Western (HEB). Within the Heb. language itself, directly from the start is engagement with the Akk. text which begins “When on High”, and the Heb. which should probably read “On Heights” or “In heights” (be-reshit where “heights” is used as the start of things, the head). Changing the translation here helps us understand, from the onset, what the book of Genesis 1-11 is saying in opposition to Babylon. It is in every respect, resistance literature.
The resistance begins that humanity is created in the direct, expressed image and likeness of God. Resistance to the notion that the gods created the world through violence and sexual acts, resistance to the notion that God is either created, born, or in some other way “fashioned”, resistance to the idea that evil is from some cosmic outsider, but instead comes from humanity, resistance to the idea that God or the gods require sacrifice for sustenance, and resistance to the idea that it is simply the will of capricious gods which ended human life in the deluge, but rather the last resort of a God (as everything in nature would be) who simply could not allow humanity to wipe itself and all other life off the face of the earth.
The creation narratives in Genesis resist the notion of a 7-day work week, common both in the ANE, as well as among slave cultures. Sabbath itself is resistance to Egypt, Babylon, Assyria and all who would force the ones chosen by Yahweh to work endlessly in the heat of the desert sun. And, the narrative itself also resists the notion that the flood was in any respect, Global as we have come to understand the world today. The outlining of the “nations of the earth” is both all-inclusive and “to the ends of the earth”. Remembering that Egypt and China, two societies with older writing than the biblical texts, contain no record of any global flood helps here.
And, Genesis 1-11 resists the notion of the so-called documentary hypothesis (JEPD).
[In short, Julius Wellhausen, following on the work of others, proposed that the authorship of the Pentateuch was not limited to one person (Moses), but rather was the work of four authors, or schools. JEPD (Jawist, Elohist, Priest, Deuteronomist). This list has since been widely accepted and expanded to include subgroups of priests, holiness sources, and various sources like the Toledot, and ones we’ll meet later (like the scroll of the wars of Yahweh). Much of Wellhausen’s work has been rightly critiqued for its latent (and sometimes not so latent) antisemitism and its unilinear idea of social progress and cultural evolution. However, his work on source theory cannot be ignored, nor should it.]
Westermann (ibid) suggests that the structure of Genesis 1-11 is such as to oppose a documentary approach to its creation, stating that the tradition of the compiler is carried along with the textualization of the story, rather than separate outside sources simply being stitched together. In other words, the tradition is the piece in its entirety, not the individual chunks.
The resistance goes further, as Gen 1-11 resists the notion that the same people “chosen by god” could have possibly come through the group of local mutts, known to them as “Canaanites”, even as far as to assert Canaan himself to be the product of incest between (drunk) mother and son.
Regarding the tower of Babel, von Rad (1976) notes that it is at least within the realm of possibility the story is making an attempt at resisting the idea of grouping together to bear arms, or, to form with conquest in mind. Or, as a form of ellipsis on the end of the deluge story, the tower. But let’s make it clearer. The tower of Babel is the scene from every marvel movie letting us know that the story didn’t end there. There was a deluge, this much was known. Israel’s story presents us with a deity who does the unthinkable as a last resort to save creation from itself. And yet, after all this, humanity has dispersed, the credits have rolled, and then, the tower. Whenever we build a tower, oppression and violence are never far behind.
In summary: Genesis 1-11 is not “THE RECORD OF HOW GOD CREATED AND WHEN”, but rather “The Name Above All Names is Our God and Everything we Know to Have Happened Has Happened by His Hand”. Or something like that. “History” in the ANE is never pure scientific history. It is mythology, which does not mean fabrication or falsity, it means story. And myth (story) has real landmarks, real people, and real events, all told in creative ways to get varying points across.
For the most part, the point of all this is etiological. That is, details are interwoven to tell both the flood narrative as well as the various reasons “we find ourselves in the state we’re in today”, where “today” is Israel, living inside the borders of Babylon, forming their history from various local traditions that all shared the same belief: the God of the outcast was their God.