I’ve been doing a semi-critical reading of the English version of Genesis during my teaching time at FHM. During that time, we’ve come to realize a number of things about the first part of Genesis, namely, that none of this is meant to be taken as the origin of humanity, but rather, as a collection of stories with a particular story to tell themselves. So, when Genesis tells us that “in the beginning, God (אלה׳ם) created the heavens and the earth” yet makes no mention of water, but suddenly “the spirit of the Lord was hovering over the waters”, we’re left wondering which waters it is the narrator is talking about. Then we’re greeted with a new nom de plume for God, the LORD God, or Yahweh God (יהוה אלהים), and suddenly the order of creation changes (the most glaring example is the final day creation of the adam in Gen 1 versus the first day creation in Gen 2), leaving us to wonder which version of the story is “right”.
That might be the problem with most of us in how we’re reading Genesis. It’s not about “right” or “how it happened”. It’s (largely, especially Gen 1-10) a response to Babylon’s own stories from during and after the exile. That some of the stories verifiably arise from an ancient, prehistoric motif, and that some of them are factual are points we would do well to remember, as well as the understanding that “whether they happened” or “whether God really said” are not [should not be] the concern of the modern reader.
Genesis 1-4 presents God as something different than most typical modern theological offerings. Specifically, God doesn’t know everything (man, where are you?), He walks (in the garden in the cool of the day), He’s shocked by behaviors (what is this you have done Cain?), offers shelter to a murderer, and, we’ll soon learn, changes his mind and regrets things. Can this be the same omnipresent, omniscient, omnipotent deity worshiped in today’s religious contexts? Early interpreters didn’t like the idea that God had “human” traits like hands, feet, or even feelings like regret or movements like repentance, and so, it was set forth from an early time that whenever the Bible says something like this, the language is simply “anthropomorphic”. Meaning, the assignment of human-like qualities and attributes to God. God is ineffable, indescribable, and so to ascribe any measure of humanity to Him is to speak something false.
But, is this language all meant to be anthropomorphic? Certainly some aspects of the language about God in the Bible fits the scope of anthropomorphism. Genesis 1-4 however present God as creator, by word alone (and so all powerful), hovering over the very waters of creation (the deep, chaos, tehum, and so-omnipresent), and yet still perplexed by His creation when they act out in some manner out of line with His intent for them.
Added to this mix of questionable descriptors of God are various literary slips, such as Cain’s banishment to Nod, a land we’ve never heard of before, or Adam’s declaration that Man will leave mother and father and cling to his wife, a ceremony not invented yet, joining two people who have left their mother and father, who don’t exist, to cling together. It’s poetic and beautiful, but it also has a priestly air about it, and it’s probably safe to say the stories weren’t written to be historical narratives, but etiological tales.
Genesis 5 could seem to be otherwise ignorable, but the toledot (record of generations) is in place for a reason. Westermann (Genesis) compares the list to ancient Near East king lists, such as Hittite and Mesopotamian, which preserved the name of the father, and his oldest son, but nothing else. The other children born to the person are insignificant since they didn’t inherit anything. This mirrors the biblical toledot in Genesis 5, giving the idea that these lists might have been kept for record keeping of inheritance, and simply stuck in (here Genesis) to help “round out” a story without any otherwise obvious connection – here the story of Adam, Eve, an original fall, a second fall, and then suddenly a world full of violence and in need of destruction – with another tale with etiological ends, the flood.
The Greek manuscripts of Genesis treat this particular toledot as a genesis list, meaning, it’s not about who came after, it’s about who started it – Adam. Elsewhere the translators are fairly faithful to moving toledot to something akin to “generations” in the Greek. Here in Genesis though, it’s taken as something of a backward toledot, a record of who came first, rather than a record of who came last. Why? It might have something to do with the person who comes last in the toledot. Noah.
To catch up on the Genesis readings, visit our archives.