Study of Genesis/Overview
"It is impossible to have a coherent, biblical worldview without an acceptance of the historical, grammatical understanding of the book of Genesis...There is an important reason why the first eleven chapters of Genesis are so under attack today. After all, every major doctrine of the Christian faith finds its origin and explanation ultimately in these chapters. Furthermore, the entire ethical foundation of Christian society is predicated on a literal understanding of Genesis, from the doctrine of marriage to the mandate for clothing. Even the great legal commentator, Sir William Blackstone, began his famous commentary on the laws of England by pointing out that Genesis was foundational to the very concepts of freedom and just law in a society. From Genesis, we understand notions of justice, mercy, property rights, and many other foundations of freedom." (Douglas W. Phillips, adjunct professor of apologetics for the Institute for Creation Research)
There is little question that the book of Genesis has been a topic for hot debate in recent years. The debate between Creation and Evolution alone has been raging for over a century, since Chales Darwin first published On the Origin of Species in 1859.
There is, however, much more to Genesis than the Creation account, which spans a simple two chapters. We will assume, once past those two chapters, that the Creation account as detailed in Genesis is accurate, simply because the rest of Scripture believes it to be accurate. Even if the Creation account is inaccurate, Scripture's reliance on it being a literal event requires us to interpret it as a literal event, in order to understand the rest of scripture.
This of course raises a singular problem for fundamental Christianity, which explains why such Christians defend it fiercely - if the Creation account is proven false, it invalidates much if not all of the rest of scripture. For example, if God did not create man, then man does not have to answer to God for His actions. The issue of morality is thrown entirely out of the window, and hence, an excellent portion of scripture.
Genesis, therefore, is a critical study if one wishes to understand scripture, and consequently, many events in modern time. As Phillips said in the above quote, "every major doctrine of the Christian faith finds its origin and explanation ultimately in [the first eleven chapters]"; one must study Genesis to understand Christianity.
- Browse Wikipedia for various views of the authorship of Genesis. You might try searching for "Genesis", or "Pentateuch", and see where that takes you.
- Find a map of Mesopotamia and take note of the various names you run across, specifically
The authorship of the Pentateuch (the first five books of the Bible) has been under scrutiny since the early days of the Church, when some theologians considered Ezra to be the author. In more recent times, a Documentary Theory has risen in promenance, which suggests that the Pentateuch was a composite of multiple documents tied together during the reforms of King Josiah in an attempt to centralize religious and legal power. In contrast, traditional thought considers Moses to be the author; in fact, Christ Himself attributes the Pentateuch to Moses in a number of places (Matt 8:4, Matt 19:8, Mark 7:10, Mark 12:26, John 5:46, etc.) Hence for the authorship of the Pentateuch (and therefore the book of Genesis) to be called into question, the authority of Jesus Christ must also be called into question. Put plainly, if Genesis was not written by Moses, then Jesus Christ was mistaken, an unacceptable feat for a man who claimed He was God.
The Documentary Theory was first proposed by Jean Astruc in 1753, and later revised by Julius Wellhausen to its more modern form in 1877. Wellhausen partitioned the Pentateuch into four literary sources, denotated by four letters, "J", "E", "D", and "P". The "J" source was so named for its tendency to call God by the name "Jehovah" (Yahweh), and the "E" source was named because of it tended toward "Elohim". According to the theory, these two sources arose first, at around 850 and 750 B.C., respectively. "D" then followed at about 621 B.C. as a part of Josiah's reforms, and finally Ezra and the Holiness Code ("P") were added to complete the modern Pentateuch.
Critics of the Documentary Theory point out that it is frequently frequented by circular reasoning. "For example, a passage would be assigned to J because it frequently used the Hebrew word yalad ("to bear, to generate"); therefore, it was argued, yalad is peculiar to J. Though the approach claimed to be analytical it too often evaded, emended, or deleted a text when it contradicted the system."
In my readings (opensourcejunkie), I found a surprisingly obvious example of circular reasoning that helps to illustrate Walvoord's point. In The Bible Unearthed, Finkelstein argues that the Exodus from Egypt could not have happened because at the time, "Egypt was at the peak of its authority - the dominant power in the world... Putting aside the possibility of divinely inspired miracles, one can hardly accept the idea of a flight of a large group of slaves from Egypt into Canaan in the time of such a formidable Egyptian presence." The circular reasoning is thus: If the Pentateuch is accurate, then supernatural miracles were the very cause of Israel's exodus (Exodus 3 - 14). In an attempt to prove [this part of] the Pentateuch inaccurate, Finkelstein already assumes that the Pentateuch is inaccurate in its depiction of miracles.
Further criticism of the Documentary Theory comes from the realm of Archaeology. A number of finds such as the Ugaritic literature, the Nuzi Tablets, and the Mari Tablets, demonstrate that the language and customs found in the Pentateuch are often specific to the early times of the Patriarchs as opposed to the later times of King Josiah. Walvoord contends that "with the ever-increasing archaeological finds there is less and less reason for a later date for the material."
Nonetheless, The Documentary Theory continues as a major contender for the authorship of Genesis, and not all of its opponents discard it completely. Contenders for the Mosaic authorship admit that such probing for Pentateuchal authorship has generated valuable insight into the Old Testament; in fact one Mosaic theory contends that while Moses himself wrote the final four books of the Pentateuch, with Genesis he served as a compiler of works previous to his time.
Critics of the theory of Mosaic authorship[ have also put forward powerful arguments for believing that he could not have written the Pentateuch. The final verses of Deuteronomy, for example, describe his death and burial - some believers today, both Christian and Jewish, hold that Moses was able to write of this because he was the perfect prophet, and therefore able to foresee these things, but most feel that these verses must be by another person. Similarly, the Pentateuch describes some historical situations which did not exist in Moses' day, such the kings of Israel and of Edom; again, prophesy is the most popular recourse for those who wish to hold that Moses somehow knew of these things. But perhaps the most powerful argument against Mosaic authorship is the fact that the Pentateuch nowhere states, unequivocally, that he was. There are many statements along the lines that God spoke to Moses and commanded him to put certain things in writing, but with only one exception thes refer to specific laws, not to the five books which contain the laws. (The one exception is when God commands Moses to write against the Amalekites; like the other instances of God's commanding Moses to write, this also refers only to the immediate thing written, not to the book in which it appears, in this case Exodus).
There is also the problem of archaeological evidence. While it would be unreasonable to expect to find such evidence for Moses as an individual, there are many documents and inscriptions from the period, and not one of them describes anything like the events of the Pentateuch. The Pentateuch story, for example, talks about momentous plagues, and about the departure of some 2 million people from Egypt (an event, incidentally, which would have crippled the Egyptian economy - it would have amounted to half the population of the country), and the loss of an entire Egyptian army. None of this is mentioned, and in fact all the documents which do exist from the period describe Egyptian life continuing without interruption throughout the Mosaic period. More than a century of archaeological searching in Sinai has not discovered any trace of these millions of people moving through the desert or living at Kadesh Burnea (an important point, since Numbers describes the Hebrews living at this one place for 38 of the 40 years in the wilderness), nor does the picture of an invasion of Canaan by the Israelites match with the known history of the region (of the cities supposedly destroyed by Joshua in a few short years, actually was destroyed - all but one were either deserted at the time, or continued to be inhabited peacefully). For all thes reasons and more, the idea that the Pentateuch, and the story of Moses, represent real history, has been abandoned by mainline historians.
Genesis is written as a book of history (whether accurate history or not), as evidenced by its frequent attempt to give an "account". It begins at a very peculiar point in history, namely the beginning. The Hebrew name for Genesis in fact means, "in the beginning", an apt name as the book details the Biblical view of Creation, the immediate fall of humanity, and the events that propelled history toward its current position. Hence Genesis creates the setting for the rest of scripture, showing early history through the eyes of early humanity.
The setting of Genesis spans over two millenia, and over three geographical areas. In chapters 1-11, action centers around the Fertile Crescent. Then in chapters 12-36 it moves to a small family in Canaan (Israel), and finally in chapters 37-50, the family moves to Egypt. Thus this tiny land bridge in the Middle-East becomes the focal-point of scripture and, incidentally, of world politics to this day.
Genesis and Science
- Why is the authorship of Genesis important to our understanding of the book? Why is it important to the understanding of the Bible?
- Do you believe that Genesis was intended to be a book of history, or is it simply poetic writings, or of another genre? What textual evidence is there to back your claim?
In the next lesson, we'll step into the text of Genesis, beginning with the Creation account.
- Walvoord & Zuck 1984, p.15.
- Finkelstein & Silberman 2001, pp.22-24.
- Walvoord & Zuck 1984, p.16.
- Finkelstein & Silberman 2001, pp.60-61.
- Walvoord & Zuck 1984, p.16.
- Walvoord & Zuck 1984, p.16.
- Walvoord & Zuck 1984, p.17
- Wiseman 1936
- Walvoord & Zuck 1984, p.20.
- Gen. 2:4, 5:1, 6:9, 10:1, 11:10, 11:27,25:12, 25:19, 36:1, 36:9 37:2
- Walvoord & Zuck 1984, p.15
- Wilkinson & Boa 2002, p.6.
- Darwin, Charles (1859). On the Origen of Species. London: John Murray.
- Finkelstein, Israel; Silberman, Neil Asher (2001). The Bible unearthed: archaeology's new vision of ancient Israel and the origin of its sacred texts. New York: Free Press. ISBN 0-684-86912-8.CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)
- Walvoord, John F.; Zuck, Roy B.; Dallas Theological Seminary. Bible Knowledge Commentary Old Testament: An Exposition of the Scriptures. Colorado Springs, Colo: Victor. ISBN 0-88207-813-5.CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)
- Wilkinson, Bruce Wendell; Boa, Kenneth. The Wilkinson & Boa Bible Handbook. Nelson Reference. ISBN 0-7852-4903-6.CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)
- Wiseman, P. J. (1936). New Discoveries in Babylonia About Genesis. London: Marshall, Morgan & Scott, Ltd.