Genesis: Backgrounds (A)

October 26, 2009 — Leave a comment

[This post is part of the Genesis series]

Before we can really meaningfully understand what is going on in Genesis, we need to establish some sort of context. The book itself makes the most sense as the introduction to the rest of the Pentateuch as written by Moses. I realize there are other options for authorship, but to be frank, most are ridiculous ad hoc explanations derived from some sort of higher criticism source theory. If you want to argue, we can argue, but for clarity sake, let’s take the traditional view that Moses wrote this sometime between the Exodus and his death. I am surprised with all the fanciful options out there, no one has yet proposed that Moses wrote this after his death.

So Moses wrote Genesis and the rest of the Pentateuch and that gives us a date of somewhere around 1400BC for the writing. That is a rough enough estimate to work for our purposes here, but it brings up a significant observation. With this kind of date for authorship, it is by no means the first written account of creation. Indeed, as far as Ancient Near East (from now on ANE) backgrounds go, the actual writing of this account comes after most other accounts.

Now, the critical scholarship assumption is then that the Biblical authors borrowed from these other myths, making itself rather mythological. However, this does not necessarily follow from the above, and there are two other viable options.

First, Moses came from a similar cognitive environment as the other authors, specifically those in Egypt. This will become very crucial to remember in a moment, so file it away for a little bit. Beyond just Egypt though, Moses and the Israelites would have shared a way of thinking about reality that was in common with the other cultures around them. They were certainly unique in many aspects, but they were also very similar, and in one particular way that is necessary to clarify when talking about creation accounts.

Before anyone can meaningful discuss creation, you must establish what it means to create, and in order to do that, you must establish what is means for something to exist. We in the 21st century have our own ontology (metaphysic or philosophy of being) and what we generally fail to realize is that we import it into our reading of the the first chapter of Genesis.The failure on our part is to realize we do not share the same understanding of ontology as the ancient world.

We have a substance or materially based metaphysic. We are primarily concerned with the essence of something, something to us exists when it occupies space. It has some kind of material substance that can be classified in some way.

In the ancient world on the other hand, they had a function-based ontology. In other words, something existed when it had a function in an ordered system, or when it had been given a purpose and a name. For this reason, all their creation accounts generally move from chaos to order and from an undifferentiated unity to a plurality of things with names and functions. It is not so much an idea of nothing material existing and the something then being materially created. That is how we are prone to think of creation, but that is not what the ancients had in mind. A quote by John Walton may help to summarize:

“Creation takes place by giving things order, function, and purpose, which is synonymous with giving them existence.” Ancient Near East Thought and the Old Testament, pg 185.

In another book by Walton (Lost World of Genesis One, 2009), he surveys the major creation accounts from the ANE and points out that in all of them, nothing is materially made (at least in any sense ex nihilo). Of note in this survey was the Egyptian writings (The Memphite Theology, Papyrus Leiden I 350, as well as various Pyramid and Coffin texts that talk extensively of creation) as well as the more well known Enuma Elish.

The question then is not whether or not Genesis 1 breaks the mold and presents the first and only account in the ANE that demonstrates material creation, but rather, could the Israelites have even understood such a concept? Given the function/purpose based ontology that pervaded every other ANE culture, it is not likely that God revealed a metaphysic to Moses that turned the flat earth of the Israelites upside down (we’ll return to that later), but rather God contextualized his revelation in way that the Israelites would have easily understood.

All of this way to show that similarity in creation accounts does not have to mean borrowing or copying, but rather the creation accounts all reflect a common cultural background and understanding of reality that was function based rather than material based. As such, the creation accounts end up coming out sounding similar, which is also due to a similar style of writing.

Now the second option to consider is one of polemic. In this instance, we are going to argue that Genesis is intended as a polemic against the Egyptian creation account. As such, it can (and will) be shown that Moses used the structure of the Egyptian accounts, but with major revisions, new ideas, and disastrous indirect implications for the Egyptian deities. He used their form, but said something entirely different than we were saying. Moses entered into the dialogue that was going on between rival cultic centers throughout Egypt (Heliopolis, Hermopolis, Memphis, Thebes) and as they had attempted to one-up each other, he struck the decisive last blow to which they could not even offer an answer.

This summarizes to some extent the main point to keep in mind about the disjunction between our modern understandings of existence and the ancient one. Also, creation accounts should be seen as written in some kind of dialogue with one another, none of them so far as I can tell, were written in a vacuum. They were aware of the other stories out there, Moses specifically so, and would use some of their language and imagery to make different points, or to undercut the other culture’s story. This is precisely what Moses is up to in Genesis 1, but before we get to that, we need to clarify a bit further the background from which Genesis emerges before we start examining the text itself.

To that end, we need to discuss cosmic geography (how one understands the world) before we can talk about cosmogony (how one understands the origin of the world), and that will be taken up in Backgrounds (B).


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I'm an avid reader, musician, and high school Bible teacher living in central Florida. I have many paperback books and our house smells of rich glade air freshners. If you want to know more, then let's connect!

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