What Kind of Document is Genesis?
The way you answer that question will dramatically impact how you read it.
When reading fiction, you expect to be entertained. When reading a law book, you expect to learn the rules of society. If you try to read Genesis the same way you read the Psalms or Revelation, you will quickly run into problems.
So, to return to our question, What kind of document is Genesis?
Is Genesis a myth? Is Genesis akin to works like the Canaanite Baal epic where Baal earns his kingship by defeating the sea dragon, Yamm, or perhaps like the Babylonian creation story about Marduk’s defeat of the sea goddess Tiamat, called the Enuma Elish?
Well, one thing we can say with confidence is that Genesis does not bear the marks of any of the myths that were common in the days of Abraham, nor in all the years of the Israelites.
Another thing we can say with confidence is that Genesis, being largely stories about historical figures, presents itself as a historical document. Knowing this certainly does not mean, however, that we easily understand the nature of ancient history writing, the skill of woven story, or the purpose of telling these particular stories as they are told.
Genesis is History
So, if Genesis is History, what kind of history is it? Is Genesis cold, academic inquiry, or does the author hope to impact the thoughts and actions of the reader through it? Is he preaching?
Well, we might be interested to know that the ancient Israelites regarded their sacred history texts as prophetic literature. Through the prophets, God inspired a proclamation and interpretation of the past that was designed to preach. Therefore, these stories are theology, however, rooted they may be in actual historical events.
Now an important point when reading biblical history is that you must know where to look to find the message God has for you in it. Some think that the telling of the story points you to an event that you are expected to recreate in your imagination and then respond to in your heart. They think that the inspired message is then found in your heart’s response to events as the text helps you imagine them.
We see the flaw in this perspective most keenly when reading the Gospels. Each gospel tells the story of Jesus exactly the way each inspired author wished to tell it. When most of us read them, however, rather than studying the details of each gospel exactly as it is written, we treat each telling of an event as a resource for details that we can use to imagine the story. Matthew tells us part, Mark tells us part, Luke throws in some new points, and, in a few instances, John may even give us an extra tidbit to chew on. We gather all these facts, iron out seeming contradictions, and then we spin a whole new version of the story replete with all the tidbits from all the Gospel writers. Then we meditate upon the event as we imagine it, and listen for God’s word to us.
This is not how the gospel writers wanted us to do it. Each author crafted the stories in their histories using the necessary terms, grammar, literary relationships, and structures needed to deliver their message. Because the author used common communication symbols and literature processes of his day, the intended audience could be reasonably expected to use all of them to discern the message. Each story preaches into a context in such a way that those living there at that time could grasp what was being said to them.
Wow! That sounds complicated, it can be but have no fear. I’ll give you the skinny on exactly what kind of history Genesis is, exactly what lens will prove most beneficial to you when reading it.
Genesis is an Ancestor Epic
So, here it is! Genesis is an Ancestor Epic.
Ancestor Epics are collections of stories that ancient tribes told themselves about how they became a people… indeed, about how they almost failed to become a people. Circumstances arose that once threatened their future existence as a people but their God saved them. For had Sarah been kept by Pharaoh they would not exist. If Rebekah had remained barren, they would not exist. Had Esau killed Jacob they would not exist. But they have become a people, because Yahweh had a plan for them and overcame those situations on their behalf, and dozens more, in order to bring about His plan in and through them.
There are two main divisions in the Genesis Ancestor Epic. We find their Primordial History in Genesis 1-11 and their Patriarchal History in Genesis 12-50.
The Patriarchal History
The Patriarchal History looks at the circumstances that (save for the grace & mercy of Yahweh who loves them and has a wonderful plan for their lives) would have overtaken Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and the 12 tribal fathers. These include barrenness, wars, famines, captured wives, political struggles over land and water and intermarriage, divine judgments, competing heirs, dead childless heirs, pre-tribal jealousies, and betrayed heirs.
The Primordial History
The Primordial History looks at issues of threat more broadly, considering the threats to yet older ancestors, the ancestors of all men. Had the world remained a barren, anti-creational, dark, and landless waste, they would not exist. Had God not made a plan of redemption when Adam and Eve fell, they would not exist. Had God not acted to check human evil with the flood, they would not exist. Had God not spared Noah and his family, they would not exist. Had Abraham not been a man of faith, waking up to the One Holy Creator of all, they would not be a people.
God’s plans, God’s purposes, remain unthwarted whatever men may do. What remains for those preserving the stories is to live well in the world which YHWH has created. They are called to fulfill His purposes in it. This is why he continually saves them from manifold threats, and the greatest of these threats is their own corrupt hearts and their own wanton stupidity.
Genesis Shares Foundational Theology
Through Genesis, the nation of Israel spends a millennium sitting around the metaphorical campfire with their ancestors. There, they hear the stories of how they almost failed to become a people. They tell how the One Holy Creator of all saved them and continues to save them because He chose them from among all the peoples of the earth to fulfill a corporate mission. He chose them because of the great faith of their father Abraham, who showed them how to continue in the good favor of Yahweh. God is at work in the world; the Israelites are His chosen tool; He preserved and continues to preserve them from extinction so that they might be the People of God, instruments of his Glory in the world.
Genesis, therefore, preaches some pretty foundational theology about the nature of reality. As an ancestor epic, it establishes their worldview, telling them where they came from, who they are, and what their reason for being is. It tells them what’s wrong with the world and the part they play as instruments of God in making it right.
Use this as a lens for reading Genesis. Ask yourself: If I were an Israelite, struggling with the tension between what the prophets are telling me about God, man, and reality and what the pagans all around me are telling me about them, what would Genesis be preaching to me? What would I learn about God, man, and reality from reading it?