Genesis: History, Fiction, or Neither? Three Views on the Bible’s Earliest Chapters

Charles Halton ed. Genesis: History, Fiction, or Neither? Three Views on the Bible’s Earliest Chapters. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2015. 176 pp. $16.99.

Genesis CounterpointsIn contemporary evangelicalism there’s hardly a biblical/theological topic more divisive than that of origins. The various topics under this umbrella (such as creation versus evolution, an historical Adam, etc.) are all impacted by how we interpret the early chapters of Genesis. Hence, though recent years have seen a large number of books published in the area of origins (including one on the historical Adam from the same series as the volume currently under review), Genesis: History, Fiction, or Neither? offers a unique and complementary perspective by addressing the topic from the perspective of the genre of Genesis 1-11. As editor Charles Halton notes in the introduction, “Readers will first need to understand the genre of the text and how it worked within the author’s cultural environment before they will be able to successfully address the question: ‘What does this text mean?'” (18). Each of the contributors address four issues in their essays: the genre of Genesis 1-11, why this is the genre of Genesis 1-11, the implication of this genre designation, and the application of their approach to the interpretation of the story of the Nephilim (6:1-4), Noah and the ark (6:9-9:26), and the Tower of Babel (11:1-9). Following the common structure of Zondervan’s Counterpoints series, each essay is followed by a response by each of the other contributors.

In the first essay, James Hoffmeier argues for Genesis 1-11 as history and theology. By examining the characteristic toledot formula in Genesis and ANE genealogical texts, Hoffmeier argues that genealogical lists and history are closely related and that “the ‘family history’ structuring of the book indicates that the narratives should be understood as historical, focusing on the origins of Israel back to Adam and Eve, the first human couple and parents of all humanity” (32). Against the backdrop of Israelite anti-myth sentiments in relation to its polytheistic ANE context, Hoffmeier sees the Niphilim narrative as an authentic story that “had been mythologized and part of the shared memory of the ancient Near East, but was demythologized for the Israelite audience when recorded” (41). For him, rather than a case of borrowing from Mesopotamian flood stories, the various flood narratives reflect a shared memory of the same historical event with the Genesis account possibly intentionally aimed at refuting the Babylonian view. Finally and similarity, the Tower of Babel narrative is also a historical account that preserves a common memory as the Sumerian parallel. For Hoffmeier, the upshot is that “If one reduces the narratives of Gen 1-11 to fictitious stories and legends, the history of salvation lacks its raison d’etre” (58).

In the second essay Gordon Wenham argues for Genesis 1-11 as protohistory. Whereas history is like a photograph of the past and fiction is like a movie, protohistory is like a portrait (87). He advances his case by showing how various parts of Genesis 1-11 show organization and editing for didactic and theological purposes rather than mere historiography (e.g. repetition of the number seven or multiples of seven, etc.). Regarding the Niphilim narrative, Wenham notes that the ancients believed that some of their great heroes were offspring of divine-human relationships and that this story as protohistory speaks to the practice of cult prostitution. He sees the Genesis flood narrative as a modified retelling of the traditional ANE flood account that justifies and safeguards key principles of ancient Israel’s life (93). Finally, Wenham sees the reign of Nebuchadnezzar as a possible historical setting of the Tower of Babel narrative. A constant refrain in Wenham’s essay is in line with a point he made at the beginning of the essay (that genre is secondary and application/interpretation is primary): that the message of these stories do not change whether they are regarded as history, fiction, or protohistory.

Finally, Kenton Sparks presents the most critical view: Genesis 1-11 as ancient historiography. “Whatever the first chapters of Genesis offer, there is one thing that they certainly do not offer, namely, a literal account of events that actually happened prior to and during the early history of humanity” (111). Sparks brands all who believe that Genesis offers a scientifically and historically accurate account of cosmology and early human history as fundamentalist, including scientists. He sees the genealogies of Gen 4 and 5 as having been written by two different authors, whom he calls “the Antiquarian Theologian” and “the Ethnic Apologist,” respectively. Sparks also asserts that the chronological figures are symbolic and not literal and actually seems to make an error in basic statistics to bolster this argument.1 [edit: I misunderstood and there was no conceptual error. See Andrew’s comment for clarification] “The history of the Apologist was strategically shaped from beginning to end to mimic Babylonian tradition” (129). The stories of Cain and Abel, the flood, the curse of Canaan, and the Tower of Babel are specifically noted as fiction, stories that become part of a culture’s lore. For Sparks, while the authors of Genesis 1-11 did not intend to write reliable history at every point, they did believe that history stood behind their narratives. Furthermore, they accepted as history things which cannot in fact be historical; “this text and its elements participated fully in ancient generic traditions that could never yield dependable history or modern science” (139).

Anyone interested in the subject of origins and especially ANE parallels will learn a ton from Genesis: History, Fiction, Or Neither? Even though I disagree most with Kenton Sparks, I find his responses to other contributors to be most helpful. He clearly summarizes the arguments of the other contributors into main theses and addresses each one.  Heightened by the fact that his view is so different from the other two, Sparks’s responses provide fruitful avenues for continued thinking and reading on the part of the reader. Hoffmeier and Wenham’s views are quite close (in fact, the former frequently positively cites the latter), and so their interactions with each other contain more summarization than interaction. What primarily surprised me about this book is that the most conservative view that sees Genesis as pure history is actually not represented. Hoffmeier does not reveal explicitly in his essay that he is an Old Earth Creationist but it comes out in one of his responses. So, the far left is represented in this book but not the far right.

As is the case with any kind of multiview book, the purpose is to see a diversity of views represented by its best and most capable proponents and to see them interact with each other’s arguments. You probably come to these books already firmly holding your own position, but it’s good to have your presuppositions and views challenged once in a while. You probably won’t change your position, but it will be enhanced and probably become more nuanced by the scholarly dialogue. And, as the essays and interactions help us to see more keenly the complexity of these issues, we ought to heed editor Charles Halton’s closing exhortation:

Christians are not a people who should fracture easily, particularly over the highly complex issues that we confront in Gen 1-11. Where there are areas of disagreement we must take pains to extend charity and deference to others, to recognize our own limitations, have patience with one another as we work for change, and also rejoice in our agreement on the fundamental characteristics of the Christian faith…Before we start withholding charity from our brothers and sisters because they embrace a different idea regarding Genesis we would do well to contemplate the fact that if Origen, Luther, and the Anglican Church could stray so far, it is almost certain that generations from now Christians will look back on our ethics and beliefs with a mixture of horror and amusement. This should cause us to extend charity most generously to those with whom we disagree, particularly when it comes to topics as challenging as the genre of Gen 1-11.

(162-163).

1.  Sparks notes that the final digit for each number is 0, 2, 5, or 7 in all cases and that the probability of random ages like this is on the order of .00000006% (because by “relatively simple” math, it’s the probabillity of random selection of any of the four digits raised to the power equivalent to the number of selections, n.14p.120). It’ s been 10 years since I took a math class so I’m open to correction, but I believe these are independent events and not dependent, akin to successive coin tosses and not successive draws from a deck of cards. Hence, the probability of one of the digits 0, 2, 5, or 7 showing up in each case is 40%  and is not affected by the other selections. Hence these occurrences are eight orders of magnitude more likely than what Sparks make them seem to be and statistically are quite possible by random occurrence.

Thanks to Zondervan for the review copy!

Purchase: Amazon

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5 Comments

  1. Reblogged this on Talmidimblogging and commented:
    Your review is appreciated Jennifer!

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  2. jamesbradfordpate

     /  August 4, 2015

    Reblogged this on James' Ramblings.

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  3. Andrew

     /  August 4, 2015

    Sparks did the math correctly (although I think you meant to write .00000006 without the percent sign). You gave the probability of one of the ages having a digit ending with 0, 2, 5, or 7, and you’re correct that it is 40% = .4. However, Sparks computed the probability of all eighteen ages mentioned ending with one of those digits, not of just one age ending with one of those digits. Assuming the events are independent, the probability of all eighteen ages ending in 0, 2, 5, or 7 is (0.4)^18, which was rounded to .00000006.

    Similarly, the probability of getting heads when you flip a coin one time is 50%. Coin flips are independent events, but the probability of flipping a coin 18 times and getting heads every time is definitely not 50%.

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