Thursday, May 26, 2016

What is the Genre of Genesis 1-2 (Part 2)

This is part two of my term paper on how to read and interpret the first two chapters of Genesis. Read part one here.

Enuma Elish from Google Images
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So why was Genesis written? If not to tell us the science and exact factual history of the creation of the world, what was its purpose? Peter Enns points to two important developments in biblical scholarship in the nineteenth century which have significantly influenced how we read Genesis today. The first is biblical archaeology and with it the discovery of ancient creation myths with similarities to Genesis. The second development is an innovative answer to who wrote the Pentateuch and when it was written: “Genesis is an ancient Israelite narrative written to answer pressing ancient Israelite questions.”1  Julius Wellhausen and many other biblical scholars argue that, “the Pentateuch as we know it [...] was not completed until the postexilic period (after the Israelites were allowed to return to their homeland from Babylon beginning in 539 BC).” 2 This means it was formed as a theological response to the Babylonian exile. The author(s) of Genesis were defining Israel as a nation in the wake of Babylonian captivity. The purpose was not simply to provide objective historical or scientific information about the origins of the world, but rather to speak about God, and Israel’s identity as God’s chosen people from the beginning of the world.3

How did biblical archaeology shape our understanding of Genesis? In 1876, George Smith discovered and published Enuma Elish, an ancient Babylonian creation story. Ever since then, the question must be raised: “if the foundational stories of Genesis seem to fit so well among other-clearly ahistorical-stories of the ancient world, in what sense can we really say that Israel’s stories refer to fundamentally unique, revealed, historical events?”4

There are several similarities between the two stories.5 In both Enuma Elish and Genesis matter exists independently of the divine spirit. There is not creation out of nothing, but order out of chaos and there is only darkness before creation. Before the creation of the sun, moon, and stars, light already exists. The chaos symbol in Enuma Elish is the goddess Tiamat. In Enuma Elish, Marduk cuts the body of Tiamat in two and uses half of it to form a barrier to keep the waters from escaping. Genesis 1:6-8 depicts the sky as a solid dome (“firmament”) to keep the waters above where they belong.6 Enuma Elish concludes this sequence with the building of a temple. And John Walton proposes that the ordered cosmos is God’s cosmic temple.7 Wenham explains that in the ancient world the dedication of a temple took a week, and then on the seventh day the god or gods came to dwell in it. So again we see the link between the creation of the world as creating a temple for the Creator who rests on the seventh day. In other words God comes to dwell on earth with man.8 Lamoureux also talks about how Genesis 1-11 is typological and mentions the six days of creation followed by a day of rest modeling the Hebrew work week and Sabbath. Lamoureux claims the author manipulated the number of creation days to serve his theological intention.9

For Enns, what is more important than proving “literary dependence” is the “conceptual similarity” between the two stories. There are still significant differences between the Babylonian and biblical stories as well, which would suggest something besides “borrowing” has taken place. For example there is no divine conflict in Genesis, while conflict is a major theme in Enuma Elish. The key is to understand the Genesis stories in their ancient context and stories like Enuma Elish help us do that by helping us “calibrate the genre of Genesis 1.”10

Our understanding of the second creation story is enhanced by the Atrahasis Epic. Some have said Genesis 2-8 is an Israelite version of Atrahasis.11 In contrast to the Babylonian stories, in Genesis, humans are created as God’s crowning achievement - they are said to be “very good” created in the image of God.  Whereas in the Babylonian creation story humans are not made in God’s image. In the Epic of Atrahasis, humans were created more as an afterthought to do the work the gods did not want to do.12

I will post the final part tomorrow.
Or you can read the full paper as a pdf here.


1 Peter Enns 
The Evolution of Adam (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2012), xviii.
2 Peter Enns, 5.
3 Peter Enns, 5.
4 Peter Enns, 37.
5 For more on the similarities between Enuma Elish and Genesis 1 see Bernard Batto’s Slaying the Dragon, pages 76-77.
6 Peter Enns, 39.
7 John H. Walton, The Lost World of Genesis One (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2010), 77-80.
8 Wenham, Genesis: History, Fiction, or Neither? 81.
9 Lamoureux, 268.
10 Peter Enns 41.
11 Peter Enns 53, For more on the similarities between Genesis 2 and Atrahasis see Slaying the Dragon by Bernard F. Batto, pages 51-52.
12 Peter Enns, Genesis for Normal People, 25.

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