The Prehistory (Genesis 1—11)

If we think of history as a written phenomenon, we may call Genesis 1—11  prehistory in the sense that these stories are set in a time before writing was invented. The events discussed here cannot be based on any sort of formal written records of the events described.

Sacred literature—literature that a particular religious community considers to be holy—often includes stories of prehistory. Many religious communities that have produced scriptures have included stories about the creation of the world and the origins of their own religious traditions.

Stories of Cosmic Origins
(Genesis 1—2)

Genesis 1 and 2 discuss the origins of the world, but not in the way that a geology textbook would. These chapters use stories of cosmic origins as a way to present the character of Israel’s God. God is creator, the powerful controller of all that is. They also present important theological assumptions about the place of humanity in the created order.

Scholars and students of the Bible have long recognized two accounts of creation in Genesis 1—2. We will look at these stories separately, then compare them and examine the relationship between them.

Genesis 1:1—2:4a

Genesis 1:1—2:4a discusses creation as a seven-day event, with six “days” of creation and one “day” of rest. What does God create on each day? Read this story of creation now (printed below). As you read, make notes about the order in which the following items are created: light, plants, animals (sea creatures and land animals) and humanity. Be as specific as possible. What else does God do in this story besides create?

Feel free to compare other translations of the Bible to the one given here. The translation given here has been adapted to show the name of God used in this text and to emphasize certain other elements that will be important for our discussion.

1 In the beginning when Elohim created the heavens and the earth, 2the earth was a formless void, and darkness covered the face of the deep while a wind from Elohim swept over the face of the waters. 3Then Elohim said, “Let there be light”; and there was light. 4And Elohim saw that the light was good; and Elohim separated the light from the darkness. 5Elohim called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day.

6 And Elohim said, “Let there be a dome in between the waters, and let it separate the waters from the waters.” 7So Elohim made the dome and separated the waters that were under the dome from the waters that were above the dome. And it was so. 8Elohim called the dome Sky. And there was evening and there was morning, the second day.

9 And Elohim said, “Let the waters under the sky be gathered together into one place, and let the dry land appear.” And it was so. 10Elohim called the dry land Earth, and the waters that were gathered together he called Seas. And Elohim saw that it was good. 11Then Elohim said, “Let the earth put forth vegetation: plants yielding seed, and fruit trees of every kind on earth that bear fruit with the seed in it.” And it was so. 12The earth brought forth vegetation: plants yielding seed of every kind, and trees of every kind bearing fruit with the seed in it. And Elohim saw that it was good. 13And there was evening and there was morning, the third day.

14 And Elohim said, “Let there be lights in the dome of the sky to separate the day from the night; and let them also serve as signs for seasons and for days and for years, 15and let them be lights in the dome of the sky to give light upon the earth.” And it was so. 16Elohim made the two great lights—the greater light to rule the day and the lesser light to rule the night—and the stars. 17Elohim set them in the dome of the sky to give light upon the earth, 18to rule over the day and over the night, and to separate the light from the darkness. And Elohim saw that it was good. 19And there was evening and there was morning, the fourth day.

20 And Elohim said, “Let the waters bring forth swarms of living creatures, and let birds fly above the earth across the dome of the sky.” 21So Elohim created the great sea monsters and every living creature that moves, of every kind, with which the waters swarm, and every winged bird of every kind. And Elohim saw that it was good. 22Elohim blessed them, saying, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the waters in the seas, and let birds multiply on the earth.” 23And there was evening and there was morning, the fifth day.

24 And Elohim said, “Let the earth bring forth living creatures of every kind: cattle and creeping things and wild animals of the earth of every kind.” And it was so. 25Elohim made the wild animals of the earth of every kind, and the cattle of every kind, and everything that creeps upon the ground of every kind. And Elohim saw that it was good.

26 Then Elohim said, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.”

27 So Elohim created humankind in his image,
in the image of Elohim he created them;
male and female he created them.

28Elohim blessed them, and Elohim said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.” 29Elohim said, “See, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit; you shall have them for food. 30And to every beast of the earth, and to every bird of the air, and to everything that creeps on the earth, everything that has the breath of life, I have given every green plant for food.” And it was so. 31Elohim saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good. And there was evening and there was morning, the sixth day.

2:1 Thus the heavens and the earth were finished, and all their multitude. And on the seventh day Elohim finished the work that he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all the work that he had done.  So Elohim blessed the seventh day and hallowed it, because on it Elohim rested from all the work that he had done in creation.

4a These are the generations of the heavens and the earth when they were created.

A few notes on the translation The Hebrew word translated “humankind” in 1:26 and again in 1:27 is אָדָמ (adam). In chapter 2 that same word is used as the name  of an individual man. Here it is used in its more usual sense, “humanity.” This is made clear later in this same verse, where the word אָדָמ is treated as though it refers to a group of people rather than one person (let them have dominion, for example, is plural) and again at the end of the verse 27: “male and female he created them,” where them refers to אָדָמ, humankind.The reading, “and over all the wild animals of the earth”  in verse 26 is based on the Syriac text. The Hebrew reads simply and over all the earth.The Hebrew direct object particle at this point in 1:27b (אֶת) is given a singular form because its antecedent is the singular noun “humanity” (אָדָמ). Later in the verse, however, when it is made clear that “humanity” (אָדָמ) refers to more than one person, the particle is made plural (אֹתָמ). Because it is clear that the referent is plural throughout, the English translation of this particle is usually made plural even in the first instance: “them,” not “it” and not “him.”In 2:4a the Hebrew word תוֹלְדוֹת (toledot) is translated as generations. I have more to say about this term below.

Notice the neat closing statement in verse 4a. “These are the generations of the heavens and the earth when they were created.”

Now, look at your list of things created. Does it contain all of the items listed in the box below? If not, look at the story again and fill in the gaps in your list. In what verse does each one appear? You will need your list later when you read the next chapter of Genesis.

 Order of Creation in 1:1—2:4a
Day One Light (called “Day”). Note the separation of light from darkness.
Day Two The dome (called “Sky”). Note the separation of the waters above the dome from those below it. Where the water came from is not addressed.
Day Three Vegetation. Notice the separation of dry land from the waters below the dome and the naming of the land (“Earth”) and the waters (“Seas”).
Day Four Sun, moon, stars. Notice the separation of “the great light” to rule the day from the others to rule the night.
Day Five Sea creatures, birds
Day Six Land animals, humanity
Day Seven  God (Elohim) rests.

This story in Genesis 1:1—2:4a speaks of creation in royal terms. God acts like a king. When he speaks, his will is done. This is an image of overwhelming power. At the end of the story, humans—created in the image of God—are given “dominion” (ruling  authority) over the created order.

While both Jewish and Christian theology have proposed that God created the world ex nihilo (out of nothing), notice that this story does not explicitly make that claim. The belief in creation ex nihilo is a later theological development based in part on this story and on other biblical claims about the nature of God.

Most biblical scholars associate this creation story with the P source  and assume that it may have been recited in temple services in Jerusalem long before it became a part of the biblical text. What elements in this story seem to you to reflect a “priestly” point of view? Take a few minutes to reflect on this question. Can you put in writing a few of your thoughts?

Genesis 2:4b—25

Now read Genesis 2:4b—25 (printed below). Start a new list of the order in which things are created. Your list will be a little harder to construct this time. Notice comments like “While no plant of the field was yet on the earth…” (2:5). What does this indicate about where the plants should go in your list in relation to the creation of Adam?

Notice that in this story creation is not divided into separate “days.” The creation of the earth and the heavens and the creation of man are described as a single day rather than seven (see 2:4b—7, especially 2:4b).

The translation given below has been adapted to show the name of God used in the text and to emphasize other elements that may be important for our discussion. Feel free to compare your favorite translation to this one.

4b In the day that Yahweh Elohim made the earth and the heavens, 5 when no plant of the field was yet on the earth, and no herb of the field had yet sprung up—for Yahweh Elohim had not caused it to rain on the earth, and there was no one to till the ground; 6 but a stream would rise from the earth, and water the whole surface of the ground—  7 then Yahweh Elohim formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being.

8 And Yahweh Elohim planted a garden in Eden, in the east; and there he put the man whom he had formed. 9 Out of the ground Yahweh Elohim made to grow every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food, the tree of life also in the midst of the garden, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.

10 A river flows out of Eden to water the garden, and from there it divides and becomes four branches. 11 The name of the first is Pishon; it is the one that flows around the whole land of Havilah, where there is gold; 12 and the gold of that land is good; bdellium and onyx stone are there. 13 The name of the second river is Gihon; it is the one that flows around the whole land of Cush. 14 The name of the third river is Tigris, which flows east of Assyria. And the fourth river is Euphrates.

15 Yahweh Elohim took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it. 16 And Yahweh Elohim commanded the man, “You may eat freely of every tree of the garden; 17 but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die.”

18 Then Yahweh Elohim said, “It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper as his partner.” 19 So out of the ground Yahweh Elohim formed every animal of the field and every bird of the air, and brought them to the man to see what he would call them; and whatever the man called every living creature, that was its name. 20 The man gave names to all cattle, and to the birds of the air, and to every animal of the field; but for Adam there was not found a helper as his partner. 21 So Yahweh Elohim caused a deep sleep to fall upon the man, and he slept; then he took one of his ribs and closed up its place with flesh. 22 And Yahweh Elohim made the rib that he had taken from the man into a woman and brought her to the man. 23 The man said,

“At last this is bone of my bones
and flesh of my flesh;
This one shall be called ‘Woman,’
for out of Man this one was taken.”

24 Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and clings to his wife, and they become one flesh. 25 And the man and his wife were both naked, and were not ashamed.

A few notes on the translation The Hebrew word for woman in verse 23 is אִֹשָה. The word for man is אִיֹש. Unlike their English translations, these two Hebrew words are actually masculine and feminine forms of the same word. Think about this for a few seconds. Does it change the way you understand what Adam says in this text?

Compare your list of the order of creation in this story with the one presented in the box below. Did you notice other details besides the ones listed there? Does your list include all of what is in this one? If not, look at the story again. Be prepared to say why your list is different. Remember that your task here is to give the order in 2:4b—25 as accurately as possible. Do not include any details from Genesis 1:1—2:4a unless they are explicitly mentioned in 2:4a—25 as well.

Order of Creation in Genesis 2:4b—25
Earth and heavens Without plants or rain, but with water coming as a “stream from the earth”
Man “Adam,” humanity but without woman, is formed by the hand of Yahweh Elohim out of the dust of the ground before there are any plants.
The garden Yahweh Elohim plants trees, including the tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.
The rivers interlude A river flowing out of Eden divides into four branches. Notice that these branches are named and identified using terminology that assumes a time of writing after the rise of Assyria. See especially verse 14.
Animals The animals are created in search of an appropriate partner for the man. Notice that Yahweh Elohim says that it is not good that the man should be alone (2:18).
Woman The solution to the problem of incomplete humanity

Most biblical scholars see in this second story some elements from both the J and E sources. What elements of the story suggest that it may have been drawn at least in part from these sources? How do the names used for God relate to this question?

Notice that verse 14 mentions Assyria by name. Would this reference have made any sense to a reader before the rise of the nation called Assyria? What does this suggest about the earliest possible date that the story could have taken its present form?

What can we make of the differences between the two stories?

In 2:4b—25 man is created before the plants (see 2:5) and before the creation of the animals (2:18—19). This order contrasts with the one presented in 1:1—2:4a, where humanity (adam, both male and female) is created on day six, after the creation of both the plants and the animals. In chapter one humanity is created as the culmination of creation. In chapter two man and woman are the beginning and end of the creative process.

If we read each text with openness to the claims it is making about humanity and God, taking seriously the order in each account without trying to make the two stories agree, the differences between 1:1—2:4a and 2:4b—25 are striking. What do these differences mean?

In our twenty-first century context, the dominant world-view assumes that such differences must indicate errors. The common assumption is that if the order is different in the two accounts, then at least one of them must be wrong. A reading more sympathetic with the concerns of pre-enlightenment writing, though, can treat the two accounts as complementary rather than contradictory. The two accounts balance each other in important ways.

If we accept the post-enlightenment assumption that differences mean one account must be wrong, then we would have to see the final editor of these stories as somewhat inept, not recognizing the obvious problem created by putting the two stories together. If we treat the stories as pre-enlightenment accounts, though, we can treat the differing orders in a more sympathetic manner. The two stories present complementary statements about the nature of God and the status of humanity in the created order.

What do you think, and why? Is the author inept? If not, what statements do the stories make about God and humanity that you take to be true? Can you put some of your thoughts in writing?

Attempting to deny that the two stories have differences of order represents a refusal to take the texts seriously. One of the objectives of this site is to get you to read the text carefully, honestly acknowledging what it actually says without altering it to fit your theology. After you have done that, you will be in a position to return to the text with your theological assumptions, honestly recognizing that your theology, not the text itself, is what determines the way you have chosen to read. First, though, we must try to hear the text on its own terms.

If we assume for the sake of argument that the two texts balance each other both in the view of God they present and in their view of humanity, what would each one contribute to the worshiping community’s view of God? What would each one contribute to the worshiper’s view of humanity?

Views of God in the Stories of Cosmic Origins

Genesis 1:1—2:4a presents a transcendent view of God, with God high above creation, not in intimate contact with it. God speaks (wills) the world into existence in the way that an ancient king spoke and his will was done. The other story presents a ‘hands on’ God who gets down in the dirt and grapples with the creative task. This story presents God as immanent, intimately connected to creation. Worshippers in ancient Israel assumed both of these views of God to be correct, and most contemporary worshiping communities share this conviction.

By looking at the view of God presented in each story, we see the focus of Genesis 1 and 2 as being on who created the world rather than on how it was created. What is Israel’s God like? What does it mean to call God “Creator”? The worshiping community experiences God as both transcendent and immanent, and the creation stories presented here illustrate both of these views of God. Including both of these stories in the biblical canon constitutes a claim that it has been so since the beginning.

Views of Humanity in the Stories of Cosmic Origins

In a similar way, the two stories present complementary views of humanity. In Genesis 1:1—2:2a humanity is the summit of creation with male and female created together as the height of the created order, God’s final act of creation. In 2:4b—25 man and woman are created as the beginning and end of the creation of life. The man precedes the creation of the plants and animals, but creation is not satisfactory until woman is also created. The second creation account presents it as God’s intention that humanity live in community/relationship, not alone.

Later writers would find ways to read this second creation story as a condemnation of women, but the story itself exalts woman as that which makes creation complete. While the story that follows in chapter three does present a more negative view of woman, presenting her as subordinate to the man, it is significant that the author views that status as a result of sin, not a part of God’s original intention for humanity.

What Both Stories Assert about God and Humanity

Blending the two accounts in an attempt to deny their differences erases the creative tension of the competing voices that articulate the question (or assertion) of God’s nature and the place of humanity in the world. It does violence to both stories and allows neither to speak its authentic voice. If we acknowledge the tension between the stories honestly, though, we can also honestly recognize that the two stories have important assumptions in common.

Both stories present God as compassionate, but they communicate this impression in different ways. The first account establishes the humane practice of Sabbath (the right to rest), while the second—contrary to the way it is often read in translation—espouses a view male-female relationship in which woman is not property, but male and female are  appropriate partners. companions in the ongoing work of creation. Both of these emphases contrast sharply with the values of the societies surrounding ancient Israel and with the actual practice of many people within Israel’s own borders.

Other Ancient Creation Stories

Many ancient peoples produced creation stories. Rather than attempts at writing history, such accounts were typically statements about the meaning of the world, the status of the things in it, and the nature of its maker(s). Two very famous narratives come from ancient Mesopotamia.  The word Mesopotamia comes from ancient Greek and means “between the rivers.” The land between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers was extremely fertile, and some of humanity’s earliest cities as well as earliest literature appeared there.


The Atrahasis Epic

The Atrahasis Epic is a Mesopotamian tale written in Akkadian, the earliest attested Semitic language. Akkadian is the parent language of both Babylonian and Assyrian, indicating that this story was in existence long before the oldest copy now in existence. That oldest surviving nearly-complete copy dates from the mid 1600s BCE, but older fragments also exist.

The epic recounts the creation of humanity as well as a great flood. In this story, Anu is the god of heaven, Enlil the god of earth, and Enki the god of the freshwater ocean. Enlil puts the younger gods to work tilling the soil, but they soon rebel. Enki suggests creating humans to do the work, so Mami, the creator goddess, makes humans from the blood of We, a lesser god who is killed for this purpose.

The Enuma Elish

The Babylonian Enuma Elish, probably composed some time in the Bronze Age (roughly 1800 to 1600 BCE), is similar in a number of ways. In this tale Apsu, the god of the freshwater ocean, decides to do away with the younger gods, but is twarted by Ea, who discovers his plan and kills him before he can carry it out. Apsu’s female counterpart, Tiamat, the goddess of the saltwater ocean, attempts revenge for Apsu’s death, but the young gods rally around Marduk, who agrees to take up their cause if they will make him their king. Marduk slays Tiamat and uses half of her body to create a dome to keep the waters above at bay (note the similarity of this idea to the Genesis account of the dome). He then creates humans to serve as slaves to do the bidding of the gods. To create humans he uses the blood of Kingu, Tiamat’s henchman.

In both of these Mesopotamian stories humans are created as slaves of the gods, and in both stories they are created from the blood of a slain god.

The Memphis Theology

An Egyptian creation tale from the third millennium BCE claims that Ptah, the patron god of Memphis, was the divine heart and tongue (mind and speech). He conceived the idea of creation, then spoke it into existence. This view of creation as coming from the divine word shows an important similarity to Israel’s Priestly account of creation (Genesis 1:1—2:4a).

The Unique Perspective of Israel’s Stories

While these stories bear striking similarities to the Genesis accounts, the Hebrew stories are distinctive in several ways. First, Israel’s stories are monotheistic. Second, while both of the Babylonian stories claim that humans were created as slaves of the gods, the biblical stories represent a much higher view of the status of humanity in the created order, presenting humanity as the summit of creation (Genesis 1) or the beginning and completion of the creative process (Genesis 2). Third, the biblical stories are humanitarian—providing a theological rationale for rest (Sabbath) and depicting God concerned with the well-being of humanity. Fourth, while the theme of creation as a struggle or battle with the forces of chaos is strong in the Mesopotamian stories, implying that creation was necessary, Israel’s stories of creation do not present creation as a necessity, though knowledge of the battle theme reflected by the other stories can be seen in some of the Psalms (see Ps 29:10 and 93:3—4 as examples). In Israel’s stories no motive is stated for God’s decision to create. God creates solely because God wants to create.

Stories of Communal Origins
(Genesis 3—11)

The stories that immediately follow the creation accounts in the biblical narrative present the origins of human societies. Chapters 3—11 of Genesis tell of (1) the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden, (2) Cain’s murder of his brother Abel, (3) the Great Flood, and (4) the Tower of Babel—all but the first two being separated by long genealogies. One other short episode is introduced just before the flood story.

These stories share a common set of components. Each starts with a situation of relative harmony. Life seems to be going well. Then a catalyst appear to challenge and disrupt the harmony. In each case the humans rebel against what God wants. In some way they violate God’s wishes. In each story God confronts them, and the humans try to rationalize what they have done. A consequence for the rebellion is presented, but then God qualifies that consequence with an act of mercy. The expulsion from Eden story and the story of Cain and Abel establish this pattern firmly, while the flood story and the Tower of Babel each present variations on the plot.

Expulsion from Eden (Genesis 3)

The end of Genesis 2 presents a picture of harmony, with Adam and Eve living together peacefully (Genesis 2:21—25). Then the snake appears and tries to convince Eve to eat the forbidden fruit (3:1—5). We are told that he is the “craftiest” of the creatures, suggesting that he may convince Eve. This provides the catalyst for disruption of the harmony. Both Eve and Adam then eat of the forbidden fruit (3:6—7, rebellion). God confronts them (3:8—11), and they deny responsibility by rationalizing their actions (3:12—13).  The consequence of this series of events is that Adam and Eve are expelled from the garden (3:14—19, 22—24) to face a life of hardship and eventual death.

Although we may view death as the punishment for Adam and Eve’s disobedience, the mention of death here may be simply a way of stating the end time of the punishment. To people who may have died anyway, God says, the punishment will be a life sentence—hardship and alienation until death. Notice, though, that the story presents the tree of life as capable of sustaining life indefinitely (3:22), and that separation from it (alienation from the Garden where Yahweh Elohim walks) prevents this (3:23). It is an etiological tale—one that attempts to explain the uncomfortable reality that we all eventually die.

Note the use of curses in this section (see especially 3:14 and 17 where the word “curse” is used). Whatever we think about the role of death in this story, the curses stated poetically in 3:14—19 shift the emphasis onto the difficulties in this life.

The story does not present the alienation from God and the hardships that accompany it as absolute. They are qualified by the mercy that God shows toward Adam and Eve. Adam is told not to eat the forbidden fruit. Yahweh Elohim even says, “in the day that you eat of it you will surely die” (2:17), but Adam does not in fact die on the day he eats the fruit. Yahweh Elohim postpones his death till an unspecified point in the future. In stead, after expressing fierce anger at Adam and Eve (3:14—19), God has compassion on them and makes clothing for them before sending them out into the hostile world (3:21). They will be alienated from God and from the source of life (the “tree of life”), but not totally isolated from God’s care.

Cain and Abel (4:1—16)

The same basic plot can be observed in the following story, where Cain, the farmer, kills Abel, the herdsman, because of jealousy over Abel’s offering to God. As you read the story, notice the major plot elements. Adam and Eve have two sons (harmony, 4:1-2). God prefers Abel’s offering over Cain’s (catalyst, 4:3—7). Cain kills Abel (rebellion, 4:8). God asks Cain about his brother (confrontation, 4:9a). Cain deny’s responsibility for Abel (rationalization, 4:9b). God intensifies the curse on the Cain, making him a wanderer (consequence, 4:10-12). But in the end, God gives Cain a protective mark (mercy, 4:13-16).

Toledot (תוֹלְדוֹת) and the Genealogies of Genesis
(4:17—26; all of chapter 5)

The Hebrew term toledot (תוֹלְדוֹת), often translated as generations or descendants (See Genesis 2:4a and 5:1, for example), introduces ten major sections of the narrative in the book of Genesis. This Hebrew noun is derived from a verb meaning give birth, but its meanings go far beyond this idea.  This translation does not communicate clearly to many English readers though, since some of these sections of Genesis do not talk about generations or descendants while others do. Perhaps these introductory phrases using toledot would be more clearly rendered as “these are the results of” or “this is what became of.” In that case, Genesis 2:4a could be seen as a transition statement between the two stories of creation, with the second story introducing the long account of what became of creation after it began.

The ten toledot formulae of Genesis are divided evenly between the prehistory (chapters 1—11) and the story of the ancestors of the nation of Israel (chapters 12—50). The five toledot formulae in the prehistory are found in 2:4a (the toledot of the Heavens and Earth), 5:1 (the toledot of Adam), 6:9 (the toledot of Noah), 10:1 (the toledot of Shem, Ham, and Japeth, the sons of Noah), and 11:10 (the toledot of Shem). The toledot formulae in the ancestral story are found in 11:27 (the toledot of Terah, Abraham’s father), 25:12 (the toledot of Ishmael), 25:19 (the toledot of Isaac), 36:1 (the toledot of Esau), and 37:2 (the toledot of Jacob).

Chapter four ends with a genealogy, but this one is not called a toledot in Hebrew. This genealogy of Cain, the first son of Adam and Eve, does not open a new section of the narrative. In stead, it brings to a close the story of Adam and Eve that opened in 2:4a, laying the focus of that narrative on Cain, who killed his brother. This way of ending the story emphasizes the violence that the final editor of Genesis sees as inherent to humanity’s alienation from God.

Chapter five opens with a toledot formula: “These are the toledot of Adam.” This formula introduces a section of the narrative that ends just before the great flood in chapter six. All of chapter five is dedicated to a genealogy listing the descent from Adam to Noah through Seth (Adam and Eve’s third son). The narrative that follows this list of Adam’s descendants discusses the results of Adam’s disobedience, culminating in the following statement in 6:6—7:

And Yahweh was sorry that he had made humankind on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart. So Yahweh said, “I will blot out from the earth the human beings I have created—people together with animals and creeping things and birds of the air, for I regret that I have made them.”

The genealogy in chapter five that introduces this dark story is a unilinear listing of male heads of families (following the line of only one son of each father). The priestly language is notable: “Adam became the father of a son in his likeness, according to his image, and named him Seth” (5:3). 5:1b—2a is extremely close in wording to 1:27—28a.

While “in his image” had a positive tone in chapter one, where the image was the image of Elohim, here, when the image is Adam’s, it sounds ominous: those who come in the wake of Adam’s sin will repeat his error. His children bear his image. Notice, however, that this does not doom them all to Adam’s fate. Note the comment that Enoch “walked with Elohim” (5:22, 24). The comment about Enoch lacks the characteristic phrase, “He died” that is found in the comments about the other people mentioned here. In place of these words we find “then he was no more, because God took him.” The phrase “he walked with Elohim” is also used in reference to Noah in 6:9. This phrase is reminiscent of the condition of Adam and Eve in the garden. The comment signals the reader that, despite the debacle of Adam and Eve, it is still possible to “walk with God.”

Methuselah (5:27), Enoch’s son, is said to have lived 969 years. While this is the longest life span mentioned in the bible, many of the people mentioned in the genealogies found in Genesis are said to have lived for hundreds of years. Readers often debate how best to understand these statements, and no entirely satisfactory answer has yet been proposed. If the numbers in later genealogies are taken literally, for example, they lead to conclusions about dates that cannot be reconciled with the available archaeological data. For this reason many scholars propose that some form of symbolism is at work in the numbers, but the nature of that symbolism is not clear.

The “Sons of God” and the “Daughters of Man”
(Genesis 6:1-4)

Chapter six opens with a short interlude that has no personally named characters and serves to reinforce the view that creation has become degraded, that the order created by appropriate separations in Genesis 1 has begun to collapse. Even the division between the divine and the created order is now breaking down as the “sons of Elohim” begin to marry the daughters of man. This breaking down of order helps introduce the flood story that spans chapters 6—8.

Notice that this story has Elohim place an explicit limitation on the length of human life (120 years, 6:3). The later story, however, will ignore this limitation for several more chapters. Noah, for example, is said to live 950 years (9:28b) and his son Shem is said to have lived 600 years (11:10—11). These long life spans are pictured as extending well beyond the time of Noah in the genealogy in chapter 11 with Nahor, in the eighth generation after Noah, living to an age of 148 years (29 + 119, see Genesis 11:24—25).

The Flood: The Undoing of Creation

The story of the great flood in chapters 6—9 bears important similarities to two older Mesopotamian tales, but before we explore those similarities, let us first look at the function of the flood narrative in the biblical text. Take a few minutes to make some notes about what you expect this story to include. Have you heard the story before? If so, what do you remember? After making some preliminary notes, read Genesis 6:5—9:17, then continue with the discussion below.

The Plot of the Unified Flood Story

As in many good narratives, the plot line, having been firmly established in the preceding scenes, is now altered in the flood story. The scene begins with a toledot formula establishing the usual element of harmony:

These are the toledot of Noah. Noah was a righteous man, blameless in his generation. Noah walked with Elohim.

The name Elohim usually appears without the article as personal names normally do in Hebrew, but in a few texts this word appears with the article as ha-elohim. These texts may show signs of a time before Israel came to adopt a monotheistic perspective, a time when the word elohim was not yet used as a proper name, but was simply the plural form of el, the generic word for God or god. In that case, ha-elohim would mean “the gods.”When Israel came to adopt a firmly monotheistic perspective, though, these ancient texts would be reinterpreted to refer to the One God. If that is the case, it suggests that the editor of Genesis held the ancient stories in very high regard and refused to alter them to fit the new theology.Other texts in Genesis where ha-elohim appears rather than the usual Elohim are 5:22 and 24 (Enoch walked with ha-elohim), 6:2 (The sons of ha-elohim saw that the daughters of man were beautiful), 6:4 (The sons of ha-elohim came to the daughters of man), 6:11 (the earth was corrupt in the sight of ha-elohim), 17:18 (Abraham said to ha-elohim, “I wish that Ishmael might live in your presence), 20:6 (Then ha-elohim said to him in a dream…), 20:17 (Abraham prayed to ha-elohim), 22:1 (After these things ha-elohim tested Abraham), 22:3 (Abraham… went to the place about which ha-elohim had spoken to him), 22:9 (when they came to the place about which ha-elohim had told him…), 27:28 (May ha-elohim give you dew from the heavens), 31:11 (the messenger of ha-elohim said…), 35:7 (there ha-elohim had revealed himself/themselves), 41:25, 41:28, 41:32 (twice), 42:18, 44:16, 45:8, 48:15 (twice).

This toledot formula introduces a section that will continue through chapter 9, but the harmony here is brief. While Noah is righteous, his neighbors are not. The catalyst and the rebellion have already been stated in the earlier comment, “Yahweh saw that humankind’s wickedness was great on the earth, and that their every thought was constantly evil” (6:5). This sentiment is renewed in verse 11: “Now the earth was corrupt in Elohim’s sight, and it was filled with violence.” Here, though, humankind’s evil is stated in terms of violence, the characteristic of alienation from God already introduced in the story of Cain and Abel.

Notice that the divine name in verse 11 is Elohim while it was Yahweh in verse 5. Small details like this suggest to many commentators that the flood story combines elements from more than one source. This issue is addressed in more detail below.

Despite these differences from the customary plot line, the basic plot element of rebellion-punishment-mercy is maintained. The element of mercy is to be found in the survival of Noah and the re-creation that follows the flood. Modern readers often find it hard to see mercy here, but in an ancient culture focused on the community rather than the individual, the mercy would have been clear: Noah’s survival means the survival of the community, hence the mercy of God. The focus in this story is on Noah’s family and their survival, not on the mass of nameless people destroyed in the flood.

Repentance and the Re-creation

At the end of the flood story God decides never again to flood the earth. Noah builds an altar and performs an offering to Yahweh. In response to Noah’s offering God expresses compassion toward humanity. God recognizes that “the inclination of the human heart is evil from youth” (8:21), but treats this as a reason for compassion rather than condemnation. It is as if God is saying, “I won’t do this again because my poor creation can’t help going astray.”

The story echoes the language of the priestly account of creation. The command “Be fruitful and multiply” is repeated three times (8:17; 9:1, 7). In sharp contrast to the first creation story, however, a permanent enmity is now established between humanity and the animals.

Every animal of the earth will fear you and live in dread of you, as will every bird of the air, everything that crawls on the ground, and all the fish of the sea; into your hand they are delivered. Every moving thing that lives shall be food for you; and just as I gave you the green plants, I give you everything (9:2—3, contrast 1:29—30).

The creation, having moved away from God’s initial purpose, is now consigned to suffer the violent consequences of humanity’s alienation from God. God releases humanity to live by the violence that it has created. Still, God does not abandon humanity completely, but vows to exact vengeance on any animal or person who kills a human (9:5—6). Violence, both human violence and God’s violent response shown in the flood, now becomes the norm. Even the punishment for excessive violence is more violence. Anyone who kills a human is to be killed by a human (9:6). Ironically, the enmity established between humans and the rest of creation is stated as part of a blessing that began in 9:1. Humankind is now “blessed” by getting what it wants—permission to use violence.

The flood episode ends as God establishes a covenant with creation in 9:8—17. This first covenant is one-sided and unconditional. God promises to never again destroy the world with a flood and gives a sign (the rainbow) as a reminder of this covenant, but the covenant makes no explicit demand on creation. It is totally God’s responsibility and initiative.

This covenant with creation is the first of four covenants in the Hebrew Bible. The first three are introduced in the Torah. We will soon see the covenant with Abraham, and the one with Moses will be introduced in Exodus. Later we will see a covenant between God and king David (2 Samuel 7).

The Central Theme of the Unified Flood Story: the Undoing and Renewal of Creation

A strong central theme runs through this story: the undoing of the original creation and the recreation of the earth. The separations that brought order in the first chapter of Genesis are now undone as the dry land is again covered with water. The waters under the dome come surging up (7:11) and the waters above come crashing down (7:12) to reestablish the watery chaos of the beginning. As the original creation began with a “wind from Elohim” hovering over the waters (1:2), now Elohim sends a wind to drive back the waters (8:1). As the first creation ended with Elohim blessing humankind and providing food before he rested (1:28—30 and 2:1—3), the recreation culminates with Elohim blessing Noah and his family and providing them food before he makes a covenant of peace with his creation (9:1—7 and 8—17).

There is also in this re-creation a parallel with the creation story from the second chapter of Genesis. That story (2:4a—25) says that Adam was formed of dust from the ground (אַדָמָה, adamah, 2:7), and here Noah is called a “man of the soil” (אַדָמָה, adamah, 9:20).

Sources for the Flood Story

Readers of the Hebrew text of this story have often pointed out strong evidence of multiple sources behind the text that we now have. The name of God shifts several times, for example. God is sometimes called Yahweh and sometimes Elohim, but never Yahweh Elohim (as God was called in the story of Adam and Eve).

Some of the evidence of multiple sources can even be seen in the English translations. Did you notice anything that might suggest multiple sources as you read the story? Look at the story again. Compare 6:19—20 with 7:2—3. What might a scholar say about the difference between these statements? Why? If one of the two sources was the Priestly source, would 6:19—20 or 7:2—3 be more likely to be from that source? Why? Which source is most concerned with the distinction between clean and unclean things?

Whatever we might say about the sources behind the story, the final version is a well-constructed unit. Gordon J. Wenham has argued that the story as we have it in today’s Bible has an overall unity and a careful recursive structure. Based roughly on Wenham’s proposal, we can view the structure of Genesis 6:10—9:19 as follows:

Gordon J. Wenham, “The Coherence of the Flood Story,” Vetus Testamentum, 28 (1978) 336—348.

Chiastic Construction of the Flood Story

This recursive structure suggests that the flood story as found in our biblical text was not simply taken from earlier sources, but carefully reworked to reflect the purposes of the biblical writers.

The Biblical Flood Story and Other Ancient Flood Stories

The Gilgamesh Epic is a Babylonian story with Gilgamesh, king of Uruk, as the main character. The eleventh tablet contains a flood story with striking similarities to the Noah story in Genesis. Earlier we discussed the creation story in the Atrahasis Epic. That Mesopotamian epic also contains a flood narrative. Flood stories appear to have been common in the ancient near east, and it should not surprise us that multiple versions of the story were available in Israel long before the Bible reached its final form.

The Gilgamesh takes its name from its central character. Gilgamesh plays a role similar to that of Noah in the biblical story. He builds a large boat and puts the animals in it. After the world has been flooded for some time Gilgamesh sends out a dove to see if it can find dry land, but the dove returns. Some time later he sends out a raven, and the raven does not return. In the biblical story a raven is mentioned (8:7), but plays no crucial role (see 8:6—12). The dove in our biblical story is sent out twice, the first time finding nothing, but the second time returning with an olive branch, indicating that dry land has reappeared. As the biblical writer composed the story we now have, he likely drew on every resource available to him.

The issue of sources and the possible relationship of the biblical story to earlier narratives should not trouble us or detract from the faith value of the story found in Genesis. Instead we should think about why the editors of the Torah wanted to include this story. What does it contribute to the view of the world, of God, and of humanity that needed to be a part of Israel’s developing scriptural traditions?

The Flood Story in the Context of Torah

In the biblical context this story serves to provide an explanation for why the world is as it is despite the caring nature of Israel’s God. God’s intentions were good. Creation was good. But humanity introduced violence to the creation. At first, the story says, God reacted with violence (the flood). But in the end, God’s compassion wins out. Violence remains a part of the created order, but God protects creation, vowing to never send a flood again.

Science, the Natural World, and the Flood Story

What can we say about the historical reality behind the biblical flood story? Is the story plausible? That is, is it reasonable to believe that the story is literally true?

If we could melt the polar ice caps and cause it to rain until every drop of moisture was drained from the atmosphere and dropped to the ground, would that be sufficient to raise the level of the oceans high enough to cover even Mount Everest?

There is not that much H2O (water, in all its forms: ice, liquid, and vapor) on the planet to do that. But then again, maybe this is not what the story means anyway.

The story says “the waters swelled so mightily on the earth that all the high mountains under the whole heaven were covered” (7:19), but in some languages expressions like “the whole world” or “everyone under heaven” can be used to mean “everything relevant to what we are talking about” rather than everything that exists. In Spanish, for example, the expression “todo el mundo” (“the whole world”) is regularly used in this way.

Imagine that I go out to dinner with my wife and in the restaurant I do something embarrassing (use your imagination to fill in what it is). On the way home she says to me, “Don’t worry. Nobody saw it.” But the very next evening we turn on the TV to watch the local news and they are doing a social interest story about dining out in our area, and there I am—on TV. Horrified, I turn to her and say “¡Todo el mundo lo sabe!” (“The whole world knows!”) I would not mean that every inhabitant of planet Earth now knows what I did at the restaurant. I would mean everyone relevant to my experience is going to find out what I did.

If the latter is the way the biblical statement should be taken—as meaning that everything relevant to Noah’s existence is destroyed—then the story becomes much more plausible. Large scale flooding did sometimes happen in ancient Mesopotamia where the flood story is set.

Noah’s Sons and His Nakedness
(Genesis 9:18—28)

A brief episode about Noah’s family follows the flood narrative. Read Genesis 9:18—28 and look for the following plot elements. Notice that the offended party is Noah rather than God in this story.

  • Harmony: The flood is over, and Noah’s sons go with him out of the ark (9:18—19)
  • Catalyst: Noah’s becomes drunk and lies naked in his tent (9:20—21)
  • Rebellion: Ham tells his brothers about their father’s nakedness (9:22—23)
  • Confrontation: Noah curses Canaan, son of Ham (9:24—25). In a tribal culture this entails a curse of the father as well.
  • Consequence: Enslavement of Canaan and blessing of Shem and Japheth (9:25—27). Notice that Canaan represents—or worse—replaces his father, Ham.

Notice which plot element is missing. There is no mercy at the end of this story. The offended party is Noah, not God. Where God shows mercy, Noah shows vengeance.

While Noah is introduced as “a righteous man, blameless in his generation” and as one who “walked with God” in 6:9, here he has become “a man of the soil” (ish adama, 9:20). This identification is not presented as negative, but it does suggest a thematic connection with the first man of the soil, Adam.

This brief text centers on the reaction of Noah’s sons to their father’s drunkenness, but notice that the text in no way suggests that Noah’s drunkenness was sinful. It is presented as the natural consequence of the wine—a natural derivative of the fruit of the vine. It is the indiscretion of Ham that is presented as wrong. This shows the important place of respect for parents in ancient Hebrew culture.

The story is structured as if it were a genealogy. It starts by listing Noah’s sons and ends with the comment “All the days of Noah were nine hundred fifty years; and he died” (9:28b), but this is not called a toledot. In fact this episode ends the toledot section that began in 6:9, the story of what resulted from the life of Noah.

Later, in the books of Joshua and Judges, we will read about the Hebrew tribes invading the land of Canaan. This short episode in Genesis 9 sets the stage for that later story.

The “Table of Nations” Genealogy (Genesis 10)

Chapter 10 begins with another toledot forumala. The entire chapter is dedicated to a genealogy often called the “table of nations.” Using the sons of Noah (Shem, Ham, and Japheth) it seeks to explain the origin of the nations and their languages in the area surrounding the later nation of Israel. It contrasts with the other priestly genealogy we have seen (chapter 5) in that while that one is unilinear (following the line of only one son of each father), this one lists multiple sons of a single father and sometimes comments on more than one of those sons.

Some of the names in the genealogy are the names of later nations, regions, or cities. The sons of Ham include Egypt and Canaan (10:6). Nimrod is identified as the first of the mighty warriors (10:8) and is identified with Babel (10:10) as well as with building Nineveh (10:11), both of which would eventually become major aggressors against Israel (721 BCE Assyria devastated Israel; 587 BCE Babylon devastated Judah). In 10:15 Canaan is said to be the father of Sidon (a major city in northern Canaan at the time of Israel’s occupation of the land).

Tower of Babel (Genesis 11:1-9)

Notice that a genealogy of Shem (שֵׁמ) is included in 10:21—31 and another in 11:10—26. The Tower of Babel story is enclosed between these two toledot. In that story the people of “Babel” seek to make a name (שֵׁמ) for themselves.

In Classical Hebrew, names were important. Names had meanings and were chosen because of their meaning. Noah’s oldest son was named Shem. The Hebrew word shem (שֵׁמ) means name, reputation, glory. To make a name for oneself was to determine ones destiny. In the tower of Babel story, the people seek to make a name (שֵׁמ) for themselves, to control their own destiny (11:4).

The story of Abraham, which follows in chapter 12, will be the story of a man who allows God to determine his destiny (שֵׁמ). Placing the tower of Babel story here, sandwiched between two genealogies of Shem, highlights the importance of destiny and who should control it.

The Tower of Babel story is an analepsis, a look back in the sequence of the story. It assumes a unified humanity with a single language (11:1), yet it follows the table of nations (chapter 10) which has already offered an explanation for the origin of the nations and their languages.

Read Genesis 11:1—9 looking for the following plot elements:

  • Harmony: Humanity is unified with a single language (11:1—2)
  • Catalyst: The desire to make a name (shem, שֵׁמ) for themselves (v3, compare 10:21 and 11:10).
  • Rebellion:  (v 4)
  • Confrontation? (vv 5—6)
  • Rationalization (none: there are no named characters to respond)
  • Consequence (vv 8—9; Note the humor in verse 9
  • Mercy (No destruction)

The ziggurat of Ur-Nammu (Woolley 1939).

The focus of this story provided by the two bracketing genealogies is clearly on the desire of the people to insure their own future by making a name (shem, שֵׁמ) for themselves. In the larger narrative of Genesis this is far more significant than the story’s attempt to explain the origin of human languages.

Ziggurat of Ur-Nammu (Woolley 1939)
Ziggurat of Ur-Nammu (Woolley 1939)

On another level this story is a humorous critique of the theology of one of Israel’s neighbors. The Babylonians built ziggurats, towers reaching high above the surrounding buildings (reaching into “the heavens”), each with a temple on top. The local god was thought to reside in this temple. From the perspective of the biblical writer this is the height of arrogance, to assume that one can place God at the top of a tower and go up to God when you need something. The author uses a pun to make fun of Babylon’s name, highlighting the “confused” thinking of its people: “Therefore its name was called Babel/Babylon (babel, בָּבֶ֔ל) because there Yahweh confused (balal, בָּלַ֥ל) the language of all the earth…” (11:9).

Genealogy: The toledot of Shem
(Genesis 11:10—26)

The tower of Babel story is followed by a unilinear genealogy of Shem that ignores the 120-year limit placed on human life spans earlier in 6:3. All of the men whose ages are given here are said to have lived several hundred years. Can you think of a reason for this? While many scholars have speculated about it, none have offered a fully satisfactory explanation.

Terah and the Move from Ur to Haran
(Genesis 11:27—32)

Ruins of Ur, Southern Iraq, by M.Lubinski

Genesis 11:27—32 serves as a transition between what I have called the prehistory and the story of Israel’s ancestors, a section that is also unlikely to be based on any written historical records.

The story is introduced with a toledot formula (11:27a) and a key bit of information that prepares the reader for the later story of Abram/Abraham and Sarai/Sarah: Terah moves his family from Ur to Haran (11:31) in northern Mesopotamia. It is there that Terah’s son Abram will later hear the voice of Yahweh (12:1) and set in motion the events that will eventually lead to the creation of the nation of Israel.

This toledot section gives a more prominent role to women than the earlier ones do. The wife of Abram is Sarai, and it is her story, as much as that of Abram, that will drive the following narrative. We are told that Sarai was barren (unable to bear children, 11:30). This “problem” will provide the tension needed to move the plot forward for the next several chapters.

Historical Analysis of the Stories of Communal Origins

Stories of communal origins served important social and political functions in the cultures of the ancient near East. Narratives of prehistory were generally used to set the stage for an historical narrative and establish the appropriate assumptions about nature and history. In the case of Israel’s prehistory in Genesis 1—11, the text establishes a view of God as intimately concerned with the affairs of humanity and a view of humanity as generally unwilling to live in faithful relationship with God.

While the ancient authors of these texts were not attempting to write empirically based history, modern readers often want know how the stories relate to such history. What historical value do the stories have? Can we confirm them on the basis of other literature from the period or relevant archaeological data?

The narratives of Genesis 1—11 cannot be confirmed as historical. The necessary archaeological and literary data are simply not available. This lack of confirmation, though, should not surprise us. No one in the ancient world wrote objective accounts of historical occurrences. These stories were not written as a means of enabling later readers to accurately reconstruct the origins of human societies, but to answer the question of why things are as they are, and what they mean. The stories are etiological.

An etiology is an explanation of the cause or reason for something, often in story form. Many cultures have used etiological tales to give a narrative basis for the aspects of their traditions they consider most important.

Still, archaeology and the study of other ancient literature has contributed greatly to what we can know about the time period discussed in these stories. Silt deposits in Mesopotamia, for example, indicate serious flooding in the relevant period, though not global flooding. If we understand the flood story in the way suggested above, this finding is significant. Similarly, archaeological digs in southern Mesopotamia (including the probable site of Ur and at Babylon) have uncovered numerous ziggurats. While these do not prove the validity of the Tower of Babel story, they do help us make sense of that story.

Archaeological digs and studies of the relevant ancient literature, even when conducted by committed Christians and Jews, are not usually done in an attempt to prove what the Bible claims. Instead, they are conducted in an attempt to better understand what the biblical documents say, giving us a clearer picture of the historical context they represent.

Further reading on the Book of Genesis:

Terms and Concepts to Remember

Confirmed Shown to be true by independent evidence
Disconfirmed Shown to be false by independent evidence
Elohim The name of God used most frequently in the E source. The form of this name is plural, but it is often treated grammatically as singular.
Etiological Having to do with causes and origins. An etiological story is one that attempts to explain why something is as it is.
Prehistory Stories relating events from a time before the invention of writing
Sacred literature Literature that a particular religious community considers to be holy
Shem A Hebrew word meaning name, reputation, glory. This is also the name of Noah’s first son. The word is important for understanding the Tower of Babel story (Genesis 11:1—9).
Toledot A Hebrew word often translated as “generations” or “descendants” but more clearly rendered in some contexts as “results” or “what came of this”
Unconfirmed Neither shown to be true nor shown to be false by independent evidence
Yahweh The name of God used most frequently in the J source
YHWH The tetragrammaton, the four-letter designation of the divine name. The name was probably pronounced “Yahweh,” but is translated as “the Lord” in most English translations of the Bible (using small capital letters for the word “Lord”). This is done to show respect for the name.

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