Have we lost the plot? (Genesis)

Have you been surprised at how the plot of Genesis develops when you read it as the story of the kingdom? It has not been read this way in recent times. Why?

The eighteenth and nineteenth century saw a shift in cultural attitudes known as the Enlightenment. Science was seen as the answer to everything. Applied to Genesis, this meant that people dissected the book to find its underlying sources.

In 1753, Austruc identified two authors behind Genesis. One used the Hebrew word Elohim for God, and the other used YHWH (Jehovah). Others built on this idea over the next 150 years: Eichhorn, De Wette, Ilgen, Hupfeld, Graf, Kayser, and Kuenen. In 1883, Wellhausen published his Prolegomena to the History of Israel arguing for four sources: Jahwist, Elohist, Deuteronomist, and Priestly (JEDP). Some identified additional sources/redactors, and many conservatives rejected the whole approach. Nevertheless, the documentary hypothesis constituted the consensus of scholarly opinion during the first half of the twentieth century.

This belief impacted the way we read Genesis. If you believe that it is a patchwork of bits and pieces stitched together from different authors in different periods, you will not look for a developing plot. It’s hardly surprising that Genesis has been treated as disconnected stories.

This whole approach began to fall apart in the latter half of the twentieth century. The propaganda associated with two world wars and the destructive power of the atom bomb caused people to question the meta-narratives of our culture and the notion that science could solve our problems. With this “postmodern” swing against Enlightenment assumptions, the idea that we could recover discrete sources in an ancient text seemed less plausible. Rendtorff argued against the Documentary Hypothesis in the 1970s, though he retained the notion that it consisted of larger chunks. Others like Whybray, Redford, Westermann, Van Seters, and Coats shifted the focus from sources to literary techniques. By the end of the twentieth century, Wenham could say that there was no longer a consensus regarding the sources of the Pentateuch:

No new consensus has evolved to replace Wellhausen’s basic theory, so it still continues to be assumed by many scholars, though there is now widespread recognition of the hypothetical character of the results of modern criticism.

[Gordon J. Wenham, Genesis 1–15, Word Biblical Commentary (Dallas: Word, 1998), xxxv]

Trying to identify different authors from different dates behind the text of Genesis was always a flawed quest. Individual authors publishing works on particular dates is characteristic of the modern era; it was never how the ancient world worked. Genesis was a communal story: developed communally, transmitted orally, and constantly adapted over the centuries to reflect their communal identity in the changing world.

In the twenty-first century some scholars are seeking to trace how such communal stories were developed, remembered, and transmitted in ancient oral cultures. While such studies may be worth pursuing, we should remain cautious of any speculative reconstructions. It would be wise to learn from the mistakes of recent centuries.

Treating Genesis as a mosaic of pieces from different authors at different dates led to a reading of the text as disconnected self-contained short stories. But if we treat the story as a communal narration, constantly adapted so that it remained the story of the people who represented God’s kingdom on earth in Old Testament times, the developing plotline of the kingdom is what we should expect. With a better attitude towards the text, we can respect the storyline.


What others are saying

C. S. Lewis, “Modern Theology and Biblical Criticism” in Christian Reflections edited by Walter Hooper (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1967), 159-160 (emphasis added):

What forearms me against all these Reconstructions is the fact that I have seen it all from the other end of the stick. I have watched reviewers reconstructing the genesis of my own books in just this way.

Until you come to be reviewed yourself you would never believe how little of an ordinary review is taken up by criticism in the strict sense: by evaluation, praise or censure of the book actually written. Most of it is taken up with imaginary histories of the process by which you wrote it.

The very terms which the reviewers use in praising or dispraising often imply such a history. They praise a passage as ‘spontaneous’ and censure another as ‘laboured’; that is, they think they know that you wrote the one currente calamo and the other invita Minerva. …

Reviewers, both friendly and hostile, will dash you off such histories with great confidence; will tell you what public events had directed the author’s mind to this or that, what other authors had influenced him, what his over-all intention was, what sort of audience he principally addressed, why—and when—he did everything.

… My impression is that in the whole of my experience not one of these guesses has on any one point been right; that the method shows a record of 100 percent failure.

For a summary of the status of the documentary hypothesis early in the twentieth century, see A. T. Chapman, An Introduction to the Pentateuch (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1911), 25–39.

Update 2016-06-21: This book has just been released:
Iain Provan, Discovering Genesis: Content, Interpretation, Reception (Eerdmans, 2016).

I’ve not read it yet, but Provan is good. According to Phillip Long’s review:

Provan is skeptical about our ability to objectively reconstruct the documentary or oral sources behind the text of Genesis and he expresses his lack of interested in what lies behind the book (50). …

Genesis develops a cosmology in which there is one God who rules as king of the universe and creates the cosmos as his sanctuary (56). Humans are marked out as his image and given dominion over the cosmos to rule on behalf of the divine King, God.


Author: Allen Browne

Seeking to understand Jesus in the terms he chose to describe himself: son of man (his identity), and kingdom of God (his mission). Discipleship Trainer • Riverview Church

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