Reviewed by Steve Modugno
The Zondervan Counterpoints series offers readers a valuable resource for evaluating difficult passages and subjects. The strength of the series is that each position is argued by a scholar who is committed to it. This avoids straw-man arguments or one author attempting to fairly represent various positions. In Genesis: History, Fiction, or Neither?, three contributors—James Hoffmeier, Gordon Wenham and Kenton Sparks—grapple with the questions of genre and historicity in Genesis 1-11. They focus on the genre of Gen 1-11 and the implications of that genre on biblical interpretation. They were asked to analyze the story of the Nephilim (6:1-4), Noah and the ark (6:9-9:26), and the Tower of Babel (11:1-9) to demonstrate their approach to genre and interpretation.
The first contributor, James Hoffmeier, begins his discussion by affirming Mircea Eliade’s claim that myth points to actual historical events. To support this affirmation, he provides examples from Assyrian, Babylonian and biblical literature that utilize mythological concepts when describing real historical events. Regarding Gen 1-2, he suggests that perhaps the author used creation images “for polemical reasons against the prevailing worldviews of Mesopotamia, Canaan, and Egypt, all of which influenced ancient Israel” (28). In order to validate the historicity of Gen 1-2, Hoffmeier focuses upon the geographic details of Eden’s border, claiming that they refer to real, recognizable rivers. Stepping back to evaluate the book of Genesis, Hoffmeier argues that Genesis (including the subunit Gen 1-11) is structured around the tôlĕdôt formula. Given the importance of genealogies in the ANE for civil, priestly and royal functions, they should be read as lists describing real people.
From this general foundation, Hoffmeier discusses the character of Gen 6:1-8 by appealing to the work of those who focus on literary analysis rather than source criticism. He argues that the Nephilim account parallels the Tower of Babel story in that both regard the hubris of man resulting in divine judgment. The story of the Nephilim occurs within the second tôlĕdôt unit and is the culminating circumstance leading to judgment through a worldwide flood (initiated by the third tôlĕdôt unit). Hoffmeier contends that it makes little sense that God would judge humanity for something that did not actually occur. Although not dogmatic about his position, Hoffmeier proposes that the Nephilim story had become “mythologized and part of the shared memory of the ANE, but was demythologized for the Israelite audience when recorded” (41).
Turning to the biblical flood story, Hoffmeier examines the Gilgamesh Epic and Epic of Atrahasis, noting that, though they have mythical elements, they deal with real people in real places. The similarities between Atrahasis and the biblical narrative are due to a common memory of the same event. However, the biblical account was written to “challenge the prevailing Mesopotamian view of things” (52). One challenge was made through the contrast between Yahweh and the Babylonian gods who had insomnia, were terrified at the deluge they ordained, and famished because they had been deprived of food for weeks. Genealogy and geographic familiarity again factor into Hoffmeier’s contention that the biblical flood account deals with actual people and authentic history.
Like the Nephilim account and the flood story, the tower of Babel addresses a shared ancient Near Eastern memory. The Sumerian text “Enmerkar and the Lord of Aratta” claims that Enki, god of wisdom, confused the language of the once “harmony-tongued Sumer.” According to Hoffmeier, the biblical account is an etiology which serves to explain why humans began speaking different languages. The setting for this account is in a real location, Shinar in central Mesopotamia. Overall, Hoffmeier suggests that the geographical detail along with the family histories would have motivated an ancient reader to understand the accounts of the Nephilim, Noah and the ark and the Tower of Babel as historical. If this is true, “then there are good reasons to read these texts this way even in the twenty-first century” (58).
The second contributor, Gordon Wenham, addresses the question about genre in Gen 1-11, but claims that the attempt to define genre is secondary to the quest to understand the message of the text. He argues, “Whether one calls Gen 1-11 doctrine, history, fiction, or myth, it is clear that these chapters are making profound statements about the character of God and his relationship to mankind” (74). Several times, Wenham argues that the message of the text can often be discerned apart from deciding upon a particular genre. In order to understand the message of Gen 1-11, he suggests accessing “the thought world of the author of Genesis” (74). The focus, he proceeds, should be on the final form of the text rather than the “putative sources or earlier forms” (74). Gen 1:1-2:3 serve as a “prelude to the main body of Gen 1-11, if not to the whole Pentateuch” (79). He agrees with Westermann that this section is an overture, establishing key theological themes for the rest of the book (e.g., the singularity of God, the omnipotence of God, the world as God’s temple, and mankind as the image of God). Gen 2:4 begins the tôlĕdôt structuring, which establishes the genealogical backbone of Gen 2:4-11:9. These narrative accounts serve to “explain present experiences by relating the past” (82). He claims that the stories in these chapters “may not be datable and fixable chronologically, but they were viewed as real events” (85). The genre Wenham settles upon is “protohistory,” which he likens to a portrait of the past: “It is a valid representation that faithfully portrays the artist’s intentions” (87).
Wenham’s perspective on the Nephilim, flood story and tower of Babel (along with other narrative accounts in Gen 1-11) is that they are disruptions in the general genealogical structure, resulting in what he calls “expanded genealogy.” The Nephilim episode highlights, along with the fall of man and the tower of Babel, the problem with mankind attempting to cross over into the divine space. Wenham points out many connections between this episode and that of the fall, demonstrating why this circumstance warranted the universal flood judgment. As for the flood story, Wenham notes that, based on structure, we should read with it the “rules on eating, the talion law, attitudes to drunkenness and to the Canaanites” (92). In doing so, it becomes clear that the flood story “is justifying and safeguarding key principles of ancient Israel’s life” (93) (i.e., why Israelites eat blood-free meat, why the death penalty is important for controlling extreme violence, why sacrifice is essential for salvation, why drinking wine must be controlled, and why the Canaanites and their culture are threats to Israelites). According to Wenham, besides its etiological function, the flood story contains the type of dating details that point to it being rooted in real time. The tower of Babel, also labeled “protohistory” by Wenham, serves to explain the dispersion of the nations as a way to prevent their acquisition of divine privilege. Like Hoffmeier, he claims that it functions as a critique of the religious attitudes of Babylon. In anticipation of God promising to make a name for Abram (Gen 12), the present story demonstrates the inability of man to make a name for himself.
The third contributor, Kenton Sparks, states at the outset of his essay, “it is no longer possible for informed readers to interpret the book of Genesis as straightforward history” (111). Specific to Gen 1-11, he claims, “There was no Edenic garden, nor trees of life and knowledge, nor a serpent that spoke, nor a worldwide flood in which all living things, save those on a giant boat, were killed by God” (111). Sparks bases his claims about the unhistorical nature of Gen 1-11 on both the inability of the ancient authors (i.e., they were not modern scientists or historians) and advances in evolutionary biology toward describing life’s origins. It is Sparks’ assumption about the nature of the Bible that occupies the bulk of his analysis. He views the Bible not as “a room filled with clairvoyant theologians who have the same ideas and agree on every point” (116). Rather, he understands the Bible to represent “a room of wise elders, each an invited guest because of his unique voice and relation to God” (116). Regarding the Pentateuch in general and Gen 1-11 in particular, Sparks later identifies these wise elders as the Antiquarian (= Jahwist), the Apologist (= Priestly source), and the Anthologist (= editor/redactor).
Sparks devotes little space to the interpretation of the Nephilim story, the flood story (apart from comparing and contrasting it with other ANE flood accounts) and the tower of Babel episode. Overall, he claims these stories “convey an important theological message, namely, that hubris is a human flaw that provokes divine judgment” (136). The genres in Gen 1-11 upon which he settles are primeval history (based on a generic unhistorical ANE tradition), genealogy (replete with fabricated eponyms), myth, tale and legend.
Hoffmeier clearly emphasizes the priority of the biblical text over against conclusions reached by the scientific method. For Hoffmeier, fantastical portrayals of primeval history should not lead one to conclude they are presentations of imaginary people or events. My only question about his analysis involves the Nephilim story. He claims (with Nahum Sarna) that the reference to the Nephilim in Num 13 is used to describe “Nephilim-like men in Canaan” (38). However, Num 13.33 claims that the Anakites descended from the Nephilim. It seems that had Hoffmeier applied to this verse the same reasoning he used to establish the historicity of people in Gen 1-11, then he would have concluded that the Nephilim in Numbers were actually Nephilim, not merely “Nephilim-like.”
Wenham, too, affirms the historicity of Gen 1-11. Repeatedly, he insists upon understanding the final form of the text through the eyes of the implied author. He chooses not to enter the debate about the sources that comprise the text or the time when it was written/compiled. Wenham seems correct in suggesting that Hoffmeier and Sparks “spend too long examining the components of Gen 1-11 and too little time in contemplating the final product” (61). Wenham’s strength is his focus upon the message of Gen 1-11, with which I mostly agree.
Regarding Sparks’ essay, many evangelicals will find it problematic to prioritize science over Scripture and then use generic labels (e.g., “fiction”) to justify the priority. This priority reveals that Sparks does not view the truth derived from science to be compatible with the plain sense of the biblical text in all instances. Sparks does helpfully acknowledge the challenge in discerning the genre of a biblical text and interpreting it accurately: “nothing confirms finally that we’ve successfully read a text, particularly an ancient text” (114).
In his closing comments, Halton asserts, “Supremely capable interpreters often arrive at very different conclusions” (160). Granted, Gen 1-11 is a complex and difficult unit of the Bible. However, it seems that the different conclusions flow from the divergent presuppositions each scholar brings to the text. Presuppositions heavily influence the way one approaches biblical texts. All three presuppose that the Bible is communication from God to his people about God and his people. This is where Sparks parts way from the other two, presupposing that where science and the Bible conflict, preference should be given to the knowledge we have obtained from science (though Hoffmeier explains that Sparks often creates false dichotomies between science and the Bible). Hoffmeier and Wenham presuppose that the credibility of God and the Bible hinges upon the historicity of the people and events portrayed therein. The same two also presuppose that ancient biblical historiography may not utilize the same criteria as modern historiography.
I recommend this book primarily to pastors and Bible students who are familiar with technical theological terms and original languages (i.e., Hebrew and Greek). However, a lay reader should be able to understand the basic arguments even if he/she does not have a formal biblical education. While reading this book, one should be aware his/her own presuppositions regarding the nature of God, the Bible and interpretive frameworks. This awareness provides the appropriate grid by which to evaluate the arguments of the three scholars. In addition, it would be valuable to approach this book with humility, having the willingness to be persuaded to understand Gen 1-11 in a new way. We should always seek to have Scripture speak to us rather than force upon the text what we expect or hope it to mean. Finally, we as the church, despite our differing interpretations, should seek unity centered around the person and work of Christ.
Steve Modugno recently earned his Ph.D. in Hebrew at University of the Free State, Bloemfontein
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Genesis: History, Fiction, Or Neither? Three Views On The Bible's Earliest Chapters