Friday, August 26, 2011

Bible Commentary - Genesis Introduction

At last, I am through dealing with all of the multiplied complexities of source manuscripts and translation methodologies and compilations and so forth, and now I can delve into the multiplied complexities of yet even more archaeology, theology, philosophy and history.

That's right, we're now in the book of Genesis!

Introduction to Genesis

Genesis is the first book of the Bible and one of the oldest books that is still in existence, in its entirety. Certainly it's one of the most influential books and for thousands of years it has shaped Man's thoughts about himself or herself, his or her relationship with God, and the nature of life itself. This is not a book for the weak-minded or those with craven hearts.

I will cover some basic facts about Genesis, but not much more. One could literally write books about this book alone, as many people have done. I will not do that.

Genesis is deeply connected with the next four books of the Bible, leading these first five books to be called the Pentateuch. Their date of composition and original authorship are both heavily disputed, but in broad terms, there are basically two competing theories. The first, older and traditional viewpoint is that the entire Pentateuch was authored by Moses, around 1500 BCE. Under this viewpoint, the book of Genesis is a composite of either Hebrew oral histories or divine revelation from God about the past.

Topically, the book of Genesis covers several major epochs of time. The broadest, and first, is the life of Adam and Eve, the creation of the universe and man, the Fall from sinlessness, and the beginning of human history. The next briefly mentions the lives of a series of men culminating around Noah and the flood, and then Noah's ancestors down to Abram/Abraham (same man, two names). The last major epoch is the events in the lives of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Joseph, with the prediction of the enslavement in Egypt.

As such, from the topics alone it should be clear that there are two or perhaps three sources of information. While the creation of mankind may be partially derived from a Hebrew mythos, to be accurate with respect to creation and God there has to be some degree of divine relevation. With respect to the genealogy of Abraham and the history of his children, that is probably more closely related to Hebrew oral tradition and was probably passed down from generation to generation. Detailed analysis can pretty clearly show aspects of oral transmission, such as repetition of some stories, as I will mention when we get there.

The second theory about the origin of Genesis is much more recent and was essentially constructed in the 19th century by a school of theologians predominantly from Germany. Under this theory, called the Documentary Hypothesis, the Pentateuch had four primary sources, called JEDP, which stands for Jehovist, Elohist, Deuteronomist, Priestly. This theory holds that different pieces were constructed by different people, at different times, and that those pieces coalesced into the four named sources, which were then edited and combined together through a merging process. Once merged, there was a final editor who revised it for consistency (after a fashion) and pushed it out the door. All of this process happened between 800 and about 500 BCE, according to the theory.

The Documentary Hypothesis (which I will just call the JEDP theory) is definitely exceedingly popular amongst progressive textual critics (AKA Higher Criticism) and progressive or non-theistic theologians in general, who constitute a fairly large majority of the field. Amongst conservative theologians, it tends to rub a lot of people the wrong way because JEDP undermines a lot of the stated claims of the Pentateuch. Namely, some of the later books like Deuteronomy and Numbers have extensive passages that are preceded by "and then Moses said...", so if Moses didn't write it, then chances are he didn't actually say these things. To someone who adheres to the accuracy of the Bible, this can be troublesome. Similarly, there are some predictive statements in the Pentateuch regarding e.g. the future kingdom of Israel, and if the Pentateuch is from the 500's, then those statements weren't actually predictive at all; they are simply backfilling "prophecies" to match their history. Again, this strikes conservative Christians, who tend to regard the bible as literally accurate, as deceptive or misleading, and therefore they tend to dislike the JEDP theory for that reason. Of course, disliking a theory and disproving it are two separate matters, but I can say that from my brief study of the JEDP, there truly are some serious structural flaws in the theory. For the sake of time, I will not discuss them now, but if anyone is interested in discussing it with me you can post a comment below or email me.

For the purposes of this study, I will assume the more conservative position is correct (in general terms, but not always in details), I will assume divine inspiration of the authorship and I will assume internal consistency of the Pentateuch (and Bible in general).

Also, in case anyone is curious, the title Genesis is derived from the Greek word "genesis", which means beginning or creation. This is based on the Greek translation of the first word in the book, "beresheth", which means "in the beginning".

Ok, hopefully I'm done (for now) with introductions. I hadn't planned on writing this, but it seemed too important to ignore and not relevant to chapter 1, so I had to give it its own post. Now I will get to chapter 1.

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