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One fairly common argument on how to interpret Genesis says that there is a change in theme (or perhaps even genre) near the end of Genesis 11, basically that things shift from the (pre-)history of humanity to the history of Israel. By implication, the argument goes, the Genesis 2:4–11:26 is less literal and would have originally been understood as an explanation of how things came to be, not literal history. (That is, it might be based on actual events, but mostly is not interested in the historical details, but instead their meaning - it conveys truth, not facts. Genesis 11:27 on then is interested in both the historical details and the meaning they convey.)

Among those that hold this view, what textual clues are offered to back their position?

(I have purposely left aside 1:1-2:3 as it is viewed differently than the rest of Genesis by a broader group. I am only interested in the basis for believing in a more subtle shift in Genesis 11.)

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There are a number of indicators:

Themes

In the texts in Chapter 11 and earlier, all of the stories are about God's punishment of mankind. While the theme of salvation is present in these texts, there is also a theme of the depravity of mankind and their continual fall from grace. This theme isn't really present in the texts after Chapter 11 - only the continued theme of salvation.

We also begin the theme of the Covenant ("I will make you a great nation") in Chapter 13 which is not present in prior chapters. In the preceding chapters, God is dismantling great nations - not making them.

Scope

The texts in Chapters 1-11 are stories which affect and involve all mankind, but in the stories beginning in chapters 12 and onward, the only people really involved or affected are the characters in the story (the patriarchs and their immediate family) and we are to view them as cautionary tales with morals and values we should learn from them. The stories in 1-11 tend to tell us how things came to be the way they are and make pronouncements about the whole of humanity - even when taken hyper-literally (Eg, with the fall of Adam and Eve, all mankind has fallen - including those members of mankind who did not exist yet). The stories also tend to shift from generalities to specific events - For example, the story of the Tower of Babel doesn't even have a named character, it's just a generic, unnamed group of people. The generic stories also have relationships towards other myths and artifacts in Mesopotamia (Eg, Eridu Genesis, Enuma Elishe, Epic of Gilgamesh, Epic of Atrahasis, Creation Myth of Ptah, Creation myth of Atum, Creation Myth of Amun, Creation Myth of Heliopolis, Ziggurats, etc) While the stories may be retelling of the Hebrew Oral Tradition or the other way around, the are at least notable for their points of similarity and dis-similarity (Eg, the theme of the mound, Primordial waters, A great flood, the fact that mankind was created to rule earth, not serve the gods, the monotheism of Genesis vs. The polytheism of other stories). Clearly, these other mesopotamian texts share elements with the Biblical texts, but this ends in Chapter 11. From Chapter 12 onward, we have no such relationships to other texts and very little other archaeological relationships. These stories are uniquely Hebrew and do not have any relationships with other cultures in the Mediterranean.

Toldoth Formula

The Toledot, or seven generations of patriarchs begins in Chapter 11. Each generation is divided by a genealogy and genealogies are used to logically divide genesis into sections. Being as we have a genealogy between the story of the Tower of Babel and the story of Abraham, we can at least conclude there is some division there. This division is unique however, in that we get two separate genealogical segments. So, we have "This is the account of Shem." followed by "This is the account of Terah." - a double genealogical helping that we have nowhere else in Genesis. This tends to indicate that there is some kind of thematic division in the materials.

Conclusion

For these reasons, most scholars conclude that the two sections of the text are at least thematically distinct even if they do not believe they are of a separate genre (Though most scholars do believe they differ in genre. Genre examples: historical narrative vs. allegory vs. psalm vs. wisdom literature vs. prologue vs. poetry, etc.). Some scholars go so far as to say that they are from separate sources and some even speculate that Genesis 1-11 could have been a later addition to the text.

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    @Davïd It's a partial answer, but yes I am also looking for information on possible understanding in antiquity – ThaddeusB Aug 26 '15 at 23:34
  • In your section on the Toldoth Formula, you say that the Toledot starts with chapter 13. But the linked article says it spans Genesis 25:19 to Genesis 28:9. Also, "the account of Shem" and "the account of Terah" occur in Genesis 11, making it unclear (to me, anyway) what is supposed to begin in Genesis 13, which covers the separation of Abram and Lot. This whole section is somewhat confusing as to what, exactly, it is saying and referring to. – Lee Woofenden Mar 27 '17 at 19:02
  • My mistake - 13 is where the covenant theme begins - you are right, Geneologies begin in 11 (fixed.) The Toledoth formula is so named after the hebrew word for Generations תּוֹלְדֹת‎. A modified version of this theme begins in 2:4 (These are the generations of the heavens and of the earth [KVJ]). The Toledoth begins in earnest in 11:10 ("These are the generations of Shem" [KJV]). I appear to have linked to the article for the Jewish liturgical week of Parashat Toldot, but there are more than 7 instances of the "These are the generations of" formula. – James Shewey Mar 27 '17 at 20:39

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