It typically is held among professional Christian scholars that Genesis 1 originated as a corrective polemic against pagan creation myths.

Additionally, I presume that this theory as to origin of Genesis 1 implies that Genesis 1 is a mere fiction; a contrived construct that claims no straight-forward accounting to the naive, uneducated, unsuspecting mind. In other words, this theory, it seems to me, implies that Genesis 1 does not constitute a simple straight-forward educational text. Rather, it seems to me necessarily to imply that its author's meaning can be accessed only from some 'refined', even esoteric, frame of reference.

Finally, it seems to me that many professional Christian scholars believe that, by taking into account all evidences, both Biblical and extra-Biblical, that bear on this matter, it is the exclusive compulsory conclusion that this is the origin and nature of Genesis 1. In other words, it is my impression that many such scholars believe that there is no real alternative to this theory as to the origin of Genesis 1.

My question is this: In terms merely of its own literary content, does the Hebrew text of Genesis 1 contain anything that compels exclusively the above conclusion as to the origin, and nature, of Genesis 1?

Thank you for your help.


Corrective Polemics: Yes; Fictive Construct:No

Polemic is defined as,

an aggressive attack on or refutation of the opinions or principles of another

If then, we regard Genesis 1 as a type of polemic, Genesis 1 is only as fictitious as the propaganda it is exposing and refuting. This means that the idea that Genesis 1-13 is a corrective polemic is not attempting to imply that Genesis 1 is a mere fiction; a contrived construct. Instead it implies that the facts of the other creation accounts are as accurate as Genesis.

The idea being that they all (more or less) record the same events, but simply put a different religious/political "spin" on the agreed upon events. This means that either all creation accounts competing in this arena which are offering competing theological interpretations of the same events are fictitious, or none of them are. They all share an understanding and cosmology - what happened and how it happened are not in dispute. Only who and why. Yahweh, or Atem. Elohim or Marduk.

What is the Authoral Intent of Geneis 1?

In the OP's question, He states that the ramification of this idea is that Genesis 1 does not constitute a simple straight-forward educational text. so to restate the question, is Genesis 1 intended to be an educational text; was it intended to be a science textbook or newspaper? What evidence to we have to support either position?

The first major indicator is that Genesis 1 takes the format and style of a prologue. Gordon J. Wenham notes in The Word Biblical Commentary Vol. 1: Genesis 1-15 on page 50 some of the interesting structural differences between Genesis 1 and normal narrative and notes

its syntax is distinctively different from narrative prose. Cassuto (1:11 [1961]), Loretz (1975) and Kselman (1978) have all pointed to poetic bicola or tricola in Gen 1

He also notes that it has an abnormal format

The correspondence of the first paragraph, 1:1–2, with 2:1–3 is underlined by the number of Hebrew words in both being multiples of 7. 1:1 consists of 7 words, 1:2 of 14 (7 x 2) words, 2:1–3 of 35 (7 x 5) words. The number seven dominates this opening chapter in a strange way, not only in the number of words in a particular section but in the number of times a specific word or phrase recurs. For example, "God" is mentioned 35 times, "earth" 21 times, "heaven/firmament" 21 times, while the phrases "and it was so" and "God saw that it was good" occur 7 times.

And these are all distinctives of Hebrew poetry. Ultimately, Wenham regards it as an "overture" to the work and believes it to be "high prose". In fact, several scholars have made comparisons in format and content to the prologue of the book of John - this comparison would be impossible were either one not a prologue.

It seems then that it was not the Author's intent for the readers to regard Genesis 1 as a textbook or news report since it does not take the same format and literary style.

2 Creation accounts

Genesis 2-13 however have no such similarities - these take the format of straight narrative. It is not uncommon for prologues to be or include summaries of the work that they introduce. As such, many regard Genesis 1 as a summary of the works on days 1-6 with Genesis 2-3 being the full story of what happened on day 6.

This however presents a problem as there are ordering conflicts.. In Genesis 1, plants and animals are created on earlier days, then mankind is created while in Genesis 2, plants seem to be created at the same time as man, and animals afterwards. Instead, it seems, there are two disparate and conflicting accounts with one targeted at Egyptian creation accounts and the other targeted at Babylonian creation accounts. It should have been quite obvious to the redactor that these two accounts conflicted, yet the redactor seemed untroubled by this. This tends to indicate that the order and whether it occurred in 7 days or not was unimportant. Instead, the theological significance of the creation accounts seem to be what was important to the redactor. As to the original author of Genesis 2-3, it would be impossible to tell if they intended it to be regarded as fully journalistic or not and it is of little relevance now. Clearly by the time of redaction, it was not intended to be regarded this way.


The implication here is that if background information is required to understand The Bible, then there is no sola scriptura. But at the end of the day, there is no straightforward, plain reading of scripture. We will always be subject to and affected by the hermeneutic circle whether we like it or not and this is how we get prima scriptura in the first place. Furthermore, sola scriptura was intended for salvation, not comprehension. Scripture only may be enough to save, but it is not enough to fully comprehend the Bible.

Like it or not, scriptures were written to a specific audience at a time and place. If you do not understand the occupation of Israel and the exile, then the latter half of the old testament will make little sense. Similarly, if you do not understand the Roman empire, the Gospels don't make as much sense.

But ultimately, we have two very good indicators that the first parts of Genesis were not meant to be understood as documentary: The literary structure of Genesis 1 and the conflicts between Genesis 1 and 2-3.

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  • 1
    What you can prima scriptura is what I've always understood sola scriptura to mean... I really need to ask a question about that at CSE. – curiousdannii Jan 6 '17 at 23:42

Short Answer: Genesis creation texts belong to the mythical genre of the ANE, however they are not fictive constructs

In addition to James Shewey’s scholarly and detailed answer, I would like to add a few helpful points in the hope that it will demystify and simplify the beginning of Genesis and help biblical novices better understand its genre and the way the biblical authors themselves viewed those traditions when they set out to write them down.

The stories of Adam and Eve are clearly in the realm of myth, it’s a place where serpents talk and miraculous trees grow and cherubim and angels hover over its entrance. Additionally, they are extremely similar to ancient Sumerian texts like “Enki and Ninhursag” and the famous “Epic of Gilgamesh”, texts which are largely considered to belong to the mythical genre. But what is myth? In the modern world myth and fiction have become synonymous. When we hear ‘myth’ it immediately conjures images of fanciful demi-gods and legendary beasts and fire-breathing dragons that never existed. But is that really how the ancients saw myth? Most scholars are of the opinion that this is not the case.

Is myth ancient poetry?

Gordon Wenham in an important essay in the book “Genesis: History, Fiction, or Neither?: Three Views on the Bible’s Earliest Chapters” describes the beginning of Genesis as protohistory. He refrains from categorizing it as myth, since, as he correctly points out, myth has become synonymous with fiction, which to his mind is wrong. Myth according to Wenham and others can be likened to poetry. Poetry can be true in the sense that it expresses timeless truths, but it is obviously not true in the literal sense. When I say “my love to you is like a red rose” I’m obviously not giving a literal and factual description of my love to you, rather it’s true in the abstract and ethical sense. Myths function similarly. A myth is a story that incarnates abstract truths in such a way that the participant experiences them at a level of beyond verbal expression. A story that incarnates great values and eternal truths operates as myth. Whether they are stories about the gods of Olympus, comic book heroes, Inuit maidens or Incan warriors, Hindu deities, trolls, or hobbits in holes is secondary. Huge numbers of stories exist from every human culture in every age which operate at a deeply subconscious level to communicate abstract truth in a mythic fashion. Some scholars indeed are tempted to explain the stories of Adam and Eve and Noah and the flood as simple poetry (or ancient myth as they would have it), they are intended to teach us lessons about the role of sin and repentance, God’s love for mankind, etc. They are expressed in mythic terms and language, and the author never intended these stories to be taken literally.

Why this doesn’t work for Genesis: Wenham and Hoffmeier

However, this view is too simplistic, since the text of Genesis clearly indicates that these occurrences were grounded in reality. As Hoffmeier points out in “Genesis: History, Fiction, or Neither?: Three Views on the Bible’s Earliest Chapters”, the place of Eden is given an exact geographical location in the bible, and its location is described in great detail (total of four verses!), linking it with famous landmarks like the Euphrates and Tigris. Similarly, Adam and Eve are clearly perceived as real human beings as the list in Gen. 3 strongly implies expanding on the name and years of his ten descendants (However, compare this with the last chapter of the Book of Job wherein the author gives a list of Job’s daughters, although it is widely assumed that it is a parable and that the story never took place). Additionally, the text purports to explain natural phenomenon like the pains of childbirth and the crawling of snakes and the existence of rainbows, it is very hard to reconcile this with the view that the story of Adam and Eve or Noah never occurred and that they are purely poetic and fictitious constructs. That is why Wenham believes that Genesis is protohistory which he likens to viewing an abstract painting; the picture is there but the details are fuzzy.

Criticism of Wenham’s view

However, Wenham is ambiguous when it comes to nailing down what he thinks is true history and what he thinks is fuzzy or in other words not real history. Another problem with Wenham’s theory is that he is forced to admit that at least some details of the Genesis narrative are not historically accurate and in other words fictitious, a stance which he is so desperately trying to avoid (see his criticism of Kenton Sparks’ view).

Interpretation of Myth: An alternative

My interpretation of myth is slightly different from Wenham’s, and contrary to Wenham I think that the beginning chapters of Genesis fit neatly the “mythical genre” of the ANE creation myths; yet at the same time I deny that the authors viewed the narrative or even some of the details to be fuzzy or fictitious. I think that the way the ancients defined myth was any occurrence that took place in the mythical or otherworldly realm: a dimension somewhat different from the earthly or the natural dimension. The mythical realm is not entirely removed from our daily realm, it is grounded on the earthly realm and it continually interacts with it. We can look at it as another dimension of reality, or viewing the same world with a mythical lense, so to speak. Some scholars even call this mythical realm a proto-world. In the mythical realm things are not bound to the scientific laws and constants, in that realm serpents can talk effortlessly and man has no need to till the fields, they can converse with the archangels and even copulate with them.

Genesis resolved

If we subscribe to this view then most of the problems that rise from the genesis creation accounts are easily resolved. Eden indeed has an exact geographical location and is completely grounded in the earthly realm, so too Adam and Eve are our true ancestors who have walked the face of the earth, yet at the same time the stories of Adam and Eve and their conversation with the serpent need not be historically true as they are not assumed by the biblical authors to have occurred in the earthly dimension but in the mythical dimension. In the mythical realm man has sinned and that’s why god has cursed him with mortality, and the woman with childbirth, and the serpent with crawling on his belly. Although mammals and homo sapiens have always been mortal, and females from time immemorial have suffered from childbirth, and serpents have been crawling on their bellies since they have evolved in their current form, in the mythical mind they are attributed to their sinful acts (which is true in that sense and just as important to the biblical authors as historical facts) which to the biblical authors have truly occurred in real time, albeit not in the natural world as we know it (thus I somewhat agree with Wenham’s view that these narratives should be categorized as protohistory, although for a different reason). The mythical realm is the behind-the-scenes explanation for the phenomenon that we observe in the natural world; of course they are not scientific explanations and neither do they purport to be, the narratives are there to explain the theological significance of these natural occurrences and the divine plan that set it in place.

Serpent vs. Balaam's Donkey

This explains why the biblical authors didn’t feel the need to add a note when the serpent suddenely starts speaking to Eve (beginning of Gen. 3) as it does in Numbers 22:28

Then the Lord opened the donkey’s mouth, and it said to Balaam

Compare this to Genesis 3 wherein no explanation is added; the serpent just talks, without any divine intervention! This always struck me as really odd. But according to our new theory this anomaly is resolved. Indeed, In the earthly realm where things operate under scientific laws a donkey can’t speak without divine intervention, that’s why an explanation is needed, but in the mythical realm where this whole narrative is set to have occurred there is no need to explain how a serpent can talk; this would have been obvious to the biblical audience reading this narrative, two and-a-half thousand years ago, which so neatly fits the mythical genre of the ANE, and no explanations were necessary.

Final thoughts

It’s not clear exactly where Genesis transitions back to the earthly realm and the narratives become real historical accounts. It can be argued that Noah and the flood are already set back in the earthly realm, since there are no clear indications that were dealing with myth here. However, given the similarities between the Noah account and the "Epic of Gilgamesh" and other Sumerian and Mesopotamian texts, it is reasonable to say that this too should be understood to have taken place in the mythical realm and is still not real history. That coupled with the fact that the lifespan of Noah and his descendants are extremely out of proportion and unnaturally long, a clear indicator that were not dealing yet with the earthly realm (the meaning of these lifespans and number of years merit a discussion on their own). However, beginning with chapter 12 where the text recounts Abram’s wanderings it is widely assumed that were already dealing with real history, although his lifespan is not yet back where it should be for earthlings.

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