Stories of Faith and Trickery: Genesis as History? (pt. 1)

Stories of Faith and Trickery: Genesis as History? (pt. 1) February 2, 2015

Antique Holy Bible

With its stories of incest, jealousy, faith, and trickery, the Book of Genesis is filled with high drama. But what were these stories meant to do? Is Genesis “history”? Well, certainly not if we define “history” in the way John Bagnell Bury did in his famous inaugural speech as the Regius Professor of Modern History at Cambridge:

History is not a branch of literature. The facts of history, like the facts of geology or astronomy, can supply material for literary art; for manifest reasons they lend themselves to artistic representation far more readily than those of the natural sciences; but to clothe the story of human society in a literary dress is no more the part of a historian as a historian, than it is the part of an astronomer as an astronomer to present in an artistic shape the story of the stars.

John Bagnell Bury, “History as Science,” as cited by Fritz Stern, The Varieties of History from Voltaire to the Present (New York: Vintage Books, 1973), 214.

This famous summary of the historian’s craft clearly illustrates the distinction between history and Genesis. Unlike modern historians, biblical authors weren’t interested in a scientific recreation of the past. They told stories about the past in literary garb. To quote biblical scholar Nahum Sarna:

“The biblical writers were not consciously engaged in what we would consider history writing… Their concern was with the didactic use of selected historical traditions for a theological purpose.”

Nahum Sarna, Ancient Israel, Revised and Expanded Edition (ed. Hershel Shanks; Washington, DC: Biblical Archaeology Society, 1999), 35.

Here’s a classic illustration (one of many I could cite):

In Genesis, one of the sons born to Isaac and Rebekah is named “Jacob.” The Hebrew name actually derives from y-{-k-b-}-l, meaning, “may God protect” (Gen 25:26). But its folk etymology means “Trickster.” So, what happens in Jacob’s life story recounted in Genesis? When it comes to Jacob, it’s all about trickery. He tricks his older brother Esau into selling his birthright privileges (Gen 25:29-34), Jacob tricks his father Isaac into giving him the first-born blessing (Gen 27), Jacob is tricked by his Father-in-Law Laban into marrying the wrong woman, and then he’s tricked into working for the one he really loves for an additional seven years (Gen 29).

With Jacob, his life is all about trickery because his name is Jacob. At least, trickery is the primary theme until he receives a new name, i.e. “Israel” meaning, “one who prevails with God” (Gen 32:28). From that point in the narrative, the way Jacob’s life is depicted, the trickery motif is no longer a guiding literary factor.

Let’s think about it; if the author was creating a historical biography about the life of a man named Jacob, the scribe could have chosen to include a lot of information. So why would he have selected only stories from the Trickster’s life that reflected the folk etymology of his name? This hero struggles through a life of “trickery” (Jacob), but eventually “prevails” (Israel).

His older brother, a man named Esau who was born “red” because there was a “hairy mantle all over” him appears to follow this same pattern (Gen 25:25). Esau’s name is also a pun, playing upon the term Seir and Hebrew se’ar (meaning “hair”), an alternative name for “goat” and the land of Edom (remember the story about Jacob’s trickery with goat skin?) and ‘admoni (meaning “red”) and Edom, which was a Semitic speaking kingdom just south of Judah.

The entire narrative, in fact, seems to function as an etiology or story of origin explaining why Israel was at enmity with certain tribes that lived in their area, yet which sounded and looked an awful lot like Israelites.

Or what about this story? Once upon a time, a man named Lot hid in a cave with his two daughters. The girls believed that the world had been destroyed. So they got their poor father drunk and then engaged in sexual relations with him on successive nights. Miraculously, both encounters immediately resulted in pregnancies. One child was named Moab, meaning “From the Father,” and the other Ben-ammi meaning “Son of my People.” He was the ancestor of the Ammonites (Gen 19:47).

Not a very flattering account of Moabite and Ammonite origins! In fact, I highly doubt if we could talk to these people from the past that they would have accepted the manner by which the biblical story explains the meaning and origin of their names.

Is it a coincidence that this provocative story that describes the origins of two of Israel’s traditional Canaanite enemies (Deut 23:4-7) directly parallels another plot found earlier in Genesis, where one of the Canaanite ancestors commits a sexual offense against a drunken father and Israel’s Canaanite enemies are cursed as sexual deviants (Gen 8:20-25)?

Whatever these stories “clothed” in ancient “literary dress” are, they’re not history. That’s not the way that history works.

Most contemporary biblical scholars believe that the Pentateuch began to take its preliminary shape in Jerusalem sometime during the late eighth century B.C.E. (800-701). In his most recent assessment of this process, David Carr presents the issue in this way, “though there were potential early cores behind separate Pentateuchal traditions, such as the ancestral or Exodus-Moses traditions, most specialists in the study of the Pentateuch now think that the first proto-Pentateuchal narrative, one extending from creation to Moses, dated to the exile at the earliest.”

David M. Carr, The Formation of the Hebrew Bible: A New Reconstruction (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), 359.

This means that by the time these stories in Genesis were actually written down for the first time, they were describing people that allegedly lived a thousand years or more earlier. So, where did these stories come from?

The evidence seems to indicate that Israelite and Judean scribes made some of them up as they produced their written records. Some scholars believe that an example of this process may have occurred with Moses, the traditionally assumed author of Genesis. Let’s take a look at the historical narrative concerning his life:

The beginnings of Moses’s life are recounted in Exodus 1:22-2:10, where Moses has a secret birth to a Levite (and therefore priestly) mother (2:1-2), his life is saved by placing him in the Nile River in a reed basket sealed with pitch (v.3), and he is found and adopted by the daughter of Pharaoh and raised as her son (vv. 5-10).

These stories of Moses, however, may have been influenced by the Mesopotamian legend of Sargon, the founder of the Dynasty of Akkad (also translated as Agade), which appears listed in the biblical “Table of Nations” in Genesis 10 and is connected with Nimrod, the mighty hunter (whose name may reflect the Mesopotamian king Naram-Sin, the grandson of Sargon).

Sargon was a famous figure in Mesopotamia that created the first world empire in the Near East around 2300 B.C.E. Though an historical figure, his life became legend. The Akkadian story of his birth reads:

I am Sargon the great king, the king of Agade.
My mother was a high priestess, I did not know my father…
My mother, the high priestess, conceived me, she bore me in secret.
She placed me in a reed basket, she sealed my hatch with pitch.
She left me to the river, whence I could not come up.
The river carried me off, it brought me to Aqqi, drawer of water.
Aqqi, drawer of water, brought me up as he dipped his bucket.
Aqqi, drawer of water, raised me as his adopted son.

As translated by Benjamin R. Foster in COS 1: 461.

The parallels to Moses should be obvious. Both were born to “priestly” mothers who bore her son in secret, both were placed in a river in a reed basket sealed with pitch, and both heroes were then discovered and raised as adopted sons.

As the namesake of the earlier Akkadian king, the Assyrian king Sargon II (721-705 B.C.E.) took special interest in the legend of Sargon of Akkad, which may have even been written during the reign of Sargon II in order to provide support for his own royal claims. Israelites and Judeans would have been familiar with Sargon II, as he appears to have responded to their rebellions after Shalmaneser V’s conquest of Israel. Moreover, Sargon II was the grandfather of Esharhaddon, whose Vassal Treaties influenced Deuteronomy.

It’s highly unlikely that Moses’ life just so happened to have coincidently followed the same pattern as Sargon’s story. So some biblical scholars theorize that Israelite scribes trained in these Sargon traditions created their own version of the tale via the account of Moses. Eventually, this tradition made its way into our Bible. Of course the mere fact that Israelite scribes appear to have depicted Moses through the lens of Sargon traditions does not prove that Moses himself is simply a literary figure. But connections between the biblical account of Moses and other Near Eastern texts do suggest that something other than a simple reporting of the past is taking place in biblical historical narrative.

Returning to Genesis, the above observation may indicate that some patriarchal stories were created by scribes working with other ancient literary traditions. In fact, since the Priestly source in Genesis often intentionally reacts to the earlier Yahwistic or J source (for example, in the flood story), we should factor in scribal literary creativity into our understanding of the development of the Genesis stories.

Certainly, many of the accounts placed into the Genesis sources derive from oral traditions concerning patriarchal and matriarchal ancestors from the distant past. So we’ll pick up the topic of folktale and oral tradition in the next post. For now, I’ll simply conclude with an observation.

Some religious readers of the Bible assume that if the book is truly the word of God, then it should be historically accurate. Concerning this perspective, Dr. Peter Enns has written, “presumably, what is operating under the surface is an assumption that good history writing (the kind God would certainly engage in) would be up to snuff with modern expectations of accuracy.” Yet this assumption takes the Bible for what it should be, rather than what the Bible is.

Religious readers “must be willing to learn to be comfortable with how the Bible actually behaves rather than presuming how it should behave and then massaging the data to align with that theory.”

Peter Enns, “Protestantism and Biblical Criticism: One Perspective on a Difficult Dialogue,” in The Bible and the Believer: How to Read the Bible Critically and Religiously (eds. Marc Zvi Brettler, Peter Enns, and Daniel J. Harrington; Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), 149.

The Bible is a powerful religious work that has inspired countless lives to reach out and connect with divinity. But that doesn’t mean that it’s history. In fact, from the perspective of its original authors, something much more significant was going on. Contemporary readers are invited to discover the ways in which a group of ancient Israelites understood how God interacted with their ancestors in the past. Religious readers can then take that perspective (or even reject portions of it) to formulate their own personal relationships with the divine. Through the Bible, we are invited to critically engage its account, and then to discover deity through our interpretive struggle. This type of journey requires that readers take into consideration the purposes for which biblical authors told stories concerning the past.

Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!