Stories of Faith and Trickery: Genesis as History (pt. 2)

Stories of Faith and Trickery: Genesis as History (pt. 2) February 3, 2015

Cinderella and the Glass Slipper

Something exciting happened to the field of biblical studies beginning in the 1960’s. Until that point, most American biblical scholars taught Bible in seminaries and divinity school programs. But during this era, an important development occurred that has had a tremendous impact upon the field: universities began to create Religious Studies programs, and suddenly, instead of talking mainly with theologians, biblical scholars found themselves working closely with faculty members trained in other disciplines within the Humanities. As a result, academic fields such as literary criticism, social scientific criticism, and even folktale analysis began to have a significant impact upon the way biblical scholars looked at the text.

To some extent, the specific skills in these various disciplines had always been used in biblical studies, but the momentous developments that had taken place over the years in each respective field began in the 1960’s and 70’s to be applied to the Bible with impressive results. Today, biblical scholars employ a variety of these skills into a historical critical reading of the text. To clarify, this term refers to “mainstream” biblical studies. It is the process of establishing the original, contextual meaning of biblical material and assessing its historical accuracy.

Returning to the topic of the Book of Genesis, one of the fields that has proven especially helpful in an academic assessment of the work is that of Folktale analysis. In recent years, scholars have devoted quite a bit of study to this area, including the recent publication by famous folklore analyst Alan Dundes titled, Holy Writ as Oral Lit: The Bible as Folklore. Dundes argues that the entire Bible is “folklore” (a view that I personally find highly inaccurate, but still, his study is worth considering). Amongst the observations Dundes shares to sustain his thesis includes the fact that throughout the Bible major events consistently happen in terms of the number forty. This, Dundes, explains, reveals the work’s folkloristic quality:

Forty is the traditional ritual number of the Middle East signifying “a lot of.” That is why the children of Israel were obliged to wander in the wilderness for forty years (Numbers 14:33, 32:13; Deuteronomy 8:2). This why the children of Israel ate manna for forty years (Exodus 16:35). That is why Jesus “was there in the wilderness forty days tempted of Satan” (Mark 1:13) and why Jesus “fasted forty days and forty nights” (Matt. 4:2). This also explains the extraordinary coincidence that King David and son Solomon, his successor, both just happened to rule for a period of forty years (2 Samuel 5:4; 1 Kings 2:11; 1 Chronicles 29:27; 1 Kings 11:42; 2 Chronicles 9:30). The number forty remains traditional two thousand years later, as in the Arabic tale of “Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves” and in contemporary Jewish folklore, which includes a wish that an individual might live ’til one hundred and twenty,” the product of the ritual number three and the number forty.

Alan Dundes, Holy Writ as Oral Lit: The Bible as Folklore (Rowman & Littlefield, 2000), 307-09.

For Dundes, the fact that so many events happen around the number forty suggests that rather than history, the Bible contains primarily folklore. And of course this point merely scratches the surface of his study.

But perhaps the most insightful work for this field of inquiry was Russian scholar Vladimir Propp’s 1928 publication Morphology of the Folktale. Propp’s work illustrates that traditional folktales share common motifs. And it turns out that many of these same patterns appear in the Genesis stories.

When applied to the Bible, folklore analysis helps scholars point out literary patterns or conventions. In folktales, for example, it is “conventional” for heroes to leave home, to go on a quest, to find some sort of treasure, to come back and then to take over. This is the same basic plot motif that appears over and over again in the Genesis stories (suggesting that the accounts are not “history”).

For example, every folk tale requires the absence of the hero from his or her proper place. The hero is often sent on a quest to go find something. This makes Jacob, the Trickster, the prefect candidate for a folktale hero, since in his story, the Trickster is sent on a quest to find a worthy bride before his brother Esau takes his life. But this plot motif is also true for the great patriarch Abraham, who leaves home on a quest to find a promised land, and even Moses in the Book of Exodus, who puts himself on a quest, leaving his home for the land of Midian in order to escape a murder charge. Paying close attention to the distinctive ways in which these stories adopt this pattern sheds fascinating light on the characterization of biblical heroes.

But there’s more. In a classic folktale, heroes are often helped along the way by animals (think Cinderella and the mice). And while we do see this motif in the Bible in stories like Elijah and the ravens, in most cases, the hero’s helper is a deity, the God of Israel.

And of course the hero has to encounter an opponent to move the folktale plot forward: Sleeping Beauty has Maleficent, Snow White has the Wicked Queen, David has Saul, Moses has Pharaoh, Abraham has a famine, and Jacob, well, Jacob struggles against everyone. Jacob’s first opponent is his brother Esau, then it’s his Father-in-Law Laban, and eventually, Jacob even physically struggles against a divine being (Gen 32:22-32). In fact, the sheer number of opponents put up against Jacob in comparison to the other biblical heroes seems to illustrate Jacob’s incredible bravery and determination.

Interestingly, in a classic folktale, heroes are usually branded or marked in some way during the course of their journey. A change might happen, for example, where a girl in rags transitions into a beautiful woman. And sure enough, we find similar motifs in the stories of Genesis. Abraham is circumcised. And Jacob dislocates his thigh and from that point forward walks with a limp. His struggle, therefore, is something Jacob will always carry, like the mark of Cain (which also fits the folktale pattern). But even Moses is physically changed following his encounter with God. In Exodus 34, we learn that after this “wrestle,” Moses must wear a veil because his face shines. As a classic folktale hero, Moses too is therefore branded or marked during the course of his journey.

Indeed, the hero in a folktale experiences a change, and to represent this change, he or she may be given a new name. Jacob’s name is changed from “Trickster” to “One Who Prevails with God.” Abram is changed to Abraham. Sarai to Sarah, Joseph to Zaphenath-Paneah, and Daniel’s friends receive the new Babylonian names, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego.

In fact, the more we look at the stories in Genesis, the more we encounter reoccurring motifs that were no doubt central to traditional Israelite folktales, such as the fact that a good romance story always take place around a well: Jacob meets Rachel at a well, Moses meets the daughters of Jethro at a well, Saul meets women at a well, Isaac doesn’t meet Rebekah at a well, but Abraham’s servant does, and even Jesus in the New Testament encounters a women at a well and the two discuss marriage.

It’s very clear that the stories in Genesis have been shaped in a way to incorporate traditional folktale motifs. This does not mean that the heroes in the Bible were not real people, but it’s important to recognize that these various literary conventions mask their historicity. This means that from the historian’s perspective, if there was a real Jacob, a real Esau, a real Rebekah, we simply can not find them in terms of history.

They’re lost in the biblical folktale.

As I shared in the previous post, it seems clear to me that the Genesis stories have adopted some oral traditions concerning Israelite ancestors. But oral traditions are problematic ways to preserve history. This is why after surveying contemporary anthropological studies on the preservation of historical memory in oral societies, Patricia Kirkpatrick writes:

“When considering how oral societies communicate history, the most that can be said is that they do not keep accurate records of events over extended periods of time (i.e. more than 150 years… If we accept the possibility that the earliest date for these written patriarchal narratives was during the Davidic/Solomonic period, then the only possible history they could substantiate would be 150 years prior to their being written.”

Patricia G. Kirkpatrick, The Old Testament and Folklore Study (JSOT Supplement Series 62; Sheffield: JSOT Press, 1988), 113-14.

And that’s a problem in terms of “history.” For as I shared in the previous post, 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). 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 (which is kind of a lot more than 150 years).

So, where does this information leave the believer in the Bible as holy writ? The Book of Genesis is an ancient literary work composed by Israelite and Judean scribes. It takes stories from the past to explain how the world in which the authors lived came to be. It shows how these heroes lived lives overcoming adversity and trial, and in the process were touched by divinity.

True, Genesis is not history, but that does not mean that it is not inspired.

Theologically, I must reject the assumption that because historicity matters to us today, it must therefore matter to God (and by extension scriptural authors). In addition to the fact that this approach would make both God and scripture in our image, after the manner of our own likeness (a theological position I find inherently problematic), I see no evidence of historicity anywhere in His book.

As these posts have shown, it’s certainly not there in Genesis, a scriptural work that presents ancient stories from the past concerning both faith and trickery.

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