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Genesis 1–11: The Primeval Story

1 Introduction

2 Creation to the Flood (1–7)

3 Re-creation to the Ancestors (8–11)

4 Composition of Genesis 1–11

Study Guide


Abel, Adam, adamah, Apsu, Babel, Babylon, Blessing, Cain, Chaos, Cosmology, Covenant, Creation, Divine Council, Eden, Enuma Elish, Eve, Fall, Flood, Genealogy, Gilgamesh Epic, Ham, Image of God, Inclusion, Japheth, LORD God, Marduk, Myth, Noah, Original sin, Primeval Story, Sabbath, Shem, Tiamat, Toledot, Tower of Babel, Waters of chaos, Ziggurat

Elohim Creating Adam

William Blake's, Elohim Creating Adam

Blake’s painting powerfully depicts the creation of the first man; see the companion website for the complete picture. The book of Genesis provides two depictions of the creation of humans, one describing the creation of humanity as a whole and the other describing the creation of the first male person.

Source: Drawing by Daniel Hornschemeier Bandstra based on William Blake (1757–1827) Elohim Creating Adam, 1795 (London: Tate Museum).


The Bible begins with the famous line “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” This sentence asserts an essential belief of Jewish and Christian faith, the belief that the deity of Jews and Christians is the creator of the world. So why have scholars haggled over the meaning of this line for centuries? And why has it become a

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TABLE 1.1 The Book of Genesis



Chapter 1 1–11 Primeval Story
Chapter 2
Ancestral Story

wedge issue in the modern battle between biblical belief and modern science? To be able to answer these questions, we need to read the text and read it closely.

The Primeval Story whisks us back in time to ultimate origins—hence the term primeval. The narrative takes us to the earliest imaginable time, the time of cosmic beginnings, where we witness the formation of a world where life can thrive. The very first word of the Hebrew text, bereshit, “in the beginning,” became the book’s biblical name. As the book describes the creation of the world, along the way it reveals the basic features of Israel’s worldview, including its concepts of deity and the nature of humanity. Later, the book of Genesis relates the origin of the nation of Israel by telling tales of its ancestors. Genesis is so full of stories that have become so important in the Western world that it will take us two chapters to unpack it. In this text, Chapter 1 covers Genesis 1–11 and is called the Primeval Story; Chapter 2 covers Genesis 12–50 and is called the Ancestral Story (Table 1).

1.1 The Primeval Story—A Summary

God created a world of light, sky, sea, land, and living things in six days and rested on the seventh day (Genesis Chapter 1). The first humans were formed directly by the deity and in such a way that they could relate to their maker. Male and female were placed in the comfortable world of Eden where they communed with God daily (2). Though living contentedly, they were cleverly misled by a snake into disobeying the direct divine command not to eat from a certain tree. As a consequence, God cursed all three and expelled the humans from the garden (3). The first couple had offspring that typified both the worst of sin, when their son Cain killed his brother Abel, and the best of culture as their offspring built cities, developed husbandry and agriculture, and cultivated arts and technology (4). As generations of humans multiplied (5), so did sin, prompting the deity to staunch its growth with a flood (6). Only righteous Noah stood apart. He and his immediate family, along with a representative sample of living creatures, survived in a divinely designed boat (7). After the world and its creatures perished, God remembered Noah, and the waters subsided (8). God made a covenant with Noah pledging that there would never again be a flood to destroy the world. But the problem with people had not been wiped away with the flood; Noah’s episode of drunkenness and Ham’s behavior proved that human perversity still remained (9). Nonetheless, humanity grew in number and spread throughout the world (10). To make a name for themselves, humans united to build a massive tower ascending heavenward. This threatened God’s sovereignty, so he frustrated their plans by confounding their ability to communicate, scattering them abroad (11). The Primeval Story ends with the genealogy of Shem, to whom Abraham traced his lineage. Through this first father of Israel, the deity reestablished a promising relationship with humanity.

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1.2 Study Guide

1. Identify the core events of the Primeval Story and order them in relative chronological sequence. The Primeval Story contains key components of a biblical master narrative: The deity created both a world and humans to live in it, humans disobeyed the deity and were punished for it, and humans populated the world with both positive and negative results.

2. Compare and contrast the literary styles of the major episodes and notice differences in detail so that you can understand why scholars believe that the Primeval Story was compiled out of originally separate documents.

3. Complete the end-of-chapter “Discussion Questions” to gain direct experience reading key passages.

4. Consider the Primeval Story as a totality and ponder what its holistic meaning might be. Then reconsider what the individual episodes in the story, such as the creation stories and the flood story, might mean in relation to that overall notion.

2 Creation to the Flood (1–7)

The Primeval Story can be thought of as a two-part narrative. The second part mirrors the development of the first part but ends in a decidedly different way. The first part of the story begins with waters (1:2) and ends with the return of those waters (7:24). That is, God created an inhabitable world out of the waters of chaos and then removed that world with the return of the waters. The second part sees God re-create the world and repopulate it with the creatures that had been preserved in Noah’s ark. As the first part sees creation out of the deeps, the second sees re-creation after the flood. A structural analysis confirms this division. As revealed by those boring (but by no means pointless) genealogies, there are ten generations from Adam to Noah and ten from Shem, Noah’s son, to Abram/Abraham.

2.1 Creation (1–3)

Before we dive into the waters of Genesis 1, it is worth noticing that the Hebrew Bible makes reference to divine Creation in a variety of places, not just at the beginning of Genesis. One of issues to probe is why the Bible includes stories of creation at all. Anthropologists tell us that most cultures have creation accounts (see Sproul, 1979), but these creation myths served a variety of different purposes. They had social value beyond providing stories to children who inevitably ask “why” questions.

The Hebrew Bible references creation in a variety of Psalms, including number 33 that counsels everyone to fear Yhwh because he created the world. Creation is a theme of wisdom literature; for example, Proverbs 8:22–31 claims that wisdom was present with deity at creation and was the craftsman that brought all things into being. The biblical prophet Second Isaiah in 40:12–31 uses creation to affirm the adequacy of Yhwh’s power to deliver his people from captivity. Each of these texts uses creation concepts in service of a larger point that the writer needed to make. None of the texts are purely informational—that is, giving us facts about creation just for the sake of cognitive enlightenment. These are the questions that we will ask ourselves: What points do the two Genesis creation stories make? How did they serve the needs of the Israelites in their time and place?

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Despite the prevalence of creation talk in the Hebrew Bible, certainly the most well-known creation statements come out of the book of Genesis. As suggested above, it contains not just one but two accounts of creation. The first one is characterized by the use of the Hebrew term elohim to refer to the deity. The Elohim account of creation is just one of a number of Elohim passages in Genesis that uses this reference for the deity, and the passages have other features in common. When taken as a collection, these texts seem dominated by God’s initiatives, and they view the gift of supernatural blessing as the source of all life and goodness. Most translations of the Hebrew Bible render elohim as God, though this term can more accurately be rendered “deity” or “god.” Capitalizing elohim as God might suggest the term is a name, which it is not, rather than a common noun.

The second creation account was actually composed earlier than the Elohim account, even though it follows in serial order. It uses the phrase Yhwh Elohim to refer to the deity. Yhwh is how the Hebrew text represents the personal name of Israel’s deity, often rendered Yahweh. The collection of these Yhwh episodes of the Primeval Story often deal with the challenges of human freedom and responsibility and the resulting problem of sin. The Yhwh story of the first humans was expertly combined with the Elohim big-picture story of world beginnings to give us the text that we have today.

2.1.1 Priestly “Elohim” Creation Story (1:1–2:4a)

The Elohim creation story opens with an earth that was “shapeless and void.” This world was dominated by vast depths of threatening and unruly water. Into this wilderness of water, the deity injected the divine voice and brought forth life, along with the means to sustain it. First came light, then the firmament to control the waters, and then land and vegetation to sustain terrestrial creatures. In succession, the deity created birds, fish, land animals, and human beings.

The individual creative acts were spread over six days and culminated in the creation of human beings as the image of Elohim. The deity gave humans charge of the entire realm, both to care for and make use of it. On the seventh day, later termed the Sabbath, Elohim ceased creating and rested, satisfied that everything was very good.

Precreation: Waters of Chaos

When Elohim began to create heaven and earth, and the earth was untamed and shapeless, and darkness was on the surface of the deep water, and the wind/spirit of Elohim hovering on the surface of the water . . . (1:1–2)

These first two verses of the Elohim creation story describe the world before God shaped it into a life-sustaining environment. Then come the six days in which God created the elements of this new world. Lastly, the seventh day marks the grand conclusion of the process by the absence of creating activity.

This account of creation uses the term Elohim to refer to God throughout. It is Israel’s most neutral and general way of referring to a divine being and might be thought to suggest a distant and powerful divine being. The account tells us nothing about the deity’s qualities or characteristics, only that when deity commands, things instantly appear. Although the text later describes how the world came into being, from the beginning it simply assumes the existence of God, with no word at all of where this being came from. In fact, nowhere does the Hebrew Bible even speculate on God’s origins. God is simply there, no explanation needed or expected. Nor does

TABLE 1.2 Modern Translations of Genesis 1:1-3


NKJV (Option 1)

NRSV (Option 2)

NJPS (Option 3)
1 In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, When God began to create heaven and earth—
2 The earth was without form, and void; and darkness was on the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters. the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters. the earth being unformed and void, with darkness over the surface of the deep and a wind from God sweeping over the water—
Then God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light.
Then God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light.
God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light.

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anything in the text suggest that this deity is specifically the Israelite God, apart from the fact that it is used in an Israelite text written in Hebrew. The term Elohim may have been chosen deliberately here because it is the most universal term for God.

Ancient Middle Eastern texts can be difficult to interpret because their language is challenging and may not be perfectly understood and because their cultural context is far removed and only vaguely appreciated. Both problems are evident, for example, when we try to understand these first verses of Genesis. They can be translated in at least three different ways, all of which are linguistically possible. The first option takes verse 1 as an independent statement: “In the beginning Elohim created heaven and earth.” This reading implies that the writer posited an absolute beginning to the world. The second option reads it as a temporal statement followed by the main assertion: “When in the beginning Elohim created heaven and earth, the earth was untamed and shapeless.” This reading suggests that the writer was more interested in the condition of the world at the time God started creating it, rather than in positing an absolute beginning.

The third option is similar to the second in reading the first part as the temporal setting, but then it also reads the whole of verse 2 as background information. In this reading, the main assertion consists of verse 3: “When in the beginning Elohim created heaven and earth—earth being untamed and shapeless . . . —Elohim said, ‘Let there be light.’

Variant readings of the first verses of Genesis have long been debated, most famously by two medieval Jewish interpreters (see Wenham, 1987). Rashi (1040–1105) read the first words temporally and the creation of light as the main clause (option 3): “When God began to create . . . God said, ‘Let there be light.’” Abraham Ibn Ezra (1092–1167) also read the first words temporally but read the clause that immediately follows as the main clause (option 2): “When God began to create the heavens and the earth, the earth was unformed and untamed.” Modern English translations evidence the same range of options (Table 1.2).

The issue might seem of little significance at first glance, but it bears directly on the question of whether God created the world out of nothing, termed creation ex nihilo in classical theology, or whether there was an already-existing substance that God tamed and shaped into an ordered world. The doctrine of creation from nothing, if not implicitly found here, is found explicitly for the first time in 2 Maccabees 7:28, which postdates the Hebrew Bible. Even if option 1 is chosen, it could be understood

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to be the title or topic statement of the episode rather than a proposition positing an act of creation, as if to say, “This is the in-the-beginning-God-created story.”

On the basis of ancient literary parallels, an argument can be made for options 2 and 3 over 1, in which case the second verse contains a description of the universe before God started ordering and creating the preexisting material. This material was probably imagined as a mass of murky water-stuff that scholars refer to as the waters of chaos; as such it could not support life.

The phrase “deep water” (1:2) used here is an important clue connecting our story to other ancient Middle Eastern creation stories. The Hebrew word behind “deep water” is related to the Akkadian word tiamat, which names the ocean goddess in the Mesopotamian creation story called the Enuma Elish. It signifies not just bottomless oceans but the threatening waters of Mesopotamian lore that its ancient people feared would be their undoing. The role of the deity is to subdue the personified waters before building a world.

Go to the companion website for a discussion of the Enuma Elish, the most influential Mesopotamian creation myth, featuring Tiamat, Apsu, and Marduk.

A variety of ancient myths describe a cosmic battle with water at the beginning of time. The personified ocean, portrayed as a monster, is variously called Sea (Yamm), River (Nahar), Snake (Lotan/Leviathan), Dragon (Tannin), or Arrogance (Rahab). In such myths, the high god subdues the waters after a battle and restrains the villain of primeval chaos, thus achieving victory. In Genesis 1, the description of the move from chaos to cosmos is not explicitly described as battle, but many scholars find telltale remnants of the cosmic myth here and elsewhere in biblical literature (see McCurley, 1983; Levenson, 1988; Batto, 1992).

Day 1: Light

Then Elohim said, “Let there be light!” And there was light. Elohim saw that the light was good, and he separated the light from the darkness. Elohim called the light day and the darkness he called night. Evening and morning of day one came about. (1:3–5)

God’s work of creating things begins at verse 3, and the means is not physical activity but speech: When deity speaks, things appear! This suggests that the deity was intentionally pictured here on analogy with royal figures—a king is typically the supreme one whose word is law and at whose mere utterance things happen.

The first element that God created was light. It is the material precondition of life. It also has connotations of goodness, warmth, and safety, especially when contrasted with the damp darkness of chaos. The creating activity of this day is curious, at least from a Western scientific perspective. God first created light and only later, on the fourth day, the sun. Given a moment’s pause, we would consider that the order should be reversed or that the two events should be simultaneous. After all, everyone knows that light comes from the sun—so how can there be a first day and night without it? This is one of many pieces of textual evidence indicating that the creation story was not designed to be a science textbook. The writer had a different orientation and probably had other intentions than providing a procedurally correct account of the physical process. The text was shaped around a somewhat artificial sequence driven by its own internal logic; it highlights the order of God at the expense of scientific precision.

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Day 2: Super Dome

Elohim said, “Let there be a barrier in the middle of the water, a separator between water and water.” Elohim made the barrier and separated the water under the barrier from the water above the barrier. And it happened. Elohim called the barrier heavens. So evening and morning of a second day came about. (1:6–8)

On the second day, God created a solid barrier to separate the original waters of chaos into two massive bodies of water. This barrier is called a firmament or dome or expanse, depending on your version. To understand what God accomplished, it helps to visualize biblical cosmology, that is, the Hebrew Bible’s picture of the universe (Figure 1.1).

There were two great bodies of water: one above the sky, the source of rain and snow, and one below the sky, the source of oceans, lakes, rivers, and wells. While strange to us, this design made perfect sense to prescientific Mesopotamian minds, and it is not difficult to see why. Beyond the sky on a clear day there is a vast blueness, very close to the hue of the ocean. One can imagine that someone gazing toward the horizon of the Persian Gulf or the Mediterranean Sea would see the water blend into sky, suggesting that they were made out of the same material. It is not surprising that these ancient peoples thought water lay beyond the sky in the heavens. They may have asked, “Where do rain and snow come from?” And their answer may have

Ancient Middle Eastern Cosmology

FIGURE 1.1 Ancient Middle Eastern Cosmology

People of the ancient Middle East, including the Israelites, believed that the inhabited earth existed as an island surrounded completely by water. Its existence was precarious at best because the waters that surround the inhabited earth always threatened to break through its levees and inundate the ground. This barrier gets the designation Heaven (KJV) or Sky (NRSV) or “the sky” (NAB).

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been that God opens the windows of heaven and releases them in measured amounts. This they could understand but they knew nothing about the cycle of evaporation, condensation, and precipitation.

Israel shared a common cosmology with its neighbors. It has been referred to as the three-tiered universe. It is evident, for example, in the Decalogue’s rule prohibiting material images of God, “whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth” (Exodus 20:4 NRSV)—the sky, earth, and sea of days 2 and 3 of creation.

Day 3: Dry Land and Vegetation

Elohim said, “Let the water under the heavens be gathered to one place and let dry land appear.” And it happened. Elohim called the dry ground earth and the waters gathered to one place he called seas. Elohim saw that it was good. Elohim said, “Let the earth sprout greenery on the earth, seed-producing plants, fruit trees producing fruit according to their type. And it happened. The earth brought forth greenery, seed-producing plants according to their type, and trees producing fruit which have their seed in it. Elohim saw that it was good. So evening and morning of a third day came about. (1:9–13)

At the end of the second day, the water under the barrier was still mixed with what was to become dry land. These two elements were separated on the third day. The dry land was called earth, and the water was called sea. As a second act, the ground sprouted plants that could propagate themselves. The work of creation took the shape of separating, gathering, and growing. Thus, by the end of three days God had created a foundational environment with light, the heavens, the seas, and the earth.

Day 4: Sky Lights

Elohim said, “Let there be lights in the barrier of the heavens to separate day and night, and let them be used for signs, seasons, days, and years. Let there be lights in the barrier of the heavens to light the earth.” And it happened. Elohim made the two great lights, the great light to govern day and the small light to govern night and the stars. Elohim put them in the barrier of the heavens to light the earth, to govern day and night, and to separate light and darkness. Elohim saw that it was good. So evening and morning of a fourth day came about. (1:14–19)

The work of creation continued by separating and dividing. On the fourth day, the lights in the sky separated day from night and distinguished times and seasons. In the overall structure of creation, the fourth day is related to the first day. Light in general was created, and then on the fourth day this light was embodied in light-giving entities.

The language of ruling is introduced into the account at this point and becomes a prominent factor in days 4 and 6. The bodies of light have a ruling and regulating function. They determine the calendar and the seasons. Here, the writer of this Elohim-based text affirms the orderliness of the created world. Some suggest that he was priestly in character based on the dominant concerns of the Elohim texts. Israel’s ritual and religious life was organized around a cyclic series of holy days and festivals, all determined by the course of the sun and moon. Priests were the caretakers of this

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religious life, and it was important for them to point out that the regularity of life and its patterns were established by God at creation.

Day 5: Birds and Fish

Elohim said, “Let the waters swarm with swarms of living creatures, and let birds fly over the earth up against the barrier of the heavens.” Elohim created the great sea monsters and every teeming living creature which swarms the waters according to their type, and every flying bird according to its type. Elohim saw that it was good. Elohim blessed them by saying, “Be fruitful and increase in number and fill the waters in the seas, and birds, increase in number on the earth.” So evening and morning of a fifth day came about. (1:20–23)

On this day, the sky and the sea became home to soaring and swimming creatures. The literary scheme that the writer used to structure the account becomes clearer. The fifth day corresponds to the second day. The arenas for life that appeared as a result of the appearing of the water barrier, the sky and the sea, are now filled with resident creatures.

A new element is added when these living creatures are given God’s verbal blessing to be fruitful and increase. Such a word of blessing expresses God’s intention for the future welfare of these creatures. Blessing becomes a very important theme in Genesis. Growth and living space are blessings from God and express the deity’s desire for the flourishing of all beings, including humanity.

Day 6: Animals and Humanity

Elohim said, “Let the earth produce living creatures according to their type: beast and swarmer and land animal according to its type.” And it happened. Elohim made the land animal according to its type, and the beast according to its type, and the swarmer of the ground according to its type. Elohim saw that it was good. Elohim said, “Let us make humanity as our image, according to our likeness. And let them rule over the fish of the sea, the bird of the heavens, the beast, the whole earth, and all the swarmers which swarm on the earth. And God created humanity as his image: as the image of God he created him, male and female he created them. And God blessed them and God said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number and fill the earth and dominate it and rule the fish of the sea, birds of the heavens, and every swarming creature on the earth.” (1:24–28)

As with the third day, so on the sixth day there were two distinct creative acts. First, God created the animals to live on land. Then, in a separate and differently conceived act, God created humans. This last act of creation is set off from the others; instead of saying, “Let there be humans,” God said, “Let us make humans.” A similar reference to the divine “us” is found in 3:22 and 11:7. To whom was God speaking? The history of interpretation reveals there are at least three possibilities.

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1. Royal plural. God was simply thinking out loud, talking to himself. Supporters of this position point to the fact that Elohim is grammatically plural. This might account for the plural “us.” A variation is to call this the “plural of majesty,” which royal officials preferred others to use when addressing them, something like “your Highness.”

2. Christian Trinity. Those trained in Christian theology might see a reflection of the Trinity here. God the Father was conferring with God the Son and God the Holy Spirit. Support is sometimes garnered by seeing the deity’s spoken command as the Word, as Jesus was called in the Gospel of John. And the Holy Spirit was the Spirit of God hovering over the waters (see 1:2 in the NIV). This option is remote, however. Certainly the early writer of this passage had no concept of a Trinity because this doctrine is a much later theological development. A minimal rule for interpreting the text might be, What could the original writer have meant in his or her day?

3. Divine Council. Based on an analysis of similar notions in the Hebrew Bible, the most likely reading is that the “us” refers to the Divine Council. The Divine Council was thought to be the governing assembly of angelic beings that managed the world with God. The angels, called “sons of God” in other texts, were the administrative council of heaven. A good example of this notion can be found in Job 1–2, where the “sons of God” met in session with Yhwh and the accuser (the satan) to evaluate the sincerity of Job’s piety (for further explanation, see RTOT Chapter 15).

Humanity is the only entity whose creation is related to the image of God. When God said, “Let us make humanity in our image,” the act of creating humanity was deemed so momentous that God sought the approval and cooperation of the Divine Council. This underscores the importance of humanity. In addition, it implies that the image of God, to which humanity was to be related, was something held in common with the council.

Go to the companion website for a table “Divine Council in Biblical Literature.”

The image of God notion is central to a biblical understanding of the nature of humanity. It defines who people are and what people should do. Humanity was created as the image of God on earth to represent and implement the divine rule. Done rightly, this would lead to blessing and benefit for all of God’s world.

It is difficult to be sure what the phrase “image of God” precisely meant. Some suggest that it has to do with certain moral qualities that humans originally shared with God, such as wisdom and righteousness. Others suggest that it has to do with a physical shape or form that humans have in common with God. This view, which implies that God has arms and legs, is usually rejected. Still others, including theologian Karl Barth, note how being made in the image of God is followed immediately by the words “male and female he created them.” This, they say, means that in God, as in humanity, there is relationship within unity. Being made in the image of God, therefore, means that the capacity for interpersonal relationship is the essential characteristic of personhood. Giving it another twist, others suggest the mention of male and female makes explicit that both males and females image, or reflect, God, or that God has both male and female components (see Garr, 2003 for a close study of the image of God in biblical and ancient Middle Eastern contexts).

As always, we should expect the text itself to provide essential clues. The image of God specified in verses 26–27 is immediately followed by the mandate to rule and have dominion and as such is a political and probably royal concept. In Egypt and Mesopotamia, a ruling king is described as the image or the likeness of a god in some texts, expressing the status of the king and indicating the source of his authority. This suggests that the image of God is something that we have as well as something we do. Humanity was created to model God’s (and the Divine Council’s)

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Adad-iti’s Image and Likeness

FIGURE 1.2 Adad-iti’s Image and Likeness

The statue of King Adad-iti from Tell-Fekheriyeh contains an Assyrian inscription, also translated into Aramaic, dedicating the statue to the god Adad (see Millard and Bordreuil, 1982). In it the king acknowledged that Adad was his lord and was the one who had blessed him. The statue and inscription memorialized the king’s rule over the territory of Guzan in Assyria and, in the words of the text, was to function “for perpetuating his throne, for the length of his rule.” The Aramaic translation contains the words image and likeness, which are linguistically equivalent to the Hebrew terms found in Genesis 1:26. The statue is the image and likeness of the king. This supports the reading that these terms refer to humans as representations of the deity on earth in Genesis 1.

Source: Statue of Adad-iti. Damascus Museum, Syria. Photo by Wayne Pitard. Used with permission.

ruling function on the new earth that God had created or to represent and extend that rule to creation. This suggests humanity was created as God’s image as much as in it—both as and in are viable translations of the Hebrew preposition used here.

A further meaning of image derives from the function of royal statues in the ancient world (Figure 2). A conquering monarch in Mesopotamia would install statues of himself in the territories subject to his rule. They would be visible evidence of his claim to authority, and they would remind citizens that he was in charge. In a similar way, according to Genesis 1, humanity was to give evidence of the rule of God on earth. In other words, humans are to function as walking, talking statues of God, created by God’s authority, and designed to rule the earth on God’s behalf. We are not to infer anything about the physical shape of God from the fact that humanity is God’s “statue.” Rather, the text is saying that humanity was created to perform a unique function, to be a reminder of God’s rule and to rule the created earth as divine agents.

Further points could be noted with regard to the image of God. Whatever it is, male and female alike are related to it or partake of it. Furthermore, God’s blessing is somehow associated with being created in God’s image. This blessing is to be

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realized as growth and fruitfulness, as well as power and rulership. Verses 29–31 detail all the created things that God places under human dominion. And at the conclusion of the sixth day, God declares that everything was “very good,” using the qualifier “very” for the first time. This implies that creation was perfect, no more work was needed, no tinkering was necessary to fine-tune the product, so God could cease working.

Day 7: Sabbath

The heavens and the earth and all their host were complete. Elohim finished the work he had done on the seventh day, and he ceased on the seventh day from all the work he had done. Elohim blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it he ceased from all his work of creating he had done. (2:1–3)

These last verses complete the week of creation. The Hebrew verb for “cease” and “rest” is shabbat, from which comes the word for the Jewish week-ending holy day, the Sabbath. The seventh day was given special status because it was the only day that God blessed. A priestly agenda is evident here: Keeping the Sabbath day holy is a core component of Jewish religious identity, especially during the exile and afterwards. In this story, the writer finds hard and fast warrant for the holiness of the Sabbath day and for the structure to life defined by six work days and a Sabbath. If that is the way that God ordered the work of creation, then surely humanity should model this. In fact, the Sabbath commandment as found in Exodus 20:8–11 cites the divine week of creation as the reason for keeping the Sabbath day holy.

2.1.2 The Toledot of Heaven and Earth

This is what became of heaven and earth when they were created. (2:4a)

This half-verse also provides the transition between the Elohim creation story and the following Yhwh Elohim creation story. It was provided by the Priestly editor of the final form of Genesis. This verse contains the Hebrew word toledot, which is often translated “generations.” The phrase “these are the generations of” or, as translated here, “this is what became of,” introduces outcomes. Toledot is derived from the verb “give birth” and can be translated “generations,” “story,” “history,” or “developments.”

Verse 2:4a contains the first of eleven toledot formulas in Genesis (see RTOT Chapter 2 Table 4 for the structure of Genesis toledot). Toledot formulas are usually attributed to the Priestly editor who used them to organize the large blocks of Genesis. A narrative section introduced by a toledot formula typically elaborates the outgrowth of the specified figure—in this case, heaven and earth. Thus, the following Yhwh Elohim creation story relates what became of heaven and earth. Here, it leads us to expect a logical continuation of the story; it links us to the story of Adam and Eve as the outcome of the broad-scale creation story. Notice also how the words of this verse mirror the words of the first verse of the story:


1:1 When Elohim began to create heaven and earth.

2:4a This is what became of heaven and earth when they were created.


These verses are verbal brackets around the first creation account, a technique literary analysts call inclusion. This technique gives the entire story a certain wholeness and the feel of being well formed. Within these brackets, the account is

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TABLE 1.3 Parallel Symmetry of Genesis 1




1 Light 4 Sun, moon, stars
2 Sky and sea 5 Birds and fish
3 Land 6 Creatures
   a Dry land    a Land animals

structured literarily as two parallel and symmetrical series (Table 1.3). The distribution of the separate creative acts into six 24-hour days was a deliberate scheme used by the writer. The writer uses repeated phrases—such as “and Elohim said,” “Elohim saw that X was good,” and “Evening and morning of an Nth day came about”—to divide the events of creation into sets and fit them into six days. Notice especially the obvious connection between the environments created on the first three days and the creatures made to inhabit them on the last three days.

Go to the companion website for a table about repetitions in the priestly creation story.

Each living being has its appropriate place within the structure. Only a hint of authorial manipulation is evident in that there are eight discrete creating acts, yet they are contained within a six-day structure. Remember, the Priestly writer had an interest in grounding the present practice of Sabbath rest with divine precedent. Organizing the activities in this way implies that God’s design had rhythm, order, and intentionality. It proposes that the world was perfectly formed.

As a final structural observation, note that this six-day structure is prefaced by the pre-existing condition of primeval chaos, and is concluded by day seven, the Sabbath, a situation of completeness, cosmic order, and goodness. This is another framing device. Also noteworthy is the way that humanity stands as the culmination of all God’s acts, and in some sense as their goal. God ceased making new things after he had made man and woman.

2.1.3 Yahwist “Yhwh Elohim” Creation Story (2:4b–3:24)

To this point, the text always referred to the deity using the word Elohim. Beginning at 2:4b and to the end of Chapter 3, the narrator refers to the deity as Yhwh Elohim (twenty times), typically rendered LORD God in English translations. It refers to the deity as Elohim only in the dialogue between the snake and the woman.

In this Yhwh Elohim story, God created the shape of a man out of clay and breathed life into him. This man cared for the garden of Eden and was allowed to eat from any tree except the tree of knowledge. When the man did not find fit companionship among the animals, God anaesthetized him and fashioned a woman out of one of his ribs. The man and woman were thus made companions matched to each other.

The perfect harmony of the garden was shaken when the snake appeared. This creature convinced Eve to disregard God’s command not to eat from the tree of good and bad knowledge. She in turn gave some to the man. Realizing their

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transgression, Adam and Eve, as they are later called, tried to hide their shame from Yhwh but with no success. The deity placed curses on all of them, including the snake, and then expelled Adam and Eve from Eden. The Yhwh Elohim creation story thus shapes an enduring morality tale of human craving, personal responsibility, and divine punishment for insubordination.

Creation of Adam and Eve (2:4b–25)

On the day Yhwh Elohim made the earth and the heavens, no vegetation yet being on the earth, no plant yet springing up (for Yhwh Elohim had not caused it to rain on the earth and there was no man to till the ground; only a mist rose from the earth and watered the surface of the ground), then Yhwh Elohim fashioned some dust of the ground into a man (Hebrew adam). He breathed the breath of life into his nostrils and he became a living being. (2:4b–7)

God is portrayed as a potter using earth to fashion a man. One can almost picture God on his knees in the clay, working over the body, manually shaping and smoothing the man’s physical form. This picture of God as a craftsman is a good example of this writer’s use of anthropomorphic language; that is, he describes deity in human terms. This kind of humanlike description is not present in the earlier account; the Elohim version is quite unanthropomorphic, except possibly where it has God speak. Note also how life resulted only after God infused the body with his own breath. These details imply that a human person consists of both physical body and divine life-breath.

This human is called an adam in Hebrew. The Hebrew term adam as used in Genesis is ambiguous. It can variously designate humanity collectively (as in 1:24, 27), the first man (when used with the definite article “the,” as in Chapters 2–3), or the personal name Adam (when used without the definite article, as in 5:3). His mate is referred to in general terms as “the woman” or “his woman” until 3:20 when she is named chavvah, Eve, which means “life.” The Adam and Eve described in the Yhwh Elohim creation story are the first individuals, yet at the same time they are archetypal humans, “everyman” and “everywoman.”

Notice how many times the words earth and ground are used in the story. This “earthiness” suggests that it comes out of an agricultural setting or at least acknowledges the inextricable connection of people and land. The story reinforces a connection between earth and humanness by a linguistic pun in the Hebrew text: “ground” is adamah and “humanity” is adam. Word play occurs frequently in the Hebrew Bible and was often used to make a serious point. We could duplicate the pun and get the point across using, say, humus and human—that is, if our culture did not think that puns were trite.

Yhwh Elohim planted a garden in Eden in the east and there put the man he had fashioned. Yhwh Elohim caused to grow from the ground every tree that was pleasant to view and good to eat, including the tree of life in the middle of the garden, and the tree of good and bad knowledge. (2:8–9)

These verses describe a place called Eden, a garden of lush growth that included the tree of life. The term is related to the Sumerian word edin, which refers to the fertile steppe region in the Mesopotamian basin, which later became barren. Then the Babylonian word edinu came to mean “plain, desert,” though it could be noted that this derivation may be superseded by evidence from the bilingual Tell-Fekheriyeh

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The Ancient Middle East

FIGURE 1.3 The Ancient Middle East

Much of Israel’s prehistory takes place within Mesopotamia, and Abraham comes from there as well. This indicates that Israel understood itself as having a Semitic ethnic, historical, and cultural identity in common with the larger Mesopotamian world.

statue of Adad-iti that uses the word ‘dn in the sense of “enrich” when describing a god who provides all things necessary to produce food. Consequently Eden may mean “place of luxuriance” rather than “steppe” (see Millard and Bordreuil, 1982, 140). Eden was translated paradeisos in the Septuagint, which in turn became “paradise” in English.

By locating Eden in proximity to the Tigris, Euphrates, Pishon, and Gihon Rivers, the text seems to indicate that it lay somewhere in Mesopotamia (Figure 3). Eden as an actual place has never been located, nor should we expect to find it, though Sauer (1996) speculates that the Kuwait River may be the ancient Pishon. Wherever this place was presumed to be, it was the locale of all good things, including intimate fellowship with God. The ancient Sumerians of Mesopotamia had their own story of origins in a primeval wonderland. Enki and Ninhursag were two gods, as well as husband and wife, who enjoyed goodness as long as they stayed near the tree of life (see ANET, 37–41). They lived in a place called Dilmun.

Yhwh Elohim took the man and placed him in the garden of Eden to till it and oversee it. Yhwh Elohim commanded the man, “You may eat from any

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tree of the garden; except you shall not eat from the tree of good and bad knowledge. On the day you eat from it you shall die.” (2:15–17)

The man was placed in Eden to tend it, not simply to enjoy it. Perhaps we can extrapolate a claim that even from the beginning humanity’s task was to be the caretaker of the world. Of all the good things in the garden, God only prohibited the man from sampling the tree of knowledge. The punishment for disobedience was death. The tree of knowledge plays a crucial role in Genesis 3, and eating from it becomes the quintessential symbol of human defiance.

Then Yhwh Elohim said, “It is not good that the man should be alone. I will make him a helper matched to him.” So out of the ground Yhwh Elohim formed every beast of the field and every bird of the air, and brought them to the man to see what he would name them. Whatever the man named each living creature, that became its name. The man named all the beasts, birds, and living things. But Adam had no helper matched to him. (2:18–20)

God was concerned that the man might get lonely, so animals were fashioned to provide companionship. The man named the animals; in the ancient world, having authority to give names implied mastery over them (see Marks, 1995). Some interpret the man’s naming the animals as an early form of scientific-like classification and an attempt to order the world in which he lived. But still he found no fitting friend. The animals, not being his equal, failed to satisfy his deeper longing. Note that verse 20b is the first time that the Hebrew text uses the word adam as a personal name.

Yhwh Elohim cast a deep sleep upon the man. While he slept he took one of his ribs and closed up with flesh the place where it had been. Yhwh Elohim built a woman from the rib he had taken out of the man. He brought her to the man. Then the man said, “Finally this is bone of my bones, flesh of my flesh. Let her be called woman because she was taken out of man.” (2:21–23)

Yhwh, as is typical of this epic, was sensitive to innate human needs and wanted to provide genuine fulfillment for the man who he had fashioned. He crafted a woman out of the man’s body so that they would be of the same substance. Later (3:20), Adam gave her the name Eve, which the text renders “mother of all things.” The choice of the rib, being so specific and unexpected, seems deliberate. Genetically, any material taken from the man could have been used as source material for the woman. But God chose a rib. Perhaps the reason lies in the fact that the Hebrew word for “rib” can also mean “side.” The choice of this word may imply that the man and the woman were meant to be side-by-side—in other words, to complement each other and accompany each other through life.

The woman is now the one who is “a helper matched to him,” according to the Hebrew text (see Clines, 1990). The term helper does not imply inferiority or subordination. In support we need only cite Exodus 18:4 in which God is described as a helper to Moses, using the same term ezer. The original text further ties the man and woman together—when he cries out “At last . . . a woman!” his Hebrew ishah makes a pun on the word “man,” Hebrew ish.

Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and adheres to his wife, and they become one flesh. And the man and the woman were both naked, but they were not ashamed. (2:24–25)

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These words are the comments of a narrator from a time when marriage had become an established social practice—obviously from a much later time than the implied setting of creation. They comment on the oneness of a man and a woman in marriage. The primary allegiance would be to the marriage partner rather than to one’s parents.

Becoming “one flesh” suggests a spiritual, emotional, and sexual union that characterizes the togetherness of marriage. Though without clothes, the first couple was unabashed at their nakedness and felt no need to shield themselves from the other’s gaze. Their relationship was characterized by an almost childlike innocence and naiveté.

Overall, this account stresses God’s involvement with the newly fashioned creatures. The deity lived in intimate association with humanity in the garden of Eden. What happens next in the story explains in biblical terms why humanity no longer lives this way, in the immediate presence of God in a perfect world.

2.1.4 Disobedience and Expulsion from Eden (3:1–24)

The snake was craftier than any other wild creature that Yhwh Elohim had made. It said to the woman, “Did Elohim say, ‘You shall not eat of any tree of the garden’?” And the woman said to the snake, “We may eat of the fruit of the trees of the garden, but Elohim did say, ‘You cannot eat of the fruit of the tree which is in the middle of the garden, nor can you touch it, or you will die.’” But the snake said to the woman, “You would not die. Elohim said this because he knows that when you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like Elohim (gods/God), knowing good and bad.” (3:1–5)

The Hebrew text establishes a subtle connection between this scene and the preceding. Whereas the happy couple was “naked” (Hebrew arom), the snake was “crafty” (Hebrew arum). Who or what was this snake, and where did it come from? Apparently, it was one of the creatures that God had made though no mention is made of this. Only in later interpretations is the snake identified with Satan and the Devil (for example, Revelation 12:9 in the New Testament; see Pagels, 1995). Ancient mythological texts, however, suggest that more is involved than just snakes here. The snake is akin to the dragons and monsters of ancient creation myths, creatures such as Lotan (Leviathan) in the Baal texts from Ugarit and the water god Apsu in the Enuma Elish from Mesopotamia. And we can see why the snake was described this way. It cleverly misrepresented the prior command of God (compare his words to the man in 2:16–17) and did so in such a way as to force the woman to become defensive. Then, with the snake’s next statement, it drives a wedge between the woman and God by implying that the divine death warning was really only intended to keep from them something good and rightly desirable. The snake held out the prospect of life, immortality, even divinity.

The essential temptation to the woman and man was to become like gods or like God—Elohim can be translated either way (though the verb “knowing” in verse 5 is plural, so the translation “gods” may be preferable). The urge to achieve divinity seems to be the persistent impulse of humanity in these early chapters of Genesis, surfacing again in Chapters 6 and 11.

Theologians tend to call this episode the Fall. Although the notion of a “once for all fall” is not found in the Hebrew Bible, this story became the basis for the

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Christian notion of original sin. It explicitly appears first in 2 Esdras 7:118 (a book of the Apocrypha) and was developed by Paul who said, “Sin came into the world through one man” and “One man’s trespass led to condemnation for all” (Romans 5:12, 18 in the New Testament). Judaism does not adopt a notion of original sin. Instead, it holds that a person is subject to the evil impulse (yetser hara) that must be controlled by the good impulse (yetser hatov). This good impulse is cultivated by doing godly deeds and observing the commandments.

So when the woman saw that the tree was a good food source and that it was pleasant to look at and desirable for gaining wisdom, she took some of its fruit and ate. She also gave some to her husband and he ate. The eyes of both of them were opened and they knew that they were naked. They sewed fig leaves together and made themselves loin cloths. (3:6–7)

Because the tree’s fruit was appealing and Eve wanted to gain wisdom and knowledge, she ate the fruit and passed it on to Adam. Conventional lore has it that the fruit the original couple ate was an apple, and this is perpetuated in Western tradition. For example, Chagall’s Adam and Eve and Gauguin’s Self-Portrait make use of this interpretation (see the companion website’s Garden of Eden gallery). But our text says nothing about apples. The fruit was probably something native to the ancient Mesopotamian world, more likely a pomegranate, date, or fig. Immediately upon eating the fruit, they recognized that something had gone wrong. Each felt vulnerable and threatened by the other, and both became afraid of God. The man and woman had intentionally disregarded God’s instruction not to eat from the tree of knowledge. This marks the occasion when humans first rejected the authority of their God.

They heard the sound of Yhwh Elohim walking in the garden in the cool of the day. The man and his wife hid from Yhwh Elohim among the trees of the garden. Yhwh Elohim called to the man and said to him, “Where are you?” He said, “I heard you in the garden and I became afraid, because I am naked. So I hid.” He said, “Who told you that you were naked? Did you eat from the tree from which I commanded you not to eat?” The man said, “The woman you gave me, she gave me something from the tree and I ate.” Then Yhwh Elohim said to the woman, “What did you do?” And the woman said, “The snake tricked me and I ate.” (3:8–13)

Adam and Eve now felt estranged from God and became fearful. They sought to distance themselves from God, so they hid in the garden, of course to no avail. When God confronted them, both tried to disown responsibility for their actions. The man blamed the woman, and she blamed the snake. The text suggests that denying personal responsibility for one’s actions is the primal human reaction to guilt. Their choice to disregard God’s instruction not to eat from the tree of knowledge epitomizes the human tendency to assert independence and autonomy and deny subordination to God.

Contrary to what God seemed to mean in his warning, “On the day you eat of it you shall die,” they did not die on the spot. The death predicted in Genesis 2 apparently implied much more than just the cessation of physical life. Death signified alienation from God, which first became evident as interpersonal disharmony and shame and later as biological death.

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Temptation Seal

FIGURE 1.4 Temptation Seal

Drawing by Daniel Hornschemeier Bandstra based on G. Smith, The Chaldean Account of Genesis (London: 1875), 91.

Then Yhwh Elohim said to the snake, “Because you did this, cursed are you more than any beast or creature of the field. On your belly you will go, and dust you will eat all the days of your life. Enmity I will create between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring. He will bruise your head and you will bruise his heel.” (3:14–15)

God cursed them and expelled them from the garden. Each of the three received a suitable punishment through a curse. God’s curse is the opposite of his blessing. In the snake’s case, God made it the lowest of all creatures, forced now to crawl on its belly. Compare the Temptation Seal, where the snakes stand upright (Figure 1.4). The curse on the snake is somewhat cryptic, but God seems to be saying that the temptation to do evil, as represented by the snake, will not dominate humanity. The couple’s offspring will be bruised by the snake’s evil but not overcome by it. Perhaps this suggests that, at the very least, there is hope for humanity.

To the woman he said, “I will greatly increase your pregnancy pain: in pain you will bear children. Yet you will long for your husband and he will dominate you.” And to the man he said, “Because you heeded your wife and ate from the tree I commanded you not to, cursed is the ground on account of you: you will eat with pain all the days of your life. Thorn and thistle will sprout for you when you want to eat the plants of the field: by the sweat of your forehead you will eat bread until you return to the ground (for from it you were taken)—dust you are and to dust you will return.” (3:16–19)

The curses were targeted to the created role of the man and woman. The woman was cursed in her relationship to her husband and in her indispensable role of continuing the race. They had been created for a relationship of mutuality, but now the husband would dominate. The text states unambiguously that woman’s subordination to man follows the break with God and is a result of the curse; it was not part of the created order. In addition to the broken relationship, the woman would have great pain in the course of child birthing and child rearing.

The man was created to care for and till the ground. His curse related to his calling to care for creation. From now on, food production would be accomplished only with great difficulty. Although he was inextricably tied to the ground (remember the pun on his name), it would resist him as he tried to live off it. Furthermore, when he died, he would return to the soil out of which he came.

These curses set the stage for the blessing that God pledges to Abram in Genesis 12. This would mark the beginning of the divine program to overcome

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Winged Protector Figure

FIGURE 1.5 Winged Protector Figure

A cherub (Hebrew plural, cherubim) was not a cherry-cheeked toddler the likes of Cupid with his bow and arrow. In the ancient Middle East, a cherub was a man-headed lion or bull with eagles’ wings that stood guard outside Mesopotamian temples. The term cherub appears to derive from the Akkadian word kuribu that was attached to such protector figures.

Source: Human-headed lion from the northwest palace in Nimrud, from A. H. Layard, Nineveh and Its Remains (London, 1851), 53.

the relationships broken here in the garden. In the meantime, God clothed the couple. Then they were expelled from the garden, according to God, because “the man has become like one of us, knowing good and evil” (3:22). Note again the use of the plural “us” for the Divine Council. Cherubim—the Divine Council’s body guards and bouncers—were placed at the entrance to the garden to keep humans away from the tree of life (Figure 1.5).

The break between humanity and deity determines the course of events that follows. God was deeply offended by human disobedience. What exactly was the offense? It might be important to pin this down; identifying the nature of the offense makes the fix comprehensible. Was the sin a moral failing, an intellectual craving, or a sexual transgression?

The significance of the tree of knowledge and the prohibition of eating its fruit are much debated (see Barr, 1993). Here, we outline three basic interpretations of the nature of the problem.:

1. Morality. By eating from the tree of knowledge, humanity chose to discriminate between what is good and what is bad on the basis of their own judgment rather than by automatically accepting God’s definition. By acting on their own, the couple irrevocably separated themselves from God, and their relationship to God was forever changed.

2. Knowledge. The Hebrew phrase “good and evil” can sometimes designate the totality of knowledge (see Deuteronomy 1:39 and 2 Samuel 19:35). Eating the fruit of that tree was an act of human pride, an attempt to know everything God knows. God would not tolerate any such challenge to his preeminence and expelled the original couple from the garden lest they also eat from the tree of life and become invulnerable.

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3. Sexuality. The story in Genesis 2–3 is rich with sexual innuendo. The couple is naked and not ashamed. Later they experience shame because of their nakedness. Even the snake has been interpreted by psychoanalysts as a sexual symbol. The Hebrew term for knowledge can have sexual associations, as in Genesis 4:1 where “Adam knew Eve,” clearly a euphemism for sexual intercourse, and gave rise to the phrase “carnal knowledge.” The sexual interpretation suggests that coming to knowledge, symbolized by eating the forbidden fruit, signifies the passage from childhood through puberty to adulthood. Sexual experience involves the pain and alienation of coming to know oneself and the other in new ways. Discovering the sexual impulse means that one cannot go back to the state of innocence ever again.

All three interpretations have hints of truth in them. Yet the big affront to Yhwh seems to be humanity’s desire to become like gods, like Elohim—that is, to become immortal beings. By focusing on this dimension, perhaps the first interpretation contains the most truth. By their act of self-determination, the original couple declared their intent to live by their own authority, not by God’s. They tried to seize what could only be divinely granted. God would not abide this direct challenge, expelled them, and denied them access to a rich and full existence, symbolized by the tree of life.

This concern with autonomy versus divine determination appears to be an important key to the larger story. Those who position the authorship of the story within the politics of the Israelite monarchy suggest that this issue illumines the problems of kingship. Would the prosperity of the Davidic empire lead the Israelites into an attitude of self-sufficiency? Would they forget about their God? Would they try to grasp greatness on their own or wait for divine blessing? In this view, the writer relates the story of the first ancestors as a warning against national self-determination.

2.1.5 Ancient Middle Eastern Creation Stories

The two creation accounts of Genesis taken together establish fundamental biblical truths about God in relation to the universe and humanity. God is sovereign and powerful yet approachable and concerned. God established certain boundaries for proper human behavior yet granted humans tremendous freedom. The world is wonderfully ordered and internally consistent, indeed very good, yet it is distorted by human willfulness.

These features of the Hebrew worldview were not held universally throughout the ancient Middle East. While the biblical creation narratives share certain similarities of detail with the creation stories of the ancient Middle East, their understandings of deity and humanity significantly differ. By comparing the stories, we can not only identify commonly held mythic motifs but also grasp the Hebrew Bible’s distinct perspective.

The biblical writers drew from legends, stories, and literary materials that were part of the larger ancient Middle Eastern cultural environment when they constructed the Israelite accounts of creation. Some of the surviving creation material includes the Egyptian creation theology, the Atrahasis Epic, and the Enuma Elish. It is no surprise that virtually every people has given thought to ultimate origins and every culture has shaped creation myths.

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Egyptian Cosmology

FIGURE 1.6 Egyptian Cosmology

Shu, the sky god is supporting Nut, the sky goddess above Geb, the earth god.

Source: Drawing by Daniel Hornschemeier Bandstra based on a tomb painting in Valley of the Kings, Thebes. From H. Haas, Bilderatlas zur Religionsgeschichte (Leipzig: 1923).

Creation Theology from Egypt

In the earliest Egyptian creation story, the world began as a formless watery void, entombed in darkness. When this primeval water-stuff subsided, the first mound of earth appeared. On this first island, the creator-god Atum brought into being all other creatures and things. How he did this varies in the versions. According to one account, he masturbated (since he was male and had no mate) and brought the lesser male and female deities into existence. From their mating came the populated earth. According to another version, Atum named his own body parts and, as it were, out of himself came other separate beings. Egyptian cosmology associated with the temple at Heliopolis imagined heaven to be a female deity and earth a male deity (see Figure 1.6).

Another creation story later emerged, called the Memphis theology of creation. Dating to the earliest dynastic period in Egypt (third millennium BCE), this story supported the superiority of Memphis and its patron god Ptah over the previous capital. It states that Ptah was the heart and tongue, which is to say he was divine mind and speech. Ptah conceived the idea of the universe, ordered it, and called it into being with a command. Because of this, Ptah existed prior to Atum as the principle and mechanism through which the world came into being (see Simpson, 1972). In positing the priority of the divine word, this theology of creation has a notable similarity to the Elohim account of creation in Genesis.

Atrahasis Epic

The Atrahasis Epic, named after its human hero, is a story from Mesopotamia that has rather specific similarities to the Primeval Story. It includes the making of humans out of clay (see Genesis 2:7), a flood, and a boat-building hero. It was composed as early as the nineteenth century BCE. In its cosmology, heaven is ruled by the god Anu, earth by Enlil, and the freshwater ocean by Enki. Enlil set the lesser gods to work farming the land and maintaining the irrigation canals. After forty years, they refused to work any longer. Enki, also the wise counselor to the gods, proposed that humans be created to assume the work. The goddess

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Mami made humans by shaping clay mixed with saliva and the blood of the undergod We, who was slain for this purpose.

The human population worked and grew, but so did the noise they made. Because it disturbed Enlil’s sleep, he decided to destroy the human race. First he sent a plague, then a famine followed by a drought, and lastly a flood. Each time Enki forewarned Atrahasis, enabling him to survive the disaster. He gave Atrahasis seven days warning of the flood and told him to build a boat. Atrahasis loaded it with animals and birds and his own possessions. Though the rest of humanity perished, he survived. When the gods realized they had destroyed the labor force that had produced food for their offerings, they regretted their actions. The story breaks off at this point, so we learn nothing of the boat’s landing or the later Atrahasis (see Lambert and Millard, 1969).

Enuma Elish

The Enuma Elish is the best-known Babylonian creation account. It existed in various versions and copies, the oldest dating to at least 1700 BCE. According to this account, before heaven and earth were formed, there were two vast bodies of water. The male freshwater ocean was called Apsu, and the female saltwater ocean was called Tiamat. Through the fusion of their waters, successive generations of gods came into being. As in Genesis 1, water is the primeval element, but here it is identified with the gods, who have unmistakable gender.

Younger gods were created through sexual union. These younger, noisy gods disturbed the tranquility of Apsu, so Apsu devised a plan to dispose of them. The wisest younger god, Ea, found out about the plan and killed Apsu (Figure 1.7). To avenge her husband, Tiamat decided to do away with the younger gods with the help of her henchman Kingu. When the younger gods heard about this, they

Ea in the Apsu

FIGURE 1.7 Ea in the Apsu

The Mesopotamian god Ea resides in the freshwater ocean Apsu on this seal. impression, receives another god.

Source: Drawing by Barry Bandstra after a cylinder seal of the Akkadian period found at Ur; see J. Black and A. Green, Gods, Demons and Symbols of Ancient Mesopotamia. An Illustrated Dictionary (London: British Museum, 1992), 27, no. 19.

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found a champion in the god Marduk. He agreed to defend them only if they would make him king. After they tested his powers, they enthroned him.

Mesopotamian mythology imagined that the world was the outcome of the mingling of two oceans, Apsu and Tiamat. Hebrew creation, in contrast, was initiated by the one god Elohim, who harnessed the deep waters and brought forth life. When finally they met on the field of battle, Tiamat opened her considerable mouth as if to swallow Marduk and plunge him into the immeasurable deeps. Marduk rallied by casting one of the winds into her body, expanding her like a balloon. He then took his bow and shot an arrow into her belly, splitting her in half. Marduk cut her in two like a clam, and out of her carcass he made the heavens. The “clamshell” of heaven became a barrier to keep the waters from escaping, a parallel to the Genesis notion of a barrier or firmament. Marduk also fixed the constellations in the heavens. They, along with the moon, established the course of day and night as well as the seasons.

Then Marduk devised a plan to relieve the drudgery of the gods. They were tired of laboring to meet their daily needs, so he created humanity out of the blood of Kingu to be the servants of the gods. In appreciation for their deliverance, the gods built Marduk a palace in Babylon, called Esagila, meaning “house with its head in heaven.” There Marduk sat enthroned.

The similarities and differences between Genesis 1 and the Enuma Elish are intriguing (see Heidel, 1963). One of the most striking features of Genesis that the Enuma Elish helps bring to light is the struggle between order and chaos that lies just under the surface of the Genesis text. Marduk’s battle with Tiamat reveals that the effort to create the world took the form of a battle. The victory secured Marduk’s position as king of the world. The comparison may help to explain the claims of Yhwh’s kingship over creation in such places as Psalms 29 and 93, in which the deity is pictured sitting enthroned over the floods.

2.1.6 Reading Creation Today

The biblical creation stories have been immensely influential in history of Western thought. Certain interpretations of key components of these stories have shaped foundational social and cultural institutions. A literal reading of the six-day creation story has resisted the discoveries of astronomy and evolutionary biology from Galileo and Darwin to the present day. The mandate to “be fruitful and increase in number and fill the earth and dominate it and rule the fish of the sea, birds of the heavens, and every swarming creature on the earth” (1:28) has been read to give us permission to exploit the world’s natural resources. The woman’s taking the first bite has been read to place the blame for sin on the female. The curse on the woman that “he will dominate you” (3:16) was read to justify subordination to the husband in marriage.

Reading these stories from out of our changed social setting and illumined by historical and literary analysis reveals the degree to which such readings may have been shaped by their cultural status quo. For example, Middleton (2005) reads the Priestly creation narrative as a counterstory to the Mesopotamian creation myth. This myth with its exaltation of the king and its low view of ordinary humanity promoted social structures of repression and human exploitation. On the other hand, Israel’s creation narrative promoted a high view of humanity where each person, male as well as female, was the image of God. Reading these same stories today with what Gomes (1995) calls “moral imagination” provides us with rich new meanings and possibilities.

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The act of eating from the tree of good and bad knowledge has traditionally been read within Christianity as the original sin resulting in a disastrous fall from grace, symbolized by expulsion from the garden. This story could also be read in an opposite way, as a tale of healthy human growth and maturation (see Bechtel, 1993). The first humans move from naiveté and dependency to self-determination, even though it results in alienation from the parent deity. And this movement is driven by the initiative and curiosity of the woman. Such readings open new possibilities for appreciating and appropriating the text. Explore the Garden of Eden gallery at the companion website . The garden of Eden is the subject of many artistic renditions, each in its own way a reading of the story.

Explore the "Garden of Eden gallery" at the companion website. The garden of Eden is the subject of many artistic renditions, each in its own way a reading of the story.

2.2 Preflood Generations (4:1–6:4)

Genesis 4:1-6:4 fills the gap between the first couple, Adam and Eve, and the story of Noah. These chapters tell two stories: one of the growth of population and culture and the other of the growth and development of sin. The narratives of the preflood heroes and villains come from the same tradition as the Yhwh Elohim creation account. Taken together they explain why God sent the flood. Yet, at the same time these aberrations were occurring, human culture continued to develop, including the construction of cities, the domestication of animals, and the rise of the fine arts.

There are two genealogies in these chapters, one in Chapter 4 and one in Chapter 5. The genealogy in Genesis 4 belongs to the Yhwh collection and tracks the growth of humanity through Cain. The one in Genesis 5 belongs to the Elohim collection and extends from Adam to Noah. A genealogy is a record or table of the descent of a person, family, or group from an ancestor or ancestors; in other words, it is a family tree. Most readers would probably rather ignore genealogies completely. In themselves they are unexciting, but they are quite important to the overall scheme of Genesis.

The genealogies of Genesis 1–11 accomplish at least two things. First, they give evidence that humanity did in fact multiply and fill the earth, as God mandated in 1:28. This is evidence of blessing. Second, they establish the connection between Adam and Abram so that the line of continuity between Israel and its origins can be traced all the way back to creation.

2.2.1 Cain, Abel, and After (4)

Once expelled from the garden, Adam and Eve had sexual relations and their first son Cain was born, followed shortly thereafter by Abel. Cain became a farmer and Abel a shepherd. For no apparent reason, Abel’s offering was accepted, but Cain’s was not. Apparently out of envy, Cain took it out on Abel and killed him. Yhwh punished him by cursing his relationship to the ground, which would no longer bear fruit for him. So Cain was forced to become a wanderer. Notice that the deity is now referenced by the divine name Yhwh (rather than Yhwh Elohim), and this is consistent throughout Chapter 4.

A conflict story similar to Cain and Abel is found in Sumerian literature. In this tale, the shepherd-god Dumuzi vies with the farmer-god Enkimdu for the favors of the goddess Inanna. Dumuzi quarrels with Enkimdu and wins the prize of Inanna’s attention (see ANET, 41–42). Both the biblical and Sumerian stories reflect the early conflict between shepherds and farmers over use of the precious arable land. In the biblical tale, each man offered a gift to Yhwh from his respective produce.

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This first murder is a continuation of the series of human scandals begun in Eden. Its immediate effect is to demonstrate the snowball effect of sin. Adam and Eve sinned against God and were cursed. The curse was passed on to their children. With the second generation, death was no longer just a spiritual condition of alienation from God but also a physical reality. The escalation of violence continued. Cain’s offspring included Lamech, who was the prototype of violent attackers (4:17–24). He boasted to his two wives that he took revenge on a man by killing him while he himself had only been slightly wounded.

But even while violence was increasing, there was a parallel development. Culture and technology rapidly developed. Cain’s son Enoch built the first city. Lamech’s three sons were credited with various first-time achievements: Jabal for domestication of animals, Jubal for music, and Tubal-cain for copper and iron industries. We might wonder, Was the writer making a negative judgment on these so-called advances by associating these developments with the notoriously sinful line of Cain? There was a tradition in Israel that a patriarchal, seminomadic, and unurbanized lifestyle kept one closest to God. The Yahwist writer may have been implicitly criticizing the cultural advancements of the Davidic monarchy by associating them with the line of Cain and Lamech.

Mesopotamian tradition likewise traces the arts and accomplishments of civilization back to primeval times. It recalls a line of seven apkallu figures, wise men who lived before the flood and taught humanity the arts and crafts of civilization (see the Sumerian King List, ANET, 265–266). Genesis 4, which also contains seven generations in the Cain genealogy, may retain a reflection of this tradition. In the preflood Mesopotamian tradition, the seventh preflood king, Enmeduranki, who was taken to sit before the gods and given special wisdom, may be the model for Enoch in Genesis 5, who is the seventh in the Priestly genealogy.

Certainly such momentous human achievements were not the work of single men from the same family. The biblical text telescopes developments that took many, many generations into a brief span. But interestingly, the text does evidence the importance of these developments and places them in early prehistory. Archaeologists and anthropologists have confirmed the importance of these developments for the progress of civilization, even claiming that these developments occurred first in the Middle East. Chapter 4 ends with the mention of the birth of Seth, Adam and Eve’s third son. The Yahwist tells us that at this time people began to call on the name of Yhwh.

2.2.2 Genealogy: Adam to Noah (5)

The Priestly writer contributed the genealogies of Chapters 5 and 11 to the Primeval Story (compare 5:1–2 with 1:26–28). The Chapter 5 genealogy has notable similarities to the Yhwh-text genealogy of Chapter 4, as if they were different versions of the same underlying tradition. The genealogy of Genesis 5 contains ten generations going from Adam to Noah, and the genealogy of Genesis 11:10–27 contains ten generations from Shem to Abram.

Go to the companion website for tables that compare the Genesis 4 and 5 genealogies and the priestly genealogies of Genesis 5 and 11.

These two genealogies are essentially alike in that they are linear, going directly from one generation to a single offspring in the next, and both have a similar literary

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pattern (though Chapter 11:10–27 omits the last sentence, “He died”). Here is the generalized structure.

After X had lived M years, he sired Y. X lived N years after he had sired him, and he sired other sons and daughters. All the days of X were O years. He died.

Two descendants are of special interest in Chapter 5, Enoch and Methuselah. Enoch is said to have “walked with the gods/God (ha-elohim)” and then mysteriously “was no more because Elohim took him” (5:24). Because he did not die, Enoch became associated with a large body of postbiblical apocalyptic literature that supposedly was revealed to him in heaven. Methuselah lived longer than any other person, reputedly 969 years.

2.2.3 Divine–Human Intermarriage (6:1–4)

The writer now exposes the limitless human capacity for wickedness. Sin grew in extent and intensity, from sibling murder to the blood feud of Lamech (4:23–24). The growth of sin culminated in the encounter between the sons of the gods/God and the daughters of men.

When humanity began to multiply on the face of the ground, and daughters were born to them, the sons of Elohim saw that the daughters of humanity were good. They took wives for themselves from them as they chose. And Yhwh said, “My spirit shall no longer remain with humanity forever, because they are flesh. His life span will be 120 years.” The fallen ones were on the earth in those days (and also afterward) when the sons of Elohim had intercourse with human daughters and bore offspring for them. They are the warriors, from eternity called the men of a name. (6:1–4)

Certainly one question that jumps out of this text is, Who are the sons of God? Some interpreters have suggested they are the offspring of Cain and that this story records the interbreeding of the lines of Cain and Seth. This would represent a mixture of the good and the bad lineages. This view is probably mistaken. Parallels to the phrase “sons of Elohim” in biblical and other ancient literature strongly suggest that they are divine creatures, commonly identified as angels (for example, Job 1:6; 2:1; 38:7). They would appear to be errant members of the Divine Council, the body of angels who rule the universe with God. According to 6:1–4 then, certain of these angels were sexually attracted to human women and sired a race of giants.

The possibility of such interbreeding defies human conceiving (pun intended). Were it possible, presumably such interbreeding would have resulted in humans acquiring the immortality of divine creatures. Probably for this reason, God took steps to limit the longevity of humanity to a maximum of 120 years.

Fantastic and strange as the incident may seem, it plays an important role in the developing scheme of the narrative. The writer uses this incident to explain why God was finally moved to action. Sin had evolved so far as to infect the relationship between the divine and the human realms. The proper division between heaven and earth was no longer intact. Many authorities see the survival of an early myth about the gods and humanity in this story. Kilmer (1987) notes the parallels between the “fallen ones” and the preflood apkallu sages of Mesopotamian tradition, mentioned above. The biblical tale also recalls those notorious incidents of divine–human intercourse in Greek mythology, as when Zeus bedded Io and Europa.

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2.3 The Flood (6:5–7:24)

The episode of divine–human intercourse exceeded the limit of God’s tolerance, so he decided to destroy what he had made and start again with righteous Noah. God chose the Flood as the instrument of destruction and cleansing. The flood was no ordinary overflow. It is portrayed as a veritable reversal of creation. The language and imagery of the flood narrative echo the Elohim creation story at too many strategic points to be coincidental. The parallels indicate that God intended to return the universe to its precreation state of watery chaos and then remake it using the microcosm of Noah’s ark. The story of the flood is the pivot point of the Primeval Story.

The ancient list of kings from the early Mesopotamian civilization of Sumer, called the Sumerian King List, likewise uses the flood to divide history into preflood and postflood periods. The preflood kings had enormous life spans, whereas those after the flood were much reduced. Similarly, the preflood heroes of the biblical story had tremendous life spans, whereas those after are closer to what we would consider normal (see ANET, 265–266, and Jacobsen, 1939).

2.3.1 Prologue to the Flood (6:5–13)

The immediately preceding Yhwh story of the sons of God and the daughters of men in Genesis 6:1–4 provides the premier instance of moral erosion. Following this episode, both Yahwist and Priestly writers analyze the state of the world and why God decided to “uncreate” it. In this section and throughout the flood narrative, we see evidence of both writers who we identified in the creation stories by their differing use of divine designations. The difference here is that these two versions are interwoven with some sentences attributable to the Yahwist writer and others to the Priestly writer. Because their respective contributions can still be identified by their characteristic style and vocabulary, you can read this new episode with heightened awareness.

Yhwh Version

And Yhwh saw that the evil of humanity on the earth was great; every willful plan of its mind was only evil every day. Yhwh regretted that he had made humanity on the earth, and he was pained to his heart. Yhwh said, “I will wipe out humanity which I had created from the face of the ground, from humanity to beast to reptile to bird of the sky. For I regret that I had made them.” And Noah found favor in the eyes of Yhwh.(6:5–8)

Elohim Version

This is the account (Hebrew toledot) of Noah: Noah was a righteous man, upright was he in his generation. Noah walked with the gods (ha-elohim). Noah sired three sons: Shem, Ham, and Japheth. And the earth was corrupt before Elohim, and the earth was full of violence. And Elohim saw the earth: it was corrupt. For all flesh corrupted his way on the earth. And Elohim said to Noah, “The end of all flesh before me is coming. For the earth is full of their violence. I am destroying them with the earth.” (6:9–13)

These two versions are not really contradictory; mostly they just use different vocabulary to get the same basic point across. In the Yhwh version, humanity is at fault and humanity along with all other living things becomes the focus of

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Yhwh’s wrath. In the Elohim version, the earth is the focus and how flesh had corrupted it. Also note that the Elohim version here is introduced by this version’s characteristic toledot notice, “these are the generations of . . .

2.3.2 Undoing Creation (6:14–7:24)

God gave Noah instructions for building a waterproof vessel in which to house his immediate family, along with a sample of animal life. After they entered the ark, the springs of the deep burst open and the floodgates of heaven broke wide; this is the reverse of the separation of the waters recounted in Chapter 1. The flood rose over the earth drowning everything that was not in the ark.

The waters rose so high that they eventually covered even the loftiest mountain by fifteen cubits (about forty-five feet). A number of Mesopotamian cities give evidence of ancient flooding caused by the overflow of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers. But there is no archaeological evidence for a worldwide flood. There is no evidence of a widespread flood in Palestine, but that does not pose a problem. The flood account locates itself in Mesopotamia with the resting place of Noah’s ark in the Urartu mountain range. Ancient Shuruppak—where Utnapishtim, the survivor of the Gilgamesh Epic flood, lived—as well as Ur, Kish, Uruk, Lagash, and Nineveh, all present evidence of flooding. But the evidence comes from different times (see Parrot, 1955). Most scholars agree that the biblical flood account was triggered by the memory of a local disaster, though the discoveries of Ryan and Pitman (1999) in the Black Sea present a possible scenario for a wide-area flood that may be distantly behind the biblical account.

2.3.3 Mesopotamian Flood Stories

As with the creation stories, there are notable ancient Middle Eastern tales of a flood that, in some cases, display close parallels to the biblical account. In the Deluge Tablet, Ziusudra survived a flood sent by the gods by building a boat. In the Gilgamesh Epic, Utnapishtim survived a flood and was granted eternal life. The Atrahasis Epic also has a flood episode.

Deluge Tablet.

The hero is Ziusudra, the counterpart of the biblical Noah. Ziusudra heard the decision of the Divine Council to destroy humanity. He was able to survive the flood by constructing a vessel. The mention of the great waters, the boat, and the window on the boat all have biblical parallels.

All the windstorms, exceedingly powerful, attacked as one, At the same time, the flood sweeps over the cult-centers. After, for seven days (and) seven nights, The flood had swept over the land, (And) the huge boat had been tossed about by the windstorms on the great waters, Utu [the sun-god] came forth, who sheds light on heaven (and) earth. Ziusudra opened a window of the huge boat, The hero Utu brought his rays into the giant boat. (ANET, 44)

Gilgamesh Epic.

The Gilgamesh Epic was a widely known and often copied epic about Gilgamesh, the king of ancient Uruk. One episode of this lengthy epic contains an account of a flood. After losing his best friend and thereby confronting the issue of human mortality, Gilgamesh went to Utnapishtim to learn the secret of eternal life. Utnapishtim was a preflood hero who survived the flood and was

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granted eternal life by the gods. The following is Utnapishtim’s recollection of what the gods advised him to do to survive the coming flood.

Tear down (this) house, build a ship! Give up possessions, seek thou life. Forswear (worldly) goods and keep the soul alive! Aboard the ship take thou the seed of all living things. Six days and [six] nights Blows the flood wind, as the south-storm sweeps the land. When the seventh day arrived, The flood(-carrying) south-storm subsided in the battle, Which it had fought like an army. The sea grew quiet, the tempest was still, the flood ceased. When the seventh day arrived, I sent forth and set free a dove. The dove went forth, but came back; Then I sent forth and set free a raven. The raven went forth and, seeing that the waters had diminished, He eats, circles, caws, and turns not round. Then I let out (all) to the four winds and offered a sacrifice. The gods smelled the sweet savor, The gods crowded like flies about the sacrificer. (ANET, 93–95, selections)

The Gilgamesh Epic has notable parallels to the biblical flood story, from the waters that rise, to the boat, to the birds Utnapishtim sent out the window to look for dry land. And as with Noah, Utnapishtim sacrificed to the deity after he abandoned the boat. The Gilgamesh Epic may be based on the flood story found in the Atrahasis Epic (see Lambert and Millard, 1969). The version quoted here dates to around 650 BCE. The Gilgamesh Epic has a long literary history going back as early as 2000 BCE (see Tigay, 1982). After closely examining its tradition history, Tigay says this in defense of the plausibility of Pentateuchal source analysis:

The stages and processes through which this epic demonstrably passed are similar to some of those through which the Pentateuchal narratives are presumed to have passed. What is known about the evolution of the Gilgamesh Epic shows that some of the results of biblical criticism are at least realistic. (1985: 27).

The Gilgamesh Epic is probably the single most important text from ancient Mesopotamia.

Go to the companion website for further information about the Gilgamesh Epic.


The first half of the Primeval Story contained two versions of creation. The first version was comprehensive in scope, giving account of the big moments of world creation yet also treating the creation of humans in God’s image. The second version makes only passing reference to the grand environment and dwells on human origination. After God created Adam and Eve, they disregarded their maker’s explicit command not to eat the fruit from the tree of knowledge and were expelled from the garden. They became the first family with the birth of Cain and Abel and the first dysfunctional family after Cain killed Abel.

The remainder of those chapters contains two parallel, sometimes interwoven, threads. One traces the growth of the human race and its developing culture. Cain’s offspring pioneered the building of cities, the domestication of animals for human service, and the arts. The other thread dwells on the problems that human willfulness created. Sin grew horribly, as told in episodes following the first murder. Lamech broke out with wanton violence, the sons of God sired monstrous

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creatures, and general human wickedness prompted God to send the flood. Overall, this section is enclosed in a creation–destruction, goodness–sin envelope.

The second half of the Primeval Story parallels the first half in its broad developments and details. Noah patterns after Adam in overseeing the earth coming to life. Both receive the divine injunction to “be fruitful, multiply, and fill the earth.” Both were also implicated in wrongdoing, though curiously, to a degree passively: Adam followed Eve’s initiative, and Noah’s stupor became the occasion for Ham’s indiscretion. In both phases, the human population increased, as the genealogical catalogs attest, but sin also increased and prompted divine reactions both times.

Go to the companion website for a table showing the parallels between the creation and the flood.

So they seem to tell, in many ways, the same story: creation, transgression, and crisis. As we move through this second series, the tension builds and we begin to ask, What will become of God’s bold human project now that even the second-time, postflood humans go astray? In the first phase, except for Noah and the boatload, all life perished because of disobedience. Will God respond in a similar manner because humans again revealed a distinct propensity to perverse behavior?

3.1 Re-creation (8–9)

The devastation of the flood eliminated all life from the earth. The text indicates that the waters rose even higher than the highest peak, causing the earth to disappear. The narrative in effect takes us back to the precreation state of the world, and it would have been a totally formless, watery void except for the preservation of Noah and those with him in the boat.

The remaking phase of the Primeval Story establishes important thematic points. Noah is pictured as a second Adam, and the earth is re-created. God brings the divine relationship with humans to a new level by means of a covenant, yet wrongdoing returns in an episode of suspicious sexuality.

3.1.1 Return of Earth and Life (8)

The tragedy of the flood was reversed when “Elohim remembered Noah” (8:1). God blew a wind over the earth so that the waters receded, similar to God’s wind hovering over the deeps in Genesis 1:2. Eventually, the ark came to rest on one of the peaks of the Ararat mountain range, called Urartu in Mesopotamian sources. The traditional identification of Mount Ararat is 17,000-foot-high Agri Dagi, northwest of Lake Van in Turkey. Various expeditions have claimed to recover remains of Noah’s ark, but none of the reports have been substantiated (see Bailey, 1989).

Noah first sent a raven out the window of the boat and then sent a dove out three times to see if there was any dry land. The first time the dove returned with nothing, then it came back with an olive twig in its beak, and finally it did not return at all. Knowing that the ground was dry, Noah, his family, and the survivors of the animal kingdom disembarked. The list of creatures that left the ark (8:17–19) mirrors the terms used in the Elohim creation story.

The Yahwist writer tells us that Noah immediately built an altar to Yhwh and presented sacrifices from every ritually clean animal and bird as an offering to Yhwh

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(8:20–22). The deity accepted his sacrifice, indicating reconciliation. Yhwh vowed never again to curse the ground or destroy all life as punishment, knowing now that evil is ingrained in humanity. The short poetic conclusion to the divine musing signals a blessed return to order.

As long as earth lasts, sowing and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night will not end. (8:22)

With creation, the Elohim and Yhwh versions were separate. Here with the flood, the Elohim rendition is artfully woven into the Yhwh version. But the vocabulary of each is so distinctive that, for the most part, the two sources can be easily distinguished. Read separately, we would notice the following contrasts. The Yhwh version tells nothing of the building of the ark, though perhaps it was eliminated in favor of the Elohim description. In the Yhwh version, the flood waters are the result of a torrential downpour lasting 40 days, later receding in 7-day periods. In the Elohim version, the flood is supernatural, inundating the earth from above the firmament (the windows of heaven) and below the surface of the ground (the sources of the great deep). It prevails for 150 days and takes 220 days to finally disappear.

In the Yhwh version, the animals are gathered in sevens for the clean and only by twos for the unclean. The excess clean animals were presumably the ones used for Noah’s sacrifice after leaving the ark because only clean animals would be accepted by Yhwh. The Priestly writer is content with one pair of each species of animal, and Noah does not offer a sacrifice, presumably because the proper rules for sacrifice had not yet been established—remember that the Priestly writer sweated the ritual details and the chronology of the development of Israel’s religion. For him, proper sacrifices could only be offered beginning with the time of Moses. The Yahwist writer’s epic has no problem saying there were good sacrifices before Moses, as he does here and earlier with Abel’s acceptable sacrifice.

Newer literary analysts have sought to move beyond classical source analysis in demonstrating the literary wholeness of the flood narrative. Some have discerned a comprehensive literary symmetry that is evidence for unitary composition (see Wenham, 1978). Nonetheless, the fact that the final text shows symmetry does not disallow that the final compiler may have used a variety of separate sources. The story of the flood can be separated into its two versions for easy comparison. It is a superb case study of a story in double tradition. Read the two versions separately, being attentive to the differences as well as the similarities, and then study the combined account.

Go to the companion website for tables showing the text of the flood account separated into its component two versions for easy analysis and comparison. The flood account is a superb case study of a story in two versions. Read these versions separately, being attentive to their differences and similarities. Additional tables identify the distinctive vocabulary of the two versions, the chronology of the flood, and the palistrophic structure of the narrative.

3.1.2 God’s Covenant with Noah (9:1–17)

Both Yhwh and Elohim versions record God making a pledge of commitment to Noah. The Elohim version in Chapter 9 takes the form of a covenant. Covenants

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in the ancient world were formalized relationships regulated by terms and conditions.

I establish my covenant with you, that never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of a flood, and never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth. (9:11)

This is the first explicit act of covenant in the Hebrew Bible, and for that reason it is quite significant. In fact, the term covenant is used a total of seven times in this episode. Through this act of relationship, God commits to continue life, both human and animal. As the following episode demonstrates, perversity still characterizes human behaviors, but because of the covenant, God refrains from initiating a second deluge. The rainbow in the sky—the return of brilliance after the dark of storm—is the sign and reminder of this covenant.

Notable elements of this covenant episode echo the language of the Elohim creation story. God blesses Noah and his sons using the same language as Genesis 1:28: “Be fruitful and increase and fill the earth.” As in the creation story, humans here are given charge of the created world with the added provision that animals may be eaten as food—if the blood is first removed. Human life receives special divine sanction because humanity is made in the “image of Elohim” (9:6; compare 1:27).

3.1.3 Noah’s Insobriety (9:20–27)

Noah and his three sons set about repopulating the earth. Noah settled down and became a farmer, much in the tradition of Adam and Cain. In the process, Noah, although “a righteous man, upright in his generation” (6:9), fell prey to what appears to be unseemly behavior—he gets drunk. God’s judgment on humanity in the flood obviously had not improved human nature.

Noah became a man of the ground. He planted a vineyard, drank wine and got drunk. He was uncovered in his tent. Ham, the father of Canaan, saw the nakedness of his father and told his two brothers outside. Shem and Japheth took a cloak, placed it on their shoulders, walked backwards, and covered the nakedness of their father. Their faces were turned away so they did not see the nakedness of their father. (9:20–23)

The text is not direct in its negative judgment on Noah’s insobriety, but from other biblical passages we can assume so. We cannot be sure exactly what made Noah so distraught, though there is the hint of sexual misdemeanor. Whatever Ham did, he dishonored his father. Bassett (1971) suggests that Ham committed incest with Noah’s wife, arguing that uncovered nakedness is equated with sexual intercourse. Cohen (1974) suggests that Ham acquired Noah’s sexual potency by the act of seeing him naked. Such interpretations go beyond what is given in the text, which is not specific enough to determine exactly what Ham’s offense was, beyond the fact that he dishonored his father.

When Noah awoke from his insobriety, he knew what his youngest son had done to him. He said, “Cursed is Canaan! The most lowly servant will he be for his brothers.” He also said, “Blessed is Yhwh, the Elohim of Shem. May Canaan be his servant. May Elohim enlarge Japheth. He will dwell in the tents of Shem. May Canaan be his servant.” (9:24–27)

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Note the special interest in Canaan. God’s curse of Ham’s son, Canaan, is especially difficult to justify. Why doesn’t Ham suffer the consequences of his actions himself? Perhaps the “Ham to Canaan” direction of cursing reinforces the biblical rule that later generations suffer the consequences of the sins of previous generations. Wherever the fault lies, this story is here to demonstrate that sin was still around after the flood. Not even Noah was perfectly righteous.

There also may have been a political agenda in this story. Many suppose that the Yahwist writer lived in the tenth century BCE and was connected to the royal court. Israel’s leaders would have been interested in justifying the elimination of the Canaanite inhabitants of Palestine, who were their enemies. This story gives Israel sacred warrant for dispossessing the Canaanites and possessing their land. Other places where the Yhwh source shows special interest in neighboring peoples include Genesis 26 regarding the Philistines (this is especially anachronistic because the Philistines did not establish a presence in Palestine until the thirteenth century BCE; presumably, Abraham is much before that); Genesis 29–31 regarding the Arameans; and Numbers 20–25 regarding Ammon, Moab, and Edom.

3.2 Postflood Generations (10:1–11:9)

After the flood and the death of Noah, humanity repopulated the earth. Chapter 10, called the Table of Nations, is devoted to Noah’s sons Shem, Ham, and Japheth and their descendants. This genealogy comes from the Elohim source with some Yahwist insertions (see Westermann, 1984), but it differs structurally from the genealogies in Chapters 5 and 11. It has a segmented or treelike structure, going from one father to many offspring. This genealogy details three broad groups of people, one from each of the three sons.

Many of the offspring bear the names of geographical areas or cities. For example, the descendants of Ham include Egypt and Canaan. Nimrod, “a mighty hunter before Yhwh,” is singled out for special attention and is credited with building Nineveh, the great capital city of Assyria.

The Tower of Babel account (11:1–9) follows the Table of Nations. These two accounts seem strangely out of order. The Tower of Babel story presumes a unitary human population that disperses after God confused their language. But the Table of Nations precedes it and locates peoples in various places around the world.

Despite the logistic tension between the Table of Nations and the Tower of Babel, the two accounts tell somewhat the same story of tremendous postflood human growth (“be fruitful and multiply”). At the same time, the narrative reveals that human nature has not changed a bit, even after the cleansing effort of the flood. Humans still want to be like God and reach heaven, the realm of the divine. But God is not going to allow this. Remembering how God earlier responded to human presumption, the obvious question is this: What will God do now? Will he destroy humans again? Yet that option is not available because God made a covenant with Noah. So then, how will God respond?

3.2.1 Table of Nations (10)

The genealogy of Genesis 10, called the Table of Nations, is different from the other main genealogies of the Primeval Story in Chapters 5 and 11. The Table of Nations is a lateral rather than linear genealogy. It follows this general pattern: The sons of A were B and C and D. . . . The sons of B were X and Y and Z. . . . Its primary purpose

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was to identify connections among population groups based on their common paternity. Repeatedly we are told that “these are the sons of X, by their families, their languages, their lands, and their nations” (10:5, 20, 31).

The narrative placement of this material is logical in that it fills out the lines of descent of the three sons of Noah. From Shem, Ham, and Japheth, “the nations spread abroad on the earth after the flood” (10:32). But the placement is also illogical in that it comes before the Tower of Babel incident (11:1–9), which presupposes that humanity is linguistically and geographically one entity.

Additional genealogies follow the Tower of Babel story in Chapter 11. The genealogy of Shem (11:10–32; see “3.3 Generations to Abram”) concludes the Primeval Story on a positive note—positive because God did not destroy humanity even though it offended divine sensibilities yet again and because Shem was an ancestor to Abram, who would become the father of Israel.

3.2.2 Tower of Babel (11:1–9)

The Yahwist narrative contributes the plot line of humanity’s reach for deity. The Tower of Babel episode continues the story of rebellion against God and depicts the overreach of human aspirations. A united humanity initiates an enormous project to build a turret that would reach heaven.

The whole earth had one language and the same vocabulary. When they left the east they found a valley in the land of Shinar and settled there. They said to each other, “Let us make bricks and bake them thoroughly.” So they had bricks for building blocks and tar for mortar. Then they said, “Let us build a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens. Let us make a name for ourselves so we will not be scattered around the earth.” (11:1–4)

The locale of this story is the broad plain of lower Mesopotamia called Shinar. In this episode, humanity is still a unified community. The people had plans to secure their own greatness, “to make a name for themselves.” They were intent on creating their own city and culture. Building a tower that would reach heaven itself was their goal. Yhwh, however, took considerable offense at this.

Yhwh came down to see the city and the tower which the men had built. Yhwh said, “If as one people with one language this is the beginning of what they can do, then nothing they plan will be impossible for them. Let us go down and confuse their language there so no one can understand the other’s language.” (11:5–7)

Notice that the name of the deity in this episode is simply Yhwh. And who is the “us” in “Let us go down”? Probably the Divine Council again (see the earlier section on “Day 6: Animals and Humanity”).

Why should Yhwh get so upset? Surely these ancient people were not capable of building a skyscraper that could physically reach heaven and thereby challenge God. Whether or not they could actually do it, God took their activity as yet another attempt to grasp greatness rather than wait for God’s blessing.

And Yhwh scattered them from there around the earth. They quit building the city. For that reason he called its name Babel because there Yhwh confused the language of the entire earth, and from there Yhwh scattered them around the earth. (11:8–9)

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TABLE 1.4 Literary Parallels in the Babel Story

The structure of the story suggests that for every human action there is a matched divine reaction.

Human Plans (Genesis 11:1–4)

Divine Actions (Genesis 11:5–9)
One language, same vocabulary (1) One people, one language (6)
Settled there (2) Confuse language there (7)
Let us make bricks (3) Let us go down (7)
Let us build a city (4) Quit building the city (8)
Make a name (4) Called its name (9)
Lest we be scattered around the earth (4)
Yhwh scattered them around the earth (9)

God confounded their ability to communicate effectively. The people could no longer cooperate, so their building plans had to be scrapped. The result was human disunity. The word confuse used here is the seed of another pun in the original text; the Hebrew balal is a wordplay on Babel.

Perhaps there is an additional level of meaning in the text. Babel is also how the Hebrew language writes “Babylon.” With this story, we may be learning how and why Israel’s great nemesis later in its history, the Babylonian empire, got its name. This story characterizes the great Babylon, even at the very beginning of history, as an evil city that demonstrated its defiance of God by these activities.

The Tower of Babel story is a good example of how thematic analysis can be supported by literary analysis. New literary criticism, to be distinguished from classical source criticism, focuses on the structure and plot development of stories. Fokkelmann (1975) intensively studied the literary shape of the Babel episode. He shows it to have interweaving symmetrical structures, defined by repeated words and phrases. One such structure contains parallel action sets (Table 4). This is the effect of the structure: Humanity’s attempt to go up is placed alongside God’s going down. The language of the text highlights how God’s actions are a response in kind to human efforts. For everything that humanity tried to do, God had a countermeasure. This reactive nature of God seems to characterize the Yahwist epic. It portrays God as ready to respond to the problem of human sin, both negatively (curses) and positively (blessings).

In addition to thematic and literary analysis, archaeology and cultural analysis increases our understanding of the text. The “tower with its top in the heavens” was a ziggurat, a stepped, pyramid-shaped structure that typically had a temple at the top. Remains of ziggurats have been found at the sites of ancient Mesopotamian cities, including Ur and Babylon (Figure 1.8). The term ziggurat comes from the Akkadian word ziqquratu, meaning “mountain peak.” The reason why ancient Mesopotamians built ziggurats derives from their understanding of religion and the gods. In ancient times, mountains were often considered to be holy places where gods were thought to dwell. For example, Zeus dwelt on Mount Olympus, Baal on Mount Saphon, and Yhwh first on Mount Sinai and later on Mount Zion. Such mountains were thought to be contact points between heaven and earth. On the Mesopotamian plain, there were no mountains. To remedy this, the inhabitants constructed artificial ones, ziggurats. One of the most famous ancient ziggurats was Etemenanki in Babylon, completed by Nebuchadnezzar around 600 BCE. According to Babylonian religion, Babylon was built by the gods and was the dwelling

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Ur Ziggurat

FIGURE 1.8 Ur Ziggurat

This reconstruction of the ziggurat at Ur displays the stepped pyramid style with a temple at the pinnacle.

of Marduk. From there people could meet the gods. This is reflected in the authentic Akkadian name for Babylon; derived from the Babylonian phrase bab-ilu, it literally means “gate of the gods.” The Hebrew folk derivation of the name from “confuse” does not correctly reflect this true native meaning of the name Babylon.

The Babylonians believed that their capital city, through its ziggurat, gave them access to the heavens, as the meaning of the name Babylon suggests. The ziggurat itself embodied the concepts of pagan polytheism to the Israelites as it emerged in the early stages of city development in Mesopotamia (see Walton, 1995). The ziggurat represented this affront to the true God and lies somewhere behind Israel’s Tower of Babel story.

The Tower of Babel story is the Yahwist writer’s final contribution to the Primeval Story, and it ends on a sad note. As a collection, the Yhwh episodes deal with the relationship between God and humanity. Originally the relationship was close and pure. Then humans wanted to be gods themselves. This destroyed the intimacy of the divine–human relationship and had destructive effects on humanity and the larger created world. The episodes of the Yahwist core of the Primeval Story demonstrate the disastrous effects of human sin.

Go to the companion website for a collection of excavation photographs, reconstructions, and site diagrams of Mesopotamian ziggurats, as well as artistic renditions of the Tower of Babel.

3.3 Generations to Abram (11:10–32)

The genealogy of Shem, to the exclusion of Japheth and Ham, indicates that he will now carry on the line of promise. The genealogy of Terah that follows enables us to place the origin of Abraham’s clan in Ur. Both connect the Primeval Story to the family of Abraham.

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The Terah Toledot, the ten-level genealogy from Shem to Terah, completes the genealogical material of the Primeval Story and draws it to a conclusion by accounting for the origin of Abram. In fact, the genealogy consists of two toledot: the toledot of Shem (11:10) and the toledot of Terah (11:27). Insofar as the toledot of Terah is really the story of Abram, this is the real beginning of the Abraham Cycle (see RTOT Chapter 2). The editors who drew up chapter and verse divisions could have made the major break here.

The Terah genealogy locates the family originally in Ur of the Chaldeans and establishes a number of important facts and connections. First, the family left Ur and headed west, perhaps as part of the historically attested movement of the Amorites, called amurru in Mesopotamian sources. When Terah’s family came to Haran on the Euphrates, they settled there.

The story of Abram proper begins in Genesis 12. Presumably, when Yhwh commanded Abram to leave, he would have left Haran, not Ur, as later tradition has it (for example, see Acts 7:2–5 in the New Testament). Second, Terah’s family evidently had put down roots in Haran. This explains why Abram and Sarai later got a wife for Isaac from there, to keep it all in the family. Also, when Jacob fled Canaan, he went to this area, located his uncle Laban and eventually married his daughters.


When we focus on the account as a whole we see that there are structural features and themes that unite the episodes of Genesis 1–11 into a cohesive text, and we will see that they extend through the whole of Genesis. In addition, the final composition has a remarkable structural unity, developed as complementary parallel series. Chapters 1–7 tell a story of creation to destruction, and Chapters 8–11 tell a story of divine grace despite continued human willfulness. The startling conclusion of the Primeval Story is that, in the face of the postflood return of sin, humanity does not meet the same fate as before the flood, but instead God singles out Shem, blesses his line, and creates a nation through it.

4.1 Compositional Unity

Our close reading of the Primeval Story, with special attention to its vocabulary, revealed that at least two writers or two source texts contributed to the story as it now stands. This strongly suggests that, originally, separate documents were somehow combined to form the final text. The way of reading the biblical text with an eye to composition issues is called source analysis. The theory of source analysis that has longest standing in scholarship is called the documentary hypothesis. It calls the collection of Yhwh Elohim and Yhwh texts the Yahwist source, and it calls the Elohim collection of texts the Priestly source.

Of the two literary sources found in Genesis 1–11, the Yahwist source seems especially fascinated with the events of the primeval period. The Yhwh stories shaped the plot of the Primeval Story. According to the documentary hypothesis, the Yahwist narrative was written during the time of the Davidic monarchy or shortly thereafter. They primarily focus on the growth of the human race, and they demonstrate how sin dogged that development. The growth of the Davidic kingdom and the development of cultural contacts with other nations inspired Israel’s interest in stories with

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TABLE 5 Sources of the Primeval Story

Genesis 1–11

Yahwist (J)

Combined (J + P)

Priestly (P)
1:1–2:4a     World creation
2:4b–25 Creation of humanity    
3:1–24 Garden of Eden    
4:1–16; 4:17–26 Cain and Abel    
4:17–26 Cain’s generations    
5     Adam toledot
6:1–4 Sons of God    
6:5–8 Reason 1 for flood    
6:9–13     Reason 2 for flood
6:14–7:24   Flood  
8   Re-creation  
9:1–17     Covenant with Noah
9:18–27 Noah’s insobriety    
10   Table of Nations  
11:1–9 Tower of Babel    
11:10–26     Shem toledot
Terah toledot

global connections. Israel was striving to understand its place in the larger world, including its God’s relationship to other nations.

The Priestly source contributed its own versions of the creation and flood, along with some other, mostly genealogical, material. As the term priestly indicates, the authors responsible for this account were priests, presumed on the basis of indicators in the text. In addition to being spiritual leaders, they were concerned with ritual matters, including Sabbath rules and food laws. These concerns are implicit in the creation story, with its seven-day structure and clear distinctions of types of animals. The priest’s creation and flood stories do not deal with the problem of sin but present the gift of divine blessing. Furthermore, the documentary hypothesis posits an exilic Priestly editor as the one who skillfully combined the Yahwist and Priestly sources together and used genealogical material to give the chain of stories historical connectedness by inserting a variety of transitional phrases and sentences to smooth the text.

Table 5 shows that the Yahwist supplies the bulk of the account—almost everything except for the first creation story, parts of the flood story, and the covenant with Noah. For these, the Priestly writer had his own traditions, which supplement the Yahwist core narrative.

4.2 Structural Unity

The Primeval Story gives evidence of two dimensions of structural organization. One is constituted by the priestly toledot headings. There are five of them in the Primeval Story and five in the Ancestral Story (more on this in RTOT Chapter 2). Each one

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TABLE 6 Parallel Structure of Genesis 1–11


Creation to the Flood
(Ten Generations)

Re-creation to the Ancestors
(Ten Generations)
A Creation (1–2) Re-creation (8:1–9:17)
   1    Deeps (1: 2)    Deeps (8:2)
   2    Blessing (1:22)    Blessing (8:17)
   3    Mandate (1:28)    Mandate (9:1–2, 7)
   4    Food (1:29–30)    Food (9:3)
   5    Adam worked the ground (2:15)    Noah worked the ground (9:20)
B Adam and Eve ate fruit of the tree (3) Noah drank fruit of the vine (9:18–28)
   1    Fruit of the tree (3:1–7)    Wine (9:20–21)
   2    Nakedness exposed (3:7)    Nakedness viewed (9:21–23)
C Cain sinned and was cursed (4) Ham sinned and Canaan was cursed (9:25–27)
D Genealogy: Adam to Noah (5) Genealogy: Sons of Noah (10)
E Sons of God (6:1–4) Tower of Babel (11:1–9)
   1    Divine–human mix (6:1–2)    Reach heaven (11:4)
   2    Men of a name (Hebrew shem) (6:4)    Make a name (Hebrew shem) (11:4)
F Flood (6:5–7:24) Genealogy of Shem (11:10–26)
Undoing creation
God focuses on Abram and makes his name (Hebrew shem) great (12:2)

introduces a “what became of X” account. These notices are obviously headings or captions that segment the story into five main components.

A different way of organizing the episodes looks for parallels and similarities in the content of the stories. Some of the correspondences are remarkable. For example, in part one, Eve and Adam eat the forbidden fruit and thereby sin; in part two, Noah drinks from the fruit and thereby occasions sin. In part one, Cain sins and is cursed; in part two, Ham sins and Canaan (which in Hebrew, as in English, sounds much like Cain) is cursed. Genealogies also stand in parallel positions across the columns. Table 6 summarizes the parallel structural development of the Primeval Story.

An especially suggestive device is the use of the Hebrew word shem, meaning “name.” It appears to have some significance as a signal of structure. Humanity’s essential failure was in trying to make a name for itself. In each parallel series of events, the culminating offense was humanity’s attempt to become like God rather than acknowledging and accepting divine authority. Be it marriage with divine beings or a building project that gives access to heaven, they overreached and were ultimately frustrated by God.

The first attempt resulted in the flood, a destructive cleansing of the world that had become corrupted. After the second attempt, the Tower of Babel, God turned his attention to Shem, whose name in Hebrew means “name.” From his line, God took Abram and made a special covenant with him. God promised to make his name great and to make his lineage into a great nation. One lesson was

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this: The human race would achieve blessing and distinction only through divine initiative, not through its own engineering and scheming.

4.3 Theme and Genre

What is the overall intent of these stories when seen together as a whole? They tell the following tale. God created the world a perfect place. The creation, however, was distorted and corrupted by humanity’s efforts to achieve autonomy from God. God’s first response to the growing problem of sin was to wipe the slate clean with a flood and begin again with righteous Noah.

Even after the earth was uncreated and then re-created, sin was still present. Noah’s drunkenness, perhaps a sin in itself, brought out the worst in his son Ham. Just as before the flood, sin continued to spread and increase in perversity. The immensity of sin was evident in the monstrous city and tower-building project conceived by humanity. God was outraged by this project. But he did not repeat his prior attempted solution by sending another flood. Indeed, he could not. He had made a covenant through Noah that he would never again eliminate the life that he had created just because of sin. Instead, at that point, he narrowed the focus of his attention and concentrated on the line of Shem. Out of that line, he took Abram and created a people called Israel.

The true nature of sin, from first to last, was trying to become like God: by knowing good and evil (Adam and Eve), or through divine marriage (Sons of God and human women), or by ascending to heaven (Tower of Babel). Humanity was created as the image of God. But there is a vital distinction between being the image of God and being God. Humanity persistently tried to eliminate this distinction. The Ancestral Story follows next in RTOT Chapter 2 and continues the epic story line of the Primeval Story. It shows how God developed a plan to bless humanity despite their continual urge to work out their own shalom.

Tracing the structure of the story line enables us to see how individual episodes contribute to the overall meaning. It is natural, then, to ask what kind of writing this is. Does it demand that we read it as an historical record? Is its truth the truth of historical fact? Even if it was originally intended as history, do we still have to read it that way today or risk losing its value? This can be a divisive issue among people of good faith. The answer is often framed as a choice between history and myth. And each of these terms is weighted with connotations and associations.

Those who choose to classify the Primeval Story as myth do not necessarily claim that the story is untrue, even though they probably would claim it is not factual. Modern authorities do not use the term myth to denote something that is false. Rather, myth is a culture’s way of coming to grips with fundamental realities, and a culture’s myth reflects its worldview. A myth is a traditional story of supposedly real events that is told to explain a culture’s beliefs, practices, institutions, or something in nature (see Kirk, 1971). Myths are often associated with religious rituals and doctrines and often employ archetypes of creation, deity, and the hero (see Leeming, 2002). Both early cultures and modern ones have their particular myths. The cosmology of the “big bang” could be called a contemporary myth insofar as it strives to account for the universe. It remains a construct under frequent revision, even though it is backed by scientific evidence and reasoning.

Reading the Primeval Story as myth recognizes that through these episodes Israel is articulating its central affirmations about the nature of deity, the nature

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of humans and the historical process, the nature of the world as cosmos and creatures that inhabit it, and all these components in their varied and complex relationships. The narrative, in other words, defines Israel’s worldview. It is this highly integrative story that has lasting value to all those who would read and consider it.



1. Worldview. What is the Israelite understanding of God, humanity, and the cosmos as implied in Genesis 1:1–2:4a and in 2:4b–25 in both their similarities and differences?

2. Fall or maturation. What does the story of human disobedience in the garden of Eden (Genesis 3) tells us about the Israelite understanding of human nature and the human condition?

3. Mesopotamian myth. What are the similarities and differences between the Enuma Elish and the biblical stories of creation? How might they be conceptually related?

4. Flood. What is the structural and thematic importance of the biblical flood story in relation to the entire Primeval Story?

5. Babel. What is the relationship of the Tower of Babel story to previous stories of sin in Genesis 3–10, and why it is a fitting conclusion to the overall tale of disobedience told in the Primeval Story?

6. Toledot. How does the structure of the Primeval Story reveals itself through the toledot passages?

7. Literary structure. How does the first part of the Primeval Story, Chapters 1–7, parallel the second part, Chapters 8–11, in theme and structure?

8. Name. What is the thematic significance of the Hebrew word shem in the Primeval story?


1. Story and context. We have seen that the Primeval Story is a composite literary product with originally separate sources. In what ways do the Yhwh episodes, which form the epic core of the Primeval Story, reflect the presumed historical context of its writer? Likewise, how do the Elohim additions reflect their exilic context? Our modern origin stories of cosmology (the “big bang”) or stories of national origin reflect to a certain degree our understanding of ourselves (or how we would like to be). What are the similarities and the differences between our stories and the Primeval Story?

2. Creation stories. Compare and contrast the various creation stories described in this chapter: the Yhwh Elohim account in Genesis 2–3, the Elohim account in Genesis 1, and the Mesopotamian account of the Enuma Elish. What does each account say about the nature of the divine realm? What does each imply about the nature of humanity? In much the same way, our modern world tries to account for origins, and these accounts imply something about values. What does a modern scientific account of human origins, such as that found in evolutionary biology, physical anthropology, and modern medicine, imply about human nature?

3. Creation and re-creation. The Primeval Story as a whole implies that God created the world by subduing and shaping the waters of chaos. Later, humanity rebelled against God and contaminated the world. After an attempt to start over, even the “reborn” world of Noah was sinful. What does it say about God that he started over and yet never gave up trying to fashion a perfect world? What does it imply about humanity?

4. Contemporary context. What episodes of the Primeval Story were you familiar with because you had heard about them before you began your formal study of the biblical text? What details from these stories are common cultural trivia? Has your passing acquaintance with this material based on random tidbits that you have picked up in other contexts led you to expect something in these stories that is different from what you have now discovered?

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At the Start: Genesis Made New, Genesis: Translation and Commentary, and Genesis: A New Translation of the Classic Biblical Stories, are translations of the book of Genesis that are informed by recent scholarship and have a literary flair. Genesis: A Living Conversation is a ten-part video series with accompanying book in which writers and scholars explore the stories of Genesis for their experiential and moral value. The Liberating Image: The Imago Dei in Genesis 1 examines the ancient context of the image of God concept and explores its contemporary application.