Genesis and History – an Excerpt from Ancient Israel’s History

The following is an excerpt from Ancient Israel’s History, edited by Bill Arnold and Richard Hess.

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The first book of the Bible presents several challenges when approached from the perspective of history and historiography. First and foremost among those problems is that the opening chapters describe characters and events in a world dramatically different from our own: a world with talking serpents, with life before cities, before agriculture, before music or metallurgy; a world in which humans were unified with one language; and more.

We cannot begin to locate these characters and events in a particular time or place, which is, of course, one of the tasks of any study of history. These chapters are, in fact, presented from a perspective before history, if we assume that history is properly understood as a time when humans began to write accounts of the past (a definition that itself is difficult to refine). And so we will need to start by asking how these materials in the early chapters of Genesis may be examined, or even if they may be examined at all, from the perspective of history and historiography.

Second, and closely related to this first challenge, is the realization that the genre or type of literature that we find in the book of Genesis is unlike others, with its own subset of characteristics raising numerous questions when examined, again, from the perspective of history and historiography. We will need to explore the specific characteristics and qualities of these literary types and how exactly they speak to issues of history, or whether they in fact speak to issues of history at all. And as we will see, these distinctive literary features relate to the ancestral accounts of Genesis 12–50 as much as they do to the so-called Primeval History of Genesis 1–11.

Third, in the case of Genesis we are left with even less evidence from the ancient Near East than usual when studying the Old Testament and its parallels with the surrounding environment. We famously have literary parallels in creation accounts (especially from Mesopotamia), comparative materials in creation concepts (including from Egypt), and cultural features from the ancient world that are suggestive as parallels to certain elements in the ancestral narratives. But in terms of archaeological context, or extrabiblical confirmation of the characters and events of Genesis, we are left completely without trace.

©2014 by Bill T. Arnold and Richard S. Hess. Published by Baker Academic. Unauthorized use of this material without express written permission is strictly prohibited.

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