Category Archives: Genesis


On Not Reading the Bible Too Seriously — As Its Authors Intended

by Neil Godfrey

My reflections on reading the story of Abraham setting out to sacrifice Isaac as a children’s story brought to mind a more mature understanding of the Bible’s narratives discussed by in The Mythic Past: Biblical Archaeology and the Myth of Israel by Thomas L. Thompson. (The same book is published under the title The Bible in history : How Writers Create a Past, so don’t be fooled and buy both books like I did!)

Most Christians and Jews do read the story of the “Binding of Isaac” or Akedah as it’s more technically called correctly, though perhaps not always realising it. What I mean is that most readers do not really take it literally with all its psychological horror. Most readers, correctly at the story level and as the narrator evidently intended, admire Abraham for his faithfulness and obedience. The problem, the horror, descends only when we treat it as literal history and a genuine account of a real God, and give our minds over to that same God.

Here are some of Thomas L. Thompson’s more realistic explanation of the story. By realistic I mean reading it the way the narrator presented it and no more.

The first reference comes as a comparison with the story of Saul who fails God’s test by sparing the lives of the cattle after killing the enemy soldiers. read more »


Rendsburg on Genesis and Gilgamesh: Misunderstanding and Misrepresenting the Documentary Hypothesis (Part 1)

by Tim Widowfield
Landscape with Noah's Thank Offering (painting...

Landscape with Noah’s Thank Offering (painting circa 1803 by Joseph Anton Koch) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Doubting the Documentary Hypothesis

Back in October of last year I mentioned that I wanted at some point in the future to take a more detailed look at Gary Rendsburg’s audio course on Genesis, with special emphasis on the Documentary Hypothesis (DH). As you recall, Rendsburg doubts many of the claims advanced by DH scholars, especially Julius Wellhausen.

While he would grant the existence of another tradition behind the book of Leviticus (i.e., the Priestly or P source), as well as behind the book of Deuteronomy (i.e., the Deuteronomist, D), Rendsburg rejects the idea of trying to separate sources in the book of Genesis. He prefers to understand the text as a unified whole.

As with many DH-doubters, Rendsburg reserves a special level of skepticism (if not outright disdain) for the notion that two separate sources comprise the story of the Great Flood (Gen. 6-9). In his 2004 article, “The Biblical Flood Story in the Light of the Gilgameš Flood Account” (in the pricey Gilgameš and the World of Assyria), Rendsburg insists that we cannot split the story into the supposed P and J (i.e., Jahwist or Yahwist) sources, because:

If one reads the two stories as separate entities, one will find that elements of a whole story are missing from either the J or the P version. Only when read as a whole does Genesis 6-8 read as a complete story, and — here is the most important point I wish to make — not only as a complete story, but as a narrative paralleling perfectly the Babylonian flood story tradition recorded in Gilgameš Tablet XI, point by point, and in the same order. (Rendsburg, 2004, p. 115)

He finds the very idea worthy of derision.

That is to say, according to the dominant view of biblical scholars, we are supposed to believe that two separate authors wrote two separate accounts of Noah and the flood, and that neither of them included all the elements found in the Gilgameš Epic, but that when the two were interwoven by the redactor, voilà, the story paralleled the Gilgameš flood story point-by-point, feature-by-feature, element-by-element. (Rendsburg, 2004, p. 116, emphasis mine)

Rendsburg unwittingly provides an object lesson in how conservative scholars habitually misunderstand and misrepresent the DH. In this and subsequent posts we’ll look at his thesis, as he put it, point by point.

Two sources: separate and complete?

Prof. Rendsburg makes the common mistake of assuming Wellhausen believed that the flood story in Genesis could be separated into two complete sources. But, in fact, he said no such thing.

read more »


Castration of Ouranos and the Drunkenness of Noah

by Neil Godfrey

cronos-003This post complements my previous one about the Ham “seeing his father’s nakedness” story developing in three stages:

  1. Originally the story was an adaption of the myths of the youngest son castrating his father (the motive: to maintain an inheritance)
  2. Then it was more delicately shifted to a story of illicit sex
  3. And finally most bashfully of all the story left readers wondering if all Ham did was “have a look”.

Philippe Wajdenbaum (whose book, Argonauts of the Desert: Structural Analysis of the Hebrew Bible, I have discussed a few times before) gives a more detailed comparison between the Ham-Noah narrative and the Greek myth.

Recall that a number of scholars — Wajdenbaum among them — argue that Genesis was written relatively late, even as late as the second century by which time the Greeks had spread throughout the Near East. Such a late date opens a window for another perspective on how the story found its way into the Bible.

First recap the Genesis narrative — Genesis 9:20-27 (KJV)

20 And Noah began to be a farmer, and he planted a vineyard. 21 Then he drank of the wine and was drunk, and became uncovered in his tent. 22 And Ham, the father of Canaan, saw the nakedness of his father, and told his two brothers outside. 23 But Shem and Japheth took a garment, laid it on both their shoulders, and went backward and covered the nakedness of their father. Their faces were turned away, and they did not see their father’s nakedness.

24 So Noah awoke from his wine, and knew what his younger son had done to him. 25 Then he said:

Cursed be Canaan;
A servant of servants
He shall be to his brethren.”

26 And he said:

“Blessed be the Lord,
The God of Shem,
And may Canaan be his servant.
27 May God enlarge Japheth,
And may he dwell in the tents of Shem;
And may Canaan be his servant.”

Japheth is to be enlarged. That is, expanded — even into the tents of Shem. Hence the argument that this prophecy reflects a time after Alexander the Great’s conquests and the Hellenization of the Near East.

Greeks migrated everywhere -- the dark green and more. Map from

Greeks migrated everywhere — the dark green and more. Map from

Now we have more justification to compare the Greek myth as found in Hesiod’s Theogony. (I suspect Avigdor Shinan and Yair Zakovitch, our authors discussed in the previous post, were less enthusiastic about the comparison with the Greek version of the myth if they embrace a more traditional date for Genesis.)

Here is Hesiod’s account of the birth of the youngest son who was destined to castrate his father, Uranus (Heaven), and his older brother Iapetus:

read more »


What Did Ham Do to Noah?

by Neil Godfrey

Ksenophontov_noahNow for something light. It comes from a book by two professors at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Avigdor Shinan and Yair Zakovitch, titled From Gods to God: How the Hebrew Bible Debunked, Suppressed, or Changed Ancient Myths & Legends, published 2004 by the Jewish Publication Society. Chapter 14 explores the curious episode that led a hungover Noah to curse Canaan, the fourth son of Ham.

We know the story in all its vagueness. After the flood Noah became the first in the new world order to plant a vineyard, to make wine, and to get blind drunk. We read that while drunk the good saint

was uncovered in his tent. And Ham, the father of Canaan, saw the nakedness of his father, and told his two brethren without.

And Shem and Japheth took a garment, and laid it upon both their shoulders, and went backward, and covered the nakedness of their father; and their faces were backward, and they saw not their father’s nakedness. (Gen. 9:22-23)

So we are being told that there is something so terrible about seeing one’s father naked that it needs to be recorded in the Bible for all posterity to read.

But look at the punishment that follows:

And Noah awoke from his wine, and knew what his younger son had done unto him.

And he said, Cursed be Ham Canaan; a servant of servants shall he be unto his brethren. . . . (9:24-25)

I added and crossed out Ham there to draw attention to the bizarre detail that it was not Ham, Noah’s younger son who saw him naked, who is cursed, but Ham’s son. And not just any son, but his fourth son:

And the sons of Ham: Cush, and Mizraim, and Phut, and Canaan. (Gen. 10:6)

The mystery thickens.

Now many of us savvy sophisticates know that when the Bible speaks of “seeing the nakedness” of someone it is euphemism for having sex. Leviticus 20:17 leaves no doubt:

If a man takes his sister, his father’s daughter or his mother’s daughter, and sees her nakedness and she sees his nakedness, it is a wicked thing. And they shall be cut off in the sight of their people. He has uncovered his sister’s nakedness. He shall bear his guilt.

So this makes a bit more sense than Ham merely peeping at his naked father. Noah did, after all, know what Ham had “done unto him”. That’s a bit stronger than having a peek.

But that still doesn’t explain everything. Why did Noah curse Canaan, Ham’s fourth son?

read more »


Rendsburg on Genesis and Gilgamesh: How Our Focus on the Bible Can Distort Our View of the Past

by Tim Widowfield

“The Book of Genesis”

An angel prevents the sacrifice of Isaac. Abra...

An angel prevents the sacrifice of Isaac. Abraham and Isaac, Rembrandt, 1634 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Recently, Gary Rendsburg’s audio course on Genesis became available at the The Great Courses web site for just $29.95, and I couldn’t resist. In future posts I would like to review this series of lectures more completely, but for now let me just say that it’s pretty good — especially with respect to internal literary analysis — but it does have some serious problems.

Professor Rendsburg, a self-confessed maximalist who believes Abraham was a historical figure and rejects the Documentary Hypothesis (DH), does acknowledge that many of his positions are not currently the consensus viewpoints, but he does an inadequate job of presenting other viewpoints. I don’t criticize him for holding contrary opinions. After all, this is Vridar. But if a lecturer is going to discuss minimalism or the DH, then he or she should at least present them fully and correctly.

Through a glass, darkly

As I said, I want take a more detailed look at Rendsburg’s course in the future, with special emphasis on the DH. However, this post is about something else altogether: namely, the way scholars steeped in either the Old Testament (or Hebrew Bible, if you prefer) or the New Testament seem to have a limited, if not skewed, understanding of the surrounding contemporaneous world.

We should of course err on the side of forgiveness, say, when a New Testament scholar expresses surprise on discovering that for many decades people have theorized that Shakespeare didn’t write the plays or the sonnets. Sure, you thought everybody knew that, but it isn’t his bailiwick. And if that same NT scholar thinks the DH can be proved by comparing variations of the divine name in the Psalms, well even there we could make excuses (but I won’t), since the OT is also not his within his realm of expertise.

However, we cannot countenance the lack of knowledge when it comes to the surrounding cultures of the subject matter that an academic claims to know on a professional, scholarly level. If you assert that you know how the ancient Hebrews or Israelites compared to their neighbors, then you’d better understand those other cultures as well as possible.

Immortality: The “ultimate quest”?

Specifically, how much emphasis did the religions of the Ancient Near East place on the attainment of eternal life? According to Rendsburg:

read more »


Making of a Mythicist, Act 3, Scene 2 (Discovering the Crucial Bridge) — With a note on “Parallelomania”

by Neil Godfrey

Zemanta Related Posts ThumbnailContinuing Thomas Brodie’s Beyond the Quest for the Historical Jesus: Memoir of a Discovery

This post follows on from my earlier one on Chapter 8 where Brodie is beginning to appreciate the nature the literary artistry of the biblical books.

Chapter 9

The Third Revolution Deepens: 1992-1995


Reminder: This series is skipping over many of the personal details related to Thomas Brodie’s intellectual odyssey. It also needs to be kept in mind that generally this book does not present Brodie’s detailed arguments but rather traces how his understanding of the nature and origins of the Biblical literature emerged.

If a Jesus narrative were based on the Elijah-Elisha story (see “That Is An Important Thesis“) one had to ask why. Would not the story of Moses or David have been more appropriate as a model? This question perplexed Brodie until his further studies on Genesis opened up a new awareness of the nature of the biblical literature. But let’s digress a moment to consider an objection that has on some theologian’s blogsites recently been flung at Brodie’s arguments since he has claimed they lead to a “mythicist” conclusion.

Parallelomania: the facts

“Parallelomania” has once again been flung as a dismissive epithet by a number of theologians and religion scholars at Christ myth arguments in general and Thomas Brodie’s arguments in particular, so it is worth taking a moment to revisit the article that introduced the notorious notion of “Parallelomania”. It can be read on this page; I have taken excerpts from it in the following discussion.

Samuel Sandmel

Samuel Sandmel

I don’t think James McGrath has ever had the time to read that article that he invites others to read. If he had, he would know that its author (Samuel Sandmel) points out that by “parallelomania” he means plucking passages from the vast array of, say, rabbinical literature or from a work of Philo’s out of their broader contexts and using them (thus decontextualized) to claim they have some direct relevance to similar sounding passages in the New Testament. That is not what what Brodie is doing. Sandmel even explains that the sort of detailed analysis done by Brodie to explore questions of literary indebtedness is indeed justified and is not to be confused with something else that he is addressing.

The key word in my essay is extravagance. I am not denying that literary parallels and literary influence, in the form of source and derivation, exist. I am not seeking to discourage the study of these parallels, but, especially in the case of the Qumran documents, to encourage them. . . . .

An important consideration is the difference between an abstract position on the one hand and the specific application on the other. . . . . it is in the detailed study rather than in the abstract statement that there can emerge persuasive bases for judgment. . . . . The issue for the student is not the abstraction but the specific. Detailed study is the criterion, and the detailed study ought to respect the context and not be limited to juxtaposing mere excerpts. Two passages may sound the same in splendid isolation from their context, but when seen in context reflect difference rather than similarity.

Note the problem with taking excerpts from a corpus of literature and using them as parallels with something else. This results in

confusing a scrutiny of excerpts with a genuine comprehension of the tone, texture, and import of a literature.

In Brodie’s analyses, on the other hand, it is as much the tone, texture and import of the respective documents that is being analysed as the individual words and phrases.

One of the greatest sins of “parallelomania” is

the excessive piling up of . . . passages. Nowhere else in scholarly literature is quantity so confused for quality . . . . The mere abundance of so-called parallels is its own distortion . . . .

I recently posted chapter 7 of Brodie’s book to demonstrate that Brodie does not make his case by a mere piling up of matching words or ideas. The structure, the theme, the context, the motivation — these are all part of Brodie’s argument.

Finally, the crowning sin of parallelomania is one that I not too long ago identified in the work of historian Michael Grant about Jesus. I’ll first quote Sandmel:

On the one hand, they quote the rabbinic literature endlessly to clarify the NT. Yet even where Jesus and the rabbis seem to say identically the same thing, Strack-Billerbeck manage to demonstrate that what Jesus said was finer and better. . . . . Why, I must ask, pile up the alleged parallels, if the end result is to show a forced, artificial, and untenable distinction even within the admitted parallels?

Grant followed many theologians who insist that though the golden rule was known in some form among the rabbis (and in other civilizations), Jesus expressed it better than anyone else.

Sandmel’s article on “parallelomania” is actually an endorsement of the sort of work being done by scholars who work seriously on literary analysis of texts and a warning against the sins found too often among the mainstream scholars. Unfortunately some theologians, McGrath included in his Burial of Jesus, are on record as saying that literary analysis has no place in the work of historical inquiry. On the contrary, without literary analysis the historian has no way of knowing how to interpret literary documents.

It is that very detailed study that Sandmel said is necessary, and the study of the context, both immediate context and the wider cultural context of literary practices of the day, that Brodie is undertaking. He is not plucking passages out of context from disparate sources and making an abstract claim that they can be read as a “parallel” to, and by implication source of, what we read in the gospels. (Such “extravagance” is the characteristic fault of “astrotheology”, but not of the scholarly work of Brodie and MacDonald.)

This is not the same as saying that MacDonald’s and Brodie’s arguments are necessarily correct. They still need to be studied and engaged with. There may be alternative explanations for some of the data they have addressed and believe points to literary borrowing. But it is not particularly scholarly to simply reject an argument one does not like by dismissing it with a pejorative label.

Now back to Beyond the Quest read more »


The Genesis Creation Story and its Third Century Hellenistic Source?

by Neil Godfrey
Tiamat on a Babylonian cylinder seal Nederland...

Tiamat on a Babylonian cylinder seal Nederlands: Tiamat (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The influences of Mesopotamian creation stories in Genesis are clear. But how those stories came to be re-written for the Bible is less clear. Russell E. Gmirkin sets out two possibilities in Berossus and Genesis, Manetho and Exodus: Hellenistic Histories and the Date of the Pentateuch:

The traditional Documentary Hypothesis view:

Around 1400 BCE the well-known Babylonian Epic of Creation, Enûm Elish, the Epic of Gilgamesh and other stories found their way through Syria and into the Levant where the Canaanites preserved them as oral traditions for centuries until the Israelites learned of them. Then around the tenth or ninth centuries these Israelites incorporated some of those myths into an early version of Genesis (known as J in the Documentary Hypothesis).

About four centuries later, around the fifth century, the authors of that layer of the Bible known as P took quite independently orally preserved overlapping Mesopotamian legends and used them to add additional details from those myths that had been preserved by the Jews orally throughout to the J stories.

Now one remarkable aspect of this scenario (accounting for the Mesopotamian legends underlying Genesis 1-11) that has been pointed out by Russell Gmirkin is that though they had been preserved orally for centuries by the Canaanites, in Genesis they are completely free from any evidence of Canaanite accretions. This should be a worry, says Gmirkin, because Canaanite influences are found throughout the rest of the Bible.

Gmirkin suggests that this traditional model of how the Babylonian legends came to be adapted in the Genesis narrative is strained, so he proposes an alternative.

The author/s of Genesis 1-11 borrowed directly from the early third century (278 BCE) Babyloniaca of the Babylonian priest Berossus. The sources for this work show that Berossus himself drew upon the Babylonian epics of Creation and Gilgamesh, and Gmirkin argues that some of his additions and interpretations found their way into Genesis. Moroever, the Epic of Creation that resonates in Genesis, the Enûm Elish, was quite unlike other Babylonian creation myths:

  • the standard Babylonian myth of creation (e.g. Atrahasis Epic, Enki and Ninmeh) began with earth, not with waters;
  • Enûm Elish was specifically associated with the cult of Marduk, localized in Babylon — its purpose was to explain why the Babylonian patron god, Marduk, had been promoted over the other gods.

Note also:

  • during the late Babylonian period and Seleucid times, the Enûm Elish likely increased in significance, but was still only recited in Babylon’s New Year Festival;
  • Berossus was himself a priest of Bel-Marduk in Babylon at this period. For Berossus, the Enûm Elish would have been the definitive creation epic.

The Enûm Elish was very likely unknown beyond the region of Babylonia until Berossus himself drew attention to its narrative for his wider Greek audience. Gmirkin believes the simplest explanation for the Enûm Elish’s traces in Genesis is that they were relayed through Berossus’s Babyloniaca.

Here is a table comparing the details of the Genesis Creation with those found in the Babylonian Creation Epic and in Berossus’s third century work: read more »


Genesis myths inspired by Plato?

by Neil Godfrey
Plato ponders the Legend of Atlantis
Image by vintagedept via Flickr

There was an interesting article in the Scandinavian Journal of the Old Testament in 2007 by Lukas Niesiolowski-Spano (LN-S) of Warsaw University titled “Primeval History in the Persian Period?” (SJOT, Vol.21, no. 12, 106-126, 2007). The paper was first presented at the Seminar of Historical Methodology in Groningen, The Netherlands, 2004.

The Genesis creation stories are unlike other ancient Middle Eastern myths. LN-S refers to the “unparalleled character of the Primeval History in its Near Eastern environment”, and attributes this to the influence of Platonic philosophy in their making.

The assumption throughout the discussion is that no text can be dated earlier than external testimony permits. Genesis, in particular its first two chapters, cannot be dated any earlier than when we find other texts making reference to them. In other words, normal practical historical methodology that applies to any nonbiblical study is followed. Dr LN-S is a lecturer in the Department of Ancient History at the University of Warsaw.

I begin here with some evidence for the earliest knowledge of Genesis, though LN-S really adds this at the end of his article. (I have colour coded some of the following sections to make for easier browsing of the main thought sections I have taken from LN-S’s article.)

What is the earliest evidence for Genesis? read more »