How Reliable is Genesis 1-4?

Nov 23, 2002 03:00 AM EST

Nowhere is the task of the modern biblical scholar filled with more difficulties than in the first eleven chapters of Genesis. Indeed, the very subjects contained in these chapters and the admittedly long interval of time that separated the writer (or, as some have judged, the writers) from the topics discussed are more than enough to keep the researcher busy.1

The first major challenge to the reliability of these chapters came in the form of literary source criticism. What had begun as J. Astruc's "clue" in 1753 (that at least two different names for God were used in Genesis 1 and 2) ended in the full documentary theory just before the turn of the twentieth century in the works of K. H. Graf, A. Kuenen, and especially J. Wellhausen. At first it was thought that there were just two literary sources for this early material in Genesis. This was based on the two different divine names used for God, "Elohim" and "Yahweh."

As the theory grew, however, it soon became possible to speak of the J, E, D, P, L, K and S documents as sources from which the Pentateuch was written over a period of time. But all of these "sources" were purely hypothetical ones abstracted from an internal investigation of the Pentateuch. No one had ever seen a document either with these materials or labeled as any of these literary sources.

This source theory, it will be remembered, was built mainly on a Hegelian philosophy of history that claimed that reality moved dialectically, that is, in such a way that each thesis was opposed to an antithesis that resulted in a synthesis. Accordingly the agrarian mentality and way of life was set in opposition to the pastoral life just as the priestly argument for the cultus was seen as opposed to the prophetic call for justice and mercy to all. As the theory of source criticism grew, it became heavily indebted to the mid-nineteenth century of the reigning philosophy of Charles Darwin's concept of evolution.2 In this, however, it was applied to social and religious progress: everything was said to move from a simple to a more complex form of the cultus and doctrine. Both of these applications from other fields of knowledge were adopted as the basis for the system that was to have the four to seven documents listed as the sources from which the materials in all the Pentateuch were derived. Eventually, however, the philosophical undergirding of the theory of source criticism collapsed, at least in its role as the ground floor on which to built the documentary theory. Alas, few have investigated whether the second story of the documents fell intact when the first floor on which the system was built had been removed.

One or two scholars who have attempted to argue that the source documents did not survive the crash were Umberto Cassuto and Kenneth Kitchen.3 It is beyond the limits of this chapter to trace this development, but students of the Scripture are advised that study of the ancient Near Eastern documents in their original languages will be of enormous help. The key question is whether the criteria set forth for each of the alleged sources of the documentary hypothesis are trustworthy or not.4

Another challenge emerged as a result of the collection of tablets uncovered in the 1850s by the British Museum. Especially significant was the 1872 publication by George Smith of the Gilgamesh Epic, from one of the tablets from Ashurbanipal's library in Nineveh: a story about a Babylonian flood. This was followed in 1876 with a publication entitled The Chaldean Account of Creation.5

The next major contribution came in 1890 when a young American scholar named George Barton read a paper connecting the Old Testament (hereafter, OT) passages concerning Rahab, Leviathan, Lotan and the Dragon in the book of Revelation with similar representations in Babylonian myths. It was published in 1893. Barton seems to have influenced the German scholar Hermann Gunkel, for in 1895 Gunkel continued this same line of thought by pointing to a series of poetic texts in the OT where he thought he discerned a battle between Yahweh and the various sea monsters named above. That tradition, he affirmed, was the background for the creation story of Genesis, though it had been purged, naturally, for the purposes of the Hebrew monotheistic faith.

Both of these challenges had an enormous influence on the way that Genesis 1-11, in particular, was to be regarded. If these chapters were compilations of material garnered from the ancient Near East reflecting mythological motifs, albeit purged ones, then these chapters could not be relied on as a divine revelation from God. How then should one read Genesis 1-11? If its content and its sources reflected ancient Near Eastern mythologies, was it not possible that the first eleven chapters of Genesis represented a whole new genre of literary forms and structures?

As early as 1895 Hermann Gunkel took the bold step of declaring that the whole of Genesis, let alone Genesis 1-11, was not history but "legend." 6 Thus it developed that the events described in Genesis were no longer to be regarded as happenings in space and time. This was particularly true of Genesis 1-11 where a "legendary age"7 was deemed necessary as an ideal background for any history that was to follow later in the narrative of Israel. It was assumed that Genesis 1-11 reflected "a pre-literary and uncritical stage of society."

Gunkel thought he could list the differences between Genesis 1-11 and real history.

1. Genesis 1-11 originates in oral tradition while history is found in literate societies and in written documents of actual events.

2. Genesis 1-11 deals with personal and family stories while history concerns itself with great events of public interest.

3. Genesis 1-11 reflects borrowing from other ancient Near Eastern mythologies, mythologies that rest in the "imagination of the raconteurs," while history must be traced back to first-hand evidence.

4. Genesis 1-11 (and this was Gunkel's "most significant" criterion) narrates the impossible (e.g., the origin of the stars from the planets, derivation of all the streams of the earth from a single river's source, a chronology of 2,666 years from creation to the exodus, all the animals fitted into the ark, Mount Ararat as the highest mountain), whereas history narrates only what is possible.

5. Genesis 1-11 is poetic by nature and intends to delight, inspire and elevate, while history is prose that seeks to inform.

6. Genesis 1-11 is different in form from the classic example of true Hebrew historiography, 1 Samuel 9-20, where history is identical in form and style to those searching, uncomplimentary documents of David's court.

Gunkel, of course, did not limit his observations to Genesis 1-11, as we have here, for he applied them to the whole book of Genesis. Nevertheless, they can provide us with a good measuring stick as to where scholarship was at the turn of the last century. Scholarly opinion changed briefly for many students of the Bible toward the middle of the twentieth century on the reliability of the patriarchal narratives in Genesis 12-50, but little changed regarding the views of many about Genesis 1-11. The first eleven chapters of Genesis continued to be regarded as primeval history strongly reflecting its Near Eastern rootage and deeply indebted to the same mythological connections and philological associations derived from those primitive times and concepts.

If a case for the reliability of these chapters is to be mounted, surely the charges of its materials originating in oral tradition, its reflecting personal or family stories only, its dependence on imagination, its narration of the impossible, its use of the poetic form, and its absence of a searching and uncomplimentary style, must be met. Each must occupy our attention in what follows.


Readers of Genesis 1-11 are usually taken aback at first by the contents of these chapters. How did we obtain this information? That is the question that comes most immediately to the minds of most. And given the fact that there were so few around to corroborate these events, and few if any devices to record them, how can we assign any degree of trust to what these chapters say? Surely some kind of source was necessary. Every writer suggested for these materials, including Moses himself, was removed by many millennia from these events. So how did this information come into the Scriptures if it claims to be true and to represent a divine point of view? If one is to rely on oral tradition as one of the main sources for this information, what part does divine revelation play in such a process?

The case for oral tradition is difficult to maintain since there are few internal indicators that the writer was dependent on anyone's memory or verbal recollection as to what they had been told of generations already long since deceased. In fact, what few internal indicators we do have directly contradict the case for an oral tradition.8

In Genesis 5:1 the text specifically claimed that it was dependent on a "scroll" (Hebrew, sepher) as the basis for its construction of Adam's lineage. Moreover, six times in the first eleven chapters the writer appealed to some named sources that he used for the construction of these chapters. He called these sources the "accounts," "generations" or "histories" of each of the events or individuals named. The Hebrew word was toledot, a noun associated with the verb yalad, "to give birth to, to bear," and the like.

These six notices were titled as follows:

1. "The account of the heavens and the earth when they were created" (Gen 2:4).

2. "The written account of Adam's line" (Gen 5:1).

3. "The account of Noah" (Gen 6:9).

4. "The account of Shem, Ham and Japheth" (Gen 10:1).

5. "The account of Shem" (Gen 11:10).

6. "The account of Terah" (Gen 11:27).

Clearly, numbers 2-6 treat the words "account of" (or "the histories of") as rubrics, headings for the material that followed. It seems to point to where the writer derived his material. Some have argued that Genesis 2:4 was a colophon placed at the end of the section.9 That argument as to whether these references are headings or footers is not immediately relevant to our purposes. Much more important is the fact that the writer does point to sources and that one of them is explicitly called a scroll or written source of some kind. That certainly allows us to assume that one or more of the other five rubrics or colophons may also have been derived from written sources if no convincing evidence exists either in the texts or outside them to point to an oral tradition.

When the suggestion of oral sources was first made, it was presumed that even the very possibility of writing had not yet presented itself to Moses or his times. However, no contemporary scholar would start from such a premise today, now that we have documented writing as early as 3400 B.C. among the Sumerians. Not only could Moses write by the time we reach the middle of the second millennium B.C., even young boys in the community could. Not many centuries after Moses, during the days of Gideon's judgeship, Gideon caught a young boy from the town of Succoth and required that he write down the names of the seventy-seven uncooperative officials in his town (Judg 8:14). Apparently he thought that even this boy could write. And that's just what the text claims that he did.

But the arguments for oral tradition as the source of the materials in the first eleven chapters appear in more recent days to be dependent on the nature of the subjects in the texts and their alleged parallelisms with ancient mythologies rather than on any rhetorical devices or rubrics in the text of Genesis itself. In that case, we shall need to delay a full examination of this claim until we can take that matter up in more detail later in this chapter.


The question that arises is this: how can divine revelation for the whole human race be intended when the stories are so limited or the families of such small scope? Are not these stories unworthy of the transnational identity of the God of Scriptures?

Gunkel applied this characteristic more to the patriarchal narratives, yet even there he could not have predicted the enormous number of tablets that the patriarchal era of approximately 2000 to 1750 B.C. have produced since the days when he wrote. This era has become one of the best known and best documented periods of history due to the chance find of literally hundreds of thousands of epigraphical materials from the Hittites, Babylonians and Egyptians, and from the peoples of places like Alalakh, Nuzi and Mari.10 What was documented in this era includes precisely those types of idiosyncrasies that were recorded about the patriarchs.

Gunkel's criterion for what is historical calls for events that are of greater public interest than these family stories. It is a criterion that is imposed on the text. If the history one wishes to follow has its roots in a family and its humble origins, by what legitimate device can it be ruled out of order?

Of course the stories throughout Genesis dealt more frequently with family and personal narratives, but that was only to be expected given the emphasis of the Bible. God's plan was to work through individuals and families in order to bring deliverance that would have great public interest. It was the reverse strategy that would be observed in the normal pattern of world history, for there the emphasis falls on the great public and political events of nations that affect multitudes of persons. But God's order was just the opposite. He purposely and decisively went against what would be the normal line of history among mortals and began instead with individuals and families.

One family story was the Cain and Abel encounter in Genesis 4. One of the reasons why many have not been able to view this as a real happening in space and time is because of what some regarded as its Sumerian source in the contest of Dumuzi, the shepherd-god, and Enkimdu, the farmer-god. Since this Sumerian myth represented the clash of the interest of the farmers with those of the shepherds, it was felt that perhaps that is what lay behind the struggle of Cain and Abel.

But the whole equation of Cain and Abel with Dumuzi and Enkimdu is, as Nahum Sarna concluded, "extremely flimsy."11 The Sumerian myth has Inanna (the same goddess as Ishtar) preferring the hand of the farmer-god, Enkimdu, in marriage rather than that of Dumuzi the shepherd-god. Meanwhile, Inanna's brother, the sun-god Utu, preferred the shepherd-god; but Inanna held firm for Enkimdu, who later appeased the loser, Dumuzi, with all kinds of gifts.12

The Sumerian myth just does not serve as a source or as a background for understanding Genesis 4. Sarna also pointed out that the biblical text never disparaged the occupation of farming, let alone evaluated the two occupations against each other. The contrast in Genesis was on the quality of the men and their heart attitudes and not on their occupations. Nor is anything said of a marriage or of appeasing the loser. On the contrary, Sarna observed that the chapter in Genesis went on to enumerate just those skills which are generally connected with a pastoral lifestyle and placed these in the line of the farmer Cain, adding to agriculture the cultures of cattle-rearing, music and metallurgy.

Genesis 1-11 did include some of the family and personal episodes such as those of Cain and Abel, Adam and Eve, and Noah and his family. But they were selected not for the episodic value of their lives, but for the wider public implications of what they did and what happened to them. All attempts to locate Near Eastern parallel traditions as sources that lie behind these materials, with the suggestion that these must not have been real happenings, must remain speculative and conjectural at best.


The charge that Genesis 1-11 is derivative of other mythologies is a hard one to deal with, since it depends on so many subjective criteria-even more than those we have already dealt with. We shall assume for the purposes of our discussion that what was intended here were references to certain alleged mythological motifs in the text.

One of the earliest candidates as a source for such borrowing was the struggle between the chief deity of a region and the chaos monster. In Genesis it was said that the conflict was between Yahweh and the "deep," Hebrew tehom. Now tehom, the "deep," was thought by most scholars to be a somewhat purged reference to Tiamat. In the Babylonian epic of creation, called the Enuma Elish ("When above..."), the chief god to emerge in Babylon, Marduk, slew the dragon Tiamat, a personification of the sea and watery depths. He sliced her in half and fashioned one half of her into the "sky" with its "upper sea," while with the other half he formed the "lower sea" on which he rested the earth.13

Nowhere have scholars banked more heavily on the equation of one word, "the deep," for linking a Genesis story with a Babylonian background. Ever since Gunkel argued in 1895 that tehom, "deep, ocean, sea," in Genesis 1:2 retained vestiges of Babylonian mythology, it has been popular to claim that there was a direct relationship between tehom and the Babylonian goddess Tiamat.14 Typical of the canonical status that this discussion has reached is the statement by Sidney H. Hooke. He alleged that "The Hebrew word used for the chaos of waters, 'the deep' is tehom, a word generally acknowledged to be a Hebrew corruption of the name of the chaos-dragon slain by Marduk before he proceeded to create order out of chaos."15 But Hooke's statement can be multiplied in almost every manual on the OT that appeared just after the middle of the last century. One of the most popular writers, Bernhard W. Anderson, wrote in his much used Understanding the Old Testament that "the Hebrew word for 'deep' (tehom) is equivalent to the Babylonian word for Tiamat; here we have a distant echo of the mythology of the ancient world."16 There were many others who joined in the chorus, but the point always was the same: the Genesis creation story had to be derived from mythological sources due to the philological similarities between "deep" and Babylonian Tiamat.17

The difficulty with borrowing a feminine Babylonian word and bringing it over into Hebrew unaugmented by any sufformative elements, and locating a guttural letter "h" (Hebrew he) in the middle of the word, has never been explained, argued Alexander Heidel as long ago as 1951.18 However, Heidel's careful work is seldom answered or factored into the more pervasive allegiance to the view that tehom is derived from Babylonian Tiamat. Kenneth Kitchen added his voice to Heidel's when he observed that the equation of these two terms was a "complete fallacy."19 Kitchen went on to note that the rule in the ancient Near East was to build legends and myths out of simple accounts and traditions, by way of accretion and embellishment, rather than the other way around. Accordingly, one need only remember that tehom shares a common Semitic root that also appears in the Canaanite texts from Ugarit as thm, meaning "sea" or the like, as early as the second millennium B.C.

Nahum Sarna had attempted to mount a response to Heidel's complaint by noting that: (1) while tehom is not feminine in grammatical form, it does frequently employ a feminine verb or adjective, (2) tehom has the characteristics of a proper name in that it is used without the definite article, and (3) Genesis 19:25; Deuteronomy 33:13 and Habakkuk 3:10 place tehom in poetic address and have tehom "crouching" and "crying out." However, John Skinner had anticipated all three arguments when he had previously noted that (1) tehom is "confined to poetry (except Gen 1:2; 7:11; 8:2; Deut 8:7; Amos 7:4)"; (2) the invariable absence of the definite article (except with the plural in Ps 106:9 and Is 63:13) may point to the fact that it is a proper name, but not that it is a personification; and (3) the admittedly clear references to personification are in the poetic passages of Genesis 49:25 and Deuteronomy 33:13.20

One more argument might be added here, since this equation of the "deep" with Tiamat is the anchor on which so much of the case for Babylonian borrowing for the creation story in the Bible hangs. Canaan is the more natural environmental context from which any contest with the sea (the god Marduk or Yam) or sea goddess might arise because of its proximity to the Mediterranean Sea. Indeed, Thorkild Jacobsen had argued that Marduk means "son of the storm"; therefore his conflict with Tiamat was a battle with the elements: the god of the storm, rain, lightning and thunder versus the goddess of the sea. That is the same myth that arose in the middle of the second millennium in Canaan in the Ugaritic myth of Baal versus Yam, "sea." Thus, it is now a question as to who borrowed from whom? Jacobsen concluded that the myth originally arose in Canaan and the borrowing was just the reverse of what we had always envisioned in scholarship: the east Semite Babylonians had borrowed it from the west Semites of Canaan. Moreover, this would make more philological sense assuming that Babylonian tiamat came from tihamatum, whereas the reverse process raised all the philological objections we have already heard.21 It was J. V. Kinnier Wilson who finally put the whole issue into perspective when he warned: "The theory that Hebrew Genesis is genetically related to the Babylonian has long been held... and has relied to a large extent on the much publicized equation of Tiamat with the Hebrew tehom, 'the deep.' It is now, however, recognized that since the two words have different meanings... it is of no importance whether they are etymologically connected or not.... [T]he epic has no connections of any kind or at any point with Genesis."22 That has not stopped the shibboleth from still being repeated as can be seen in Lloyd R. Bailey's 1993 work entitled Genesis, Creation and Creationism. He still describes the "lower sea," or the bottom half of Tiamat as "the OT tehom, 'Deep.' "23 But the equation is now dead and so is the assumption that it is solid evidence for a Babylonian source for the Genesis creation story. The concept of a personified Tiamat who is a mythical antagonist to Marduk never even comes close to being behind the notion of tehom in Genesis 1:2. Instead, tehom is just part of God's creation, inanimate, unpersonified and nonresistant to God's work of creating.

Another example of the use of borrowing as the source of some of the materials in Genesis is the verb "brood" in Genesis 1:2. This word, Gunkel argued, lent support to the theory that the Hebrew writer was indebted to the Phoenicians at this point, for they held that the world came about after the cosmic egg was hatched. Thus, it was claimed, the Spirit brooded over the world egg in order to hatch it.

But it turns out that the very root used here, rhp, does occur in Ugaritic, a close cognate language with Hebrew, where it has the same meaning as it does in Deuteronomy 32:11. There the eagles "hover, flutter, or coast" in the air caring for the young eaglets as they learn to fly. The same imagery is used of God caring for the forming of the earth. There is no possible attachment to a Phoenician myth about a world egg, and therefore it is another dubious example of the writer's borrowing from other Near Eastern myths to depict what he wanted to say.

Others have pointed to the "Tannin" that appeared on the fifth day of creation in Genesis 1:20-21 as being parallel to the "Dragon" (Ugaritic tnn) that the goddess Anath muzzled along with the other monsters like Yam ("sea"), Nahar ("river"), Lotan and Leviathan. But again, the case for Tannin being a proper name collapses, for in seven of its thirteen uses in the OT, the term simply refers to an animal: a crocodile or a similar big water animal without any mythological overtones.24 Instead, the tanninim are creatures of God in Genesis 1:21 and Psalm 148:7. They do not possess mythical powers; in fact, that may be why the Hebrew verb bara, "to create" (always out of nothing; for there is never any agency of material used in connection with bara) is used for only the second time in the creation narrative: as a polemic against any inferences that such creatures were preexistent rivals of the creator. Tanninim is a generic term for large water creatures in contrast to the term "swarming" aquatic creatures, which probably represents all the small water creatures. God created both the large and the small water creatures, just as Psalm 104:25-26 will later also affirm.

Even the creation of the luminaries contains a similar protest against pagan mythologies in that the writer of Genesis never names the "sun" and "moon" by name, but calls them by the names of the "greater light" and "lesser light" (Gen 1:16). The function assigned to these lights was to give light and to rule the day and the night, but it was not to rule the other astral bodies or astral deities as it appeared in the mythologies of the ancient Near East. As von Rad concluded, "the entire passage vv. 14-19 breathes a strong anti-mythical pathos."25

Some think that the best illustration of Hebrew borrowing from Babylonian mythologies is to be found in the bird episode (the sending out of the birds from the ark) of the Babylonian flood story called the Gilgamesh Epic. But the scholarly community is beholden to W. G. Lambert for his masterful article on the Babylonian background to Genesis, for he began by re-evaluating the dates of our alleged prototypes in Sumer and Babylon. An interesting development occurred: the Sumerian prototype dated from about 1800 B.C., but it made no mention of the sending out of the birds from the boat. There is an incomplete copy of the earliest known Babylonian text from around 1600 B.C., but to date, however, it too lacks any reference to the episode with the birds and that which scholars had always judged to be the most telling mark of dependency of all. Thus, the only surviving testimony to this the most telling parallel part of the account of the flood is dated later than the biblical account. Nevertheless, Lambert still resolutely held that in spite of this disappointing fact, there was a "certain dependency of the Hebrew writers on a Mesopotamian tradition."26

Apparently, then, no copies of the Babylonian flood story contained a reference to this, the most telling parallel, earlier than 750 B.C. Surely, this seriously weakens the case for Hebrew borrowing from the Babylonians for the story of the flood. It would be just as plausible, if not more so (given the fact that one of the closest parallels showed up later than the projected borrower's text), to say that both stories are a reflex of a real event in history, or that both are dependent on a source common to both.27

Gunkel's case for borrowing of even purged mythologies continues to be difficult to sustain when the evidence is put under very close scrutiny. This criterion that argues for borrowing rather than reflections of first-hand evidence cannot be expected to carry the weight it has been assigned by modernity.


Before taking up the final three criteria suggested by Gunkel, which are long and detailed, it is important to take time to assess what has been argued so far. First, writing originated much earlier than most had at one time assumed. Therefore, all judgments about preliterate societies mentioned in Genesis 1-11 must be thoroughly revised.

The text decidedly points to the fact that it was dependent on sources. Some, if not most, of these sources were written. Hence, the fact that the events concern themselves only with family events is not a fact that removes its significance from those events that have public and international interest, especially if families were the main units of those whose accounts were being featured.

The major attempts to derive the events or accounts of Genesis 1-11 from other ancient Near Eastern sources have not measured up to the linguistic demands placed on the texts. One must be loath to attribute the results in Genesis as the work of more fertile imaginations than as a sample of reality and real public events such as they were for the limited race of humanity at that time.

The text of Genesis 1-11 must still be presumed to be innocent until it is definitely proven guilty by external evidence. That is the challenge of the reliability tests proposed here.

By Walter Kaiser