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The MOST Theological Collection: Basic Scripture

"Chapter 9: The Book of Genesis"


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Our first move is to try to determine the literary genre of Genesis. Here we clearly must distinguish between chapters 1-11 and the rest of Genesis.

We have already seen in chapter 3, in answering objections, the statement of Pius XII on Genesis 1-11, that Genesis 1-11 is in a genre that pertains to history in some way, without being the same as the pattern used by Greek and Roman or modern historians. We saw too that John Paul II called the genre "myth", but explained he did not mean a mere fairy tale, but meant an ancient story devised to bring out some things that really happened.

We saw too the remarkable statement of 160 major scientists that the form of evolution proposed by Darwin was false, since the fossil record simply did not support it. They proposed instead an unsupported supposition of "punctuated equilibria" that is, that a species might stay the same for millions of years, and then by a sudden fluke, leap up to something much higher in the same category.

It is good to add some modern scientific work that bears on polygenism - the theory that our race came from more than one pair. Pius XII, in Humani generis in 1951 after saying that we may consider evolution provided it is not atheistic, added that we are not so free about polygenism "since it is by no means clear how such a view could be reconciled with what the sources of revelation and the actions of the Magisterium tell us about original sin, which comes from a sin really committed by one Adam, and which is passed on to all by generation, and is within each one as his own" (DS 3897). On reading these words, some say that polygenism is completely ruled out. Others, who mean to be loyal to the Church, notice the Pope said we may not hold polygenism since it is by no means clear how it can fit with Scripture and the Magisterium. They notice - what is true - that papal texts are framed with extreme care. And they say that the Pope may have meant to leave door open, to say that if a way should be found to reconcile polygenism with revealed truth, the objection would drop.

Teilhard de Chardin proposed evolution of human mind and character in addition to that of body, so that just before the return of Christ at the end, most of the race would be joined in a unity like that of a totalitarian state, but it would not be unpleasant, since they would be bound by love. The Holy Office on June 30, 1962 warned his works contain, "ambiguities and even grave errors," but did not forbid them or name the errors. However it is easy to refute this great error about the time before the end: Lk 18.8 says: "When the Son of Man comes, will He find faith on the earth?" Cf. 2 Ths 2.3, with the same prediction and also the picture given in 2 Tim 3.1-4.

However, on the side of natural science some impressive evidence has come to light against polygenism. Science News of August 13, 1983, p. 101 reported that Allan Wilson of the University of California at Berkeley asserts, as a result of worldwide research on mitochondria, that we all go back to one mother, who lived 350,000 years ago. At first other scientists did not favor his view. But that has changed. Newsweek of Jan 21, 1988 in a large article reports that view is now widely accepted, except that they have lowered the age to 200,000 years ago. Of course, this would not disprove polygenism, for it could be that, e.g., 6 pairs started our race, and the lines of all but one died out. For more see Science News vol. 147, p. 326.

John Paul II, in a General Audience of Oct 1, 1986 clarified the concept of original sin. He said that it "has not the character of personal guilt. It is the privation of sanctifying grace," that is, it is the lack of something that should be there, not a positive presence. So the transmission by heredity really means that grace is not transmitted. In the audience of Oct 8, 1986 he added that when we say our mind is darkened and our will weakened, this refers to a "relative, and not an absolute deterioration." That is, we are put down no lower than we would have been had God created our race with no added gifts beyond essential humanity. Such a nature, having many drives within it, each operating blindly, would need mortification to tame it. This disorder would make the mind relatively less clear, and the will relatively weaker.

From the cleverly designed story of Genesis, it is evident that God had given our first parents what could be called a coordinating gift, that is, a gift to make it easy to keep all the drives in their proper place. (This has often been called the Gift of Integrity). When God called, "Adam, where are you?" Adam said: "I hid myself for I was naked." God said: "How did you find that out, if you did not eat the forbidden fruit?" In other words, before and after the fall, Adam was naked. But it formerly did not bother him - he had the coordinating gift. Afterwards, without that gift, it did bother him.

Did the Hebrews see original sin in the Genesis story? Surely, they did not talk much about it. There are just a few doubtful texts in the Old Testament that could, but need not, refer to it: (Job 14:4; Psalm 51:5; Sirach 25:23; Wisdom 2:23-24 and 10:1-2). There are just a few places in the intertestamental literature (Jewish writing after the end of the Old Testament) in which we might see original sin: IV Ezra 3. 20 and 7. 46-49 (prob. late 1st century AD); II Baruch 18. 2; 23. 4; 48. 42-43; 54. 15-16; 56. 5-6 (early 2nd century AD); Testament of Adam 3.3 (2nd -5th century AD); Pseudo Philo 62.5 (prob. 1st century AD).

However, even if the Jews did not notice it, it is clearly implied in Genesis. For God had given to Adam and Eve the gift of grace, His favor. They lost it - or rather, cast it away by sin -and so could not pass it on to their descendants. To be born out of God's favor is to lack grace. And that is what original sin is. We need to notice as to the word favor, if we meant merely that God as it were smiles at us, but gives us nothing, we would do good by our own powers: the heresy of Pelagianism. So in practice, to lack His favor means to lack what He gives us, His grace.

There are other things brought out by that well-designed story, chiefly: God made all things - in some special way (leaving room for theistic evolution) He made the first human pair - He gave them some sort of command (we do not know if it was or was not about a fruit tree - that may be stage dressing) -they violated His orders and fell from favor. In addition the story tells us the psychology of every sin. For Eve knew God had said they would die if they ate it - but she believed the tempter who said that they would instead become like gods - and she looked at the fruit, and as it were said: "God may know what is good in general - but right now, I know better! I can see for myself!" So pride is the essence of every sin.

What of the names Adam and Eve? We do not know if they used those names - but that does not mean we should say there was no Adam and Eve. There was a first pair, regardless of the names they used.

Some scholars today think the writer of Genesis used some then current stories, probably from Mesopotamia. We would not have to rule out such a possibility in advance, for we have said that Genesis uses stories to convey things that really happened. We add that Vatican II (LG # 55) said, having in mind chiefly Genesis 3:15 and Isaiah 7:14: "These primeval documents, as they are read in the Church, and are understood in the light of later and full revelation, gradually bring before us the figure of the Mother of the Redeemer. She, in this light, is already prophetically foreshadowed in the promise, given to our first parents who had sinned, of victory over the serpent (cf. Gen 3, 15)."

It is evident, especially from the use of the cf. before Gen 3:15 in the parenthesis, that the Council did not want to say flatly that the human writer understood all that the Church, in the light of later and full revelation, gradually came to understand. So we could conceive of the inspired writer of Genesis as using secular stories to make his point, without understanding all that we now see in them. Yet it is beyond doubt that he did see a first sin, a fall, and some kind of promise of enmity. And elsewhere - DV #3 - the Council seemed to take a more optimistic view of what that writer understood: "Moreover, after their fall, by promising redemption, He lifted them up into the hope of salvation (cf. Gen 3:15)." Now they could not be lifted up into hope without understanding some promise of rescue.

But if we turn to the stories that scholars favor, the chances of use by the writer of Genesis go far down. The Babylonian epic, Enuma elish, often called a creation story, shows some strong similarities in the order of things created on each day (Cf. Alexander Heidel, The Babylonian Genesis, Univ. of Chicago, 1951, pp. 128-29). However, as Heidel himself admits ,"the differences are far too great and the similarities far too insignificant" to make us suppose that the Enuma elish contributed much to Genesis.

Something much closer is the creation account found at Ebla (Pettinato, op. cit., pp. 144 and 159): "Lord of heaven and earth, the earth was not, you created it, the light of day was not, you created it, the morning light you had not [yet] made exist." However, Pettinato's translation was promptly challenged by Archi, his successor as epigrapher of Ebla (BAR Nov. -Dec. 1980, p. 42).

Some today charge error in Genesis because it speaks of Abel as a herdsman, and Cain as a farmer - these developments belong much later in the history of our race, they say. Further, Genesis 4:21- 22 speaks of Jubal, the ancestor of those who play harp and flute, and of Tubalcain as the father of all who work in bronze and iron. Again, much too early. However, once we grasp the fact that Genesis 1-11 consists of stories designed to bring out some things that were really true we have no problem here. That whole stretch is designed to show how mankind was sinful from the start, to such an extent that God repented of making mankind and sent the deluge. Within this framework, then, the odd little episode of 6:1-4 in which the sons of God had children by human women is likely to be some ancient tale, which the author of Genesis found suited his purpose well - showing the wickedness of all. Who the sons of god are is much discussed. Some suggest it means sons of Seth, taking wives from the daughters of Cain. Some Fathers of the Church thought it meant angels! (e.g., St. Justin Martyr, Apology II. 5). Angels do not have bodies, but otherwise, we do not know. But the point is clear, it was an ancient tale meant to help bring out the wickedness of the race, leading right up to the deluge.

What is the genre of the deluge account? Is it just part of the sequence of ancient tales to bring out things, or is it basically historical this time? In favor of saying it is historical is the fact that flood traditions are found all over the globe. And especially the king lists of Sumer are significant. Those lists go back to at least 2000 B.C. They say there were 8 kings before the flood, reigning in five cities, a total of 432, 200 years. Among them was Enmenlu-Anna who ruled 43,100 years. After the flood, the kings became short-lived! Twenty-three kings ruled for a total of only 24,510 years, 3 months and 3 1/2 days. (Lists can be seen in ANET 265-66). Of course, such numbers were never intended to be taken at face value. What was intended we do not know - perhaps symbolic numbers? They make the great ages in Genesis 5 seem slight.

However, our interest is other. The land of Sumer, between the Tigris and Euphrates, had annual floods in those times. To speak of the flood in such a context surely stands for a king sized flood.

The Babylonian story is found in the Epic of Gilgamesh, and probably goes back to at least 2000 B.C. In both stories, there is a hero who is to be saved - Noah in Genesis, Utnapishtim in Gilgamesh. Each is told to build an ark, with detailed specifications. Then comes the cataclysm. The ark finally rests on a tall mountain. Both Noah and Utnapishtim release series of birds to see if the water has gone down. Each account mentions a dove and a raven. Each hero offers sacrifice, but there are great differences: The biblical flood is a punishment for sin; there is no motive given by the gods in the Babylonian version, it is mere caprice. In the Babylonian text, the gods cowered in fear of the flood. When Utnapishtim offered sacrifice after the flood, they came down and "swarmed like flies" around the sacrifice - the gods needed sacrifices for food. The gods admit Utnapishtim to the ranks of the gods, he becomes immortal. (The complete text of the Gilgamesh epic can be found in Alexander Heidel, The Gilgamesh Epic and Old Testament Parallels, University of Chicago, 1949.

We do not know the relation of the two. Perhaps the writer of Genesis took the Babylonian account, purified it of polytheistic elements, and used it. On the other hand, the two accounts could have been independent accounts of a historical flood.

But there are new discoveries today, which make the deluge certain. A high pentagon official told me he had been permitted to see high resolution photos taken from our satellite, which show the ark up on Mt. Ararat. At some seasons is it largely covered with snow. He told me further the army had sent soldiers up to the ark. They had entered it, had seen the animal stalls, and had founds its measurements are those found in Genesis.

Another set of claims is this: The Turkish government today has set up a Noah's Ark Park farther down. Ron Wyatt and associates discovered there a buried ship, of the same measurements. Using subsurface radar --with trained expert operators-- he found there is a pattern of regularly occurring spots, which he takes to be metal brackets in a pattern of lines from stem to stern, and also going crossways.

There can be no reasonable doubt about the ark seen from space. What Wyatt found is something real, but different. Though not highly trained himself, he did employ radar specialists. He has published a video showing in detail the explorations and the results (Wyatt Archaeological Research, Nashville, TN).

As to the Babylonian tower, we note that temple towers were common in ancient Babylonia. We cannot judge the historical character of this account. But we notice the clever play on words with popular etymology: Gen 11:6 speaks of it as Babel, the place where the Lord confused tongues, playing on Hebrew babel, "confusion". Yet Babylonian bab-ili meant "gate of the gods." The writer of Genesis may have been making fun of the "gate of the gods".

We notice the strong anthropomorphism in this account: God comes down to see the tower.

Genesis 12-50

Here we seem to leave the realm of mere ancient stories contrived to bring out some things that really happened. We now have the history of the patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Even so, we ask about the genre. Many today think it is something like epic. As we have seen, epic genre was around in those days. An epic will have a strong core of history, but yet work in some fanciful elements.

Naturally, we begin with the great patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. To what age do they belong, if to any? T. L. Thompson, in The Historicity of the Patriarchal Narratives, (Berlin, 1974) would virtually drop archaeological evidence, and date the patriarchs to the first millennium B.C. - since there is no room for them historically at such a point, it amounts to a denial. Similarly. J. Van Seters, Abraham in History and Tradition, (New Haven, 1975) drops archaeology, wants to date patriarchs in first millennium.

Some would make the patriarchs mere eponymous ancestors, persons from whom the names of later tribes were derived.

Most scholars would not agree with such extreme radicalism. P. Kyle McCarter Jr. in the chapter on the Patriarchal Age, in the symposium, Ancient Israel, (ed. Hershel Shanks) published by the Biblical Archaeology Society in 1988 says on p. 16: "Most [scholars] remain convinced that the stories about Abraham, Isaac and Jacob contain a kernel of authentic history." We already suggested something like epic genre for Genesis 12-50. And we think there is more than just a kernel of real history, even though the ambitious attempts of the school of W. F. Albright (including especially E. A. Speiser and G. Ernest Wright) to use archaeology to validate Genesis have not stood up completely against the attacks of subsequent criticism.

There is too much evidence to deny basic reality to the patriarchs. We cannot imagine why Israelites would invent the claim that Abraham's wife was his half-sister (cf. Gen 20:12) or that Jacob married two sisters (29:15-30). Leviticus 18:9 prohibits marriage with a half sister, and Leviticus 18:18 prohibits marrying the sister of one's wife, and 18. 29 calls both an abomination.

Nor would they invent some other things, such as the shameful way Jacob bought the birthright from his brother Esau and then lied to get his father's blessing. Also, the jealousy of the brothers of Joseph, and their selling him as a slave are disgraceful things.

Kitchen (op. cit, pp. 49-50 shows that seasonal occupation of the Negeb region on the SW border of Palestine is archaeologically attested from the 21st to the 19th centuries, but not for the thousand years earlier or for 800 years afterwards. Abraham and Isaac spent time in this area and were keepers of flocks and herds, and at times grew grain. So they would fit best in the period about 2100- 1800 B.C.

Especially significant is the fact that Joseph was sold as a slave (Gen 37:28) for 20 shekels. That is the correct average price for a slave in about the 18th century B.C. Before that, as shown in the Code of Hammurabi and in Mari documents, slaves cost from 10 to 15 shekels. Later they rose steadily in price (cf. Kitchen, pp. 52-52).

It is worth mentioning too that the system of power-alliances, such as four kings against five of Genesis 14, is common in Mesopotamia in the period 2000-1750, but not before or after that (cf. Kitchen, p. 45).

St. Paul often appealed to the faith of Abraham as the model of the faith we must have (Galatians 3:6; Romans 4). Indeed it was remarkable, not only when he believed go that he, at age 99, and his sterile wife Sarah, at age 90, would have a son Isaac, through whom he would be the father of a great nation, but even more so when without asking any question Abraham obeyed God's order to sacrifice Isaac when Isaac was still a little boy, too young to start the fulfillment of God's promise about a great posterity through him.

The picture of Abraham's faith corresponds exactly with St. Paul's idea of faith. Pauline faith includes four elements: belief in God's word (cf. 1 Ths 2:13), confidence in God's promise (cf. Gal 5:5), obedience to God's commands (cf. Rom 1:5), all to be done in love (Gal 5:6). Abraham did believe God's word, had confidence in His promise even when that seemed voided by the command to sacrifice, and his obedience was so great as to be willing to sacrifice his dear son, thereby, as we said, seeming to cut off the promise of a great posterity - in which he was yet required to believe.

We note in passing how different this concept of faith is from Luther's, who held faith meant merely the conviction that the merits of Christ applied to himself. The standard Protestant reference work, Interpreter's Dictionary of the Bible, Supplement, p. 333, gives precisely the same picture of Pauline faith as we have just done. Luther thought if one had his version of faith, he could disobey God's laws with impunity (Epistle 501). But Luther did not see that faith includes obedience -- so faith does not dispense from obedience.

There are so many other things in Genesis on which we could comment - such as a the beautiful story of Joseph, with its magnificent pay-off scene, when he reveals himself to his brothers. But we have space for just a short comment on two great prophecies, those of Gen 3:15 and Genesis 49:10.

We are fortunate in having a great ancient resource to understand these prophecies, as well as some other things in the Old Testament: the Targums. These are ancient Aramaic versions of the Hebrew text, most of them free, and including fill-ins, which show how the Jews understood the prophecies. Of course, they did this without the hindsight of seeing them fulfilled in Christ, whom they hated. So even if we knew no more about the date of the Targums, we would still be able to use them to see how the Jews themselves in ancient times understood their own Scriptures. But we do have more help. Jacob Neusner of Brown University, probably the greatest of modern Jewish scholars, in his book, Messiah in Context (Phila., Fortress, 1984) made a full survey of all Jewish literature from after the fall of Jerusalem in 70 A.D., up to and including the Babylonian Talmud, written 500-600 A.D. He found that before that Talmud, there was no interest in the Messiah. In the Talmud, interest revives, but the only one of the major prophecies mentioned is that he should be of the line of David. In contrast, the Targums see the Messiah in so many places, in much detail. It is hardly conceivable that such texts could have been written during the period in which there was no, or little, interest in the Messiah. So they must go back before the fall of Jerusalem. Some scholars think that in oral form, they go back to the time of Ezra (cf. Nehemiah 8:7-8).

Three of the four the Targums see Genesis 3:15 as Messianic, even though they cloud the picture somewhat by inserting some allegory. They say the sons of the woman will be at war with the serpent. When the sons of the woman study the Torah, they will be victorious. The serpent will strike at their heel, but the sons of the woman will smite the serpent on the head. There will be a remedy for the sons of the woman, but none for the serpent. Both will make peace in the days of King Messiah. (Cf. Samson Levey, The Messiah: An Aramaic Interpretation, Hebrew Union College, Cincinnati, 1974).

Vatican II, in LG # 55 says, as we saw above: "These primeval documents [thinking chiefly of Gen 3:15 and Is 7:14] as they are read in the Church, and understood in the light of later and full revelation, gradually bring before us the figure of the woman, the Mother of the Redeemer." So, even if the human writer of Genesis may not have seen the full import, yet the Church now, in the light of later and full revelation, does see Mary in this text - and then, of course, Christ.

All Targums see Genesis 49:10 as messianic. We translate in the light of the Targum - most modern versions seem not to utilize them: "The scepter will not depart from Judah, nor the ruler's staff from between his feet, until he comes to whom it belongs [or: until Shiloh comes], and his shall be the obedience of the peoples".

Jacob Neusner, in the book just mentioned, on p. 242 says: "It is difficult to imagine how Gen 49:10 can have been read as other than a messianic prediction." So a fine Jewish scholar can see it, while so many Catholic scholars cannot. They say that the word shiloh is grammatically feminine, while the verb with it has a masculine ending. So they say the text is corrupt, they must emend it. But Shiloh is masculine in sense, even though feminine in grammatical form. And besides, there are other cases in the Old Testament where the same mixture occurs, and the same scholars do not worry about those: Jer 49:16 and Ez 1. 5-10. The pattern becomes common in Mishnaic Hebrew. Levey (op. cit. p. 8) comments that other rabbinic sources, Midrashic and Talmudic, take the passage as Messianic.

The fulfillment of this prophecy was graphic: the Jews really did have some sort of ruler from the tribe of Judah until the time of the Messiah. Then in 41 BC Rome imposed on them Herod, who was not of that tribe, was by birth half Arab, half Idumean. At first he had the title of Tetrarch, in 37 BC. got the title of King. If the Jews had not been so greatly unfaithful to God so many times over, the fulfillment probably would have been more glorious, with great kings of the line of David, all the way to 41 BC.

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