Bible Studies on Genesis 1–11 Lesson 1: Story or History?

READ GENESIS 1:1–2:3; II TIMOTHY 3

Our Lord Jesus Christ once asked His disciples whether they understood the parables which He had spoken (Matthew 13). They said that they did, to which our Lord replied, “Therefore every scribe who has become a disciple of the kingdom of heaven is like a head of a household, who brings forth out of his treasure things new and old” (Matt. 13:52).

Engaging in a study of Genesis 1–11 will be for us, I should hope, an exercise that will remind us of things that are “old” and well-known, but also an exercise that will inform us and challenge us in “new” things as well. Studying areas of the Bible that have been frequently covered is risky in the sense that we may think we know all of it quite well. In such a case, we are not always open to learning the things that God has placed in His Word. One can and should always learn something new when he or she opens up the Bible again to read it and listen to His message again in child-like faith.

Some Bible study basics: the Author and the author

The Christian confesses certain things about God’s Word, the Bible. In II Peter 1:20–21 (NASB) we read the following:

But know this first of all, that no prophecy of Scripture is a matter of one’s own interpretation, for no prophecy was ever made by an act of human will, but men moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God.

While we would admit that the human authorship of Genesis is not explicitly stated for us, yet this book of beginnings is so integral to the whole of the first five books, the Pentateuch (“five-scrolled”), that we may discuss the human authorship of the whole as inclusive of a discussion concerning the human writer of Genesis. We believe that the man “moved by the Holy Spirit” to write the Pentateuch (and thus Genesis, of course) was the great Old Testament prophet Moses. Support for this comes from the testimony of the Pentateuch itself. Consider the following passages:

Exodus 24:4–8: “And Moses wrote...”

Exodus 34:27: “...to Moses, Write these words”

Numbers 33:1, 2: “And Moses wrote...”

Deuteronomy 31:9, 24–26: “And Moses wrote this law...”

In Exodus through Deuteronomy Moses is the prominent figure, the one who received the covenant at Mount Sinai, and the one who wrote out the itinerary of Israel as she traveled through the wilderness to the Plains of Moab. Other Old Testament passages support this as well (d. Joshua 1:7, 8; 8:31; 22:9; I Kings 2:3; II Kings 14:6; 21:8; 22:8; Ezra 6:18; Nehemiah 13:1; Malachi 4:4).

The testimony of the New Testament also supports the claim that Moses is the principal human writer of the Pentateuch. The Jews of Jesus’ day and our Lord Himself had no question regarding the Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch. Read and reflect upon these passages as indicative of the general New Testament understanding of Moses as author of the Pentateuch (the “Law”): Matthew 8:4; 19:8; Mark 1:44; 10:5; 12:26; Luke 5:14; 16:16, 31; 24:27, 44; John 5:46, 47; 7:19. More could be cited, but these will suffice for now. In short, the witness of the Scripture itself is that Moses wrote the Pentateuch and that this is God's Word which addresses us with binding authority.

Furthermore, we confess that all of Scripture is ultimately from the mouth of God, given to prepare God's people to lead useful lives of service in the kingdom of God. The Apostle Paul tells Timothy that “all Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness; that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work” (II Tim. 3:16–17). When Paul penned these words, he had in mind the Old Testament Scripture because the New Testament documents had not yet been collected and universally recognized as God’s inspired Word. Genesis 1–11, as part of that inspired, breathed-out-from-God collection, is also profitable and useful to us today for teaching us positive truths, warning us about destructive errors, and building us up in faith and obedience. Try to keep in mind as you read Genesis 1–11 that goal of achieving a godly equipping in teaching and correction.

Some Bible study basics: guidelines to interpretation

To acknowledge one’s presuppositions about the text of Scripture is not yet to spell out how one approaches this text as a text. How do we read the Bible? Some say that we should be “literal wherever possible.” But does this not run the danger of a kind of flat, two-dimensional reading of Scripture? For example, in classic dispensationalism when the Bible says Israel, it means Israel (the children of Jacob), but when it says church, it means church, and never shall the two be interchanged. Maybe we could be “figurative” or “allegorical wherever possible.” But this is not satisfactory either, because the danger is that our understanding of the Bible is subject to all kinds of fanciful and quite arbitrary interpretations. We could treat the Bible and its message as a “wax nose.”

The classic description of a Reformed reading of the Bible is exegesis (interpretation) that gives full weight to the redemptive, the historical, the grammatical, and the covenantal context and concerns of the passage. In the history of how the Bible was interpreted, this was the “literal” (i.e., according to the letter) or “literary” reading, giving full allowance for the various types of literature (genres) that compose the Bible, whether those types be historical narrative, legal code, poetry, wisdom statements, prophetic sermons, and the like. God has given us His Word in human words, in a variety of life-settings, in several types of literature. Text in context (actually several contexts!): this must be kept in mind as we read.

The following principles should help us all in our reading of Genesis 1–11 (and even the rest of the Bible). First of all, the words in a passage must not be abstracted (lifted out) from the immediate context. This does not mean that a word or several words might not have special weight or great significance. That can (and does) happen. But what a word means, it means in its context. At the same time, we must recognize that words have denotations (basic, core meanings) as well as connotations (derived, more “poetic” meanings). So, we should always think carefully how a word is being used by the writer in a particular context.

Secondly, verses must not be abstracted from their context. The actual division of our Bibles into chapters and numbered verses is several centuries old by now, but we must remember that this was not the case when the Bible was first written. For example, the Gospel writer Luke did not write individual verses; he wrote (under inspiration) a carefully researched account of Christ’s life and work (d. Luke 1:1–4), an account that holds together as a whole.

Thirdly, we must take into account the type of literature in which a passage occurs. This is the matter of genre and the kind of interpretation appropriate to the kind of literature. For example, you would not interpret a physics textbook as you would interpret a poem by Robert Frost. You would not read the classified section of a newspaper as you would read a play by William Shakespeare. So too, the poetry of the Psalms allows for more of an emotive, suggestive interpretation that would not be as appropriate in, say, historical narrative.

Fourthly, the overall structure and unity of the Bible must be kept in mind. Because the Bible has one Author, who used many human authors over a great period of time, we believe that the overal message of the Bible is unified. Scripture, because it is unified, is therefore able to interpret itself. The great church father Augustine reminds us that the New Testament’s message is contained (concealed) within the Old Testament, while the Old Testament’s message is revealed more fully in the New. The basics of God’s great message of salvation in Jesus Christ are already given in the Old Testament; the New Testament will throw greater light on the truths already spelled out in the Old. The Apostle Paul reminds Timothy that the holy Scriptures (the Old Testament) are “able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus” (II Tim. 3:15).

Finally, we may never allow what we discover and know from extra-biblical material to have an authority and an importance that is the same as, perhaps even higher than, the Bible itself. As we have said earlier, the Scripture is quite able to interpret itself. Knowledge gained from extra-biblical studies should never be ignored, for often such information may throw helpful light on the original languages, the culture and the customs of the times of the Bible, but the message in the end must be the message which Scripture itself teaches.

Genesis 1–11: challenges to reading

Why do we limit our study to these chapters in the book of beginnings? Why not study, say, Genesis 1–9 or Genesis 1–13? There are several reasons why some have in the past (and even still today) made Genesis 11 the end of a significant section of Genesis. At the end of Genesis 11 the genealogy being traced takes us to Abram and Sarai. Abram (later renamed Abraham in Genesis 17) becomes the main figure in the story line that takes us to Genesis 25. The story line focuses on God’s covenantal dealings with one man, while in the chapters before Abram there are accounts of worldwide events and long genealogical lists. The history and genealogies recorded in Genesis 1–11 obviously take us back to the very beginning of time, and that has led some to ask the question, “Is this all true as a record? Could the things recorded in Genesis 1–11 really have happened? Or, do we in fact have stories that are really more like myths, sagas, or legends?”

Such a challenge arises out of a variety of sciences which themselves have been developing in the last three hundred years. In particular the challenges and questions about how we should read Genesis 1–11 have come from the sciences of physics, geology, palaeontology, archaeology, literary analysis, and historiography. A straightforward reading of Genesis 1–11 could lead one to believe that the world was likely created just slightly earlierthan 4000 B.C., that it was once inundated by a worldwide flood, and that a godly line of people kept alive religious traditions which in time became inscripturated in the Pentateuch, the first five books of Moses. But some scientists, especially since the time of the Enlightenment (late 17th through the 18th centuries) have come to doubt the Biblical account in terms of its description of actual events in time and space.

What is a responsible, Christian viewpoint toward this? Does Genesis 1–11 record history (facts that describe real people and places in time and space), or do we have here merely stories whose value lies in the “ideas” which are depicted or taught in them, but stories with little or no historical reality in them? Some are inclined to speak of Genesis 1–11 as “primeval history” (little historical value) while Genesis 12–50 is “patriarchal history” (more historical basis). We will come back to this point later.

The student of Genesis 1–11 should not be surprised to find that palaeontology and archaeology have not recovered material facts to support all the data mentioned in early Genesis. The Scripture has a message to tell, and it tells its redemptive message in narratives that read like “factual” history. Perhaps an illustration may help at this point. When one drives through a large national park, the driver does not see all the plants and animals that exist in the park. The road is such a narrow band. Conversely, those who study the park extensively will not encounter very frequently that which stays close to the road, that narrow band.

Genesis 1–11 tells stories that have a specific focus (the “narrow road”). Various sciences may very well investigate the wide ranges of the creation and its various aspects as God's world existed many, many years ago (the “large park”). If historical research has not discovered Cain, for example, that is understandable. Conversely, one must not extrapolate what “early man” was like, for example, from the brief phrase “Cain was a tiller of the ground” (Gen. 4:2), as if all early mankind was settled agriculturalists.

This is not to say that Scripture and science belong in two watertight compartments. Divine redemption and revelation occur in this creation, in a history and in a cosmos that is common to both the Christian and the non-Christian alike. The study of this world in all its marvelous dimensions requires for the confessing Christian the usage of the SCripture as the proper lense or eyeglasses in order to see more clearly what God reveals in the world. Such study can be very useful even in the reading of Scripture because the inspired text has a context in time and space, in history and in culture. 

The Christian is therefore not afraid to ask questions or even to listen to what the various sciences are saying, provided he always remembers that science must remain modest in all of its claims of what “really happened” in the earliest eras of creation’s history. The Christian must always remember that there are no neu~ tral facts anywhere in the creation. Even Biblical “facts” are not neutral “the heavens are telling of the glory of God; and their expanse is declaring the work of His hands,” says Psalm 19:1. Romans 1:19–20 adds the following:

Because that which is known about God is evident within them; for God made it evident to them. For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse.

Creation is truly a “most elegant book” that speaks clearly of God the Creator. Scripture is also a most elegant book, but one which speaks “more clearly and fully” to its readers about all that is “necessary for us to know in this life,” to the glory of God and our salvation (Belgic Confession, Article 2).

Genesis 1–11: revisiting the chapters

If we allow the Scripture to set its own agenda and take note of its own divisions, then it is questionable to see Genesis 1–11 as the best unit for study. Why make the major break at the end of chapter 11 when Abram is introduced already within Genesis 11? Does he not belong with what follows in chapter 12?

The fullest account of the creation week is given to us in Genesis 1:1 through 2:3. The chapter break is not always that helpful to the reader. When seen as a whole unit, we have here described in a very structured, orderly way, God’s putting into place everything that pertains to our world and our time. The stage is constructed and its players are placed on that creational stage through the power of God’s creative word.

Then in Genesis 2:4 we read, “This is the account...” The word account is translated as generations, history, even record in other translations. It is an important word that occurs at key places throughout the rest of Genesis. The reader of Genesis can find 10 account or generation sections:

1. 2:4–4:26: the account of paradise, the fall into sin, enmity between brothers, and the line of Cain;

2. 5:1–6:8: Adam's line through Seth; God’s “grief” concerning the human race;

3. 6:9–9:29: Noah, and the woman’s seed saved in the flood;

4. 10:1–11:9: Noah’s sons; God fills the cleansed world;

5. 11:10–26: Shem, and the blessing of Noah at work;

6. 11:27–25:11: Terah; the blessing of Shem is fulfilled in the son Isaac;

7. 25:12–18: Ishmael (Abraham’s other son);

8. 25:19–35:29: Isaac’s blessing is fulfilled;

9. 36+43: Esau (Isaac’s other son);

10. 37:1–50:26: Jacob; Israel is saved by God through Joseph in Egypt.

This appears to be the way that Genesis organizes itself. With each account (“generations”) there is a narrowing process, each one giving us more details and characterizations as God moves His covenant of grace along toward the coming of the Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore, Genesis does not think along the lines of “primeval history” and then “patriarchal history.” This might be the way some scholars have construed the book of Genesis, but this does not appear to be the way Genesis is itself arranged.

At times the central figure in the particular generation is not the one named at the beginning of the generation. For example, Abraham is the central figure in the generation of Terah, and Joseph plays a very prominent role in the generation of Jacob. We thus begin to see immediately that Genesis does not give us first of all biographies of Bible heroes, or merely stories of interesting people who lived a long time ago in the ancient Near East. Rather, the stories of Genesis move us along redemptive history, from a beginning toward an end point.

Genesis 1–11: God’s work in history

We have noted how God’s inspired Word tells us only what it wants us to know about how the sovereign God has worked in history. All of the rest of the Bible understands that the characters and the events recorded in Genesis 1–11 are real people and actual events. We can return to this point in later lessons where such is appropriate. If anyone should make the claim that the “assured results of science” have made it impossible for us to believe that Adam and Eve, for example, were our first parents, specially created by the hands of God, then the confession that Scripture is its own interpreter is denied. Romans 5 and I Timothy 2 appeal precisely to the reality of Adam as covenant head and representative for the whole human race. The Bible, in its totality and its unity, lays down its own playing rules.
Genesis 1–11 speaks of people, places and events that are real. It tells us its history in stories. We should not be afraid to call the early chapters of Genesis “stories,” provided that we understand them to relate to the reader facts which the rest of Scripture teaches to be facts. Always check out how a scholar or any writer is using his terms: how does he define the important words he uses?

At the same time, let us remember that the facts of redemptive history are not told to us to make us more intelligent, but they are recorded to make us believer sin. the God who has entered into this creation in order to save it from sin and death.

POINTS TO PONDER AND DISCUSS

1. How important are our presuppositions about the Bible in our reading of the Bible? What must we believe about the Bible when we read and study it? See Belgic Confession, Articles 2, 3, 5, 7; Westminster Confession, Chapter 1.

2. Check out, if you are able, some Bible encyclopedias or Bible introductions to see what some of the critical understandings are of the origins of the Pentateuch, including Genesis. Why do many schol~ ars today reject the idea that Moses is the human author of the Pentateuch? Did Jesus accommodate Himself to the beliefs of His day in speaking of Moses as the writer of the Pentateuch, if in fact Moses was not the writer? If so, what does this do to our view of Jesus Christ?

3. The Bible as a text, a body of literature, shows many of the features that belong to texts. Some have advocated that we should read the Bible — just like any other book. Evaluate this statement. What is true and what is not true about this statement?

4.  What are some of the challenges that the sciences today raise in our reading of Genesis? Can the study of history, archaeology, and other sciences actually help us in reading the Bible? What other parts of the Bible have “questions” raised about....because of what some scientists are saying?

5. Read John 20:30–31 and 21:25. How can these1lll!l5leS help us ask the right kinds of questions about the rest of Biblical history, including Genesis 1–11)?

6. Some say that only the teachings (“ideas”) of the Bible are important but not: its historicity. Evaluate such a suggestion. How important is the factor of history and historicity in the Bible? See Joshua 1:14; I John 1:1ff.

Mark D. Vander Hart

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