Thursday, February 11, 2010

How Not to Read Genesis 1

The library had a copy of James L. Kugel's book, How to Read the Bible; so far I've read chapters 1, 2, and 36. Chapter 1 of course introduces the book, and the author -- very important for this particular book. Professor Kugel belongs to a group that conservative readers of the Bible sometimes call "source critics," because he believes that the source of the Pentateuch (Genesis – Deuteronomy) wasn't Moses. Instead, it was supposedly written by as many as five different authors, who took a bunch of content from extra-biblical literature. To be fair to Professor Kugel, he acknowledges the subtext behind some of these critics' statements, viz., the assumption that knowledge of future events is a priori impossible.

But Kugel isn't just a source critic; he believes that Holy Scriptures were divinely inspired, and that we can find a lesson for today in these ancient texts. He keeps the Sabbath (as currently defined by Orthodox rabbis), the dietary laws, etc. He doesn't walk around on the Temple mount (the rabbis say one might accidentally step where the Most Holy Place was).

I don't understand how to make sense of this; if the text isn't what it says it is -- if these words were not actually given to Moses, if the Israelites weren't actually delivered from their Egyptian slavemasters and didn't really wander 40 years in the desert -- how can anything of it be trusted? Perhaps I'm too simple-minded?

In chapter 36, Kugel wraps up the book, but not all the questions. He's unwilling to let go of his belief in divine inspiration of the Scriptures, but neither will he abandon what he considers the assured results of higher criticism.

The lovely Carol asked what I was reading, and I explained some of what this professor said about the Documentary Hypothesis. She wasn't too happy about this, wondering if I was going to start believing this stuff. Here's how I'd summarize her concern: if Moses didn't write the Pentateuch, if it in fact had been written over 700 years later, then Jesus didn't know what he was talking about in John 5:46-47, when he identified Moses a the author. If the book of Isaiah wasn't written by Isaiah but by someone else, then John didn't know what he was talking about when he identified chapters 6 and 53 as being written by the same author in John 12:38-41. And if Jesus and John can't be trusted with matters of simple fact, how can we trust them when they talk about matters of sin and judgment and eternal life?

So as you can probably tell, I actually believe John and Jesus; I think they knew more about the Bible than "source critics" do. But I do want to understand what these guys are saying, at least to some extent. And Kugel himself piques my curiosity, being the combination of source critic and Orthodox believer.

Here's what I found in chapter two of his book: there are two stories about creation -- one in Genesis 1:1-2:3 and the other starting in (you guessed it) Genesis 2:4. Differences in the stories, plus the use of the name usually rendered "Lord" in English translations -- which appears in chapters 2-3 but not in chapter 1 -- supposedly add up to at least two different authors:

  • the "P" writer for Genesis 1:1-2:3, as this story provides background for the Sabbath, a Priestly concern; and
  • the "J" author, since the Hebrew word rendered Lord is written in German with a "J", and this name appears starting in Genesis 2:4.
Now I don't want to caricature this theory -- well, maybe I do. Look, the Apostle Paul refers to us as children of God (Romans 8:16) and also as sons of God (Galatians 3:26-28). With tongue firmly planted in cheek, I will therefore claim that the Apostle Paul didn't write both these passages. Heck, I'll claim that he didn't even write all of Romans (see for example 8:13-15)! Instead, I'll say that what we call "the Pauline epistles" were actually written by two sources, one I'll call "C" (the writer who uses the word translated "child") and the other I'll call "S" (for the word translated "son").

My "theory" of multiple authorship based on Paul's use of "child" versus "son" is, of course, pure baloney -- that is to say, I am making this up. It's far more likely that, as some commentators have said, the word translated "child" is used when the author wants to emphasize the fact of birth whereas the word "son" is used to emphasize the relationship with God.

Returning now to the creation stories in Genesis, the reader may observe that the sun and moon aren't mentioned until the fourth day. What could be going on there? Here are a few possibilities:

  1. The author was a fool who didn't understand that without a sun you can't have day and night;
  2. The author was trying to be oblique or mysterious; "day" meant a much longer period of time, not determined by the sun (but -- "there was morning and there was evening, a second day.")
  3. The account isn't chronological.
I'm going with #3: this isn't chronological, as I've described elsewhere. In fact, as I understand it, Genesis 1 is a polemic against the dominant creation myth of the day, the "Enuma Elish".

If this is so, then the point of Genesis 1 -- viz., to refute the creation story that makes us slaves and victims -- isn't in conflict with the point of Genesis 2-3. And what is that? I think it's got to be something about the power of humans to make choices, and the universal tendency to do wrong. The Babylonian myth has us as slaves, automatons, without any moral dimension. Come to think of it, the entire Enuma Elish doesn't have any ethical/moral content.

And just as Paul uses different words to emphasize different aspects of our relationship with God, Moses could very well use different names to focus on different aspects of God's relationship to his world, or when he's trying to make a different point.

A couple of final comments: first, it puzzles me that Professor Kugel doesn't mention the idea that Genesis 1 might be polemical poetry, even to dismiss it. He refers to similarities between Genesis and other literature of the time (the Enuma Elish, Gilgamesh epic, etc.), but doesn't describe the astonishing differences. That Genesis would be similar (in form and even in content) to what other people were saying and writing at the time is completely unsurprising; what is surprising is the set of stark contrasts, even in the creation stories.

Second, what to make of the source critics' claims? Well, it's obvious that Moses must have taken oral or extra-biblical material in writing Genesis, as he clearly wasn't there for any of it. Beyond that, the arguments -- at least the ones I've seen so far in Kugel's book -- are less than convincing. I find it much easier to believe that Moses wrote the Pentateuch using various sources (under the Holy Spirit's guidance) than to think that some post-exhilic cabal put this stuff together and passed it off as having been written by Moses several hundred years earlier.

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