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The Core Curriculum

Historical Context for Genesis by Unknown

Relates to: 

The Great Flood, artist unknown, c. 1450-1499 (Wikimedia Commons)The Great Flood, artist unknown, c. 1450-1499 (Wikimedia Commons) A key point of biblical scholarship is that the Biblical text shares important material with other Creation myths of the Ancient Near East.  Of these, the Enuma Elish and the Epic of Gilgamesh are the most prominent.  Both predate the earliest text of Genesis by at least a millennium.  The Enuma Elish narrates the fratricidal struggles between different generations of gods, culminating in the rise of the present order as upheld by the god Marduk.  The Hebrew Bible’s version contrasts sharply with the Enuma Elish, since it proclaims the singular power of the God Yahweh throughout the course of creation.  The Epic of Gilgamesh (based on the earlier Epic of Atrahasis) also resembles the Bible, inasmuch as it narrates a flood story.   Both flood stories contain common elements such as the construction of an ark, the motif of a released dove, and the final episode of sacrifice, whose scent pleases the gods/God.  These similarities are deliberately modified in the biblical text to magnify Yahweh against his Near Eastern background. 

Another important context is the political realities in present day Israel and Syria.  The disputes between the northern kingdom of Israel and the southern kingdom of Judah shaped the book of Genesis.  Tribal domains characterized these kingdoms, whose eponymous ancestors were characters in the book of Genesis.  In the southern kingdom, the tribes were Judah and Benjamin, while the north consisted of the ten other tribes (including the two half tribes of Ephraim and Manasseh).  These two kingdoms warred against each other in a series of shifting alliances throughout their existence.  During this time, myths about their ancestors hardened, so that the activities of their specific tribal ancestors were utilized as claims to legitimacy, priority, and territory.  These myths were combined in the composite JE source.  Thus, it is possible to find doublings that directly contradict each other.  In the Joseph story in Genesis, one version states that Joseph was saved, and then sold to Midianites by Reuben, presumably reflecting E’s northern sensibilities and one where he was saved, then sold to Ishmaelites by Judah, reflecting J’s prejudices.  Both the J and the E source claim Joseph as an important Israelite ancestor, yet they each present their own particular ancestor as playing the crucial role in the Joseph narrative. 

Readings of biblical texts are highly shaped by questions of methodology.  While source criticism is one of the fundamental means by which the biblical text is explored, other methodologies have played an important role.  In the mid-19th century, form criticism arose in contrast to source criticism, focusing on the form and genre of smaller pieces of biblical literature.  This method attempted to understand the social location of a particular piece of the Bible.  Another longstanding tradition of scholarship examined the Bible against its Near Eastern background or in relation to archaeological finds from the Biblical period.  In the 1960s, the Bible was subject to readings of the New Critical perspective, which focused on its coherent identity as a literary text.  This gave rise to an array of new methods.  Current biblical scholarship is characterized by the extensive variety of critical and theoretical methods which are brought to bear on this text.


Nathan Schumer, Department of Religion, Columbia University


Works Consulted:

The Anchor Bible, Job. Introduction, translation and notes by Marvin H. Pope. Doubleday & Company, Inc, Garden City, New York 1965, 1973

The Anchor Bible, Genesis. Introduction, translation and notes by EA Speiser. Doubleday & Company, Inc, Garden City, New York 1964 

Collins, John Joseph. Introduction to the Hebrew Bible. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, c2004

The Cambridge Companion to the Bible, Bruce Chilton, general editor.  Cambridge ; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008

The New Interpreter's Bible, edited by Beverly R. Gaventa and David Peterson. Nashville: Abingdon Press, c2010