In my previous post, I brought up some textual issues from Genesis 1 that may clue us in to a non-literal interpretation of the creation account. Now we will take a step back and have a look at the bigger picture, to try and answer two basic hermeneutic questions:
- What is Moses’ purpose in recording the Genesis account?
- What is Moses’ writing style (in terms of genre)?
It is actually interesting that I am writing about this topic right now, because Allison and I started a BSF class this semester, and we are studying Moses (in Exodus right now), so I have been thinking about this a lot recently.
Caveat: For the sake of this argument, I am operating on the assumption that Moses was, in fact, the author of Genesis. Although this possibility has been quite controversial in the past, I think that the current consensus is in favor of this hypothesis. (Some of the main evidence against it was that there was no writing system at the time that Moses could have used to record these early books, and so they must have been written at a later date, but that has since been disproved).
Let’s start with the first of these two questions: why did Moses write Genesis? One interesting trend that I have observed in the Pentatuch is a kind of temporo-centrism (I made that word up), which could be an independent argument for Moses’ authorship. The focus of the Pentatuch is the deliverance of the Israelites from Egypt and the inheritance of the promised land (that is, the fulfillment of the Abrahamic covenant in Genesis 12). (One interesting observation that supports this is that the detail of stories generally increases as you approach the lifetime of Moses). Abraham (Gen. 12-25) and Joseph (Gen. 36-50) are perhaps the focal characters of Genesis, since they set the scene for the Exodus of God’s people from Egypt.
As for Abraham, the covenant comes through him, part of which is an explicit promise of deliverance from a foreign land where the Israelites will serve as slaves for 400 years (Gen 15:13-5). So much detail is given here to the specific circumstances of how the Israelites will escape from Egypt. Why is this, if we now understand the true purpose of the Abrahamic covenant to be the deliverance of Jesus, the true Deliverer? From Moses’ temporo-centric perspective, God was fulfilling the covenant in his lifetime, so when he wrote Genesis, he emphasized parts of the promise that he (and Israel) could identify with. We have the same tendency to see how God is working in our lives and have a very limited vision of how he may be using us to work a greater purpose in generations to come. This is simply part of the human condition, and a beautiful demonstration of how God’s blessings multiply themselves.
As for Joseph, so much attention is, no doubt, given to him in Genesis, because it is through his story that the Israelites come to Egypt in the first place. Moses is not just giving a year-by-year account of the Israelites’ history (if he were, he left out about 400 years of history between Joseph and himself). Rather, he is using Genesis to explain how God had been working. From the perspective of Moses, the story starts in media res and he has to go back in time to explain how they got there. It does not seem like he is simply writing an account of the Israelites starting from the beginning. His history is selective and thematic. From this point, it becomes clear that my two questions are actually related: Moses’ stlye is a function of his purpose. This should not be surprising though, because form usually follows function. Who would ever use a limerick (form) as the pattern for eulogizing (function) a beloved relative? Hopefully no one in my family will do so when I pass away.
Let’s examine another passage from Exodus 2:10-1, which starts
She named him Moses, saying, “I drew him out of the water.”
This is how the rescue-story of baby Moses ends. It is interesting, though, that the next verse begins:
One day, after Moses had grown up, he went out to where his own people were and watched them at their hard labor.
Now how old was Moses where verse 11 picks up? Some say as old as 40. In less than a verse, Moses ellided over basicly twice as much life as I have even lived. This just serves as further evidence that Moses is emphasizing parts of the narrative only if they directly contribute to the development of his plot (God’s deliverance of Israel and establishment of them in the promised land). Notice that the same time-gap occurs after Moses meets his wife in Midian and has his first child Gershom (Ex. 2), where the next chapter begins the account of the burning bush (another 40 years later?). A few interposed verses explain that the Israelites’ suffering is increasing during this time, and that they are calling out to God for deliverance. This also serves as another kind of evidence for this same point: not only is Moses eliding events, he provides moralizing summaries of long periods of time, to show how they fit into his greater plot. To Moses, events aren’t important in of themselves, but only inasmuch as they serve his narrative purpose.
So, at this point you are probably thinking: “James, this is such a long-winded post, and I see what you’re saying, but what does this have to do with interpreting the Genesis 1 creation account?” Actually, it is entirely unrelated, and I was just trying to take up space (just kidding). But seriously, this analysis of Moses’ writing would interpret Genesis 1 in terms of fulfilling the Abrahamic covenant and bringing the Israelites out of Egypt into the promised land. God is the true main character of this entire account (Pentatuch) and the whole Bible, really. Genesis 1, then, is developing an understanding of who God is, what his relationship to man is. It shows he is all-powerful creator and redeemer, that he loves us and seeks to bring himself glory through reconciliation. Most importantly, is how it relates to the Abrahamic covenant. God created us, and even after we fell, he still chooses to pour our his mercy and goodness. I think that the Israelites (or at least Moses) would have been much more interested in how the creation account “begins the story” than the details of how the creation took place. This meshes with our internal evidence that Genesis 1 should not be interpreted literally/scientifically. It simply does not seem to be consistent with Moses’ authorial purposes.
I have by no means exhausted this discussion, however. I have simply tried to outline my own reasoning and provide some exemplary examples (redundant?) from Moses’ texts. I would appreciate any feedback on your opinions or specific problems with my argument. I have grappled with this issue for some time but have never tried to formalize my thoughts about it, so this exposition is somewhat rudimentary.
James, the younger brother