Genesis- Various thoughts and notes on a Saturday night.

The new Seminary manual on the Old Testament approaches the authorship of Genesis in a reductive and simplistic way. (HT: David Tayman, who also did the Israelite cosmology art below.)

Ask students if they know who wrote the first book in the Bible. After they respond, invite them to turn to Genesis 1 and look in the title to see who wrote the book of Genesis. (You may want to explain that in addition to writing Genesis, Moses wrote Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. The book of Moses in the Pearl of Great Price also contains Moses’s writings.)

Now, this is certainly traditional. But I think the manual’s reinforcement of the simplicity of the tradition creates problems, as per Julie’s excellent post on The Next Generation’s Faith Crisis. Moreover, it’s a tradition that we have not examined closely or often, with rare exceptions. It’s a tradition we have often shared with conservative Protestants and Jews, although with a difference.

I’ve been through a number of conservative scholars on Genesis recently in the process of working on my book, and those who assert Mosaic authorship greatly nuance that claim to the point that it’s mostly a conservative dog whistle. For example, Tremper Longman (How to Read Genesis) asserts Mosaic authorship, but explains that Moses adapted preexisting oral and written sources; that there is “[e]vidence of significant post-Mosaic redactional activity;” that “[i]t is not possible or useful to definitively and completely divide the pre-Mosaic, Mosaic, and post-Mosaic materials from each other.”

Asserting Mosaic authorship in that Protestant context, then, is less a scholarly argument about the actual authorship of the text as it exists today and more about declaring one’s allegiance of sorts to a certain school of thought, marking him as a faithful insider. I’ve found half a dozen others making similar declarations: Moses wrote it, but he adapted preexisting (Mesopotamian?) sources, and it’s been (heavily?) edited since he wrote. Heck, the LDS Bible Dictionary says as much.

The Pentateuch was written by Moses, although it is evident that he used several documentary sources from which he compiled the book of Genesis, besides a divine revelation to him. It is also evident that scribes and copyists have left their traces upon the Pentateuch as we have it today.

All of those nuances, I think, are improvements over the unnecessarily simplistic assertion of the new manual, which fails to account for or prepare students for the complexity of scripture. The manual could have said something like

“while Christian and Jewish tradition attributes the books of Genesis through Deuteronomy to Moses, different kinds of clues in the text strongly suggest that multiple authors and editors at different times contributed to these books as we know them today. Mormonism is not committed either to strictly Mosaic authorship nor to other views. As the First Presidency said in 1910, it is not ultimately authorship that matters, but whether the doctrine is correct.”

In speaking of LDS history, B.H. Roberts took some fire. His response applies a bit to my critique here.

After BH Roberts edited The Comprehensive History of the Church, he received some criticism for omitting what were called the “Martyrdom Miracles”, such as “attempted beheading of Joseph Smith at Carthage and a shaft of lightning preventing it.”

Roberts responded to one critique as follows.

“Suppose your youth receive their impressions of church history from ‘pictures and stories’ and build their faith upon these alleged miracles [and] shall someday come face to face with the fact that their belief rests on falsehoods, what then will be the result? Will they not say that since these things are myth and our Church has permitted them to be perpetuated… might not the other fundamentals to the actual story of the Church, the things in which it had its origin, might they not all be lies and nothing but lies?

Some felt there was no harm in circulating such stories, since many people believed them. But Roberts sternly replied: “because one repudiates the false he stands in danger of weakening, perhaps losing the truth. I have no fear of such results. I find my own heart strengthened in the truth by getting rid of the untruth, the spectacular, the bizarre, as soon as I learn that it is based upon worthless testimony.”- Defender of the Faith: The B. H. Roberts Story, 363

I wish some of the things people need to unlearn hadn’t been learned from our own manuals in the first place (self-inflicted wounds?), particularly when they are not strongly based in revelation or scripture, but tradition. (On which, see my paragraph towards the end of this post, “What’s particularly infuriating” and this whole post on the role of tradition in interpretation.)

One major issue confronting OT scholars, particularly in Genesis, is the relationship between the various creation accounts, flood account, and other often-similar ancient Near Eastern accounts. Hugh Nibley wrote about this in the New Era in 1971, “Myths and the Scriptures” reprinted in Old Testament and Related Studies (now available online here.) With a few quibbles on my part, he captures it well.

A student confronted for the first time by classical and Oriental [read: ancient Near Eastern] myths that read like reruns of well-known Bible stories—such as the garden of Eden episode and the Flood—often goes into a sort of shock, emerging from which he announces to family and friends that he has just discovered a fact of life: the Bible is just a lot of mythology.

Such a conclusion may be the result of a faulty approach to the Bible as well as to the myths. The first thing to do in such a case is to apply cold packs and calm the student down, pointing out to him that such deeply religious writers as Dante and Milton not only were aware of many parallels between Christian and pagan lore and imagery, but also freely mingled the two together in constructing their faith-promoting epics….

The clergy, Christian and Jewish alike, have insisted before all else on the absolute originality and uniqueness of the teachings of Christ and Moses respectively, laboring under the strange illusion that if anything coming from any other source shows a close resemblance to those teachings, the claims of the founders to originality and hence to divinity are in serious jeopardy….

Secular scholars, on the other hand, have been quick to take any resemblance between heathen traditions and the Bible as absolute proof that the scriptures are simply ordinary stuff. The classic example of this was the Babylonian flood story, discovered by Layard in the mid-nineteenth century. It resembled the biblical account closely enough to show without doubt that they were connected, but before any search for the source of either version was undertaken, it was joyfully announced that the biblical account was derived from the Babylonian and was, therefore, a fraud. The experts were wrong on both points—the Assurbanipal version is really a late redaction….

such study as has been done shows us that the old myths are by no means pure fiction, any more than they are all history. As the Muses told Hesiod, “We know both how to fib and how to tell the truth”; and, as Joseph Smith learned of the Apocrypha, “there are many things contained therein that are true, and there are many things contained therein that are not true” (see D&C 91)—all of which means that we must be very careful in accepting and condemning.”

Kenton Sparks is a scholar I’ve recently discovered and read enthusiastically. I first saw his very important article “Enuma Eliš and Priestly Mimesis: Elite Emulation in Ancient Judaism” (Journal of Biblical Literature 126:4, 2007). Sparks argues that the author of Genesis 1 knew Enuma Eliš intimately, and emulated, borrowed from, and argued against it.  Intrigued, I hunted down his “The Problem of Myth in Ancient Historiography” in Rethinking the Foundations: Historiography in the Ancient World and in the Bible : Essays in Honour of John Van Seters (You can tell it’s academic because they spell “honour” like a Brit, and it has a German sub-subtitle.) Also turns out to be quite relevant to my book.

I went looking for his books.

  • Sacred Word, Broken Word: Biblical Authority and the Dark Side of Scripture
    • This is excellent. Aimed at laypeople, it explores the problem of scripture not being nice. Genocide, racism, tribalism, etc. In doing so, he examines the nature of revelation, prophecy, scripture, and a bunch of other things relevant to my book. Sparks uses the multivocality of scripture, its theological diversity (something that makes many Mormons and Protestants deeply uncomfortable) to show how the Bible itself deals with the problems within it. A few teasers-
    • How are Christians to understand Scripture when it directs God’s people to slaughter Canaanite families—men, women, and children—merely because they have false religious beliefs that could unduly influence Israel? And what are we to do with the many biblical texts that explicitly or implicitly support slavery, sometimes permitting slave owners to beat slaves or to treat foreign slaves more harshly? And what of those texts that regard women as property or as second-class citizens, in some cases forbidding women to speak in public worship? One can easily make this list very long.

    • if we carefully consider the most profound differences between the Old and New Testaments, we   will notice soon enough that the biblical authors themselves were uncomfortable with the violent streak in some biblical (mostly Old Testament) texts.

    • In Scripture, God speaks to us through the finite and fallen perspectives of human authors and, thereby, through the limited and fallen horizons of human cultures and audiences. And the process whereby he accomplished this was and is very human, both in the production of the individual biblical books themselves and in the lengthy historical process—both Jewish and Christian—that finally produced our respective canons of Scripture (Jewish, Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant).

    • When scholarship strikes us as an excessively esoteric pursuit of exotic meaning, this is mainly because historical and cultural distance has made the text’s ordinary (or literal, or natural) meaning more difficult to grasp than is the case for a modern newspaper or novel. Just as uninformed readers will mistake Gulliver’s Travels for a mere children’s tale (rather than the political and intellectual work that it also is), so uninformed readers will tend to misunderstand the Bible.

    • A more striking example of the redemption of Scripture is provided by the Gospel of Matthew as a whole. Like other early Christians, Matthew viewed Jesus as the “new Moses” prophesied in Deut 18:15: “Yahweh your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among your own brothers. You must listen to him.” This is why the life of Matthew’s Jesus closely parallels the life of Israel’s ancient lawgiver.6 Like Moses, Jesus was born as a savior. Like Moses, a foreign king tried to kill him. Like Moses, Jesus was hidden from the threatening king in Egypt. Like Moses, Jesus fasted in the desert wilderness for forty days and nights. Like Moses, Jesus returned from that desert experience and taught God’s people on the mountain. And in that Sermon on the Mount he presented his teaching as a new law that reversed and fulfilled the law of Moses. Also, in Matthew as   p 69  a whole, the teaching of Jesus is presented in five sections, each ending with the words “When Jesus had finished saying these things.” This structure parallels the five books of Moses that stand at the beginning of the Old Testament. Once we realize that this was Matthew’s intention—to present Jesus as the new Moses of prophecy—then we are in a better position to appreciate the conclusion of his Gospel in Matt 28:16–20, commonly known as the “Great Commission.”Readers will probably recall that, because of his sin, Moses was not able to lead the Israelites into the Promised Land. At the end of his life, he stood on a mountain overlooking the land and said to the Israelites, “I cannot go with you, but God will be with you.… Go, and kill all the nations.” This parallels very closely what we find at the end of Matthew’s Gospel. Jesus takes his disciples “to the mountain” and there speaks his own final words: “Go, make disciples of all the nations … and I will be with you.” It is quite clear that Matthew wished to portray Jesus as a better Moses, who, because he was sinless, could address his followers from within the land and could extend the promise to be with them in their mission. Particularly striking, of course, is the profound contrast between the two missions: “kill all the nations” (Greek panta ta ethn?); “make disciples of all the nations” (again panta ta ethn?). Matthew apparently means to teach us that the true fulfillment of the command to kill the Canaanites is actually found in our efforts to convert the lost to faith in Christ. The Gospel is thus understood as a spiritual conquest in the name of Christ and for the good of the nations. So the Gospel of Matthew is a deliberate and sustained attempt to redeem the Old Testament law and make it serve the purposes of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

    • Highly recommended, particularly if you struggle with the OT, as you probably do if you’re reading it closely.
  • God’s Word in Human Words: An Evangelical Appropriation of Critical Biblical Scholarship
    • This is a more technical version of the above, apparently. I haven’t read it yet, but some people I like highly recommend it. 
  • Ancient Texts for the Study of the Hebrew Bible: A Guide to the Background Literature
    • This is a reference work of sorts dealing with different ancient genres. Also recommended, but as a reference book.
One depiction of Israelite cosmography, the inverse snow globe with the water outside.

One depiction of Israelite cosmography, the inverse snow globe with the water outside.

Two other accessible books have crossed my desk recently.

  • J. Richard Middleton, Liberating Image, The: The Imago Dei in Genesis 1-11
    • The phrase “image of God” occurs only three times in the whole OT, and all of those in what’s called the Primordial History, or Genesis 1-11. WE first find it in 1:26-27 where ‘adam or humankind is created in the image of God. Outside the Bible, typically only kings were said to be in “the image of (a) god”, and the Bible here is engaging in some democratization and polemics by applying it to all humanity.
  • Robin A. Parry The Biblical Cosmos: A Pilgrim’s Guide to the Weird and Wonderful World of the Bible (no apparent relation to BYU Hebrew prof. Donald Parry)
    • Israelites thought of the universe in a radically different way than we do, and Genesis offers the primary, but by no means the only, evidence for this. People who want us to read Genesis 1 “literally” must, ironically enough, take great pains to argue that it doesn’t mean what it says. Parry’s book is a layperson’s guide to the Israelite understanding of the cosmos. (Most commentaries will also explain it a bit.)
    • Basically, Israelites and their neighbors conceived of the universe as an inverted snow globe, with water on the outside, instead of the inside. Flat earth, solid dome sky, surrounded by water above and below. Please note, our different understandings of the cosmos do not imply anything about our relative intelligence, and attributing this cosmos to them is not an act of saying how smart we are or how dumb they were. Rather, as said elsewhere, “It’s a shock, sometimes, to learn how much rudimentary knowledge — things any child would know — was an utter mystery to past generations. This isn’t because past generations were stupid, but because current ones don’t know the work that goes into proving even the most basic facts. “See
    • For more on cosmology, see my posts here and here.

And my book? It’s progressing. I tell you honestly, though, after working on it for several years, and being interested in the topic for 15 years… trying to submit a complete manuscript by August 1 (my self-imposed deadline) still feels rushed. There is so much to read, so many questions to deal with, and trying to do it in clear, concise prose that doesn’t make you want to poke your eyes out just adds to the stress. Still, it’s something I’m passionate about.

15 comments for “Genesis- Various thoughts and notes on a Saturday night.

  1. Thanks Ben. This is a treat as always. I think I have some additional reading suggestions, but I can’t think of them at the moment.

  2. Excellent information. I went into this also in my book “Help thou mine unbelief” just published last year. It’s a topic I think we need to get into our lessons and talks because so many are in crisis over feeling a mandate to accept the scriptures as literal. Good luck with your book. I’ll be reading it.

  3. To your list of books for those who struggle with the Old Testament and who have blithely embraced the false notion of scriptural literalism propagated by CES, I recommend Peter Enns’ most recent book, “The Bible Tells Me So.” It offers a compelling explanation as to why many of the stories in the Bible are just that—stories, albeit ones that frequently teach an important moral precept. (Be forewarned, however: Enns’ attempts at humor all too frequently fall flat.)

    Nice post, Ben. Very informative.

  4. Thanks for the comments.

    FarSide- I’m a big fan of Enns , and have often mentioned or pushed his works in posts. I wish all LDS would read his Evangelicals and the Problem of the Old Testament, since so much of what he says applies to Mormons as well.

    I haven’t read his newest yet, but the review at BCC made it sound like he’s trying to use humor to reach a new audience. He does have a blog that I follow, which is where I get some of my book suggestions.

    Sparks is kind of my new Enns.

  5. Ben, you have definitely convinced me that Sparks is worth exploring. And I’ll check out Enns’ blog, too. Like you, I’ve read several of his works. I especially enjoyed “Inspiration and Incarnation.”

    His failed attempts at humor in his most recent book ascribe to the inherent tedium of academic discourse. Now, if he had chosen a more interesting career, such as being a corporate tax attorney (like moi), he wouldn’t have that problem. :-)

  6. I suspect that most people don’t realize that Brigham Young was relatively progressive (even compared to today’s Church) in his view of Genesis. “As for the Bible account of the creation we may say that the Lord gave it to Moses, or rather Moses obtained the history and traditions of the fathers, and from these picked out what he considered necessary, and that account has been handed down from age to age, and we have got it, no matter whether it is correct or not…”

    (Years ago, I showed how that statement got edited out of the Brigham Young manual.)

  7. I’m okay with the Seminary manual teaching the common belief we share with Jews and other Christians regarding Moses’s authorship of Genesis. After all, it is aimed at adolescents. I never went to Seminary (I joined the church at the end of my senior year in high school), but I knew of Moses’s authorship because that’s what Genesis says. To learn a little later that some “experts” surmise that Moses assembled Genesis from oral tradition was not a deal breaker but was only an additional perspective — and to learn a little later that others may have edited the text also wasn’t a deal breaker for me. The manual needs to teach something, but it cannot teach everything. So I’m okay with it in that regard.

    Imagine the total worthlessness of a manual that taught the creation stories and then called them myth, and taught that Adam and Eve is a myth, and the flood is a myth, and Job is a myth, and David is a myth, and Jesus is a myth, and the cross is a myth, and so forth — the value comes in accepting the stories as real, as seeing real people in them — there is where one finds the faith-building strength of the stories. To whatever degree the Seminary manual tries to build faith, I want to be supportive of it. Whatever it doesn’t include, the readers will be able to learn elsewhere and they will synthesize their learning and grow from it. Just because the Seminary manual doesn’t say something doesn’t mean the students are forever prohibited from learning it.

    I’m teaching a lesson to the five-year-olds in Primary later this morning. It will be a simple lesson, but one, I hope, that strengthens faith.

  8. “The manual needs to teach something, but it cannot teach everything.”

    What was bad about Ben’s hypothetical statement that the manual could have made? It seems to me that it takes as much space and acknowledges all the issues he notes in the post.

    “Imagine the total worthlessness of a manual that taught the creation stories and then called them myth, and taught that Adam and Eve is a myth, and the flood is a myth, and Job is a myth . . .”

    Imagine the “total worthlessness” of a manual that teaches these literally. Ben’s not declaring the Bible false, just that we should consider genre while studying it. I don’t see why that is objectionable.

  9. I don’t find the seminary manual objectionable. I don’t find the original posting objectionable. I just don’t think the manual can include everything that everyone will want it to include. So I sustain it as a product of good people trying to do a good work, with editorial constraints, aimed at a particular audience. Everything else that others want to teach will find their own times and places, and I sustain that, too. But for children and youth, and also in great measure for adults, the faith-building value in the stories of the scripture comes from approaching them as real rather than mythological. For example, the value in the considering the Adam and Eve narrative is most fruitful when a man or woman thinks of him- or herself as Adam or Eve. When these youth do later learn of different ways to approach scripture, they can synthesize the different approaches into something that works for them, each in his or her own way. I guess I’m just saying that I’m okay with the Seminary manual presenting the stories as real, and I’m okay with a university professor presenting them as myth.

  10. ^^ This is common but problematic thinking (not meaning to pick on JI at all.)

    We have an assumed dichotomy of “real rather than mythological,” in which “real” has value but “mythological” does not.
    But then there’s this, which I assume is meant to logically follow that dichotomy-
    “when a man or woman thinks of him- or herself as Adam or Eve”- This is certainly neither “real” nor predicated on historicity or historical accuracy!

    I too sustain the manual. I just don’t understand what value the writers see in their narrow phrasing. It’s needlessly simplistic and creating problems for later. It *has* been a deal-breaker for some people because of its implications, and there’s no pressing doctrinal reason to include it. (Genesis does not state Moses wrote it, BTW.)

    Moreover, my proposed rewrite is neither lengthy nor overwhelmingly academic. It’s not a burden, an addition, nor require any special training or insight. It’s just a little bit looser.

    Jared*, thanks for the comment. I remember that post.

  11. It’s weird to me that CES is OK being upfront about the authorship of the longer ending of Mark but not Genesis–this is the new Institute manual:

    “The most reliable early manuscripts of the Gospel of Mark do not contain Mark 16:9–20, and the style of the Greek language used in these verses differs from the rest of Mark. This suggests that these concluding verses might not have been written by Mark, but rather by scribes who added accounts of the Savior’s appearances after His Resurrection to bring the ending of Mark’s Gospel more in harmony with the writings of Matthew, Luke, John, and Acts. Whatever the reasons for the manuscript variations, the Church accepts all of Mark 16 as inspired scripture. Its value is based not on which human being wrote it, but on its inspired testimony of truth (see 2 Timothy 3:16–17; 2 Peter 1:21; D&C 68:4).”

    It would have been so easy to take the same approach for Genesis.

  12. In speaking privately with Hugh Nibley about this issue (in the late 1980s), he reaffirmed his comments quoted by Ben S. He made a statement which I don’t remember exactly, but which I DO remember led me to Alma 34:15 (and, to a lesser degree Alma 13:16). At the end of his statement about the necessity for a “great and last sacrifice” (34:13), Amulek explains that the sacrifice, “will be the Son of God, yea, infinite and eternal” (34:14). He goes on to say that “thus he shall . . . [bring] about means unto men that they may have faith unto repentance”. (34:15). While I recognize the ultimate sacrifice of Jesus, the act itself provides the “means” that we “may have faith unto repentance”.

    Somewhere in all this is the line between the “historical” and the “mythical”. I can’t wait for your book, Ben, so while August seems rushed to you, its a long time to us.

  13. Ben S,

    The following blurb appears on the first page of the Old Testament Study Guide for Home-Study Seminary Students — the manual writers might be interested in your inputs — there might be a reason they chose the traditional approach, and they might share their reason if you ask. Chesterson’s fence and all that, you know. I’m still working from the mindset that they’re good people trying to do a good work, but I know my mindset is not universal. Anyway, your thoughts might make their way into a future edition.

    Comments and corrections are appreciated. Please send them to:
    Seminaries and Institutes of Religion Curriculum Services 50 East North Temple Street Salt Lake City,?UT?84150-0008 USA Email: [email protected]
    Please list your complete name, address, ward, and stake. Be sure to give the title of the manual. Then offer your comments.

  14. Ben,

    I’m also in line for your book, and from the outline I read on your blog, I think it’s going to be a significant contribution to our discourse about the scriptures.

    I reviewed Enns recently as well, and the reason I appreciate his approach over others is he does a good job of explaining the scholarly consensus where there truly is one, while allowing for other possible explanations for how the scriptures “behave” (one of his favorite terms). The tentative tone of some of his explanations has the effect of helping us take him more seriously.

    The Church definitely has a problem in making ill-grounded assertions about history and scripture that set people up to question the Church’s credibility when better information is encountered in other places; this is an issue we all have beaten to death. But scholars have the same problem when they overstate their case, and Enns does a good job of avoiding that trap by encouraging his readers to keep an open mind.

    Again, I’m looking forward to the book; from your outline, it looks like one I’ll be buying for myself, with multiple copies to pass along to family and friends.

  15. Myth is predicated on oral cognitive functions, which has its own rules about history. We modern readers of a scriptural text assume that all peoples think like we do, forgetting that much in the Bible did not begin as text… but as oral tradition.

    Oral tradition is not text in spoken form. Rather, oral tradition has its own rules of information management which are very different than our modern and literate expectations. Oral tradition is wed to festivals, rituals, temples, dances, songs, and to oral cosmology. Reading a text that descends from this complex of traditions where all the oral stuff has been removed is like reading Egyptian without the Rosetta Stone. It cannot be done without making the text a caricature of its former self.

    The Church sets itself up to fail, as the last poster has noted, when it perpetually recites distinct authorship or even literate interpretations of oral traditions as literal fact. I do not believe the Church Correlation does this on purpose. I think almost everyone working on the manuals is doing their best with what they know. Alas, times are changing and the old ways are no longer sufficient for a great many people, and it takes a massive institution like the Church a very long time to react. It has always been this way.

    My personal solution would really not be to change the manuals much at all. After all, the lessons tend to be simple outlines of gospel principles. The problem comes when too many Mormon take these outlines as literal and exact, as so many do. A small introduction in front of the manuals addressing Ben S.’s concerns is very much needed. The Church should briefly address the complexities of historical interpretation, the differences between a devotional and historical approach to scripture, and the often messy transcription process as texts descend from generation to another, and from one culture and language to another. In the very least, this would allow people to consider the complexity of history and authorship as they read the text. Such an introduction need not be long either, but simply introduce the ideas.

    Meanwhile, people like Ben S. hold the flame. And there are a growing number of LDS who are doing the same.

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