October 10, 2006

Who Wrote Genesis?

Category: Bible - OT - Genesis :: Permalink

While the “higher critics” (who are, to borrow from Chesterton, high primarily in the sense that meat can be called high) see Genesis as the product of an editor or a bunch of editors who, sometimes unthinkingly and sometimes skillfully, slapped together a variety of often-conflicting accounts, many of which were written around the time of the Kings or later and none of which date from before Moses, conservative scholars often argue for the Mosaic authorship of Genesis.

A primary prooftext for Mosaic authorship is John 7:21-23, where Jesus says that Moses gave Israel circumcision and includes circumcision as part of “the law of Moses.”  Since circumcision was given to Abraham in Genesis 17, the argument goes, Genesis 17 must have been written by Moses.

Maybe.  Or maybe not.  It’s possible that Jesus refers to Moses here because Moses edited what we now have as the book of Genesis.  Or maybe Jesus isn’t thinking of Genesis 17 here but rather of Leviticus 12.  (Question: Are there any passages in Scripture which clearly indicate clearly that Moses wrote the historical parts of Exodus through Deuteronomy or anything in Genesis?)

At any rate, it seems to me that conservative scholars sometimes draw certain questionable conclusions from the alleged Mosaic authorship of Genesis.  In his thought-provoking The Gospel of Genesis, Warren Austin Gage writes

… to Moses the exodus deliverance is the decisive theme of Pentateuchal history to which the story of creation, the record of the flood, the narrative of Abraham’s sojourn in Egypt and the Joseph stories are logically subordinate (p. 4).

and, in a footnote,

The creation is elaborately reenacted in the exodus-eisodus redemption from Egypt.  Noah, like Moses, is delivered by the ark from the waters….  The Abrahamic sojourn in Egypt (Gen 12:10-20) unfolds with (1) a famine to move Abraham to Egypt, (2) the jeopardy of the promised seed, (3) the plagues upon the house of pharaoh, and (4) the driving out of Abraham with much treasure — i.e., the story of the exodus in brief.  Joseph, like Moses, is rejected by Israel only to be appointed by god for his deliverance (cf. Acts 7:9, 25) (p. 4n5).

It sounds to me as if Gage thinks that Moses wrote the accounts in Genesis with the Exodus in mind, choosing them and shaping them in such as way as to reflect the events of the Exodus.  But that, I submit, is most likely backwards.  It isn’t that Abraham’s exodus from Egypt reflects Israel’s but rather that Israel’s Exodus under Moses follows the pattern of Abraham’s previous one.

The conclusion often reached by those who assume Mosaic authorship is that Genesis is focused on Israel and written for Israel in the wilderness.  So men such as Bruce Waltke and Mark Futato argue that Genesis 1 is intended as a foundation for the covenant established with Israel at Mount Sinai or that Genesis 1 is as polemic against the gods of Canaan to prepare Israel for their new situation when they enter Canaan.  And so forth.

Again, I grant that Moses may have had a hand in editing the book of Genesis, but I don’t see any reason to believe that Noah didn’t have the account of creation and the genealogy of Adam or that Joseph didn’t have the whole thing up to the narratives about his father.  Moses may have edited it, but what he edited likely existed before.

It also doesn’t appear that he was the only one or the last one to edit the book: Genesis 36:31 seems to have a later (but inspired) addition which likely dates from a time when Israel had kings.

But to assert that Moses wrote the whole thing so that all of it must be read primarily in terms of the situation in Moses’ time, in light of the Exodus, and as preparation for the Sinai covenant and the entrance into Canaan goes beyond biblical evidence and prevents us from reading Genesis correctly.

For instance, if we claim that the focus in Genesis 1 is on Israel, either as polemic against the idols that Israel would encounter or as foundation for the Mosaic covenant at Sinai, we may accurately capture an application of the passage — contrary to paganism, for instance, the sun isn’t a god and isn’t the ultimate source of light but rather was created by the one true God who had already created light first — but that focus on Israel and her (assumed) situation may make us overlook the global application of the passage.

In other words, if we see Genesis 1 as a polemic against pagan gods, we’re either making an application of what the text says or we are reading that polemic into the text.  The text itself gives us no hint that it is a polemic aimed at Israel in the wilderness.  Rather, it presents itself as a history of the creation of the world, with implications not just for Israel (who isn’t mentioned or even in view here) but for the whole world.

As Jordan points out concerning this assertion that Israel is the focus of Genesis, “such a reading of Genesis elevates the Sinaitic covenant above the Adamic, Noahic, and Patriarchal covenants, which are lowered to the status of mere preliminaries” (Creation in Six Days, p. 34).What about the rest of Genesis?  Is Israel the primary focus?  Gage says so:

While the chronicle of the origin of Israel is unquestionably primary to the design of Genesis, the beginnings of Israel’s national history are nevertheless embedded in a matrix of universal history, a broader context which affords a historiographical perspective to the author’s interpretation of Israel’s destiny (p.8).

Granted, Gage also speaks about the broader context.  But the nations, on Gage’s view, are only context.  The focus is Israel.

Now it’s true that the narrative of Genesis focuses on Abraham and then on Isaac and then on Jacob/Israel and on his twelve sons.  Israel as a nation, of course, is not in view here at all, but Genesis does present the history of Israel’s forefathers.  But is that history primary so that the nations are just “context”?  I don’t believe so.

First, that interpretation does not do justice to Genesis 1-11 but reduces it to mere background.  It isn’t the thrust of the book but merely provides a bit of the setting for the important stuff.

Second, this interpretation loses sight of the global significance of Israel.  It isn’t that God has chosen to work with Israel instead of with the world.  Rather, God declares that he has chosen Abraham — and hence Israel — for the sake of the world.  In Genesis 12, the covenant with Abram includes the promise that all the nations will be blessed in him.  And so much of the narrative of Genesis is about the interaction (good and bad) between Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph and the nations.

Third, this interpretation also fails to take into account the conclusion of Genesis.  Genesis doesn’t lose sight of the nations as it progresses.  At the end of the book, Joseph rules over the nations and they come to him for the blessing of food.

Certainly, the text does focus on Isaac, not Ishmael or Abraham’s other sons, on Jacob and not so much on Esau, and so forth (though one should be careful about saying so, since the text appears to focus on Joseph and not so much on Judah but that doesn’t imply anything about the significance of Judah in history).  But in all of that focus on the patriarchs, the nations are also always in view.  It seems to me that Israel’s origins aren’t the primary thrust of Genesis.  The world’s salvation is at least as primary.

Who wrote Genesis?  I don’t know.  Maybe Moses.  Or maybe Adam and Noah and Shem and Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and Joseph with Moses perhaps doing some compilation and editing and some later editors adding their touches as well.  But at any rate, scholars ought to be careful not to use an assertion about Mosaic authorship to justify reading their guesses about Israel’s situation in the wilderness back into the text of Genesis.

Posted by John Barach @ 6:17 am | Discuss (3)

3 Responses to “Who Wrote Genesis?”

  1. Lane Keister Says:

    However, polemic is definitely present in Genesis 1 (especially in the phrasing of “the greater light” and “the lesser light,” pointedly avoiding the ANE terms for sun and moon, since they were worshipped).

  2. Andy Says:

    That was excellent. I’m glad you posted it.

  3. John Barach Says:

    Lane, you assert that polemic is present, but can you support that assertion?

    I’m not sure how calling the sun “the greater light” and the moon “the lesser light” would make it any less likely for Israel to worship “the greater light,” so I don’t see how these terms in themselves could be polemics against sun- and moon-worship.

    Besides, I can think of other reasons why “great” (not “greater”) and “small” (not “lesser”) are used to describe these lights.

    So what evidence of polemic is there? Again, I grant that one can develop polemical applications of Genesis 1, and I’m enough of a student of John Frame to know that applications are part of the meaning of a text, but I’m not persuaded yet that Genesis 1 was written as a polemic.

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