It is reasonably clear that the story of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob found in Genesis 12–50 is presented as a historical narrative (regardless of what one thinks about the actual historicity of the story). But what are we to make of Genesis 1–11? Would the original audience have understood these chapters in the same manner as the later chapters, or would they have differentiated them?
The question is relevant because if it is read as the same type of literature, then the events of the creation, fall, flood, and tower of Babel would have been understood as historical narrative in the same way as the remainder of the book of Genesis. However, if the original audience recognised that Genesis 1–11 represented a different literary genre from the following chapters, then there are grounds for reading these earlier chapters in another way. They may, for example, function as some sort of pre-history which should not be treated as precisely historical as the latter accounts.
It turns out there are a number of significant differences between Genesis 1–11 and 12–50 (or, more precisely, between Gen 2:4–11:26 and Gen 11:27–50:26). These are worth enumerating.
Genesis is divided into sections headed by clauses introduced by the words אלה תולדת, “these are the generations of…” Hence there is a natural division in Gen 11:27, but likewise there are earlier and later divisions (Gen 2:4; 6:9; 10:1; 11:10, 27; 25:12, 19; 36:1, 9; 37:2; cf. Num 3:1; Ruth 4:18). Consequently, taken alone this tells us no more than that if there is a change then it is likely to be at Gen 11:27.
Genesis 1–11 is dominated by aetiological stories mixed with genealogies (some of which are also aetiological). So we have explanations for the origins of legless snakes, pain in childbirth, arduous toil to produce food, different languages, music, cities, and so forth. By way of contrast, there is virtually none of this after Gen 12.
There is a significant difference in pace between Gen 2–11 and 12–50. The latter chapters cover only 4 generations, perhaps only a couple of centuries. By way of contrast, the first 11 cover well over 1,000 years, and many generations.
The events of Gen 1–11 have a cosmic scale — creation, uncreation (through the flood), scattering of nations and languages. The subsequent events are the story of a single family which will becomes a small nation.
Daniel Lowery has recently analysed Gen 1–11 as well, concluding that:
I have discussed a number of generic signals that suggest how our genealogy in Gen 4 may in fact correspond to reality. The names and numbers both suggest a certain level of literary artistry and thoughtful arrangement, which is in concert with the generic signals of the surrounding context, Gen 1–11. The artistry and arrangement fit with expectations for the genre of mythic history, which suggests this should not be interpreted in a woodenly literal manner. This again is not to suggest actual events are not being described. Rather, it is perhaps more immediately relevant to the implied audience to speak of these events more figuratively. These events are in the distant protohistorical past, and the language employed to speak of that period in time fits with the generic expectations of mythic history.1
It is also worth noting that different genres can be signalled by quite subtle variations within the text. The points noted above could easily be more than sufficient indicators to the original audience to change their understanding of the text. In English, for example, the presence of four words can completely change a readers understanding of a narrative (just place “Once upon a time” at the beginning of any text and you’ll see what I mean).
The implication of these observations is that we must be wary of reading Genesis 1–11 as unadorned historiography, and that there are indeed grounds for treating these chapters differently to that which follows. This is not to say that Gen 1–11 is not historical or that it does not represent something of history, but it is to say that we cannot simply assume that it is historical and so either build a comprehensive history of the world based on minute details from this text or else dismiss these chapters as bogus because their details do not correspond to our scientific understanding of the world. To ignore these distinctive features and ascribe to Gen 1–11 an historiographical function is to impose a reading on the text, not derive meaning from the text.
1. Daniel D. Lowery, Toward a Poetics of Genesis 1–11: Reading Genesis 4:17–22 in Its Near Eastern Context (Bulletin for Biblical Research Supplement 7; Winona Lake: Eisenbrauns, 2013) 239.