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Primeval Age in the Bible


The period of the origins of the world and of man as related in Genesis ch. 111. Although the Pentateuch as a whole is based upon four main sources, only two of these, the priestly (P) and the Yahwistic (J) sources, are represented in the first 11 chapters of Genesis (see priestly writers, pentateuchal; yahwist). Moreover, the literary genre of these chapters is of such a peculiar nature that it must be studied in detail for a proper under-standing of the narrative.

Ancient Traditions

The primeval age covers the period from the creation of the world to Abraham. It can be divided into three main parts: (1) the creation and the Fall: Gn 1.16.4; (2) the Flood: 6.59.17; (3) the Flood to Abraham:9.1811.32.

Structure and Contents. Although the J and P traditions are mixed in Genesis ch. 111, it is useful to list each tradition separately.

  • 1. J tradition
  • a. 2.4b3.24: creation of man and woman, paradise, temptation, and Fall
  • b. 4.126: Cain and Abel and genealogies
  • c. 6.18: increasing corruption of humanity
  • d. 7.18.22: Noah and the Flood (interwoven with P)
  • e. 9.1827: sons of Noah; sin and curse of Canaan
  • f. 10.819, 2430: peopling of Earth
  • g. 11.19: tower of Babel
  • 2. P tradition
  • a. 1.12.4a: creation account
  • b. 5.132: genealogy from Adam to Noah
  • c. 6.922: Noah and the ark
  • d. 9.117: covenant with Noah
  • e. 10.17, 2023, 3132: descendants of Noah; Table of the Nations
  • f. 11.1026: descendants of Sem

History and Nature of Traditions. The tradition called J (10th century b.c.) contributed the underlying structure and gave the theological bearing to Genesis ch.111. It assured continuity and provided perspective for patriarchal history, since the latter was based upon a history that went back to the world's origins. About the 5th century b.c., the tradition called P received its present form, having previously been fluid from the 10th to the 5th century. During these 500 years, both traditions, representing popular collections of oral and written material, some of which was very ancient, underwent a formative process of reshaping and rethinking. The men who formed J and P were not creators of traditions, but rather religious thinkers and interpreters of events that were significant in the life of israel. So too, when the final redactor integrated the traditions into the present Genesis account, he presented a highly evolved compendium of theological insights on Israel's experienced history.

An analysis of these isolated J and P sections discloses far-reaching agreements as well as marked differences. Common to both is the general content and the central theme of universal good and evil. The differences lie chiefly in details of the accounts. The creation accounts clearly show two distinct traditions. Even though P is later, it does not use J's earlier material. Substantial unity is evident; yet there are differences in style, vocabulary, and the method of representing God in His relations with men. Thus both J and P traditions must have been incorporated side by side in the final editing.

Such an arrangement, however, is not used throughout primeval history. The Flood story, ch. 78, is the best example of a composite account, or a combination of P and J sources. In this narrative, the editor, respecting his source material, did not alter either tradition, but skillfully intertwined the two as into an artistically woven tapestry. The intricate combination caused duplications (cf.6.1322 with 7.15), contradictions in regard to the number and kind of animals taken into the ark (cf. 6.1920;7.1415 with 7.23), variations in the timetable of the Flood (cf. 7.24; 8.35, 1314 with 7.4, 10, 12; 8.6, 10,12), and separate sources of the Flood's water (rain in 7.4, 12; 8.3, but the fountains of the abyss and heaven's windows in 7.11; 8.2). The traditions, even when fused, were reverently left unaltered because they were sacred and untouchable history. Although the traditions were recounted side by side in writing and thus in all their glaring contrast, they could not be changed by whim, for the contrasts themselves had become parts of sacred history.

Literary Genre

Genesis ch. 111, along with the patriarchal history of ch. 1250 (see genesis, book of) form a prologue to Israel's history that actually began with the experience of election and salvation in the exodus from Egypt. Both these introductory sections were added later and were composed in the light of Israel's experience. The first 11 chapters related Israel's particular history to that of the whole world. Through its constant experience of God's salvation, Israel had developed, over many centuries of theological reflection, a profound understanding of the human-divine relationship and of God's activity in history. Chapters 111 are the compendium of that reflection, written in a literary form that bound together a group of independent but meaningful narratives into a religious epic that reaches historical proportions.

Description of the Genre. The primeval age as described in this account is not prehistory in the modern sense of the word, for the aim of the biblical writers was not to present a scientific, biological, anthropological, or geological record of the past; nor were they capable of rendering such an account of either the universe or man's origins. This primeval history is not even history for its own sake; it has an altogether different purpose. It is, rather, interpreted history or faithimbued perception and understanding of experienced history. It uses historical data as well as legendary or popular traditions and sagas to teach fundamental religious truths. The literary form chosen by the biblical author is not comparable to modern literary types, nor does it correspond to the classical categories and thus must not be judged according to their norms. The literary forms of Genesis ch. 111 are to be evaluated on the basis of how well they achieve their own authors' desired goal. The ancient historical form employed a simple, popular style proper to a recently civilized people who used concrete and graphic narratives vividly to impress religious truths of great importance.

Ethical monotheism is the essential, vital, and distinguishing mark of these early biblical accounts. The basic tenets of Israel's monotheism are expounded through the integration of vivid stories, which contained a theological message, into a drama for the purpose of expressing the doctrines presupposed in the plan of salvation, namely, creation by God at the beginning, the special intervention of God in the production of man and woman from whom all humanity is derived, an original state of moral integrity and happiness, sin of the first pair of humans, the Fall, and the hereditary trials and punishments for sin.

Through its experience of God and His mighty acts, through faith and reflection, as well as practical and speculative wrestling with the great problems of life, Israel arrived at the knowledge of these early events. The religious conviction of good and evil was reflected upon, universalized, and extended in a historical mode to the very beginning of God's creation. Cast into a loosely historical genre whose vagueness was inevitable because of the time span between the events and the date of the writing, the colorful pedagogic narrative was the vehicle most fitting for Israel to express and to teach its beliefs in the divine and human realities of its ethically monotheistic system.

Origin of the Genre. The external form of the biblical narratives of events before the time of Abraham was not something that had been invented by Israelite tradition; it was available from the traditions of other cultures. Biblical tradition was familiar with Mesopotamian stories; the Patriarchs, in fact, had come from this region. Among the many foreign etiologies, or origin stories, the most conspicuous sought to explain such insoluble mysteries as the origin of man and the universe, order, the diversity of peoples and language, the pain of childbirth, the attraction of the sexes, the necessity of labor, and the inevitability of death. Given the relationship in theme between the biblical and other ancient eastern narratives, the biblical authors were probably indebted to ancient models also in matters of arrangement, phraseology, and details. Of far greater moment was the intentional interpretation imparted by the authors of J and P to the independent stories, which resulted in the spiritual message that was conveyed through unifying the separate scenes into one drama of religious history. Through dominating religious themes, the etiologies were turned into a profound theology that was related to Israel's salvation history.

Contents and Themes. At the very outset, Israel manifested its polemic with polytheism by presenting the creation story in an ethicomonotheistic framework and by emphasizing that in the beginning all creation was good, since God had created it. The best known of various ancient creation myths was the Babylonian enuma elish (J.B. Pritchard, Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament [2d, rev. ed. Princeton 1955] 6072). Purified of any suggestion of biological relationship or struggle between chaos and God, the P tradition simply affirmed that everything that is came from the effortless word of God. The J tradition colorfully affirmed the profound theological truth that the essential datum of man's life is his immediate, direct, and total dependence on God. Thus Israel declared its faith that its own history was inseparably related to the world's history and that Israel's role in the world had meaning only because Earth and all men were made and preserved by Israel's God. Israel's experience that God had created it as His people presupposed that He existed as the unique Master of all peoples (Ex 19.5). From the awareness of election, Israel developed its consciousness of God's creation of and concern for all mankind and the universe.

Creation and Fall. The stage had been set for a panoramic view of universal history with the creation stories that formed a basic structure for all reality. Written in what has been called a liturgical didactic hymn, the creation story of ch. 1 was part of Israel's all-including praise of God in which it depicted His original plan. God's goodness was shown in His establishing of man over all creation. But even more important was God's granting to man an intimate friendship and union with his Creator. The story of paradise with the tree of knowledge and the tree of life became a theological medium to express that God placed only one restriction upon manthat he acknowledge his character as creature by acknowledging his Creator. Otherwise man was free and autonomous. From this picture of what God intended life to have been, the rest of the creation account portrayed what life actually was, what man had become, and how he had arrived at his present sad state. God was good, and there was good in the world; but in Israel's experiences, evil, disorder, and man's unhappiness were obvious. How did evil originate? The condition of man surely was not the blessed state described in the paradise account. God's plan had somehow been thwarted. Israel explained evil's origin as the result of man's willful separation from God. The alienation from God was not willed directly by God, but was the result of man's rebellion. Couched in anthropomorphic symbolism, the dramatic scenes of the temptation by the serpent in Paradise, the fall of man, and its consequences, taught a theology of sin and punishment that explained the reason for man's dire situation. The determination of the specific character of the first sin was not the author's preoccupation; through disobedience man violated the one simple law of the creation covenant and thus denied his own status of dependency. The theme of condemnation following upon sin was commonplace throughout salvation history.

All was not lost, however. God, on His part, did not withdraw all the blessings of His creation pact; the human couple did not immediately die, but were condemned to a hard life that would end in death. Nevertheless, the battle against evil continued, indicating that man had not been completely conquered by the serpent. The protoevangelium had been proclaimed. God continued to have concern for man by clothing him (3.21) and by allowing him to use his function as the source of new human life (3.20; 4.1). Yet man could not himself undo sin's effects; only God could take away the curse.

As the narrative progressed, the effects of sin and evil became, however, more serious. Chapter 4 presupposes an already highly developed civilization (4.2), institutional worship (4.3), and widespread population (4.14). It does not relate, then, the fortunes of the first man's sons. Originally the tradition may have reflected the animosity between shepherds and farmers, but the story has been elevated from a tribal saga to a universal lesson by the biblical author. The bitter fruits of rebellion infected all the descendants of the first humans. Sin led to sin and gathered momentum; it had repercussions in every walk of life. The first sin resulted in a strained relationship between God and man that led to enmity between man and his brother. Murder, jealousy, bigamy, and revenge were added to the list of rebellion. In the story of Cain and Abel the author used the theme of freedom of divine choice or election, an undercurrent of all sacred history. Verse 6 summed up the author's purpose for inserting the story at this point. "Sin is crouching at the door like a beast" means that sin was loose in the world, but man could and must master its temptation. The entire story, however, ends on a note of hope by emphasizing God's mercy toward Cain. Throughout salvation history sin evoked God's punishment; but in punishing, God always tempered justice with mercy.

Genealogies. The schematic mnemonic device, adopted from oral transmission, that linked present men to their ancestors by name was a form common to the priestly tradition. Here in Genesis the lists are not historically genealogical trees, but serve to span immense time gaps. The biblical author, desirous of demonstrating the unity of the history of salvation and of building toward the climax of his epic, employed the genealogies of P and a few from J to achieve both ends. (see genealogies, biblical.) Neither P nor J traced the genealogies back to the first man merely for purposes of national history. Rather, they recognized that God transcended history and played the decisive role in it from the first man down to their generation. The Cainite list in J (4.1726) was based on two combined streams of tradition that were not harmonized. To Cain's progeny (v. 1724) was appended a parallel line of Seth (v. 2526), which also contained Cainite names. The J tradition described the cultural progress of organized community life, new occupations, and new professions. But simultaneous with cultural progress, there was an apparent increase in sin, expressed in the increased brutality of the "Song of the Sword" (4.2324).

The Sethite genealogy of P (5.133, continued in 11.1026) was a continuation of Gn 2.4a. There were 10 Patriarchs before the Flood and 10 after, corresponding to Babylonian king lists. But the long lives are very moderate when compared to those in Babylonian lists. The symbolic significance of the numbers is not known, but with the diminishing life spans, the biblical author wished to teach that man was deteriorating morally, thus setting the stage for the flood (see patriarchs, biblical).

The Deluge. A warning of impending disaster is given in 6.14. This mysterious and isolated fragment is mythological in flavor and has been the source of many controversial opinions. Recently discovered Hittite texts containing translations of Hurrian myths with Mesopotamian elements, dating back to the 2d millennium b.c., relate a popular legend regarding the birth of Nephilim or giants (Nm 13.13) from the union between mortals and heavenly beings. (see sons of god.) The J author might have alluded to such a legend. Without making any judgment on its truth, he placed it in the context of the Flood for etiological reasons. The mixture of superhumans with men served as an example of the increasing human perversity that occasioned God's punishment. The 120 years of 6.5 was already a shortening of the life span because of increased depravity.

In the biblical traditions, the Flood was not described as a natural event. In J it is employed as a parable of God's mercy and justice. The essential difference between the Flood story in J and in other ancient versions of such a cataclysm lies in the religious interpretation of the disaster. The J tradition expanded legendary stories about what might originally have been a great Mesopotamian flood to universal proportions to emphasize that yahweh, in contrast to the mythological gods, was a moral God who did not act capriciously but with a righteous purpose. His judgment was tempered by the mercy shown to Noah and his family. Yahweh was a saving God, and from the small remnant, He would make a new beginning. A new covenant was made between God and man (9.117) in language that was almost the same as that of the creation covenant. Yahweh would never again destroy mankind by a flood; the regularities of nature and the rainbow (8.2022) were signs of His faithfulness to the pact. The Flood thus marked the end of one epoch in the relationship between God and man and the opening of a new one.

From Noah to Abraham. The salvific mercy shown to Noah did not long hold in check man's inclination to evil (8.21). The story of the discovery of wine, Ham's sin, and the curse of Ham's son, Canaan, came from J and indicated its low esteem for the Hamites and canaan and the Canaanites (9.1827). The J tradition concluded its epic by inserting the tower of babel story. Since the diversity of nations was already contained in Yahwistic elements in ch. 10, which came mainly from P, the story of the confusion of languages must have been incorporated in order to inculcate a religious lesson. The actions of the men in this story implied that man's impulse to revolt was still deeply rooted in him. Mankind had made little progress in his relationship to God.

The narratives of paradise, Cain and Abel, the Flood, and the tower of Babel were progressive variations on one theme. Man was a creature who had rebelled by arrogantly defying his Creator. In each case the sin was punished by God. Man attempted to obtain control of creation by severing himself from God and by obtaining complete security by himself alone.

The Yahwist thus brought his primeval history to a close on a sad note. The human situation appeared irremediable; men were geographically dispersed, separated from their fellow men and alienated from God. Yet it was precisely toward this perplexing situation that the Yahwist had orientated his dramatic epic. From Adam to the tower of Babel, he portrayed man in his highest dignity and in his pitiful distress. Unable by his own strength to bring order into his disordered world, man had to wait patiently and trustingly for God to take the initiative in restoring him to the full measure of the inheritance he forfeited by sin.

Genesis ch. 111 ended in utter tragedy, but it described only a part of the whole plan of salvation; the story was not over. Beginning with the call of Abraham (ch. 12), God's redemptive activity was to initiate His salvation response to man's need.

Bibliography: Encyclopedic Dictionary of the Bible, tr. and adap. by l. hartman (New York 1963), from a. van den born, Bijbels Woordenboek 19:2026. g. von rad, Genesis: A Commentary, tr. j. h. marks (Philadelphia 1961). e. a. speiser, Genesis (Anchor Bible 1; Garden City, N.Y. 1964). h. renckens, Israel's Concept of the Beginning, tr. c. napier (New York 1964). j. chaine, Le Livre de la Genèse (Paris 1951). d. bonhoeffer, Creation and Fall, tr. j. c. fletcher (pa. New York 1959). c. a. simpson, The Early Traditions of Israel (Oxford 1948). c. hauret, Beginnings: Genesis and Modern Science, tr. j. f. mcdonnell (2d ed. Dubuque 1964). b. vawter, A Path through Genesis (New York 1956).

[l. steiner]

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