Sunday, March 03, 2019

Lightning and Molasses

Last week I took issue with an argument made by the higher critics that Genesis 2 teaches that animals were created after mankind rather than on the fifth and earlier part of the sixth days, as described in chapter 1.

Their argument, if you recall, is based on a straightforward linear reading of chapter 2. The creation of man is described in verse 7, they say, followed by the creation of beasts, birds and livestock in verse 19, then the creation of woman in verse 22. That “contradicts” the order given us in chapter 1.

My response was that the narrative is not linear, and that all the events of chapter 2 are not given to us in consecutive order. There is no reason they should be.

Two Kinds of Storytelling

I’m thinking that requires some further explanation. The higher critics’ complaint is a petty one. Furthermore, it is not terribly observant of them. Their problem is that they are lightning-quick to grasp at any possible straw that might help them build their case against the integrity of scripture, and slow as molasses about getting to any evidence that argues against it.

In making the claim that the narrative of Genesis 2 is not entirely linear, I am not at all arguing that the chapter is unique in telling us its story that way, or unique in repeating for us something we already know from an earlier chapter. Most of the history we read in the Bible and elsewhere is presented consecutively, to be sure, and all of it is moving forward in a general way. All the same, there are regular, notable exceptions we cannot ignore. Genesis 2 is the first of these exceptions, but it is far from the last.

Non-linear storytelling is actually a very common feature of historical narrative in the rest of Genesis, in the rest of the Bible, and throughout literature generally. If you read novels and watch movies or even episodic TV shows, you regularly experience non-linear storytelling. CSI Miami, for instance, started many episodes by giving us a glimpse of what would occur in the last five minutes of the show, then cutting back to retell the tale from the beginning. That’s not exactly what the writer of Genesis is doing, and I don’t particularly like the device when it’s used that way, but my point is that even today, the non-linear narrative is definitely a very common way to tell a story. It was no less common 3,500 years ago.

Some writers choose to work their way through a story consecutively, describing event after event in the order they occurred. Others work their way through a story by subject rather than by event, gathering all the information about a particular person or thing in one place, then moving backward or forward in time to start in a new subject as required. It all depends what the writer is trying to do. A pure historian may opt to work through events consecutively; a teacher or moralist may not. Sometimes the reader is better served by a non-linear presentation.

Cain and Seth

A great example of this occurs in Genesis exactly two chapters later. At the end of Genesis 4, we find the murderous Cain on the run, estranged from his family and away from the presence of the Lord, and finally settling down in the land of Nod. Now the writer stops to tell us a little bit more about Cain:
“Cain knew his wife, and she conceived and bore Enoch. When he built a city, he called the name of the city after the name of his son, Enoch. To Enoch was born Irad, and Irad fathered Mehujael, and Mehujael fathered Methushael, and Methushael fathered Lamech. And Lamech took two wives. The name of the one was Adah, and the name of the other Zillah. Adah bore Jabal; he was the father of those who dwell in tents and have livestock. His brother’s name was Jubal; he was the father of all those who play the lyre and pipe.”
In a mere six verses, the writer brings six generations of Cain’s descendants to adulthood, giving us pithy insights into some of their accomplishments and pursuits. Then, in the very next verse, he returns us to Adam and Eve. Note that to do so, he is obliged to step backward in time:
“And Adam knew his wife again, and she bore a son and called his name Seth, for she said, ‘God has appointed for me another offspring instead of Abel, for Cain killed him.’ ”
This is manifestly non-linear storytelling. Seth was almost surely born several centuries before Jubal invented lyres and pipes, long before his brother Jabal pitched his first tent.

Seven Generations in 130 Years?

In chapter 5, we learn that Adam fathered Seth at the age of 130. In order to squeeze Cain and the six subsequent generations of his descendants described in verses 17 through 22 of chapter 4 into that 130 year span, one would have to argue that Cain and all his children fathered their firstborn sons at an average age of 19. While not impossible, this is such an unlikely series of events as to be a total non-starter; ergo, the narrative is non-linear. In the very same chapter, we discover that the average age at which the men of Adam’s line through Seth fathered their own firstborn sons was 156, almost a full order of magnitude older; the low end being 65 and the high end being 500, in the case of Noah.

What the writer is doing here is finishing up the subject of Cain. Once he is done with Abel’s murderer and his family history, he takes us back in time to Adam, Cain’s father, and moves forward again from there. In all likelihood those six verses about Cain’s family at the end of chapter 4 cover a span of between 700 and 1,000 years. A reasonable assumption of non-linearity in this instance allows for the building of cities that is described in these verses, as well as the discovery of music and the development of instruments.

Then, just as he does in chapter 2, our writer repeats himself. After having told us in 4:25 that Adam fathered Seth, he tells us again at the beginning of chapter 5. This is not because he has forgotten he already told us about Seth’s birth, nor should it cause us to speculate that some later editor has awkwardly cobbled together two further completely different historical documents. It’s simply a storytelling technique that gets used over and over again in scripture.

Now It Gets Tense ...

Further, note that when the writer repeats himself like this, he doesn’t bother to satisfy the pedants among us by resorting to a change of tenses to make things “clearer”. He simply repeats the same event in the past tense, just as he did in chapter 2 with respect to the creation of the beasts:
“When Adam had lived 130 years, he fathered a son in his own likeness, after his image, and named him Seth.”
Not the pluperfect “had fathered”, as the critics really ought to demand for the sake of consistency, but the past tense “fathered”. The construction is similar to chapter 2’s use of the past tense “formed” rather than the pluperfect “had formed” in the phrase “Now out of the ground the Lord God formed every beast of the field …” Both are unapologetic restatements of known facts in the past tense, and each case they lead us into new subjects: in the one case, the story of Adam’s line; in the other, the need for an appropriate help for Adam, which the beasts were unable to provide.

Other Examples

The same non-linear storytelling technique is used repeatedly in Genesis. We find it between chapters 5 and 6, where the writer takes us up to the birth of Noah’s three sons, then backs up in time to tell us how mankind had declined in the interval. It is used in chapters 10 and 11, where five generations of Shem’s descendants are first named, after which the writer backs up in time to tell us about the Tower of Babel, right after which he repeats and amplifies the generations of Shem to an entirely different purpose. In chapter 19, we get the story of Lot’s descendants, after which we back up in time to return to Abraham. In chapter 36, we get generation after generation of Esau’s descendants named, after which we return to Jacob’s story, many years earlier.

To their credit, Christians make an effort to answer the objections of the higher critics of the word of God. But some answers are better than others. The translators of the NIV and ESV are not wrong in changing “formed” to “had formed” in Genesis 2:19, in the sense that they have arrived at the correct answer about what the passage really means: God made the animals and birds in chapter 1, and that fact is reiterated for us in chapter 2. Unfortunately, in editing the text, they are also no longer really translating: they are opining. That gives Bible skeptics something to latch onto.

The fact is, we don’t need a language-based fix in Genesis 2:19. We just need to point out that the critics are being insufficiently observant about the storytelling style of the book they are criticizing.

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