A few weeks ago in my Intro to Scriptures class we covered the Primeval History. Perhaps the most traditional view has been to articulate the overriding theme of this opening section of Genesis as being an ‘avalanche of sin’ (was that Augustine?). I remain unconvinced that sin is at the fore in Gen 1-11. The text very much seems to me to exhibit a deep interest in the grace or mercy of God.
The metanarrative I was proposing argued that there is a recurring pattern throughout Gen 1-11, one typified by disobedience followed by mercy/grace/mitigation. The rough outline was as follows:
Creation: Initial Harmony (Gen 1-2)
Eden: Harmony Disrupted (Gen 3)
-serpent as trickster
-disobedience – eating from the tree
-breakdown in relationships
Mitigation: a divine seamstress (3:21)
Cain and Abel: God’s Unexplained Preference (Gen 4)
-Cain kills Abel
-Cursing the ground
-Cain becomes a fugitive and wanderer
Mitigation: mark of protection for Cain, vengeance assured (4:15
Additional Mitigation: Adam’s genealogy (Gen 5; cf. Gen 1:28 – humanity is fulfilling the Bible’s first commandment to “be fruitful, multiply, and fill the earth”)
The Flood: Reversal of Creation (Gen 6-9)
-“sons of God” and “daughters of men” (6:1-4)
-utter wickedness of humanity
Mitigation: “Noah found favor in the sight of YHWH” (6:8; cf. 7:1-3)
Tempered Mitigation?: “All flesh died that moved on the earth . . . ”
*revocation of curse on ground (8:21)
*divine repentance? “Never again will I . . . ”
*renewed commandment: Gen 9:1 – “be fruitful, multiply, and fill the earth” (cf. 1:28)
Tower of Babel (Gen 11)
-“let us make a name for ourselves” (11:5)
-fear of being scattered
–hubris – human attempt to be like the gods (cf. Eden)
AND MOVING FORWARD . . . . “Now Sarai was barren, she had no child” (11:30; cf. 1:28 and 9:1)
Where is the mitigation for the Babel story? Does the Primeval History end on a negative note? I don’t think so. Where, then, is the mitigation, you might ask? Right here:
MITIGATION: “And God said to Abram . . . ” (Gen 12:1).
The mitigation for the Babel story is the ancestral promise in Gen 12:1-3. This argument was popularized by seminal OT scholar Gerhard von Rad, who saw Gen 12:1-3 as an independent composition (attributed to J) serving not as the beginning to the ancestral narratives but as the conclusion to the Primeval History. The ancestral promise bridges the two, joining the narrative together.
Strikingly, the narratives are connected in two other ways:
1) elleh toledot Terah (11:27) – the toledot of Abraham’s father, Terah, introduces Abraham in Gen 11, as well as his wife Sarai.
2) YHWH’s speech to Abraham, stating “I will make your name great” (12:2), cf. “let us make a name for ourselves” in 11:5.
So, after many false starts and restarts in the Primeval History, YHWH starts again, this time selecting a particular family, a particular people, in whom all the world would indeed be blessed (12:3). It is a matter of universality through particularity.
So, what do you think?