Tension and Meaning in Genesis 1-11

We can know something better by understanding its opposite. This principle is especially true for polemical biblical texts. What were these ancient authors contrasting their religious experience against? When that tension in contrast is considered, then meaning is illuminated. The creation stories of Genesis are not simple origin stories. They are written to explain how the purposes of the God of Israel in creation are drastically different from the explanations of other tribes in the ancient Near East. When it was originally composed, Genesis 1-11 was one of many competing voices in the ancient Near East. As the centuries progressed, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam came to dominate the religious milieu of the western world. Though they have some differences, the three great monotheistic faiths share a similar origin story first found in Genesis.[1] Competing narratives were silenced and tension was generally lost. Those in power throughout Europe largely endorsed the narrative of Genesis up until the scientific revolution of the early modern era. We did not necessarily lose the meaning of Genesis 1-11 absent tension; it just became assumed information. The meaning was there, but it lost its razor edge. There was no stigma in believing that God was the creator of the universe for the 14th century scholar at Oxford. There is no meaningful persecution of Christians in the western world today. However, for the scientist at Oxford in our present time, there may be some social (and possibly professional) consequences to maintaining that there is a creator God. The competition between modern scientific explanations and the theology of Genesis 1-11 has reestablished Genesis as a polemical text. The tension has brought back into focus the ancient author’s original meaning.

It’s clear that Genesis 1-11 was influenced by stories circulating in the Mesopotamian world. We have long known about the similarities between Noah’s flood and the story of Gilgamesh. However, the ancient Israelite storytellers were not trying to copy. They were using an established pattern to show how their God and their religious beliefs were different. The scholar Joseph Blenkinsopp believes that Genesis 1-11 is significantly influenced by the Mesopotamian Atrahasis epic. However, the derivative nature does not diminish the text. “On the contrary, it brings out more clearly in its adaptation of that tradition the particular emphasis of the biblical authors on the problematic nature of human existence, the reality of sin and judgment, and the character of a God who does not give up on his creation.”[2] It is in the tension of contrast and competition that the meaning of Genesis comes into full focus.

What comes out of comparing Genesis 1-11 to the stories that existed within its cultural orbit? In the Atrahasis, lesser gods squabble with more powerful gods, who in turn squabble with one another. In Genesis, one God reigns supreme over all. The gods of the Atrahasis fear the flood they release. In Genesis, God begins and ends the flood in complete control of the deluge. The Isrealites are proclaiming that their God is in control.

Genesis 1-11 also makes striking claims about humanity. In the Atrahasis, humans are an afterthought, a creature to supply labor and food to a divine pantheon in the midst of a labor dispute. Genesis portrays humanity as the apex of God’s creative activity, the crown jewel. The Mesopotamian gods were threatened by humanity’s prolific growth and tried to stem our fertility. The flood survived by Gilgamesh was an attempt at genocide. Both before and after the flood, Israel’s God encouraged human fertility with the command to “be fruitful and multiply.”[3]

In telling their origin story, the Israelites were also addressing the nations around them. You could arrive at all the conclusions above reading Genesis in isolation. But when you read it in its historical context, the polemical tension crystalizes the author’s intentions and meaning. Time moves on though. Texts outlive their historical context.

Modern scientific investigation reintroduces tension surrounding the Genesis accounts. Once again, there is a competing narrative on the world’s origins. Religion and science can coexist, but we have to find the boundaries of each discipline.

Modern science has little need for God to explain our origins. One can create a coherent picture of our place in the world and how we got here without appealing to anything divine or supernatural. Science as a method needs tangible data. Scientists then seek to explain and interpret that data. These interpretations must be able to be replicated and tested through further experiments. Therefore, the scientist cannot resort to the divine to explain the data. The scientist can believe in God. The divine can be a scientist’s religious explanation. God cannot be the scientific explanation.

So science gives explanations. Humans are the product of an evolution that is driven by a process of natural selection between random genetic mutations. We are just one species among many. The earth’s origins are violent and chaotic. There is a lot of scientific data to support these interpretations.

Some people are comfortable with just the scientific explanations. Others may be disquieted by those same explanations. For my own part, I cannot help but feel that our purpose on earth is greater than pure science allows. Genesis offers a theological alternative for those drawn to the religious intuition that there is more to our experience than scientific explanations account for. Genesis provides a competing narrative.

In that competition, many of the original theological motives behind Genesis 1-11 come back to the forefront. Humans are not the result of a random evolution. We are the intended creations of a loving creator. God orders the world out of chaos. God may not be an available explanation in science, but in a theological reading of Genesis, God is the origin of all.

Science and religion can coexist within this competition. I am not suggesting adopting a young earth creationist reading of Genesis 1-11. That is just bad reading and bad science. I am arguing that you can accept scientific data and explanations as well as theological interpretations into your worldview. Scientists make a very compelling case for evolution. In fact, it is very difficult to argue against the idea that humans have slowly emerged over many millennia. There is no going back to the idea that we were formed in a day out of dirt 10,000 years ago. Science has a satisfactory explanation for how we got here in a mechanistic sense.

The reader of Genesis can accept aspects of the scientist’s theory of evolution. However, there would be theological rebuttals. Evolution would have to be governed by God rather than random if God is to be seen as our creator in any meaningful sense. Genesis portrays humanity as having a special purpose within creation rather than simply emerging at the top of the heap. In this interplay between explanation and rebuttal, the intended polemical aspects of Genesis come back to the forefront. Comparing Genesis to the Atrahasis epic brings out many of the same emphases as comparing it to modern scientific explanations of our origins. Paradoxically, this is a gift of the modern age. This tension affords us the opportunity to become better readers of our theological origin story.


[1] Christians would want to add that Jesus was present at creation as the Word (John 1:2-3). The Qur’an also makes some distinctions from the story in Genesis, but also contains many similarities, the most important being that the one God is the creator of all.

[2] Joseph Blenkinsopp, The Pentateuch: An Introduction to the First Five Books of the Bible, The Anchor Bible Reference Library (New York: Doubleday, 1992), 94.

[3] The information in this summary of the polemical aspects of Genesis 1-11 is fairly well known. This summary is heavily indebted to Gordan J. Wenham, A Guide to the Pentateuch, Exploring the Old Testament, vol 1 (Downer’s Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2003), 15-19.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s