The Formation of Genesis 1–11, by David Carr

About four years ago I wrote a survey of theories I found most convincing, regarding the formation of the early chapters of Genesis: Eden, Adam, & Eve and Cain, Noah, & Babel. And about two years ago I threw together a brief spreadsheet displaying the differences in the genealogies found in those chapters as seen in different text traditions. Later that year, The Formation of Genesis 1–11: Biblical and Other Precursors by David Carr was published. Because I had done those recent pieces, I put off reading this book until now.

Carr’s chapters on Gen 1–4 did not provide much new information for me. I also found the writing style in his chapter on the genealogies of Gen 4 and 5 stilted to the point I almost gave up on the book. If anyone finds themself in the same situation, I encourage you to keep reading. Once I made it to his chapters on Gen 6–11, I could not put the book down. (I wonder if the gap in style between these two halves of the book was due to the content being examined, or that the chapters were written at very different points in time that it reflected in his writing style.)

While, again, not every point of information in these later chapters was new to me, I found Carr’s interpretation of that information compelling enough to warrant this supplement to my three earlier pieces. I will summarize points and arguments he made below that I think are the most worth engaging for people. Readers already familiar with the general state of source criticism of Gen 1–11 will recognize some of these, but I include them simply for relevance.

I highly recommend this book, with the caveat that it is probably more accessible to readers at least broadly familiar with the common views of scholarship on Genesis 1–11.

  • Gen 1 is Priestly. The organization of the creation account into seven days may be secondary, to provide an etiology for the sabbath. The chapter is dependent, whether directly (by using available texts) or indirectly (by drawing on popular tradition), on Enuma Elish (semi-orphaned concepts, e.g. God splitting the waters or the stars functioning as ‘signs’), Psalm 104 (closely fitting days one through five), and Gen 2–3 (the creation of humanity as godlike beings inverts the negative portrayal of Adam and Eve acquiring godlike knowledge).
  • Gen 2–3 is pre-Priestly. The creation account pulls from a wide variety of Egyptian, Mesopotamian, and Levantine traditions and concepts. Adam’s creation, maturation (by being given a female companion to complete him), and punishment resemble Enkidu’s from the Epic of Gilgamesh. The initial state of creation as having freshwater streams may allude to Apsû in the Enuma Elish. In Hebrew, the snake being ‘clever’ is a pun on the man and woman realizing they are ‘naked’: the snake’s craftiness came from its knowledge, maybe implying it ate the forbidden fruit. These chapters introduce two themes: humanity working the earth, which is cursed because of the man’s disobedience, and Yahweh’s attempts to prevent humanity from becoming godlike. Eating the forbidden fruit gives humans godlike knowledge/wisdom, so Yahweh prevents humanity’s full transformation into godlike beings by cutting off access to the tree of life, stopping them from becoming immortal.
  • Gen 5 and 11.10–27 are Priestly, meant to indicate the importance of Abraham: ten generations from Adam to Noah (the flood), and ten generations from Noah to Abraham (covenant). The lineage in Gen 5, as commonly recognized, is a revised version of Cain’s lineage in Gen 4, with Seth and Enosh inserted between Adam and Cainan.
  • Gen 4.25–26 is commonly seen as a Priestly or post-Priestly bridge created to weld Gen 2–4 with Gen 5, with Seth and Enosh in these two verses taken from the beginning of Gen 5. Articular ‘the man’ in Gen 2–3 becomes simply ‘Adam’, a sign of a new author. But since the genealogy in Gen 5 is a revised version of the one in Gen 4, except for the insertion of Seth and Enosh at the beginning, where did Gen 5 get these two names in the first place? Gen 4.25–26 instead comes from a pre-Priestly expansion of Gen 4, and fits the literary style of Gen 2–4. ‘The man’ becomes ‘Adam’ because, narratively, he is no longer the only man. Gen 5 took Seth and Enosh from Gen 4 and moved the two names to the top of the lineage to create a genealogy alternate to Cain’s.
  • Gen 5.29, in which Noah is identified as the son of Lamech from the revised genealogy, is commonly seen as relocated from being the son of Lamech in Gen 4. But there is no place where this verse can naturally be restored in that context. Instead, since Gen 4.25–26 belongs with the rest of Gen 4 (and was not a much later bridge), the simpler explanation is that Noah was the son of Enosh. When the Gen 5 genealogy was created as a revision of Gen 4 and appended to that earlier text, Seth and Enosh were moved to the top of the list, while Noah was simply kept at the end, making him the new Lamech’s son.
  • Gen 6.1–4 belongs with the pre-Priestly source. Members of the pantheon (‘the sons of the gods’) impregnate human women. Again to prevent humans becoming immortal, Yahweh intervenes by assigning a hard limit to how long the demigod children may live: one hundred twenty years. The demigods, called Nephilim (traditionally ‘Giants’), partly circumvent this prohibition on human immortality by becoming ‘men of name’ (i.e. they live on in fame).
  • Gen 9.20–27 followed the story of the demigods. The curse on humanity’s work of the earth was worsened under Cain, but Enosh prophesied that Noah would provide relief for the curse. Noah does so by successfully planting a vineyard and making wine. Contrary to a popular view that Ham committed incest with Noah or Noah’s wife, Ham’s humiliation of Noah by exposing his nakedness was a defiance of social norms to take care of one’s parents (cf. Danel). Noah’s three sons were Shem, Japhet, and Canaan, which is why Canaan, not Ham, is cursed by Noah. As usual in the pre-Priestly myths, their names have symbolic value. Shem’s name (meaning ‘name’ or ‘fame’) follows from the story of the Nephilim. Japhet’s name is explained in the blessing (Yahweh ‘expands’ his living space). Canaan’s name is implied to come from the verb meaning ‘humbled’ or ‘subdued’, further justifying his curse. This was probably the original end of the pre-Priestly myth collection.
  • Gen 6–9 contains two combined flood narratives, a pre-Priestly version and a Priestly version. Both versions made use of existing Mesopotamian traditions about a flood, but the Priestly version used the pre-Priestly version as well. The pre-Priestly flood story was a later addition to the pre-Priestly myth collection. It has superficial linguistic similarities, but it ignores the theme of the curse of working the earth, and humanity is guilty of general sin rather than the specific issue of becoming godlike.
  • Gen 10, the ‘table of nations’, contains pre-Priestly, Priestly, and post-Priestly layers. The pre-Priestly table was written to explain the origin of Judah’s neighbors. The Priestly table explains the origin of all people groups, with nations and languages emerging naturally. The Priestly table is essentially complete, divided into three blocks that geographically located the descendants of Noah’s three sons: north (Japhet), south (Ham), and central/Mesopotamian (Shem). The pre-Priestly table is heavily broken, and its lineages are rearranged to align with the Priestly source. Some post-Priestly additions were made. The final result has contradictory origins for a few nations (Assyria, Havilah, and Lydia are each assigned to different lineages through Ham and Shem). Canaan was a son of Ham in the Priestly table, so Gen 5–9 was redacted to have Ham as Noah’s third son instead of Canaan, resulting in the awkward textual state of Gen 9.20–27.
  • Gen 11.1–9 is pre-Priestly, but from a different stage than the pre-Priestly ‘table of nations’. The table implies the spread of nations, but it is not made explicit. Hence, Gen 11.1–9 purports to explain why the spread happened and where their languages came from, attributing it to a single catalyst. The story of the ziggurat follows Yahweh’s interventionism in Gen 2–4 and 6.1–4 regarding humanity becoming godlike, but lacks the theme of working the ground. The story of Nimrod and his kingdoms in Gen 10 originally followed the story of the ziggurat.
  • The pre-Priestly myth cycle approached its final shape by the mid-seventh century BCE, before the fall of Assyria (609 BCE), since it does not show clear knowledge of Nebuchadnezzar’s kingdom or the Babylonian exile. The different Priestly texts, composed with knowledge of the pre-Priestly myths, show linguistic similarities to books like Jeremiah and Ezekiel. This may suggest an origin for the Priestly layer in the exilic period (about 597–538 BCE). The combining of the pre-Priestly and Priestly layers, and the post-Priestly redactions, would simply be part of an ongoing process in the exilic and post-exilic periods.