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Reading the Book of Genesis

During August at St. Lydia’s, we’re reading the creation accounts found in Genesis chapters 1-3.  Here’s some contextual information that will help you in your reading.

The bible is, in many ways, like a quilt.  Spread on a bed, it’s beautiful, functional, and cohesive.  But when you step closer and begin to investigate more, you’ll realize that skilled and knowing hands have stitched it together from a variety of different sources. Looking at the quilt, we might recognize that fabric from the same source (an old dress or dishtowel we’ve seen before) are used again and again in the quilt.  But we also might find pieces that we’re not sure what to do with.  We can’t tell where they came from.

In the same way, biblical narrative has been stitched together by authors and editors drawing from a variety of sources of literature.  The stories that the writers of the bible are drawing from are ancient, and may be written down elsewhere, look a whole like something else that’s written down elsewhere, and were probably transmitted for many years orally before they were ever written down.  The fact that the texts in the bible have been stitched together doesn’t make the bible “true” or “not true.”  It makes it alive.

Further, many of the stories we find in the bible are myths.  They are stories that are told about who we are and how we got here.  Again, the measure for these stories is not “truth” or “fact” as we understand it.  The measure is their effectiveness in helping us know who we are as a people and how we relate to God.  Scholar John J. Collins writes, “Ancient myths are serious but imaginative attempts to explain life in this world.”

Looking more closely at the quilt that is the Pentateuch (the first five books of the Hebrew Bible which convey the story of the prehistory of Israel) scholars have identified four different sources of material that’s being used.  JEPD are a shorthand way of referring to the four sources: the Yahwist (J), the Elohist (E), the Priestly writer (P) and the Deuteronomist (D).  The whole theory is called the Documentary Hypothesis.

Scholars go on for a long time about the way this different source material ended up in the from we found in the bible, but suffice it to say, it was a long and winding road, and the delineations between different sources are not always clear or clean cut.  It’s not like they had a cut and paste button or something.  But the different sources have different styles, and tend to name God in different ways (J calls God Yahweh, E calls God Elohim, for instance)  so this gives us some clues.

Throughout the Pentateuch, you’ll notice that there are often two stories interwoven into one account.  For instance, there are two versions of the creation story which we’ll explore, and two versions of the flood story that have been intertwined.  The mountain where God is revealed to Moses is sometimes called Sinai or Horeb, depending.  Just as in a quilt, these repetitions and variations are not inaccuracies or mistakes, but acknowledgment of the diversity of traditions of the stories we tell to make sense of our existence.

-Emily M D Scott

Sources:

Blenkinsopp, Joseph. The Pentateuch: An Introduction to the First Five Books of the Bible. New York: Doubleday, 1992.

Collins, John J.  Introduction to the Hebrew Bible. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2004.

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