March 19, 2018

Genesis Overview

First, some things by scholars. What we read as one book, Genesis, is really a mashup of at least three sources, often called the Elohist, Yahwist and Priestly (the first two are not fully independent of each other). The older the book in the Bible, the more it is the result of being passed down informally, kind of like the stories of Homer. Each of these sources (writers and editors, a messy business) used the stories they heard to make a point.

So think of reading Genesis as hearing a story told by three dfferent people. One we will call J, emphasizes relationships and personalities. The relationships between people, between people and the Earth, between people and YHWH (Yahweh, Jehovah, G-d, or Adonai which is written as LORD — this last is a substitute for YHWH out of reverence, and is a clue for English readers that this is from the J source).

E is the Elohist voice, and is more abstract, less personal, referring simply to God, not Yahweh, not a personal name. For an example, see the first chapter of Genesis.

P is the Priestly source, added later, who inserted things to connect the story to later practices, to the present life at the time of writing. Very formal, but what’s interesting is that the name used for God changes in a way that suggests greater intimacy, a developing understanding. Sometimes this makes me question the hypothesis about authorship.

Some think there were many edits made until it all solidified sometime 2,300 years ago, or so. It was translated into Greek and we only have fragments of the originals.

Whew, that’s the scholarly part.

Personally, I have all sorts of stories from my family. Strange stories, interesting ones, passed on by the telling, some details lost forever. Some have meaning, things I learned and want to keep.

Genesis is like that. The details are less important than the message, cautionary tales about jealousy, lust, ambition, and examples of trust, faith, courage. We’ve recorded our family story, fragmented and sometimes with things left out because they didn’t help the point.

And this is the form of myth. It doesn’t mean God is a myth, it’s the form of the story, a bit like The Lord Of the Rings.

A recitation of facts is one way of communicating truth. A metaphor can be more powerful, an allegory can bring understanding, but if you want to communicate something beyond telling, it requires myth. In modern times, people think a myth is the least true, but some of us believe it communicates truth more effectively, especially if that message must last and survive the journey to the future.

It’s interesting that aspiring screenwriters are advised to turn to the Bible for inspiration and many films are simply retellings, with the filmmakers editing and enhancing.

Just as those storytellers and editors did millennia ago.

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