What’s Going on in Genesis 1–11?

genesisSince Julius Wellhausen suggested that the first five books were not written by Moses, there has been an endless discussion between biblical scholars about the first eleven chapters of Genesis. Some have suggested that it is a compilation document written over time from the various viewpoints of various redactors. For others, its poetic form proves that it is mythological account of creation, on par with other pagan etiologies. However, following the likes of G. K. Beale, it seems best to see any interaction between Moses and other ancient Near Eastern religions (and there certainly was familiarity and interaction) as polemical attempts to esteem Yahweh-Elohim as the sovereign creator of all things.

There are many reasons for affirming the historical nature of Genesis 1-11 and the singular authorship of Moses, but perhaps one of the most awe-inspiring is the literary arrangement of Genesis 1–11. Borrowing from the observations of others, let me suggest two suggestive patterns in Genesis 1-11 that show how carefully Moses, schooled in Egypt and inspired by the Holy Spirit, wrote a record of Creation, Fall, Judgment, Salvation, and New Creation.

Genesis 1–11

First, in Genesis 1–11  you can see the whole pattern of Creation–Fall–Redemption–New Creation.  Authors Warren Gage (The Gospel of Genesisand Bruce Waltke (An Old Testament Theology [Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2007], 307-08) have observed these patterns. And what follows is Waltke’s outline of how Genesis 6:9–11:32 follows the same order as Genesis 1:1–6:8.

Creation: Genesis 1:1 – 6:8

Creation out of chaotic water with divine blessing (1:1-2:3)

Sin involving nakedness, seeing/covering nakedness; curse (2:4-3:24)

Division of humanity into the people of God and the enemies of God (3:15-4:16)

No descendents of sinful of murdered younger, righteous Abel (4:8)

Descendents of sinful Cain: builds a city (4:17-24)

Descendents of chosen son Seth: ten generations to Noah (5:1-32)

Downfall: unlawful unions – men & women / marriage (6:1-4)

Brief introduction to a faithful savior: Noah (6:5-8)

Re-Creation: Genesis 6:9-11:32

A’ Creation out of chaotic water with divine blessing (6:9-9:19)

B’ Sin involving nakedness, seeing/covering nakedness; curse (9:20-23)

C’ Division of humanity into the people of God and the enemies of God (9:24-27)

D’ Descendents of younger, righteous Japheth (10:1-5)

E’ Descendents of sinful son Ham: builds multiple cities (10:6-20)

F’ Descendents of chosen son Shem: ten generations to Terah (10:21-32)

G’ Downfall: unlawful union – men / government (11:1-9)

H’ Brief introduction to a faithful savior, Abram (11:27-32)

This careful arrangement contends for the unified authorship of Moses. It also shows us that at the beginning of the Bible, God gives us a clear reason for reading the Bible typologically—God intends to recycle patterns, figures, and events throughout Scripture and history.

For instance, Noah’s role as savior will be repeated in Moses, passing through the Red Sea with the nation of Israel. And when Peter speaks of Christian baptism, he relates Jesus to Noah. In short, the opening section of Scripture (Gen 1–11) not only tells us that God created the world good and that sin made it bad. It also gives us a pattern to watch in the outworking of redemptive history—salvation comes through judgment and most specifically through a righteous mediator like Noah and Abram (cf. Gen 15:6).

Of course, this sort of approach to Scripture can only be maintained if the Lord himself inspired the authors of the biblical text (cf. 2 Tim 3:16; 2 Pet 1:19–21). Those who advocate the documentary hypothesis or that Genesis 1-11 is a myth deny this, but when we see literary and theological cohesion of Genesis 1–11 there is great reason to believe Moses crafted these words under the inspiration of the Spirit, just like the New Testament says he did.

The Story of Noah (Genesis 6:9–9:19)

Not only do we find intentional ‘shaping’ in all of Genesis 1–11, we also see that there is a specific literary form—what is often called a chiasmus—at work in Genesis 6:9–9:19. Most recently, Joe Carter spotlighted this literary arrangement in his article “Nine Things You Should Know About the Story of Noah” (see also J. Gordon Wenham (Genesis 1–15156-57) who cites B. W. Anderson’s research; Wenham also indicates a handful of other literary and linguistic keys to the unity of the Noah story).

Here is the chiasmus, as observed by Joe Carter.

A   Noah (9-10a)
B      Shem, Ham, and Japheth (10b)
C         Ark to be built (14-16)
D            Flood announced (17)
E               Covenant with Noah (18-20)
F                  Food in the Ark (21)
G                   Command to enter the Ark (7.1-3)
H                      7 days waiting for flood (4-5)
I                         7 days waiting for flood (7-10)
J                            Entry to ark (11-15)
K                             Yahweh shuts Noah in (16)
L                                40 days flood (17a)
M                                 Waters increase (17b-18)
N                                     Mountains covered (18-20)
O                                        150 days waters prevail (21-24)
P                                       GOD REMEMBERS NOAH (8.1)
O’                                       150 days waters abate (3)
N’                                    Mountain tops become visible (4-5)
M’                                Waters abate (6)
L’                             40 days (end of) (6a)
K’                            Noah opens window of ark (6b)
J’                           Raven and dove leave ark (7-9)
I’                        7 days waiting for waters to subside (10-11)
H’                    7 days waiting for waters to subside (12-13)
G’                 Command to leave the ark (15-17)
F’                Food outside the ark (9.1-4)
E’             Covenant with all flesh (8-10)
D’          No flood in future (11-17)
C’        Ark (18a)
B’      Shem, Ham, Japheth (18b)
A’   Noah (19)

While many interpreters of Genesis suggest that various strands of material have been spliced together in Genesis 1–11, the literary arrangement argues for the singular authorship of Moses who has artfully told the flood narrative. Of course, there are parts in the Genesis 6–9 that pick up other traditions, but that does not mean that Genesis is a pastiche of religious fragments. Just the reverse, Moses under the inspiration of the Spirit is making a theological point.

For example, when Moses writes that God shut Noah in the ark (Gen 7:16), this emphasizes the divine agency of Noah’s salvation. “[The Epic of] Gilgamesh (11:93) mentions that Utnapishtim shut the door. Genesis, by ascribing the action to the LORD, reiterates that Noah was saved by divine grace, not by his wisdom or heroic efforts” (Wenham, Genesis 1–15, 182). Countless illustrations like this one can be adduced to show how Genesis was written in awareness of other religious accounts, but never in seeking to copy them.

All in all, what these literary shapes suggest is the original unity of the biblical narrative and the authenticity of a singular author (Moses) who wrote them, just as Jesus and the other New Testament authors assert. By observing these literary structures it not only gives us greater confidence in the authenticity of God’s word, it also helps us understand the meaning of God’s word, and in relationship with the rest of the Scriptures, it helps us to see what is most important. In the case of the Noahic story, the central feature of God’s remembrance initiates a paradigm that continues throughout Scripture—God remembers his covenant people (Gen 19:29; 30:22; Exod 2:24; 6:5) and when he remembers them he comes to deliver them from harm, just as in the case of Noah.

Soli Deo Gloria, dss