Since my undergraduate years, I have been griping and complaining about the dirth of quality history books that take the Bible seriously. I kept telling myself that someone would come along and connect the dots, but it has not happened since. So I have decided to use some of my time to write one.
Every monday, I will post a new section of the work on the blog. (I will try to anyway). Keep in mind that this is a developing project, so that means pieces may be a little out of place. I would appreciate any feedback my readers have.
The Stories of Man As They Are Told
Depending on your upbringing, you may be been told two very different stories about the rise of mankind. The vast majority of people have heard one story from their teachers, textbooks, college professors, and most media outlets. A minority of people have heard a different story from pastors, priests, Sunday School teachers and other religious leaders.
Story #1: The “Christian” Story
According to most conservative Christians who claim to interpret the Bible literally, the world was created in 4004 BC. God created it in six days, then Adam and Eve fell and the world descended into chaos. Because of the sin in the world, God wiped out everyone except Noah and his family in a global flood and started again around 3000 BC. People lived for awhile, the Patriarchs had kids and eventually we enter the time period of other written historical records.
I put the word Christian in quotation marks at the heading of this section because not all people who consider themselves Christians hold to it. Some reject the six literal days; and others reject the flood theory. Even others try to synthesize this narrative with the ideas of cosmological and biological evolution. But for the most part, this is what conservative Christians believe.
Story #2: The “Secular” Story
According to modern archaeological and historical theories, homo sapien emerged from Africa sometime between 200,000 and 130,000 years ago. We walked across the world, displacing previous homonids and eventually taking over human evolution.
Around 13,000 years ago, we started to settle down and plant farms and domesticate animals. Then, around 6,000 years ago, a few of us started to write down what we were doing, and the rest is – as they say – history.
The Reason for This Book
It doesn’t even take a homo sapien of superior intelligence to know that these two stories are incomplete. For one thing, they ignore virtually the development of prehistoric human culture in every part of the world except the Middle East. But that aside, neither is really very complete.
For the sake of space, I have obviously abbreviated the stories but I believe the essence of both theories is there. We have two seemingly irreconcilable theories. They are irreconcilable in terms of time frame, chronology, and historical verifiability. In short, one or the other is correct.
Every attempt to synthesize these two stories has failed miserably. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, a legion of Biblical archaeologists attempted to make what they were discovering fit with their Holy Writ. By contrast, a legion of secularists used their findings to mock the Bible. And therein lies the problem.
The early commentators on the Bible and archaeology were biased toward the Bible. They believed (perhaps rightly so) that the Bible was absolutely historical. But this belief, while admirable, blinded them to the possibilities that their interpretations of the Bible’s historicity might have been flawed.
On the other side of things, the secularists were so convinced that the Bible was primarily religious that they could not accept anything that might validate it. As a result, they became blinded to the possibility that the Bible could be the oldest, best preserved record of human prehistory we have.
Both sides felt threatened by the other side, so rather than enter into what could have been a meaningful dialogue, they attacked one another and eventually divided themselves so completely that before too long they were casting doubt on each other’s theories from so far away that neither could even acknowledge the other’s attacks.
A New Meaning of Literalism
What if there is a way for a Christian (and I am a Christian) to read the earliest texts of the Bible without thinking of them as a primarily religious text?
One of the dangers of treating these ancient texts as religious is that we treat them as if they represent our religion. In other words, many literalists read the pre-Hebrew Scriptures as if they were written by modern Christians. They develop a sort of presentist hyper-literalism that blinds them to the true nature of the texts they are reading.
In order to illustrate this, consider the narrative of Cain and Abel which appears in Genesis 4. We will visit this text again in greater detail, but for now let’s just consider the underlying concepts in this story some of you learned in Sunday School.
- Adam and Eve are cast out of the Garden of Eden and caused to work the land.
- Adam and Eve have two sons. Cain is the older; Abel the younger.
- Cain becomes a farmer; Abel becomes a herder of sheep.
- Both offer sacrifices to their God. Cain’s is rejected so he kills his brother.
- When God calls Cain on his act, Cain flees to a land in the east called “Nod.”
We can choose to read this literally in the modern sense and come to the conclusion that Cain and Abel must be historical individuals and this is a single, local event in the lives of two people.
Or, we can allegorize the story as a morality tale, as most secularists do, and smiling patronizingly at the silly Christians and Jews who view it as a literal event.
There is, however, a third way to approach the text. Ancients would often embody cultural movements in a narrative form. If this is the genre that we are reading, then we need to see it as such. Perhaps the most literal way to read this is to read it as a sort of personalized drama reflecting a greater story.
We do know that in the 9th millennium BC, the hunter-gatherers of the Fertile Crescent had transitioned into farmers and had begun domesticating the local founder crops (more on this term later) of cereals and pulses. This had given rise, in turn, to the domestication of animals.
The development of such revolutionary technology – and domestication of wild flora and fauna was revolutionary – increased the population density of the region significantly. Quickly, the farmers and herdsmen might have come into conflict. You can imagine how frustrating it might have been for ancient farmers who were literally carving a life out of the rock to find their crops eaten by the shepherd’s flock.
Thus, the story of Cain and Abel might very well be drawn from an actual event but it also shows a much greater concept of tremendous import to humanity – the violent emergence of civilization from the previous hunter-gatherers societies.
What I Hope You Take Away from This
In this book, we will see how many of the people and events of the early portion of Genesis can be tied into the major social and cultural developments of the Fertile Crescent societies in the late Neolithic Period and early Bronze Age. Prayerfully, the reader will also see that perhaps the most literal way to interpret these narratives is to understand the world in which they arose and try to read them as they were read by their original audiences.
This last goal is difficult when dealing with Genesis because we are so far removed from the early audiences. After all, if the Cain and Abel story does apply to the emergence of agriculture in the Fertile Crescent, it may be as much as 10,000 years old! Human culture has evolved immensely since then and not all for the better.
One last note for those of you who might be reading this and preparing your defenses of your particular version of the story. Nothing in this book is meant to be definitive. This is an alternative theory and nothing more. No one needs to agree with the information we will provide; but hopefully it will open the doors for a greater discussion and a broader debate on these topics. This would certainly be preferable to the myopic and often self-defeating debates which have raged over the past two centuries on this issue.