On Sunday, I mentioned that one of the ways I read the first portion of Genesis is through something I called The Creation Cycles. Here is a basic summary of the structure:
- The Earth Cycle (1-4)
- Opening Summary (1:1)
- Earth as Creation: The Annals (toledeth) of the Earth (1:2-2:4)
- Earth as Creature: The Annals of Adam (2:5-5:2)
- The Flood Cycle (5-11)
- Transitional Genealogies (5:3-5:32)
- Earth Cleansed: The Annals of Noah (6:1-10:32)
- Earth Corrupted: The City and Tower of Babel (11:1-9)
- The Abraham Cycle (11:10 and on)
- Transitional Genealogies (11:10-26)
- Chosen from the Earth: The Annals of Terah (11:27-32)
The framework continues throughout Genesis, but the core idea is that this is an ever-narrowing focus of God’s economy or household within the Earth itself. What begins with all creation narrows to a single creature (man), then to a family amidst the destruction (Noah) and then a single family in the midst of chaos (Abraham).
The cycles are characterized by two literary devices.
First is the toledoth or “annals” – often translated as “book of the generations of ____.” Generally our modern chapters include these as the headers of sections; but if you read them as the end of sections, there is a very different structure to the book.
Second is the berith or “covenant” which YHWHW makes often with the people he has chosen. Although the word is not used, there is a clear covenant with Adam; and then a more explicitly articulated covenant with both Noah and Abraham. (A series with Abraham, actually.)
There are a number of advantages to thinking of these opening chapters of Genesis as a set of cycles rather than as straightforward modern history. For one thing, this thinking helps us understand the Hebrew mind a little better. We can see that there is an organization to the narrative – a cycle of creation, transformation and covenant that defines why the Hebrews (the descendants of Abraham and some close relatives) become the narrow focus.
For another, the cyclical nature of the book helps us understand the underlying polemic – the attack that is being made on the origin stories of peoples near the Hebrews. Make no mistake about it. The Genesis narrative is wholly unique. It is not dependent upon the recently discovered origin myths of Mesopotamia, despite what is often argued by “scholars.” The presence of a single, unaided Deity as both Creator and Redeemer is unique, as is the way in which that Deity chooses to interact with mankind.