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The Primeval History (Genesis 3-11)

“… these stories describe what we might call the ‘ambivalence’ of human existence… the exchange of human closeness for a hierarchy within humanity (Gen 3:16); the experience of being elevated or demoted, independent of human accomplishment, which leads to deadly violence among brothers [and sisters] (Gen 4:1–16); and finally, the advancement of humankind (Gen 3:22) and humanity’s cultural progress (Gen 3:21;4:17,20–22) through discovering practical knowledge (Gen3:7), while at the same time alienating itself from God (Gen 3:24; 4:11, 14) and experiencing a rise in violence (Gen 4:8, 14–15, 23–24). The episode about the sons of God and human women (Gen 6:1–4) combines the topics already mentioned in the Eden narrative, i.e. humanity’s decrepitude and the (sexual) delineation of the human from the divine realm, a topic picked up again later in the story of the Tower of Babel (Gen 11:1–9). Finally, categorical statements about the predominance of violence as well as about human nature serve as a frame for the extensive narrative of the flood (Gen 6:5–9:17). The irreversible disposition of humankind towards evil and the excess of violence provoke God’s decision to undo his creation (Gen 6:5–7, 11–13) and—after the end of the flood—will evoke the weary statement of God regarding the post-diluvian world (Gen 8:21).” (Jan Christian Gertz, “The Formation of the Primeval History” in The Book of Genesis: Composition, Reception and Interpretation, p. 108)

“Toledot” (account, generation) formula

The formula structures Genesis and is used to introduce ten sections that focus on the named character’s descendants or impact on the subsequent narrative.

  • Toledot of the Heavens and Earth (2:4-4:26)
  • Toledot of Adam (5:1-6:8)
  • Toledot of Noah (6:9-9:29)
  • Toledot of Shem, Ham, and Japheth (10:1-11:9)
  • Toledot of Shem (11:10-26)
  • Toledot of Terah (11:27-25:11)
  • Toledot of Ishmael (25:12-18)
  • Toledot of Isaac (25:19-35:29)
  • Toledot of Esau (36:1-8)
  • Toledot of Esau (36:9-37:1)
  • Toledot of Jacob (37:2-50:26)

The signs of civilization

  • Clothing represents the process of civilization (3:21)
  • Abel is a shepherd and Cain tills the soil (4:2)
  • Cain builds a city (4:17)
  • Jabal oversaw livestock (agriculture) (4:20)
  • Jubal played the lyre and pipe (arts) (4:21)
  • Tubal-Cain made bronze and iron tools (technology) (4:22)

Decline Narratives

  • The first human couple eats the forbidden fruit and is driven out of the Garden (3:6-24).
  • Cain murders his brother and asks if he is his “brother’s keeper” (4:8-9)
  • Lamech is a murderer and polygamist (4:19, 23-24)
  • The blurring of divine-human boundaries (6:1-4), the inclination of human hearts to evil (6:5), and filling the earth with corruption and violence (6:11-13).
  • Making a name for oneself in the tower of Babel (11:1-9)

The “Sons of God”

  • While some interpreters believe the “sons of God” were Seth’s godly descendants of Seth intermarrying with Cain’s wicked line, it is more likely that these are lesser divine beings (cf. Deuteronomy 32:8; Job 1:6; 2:1; Daniel 3:25).
  • The offspring: Nephilim (Genesis 6:4; cf. Numbers 13:33; Deuteronomy 2:10-11)
  • 1 Enoch 1-36 (The Book of Watchers, ca. 225 BCE): based on Genesis 6:1-4, the fallen angels (Watchers) have sexual intercourse with women, producing a species of giants that consume everything in sight. The Watchers are imprisoned in Tartarus until the day of judgment, while the evil spirits that roam the earth are identified with the disembodied spirits of the giants (1 Enoch 15:8-12).
  • The Book of Jubilees (ca. 105 BCE): in its retelling of Genesis and the myth of the Watchers in 1 Enoch, Noah prays that the evil spirits of the giants may be bound in a pit with the Watchers (10:2). Yet the chief of the spirits, Mastema (“enmity”), is permitted to keep some of the spirits in order to test humankind (10:7).

The Flood Narrative

Note: a few flood stories may have been combined in the Genesis account and we will look at this in a later lesson on the Pentateuch sources.

  • In the Mesopotamian Atrahasis epic, the flood was sent so that humans would cease making noise and disturbing the god Enki’s sleep, but the flood was regretted when it was realized that it wiped out the humans who fed the gods by their sacrifices.
  • The biblical narrative describes the flood as a punishment for human wickedness, violence, and corruption.
  • The boundaries separating the waters in the creation narrative have been opened and chaos is unleashed on the land.
  • Noah as a new Adam: Noah and his descendants are divinely commissioned to multiply and fill the earth (9:1, 7), are permitted to eat living creatures (9:2-3), and are prohibited from taking innocent human life or disrespecting life by eating blood (9:4-6).
  • The unconditional promise to never wipe out creation with a flood (9:9-17). The rainbow is a weapon facing towards God as a sign of commitment to the covenant.
  • Noah’s drunkenness, Ham’s sexual transgression, and the curse of Canaan (9:20-27)

The Tower of Babel

  • “Babel” means “confusion” and is the name of Babylon; the story may be a parody of the hubris of the Babylonian Empire.
  • The tower may be modeled on an ancient ziggurats. The tower is small in the sight of Yahweh who has to come down to see it.
  • The desire to make a name for oneself and settle in one place thwarted by the confusion of languages so that they will scatter.


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