Event Character and the Early Chapters of Genesis

The debate about the historicity of Adam and Eve, the Fall, the Flood, the Genealogies, the Tower of Babel continues. Faith/science and faith/history discussions are where the discussion seems to be the most pressing. Are these stories in the first chapters of Genesis in any way historical? Some of them, such as the Adam and Eve account and the Fall account in Genesis 2 & 3 are deeply embedded in the confessional documents of certain traditions–namely Reformed and Presbyterian 16th and 17th century confessions and perhaps others. Unless one moves to a very loose confessionalism, these expressions of the Christian faith are committed to historicity if they are committed to their confessional documents.

The Christian Reformed Church in North America (CRCNA) is a denomination that has struggled (and continues to struggle) with how to maintain the historicity of certain events in redemptive history (Adam and Eve’s creation in a state of innocence and their subsequent Fall and the effect of that Fall on the rest of humankind) especially in light of the findings of modern biology, paleontology, and anthropology concerning the origin of human beings which is largely regarded as being full legitimate.

In this post I provide an extended quote from the denomination’s 1991 report on Creation and Science that illustrates what the CRCNA refers to as event character. The point here to to illustrate that the CRCNA affirms some aspect of historicity, but does not claim to locate it precisely in ordinary history. Historicity is deemed to be an important part of what the text is claiming, but any attempt to identify the event with any particular ordinary historical event is doomed to failure because the historical account has been so stylized and adapted to serve an extraordinary redemptive historical purpose.  An earlier report from 1972 on The Nature and Extent of Biblical Authority initially developed the idea in the CRCNA.

What precisely is the character of the Bible’s account of the earliest history of the world and humankind? This question constitutes the nub of the problem we are dealing with, and at present there is no consensus among evangelical biblical scholars. The best we can do is to present an example which we believe does justice to what is known about pre-Abrahamic history, to what Report 44 says about the necessity of distinguishing between an event and the way it is reported even while maintaining the event character of biblical historical narrative, and to the revelational significance of the historical account.

The example is the Tower of Babel story. The traditional interpretation of this account in Genesis 11 seems to conflict with the findings of historical linguistics, for there is a great deal of evidence that the diversity of languages precedes Babylonian culture. Since babel in Hebrew is the standard word for Babylon and since the Tower of Babel very probably refers to a characteristic institution of Babylonian culture, the temple tower (or “ziggurat”), the biblical narrative refers to a civilization which already knew a diversity of languages, such as Akkadian, Sumerian, and Egyptian, to mention only three well-known languages from the Ancient Near East. According to linguistic evidence available today, it would seem that the diversification of language must have taken place long before the rise of the Old Babylonian culture.

Because of this conflict some propose to read the story as a parable illustrating human pride but not as a historical narrative related to an event or to a series of events. But “parable” seems not to do justice to the overall tenor and context of the story, which functions as a part of the broad historical prologue to God’s call of Abraham and the history of God’s chosen people. Thus various other interpretations have been proposed. One suggests that, while the story does indeed concern Babylon, the judgment of God refers not to the origin of languages but to a breakdown in communication. The word translated as ‘language” can refer to “talk” or to “speech” in a more general sense. Then the whole episode speaks of the religious pride of the Old Babylonian empire, centered in the ziggurat dedicated to the god Marduk in the City of Babylon, and of God’s judgment on this proud manifestation of pagan culture. Ultimately it was a breakdown of communication, of mutual understanding, which brought disaster upon the first great empire of recorded history. Others, however, think it necessary to retain the reference to languages and then suggest either that Genesis 11 as a historical event must be assumed to be prior to the table of nations in Genesis 10 or that Genesis 11 should be understood as a history that compresses into a single event a process that elapsed over a period of time. In all of these interpretations connecting Genesis 11 to Babylon, the interpreter is assuming that an extensive and complex historical tableau is being described in a highly stylized manner and from a perspective that compresses history into a single focus to serve the purposes of the history of salvation. In addition, by its use of this history, however stylized the shape of its report, the Bible intends to illumine the basic nature of human history when it is divorced from the God who is Creator and Redeemer. Hence, Babylon continues to serve, even in the book of Revelation, as a symbol of the cities and empires which humanity erects in opposition to God. Beginning with the story of the Tower of Babel, Babylon is both a historical city and, in Augustine’s terms, a symbol of the City of This World in rebellion against the City of God.

Without placing a stamp of approval upon any single interpretation, we suggest that the approaches mentioned above satisfy the requirements of Reformed hermeneutics. Our increased knowledge of early human history has underscored the highly stylized and compressed nature of the biblical account and cautions us against drawing historical inferences unrelated to the revelational intention of the account. In such historiography the Bible does not intend to present the entire history in which the narrative is rooted, and the stylized character of the account prevents us from inferring what the total historical picture may have been. In spite of these limitations imposed on us by the nature of these biblical narratives, the function of the historical narrative concerning the Tower of Babel in the unfolding history of redemption remains clear. In general we can say that the primary intention of the historical narratives in Genesis 1-11 is to serve the understanding of the unfolding history of redemption, not to present us with a detailed history of pre-Abrahamic times.

Notice particularly the last paragraph. There is a recognition that the account is “highly stylized and compressed.” We are cautioned “against drawing historical inferences unrelated to the revelational intention.” We acknowledge that the Biblical account does not “present the entire history” and that we can’t even “infer what the total historical picture may have been.” Nonetheless, the historical character, the event character, of the account remains.

Theologically speaking, there is little difference with so-called non-literal, ahistorical, or symbolic treatments of the text. But the CRCNA insists on the event character (a nuanced historicity) because of the narrative functions in the overarching history of redemption (as summarized by its confessions).

Perhaps this approach is a way forward on some of these issues. Historicity is preserved but there is no expectation that the historical narrative of the early chapters of Genesis can be readily connected with the history of our history books in any precise way.

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