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Genesis Text:   Response or Documentary?   Allegory or Narrative?

When reading a novel, you already know that it is fiction. Even if it is inspired by actual events, a novel is fiction. This means that the text is classified as being in the fiction narrative genre. When reading a children's fiction book to a child, it generally carries more than just an entertainment value; there is usually an accompanying educational element within the story. Such books can sometimes be ended with the popular phrase "The moral of the story is..." as a way of emphasizing an underlying principle that was intended to be communicated in the book.

The ever popular story The Boy Who Cried Wolf is a classic case of a story that was designed with the intention of supplying an underlying principle: avoid setting off false alarms because if you do, you risk encountering a lack of response from others when it is time to set off the real alarm. While the story is disturbingly entertaining, there is no claim of the story being a factual account of an actual incident. If it was related to an actual event, then the genre classification of the story would be a historical narrative.

Role of Allegory
Ancient Hebrew education system was non-existent, as was the case with most ancient ethnic groups and civilizations. The method of education most predominate was through the use of allegory. The advantages of allegory included:

  • Usually provided an element of entertainment.
  • The story was easy to remember so that it could be passed on.
  • Underlying principle(s) communicated via the allegory was used for teaching a lesson.
In our current literalistic culture grounded in an era of instant information, the role of allegory has been reduced to cliches. Interest in the arts and theatre is not as prevalent as it was in the past due to the interpretive skills required of the audience. We don't want to have to figure out the message...we want it delivered up front and with utmost clarity. This affects how we interpret ancient literature and artwork.

Authorial Intent
When looking at the situation of the Hebrew people at the time that the Genesis creation passages were authored, we can gain better insight as to what the author was intending. Part of the challenge of studying an ancient text is uncovering what the author was trying to communicate.

How do we obtain meaning from biblical text? Through a variety of contributing factors, primarily:

  • Our worldview.
  • Our theological understanding.
  • Our understanding of the author's worldview.
How can we know that our interpretation matches the meaning intended by the author? By trying to determine authorial intent. This starts with a detailed study of the third factor above: the author's worldview. Because we are so far removed from the ancient authors by gaps such as cultural differences, linguistic differences, modern vs. ancient mentality differences, time, educational processes, etc…, extracting authorial intent from some biblical texts is an intense challenge.

Since we cannot knowingly obtain certainty of authorial intent with some biblical texts, we must rely on probability as a means of measurement. The academic realm is alive with discussion and debate on questionable interpretations. Biblical scholars and theologians use academic journals to publish their analyses on textual meaning. Other scholars can read these viewpoints, evaluate them in light of probability, and accept or reject them. In many cases, scholars will respond in future journal articles in an attempt to refute, support, or modify an initial viewpoint.

The challenge becomes even greater when dealing with a text that is separated from the reader by gaps such as language, culture and society, generation and time, and differing worldviews. As a result, we must be careful about how much of our own personal background, cultural and societal influences, and worldview we permit to influence our interpretation of the ancient text. The diagram below illustrates the five-part relationship involved in the transmission of commmunication.

The objective here is to equate the intended meaning with the extracted meaning as much as possible. With regard to the Bible, this objective is easy with some passages, while quite difficult with others. Most people tend to agree that the book of Revelation is one of the most difficult biblical texts to understand, whereas the historical narratives in the book of Acts are quite easy to understand due to their factual, straight-forward context. If the Genesis creation accounts are to be treated as historical narratives, then interpretation would be quite easy. However, the writing styles of both resemble allegory more so than historical narrative. By digging for the intent of the author, a better understanding of the appropriate genre can be reached, as well as a deeper meaning.

Neglect of authorial intent can lead to controversial interpretations where meaning is not deemed clear. A literal or prima facie interpretation may be an injustice to a text without first examining the situation surrounding the author. To gain a better understanding of what the author (or authors) of the Genesis creation text were encountering, let's first look at what the Hebrew's neighbors believed about the spiritual realm and the origin of existence (discussed in section below entitled Neighboring Cosmologies).

The Two Creation Accounts in Genesis
The first creation account is Genesis 1:1 - 2:3, and the second account is Genesis 2:4 - 2:25. If both accounts are interpreted literally, then the sequence of events are not synchronized.  

First Genesis Creation Account

Second Genesis Creation Account


No water (dry land)


Sun, moon, and stars

Sun, moon, and stars


Birds and fish

Animals and vegetation

Animals and humans (male and female)


The Creationists tend to interpret literally the first account and only the latter half of the second account. The real question is, why were there two separate creation accounts? Because there were two neighboring cutlural views regarding how everything came into being. Thus, the Hebrew people had been exposed to two cosmologies during their exile events.

Neighboring Cosmologies
The two Cosmologies to which the Hebrew people were exposed were from their neigbors:

Egyptian (First Exilic Era)
Babylonian (Second Exilic Era)

Both cosmologies had similar traits:

  • multiple deities
  • creation was unintentional
  • deities were both good and evil
  • deities were finite beings

 The table below compares the three ancient cosmologies. 


Enuma Elish




Apsu, Tiamat, Lahmu, Lahamu, Ea/Enki, Anu, Enlil, Ninurta, and Marduk

Atum, Shu, Tefnut, Geb, and Nut


Deity Sovereignty





Good and Evil

Good and Evil


Cause of Creation




First Human





Son kills father, grandson kills grandmother

Brother kills brother

Brother kills brother

The similarities between the first Genesis account and the Enuma Elish are stronger than similarities with the Egyptian account. Thus, it is believed that the first Genesis account was written during the second exilic era (when the Babylonians conquered Jerusalem). However, if the first account was written during the first exilic era (when the Jews were slaves to Egypt), the purpose of the account does not change since the Egyptian religion was just as polytheistic as the Babylonian religion, and equally idolatrous. The majority of biblical scholars agree that the first account was written during the second exilic period.

Conclusion - The Deeper Meaning
The deeper meaning of the Genesis creation accounts is this: the accounts served as a response to the idolatrous and polytheistic impersonal neighboring religions and cosmologies. The authors of these accounts  were attempting to distinguish the personal  monotheistic Hebrew religion by contrasting the infinite, omnibenevolent, loving God against the impersonal finite deities of the neighboring religions. All this was done with the power of allegory. Thus, the accounts were easy to remember so that they could be passed down through generations so that the Hebrew children would understand that while their neighboring cultures are bowing before statues, they are worshiping a true God who loves them.

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