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Historicity of Genesis
By Gary F. Zeolla
Did the events described in the first book of the Bible, the Book of Genesis, actually occur? Before answering that question, a summary of the book would be helpful.
Summary of Genesis
The book of Genesis is divided into two parts. The first part is Genesis chapters 1-11. These chapters record the account of creation, including the creation of humanity, the fall of the first human couple and thus of all creation and their descendants into sin and corruption, the growth of the human population after the Fall, the Flood of Noah, the growth of the human population after the Flood, the building of the Tower of Babel, and the scattering of people afterward.
These events are foundational to the theology of the rest of the Bible and are applicable to all peoples as they are the narratives of the beginnings of all human beings.
Genesis 12-50 then record the call of Abram (later renamed Abraham), various exploits by Abraham and God’s promise to him to make him into a great nation, the birth of Isaac, the son of promise, his life story, the birth of Jacob (later renamed Israel), his life story, including the birth of his twelve sons, whose descendants would become the twelve tribes of the nation of Israel, the story of Jacob’s second-youngest son Joseph, and the entrance of all of Israel into Egypt.
These events are foundational to the Jewish religion and nationality, and consequentially to all peoples, as Israel was to be a beacon to all nations, witnessing to the glory of the one true God. It was also through Israel that the LORD revealed His Word, the books of the Hebrew Bible, known by Christians as the Old Testament, that are for all peoples.
But did any of this happen? The answer to this question involves both scientific and archeological issues that are outside the scope of this article to discuss in detail, but a few points will be mentioned.
The first major issue is to be considered is divine creation versus atheistic evolution. This debate involves both the origin of the universe in general and the origin and development of life on earth. Atheistic evolution (both cosmic and biological evolution) is what is taught today in the public schools and the popular media. It is presented as an absolute fact, as if there were no doubts about it. But there are many doubts, and there are many qualified scientists who do not believe in atheistic evolution.
However, there are different viewpoints among these scientists who doubt atheist evolution. The first viewpoint is young-earth/ young-universe creationism. It asserts that the universe and the earth are only about 6,000 years old. This dating is based on calculations by Bishop James Usher in the 1600s, who, using the genealogy lists and other information in the Bible, arrived at a date of 4004 BC for Creation.
But it is difficult to calculate an exact date for Creation based on the Biblical evidence given the rounding off or ratcheting of numbers, textual variants, and other confounding factors. Allotting for all of the variables, the range for the date of Creation would be 3822 to 5665 BC. But using the simplest calculations and the standard Hebrew text, the date would be 4220 BC. This dates Creation to 6,236 years ago at this writing (“Creation in the 21st Century”).
This viewpoint interprets the “days” of Genesis chapter one as referring to literal, 24-hour days. It does so based on such being the most natural meaning of the text, especially given the “evening and morning” phrase. Life on earth thus began very quickly, with all of the variations of life seen today and throughout history developing from the “kinds” that were created during creation week.
Central to this viewpoint is a belief in the Flood of Noah as having happened just as described in the Bible of being a worldwide flood. It is this flood that is mostly responsible for the rock layers. This viewpoint interprets the early chapters of Genesis in a strictly literal manner.
Notable scientists promoting this viewpoint are Dr. Duane Gish, Dr. Ken Ham, Dr. Marcus Ross, Dr. Robert Carter, and many others. Organizations and websites that promote this viewpoint are: Answers in Genesis, Institute for Creation Research, Creation Ministries International, Creation Wiki, and Creation Today.
In other media, the Institute for Creation Research (ICR) airs a radio show called Science Facts on Sunday mornings at 6:00 am. It airs on Bott Radio Network, which is available on the iHeart app and on Bott’s own app. The long-running TV show Origins broadcast on this writer’s local Christian TV network WPCB in Pittsburgh, PA also promotes this viewpoint. Dr. Ray Heiple is the new host, with various creationist scientists as guests. Another TV show is TBN’s Creation in the 21st Century, hosted by David Rives, with again, various creationist scientists as guests.
A second viewpoint is called old-earth/ old-universe creationism. It accepts the idea that the universe is about 13 billion years old and the earth about 4.5 billion years old and that life has existed on earth for millions or billions of years. It also accepts the idea that the rock layers were laid down over eons of time as claimed by atheistic evolutionists.
This viewpoint interprets the days of Genesis one as referring to long eons of time. It does so by recognizing the Hebrew word (yom) does not necessarily mean a 24-hour period, but is used for a long period of time elsewhere in the Bible (e.g., Ps 23:6 [“forever” is literally “length of days”]; Psalm 90:4, “For a thousand years in Your eyes [are] as the day.”). Moreover, all of the events of day six could not have occurred in 24 hours. However, this viewpoint asserts, “God miraculously created the universe from nothing (ex nihilo), created life from non-life, and progressively intervened in history to supernaturally create new species of life” (God and Science).
Notable proponents of this viewpoint are Dr. Hugh Ross and Dr. Stephen C. Meyer (author of Darwin’s Doubt). Websites that promote this viewpoint are God and Science, Reasons to Believe, and Old Earth Ministries. Another resource that provides evidences for this viewpoint is the John Ankerberg TV show seen on various Christian TV networks, with audio replays available via his smart phone app and website.
An intriguing viewpoint combines these two and asserts a young earth but an old universe. How this can be is very complex, so it will not be pursued here. But this viewpoint has been mentioned on Ankerberg’s TV show.
A variant of the old-earth/ old-universe viewpoint is intelligent design (ID). It asserts the universe and life could only have come about due to an intelligence behind it, as they are far too intricate to have developed without divine intervention. But this viewpoint does not necessary assert this intelligence is a divine being, let alone the God of the Bible. However, some scientists who call themselves by this name would assert this intelligence can only be the God of the Bible and thus would more be classified as old-earth creationists. It would thus be hard to separate proponents of these two viewpoints.
Moving further from a purely creationist viewpoint is theistic evolution. This viewpoint accepts most of the tenets of atheistic evolution, except it claims a divine Being must be involved for the whole system to work.
Young-earth/ young-universe, old-earth/ old-universe, and young-earth/ old-universe creationism are all compatible with a belief in the inspiration and reliability of the Bible. All these viewpoints have many adherents, both among scientists and among lay Jews and Christians. The other two are compromise positions that try to accommodate the teaching of the Bible with that of atheistic evolution and thus would not be fully compatible with a belief in the integrity of the Bible.
This is a complex issue, but one which this writer would encourage the reader to keep an open mind about and to pursue the aforementioned resources. I personally have studied this issue sufficiently to know I do not agree with atheistic evolution, but I have not come to decision between the different creationism viewpoints.
Simply put, to believe in atheistic evolution, you must believe something can come from nothing, order can come from disorder, life from non-life, complexity from simplicity, information from non-information, intelligence from non-intelligence, personality from non-personality, and morality from amorality. To me, such is incredulous. It makes much more sense that all of these came from the almighty, eternal God, who exists outside of time and who is intelligent, personal and the source of right and wrong, and thus can form matter, order, complexity, and information and human beings in His image as intelligent, personal beings with a sense of right and wrong.
Once you get past the first major section of Genesis and come to the second, the question of if these events actually happened becomes one of a debate about archeological findings. Over the years, I have heard and read of many archeological findings that are said to support the Genesis narratives of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph. But I have heard just as many claim archeological evidence does not support these narratives.
To be clear, it is very unlikely that any evidence would be found directly supporting any specific narrative. The time period of these events is from 2166-1806 BC. That is a long time ago, and records of any specific events would be hard to find. This is especially the case since, with the exception of Joseph, none of these characters were kings, pharaohs, or other highly ranked government officials for which records would be kept. But what archeology can do is show the general culture as described in Genesis fits with what archeological shows the culture of those times was like. But even then, debates abound as to if archeology supports or contradicts the Biblical narratives. Simply put, two people can look at the same evidence and draw two completely different conclusions.
As an example I will address something that was mentioned in passing in an episode of The Big Bang Theory TV show in 2014. In it, Sheldon, on his way to his mother’s house (who is a fundamentalist Christian) remarks that maybe he should bring up with her that archeology has proven the Bible false as there were no camels in Mesopotamia at the time of Abraham. What he was referring to is the following:
Professors Erez Ben-Yosef and Lidar Sapir-Hen, archaeologists from Tel Aviv University in Israel, recently published a study after radiocarbon dating camel bones uncovered during excavations in the Aravah Valley -- an area on the border of Israel and the Arabian Peninsula, and one of the most logical spots where camels would have first been introduced into the country. Excavations uncovered the oldest camel bones yet found in Israel, and these dated no earlier than 940 BC -- at least 500 years later than when they are described in the Bible (CNN).
What is being asserted here is there is evidence of camels being in Mesopotamia in 940 BC, but there is no evidence of camels before this time and thus at the time of Abraham. As such, it has been claimed this proves Abraham could not have owned camels as Genesis asserts. But an often-used truism applies here: “absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.” In other words, just because there is no evidence for something does not prove that something is not true or does not exist.
In this case, the absence of evidence of camels in the third millennium BC in Mesopotamia actually supports the Biblical narrative. Elsewhere, the article from CNN correctly points out that camels “represent great wealth.” Abraham first acquires camels when he is in Egypt. They are given to him by Pharaoh and his princes, people of great wealth (Gen 12:14-16). Then when Abraham sends his servant to attain a wife for Isaac, he sends him off with camels to show prospective women and their families his and thus his son’s great wealth. And it works. This impressive display figures prominently in the servant returning with just the right woman for Isaac (Gen 24:1-67). I discuss this narrative in detail in my book The LORD Has It Under Control: What the Bible Teaches About the Sovereignty of God.
The only other mention of camels in Genesis is when Joseph has been thrown into a pit by his brothers. As they are deliberating what to do next, the following happens:
25Then they sat down to eat bread; and having looked up with their eyes they saw, and behold, Ishmaelites travelers were coming from Gilead [LXX, Galaad], and their camels were filled [or, heavily loaded] with spices [or, incense] and resin and oil of myrrh; and they were going to bring [them] to Egypt (Genesis 37:25; ALT).
Given the description, these Ishmaelites travelers were obviously very prosperous, as the mentioned items were very expensive. This is why myrrh was given to Jesus at His birth, along with gold. The one was as valuable as the other (Matt 2:11).
The point is, if only the very rich had camels, then their number would not have been near as great as if they were pack animals owned by the common person, as the rich were very few in number but the poor very great in number. Thus with just a few rich people having just a few camels, it would be expected that no remains of these animals would be found, but it would be quite astonishing if any remains were found. Thus the claim of disproof of the Bible due to the lack of evidence of camels by Sheldon and others in this regard is unwarranted and in fact the exact opposite. It supports the Biblical narrative.
That said; there have been many archeological findings that could easily be interpreted as supporting Biblical narratives, including those in Genesis. I give short descriptions of many such findings in Scripture Study #3, “The Reliability of the Scriptures” in my Scripture Workbook: For Personal and Group Bible Study and Teaching the Bible: Second Edition. God-willing, I will expand on that chapter in my proposed book Authority, Reliability, and Consistency of the Scriptures (see Writing Plans).
In the meantime, a couple of resources for study of this issue is the Biblical Archeology Society, which publishes a bi-monthly magazine and numerous books, and Associates for Biblical Resource, which also publishes many books. Other Jewish and Christian websites regularly present articles about archeological findings and can be found with some Googling.
The point is, as with creation versus evolution, keep an open mind and take the time to do some research. And most of all, don’t believe everything you hear in the popular media. There is much evidence supporting the historicity of Genesis. You just have to look for it.
The importance of this is with Genesis providing reliable history, it describes the origin and growth of the Hebrew race. This, along with its teaching about the nature of God, is why it became the first book in the Hebrew canon, as it is foundational to the Israelites’ national and theological identity.
The preceding article is excerpted from Chapter One of my book Why Are These Books in the Bible and Not Others? Volume One A Translator’s Perspective on the Canon of the Old Testament.
There are two other volumes in the set:
Why Are These Books in the Bible and Not Others? Volume Two: A Translator’s Perspective on the Canon of the New Testament.
Why Are These Books in the Bible and Not Others? Volume Three: The Apostolic Fathers and the New Testament Apocrypha.
Bible quote from Analytical-Literal Translation of the Old Testament: Volume I: The Torah. Copyright © 2012 by Gary F. Zeolla (www.Zeolla.org).
“Creation in the 21st Century.” TV show seen on TBN. 10/16/16.
CNN. Do camel bones discredit the bible?
God and Science. A Biblical Case for Old-Earth Creationism.
The above article was posted on this Web site November 1, 2017.
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