In this excerpt from the introduction of The Universal Story: Genesis 1–11, Dru Johnson explores why Genesis 1–11 doesn’t plainly explain, prove, or disprove some of the biggest questions human beings wrestle with about creation and the cosmos.
Genesis 1–11 is outlandish in its scope. The opening chapters parade stories of humanity intertwined with the most intriguing subjects we still wrestle with today: the beginning of the cosmos, the nature of humanity, family, sex, deceit, death, murder, mass murder, ecology, agriculture, urbanization, and more. No topic seems to escape the sweeping narratives of Israel’s initial history. This early history is the story of humanity, but also the story of “all creatures of our God and King,” as Saint Francis once put it.1 It is the story of astronomers, entomologists, cartographers, historians, and social workers because it seeks to explain place, history, and the lineage of every human endeavor. It is the story of stories, because it is a story about how all of these things came to be the way the Hebrews knew them to be, and the way we know them today. In other words, all stories about life and reality in this universe are in some way subsumed under the early history of Israel’s Scripture. For that reason, Genesis 1–11 speaks in some significant way to all endeavors in the cosmos—even things such as evolutionary theory and sexuality (see chapters 8 and 9).
Why this beginning to the story of Israel? The text of Genesis 1–11 is bizarre by most ancient and modern standards. For instance, Genesis spends just two chapters on creation (Gen 1–2), yet twelve chapters on Joseph (Gen 37; 39–50), who isn’t even one of the three Patriarchs. Beyond that, the creation account focuses narrowly on light, land, water, and sky before addressing the heavens, stars, and moon. Untold animals fill the earth with the cryptic command to “be fruitful . . . according to their kind” (Gen 1:22, 24). The initial history of Israel then springs from the account of humanity’s origins, raising questions about life, the good, family, polygamy, etc. After Eden, the questions of incest (Gen 4:17) and polygamy (Gen 4:23) only tease our interests slightly less than jealousy that leads to murder (Gen 4:23), which then leads to exile and wandering (Gen 4:13). The Creator nearly destroys humanity for crimes that are never explicitly revealed to us (Gen 6:5, 11).
And though one righteous man, Noah, is chosen to represent humanity reborn from the flood, we only see his children in their worst moments, defying God in the city of Babel. All of these accounts are interwoven with genealogies that connect the storylines together.
As modern readers, we want the text to plainly explain, prove, or disprove big bang cosmology, natural selection, genetics, and more. Yet, we want Genesis to do this in a direct and objective historical report. Instead, we get highly stylized accounts that focus laser-like on a few events and people for the sake of telling the story of Israel and the world. This can be frustrating for readers who are looking to these texts for “plain historical truth” written in the idiosyncratic way we have come to think about history in the last century or two.
What can be said on behalf of Genesis? Even today, all writing is stylized for the purpose of its author, from articles in the New York Times to love poems scrawled on bathroom walls. We must consider that, of the millions of details and stories that the biblical authors could have included in these texts, they chose these details and these stories to relate the story of the universe to us. Hence, we should submit to the wisdom of the biblical author, knowing that God speaks to us through these stories and not the ones we wish he had told.
Understanding Genesis 1–11 on its own terms has tremendous benefits for reading Scripture. When we see what is being very intentionally laid out in this early history of Israel, we will also be able to see how that informs the rest of biblical history—including the exodus, the kings of Israel, the exile, the Gospels, and early Church.
I invite you to explore with me these bizarre and ancient stories meant to frame the story of God and his plan for Earth and humanity. Through these stories, God speaks and pleads with us. In this endeavor, let us learn how to listen and hear God’s voice well in Genesis 1–11 so that we can better hear throughout the rest of Scripture.