ARE the narratives of Genesis history or legend? For the modern historian this is no longer an open question; nevertheless it is important to get a clear notion of the bases of this modern position.
The writing of history is not an innate endowment of the human mind; it arose in the course of human history and at a definite stage of development. Uncivilised races do not write history; they are incapable of reproducing their experiences objectively, and have no interest in leaving to posterity an authentic account of the events of their times. Experiences fade before they are fairly cold, and fact and fancy mingle; only in poetical form, in song and saga, are unlettered tribes able to report historical occurrences. Only at a certain stage of civilisation has objectivity so grown and the interest in transmitting national experiences to posterity so increased that the writing of history becomes possible. Such history has for its subjects great
public events, the deeds of popular leaders and kings, and especially wars. Accordingly some sort of political organisation is an antecedent presumption to the writing of history.
Only in a later, in the main a much later, time is the art of writing history, learned through the practice of writing national histories, applied to other spheres of human life, whence we have memoirs and the histories of families. But considerable sections of the people have never risen to the appreciation of history proper, and have remained in the stage of the saga, or in what in modern times is analogous to saga.
Thus we find among the civilised peoples of antiquity two distinct kinds of historical records side by side: history proper and popular tradition, the latter treating in naive poetical fashion partly the same subjects as the former, and partly the events of older, prehistoric times. And it is not to be forgotten that historical memories may be preserved even in such traditions, although clothed in poetic garb.
Even so did history originate in Israel. In the period from which the Book of Genesis is transmitted to us the art of history had been long established and highly developed according to ancient standards, having for themes, here as everywhere, the deeds of kings and especially wars. A monument of this history is found in the narratives of the Second Book of Samuel.
But in a people with such a highly developed poetical faculty as Israel there must have been a place for saga too. The senseless confusion of "legend" with "lying" has caused good people to
hesitate to concede that there are legends in the Old Testament. But legends are not lies; on the contrary, they are a particular form of poetry. Why should not the lofty spirit of Old Testament religion, which employed so many varieties of poetry, indulge in this form also? For religion everywhere, the Israelite religion included, has especially cherished poetry and poetic narrative, since poetic narrative is much better qualified than prose to be the medium of religious thought. Genesis is a more intensely religious book than the Book of Kings.
There is no denying that there are legends in the Old Testament; consider for instance the stories of Samson and of Jonah. Accordingly it is not a matter of belief or skepticism, but merely a matter of obtaining better knowledge, to examine whether the narratives of Genesis are history or legend.
The objection is raised that Jesus and the Apostles clearly considered these accounts to be fact and not poetry. Suppose they did; the men of the New Testament are not presumed to have been exceptional men in such matters, but shared the point of view of their time. Hence we are not warranted in looking to the New Testament for a solution of questions in the literary history of the Old Testament.
Now, since legend and history are very different in both origin and nature, there are many criteria by which they may be distinguished. One of the chief points of difference is that legend is originally oral tradition, while history is usually found in written form; this is inherent in the nature of the two
species, legend being the tradition of those who are not in the habit of writing, while history, which is a sort of scientific activity, presupposes practice in writing. At the same time the writing down of an historical tradition serves to fix it, whereas oral tradition cannot remain uncorrupted for any length of time and is therefore inadequate to be the vehicle of history.
Now it is evident that Genesis contains the final sublimation into writing of a body of oral traditions. The tales of the patriarchs do not have the air of having been written down by the patriarchs themselves; on the contrary many passages reveal clearly the great interval of time that lies between the period of the patriarchs and that of the narrators. We read frequently the expression "even to this day," as in Genesis xix. 38; the kings of Edom are enumerated down to the time of David, xxxvi. 31 ff.; the sentence "in those days the Canaanites dwelt in the land" must have been written at a time when this race had long since passed away.
But the whole style of the narrative, as is to be shown hereafter, can be understood only on the supposition of its having been oral tradition; this state of the case can be realised especially through the many variants, to be treated in the following pages. But if the contents of Genesis is oral tradition, it is, as the preceding considerations show, legend also.
Another distinguishing feature of legend and history is their different spheres of interest. History treats great public occurrences, while legend deals
with things that interest the common people, with personal and private matters, and is fond of presenting even political affairs and personages so that they will attract popular attention. History would be expected to tell how and for what reasons David succeeded in delivering Israel from the Philistines; legend prefers to tell how the boy David once slew a Philistine giant.
How does the material of Genesis stand in the light of this distinction? With the exception of a single chapter (Chapter xiv), it contains no accounts of great political events, but treats rather the history of a family. We hear a quantity of details, which certainly have for the greater part no value for political history, whether they are attested or not: that Abraham was pious and magnanimous, and that he once put away his concubine to please his wife; that Jacob deceived his brother; that Rachel and Leah were jealous,--"unimportant anecdotes of country life, stories of springs, of watering-troughs, and such as are told in the bed-chamber," attractive enough to read, yet everything but historical occurrences. Such minor incidents aroused no public interest when they took place; the historian does not report them, but popular tradition and legend delight in such details.
In the case of every event that purports to be a credible historical memorandum, it must be possible to explain the connexion between the eye-witness of the event reported and the one who reports it. This is quite different in the case of legend, which depends for its material partly upon tradition and
partly upon imagination. We need only apply this test to the first narratives of Genesis in order to recognise their character straightway. No man was present at the creation of the universe; no human tradition extends back to the period of the origin of our race, of the first peoples and the primitive languages.
In former times, before the deciphering of hieroglyphs and cuneiform writing, it was possible for Israelitic tradition to be regarded as so old that it did not seem absurd to look to it for such reminiscences of prehistoric ages; but now when creation has widened so mightily in our view, when we see that the People of Israel is one of the youngest in the group to which it belongs, there is an end of all such conjectures. Between the origin of the primitive races of southwestern Asia and the appearance of the People of Israel upon the stage of life had rolled unnumbered millenniums; hence there is no room for serious discussion over historical traditions said to be possessed by Israel regarding those primitive times.
The accounts of the patriarchs also give rise to the most serious doubts. According to the tradition the period of the patriarchs is followed by the four hundred years during which Israel lived in Egypt. Nothing is reported from this latter period; historical recollection seems to have been utterly blotted out. And yet we have an abundance of unimportant details regarding the period of the patriarchs. How is it conceivable that a people should preserve a great quantity of the very minutest details from the history of its primitive ancestors and at the same time forget its own national history
for a long period following? It is not possible for oral tradition to preserve an authentic record of such details so vividly and for so long a time. And then, consider these narratives in detail. The question how the reporter could know of the things which he relates cannot be raised in most cases without exciting laughter. How does the reporter of the Deluge pretend to know the depth of the water? Are we to suppose that Noah took soundings? How is anyone supposed to know what God said or thought alone or in the councils of Heaven? (Cp. Genesis i. 2, 18, vi. 3-6 ff., xi. 6 ff.)
The clearest criterion of legend is that it frequently reports things which are quite incredible. This poetry has another sort of probability from that which obtains in prosaic life, and ancient Israel considered many things to be possible which to us seem impossible. Thus many things are reported in Genesis which go directly against our better knowledge: we know that there are too many species of animals for all to have been assembled in any ark; that Ararat is not the highest mountain on earth; that the "firmament of heaven," of which Genesis i. 6 ff. speaks, is not a reality, but an optical illusion; that the stars cannot have come into existence after plants, as Genesis ii. 10-14 reports; that the rivers of the earth do not come chiefly from four principal streams, as Genesis ii. thinks, that the Tigris and the Euphrates have not a common source, that the Dead Sea had been in existence long before human beings came to live in Palestine, instead of originating in historical times, and so on.
Of the many etymologies in Genesis the majority are to be rejected according to the investigations of modern philology. The theory on which the legends of the patriarchs are based, that the nations of the earth originated from the expansion of a single family, in each case from a single ancestor, is quite infantile. 1 Any other conclusion is impossible from the point of view of our modern historical science, which is not a figment of imagination but is based upon the observation of facts. And however cautious the modern historian may be in declaring anything impossible, he may declare with all confidence that animals--serpents and she-asses, for instance--do not speak and never have spoken, that there is no tree whose fruit confers immortality or knowledge, that angels and men do not have carnal connexion, and that a world-conquering army cannot be defeated--as Genesis xiv. declares--with three hundred and eighteen men.
The narratives of Genesis being mostly of a religious nature are constantly speaking of God. Now the manner in which narratives speak of God is one of the surest means of determining whether they are historical or poetic. Here too the historian cannot avoid having a universal point of view. We believe that God works in the universe in the silent and secret background of all things; sometimes his influence seems almost tangible, as in the case of exceptionally great and impressive events and personalities; we divine his control in the marvellous
interdependence of things; but nowhere does he appear as an operative factor beside others, but always as the last and ultimate cause of everything. Very different is the point of view of many of the narratives in Genesis. We find God walking about in the Garden of Eden; with his own hands he fashions man and closes the door of the ark; he even breathes his own breath into man's nostrils, and makes unsuccessful experiments with animals; he scents the sacrifice of Noah; he appears to Abraham and Lot in the guise of a wayfarer, or, as an angel, calls directly out of Heaven. Once, indeed, God appears to Abraham in his proper form, having the appearance of a burning torch and of a smoking baking-pot (the Revised Version in English has here "furnace"). The speeches of God in Genesis are remarkable for the fact that his words are not heard in the obscure moments of intensest human excitement, in the state of ecstasy, as was the case with the prophets when they heard the voice of God, but that God speaks in all respects as does one man to another. We are able to comprehend this as the naive conception of the men of old, but we cannot regard belief in the literal truth of such accounts as an essential of religious conviction.
And these arguments are immensely strengthened when we compare the narratives which on inner evidence we regard as poetry with the specimens which we know of strict Israelitish history. For these violations of probability and even of possibility are not found throughout the Old Testament, but only in certain definite portions possessing a uniform tone, whereas they are not to be found in other portions which for other reasons we regard as more
strictly historical. Consider especially the central portion of the Second Book of Samuel, the history of the rebellion of Absalom, the most exquisite piece of early historical writing in Israel. The world that is there portrayed is the world that we know. In this world iron does not float and serpents do not speak; no god or angel appears like a person among other persons, but everything happens as we are used to seeing things happen. In a word, the distinction between legend and history is not injected into the Old Testament, but is to be found by any attentive reader already present in the Old Testament.
Moreover, it should not be forgotten that many of the legends of the Old Testament are not only similar to those of other nations, but are actually related to them by origin and nature. Now we cannot regard the story of the Deluge in Genesis as history and that of the Babylonians as legend; in fact, the account of the Deluge in Genesis is a younger version of the Babylonian legend. Neither can we reject all other cosmogonies as fiction and defend that of Genesis as history; on the contrary the account of Genesis i., greatly as it differs in its religious spirit from other cosmogonies, is by its literary method closely related to them.
But the important point is and will remain the poetic tone of the narratives. History, which claims to inform us of what has actually happened, is in its very nature prose, while legend is by nature poetry, its aim being to please, to elevate, to inspire and to move. He who wishes to do justice to such
narratives must have some æsthetic faculty, to catch in the telling of a story what it is and what it purports to be. And in doing so he is not expressing a hostile or even skeptical judgment, but simply studying lovingly the nature of his material. Whoever possesses heart and feeling must perceive, for instance in the case of the sacrifice of Isaac, that the important matter is not to establish certain historical facts, but to impart to the hearer the heartrending grief of the father who is commanded to sacrifice his child with his own hand, and then his boundless gratitude and joy when God's mercy releases him from this grievous trial. And every one who perceives the peculiar poetic charm of these old legends must feel irritated by the barbarian--for there are pious barbarians--who thinks he is putting the true value upon these narratives only when he treats them as prose and history.
The conclusion, then, that one of these narratives is legend is by no means intended to detract from the value of the narrative; it only means that the one who pronounces it has perceived somewhat of the poetic beauty of the narrative and thinks that he has thus arrived at an understanding of the story. Only ignorance can regard such a conclusion as irreverent, for it is the judgment of reverence and love. These poetic narratives are the most beautiful possession which a people brings down through the course of its history, and the legends of Israel, especially those of Genesis, are perhaps the most beautiful and most profound ever known on earth.
A child, indeed, unable to distinguish between reality and poetry, loses something when it is told that its dearest stories are "not true." But the
modern theologian should be further developed. The evangelical churches and their chosen representatives would do well not to dispute the fact that Genesis contains legends--as has been done too frequently--but to recognise that the knowledge of this fact is the indispensable condition to an historical understanding of Genesis. This knowledge is already too widely diffused among those trained in historical study ever again to be suppressed. It will surely spread among the masses of our people, for the process is irresistible. Shall not we Evangelicals take care that it be presented to them in the right spirit?
8:1 Compare my Commentary on Genesis, pp. 78 ff.