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Are Genesis Chapters 1 - 11 History?

Julian Spriggs M.A.

The early chapters of the Book of Genesis are frequently dismissed as being myths or fables, with no historical basis. People including Adam, Abel, Enoch and Noah, and events such as the flood included in these chapters are considered to be merely fictional with some spiritual meaning. However, through the rest of the Bible all these are regularly referred to as being completely historical. They are treated no differently to the other events and personalities in the Old Testament. The only significant event not mentioned later in the Bible is the tower of Babel and the scattering of the nations.

Creation in six days

In the Ten Commandments, the establishment of the Sabbath is based on the fact that God created the world in six days and rested on the seventh. “Remember the Sabbath day, and keep it holy. Six days you shall labour and do all your work. But the seventh day is a Sabbath to the LORD your God; you shall not do any work ... For in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested on the seventh day; therefore the LORD blessed the Sabbath day and consecrated it.” (Ex 20:8-11).

God repeated the Sabbath law following the instructions for the building of the tabernacle. “It (the Sabbath) is a sign forever between me and the people of Israel that in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, and on the seventh day he rested, and was refreshed” (Ex 31:12-17). The two tablets of stone listing the ten commandments were written with the finger of God (31:18). If the finger of God wrote the Ten Commandments, including creation in six days, we need to be very cautious about dismissing this as fictitious.

There is much debate and argument about whether the days of creation were literal 24 hour days, or whether they each represent vast periods of time. Hebrew experts say that it is very difficult to justify “Yom”, the Hebrew word for day, to be anything other than 24 hours, or the daylight period. The six days of the working week and the Sabbath are obviously 24 hour physical days. It would be illogical for these to be based on anything other than a 24 hour day of creation.

The establishment of the Sabbath, based on the six days of creation, gives the world-wide structure of a seven day week. Other units of time measurement, such as the day, month and year are all based on the movement of astronomical bodes, such as the sun, earth and moon. Apart from the phases of the moon, there is no astronomical reason for the universal seven day week.

Adam and Eve

An important part of Paul’s argument in the Book of Romans is that the death of Jesus reversed the sin of Adam. Adam is described as, “a type of the one who was to come” (Rom 5:14). An Old Testament type is any person, event or object which was real and physical in its time, but which points towards some aspect of the life and work of Jesus. So for Adam to be a type of Jesus, he had to be a real person, not merely a myth or legend. For more information about types, please see the Types of Jesus page.

If Adam was only a mythical figure, it would severely weaken the contrast and analogy Paul makes with the truly historical person of Christ, and undermine the truth of the Gospel.

Paul makes a similar point in 1 Corinthians in his defence of the physical resurrection of Jesus. “For since death came through a human being, the resurrection of the dead has also come through a human being; for as all die in Adam, so all will be made alive in Christ.” (1 Cor 15:22). He describes Jesus as being the last Adam, “The first man, Adam, became a living being; the last Adam became a life-giving spirit.” (1 Cor 15:45). Again, Paul’s argument would be severely weakened if Adam was merely a legendary figure.

For more information and discussion about Jesus being the Last Adam, see the Last Adam page.

The Fall

In his apostolic defence in 2 Corinthians, Paul pleads with the believers in Corinth not to be led astray by false teaching. In this he makes reference to the fall in the Garden of Eden, “But I am afraid that as the serpent deceived Eve by its cunning, your thoughts will be led astray from a sincere and pure devotion to Christ” (2 Cor 11:3).

In 1 Timothy, Paul gives some instructions about women, including dressing modestly, and women teaching men. This is not the place to discuss the roles of women in this controversial passage, which has a number of difficulties in the way it should be interpreted and applied today. However, in his instructions, Paul refers to the creation of Adam and Eve, and the deception of Eve. “For Adam was formed first, then Eve; and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor” (1 Tim 2:13-14). Again, in this passage Adam and Eve are considered to be historical figures, and the basis of Paul’s argument.

The serpent is mentioned a couple of times in the Book of Revelation. Interestingly, the identity of the serpent as being the devil and Satan is only revealed here. “The great dragon was thrown down, that ancient serpent, who is called the Devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world” (Rev 12:9). “He (the angel) seized the dragon, that ancient serpent, who is the Devil and Satan, and bound him for a thousand years” (Rev 20:2). In Genesis it was the serpent who tempted Eve (Gen 3:1). We have to wait to the last book in the Bible for the identity of the serpent to be revealed.

Cain and Abel

In his denunciation of the hypocrisy of the Pharisees Jesus warns of their coming judgement. “Therefore I send you prophets, sages, and scribes, some of whom you will kill and crucify, and some you will flog in your synagogues and pursue from town to town, so that upon you may come all the righteous blood shed on earth, from the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah son of Barachiah, whom you murdered between the sanctuary and the altar”. (Mt 23:34-35). The same warning is included in the parallel passage in Luke, “so this generation may be charged with the blood of the prophets shed since the foundation of the world, from the blood of Abel to the blood of Zechariah, who perished between the altar and the sanctuary” (Lk 11:50-51). These are the first and last murders of a righteous man recorded in the Hebrew Scriptures. Abel was the first (Gen 4) and Zechariah was the last (2 Chr 24:20-21), the books of Chronicles being the final book in the Hebrew Scriptures. There is some doubt whether this is the Zechariah Jesus refers to, as his father’s name is different in Matthew’s account. However, in this passage, Jesus refers to the murder of Abel by Cain as a historical fact, and the basis of the coming judgement on Jerusalem, fulfilled in AD 70.

Abel is the first person listed as one of the heroes of faith by the writer of the Book of Hebrews. “By faith Abel offered to God a more acceptable sacrifice than Cain’s. Through this he received approval as righteous, God himself giving approval to his gifts; he died, but through his faith he still speaks” (Heb 11:4). Abel’s sacrifice was acceptable to God because it was a blood sacrifice from his flock (Gen 4:3). He must have known and understood that the shedding of blood of an animal was necessary to atone, or cover, for sin. Cain’s sacrifice of the fruit of the ground, presumably vegetables or fruit, was not sufficient to atone for sin, so was rejected by God (Gen 4:5). All the heroes of faith are considered to be historical figures, including Cain and Abel.

In his first letter, John warns his readers not to be like Cain. “We must not be like Cain who was from the evil one and murdered his brother. And why did he murder him? Because his own deeds were evil and his brothers’s righteous" (1 Jn 3:12). This description is a close match with the account in Genesis (4:1-16).

Cain is named by Jude, in his brief letter, attacking false teachers, saying that, “they go the way of Cain” (Jude 11)

Enoch

Enoch is the second person listed with the heroes of faith, “By faith Enoch was taken so that he did not experience death; and ‘he was not found, because God has taken him’. For it was attested that before he was taken away that ‘he had pleased God’” (Heb 11:5). The author quotes from the account in Genesis, “Enoch walked with God after the birth of Methuselah three hundred years, and had other sons and daughters. Thus all the days of Enoch were three hundred and sixty-five years. Enoch walked with God; then he was no more, because God took him” (Gen 5:22-24).

The patriarch Enoch is considered as much an historical figure as all the others in this chapter, including Abraham, Sarah, Moses, Rahab, Gideon and other judges, David, Samuel and the prophets, as well as historical events including the crossing of the Red Sea, and the walls of Jericho. Logically, if people claim that Enoch was merely a non-historical mythical figure, then all the other heroes of faith listed should also not be considered to be historical.

Enoch is also mentioned in the letter of Jude in his attack on the false teachers. “It was also about these that Enoch, in the seventh generation from Adam, prophesied ...” (Jude 14). He then gives a quotation from the non-Canonical book of 1 Enoch, which is included among the Jewish Pseudepigrapha. However, Enoch being the seventh generation from Adam matches the genealogy from Genesis chapter 5: Adam (1), Seth (2), Enosh (3), Kenan (4), Mahalalel (5), Jared (6) and Enoch (7). Jude considers all these patriarchs to be historical figures and agrees with the genealogy in Genesis.

The Flood and Noah

Many Bible teachers either claim that the flood was merely a fictitious legend, or that the flood was only a local event, rather than a global catastrophe. However in a number of places through the Bible the great flood, Noah and the building of the ark is referred to as a historical events, including by Jesus himself.

Noah is listed among the three righteous men by Ezekiel, each of whom he considered as genuine historical figures. “... even if Noah, Daniel (or Danel), and Job, these three, were in it, they would save only their own lives by their righteousness, says the Lord God” (Ezek 14:14). These same three are listed again later in the passage (Ezek 14:20). It is unlikely that the second is the prophet Daniel, but rather an otherwise unknown wise person.

When warning of the suddenness and the unknown hour of the second coming, Jesus said this, “For as the days of Noah were, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark, and they knew nothing until the flood came and swept them all away, so too will be the coming of the Son of Man." (Mt 24:37-39). The parallel passage in Luke’s gospel is given in a different context, but says the same, “Just as it was in the days of Noah, so too it will be in the days of the Son of Man. They were eating and drinking, and marrying and being given in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark, and the flood came and destroyed all of them." (Lk 17:26-27). In Luke’s account, Jesus continues by making a similar parallel with Lot and the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, also mentioning Lot’s wife. It would be most doubtful that Jesus would base a comparison of his second coming on a legendary person and event. It appears that Jesus considered that Noah and the flood were genuinely historical. Again we need to be extremely cautious to deny this, and to claim that we now know better.

Also listed with the heroes of faith in the Book of Hebrews is Noah, “By faith, Noah, warned by God about events as yet unseen, respected the warning and built an ark to save his household; by this he condemned the world and became an heir of the righteousness that is in accordance with faith" (Heb 11:7). As noted above, all the other people praised for their faith were genuinely historical figures.

In a passage about Jesus making a proclamation to the spirits in prison, which is very difficult to understand, Peter mentions Noah as an historical figure “... when God waited patiently in the days of Noah, during the building of the ark, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were saved through water” (1 Pet 3:20)

When addressing false teachers in his second letter, Peter gives several examples of judgement in the Book of Genesis, including Noah, Sodom and Gomorrah, and Lot (2 Pet 2:5-8). All three are considered equally historically true. “If he did not spare the ancient world, even though he saved Noah, a herald of righteousness, with seven others, when he brought a flood on a world of the ungodly" (2 Pet 2:5).

In both these passages from Peter, the number of people matches the account in Genesis, “Noah with his sons and his wife and his son’s wives went into the ark to escape the waters of the flood” (Gen 7:7). Noah had three sons, Shem, Ham and Japheth, giving a total of eight people, with himself and the four wives.

Long lives of the patriarchs

When Jacob arrived in Egypt, the Pharaoh asked him, “How many are the years of your life?”. This was Jacob’s reply, “The years of my earthly sojourn are one hundred and thirty; few and hard have been the years of my life. They do not compare with the years of the life of my ancestors during their long sojourn”. (Gen 47:9)

The early patriarchs in Genesis had very long lives, of many hundreds of years. The oldest was Methuselah, who died aged 969 (Gen 5:27). Jacob considered his life of 130 years very short compared with these. Jacob evidently respected these long lives as historical fact, and not fictional. When the lifespans of the patriarchs in the Book of Genesis are compared, there appears to be a dramatic reduction of lifespan following the flood.

Genealogies

The lengthy genealogy that comes through the first chapters of 1 Chronicles begins with Adam, and moves down through the patriarchal generations to Abraham (1 Chr 1:1-27). It then continues without a break through the sons of Jacob, down to David, Solomon and the kings of Judah. There is absolutely no suggestion that the first names in the genealogy are merely legendary. If that were the case, then the question would remain - at what point does legend or myth stop and history begin?

In Luke’s genealogy of Jesus, he traces the ancestry of Jesus back through well-known historical figures such as David, Jesse, Judah, Jacob, Isaac and Abraham, but then continues the genealogy without a break through the patriarchs including Noah, Enoch, Seth and Adam (Lk 3:23-38). He makes no distinction between those from passages following Gen 12, and those from Gen 1-11. There is absolutely no suggestion that people from Abraham onwards are historical and those before Abraham are merely myths and legends. Matthew begins his genealogy of Jesus with Abraham showing the Jesus came as son of Abraham and son of David, and does not trace the ancestry back further than Abraham.