Is Genesis Expurgated Myth or History?
[The Bible used here is the Douay-Rheims Bible so some of the spellings of familiar Biblical names may be different]
UNDER the word “Patriarch " in the Catholic Encyclopedia we read:
The earlier patriarchs comprise the antediluvian group, and those who are placed between the Flood and the birth of Abraham. Of the former the book of Genesis gives a twofold list. The first (Gen. 4: 17-18, passage assigned by critics to the so-called “J” document) starts with Cain and gives as his descendants Henoch, Irad, Maviael, Mathusael, and Lamech. The other list (Gen. 5: 3-31, ascribed to the priestly writer “P”) is far more elaborate, and is accompanied by minute chronological indications. It begins with Seth, and, strange to say, ends likewise with Lamech. The intervening names are Enos, Cainan, Malaleel, Jared, Henoch, and Mathusala. The fact that both lists end with Lamech, who is doubtless the same person, and that some of the names common to both are strikingly similar, makes it probable that the second list is an amplification of the first, embodying material furnished by a divergent tradition.
Of the children of Adam the Bible names only three: Cain, Abel, and Seth. In the fourth chapter of Genesis we are told how Cain slew Abel, after which there is given a short account of the subsequent life of the fratricide. Then the line of descent from him is traced for several generations. The chapter closes with a mention of the birth of Seth, to whom also is born a son, Enos. In the fifth chapter the line of descent through Seth and Enos is given under the heading: “This is the book of the generations of Adam.” Of course “the generations of Adam ” are not all comprised in the line of descent through Seth. But, it is with these that the sacred writer is mainly concerned, as being the seed whence sprang the chosen people, and, in the fulness of time, “the Expected of the nations, and Desire of the eternal hills.” Only the men of this list are properly spoken of as “earlier patriarchs,” for neither Jews nor Christians reckon as patriarchs Cain and his descendants. In any case, the latter became extinct at the flood. Properly speaking, therefore, the Book of Genesis does not give, nor purport to give a twofold list of the earlier patriarchs. It gives but one, nor does this one end with Lamech, as the writer avers. The fact is that neither of the two lists ends with Lamech, that is to say, neither the list of the descendants of Cain nor the list of the earlier patriarchs beginning with Seth. The former list closes in these words: “And Lamech took unto him two wives; the name of the one was Ada, and the name of the other Sella. And Ada bore Jabal; he was the father of such as dwell in tents, and of such as have cattle. And his brother's name was Jubal; he was the father of all such as play on the harp and organ. And Sella, she also bore Tubalcain, who was a hammerer and artificer of every work of brass and iron. And the sister of Tubalcain was Noema.” On the other hand, the list of the patriarchs runs through Lamech to Noah, “who begot Sem, Cham, and Japhet.” Even Driver in his Genesis says of this Lamech: “To judge from v. 29 (ch. v.) a character very different from the Lamech of iv. 19, 23.” But the writer in the Catholic Encyclopedia pronounces him to be “doubtless the same person". On what grounds? On the assumption of the higher criticism which here rests on the simple ground that he bears the same name. In the writings of the first centuries, we find mention of two Alexanders. Shall we conclude from the sameness of the name that they were one and the same person? Common sense warns us against drawing any such hasty inference, and history peremptorily forbids it. One was a pope and martyr, the other a Roman emperor under whom many Christians suffered death. Now not the less peremptorily does the history that is embalmed in the Book of Genesis forbid our identifying the Lamech of chap. iv. with the Lamech of chap. v. The former is a descendant of Cain, Adam's first-born son; the latter of Seth, given to Adam in place of Abel, whom Cain had murdered. Moreover, the writer of Genesis further shows that the two are not one and the same, for he makes them differ in character, and gives details about their descendants which do in no wise tally. The difference of the two men in character is very marked. Lamech, the descendant of Cain, is, like his progenitor, wicked, a bigamist, and, by his own confession, a murderer. Lamech, the descendant of Seth, is a godly man, mindful of the Lord and looking forward to the blessed hope (v. 29). The one is a citizen of the earthly city “which has its beginning and its end in this world, which seeks after nothing save what can be seen here,” “the other is a citizen of the City of God, which, “growing up among the cockle, heartsick of sin and scandal, panting for the promised rest, says by the mouth of the Psalmist “From the ends of the earth I have cried out unto Thee; when my soul was weary within me, Thou didst lift me up on a rock.’"
As for the similarity of some of the other names on the two lists, it may be pointed out that the two sons of Lamech (Cain's descendant) by Ada, bear strikingly similar names, Jabal and Jubal. What sort of criticism would thence infer that Lamech had only one son by Ada? The Speaker's Commentary, in a note upon this similarity of names, observes that there is a manifest difference in the roots of the similar names; that the paucity of names at this early period may have naturally led to similar names being adopted in different families; and that the relationship between the families of Seth and Cain, and the probably occasional intercourse between them, would naturally tend to the same result. The same authority adds: “Dettinger is quoted by Kurtz (Vol. I, p. 91) as having called attention to the fact that the text furnishes more detailed particulars about Enoch and Lamech, whose names were so similar to Sethite names, in order to prevent the possibility of their being confounded, and to show more clearly that the direction in which these two lines tended was markedly opposite.”
“The human personages set forth in these lists,” adds the writer in the Catholic Encyclopedia, “occupy a place held by the mythical demi-gods in the story of the prehistoric beginnings of other early nations, and it may well be that the chief value of the inspired account given of them is didactic, destined in the mind of the sacred writer to inculcate the great truth of monotheism which is so distinctive a feature of the Old Testament writings.” The drift of this passage may be gathered from the following words of the Anglican Bishop Ryle on the same subject: “Perhaps we should not be far wrong in regarding these personages as constituting a group of demi-gods or heroes, whose names in the earliest days of Hebrew tradition, filled up the blank between the creation of man and the age of the Israelite patriarchs. Such a group would be in accordance with the analogy of the primitive legends of other races. The removal of every taint of polytheistic superstition, the presentation of these names as the names of ordinary human beings, would be partly a result of their naturalization in Israel itself, partly the work of the Israelite narrator.”” According to this hypothesis, ushered in not overconfidently by the expressions, “it may well be,” and “perhaps we shall not be far wrong,” the author of Genesis, while professing to trace the descent of Noah and his sons from Adam, had really not the slightest notion of doing anything of the sort. What he really aimed at, though he gives not the remotest hint of his having had such aim, was to inculcate the great truth of monotheism— this and nothing more. With this view he seized upon certain of the primitive legends of mythical demigods that were current in his time, and carefully purged them of every taint of polytheistic superstition. He put forward the names of those demigods as the names of ordinary human beings, nay, as the names of descendants of Adam down to the time of the flood. Having done so, he is supposed to have entirely fulfilled his purpose, which was merely didactic, viz. to inculcate the great truth of monotheism which is so distinctive a feature of the Old Testament writings.
What are we to think of this hypothesis? If the Book of Genesis is a purely human document, on a level with the other primitive records of the human race, the hypothesis is quite plausible. There is no reason in the nature of things why the primitive records of the Jews should be more trustworthy than those of any other ancient people. But if the Book of Genesis was written under divine inspiration, if it is in very truth the Word of God, this hypothesis must be set aside as incompatible with the character of the Book, and savoring of heresy. And in fact, if Henoch and Irad were really not descendants of Cain, if Enos and Cainan were really not descendants of Seth, what ground have we for believing that Cain and Seth were sons of Adam, or that the story of the creation as told in the first two chapters of Genesis is not a myth? As St. Augustine wisely observes: “Once admit the existence of the very least error in a work of such transcendent authority, and there will be no part of it but will seem to some either too rigid, in the realm of morals, or, in the realm of faith, too difficult of belief. And so, on the same pernicious principle, everything will be explained as due to the purpose and scope of the writer, who is not at all concerned to give us the real facts". Ep. 28, n. 3. The same names that appear in the list of the earlier patriarchs from Sem to Noah, St. Luke gives, in the ascending order, where he traces the genealogy of our Lord back to Adam (3:23-28). If “it may well be that the chief value of the inspired account given of them is didactic,” that the scope of the sacred writer was not to set down facts but “to inculcate the great truth of monotheism" by simply purging a floating legend of its polytheism, how is not the list as given by St. Luke legendary 2 If "it may well be" that the author of Genesis, in drawing up his list of the early descendants of Adam through Sem, took two divergent strands of the same primitive tradition and simply spliced them together, it must needs be, since the two were divergent, that the list embodies error. Whence it must needs follow that the genealogy of our Lord as given by St. Luke is erroneous, seeing that Luke used the same list. Is the writer in the Catholic Encyclopedia prepared to say that this "may well be", too? “If any one maintains,” writes Father Pesch, S.J., “that the inspired writer (of Genesis) could have embodied in his narrative traditions that were false in fact, such a one manifestly departs from Catholic teaching as plainly set forth in our standard doctrinal works.”
But, urges the writer, the acceptance of this hypothesis “helps greatly to simplify another problem connected with the Biblical account of the early patriarchs, viz. their enormous longevity.” There are many things in the Bible that are, humanly speaking, difficult of belief. But the Catholic Church sets her face as uncompromisingly to-day as she did
in the days of the great Augustine against simplifying the problems they involve by resolving the Biblical presentation of the facts into legend or myth. As regards this particular matter, we may say with the Speaker's Commentary, that the difference between the age of man at the beginning and the age of man now may be due to some cause which it is no more possible to reach than the cause of life itself. It has been well observed by Delitzsch: “We must consider that all the old-world population was descended from a nature originally immortal, and that the climate, weather, and other natural conditions were very different from those which succeeded, that the life was very simple and even in its course, and that the after-working of the paradisiacal state was not at once lost in the track of antiquity.” It is true that the longevity attributed to the antediluvian patriarchs could only have been attained under conditions altogether different from those at present existing. But surely Canon Driver goes a great deal too far when he says that the conditions are “such as we are not warranted in assuming to have existed.” We are warranted in assuming, or rather believing on the authority of Scripture, to have existed whatever can not be shown to have been impossible. For the rest, Leo XIII has roundly condemned the principle of interpretation adopted by the Catholic Encyclopedia writer. “For the system of those who, in order to rid themselves of these difficulties, do not hesitate to concede that divine inspiration regards matters of faith and morals, and nothing beyond, because, as they wrongly think, in a question of the truth or falsehood of a passage, we should consider not so much what God said as the reason and purpose which He had in mind in saying it —this system cannot be tolerated. On the contrary, we must absolutely hold that God, speaking by the sacred writers, could not set down anything but what was true.”
ALEX. MACDONALD, Bishop of Victoria.