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The legends of Genesis: The Biblical saga and history Paperback – 1966
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About the Author
About the Author:
"Gunkel was born in Springe, Germany (near Hannover, Lower Saxony), where his father was a Lutheran pastor. He studied theology in Goettingen and Hanover, and in 1895 became a professor of Old Testament in Berlin. In the same year his book Schpfung und Chaos in Urzeit und Endzeit (Creation and Chaos) was published. In 1901 the first edition of his Genesis commentary appeared. In 1926 he published another standard work, his commentary on the book of Psalms (Die Psalmen).
For health reasons Gunkel retired and became professor emeritus in 1927. His Einleitung in die Psalmen (Introduction to the Psalms) was his last major project, brought to completion with the help of Joachim Begrich, who was both his former student and his son-in-law.
Hermann Gunkel died on 11 March 1932 in Halle." (Quote from wikipedia.org) --This text refers to an alternate Paperback edition.
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He wrote in the first chapter, “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… we find among the civilized peoples of antiquity two distinct kinds of historical records side by side: history proper and popular tradition, the latter treating in naïve 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… But in a people with such a highly developed poetical faculty in 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 religious… indulge in this form also?...
“There is no denying that there are legends in the Old Testament; consider the stories of Samson and 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 in the literary history of the Old Testament.” (Pg. 5-6)
He points out, “The accounts of the patriarchs also give rise to the most serious doubts. According to tradition the period of the patriarchs is followed by 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 to thought alone or in the councils of Heaven? (Cp. Gen 1:2, 18; 6:3-6 ff.; 11:6 ff.).” (Pg. 8)
He suggests, “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 seem to us 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 1:6 speaks, is not a reality, but an optical illusion; that the stars cannot have come into existence after plants, as Genesis 2:10-14 reports; that the rivers of the earth do not come chiefly from four principal streams, as Genesis 2 thinks that the Tigris and the Euphrates have not a common source; that the Dead Sea has been in existence long before human beings came to live in Palestine, instead of originating in historical times, and so on.” (Pg. 8-9)
He continues, “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 1, greatly as it differs in religious spirit from other cosmogonies, is by its literary method closely related to them.” (Pg. 10)
He explains, “When the children see their father perform all sorts of curious customs during the Feast of the Passover, they will ask---thus it is expressly told, Ex 12:26; 13:14---What does this mean? And then the story of the Passover is to be told them. A similar direction is given with relation to the twelve stones in the Jordan (Josh 4:6), which the father is to explain to the children as memorials of the passage of the Jordan. In these examples, then, we clearly see how such a legend is the answer to a question. Similarly, questions are asked with regard to the origin of circumcision, of the Sabbath… No Israelite could have been given the real reason for all these things, for they were too old. But to relieve this embarrassment myth and legend step in… But this story that explains the custom is always laid in primitive times. Thus the ancient race gives the entirely correct impression that the customs of their religious services originated in the immemorial past…” (Pg. 21)
He asserts, “The general view of the legendary traditions of Israel gives us, then, so far as we are able to make it out, the following main features: The legends of the beginning in the main are Babylonian, the legends of the patriarchs are essentially Canaanitish, and after these come the specifically Israelitish traditions. This picture corresponds to the history of the development of civilization: in Canaan the native civilization grows up on a foundation essentially Babylonian, and after this comes the Israelitish national life. It is a matter of course that the sequence of periods in the themes for story-telling and in the epochs of civilization should correspond; thus among modern peoples the children make the acquaintance first of the Israelitish sources, next of the Greco-Roman, and finally the modern subjects, quite in accordance with the influences in the history of our civilization.” (Pg. 54)
He states, “The collecting of legends began even in the state of oral tradition… The collection of the legends in writing was not done by one hand or at one period, but in the course of a very long process by several or many hands. We distinguish two stages in this process: the older, to which we owe the collections of the Jahvist designated by ‘J’ and the Elohist designated by ‘E,’ and then a later, thorough revision in what is known as the Priestly Codex ‘P.’ In the preceding pages as a rule only those legends have been used which we attribute to J and E. All these books of legends contain not only the primitive legends, of which we have been speaking, but also tell at the same time their additional stories… Previous authors have in large measure treated J and E as personal authors, assuming as a matter of course that their writings constitute, at least to some extent, units and orignate in all essential features with their respective writers, and attempting to derive the various data of these writings consistent picture of their authors. But in a final phase criticism has recognized that these two collections do not constitute complete unities, and pursuing this line of knowledge still further has distinguished within these sources still other subordinate sources. But in doing this there has been a neglect to raise with perfect clearness the primary question, how far these two groups of writings may be understood as literary unities in any sense, or whether, on the contrary, they are not collections, codifications of oral traditions, and whether their composers are no to be called collectors rather than authors. That the latter view is the correct one is shown … by the fact that they have adopted such heterogeneous materials…” (Pg. 71)
He concludes, “Thus Genesis has been compounded from very many sources. And in the last state we have described it has remained. In this form the old legends have exercised an incalculable influence upon all succeeding generations. We may perhaps regret that the last great genius which might have created out of the separate stories a great whole, a real ‘Israelitic national epic,’ never came. Israel produced no Homer. But this is fortunate for our investigation; for just because the individual portions have been left side-by-side and in the main unblended it is possible for us to make out the history of the entire process… theologians should learn that Genesis is not to be understood without the aid of proper methods for the study of legends.” (Pg. 89)
He adds, “One word more, in closing, as to how Genesis has obtained the undeserved honor of being regarded as a work of Moses. From primitive times these existed a tradition in Israel that the divine ordinances regarding worship, law and morality, as proclaimed by the mouth of the priests, were derived from Moses. When, then, these ordinances, which had originally circulated orally, were written down in larger or smaller works, it was natural that they passed under the name of Moses… And because the legends also, from the time of the Exodus, have to do chiefly with Moses, it was very easy to combine both legends and laws in one single book. This it happened that Genesis has become the first part of a work whose following parts tell chiefly of Moses and contain many laws that claim to come from Moses. But in its contents Genesis has no connection with Moses. These narratives, among them so many of a humorous, an artistic, or a sentimental character, are very remote from the spirit of such a strenuous and wrathful Titan as Moses, according to the tradition, must have been.” (Pg. 90)
This book will be of great interest to anyone seriously studying the development of historical criticism of the Old Testament.