The Original Primeval History of the Hebrews
The book of Genesis contains two main types of stories: narratives about primeval origins (Gen 1–11) and a series of ancestral narratives (Gen 12–50). An early version of Genesis 1–11 likely lacked a flood narrative (Gen 6–9). Evidence for this floodless account of pre-history can be found in passages that make little sense if the original narrative ended with humanity wiped out by a flood.
The Origins of the Professions
The children of Lamech, a descendant of Cain, become progenitors of shepherds, musicians, and blacksmiths:
בראשׁית ד:כ וַתֵּלֶד עָדָה אֶת יָבָל הוּא הָיָה אֲבִי יֹשֵׁב אֹהֶל וּמִקְנֶה. ד:כא וְשֵׁם אָחִיו יוּבָל הוּא הָיָה אֲבִי כָּל תֹּפֵשׂ כִּנּוֹר וְעוּגָב. ד:כב וְצִלָּה גַם הִוא יָלְדָה אֶת תּוּבַל קַיִן לֹטֵשׁ כָּל חֹרֵשׁ נְחֹשֶׁת וּבַרְזֶל וַאֲחוֹת תּוּבַל־קַיִן נַעֲמָה.
Gen 4:20 Adah bore Jabal. He was the ancestor of those who dwell in tents, with livestock. 4:21 His brother’s name was Jubal. He was the ancestor of all who play the zither and flute. 4:22 Zillah also bore Tubal-Cain, a sharpener, [the ancestor of] of all who craft bronze and iron. And the sister of Tubal-Cain was Naamah.
As Julius Wellhausen observed already in 1872, there would not be much point to the description of the founding of various professions by Lamech’s descendants if they did not survive the flood.
The Nephilim Giants
The same argument could be made for the explanation of the origin of the Nephilim at the conclusion of the story of divine-human marriages in Genesis:
בראשׁית ו:ד הַנְּפִלִים הָיוּ בָאָרֶץ בַּיָּמִים הָהֵם וְגַם אַחֲרֵי כֵן אֲשֶׁר יָבֹאוּ בְּנֵי הָאֱלֹהִים אֶל בְּנוֹת הָאָדָם וְיָלְדוּ לָהֶם הֵמָּה הַגִּבֹּרִים אֲשֶׁר מֵעוֹלָם אַנְשֵׁי הַשֵּׁם.
Gen 6:4 The giant fallen ones (Nephilim) were on the earth in those days and also after that, when the sons of God went into the daughters of humanity, and they bore [offspring] to them. They were the warriors of old, the men of the name.
Ostensibly, all of these giants (and warriors of old) would have been destroyed when the flood waters arrived, yet the Israelites later encounter them when they enter the land (Num 13:33; also Deut 1:28; 2:10–11, 20–21; Amos 2:9). This narrative inconsistency may explain why several later Jewish traditions imagine a pre-flood giant like Og surviving the flood by clinging to the outside of Noah’s ark.
The Mesopotamian Atrahasis epic, which combines creation and flood traditions, solves the problem of the survival of certain human institutions and traits after the flood by having diverse artisans come onto the ark along with the flood hero (Atrahasis DT42 W, line 8). This story also places most of its etiological elements (human mortality, female reproductive restrictions) after the flood (Atrahasis III.vi.41–vii.9).
By contrast, we do not see coordination of flood and creation dynamics in the Genesis primeval story. Instead, only Noah’s “house” accompanies him onto the ark (Gen 7:1, 7), while the life-destroying flood (7:23) implicitly eliminates everyone else—including the figures who first introduce various crafts (Gen 4:20–22) and giants whom Israel will later meet in the land (e.g. Num 13:33).
The Two Noahs
The presence of two distinct Noah personas in Genesis offers another clue that the flood narrative is a later addition to the text. The more famous persona, Noah the flood hero, occurs across much of Genesis 6–9. Yet this story of heroic Noah interrupts and contrasts with a presentation of him as a child born to provide comfort from the cursed ground:
בראשׁית ה:כט וַיִּקְרָא אֶת שְׁמוֹ נֹחַ לֵאמֹר זֶה יְנַחֲמֵנוּ מִמַּעֲשֵׂנוּ וּמֵעִצְּבוֹן יָדֵינוּ מִן הָאֲדָמָה אֲשֶׁר אֵרְרָהּ יְ־הוָה.
Gen 5:29 [Noah’s father] called him ‘Noah’, saying “this one will provide us comfort from our labor and toil of our hands, from the ground which YHWH cursed.”
This Noah next appears later, after the flood story, as a “man of the ground” who becomes a vintner:
בראשׁית ט:כ וַיָּחֶל נֹחַ אִישׁ הָאֲדָמָה וַיִּטַּע כָּרֶם.
Gen 9:20 Noah, the man of the ground, was the first to plant a vineyard.
This story where Noah discovers wine is more deeply rooted in the surrounding narrative than the presentation of him as a flood hero. The introduction of Noah as a vintner leads into an account of a breakdown in father-son relations. An earlier version of the story, prior to the substitution of Ham for Canaan among Noah’s sons, described Canaan’s lack of care for his father’s honor when Noah was unconscious and naked:
בראשׁית ט:כא וַיֵּשְׁתְּ מִן־הַיַּיִן וַיִּשְׁכָּר וַיִּתְגַּל בְּתוֹךְ אָהֳלֹה. ט:כב וַיַּרְא חָם אֲבִי כְנַעַן אֵת עֶרְוַת אָבִיו וַיַּגֵּד לִשְׁנֵי־אֶחָיו בַּחוּץ.
Gen 9:21 He drank some of the wine and became drunk, and he uncovered himself within his tent. 9:22 Ham, the father of Canaan, saw his father’s nakedness and told his two brothers outside.
When Noah awakens, he curses his son Canaan for having exposed his shame to his brothers:
בראשׁית ט:כה וַיֹּאמֶר אָרוּר כְּנָעַן עֶבֶד עֲבָדִים יִהְיֶה לְאֶחָיו.
Gen 9:25 He said, “Cursed be Canaan; the lowest of slaves shall he be to his brothers.”
The conflict between Noah and his son (originally Canaan, later Ham) parallels the degradation of relationships we find in the preceding stories focused on the first human couple, Adam and Eve (Gen 2:4b–3:24), and the first brothers, Cain and Abel (Gen 4:1–16). The story about discovering wine also continues the sustained focus on working the arable ground (ʾadamah) seen in the stories before the flood.
Finally, the focus on the shame of Noah’s nakedness (v. 23) forms an inclusio with a similar theme of nakedness in the Eden story (3:7–11; also 2:25; 3:21). This suggests that the boundaries of this early primeval narrative began with the creation account in Genesis 2 and ended with Noah’s family in Genesis 9.
Mesopotamian Style Primeval History
The primeval stories in Genesis resemble Mesopotamian cosmological texts that rooted the Mesopotamian temple-state in primeval events—famous texts such as the Atrahasis Epic (mentioned above) along with less famous cosmologies such as the Ashur Bilingual and Creation of the King texts. While only some of these included a narrative of a catastrophic global flood, all described the creation and development of civilized humanity, focusing on connecting aspects of their audience’s present world to primeval events such as the Mesopotamian canal system, forms of agriculture, clothing, and the development of fermented drink.
In a similar vein, the etiological stories of Genesis 2–9 explain aspects of life in ancient Israel such as: hard agricultural labor (Gen 3:17–19, 23), endless painful pregnancies for women (Gen 3:16), clothing (3:21), music and other professions practiced among neighboring groups (4:20–22), and the use of fermented drink rather than raw water (Gen 9:20–22).
These etiological tales occur in what scholars have long identified as the earlier non-Priestly (non-P; often termed Yahwistic) source strand of Genesis. This strand was originally floodless.
The early, originally independent version of the primeval narrative features a sustained focus on another important aspect of its ancient audience’s world: their acute awareness of their mortality. Numerous ancient Mesopotamian primeval traditions (e.g. the Gilgamesh Epic, Atrahasis Epic, Adapa Epic) emphasize that humans are distinguished from the gods by their mortality.
The early primeval narrative features its own version of this theme, starting with its depiction of humans as mortal after they were expelled from the Garden of Eden:
בראשׁית ג:כב וַיֹּאמֶר יְ־הוָה אֱלֹהִים הֵן הָאָדָם הָיָה כְּאַחַד מִמֶּנּוּ לָדַעַת טוֹב וָרָע וְעַתָּה פֶּן יִשְׁלַח יָדוֹ וְלָקַח גַּם מֵעֵץ הַחַיִּים וְאָכַל וָחַי לְעֹלָם.... ג:כד וַיְגָרֶשׁ אֶת־הָאָדָם...
Gen 3:22 YHWH God then said, “See, the human has become like one of us, knowing good and evil. Now then, lest he stretch out his hand and take from the tree of life and eat and live forever!”… 3:24 So he expelled the human…
Barred from eating from the tree of life, humans would forever be denied immortality.
The Death of Abel
The Cain-Abel narrative provides the first illustration of human mortality:
בראשׁית ד:ח ...וַיְהִי בִּהְיוֹתָם בַּשָּׂדֶה וַיָּקָם קַיִן אֶל־הֶבֶל אָחִיו וַיַּהַרְגֵהוּ.
Gen 4:8 …and when they were in the field, Cain set upon his brother Abel and killed him.
Adam and Eve later confront the loss of Abel through the powers of reproduction given to them in Eden (Gen 3:16, 20) by conceiving Seth (Gen 4:25).
Limits on the Human Life Span
YHWH further establishes a mortal boundary for humans by enforcing a 120-year life limit on humans:
בראשׁית ו:ג וַיֹּאמֶר יְ־הוָה לֹא־יָדוֹן רוּחִי בָאָדָם לְעֹלָם בְּשַׁגַּם הוּא בָשָׂר וְהָיוּ יָמָיו מֵאָה וְעֶשְׂרִים שָׁנָה.
Gen 6:3 YHWH said, my spirit shall not prevail in humanity forever because humanity is indeed flesh. Their lifespan will be one hundred twenty years.
This absolute limit on human lifespan, even for offspring of divine-human marriages, is soon followed by a final note hinting at one way humans might achieve an approximation of immortality—fame:
בראשית ו:ד הַנְּפִלִים הָיוּ בָאָרֶץ בַּיָּמִים הָהֵם וְגַם אַחֲרֵי כֵן אֲשֶׁר יָבֹאוּ בְּנֵי הָאֱלֹהִים אֶל בְּנוֹת הָאָדָם וְיָלְדוּ לָהֶם הֵמָּה הַגִּבֹּרִים אֲשֶׁר מֵעוֹלָם אַנְשֵׁי הַשֵּׁם.
Gen 6:4 It was then, and later too, that the Nephilim appeared on earth -- when the divine beings cohabited with the daughters of men, who bore them offspring. They were the heroes of old, the men of renown (shem).
Within the ancient Near Eastern and Mediterranean world of the Bible, one way of achieving a form of immortality was winning a great “name” through deeds that were remembered by subsequent generations. In the Greek context, Hesiod and Homer speak of famous, semi-divine Greek heroes living in the distant past, whose fame lives on in the epics that sing of them.
Mesopotamian epics likewise memorialize great warriors like Enmerkar or Gilgamesh, and the Gilgamesh epic expressly emphasizes that its hero achieved a form of the immortality by having a tablet (implicitly the epic itself) about his deeds and his “name” placed in the wall of the city of Uruk that he ruled (Gilgamesh I:24–48).
In Gen 6:4 the Bible implies that we see a similar form of immortality, through the fame of a ‘name’, in the legendary giants of Canaan and the great warriors with David whose names are recorded in other parts of the Bible (2 Sam 17:8, 10; 23:8–12). This idea of proximate immortality through the fame of a “name” (Hebrew shem) then forms the most likely background for the name of Noah’s favored son, Shem (“Name”).
Without Gen 6:1–4, Shem would be the only major figure in the primeval history whose name is not at least implicitly explained. Yet he is the most important figure to follow Noah. He is listed first among Noah’s sons (Gen 9:18, 23), YHWH is described as his God in Noah’s blessing of him (Gen 9:26), and Noah wishes that Japheth may dwell in Shem’s tent (Gen 9:27).
בראשׁית ט:כו וַיֹּאמֶר בָּרוּךְ יְ־הוָֹה אֱלֹהֵי שֵׁם.... ט:כז יַפְתְּ אֱלֹהִים לְיֶפֶת וְיִשְׁכֹּן בְּאָהֳלֵי שֵׁם...
Gen 9:26 He said, Blessed be YHWH, the God of Shem…. 9:27 May God enlarge Japheth, and let him dwell in the tents of Shem…
Origin of the Hebrews
The identification of YHWH as Shem’s God serves another important function in a primeval narrative: providing its audience with an account of their own origins. This is completed when the text identifies Shem, this YHWH worshipper, as the father of “the sons of Eber” (עבר בני) , thus implicitly identifying him as the ancestor of later Hebrews (עברים):
בראשׁית י:כא וּלְשֵׁם יֻלַּד גַּם־הוּא אֲבִי כָּל־בְּנֵי עֵבֶר אֲחִי יֶפֶת הַגָּדוֹל.
Gen 10:21 To Shem also [offspring] were born, the father of all the sons of Eber, older brother of Japheth.
This is as close as an Israelite primeval narrative could come to explaining the background of its audience. Since ancient Israelite traditions identified the origins of “Israel” in a much later period (Israel’s patriarchs and matriarchs, exodus and wilderness), a narrative about primeval times could not directly feature “sons of Israel.” Nevertheless, a primeval narrative could conclude with an ancient primeval ancestor, “Eber,” who could stand as an early progenitor of multiple Hebrew peoples, “the sons of Eber”, including later Israelites.
A Family Narrative
In sum, this earlier (floodless) primeval narrative was built primarily around the three major dyads of the primary family: husband and wife (Adam and Eve, Gen 2:4b–3:24), brother and brother (Cain and Abel Gen 4:1–16), and father and son (Noah and his sons Gen 9:20–27), along with brief genealogical elements (4:25–26; 9:18; 10:15, 21) and a mythic episode (6:1–4).
The account describes the primeval background of the “Hebrews,” from Adam to Eber, their Levantine way of life, the giants and superhuman warriors of their earliest history (6:1–4), and the ways of their nearby neighbors: Kenites (Gen 4:1–24), Hittites along with Phoenician Canaanite peoples (9:25; 10:15), and possibly Philistines (Gen 9:27; 10:21).
Virtually all of the major characters in these stories bear names that connect to their etiological function (Adam, Eve, Cain, Abel, Noah, Seth, Enosh, Shem, Canaan, Japhet). Each story features dialogue between characters, whether human or divine. And the entire drama takes place in semi-mythic space, starting in an “Eden” at the site of world rivers (Gen 2:8–14) and moving eastward (Gen 3:24; 4:17).
Supplementing the Primeval History with the Flood
At some point this intensely family-oriented, etiological (non-P) primeval narrative was supplemented by a non-P flood narrative, one partially modelled on the flood narrative in the Atrahasis epic. Like that non-biblical flood narrative, the biblical version features a combination of a global flood and rescue of land-based life by a flood hero, now Noah instead of Atrahasis. Moreover, the non-P flood narrative in Genesis occurs just after mention of human multiplication (6:1), showing dependence upon the Atrahasis epic where the flood occurs as a divine strategy for responding to human multiplication.
Yet this placement of the flood narrative after 6:1–4 produces some ripples in the text, since it means that YHWH’s perception that “the evil of humanity on the earth was great...” (Gen 6:5) follows immediately on a story of divine-human marriage where humans have done nothing wrong (Gen 6:1–4). Nevertheless, it was a natural place to locate a flood story that would correspond to its model in the Atrahasis epic, especially if Noah, the final major figure in the non-P primeval history, was to be the flood hero.
This supplement is literarily distinct as well. Where the other non-P primeval stories focus (like their Mesopotamian counterparts) on rooting aspects of its audience’s social world in primeval events, the non-P flood narrative focuses instead on a theological issue: how YHWH could be trusted to spare evil people (Gen 8:20–22; cf. 6:5–7). And where most other biblical primeval stories feature speeches and other interactions among various named characters, the flood narrative just has YHWH speaking to Noah and Noah wordlessly obeying.
Extended Post-Flood Narratives
Some additional non-P primeval texts, all of which come after the flood narrative, share these characteristics and are good candidates to be part of the same expansionary layer as the above-mentioned (added) non-P flood narrative. In particular, we see supplemental material about the broader earth before and after the story of Noah and his sons (Gen 9:20–27), added to explain how the broader, post-flood-destruction earth was repopulated by the offspring of Noah’s tiny family.
Genesis 9:19 interrupts the movement from the list of Noah’s sons (9:18) to the introduction of Noah’s vineyard (9:20) with the assertion that “all the earth” (כל־הארץ) “scattered” (נפצה) from Noah’s three sons:
בראשׁית ט:יט שְׁלֹשָׁה אֵלֶּה בְּנֵי־נֹחַ וּמֵאֵלֶּה נָפְצָה כָל־הָאָרֶץ.
Gen 9:19 These three were the sons of Noah, and from these all the earth scattered.
The Tower of Babel story subsequently uses the same terms (כל־הארץ, נפץ) to tell the story of how and why this “scattering” of “all the earth” across “all the earth” occurred (Gen 11:8–9; also 11:1). The non-P materials of Genesis 10 also contain additional materials that were likely added to anticipate major empires of the post-flood earth, especially Egypt (Gen 10:13–14) and Mesopotamia (10:8–12).
Overall, the flood and these potentially related materials in Genesis 9:19, 10:8–14, and 11:1–9 share a broad global focus with few named characters (except for Noah and Nimrod) and little human speech (cf. 11:3–4, spoken by anonymous figures), and no sustained interaction among any of them.
This global focus contrasts with the concentration on Levantine peoples (e.g. Kenites, Canaanite Phoenicians and Hittites, Hebrews and possibly Philistines) and practices in the family-oriented original primeval materials. This global focus further provides a broad context for the beginning of the non-P ancestral story in Genesis 12, beginning with YHWH’s promises to Abraham (Gen 12:1–3, 7).
Indeed, there are signs that the author of the non-P flood narrative and related materials in the primeval history also wrote an early version of the non-P ancestral material in Genesis 12–50 (building on earlier oral and/or written materials). The links of the non-P primeval materials with the ancestral section of Genesis are clearest in the non-P flood section (which parallels the destruction of Sodom and rescue of Lot’s family in Gen 19) and the Tower of Babel (Gen 11:4 connecting to the promise of a great name to Abraham in Gen 12:2).
Conclusion and Implications
In sum, the earliest stage of the development of Genesis likely moved from 1) a family-oriented non-P primeval history (without flood or Tower of Babel narrative) that concluded with Noah’s grandsons to 2) a broader narrative of Israelite origins that included an expanded version of that primeval history (now with flood, Babel story, Nimrod) along with an ancestral history beginning with YHWH’s promises to Abraham (Gen 12:1–3, 7).
This hypothesis of an early, non-P primeval history without the flood allows us to understand more precisely what the older stories meant to convey and what the redactional layer that supplemented them wished to emphasize.
For example, the report of YHWH’s profound judgment of humanity in Genesis 6:5–6 is the first part of the flood supplement to the early (non-P) primeval history, functioning to explain YHWH’s ultimate flood judgment:
בראשית ו:ה וַיַּרְא יְ־הוָה כִּי רַבָּה רָעַת הָאָדָם בָּאָרֶץ וְכָל יֵצֶר מַחְשְׁבֹת לִבּוֹ רַק רַע כָּל הַיּוֹם. ו:ו וַיִּנָּחֶם יְ־הוָה כִּי עָשָׂה אֶת הָאָדָם בָּאָרֶץ וַיִּתְעַצֵּב אֶל לִבּוֹ. ו:ז וַיֹּאמֶר יְ־הוָה אֶמְחֶה אֶת הָאָדָם אֲשֶׁר בָּרָאתִי מֵעַל פְּנֵי הָאֲדָמָה...
Gen 6:5 YHWH saw how great was man’s wickedness on earth, and how every plan devised by his mind was nothing but evil all the time. 6:6 And YHWH regretted that He had made man on earth, and His heart was saddened. 6:7 YHWH said, “I will blot out from the earth the men whom I created…”
When we recognize that this evaluation of humanity was not part of the core non-P narrative, we can be more attuned to the complex, ambivalent picture of maturing humanity in the non-P materials of Genesis 2:4b–4:26. No longer do these stories describe some amorphous sexual or other “sin” that is later referenced in the flood narrative (Gen 6:7; 8:21). Instead, the first primeval stories originally showed early, almost childlike humans fumbling toward civilization and God both judging and caring for them on the way (e.g. Gen 3:21; 4:15).
Meanwhile, this approach also can add precision to interpretation of the flood narrative and related materials. The flood narrative diverges from the earthly/human etiological focus of the early primeval history, by focusing instead on how YHWH could be trusted not to utterly destroy humans.
בראשית ח:כא וַיָּרַח יְ־הוָה אֶת רֵיחַ הַנִּיחֹחַ וַיֹּאמֶר יְ־הוָה אֶל לִבּוֹ לֹא אֹסִף לְקַלֵּל עוֹד אֶת הָאֲדָמָה בַּעֲבוּר הָאָדָם כִּי יֵצֶר לֵב הָאָדָם רַע מִנְּעֻרָיו וְלֹא אֹסִף עוֹד לְהַכּוֹת אֶת כָּל חַי כַּאֲשֶׁר עָשִׂיתִי.
Gen 8:21 YHWH smelled the pleasing odor, and YHWH said to Himself: "Never again will I doom the earth because of man, since the devisings of man's mind are evil from his youth; nor will I ever again destroy every living being, as I have done.
The pervading theme of doom and deep self-criticism evident here and across the non-P flood story likely reflects late pre-exilic or exilic self-blame that Israelites felt as they endured trauma at the hands of the Assyrians and Babylonians. But this theme was absent in the original primeval history.
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Prof. David M. Carr is Professor of Hebrew Bible at Union Theological Seminary in New York. He holds a Ph.D. from Claremont Graduate School and an M.T.S. from Emory University's Candler School of Theology. Carr is the author of several books, including Genesis 1-11, International Exegetical Commentary on the Old Testament (Kohlhammer, 2021), The Formation of Genesis 1-11: Biblical and Other Precursors (Oxford University Press, 2020), The Hebrew Bible: A Contemporary Introduction to the Christian Old Testament and Jewish Tanakh (Wiley Blackwell, 2020), and Holy Resilience: The Bible's Traumatic Origins (Yale University Press, 2014).
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