For this post I’d like to talk about the beginning of the Bible, both chronologically and sequentially. Sequentially the Bible starts with chapter one of the book of Genesis, but chronologically the earliest texts written are the poems called the “Song of Deborah,” and “The Song of Miriam.”
In reading the Bible sequentially, from cover to cover, one is introduced to a history of the Biblical world starting with creation and leading to the Roman occupation. However, reading the bible chronologically shows a very different development of the ideas and myths of the Bible. A new perspective is acquired from understanding the relationship in regard to time that the various books of the Bible have with each other.
Genesis chapter one is a cosmology, a genealogy of the universe. It comes from a source called P by biblical scholars. The first five books of the Bible, called the Pentateuch, are a formed by harmonizing several parallel versions of Israel’s beginnings, much in the same way some have tried to make a single account of the Gospels of the New Testament. For example, when you see a pageant play or movie about Jesus, often you are seeing a harmonization of the Bible’s four Gospels.
Over the century a lot of work has been done identifying and analyzing these sources, though many doubts remain in both academic and non-academic circles. However, I’m convinced that the hypothesis of multiple sources, called the Documentary Hypothesis, is the correct hypothesis. Of course, until a edition of one of the original sources is found, it remains unprovable.
According to most proponents of the Documentary Hypothesis, P, named for the priestly caste who are thought to have been responsible for creating P, is one of the latest of the sources. Most scholars argue in favor of a time after Babylon conquered Judah, with notable exceptions arguing in favor of an earlier time.
Genesis 1 is later than the following chapter, which traditionally was viewed as a more detailed account of the creation of humanity and its early history. But in reality, the second chapter of Genesis is an older account independent of chapter one, reflecting a different theology and cosmology.
Both are steeped in the myths of their Semitic neighbors, but the writers of Genesis 1, who intended their origin tale to replace, not supplement Genesis chapter 2, have far different perspective on the nature of the god they worship, and how he is worshiped. The priests who wrote P were very much interested in focusing all aspects of the worship of their god, Yahweh or Jehovah, translated LORD in many English translations of the Bible, on them and their temple cult.
In the source for Genesis 2, called J , in reference to Judah, the kingdom in which it’s to believed to have been composed, God (Yahweh) frequently sends angels and talking animals to communicate with humans. That is not so in P. Why? It is believed that this is because the priests wanted to establish that God only communicates through them and their institutions.
The writers of P also call the god of creation Elohim, a word meaning god/gods, or Yahweh-Elohim, translated frequently as LORD God. The second chapter simply uses Yahweh. This is thought to be because the writers of J thought Yahweh had always been the name of Israel’s god, while the priests knew of another tradition from outside Judah—that the Israelites used to worship God under the name of Elohim. This distinction was one of the first clues that the first five books of the Bible, the Pentateuch (from the Greek “five books”), was composed of multiple source texts.
The earliest parts of the Bible, those first composed, are thought by most scholars to be a collection of poems embedded in the Pentateuch and the later work, Judges (and thus from a still earlier source). This is based on comparisons of the language and style of the poems with those elsewhere in biblical text and those known archeologically from the Ancient Middle East.
The writers of the Pentatuach some times refer to sources called the Scrolls of the Upright and the Scrolls of the Wars of Yahweh. These are thought to be collections of ancient poems telling the tales of heroes and the history of the tribes of Israel. The earliest are believed to be the “The Song of Deborah” found in the book of Judges and the “Song of Miriam” found in the book of Exodus—thought to be the same as the more complete “Song of Moses.”
The reason for calling this work the song of Miriam is the assumption that it’s more likely that a work attributed to a minor figure of the Exodus would be claimed by a more prominent figure than vice versa. These poems are at least 400 years earlier than Genesis 1 and are of a wholly different nature. They are not cosmologies, but victory songs. They extol a god named Yahweh who aids the warrior’s of Israel by way of his behind the scenes control of nature and spirits. The early Israelites that composed them were preliterate, and the songs were passed from generation to generation providing an oral history of Israel and communicating the nature of the Israelite god Yahweh. The historical beginning of biblical religion is found in these battle hymns, composed and performed by women of semi-nomadic tribes and clans.
The opening line of the Song of Miriam, “I will sing to the Lord, for he is highly exalted. Both horse and driver He has hurled into the sea!” is the one of the earliest documentation of a historical event in the Bible. Ancient Middle Eastern victory hymns celebrated contemporary events. This is thus the earliest account of the famous parting of the Red Sea tradition.
Read independently of the other accounts in the Book of Exodus, it doesn’t have a lot of information on what occurred here. Only that some chariots sank into the “Red Sea” a location of considerable debate. Never-the-less, the event—however it occurs, is not only one of the first biblical events recorded, but also forms the “genesis” of the Israelite people.
When looking for that which is most fundamental to the story found in the Pentatuach, one comes to this victory over Egypt, imagined to be miraculous by the poetess’ of early Israel.
In part two I will discuss how it is that Genesis 1 starts the Bible now, and what significance that might have.
For further reading, I recommend the following books: