Genesis, PBS Series on

Genesis, PBS Series on

by Rubel Shelly

Published in LoveLines (Oct. 23, 1996)

Genesis: Myths That Linger


PBS is currently putting heavy promotion into a new, 10-part series titled "Genesis: A Living Conversation." Hosted by Bill Moyers, it brings together small groups of people for hourlong discussions of the first book of the Bible.

More than 100,000 copies of a 177-page PBS guide to the series have been distributed. More than a dozen new books on Genesis, including two fresh translations, are ready to hit the nationís bookstores. Moyers and PBS are promoting the formation of "Genesis study groups" across the nation.

We should be grateful whenever the spotlight shines on any part of the Word of God or on any biblical event or person. Before getting too optimistic about this particular approach to Genesis, however, we should not overlook the limitations and biases built into it.

Having previewed the material, it is clearly the case that the PBS series is designed to use the familiar stories of Scripture to prompt what Moyers calls "democratic conversation" around certain themes ó capital punishment, sexual tension, dysfuncational families, etc. People who respect the biblical text as divine revelation will be frustrated watching the series because of its method. There is no serious intent to be serious about the Bible in "Genesis: A Living Conversation," only a use of the text as a springboard for free-wheeling exploration of topics from a thoroughly humanistic perspective.

In other words, the series isnít an exploration of what the Bible says about life under God and in relation to oneís fellow human creatures. It is a pooling of ideas from a select group of intellectuals about how they view certain themes and issues raised in Genesis. It is a model exercise in much contemporary "Bible study" ó a free-wheeling exploration of the studentsí feelings about biblical topics rather than the searching out of divine revelation on those issues.

Meaningful study of the Bible puts humble searchers onto the trail of seeking out the meaning of the text in its original setting. With some insight into the text at hand, the students then try to understand how it applies to their own lives and life situations. The study that yields meaningful fruit puts the students under the authority of the Word of God and its teachings.

While the PBS series doesnít offer a view of the Bible as God-breathed literature with authority over us, perhaps it will do great good in simply getting people to reexplore Scripture. After all, its message is so powerful that it has always had the ability to achieve results far superior to any teacherís failings.

For example, U.S.News & World Report reviews the series in five pages (Oct.21, 1996) and then has a one-page article titled "But Did It Happen?" The article speaks of many of the recent confirmations of the historical accuracy of Genesis ó around events long called "mythical" or "anachronistic."

In Genesis 13, Lot chose the "well-watered" plain of the Jordan when he and Abraham parted company; archaeologists have indeed found traces of an ancient irrigation system in the plain of the Jordan. Egyptian records show peasants being required to pay a 20 percent tax on crops; Joseph ordered that people "give a fifth to Pharaoh" during the years of plenty (Gen.47).

Nonbiblical records confirm the practices of men having children by slaves when a wife is barren (e.g., Abraham) and firstborn sons selling their birthright (e.g., Esau). The 20 silver shekels for which Josephís brothers sold him into slavery is identical to the price of adult male slaves recorded in the Code of Hammurabi (1792-1750 B.C.) The magazine quotes Egyptologist Kenneth Kitchen of the University of Liverpool as saying, "The more we learn about customs and conditions in the early second millennium, the more we find that the narratives [of Genesis] reflect them."

Isnít it amazing? Generation after generation, people were willing to deny the historicity of the biblical record because there were no external verifications of its claims. Various sciences have continued to bring in data to discredit the arrogant charges of the destructive critics. Confidence in the biblical record is rock-solid!

Yet the U.S.News article errs in claiming that at least two "slips" got into Genesis with references to "Abrahamís sojouring in Ďthe land of the Philistines,í even though these seafarers from Crete did not invade coastal Canaan until some 400 years after the patriarchal period is thought to have ended. In chapter 24, Abrahamís servant goes to seek a bride for Isaac with a retinue of 10 camels, but these beasts were not introduced to the region until around 1100 B.C. Such slips likely got in because the writers inserted facts of their own times, perhaps a millennium later, into their narratives."

The authors of the magazine article either didnít do their research carefully or ó and this is the more likely possibility ó used as their resource an outdated liberal source for their information. These two cases are additional example of criticisms once leveled at biblical accuracy that have had recent information come to light in favor of Genesis.

As to the Philistines, at least five of their cities have now been excavated. The earliest level found so far at Ashdod unquestionably goes back to the seventeenth century ó not the twelfth. Thus there can be no doubt that these Sea People for whom the area (i.e., Palestine) was later named were established in the land during the patriarchal period.

And Abraham could certainly have known and used camels in his era. In 1961 camel bones were unearthed at Mari that date to ca. 2400 B.C. The same excavation turned up a ceramic jar on which a camel is pictured; it dates from ca. 2000 B.C. A tiny gold camel that appears to have been part of a necklace has been found at Ur and antedates Abraham, and remains of camel bones discovered at Bahrain may well come from 1000 years before Abraham!

The myths that circulate in connection with Genesis are not within the book but are told about it. This important section of Holy Scripture was written by Moses around 1500 B.C. and reflects the places, people, and events that figure into the unfolding of divine activity in human history.

The entire Bible is Godís message to us. Yes, its content is historical and true. And it is authoritative over our lives. We are called to put ourselves under its authority and to walk by faith in the One who gave it to us. "Every part of Scripture is God-breathed and useful one way or another ó showing us truth, exposing our rebellion, correcting our mistakes, training us to live Godís way. Through the Word we are put together and shaped up for the tasks God has for us" (2 Tim.3:16-17, The Message).




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