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The Oxford Bible Commentary Line-by-line commentary for the New Revised Standard Version Bible.

Literary Genre.

It is important for an understanding of Genesis (and of the Pentateuch as a whole) to see it as a literary work and to attempt to define its literary genre. This involves an appreciation of the nature of ancient, pre-scientific, historiography, of which the most notable examples are to be found in the work of certain early Greek historians of the sixth century BCE. The aim of these historians was to write accounts of the origins, genealogical descent, and history of the notable families of their own day, tracing them back to a remote, heroic age: see Van Seters (1983: 8–54; 1992: 24–38). In their accounts of past ages they did not distinguish between myth, legend, and what we now call ‘historical facts’. It was not their primary purpose to establish the exact truth of the events that they described, but rather to raise in their readers a consciousness of their own identity and a feeling that they were citizens of a great and noble city or race. These historians made full use of extant traditions about the past, but they were also creators of tradition: where extant traditions were lacking or scanty, they did not hesitate to fill them out with details, and even entire stories, supplied from their own imaginations. This kind of imaginative writing has analogies with that of the Israelite historians; but the purposes of the latter were somewhat different. They were certainly concerned to create—or, perhaps, to restore—a sense of national identity in their readers; but their intention was far from triumphalist: the principal human characters were not heroes in the fullest sense. For them it is always God who has the principal role; the human characters are represented as foolish and frequently sinful creatures who time and time again frustrate God's good intentions towards them.

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