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The Primeval History

The first eleven chapters of Genesis provide an account of humanity from creation to the birth of Abraham.

Aureliano Milani, Cain Building the City of Enoch (detail), early eighteenth century, oil on canvas, 158.5 × 109.5 cm. Courtesy the Museum of Fine Arts, Budapest.

The first eleven chapters of Genesis are often known as “the Primeval History.” (“Primeval” means “of the first time.”) This “history” includes myths, genealogies, stories about families, and instructions for religious and legal practices.

What material is included in the Primeval History?

The most well-known portions of the Primeval History involve the creation of the universe and humanity; the interactions between Eve, Adam, and God; Cain’s murder of Abel; the flood; and the tower of Babel. Lesser known are the marriages between “the sons of God” and human women (Gen 6:1–4) and Noah’s drunken interaction with his sons after the flood (Gen 9:20–27). And even less frequently read are the extensive genealogies that trace the origins of humanity from Adam through Noah down to Abraham (Gen 5; 10; 11:10–30). Clearly, the Primeval History is a collection of diverse kinds of literature that address different topics.

Some of this material is heavily influenced by previous ancient Near Eastern literature, particularly the accounts of creation and the flood. The earlier Atrahasis myth from Mesopotamia, for instance, recounts the creation of humanity and the increase of its population. Humanity made so much noise that they angered the god Enlil, who decided to kill them with a flood. However, another god, Enki, informed a human of this plan and commanded him to make a ship that would enable him and various animals to survive. Once the flood was over, this character sent out a bird to see if the land was dry. And once the ship reached dry land, the survivor made a sacrifice. The author(s) of the biblical account of the flood probably knew this earlier story and incorporated it into their Primeval History. The Israelite authors, however, were left with a problem not in the earlier story: in Genesis, the same God is responsible for creating a flood and for enabling some to survive it.  

How was the Primeval History composed?

The Primeval History was probably not composed at a single moment of time. Indeed, there is strong evidence that multiple Israelite authors were responsible for its contents. Genesis 1–2, for instance, contain two accounts of creation. Genesis 2:4b–25, which was probably written first, reports the creation of humans. Genesis 1:1–2:4a, attributed to a later priestly hand, focuses on the creation of the entire universe and then concludes with the creation of humanity “in the image of God.” The roles of humanity in these stories are different. In the earlier account, humanity is responsible for tending a garden (Gen 2:15). In the priestly report, humanity is granted the power to rule over the earth (Gen 1:26–28). The two accounts, which may have once been independent from one another, are now placed side by side.

Similar diversity of perspective is present in the story of the flood. Although there is only one flood narrative in Genesis, inconsistencies in the text suggest that more than one flood account existed in ancient Israel. One clear example: How many animals enter the ark? According to Gen 6:19, two of each kind go in, but in 7:2 seven pairs of clean animals and one pair of unclean animals enter the ark (on the distinction between clean and unclean, see Lev 10:10). Here again, then, there is an early account and a subsequent priestly version. In this case, however, the two accounts have been woven together into a single narrative.

What is the purpose of the Primeval History?

The Primeval History is interested in the origins of human culture: Why do a man and woman become husband and wife (Gen 2:24)? Who built the first cities (Gen 4:17)? Who first played musical instruments (Gen 4:21)? Who first forged metal (Gen 4:22)? Who made the first wine (Gen 9:20)? Who committed the first murder (Gen 4:8)? Who was the initial herder of domestic animals (Gen 4:20)? When did people learn the name of God (4:26)? Why are there multiple languages (Gen 11:9)? The Primeval History provides answers to these questions.

The major episodes in the history all report the propensity of humans to act in inappropriate ways. God then holds them to account, whether by banishing them from the garden, making Cain a fugitive, causing a flood, or scattering humanity and confusing their speech. God seems to be in a reactive posture. At the same time, however, the deity acts to preserve humanity: God provides clothing, marks Cain with a protective sign, and guarantees that there will be no more floods. One hallmark of these texts is a God who interacts with all humanity. The covenant God makes in Gen 9 is with all people as well “every animal of the earth.”

Things change at the end of Gen 11. After the Primeval History ends, God chooses to focus on one specific family, Abraham and his descendants, not on all humanity. The Primeval History provides stories and genealogies that help readers understand the origins not only of this family but of all humanity.

  • David L. Petersen is Franklin N. Parker Professor Emeritus of Old Testament, Emory University. He served as president of the Society of Biblical Literature. His publications devoted to Genesis include: “The Yahwist on the Flood,” VT 26 (1976): 438–46; “Genesis 6:1–4, Yahweh and the Organization of the Cosmos,” JSOT 13 (1979): 47–64; and “Genesis and Family Values,” JBL 124 (2005): 5–23.