Is Genesis 1 a Polemic?

Nathan MacDonald over at Early Jewish Monotheisms has a post by the same title in which he challenges the ‘polemic’ reading of Genesis and commends a recent article by Jan Gertz. What he said reminded me of something Fretheim writes in God and World:

At the same time, to conceive of the biblical account’s relationship to these other stories fundamentally in disjunctive or polemical terms can miss their genuine contribution to Israel’s own reflection about creation. Israel certainly believed that God had been active through the years in the life and thought of other cultures, including their thinking about creational issues (as well as other mattters, such as law), and they were not fearful of drawing on such reflection. Such an understanding would be witness to the activity of God the Creator, not only before Israel existed but also during the history of the chosen people. (66-7)

It sounds like Nathan sees zero polemic in Genesis 1, whereas Fretheim will allow polemic to exist, but not as the essence of what is happening in Genesis 1. Because I cannot ignore the existence of texts like Enuma Elish, I cannot help but see polemical elements to Genesis 1 (even if that is my own theologizing at work), but I appreciate the warnings of Nathan and Fretheim not to make Genesis 1 out to be a polemic.


Fretheim, Terence E. God And World In The Old Testament: A Relational Theology Of Creation. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2005.


2 thoughts on “Is Genesis 1 a Polemic?

  1. The author(s) of Gen 1 could very well have been informed of the religious view of creation which other cultures had. Trade routes through their land existed. I understand your reluctance to call Gen 1 total polemic as stemming from a wish to see it as a genuine ‘new’ text or idea. Hopefully I got that right.
    I don’t see why those two ideas are contradictory. In telling a story of how something happened it seems one would incorporate elements which showed why another story for those events is not accurate. I think of two people’s stories of who is at fault in a car wreck (the analogy surely breaks down I know).

  2. I think a significant problem with arguing that Genesis 1 is a polemic is that it does not aim to subvert the basic elements of a typical ancient Near Eastern creation account. As Fretheim says, “Israel certainly believed that God had been active through the years in the life and thought of other cultures, including their thinking about creational issues, and they were not fearful of drawing on such reflection.” When Israel’s creation account characteristically belongs to the ancient Near East, it becomes a problem then to say that it is polemical.

    As for the “who is responsible” question, it is worth recognizing that Genesis 1 does not use יהוה but rather אלוהים. Were Genesis 1 not attached to the rest of Genesis and אלוהים not elsewhere associated with יהוה, the text would seem even less polemical. Of course, as I said, I cannot help to see polemical elements, but I suspect that this may be my own theologizing at work, not necessarily that of the author(s).

    I do believe, however, that Genesis 2 is polemical against, among other things, Baal. Mark Futato has an article in the WTJ entitled “Because it Had Rained” that I believe argues the point very well.

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