New book examines the DSS witness to Creation

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Published: 17 October 2019 (GMT+10)

A review of The Genesis Creation Account in the Dead Sea Scrolls by Jeremy D. Lyon
Pickwick, Eugene, OR, 2019.

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While the biblical text itself forms our primary text for understanding how and why God created, it is useful to examine historical texts from ancient pre-Christian Judaism and early Christianity to see how previous generations interpreted the creation account. The Genesis Creation Account in the Dead Sea Scrolls examines the evidence for how the Qumran community preserved and interpreted the text of Genesis.

The author is well qualified to write such a work, with an M.Div. in Advanced Biblical Studies and Biblical Languages, and a Ph.D. in Old Testament from Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary with his dissertation topic “Qumran Interpretation of the Genesis Flood.” He has been Associate Professor of Old Testament and Hebrew at Truett–McConnell College since 2014.

Fragments of Genesis

First, Lyon examines the fragments of Genesis found at Qumran. There are many fragments, but they are poorly preserved. Still, parts of 33 out of 50 chapters of Genesis were preserved. These date anywhere from 250 BCAD 68. These fragments support the Masoretic tradition. In fact, one significant fragment, 4QGenb, which is a “relatively intact” fragment of Genesis 1:1–25a, is “the same as our text today” (p. 17).

Even when a page is torn or otherwise damaged, it is possible to reconstruct the text that must have been there, since we know the available text types. “This is analogous to putting together the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, in which we are aided by the image of the puzzle on the cover of the box” (p. 20). Reading about how scholars reconstruct damaged texts is interesting and informative.

Scribal practices

The manuscripts themselves, and not only the texts preserved in the manuscripts, are subjects of scholarly interest. Scribal practices like using section breaks actually give us important insight to how they interpreted the text. For instance, the section breaks in the preserved manuscripts of the creation account seem to indicate the authors of the DSS viewed 1:1–5 as constituting a section with no break (p. 52). So they didn’t seem to see any ‘gap’ in this section, which is significant when arguing against the Gap Theory.

Use of Genesis in liturgical prayers

One text recovered at Qumran was a set of liturgical prayers intended to be recited on specific days of the week. The prayers for the first through sixth days of the week focus on recounting wonders that God performed in history, followed by a petition for God to aid the petitioner with either “physical deliverance (third, fourth, and sixth days) or spiritual strengthening (first and fifth days)” (p. 61). The Sabbath prayer is a hymn of praise that focuses on praising God for His Creation.

The prayers reference the creation of mankind, the Garden of Eden, the Fall, and punishment of Adam, and use them as “a historical basis for the petition to God in the prayer” (p. 73). This shows that even when the Qumran community added theological interpretation and liturgy, they did not abandon a fundamentally historical view of Genesis.

Paraphrases of Scripture

The Paraphrase of Genesis and Exodus (4Q422) is a selective retelling of parts of Genesis and Exodus, including some extrabiblical material. Notably, it personifies the memra (Word) of God as the agent of creation (p. 85), providing a likely background to John’s logos language in his Gospel. This document shows that the Torah including the creation account was important for the Qumran community’s teaching.

Eschatology

Many of the documents recovered at Qumran had an eschatological focus. One text, 4QInstruction, depicts the order of the cosmos along categories described in Genesis. It also talks about God creating the angelic host, which isn’t explicitly covered in Genesis. God is credited for the regularity of the seasons and the course of the heavenly bodies.

Jubilees

Jubilees is a text that was originally written in Hebrew, but only completely survives in the Ethiopic translation. The only Hebrew fragments that survive were found at Qumran, but these fragments confirm that the bits of translation accurately reflect the Hebrew original. Jubilees gives the chronogenealogies of Scripture, but translated into Jubilees, 50-year periods at the end of which Jews were supposed to forgive debts and return land to their ancestral owners. This is important because it shows that the ancient Jews interpreted Genesis literally.

Good overview of an important subject

The DSS documents pertaining to Genesis, both texts of Genesis and extrabiblical texts which refer to the creation account, confirm that the creation account was important to the Qumran community and formed an important part of their prayer, eschatology, discipleship, and overall thought. The book also includes the actual text and translations of the documents it describes, making it a useful reference work.

This is a book meant for academics; Hebrew words are used untransliterated. But an interested layperson will still be able to derive a lot of benefit from it, as well.

Helpful Resources

How Did We Get Our Bible?
by Lita Cosner, Gary Bates
From
US $3.50
From Creation to Salvation
by Lita Cosner
From
US $12.00

Readers’ comments

Charles S.
Use of the Memra as a personification of the Word is especially interesting, amongst the Essenes. Thanks for this.
Richard P.
Lita, thanks so much for letting us know about Lyon's important work.
But I'm concerned that you've oversimplified his findings. You wrote, "These fragments support the Masoretic tradition. In fact, one significant fragment, 4QGen^b, which is a 'relatively intact' fragment of Genesis 1:1–25a, is 'the same as our text today' (p. 17)."
Lyon looked at six Qumran manuscripts, each containing some portion of the Gen 1 creation account.
Two of these, 4QGen^b and 4QGen^d, do not deviate from the Masoretic Text (MT) except in spelling. A third manuscript, 1QGen, is also close to MT, but it only contains three full words (and four partial ones).
The other three, though, include several textual variants from MT. Two of those, 4QGen^h1 and 4QGen^k, support the Septuagint (LXX) more than MT.
Furthermore, the texts that vary from MT are among those dated the earliest. But 4QGen^b, which contains the longest citation from Gen 1 and supports MT, is dated latest of all six manuscripts. (See table, pp. 8f.)
Also note that 4QGen^d, which is dated early and supports MT, includes only Gen 1:18-27, so cannot show us whether or not the complete text differed from MT at 1:5, 1:9, 1:14, or even 1:22 (this verse has a lacuna in 4QGen^d) — i.e., all of the loci where other manuscripts do exhibit variants.
See also Lyon's conclusion to chapter 2 (pp. 32f.), where he points out (1) support for MT; (2) support for LXX; (3) diversity of text types at Qumran.
I don't agree with the position of scholars who view LXX as superior to MT. Good textual-critical reasons can be proposed why MT's readings are preferable in cases where variants exist, and Lyon gives examples of such. But I do think we need to let all the facts be presented.
I would certainly be interested in your response to these thoughts.
Lita Cosner
A book review is necessarily selective. I am glad you have read the book for yourself and interacted with the content.
Luke M.
Simply seeing that the Dead Sea Scrolls section of Genesis 1 as referred to above is ..."the same as our text today..." also throws, I feel, more weight against the 'interpretation changes over time like chinese whispers' argument showing that No, if it is important enough, it is remembered and recorded accurately from the original.

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