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Questions for Readers Regarding Biblical Ethnography

Submitted by on November 14, 2013 – 1:26 pm 38 Comments |  
As mentioned in an earlier post, I am now devoting most of my attention to the book on Indo-European origins that Asya Pereltsvaig and I are writing. I am currently working on a chapter that recounts the intellectual history of the Indo-European concept, which is a fascinating and complex topic. Right now, I am perplexed in regard to an issue stemming from Biblical ethnography, and I am hoping that GeoCurrents readers might have some knowledge that they would be willing to share.

tumblr_mqgippOlcK1s6c1p2o1_1280Through the 1700s, most European scholars understood human diversity primarily through the story of the dispersion of the sons of Noah—Shem, Ham, and Japheth—recounted in Genesis 10. Thus, when William Jones determined that Sanskrit, Latin, Greek and other languages of Europe, Persia, and India were related, he tried to fit this pattern into the Biblical narrative, specifically by arguing that the speakers of all of these languages were descended from Ham. This idea went against the established concept, which regarded Europeans as the progeny of Japheth and Africans as the descendants of Ham (see the medieval T-O world map posted to the left). To Jones, the “Japhethic” peoples were rather the nomads of Central Asia and the Americas. (Traditional Jewish accounts, on the other hand, tended to associated Japheth with the north, Ham with the south, and Shem with the middle latitudes, as on the second map).

division-2mSubsequent work by historical linguists contributed to the discrediting of Biblical ethnography, and thus helped usher in the secular intellectual age. Christian fundamentalists who stress Biblical inerrancy, however, still believe that Genesis provides the key to understanding human linguistic and racial diversity. Yet their websites usually downplay Genesis 10 and the sons of Noah and instead focus on Genesis 11, which recounts the story of the Tower of Babel. In reading the relevant passages in the Bible, I am struck by their contradictory nature. I am curious about how these contradictions have historically been handed by both religious thinkers and scholars of human diversity operating in the Biblical framework. Why, in particular, did early European ethnographers stress Genesis 10 rather than Genesis 11?

The text of Genesis 10 seems to claim that descendants of the sons of Noah developed their own separate languages before the Tower of Babel was constructed, which would seemingly explain why early historical linguists stressed these passages. Genesis 10:20, for example, is usually translated into English as, “These are the sons of Ham, after their families, after their tongues, in their countries, and in their nations,” just as 10:31 is translated as “These are the sons of Shem, after their families, after their tongues, in their lands, after their nations.” As Asya notes, in the Hebrew original 10:31 reads “le-mishpaxotam li-leshonotam be-artzotam le-goyehem,” literally, “to their families, to their languages (PLURAL!), in their lands, to their peoples.” (The last word “goyim” is interesting in that in the Bible it means various peoples, as in “ethnic groups,” “ethno-linguistic groups”, “ethno-linguo-religious groups”, or even “clans.” “Nations” seems too big of a word. Over time, however, it came to signify “peoples other than the Jews.”)

Genesis 10 thus seems to claim that the original human language diversified as the descendants of Noah scattered across the world. In the initial passage of Genesis 11, however, a different picture emerges: “And the whole earth was of one language, and of one speech.” Such a single language, however, was “confounded” after the construction of the Tower Of Babel (Genesis 11:7). What then do Biblical experts think happened to the languages that had been spoken among the different lineages of Noah before the Tower was built? It is also unclear who actually build the tower, as the relevant Biblical passages do not specify the subject. As Genesis 11:2 reads, “And it came to pass, as they journeyed from the east, that they found a plain in the land of Shinar; and they dwelt there.” But who were “they?” Some modern fundamentalist websites claim that all of humankind gathered at Shinar to build the tower; as result, the scattering that occurred after Babel was destroyed and the single human language was “confounded” gave rise to subsequent human linguistic and racial diversity. In this interpretation, the early scattering of Noah’s sons and their progeny was of no lasting significance, as it had nothing to do with post-Babel linguistic differentiation. But if this is the case, why did Biblical ethnographers of earlier centuries stress Genesis 10 and the sons of Noah while downplaying Genesis 11 and the Tower of Babel?

Hmtdna6889214_f520One interpretation, seen in the map to the left, claims that the scattering of the sons of Noah happened after the Tower of Babel incident, but this requires a reversal of the sequence of events as recounted in the Bible. Fundamentalist efforts to square the Biblical account with modern science can be quite involved: the diagram posted here, taken from the “Creation Wiki,” tries to fit the Noahic descent groups with a modern mitochondrial DNA tree diagram. I have not encountered the terms “Mrs Ham, Mrs Shem, and Mrs Japheth” elsewhere.

 

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  • Seán Vrieland

    Great questions! And I appreciate how you’re objectively looking at Christian interpretations on what could be quite polarizing issues.

    On thing I found interesting while reading your article alongside Genesis (blueletterbible.com is a wonderful interlinear Bible tool) is Genesis 11:10, the very next verse after the Babel story. Here the account goes back to the genealogies: “This is the account of Shem’s family line. Two years after the flood, when Shem was 100 years old, he became the father of Arphaxad.”

    Second, it seems quite significant that the genealogies in both Genesis 10 and 11 do not include the name of God which, as you might already know, is used as an argument for multiple authorship of Genesis (the Elohist and Yahwist). The Babel story uses ‘Yahweh,’ while the story of Noah uses a mixture of ‘Yahweh’ and ‘Elohim.’

    Perhaps this doesn’t help with understanding how Christian scholars in the past viewed things, but they’re interesting considerations.

    • http://www.pereltsvaig.com Asya Pereltsvaig

      Excellent point about ‘Yahweh’ and ‘Elohim’— does it give us a sense of which of the stories was written first?

      • Seán Vrieland

        I’m not so sure, but it looks like the Yahwist is proposed to be about a century earlier. Apparently the redactors would have combined the four original sources (JEDP), interspersing it with, for example, the genealogical information.

        • http://www.pereltsvaig.com Asya Pereltsvaig

          Thank you, Sean!

          • http://geocurrents.info Martin W. Lewis

            Yes, this is fascinating. It makes me wonder about the sequential aspects of the biblical narrative. I have assumed that the events recounted in Genesis 11 are supposed to have happened after those of Genesis 10, but is that a warranted assumption?

  • Independence

    Several sections of Genesis appear to contradict one another, beginning with the creation stories at Genesis 1:1-2:3 and Genesis 2:4-25. It is possible to reconcile seeming inconsistencies by careful interpretation of the nuances of the underlying Hebrew text, at least enough to introduce doubt that the accounts are truly incompatible, but neither creation account can be understood as anything but metaphor or parable, rather than incontrovertible fact, when considered in the light of well-established science.

    The accounts in Genesis 10 and Genesis 11 both offer explanations for the variety of cultures and tongues supposedly descended from one couple. The long-standing diversity of the earth’s people is a foundation of both accounts.

    Different understandings of the origins and meanings of that diversity mark our discourse, politics, residential patterns, economic arrangements, and more to this very day. One might as well wonder why the white supremacist who thought he needed to establish an all-white community in North Dakota continued to rail against non-whites even after DNA results announced on live TV recently that his own ancestry was something like 16% African.

    • http://www.pereltsvaig.com Asya Pereltsvaig

      Good point about seemingly inconsistent stories collated together—definitely the case. Still, it is interesting that some Biblical “literalists” choose one story and others the other. Why?

      • http://geocurrents.info Martin W. Lewis

        Yes, that is the key question. Even the most extreme Christian fundamentalists no longer believe that the Sun revolves around the Earth, even though the Bible clearly says that Joshua stopped the Sun in its tracks. So that passage is now taken symbolically, even though it was formerly taken literally — as Galileo knew too well. So why then are modern fundamentalists so determined to take other parables, such as the Tower of Babel, literally? That I will never understand.

        • http://www.pereltsvaig.com Asya Pereltsvaig

          Mark Baker in his “Atoms of Language” suggests that the Tower of Babel story might not be so off the mark (pardon the pun) after all. In the last chapter of the book, he suggests that humanity developed different languages (or rather than the possibility of different languages, i.e. different settings of linguistic parameters, is built into the human faculty of language, i.e. Chomsky’s Universal Grammar) is there to keep humankind divided into smaller groups. In a way, language is an overt (audible) marker of one’s genetic pool, although more recently things have been more complicated than that. Those linguistic/genetic/cultural groups can try building “smaller towers” rather than one-size-fits-all Tower of Babel. Different groups try different things and their genes adapt in different ways. This is a very clumsy and brief summary of a very complex idea, but the book is very much worth reading!

        • SirBedevere

          Of course, in Galileo’s time, that passage had been so important for only a brief time. The combination of the threat of Protestantism and the threat of writers like Copernicus to a Ptolemaic/Aristotelian world view came together as a perceived assault on the accepted view of the world. In the fourteenth century, Nicole Oresme had argued that it would be impossible to know whether the Earth was stable and the Sun moved or whether the Sun was stable and the Earth moved–there were many who disagreed with him, but generally not for Biblical reasons. There are many passages in the Hebrew Bible that appear to assume a flat world with an arching sky over it, but no educated person in medieval Europe viewed the Earth as anything other than spherical. They had no problem seeing those passages as insignificant. I think it was Augustine who wrote that the Scriptures show how to go to Heaven, not how the heavens go.

        • Chris

          The people who thought the sun revolves around the earth were some people in the Catholic Church hierarchy. “Fundamentalist” describes a movement in American Christianity that was somewhat popular only in the early 1900′s but has now been mostly replaced by evangelicals.

          The Bible admittedly uses language like “the sun rises” but this is just a matter of perspective: even modern people like you still use phrases such as this because they are true from our (rotating) frame of reference.

          If God caused the earth to magically stop rotating and suspended natural law to prevent major whiplash, why do you expect the bible to report it from the point of view of the sun? It is more natural to report the event from the perspective that all people of all times can understand. God is a good cross-cultural communicator and he feels no need to fit your modern American expectations.

  • Muhammad

    There’s a very simple answer to your question. The reason why there’s more emphasis on Genesis 11 today, than there is on Genesis 10, is because the story of Genesis 11 sounds far less embarrassing than the story of Genesis 10. It’s easier to make Genesis 11 compatible with modern science due to its brief description of how god supposedly dispersed the peoples and created various languages. Whereas in Genesis 10, it’s obvious that even in the most liberal Biblical interpretations, the descendants of Noah will not be able to include all of modern day human nations. For example, where do the Chinese fit in? The general understanding is that Shem fathered the Semitic (Afro-Asiatic) peoples, Japheth fathered the Indo-Europeans (in the most conservative definition) or the “Eurasiatic” peoples (in the most liberal definition, which will include Uralic, Altaic alongside Indo-European, etc) and Ham fathered either one part of the Afro-Asiatic peoples or one branch of the sub-Saharan ethnic groups. So the Chinese, Japanese, Malaysians, Maori, Native Americans and many other nations basically came out of thin air.

    So in order to hide their embarrassment, those who still follow these ancient texts as guidance choose Genesis 11 because it’s broader and therefore more compatible to include all of humanity.

    Early European ethnographers were more sensible and less influenced by American Christianity. For that reason, Europe left Christianity behind.

    • http://www.pereltsvaig.com Asya Pereltsvaig

      I am not sure this is entirely correct: the understanding of Genesis 10 USED to account for only some groups, but the more recent Biblical interpretations include groups that were simply unknown to earlier Christians. Since each of the three sons of Noah had multiple descendants (listed in Genesis as well), there’s enough wiggle-room to incorporate the Chinese, Japanese, Native Americans, etc.

      Genesis 11 is more inclusive or not depending on the interpretation of “they” in the opening line (see in the post above).

      “Early European ethnographers were more sensible” — who exactly do you have in mind? People like Parsons and the like were not any “more sensible”, they too relied heavily on literal interpretations of the Bible.

      • Muhammad

        Touche. What the heck was I saying, none of them are sensible for interpreting biblical texts, be it literally or otherwise.

        Of course it USED to account for only some groups. The minute they discovered the new world and realized how unrealistic it was to include all of humanity into these three lineages, they slowly began drifting to Genesis 11. It’s cherry picking, I see it all the time even from the Islamic scholars. It’s a sign of how doubtful they’ve slowly become.

        The only way I saw biblical scholars trying to fit Chinese into genesis is by relating them to the children of Sam and their “eastern” migrations, which most of the biblical community does not recognize. I don’t know about you but…

        …well you know. It reeks of absurdity.

        Today, most scholars have a soft approach. They look at Noah’s descendants as those of west Eurasia and they consider the rest unaffected by the flood and descendants of the tower of babel story.

        Madam Asya, forgive me for asking something off topic in a way, but are you a believer? I just wanted to know, in case I’ve offended you or anything like that.

        • http://www.pereltsvaig.com Asya Pereltsvaig

          I would call myself a believer, yes, but no you haven’t offended me. I am not sure I understand your position: if you say that all of the Bible is nonsense no matter how one interprets it, then it doesn’t matter if one sides with Genesis 10 or 11 as the explanation for diversity, no? Christian doctrine is clearly maleable (to some extent), which is what produced so many different kinds of Christianity and heresies in the first place. But our questions concern the framework that takes a literal approach to the Bible and seeks to explain what various passages mean and how they relate to each other… Since this was the framework on early Indo-Europeanists…

          Also, from your earlier comment: what exactly do you mean by “American Christianity”? Mormonism?

          • Muhammad

            I’ve had the fortune of meeting and being in inter-faith dialogues with christians from Europe, e.g. the UK, and christians from the US. The christians in the United States have a strict, literal way of interpreting things, atleast from those I’ve mostly met. They remind me of Wahabi Islam in many ways. Whereas the christians in Europe tend to look at their religion as a story of morality and things like that, almost in a poetic irreligious sort of way, which reminds me a lot of Sufism. I don’t know, it’s just what I was able to experience on a personal level.

            I’m not saying all the bible is nonsense no matter how it’s interpreted. Youll be surprised to know that Ive studied the bible a lot, especially the prophecies of Ezekiel 38 and how it relates to a certain muslim country to the north of Israel in modern times. Not everything is omissible, it would be criminal not to study ancient texts in my opinion. But you know, generally speaking, the christians will have a better time siding with Genesis 11 than with Genesis 10 because it’s easier to align it with modern science. Genesis 10 has a very narrow/strict view of the human lineages. From my point of view, which is agnostic, I do not see a difference in siding with either Genesis 10 or 11. But I can see why I will side more with Genesis 11 today, had I been a christian, because it’s better to explain and depends less on the point of view of western Eurasian peoples. This might explain the drift from genesis 10 to 11 in biblical scholarship over the course of many years.

            From the point of view of the Indo-Europeanists, who I assume were christians (otherwise they wouldn’t have bothered basing their studies on the bible), I suppose the reason they stressed more on Genesis 10 is because that passage actually identifies the descendants of Japheth. Genesis 11 doesn’t. So for the early Indo-Europeanists, it made no sense to go to Genesis 11 to learn about how proto-Indo-European splintered into many different groups. But with Genesis 10, which details the division of Japheth’s children (who they assumed was the father of ONLY the Indo-Europeans, excluding other “Eurasiatics”), they must have thought they were able to get clues as to how the Indo-Europeans split up.

            Genesis 11 doesn’t offer that ability. See what I mean? Maybe that’s why some people thought of the possibility of Indo-Semitic as well. Again, it points to the western Eurasian worldview.

          • http://www.pereltsvaig.com Asya Pereltsvaig

            Thanks for sharing those thoughts on Genesis 10 and 11.

            As for the distinction you seem to draw between European Christianity and American Christianity, I think it’s just a result of your personal experience. There’s many different kinds of Christianity on both sides of the Atlantic and I don’t think they fall neatly into the two continental categories like you describe.

          • http://geocurrents.info Martin W. Lewis

            Yes, but it is true that Christian fundamentalism, Biblical inerrancy, etc, and much more prevalent in the US than in Europe. All of the fundamentalist websites that I examined in regard to the origin of languages and the origin or races, for example, are based in the US. Why the US and Europe would be so different in this regard is a major topic in the sociology of religion.

          • Marja Erwin

            It goes back to the 19th century, with certain factions using the bible to defend slavery and white supremacy. Of course they would support interpretations, either literalism or anti-literalist polygenesis, which seemed to bolster their case, and reject interpretations and approaches which would weaken their case.

          • http://www.pereltsvaig.com Asya Pereltsvaig

            Thank you for your comment, Marja. I am glad you brought up the issue of slavery and how biblical passages affected that. A fascianting topic indeed.

          • http://geocurrents.info Martin W. Lewis

            Yes, many thanks for sharif these observations, which make a lot of sense to me. Genesis 11 is easier to align with science that Genesis 10, although not particularly easy. This begs the questions, however, of why early modern European scholars prioritized Genesis 10 over 11 — although I think I know the answer: Genesis 10 gave them so much more material to work with in constructing Biblical accounts of prehistory (an advantage then but a disadvantage now.)

            It is fascinating to see how scholars of the past tried to deal with all of the problems entailed in this account. The notorious racist, Joseph Arthur Comte de Gobineau, thought that only Semites, Hamites, and Japhites, essentially the peoples of Western Eurasian and North Arica, were descended from Adam and Eve, and that the rest of humanity was “non-Adamite.” Such an account, however, is not easily squared with the rest of Genesis.

  • Steve Ferry

    I think that as the bible was compiled there were a number of different factors that came into play. Firstly when the Pentateuch was agreed (possibly just after the end of the exile in Babylon) the Jewish people felt a need to formalise and agree a common text to bring the disparate parts of Judaism together again.

    That meant taking the stories that each group had and agreeing which of them were canonical and which were not. Each group would have had a core of stories that were indispensable to them and it seems that the two versions of the creation myth were included as some sort of compromise. There are of course differences between them that we can see and differences that are now culturally invisible to us. This process carried on to the rest of the Old Testament and into the New Testament (the two versions of the feeding of the 5,000 for example).

    Secondly, and going back much further in time, when different tribes or clans came together, perhaps for the purposes of undertaking large irrigation projects or for defensive reasons, they had to agree a common mythos. Originally this would have meant each group’s gods taking a turn on the common altar for a month (see amphictyony for further details) but eventually coming together as a common pantheon with invented relationships between them.

    You can see traces of this in the Bible. Where brothers (like Jacob and Esau) are described such that one is red and hairy and the other smooth skinned and holding on to his brother’s heel, this is a garbled description of the sun (hair = the rays of the sun) and the moon.

    To finally get to the point about the way that the Bible describes relationships between peoples. When the descendants of Noah or Adam are described or when a genealogical list is given they are memories of the original components of the tribes that came together to form the Jewish people. So one member of the amphictyony had one story of how it came into existence and another had a different story and many of these stories were included in the finished work.

    So as a modern reader there is much in the Old Testament that we cannot understand because we don’t and can’t know the context that it was written in. The Babel story was probably an extended metaphor about the way that some tribal confederations known to the original reader came together, broke up and reconfigured themselves. Without the intimate knowledge of politics at the time that the author had we cannot understand its intricacies.

    Still, as always, the Bible is a fascinating document but one, because of its origins, that is open to an almost infinite number of interpretations.

    • http://geocurrents.info Martin W. Lewis

      Interesting observations — thanks for sharing them. I agree that an almost infinite number of interpretations are possible. But what concerns me here is how certain interpretations are accepted by certain groups of believes at certain times, and how those interpretations change over time.

  • Curious Reader

    In some ways, it’s a modern idea that “nation=general.” In pre-modern times, the concept was more that the monarchs and their supporters made up the conceptual category of “the nations.”

    The Hapsburgs can be related to the Romanovs, which might or might not mean anything about who lived in their domains. In other words, these Biblical genealogies can be read as a narrative about culture from a certain point of view and in some cases nation building, rather than a population history.

    • http://geocurrents.info Martin W. Lewis

      Interesting point. One could write an entire book on the changing connotations of the word “nation.”

  • Joseph

    I asked my grandfather, who is a Jewish scholar, this question over the weekend. His answer was that the people building the Tower were using Hebrew as a lingua franca, and that it was this ability to speak Hebrew that God confounded when they grew too arrogant, rather than their own native languages that they inherited from Shem, Ham, and Japeth. I don’t know where this idea comes from, but it makes sense from a perspective that sees Hebrew as the language of Creation, so that the Tower builders were denied the privilege to use it not only because it robbed them of the practical ability to carry on with their work, but also because they were no longer worthy of it in the spiritual sense.

    • http://www.pereltsvaig.com Asya Pereltsvaig

      Thank you, Joseph, and thanks to your grandfather. This is an interesting view and it is the first theory we received here that actually ties together the two Genesis passages rather than distinguish them as being written by different writers, at different times and having nothing to do with each other. Fascinating!

  • Movenon

    I highly recommend the book “Secret Origins of the Bible” by Tim Callahan (2002), to get a grasp of the gradual weaving together of different Canaanite textual traditions into what became the Old Testament. Like mentioned in comments earlier, there are often two (or more) versions of the same story in the Bible, derived from different traditions but redacted together in the edition of Old Testament that became Canon. Apologists for Christian fundamentalism basically just try to figure out some crazy tour de force way to force the accounts together as if they were written by the same inspired author as unquestionably perfect history. This book covers most of the Old Testament, including the Babel account you are interested in.

    The book is available cheaply off Amazon. It is suitable for people without too much prior knowledge of the text, and it can take you to a relatively high understanding of what has been going on in Biblical textual analysis. You can use it as a good commentary on the Bible as you go through it, and naturally you will be able to understand more advanced books on the topic after making your way through this text.

    • http://www.pereltsvaig.com Asya Pereltsvaig

      Thanks, Movenon

    • http://geocurrents.info Martin W. Lewis

      Yes, thank your for the recommendation. I like the way you put this point: “some crazy tour de force way to force the accounts together.” Yes indeed.

  • Chris

    It is a mistake to assume that Genesis is given in chronological order. Shem’s descendants are listed in Genesis 10 and then again in more detail in Gen. 11:10. The 7 days of creation are in Gen 1, but the creation of man (day 6) gets a fuller treatment in chapter 2. Regarding tenses, the narration is given from the point of view of the time of the writing of Genesis. So almost everything is in past tense. Meaning that the present tense in chapter 10 and 11 refers to the time of writing. Saying in 10:31 “these are their languages” refers to their languages as of the time of writing. Which would be after the events of both chapters. Whoever compiled/wrote Genesis was not stupid and our first impulse as a reader should be to assume that this composer did not think that he was contradicting himself. Where you have assumed an implied contradiction, it is better to see how the composer would have thought the chapters agree. In this case, it seems simple to me if we take the explicit statements and ignore hypothetical extrapolations. The descendants of Noah had one language at first. After producing some generations (consisting of at least 70 fathers of nations), they went to Babel, where their languages were divided (maybe in Peleg’s time- cf. 10:25). Then they dispersed according to patrilineal clan according to 10:31. Remember that most of these generations were very overlapping because human lifespans were still very long at this time (cf 11:10). So anything that older generations did in Genesis 10 could have occurred after Babel. No process of language diversification is required by the text except at Babel or at least immediately following Babel.

    • http://www.pereltsvaig.com Asya Pereltsvaig

      Thank you, Chris! The tenses are definitely worth looking into more closely…

    • http://geocurrents.info Martin W. Lewis

      Thanks, Chris, for your observations. I think that you are right about the chronological order issue. One generally assumes that in a narrative, chronological order is followed unless others specified, but in this case the account only makes sense if one drops such an assumption.

  • VAGeographer

    During my brief foray into Appalachia – and therefore fundy country – for my geography Master’s degree, I was “lucky” enough to be in a graduate-level cultural geography course in which it was explained by a student that Genesis 10 is an explanation for different races (for some reason, Ham is cursed and his skin darkened?) and that Genesis 11 explained different languages. This was said without sarcasm or ironly as the student was of fundy stock. People from the former-slave-holding Lowland South have told me they had heard the same thing and used as justification for considering African-Americans inferior. This does make sense among a Bronze Age group obsessed with their special significance and rules of matrilineal descent. Multi-racial Egypt would have been quite a shock to the Israelites. No doubt children noticed that the rest of society didn’t look like them, asked the obvious question, and got Genesis 10 for a response.

    • http://www.pereltsvaig.com Asya Pereltsvaig

      Thank you for sharing this story, VAGeographer.

      1) Ham was cursed because he “saw his father’s nakedness”, a grave sin.

      2) Just about anyone would be shocked by ancient Egyptians’ practices such as marriage between siblings (among the pharaos) and necrophilia…

      3) There’s a chronological problem with your story (or the Appalachians’ story): the Torah (including all of the Genesis) was given to the Israelites only after Exodus from Egypt, so they could not recount Genesis stories while in Egypt…

      • Rebecca Armstrong

        Why would they be shocked by sibling marriage, doesn’t Genesis 20:12 say that Abraham married Sarah, his half-sister? Daughter of the same father, but a different mother. Not unlike Tutankhamun marrying his half-sister.

        For that matter, didn’t Cain and Abel marry their sisters?

        • http://www.pereltsvaig.com Asya Pereltsvaig

          Thanks for your comment, Rebecca! As far as I understand it, it’s a matter of chronology as well. The prohibition of marrying a sister comes with the Leviticus, so it couldn’t have applied to Abraham or Cain and Abel. I might be wrong on that.

  • http://bkarnell.tk/ Ben Karnell

    Are you absolutely sure that all pre-19C Christian thinkers approached the biblical accounts literally? That’s a modern fallacy – that biblical literalism was the only current within Christianity before the dawn of modern science. Certainly St. Augustine entertained allegorical interpretations of the Creation account and other early writings, and he is not the only one. It seems, in fact, a rather modern dichotomy to distinguish so absolutely between the literal and the figurative. Obviously you have read far more writing from the era in question than I have; but I would hesitate to rely too heavily on modern biblical literalists, without having any basis for the assuming that the 18C mainstream was exactly as literal-minded as they are, or literal in exactly the same way.