Monday, September 15, 2008

Hermann Gunkel on Genesis

Alice C. Linsley

Hermann Gunkel (1862-1932) produced three excellent commentaries on Genesis: Creation and Chaos (1895), Commentary on Genesis (1901), and The Legends of Genesis (1901). This last work introduced Gunkel's Commentary on Genesis.

In his writings on Genesis, Gunkel poses serious questions about the work of Julius Wellhausen, whose source hypothesis held pervasive influence in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Wellhausen regarded Genesis as a compliation of narratives projected backward into pre-Mosiac times at the time of the Monarchy. He argued that the material therefore reflects the life and times of the Monarchy and presents an erroneous picture of the earlier time of the Patriarchs. Gunkel, on the other hand, insisted that the Patriarchal sagas are reliable because they were orally transmitted from before the time of Moses.

Both men took an evolutionary view of human history, regarding Pre-Israelite societies as pre-literate and developing to literacy. Since their time, anthropologists have come to recognize a flaw in this scheme. They have identified literate societies which include sub-cultures that rely on oral transmission of their sacred stories and never commit them to writing.

Wellhausen wasn't interested in the archaeological discoveries of his time that shed light on the sophisticated Afro-Asiatic civilization in Canaan, but Gunkel recognized that the finds of biblical archaeology revealed that Canaanite culture was not an anomaly, but consistent with the larger ethnological and linguistic heritage of the Afro-Asiatics who had been around for centuries before the time of Moses.

The Afro-Asiatic Dominion extended from the Atlantic coast of modern Nigeria to the Indus River Valley. The Afro-Asiatic peoples were linked by rulers who intermarried and controlled the water ways and the caravan routes. Abraham's territory between Hebron and Beersheba corresponded to a caravan route. As W.F. Albright notes in his Introduction to Gunkels' The Legends of Genesis: "Abraham turns out to have been a caravan leader, and the very name 'Hebrew' refers to donkey caravaneering" (p. x).

Gunkel's historical-critical method was embodied in his first major work, Creation and Chaos in the Beginning and at the End of Time. In this work, Gunkel focused on the history of the tradition behind Genesis chapter one and Revelation chapter 12. It was Gunkel’s view that these constituted "myth" and that they could only be understood by tracing the development of the biblical literary form back to the pagan roots from which the myth was derived. Gunkel insists that "The more independent a story is, the more sure we may be that it is preserved in its original form" (Legends, p. 45).

Gunkel's work on Genesis is valueable because he rationally justifies his view that many of the legends of Genesis pre-date the time of Moses and the time of the Monarchy. He appreciates the primitive layer of narrative for its own merits, resisting the modern temptation of pyschological analysis of character and theme. He writes, "In very many situations where the modern writer would expect a psychological analysis, the primitive story-teller simply presents an action" (Legends, p. 60).

Gunkel's theory is that the older legends are brief because they represent the oral tradition of preliterate people and would have been told in "not much over half and hour" (Legends, p. 47).

Gunkel identifies the following categories of legends:

  • Aetiological legends which explain something, such why the serpent crawls on his belly.
  • Ethnological legends which speak of tribal identity and claims, such as why the well at Beersheba belongs to Judah, not to Gerar.
  • Etymological legends which make a linguistic connection between the older and the newer.(The region of Nok becomes Cain's wandering place of Nod)
  • Ceremonial legends which explain ceremonies and prohibitions, such as why Israel may not eat the thigh muscle.
  • Geological legends which explain how the landscape came to be a certain way. (The disobedience of Lot's wife is an explanation for the pillars of salt.)
  • Mixed legends, such as the Flight of Hagar, which have elements of several legend types.


  • Gunkel's appreciation of the narrative quality of the Genesis sagas is refreshing. Although he often speaks of the primitive nature of the narratives and the naivety of those who told them, he doesn't devalue their contribution. He is never disdainful. He wrote, "We have to do, then, even in the oldest legends of Genesis, not with aimless, rude stories, tossed off without reflection, but on the contrary, there is revealed in them a mature, perfected, and very forcible art" (Legends, p. 78).

    I admire Hermann Gunkel's work, but I find it strange that he doesn't once mention the interesting and important legend of Lamech and his two wives (Gen. 4:19-24). Perhaps this is because he didn't have a category for this legend. Were we to give it a name, we should refer to the Lamech legend as a "cosmological legend" because it reveals the arrogance of the man who sets himself up as the ruler of the cosmos. By placing his 2 wives on an east-west axis, Lamech claimed equality with God and he expressed that equality by murdering another who, like himself, was fashioned in the image of God.

    Even with this oversight, I agree with W. F. Albright's assessment that Gunkel's research holds an "epochal place in the history of biblical scholarship" (Legends, p. xi)

    2 comments:

    Mike Beidler said...

    Thanks for this post! I'm going to have to look into some of Gunkel's works.

    Alice C. Linsley said...

    Welcome to Just Genesis! If you are interested in Theology, you will find plenty of food for thought here. You'd probably enjoy reading these:

    http://jandyongenesis.blogspot.com/2009/01/what-is-holy-tradition.html

    http://jandyongenesis.blogspot.com/2009/01/ideologies-opposed-to-holy-tradition.html

    Thanks for your service to our country!