One of the things about growing up is that you get told the stories of your family of origin. How accurate these stories are quite possibly depends on a number of things. One of those things is the existence of a written tradition.
In circumstances where there is not written tradition, the oral tradition becomes the primary record. Because it is the primary record it becomes far more important to keep the record true and safe, and these communities tell their story again and again to make sure that the story is complete, in tact and true. This is one of the reasons why songs and poetry become important because they are devices that help preserve the story.
I know I was told many things about my family of origin that I now know were complete fabrication. They were good stories and some of them I would like to be true, however it is now clear that they were not true. I can only assure you that it is very disquieting to discover a lot of the things you grew up with were lies.
Most Family Stories are about heroes and villains, though generally the villains with have some sense of the heroic about them. Many family stories trace back to some more widely known part of history, and so give one a sense of family credibility.
When you look at the opening chapters of Genesis you find a very different bag of onions. Firstly we meet the people who have it all and yet do not do what they are told and so lose it all. We have the repeated theme of sibling rivalry, Cain and Abel, Isaac and Ishmael, Jacob and Esau, and somehow the one who seems in the right comes off second best somehow or other.
These are not moral tales designed to encourage right behaviour, these seem to be the robust legends from prehistory to help form some sense of a nation, and people, and God who the understand as the centre of their meaning.
If we date David’s capture of Jerusalem around 1000 years BC , which is generally accepted. We can see that from that time things are written closer to the events and there is a sense of history in this, (and various accounts indicate the politics of the time).
Before that we are clearly in the era of the oral tradition. One of the points of reference is the Song of Miriam ‘Sing to the Lord, for he has triumphed gloriously; horse and rider he has thrown into the sea.’ (Exodus 15:21). It does not make the same image as the Cecil B. DeMille ‘Ten Commandments’, however the mere fact that it is a song from prehistory suggests that it is likely to have a stronger claim on truth.
The stories of the patriarchs including the sale of Joseph into slavery are not stories that speak well of our humanity. Somehow in the midst of this whole story there is but one abiding constant (apart from our capacity for treachery, jealousy and deception) and that is God’s connection with us.
Maybe one of the benefits of this sort of tradition is that we do not have a lot to live up to. Take heart, we are not as bad as the mob that went before us.