Book of Genesis

The Book of Genesis (from Greek Γένεσις, Génesis; Biblical Hebrew: בְּרֵאשִׁית, romanized: Bərēʾšīṯ, lit.'In [the] beginning'; Latin: Liber Genesis) is the first book of the Hebrew Bible and the Christian Old Testament. Its Hebrew name is the same as its first word, Bereshit ('In the beginning'). Genesis is an account of the creation of the world, the early history of humanity, and the origins of the Jewish people.

Genesis is part of the Torah or Pentateuch, the first five books of the Bible. Tradition credits Moses as the Torah's author; however, modern scholars, especially from the 19th century onward, attribute the books' composition to multiple authors between the 10th and 5th centuries BC. Based on scientific interpretation of archaeological, genetic, and linguistic evidence, most mainstream Bible scholars consider Genesis to be primarily mythological rather than historical.

It is divisible into two parts, the primeval history (chapters 1–11) and the ancestral history (chapters 12–50). The primeval history sets out the author's concepts of the nature of the deity and of humankind's relationship with its maker: God creates a world which is good and fit for humans, but when man corrupts it with sin God decides to destroy his creation, sparing only the righteous Noah and his family to re-establish the relationship between man and God. The ancestral history (chapters 12–50) tells of the prehistory of Israel, God's chosen people. At God's command, Noah's descendant Abraham journeys from his birthplace (described as Ur of the Chaldeans and whose identification with Sumerian Ur is tentative in modern scholarship) into the God-given land of Canaan, where he dwells as a sojourner, as does his son Isaac and his grandson Jacob. Jacob's name is changed to "Israel", and through the agency of his son Joseph, the children of Israel descend into Egypt, 70 people in all with their households, and God promises them a future of greatness. Genesis ends with Israel in Egypt, ready for the coming of Moses and the Exodus (departure). The narrative is punctuated by a series of covenants with God, successively narrowing in scope from all humankind (the covenant with Noah) to a special relationship with one people alone (Abraham and his descendants through Isaac and Jacob).

In Judaism, the theological importance of Genesis centres on the covenants linking God to his chosen people and the people to the Promised Land. In both Judaism and Christianity, a genre of literature emerged dedicated to interpreting and commenting on the Genesis creation narrative, known as the Hexaemeron.

Title

The Creation of Man by Ephraim Moses Lilien, 1903.

The name Genesis is from the Latin Vulgate, in turn borrowed or transliterated from Greek Γένεσις, meaning 'origin'; Biblical Hebrew: בְּרֵאשִׁית, romanized: Bərēʾšīṯ, 'In [the] beginning'.

Composition

Genesis was written anonymously, but both Jewish and Christian religious tradition attributes the entire Pentateuch—Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy—to Moses. During the Enlightenment, the philosophers Benedict Spinoza and Thomas Hobbes questioned Mosaic authorship. In the 17th century, Richard Simon proposed that the Pentateuch was written by multiple authors over a long period of time. The involvement of multiple authors is suggested by internal contradictions within the text. For example, Genesis includes two creation narratives.

By the early 1860s, the leading theory for the Pentateuch's composition was the old supplementary hypothesis. This theory held that the earliest portions, the so-called Book of Origins (containing Genesis 1 and most of the priestly laws in Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers), was composed in the time of King Solomon by a priest or Levite. This author used the Hebrew word elohim for God. This original work was expanded in the 8th century BC, with the name Yahweh used for God. In the 7th century BC, during the time of Jeremiah, the final parts of the Pentateuch were added, specifically the main parts of Deuteronomy. This would mean the Pentateuch achieved its final form before the Babylonian Exile (c. 598 BC – c.  538 BC).

At the end of the 19th century, most scholars adopted the documentary hypothesis. This theory held that the five books of the Pentateuch came from four sources: the Yahwist (abbreviated as J), the Elohist (E), the Deuteronomist (D) and the Priestly source (P). Each source was held to tell the same basic story, with the sources later combined by various editors. Scholars were able to distinguish sources based on the designations for God. For example, the Yahwist source uses Yahweh, while the Elohistic and Priestly sources use Elohim. Scholars also use repeated and duplicate stories to identify separate sources. In Genesis, these include the two creation stories, three different wife–sister narratives, and the two versions of Abraham sending Hagar and Ishmael into the desert.[page needed]

According to the documentary hypothesis, J was produced during the 9th century BC in the Kingdom of Judah and was believed to be the earliest source. E was written in the northern Kingdom of Israel during the 8th century BC. D was written in Judah in the 7th century BC and associated with the religious reforms of King Josiah c. 625 BC. The latest source was P, which was written during the 5th century in Babylon. Based on these dates, Genesis and the rest of the Pentateuch did not reach its final, present-day form until after the Babylonian Exile. Julius Wellhausen argued that the Pentateuch was finalized in the time of Ezra. Ezra 7:14 records that Ezra traveled from Babylon to Jerusalem in 458 BC with God's law in his hand. Wellhausen argued that this was the newly compiled Pentateuch. Nehemiah 810, according to Wellhausen, describes the publication and public acceptance of this new law code c. 444 BC. There was now a large gap between the earliest sources of the Pentateuch and the period they claimed to describe, which ended c. 1200 BC.

Most scholars held to the documentary hypothesis until the 1980s. Since then, a number of variations and revisions of the documentary hypothesis have been proposed. The new supplementary hypothesis posits three main sources for the Pentateuch: J, D, and P. The E source is considered no more than a variation of J, and P is considered a body of revisions and expansions to the J (or "non-Priestly") material. The Deuteronomistic source does not appear in Genesis. More recent thinking is that J dates from either just before or during the Babylonian Exile, and the Priestly final edition was made late in the Exilic period or soon after. The almost complete absence of all the characters and incidents mentioned in primeval history from the rest of the Hebrew Bible has led a sizeable minority of scholars to conclude that these chapters were composed much later than those that follow, possibly in the 3rd century BC.

As for why the book was created, a theory which has gained considerable interest, although still controversial, is that of Persian imperial authorisation. This proposes that the Persians of the Achaemenid Empire, after their conquest of Babylon in 539 BC, agreed to grant Jerusalem a large measure of local autonomy within the empire, but required the local authorities to produce a single law code accepted by the entire community. The two powerful groups making up the community—the priestly families who controlled the Second Temple and who traced their origin to Moses and the wilderness wanderings, and the major landowning families who made up the "elders" and who traced their own origins to Abraham, who had "given" them the land—were in conflict over many issues, and each had its own "history of origins". However, the Persian promise of greatly increased local autonomy for all provided a powerful incentive to cooperate in producing a single text.

Genre

Genesis is an example of a work in the "antiquities" genre, as the Romans knew it, a popular genre telling of the appearance of humans and their ancestors and heroes, with elaborate genealogies and chronologies fleshed out with stories and anecdotes. Notable examples are found in the work of Greek historians of the 6th century BC: their intention was to connect notable families of their own day to a distant and heroic past, and in doing so they did not distinguish between myth, legend, and facts. Professor Jean-Louis Ska of the Pontifical Biblical Institute calls the basic rule of the antiquarian historian the "law of conservation": everything old is valuable, nothing is eliminated. This antiquity was needed to prove the worth of Israel's traditions to the nations (the neighbours of the Jews in the early Persian province of Judea), and to reconcile and unite the various factions within Israel itself.

Describing the work of the biblical authors, John Van Seters wrote that lacking many historical traditions and none from the distant past, "They had to use myths and legends for earlier periods. In order to make sense out of the variety of different and often conflicting versions of stories, and to relate the stories to each other, they fitted them into a genealogical chronology." Tremper Longman describes Genesis as theological history: "the fact that these events took place is assumed, and not argued. The concern of the text is not to prove the history but rather to impress the reader with the theological significance of these acts".

Textual witnesses

There are four major textual witnesses to the book: the Masoretic Text, the Samaritan Pentateuch, the Septuagint, and fragments of Genesis found at Qumran. The Qumran group provides the oldest manuscripts but covers only a small proportion of the book; in general, the Masoretic Text is well preserved and reliable, but there are many individual instances where the other versions preserve a superior reading.

Structure

Genesis appears to be structured around the recurring phrase elleh toledot, meaning "these are the generations", with the first use of the phrase referring to the "generations of heaven and earth" and the remainder marking individuals. The toledot formula, occurring eleven times in the book of Genesis, serves as a heading which marks a transition to a new subject. The creation account of Genesis 1 functions as a prologue for the whole book and is not introduced with a toledot. The toledot divide the book into the following sections:

  1. Genesis 1:1–2:3 In the beginning (prologue)
  2. Genesis 2:4–4:26 Toledot of Heaven and Earth (narrative)
  3. Genesis 5:1–6:8 Toledot of Adam (genealogy, see Generations of Adam)
  4. Genesis 6:9–9:29 Toledot of Noah (Genesis flood narrative)
  5. Genesis 10:1–11:9 Toledot of Noah's sons Shem, Ham, and Japheth (genealogy)
  6. Genesis 11:10–26 Toledot of Shem (genealogy)
  7. Genesis 11:27–25:11 Toledot of Terah (Abraham narrative)
  8. Genesis 25:12–18 Toledot of Ishmael (genealogy)
  9. Genesis 25:19–35:29 Toledot of Isaac (Jacob narrative)
  10. Genesis 36:1–37:1 Toledot of Esau (genealogy)
  11. Genesis 36:9–37:1 Toledot of Esau "the father of the Edomites" (genealogy)
  12. Genesis 37:2–50:26 Toledot of Jacob (Joseph narrative)

It is not clear, however, what this meant to the original authors, and most modern commentators divide it into two parts based on the subject matter, a "primeval history" (chapters 1–11) and a "patriarchal history" (chapters 12–50). While the first is far shorter than the second, it sets out the basic themes and provides an interpretive key for understanding the entire book. The "primeval history" has a symmetrical structure hinging on chapters 6–9, the flood story, with the events before the flood mirrored by the events after; the "ancestral history" is structured around the three patriarchs Abraham, Jacob and Joseph. (The stories of Isaac arguably do not make up a coherent cycle of stories and function as a bridge between the cycles of Abraham and Jacob.)

Summary

Primeval history (chapters 1–11)

The Creation of Adam by Michelangelo, 1512.
The Garden of Eden with the Fall of Man by Jan Brueghel the Elder and Pieter Paul Rubens, c. 1615, depicting both domestic and exotic wild animals such as tigers, parrots and ostriches co-existing in the garden
Noah's Ark (1846), by the American folk painter Edward Hicks.

The Genesis creation narrative comprises two different stories; the first two chapters roughly correspond to these. In the first, Elohim, the generic Hebrew word for God, creates the heavens and the earth including humankind, in six days, and rests on the seventh. In the second, God, now referred to as "Yahweh Elohim" (rendered as "the LORD God" in English translations), creates two individuals, Adam and Eve, as the first man and woman, and places them in the Garden of Eden.

In the third chapter, God instructs them not to eat the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. They promise not to, but a talking serpent, portrayed as a deceptive creature or trickster, convinces Eve to eat the fruit against God's wishes, and she convinces Adam, whereupon God throws them out and curses both of them—Adam was cursed with getting what he needs only by sweat and work, and Eve to giving birth in pain. This is interpreted by Christians as the "fall of man" into sin. Eve bears two sons, Cain and Abel. Cain works in the garden, and Abel works with meat; they both offer offerings to God one day, and God does not accept Cain's offering but does accept Abel's. This causes Cain to resent Abel, and Cain ends up murdering him. God then curses Cain. Eve bears another son, Seth, to take Abel's place in accordance to the promises given at 3:15, 20.

After many generations of Adam have passed from the lines of Cain and Seth, the world becomes corrupted by human sin and Nephilim, and God wants to wipe out humanity for their wickedness. However, Noah is the only good human; so first, he instructs the righteous Noah and his family to build an ark and put examples of all the animals on it, seven pairs of every clean animal and one pair of every unclean. Then God sends a great flood to wipe out the rest of the world. When the waters recede, God promises he will never destroy the world with water again, making a rainbow as a symbol of his promise. God sees humankind cooperating to build a great tower city, the Tower of Babel, and divides humanity with many languages and sets them apart with confusion. Then, a generation line from Shem to Abram is described.

Patriarchal age (chapters 12–50)

Abram's Journey from Ur to Canaan (József Molnár, 1850)

Abram, a man descended from Noah, is instructed by God to travel from his home in Mesopotamia to the land of Canaan. There, God makes a promise to Abram, promising that his descendants shall be as numerous as the stars, but that people will suffer oppression in a foreign land for four hundred years, after which they will inherit the land "from the river of Egypt to the great river, the river Euphrates". Abram's name is changed to 'Abraham' and that of his wife Sarai to Sarah (meaning 'princess'), and God says that all males should be circumcised as a sign of his promise to Abraham. Due to her old age, Sarah tells Abraham to take her Egyptian handmaiden, Hagar, as a second wife (to bear a child). Through Hagar, Abraham fathers Ishmael.

God then plans to destroy the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah for the sins of their people. Abraham protests but fails to get God to agree not to destroy the cities (reasoning with Abraham that not even ten righteous persons were found there; and among the righteous was Abraham's nephew Lot). Angels save Abraham's nephew Lot (who was living there at the same time) and his family, but his wife looks back on the destruction, (even though God commanded not to) and turns into a pillar of salt for going against his word. Lot's daughters, concerned that they are fugitives who will never find husbands, get Lot drunk so they can become pregnant by him, and give birth to the ancestors of the Moabites and Ammonites.

Abraham and Sarah go to the Philistine town of Gerar, pretending to be brother and sister (they are half-siblings). The King of Gerar takes Sarah for his wife, but God warns him to return her (as she is really Abraham's wife) and he obeys. God sends Sarah a son and tells her she should name him Isaac; through him will be the establishment of the covenant (promise). Sarah then drives Ishmael and his mother Hagar out into the wilderness (because Ishmael is not her real son and Hagar is a slave), but God saves them and promises to make Ishmael a great nation.

The Angel Hinders the Offering of Isaac (Rembrandt, 1635)

Then, God tests Abraham by demanding that he sacrifice Isaac. As Abraham is about to lay the knife upon his son, "the Angel of the Lord" restrains him, promising him again innumerable descendants. On the death of Sarah, Abraham purchases Machpelah (believed to be modern Hebron) for a family tomb and sends his servant to Mesopotamia to find among his relations a wife for Isaac; after proving herself worthy, Rebekah becomes Isaac's betrothed. Keturah, Abraham's other wife, births more children, among whose descendants are the Midianites. Abraham dies at a prosperous old age and his family lays him to rest in Hebron (Machpelah).

Jacob flees Laban by Charles Foster, 1897.

Isaac's wife Rebekah gives birth to the twins Esau (meaning 'velvet'), father of the Edomites, and Jacob (meaning 'supplanter' or 'follower'). Esau was a couple of seconds older as he had come out of the womb first, and was going to become the heir; however, through carelessness, he sold his birthright to Jacob for a bowl of stew. His mother, Rebekah, ensures Jacob rightly gains his father's blessing as the firstborn son and inheritor. At 77 years of age, Jacob leaves his parents and later seeks a wife and meets Rachel at a well. He goes to her father, his uncle, where he works for a total of 14 years to earn his wives, Rachel and Leah. Jacob's name is changed to Israel after his wrestle with an angel, and by his wives and their handmaidens he has twelve sons, the ancestors of the twelve tribes of the children of Israel, and a daughter, Dinah.

Shechem, son of Hamor the Hivite, rapes Dinah and asks his father to get Dinah for him as his wife, according to Chapter 34. Jacob agrees to the marriage but requires that all the males of Hamor's tribe be circumcised, including Hamor and Shechem. After this was performed and all the men were still weak, Jacob's sons Simeon and Levi murdered all the males. Jacob complained that their act would mean retribution by others, namely the Canaanites and Perizzites. Jacob and his tribe took all the Hivite women and children as well as livestock and other property for themselves.

Joseph, Jacob's favourite son of the twelve, makes his brothers jealous (especially because of special gifts Jacob gave him) and because of that jealousy they sell Joseph into slavery in Egypt. Joseph endures many trials including being innocently sentenced to jail but he stays faithful to God. After several years, he prospers there after the pharaoh of Egypt asks him to interpret a dream he had about an upcoming famine, which Joseph does through God. He is then made second in command of Egypt by the grateful pharaoh, and later on, he is reunited with his father and brothers, who fail to recognize him and plead for food as the famine had reached Canaan as well. After much manipulation to see if they still hate him, Joseph reveals himself, forgives them for their actions, and lets them and their households into Egypt, where Pharaoh assigns to them the land of Goshen. Jacob calls his sons to his bedside and reveals their future before he dies. Joseph lives to old age and tells his brothers before his death that if God leads them out of the country, then they should take his bones with them.

Themes

Joseph Recognized by His Brothers (Léon Pierre Urban Bourgeois, 1863)

Promises to the ancestors

In 1978, David Clines published The Theme of the Pentateuch. Considered influential as one of the first authors to take up the question of the overarching theme of the Pentateuch, Clines' conclusion was that the overall theme is "the partial fulfilment—which implies also the partial nonfulfillment—of the promise to or blessing of the Patriarchs". (By calling the fulfilment "partial", Clines was drawing attention to the fact that at the end of Deuteronomy the people of Israel are still outside Canaan.)

The patriarchs, or ancestors, are Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, with their wives (Joseph is normally excluded). Since the name YHWH had not been revealed to them, they worshipped El in his various manifestations. (It is, however, worth noting that in the Jahwist source, the patriarchs refer to deity by the name YHWH, for example in Genesis 15.) Through the patriarchs, God announces the election of Israel, that is, he chooses Israel to be his special people and commits himself to their future. God tells the patriarchs that he will be faithful to their descendants (i.e. to Israel), and Israel is expected to have faith in God and his promise. ("Faith" in the context of Genesis and the Hebrew Bible means an agreement to the promissory relationship, not a body of a belief.)

The promise itself has three parts: offspring, blessings, and land. The fulfilment of the promise to each patriarch depends on having a male heir, and the story is constantly complicated by the fact that each prospective mother—Sarah, Rebekah and Rachel—is barren. The ancestors, however, retain their faith in God and God in each case gives a son—in Jacob's case, twelve sons, the foundation of the chosen Israelites. Each succeeding generation of the three promises attains a more rich fulfilment, until through Joseph "all the world" attains salvation from famine, and by bringing the children of Israel down to Egypt he becomes the means through which the promise can be fulfilled.

God's chosen people

Scholars generally agree that the theme of divine promise unites the patriarchal cycles, but many would dispute the efficacy of trying to examine Genesis' theology by pursuing a single overarching theme, instead citing as more productive the analysis of the Abraham cycle, the Jacob cycle, and the Joseph cycle, and the Yahwist and Priestly sources. The problem lies in finding a way to unite the patriarchal theme of the divine promise to the stories of Genesis 1–11 (the primeval history) with their theme of God's forgiveness in the face of man's evil nature. One solution is to see the patriarchal stories as resulting from God's decision not to remain alienated from humankind: God creates the world and humans, humans rebel, and God "elects" (chooses) Abraham.

To this basic plot (which comes from the Yahwist), the Priestly source has added a series of covenants dividing history into stages, each with its own distinctive "sign". The first covenant is between God and all living creatures, and is marked by the sign of the rainbow; the second is with the descendants of Abraham (Ishmaelites and others as well as Israelites), and its sign is circumcision; and the last, which does not appear until the Book of Exodus, is with Israel alone, and its sign is Sabbath. A great leader mediates each covenant (Noah, Abraham, Moses), and at each stage God progressively reveals himself by his name (Elohim with Noah, El Shaddai with Abraham, Yahweh with Moses).

Deception

Throughout Genesis, various figures engage in deception or trickery to survive or prosper. Biblical scholar David M. Carr notes that such stories reflect the vulnerability felt by ancient Israelites and that "such stories can be a major way of gaining hope and resisting domination". Examples include:

  • To avoid being killed, a patriarch (Abraham in 12:10–20 and 20:1–18 and Isaac in 26:6–11) tells a king that his wife is actually his sister.
  • In chapter 25, Jacob tricks Esau into selling his birthright for a pot of lentil stew.
  • In chapter 27, Isaac is tricked by Rebekah into giving Jacob the superior blessing instead of Esau.
  • In chapter 29, Jacob believes he is marrying Rachel but is tricked into marrying her sister.

Cultural impact

By totaling the spans of time in the genealogies of Genesis, religious authorities have calculated what they consider to be the age of the world since creation. This Anno Mundi system of counting years is the basis of the Hebrew calendar and Byzantine calendar. Counts differ somewhat, but they generally place the age of the Earth at about six thousand years.

During the Protestant Reformation, rivalry between Catholic and Protestant Christians led to a closer study of the Bible and a competition to take its words more seriously. Thus, scholars in Europe from the 16th to the 19th century treated the book of Genesis as factual. As evidence in the fields of paleontology, geology and other sciences was uncovered, scholars tried to fit these discoveries into the Genesis creation account. For example, Johann Jakob Scheuchzer in the 18th century believed that fossils were the remains of creatures killed during the flood. This literal understanding of Genesis fell out of favor with scholars during the Victorian crisis of faith as evidence mounted that the Earth was far older than six thousand years.

Judaism's weekly Torah portions

It is a custom among religious Jewish communities for a weekly Torah portion, popularly referred to as a parashah, to be read during Jewish prayer services on Saturdays, Mondays and Thursdays. The full name, פָּרָשַׁת הַשָּׁבוּעַ, Parashat ha-Shavua, is popularly abbreviated to parashah (also parshah /pɑːrʃə/ or parsha), and is also known as a Sidra (or Sedra /sɛdrə/).

The parashah is a section of the Torah (Five Books of Moses) used in Jewish liturgy during a particular week. There are 54 weekly parshas, or parashiyot in Hebrew, and the full cycle is read over the course of one Jewish year.

The first 12 of the 54 come from the Book of Genesis, and they are:

  1. Chapters 1–6 (verses 1–8) Parashat Bereshit
  2. Chapters 6 (v. 9 ff)–11 Parashat Noach
  3. Chapters 12–17 Parashat Lekh Lekha
  4. Chapters 18–22 Parashat Vayera
  5. Chapters 23–25 (v. 1–18) Parashat Chayyei Sarah
  6. Chapters 25 (v. 19 ff)–28 (v. 1–9) Parashat Toledot
  7. Chapters 28 (v. 10 ff)–32 (v. 1–3) Parashat Vayetzei
  8. Chapters 32 (v. 4 ff)–36 Parashat Vayishlach
  9. Chapters 37–40 Parashat Vayeshev
  10. Chapters 41–44 (v. 1–17) Parashat Miketz
  11. Chapters 44 (v. 18 ff)–47 (v. 1–27) Parashat Vayigash
  12. Chapters 47 (v. 28 ff)–50 Parashat Vayechi

See also


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