Electronic Reserve Text: Outline and Commentary from The Oxford Companion to the Bible
Genesis, The Book of. Genesis is the book of beginnings. Its account of primeval history (chaps. 1–11) extends from the creation of the world and humankind (chaps. 1–2) through its near destruction and preservation in the Flood (chaps. 6–9) to the spread of humankind over the earth (chaps. 10–11). The subsequent history of the ancestors extends from Abraham to the sons of Jacob.
The building blocks of chapters 1–11 are narratives (chaps. 1; 2–3; 4; 6–9) and genealogies (chaps. 5; 10). The narratives recount the beginnings of the world and its people; they cover the creation of the earth and of human beings (chaps. 1–2), wrongdoing and punishment (chaps. 3; 4; 6–9; 11), the first signs of cultural development, and the scattering of tribes and tongues. It is through the genealogies that the events in Genesis 1–11 become a coherent story. The creator's blessing causes the expansion of humankind through the course of time (chap. 5: genealogy from Adam to Abraham) and the reach of space (chap. 10: the table of nations). Between the two genealogies stands the catastrophe of the Flood (chaps. 6–9), which is caused by the corruption of humankind and threatens to destroy its existence. The accounts of wrongdoing and punishment demonstrate the many possibilities for transgression; both the individual (chaps. 3; 4; 9) and the group (6.1–4, 5–9; 11) can overstep the boundaries set for human beings.
The later narrative
(1.1–2.4) emphasizes the creation of the world. In early religions,
creation occurs through action, through generation and birth, and through
combat. In Genesis 1, everything that exists or becomes has its origins
in God's commanding word. The distribution of creation over seven days
forms a temporal unity that recalls the week and its culmination in
the Sabbath, and it suggests that the history of creation and humanity
also has an aim. The creation of plants and animals according to species
show that a created order can include evolution rather than excluding
it. The creation of the human “in God's image” means “corresponding
to God,” that is, as a creature to whom God can speak and who can respond
to God. Human dignity is based on this likeness to God. Human rule over
the rest of creation is understood in terms of the rule of a king who
is responsible for the well-being of his subjects. The growth of humankind
involves human effort and the advancement of culture. The refrain, “And
God saw that it was good,” signifies that creation was good in God's
eyes, that it was in accord with God's purpose.
of the text.
Three epochs are reflected in the three generations of Genesis. The first (chaps. 12–25) is dominated chiefly by primal events; life and death are repeatedly at stake. In the second (chaps. 26–36), institutions such as property rights, judicial practice, and sacred rites in sacred locations begin to play a role. The third (chaps. 37–50) reflects the confrontation of kin and kingship in Joseph's rule over his brothers.
The ancestral narratives grew out of oral traditions. They consist of various types of stories, genealogies, itineraries, and divine oracles. In the oral stage of transmission, these elements simply occurred in various versions and underwent many changes in the course of their existence. This is also true of the divine oracles, which trace their origins back to the ancestral period but owe their further development to a later time. Our concept of history cannot be applied to these narratives; they are not historical writing. Rather, they grew out of an interest in telling of one's own ancestors in order to preserve their memory, and this only made sense if the accounts did include true reports of actual persons: in a preliterary age, past events are narrated in order to allow their hearers to share in them.
In its written form, the text in chaps. 12–36 developed from the union of two independent texts, J (“Yahwist,” the earlier of the two) and P (“Priestly,” the more recent). The older text in chaps. 12–25 and 25–36 knits together stories and accounts from the era of the ancestors into a coherent history; the author functioned simultaneously as transmitter, poet, and theologian. This work subsequently underwent a series of expansions. The more recent work grew out of a priestly theology. In addition to its narratives, this text is dominated by genealogies and itineraries that describe the course of Abraham's life (Isaac's is only alluded to) and that of Jacob and Esau. Divine promises and calls occupy a central position in both sections (chaps. 17 and 35), and the concept of covenant is of prime significance. Characteristic of P are the etiologies of precultic rites, such as circumcision (chap. 17), kin marriage (chaps. 27–28), and burial on one's own land (chap. 23), which establish the family as the basic cell of the nation. This more recent text has radically altered the history from a theological point of view. A redactor (R) created a coherent presentation of ancestral history out of these two texts. (see Pentateuch for more detail.)
The time of the
ancestors cannot be determined with certainty (attempts to fix its beginnings
have ranged from 2200 to 1200 BCE). At any rate, it is the era before
the Exodus and the settlement of the tribes in Canaan. The individuals
and the societal structures belong to the prepolitical life-style of
pastoral nomads before they become settled, lacking economic or political
safeguards, and passing by walled cities at a distance. They live with
elemental threats to their survival: hunger and thirst, natural catastrophes,
danger from those in power. For them, temporal continuity exists only
in the succession of generations; the future is embodied in their offspring.
the Abraham cycle.
Beside the narratives, an independent line of tradition is found in the divine pronouncements. Their point of departure and core is the prophecy foretelling a son (15.2–3; 16.11; 18.10–14; 17.15–21), one of the earliest Abraham stories. The prophecies of blessing, multiplying, and landowning belong to a later tradition. At the center (chaps. 15–17), prophecies accumulate and form their own narratives.
Between the first
ending (chap. 21) and the final one (chap. 25), three detailed stories
belonging to a late phase of the Abraham tradition have been inserted
(chaps. 22; 23; and 24). Abraham's questioning of God concerning the
destruction of Sodom (chap. 18.16–33) also belongs to this late phase.
The account of Abraham and the kings (chap. 14) is a very late addition.
the Jacob-Esau cycle.
of the ancestors.
God not only blesses, he is also the one who saves. He answers the lament of the childless with the promise of a child (17.15–19), which constitutes deliverance. God hears the cry of a thirsty child and leads the mother to a spring (21.15–19). In this relationship with God there is no need for laws. The curse does not yet stand beside the blessing, and the covenant is not yet paired with the threat of judgment. This is a prepolitical form of religion; the God of the ancestors has nothing to do with waging war.
In all these narratives,
the ancestors are dealing with only one God. There is no sense of polytheistic
influence from the surrounding culture. It is the single God on whom
they call and in whom they trust, although one cannot describe the religion
of the ancestors as a studied monotheism. They do not yet have an institutional
cult; they have no temple, no priesthood, and no cultic laws. Whatever
passes between God and human beings happens directly. Only expansions
such as 18.16–38 contain intellectual reflections. It is only in such
later passages, and not in the ancestral period, that theological concepts,
such as faith, righteousness, trial, and covenant, receive significance.
The later text of P begins to use language of a theological cast; and
only in the later layers of tradition does one find the idealization
of the ancestors and the accentuation of their merits.
the Joseph story.
The Joseph story is a unified literary narrative, the work of one author in the early monarchic period. The author is not the same as that of the older J tradition (chaps. 12–36); the technique and style are different, for the Joseph story is not compiled from separate narratives and contains no genealogies or itineraries. This story is meant to be heard, not read; thus, the shape of the narrative is clearly defined, both as a whole and in the individual sections. Narrative techniques include key words (three pairs of dreams, Joseph's coat, famine) and doublets (two settings, two journeys, pairs of dreams). The lively description of people and interpersonal relations is characteristic, as in Joseph's rise and fall at court and the danger of abusing power.
The Joseph story is not a didactic wisdom narrative. Only chaps. 39–41 have a connection to wisdom literature, conditioned by their subject: the wisdom of a statesman at the royal court. Pharaoh describes Joseph as a wise statesman, but his is no artificially learned, scholastic wisdom, but instead a wisdom bestowed by God and matured by hard experience.
God is with Joseph in the low and high points of his life. The effect of his blessing is directed at an individual, but it also gains a universal scope when he averts famine from Egypt. He is the God of peace who heals the rift in the family of Jacob. The God who blesses is also the God who saves. He seeks after the guilty and makes possible forgiveness and reconciliation. The interpretation in 45.5–8 and 50.19–21 summarizes the action of God in this story: God has incorporated the evil doings of the brothers into his working of good. It is God's action that fashions the sequence of events into a whole; at the same time, the whole sequence of events is encompassed within it.
See also Interpretation, History of, article on Modern Biblical Criticism.
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