THE BOOK OF GENESIS – PART I – SECTION 2
OVERVIEW AND OUTLINE
I. The book of Genesis is a part of the Pentateuch, called the Torah by Jews. The Torah is traditionally ascribed to Moses. More recently, scholars have argued that it comes from a variety of sources and was written up to the sixth century B. C.
A. The Pentateuch is the first five books of the Bible, Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy. They describe the history of God's providence from Creation through the journey of the Chosen People from Egypt to the Promised Land and ends with the Chosen People about to enter this land.
- Called the
Torah (Law) by the Jews, these books are to them the most important
part of the word of God.
- The main theme
of the Pentateuch is God calling a people for Himself, His establishment
of a covenant with them, His holiness and His fidelity. The covenants
go from the one with Adam, damaged in original sin, to the ones with
Noah, Abraham, and Moses and the Chosen People at Sinai.
B. There is a longstanding tradition that the Pentateuch was written by Moses.
1. By its own
account, Deuteronomy is the last words of Moses before the Chosen People
entered the Promised Land, in which he recounts the history set forth
in the other books.
2. The Pentateuch
records Moses as recounting events and covenants in writing. See
Ex. 17:14, 24:4-7, 24:27; Num. 33:2; Duet. 31:9, 24. Elsewhere,
the Old Testament refers to Moses as the author of "the book of the
law" or "the book of the covenant." See Joshua 1:7-8, 8:31-34,
23:6; Neh. 8:14; Dan. 9:11-13; Sir. 24:22.
3. The New Testament
sometimes refers to the writings of Moses, which would presumably be
the Torah. See, e.g., Matt. 19:7-8; Mark 7:10, 10:3-5; Luke 24:27;
John 5:45-47; 7:19, 8:5; Acts 3:22, 26:22; Rom. 10:5. In Mark
12:19-26, Jesus also described Moses as the author of the "passage
about the bush," i.e. God's appearance to Moses at the burning busy.
The Torah was sometimes called "the books of Moses."
C. However, it has
been argued from ancient times that later generations added to the Law
of Moses to complete what we now call the Pentateuch. For example,
St. Jerome believed that Ezra, a high priest after Israel's return
from Exile in 530, added some detail to the Pentateuch.
D. In 1906, the Pontifical Biblical Commission, in its document "On the Mosaic Authorship of the Pentateuch" favored Mosaic authorship in general, but granted that there may well have been adaptations later. In a 1948 letter to Cardinal Suhard, the Archbishop of Paris, it cited that finding and added, "No one today doubts the existence of these sources or rejects a gradual increase of Mosaic laws due to the social and religious conditions of later times, a process manifest also in the historical narratives. However, even among non-Catholic exegetes very diverse opinions are held today concerning the character and the number of these documents, their names and dates. There are even authors in different countries, who for purely critical and historical reasons quite unconnected with any religious purpose resolutely reject the theories most in favor up to the present"
E. Many modern theories are based upon, or reactions to, a fourfold schema set forth by Julius Wellhausen in 1878. It states that the Pentateuch came from four sources.
oldest source, the Yahwehist (J) source, so named because the source
is described as calling God Yahweh (I am) most often, would have been
from the 9th or 10th century B.C., when the kingdom
was divided. The source calls people back to the personal covenant
with God. This source (or perhaps better described as a strain)
emphasizes the personal contact of God and used a great deal of anthropomorphism.
The second creation account, and most of the first 11 chapters of Genesis,
along with the call of Abraham would be from this source.
2. The Elohist
(E) source, so named because the source is described as referred to
God most often as Elohim (the Lord,) is described as coming from northern
kingdom in the 8th or 9th centuries. It
emphasizes God more at a distance, often speaking through dreams, such
as that of Jacob and Joseph. It describes the majesty of God more, as
with the call of Moses. It also warns very strongly against adopting
foreign gods, which was a continual temptation especially of the northern
kingdom. It emphasizes as well the unity of the people of Israel.
3. The Deuteronomist (D) source is said to come from the 7thor 8th century B.C. when the northern kingdom had been destroyed and the southern kingdom was being threatened. The focus, which is primarily in the Book of Deuteronomy, is on the importance of the law and the results of adhering to it or not. This source is often associated with Josiah, the just and holy king of the southern kingdom who found a book of the law in the Temple. See 2 Kings 22:8ff.
4. The Priestly
source (P) is said to have been written during or after the exile in
586-538 B.C. to bring people back to the importance of the worship of
God, particularly reflected in Leviticus and the beginning of Numbers.
This source is said to be the force behind the ordering of many accounts
in the Torah into neat divisions (e.g., the seven days of creation,
the six campsites leading up to Mount Sinai and the six leading from
there to the Holy Land.) This source emphasizes renewal and the
idea of covenants and blessings more (e.g., the idea of all nations
being blessed through Abraham, see Gen. 12:2-3, or of Jacob's blessings
for his sons, see Gen. 49.) This source is also said to be the
one behind the emphasis on genealogies, for the renewal of the Chosen
People after the exile, and especially of the worship, was based heavily
on getting people back into their rightful families.
5. There are also views on the subsets of each source (e.g., P1, P2, etc.) These different sources can also be thought of as simply different strains of thought in the Pentateuch, regardless of when they were written. It is very possibly that Moses gave the people the basic law and accounts that would become the Pentateuch, but that they were refined over time, thus accounting for the different style in language and ordering.
1. The notion
of recording history as a separate subject began in the classical world
with Herodotus (484-424 B.C.), a Greek historian who travelled around
Greece and Asia Minor and is the first known scholar in the Western
world to research sources thoroughly and put together a flowing historical
3. The Pentateuch
thus takes a literary approach to both theological and philosophical
matters. It presents real historical events, but often (especially
in the first 11 chapters of Genesis) in literary format. Its history
takes on a literary style that does not attempt to cover comprehensively
all that we might now be interested in.
III. The Book of Genesis recounts in very short order the time up to the call of Abraham and then focuses on the history of the patriarchs as God called a family to be His own.
A. The first eleven chapters are a sort of prehistory of the Chosen People that sets forth the basic notion of creation as good, but fallen, and of humanity as often sinning, but also often striving, albeit in imperfect ways, to respond to God's love. These chapters were written in very mythological terms, but still recount real events (e.g., creation, the Fall, and probably the Great Flood, which seems to have been an event in prehistoric Mesopotamia.)
1. It has been debated
from the beginning of the Church whether those chapters were meant to
be more symbolic or describing history in a more literalistic fashion.
For examples, St. Augustine (354-430) in his Confessions and
Origin (185-254) in De Principis book IV, read them to be symbolic,
with St. Augustine saying that they reflect the order in which creation
was revealed to the angels, and Origin saying that they are a seven-fold
reflection of the mystery of God. By contrast, St. Basil the Great
(320-379) and St. Ephraim (306-373) thought that the days were meant
as time periods. St. Thomas Aquinas considered both views and
thought it unnecessary to decide between them. See Summa Theologica,
Part I, question 74, articles 1-2.
B. Starting in Chapter 11, Genesis then gets to the main theme, i.e. God's call to Abraham, who already was apparently seeking God.
1. Scholars differ about what time in human history when this call occurred. If we take all of the dates in the Old Testament at face value, we arrive at a date of about 2000.
a. This surface
level dating comes from the fact that 1 Kings records the Temple as
being build 480 years after the Exodus began. With the Temple
plainly built about 970 B.C., that would put the Exodus at about 1450
B.C. Several statements in the Bible also say that the time in
Egypt was 400-450 years. See Gen. 15:13; Ex. 12:40; Acts 13:20.
That would put the resettlement in Egypt described at the end of Genesis
at about 1900, making the call of Abraham something close to 2000 B.C.
For Isaac was born to Abraham about 25 years after the call, Jacob born
to Isaac at about the age of 40, Joseph born to Jacob probably when
Jacob was in his mid-30s and Joseph sold into slavery probably in his
late teens. Thus, if we take the ages in Genesis as historical,
Joseph's departure into Egypt was probably about 115 years after Abraham's
first call, and the rest of Jacob's family following suit about 20
one or both of those times are often considered to be round numbers,
and the actual call of Abraham later. In particular, the term
480 year can be read as 12 generations, for in Israeli thought the a
generation was though of as lasting about 40 years (the time of the
wandering in the desert after leaving Egypt), even though as a practical
matter generations usually consist of a much shorter period. If
the Exodus is thought of as occurring about 1275 B.C., during the reign
of Ramses II, which seemly likely, and if the time in Egypt was 400-450
years, the call of Abraham would have been about 1800 B.C.
c. Some scholars
consider the time in Egypt also to be much shorter than the full 400-450
years described in the Bible, and thus consider the call of Abraham
to be more recent, as late as about 1400 B.C. See Rendsburg,
The Book of Genesis 156-166. Other scholars have argued that
the evidence of mass migration from Mesopotamia to Palestine was common
from 2000 -1800, and it is likely that Abraham was a part of that migration.
See Lawrence Boadt, Reading the Old Testament 135 (1984).
2. In any case, God called Abraham, along with the several hundred people in his clan, to what would become the Promised Land. He made Abraham promises in a covenant that would be established and expanded twice. The three times when the covenant is sworn mark the framework of chapters 12-21.
1. In chapter 12, God first calls the 75 year old Abraham, who is married to Sarah, but childless. Having already led his father out of Ur, God calls for Abraham to go to the Promised Land with his clan and promises to make a great nation of Abraham, giving him a blessing through which all nations will be blessed.
some odd adventures in Egypt and then battles with the local kings,
Abraham meets and honors the mysterious Melchizedek, priest king of
2. In chapter 15, God reaffirms the covenant with Abraham and promises him heirs in a mysterious night time ritual in which Abraham senses the power of God's presence.
quite understanding God's commands, Abraham, at Sarah's recommendation,
has a child Ishmael through his wife's maid Hagar.
3. In chapter 17, God reaffirms the covenant, adding the requirement of circumcision, and promising that the covenant would be fulfilled through Sarah's child.
chapter 18, Abraham greets three angels, who represent God and reaffirm
20 gives a short conclusion with another neighboring people, led by
a king called Abimelech, who is more just than Abraham thinks.
C. Starting in chapter 21, the emphasis begins to switch to Isaac, who is both the first fulfillment of God's promise and a test of Abraham's fidelity. The next five chapters describe the events surrounding him.
1. In chapter
21, Abraham and Sarah have their first son Isaac. The covenant
is beginning to be fulfilled.
2. But then chapter
22 recounts the terrible test when God tells Abraham to offer Isaac
as a sacrifice, but a sacrifice that is then forbidden.
3. After describing
Sarah's burial in chapter 23, the text then switches to Isaac's
adventures, which begin in chapter 24, with his courting of Rebekah.
After a short discussion of other descendants of Abraham, the text then
describes some of Isaac's adventures regarding dwelling in a foreign
land because of a famine. There are remarkably similar to those
of Abraham earlier, with either the same or a different king Abimelech.
D. From Isaac, the emphasis switches to Jacob, whom God has chosen to inherit the promises, in place of his strong, but rather impulsive and thoughtless brother Esau. As with Abraham, Isaac, Jacob is presented as perfect or superhuman, but rather as one who placed his faith in God and slowly grew into His promises.
1. The main theme
of the crafty Jacob and physically strong but clueless Esau having been
introduced in chapter 25, chapter 27 recounts Jacob obtaining through
deceit the blessing due to the firstborn from Isaac.
2. Chapters 28-31 then
recount Jacob's flight to the lands owned by his uncle Laban and his
life there. There is a great deal of mutual deceit between them,
but in the end Jacob marries two women, Leah and Rachel, and from them
and their handmaids, has eleven of his twelve sons. These sons
will found the tribes of Israel.
3. Chapters 32
and 33 then describe his reconciliation with Esau and the beginning
of his return home. In this midst of this restoration, Jacob wrestles
with an angel and receives the name Israel (one who contended with God.)
4. Chapters 34
and 35 then describe the remainder of Jacob's return home, with terrible
tragedies, but a conclusion with the birth of Jacob's last son Benjamin
and return to Isaac.
5. Chapter 36 is an interlude,
describing the descendants of Esau.
1. In chapter
37, Joseph's brothers sell him into slavery because of jealousy.
One sees in this chapter and in chapter 38 the beginnings of the rise
of Judah in prominence over Reuben, who is the first born, but weak.
2. In chapter
39, Joseph is tempted by the wife of his Egyptian master. He passes
the test, but is falsely accused and imprisoned.
3. Chapters 40
and 41 describe Joseph's rise to prominence through his ability to
interpret the dreams God sends.
4. In chapters
42-45, Joseph's brothers are forced to come to Egypt for food.
They do not recognize Joseph, who is in charge of the distribution.
Through a series of ruses, Joseph tests before finally revealing himself
to the family. Judah takes on fully to role of leader among the
other 11 brothers, and Joseph shows himself to be a magnificent ruler,
prayerful, wise and forgiving.
5. In chapters
46 and 47, the family of Jacob settles in Egypt and prospers because
of Joseph's protection.
6. In chapters
48 and 49, Jacob gives his final blessings, which are not always positive,
but they foreshadow the future of Israel and hint at the Messiah.