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Old Testament: Genesis

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Adam and Eve and the serpent,  Notre DameGenesis is a book about beginnings. It moves from the morning of the world to the ordering of families and nations to the birthing of the fathers and mothers of Israel. The ancestral stories begin with Abraham and Sarah and continue with Isaac and Rebekah, Jacob and Leah/Rachel, and the sons of Jacob, focusing on Joseph. While God was there "in the beginning," Genesis also testifies to the beginnings of God's activity in the world. It is a new day for God, too. And, given the divine commitment to the creation, God will never be the same again.

So What?

God creates a good and imaginative world, but does not leave it to cope on its own. God remains present and active, even in the wake of human sin, choosing to work creatively in and through creatures, especially the chosen family, toward divinely established goals of salvation and new creation.

Where Do I Find It?

Genesis is the first book of the Bible and is included as the first of five books called the Pentateuch.

Who Wrote It?

Traditionally, Moses has been considered the author of the Pentateuch and hence Genesis. Over the course of half a millennium, at least since the Reformation, the question of authorship has been seen to be more complex. Genesis is now usually understood to be the product of a long growth of development in which many authors and editors have had an important role.

When Was It Written?

Genesis came into being over the course of more than five hundred years, being completed sometime during or shortly after the Babylonian exile (587-538 B.C.E.).

What's It About?

Genesis 1-11 portrays the beginnings of the world, including creation, the fall into sin, and the flood and aftermath. Genesis 12-50 tells the story of Israel's ancestors, especially regarding the promises conveyed by God to them.

How Do I Read It?

Take especially into account the type of literature contained in the book. Recall that this literature centers on God's promises. Note the ways in which the stories depict Israel's ancestors as dysfunctional families and, at the same time, how God is able to work in and through them on behalf of the divine purposes.

AUTHOR: Terence E. Fretheim, Elva B. Lovell Professor of Old Testament

I. The Primeval Story (Genesis 1:1-11:26)

God, with the help of various agents (for example, the "us" of 1:26), creates the world. Human sin intrudes, with social and cosmic effects (including the flood), in the wake of which God's promises enable a new world order.

II. The Story of Abraham and Sarah (Genesis 11:27-25:18)

God calls Abraham and makes promises to him and his descendants through both Hagar and Sarah and their sons Ishmael and Isaac, though it is only through Isaac that the covenant is established.

III. The Story of Jacob, Leah, and Rachel (Genesis 25:19-36:43)

God renews the promises to Jacob/Israel, whose twelve sons become the tribes of Israel.

IV. The Story of Jacob's Sons, Especially Joseph (Genesis 37:1-50:26)

The story of Joseph becomes the prism in and through which the development of Jacob's family is portrayed. Egypt is the primary location of this story, which sets up the narrative in the book of Exodus.

AUTHOR: Terence E. Fretheim, Elva B. Lovell Professor of Old Testament

Scholarly efforts to reconstruct the history that lies behind the book of Genesis have had mixed results. Regarding Genesis 1-11, it is best acknowledged that these chapters were edited over many centuries and that a specific historical background cannot be discerned with any confidence. As for Genesis 12-50, a period of some scholarly confidence in the basic historicity of this material within the second millennium has faded in recent years in view of the character of the biblical text and challenges to supposed archaeological evidence. Various ancient Near Eastern parallels to ancestral names and customs have at times been overdrawn.

Since the biblical texts underwent a long period of transmission, they reflect aspects of Israel's history all along the way. Yet, these chapters are not finally without historical value, even for a second-millennium dating at some points. One such matter pertains to the religious practices reflected in these texts, which are often distinctive compared to those of later Israel, including the worship of God under various forms of the name El and references to God as the God of my/our/your father. It seems reasonable to claim that the narratives carry some authentic memories of Israel's pre-exodus heritage, that is, from the period 2000-1500 B.C.E. At the same time, it is not possible to determine the extent to which the women and men of Genesis were actual historical figures.

AUTHOR: Terence E. Fretheim, Elva B. Lovell Professor of Old Testament

The canonical placement of Genesis. Besides being a book about beginnings, Genesis and its concern about creation constitute a fundamental theological category for every other biblical book. Only in relationship to creation can God's subsequent actions in and through Israel be properly understood: God's purposes with Israel and the church are universal in scope. God's work in redemption serves creation, the entire creation. God's redemptive work does not occur in a vacuum; it occurs in a context that has been shaped in decisive ways by the life-giving, creative work of God.

Creation stories in the ancient Near East. Creation literature is not unique to Israel. Sumerian, Mesopotamian, Egyptian, and Canaanite creation accounts (or remnants thereof) have been unearthed in the last two centuries. From these findings, it is apparent that Israel participated in a culture with a lively interest in questions regarding creation. While Israel may have drawn on these accounts directly, scholars now more commonly speak of a fund of images common to the ancient Near East with more indirect influence on Israel's reflections. Parallels include the primordial waters; the divine rest; creation as separation; images of the creator as potter, farmer, and speaker of the word; and the textual sequence in Genesis 1-9.

Flood stories in the ancient Near East. Numerous versions of the flood story circulated in the ancient Near East. The most widely known today occurs as part of the Mesopotamian Gilgamesh Epic. An older, but less complete, version may be found in the Atrahasis Epic. The similarities of the latter with the basic creation-flood structure of Genesis are particularly striking: they include early disruption of humankind, including the long-lived patriarchs; the gods sending a flood to stop the human disruption; and the saving of a hero. At the same time, questions of dependence of the Genesis story on these accounts remain unresolved, though the biblical account is far more like the Mesopotamian accounts than any other known flood accounts.

Floods in the ancient Near East. The stories are set in the Tigris-Euphrates River valley (in modern Iraq), which was periodically flooded in ancient times. No known archaeological remains provide evidence for a worldwide flood, but those who experienced such floods may have interpreted them as floods that covered the then-known world (as the biblical accounts do). No dating of the biblical flood is possible, though there was a major flood in that world around 3000 B.C.E. No credence should be given to the occasional rumors regarding the discovery of Noah's ark.

Genesis 1-11 and modern science. These chapters are prescientific in the sense that they predate modern science, but not in the sense of having no interest in those types of questions. The texts indicate a genuine interest in questions of the "how" of creation (for example, God's use of the earth and the waters in mediating creation; 1:11, 20, 24), and not just questions of "who" and "why." The authors recognize that the truth about creation is not generated simply by theological reflection; various fields of inquiry are needed in order to speak the full truth about the world. Not everything in these chapters can be made congruent with modern knowledge about the world (for example, the age of the earth; the source of light). At the same time, the texts remain an important paradigm of the way in which to integrate theological and scientific realities in a common search for the truth about the world.

Genesis and history. Most scholars understand that, from a historical perspective, Genesis is a very mixed set of materials. The texts are placed basically in a chronological order (before 1500 B.C.E. or so) and they are presented as moving steadily toward the time of captivity in the land of Egypt (at the beginning of the book of Exodus). Moreover, the stories in Genesis are remarkably free of pretense, describing the Israelite ancestors in terms that are often quite unattractive (think of Jacob). This suggests honesty on Israel's part in its appraisal of its own past history. At the same time, Israelite authors and editors no doubt used their imaginations freely in the telling and retelling process (for example, in constructing the words of a private conversation). Whatever the results of historical research, however, it is important to understand that, not unlike parabolic literature, the truth of the material is not necessarily tied to its historicity.

Genesis and its readers. Texts are not autonomous, independent of those who read them, nor can they communicate without a reader. So, to at least some degree, meaning is not found simply in the mind of the author nor is it inherent in the text. The meaning of the text is the result of the conversation between the text and its readers. As a result, no single meaning is available in any text; indeed, meaning changes over time, even for the same reader, because readers change (the meaning an interpreter sees in, say, Genesis 1-2 is somewhat different from what she or he saw a generation ago, not least because the interpreter has changed over the years). Meanings of texts, then, will always be open-ended to some degree; they are not fixed and stable. At the same time, while the texts can mean many things, they cannot mean anything. Constraints on meaning possibilities exist, including the text itself, historical background information, and the many and diverse communities within which readers and texts reside.

Genesis and the theological task. The book of Genesis is filled with theological reflection, that is, reflections about God and the divine-human relationship. The word "theology" for what the Bible contains has been suspect in scholarly circles, not least because that word is thought to introduce subjective factors into an "objective" or "descriptive" enterprise. But it has increasingly been evident that every reader of the text, from whatever angle, introduces subjective factors into biblical study, whether admitted or not. At best, one might strive for a relatively objective approach. Theological analysis is not innately any more subjective than historical or literary study. In view of such analysis, most scholars recognize that it is no longer appropriate to distinguish between what the text meant and what the text means. All questions asked of the text are contemporary questions, and all results of our work are, finally, constructive.

Genesis as literature. Genesis is literature, and hence needs to be studied as a literary work among other literary works. Basic to such a study of the book is seeing how the text itself "works": How do its various literary and rhetorical features function in the present literary whole? Special attention needs to be given to such matters as language and style, surface and deep structures of the text, rhetorical devices, literary genres, and narratological features such as repetition, irony, plot, depiction of characters, and especially point of view. An instance of the latter may be seen in Genesis 18:1-2, where the narrator speaks of the appearance of the Lord, while Abraham sees three men.

Genesis genealogies. Israel was concerned about kinship interrelationships and tracking family origins and "pedigrees," especially for important figures. Major portions of seven chapters of Genesis consist of genealogies. There are ten so-called Priestly genealogies in Genesis (2:4; 5:1; 6:9; 10:1; 11:10; 11:27; 25:12; 25:19; 36:1, 9; 37:2) and they provide one basic structure for the book. They are supplemented by a few others (for example, Cain, 4:17-26). The historical value of these genealogies is much debated, but the Genesis authors/editors probably understood them as providing some sort of historical anchor for the larger story. These genealogies demonstrate that Israel was thought to be kin to all of the surrounding peoples, linking all into one creational family.

Genesis narratives. Little consensus has emerged regarding the proper label for the narratives. It is reasonably clear that they are not historical narrative in any modern sense, though they do possess features associated with history writing (for example, a chronological framework set in the ancient past). The designation "story" (or story of the past) is perhaps most helpful in determining how these materials functioned for ancient readers. "Theological narrative" may also be a suitable designation, given the extent to which God is a character who is active in the lives of people and the world throughout.

Sources for the book of Genesis. In addition to ancient Near Eastern sources, for several hundred years it has been common to view the book of Genesis (as well as other books in the Pentateuch) in terms of differing sources (for example, the Yahwist, the Elohist, the Priestly Writer, the Deuteronomist). The confidence with which scholars speak of the details of these sources has faded considerably over recent years. Yet, the book of Genesis is commonly referred to as a composite document, consisting of sources that span centuries, having been edited in several major ways over much of Israel's history. Genesis probably received its present form sometime during or shortly after the Babylonian exile (587-538 B.C.E.).

Type of literature. There are basically two types of literature (genres) in Genesis, namely, narrative and genealogy; some poetic pieces are present throughout (for example, Genesis 49). The identification of the type of literature being studied is very important for interpreting the texts in appropriate ways. A key question to ask of every text is: What kind of literature am I reading now?

Understandings of sin in the ancient Near East. Extensive parallels exist in the ancient Near East to the understanding of sin (if not the specific "fall" story) that is evident in Genesis. A universal and pervasive understanding of human sin can be discerned in several ancient Near Eastern texts, a number of them from prebiblical times. One example from an invocation to the Babylonian goddess Ishtar may illustrate the point: "Forgive my sin, my iniquity, my shameful deeds, and my offence....Loosen my fetters; secure my deliverance....Let my prayers and my supplications come to thee. Let thy great mercy be upon me. Let those who see me in the street magnify thy name..." (James B. Pritchard, ed., "Prayer of Lamentation to Ishtar," in Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament, 3d ed. with supplement [Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1969] 385). Such research makes clear that Israel drew on such understandings for its own theological reflections regarding sin. We are the inheritors of a rich theology of sin from the prebiblical world, though this is seldom acknowledged.

AUTHOR: Terence E. Fretheim, Elva B. Lovell Professor of Old Testament

Blessing. Blessing is pervasive in Genesis. It is a gift of God, usually mediated through creaturely agents, which empowers recipients, both elect and non-elect, to experience and bring forth life, goodness, and well-being.

Covenant. Covenant in Genesis is basically divine promise. It refers to both universal promises to Noah and all creatures and specific promises to the elect family of Abraham. God thereby assumes obligations to remain forever committed to the world and to this family, with attendant blessings. For the book of Genesis, God gives promises and will be faithful to them through thick and thin.

Creation. Creation is most fundamentally the activity of God in bringing the cosmos into being and includes both originating and continuing creative activity. Creation also includes the activity of creatures (human and nonhuman) in and through which God works to create in ever new ways.

Election. God "elects" or chooses creatures in and through which God will work in the world. The special election of Abraham (and his descendants) is for the sake of "all the families of the earth" (12:3). This initially exclusive divine move is for the sake of a maximally inclusive end.

God. God is the primary character in the book of Genesis. Virtually every characteristic of God that is found in the Old Testament is present here (an exception is forgiveness, at least explicitly). God is seen to be present and active, among both chosen and nonchosen peoples, from the beginning of the book and throughout. God's work is always seen as purposive, directed toward objectives that are in the best interests of individuals and peoples involved, indeed the entire creation.

Goodness and sinfulness. Human beings are created good and responsible creatures in the image of God. This reality continues (Psalm 8) even though they have chosen to violate the relationship with God and sin becomes an inevitable dimension of their life, with ill effects on all creatures.

Image of God. Human beings are created both in the image of God, the Creator, and to be the image of God in the life of the world. The image of God, whatever its roots in royal imagery, has here been universalized, indeed democratized, so that all humanity--male and female and with no regard to race or class--belongs to this sphere. All interhuman hierarchical understandings are thereby set aside (see also Psalm 8).

The image of the God of the flood story. The images of God in the flood story are striking: God expresses sorrow and regret; judges reluctantly; goes beyond justice and determines to save some (including animals); commits to the future of a less than perfect world; is open to change in view of the divine experience with the world; and promises never to destroy the earth again.

Judgment. Judgment may be defined as the divinely mediated consequences of sin. Initially in Genesis, sin and judgment come to a climax in the flood. In the wake of this disaster, God promises never to allow for such an extensive judgment again (8:21; 9:8-17), though more proximate judgments on sin continue apace (for example, Sodom and Gomorrah, 18:16-19:29). It is wise not to refer to such judgments as punishments; rather, they refer to the natural consequences of sin that are integral to God's creational moral order, an order that God continues to mediate.

Relationality. God is a relational God, present and active in the world, who enters into a relationship with a world that is created as an interrelated entity. The relationship between God and world is a living and dynamic reality, more comprehensive than covenant, within which both parties are affected by the realities of genuine interrelatedness over time.

Righteousness. Righteousness has two different, though related, understandings in Genesis. On the one hand, it refers to being in a right relationship with God (so, for example, Abraham is righteous, 15:6). On the other hand, it refers to the actions of those in such a relationship who in acting do justice to the relationship with God in which they stand (so Abraham's descendants, 18:19).

AUTHOR: Terence E. Fretheim, Elva B. Lovell Professor of Old Testament

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