GENESIS:  A Christian Commentary

The English name for the first book of the Bible is a Greek word taken from the book’s name in the ancient Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible which is called the Septuagint (Greek for ‘seventy’, so often abbreviated with the Roman numeral for seventy, LXX).  ‘Genesis’ (γέvεσις) means ‘source’ or ‘origin’, as in the beginning of a family’s ancestry or genealogical line.  The word occurs first in the Old Testament in Genesis 5:1 and in the New Testament in its first verse, Saint Matthew 1:1.  Genesis, as this name suggests, is about beginnings or origins.  The word ‘beginning’ also occurs in the first verse of Genesis in the Authorized (or ‘King James’) Version, but this comes from a different Greek word:  not ‘genesis’ but rather archē (ἀρχή), meaning ‘first’ or ‘beginning’.  From archē come such English words such as ‘archeology’ (the study of beginnings) and ‘archetype’ (the original version).  Just as there are different Greek words for ‘beginning’, so Genesis is about all sorts of beginnings:  the beginning of inanimate creation and of living beings, of non-human and of human living beings, of provisional and permanent realities, of good and evil, of customs and families.

Genesis can be divided into two main parts:  chapters 1 to 11 are often called the primeval narrative.  In these chapters, which describe the creation of the world and all that is therein, we see a gradual funneling down of narrative interest.  Genesis 1 opens with the creation of the universe, the heavens and the earth and all living beings, including particularly mankind.  The origin of all the nations known to ancient Israel is described, but gradually the genealogies and stories of the book narrow down to a particular family and line:  that of Abraham, who with his descendants will be the subject of the second part of the book, chapters 12-50.  But within this seemingly straightforward movement, from the many to the one, from the whole to the particular, we also find a kind of spiral.  In Genesis we find that something goes wrong near the beginning of the story and that creation is twisted by evil.  The intrusion of evil means that the original creation requires mending, so that the development of humanity from Adam to Abraham (i.e., chapters 1-11) goes through several interruptions and new beginnings.  A first or original sin means that original happiness is lost, and that loss then must be dealt with.  God’s work is soon accompanied by human working, and God’s work thereafter includes dealing with the free works of his creatures.  A first murder of one son by another means that sin threatens life itself and requires divine action if all is not to be lost.  Likewise, hubris and human pride are dealt with by God after the building of the Tower of Babel.  In fact, evil becomes so profound that almost the whole human creation must end and then begin again with a renewed genesis at the time of Noah.  So, the story moves forward, but it also circles back upon itself in repeating acts of human sin or failure, divine act, and renewal.

The second part of the book, Genesis 12-50, is usually called the patriarchal narrative.  This is the gaudy story of Abraham and his family.  The ancient soap opera has it all:  sex, violence, murder, betrayal, sibling rivalry, the war of the sexes, incest, joy, birth, doubt, faith, hatred, love, life, and death.  These wonderful stories are about the family of Abraham, but also are about us all, since all the human possibilities for good and evil are on display here.  Through these tales we see God molding the usually recalcitrant clay of human nature so as to undo and rectify the evil that we seem determined to inflict upon ourselves and upon one another.  The focus of Genesis moves from the universal, the creation of the heavens and earth and all its nations, towards the particular, the promised land of Israel, where most of the rest of the Bible will unfold.  Genesis also embraces, however, the lands to the east and north, from whence Abraham’s family takes its origin, and to the west and south, where the book ends with the sojourn of Israel in Goshen and the death of Joseph in Egypt.  Genesis is about the whole world, but God deals with the whole world not least through one, rather odd, and very difficult family in one relatively obscure, though centrally located, land.

The primeval narrative moves forward, but with a certain spiraling motion or, in another figure of speech, with two steps forward but one step back.  The same pattern is present in the patriarchal narrative.  The patriarchal narrative gradually moves forward from the origins of Abraham’s line in Mesopotamia to the death of Joseph in Egypt, with the covenant between God and Abraham formed and continued in between.  But this forward movement includes a constant pattern of repetitions and renewals.  For example, there are three stories of a patriarch who pretends that his wife is his sister to avoid danger to himself.  Again, the movement to Egypt includes several hesitant or temporary movements in that direction.  There are two stories of a patriarch or his representative going to find a bride from among his kinsmen who remained in the east.  The covenant is renewed between God and the patriarchs several times, usually with similar words.  There are frequent stories of barrenness followed by wonderful conceptions.  Sibling rivalries run throughout the patriarchal narratives.  The theme of tricking a superior in the family with deceptive clothing recurs with Isaac, Jacob, and Judah.

Some naive modern scholars see these repetitions of very similar stories and themes as evidence of primitive, imperfectly digested legends.  In fact, the repetitions are part of an extremely sophisticated and certainly deliberate pattern.  God’s plan cannot move forward simply, because God is working with people, whom he has made to be intelligent and free and complex, not simple.  We are capable of resisting God’s intentions and marring his work in elaborate ways.  God’s plan is ‘simple’, but the simple purposes of God, when applied to humanity, produce this pattern that we find in both great divisions of Genesis:  forward movement but through a spiral or repeating figure.  Or as is often said, God writes straight with crooked lines.

I will conclude this introduction by noting several things that this study is not or will not attempt.

First, this study is informed by the reading of many fine scholars, but it is not itself meant to be a work of scholarship.  Its purpose is to instruct and edify Christian readers of Scripture, not to make an original contribution to scholarship.  I will use liberally the work of a number of scholars, including notably the wonderful Robert Alter, especially in his The Five Books of Moses: A Translation with Commentary [[1]] and his earlier The Art of Biblical Narrative [[2]].  I have also benefited greatly from Leon R. Kass’s masterful commentary, The Beginning of Wisdom: Reading Genesis [[3]].  For historical-critical questions and other matters this study consults a number of works, including the article ‘Genesis’ by Richard J. Clifford and Roland E. Murphy in The New Jerome Biblical Commentary [[4]], and Gerhard von Rad’s Genesis: A Commentary [[5]].  Nonetheless, this study seeks to minimize critical apparatus.  An explicitly Christian reading of an Old Testament book runs counter to current scholarly tendencies, and there is no need to overburden such a popular effort with comprehensive references to studies of a very different sort.

Secondly, this study is not very concerned with the kinds of issues that exercise Fundamentalists and vulgar anti-religious anti-Fundamentalists.  Genesis is not meant to be a work of physics or biology or contemporary journalistic reporting.  Genesis is the inspired word of God through which essential and saving truth is revealed.  That truth is usually not what most concerns Fundamentalists, nor is it that which vulgar atheists think they are rejecting.  Genesis does contain theological truths that are embedded in its accounts of concrete, worldly events.  But those truths are not best understood by a ‘literally-literal’ reading of the book, but by a reading which is sensitive to its genius and subtlety in the light of its place in the authoritative Christian tradition, which tradition often reads Genesis’s primary purpose as flowing from the allegorical and typical meanings of its literal characters and events.

Finally, this work also is not much interested in the issues that exercised most 20th century Biblical scholars, who used a method, the historical-critical method, which was largely irrelevant to the needs and purposes and interests of Christian readers and was also largely boring and beside the point.  Many historical-critical scholars are interested in chopping Genesis up in order to isolate various strands of material from which it was supposedly composed.  This study sometimes will note the hypotheses of such scholars, but mostly their preoccupation with sources are not very important.  There is no need to justify this decision, since most readers find little interest in the alternative.  Other people, however, such as Robert Alter [[6]] and the philosopher, Peter van Inwagen [[7]], have written such justifications which anyone interested in the subject should consider.

Usually this study will begin with the English translation of the Authorized (or so-called King James) Version, which will be referred to often as the ‘KJV’.  This translation is usually more literal and faithful to the Hebrew text, not least in its earthiness.  When a more modern, easily obtained modern translation is helpful, the Revised Standard Version (RSV) is generally used.  Often, however, the detailed notes will present other translations or a paraphrase or explanation.

This study usually provides a general introduction to sections of text, then a verse-by-verse commentary.  If the reader uses the study occasionally for explication of a particular verse, it generally will be helpful to consider both the verse commentary and the preceding introduction.

[1] New York:  Norton, 2004.  This work will be cited parenthetically in the text as ‘Alter’ with page number.  Alter has since published a complete translation and commentary on the Hebrew Bible.

[2] New York:  Basic Books, 1981.

[3] Chicago: University of Chicago, 2003.  This work will be cited parenthetically in the text as ‘Kass’ with page number.

[4] Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1990.  2nd edition.  This work will be cited parenthetically in the text as ‘Clifford & Murphy’ with page number.

[5] Philadelphia:  Westminster, 1972.  This work will be cited parenthetically in the text as ‘von Rad’ with page number.

[6] See in particular the introduction to the work cited in note 2.

[7] ‘Critical Studies of the New Testament and the User of the New Testament’ in Hermes and Athena:  Biblical Exegesis and Philosophical Theology.  Eleanore Stump and Thomas P. Flinn, editors.  Notre Dame:  Notre Dame, 1993.  Pages 159-190.

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