Audience and Content
Genesis sets the scene for Exodus and the rest of the Torah[1 p.xxii]. It rejects other ancient beliefs by asserting one pre-existing and omnipotent God who made a good universe. "God is 'before' time and 'outside' space, and only enters time and space because he wants to." [2 p.20]
The book starts with prehistory. Genesis is the saga of faith in God who "is not confined to place, to temple or altar, a God who travels with the people, wherever they go and whatever they do" [3 p.8], a marked contrast with early belief in static local gods who one appeased by dropping offerings into wells and rivers.
God enjoyed the company of Adam and Eve in the Garden. After the Fall the relationship became strained, but God did not give up on it. There are tantalising references to other ancient stories, now lost.
The lives of the patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Joseph are described at length; one wonders how much (or little) they knew about God. Some were renamed, implying a changed nature: Abram became Abraham (Genesis 17:5); Jacob became Israel (Genesis 32:28); Joseph became Phnath-paaneah (Genesis 41:45). Several themes recur: the power of words, leaving home, waiting, sons, family quarrels, seduction, God's intervention, brides found at wells, younger sons receiving blessing, burial at Machpelah[1 p.257]. Joseph's history is particularly long, prompting the question why. Two reasons suggest themselves. Firstly, he was probably the first Hebrew who could write, so written records became available from his time in Egypt. Secondly, he is a prototype "messiah" figure: betrayed, unjustly accused, held without fair trial, given up for dead, but then rescued and raised to extraordinary power and dignity, which enabled him to save his people.
A key theme is promise[3 p.9], [1 p.xxxi] linked with obedience (e.g. 12:1–3)[1 p.275], but after the flood God judges nobody[4 p.xxxv]. After each human failure God again promised blessing, his presence, land, posterity, and status, but to fewer people[1 p.li], and he was encountered less often[1 p.258]. Similarly Jesus was at first visible and accessible, then became difficult to understand (Mark 10:32) and frightening (Matthew 22:46), and after his death was seen increasingly rarely, so people now relate to him in prayer and by following his teaching.
Author and Date
Genesis is traditionally associated with Moses, but is anonymous. Perhaps Moses, literate through Egyptian upbringing, wrote the section on Joseph[4 p.xxvii f]; the rest was written down, based on oral history, around 1,000 BCE, the time of King David (not earlier, because there is no prior evidence for the Hebrews being literate; not later, because there is no hint of the division into Israel and Judah). It preserves names and customs from 2,000 – 1,000 BCE [1 p.xliii]. The Qumran Scrolls confirm the reliability of the Masoretic Text (MT) on which our translations are based, though the Septuagint (LXX) differs.
Some passages call God YHWH, others Elohim; lively stories adjoin tedious lists. Commentators see this as evidence for J (Jahwist), E (Elohist) and P (Priestly) authors, but cannot agree[3 p.10f], [1 p.xxix]. The Jews consider God's name YHWH too holy to utter[5 p.v] and say instead "Adonai"[6 p.198] meaning Lord. Christians pronounce it "Yahweh" or "Jehovah" and English Bibles show it as LORD[29 p.12]. The name JHWH was unknown until Moses (Exodus 3:14, 6:3) so every instance in Genesis must be editorial[4 p.xxxii]. Prior to that date God was known as El Shaddai[4 p.xxxi].
Key words and phrases are repeated multiples of seven times, and more detail is given about every seventh generation[1 p.96]. The repeated phrase "These are the generations of..." (KJV) structures the book:
© David Billin 2002–2023