Genesis

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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 throuing 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].

Structure

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..." (AV) structures the book[1]:

Section
after Wenham[1 p.xxii]
after Maitland[3 p.10]
1:1–2:3
Prologue
Two accounts of the Story of Creation
2:4–4:26
The heavens and the earth  
The Garden of Eden and the Fall, Cain and Abel
5:1–6:8
Adam
Genealogies of Cain and Seth
6:9–9:29
Noah
Ancient heroes: Noah, angel marriages, giants of old
10:1–11:9
The sons of Noah etc.
Genealogy of the sons of Noah, The Tower of Babel
11:10–26
Shem
Genealogy of Terah the father of Abraham
11:27–25:11
Terah
) 12:1 – 25:18
25:12–18
Ishmael
) Abraham
25:19–35:29 
Isaac
)
36:1–37:1
Esau
25:19–50:26 Jacob including Joseph [3 p.15]
37:2–50:26
Jacob
)

Commentary

1:1

The creation accounts in Genesis 1 and 2 aim to replace myths of primordial chaos and monsters. Echoes of those myths can be seen in Psalm 74:13–14 and Psalm 89:10.

Genesis 1 is neither prose nor poetry[1 p.10], but a series of incomplete phrases like a lecture slide. They might be disconnected statements, or a sequence, or cause and effect.[2 p.16] "Beginning" could mean the start of time itself[1 p.14]. "Create" could be instantaneous, a theatrical flash and a puff of smoke, or could be a long process. "Not many Christians today find it necessary to defend...a literal six-day creation, for the text does not demand it, and scientific discovery appears to contradict it".[7 p.48]

"Why is there something rather than nothing?"[8] Scientists and philosophers are unable to avoid the conclusion that everything we know appeared out of nothing.[9] Genesis presents God as supreme, sovereign creator of good things. Weil said that creating was for God a kenosis (self emptying); "an act of abdication. By allowing the existence of other creatures, God refuses to be everything."[10]

The "Copenhagen Interpretation" of quantum mechanics says "it is the act of observing that triggers the panoply of possibilities to collapse down to the single reality we experience" [11 p.8] "If the universe is as real as we believe, then it must have been cast into that state by an observer able to view it all. Yet since the universe includes everything, there can be no external observer." [11 p.32] Genesis tells us that an external observer called God caused the universe to exist.

Many Christians see evolution as "an expression of God's creative activity ... [but] it is clearly impossible for a biblical Christian to hold a purely mechanical view of the origin and development of life which virtually dispenses with God. Nor can we regard human beings as nothing more than highly evolved animals". Science examines how things function, while scripture is preoccupied with why.[12 p.67–8]

1:2

There was disorder before the Fall; Isaiah 51:9 hints at unseen dark forces[2 p.28]. But the "Spirit" (the Holy Spirit or a wind[1 p.16]) overshadowed, God spoke, and order overcame the chaos; salvation began[2 p.38]. Jesus was involved (Hebrews 1:10).

1:3

"In the Beginning, there was nothing. The Lord said, 'Let there be light.' Then there was still nothing, but you could see it much better." — Joe Doyle, an Irish priest. The light did not cause anything to exist, but it revealed the possibility that things could exist.

1:4

The Sun did not appear until v.14, so this might be the heavenly light surrounding God. In separating light from darkness God increased the entropy of the system, opposing the second "law" of thermo-dynamics (cf. Romans 8:21 "bondage to decay"). God gives life, beauty, and structure to the universe, while the tendency to corruption causes death, ugliness and disorder. But evolutionists point to natural forces creating patterns, as when a beach is sculpted into sand-dunes by a wind.[13]

1:5

The words "the first day" read literally "day one" (ditto days 2–5). God's idea of a day is different from ours (Psalm 90:4); Augustine said in 391 CE "no Christian would dare say that the narrative must not be taken in a figurative sense".[14 p.13–14] It has been suggested that the "days" might be indicate a sequence of daily visions.

1:6–7

The Old Testament uses "waters" as a metaphor for anything fluid and chaotic, which I interpret as including plasma and gas as well as liquid. Experiments suggest that the hot mixture present in the moments after the "big bang" behaved like a fluid[15]. God separated the "waters" bringing order out of chaos. Today solid ground separates the earth's molten core from the sea and air.

1:8

Naming is an act of sovereignty. The mention of evening reflects the Jewish concept of a day being the period from one sunset to the next[1 p.19].

1:9–10

God made dry land in the midst of the waters, a place for his people, as when the Hebrews crossed the Reed Sea (Exodus 14:29) and the Jordan (Joshua 3:16).

1:11–12

"according to their kinds" indicates specific characteristics[2 p.63]. God loves variety, cf. 1 Corinthians 12:8–10. The kinds are not fixed, so evolution is not excluded. Evolution is not a chaotic process; the genome is structured so that some mutations [possibly beneficial] occur easily while others [possibly disastrous] are almost impossible. The genome's expression and mutation are both controlled processes.[16]

1:13–19

The section about the creation of heavenly bodies is long, perhaps to lead us away from worshipping them[1 p.21]. Their names are omitted, because to other nations they were seen as gods[2 p.48]. But calling them "signs" leaves the door open for astrology!

It has a symmetrical structure:

1:1God created the heavens and the earth
1:14a    lights separating the day from the night
1:14b        for signs, seasons, days and years
1:15            to give light on the earth
1:16a                to rule the day
1:16b                to rule the night
1:17            to give light on the earth
1:18a        to rule over the day and the night
1:18b    to separate light from darkness[1 p.22]
2:1thus the heavens and earth were finished[1 p.34]
1:20–22

God blessed his creatures, so the idea of blessing objects and animals is valid. Evolutionists ask "Why would God make midges?" In the South American jungle there is a bush with tiny flowers that are pollinated by midges. Once pollinated the tree produces pods of cocoa beans, without which there would be no chocolate.[17]

1:26–27

"Us" suggests Elohim, God and his angels, the Trinity, or introspection.[2 p.84], [1 p.28] "Man" means mankind, male and female [19 p.109]. God created us, and disobedience is sin.[2 p.19] He can adopt us as his children.[20 p.150] "Image" suggests a priestly role, representing God to creation[2 p.76f] and vice versa, cf. Exodus 19:6.

1:28

cf. :22, Matthew 28:19–20. "fill the earth and subdue it": the earth is now full of people, but out of control. We are stewards, but our stewardship is selfish. "We are not consumers of what God has made; we are in communion with it".[21]

1:30

The sixth commandment (Ex.20:13) longs for the absence of killing; cf. Isaiah 11:7.

1:31–2:3

Creation was very good, including human instincts to reproduce, defend etc.[2 p.66] God took pleasure in it. In heaven we will appreciate it too, and praise him for it.

Meteorites show that when they cooled they contained beryllium-7, which has a half-life of only 53 days, so they formed and cooled quickly. This puzzles those who believe that the universe developed over millennia. Either meteorites shot out from the Sun at high speed, or the entire Solar System formed in a few days.[22]

2:1

"Host" probably means the stars, as in Deuteronomy 4:19.[1 p.35]

2:2–3

The Sabbath is based on these verses. The everyday words "work" and "rest" align with the 4th commandment (Ex.20:8). But we must be careful how we interpret the word 'rest'. God did not set creation in motion, take his hands away and watch (and nor does God keep the sabbath — see John 5:17). He intended to create a context (2:8) where he could relate intimately with creation (3:8), as Jesus did subsequently. Jeremiah 9:24 says he is doing just works, a righteous judge stirred to action by our complaints (Genesis 4:10, Luke 18:2–8).

2:4

The verse has symmetrical form: heavens, earth, created; made, earth, heavens.[1 p.55] It introduces a second account of creation, told from the man's point of view.

2:7

It seems Adam was asexual or bisexual (a hermaphrodite?) until Eve was created.

2:8

See comments on Genesis 3:23–24. Our inability to find Eden is deliberate.[1 p.67].

2:9

"Good and evil" could be opposites indicating totality (cf. rich + poor = everyone in Psalm 49:2) meaning all knowledge, but unlike God we don't know everything. Alternatively it could mean moral wisdom like God's wisdom. [1 p.64] In practice, we both do good and evil and have both done to us, and so can be said to know them.

2:10–14

These verses relate the ancient landscape to God, but the details are unclear. As in Ezekiel 47:1–12, Revelation 22:1 "in every case the river is symbolic of the life-giving presence of God".[1 p.65] The division of the river resembles the dividing of the tongues of fire at Pentecost (Acts 2:3); God reaches out to bless everyone.

2:15

Work is not a consequence of the Fall, but existed from the beginning. Human stewardship has not been rescinded; Christians should care about the environment.

2:16–17

The forbidden fruit was not an "apple", a medieval word for a foreign fruit or nut[23]; Jewish tradition suggests it was a fig, grape, lemon, wheat, carob or pomegranate.[24] By questioning God's command, they appointed themselves judges of good and evil, and became subject to death.

2:18

Humans were made to relate: to God, to the environment, and to each other. This need preceded creation's goodness and completeness in Chapter 1. Adam's need was not met at once; he was lonely. Rabbis say the animals were brought in pairs to Adam, who muttered "they all have partners, but I do not".[1 p.69]

2:19

God knows every created thing individually, and Adam named each creature, as we name pets, affirming the value of each. Naming can mean identifying features: "in the Bible a name is infinitely more than a means to distinguish one thing from another. It reveals the very essence of a thing, or rather its essence as God's gift." [25]

2:20–23

"Help" in Psalm 70:5 means God making up for our inadequacies, not a subordinate role. Eve came from Adam's side, a sign of equality, though Adam named her, a sign of authority. It was an arranged[1 p.69–70] monogamous[1 p.113] union; a model marriage? "All the polygamous marriages of Genesis turn out to be disasters." [4 p.249]

The idea of Eve being formed from Adam's rib seems odd to modern readers, but it is consistent with the Jewish idea that all of humanity was in a real sense within Adam when he was formed sinless and when he became a sinner, as if all the individual sperm that would beget his descendants were within his body. In a parallel sense Christians are "in Christ" by adoption (Galatians 2:20).

2:24

"One flesh" means "a single organism", like a violin and bow being one instrument, or a key and a lock; neither is complete without the other.[20 p.93] Marriage partners have different genealogies but become as close as siblings.[1 p.69–70] Jesus opposed divorce by giving this verse priority over Deuteronomy 24:1 (Mark 10:8–9).

3

In the absence of neighbours to sin against[26 p.59], the first sin must have been pride, causing rebellion against God[27].

3:1–5

Half-truths and ambiguity led first to disobedience and then to loss of innocence, estrangement from God, and exclusion from the garden of life-giving resources. The tempter's half-truths were true as far as they went, but the result was disastrous.

3:6

The serpent (cf. Revelation 12:9) invited Eve to eat fruit that wasn't his; Jesus offers his own flesh and blood. Adam and Eve coveted the fruit[1 p.75] and didn't say No (cf. Titus 2:12). Jesus died so that we can win the battle over sin (Ephesians 1:7). God now allows us greater glory than before the fall, because we know what it is to do and to suffer good and evil.[28] Science and engineering are now increasing our powers, and we are steadily taking more responsibility for the Earth.[20 p.151]

3:7–8

Some have thought that sex lay at the heart of the first sin, because clothing was part of the response; but this is an error[2 p.126f]. Adam and Eve chose to know good and evil, making themselves judges, but immediately judged themselves! "pride ... was the original sin of Adam and Eve ... Pride came before the fall." [64] Having disobeyed God, they shrank from his presence. Sin separates us from God.

Such discussions distract us from the fundamental problem. The creator God said that the fruit was destructive, and therefore forbidden. Adam and Eve chose to risk destroying what he had made, in order to broaden their experience. Similar choices are made by everyone who thinks "the ends justify the means".

3:9–15

God walked with Adam and Eve, as Jesus walked in Palestine, and the Holy Spirit dwells within us. Adam and Eve had to answer, but not the serpent. Innocence was replaced by shame, fear and mistrust. Blaming others did not deflect judgment.

3:10

The sudden embarrassment at nakedness is an unexpected consequence of sin. It must show reluctance to acknowledge what we're really like. We want to hide our sin, so we lose intimacy with God. We struggle with the disparity between our high calling and our earthly limitations; how can we be destined for heaven, yet made like animals? However, God does not abandoned us, though we distance ourselves from him.

3:16

Adam and Eve suffered pain and loss, and were cut off from eternal life. But the text does not say that all men will always dominate all women.[29 p.330]

3:17–19

People were commanded to be vegetarian until Genesis 9:3.

The Lord's discipline is for our good (Hebrews 12:11), so death is part of the solution; without it we have no hope of eternal salvation (Psalm 116:15–17, John 12:24).[20 p.189] Evolutionists cannot explain how the survival of the fittest could make genes have features that cause death.[30] Science shows how, the Bible shows why.

Marcus Chown[31] raises the possibility, arising from the Copenhagen Interpretation, that human actions can alter not only local events but the entire universe.

3:20

"Eve" means life[1 p.84], perhaps a sign of hope that new life would come from her.

3:21

"Aprons" (AV) covered differences. We fear and persecute difference but God rejoices in individuality; "Christian Names" identify us as individuals.

3:22–24

The tree of life is accessible in heaven (Rev. 22:2) but Eden remains hidden.[1 p.67]

4:1

Genesis uses rhymes like "through Cain...gained a man" [1 p.101] as an aide memoire. Eve's words hint at self-sufficiency that side-lines God[2 p.143].

4:2–4

Eating meat was forbidden (Genesis 1:29–30) until after the flood (Genesis 9:3), so did Abel keep animals for their wool and milk?

4:5–7

Tension arises between those who tend plants and those whose flocks need to graze. Abel sacrificed the best; did Cain offer "seconds"? Or are "blood sacrifices" inherently superior?[63] 1 John 3:12 says Cain's deeds were evil, so he killed Abel who was righteous [and showed him up?]. And why were they sacrificing at all — trying to twist God's arm? Perhaps Abel's prayer was granted but not Cain's. God blesses as he wants (Matthew 20:1–16), and complaints are dismissed[2 p.147].

Genesis offers us no reason why God accepted Abel's offering was but not Abel's. Isaiah 11:3–4 tells us that God knows things that others do not, and judges accordingly.

4:8

This was a premeditated crime. In the field, Abel's cries for help would not be heard, nor the murder seen[1 p.107].

4:9

Cain asked "Am I my brother's keeper?" Yes, to the extent that Christian love demands that we look to each others' needs as well as our own (Mark 12:30–31).

We often achieve less than we hoped, or less than someone better than ourselves might have achieved. Sin in Hebrew means falling short, the opposite of "going the extra mile". Sin in New Testament Greek means going in the wrong direction.

4:10–11

In Hebrew thought, life is in the blood (see Leviticus 17:11). The complaint, a form of prayer, stirred into action the righteous judge who in Psalm 7:11 is already indignant at what he has seen, cf. Revelation 6:9–10. Abel's blood protesting from the land made Cain move away, fleeing revenge; Nod means wandering.[1 p.111]

Jesus said Abel was a prophet (Luke 11:51); perhaps the tension between them was spiritual, or alternatively Jesus was referring to the way Abel's blood spoke to God.

4:17–26

Cain's wife must have been a sister or niece. The account focusses on the male line leading to the Hebrew people. It is not clear who built the city.

The genealogy in chapter 5 differs, showing the patriarchs as descended from Seth rather than Cain; they must represent different family traditions.

4:22

Either the use of iron was lost until the Iron Age started in 1 Samuel 13:19, or Tubal-Cain simply fashioned tools out of lumps of iron that were lying around (meteorites?).

4:23–24

This branch of the family was brutal and barbaric[1 p.114]. Jesus demanded a completely different attitude in Matthew 18:22. The man and young man in verse 23 are probably the same person[65 p.23].

These two verses form a model Old Testament poem, which helps the reader to understand other poetic passages, especially the Psalms:

4:26

Unlike the days when Adam and Eve walked with God in the Garden of Eden, people now called out to him but he seemed remote.

5:1–32

The genealogy in 4:17–26 differs, showing the patriarchs as descended from Cain rather than Seth; they must represent different family traditions.

5:27

Methuselah may have died in the Flood; his 969 years equate exactly to the 187 years before the birth of his son Lemech, the 182 years before the birth of Lemech's son Noah, and the 600 years between the birth of Noah and the onset of the Flood.

The ages reached by antediluvian people reported in Genesis are not impossible; life expectancy is depends on the numbers of telomeres on the ends of our RNA, and the rate of replication.[32] cf. Genesis 6:3 and Psalm 90:10. Also time may be non-linear[33], [34]; "What could it possibly mean to say that the laws of physics are eternally true if the universe they apply to is less than 14 billion years old?" [35]

6:1–4

This legend helps us understand ancient people. Those who ate manna, "the food of angels" (Psalm 78:24–25), may have imagined that they were becoming heroes, making them trust their own strength rather than God; and those who faced giants like Goliath (1 Samuel 17) may have claimed that they had supernatural power.

6:3

cf. Psalm 90:10 and comment on Genesis 5:27.

6:9f

Noah ("rest") was rich as well as righteous, so that he could afford to build the Ark. Obeying God can be costly. Noah became a second Adam, father of all people[1 p.li].

Finkel compares Genesis 6 with other ancient flood myths; in a Babylonian cuneiform tablet from c.1750 BCE Atrahasis and his god discuss a boat 6 m. high with an area of 3600 sq. m., to contain pairs of various kinds of animal and bird. It was a giant coracle with cabins, made of 500 km. of rope coiled around a wooden frame, sealed with bitumen and lard. In the Gilgamesh Epic, the gods decide on a flood, but one of them shares the secret with his favourite human, who builds a boat and is saved.[36]

The Babylonian myth describes a large version of a Babylonian boat, but it is too small to carry all the kinds of animal. The Epic of Gilgamesh describes a wooden cube 120 cubits (60m?) on each side, with six decks[61]; this is very similar in plan area (120 x 120 = 14,400 sq cubits) to the Genesis specification (300 x 50 = 15,000 sq cubits) but the Gilgamesh version's height is unrealistic; it would be unstable. While authorities such as Finkel assert that the Genesis version is adapted from the other myths, I argue the opposite. No firm date can be given for the Genesis account's source in popular oral tradition.

The Flood narrative is structured with multiple symmetries, including:[1 p.156–7, 178]

6:11–22Violence prompts God to destroy7:47 days
7:1–10    Command to enter the ark7:107 days
7:11–16        The Flood begins7:1740 days
7:17–24            The Flood rises7:24  150 days
8:1                God remembers Noah
8:2–6            The Flood recedes8.3150 days
8:7–14        The earth dries out8:640 days
8:15–19    Command to leave the ark8:107 days
8:20–9:17 God restores order and promises safety  8:127 days

The Flood narrative may be a composite of two versions of the same events, leaving contradictory numbers of animals and days:[2 p.163]

6:5–7The Lord will destroy6:11–13God will destroy
6:18–21 God says enter the Ark7:1–4The Lord says enter the Ark
8:21The Lord will not again destroy 9:12–15 God will not again destroy
6:19–20

See comment on Acts 2:5.

6:21

God had not yet sanctioned eating of meat, but the world was full of violence (v.11), so I think it possible that Noah somehow gathered meat for the carnivores to eat.

6:22

Though people started to ask God for help in Genesis 4:26, if not earlier, Noah was apparently the first to realise that he should do what God said.

7:1

The Flood reminds us of the great cost of sin and redemption.

7:2

This is the first mention of clean and unclean animals (see Deuteronomy 14:4f).

7:10–11

Bishop Ussher in 1658 dated the flood to 2348 BCE. The Flood and Creation are the only precisely dated events in Genesis. If a 364-day calendar is assumed, Flood events occur on the same weekday as the corresponding Creation events[1 p.179–181].

7:23

Human genetics show that we all have a single ancestor 99–200,000 years ago.[37]

8:6

Forty: cf. index of numbers: 40.

8:20

Like Cain and Abel in Genesis 4:5–7, Noah's sacrifice seems to have been self-motivated rather than commanded by God.

9:1–7

cf. Adam's commission in Genesis 1:28. The Flood narrative recapitulates creation. God, having destroyed almost all of the life on earth, declared life sacred.

9:11f

The rainbow covenant requires nothing of humanity, so it is secure. Rainbows arise from natural laws, confirming that God made the universe in an orderly way.[1 p.196] The colours of the rainbow celebrate the diversity of life.

9:22

The sin here was gossip, perhaps tinged with boasting; rather than help his father, the son increased his exposure.

10

These 70 could be individuals or nations; 70 can mean "everyone" in scripture.

11:1

One language: everybody living was related to Noah, but see also Genesis 10:5; the events are not necessarily presented in chronological order, and may be parallel.

11:3–4

The building materials are Mesopotamian[1 p.239]. The "tower" must have been a Ziggurat (stepped pyramid)[38 p.165]. A 2,300 year old cuneiform tablet describes "the house of the foundation of heaven and earth" 295 feet wide and 295 feet high, with seven steps. The lower steps of a 298 foot ziggurat have been found at Babylon.[2 p.205f]

11:4

Tower reaching heaven: cf. Isaiah 14:12f. Babel means "gate of God". [60]

11:7

Indo-European languages proliferated 8–9,000 years ago[39]. Languages frame more complex thoughts than we could otherwise think, and their limitations restrict what we can grasp or say [40]. Different languages hinder mutual understanding, and no single linguistic group can grasp the whole truth.

11:9

The name "Babel" is related to the Hebrew word for confusion, cf. babble, making a pun on the place-name Babylon[1 p.234]. Babel meant "gate of god" to the Babylonians, but the story ridicules attempts to reach him[1 p.241, 245].

11:10–27

This genealogy connects the primeval and patriarchal histories.[1 p.249]

11:28–29

It is possible that when his brother Haran died, Abram (being childless) adopted his nephew Lot, and Abram's other brother Nahor married his niece Milcah.[1 p.272]

11:31

Terah and Abram probably came from the Ur in southern Iraq, a centre of moon worship.[1 p.272] Archaeology shows that the journey followed caravan routes linking walled cities of around 50,000 people, who had specialized jobs (e.g. all the baking was done in one place), managed by bureaucrats housed in large public buildings.[41] This was the first stage of Abram's long journey to Canaan, continued in 12:4. The exiles who returned from Babylon centuries later probably followed a similar route.

12:1–3

These verses are pivotal. The focus changes from God's relationship with the world to his relationship with an individual[3 p.15]. The text begins to record people's words, characters and customs. God's command, with its five-fold promise, made Abram special, a blessing or curse to others (Galatians 3:8, cf. John 3:18, James 2:18–26).

Abram and Sarah were not told how or when the promise would be fulfilled, and he was already 75 years old. After 10 years their patience failed, and he had a son by Hagar (Genesis 16:15), who reached the age of 13 by Genesis 17:25. 24 years later Abraham, now aged 99, received a visit by three men (Genesis 18) who said he had only 1 more year to wait. The promise was fulfilled in Genesis 21.

Galatians 3:17 seems to indicate an interval between this promise and the giving of the Law in Exodus 19:3.

12:4

Abram obediently left home, but took Lot with him; see chapter 13. Terah decided to take both Abram and Lot from Ur to Haran in 11:31; when Terah died Abraham seems to have felt some responsibility towards Lot. Now Abraham began the second stage of his long journey from Ur to Canaan.

12:6–9

Abram had migrated from Ur to Haran with his father (Genesis 11:31). Haran remained the family base (Genesis 27:43, 29:4), but Abram now continued the journey that Terah began, touring the Promised Land and leaving monuments.

12:10–20

The patriarchs seem less moral than foreign rulers. cf. Genesis 20, Genesis 42:1. God saved the situation. Pharaoh was lenient; death was the usual penalty[1 p.290–2].

13:1–14:17

God told Abram to leave home and kindred; should he have left Lot behind? The land couldn't support them both, so they had to separate; Lot chose a fertile valley, leaving Abram the hills. In the valley, Lot settled near Sodom and Gomorrah, and was rescued more than once, at great cost. "When peaceful community is impossible, scripture prefers amicable separation (Acts 15:39, 1 Corinthians 7:12–15). Abram invites Lot to share the promised land with him...Lot is...stepping out towards the territory [of] his descendants, the Moabites and Ammonites" [1 p.297].

14:13

Abram is described as a Hebrew, which is not a term that they used of themselves, suggesting that this part of the account was based on a foreign source.[1 p.313]

14:18–20

Melchizedek pre-figures Jesus Christ. His name means King of Righteousness; he was King of Peace or "Salem" (David's throne years later), Priest of God Most High, without known beginning or end, the first person described as a priest in scripture (though the patriarchs assumed that role, e.g. Job 1:5), yet outside the Mosaic Law (he was no Levite). Melchizedek went out to meet his visitor, offered bread and wine, and gave a blessing. cf. Psalm 110:4, Hebrews chapters 5–7. The king of Sodom seems surly and ungracious by comparison[1 p.315]. "Philo also says that Melchizedek brought out wine for Abraham, when he had expected the hospitality gift of water (Allegorical Interpretation III 82)." [62 p.9]

The "tenth of everything" is a yardstick of giving, but not a strict rule. The text "he gave him..." is ambiguous, so it is not clear whether it was Abraham or Melchizedek who gave the tithe to the other. Abraham might well have given a tithe to Melchizedek to express relief and thanks on coming through his battles relatively unscathed; Melchizedek might have made a gift to Abraham in order to be on good terms with a succesful invader.

Barker asks whether Melchizedek was a name or a title. "Josephus said Melchizedek was the name of the king who met Abraham, (Antiquities 1.10.1), and Philo knew Melchizedek as his name (e.g. Allegorical Interpretation III.82). In Genesis 14 and Psalm 110, however, Melchizedek is written as two words, suggesting that it was not a name but a title: Malki Zedek perhaps King of Righteousness or Righteous King. Maybe this was the figure who appears elsewhere in the Hebrew Scriptures as 'the Righteous One', for example the enigmatic passage in Isaiah 24 that we have just mentioned, or the Servant in Isaiah 53.11, or the expected King in Zechariah 9: 'Rejoice greatly, daughter of Zion… for your King comes to you, the Righteous One and Saviour… He will speak peace to the nations (Zech. 9.9-10, my translation). This is very similar to the Christian understanding of Melchizedek in Hebrews: 'He is first, by translation of his name, king of righteousness, and then he is also king of Salem, that is, king of peace (Heb. 7.2). The early Christians used 'Righteous One' as a title for Jesus (Acts 3.14)." [62 p.3] This is all very interesting, but Barker's question implies an unnecessary dichotomy, because in ancient times a name was regarded as an indication of the nature.

A related question is whether Melchizedek was human, angelic, or divine. Hebrews seems to assume he was human, and "What both the Jewish and the Enochic traditions are saying is that the Melchizedek priesthood was the priesthood of Enoch and the generation before the flood. The Book of Jubilees claims that many of the prescriptions of the Torah were far older than Moses, and had been given to Noah by his ancestors, the ancient priests (Jub. 7.34-9; 10.13)." [62 p.4]

15:1

Abraham, fresh from battle, was conscious of danger and his own mortality. Military allusions connect the battles with the promise of protection and posterity. But the reward from God might be compensation for Abram's refusal of goods from Salem in the preceding verses.

15:2

This verse implies that Abraham had disowned Lot, who proved to be a liability.

15:5

The promise was tested and repeated in Genesis 22:17, passed on to later generations in Genesis 28:13, and fulfilled by Deuteronomy 10:22.

15:6

Righteousness was "credited" to Abraham, not earned by obeying the Law (Deuteronomy 6:25). Jesus offers us the same (Romans 4) but see also James 2:23.

15:7

The promise in Genesis 12:7 is ratified here. It was repeated to later generations in Genesis 28:15, Genesis 35:12 and Genesis 48:4, and fulfilled by Deuteronomy 26:7.

15:8

In order to trust God's promise, Abram needed tangible confirmation that he had understood God correctly.

15:9–17

The function of this bizarre ritual is indicated by verse 8: it was to give Abram confidence that he had understood God correctly, cf. Gideon's fleece in Judges 6:37f. The ritual described here may mean "cut me in half if I do not keep my promise". All types of sacrificial animal were included, implying a covenant with broad scope. The smoking pot resembles the pillar of smoke and fire in Exodus 13:21.

This and Genesis 22:1 appear to be the only places in the Old Testament where a blood sacrifice was explicitly demanded by God.

15:18

This verse seems to be a separate covenant from the one made the previous night.

16

Sarah's mistake in trying to get a child via Hagar led to much suffering. She tried to force God's promise to happen, rather than awaiting God's timing. But faith is a journey into the unknown, so one occasionally takes a wrong turning.

16:1–5

A woman whose family could not afford a dowry could do well as a maid. Polygamy was a common response to childlessness, but Sarai wanted Abram not to marry a competing wife but to have a surrogate child by her maid. The phrase "Abram listened to Sarai" echoes Adam accepting fruit from Eve (Genesis 3:6, 12). The child is described as that of Abraham and Hagar.[4 p.7] Once Hagar was pregnant they forgot about the surrogacy agreement, making Sarai angry. Sarai oppressed an Egyptian; the Egyptians would oppress her offspring in years to come.

16:6–7

This was the first of two occasions when Hagar and Ishmael were alone in the desert, the other being in Genesis 21:14. She was on the way home to Egypt.[4 p.9]

16:8–16

Hagar, the victim, was rewarded with a son, a husband, and a promise[4 p.4]. El-roi means "God who sees me", Beer-lahai-roi "well of the living who sees me"[4 p.11].

17:1–14

God introduces himself as El Shaddai, the name by which the patriarchs knew him[4 p.xxxi]. Calvin[42] said circumcision shows that everything descended from the flesh needs pruning (cf. John 15:2). Many other contemporary cultures practised it, including the Egyptians, Canaanites and Arabs.[4 p.23] It is said to improve men's health.[43]

17:32

If Lot's household comprised ten people, Abram need not ask about lower numbers.

18:1

Mamre owned the oaks (Genesis 14:13). Rabbis say Abraham was resting after being circumcised; obedience led to discomfort, but God promised incredible blessings.[6 p.63] The narrator presents this as a vision of God, but Abraham seemed unaware that anything unusual was happening until verse 10.[44 p.76] The Hebrew account vaccilates between singular and plural words for the visitors. In verses 18–22 the group of three separates into two angels who go on to Sodom (19:1), and The Lord.

18:2

Rabbis regard the three "men" as angels, one to make the promise to Abraham, one to destroy Sodom, and one to rescue Lot.[6 p.63] Some see them as the entire Trinity[45 p.52]. But the text suggests they were God plus two angels (see Genesis 19:1) [48 p.131]. The singular "lord" in :3 implies that one of them seemed to be the leader[4 p.51].

18:3

Abraham acted as host, and thus servant, to the strangers, despite the status his great wealth would confer on him; indeed, the enormous resources available to him make it all the more appropriate for him to help needy visitors — a challenge to us!

18:4

These verses echo the Last Supper, though Abraham served yoghurt[4 p.47] and meat rather than bread and wine. Jesus gave common­place things special meaning.

18:5

This conversation may follow a set pattern, part of the tradition of giving and receiving hospitality. However, the authority of the guests over Abraham is striking.[46 p.23] He offered simple food, but made a feast, exceeding his promise. He would detain them no longer than necessary, because their arrival in the heat of the day showed that their mission must be too urgent to allow time to rest.[6 p.63]

18:6

Abraham ensured that everything was done quickly. In hunter/gatherer fashion, the woman managed the plants while man caught the meat — and issued commands!

18:7

Abraham continued to hurry, though he was old (verse 11, and also see Genesis 17:24). He suffered discomfort (in the heat) and loss of dignity in order to get what he thought his guests needed.

Jewish tradition names the servant as Ishmael, Abraham's son by Hagar. He learned Abraham's way of hospitality, which was lavish even by the standards of that hospitable culture, perhaps implying that Abraham was particularly righteous[6 p.64].

18:8

This is the only place in Hebrew scripture where heavenly beings are seen to eat; Rabbis infer that local custom should be followed[6 p.64]. Tradition required the host to stand and serve, not sitting to eat with his guests[6 p.63], [48 p.132] cf. Luke 17:7–8.

18:9

Maybe there was more conversation than is recorded here[47 p.70 re Genesis 18:1] but why doubt that a visitor who miraculously knew that Sarah had laughed silently while hidden also miraculously knew her name[4 p.47].

18:10

The encounter took an unexpected turn, with a prophetic and incredible statement. It seems that the repeat visit would not be in human form, but unseen power[4 p.48].

18:11

Sarah was post-menopausal, and "advanced in age" (literally "withered" [6 p.64]), so the prophecy seemed ludicrous. But research suggests that female stem cells remain capable of forming eggs at any stage of life.[52]

18:12

Sarah found the promise incredible[6 p.64]. Abraham heard the promise twice before, in Genesis 12:2 and Genesis 15:5 when he also laughed[48 p.132]. God persisted despite the couple's disbelief; C S Lewis wrote: "God's love, far from being caused by goodness in the object, causes all the goodness which the object has, loving it first into existence and then into real, though derivative, lovability"[26 p.40]. Hebrews 11:8f claims that their faith eventually led to fulfilment of the promise.

18:13

One of the "men" is suddenly identified as God (as in v.1) perhaps indicating the point at which Abraham began to wonder who he was talking to. We are told that Sarah laughed "to herself", so God was able to read Sarah's thoughts.[47 p.70]

18:14

A miracle was in prospect. Sarah was challenged about her lack of faith[49 p.132]. Elizabeth similarly bore a child in old age (Luke 1:37). Delay does not mean that our prayers weren't heard; God controls the timing (cf. Acts 1:7).[47 p.70]

18:15

Sarah was embarrassed, and tried lying in order to escape from her predicament, as Abraham had encouraged her to do previously in Genesis 12:13.

18:16

Abraham "went the extra mile" to see his visitors off, the final courtesy of a gracious host[6 p.64]. If he had not, he may have missed the blessing that God was ready to give him, like the disciples asking Jesus to stay in Luke 24. Once he knew the fate of Sodom and Gomorrah, Abraham could pray for Lot and his daughters.

18:17–18

The blessing was linked with a call to be a blessing to others. His prayers for Lot (v.23f) blessed Moab and Ammon (19:37–38), and he prayed for Gerar (20:17–18).

18:19–22

Like Jesus with his disciples in John 15:15, the Lord was keen that Abraham should know what was on his mind. The result was to be discipleship, as in Matthew 28:19.

The Masoretes amended v.22 from "But Yahweh still stood before Abraham" to "But Abraham still stood before Yahweh", probably for theological reasons.[49]

18:23–32

cf. Jeremiah 5:1 where God promised to spare Jerusalem for one righteous person. This was the first time in scripture when a man initiated conversation with God. He based his plea on the belief that good and evil should be treated differently.[4 p.52]

A circular process can be seen here: Abraham has a concept of a merciful God, so he prays for mercy, and thus gains a better understanding of the merciful God.[59]

19:1

There were now just two angels present; the Lord was no longer there.[4 p.54] See comment on 18:1.

19:3

Unleavened bread can be made quickly.[4 p.54]

19:4–5

cf. Judges 19:22. The people demonstrated shocking inhospitality and immorality.

19:9

The people were angry because Lot, and alien, had taken it upon himself to allow complete strangers to stay within their city walls through the night.

19:10

The text uses a term that suggests that the men were dazzled[4 p.56], which might be a clue to how they were destroyed.

19:15

In Hebrew "I did not laugh" is an anagram of "Isaac".[4 p.63]

19:16

Mercy can be rough! It was essential to get out before sunrise.

19:18–23

Unlike Abraham, Lot prayed selfishly[4 p.58]. Genesis presents him as indecisive and unable to assert himself [4 p.60–61] but keeping the tradition of costly hospitality.

19:24–28

Sodom stood in the rift valley containing the Dead Sea, where methane rises to the surface. It might have ignited, destroying Sodom[50] but this does not fit the statement that the destruction came from the sky. Alternatively Sodom might be a bronze-age city c.10 miles north-east of the Dead Sea, apparently destroyed by an asteroid exploding in the air with force like an atomic bomb, releasing immense heat and shock[51]. This seems to have occurred 300 years later than Genesis suggests, but dates in Genesis are doubtful, since MT and LXX disagree[1 p.130f], [4 p. xxii f].

19:29–30

Lot was saved not on his own merits but by Abraham's prayers[4 p.59]. But he lost his great wealth (Genesis 13:5–6); now a cave held all that he had. He was ruined.[4 p.60]

19:31–38

Lot's daughters felt desperate, living in the middle of nowhere, with their wealth gone and fiancées dead. Noah also got drunk after being saved (Genesis 9:21). The text does not say whether incest was the right course of action. Lot's blood was re-introduced into the royal family through Moab and Ruth (Ruth 1:4, 4:13f).

20

Genesis 12:10f was repeated; both followed journeys to the Negeb. Gerar was the south border of Canaan (Genesis 10:19). It seems odd that Abimelech took an old lady into his harem; Wenham wonders whether God was somehow rejuvenating her[4 p.75–76]. When Abraham prayed for others, God's promise to him was released.

20:11–12

Perhaps their childless relationship made Abraham see Sarah primarily as a sister. Moses too married a half-sister, and had irregular parentage (Exodus 6:20).[1 p.261] Abraham was clearly wrong in thinking the people godless, as their reactions show.

20:16

The word "brother" suggests Abimelech's anger at the deceit, yet he is generous. 1000 shekels vastly exceeds reasonable compensation (Deuteronomy 22:29).[4 p.74]

20:17

This is said to be the earliest recorded example of God healing anyone.

21:1–8

See comments on Genesis 12:1–3. Female stem cells remain able to form eggs at any stage of life.[52] Isaac's birth was miraculous, as was that of Jesus (Matthew 1:21); both were to be sacrificed and received back alive (Genesis 22:2). The editor is keen to make us see a connection between obedience and blessing.[4 p.80]

21:9–15

In contemporary law a son born to a slave could not inherit if he was set free.[4 p.83] The boy was not a babe in arms; he was thirteen years old in Genesis 17:25. Hagar and Ishmael had previously been alone in the desert in Genesis 16:6–7.

21:16

cf. Psalm 107:6. Hagar wept, but God heard Ishmael, implying that he prayed.

21:17–20

cf. Psalm 84:4. "God heard" is a pun: the name Ishmael spans the two words[4 p.85]. The well did not take them out of the desert, but enabled them to thrive there. We should not pray to be taken out of a difficult situation, but to be able to thrive in it.

21:21

Hagar was an Egyptian (Genesis 16:1) so she sought a daughter-in-law in Egypt.

21:22–31

This passage tells us how Abraham and Abimelech repaired their relationship, and how Beer-Sheba got its name, but see also Genesis 26:33.

21:32–34

The names "Phicol" and "Philistines" entered the Middle East from Crete long after Abraham[4 p.94], but firm dating is impossible. Planting a tree suggests that Abraham intended to settle there permanently.

22:1f

Several parents in the bible had to give up their children — see Exodus 2:3. On many occasions God asked Abraham to let go of something he wanted to cling to: his home in Ur and wider family, his wife (twice), and both sons; not to mention circumcision! There is tension between the theology of this verse and James 1:13, yet James cites the incident as proof of justification by works in James 2:23f, cf. Genesis 12. The word translated "God" is unusual; is this not the voice of YHWH?

If this was truly the voice of YHWH, this is one of only two occasions in the Old Testament where God demands a blood sacrifice, the other being Genesis 15:9.

22:2

Perhaps Abraham had been prepared to face this awful situation by working through the horror of sending his other son away in Genesis 21. Moriah is where Solomon built the temple (2 Chronicles 3:1) and where Jesus was sacrificed for us.

Abraham clearly thought that God wanted him to sacrifice his only son, but child sacrifice is evil, and God does not tempt people to do evil (James 1:13). Perhaps Abraham misheard the message, or the voice was that of a demon or his imagination, or the text does not express precisely what happened. But God can set right someone who is trying to obey him but is going wrong (v.13).

22:3

Abraham's obedience seems extraordinary, but child sacrifice remained common to the time of the Kings, many of whom made their children "pass through the fire".

22:4

In Exodus the Hebrews would again make a three-day journey to a mountain.[4 p.116]

22:5

Abraham left his servants while he went on a bit further, like Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane (Matthew 26:39, Mark 14:35, Luke 22:41).

22:6

Isaac carried the wood for his own execution, as Jesus did. It must have been heavy. He is sometimes drawn by artists as a little boy, but he was probably in his teens.

22:8

This sentence is ambiguous; it could mean that the son will act as the lamb.[4 p.109]

22:9

Isaac probably agreed to be bound and put on the altar.[4 p.109]

22:11

Unlike verse 1, the speaker is now YHWH.[4 p.109]

22:12

God's provision showed that child sacrifice was not required of Abraham. Later Jews saw this incident as justifying the sacrificial system of the Law of Moses[4 p.117].

22:13

See comments on v.2 and v.3 above. The ram had thorns around its head, like Jesus during his abuse at the hands of the roman soldiers (Matthew 27:29).

22:14

"Jehovah-Jireh" must be a later version of the place­name because Exodus 6:3 says Abraham did not know God by the name JHWH.

22:16

This is the only reference in Genesis to God taking an oath.[4 p.111]

22:17

Abraham's faith in the promise of Genesis 15:5 had now been tested, and was now affirmed. cf. 1 Samuel 1:28 where Hannah gave to God what she had prayed for.

22:20–24

The significance of this genealogy lies in the name Rebekah in verse 23.

23

The Hittites here are the sons of Heth, not the Hittites of the east. Abraham wanted a family burial ground. Either the plot was large or he was over-charged. The plot was at Hebron, 20 miles south of Jerusalem, near the Oaks of Mamre.[4 p.126–130]

24:1f

Abraham's faith and advancing years led him to send a servant to find the future mother of a people more numerous than the stars in the sky. His last recorded words made sure God's promise would be fulfilled after his approaching death.

The incident foreshadows Jesus with the woman at the well (John 4:6f). The servant may have been Eliezer of Damascus (Genesis 15:2); Jesus was in the country whose capital is Damascus. Both used their thirst to identify someone welcoming. The servant invited Rebecca to live under God's promise.

But there are differences between the incidents. Rebecca was a virgin, but the Samaritan woman had had seven husbands. The Samaritan woman was foreign; Rebecca was from Abraham's clan.

24:10

The ten camels (which were the latest transport technology at that time) and choice gifts confirmed the genuineness of the offer to join a wealthy family.[4 p.143]

24:14

This was no small test; drawing water for ten camels is an onerous task, because a thirsty camel can drink 200 litres (50 gallons) of water in three minutes.[53]

24:19

Every answer by Rebekah exceeded the sign that the servant had prayed for.[4 p.145]

24:22

Shekel: see Appendix 2 Money. These gifts may simply express generous thanks for watering the camels.[4 p.146]

24:45

God often answers prayer before we have finished our sentence (Isaiah 65:24).

24:59

The "nurse" was Deborah (Genesis 35:8).[4 p.151]

24:62f

Using Sarah's tent established Rebekah as matriarch even before the wedding.[4 p.150–2]

25–26

These stories are not in chronological order; chapter 26:1–33 happened before chapter 25:21f. The structure is symmetrical rather than chronological.[4 p.186]

25:1–18

Keturah was a concubine so her sons did not inherit with Isaac, and nor did Ishmael.

25:22–28

The Hebrew word translated "struggle" actually means "smash". The prediction that the elder would serve the younger led the family to record which was which. The tension between the brothers spread through the family.[4 p.175–7]

The elder shall serve the younger: cf. Matthew 19:30, Mark 10:31, Luke 13:30.

25:29–34

Unlike Esau, Jesus resisted the temptation to sell his future for a meal (Matthew 4:3–4 cf. Hebrews 12:16). Esau seemed unaware of the gravity of the deal, now and when his father lay dying (Genesis 27:30–40).

26:1–33

See comments on chapters 25–26 regarding chronology.

26:7–11

Isaac often seems timid and passive[1 p.257]. He pretended that his wife was his sister, following the example of his father (Genesis 12:13, 20:2). But Abimelech saw them doing something that suggested they were married. Isaac failed to live up to God's promise (Genesis 12:3): Isaac posed a threat, but Abimelech blessed him.[4 p.190–191]

26:33

This passage tells us how Beer-Sheba got its name, but so does Genesis 21:30–31.

26:34

Abraham went to great lengths to get a suitable wife for Isaac, but Isaac failed to do the same for Esau.[4 p.205]

27:1f

It was highly irregular for a father to summon only one son to his death-bed.[4 p.205]

27:5–6

"His son" and "her son" show how polarized the family had become.[4 p.206]

27:11–29

Timid Jacob took by deception what was sold to him in Genesis 25:33. He was more concerned about the risk of being found out than the morality of the scheme. She told him to stop arguing and get on with it (v.13).

27:30–40

Esau apparently forgot that he had already sold his birth-right as first-born (Genesis 25:29–34) but his expectation of a lesser blessing is perfectly reasonable.[4 p.211]

27:41–46

Rebekah's scheme came to a disastrous end; she lost what she loved most, and he had to walk away from the wealth that he stood to inherit.[4 p.212] This illustrates a Jewish understanding of repentance: God provides an opportunity for the sinner to enter into the experience of their victim[18]. Jacob soon found he had lost Esau's inheritance, which he thought he had won by cheating, but not his father's blessing of future prosperity and superiority.

28:1–2

Rebekah goaded Isaac to make her new plan happen. But did Isaac send Jacob to seek a wife without money for a bride-price, so that he had to work for seven years (Genesis 29:18)? Genesis 31:15 may mean that money did indeed change hands; perhaps this was one of the ten changes of wages mentioned in Genesis 31:7.

28:11

Jacob was fleeing for his life (27:41). During the night he would be cold and lonely. God meets us when we are low; perhaps then we stop keeping him out, cf. Psalm 139:8. This long dark night seems to have ushered in a new dawn in his life.

28:12

Jacob may have felt that he was more distant from God than his father and grandfather had been, but his dream revealed that God and his messengers (angels?) were invisibly working around him (see comment on John 1:51).

28:13–15

God did not call Isaac "your father", acknowledging the estrangement. Jacob was leaving the promised land, but God promised to bring him back. The blessing repeats the ones given to Abraham in Genesis 13:14–16, 15:15–18.[4 p.223]

28:16

Was Jacob correct in thinking that the place was special, with angels ascending and descending there? Or was the dream a sign that he himself, through his relationship with God, was a connection between earth and heaven?

Dreams are soon forgotten, so if one has had a dream worth remembering, one should record it at once, as Jacob did. "Our unconscious minds often communicate their wisdom through symbols. Jacob's Ladder is a wonderful example. It also teaches that authentic contemplative prayer can connect heaven and earth. It opens our hearts to recognise the many ways in which our daily lived experience, even at its hardest, can be suffused with the glory of God."[66]

28:19

The name Luz reappears in Genesis 35:6 and 48:3, Joshua 16:2 (implying that Bethel was near Luz but not identical with it) and 18:13, and Judges 1:23 and 26. Perhaps the Hebrews still called it Luz while it was inhabited by Canaanites.

28:20–22

Jacob the deceiver didn't trust God, and proposed a deal: if God would be with him, then he would give a tithe, and return to Bethel to worship. Perhaps he had Genesis 14:18–20 in mind when he undertook to give a tenth. He returned to Bethel in Genesis 35:7 but there is no evidence that he ever gave the tithe; but then, how could he give it, unless he discovered a temple, or priest, or religious community identified with the one true God? This tentative believer needed a priest in the order of Melchizedek in order to follow in the footsteps of his great ancestor.

29

Jacob was now a new man, decisive and purposeful, perhaps arrogant.[4 p.228]

29:17–18

See comment on Genesis 39:6. Seven years sounds a lot, but the bride-price was recompensed the family for the loss of the woman's efforts from then on.

29:23

Jacob had cheated Esau (Genesis 25:31, 27:12–29); now he was cheated by Laban. The elder girl took precedence over the younger, unlike Esau and Jacob.[4 p.228]

29:30

Perhaps Jacob blamed Leah for taking Rachel's place at the wedding.[4 p.249]

30:14–16

Mandrakes are poisonous fruits resembling under-ripe tomatoes. Mandrakes are fragrant (Song of Songs 7:13) and were apparently believed to ensure fertility.

30:21

Dinah is mentioned, unlike other girls, because of her role in Genesis 34.[4 p.248]

30:25f

Laban continued to cheat, but Jacob was learning to thrive without dishonesty.

31

Jacob made sure of his wives' support before fleeing from Laban.[4 p.270] Custom urged Laban to give them dowries, but he had only given them maids.[4 p.272] The row between Laban and Jacob led to a treaty of equals.[4 p.274] Laban swore his oath by two gods, suggesting polytheism, while Jacob swore by one God.[4 p.280]

32:1

Jacob was learning to see what God was doing around him.

32:6

Esau's posse of four hundred men was a huge army by the standards of the day, the largest group recorded in the Bible up to this point. Naturally Jacob was afraid.

32:24–30

As in Genesis 28:11 Jacob was alone and afraid in the open at night, having sent his family away for fear of Esau. But God was near, and came to him in person, in a way that he did not recognize at first. The encounter was life-changing due to the limp (a permanent reminder) and the change of name. Jacob started pursuing peace, even it if was costly, rather than personal gain by fair means or foul.

Did God came to Jacob in peace, but Jacob's state of mind led him to fight him? Jacob realised that his opponent was his superior, so he asked his name; but instead he was given a blessing, and much-needed humility arising from defeat.

32:28

This is the first mention of the name Israel. The earliest known mention of it outside the Bible is on a stone called the Stele of Merneptah, dated to 1208–1209 BCE.[54] Jacob wanted to be reconciled with Esau, but needed to be reconciled with God. Jacob the cheat became Israel who struggles with God, cf. Luke 18:1–8.

32:30

Peniel means "face of God".

32:31

Jacob was permanently marked by his struggle, like Jesus whose wounds were visible after his resurrection (Revelation 5:6).

33:1

Jacob and Esau had not met for twenty years[4 p.301]. 400: see comment on Genesis 32:6.

33:11

Perhaps Jacob was unsure of Esau's intentions until the gift was accepted.[4 p.299]

33:17

Succoth means "booths".

34:1f

This incident was a collision of the local pagan culture and the God-fearing one. The local practice was that the marriageable women would gather, the marriageable men would come and carry off one of their choice, and sort out the practicalities afterwards, as in Judges 21:21. Dinah joined the local women, inviting a pagan marriage. Jacob seemed unconcerned; v.1 reminds us she was the daughter of Leah, not his chosen wife; also his father and grandfather had passed off wives as sisters rather than protect them. But Dinah's brothers saw it as the end of matriarchal descent through Leah; their reaction disrupted the peace that Israel sought.[55 p.459]

34:7

The names Jacob and Israel both appear, as if his inaction was out of character.[4 p.312]

34:25–26

Dinah was in Shechem's house; we are not told whether she was captive or free. The massacre by her brothers was shockingly disproportionate to the offence.[4 p.315]

34:27–31

Jacob's other sons compounded the felony by taking spoil and captives. The brothers' claim of the moral high ground is denied by their deceit, brutality and greed. "Hell hath no fury like a vested interest masquerading as a moral principle".

35:1f

With both morality and relationships in tatters, it was time for a fresh start, putting away foreign gods, cf. Nehemiah 9. Luz: see Genesis 28:19 above. In v.7 Jacob returned to Bethel and worshipped, fulfilling part of his vow in Genesis 28:20–22.

35:9–15

God responded by affirming and strengthening his promises.[4 p.325] Israel, Judah, and Edom were all equally inheritors of Abraham's promised land.

35:16–21

The spiritual "high" was followed by a series of deaths.

35:22

This verse reverts to calling Israel "Jacob"; it might be a compilation of several ancient sources, or Israel here means the whole people, and Jacob the man. Reuben might have wanted to assert his authority over his father, or prevent the maid of his favourite wife Rachel, now dead, from replacing her. Jacob did nothing until 49:2–3, so either he was afraid of Reuben or careless about protecting women.[4 p.327–8]

35:23–36:43

These families were all equally inheritors of Abraham's promised land.

36:3

Reuel: see Appendix 1: Reuel.

36:10

Reuel: see Appendix 1: Reuel.

36:13

Reuel: see Appendix 1: Reuel.

36:17

Reuel: see Appendix 1: Reuel.

37

Unlike a fairy-tale of goodies and baddies, nobody is innocent in this account. Joseph, the eldest son of the favourite wife Rachel, may have been particularly at odds with Leah's sons Reuben, Simeon, Levi, Judah, Issachar and Zebulun. He seems spoilt, arrogant, insensitive, and did not do his share of the hard work.

37:2, 14

Joseph was his father's spy; and perhaps his bad reports were untrue.[4 p.359]

37:3

The special coat was unlike the shepherds' coats of Joseph's brothers, which would become dirty in their work, implying that Israel did not expect Joseph to get dirty.

37:5–11

The text does not way that God gave Joseph these dreams; they might just have been arrogant day-dreams.[4 p.351] But telling his family about them was insensitive, and led to murderous hatred. Again Israel did nothing about it, bar one rebuke.

37:28

cf. Judas's thirty pieces of silver in Matthew 26:15 and the price of a damaged slave in Exodus 21:32. It appears that Reuben felt responsible to his father for everything, including Joseph's safety, but was away from v.22 to v.29.

38

This chapter interrupts the story of Joseph with background information to help us understand why people behaved as they did, and reminding us that this is the story of all the brothers, not just Joseph.[4 p.363] It must span at least twenty years, covering the birth, marriage and death of Judah's sons, in parallel with Joseph's story.[4 p.366]

Jacob was heart-broken at the loss of Joseph. Judah also lost two sons, and was reluctant to marry his third son to Tamar in case he too died, preferring to ask Tamar to accept the insult of living as a widow in his house. So when Joseph asked the brothers to leave Benjamin in Egypt while they fetched his father Jacob, Judah understood that it would break his father's heart to lose another son.

In Genesis 37 Joseph's coat seemed to show the consequences of his father's favouritism; in Genesis 38 Judah's personal items betrayed his infidelity, hard heart, and hypocrisy. But by chapter 44 the people changed and showed moral courage.

Judah told his Canaanite daughter-in-law Tamar to accept childlessness, but she seduced him and had twins to replace Er and Onan. She was the heroine.[4 p.364]

38:9

This verse has been used to argue that the Bible bans masturbation, or that his "seed" was sacred[67], but Onan's sin was denying his sister-in-law an heir, which she needed and he was duty bound to provide.

39:6

Joseph and his mother Rachel (in Genesis 29:17) are the only people described in the OT as having both a graceful figure and a beautiful face.[4 p.374]

39:14–20

Genesis relates both men and women committing sexual sins, while the innocent suffer. The wife blamed both Joseph and Potiphar; but he did not kill Joseph, imprisoning him instead, perhaps showing that he doubted her story.[4 p.376]

39:21–23

Joseph's time in prison may have seemed wasted, but he soon had a role that allowed him to roam and speak to all of the prisoners. This eventually gave him access to Pharaoh.

40:4

The Captain of the Guard may have still been Potiphar (39:1). Joseph was unjustly judged and punished, and then raised to great glory and authority, like Jesus.[4 p.400]

40:8

This may be the earliest indication that God rules over foreign countries as well as the Promised Land, unlike the local gods of early theology. cf. Jeremiah 23:24.

41:25

cf. Daniel 2:27.

41:44–55

cf. Mary's words when the marriage at Cana ran out of wine (John 2:5). In both cases, while God was working incomprehensibly, strict obedience was essential. On is Heliopolis, a centre of sun worship[4 p.397].

42f

Most of the Patriarchs are described in about 40 verses, but Joseph has about four times as many devoted to his life; his connections with the highly developed Egyptian society might have left documentary evidence. But the type of detail that is preserved is different; most of the patriarchs are described as dubious characters who left physical evidence such as stones and place-names. Joseph left no physical evidence but we are told of his family life and rise to prominence and godliness.

Genesis presents Joseph in later life (see on Chapter 37) as a model of godly wisdom, and his restraint of emotion (Genesis 42:34, 45:1) echoes Proverbs 14:30. Underlying it all is the sense of God's purpose coming into effect through the unfolding of events (Proverbs 16:9, Genesis 45:5 and 50:20).

Chapter 42 illustrates a Jewish understanding of repentance: God provides an opportunity for the sinner to enter into the experience of their victim[18]. The effect is illustrated by verse 22.

42:1

Genesis 12:10 was being repeated. The men were sitting looking at each other because the famine was so severe that there was nothing constructive to do. So it was only necessary for one son to stay with Jacob while the rest went to Egypt.

42:4

Perhaps Jacob feared a repeat of Joseph's fate; did he sense a conspiracy? [4 p.405]

42:8

Joseph not being recognised by his brothers is like Jesus not being recognised after his resurrection (Luke 24:16). Both had been glorified since they had last been seen. Both sent their hearers back to fetch others, so that none might miss out.

Like the brothers, we will one day see Jesus exalted beyond anything we can imagine, sitting in judgment over us. But his aim will be not to condemn but to save us.

42:16

Joseph might have been finding out whether the brothers descended from Leah had also mistreated his younger brother Benjamin, the other son of Rachel.[4 p.407]

42:20

Simeon was Leah's second son (29:33), and may have led the brutal attack in revenge for Dinah (34:25). Joseph heard Reuben, the eldest, say that he had argued against harming Joseph; so Simeon, the second eldest, probably organised it. Joseph imprisoned Simeon and so that Reuben would lead the return trip.[4 p.409, 412]

42:22

See comment on this chapter above. Reuben thought Joseph was dead; the other brothers might not have told him about selling Joseph to the traders; or perhaps he assumed that he must have died.[4 p.408]

42:36–38

Jacob thought that the brothers might have killed Joseph and sold Simeon, so he now mistrusted the request that Benjamin should go off with them.[4 p.411–2]

43

After a considerable delay (v.10) as the famine worsened, Judah (the eldest son bar those who were disgraced) asked again, and Jacob allowed Benjamin to go. The presents that he sent resemble those carried by the traders to whom Joseph was sold. They were received warmly, with increasingly surprising insight.[4 p.420–3]

44

Joseph's devious scheme tempted his brothers to treat Benjamin as they had treated him many years earlier. He urged them to return to Jacob without Benjamin. They did not fall for it, but had become ready to sacrifice themselves for others.

45

Joseph tried twice to convince his brothers that he was alive (cf. John 20:19–21). He told them that God turns evil so that, though painful at the time, it leads to good in the long run (cf. Romans 8:28). His re-union after 22 years with Benjamin, Rachel's younger son, was particularly emotional. Pharaoh responded generously to the prospect of welcoming Joseph's family to Egypt.[4 p.429]

46–47

Jacob paused to check with God because his father had been forbidden to go to Egypt (Genesis 26:2).[56] God spoke for the last recorded time to a patriarch, promising the exodus; the next time would be to Moses (Exodus 3:6). The list of family members is ancient, predating the clans. Joseph sent them direct to Goshen, in the Nile delta area, and told them to emphasize that they were shepherds bringing their flocks, hoping to remain independent, neither burdening the Egyptian state nor taking it over. As Joseph intended, they were given marginal land where they should be left alone. The famine continued; the Egyptians willingly became slaves of pharaoh, who thereby became responsible for feeding them.[4 p.440–445]

48

Jacob blessed Joseph's sons as if adopting them. He gave the greater blessing to the younger son, as he had tricked his father Isaac into doing. There was no "tribe of Joseph"; Manasseh and Ephraim became "half-tribes" (e.g. Numbers 32:33). The tribe of Dan turned to paganism (Judges 18:30) and was excluded from some later lists such as the one in Revelation 7; including the half-tribes of both Ephraim and Manasses brought the total back to twelve. Luz: see Genesis 28:19. Joseph and Jacob died in Egypt and were mummified.

49

Last words were regarded as most important, and Jacob's were like a Last Will and Testament today, establishing the balance of power between the offspring.

49:3–4

cf. Genesis 35:22; Jacob was afraid to act against Reuben during his lifetime, but on his death­bed he pronounced the most severe curse in Genesis. No prophet, priest or king ever came from Reuben's tribe. Despite being the eldest son, he became incidental.[4 p.471–3]

49:5–7

cf. Genesis 34:25

49:8–12

Having dismissed the two eldest, Jacob blessed Judah. Judah became the strongest tribe, with the largest territory, and after Solomon's time became a separate nation.

Menahem "the Essene Master" saw Genesis 49:10 as a sign that the Messiah would not come until a gentile ruled the Jews. Herod the Great was a gentile, the son of a captive who became a temple servant. The Essenes accepted Herod's rule when many did not, and Herod honoured them in return. The Essenes were powerful not due to popular support but Herodian patronage, so St Mark calls them Herodians.[57]

49:13

Jacob wanted Zebulun to have a coastal plot, but Joshua 19:10f places him inland.

49:28

This verse was clearly composed much later than the events described, because it speaks from a time when the twelve brothers had each founded a tribe.

49:29

Rohl[58 p.360f] identifies a small pyramid in Egypt as Joseph's tomb; the body and grave goods were removed via a tunnel, without disturbing the structure. Joseph's body was exhumed in Exodus 13:19 and re-buried at Shechem in Joshua 24:32.

50:11–13

Jacob was buried with his fathers, with remarkable pomp and ceremony. cf. Genesis 23:15–19.

50:15

It appears that the brothers thought that Joseph had forgiven them only for their father's sake, so their relationship might change after his death.

50:20

A summary of the theology of Genesis.

50:26

See comments on Joshua 24:29–32 concening parallels between Joseph and Joshua.

References:

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  4. Wenham, G. Genesis 16–50 in the Word Biblical Commentary Series (Dallas: Word 1994)
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  7. Stott, Revd John, Understanding the Bible (Reading: Scripture Union, 1993 edition)
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© David Billin 2002–2020