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The Catholic Study Bible A special version of the New American Bible, with a wealth of background information useful to Catholics.

Church Use of the Genesis Story of Human Creation

It is well to note that the account of making humanity in the divine image and likeness figures significantly in a number of official Catholic church documents. For example, Pope Paul VI looked to Genesis 1, 28 as a significant reference in his development of the responsibility to subdue the earth and its resources intelligently (Populorum Progressio #22). And along the same vein, John Paul II went to Genesis 1, 26–30 to ground the fundamental “goodness” of creation in the Creator's eyes, which thereby also grounds the claim that redemption is possible (Redemptor Hominis). Likewise, the American bishops in their pastoral Economic Justice for All used Genesis 1, 26f to show that all human relations must be based on the acknowledgment of the dignity of those created in God's image. This helps form the economic reflections of the letter.

The Great Ancestor Narratives in Genesis 12–50

As already noted above, the second major part of Genesis is arranged around the lives of four patriarchal figures: Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph. Each of these represents a forward step in the divine plan to bring about recognition of the divine blessing promised to the world— if only humanity would obey and honor God. Since humans as a whole proved very stubbornly unresponsive to God's self‐revelation through long ages, God decided to turn to a new plan and work through a single chosen people who would respond and witness God's blessings to all nations.

And where is this plan laid out? Why, right at the beginning of course, in Genesis 12, 1–3 . When we read this call of Abraham by God, all the subsequent themes are present:

  • verse 1 the promise of a land for his family

  • verse 2 the promise of blessing through empire and fame, and probably children (“a great nation”)

  • verse 3 the promise to rule other nations and to mediate God's blessing to them.

These themes will echo throughout the narratives to follow, especially the combination of a son to carry on the name and a specific land. But they will not be fulfilled easily. It is very important to understand that God never promised anyone a rose garden. The narrators have constructed a story of failure and success, obedience and disobedience, a lesson of deep faith in some stories, and of a sinful lack of trust in others. Along the way, divine providence and guidance overcome all the obstacles to bringing about the promise, maintaining blessing on this small family even in the unlikely land of their enemy, Egypt.

The Literary Questions of Genesis 12–50

Scholars have identified many individual passages of both J and P throughout the patriarchal stories, and have added one more source, the Elohist (E), which is quite close to J in spirit but does not yet use the name of Yahweh to refer to God. These sources can be identified by their parallel structures, which treat the same chief events in order. If we look just at the Abraham and Sarah story of Genesis 12–25 , we can get a good idea of this overlapping (table on RG 110 ).

Each source stresses a different aspect of the person of Abraham. J stresses his faith and trust in the promise of land and a son; E stresses his obedience even to sacrificing his heir; P stresses his fidelity in fulfilling all the divine religious prescriptions, especially circumcision.

But scholars have sought for more than these written sources alone; they wished to uncover the underlying traditions that existed before J, E, or P ever wrote a word. The form critics have noted that for the cycles of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, most of the incidents described are self‐contained. That is, you could leave one or another of the events out, and the story could still go on. This suggests that a long history of oral stories existed about the patriarchs and matriarchs before they were finally used in written sources. The father of form criticism was Hermann Gunkel, and he pointed to many characteristics of these particular stories that were similar to the characteristics of the Icelandic sagas of the Middle Ages. Some of these elements are:

  • • the stories are hero‐centered around a major ancestor of a family or group;

  • • they don't really tell of private lives as much as of the national fortunes of their group in the past;

  • • they use many standard formulas, themes, and literary motifs common to folktales and hero legends;

  • • they are told with a highly dramatic, often poetic style of description, and not in simple narrative chronicle fashion;

  • • they identify major themes or beliefs of the group or tribe today that this ancestor initiated or began;

  • • they often delight in etiological, or causal, explanations of events or things (that is, in the why or how of the way things are). See Genesis 17,5, where the editor explains the meaning of Abraham's name, or 21, 31, which explains how Beersheba got its name.

However, even with so many similarities between the biblical stories and medieval hero legends or family sagas, we must not forget that they only hint at the way the oldest traditions about the founding ancestors were probably originally passed down. The actual passages that we now read in the book of Genesis were carefully composed by each of the literary sources with a special religious note, and they were combined and revised numerous times to point more clearly to the lessons in the stories for the faith of later generations of Israelites. We must try to read them with an eye both to the level of their original description of the experience of God and to the complete picture painted by the finished text that sees a clear guiding hand of God through history.

The Historical Setting of the Patriarchal Stories

The general consensus of the scholarly world has been in the past that the customs and movements described in Genesis 12–50 best fit the first half

Abraham receives a promise of land and/or a son 12, 1–3 15, 1–6 12, 4–9
God makes a covenant with Abraham 15, 7–12 15, 13–16 17, 1–14
A son is born and the line of the promise is secured 16, 1–16 21, 1–21 17, 15–27
18, 1–19
The final note of closing the life of Abraham 25, 1–6 ( 22, 1–13 ) 23, 1–20
of the second millennium BC, that is, from 1900 to 1500 BC. Some of the main reasons for this view are:

  • • the names of the patriarchs are not used in later periods but are known before 1500 BC;

  • • the wanderings from Mesopotamia to Canaan to Egypt coincide with the periods of Amorite migrations in the Near East and the time of the Middle Kingdom in Egypt (2000–1750 BC);

  • • customs such as the adoption of an heir (Gn 15, 1–3 ) and marrying a sister ( 12, 10–20 ) reflect known legal procedures from Nuzi and other towns in the second millennium;

  • • the story of Joseph as a prime minister in Egypt would fit well the period in Egypt when it was ruled by the Hyksos, a group of Semitic invaders from Palestine and farther East that controlled northern Egypt from about 1750 to 1500 BC;

  • • Abraham and Isaac and Jacob are described as seminomadic clans that settled near urban centers and dealt with the local rulers about rights for grazing, water, and travel, a way of life known from Mari documents of the eighteenth to seventeenth centuries BC.

None of these examples proves the dating of the Genesis stories, since many of these customs were also practiced at later dates. Indeed, the more archaeologists unearth artifacts and documents, the more difficult it is to date any particular custom or practice to a single period. Many particulars of the story do generally fit the conditions that prevailed in the Near East before the rise of strong Egyptian control after 1500 BC. Thus, for example, the apparent weakness of local rulers over the hill country of central Palestine in Abraham's time is supported by archaeology's failure to find any major settlement there from 2000 to 1500 BC, except possibly Shechem. On the other hand, camel caravans and mention of the Philistine states and other details support a time of writing that is much later than the period in which they have set the events.

Genesis 12–25 : The Story of Abraham and Sarah

There are several keys to getting more out of the Abraham narratives. One way is to read the story as Abraham's journey from being a landless alien in chapter 12 to its completion in chapter 23 and 25 when Sarah and then Abraham are buried in a tomb they own and in land they possess. Another way is to follow the series of promises to Abraham and Sarah as they are slowly but surely fulfilled. There are two major series in parallel: (1) the promise of land, and (2) the promise of a son to carry on the family name and to become a great people (see below).

Promise of a Son Promise of Land
Gn 12, 2 I make you a great nation Gn 12, 1 “go to a land I that I will show you≓
Gn 15, 5 at the night covenant Gn 12, 7 at the terebinth of Moreh
Gn 17, 4 the P covenant Gn 13, 14 at the departure of Lot
Gn 17, 16 the promise of Isaac Gn 15, 18 at the night covenant
Gn Gn 18, 10 the three angels Gn 17, 8 the P covenant
Gn 18, 18 recap of 12, 2f Gn 24, 7 the messenger for Isaac
Gn 21, 12 a promise to Isaac Gn 26, 4 repeated promise to Isaac
Gn 22, 17 at the sacrifice of Isaac
Gn 26, 4 promise repeated to Isaac
Trusting Response Obstacle
Gn 12, 1–9 Abraham leaves home Gn 12, 10–20 Abraham in Egypt
Gn 14, 1–24 War and blessing of Melchizedek Gn 13, 1–18 Lot allowed to choose the land
Gn 15, 1–21 The covenant with God Gn 16, 1–14 Abraham has a son by his slave wife
Gn 17, 1–27 Abraham's covenant renewed Gn 18, 1–15 Sarah doubts the promise of a son
Gn 18, 16–33 Abraham intercedes for Sodom Gn 20, 1–18 Abraham nearly repeats his denial of Sarah
Gn 21, 1–20 The birth of Isaac Gn 22, 1–14 Will Abraham pass the test of sacrificing Isaac?
Gn 21, 21–33 Abraham establishes rights to water
Gn 23, 1–20 Abraham buys land

Genesis 12–25 can also be viewed as the story of a struggle to have trust and faith in God. Abraham and Sarah create as many obstacles to God's plan as they do helpful responses built on faith (see table above ).

Still another structure can be found in the drama that leads up to the birth of the promised son, Isaac, from chapters 12 to 21 . Here the series of major events are balanced in two blocs that each focus their climax on the birth of a son. See diagram on RG 112

According to this diagram, the story moves dynamically forward through two series of parallel actions. Abraham wrestles with his call in betraying his wife and dealing with Lot but finally trusts fully in God's covenant by chapter 15 , which leads to receiving a son, Ishmael. This is immediately followed by the expanded divine covenant of chapter 17 , followed by further uncertain dealings with Lot and a new betrayal of his wife. But then God relents with a son Isaac, from Sarah, as fulfillment of the Promise found in chapter 12, 1–3 . This entire series moves toward the great test of sacrificing his son in chapter 22 . When Abraham proves himself competely obedient to God's will at that awful moment, the story comes to a rapid conclusion. Once the promise of a son is secured, purchase of a tomb in chapter 23 guarantees a claim on the land, and so Abraham's role is now ready to pass on to Isaac. And then both Sarah and Abraham pass from the scene.

Genesis 24–27 : The Story of Isaac and Rebekah

Isaac plays an important role in the life of Abraham as the promised son, but it is a passive role, even in the great scene where he is about to lose his life in chapter 22 . He briefly comes to the fore in chapters 24 to 27 but they mostly duplicate scenes from the life of Abraham. The long account of arranging his marriage in chapter 24 links Isaac back to the family roots in northern Mesopotamia reported in chapter 12 . His encounter with Abimelech and the surrender of his wife, as well as the concern with water rights in chapter 26 , reflects two similar scenes in chapters 20 and 21 ; and in 26, 4 Isaac receives the renewal of the promises of land and descendants given to Abraham in chapter 12, 17, 18, 21, and 22 .

Isaac's role might be best understood as permitting the transition from the role played by Abraham before him to the role played by Jacob after him, except for one thing: the remarkable person of Rebekah! The scene in chapter 24 of the messenger persuading Rebekah and her brother Laban to let her marry Isaac, and the journey home to Palestine, is a masterpiece of ancient writing art. Pay attention to how much emphasis is given to this one event—a total of sixty‐seven verses. Rebekah will also become the key player in the next step of God's plan, the selection of the child Jacob over his older brother, Esau. In chapter 25 , the birth of twins sets the stage for a great conflict that shall shadow the promise for many years ahead, the hatred of two brothers for one another, trickery on the part of Jacob, and the triumph of the younger brother over the older. And through it all, Rebekah steers a clear course that will end up winning the day.

Genesis 27–36 : The Story of Jacob

In reading the story of Jacob, modern Christians are often horrified by the trickery and dishonesty involved in the way his career is presented in the text. In order to appreciate the religious message of this part of the patriarchal history, we must be willing to read with our eyes wide open to all the possible levels that can be discovered in this very powerful piece of literature.

The following are a few initial observations and guidelines to help a better reading of these chapters: (1) Remember the overall purpose of Genesis 12–50 is to carry forward God's promise despite all obstacles. Thus we can expect that Jacob, like Abraham, will himself be one of those obstacles. (2) These chapters really are made up of many old sagas or folk hero stories. Although they have been gathered and polished and finally given a very religious edge, they still retain some of the early and less edifying characteristics of such traditions. (3) You as reader live in the twenty‐first century with a modern ethical sense that is far more refined than the more basic code of conduct centered on maintaining honor, avoiding shame, demanding fair play, and upholding honesty of the ancient world. It is possible to understand the text without necessarily agreeing with everything in it. (4) This is intended as an exciting action narrative where the outcome hangs in doubt, and so we should not expect it to be a gentle, pious biography of a saint.

With these cautions in mind, we can look at all the elements that have been collected to make up the narrative as a whole:

Original Sources

The materials from which the narrative develops can be grouped into four types:

In looking at these groupings, it immediately becomes clear that the cycles of stories about Jacob and Esau, and Jacob and Laban, are really about the struggles for identity and status of the Israelite tribes against the Edomites (Esau's people) in the first, and against the Mesopotamian peoples who are Israel's ancestors (Laban's claim over the family)in the second. These are older tales that were once recited orally to glorify Israel's past. To a modern sensitivity, Jacob may appear to be a deceiver and dishonest, but to an ancient his antics were clever, wily, and proved to be far wiser and more skillful than those of either the Edomites or Aramaeans.

Note, for example, that there are four separate conflicts between Jacob and Esau:

  • 1. There is a struggle in the womb between them, with a prophetic word that Jacob shall triumph over Esau, his older brother ( 25, 21–28 ).

  • 2. There is a struggle over the birthright ( 25, 29–34 ), which Jacob wins.

  • 3. There is another struggle over the family blessing ( 27, 1–45 ) and Jacob wins again.

  • 4. Finally, there is a great confrontation years later ( 32, 3–33, 17 ), which ends in a reconciliation between the brothers.

These incidents probably originated in bragging stories around the campfires of Israel's ancestors about how their founder Jacob outsmarted the Edomites. But they now form a series of obstacles that Jacob must overcome to carry on the divine plan, but they end in a finale of reconciliation that proves how everything works for the good in God's plan.

The same patterns can be detected in the Laban stories over the question of which wife is truly Jacob's primary spouse (and naturally therefore which sons are more important!), whose are the family gods, and whose are the possessions; in each of these conflicts, Jacob emerges the winner.

Major Themes of the Jacob Story

The Jacob stories are not intended to be a chronicle of historical events narrated in the actual order that they happened. Different factors all play a role in the development of the tradition: (1) In several cases ancient folk themes, such as the competition between the hunter and the sheepherder, or the struggle of a young shepherd against an established older one, are the source of an incident. (2) In other passages there are elements of a nationalistic boast that our clan is better than your clan. (3) Like true sagas, the personal battles stand for the tensions between actual nations. Thus, each of Jacob's twelve sons has the name of a real tribe; Esau is called “red and hairy,” which in Hebrew makes a pun on the names of Edom and Seir, because he does represent Edom. (4) It is also about roots—to whom is Israel related? Certainly to the Arameans in Mesopotamia, and to the Edomites. (5) And, of course, another theme is that God writes straight with crooked lines. Examples include the choice of a younger son over the rightful older son as heir, and the triumph of the advice of a mother rather than the judgment of the father of the promise, Isaac himself.

The Appearances of God

Most importantly, the authors have added into the older folktales their strictly religious accounts of how God spoke to Jacob at various times in his life. These are also likely to be based on old stories that were cherished and retold at various shrines that grew up at the spots where God was known to have appeared, such as Bethel, Shechem, Paddan‐Aram, and Penuel. But it is precisely through these scenes that the authors reveal the real purpose of the story. In the first vision at Bethel in chapter 28 , Jacob receives the promise made to Abraham and Isaac; at Penuel he is designated the father of Israel as a nation, and his name is changed to match. In Shechem he acknowledges that God is the only god of Israel; and at Paddan‐Aram in the final scene (chapter 35 ), God reconfirms that Jacob is to be the people Israel and that the promise of a great nation of descendants is on the verge of fulfillment.

The Result

When we combine all the elements that we have looked at, it presents us with a complex picture of Jacob as the model of Israel as well as its founding father. God is now about to forge these twelve sons into the future great nation, but it won't be done without problems of human blindness and often very disobedient or shortsighted or even slightly unscrupulous individuals. Jacob was all of these—but used his human talents to pursue faithfully the course that God had shown him; and lo and behold, God's plan came about! The Joseph story will illustrate the first step of building the brothers into a nation.

Genesis 37–50 : The Story of Joseph

As in the preceding stories, the drama of Joseph's story can be read on two levels. The first is the search for the interesting traditions and themes that reach far back into Israel's history. The second is the overall theological purpose that the story now plays as part of the larger religious message of Genesis. On the first level, many scholars have traced the combination of the Yahwist and Elohist sources woven together to form a unified series of adventures. Perhaps even a modern reader might notice what appears to be slight differences and inconsistencies, which give away the fact that there were originally two accounts. One of the easiest places to see this is in the opening of the story in chapter 37 , where J can be found in verses 3–4, 12–17, 23, 25–28, 31–34 , and E in verses 1–2, 5–11, 18–22, 24, 28–30, and 36 . Note, for example, such disagreements as shown in table on RG 115 .

Scholars also point to two separate journeys of the brothers back and forth to Egypt: the first one, in chapter 42 , is seen as E; the second, in chapter 43 , is usually understood as J's parallel account.

Also still on the first level, research has pointed to the great number of parallels in the Joseph story to ancient Egyptian literary masterpieces that have been discovered. One such story tells of seven fat years followed by seven lean years of harvest (compare this to chapter 41, 1–32 ), while another tells the story of a young man who resists the attempts of his older brother's wife to seduce him, with the result that she screams and falsely accuses him of trying to rape her (see chapter 39, 6–20 ). Another famous Egyptian tale of one Sinuhe recounts how he fell out of favor with the pharaoh but was restored to favor when he proved to be a truly faithful servant of the king's interest (Joseph's imprisonment and rise to power shares some of this theme). There is yet another interesting parallel in an account found on a statue of King Idri‐mi of Alalakh, a city in Syria, to be dated about the fifteenth century BC. It tells how Idri‐mi's father was dethroned and the family forced to flee into exile and how Idri‐mi could not get his brothers to help win back the father's kingdom; but when he managed it alone, he forgave them and took them back into his confidence.

All of these examples share some theme or another with the Joseph story, but none is more than a passing element of the whole. They do, however, confirm that the basic motifs and descriptions of chapters 37–50 are borrowed from, or echo ideas about, the world of Egypt in the second millenium BC, even if they are really the product of later imaginative creation without any basis in hard facts. Indeed, the whole way in which the Joseph story is presented connects well to the quite vague memories of the Hyksos period in Egypt (1750–1550 BC), a highly romanticized period when Semitic conquerors ruled much of the northern part of the country.

A third series of motifs on the first level of tradition is derived from the wisdom schools, perhaps as they flourished in the days of David and

The father is named Israel The father is named Jacob
The brother Judah intercedes The brother Reuben intercedes
The merchants are Ishmaelites The merchants are Midianites
The long coat causes the brothers' jealousy Joseph's dreams cause the brothers'jealousy
Solomon, but possibly, or even probably, at an even later stage of editing. Wisdom themes abound in the person of Joseph, who fits the ideal of both Egyptian wisdom sayings and those of the book of Proverbs in the Bible. He speaks only what is appropriate, keeps his own counsel, accepts misunderstanding, shows great skills as an administrator of public affairs, is adept at translating dreams, is skillful in political intrigue games, and avoids entanglement with foreign women. Above all, Joseph is attentive to God's plan, which works differently from the course of human planners (note especially the remarks of Joseph in 45, 5–8 and 50, 20, and compare these to Proverbs 16, 9 and 19, 21 ).

So far we have uncovered a variety of separate traditions that have gone into these chapters. What is remarkable about this particular narrative of Joseph, however, is precisely its dramatic integrity. Each step of the plot lays the groundwork for the next event. If you took away one of them, such as Joseph's imprisonment, there would be no way to get him into the king's favor in Egypt. If he didn't trick his brothers into bringing their father, Jacob, to Egypt, the master plan of God to rescue them at a later date would never have been put into place. Some scholars liken Joseph, not to the string of sagalike stories that make up the Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob cycles, but to a modern short story of fiction with a very carefully constructed plot. Some genius, perhaps the J source itself, or one of its later editors, has taken all the old themes and separate traditions and created a literary work of art, the earliest such masterwork that we know anywhere.

Once we recognize its dramatic unity, we can begin to understand its theological message on the second level of the book of Genesis itself. Certainly, Joseph must first be understood as one of Jacob's twelve sons. Through him, one of the youngest, God will work his plan, despite the ambitions or hopes of the older and supposedly more deserving brothers. What Joseph does is entirely done through divine guidance. Joseph's vanity causes his initial problems with his brothers, and only the divine gift of dream interpretation eventually gets him out of a hopeless prison situation. By ironic twists of fate and the reversal of roles, God brings about the totally unexpected end in which a lowly Palestinian shepherd becomes the second most powerful official in Egypt. In what looks like the final triumph of the blessing of success and power and progeny promised to Abraham and Isaac, Jacob moves into Egypt. Genesis now closes with a question for all readers: what has happened to the hopes and promise to Israel that it would be a great people in possession of Canaan? Is there something yet to happen? Genesis ends with a clear message that God's work, as great as it has been, is not yet finished.

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