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The Oxford Bible Commentary Line-by-line commentary for the New Revised Standard Version Bible.

Themes.

1.

The primeval history (Gen 1–11 ) heralds some of the main themes of the book. It defines Israel's place in the world of nations and links the human figures of the remote past with Abraham and his descendants by a series of genealogies. It also functions as a universal history of beginnings. It afforded the author the opportunity to state his belief that there is only one, supreme God and that he created the world with all its inhabitants. It is concerned with the nature of this God and with the nature of his human creatures. This universal history taught the Israelite readers a moral lesson as well as a theology: human beings are both foolish and prone to sinful rebellion against God, arrogant and ambitious, seeking to achieve divine status for themselves and capable of murderous intentions towards one another. It warned about the consequences of such behaviour: God, who at the beginning had approved his created world as good, determined to obliterate the human race when it became corrupted; but he mercifully refrained from carrying out this intention: he punished, but did not destroy. So the first man and woman were banished from the garden but allowed to live outside it; the first murderer also was banished, but his life was preserved; the human race, despite its total corruption, was given a second chance in the persons of Noah and his family; the builders of the Tower of Babel were scattered and divided, but survived and peopled the world. The picture of humanity painted in these chapters is dark but realistic; however, it is lightened by the corresponding theme of divine forbearance which, in the context of the book as a whole, foreshadows a more hopeful destiny for a human race that will be blessed in Abraham.

2.

The two main themes of chs. 12–36 are God's choice of Abraham and his descendants out of the entire human race and the promises that he made to them. The particularity of this choice is striking: it is seen not only in the initial selection of Abraham but also in a series of subsequent choices: not Ishmael but Isaac, not Esau but Jacob are chosen. (The theme is pursued further in the succeeding Joseph story: Joseph, Jacob's eleventh son, is chosen to be the saviour of his family, and even in the next generation Ephraim is preferred before Manasseh.) The promises in their fullest form comprise divine blessing, guidance and protection, wealth and political power, and the possession of the land of Canaan as a permanent home. But there is also an important counter-theme: that of the perils into which the recipients of the promises (and their wives) constantly fall, sometimes through their own fault and sometimes at God's instigation (Gen 22 ). It is this counter-theme that gives liveliness and excitement to the narratives; indeed, without it there would be no story to tell. The failure of the promise of the land to materialize within the timespan of the book gives these narratives a forward-looking character: the possession of the land is clearly the goal to which they aspire. There are, of course, a number of subsidiary themes, corresponding to the variety of the material. There is throughout a strong emphasis on the inscrutability of God's purposes.

3.

The story of Joseph (chs. 37–50 ) continues that of the previous section, but has its own independent character and its own themes. Except at the very end of the book the divine promises are not specifically mentioned in these chapters, though the theme of the endangered heirs continues to be prominent: at different times both Joseph and his family are placed in peril. The Egyptian setting is a major feature of the Joseph story and is described in some detail, partly to give it a plausible local colour but mainly in order to enhance the impression of Joseph's eminent position in Egypt. Joseph's character is portrayed with consummate skill. This final part of the book leaves the readers with hopes of a splendid future. The final verses specifically foretell the Exodus from Egypt which will lead at last to the possession of the promised land.

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