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

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Commentary on Genesis

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A History of Origins (chs. 1–11 )

These chapters may be regarded as a prologue to Genesis, and indeed to the whole Pentateuch. Beginning as they do with the activity of God even before the universe came into existence (Gen 1:1–2 ), they clearly cannot be based on any record of what actually occurred; and the fact that in them a number of persons are reported as having lived preternaturally long lives is sufficient to show that the world depicted here is different even from that of the later chapters of the book. These stories do not constitute a connected sequence; they have been linked together only in a very artificial way by a series of genealogies (Gen 4:17–22; 5:1–32; 10:1–32; 11:10–32 ). They are universal stories, depicting not human beings as we know them but giants or heroes in something like the fairytale sense of those words. What is being conveyed is how the authors or collectors of the stories imagined that it might all have begun. However, as we shall see, these stories were intended to convey a much more profound meaning than that.

Many peoples have at an early stage of their development possessed a fund of stories about the origin of the world and the earliest history of the human race; and many of the stories in Gen 1–11 have a family likeness to origin-stories current in the Near-Eastern milieu to which ancient Israel belonged (cf. ANET 3–155). These Israelite versions, however, are unique in that they are monotheistic: all the divine actions that they depict are attributed to a single deity, and there is no mention of other gods. The term ‘myth’ is often applied to them; but since there is no agreement about the meaning of that term it is probably best avoided.

It is possible that the final author or compiler of these chapters has left an indication of their structure by his use of the word tôlĕdôt, especially in the phrase ‘These are the tôlĕdôt of…’ ( 2:4; 6:9; 10:1; 11:10, 27 ; cf. also 5:1 ). However, this phrase, which also occurs at intervals in the later chapters of the book, can hardly be adequate as a structural marker since it is used with different meanings, e.g. genealogy or list of descendants ( 6:9; 10:1 ) and story or history ( 2:4; 37:1 ). One way of viewing the purpose and structure of chs. 1–11 is to see them as presenting a picture of the growing power of sin in the world, together with a parallel picture of a ‘hidden growth of grace’ (von Rad 1966a : 64–5). This view has some plausibility as regards chs. 3–9 . If this is so, however, the story of the Tower of Babel ( 11:1–9 ) surely stands outside the pattern. There, as also in ch. 3 , it appears to be God's concern for his own status rather than his grace that is to the fore. It may be best to regard this story as an appendix to chs. 1–9 , or as a negative foil to the story of Abraham that begins at the end of ch. 11 .

Why does the Pentateuch preface its history of Israel's ancestors with these universal stories? It is of interest to note that the origin-stories of other nations (see Van Seters 1983 ) show a similar pattern: many of them also begin with mythical tales and then proceed gradually to the more historical. The aim of such works, apart from a wish to satisfy the readers' natural curiosity about ‘how it all began’, was to create or strengthen their sense of national or ethnic identity, especially at critical times when for specific reasons this was threatened. In order to foster such a sense it was thought necessary to account for the nation's place in the world; and, since the human race was thought to have had a single origin, to explain how the various peoples had come into existence. In Gen 1–11 these aims come to the fore in ch. 10 , which was clearly intended to be a ‘map’ of all the peoples of the world, and in 11:1–9 , which accounts for their failure to remain united. At this point the history of Israel's ancestors could begin.

But beyond these motives Gen 1–11 was designed to reflect certain distinctive Israelite (Yahwistic) articles of faith. Not the least of these was monotheism. Despite the inclusion of the phrases ‘Let us make man in our own image’ ( 1:26 ) and ‘like one of us’ ( 3:22 ), on which see below, this monotheistic stance is quite striking and sometimes even polemical—that is, antipolytheistic—especially in ch. 1 . The conflict-tradition of Mesopotamia, according to which the creator-god had had to fight and kill a hostile monster before he could create the world, although traces of it are to be found elsewhere in the OT (e.g. Ps 74:13–14; Isa 51:9 ), is entirely absent here: the ‘great sea monsters’ (tannînîm, 1:21 ) are simply listed together with God's other creatures. Similarly the sun, moon, and other heavenly bodies, which in the Near-Eastern religious systems are powerful deities coexisting with the creator-god, are here a part of God's creation and are entirely subservient to him, being assigned by him their proper functions ( 1:14–18 ). Equally distinctive of Israelite religion is the setting aside by God of the seventh day, the day on which he rested from his work of creation, to be observed as a day of rest—presumably by the whole created world—in the institution of the Sabbath ( 2:1–3 ).

Some scholars have interpreted these chapters as reflecting the experiences of the Babylonian exile or the early post-exilic period. Thus the themes of punishment for sin, especially banishment from God's presence and/or dispersal or destruction ( 3:23–4; 4:12, 16; 6–8; 11:4, 9 ), have been taken as symbolic of Israel's richly deserved banishment from the land of Canaan, while the signs of divine grace and forgiveness, especially God's acceptance of Noah's sacrifice and the covenant which he made with him ( 8:20–9:17 ) would suggest to the exilic or post-exilic reader that God had even now not cast off his people but was a God of infinite patience and forgiveness who would rescue Israel from its folly and its guilt as he had done for humanity in ancient times.

Some of these stories also betray an interest in aetiology: that is, in seeking the origin of various phenomena of universal human experience which appear to defy rational explanation. These aetiologies are of many kinds. One of the most important ones concerns the reason for human mortality, a common theme in both Near-Eastern and classical literature that sometimes took the form of narratives in which human beings attempted to wrest immortality from the gods but failed; this is alluded to in Gen 3:22 —which appears to imply that mortality is inherent in mankind's status as creature—and in the mysterious incident of 6:1–3 . The nature of the relationship between man and woman is discussed in 2:18 , which explains why both sexes are necessary to a complete humanity, and in 2:23–4 , which explains the attraction between the sexes and the forming of permanent relationships between them as due to God's providence. In ch. 3 , however, the less ideal realities of the relationship are attributed to disobedience to God's command, in which both partners are implicated.

There is also an aetiology of work here. Work in itself is not regarded as a punishment: rather, it is a natural (male) activity ( 2:15 ); but—it is implied—it is an agreeable one. The cursing of the ground and the consequent harshness of agricultural labour ( 3:17–19 ) are the result of disobedience. The final line of 3:19 (‘You are dust, and to dust you shall return’), possibly a common saying, does not imply that human mortality is the result of disobedience.

Another matter that evidently called for explanation was the wearing of clothing. The feeling of shame at appearing naked before others (cf. 9:20–7 ) and the universal custom of wearing clothes are explained as a consequence of the eating of the forbidden fruit ( 3:7–12, 21 ): previously ( 2:25 ), nakeness had not been shameful. Other aetiologies in these chapters include the reason for the human dislike of snakes and for the ability of snakes to move without legs ( 3:14–15 ), the reason for the rainbow ( 9:12–17 ), and the origin of the sabbath.

It is generally agreed that the stories in Gen 1–11 are not a pure invention of the final compiler: however much he may have adapted them for his own purpose, he was using material current in his own time. On the nature and date of this material, however, there is at present no agreement. Arguments have recently been advanced which suggest that, at least in their present form, these chapters cannot be older than the sixth century BCE. For example, the Chaldeans, referred to in 11:28 , a verse assigned by the followers of the Documentary Hypothesis to the oldest source J, did not become significant on the international scene until about that time, while the garden of Eden is nowhere mentioned in OT texts before the time of the exilic Isaiah (Deutero-Isaiah, Isa 51:3 ) and Ezekiel (Ezek 28:13; 36:35 ). Similarly Abraham (Abram 11:26–30 ) appears to have been unknown in the pre-exilic period: he is never mentioned by the pre-exilic prophets, and his name occurs only in two OT passages which may be pre-exilic but are probably not (1 Kings 18:36; Ps 47:9 ). This fact is, of course, significant also for the dating of the story of Abraham in chs. 12–25 . Finally it is remarkable that there is no extant ancient Near-Eastern text that in any way covers the same ground as Gen 1–11 , and no evidence that any other people compiled a comparable narrative before the Graeco-Roman period.

( 1:1–2:4a ) The Creation of the World

This creation story is only one of many current in the ancient Near East; there are, for example, several extant Egyptian ones in which the creation of the world is attributed to different gods, and the creator-god is not necessarily the principal god. This multiplicity is due to the existence of different local traditions. In the OT also, where there is only one God, we find several quite distinct creation traditions. In addition to Gen 1 there is a different account in Gen 2 , and another version is reflected especially in Ps 74:13–14 and Isa 51:9 , in which the creation of the world appears to have followed a conflict in which YHWH defeated and killed a sea monster or monsters. Other somewhat different versions are found in Prov 8:22–31 , in parts of the book of Job, and elsewhere.

The creation story in Gen 1:1–2:4 has long been thought to have particular affinities with the Babylonian Enuma Elish (ANET 60–72); but a glance at the latter shows that the relationship is at most a very remote one. Apart from the fact that the Genesis story is monotheistic, the most crucial difference between the two accounts is that Enuma Elish belongs to the category of the conflict tradition, which is entirely absent from Gen 1 . In the former, the god Marduk first summons the other deities and, after killing the sea monster Tiamat, creates heaven and earth by splitting Tiamat's body into two. (The commonly repeated notion that the word ‘the deep’—tĕhôm, in 1:2 —is a pale reminiscence of Tiamat cannot be sustained.) There is no trace of a conflict here: God is alone, and he is supreme.

This account contains no explicit statement about God's purpose in creating the world; but this purpose is clearly implied in the great emphasis that is placed on the position of mankind in God's plan: the creation of mankind, the last of God's creative acts, is evidently the climax of the whole account, and receives the greatest attention ( 1:26–30 ). The creatures created on the previous days—light, day and night, dry land, heavenly bodies, plants and animals—are all by implication provided for mankind's use and convenience; human beings are given the plants for food, and power over the animals. Above all they are created in God's image and likeness ( 1:26–7 ). Whatever may be the precise meaning of that phrase—this question has been endlessly debated (see below)—it sets human beings apart from all the other creatures and puts them in a unique relationship with God himself.

A further clue to God's intention when he created the world is to be found in the successive statements made at the conclusion of each act of creation, that ‘God saw that it was good’ ( 1:4, 10, 12, 18, 21, 25 ), culminating in the final comprehensive statement that he ‘saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good’ ( 1:31 ). This is the craftsman's assessment of his own work; and it says something about his intention as well as about his artistry. A competently crafted artefact implies a good intention. The word ‘good’ (tôb) here, however, refers more directly to the usefulness of the world—presumably primarily its usefulness to mankind. It does not necessarily have an ethical connotation: it is not mankind that is said to be ‘good’, but God's work as craftsman. The author was well aware of the subsequent catastrophic introduction of evil into the world.

In its cosmology—that is, its understanding of the structure and different parts of the universe—this account of the creation conforms to that generally current in the ancient Near East. (In some OT passages this cosmology is described in more detail.) The pre-existent watery waste ( 1:1–2 ) was divided into two by the creation of a solid dome or vault (the sky, 1:6–8 ), so that there was water both above and below it. The lower mass of water was then confined to a limited area, the sea, revealing the dry land, which God called ‘the earth’ ( 1:9–10 ). (According to Gen 7:11 the sky had ‘windows’ which when opened allowed the rain to fall.) The heavenly bodies, sun, moon, and stars, moved across the vault of the sky, giving light and following a prescribed programme ( 1:14–18 ).

A characteristic feature of this account of creation is its precise and meticulous style. It frequently repeats the same phraseology, listing the various acts of creation with the dryness of a catalogue, and possesses nothing of the imaginative or dramatic skill characteristic of chs. 2–3 . Yet, as has long been recognized, there remain a number of variations or inconsistencies of detail, which suggests that two or more accounts have been combined. In particular, the creative acts are introduced in different ways. While in some cases God creates simply by speaking (‘And God said…’), in others we are told that he performed certain actions: he made, separated, named, blessed, placed. A second anomalous feature is that although the entire work of creation was carried out in six days (presumably to conform to the concept of six days of creation concluding with a Sabbath rest on the seventh day), there are in fact eight creative acts: on the third day and again on the sixth ( 1:9–13, 24–31 ), two acts of creation are performed. It is not possible, however, to reconstruct the earlier accounts whose existence is thus implied.

The sentence with which ch. 1 begins ( 1:1–2 ) has been translated in several ways (see NRSV marg.). The older English versions have ‘In the beginning God created…’. Some other features of these verses call for comment. The use of the word ‘God’ (᾽ĕlōhîm) rather than YHWH ( 2:4b–3:24 mainly uses ‘the LORD God’—YHWH ᾽ĕlōhîm) is found elsewhere in Genesis and has been taken to indicate the use of different sources. The word rendered by ‘created’ (bārā᾽) is a rare and probably late term confined almost entirely in the OT to Gen 1–6 , where it occurs 9 times, and Isa 40–66 ; it is used exclusively of the creative activity of God. Elsewhere in the OT that activity is denoted by words meaning ‘to form’ or ‘to make’, which are also used of human activity.

1:2 refers to the situation before God's creative action began. There is no question here of a creatio ex nihilo, a ‘creation out of nothing’. The earth (hā᾽ āreṣ) already existed, but it was a ‘formless void’ (tōhû wābōhû)—not a kind of non-existence but something empty and formless, without light and covered by the water of the deep (tĕhôm). There are echoes here of the Near-Eastern cosmologies. The word rûaḥ, rendered by ‘wind’ in NRSV, can also mean ‘spirit’ (see NRSV marg.). Whichever is the correct interpretation, NRSV's ‘swept’ is a participle, denoting a continuous action; it should perhaps be rendered ‘was hovering’.

In 1:3 as in some later verses God creates by means of a command. His words are presumably addressed to the ‘formless void’ of 1:2 . The creation of light before that of the sun and moon ( 1:14–18 ) has led to the suggestion that this feature of the account is derived from an earlier, somewhat different tradition. God's separation of light from darkness and his naming them ( 1:4–5 ), like his other acts of separating and naming ( 1:6, 8, 10, 14, 18 ), are the acts of a sovereign who determines the destinies of his subordinates.

In 1:11, 12, 21, 24, 25 the phrase ‘of every kind’ might be better rendered by ‘(each) according to its species’. The reference to signs and seasons and days and years in the description of the heavenly bodies in 1:14 suggests the establishment of the calendar with particular reference to the determination of the dates of the sacred festivals. When the account moves on to the creation of the animal kingdom, first the water animals and birds ( 1:20–3 ) and then the land animals ( 1:24–5 ), these are distinguished from all that had been previously created as being ‘living creatures’ (nepeš [ha] ḥayyâ, 1:20, 21, 24, 30 )—clearly a higher status than that of the plants. They receive God's blessing ( 1:22, 28 ). Unlike the plants which are to serve as food for both human beings and animals ( 1:29, 30 ) it is significantly not said of them that they may be killed and eaten. This is a vegetarian regime.

The meaning of the statement that mankind was created in God's image (ṣelem) and likeness (děmût) ( 1:26, 27 ) has always been a matter of discussion, as also has been the use of the plural form (‘Let us make’, ‘in our image’, 1:26 , although in 1:27 the singular form ‘in his image’ is used). The most probable explanation of the second point is that the plural is used to denote the court of heavenly beings who exist to do God's bidding. The terms ‘image’ and ‘likeness’ are probably not to be differentiated: the double phrase is simply for emphasis. It clearly defines human beings as resembling God in a way that is not the case with the animals (cf. 1:28 and Ps 8:3–8 ). The nature of this resemblance is not apparent, however, and hypotheses abound. Since God is often represented elsewhere in the OT as having bodily organs—hands, feet, eyes, etc.—and the word ṣelem is elsewhere used of images of gods, it has been supposed that the passage refers to a resemblance to God's external form. It is more probable, however, that some less material resemblance is intended: that human beings, in distinction from the animals, possess the unique capacity to communicate meaningfully with God, or—particularly with reference to the animals—are God's representatives or vice-gerents on earth.

The ordinance that mankind is to rule over the animal kingdom ( 1:26, 28 ), like the statement that the sun and moon are to rule over the day and the night ( 1:16 ), determines mankind's function in the world. It does not imply exploitation, for food or for any other purpose; rather, it is a consequence of the gift to mankind of the image of God. Mankind is, as it were, a manager or supervisor of the world of living creatures. The blessing, accompanied by the command to ‘be fruitful and multiply’ ( 1:28 ) is, as with the animals ( 1:22 ), a guarantee that life is to continue.

God's rest (šābat, 2:2 ) on the seventh day implies the sabbath (šabbāt—the word itself does not occur here—which is thereby ‘hallowed’ or made holy ( 2:3; cf. Ex 20:8 ). The same reason for the observance of the sabbath is given in the Decalogue (Ex 20:11 ).

( 2:4b–3:24 )

This narrative, which could stand by itself as an independent story, has taken up themes and motifs quite different from those employed in 1:1–2:4a . It was once generally believed to be older and more primitive in its theology than the preceding chapter (J as contrasted with P); but more recently this view has been challenged. Blenkinsopp ( 1992: 63, 65), for example, suggests that it may have been ‘generated by reflection on the creation account in Genesis 1 ’ and may be seen as ‘standing in a wisdom tradition which indulged in “philosophizing by means of myth” ’. Undoubtedly some of the motifs employed are considerably older than the author's own time; but the telling of tales for edifying or didactic purposes is more a characteristic of a late stage of civilization than an early one. There is evidence, too, that some elements of the vocabulary employed here are late rather than early.

This is a story about two people, a man and a woman, and what happened to them. Although in the context they are necessarily pictured as the first man and woman, they are symbols as well as ancestors of the human race: behind his statements that ‘This is what happened’ the author is saying ‘This is how human beings behave, and these are the consequences that follow.’ The eating of the fruit is not a single event of the remote past, but something that is repeated again and again in human history. The traditional view that it was the first sin that caused all later generations to be born in ‘original sin’ is not borne out by this story, although it has the aetiological purpose of explaining the present conditions of human existence. It teaches that God's intention for human beings is wholly good, but that they can be led astray by subtle temptations; and that, while disobedience to God, which is self-assertion, may bring greater self-knowledge, it leads to disaster: the intimate relationship with God is broken. Life then becomes harsh and unpleasant; however, God does not entirely abandon his creatures but makes special provisions for their preservation. An Israel that had suffered devastation and exile from its land could hardly fail to get the message.

It is hardly correct to call ch. 2 a second and alternative creation story. The reference to the creation of the world only occupies 2:4b–6 , and is expressed in a subordinate clause: ‘In the day when…’. It is introduced in order to provide a setting for the main story. It belongs to a different tradition from that of ch. 1 with its Mesopotamian perspective—that of Palestine, where rain ( 2:5 ) is vitally important for the existence of plant and animal life. But other motifs may have Mesopotamian or other origins. In 2:7 the author chose to depict the creation of the first (male) human in terms of formation from the soil (perhaps rather, clay). This is a tradition also found among modern preliterate peoples (Westermann 1984: 204). In Egyptian mythology the god Khnum fashioned living creatures on a potter's wheel (ANET 368, 431, 441), while in the Babylonian tradition the wild man Enkidu was fashioned from clay (ANET 74).

Eden ( 2:8 —the word means ‘delight’) as the garden of God occurs again in Ezek 28:13; 31:9; Joel 2:3 , and Eden by itself in a few passages in Ezekiel and in Isaiah ( 51:3 ), always as a place of ideal fertility and beauty. (It also occurs in Gen 4:16 as a place-name.) In Ezek 28:13–16 there is an allusion to a myth of an expulsion from the garden, but this differs markedly from Gen 2–3 .

The two named trees in the garden—the tree of the knowledge of good and evil ( 2:9, 17 , and also, it must be presumed, the ‘tree that is in the middle of the garden’, 3:3; cf. 3:11, 12 ) and the tree of life ( 2:9; 3:22 ) constitute a puzzle in that the latter does not appear in the main story but only in the two verses mentioned above. The problem is usually, and probably rightly, solved by supposing that the author combined two variant traditions in order to introduce the theme of life and death, and was not concerned with consistency of detail. Both trees have connections with wisdom themes. In the book of Proverbs knowledge is a synonymous with wisdom; and in Prov 3:18 it is stated that wisdom is ‘a tree of life to those who lay hold of her’. This might lead one to suppose that the two trees are the same, but it is clear from 2:9 and 3:22 that this is not so. So knowledge and (eternal) life are not synonymous in this story.

2:15 resumes the main narrative after what appears to be a digression. The identity of the first two of the four rivers of 2:10–14 is not known. 2:16–17 contain the first instance of a divine prohibition, on which the plot of ch. 3 depends. The naming of the animals by the man in 2:19–20 establishes their distinct characteristics and confirms the man's rule over them. The creation of woman from the man's rib is a detail that no doubt derives from an older tradition. In 2:23 the word ‘woman’ (᾽iššâ) is stated—erroneously—to be derived from ‘man’ (᾽īš). 2:24a is an aetiology explaining the origin of the relation between the sexes; it appears, however, to run counter to actual practice. 2:25b probably expresses a view that was generally held about primitive man. It also points ahead to 3:8–11 : shame is one of the consequences of sin.

The serpent ( 3:1 ) is neither a supernatural enemy threatening God's creation from outside nor some kind of inner voice within the woman urging her to disobedience. It is specifically stated that it was one of God's creatures, but that it was craftier (῾ārûm) than all the others. (There is a play on words here: ῾ārôm ( 2:25 ) means ‘naked’.) ῾ārûm is an ambiguous word: it can also denote ‘wisdom’ in a positive sense. But here it is the wrong kind of wisdom possessed by the serpent that initiates mankind's fall into disaster. Snakes played a significant part in the mythologies and religious practices of the ancient Near East, as objects both of fear and worship. The question of the origin of the serpent's wickedness is not raised here. The phenomenon of the speaking snake (cf. Balaam's ass, Num 22:28–30 ) is a folkloric one.

In its conversation with the woman ( 3:1b–5 ) the serpent asserts that God's threat of immediate death for eating the fruit of the tree of knowledge ( 2:17 ) is a false one. The acquisition of the knowledge of good and evil (that is, of wisdom) will lead rather to the human pair becoming ‘like God’. There is truth in what the serpent says: eating the fruit does not result in immediate death, and although the man and woman do not become wholly like God since they still lack immortality, God fears that if they also eat the fruit of the tree of life they will obtain full divine status ( 3:22 ). But the serpent fails to say what will be their actual fate.

The various punishments imposed by God on the guilty ( 3:14–19 ) all have aetiological bases: serpents have no legs and are thought to ‘eat dust’, and bite human beings but are killed by them; women are attached to their husbands, suffer pain in childbirth, and also suffer from their husbands' domination (contrast ‘helper’ and ‘partner’ in 2:18 ). The final clause of 3:19 , probably a common saying, adds point to the first half of that verse, which refers back to 2:7 . The derivation of the name Eve (ḥawwâ, 3:20 ) which occurs in the OT only here and in 4:1 , is unknown. There is a play on words here: ḥawwâ echoes ḥay, ‘living (person)’. This verse seems to have no connection with the previous verses, though it is separated from the notice of Eve's becoming a mother ( 4:1 ) by only a few verses.

The somewhat ludicrous picture in 3:21 of God's acting as seamstress for the man and his wife is an indication of his continuing concern for mankind now that he has abandoned his original intention to impose the death sentence ( 2:17 ) on them. 3:22–4 is not to be regarded as the imposition of an additional punishment: God has already made it clear that mankind's way of life must now change radically and for the worse. The reason for the expulsion from the garden is specifically stated in 3:22 : it is to prevent mankind from eating the fruit of the tree of life and so obtaining eternal life. The theme echoes Mesopotamian myths about mankind's failure to attain immortality (see ANET 89–96, 101–3). There is no implication here or anywhere else in chs. 2–3 that mankind was originally intended to be immortal.

In 3:24 God takes elaborate precautions to ensure that the man and woman do not re-enter the garden. The cherubim (cf. Ezek 10; Ps 18:10 ) are supernatural beings closely associated with God who carry out his commands, here as guardians; the flaming and turning sword reflects a Mesopotamian tradition.

( 4:1–16 )

In its present context this story is a continuation of the previous chapter, as is shown by the mention of the name Eve. However, the use of a different source is indicated by the fact that God is now called not by the appellation ‘the LORD God’ (YHWH ᾽ĕlōhîm) but by the single name YHWH. In v. 1 there is a play on words: Eve called her firstborn Cain (qayin) because she had ‘acquired’ (qānâ) him from YHWH.

This is a story about Cain: his brother Abel's role is entirely passive. The account of Cain's murder of his brother Abel follows the pattern of ch. 3 . This motif of fratricide is found in other ancient myths, for example in the Egyptian story of the murder of Osiris by his brother Seth and, in Roman mythology, that of Romulus's murder of Remus. The similarity of motif, however, does not help to elucidate the point of Gen 4:1–16 . Some scholars have seen this in the difference between the brothers' occupations (v. 2 ) and in YHWH's acceptance of Abel's meat offering while he rejected Cain's fruit offering (vv. 3–5 ), which was the cause of Cain's anger. But no explanation is given in the text of God's preference, and it is not probable that the story, at any rate in its present form, reflects an age-old rivalry between pastoralists and farmers.

The story is of course significant in that this is the earliest instance in Genesis of death and also of violence committed by one human being against another. Although there is no suggestion in the text that the sin of disobedience committed by the first human pair is here seen as the cause of the universal corruption of human nature, the fact that the first murder immediately follows it can hardly be without significance. There is in these chapters a progression in evil which culminates in the statements in 6:5, 11 that mankind has become wholly corrupt.

In his reply to God's questioning (v. 9 ) Cain intensifies his sin by a lie: he pretends that he does not know where Abel is. He also declines responsibility for his brother—a denial of family solidarity that would be anathema to Israelite readers. The blood of Abel is understood as crying out from the ground (v. 10 ), demanding vengeance. God's answer to this cry is a curse (vv. 11, 12 ). Cain is condemned to have no permanent place to dwell: he will henceforth be a wanderer or fugitive on the earth (v. 14 ), subject to the vengeance of anyone who may meet him (v. 13 ). (The implication that there are other human beings on the earth shows that the story is not in fact a continuation of ch. 2–3 ; cf. the statement in 4:17 that Cain later married a wife.) But in v. 15 God mitigates his punishment, cursing in turn Cain's potential murderers, and puts him under his protection. The nature of the mark (᾽ôt) that God placed on him as a sign that he was not to be killed is not explained in the text, and the various explanations that have been offered by scholars are purely speculative. The ‘land of Nod (nôd)’ to which Cain took himself (v. 16 ) should not be understood as a geographical location: the word probably means ‘aimless wandering’.

( 4:17–26 )

The genealogy in vv. 17–22 is in two parts: vv. 17–18 list six generations (making seven in all if Adam, v. 1 , is included), while vv. 19–22 are of a different, collateral, type, listing the children of Lamech by his two wives. The latter passage has something of the character of an aetiology of the origin of various aspects of civilized life; the origin of cities is interestingly placed very early (v. 17 ). This propensity to satisfy a demand for historical information about origins by naming the inventors of existing aspects of life is not peculiar to Israel: we may compare the Sumerian ‘seven sages’ who taught mankind the pursuits of civilization, and the Greek myth of Prometheus, who gave mankind the gift of fire.

The song of Lamech (vv. 23–4 ) is an elaboration of the preceding genealogy. It may originally have been a boasting song; but in its present context its prediction of dramatically increased violence marks a new stage in the progress of human wickedness. vv. 25–6 appear to be a fragment of a separate genealogy (of Seth) from that of Cain; it is given in a more complete form in ch. 5 . v. 25 refers back to 4:1 . The name Seth is connected by the author with the verb šît, ‘to put, procure’ (NRSV ‘appointed’). The statement at the end of v. 26 that mankind (᾽ĕnôs—the word is identical with the name Enosh) began ‘at that time’ to invoke the name of YHWH appears to contradict Ex 6:2–3 , where it is stated that the worship of YHWH began with Moses (cf. also Ex 3:13–15 ). The attempt to reconcile v. 26 with the Exodus passages by arguing that the former only refers to divine worship in general is hardly convincing. That there is a discrepancy here should be admitted. The proponents of the Documentary Hypothesis regarded the discrepancy as providing strong evidence of their source theory.

( 5:1–32 )

The genealogy of Seth of which this chapter consists, which traces the history of mankind from the beginning to the birth of Noah, is linked to ch. 1 by the résumé in vv. 1–2 . This is a somewhat different tradition from that of the genealogy of Cain in ch. 4 , though it has some of the names in common. In this chapter Lamech becomes the father of Noah (v. 29 ). Enoch appears in both lists, but in v. 22 there is an additional note about his character and fate. He ‘walked with God’, as is also said of Noah in 6:9 : and, presumably on account of this exceptional piety, he was mysteriously taken away by God and disappeared from the earth. (Cf. the similar translation of Elijah, 2 Kings 2:10–11 .) (The late Jewish books of Enoch used this information to develop elaborate speculations about Enoch's adventures after his translation.)

There is a partial parallel between this list and the Mesopotamian King Lists, especially the old Babylonian (Sumerian) King List (ANET 265–6) which ascribes even more fantastically long reigns to kings who lived both before and after the Flood. However, these lists differ in important respects from Gen 5 , and there is no reason to suppose that the latter was modelled on the former. But they do share a common notion of a succession of distant forebears; and they also have in common the idea that these human beings of the unimaginably remote past were of a quite different order of vitality and durability from the puny men and women of the present age.

v. 29 refers back to 3:17 . The name Noah (nōaḥ) is improbably associated in the Hebrew text with the root n-ḥ-m, ‘to comfort’ (NRSV ‘bring us relief’); the Greek translation seems to presuppose a form of the root n-w-ḥ, which would be closer to ‘Noah’ and would mean ‘give rest’. This verse is evidently intended to introduce the story of the Flood, though this summary of Noah's achievements, whichever version is accepted, is not particularly appropriate.

( 6:1–4 )

It must be admitted that the meaning and purpose of this story remain uncertain after a long history of attempts to interpret it. Every verse presents difficulties. v. 1 speaks of a great increase of human population—a motif of Mesopotamian origin-stories, where this constituted a threat to the gods; but as far as one can see this is not central to the biblical story. Especially problematic is the interpretation of the phrase ‘the sons of God’ (bĕnê-hā᾽ĕlōhîm), which can also be rendered by ‘the sons of the gods’, in v. 2 . These are mentioned again in Job 1:6; 2:1 and—with slightly different wording (bĕnê᾽ēlîm)—in Ps 29:1; 89:6 . In those passages they are heavenly beings subordinate to YHWH and members of his council. In the texts from Ras Shamra (Ugarit) the sons of the gods are themselves gods and members of the pantheon of which the high god El is the head. The traditional view of the sons of God here in v. 2 is that they are angels; but the implication of vv. 1–4 as a whole is that their activities do not meet with YHWH's approval. There are other ancient myths describing marriages between gods and human women, and also well-known myths about a rebellion in heaven. The story here may have been derived from an otherwise unknown Canaanite myth.

In v. 3 YHWH is represented as speaking to himself, expressing his determination to limit the span of human life to 120 years. Here we have once more the motif of a divine prohibition of human immortality, which might have resulted from the union of divine beings with human women. God's spirit (rûaḥ) here is probably equivalent to the ‘breath of life’ of 2:7 . v. 4 appears to be a series of comments on the story, identifying the nature of the children born of the divine–human union. They were the Nephilim, interpreted in Num 13:33 as giants. In the second half of the verse they are identified with the famous ‘heroes (gibbōrîm) of old’. The reason why the author chose to include this strange story with its polytheistic overtones may be that it served as a further mark of the corruption of human nature and thus as an appropriate prelude to the story of the Flood in chs. 6–9 .

( 6:5–8:22 ) The Story of the Flood

Stories of a great flood sent in primeval times to destroy mankind are so common to many peoples in different parts of the world between whom no kind of historical contact seems possible that the theme seems almost to be a universal feature of the human imagination. The flood story of Genesis is a clear example of a type that was characteristic of the Mesopotamian world. The two extant literary accounts that most closely resemble it are Atrahasis (ET in Lambert and Millard 1969 ) and Tablet XI of the Epic of Gilgamesh (ANET 93–5). The Babylonian text translated in ANET was, according to Lambert and Millard, largely derived from Atrahasis, although the latter in its fragmentary state lacks some of the details preserved in the former such as the sending out of birds to discover whether the waters had receded. But unlike Gilgamesh, Atrahasis resembles Genesis in that it contains an account of the creation of mankind from clay before proceeding to the story of the Flood.

As was pointed out long ago, there are a number of details in the Genesis story such as the chronology and the numbers of animals taken into the ark that are mutually contradictory. Attempts to reconcile these, however ingenious, can hardly be convincing. It is clear that more than one version of the story have been combined. But the text as it stands can no longer be separated into two complete versions: there is, for example, only one account of God's detailed instructions to Noah about the construction and dimensions of the ark ( 6:14–16 ), without which there could be no story. The author, who may have known several versions from which he could choose, has spliced two of them together without concerning himself about total consistency—a method already noted above with regard to chs. 2–3 .

The story of the Flood in Genesis is the climax of a sequence that begins with the creation of the world and ends, after almost total disaster for mankind, with the renewal of mankind through Noah and his descendants. Despite similarities in some of the details of the account of the Flood itself, no such sequence is to be found in either Gilgamesh or Atrahasis. In the former, the Flood is only an episode recounted by the ‘Babylonian Noah’, one Utnapishtim; no information is given about the future of the survivors. In Atrahasis as in Genesis the Flood is part of a connected story, but a quite different one which involves a quarrel among the gods, while the fate of the survivors is barely sketched in the fragmented manuscripts that have been preserved. The Genesis story on the other hand has in the hands of the author acquired a purposeful theological meaning in the context of the book's presentation of human nature and of the one God's treatment of it which combines mercy and grace with severity.

vv. 5–12 give the reason for the bringing of the Flood: human wickedness has now become total and universal (Noah being the sole exception, 6:9 ); and God, faced with this apparently complete failure of his hopes, now regrets his decision to create human beings ( 6:6 ) and determines on their destruction together with all other living creatures ( 6:7 ). This striking anthropomorphism (i.e. the representation of God as fallible and reacting to a situation as with human weakness) is reminiscent of 3:22 . Such a view of God runs counter to the belief expressed elsewhere in the OT (e.g. Num 23:19; 1 Sam 15:29 ), but is not unparalleled (cf. e.g. Ex 32:14; Am 7:3, 6 ), though in those instances God's ‘repentance’ is favourable rather than unfavourable to those concerned. More analogous to the present passage is God's threat in Ex 32:10 to destroy his rebellious people and to start again with Moses.

The statement that humanity had become totally corrupt is repeated in 6:11–12 . Since there is a change in the appellation of God here—from YHWH to ᾽ĕlōhîm—this verse has been thought to come from a different source (P as opposed to J); but in the present context the repetition is appropriate since it immediately follows the statement about the uniquely righteous Noah in 6:8–9 . In 6:12, 13 ‘all flesh’ evidently includes the animals, though some of these were to be preserved by being taken into the ark together with Noah and his family. The word ‘ark’ (tēbâ, 6:14 ) occurs in the OT only here and in the story of the infant Moses (Ex 2:3, 5 ). It is probably derived from an Egyptian word meaning a chest or box. The usual word for ‘ship’ has been avoided. The use of the word tēbâ may point to an earlier version of the story. The identity of the word rendered by ‘cypress’ (gōper, older English versions ‘gopher’) is uncertain. The impression given of the ark is that of a flat-bottomed box-like construction about 450 ft. long, 75 ft. broad and 45 ft. deep ( 6:15 ) with three decks, a roof or window (the meaning of ṣōhār is uncertain), and a door ( 6:16 ; ‘finish it to a cubit above’ is incomprehensible).

At 6:18 is the first mention of a covenant (běrît) in the book. This promise to Noah is reaffirmed in 9:11–17 . Since Noah and his family were to be the only human survivors, it is by implication a covenant made by God with the whole future human race; it points forward also, however, to the specific covenant to be made later with the people of Israel. It is an obligation that God imposes on himself; its contents are unspecified, but it clearly implies divine protection and blessing, conditional only on Noah's complete obedience to God's instructions in 6:18–21 , which he carried out ( 6:22 ).

In its specification of the numbers of each species of animal to be taken into the ark 6:19–20 differs from that of 7:2–3 , which is clearly from a different source. In 7:2–3 a distinction is made between clean and unclean animals. This refers to the lists of clean and unclean animals in Lev 11:3–31 and Deut 14:4–20 : it is an example of a tendency to carry back the origin of fundamental institutions (in this case, Mosaic laws) to primeval times. The main reason for the command to take seven rather than two pairs of the clean species into the ark was that some of the clean animals were to be reserved to be used, for the first time, as animal sacrifices ( 8:20 ).

The discrepancies in the statements about the duration of the Flood in 7:4–8:14 , which are due to the combination of different sources, are difficult to disentangle, although the main outline of the narrative is clear. The immediate cause of the Flood is a dual one: the bursting forth of the ‘fountains (i.e. springs) of the great deep (tĕhôm rabbâ)’ below the earth (cf. 1:2 ) and the opening of the ‘windows of the heavens’ ( 7:11; cf. Isa 24:18; Mal 3:10 ) to let the torrential rain fall unremittingly for forty days and nights ( 7:12 ). This signalled the undoing of his creation by God's command: chaos had come again.

Ararat ( 8:4 ) is mentioned again in 2 Kings 19:37; Isa 37:38; Jer 51:27 . It was known to the Assyrians as Urartu, and was an independent kingdom in the early first millennium BCE until its destruction in the sixth century BCE. The area corresponds roughly to that of modern Armenia. The Epic of Gilgamesh also records the landing of the ark on a mountain. The sending out of a raven and a dove to test the subsidence of the waters ( 8:6–12 ) also corresponds to a similar incident in Gilgamesh. The first animal sacrifice on the first altar ( 8:20 ) is an act of thanksgiving, not an attempt to propitiate God, who had already ( 6:8, 18 ) shown his acceptance of Noah. But this sacrifice inaugurates a new era in which the slaughter of animals was permitted ( 9:3–4 ). The anthropomorphical statement that God ‘smelled the pleasing odour’, unique in the OT, is no doubt a reminiscence of an earlier version of the story: it is a way of saying that he approved of the sacrifice. In Gilgamesh at this point in the story the gods ‘smelled the savour’ and ‘crowded like flies about the sacrificer’. In determining never again to destroy mankind God now appears to accept that the evil tendency of the human heart is innate and ineradicable. The negative decision of 8:21 is then matched by a positive one: the orderly alternations of day and night and of the seasons will now resume and will not again be interrupted. ‘As long as the earth endures’ makes it clear, however, that it will not continue for ever but will have an end.

( 9:1–17 )

In vv. 1–7 God, addressing Noah and his sons, inaugurates the new era and the renewed humanity. There are strong indications here that this is regarded as a new creation. The passage begins and ends with a blessing (cf. 1:28 ) and there is a repetition of the command to be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and to rule over the animal world; but there are significant differences from ch. 1 . The animals are now to fear their rulers (v. 2 ), and may be killed for food: things are not after all as idyllic as at the beginning. v. 4 prescribes the manner of their slaughter, once more carrying back the institution of a Mosaic law to the primeval period (cf. 7:2–3 ); this is the kosher law prohibiting the consumption of an animal's blood (cf. Lev 7:26–7 and other passages). vv. 5–6 forbid homicide: mankind, in contrast to the animals, was created in the image of God. The story of the Flood concludes in vv. 8–17 on a hopeful note with God's reaffirmation of the covenant that he had made with Noah ( 6:18 ), which now includes all living creatures as well as Noah's descendants. He reveals his previous decision (cf. 8:21–2 ) never again to destroy the earth, and makes the rainbow—literally a ‘bow in the clouds’—a ‘sign’ of the covenant, a reminder both to himself and to mankind—another example of aetiology.

( 9:18–29 )

The story of Noah's drunkenness can hardly be seen as related to that of the Flood. It appears to be a resumption of the history of human generations in chs. 4 and 5 with its theme of human sin and corruption. vv. 18–19 , however, have a connection with the Flood story in their reference to the departure of Noah's sons from the ark. The notice in v. 18 that Ham was the father of Canaan is a link with vv. 20–7 ; an attempt to account for the curse on Canaan in vv. 25–7 .

The statement in v. 20 that Noah was the inventor of viticulture is an aetiology comparable with 4:20–2 , but with a story attached to it. The point of the story in vv. 20–7 is not that Noah committed a sin in becoming drunk, but that Ham sinned in seeing his father when he was naked, an act which called forth a curse on Canaan, Ham's son. There is nothing in the text to support the view advanced by some scholars that Ham's sin was in fact either an act of homosexuality or the incestuous rape of his mother (Lev 18:6–19 , which speaks of ‘uncovering’ nakedness, is not speaking of the same thing). Nakedness was shameful ( 3:7–11 ), and Ham humiliated his father by not decently covering him. In vv. 25–7 it is already presupposed that Noah's sons are to become the ancestors of different nations. The incongruity that it is Canaan and not his father who is cursed (vv. 25, 27 ) is connected with Israel's traditional hatred of the Canaanites, who are seen as destined to become slaves; but attempts to identify the circumstances in which these verses were written have not been successful. The name Japheth is here aetiologically associated with a rare Hebrew verb meaning ‘to enlarge’.

( 10:1–32 )

This chapter, often known as the ‘table of the nations’, is an attempt, on the basis of the presupposition that all humanity is descended from Noah's three sons, to name all the nations of the world and to state from which genealogical branch they are derived. It appears to be quite unique: no comparable ancient texts exist. Certain stylistic variations and inconsistencies in the lists of names have led the source critics to postulate a combination of the sources J and P, despite the fact that there is only one reference to God, where he is referred to by his name YHWH (v. 9 ). Many but by no means all the names are readily identifiable. The descendants of Japhet, for example, include the Medes (Madai), the Ionian Greeks (Javan), possibly the Cypriots (Kittim), and Rhodians (if the emendation of Rodanim from the Dodanim of the Hebrew text is correct). The list of Ham's descendants, which begins with Nubia (Cush), Egypt, and possibly Lybia (Put), also contains Canaan, a country which would in modern terminology be ranked as Semite (i.e. Shemite). This is true also of Babylon (Babel) and Assyria. The descendants of Shem, who is called ‘the father of all the sons of Eber’, that is, Hebrews, are listed last as more immediately relevant to the readers. There is some inconsistency here: Assyria, listed under Ham in v. 11 , is given as a descendant of Shem in v. 22 . Other well-attested peoples listed as descendants of Shem include Elam and Aram (the Arameans); but most of the remaining names in these verses are unknown or not certainly identifiable, as also is the territory mentioned in v. 30 . By thus peopling the world the author has prepared for Abraham's world, which was already divided into nations. The cause of these divisions is given in 11:1–9 .

( 11:1–9 )

This is a compact and self-contained narrative. It contains an aetiological element in that it purports to explain why the human population, which had originally shared the same language, came to be divided by the development of many languages which prevented their mutual comprehension and so hindered co-operation; and also how they came to be dispersed throughout the world (though this is already implied in the command to ‘fill the earth’, 9:1 , and its fulfillment in 9:19 ). But aetiology is not the main point of the story, which is another account (cf. ch. 3 ) of human ambition to rise above the human condition, the threat that this posed to God's supremacy, and the action taken by God to frustrate this. The story is located in the land of Shinar, that is, Mesopotamia (cf. 10:10 ); the city which they began to build, perhaps including the tower (v. 4 ) is identified in v. 9 with Babylon. There is nothing specifically in the text to indicate that the story was inspired by one of the Mesopotamian ziggurats: it is true that the Esagil in Babylon was supposed to link heaven and earth; but it was a completed building, not one left unfinished as was the city in v. 8 . There is no extant Mesopotamian story comparable with this, though some of its motifs are found in a Sumerian epic. The anonymous builders (‘they’) are represented as the whole human population (‘the whole earth’, v. 1 ). This means that ‘make a name for ourselves’ implies a universal ambition to attain to a greatness superior to their present status, which must mean an infringement of God's absolute supremacy. God's decision to come down from heaven to see what his puny creatures are trying to do (‘Let us go down’, v. 7 ) is expressed in the same plural terms as are 1:26 and 3:22 . In v. 9 the word ‘Babel’ is seen as related to the verb bālal, ‘to mix, confuse’.

( 11:10–32 )

This genealogy spans the generations from Shem to Abram (Abraham). It concentrates on succession from father to son, and deals with individuals: thus it is intended to be seen as the family history of a single individual, Abraham. It forms a link between the primeval world and that of the patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the ‘fathers’ of Israel. vv. 27–32 , the genealogy of Terah, Abraham's father, in fact function as the beginning of the story of Abraham, and introduce principal characters in that story: Abraham, his wife Sarai (Sarah), and his brother Lot. It briefly refers to Sarai's barrenness and a migration of the family from Ur of the Chaldeans, probably in southern Mesopotamia (but ‘Chaldeans’ is an anachronism), with the intention of settling in Canaan but instead getting no further than Haran, a city of northern Mesopotamia.

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