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Citation for Introduction

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Levenson, Jon D. . "Genesis." In The Jewish Study Bible. Oxford Biblical Studies Online. Jan 19, 2022. <http://www.oxfordbiblicalcstudies.com/article/book/obso-9780195297515/obso-9780195297515-chapterFrontMatter-1>.


Levenson, Jon D. . "Genesis." In The Jewish Study Bible. Oxford Biblical Studies Online, http://www.oxfordbiblicalcstudies.com/article/book/obso-9780195297515/obso-9780195297515-chapterFrontMatter-1 (accessed Jan 19, 2022).

Genesis - Introduction

THE BOOK OF GENESIS RECEIVED its English name from the Greek translation of the Heb word toledot, which is used thirteen times in Genesis and is translated as “story” ( 2.4 ), “record” ( 5.1 ), or “line” ( 10.1 ). In Heb, it is known, like many books in the Tanakh, by its first word, bereishit, which means, “In the beginning.” Genesis is indeed a book about beginnings—the beginning of the natural world, the beginning of human culture, and the beginning of the people Israel, whose story occupies most of this book and will dominate the rest of the Torah. In the ancient Near Eastern world in which Israel emerged, beginnings were deemed to be crucial, for the origins of things were thought to disclose their character and purpose. In Genesis, the origins of Israel—the people known later as the “Jews”—lie in a mysterious promise of God to a Mesopotamian whose name is Abram (changed in ch 17 to “Abraham”). The essence of the promise is that He will make of him a great nation, bless him abundantly, and grant him the land of Canaan. Ostensibly absurd when it first comes, the promise faces one obstacle after another throughout the course of Genesis—principally, the barrenness of Abraham's primary wife (and of other matriarchs in the next two generations) and the murderous fraternal rivalry among his descendants. And yet, by the end of Genesis, all the obstacles notwithstanding, the twelve tribes that make up the people Israel have indeed come into existence, an Israelite effectively rules a superpower (Egypt), and the promise of the land, though far from fulfillment (which comes about only in the book of Joshua), is anything but forgotten.

The book of Genesis is thus, in more senses than one, a primary source for Jewish theology. It presents its ideas on the relationship of God to nature, to the human race in general, and to the people Israel in particular in ways that are, however, foreign to the expectations of most modern readers. It is therefore all too easy to miss the seriousness and profundity of its messages. For the vehicle through which Genesis conveys its worldview is neither the theological tract nor the rigorous philosophical proof nor the confession of faith. That vehicle is, rather, narrative. The theology must be inferred from stories, and the lived relationship with God takes precedence over abstract theology. Those who think of stories (including mythology) as fit only for children not only misunderstand the thought‐world and the literary conventions of the ancient Near East; they also condemn themselves to miss the complexity and sophistication of the stories of Genesis. For these are narrativesthat have evoked interpretation upon interpretation from biblical times into our own day and have occupied the attention of some of the keenest thinkers in human history.

One aspect of narrative in Genesis that requires special attention is its high tolerance for different versions of the same event, a well‐known feature of ancient Near Eastern literature, from earliest times through rabbinic midrash. The book presents, for example, two accounts of Abram/Abraham's attempting to pass his wife off as his sister ( 12.10–20; 20.1–18; cf. 26.1–11 ), two accounts of God's making a covenant with him (ch 15 and 17 ), and two accounts of how Jacob's name was changed to Israel ( 32.23–33; 35.9–15 ). In these instances, most modern biblical scholars see different antecedent documents that editors (known as redactors) have combined to give us the text now in our hands. This could not have happened, however, if the existence of variation were seen as a serious defect or if rigid consistency were deemed essential to effective storytelling. Rather, the redactors have chosen a different approach, refusing to discard many variants as inauthentic or inaccurate, instead treating the different versions as sequential events in the same longer story. The result is a certain measure of repetition, to be sure, but the repetition is in the service of a sophisticated presentation of themes with variations in a book rich in narrative analogy, revealing echo, and suggestive contrast. For the Rabbis of Talmudic times and their successors through the centuries, the exploration of those subtle literary features provided an indispensable insight not only into the first book of the Torah (the most sacred part of the Tanakh) but also into the mind of God Himself.

The book is composed of four major sections: 1.1–11.26 , the primeval story; 11.27–25.18 , the story of Abraham; 25.19–36.43 , the Jacob cycle; and 37.1–50.26 , the story of Joseph. (There is little independent narrative about Isaac, the second patriarch.)

The first section, the primeval history, takes us from the creation of the world through the birth of Abram's father nineteen generations later. Its stories are short, loosely strung together, and connected only by genealogies that identify the generation in which the action takes place. There is, however, an overriding theme: the spread of human wickedness, the refusal of humankind to accept their creaturely status, as they seek to blur the all‐important boundary between the human and the divine and, as a result, bring catastrophe upon themselves. The center of attention is God, who is portrayed rather anthropomorphically and speaks directly and frequently to human beings, condemning or sparing, announcing His judgment or His merciful forbearance.

Largely because of its focus on creation, the primeval history exhibits a number of contacts with Mesopotamian mythology. The account of creation with which Genesis opens ( 1.1–2.3 ), for example, has affinities with Enuma elish, a Babylonian epic, which tells how one god, Marduk, attained supremacy over the others and created the world by splitting his aquatic enemy in half. The story of Adam and Eve's sin in the garden of Eden ( 2.25–3.24 ) displays similarities with Gilgamesh, an epic poem that tells how its hero lost the opportunity for immortality and came to terms with his humanity. And the story of Noah ( 6.5–9.17 ) has close connections with Atrahasis, a Mesopotamian story in which the gods send a flood to wipe out the human race, with the exception of one man from whomhumankind begins afresh (the story was eventually incorporated into Gilgamesh as well). In each case, the biblical narrator has adapted the Mesopotamian forerunner to Israelite theology. The primeval history thus evidences both the deep continuities and the striking points of discontinuity of biblical Israel with its Mesopotamian antecedents and contemporaries.

In the story of Abraham ( 11.27–25.11 ), the narrative has become more continuous. Abraham dominates almost every episode. Seeing him in a wide variety of situations, we have a sense of his personality and of the human dimension of the events that God has mysteriously set into motion. Whereas God's relationship to human beings in the primeval history is marked mostly (but not exclusively) by judgment, expulsion, and exile, in the story of Abraham the dominant notes are the contrasting ones of blessing and promise, especially the promise of the land. But the narrative does not spare us the knowledge that while the blessings and promises are as yet unrealized, Abraham's family have their moments of anguish and even ugliness. God, portrayed for the most part less anthropomorphically than in the primeval history, overcomes the obstacles to His promises and blessings, so that Abraham finally acquires both the son from whom the promised nation shall descend and a foothold in the promised land. The LORD accomplishes this partly through palpable miracles and partly through His silent guidance of the course of human events. As the story of Abraham unfolds, its human protagonist, despite some arguably serious lapses, gradually assumes the role of the ideal religious person—obedient to God's commands (even at the cost of the most painful sacrifice), faithful even when the promise seems impossible, gracious, generous, and hospitable, yet committed to justice and compassion even to the point of firmly (if deferentially) questioning God's counsel.

The stories in the Jacob cycle ( 25.19–36.43 ) are even more connected and less self‐contained than those in the story of Abraham. Here, we are entitled to speak not simply of a general theme, like the theme of blessing and promise in the Abraham story (which continues in this section), but of a plot as well. In its broadest outlines, the plot has to do with how the second son acquires his older brother's superior status and the attendant rights to the Abrahamic promise, yet eventually reconciles with the brother he has wronged and emerges legitimately as the patriarch from whom the people Israel takes its name. Various types of trickery play a major role as this plot develops. The human dimension is more central here than in the Abraham narrative, and the resourcefulness of the protagonists, especially Jacob himself and his mother Rebekah, proportionately more important. Accordingly, God speaks less frequently and intervenes less dramatically. Indeed, His presence is less available and assumes an eerie cast (“Surely the LORD is present in this place, and I did not know it!” [ 28.16 ]).

The closing section of the book of Genesis, the story of Joseph ( 37.1–50.26 ), represents a narrative so coherent and so continuous that it has justly been termed a novella. Indeed, it offers the deepest psychological portraits and the most subtle and complex plot in Genesis and constitutes one of the gems of biblical prose narrative. Whereas in the first section of Genesis, the primeval history, God booms forth His pronouncements, in this last sectionHe does not speak at all, with the exception of one apparition to Jacob while he is still in Canaan ( 46.1–4 ). Rather, He communicates through dreams (in which, significantly, He does not appear) and, more importantly, through people, especially Joseph's God‐given wisdom to interpret dreams and to administer effectively. Here, even more than in the Jacob cycle, God works through the ambivalent and devious designs of flawed human beings, providentially bringing good out of human evil and arranging “the survival of many people” ( 50.20 )—including the brothers who, seething with resentment, once plotted Joseph's death and enslavement but now graciously accept subordination to the younger brother who has saved their lives.

How much history lies behind the story of Genesis? Because the action of the primeval story is not represented as taking place on the plane of ordinary human history and has so many affinities with ancient mythology, it is very far‐fetched to speak of its narratives as historical at all. In the cases of the succeeding three large sections of the book, the matter is more complicated, for scholars continue to sift the evidence and to debate the question. Although enormous amounts of data about ancient Mesopotamia, Canaan, and Egypt have been uncovered over the last two centuries, no evidence has turned up that establishes that Abraham, (his son) Isaac, Jacob, or Joseph existed. At best, we can speak of accurate local color, although this may mean only that the Israelites knew something about the lands in which they placed their legendary forebears (see “Historical and Geographical Background to the Bible,” pp. 2048–62). Negative evidence, however, is not necessarily evidence of a negative, and historians are likely to continue examining the reports of Israel's Mesopotamian origins and Egyptian sojourn for the foreseeable future.

The authorship of Genesis is a similarly controversial issue, although here the consensus among critical scholars is somewhat more secure (see “Modern Study of the Bible,” pp. 2084–96). The book itself names no one as its author, and makes no claim to be divinely revealed or inspired (though it does contain many reports of divine speech). When other biblical books refer to a Torah of Moses, they cite legal texts, and there is no reason to think that Genesis formed part of the corpus so designated. Indeed, there are several indications that the Genesis narrative assumes a post‐Mosaic narrator without embarrassment (see the comments on 12.6, 14.14, and 36.31 ). In Second Temple and rabbinic Judaism, however, Genesis is treated as part of the Torah of Moses. Despite a number of demurrals on a few particular passages by major rabbis in the Middle Ages, this became the consensus of the tradition. Historical‐critical scholarship, however, has identified three main sources, which it denotes with the symbols J, E, and P, that have been woven together to produce Genesis (see “Torah,” pp. 1–7). The relationship of compositional history to religious faith is not a simple one. If Moses is the human author of Genesis, nothing ensures that God is its ultimate Author. If J, E, P, and various equally anonymous redactors are its human authors, nothing horship of Genesis is a similarly controversial issue.


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