Genesis: Outlines and Commentary
By Derek Leman
© 2017 Derek Leman
Table of Contents
Parashat Chayei Sarah
Cassuto, Umberto. From Adam to Noah: A Commentary on the Book of Genesis, Part One. Jerusalem: Magnes Press, 1944.
Cassuto, Umberto. From Noah to Abraham: A Commentary on the Book of Genesis, Part Two. Jerusalem: Magnes Press, 1944.
Friedman, Richard Elliott. Who Wrote the Bible? New York: HarperOne, 1997 ed. (original was Summit Books, 1987).
Sarna, Nahum. The JPS Torah Commentary: Genesis. Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1989.
Walton, John. The Lost World of Genesis One. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2009.
Walton, John. Genesis: NIV Application Commentary. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2001.
Westermann, Clauss. Genesis 12-36. Minneapolis: Fortress, 1981.
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You, the reader, and I, the commentator, likely had something in common the first time we read Genesis. We were unprepared for it. We had no chance of seeing it for what it was. Those who came before us, unbeknownst to us, had ruined it with their preoccupations and controversies. We were, therefore, not ready to see Genesis for what it is.
As for my own experience with Genesis, before I believed in God I was aware of it as something religious people believed in. And to me the definition of religion was “unthinking acceptance of traditional dogma.” Genesis was that book which denied the miracle, the one I learned from Carl Sagan, that life arose on its own from the cosmic soup of sea water and ionic potential. Genesis was the pet book of religious ideologues.
Then I became one of the religious. I myself went through some phases, including the “unthinking acceptance of traditional dogma” (as much as I was at pains to say I was an exception to the rule, I was not). I encountered the Protestant Christian and some Orthodox Jewish readings of Genesis. I adopted a Protestant Christian reading for a long time. Genesis was the supernatural revelation to Moses, given to him on Mount Sinai and written down word for word.
I knew that some people said Genesis was from later than Moses’ time and believed it was formed by putting together multiple sources. I assumed those people were like the atheists I had known in my former life. Surely to see Genesis that way was to destroy it.
More importantly, I was aware that some people used Genesis as a science book. The earth, they said, had once been covered by a canopy of water. The fact that our universe and planet appeared old, they said, was because God created it with the illusion of age. We should not believe physical evidence, but accept at face value the young earth theory which seemed to be the literal reading of Genesis. I thought that it was fine to suspend evidence and simply believe what, I was told, the text actually said.
The thing is, it wasn’t what the text said. It was one interpretation of what the text said. But did this view assimilate the data from Genesis into the best possible theory? I no longer believe it did.
In the comments that follow on the creation, garden, flood, and pre-patriarchal portion of Genesis, I will offer a reading based more on what we know of the culture in the time periods during which the original parts of Genesis were composed. My comments are based on a soundly demonstrated theory of the sources of Genesis (see Richard Elliott Friedman, Who Wrote the Bible?).
This is the way it should be read — assuming the best evidence of its time and place with the cultural context informing our interpretation. I believe this is how God has spoken: through human writings in a mystery of divine inspiration hovering over human words.
As for my comments on the patriarchal narratives and the Joseph cycle, I also take here a critical-faith approach. The text of Genesis is the word of God but also the word of human beings. We encounter something of God when we read it. I believe God brought it to us through the hands of authors and editors. His message is within it. May this reading be helpful to you as you pursue the awe of Adonai.
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GENESIS 1:1 – 2:3
Prologue to creation (1), Day One (2-5), Day Two (6-8), Day Three (9-13), Day Four (14-19), Day Five (20-23), Day Six (24-31), Day Seven (2:1-3).
This section has been so ruined for most readers by dogmatic readings that the reading of it I will suggest here will cause various readers problems in differing ways. I will offer an interpretation without much evidence at first and then direct the reader to appendices (at the back of this commentary) for more. No action takes place in vs. 1, which is, rather, a summary of what follows in 1:2-2:3. That is, we should not read vs. 1 as if God created a blank planet which was chaotic and then added order afterward. It should be translated, “In the primordial time, God created the heavens and the earth.” Vs. 2 begins the story and it does not begin at the origin of things. Inexplicably, vs. 2 begins the story with the earth orderless and chaotic. There is no indication how it came to be that way. This echoes Egyptian and Mesopotamian accounts in which a watery chaos existed before the earth was ordered and shaped. Furthermore, the fact that “darkness was over the face of Tehom [the deep],” is a deliberate allusion to Tiamat, the chaos dragon representing the salt waters who pre-existed earth in Mesopotamian myth (Cassuto). The Hebrew Tehom is written as an indefinite noun or a name, and it is linguistically cognate to the Akkadian name Tiamat (Cassuto). Unlike the myth, however, God does not do battle with Tehom, but is instantly master of it. His Spirit hovered over it, like a bird over its nest, ready to cause life-giving order to form on it. On the first day, God made periods of daylight and darkness. This is not the origin of photons (light itself) but the meaning of “let there be light” is clarified by vs. 5, “God called the light day” (Walton, Lost World). The second day (1:6-8) is virtually incomprehensible to modern readers because we fail to understand the ancients had primitive notions of earth science or think that the Bible would know of modern discoveries about the earth. The authors of Genesis believed the earth was a flat continent of land held up by pillars and covered above by a firmament which held up waters over the land. This “firmament” was a sheet or ceiling of unknown substance and the waters it held up over the earth were divided into chambers for rain and hail. This is evidenced in numerous references in the Bible to what John Walton calls “old world science” and Cassuto documents the use of such ideas in Biblical poems from Genesis to Job. Day Three (1:9-13) concerns bounding the chaotic waters, in which human life is impossible, and making space for humanity (Walton, Lost World). In Egyptian and Mesopotamian myth the practice of flood-plain agriculture (humans regulating the river flood cycle with irrigation ditches) is explained by origin stories about the gods regulating the waters. Likewise, God bounds the seas and other waters so vegetable life can thrive and feed humankind. The fourth day (1:14-19) is about the sun, moon, and stars as markers of the seasons, Sabbaths, and festivals of the Torah. Genesis chapter one is thought to have been written by the priests of Jerusalem (the P source in the documentary hypothesis, see Appendix 1: The Documents Torah is Made From). They surmised that God’s revelation of the Tabernacle was based on creation (ancient temples were microcosms of the earth and heavens, see Walton, Lost World). Therefore, God’s purpose in the sun, moon, and stars was to mark festival days and agricultural seasons (months from the moon, years from the sun and constellations, festival times based on the moon cycle, etc.). Day Five (1:20-23) is about filling the heavens and waters with life. The sea creatures of vs. 21 are tanninim in Hebrew (see Isa 27:1 and Ezek 29:3, sea dragon). Cassuto says naming this particular creature, and no other is specifically named, is a deliberate rebuttal of gentile myths about the gods battling sea dragons and the counter-claim by Israel’s priests that the sea creatures are merely a species like any other under God’s kingship. The sixth day (1:24-31) is about life on the land including human life. Vs. 27 breaks out of prose and into poetry, because this is a way of highlighting it as a crux of the chapter (Cassuto). What Genesis One is really about is human existence and how God made it possible. He did so as the Father of human beings, and we, the children, are in his image like a child is in its father’s likeness. This is the priestly argument against the gentile myths and their view of humans as slaves of the gods. The blessing of fruitfulness is not a command, but a divinely ordained promise of good things for human beings, of thriving in the world as the species blessed above all others. The charge of rulership over the earth is our divine birthright as his children and to rule over it like God would include wisdom to preserve life and order rather than destroying it (a Torah principle of preservation of the earth and its creatures is valid to derive from this blessing). Over each of the days God says they are good. This is to eradicate the notion that the world is bad, governed by demons, and that man is the prey of evil forces. We are, rather, the potential masters of earth’s destiny and living in a world that is essentially good (though in Genesis 3 it will be downgraded). Only in the conclusion to Day Six does God say it was “very good,” indicating that with the creation of human beings the purpose of the cosmos has reached its high point. Day Seven is related to the concept of ancient kings resting after building projects and enjoying the fruits of their labors (Cassuto, Walton). Periods of seven days and multiples of seven days for building projects were considered ideal in Mesopotamia (Cassuto). The cosmos is God’s palace and he enjoys it on the seventh day, which prefigures the Sabbath day of the Torah (because the priests who wrote Genesis One assume the Tabernacle and Torah revelations are founded in creation truth). Looking back on the entire chapter and asking what it means, we can conclude this account is not about origins and is not meant to be taken as a literal story about the steps by which earth was made. It is a poetic masterpiece of prose based on the pattern of sevens (see Appendix 8: Poetry in Genesis One, as well as Cassuto’s commentary regarding the use of seven as a numerological pattern in Genesis One). It is about the truth of God’s kingship, the cosmos as the basis of Torah, the status of humankind and our responsibility as God’s children. The text shows little concern for origins or history in the strict sense of the word, but obvious concern for theology and the meaning of human existence in the world. We could surmise that there were not really seven days, but that the whole thing is a poetic vehicle for communicating a deeper truth. The way the ancients viewed myths was not as literal descriptions of history and origins, but as stories giving meaning to the present and this fits perfectly what Genesis One represents itself to be. It is an explanation of meaning. For more, see Appendices 2-8, “The Translation of Genesis 1:1,” “The Meaning of Vs. 1,” “Hints of Mesopotamian/Egyptian Myth in Genesis One,” “Old World Science,” “Ordering, Not Origins,” “Pre-Existing Israelite Creation Epics,” and “Poetry in Genesis One.”
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The generations of heaven and earth (4), before agriculture the Lord God breathed life into Man (5-7), God’s garden and the two trees (8-9), the four rivers of the garden (10-14), the man appointed to work the garden and commanded not to eat of the tree of knowledge (15-17), the man names all animals in search of a companion (18-19).
Vs. 4 is one of eleven dividing statements in Genesis (eleh toledot, these are the generations of). These statements introduce a new section which follows. Another marker of a new section is the change in the way God is referred to (just “God” [Elohim] in ch. 1 and “Lord God” [the Divine Name followed by Elohim] in ch. 2. The dominant theory is that ch. 1 is from the Priestly source, also know as P, and ch. 2 is from the Yahwist source, also know as J (see Richard Friedman, Who Wrote the Bible, for more). Both creation stories go well together, agreeing on the two remarkable doctrines of monotheism and the supreme value of every human being. Cassuto shows at length, from biblical references and parallels in the literature of the Ancient Near East, that the idea of a garden of God (or “the gods” outside Israel) was commonly known. One of his more interesting evidences is in Genesis 3:24, with the reference to “the cherubim” and “the fiery sword,” with the use of “the” indicating that readers would already be familiar with a garden protected by angelic beings. Other references, such as Ezekiel 28:14, provide further evidence (see also John Walton, Genesis: NIV Application Commentary). Genesis 2 does not appear to be a special revelation of primordial conditions (as if God showed the author in a vision what things were like). Rather, it seems to be based on the oldest human traditions about the early days of humankind, when agriculture began with irrigation of flood plains (as at the Nile in Egypt and the Tigris and Euphrates in ancient Sumeria). To these oldest known stories of human beginnings, the author(s) of Genesis have added a rich theology of monotheism, good and evil, Divine judgment, and the high value of human beings, who bear the Divine image. Cassuto says, “The primary purpose of the Torah in these chapters is to explain how it is that in the Lord’s world, the world of the good and beneficent God, evil should exist and man should endure pain and troubles and calamities.” The Lord God took some dust from such a region and formed Man (like the Egyptian deity Khnum fashioning humankind on a potter’s wheel, as well as similar Mesopotamian and Greek myths). The word “formed” is the same used of an artisan crafting pottery. Again, though such images bother overly literal moderns, the author of Genesis did not shy away from poetic and mythic language. The Bible takes up the mythical themes believed by all people on those days and gives them a new meaning: humanity is unique, formed by the artisan Creator via his imparted breath, and placed in charge of God’s garden and over the creatures.
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GENESIS 2:20 – 3:21
No companion found for Adam (20), the woman made from man (21-23), the bond of marriage established (24), nakedness and innocence (25), the serpent tempts and defeats the woman (3:1-5), the woman eats and gives to the man (6), they see their nakedness and lose innocence (7), God walks in his Garden (8), God confronts the man and woman (9-13), God’s curse on the serpent (14-15), God’s curse on the woman (16), God’s curse on the man (17-19), the woman is Eve (20), God makes them skin garments (21).
The primordial man, Adam, is dwelling in God’s hallowed place, the Garden of God (see comments on 2:4-19). What is unique and staggering is that Genesis, unlike Near Eastern myth, depicts humankind originating in a close relationship with God in his palatial garden. Monotheism is a unique doctrine of the Hebrew Bible, full of sublime implications concerning the true identity of human beings who are the children of the only God. Some other features of this story occur commonly in myth (untilled ground without irrigation, man being naked, a disordered world requiring organization). It is in declaring humankind’s original nearness to deity that Genesis makes a differentiating point. The status of humanity in the Bible is vastly higher than in Near Eastern myth. This Genesis story of humankind being tempted and defeated is foundational to Israel’s Torah. Our first state was dependence. Our teacher was God himself. Immortality (not like the Greek concept of a soul that is inherently immortal) was within our grasp. Painful loss was just as easily reachable. Perhaps this was the right state of being — with immortality so close at hand and in perfect ease in the Garden — to demonstrate that the choice to self-will is stronger than knowledge. Adam and Eve made their choice largely in ignorance, based simply upon the choice between trust of the only one who had done good for us or the first stranger who proposed a self-centered quest. In the simplest, most dependent state, without all the complications of philosophy or religion, we made the simple decision for self-reliance instead of dependence. What, then, is the moral? We should seek to return to complete dependence upon the good God who originally offered us paradise (and who will again). Rejecting self-reliance and returning to trust is our way back into paradise.
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GENESIS 3:22 – 4:18
God places the Garden off-bounds and sets Cherubim as guards (22-24), birth of Cain and Abel (4:1-2), Cain’s jealousy (3-7), the murder of Abel (8), God punishes Cain (9-16), Cain’s line down to Lamech (17-18).
The account of the man and woman’s expulsion from the Garden reads like mythological stories from other cultures in the Near East. This is not to say the Bible’s founding stories are the same as Near Eastern myths, though some features are remarkably similar. It is to say that Genesis has similarities to the myths and is part of that ancient world but with substantially unique perspectives (monotheism and the supremacy of humans). For example, the cherubim of the Bible are sphinxes, like those of Mesopotamia and Egypt. The biblical word keruvim (cherubim) is from the Akkadian kuribu (Sarna). And kuribu refers to the man-headed bull figures found outside of Mesopotamian temples and at city gates. They often had the body of a bull, the wings of an eagle, and the head and torso of a man. They were known as well by other names, such as lamassu and the related composite animal-human figures, the shedu. Sarna suggests they symbolize the invisible Presence, so that God’s manifestations are seen on the Ark of the Covenant, but not God himself, of whom it is forbidden to make an idol. The cherubim are described in Ezekiel 1:6-11 and 10:14. Cherubim were depicted in golden statues on the cover of the Ark (Exod 25:18-22), they were depicted in the tapestry curtains of the sanctuary (Exod 26:31; 36:8, 35; 37:7-9), were used in Solomon’s Temple (1 Kgs 6:23-35; 7:36; 8:6-7), and will be in the Messianic Temple (Ezek 41:18-20, 25). The idea that God is enthroned above the cherubim is repeated throughout the prophets and Psalms (1 Sam 4:4; 2 Sam 6:2; 2 Kgs 19:15; Isa 37:16; Psa 80:2; 99:1). Milgrom (Leviticus: Anchor Bible) shows that the Ark is God’s footstool and it is understood the throne is invisible and that the Presence will appear above the footstool. That the cherubim block the way back to the Garden is fitting, since they are the guardians of the holiness of God’s Presence. In Christian theology, expulsion from the Garden is part of what is regarded as the Fall of humanity. Due to historic battles over the idea of “original sin,” it is not uncommon for some Jewish expositors to deny that this is a fall or that it affects all humanity. On the contrary, there is an idea of the Fall of humanity which is well evidenced in Jewish traditional sources. Chaim Luzzatto in Derech Hashem (The Way of God) describes the stark changes in the human condition that resulted from Adam and Eve’s choice and mentions supporting passages from the sages. The Jewish scholar, Umberto Cassuto, captures it well: “From now on, the human race will live only amidst the hardships and afflictions of the world below.” The account of Cain and Abel is, in Cassuto’s judgment, unique in ancient literature, a story without parallel. Many scholars suggest the story of Cain is a myth intended to explain a tribe called the Kenites and the enmity that was between animal herders and crop farmers in the ancient world. Cassuto rebuts this theory at length. He also explains the strange gaps in the text (the most famous: why did God regard Abel’s offering but not Cain’s) simply. The text we have combines two pre-existing works, an epic poem about the primordial generations and their occupations and rivalries, and a narrative about fratricide (the killing of a brother) in the primordial generations. The combination of the narrative (vss. 3-5, 8, 14, 16) and poems and speeches (vss. 6-7, 9-15) leaves some gaps about things the original generations already knew from pre-existing accounts (Cassuto). The resulting mystery has intrigued readers for thousands of years. The ongoing story of Genesis shows how the expulsion of humanity from the Garden bears consequences, such that human existence is now characterized by conflict and jealousy.
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Cain’s line from Lamech to Tubal-Cain.
As Cassuto notes, Cain was afraid of blood-revenge (the ancient custom of the world) following his murder of Abel, but God delivered him and instead punished with exile. The blood avenger in the ancient days was a near relative who was obligated by social customs to take revenge. Many have noted that the Cain and Abel story seems to reflect a world with already a settled population. There are gaps in our knowledge about humanity’s origins and we should recognize them and not be too dogmatic. One strong implication of our story is that God hates the ancient practice of blood-revenge (in which the kin of the one killed take vengeance against the person or even the clan of the killer). To some degree blood-vengeance was allowed in Torah, which is a parallel case to other things God permitted while at the same time he established their cessation. A parallel case is slavery, which God permitted but by his teaching he made it clear that slavery was unholy and wrong, so that it would not always be permitted. Likewise, though Torah assumes the culture of blood-vengeance, it provides protections (refuge cities) and legal reforms (only intentional murder punishable by death via the court). Cain is doomed to wander, but as the genealogy of his line shows, his descendants settled into urban life. All the occupations of Cain’s line concern the settled life, whereas Cain himself is exiled to wander as a nomad. Famously the line of Cain and Seth have doublets, sometimes identical in spelling and other times similar. The line of Cain: Enoch, Irad, Mehujael, Methushael, Lamech, Jabal/Jubal/Tubal-Cain. The line of Seth: Enosh, Kenan, Mahalalel, Jared, Enoch, Methuselah, Lamech, Noah. Note that Enosh means the same thing as Adam (“man”). Mehujael is similar to Mahalalel. Methushael is similar to Methuselah. Enoch occurs in both lines as does Lamech. Cassuto notes that the genealogies in Genesis have much similarity to lists of pre-flood kings in Mesopotamian literature such as the Sumerian King List. Sarna contends that Genesis is deliberately rebutting Mesopotamian myth about the origin of technology. In Mesopotamian myth, the gods invent fire and agricultural technology whereas in Genesis these have their origin in mighty men of the distant past. Cassuto says similarly, “It seeks to emphasize that human civilization was of human origin.” Enoch was a city builder. Jabal invented animal husbandry. Jubal invented music. Tubal-cain invented the arts of metal smithing. The inventive generation is the offspring of the seventh in the line of humankind (Lamech is the seventh starting with Adam). Walton notes that Cain’s line is not cursed and there is no dichotomy between a cursed Kenite (Cainite) race and a blessed Sethite race as some have supposed. The blessings of fertility and dominion extend to Cain’s line as to all humanity.
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GENESIS 4:23 – 5:24
Lamech’s song of violence (23-24), Seth’s line and humanity calling on God (25-26), prelude to Adam’s genealogy (5:1-2), Adam’s line to Enoch (3-24).
The story of Cain and Abel ends with an air of foreboding followed by a note of hope. Lamech’s song sounds a disquieting theme in the wake of the account of Cain’s line. The motif is blood-vengeance and, more generally, violence. These are the very reasons God will destroy humanity with a flood. God has already rejected blood-vengeance by punishing Cain with exile and promising to protect him from an avenger for Abel’s life. This divine promise includes a warning of seven-fold vengeance from heaven if anyone take’s Cain’s life (4:15). Humans killing humans by the old practices of feuding is anathema to God, but a divinely-ordained court may exact death as punishment. Lamech, however, takes the seven-fold vengeance saying as license to increase violence. In his song he refers to a specific incident, an incident Torah does not convey, in which he killed a man for a mere blow. The idea is, “He slapped me and I killed him” (Cassuto). He multiplies blood-vengeance to a higher level. This is the kind of violence that is permeating the earth to which Genesis will return in 6:11. Yet there is hope for a righteous future for humanity and that hope will come through Seth’s line. Perhaps Adam and Eve were comforted to have their two sons replaced (now with Seth and grandson Enosh). In their new state of hope they began calling on God’s name. It is characteristic of Genesis to end a section on a happy note (see 6:8, “Noah found favor”). The line of Seth (5:3-24) has many parallels to Cain’s line (see notes on 4:19-22). As in Cain’s line, it is the seventh generation that has an expanded description — Enoch is the seventh starting with Adam and of him we read that he walked with God. About Enoch’s walking with God we can say a few things. First, the expression is used twice, once of his lifetime and once of his passing from this world. In his lifetime, walking with God meant the same thing as in 6:9 where we read that Noah walked with God (lived a just life). In his passing from the world, the expression more than hints at a different kind of walking, as in journeying to the realm above. The literary artistry of the passage is compelling: to walk with God in this world is to walk with him in the world to come.
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GENESIS 5:25 – 6:8
Methuselah to Noah (25-32), Sons of God and Nephilim (6:1-4), God’s decision to destroy but show favor to Noah (5-8).
Genesis gives an alternate view of many elements of mythology of the ancient world. In place of mythological chaos as in Egypt and Mesopotamia, Genesis records God giving the cosmos order. In contradistinction to myths of man as a slave race for the gods, Genesis shows man as the crown of creation. In place of antediluvian kings, Genesis records the lines of Cain and Seth. In place of technologies given to man by the gods, Genesis shows the line of Cain developing civilization. And now, in this section, in place of the Titans and demi-gods of myth, Genesis has the Nephilim. They are the offspring of human women and the Sons of God. Cassuto argues that it is not as simple as saying the sons of God equal angels. Angel is simply a term meaning messenger and is reserved for a pure and holy category of heavenly beings. The Sons of God are beings like angels, but we know little about kinds of beings whose origins are from before the days of humankind. Satan is counted among the Sons of God as are evil spirits, but these are not called angels in the terminology of the Hebrew Bible. The term Nephilim comes from the Hebrew word for fallen, but not necessarily to denote that they are “fallen angels.” They disappeared from the earth, so their name could be derived from the idea of falling to the sword (Cassuto). Unlike the Titans of myth they were not descended from deity but from created beings called the sons of God. God did not desire that any sons of the daughters of men should be immortal, so he purposed to end the Nephilim and keep man’s upper limit to a hundred and twenty years. The Nephilim did not disappear in the flood and neither did unions between sons of God and daughters of men cease. Vs. 4 indicates they were on earth both “then” and “later.” The flood was about humanity’s violence (as in the previous stories about blood-vengeance) and not due to the Nephilim. In spite of God’s decision to obliterate humanity and slow the spread of evil and violence, Noah found favor. The word for favor is the same word often rendered grace. It is not true that God’s grace or favor has no relationship to merit. Noah was favored because he was righteous. His righteousness was no doubt insufficient to completely merit God’s kindness, but neither was God’s goodwill toward him baseless.
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Blameless Noah (9-10), the lawlessness of earth (11-12), instructions for the Ark (13-16), covenant promise and instructions regarding animals (17-21), Noah’s compliance (22).
There is a longstanding debate if Noah was blameless for his time, meaning that he was only blameless compared to a corrupt generation, or blameless in spite of his time, meaning that even more courage was needed to be righteous in such a corrupt period. Some have argued that Noah was less righteous than Abraham, since he did not pray for mercy for his generation. The note that Noah walked with God is probably a statement of his ethical and religious character, but it is possible that it refers to afterlife (see Gen 3:8; 5:22). The charge against humanity is hamas (vs. 13), which is lawlessness (Sarna, based on parallel in Job 19:7) and particularly murderous violence as per 9:4-7. The first use of the word covenant in the Bible is in 6:18. God’s covenants are about rescuing and redeeming, and here God is rescuing humanity by saving one family. The rescue of Noah’s family, which is the rescue and rebuilding of humanity, pre-figures the choosing of Abraham’s family. God saves the world through choosing one family to carry on his name. What is the extent of this judgment? Does putting an end to “all flesh” mean the entire planet earth was covered with water? No wording in this section demands a global interpretation of the flood. Humankind has not yet filled the globe and the intent is to destroy humankind. The word translated throughout as “earth” more readily means “land.” Furthermore, Genesis knows nothing of multiple continents and oceans, much less a spherical planet. The seas have all been gathered into one place (Gen 1:9, the world ocean) and dry land is one continent. The flood pictures humanity under the Judge of all the earth and warns us to be righteous, to be of those who will be vindicated in the judgment and delivered from the consequences of the murderous violence that characterizes human history.
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Noah instructed to enter the ark with animals (1-5), Noah obeys and the rain starts (6-10), chronological notes and a poetic line about the flood (11-12), Noah’s family and the animals comprised male and female of all flesh (13-16).
How many of each kind of animal did Noah bring on the ark? In 6:19 and also 7:8-9, 15-16 the number is one pair of each kind of animal. But in 7:2-3 the number for clean animals and birds is seven pairs. While the story overall can easily be harmonized (one pair of unclean animals and seven of clean), the wording of 7:2-3 compared to 7:8-9 is irreconcilable. Discrepancies like this tend to be a sign of multiple traditional sources being combined. The Noah story shows signs of having come down to us from two sources so that there are some repeats and even discrepancies. See Richard Friedman, Who Wrote the Bible?, for a thorough discussion of the double-sourced Noah story and how to separate the sources into two complete versions. In other words, when you separate out the J strand of the Noah story and the P strand, you get the complete story told twice. Meanwhile, the Torah says Noah was preserved because of his righteousness and we should ask what this means. It is not that imperfect human righteousness demands a verdict of innocence from the Judge, but that he is willing to provide justification for those who seek him and exhibit a willingness to change. Rewards in this life and the life to come are said in the scriptures to depend on righteousness, an idea which is not at all incompatible with grace. God is not bound to reward faith, love, and deeds of kindness, but he does reward them freely because of his lovingkindness toward his children. How can Noah have already known the difference between clean and unclean animals? There is no evidence that God had revealed a dietary law to Noah. On the contrary, in 9:3 God will explicitly permit Noah to eat all kinds of animal flesh, even unclean. But it must have been revealed to Noah which kinds of animal were permitted for sacrificial offering and which were not. As for the use of terminology “clean” and “unclean,” we should remember this story is being told much later, in Torah, and that terms from the time of Torah could be used to explain a primeval story (anachronism). Also, the nations outside of Israel had been practicing sacrificial worship for ages before the Torah was written and the customs of worship in the Torah are not completely unique. The poetic line in vs. 11 is likely from an older Israelite or Mesopotamian epic about the flood. Both the creation and flood stories contain hints of an older tradition of epic poetry about creation, the kind of poetry that shows up in places like Job 38, Isaiah 40, and various Psalms (Cassuto). The note in vs. 16 that God shut Noah into the ark differs from the Mesopotamian stories, in which the heroes Utnapishtim and Atrahasis shut themselves in (Sarna). The meaning is that Noah’s deliverance is not by his own heroism, but by the providence of God alone.
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GENESIS 7:17 – 8:14
The waters rise above mountains (17-20), all life but those on the ark perishes (21-23), waters recede from the 150th day to the tenth month (7:24 – 8:5), the ark opened and birds sent out (6-12), one year after God’s first word to Noah, the land was drying, and fifty-six days later was dry (13-14).
The Noah story is related to older flood stories from Mesopotamia and contains within it hints of earlier versions of the story. For example, the poetic structure of 8:2 is likely from an earlier epic poem, predating Genesis (Cassuto). One theory worth considering is that the great flood of Mesopotamia (a local flood in the ancient center of civilization) is a historical event which different cultures have given their own spin. See below for unique features of the Torah’s version of this ancient event. Meanwhile, there are discrepancies in the Noah story that are hard to reconcile (but see below), such as the many statements about the flood rising forty days (see 7:17) and others saying one hundred and fifty days (see 7:24). The forty days theme occurs only in the sections of the Noah story that scholars suggest comes from the J source (an ancient source in Judah, see the forty days theme in 7:4, 10, 12; 8:6-12). The one hundred and fifty days rising and one fifty days receding theme occurs only in sections scholars attribute to the P source (a group of priests in Judah, see the one hundred and fifty day theme in 7:11, 24; 8:3, 5, 13, 14). It is likely that the Noah story comes from multiple sources combined into one account. An alternative view is shown by Gordon Wenham (Genesis 1-15, Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1987), who argues that the final account does work. If two sources were combined (and I think they were) the editor (who I suspect was Ezra, as per Richard Friedman, Who Wrote the Bible?) made the dates given in the text (7:11; 8:4, 5, 13, 14) and the periods of time mentioned (forty days of flood rains, one hundred fifty days of waters rising, one hundred fifty days of waters receding) match (see Wenham). Was the flood local or global? The land of Israel has no flood layer. Rabbinic tradition says the flood did not affect Israel. Whether the flood was global or localized to the inhabited region of Mesopotamia is debated, but the descriptions in Genesis are perfectly compatible with a local flood (ancient poetic language uses hyperbole or deliberate exaggeration, and the Bible evidences this frequently, see Judges 5 as an example). Elements of the Torah’s theology show through in this part of the story quite clearly: (1) the ark drifted without rudder because the salvation of Noah’s family followed God’s providence and not human self-determination, (2) all life perished because God’s wrath can unmake life, (3) the flood’s end is marked by God “remembering” Noah because God’s ways are determined by covenant relationships, (4) God was always in control of the flood and stopped it when he willed it to stop (Cassuto).
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GENESIS 8:15 – 9:7
God tells Noah to disembark (15-19), Noah makes an offering and God’s pleasure leads to a covenant (8:20-22), God blesses Noah (9:1-2), all animal life is food (3), prohibition of eating blood (4), prohibition of murder (5-6), the fertility blessing (7).
God has been in control of the entire judgment and salvation. The ark drifted on its own and was not steered by Noah. God shut Noah into the ark. Everything has been by God’s hand. Now, the disembarkation is also initiated by God. Some things are beyond human ability and the theology of this story is that salvation and judgment belong completely to God. Noah’s offering, like all offerings prior to the Torah, is a burnt offering. Its purposes include thanksgiving and worship. Sarna notes that in the Utnapishtim flood story, the gods crowd like flies around the sweet smell of the sacrifice, eager to eat what the human has offered. In what is likely a deliberate contrast to the pagan story, Genesis reveals that God’s pleasure in the sacrifice was not for his own appetite, but love for humanity and joy in the worship that was offered to him. A race that can offer thanksgiving can also receive love in return and the benevolent determination of God to save and not destroy. Man still has a disposition toward evil (vs. 21), but God sees also the good in humanity, which comes through covenant relationship. The Noahide laws of chapter 9 are directly related to the flood experience. The flood has taken life. God makes it clear that people are not to take human life without just cause. They may, however, take animal life for food, but must avoid eating the blood. Leviticus 17:11 suggests that there is a symbolic reason for this prohibition of eating blood. The idea behind the Noahide commandments, and also behind the flood, is that there is a moral law binding on all people which does not require a law-code to be known. The flood generation was judged for lawlessness and violence, though no law-code was given. The Noahide commandments clarify some of the most important moral laws as well as the blood prohibition which, perhaps, is not intuitively known. Judaism developed a longer list of Noahide commandments, including principles not actually found in Genesis 9, and some rabbis suggested that the longer list of Noahide commandments was God’s total expectation of non-Jews. This idea that God only requires of non-Jews what can be derived from the laws to Noah is post-biblical (it should not be read into Acts 15, for example) and is inadequate when held up to the light of prophets like Isaiah. On the other side, some modern theologies suggest that non-Jews must keep Torah in the same manner as Israel (the “one Law” view). Genesis 9 shows that dietary laws did not apply to Noah and is consistent with the revelation of Torah later to Israel, and not as a code for all nations to follow. To determine what in Torah applies to non-Jews is neither limited to the “Noahide laws” nor adequately explained by the “one Law” concept. The commandments to Israel have universal aspects (applying to all people) and particular aspects (applying only to Israelites and also with other qualifications such as “when the Temple is operative”). Application of Torah to Jews and non-Jews in the modern world requires careful interpretation.
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The covenant (8-11), the bow of God as the sign (12-17).
Just as the creation story held allusions to Mesopotamian myth, such as God’s Spirit hovering over the tehom which would remind the reader of Marduk defeating Tiamat, so here we have another allusion. In every case the allusions in Genesis are polemical, denying certain aspects of the myth and asserting the Lord’s sovereign control. The word for rainbow is simply the word for a bow. God places his bow in the sky. Similarly in the Mesopotamian myth, Marduk made a constellation out of his bow (Enuma Elish 6.82-90), the one he used to defeat Tiamat (Sarna). God’s might, his bow, is no longer an object of fear (as when he decided to institute the flood) but of protection (through his covenant not to wipe out humanity again by flood).
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GENESIS 9:18 – 10:32
Humanity grows from Noah’s sons (18-19), Noah’s drunken sleep and Ham’s shameful act (19-23), Noah’s curse and blessing (24-27), Noah’s death (9:28-29), the table of nations (10:1-32).
Grapes are not a common Mesopotamian product, so the story is more likely set in either Syria or Canaan (Sarna). A long time has passed so that vine culture is now thriving and perhaps Ham’s son Canaan is a grown man by now. The story leaves many questions. Did Ham merely look on Noah’s nakedness or is more implied? Cassuto thinks only looking, since Shem and Japheth solved the problem by covering. Sarna thinks more is hinted since the story seems abridged, as if it was too embarrassing to relate in full. Why is the curse on Canaan and not Ham? This is another clue that this story is ultimately about Canaanites, Israelites, and surrounding peoples in Moses’ time and not just Patriarchs from the post-flood generation. Ham includes Canaan and Egypt. Japeth includes the sea peoples (Phoenicians, Hittites, Philistines). Shem is the line from which Abraham will come, the line that carries the knowledge of God to the world. The Canaanites wound up serving Egypt and Israel. Cassuto sees it differently and the whole servitude theme is fulfilled in Genesis 14 with Sodom and Gomorrah serving Chedorlaomer (an Elamite or Persian, from Shem). Noah (whose name means comfort) took to wine making (viticulture), as had been foretold in 5:29, bringing “comfort” out of the ground. What follows the Noah story in Genesis 10 is known as the table of the nations, showing how all the seventy nations of Moses‘ time descended from Shem, Ham, and Japheth. It is repeated with some variations in 1 Chronicles 1:4-23. The table of nations emphasizes numerical harmony (groups of sevens) and God’s providence. There are three individuals with an expanded description: Nimrod (vss. 8-12), Canaan (vss. 15-19), and Eber (vss. 25-30). Nimrod is the first renowned conqueror on earth (a prototype of Mesopotamian kings). Cassuto thinks we have in 10:8-12 a fragment of a larger epic poem about Nimrod which was well-known but has been lost to history. He is said to have conquered Babel and founded Nineveh. The description of Canaan is about people groups which Israel encountered in the conquest and afterwards. Concerning Eber (vs. 21, 25) it is important to note that Eber (Eiver) is related to the word Hebrew (Eevree) and that Hebrew is a term outsiders called Israelites and which Israelites used to describe themselves to outsiders. The descendants of Eber are all people of the Arabian deserts, suggesting Israel saw its origins in this way (a nomadic, desert people).
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The story of Babel’s ziggurat (1-9), genealogy from Noah to Abraham (10-32).
NOTES: Babylon, by the Euphrates, lacks mountains. Ancients tended to worship gods on mountains (even Israel, both the righteous on Mt. Zion and the disobedient on the high places). The Greeks had Mt. Olympus and numerous examples of mountain abodes of deity existed in the mythological world of the past. In the Enuma Elish 6.48-79 the gods wanted to honor Marduk and so they built Babylon, molding bricks for a year and constructing a tower “as high as heaven.” The Biblical version of Babel (Babylon), as is the case in every other parallel story, casts the Babylon tale in a different light. The tower is a ziggurat, a mountain-like structure or stepped pyramid. The Babylonians thought they needed an artificial mountain (since Babylon lacks mountains) for the gods to alight on earth and thus serve mankind. The biblical story depicts this as degradation, not progress. People have gone from knowing God as the ultimate sovereign (knowledge of the Most High having passed down from Noah) to a view of deity as manipulable and able to be tamed with human worship to serve the ends of humanity. The original Babylonians desired to make a place where all humanity would congregate and be served by God/the gods (it is not clear if polytheism was yet the belief or if residual monotheism had degraded into a lower view of deity). The biblical story parodies their intention. God makes of Babel (gate of gods) a place of gibberish (babble, in Hebrew balal, Sarna).
EXCURSUS: The Theology of the Noah Portion (Genesis 6:9-11:32).
Noah himself was righteous but his generation was violently evil. God decided to slow the growth of this evil. He did it with a terrible flood. Human beings can make such a wreck of things that even God who loves children desires to delete us and start again. When the flood waters subsided, God said never again in this way, not for long ages until the end of the world when all things will be broken by another means. Noah then settled in as a vineyard owner and many peoples of the world came from him. Trouble between nations was inevitable. Quickly again people forgot God and sought wealth, ambition, and power. Humans long for divine power, even building ziggurats in a quest to bring the might of heaven down to earth. God scattered and divided us to humble us, but we keep lifting ourselves in pride and vanity. So the story of Genesis goes, but it ends by bringing us to the edge of redemption, to the beginning of a new story: Abraham.
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God initiates a covenant with Abram (1-3), Abram journeys with Sarai and Lot (4-5), Shechem and the altar there (6-7), Bethel’s altar and on to the Negev (8-9), famine during which Abram tries to pass Sarai off as his sister (10-13).
Abram’s story begins abruptly with no further note of introduction. Following the story of the nations and their conflicts and being scattered over the earth, the story of one man chosen by God seems like small thing. This is the small beginning of God’s great design for bringing good to all people. The command to go is a slightly unusual form (lech lecha, go yourself), which indicates that Abram’s leaving is separating from his family (Sarna). The command is separation in three stages: “from your land of your kinsmen and your father’s house” (land, relations, family). At what point does Abram know that Canaan is the land God will show him? It could be that Abram already knew to move toward Canaan because that is where his clan had been traveling anyway before stopping short in Haran (see Gen 11:31). The promises to Abram are seven: to become a nation, to be blessed, have great name, to be a blessing, that those who bless him will be blessed, that those who curse him will be cursed, and that the whole world will be blessed through him. There is a debate about whether the phrase in vs. 3 should be rendered “all the families of the earth will bless themselves by you” (reflexive) or “will be blessed in you/will find blessing in you” (passive/middle). Sarna supports the passive meaning of blessed in vs. 3 as does Cassuto. One evidence that the meaning is “will be blessed” as opposed to “will bless themselves [using your name]” is the “all.” It is doubtful that the whole world will use Abram’s name proverbially as a blessing formula. But it is within the divine plan that through one man good fortune will come to the whole world. The Abrahamic promise is specific blessing for the Jewish people and flowing from the Jewish people goodwill for the whole world. This theology of heaven’s kindness flowing out from Israel to the world echoes throughout the Hebrew Bible and into the life and deeds of Yeshua the Messiah. The terebinth of Moreh in Shechem is a tree thought to be sacred (in the ancient way of thinking about high places) and is mentioned in many later stories (Gen 35:4; Josh 24:26; Judg 9:6, 37; see also Hos 4:12). Abram is not a thoroughgoing monotheist. At this point it is most logical to read him as devoted to one God, but a typical believer in many (see Josh 24:2, “In olden times, your forefathers . . . lived beyond the Euphrates and worshiped other gods”). Abram’s route followed the highlands on the way into the desert, the less populated areas avoiding Canaanite cities, which is typical of a nomad. Once at Shechem, Abram has his first vision (previously it had been God’s voice). Abram is called a prophet (20:7). Jacob will later revisit the sites where Abram built altars: Shechem and Bethel. The Sarai as sister story happens three times (20:1-18 and with Isaac and Rebekah in 26:1-11). It seems Sarai really was his half-sister (20:12). The kidnapping of Sarai is the first of many apparent threats to the covenant showing that God’s plan works in spite of obstacles. The covenant of blessing rolls on unhindered.
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GENESIS 12:14 – 13:4
Threat to the covenant in Sarai’s abduction (12:14-20), Abram returns to the land to Bethel (13:1-4).
The Abraham (Abram) narratives will follow a pattern of threat to the covenant, resolution, and periodic restatements of the covenant (Walton, NIV Application Commentary). The whole covenant promise hinges on Sarah (Sarai) giving birth to a son. In 12:14-20, the threat is that Sarai will be taken by a Pharoah and the promise God had made will become impossible to fulfill. The pharaoh takes Sarai and compensates Abram richly for her (Sarna suggests that perhaps this was to compensate for their forceful abduction rather than the usual negotiation for a bride). Abram is enriched, ironically, by his own deception. Even when doing wrong, Abram is blessed. But God ends the threat to the covenant (if Sarai is not the mother of Abram’s children, the covenant promise is broken) by afflicting the pharaoh, who is wise enough in the ways of religion to understand. Abram comes back to Bethel, where he had built an altar (12:8). Invoking God by name (“Abraham called upon the name” or “invoked the name”) must mean offering a sacrifice of burnt offerings and worshiping (though we do not know what worship looked like exactly for Abraham). The phrase is obviously ancient and is used only in Genesis 4:26; 12:8; 13:4; and 26:25. It is not how Israel will later describe its worship, so the phrase perhaps comes from earlier sources.
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The threat of strife between Lot and Abram’s camps (5-7), the threat of Abram’s generosity giving away the promised land (8-9), Lot chooses the territory outside of the holy land (10-13), the Lord reaffirms the land promise to Abram (14-17), Abram builds an altar and settles in Hebron (18).
The pattern in these narratives again and again is a threat to the promise and the divine resolution which protects the promises to Abram and his descendants (Walton, NIV Application Commentary). Abram, rather foolishly, offers Lot a choice which could include him taking the heart of Canaan, the land promised in the covenant to Abram. Instead, Lot chooses the land that looks more prosperous to him. It is without doubt a wisdom lesson that what appears to be wealth (a well-watered plain and several prosperous cities) is nothing apart from God’s blessing. Sodom and Gomorrah will, of course, turn out to be illusory blessings while the greater land of Canaan will, with God’s blessing, be the land of a different sort of prosperity. Still, Abram is led into the promise without his own effort. The divine covenant is fulfilled by grace. Lot chooses land on the edge and possibly outside the boundaries of the promised land (the location of Sodom and Gomorrah is not precisely known). This section alludes to what will come, the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah (vs. 10) and the wickedness of the people there (vs. 13). Hebron, south of Jerusalem and on the primary ridge of the Judean mountains, becomes the primary home of Abram and the place where he will be buried along with Sarai. It is considered one of the four holy cities of Judaism today (with Jerusalem, Safed, and Tiberias).
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Details of the battle of nine kings (1-11), Lot is taken captive in the war (12), Abram and his 318 retainers rescue Lot (13-16), the king of Sodom comes to meet Abram (17), Melchizedek blesses Abram and Abram gives the priest a tenth of the spoils (18-20).
Genesis 14 stands out from the entire Abraham cycle as unique in style. The detailed and virtually indecipherable war report of vss. 1-11 with its place names and kings is from some unknown source and time. Sarna details the reasons to conclude that vss. 1-11 are drawn from a pre-existing source (the detail of names compared with the anonymous pharaoh of the previous narrative, the use of rare language, and the large amount of material not directly pertinent to Abram’s story). Abram becomes involved, risking the entire covenant promise by risking his life, in a war between city-states of the east with city-states by the Dead Sea. Until vs. 12, the war account has no apparent relevance to the Abraham cycle. The story involving Abraham in vss. 13-20 has some signs of being older than many other parts of the Bible. The names used for God by Melchizedek (God Most High, el elyon, and Creator of heaven and earth, koneh shamayim v’aretz) are ancient (koneh was later replaced by oseh, as Sarna details). A number of texts in Psalms and the prophets suggest that there was a tradition associated with Melchizedek for kings in Jerusalem and associating the city with righteousness (tzedek). Melchizedek is an example of the knowledge of the One Creator continuing since the flood, so that Abram finds he is not the only one serving the Lord. Sarna describes him as follows: “He is patently regarded as monotheist, one of the few select non-Israelite individuals who, in the scriptural view, preserved the original monotheism of the human race in the face of otherwise universal degeneration into paganism.” The purpose of the narrative in the larger sense is another threat to the covenant motif. Abram could have been killed rescuing Lot in this dangerous war. But God, as promised, blesses everything Abram touches.
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GENESIS 14:21 – 15:6
Abram refuses the spoils (14:21-24), the divine-shield promise (15:1), Abram seeks a solution to childlessness through his servant Eliezer (2-3), the Lord affirms a son for Abram and a people numerous as the stars (4-5), Abram’s faith is his righteousness (6).
There are two possible reasons our story emphasizes that Abram did not take spoils from his rescue mission with Lot. One, we see that Abram is a righteous man who wants nothing to do with Sodom, the wicked city. Two, it is vital that the blessing come to Abram through God and not through his grasping for it. Having just triumphed in a battle and also having shown integrity with the spoils, Abram receives a divine promise in a vision. The Lord will be his shield (so no worries about reprisals from the foreign kings, Sarna). The image of the divine shield comes up often in the Psalms (Psa 3:4(3) and 5:13(12), for example). Abram has refused the spoils or reward of Sodom, so God vows that his reward will be great. Abram takes this opportunity to speak out of his pain. The expression “O Lord God” (Adonai Hashem) is rare in the Torah, a strong address to God in emotion (Sarna). The use of language such as “I shall die childless” suggests Abram’s boldness and emotion in this exchange (the Hebrew is literally “I walk childless,” compare Psa 39:14 for the poetic use of “walk” as “die”). God responds to Abram’s suggestion that Eliezer be the heir by reaffirming the slow-coming promise. Further, God insists that the stars are a worthy image of Abram’s coming offspring. Against the odds, Abram believes. His continued faith in trying circumstances, in the long wait for the promised son, is righteousness in God’s eyes. The principle of faith is here established. Nehemiah 9:8 further affirms that faith is what God seeks in his servants, “finding his heart true to you.” Mortals can best serve God through faith, the quality of Abram that made him such a fitting servant. The New Testament emphasis on faith as the foundation of righteousness is based in this Torah.
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GENESIS 15:7 – 17:6
The covenant between the pieces (15:7-21), Hagar and Ishmael (16:1-16), Abram becomes Abraham (17:1-6).
Sarna comments about the covenant between the pieces, “For the first time in the history of religions, God becomes the contracting party.” References to several ancient rituals outside of Israel have been found involving cutting an animal into parts, including the Mari text about “killing a donkey foal” and a text at Alalakh about “cutting the neck of a sheep.”Jeremiah 34:17-20 describes such a ritual and the meaning is that the one walking through the pieces swears the covenant to the death. God, symbolized in Abram’s dreamful vision as a blazing clay oven, is the only one who walks between the pieces, so that God himself swears to keep his covenant with Abram. The news of the future of Israel is sad: alien wandering followed by enslavement and then oppression. But the end will be freedom and prosperity in the fourth cycle of time (Sarna argues that “generation” must mean 100 years, since vs. 13 speaks of four hundred years). God will not judge Canaan until the Amorites have earned retribution through generations of wickedness (this is a principle that God governs the world with justice). In chapter 16, Abram and Sarai try to fulfill their need through a concubine. Many tribes will come from Ishmael and a blessing for his people for their relationship to Abram. In chapter 17, Ishmael is now thirteen years old. God appears again to Abram (visibly?) and commands Abram to walk in his ways. This can be understood as a person being ordered to be faithful to a king. God has not revealed ways to Abram, but a number of stories show that justice is understood to be the divine way and even without a revealed law. Abram knew God’s ways of just living, which are intuitively realized by all people. Yet this would not include later commandments like Sabbath or dietary law, which are not intuitively known. Abram means either “exalted father” or (if the second syllable is related to the Akkadian ramu) “the father loves [him].” Abraham does not in and of itself mean “father of a multitude.” The addition of a syllable to Abraham’s name probably involves God adding a letter of his divine name to Abram’s. The resulting name could be shorthand for ABiR Hamon goyiM, “mighty one of a multitude of nations” (Ibn Ezra, Sarna).
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The covenant of election and the land throughout the ages (7-8), the sign of circumcision (9-14), Sarai’s name changed and the promise of a son (15-22), Abraham circumcises his household (23-27).
The election (choosing) of Israel as the people of God is because of Abraham. God will be God to Abraham’s descendants throughout the ages. The land of Canaan will belong to Abraham’s descendants as an everlasting holding. The free and irrevocable election of the people of Israel is part of God’s way of relating to people and redeeming from within. Abraham did not earn this election. The sign of circumcision is how new generations take their place inside a free covenant, not a way for people to earn their place in the covenant. God’s grace is free. And as much as it is free, it is also irrevocable (see Paul’s explanation in Romans 11). The word “everlasting” and the phrase “throughout the ages” give the lie to the Christian notion of God setting aside Israel as a people. It may be difficult for Christians to understand how a pre-Jesus people could remain chosen post-Jesus, but God’s saving love for Israel and for Christians is really very similar. God sees human beings as worthy, bringing us up to the potential we were created for. This will involve transformation, even painful changes, but we should be grateful for God’s saving love even if we do not understand it completely. Circumcision is a sign of new creation, coming after the seventh day of a boy’s life and on the first day, the eighth day, of the rest of his life. It is a sign of grace, of belonging to a promise that is larger than we are, of being marked with God’s mark, as vs. 13 explicitly says. Sarah also receives a consonant from God’s name and the promise of a descendant is specified: a son.
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Narrative summary looking forward (1), the story of the Lord’s appearance to Abraham and his announcement of the coming birth (2-14).
What happens in vs. 1? Is this a separate event, a story untold about God appearing to Abraham? Or is vs. 1 a narrative preface stating what will happen in the story that follows? The fact is, God appears to Abraham in the story that follows vs. 1, so it makes sense to read vs. 1 as a prelude announcing in advance what will happen. Three “men” come to Abraham, but we quickly figure out they are not men at all. In vs. 10, suddenly Hashem is speaking, and says he will return next year and give Sarah a son. Rather than assuming a voice from heaven is addressing Abraham and his visitors, we can read this as indicating one of the three visitors is a manifestation of Hashem (in human form). In vs. 22 and following, Abraham will have a conversation while walking with Hashem (in human form). Also in vs. 22 we read that “the men” went toward Sodom but Abraham stood still before Hashem. The final clue is on 19:1, where we see that only two of the three visitors went to Sodom. Doing a little math we surmise that one of the three visitors is Hashem and the other two are angelic beings. Where did Hashem go? 18:33 says he departed after his dialogue with Abraham. An additional evidence for this interpretation of the three visitors is that Abraham addresses them as “Adonai” (vs. 3), whereas the usual expression for “lords” would be Adonim. Rashi, Ibn Ezra, and Ramban seek ways around the obvious truth that one of these visitors is God, but Maimonides affirms it (Sarna, see Maimonides, Hilchot Yesodei Hatorah 6:9). The story in vss. 1-14 emphasizes Abraham’s hospitality and the difficulty in believing the divine promise of a son. Abraham sees three strangers from a distance and runs, not walks, to meet them. He speaks to them in the exaggerated politeness of the Near East and offers them only a little water and a morsel of bread. Then he tells his wife to prepare about five gallons (three seahs) of flour, to kill a calf, and to provide yogurt and milk with this supposedly small meal! In Bereishit Rabbah (a midrash collection about Genesis) Abraham is praised by God for his hospitality to strangers in the desert and it is said that Abraham does this to make proselytes. In the New Testament, this story of Abraham is the basis for a saying about hospitality: “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares” (Heb 13:2, ESV).
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Sarah’s fear (15), the Lord’s internal dialogue about whether to tell Abraham (16-19), the Lord’s announcement of the coming judgment (20-21), Abraham’s discussion with God and case for mercy in justice (22-32), the Lord departs (33).
There is no story in all the Bible like this one, in which God in human form discusses his ways of justice with a mortal. Only in a few places does the Bible record the internal dialogue of God (his private thoughts, see Genesis 1:26; 2:18; 3:22; 6:6; 11:6-7 for other examples). Why should God discuss with Abraham his plans for punitive justice on Sodom and Gomorrah? For one thing, Abraham is the father of a great nation. And that nation, Israel, will be about justice as its highest value. Another is that all the nations of the earth will be blessed by Abraham’s descendants, so the painful judgment of a nation for wickedness, a curse instead of a blessing, is something that ought to concern Abraham and Israel. The people of blessing, like God, will desire mercy and blessing for the world. Finally, God has known Abraham, or as Sarna translates it, has singled him out (in a relationship). Abraham’s intimacy with God is beyond the normal human-divine relationship and Abraham is privy to God’s reasons more so than others. At first consideration it seems to Abraham that destroying Sodom and Gomorrah is inconsistent with God’s benevolence (“shall not the Judge of all the earth deal justly?”). The problem of the righteous suffering along with the cruel mattered not only to Abraham, but to every generation which has contemplated the problem of faith in a benevolent God together with the reality of suffering in the world. This dialogue between Abraham and God does not attempt to answer the question philosophically, but simply affirms that God’s purposes are good and just. When we do not understand we can and should trust. It is the glory of God to conceal a matter, but the problems of evil, we trust, will make more sense to us in the age to come when God brings a world of peace and justice from this world of suffering.
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The two angels come from Abraham into Sodom (1), Lot compels them to accept hospitality (2-3), the townspeople gather and want to sexually molest the men (4-5), Lot offers his daughters in their place (6-9), the people attack and the angels blind them (10-11), Lot’s sons-in-law do not believe (12-14), the angels practically force reluctant Lot to leave (15-17), Lot asks to be allowed a shorter flight to a small town in the plain (18-20).
The contrast between Lot’s seeming riches and Abraham’s humble wealth continues. Abraham remains the migrant owner of flocks in the dry steppe land while Lot is the city dweller in a well-watered place. Lot has risen to some status, sitting in the city gate of Sodom. As in Genesis 18 Abraham virtually compelled visitors to accept hospitality, so does Lot. Something of his virtue remains in spite of the wickedness of this city and its vain worship of comfort and ease. For their part, the angels have come to verify the wickedness of the city. Sarna interprets the intended rape as a policy of the town to molest all wayfarers and prevent new people from coming to the rich town and sharing its goods. The town’s crimes include violence, unnatural sexual desires, and failure to protect travelers in their gates. The destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah becomes one of the Bible’s most repeated themes. Westermann (Genesis 12-36, Minneapolis: Fortress, 1981) suggests that in looking at all later biblical references, there were multiple versions of the Sodom, Gomorrah, Admah, Zeboiim destruction story. Alternate versions have been lost but hints of them remain in biblical allusions. Was Lot’s offer of his daughters real or was it a hypothetical one intended to shame them? There is a parallel story in Judges 19:15-21, when a Levite and his concubine came to the Israelite town of Gibeah. Westermann compares the events: arrival of the guests, attack and repulse of the attackers, demand by attackers, householder offers his daughters, repulse of attack by guests. The difference in the Judges story is there were no angels to resolve the situation and a woman was gang-raped and killed. In the Sodom story, Lot’s offer (whether real or hypothetical) is dismissed. The miraculous intervention of the angels alone saves them. Lot thought he had become a respected citizen, but his neighbors still resent him as an outsider. The city dwellers have a prosperous, easy life and they fiercely protect it, with brutality to any who dare come for hospitality. There is more than a little city vs. country dynamic in this tale. The attraction of gathering into large population centers is self-reliance which does not breed faith or justice. The angels announce coming destruction and Lot tries in vain to save his sons-in-law, but the lure of city life prevents them from wisdom. Even Lot is so reluctant to leave his wealth and ease in the city that the angels must take hold of him and force him to leave. Lot begs to be allowed to settle in another small city, which would have to be spared by the angels from the coming destruction. He cannot imagine life in the desert hills. Westermann comments on the significance of this story in the Abraham cycle: “Abraham becomes a witness of the destruction of cities . . . the promise of blessing for the peoples has its line of demarcation in God’s action as judge, the ‘peoples of the earth’ remain exposed to disasters.”
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GENESIS 19:21 – 21:4
Zoar (21-23), Sodom and Gomorrah destroyed (24-26), Abraham looks on (27-29), Lot moves up into the hills, incest, origin of the Moabites and Ammonites (30-38), Abraham and Abimelech of Gerar (20:1-18), Isaac is born and circumcised (21:1-4).
The strange story of Lot raises questions. Why does the narrative bother to tell us about Zoar, the town he asked to stay at but which he abandoned quickly? Is the story of Lot’s wife being buried in salt (or turned into a pillar of salt) a traditional tale that had to be included? It would seem the main point of the ending is to describe the origin of Moab and Ammon. Moab will be quite important for Israel’s unfolding history, especially in the story of Ruth and the origins of David as the messianic king. Lot’s request to flee to the closer location of Zoar includes an origin story (an etiological tale) for its name (vs. 20, “behold, it is mitzar [little]” and “is it not mitzar [little]” and vs. 22, “there the name of the city was called Tzo’ar [Zoar]”). Many feel that the account of Lot’s wife becoming covered in salt is also an etiological tale (some of the salt outcroppings near the Dead Sea look like people). The story seems to be about believing God’s judgment, whereas Lot’s wife either looked back, looked longingly, or perhaps even delayed her flight out of longing for her old home. Her desire or delay caused her to be caught up in the effects of the judgment. We get the idea that Lot and his daughters had barely made it into Zoar when the conflagration happened, so that they barely escaped. Lot’s wife’s hesitation cost her her life. The moral is to get out from the place of divine judgment in faith keeping with the divine word. Abraham (vss. 27-28) is a witness of this destruction, which he had debated God about. He is a believer in justice and the father of the people who will be (ideally) devoted to justice. God’s mercy on Lot is related to his favor for Abraham (vs. 29). Abraham has brought blessing to Moab and Ammon (to the nations as foretold), the peoples whom Lot will sire with his daughters (vss. 31-38). The origin story of Moab and Ammon is not flattering (incest) but explains Israel’s relationship to these people who will figure largely into their later history. In chapter 20, returning to Abraham and Sarah, we see a repeat of the threat of Sarah being taken into a harem. Only this time around the account is more detailed and rich with theology, raising the issue of God’s justice in dealing with the nations in relation to Abraham. In spite of Abraham’s lie, Abimelech’s people is cursed for harming the chosen. Yet Abraham seeks to bless them, and they are healed. God’s justice, questioned rightfully by Abimelech, is satisfied by mutual blessing between the people of Gerar and Abraham. Questioning God while continuing to believe in his goodness is regarded as a commendable form of prayer. Then suddenly, in 21:1-4, Isaac is born and the promise fulfilled after twenty-five long years of waiting.
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Sarah’s joy in her son (5-7), Sarah wants Ishmael banished (8-11), God speaks and promises to care for Ishmael (12-13), Abraham sends Hagar and Ishmael away with bread and water (14), Hagar weeps thinking they will die (15-16), God speaks to Hagar (17-19), God blesses Ishmael in the wilderness (20-21).
Many unusual features lead to questions in this narrative. If Abraham loves Ishmael, why does he send him away with so little? If Ishmael is older than thirteen, why is he described as though an infant (carried along with the bread and water by Hagar in vs 14, hidden under a bush in vs. 15)? Why is it that when Hagar cries out, God hears the boy and not Hagar? Some of the unusual features can be explained by the artfulness of the story, which is filled with wordplays (Sarna). Ishmael’s trouble begins when he (about 16 years old) is laughing at Isaac (about 3). Laughing is the same word as Isaac’s name (he Isaacs Isaac). Throughout the story, Ishmael is not named, but is called simply “the child.” His name is purposefully avoided. We do not even hear that the boy, like his mother, is crying. But God hears his cry, though we’ve not been told he was crying. This feature of the story makes sense when we understand what Ishmael means: “God hears.” Another wordplay is found in the note that Hagar had put Ishmael under a bush a bow’s shot away. The boy will become a bowman (Sarna). As happens many times in the Abraham cycle of stories, the characters represent peoples who will be important in Israel’s later history, as is the case here with the Ishmaelites, desert nomads like modern day Bedouins. Such stories reveal that God’s providential care extends to other nations besides Israel and that their blessing is related to God’s promise to Abraham (Walton, NIV Application Commentary). God hears and his blessing is available to those who cry out. The nameless Ishmael is heard by God and his origin in the Abraham clan brings blessing to his descendants for many generations.
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Abimelech makes a covenant with Abraham (21-24), dispute over a well (25-26), Abraham makes a covenant over a new well at Beersheba (27-34).
This story artfully uses the number seven: Abraham and Abimelech are named seven times, there are seven lambs, the verb “to swear” is related to the number seven as is the place name, Beersheba (Sarna). The overall effect of the story is to show that Abraham has become an equal with kings in the land. He acquires his first piece of land in Beersheba, a well to which his flocks have exclusive rights. Canaan (Israel) is semi-arid, steppe land close to desert conditions. Keepers of flocks are often found on steppe lands because they are unsuitable for agriculture on a large scale. Rights to the few sources of water in an area are key in the social structure and survival of dwellers in these regions. Abraham’s travels and adventures end up explaining the origin of names of places that are important in Israel’s later history (Beersheba, “well of the oath,” is a southern boundary town for later Israel). That Abraham still has ties to his pagan past is evident in that he plants a tamarisk. Vs. 33 connects directly the tamarisk planting and Abraham’s worship, indicating that the tree (or grove) was a cultic object, thought by Abraham to be vital to worship. Vs. 33 is the only use in the Bible of the term Everlasting God (el olam). Since el is grammatically in the construct state, it is clear that it is not a name, but the word for deity (the Canaanites called one of their deities El, but the word came to be a general designation for deity). Walton comments that El Olam (Enduring God) as a title focuses on God’s dominion over nations and the events of history that shape nations. Abraham is a shaper of Israel’s future as God ordains his course and blesses or curses nations based on relation to Abraham.
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Narrative prelude: God tests Abraham (1), the test: requiring the son of the promise (2), Abraham and Isaac journey to the mountain (3-8), Abraham’s offers Isaac but God substitutes a ram (9-14), the covenant reaffirmed and Abraham dwells in Beersheba (15-19), Abraham’s distant family (20-24).
The test of Abraham (“after these things, God tested Abraham,” vs. 1) requires that he give the one thing that makes God’s promise work and thus have nothing from God. It is part of the interest in the Ancient Near East in the idea of disinterested love. Will Abraham continue with this deity who takes back the one thing he has desired? Testing (nisah) with God as the subject and a person as the object involves a test to the limits of endurance, such as God testing Israel in the hardships of the wilderness (Deut 8:2). Vss. 7-8 are troubling. Does Isaac suspect? Does Abraham’s answer calm his fears at all? It cannot be, as some have said, that Abraham knew and intended by his words to say, that God would substitute a ram for Isaac. This was no true test if Abraham had no fear God would take back the child of the promise. Rather, we have irony here from the narrative voice of the story: the reader knows what Abraham does not and Abraham’s words are true in a way that the patriarch does not suspect. Vs. 12 is central with its “now I know.” The test was so that God could know Abraham’s heart truly. This is not a contradiction of belief in divine omniscience. Knowledge is more than cognitive awareness. A higher kind of knowledge, which God seeks here, is experience. The purpose of Abraham’s test is that God would know by experience the depths of his trust and faith. Abraham is the father of faith and his great crisis story shows us what deep faith looks like, loving the Giver more than any gift. If God was willing to take away the very promise that drew Abraham out of his clan and away from his gods, what reason would Abraham have to love God? Only the awe of heaven could explain Abraham’s clinging in spite of God’s taking away. This is exactly what God says in response, “Now I know that you reverence [fear] God.”
ADDITIONAL NOTES: God is referred to as “the God” or perhaps “that God” (haElohim) in vs. 1. Walton notes that haElohim tends to occur after an account in which God was referred to by a more specific name. Accordingly, in 21:33, Abraham had just called on El Olam (“the everlasting God”). Thus, in 22:1, haElohim has the force of “that [same] God.” Moriah (vs. 2) is the site of the future Temple (2 Chron 3:1).
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Death of Sarah (1-2), negotiations with the Hittite leaders in Hebron (3-9), negotiations with Ephron for the cave of Machpelah (10-16).
This first patriarchal death is treated in detail and signifies the importance of mourning and burial rites. Abraham rose, says vs. 3, because he was sitting in mourning (the continuing custom of Judaism is to sit for seven days in mourning). Abraham must first negotiate with the leaders of the town because as a resident alien he normally has no rights to purchase land. He will pay an exorbitant price to be made an exception. He refuses a gift because he wants the burial cave perpetually for his clan and gifts could often be legally dismissed later, whereas a bill of sale carried legal weight (Walton). The cave Abraham purchased (its traditional location) in Hebron is the second holiest site in modern Judaism (Sarna). The presence of Hittites in Canaan is historically difficult as their empire was far north in upper Syria. But more than one tradition mentions groups of Hittites in Canaan and some Hittite pottery has been found in the Canaanite period in the land (Sarna). Furthermore, there is a tradition of a different people with a name similar to the Hittites, from Genesis 10:15, the sons of Heth (kheit, Walton). The “Hittites” in Genesis do not have Hittite names, but Semitic ones, and perhaps could be a different people group (Walton). Abraham’s acquisition of land rights in various places is a sort of foreshadowing of Israel’s later possession of the land in keeping with the covenant (Walton).
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GENESIS 23:17 – 24:9
Legal contract on the cave of Machpelah (17-20), Abraham sends a servant to get a wife for Isaac (24:1-9).
Sarna calls 23:17-20 legal language, similar to written contracts, detailing the contents of the sale. Abraham met the condition of land sale to a resident alien, namely that he used it as a burial site. Many other contracts from the time specify, as this one does, that the trees are included in the sale. The next part of the story, finding a wife for Isaac, is about the continuation of the covenant. Abraham finds the local people unfit. It is possible that this could be simply prejudice on Abraham’s part, but it is also possible that there is a reason of covenant fidelity. A Canaanite wife will encourage assimilation, with Isaac likely raising children who will fit into Canaanite culture and cease to be distinctive (much like assimilation issues for Jews in our time). Though Abraham’s relatives are not followers of the Lord, still their shared culture will help Isaac’s family remain distinct in Canaan. To reinforce the case that Abraham’s choice is about remaining a distinct people and true to the covenant, he insists that Isaac and his family must dwell in Canaan, the land promised by the Lord. The hand under the thigh is a euphemism for grasping the genital and swearing the oath. The most likely reason for having his servant grasp his genitals is that the circumcision is the only existing symbol of the covenant. Sarna notes that Abraham describes the Lord as “God of heaven.” This is a way of describing God that, in ancient terms, refers to his universal kingship over all the lands under heaven (as opposed to conceptions of deities as local in their power). The servant will be traveling to another land and Abraham clearly believes God’s kingship is not only in Canaan.
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The servant’s prayer (10-14), the servant’s prayer answered in Rebekah (15-26).
Aram Naharaim means “Syria between the two rivers,” and refers to the land between the Euphrates and the Habur rivers. Walton (NIV Application Commentary) notes that travelers generally needed permission from a local to use water. The servant, who is unnamed, asks for a sign from God. The sign is rather extraordinary, since ten camels could drink as much as 250 gallons of water or so after a long journey (Walton). Rebekah will do this with a single jug walked back and forth and poured from the shoulder. Many commentators suggest that the motive of this sign is to find a woman of valor, who is hospitable and hard-working. His prayer is exceeded, since he meets a relative of Abraham’s who is beautiful and a virgin. The servant returns her generosity with expensive gifts even before knowing her identity. Meeting a bride to be at a well becomes a stock scene in biblical literature (Robert Alter, Art of Biblical Narrative). The usual pattern is a journey, meeting the girl at a well, drawing water, running to announce or greet the traveler, and a feast announcing the match. Similar scenes occur with Jacob and Moses and to some degree Yeshua and the woman at the well in John 4 is a variation.
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The Lord’s grace and truth (27), Laban prepares hospitality for the servant (28-33), the servant’s story (34-49), Laban and Bethuel give Rebekah as betrothed (50-52).
Even something as seemingly small as finding a wife for Isaac is related to the covenant. Abraham’s motives in seeking a wife outside of Canaan have been about the covenant: that his clan should remain distinct as a people and not assimilate. Now Abraham’s servant speaks and behind his words the narrator is making a point about God’s loyalty to covenant. He does not abandon loyal adherence (chesed) nor faithfulness (emet) to his promises. The same pair of words is used in several Psalms (40 and 57) as well as in John 1:14, where it is translated “grace and truth” in most versions (charis and aletheia). By providing for the further fruitfulness of Abraham’s clan, God has shown his covenant grace and loyalty. Abraham’s clan will continue to be distinct in Canaan, not assimilating into the population ad culture there. Laban takes charge and seems to have a more prominent role than his father, Bethuel. The narrative emphasizes that Abraham’s wealth is the main motive for Laban in agreeing to the match. Laban’s final words are ironic. He does not know the Lord, but he is right that all has happened according to the Lord’s will.
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The bride price and gifts (53), negotiating to leave without delay (54-58), Rebekah is sent off with a powerful blessing (59-61), Isaac walking (meditating?) in the field sees Rebekah (62-63), Rebekah sees Isaac (64-65), Isaac takes Rebekah as wife (66-67).
The custom of paying the family of the young woman a bride price in the form of gifts are referred to in ancient Akkadian texts (Sarna). The gifts compensate the bride’s family for losing her (see Exod 22:16, the mohar). Laban wants a ceremony of ten days before Rebekah leaves, but the servant is eager to return quickly to serve Abraham faithfully. The nurse is someone obviously dear to Rebekah and is named in 35:8 as Deborah. The blessing is a variation of the very one the Lord spoke over Abraham after the binding of Isaac (Gen 22:16-18). Rebekah’s family, in their blessing spoken over her, unwittingly affirm the covenant blessings promised to Abraham’s line, continuing a theme in Genesis in which outsiders affirm the covenant. Vs. 63 has had a variety of interpretations. The word rendered variously walk/meditate/turn/relax (lashu’ach) is used only once in the Bible and its meaning is unknown. This verse is famously interpreted in rabbinic texts as evidence that the Patriarchs prayed the ma’ariv (evening prayer). Rebekah’s veil was put on to signal that she was a bride. Sarna recounts evidence that veils were worn as part of the marriage ceremony. Isaac takes her into his mother’s tent, signifying that Rebekah is the new matriarch. Isaac’s love for Rebekah is described in undeniably emotional terms, a rare window into the feelings of the characters.
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The sons of Keturah (1-6), the death and burial of Abraham (7-11).
Abraham lived thirty-five years after Isaac’s marriage but the events of those years are unrecorded (Sarna). The Abraham stories begin and end with genealogies (11:10-32 and 25:1-18). The purpose of the closing genealogy is to show how all God’s promises to Abraham were kept. Sarna lists evidences that the genealogy is ancient (for example, it does not use the term “Arab,” which came into use in the 9th century BCE). Abraham becomes the father of many nations, as promised, because through Hagar and Keturah, many tribes of Arabic peoples started under God’s blessing. Did Abraham take Keturah as wife or concubine (vs. 1 says wife, but vs. 6 refers to “concubines”)? Did he take her before Sarah’s death or after? The problem with assuming he took her after is his age. He was already concerned that he was too old to sire children, yet he had six sons with Keturah. It may be that Keturah became his concubine long before Sarah died. The best known nation to come from Keturah is Midian, a people with whom Israel will have enmity in the future. Ashurrim in vs. 3 is not the famed Assyria, but another, much smaller people, with the same name (Sarna). In the death of Abraham, the phrase “gathered to his kin” is of interest. The phrase is used also of Ishmael, Isaac, Jacob, Aaron, and Moses. Sarna argues it is not about burial or interment of bones in a patriarchal tomb because neither Abraham, Aaron, nor Moses was interred with his ancestors. The idiom, though non-specific, reflects an early belief in afterlife. Abraham dies old and content, as God had promised (15:15) and the blessing goes on to Isaac (vs. 11).
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The sons of Ishmael (12-16), the death of Ishmael (17-18).
Ishmael is unique, the only non-Israelite whose life span, death, and a notice of being gathered to his people occurs. Some of the peoples/sons of Ishmael are known from sources outside of the Bible. Some are mentioned later in the prophets (Tema, for example, is in Job 6:19; Isa 21:14; and Jer 25:23). The people of Naphish may have converted/assimilated into Israel by the return from exile (Ezra 2:50; Neh 7:52). The note in vs. 16 that Ishmael’s sons formed twelve tribes fulfills the promise to him in 17:20.
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GENESIS 25:19 – 26:5
Isaac’s story and Rebekah’s barrenness (19-21), Rebekah receives a word from the Lord (22-23), Esau and the grasping Jacob are born (24-26), Esau the hunter sells his birthright to Jacob the pastoralist (25:27-34), a famine and the promise reaffirmed to Isaac (26:1-5).
Rebekah was barren twenty years (compare vs. 20 and 26). The theme of the barren patriarchal wife suggests that God deliberately delayed fulfillment of covenant promises. The Lord of blessings makes his people wait. Isaac gets the least amount of independent narrative and less is known of him than other patriarchs, his story being swallowed up by his father and his son. Sarna suggests a few hints that more was known about Isaac in ancient Israel: the phrase “fear of Isaac” (31:42) suggests that there may have been a story behind it and Amos 7:9 and 16 speaks of shrines of Isaac. Isaac lived most of his life in one place, Beersheba, and moved to the Hebron region late in life. Esau is the progenitor of Edom, the people who will be rivals to Israel and who figure largely in prophecy and rabbinic literature. Deuteronomy 23:8 commands Israel not to abhor Edomites. The prophet Obadiah denounces Edom since they apparently helped the Babylonians in the destruction of Judah and Jerusalem in the late 7th century and early 6th century BCE. Jacob, as a pastoral nomad interested in the business of flocks, is more like Abraham, but Isaac admires his wilder son, Esau, for his prowess. The rivalry between brothers not only prefigures Israel and Edom, but is one of two primary conflicts in Jacob’s life (the other being Laban). 26:5 has been taken by some of the sages as indicating that Abraham knew the whole Torah. Alternatively, the narrator’s purpose in including this statement is simple: as Abraham obeyed all that he knew concerning righteousness, so Israel, now receiving the whole Torah, must keep all of the additional revelation God has shown. What did Abraham know? If God had revealed a lawcode to Abraham, it is certain the Torah would report this. Therefore, the Torah assumes that human beings know what is right by nature and are responsible for this knowledge.
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Isaac is afraid and tells people Rebekah is his sister (6-7), Abimelech sees who Rebekah is and forbids anyone to touch her (8-11), the Lord blesses Isaac’s crops (12).
What should stand out to the reader is how different Isaac’s situation is from his father’s. No real conflict occurs this time. The king recognizes that Rebekah is Isaac’s wife before any harm is done. And immediately after we read that Isaac’s crop produced a hundredfold. The blessing has increased. While Jacob will find much conflict, this is not due to a lessening of the covenant blessings, but Jacob’s own striving. Isaac is a settled man (living most of his life in Beersheba) and is thoroughly blessed. This incident likely occurred before the twins were born and is one of many examples of chronological rearrangement in Torah. This Abimelech is the same as the king of Gerar in chs. 20-21. The name Abimelech, which means “my father is king,” shows up again in Judges. It is a common sort of name a king might take. What are we to make of the text calling Abimelech a Philistine when we know that Philistines (among the sea peoples) arrived in the land during the period of the Judges (much later than the patriarchal era)?
The text of Genesis was written in times much later than these events being narrated. It might call him a Philistine because his territory was in what would later be known as Philistia.
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Isaac’s prosperity and alienation (13-16), more hostility in Gerar (17-22).
Ironically, it is the blessing of God that causes Isaac conflict. The local people do not bless Isaac (thus missing out on the mutual blessing aspect of God’s covenant: “I will bless those who bless you”). Pastoralists tend to have conflicts over wells. Since Isaac is not related to any of them, and because of envy, the local clans try to deny him access to water rights for his flocks. The story of Abraham’s descendants will not be one without conflict. Even blessing can bring on persecution. Isaac does not respond to conflict with violence or any kind of force. He moves on peacefully. God can bless him anywhere. Eventually he finds a temporary place to recover from the conflict at Rehoboth (meaning “wide place”). In the next narrative, God will reaffirm the promise in light of the difficulties Isaac is experiencing.
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Isaac moves to Beersheba (23), the Lord appears and reaffirms the Abrahamic promise (24-25), Abimelech affirms Isaac’s blessedness and makes a covenant (26-29).
Isaac had lived at Beersheba before with his father, right after the near sacrifice of his life in Moriah (22:19). Returning here now placed him further outside of Abimelech’s territory. At this stressful point in his life, the Lord reaffirms the promise of the covenant in a dream vision (as was the usual method with Abraham). God had said “fear not” once before, to Hagar, also at Beersheba, in response to Ishmael’s crying out. Now Isaac hears the comforting words of God in the same place as his brother (Sarna). The Abrahamic covenant is reaffirmed and immediately afterwards its power is made evident. Abimelech, in kingly wisdom, recognizes that Isaac is no ordinary pastoralist. The blessing of God is evident to Abimelech in Isaac’s clan and he wishes to make a covenant of equals with this raiser of flocks. A king and a sheep-herder make a covenant as equals, a picture of the mutual blessing God had promised in the covenant (“I will bless those who bless you”).
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GENESIS 26:30 – 27:27
A feast celebrating the covenant (27-31), a well called Shibah (32-33), Esau marries a Canaanite and embitters Isaac and Rebekah (26:34-35), Isaac near death asks Esau for some game (27:1-4) Rebekah plots and has Jacob masquerade (5-25), Isaac gives Jacob the blessing for the eldest (26-27).
The naming of Beersheba is the subject of two stories (21:22-34 and 26:27-33). In both, the word for “seven” and “oath” (from the same root) is prominent and the names Abraham and Abimelech both occur exactly seven times in each (Sarna). The note about Esau’s assimilation into Canaanite society and the grief it caused his parents is necessary to understand the coming story of Rebekah’s plotting and Jacob’s stealing the blessing. In the story of Jacob stealing the blessing, the word blessing occurs seven times and the verb form twenty-one times (Sarna). The father’s blessing was expected to prefigure the future. If Jacob is to be the one who will carry on the family name and the covenant with God, then it seems to Rebekah her son must have the father’s blessing. The story of Jacob’s life is a tension between his ambition and ignorance of divine providence and God’s lovingkindness to him in spite of these flaws. The wrestling with God story will bring these tensions to a climax. Jacob steals what God is going to give him anyway (see 25:23).
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GENESIS 27:28 – 28:4
Isaac’s blessing over Jacob (28-29), Esau’s return and anguish (30-38), Isaac’s leftover blessing for Esau (39-40), Rebekah’s plan to save Jacob (27:41-46), Isaac blesses and sends Jacob after a wife (28:1-4).
Sarna emphasizes the importance of dew in a semi-arid climate like Canaan and for pastoralists like Isaac. The dew blessing is about life-giving supply and continues in the Jewish prayerbook alongside rain as a vital request. The blessing over Jacob is clear and unambiguous, that God would give him plentiful dew and rain. The blessing over Esau, by contrast, is ambiguous (Sarna). English translations of vss. 39-40 may not reflect this ambiguity. Is Esau’s abode or dwelling to be away from the dew and rain or is it to enjoy dew and rain? In any case, Esau’s blessing does not contain the key words “may God give you.” And for Esau life will include a yoke and a sword. Isaac has given the best already to Jacob and no love for Esau can change the fact that he has nothing more to give. Still, the hopeful aspect of Esau’s blessing is that he will someday throw off the yoke of Jacob. Historically, David and Solomon subjugated Edom, but in the days of Jehoram and Amaziah Edom revolted, so that by the time of Ahaz, Judah even lost the port of Elath (Eilat, see 2 Sam 8:13-14; 1 Kgs 11:14-22; 22:48; 2 Kgs 8:20-22; 14:7; 16:6). Isaac’s blessing before sending Jacob off to Laban expresses clearly that what had come through Abraham will now go through Jacob.
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Jacob goes to Paddan-Aram (5), Esau sees and takes an Ishmaelite wife (6-9).
Paddan-Aram (also 25:20) is the place Laban lives, near Haran in a region also known as Aram-Naharaim (Aram or Syria along the rivers, 24:10). Jacob is going to find a wife among his first cousins. Just as the narrative of the stolen blessing was preceded by a side note concerning Esau’s wives (26:34-35), so the story of Jacob’s time with Laban is preceded by a digression into Esau’s story and his wives (Sarna). The effect of these short summaries is to make Esau a real character and not simply a foil for Jacob. Esau’s tragedy is felt by the reader. He has received a bitter lot and tries to make amends for his impulsive ways. His is the tragedy of the unchosen.
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Jacob’s dream at Bethel (10-12), the Lord promises that in Jacob the covenant promises will be realized (13-15), Jacob thinks the place is sacred (16-17), Jacob makes a standing stone and vows to the Lord (18-22).
Several elements of Bronze Age thinking are evident in the story. The word for stairway (or ladder) is derived perhaps from the verbal root “to cast a mound” or from the Akkadian for steps (Sarna). It reflects the general idea, found in more than one element of Ancient Near Eastern culture, of a gateway between the realm of the gods and men. In Egyptian and Hittite literature, we know of a ladder sometimes available to the dead in the underworld to climb to earth or to heaven. The Babylonian pyramid-like mounds known as ziggurats featured a stairway symbolizing a gateway to the realm of gods. Also, Jacob, upon having this dream, thinks like a pagan, that he has found the home ground of the local deity of his father Abraham, as if the Lord is the God of Bethel. He makes a standing stone altar (something later forbidden, Lev 26:1) and vows to God. In terms of the development of Jacob’s character, this story reveals him as tentative in faith (“if I return safe”) and seeking to buy favor instead of receiving it as freely given. Jacob does not understand grace, the unmerited assurance of the promise to his family.
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Jacob comes to the well in Haran (1-3), conversation at the well (4-8), Jacob rolls away the stone when he sees Rachel (9-11), Jacob is received by Laban with joy (12-14), Laban asks Jacob what wages he will require to serve him (15-17).
The story of Jacob’s meeting with Rachel is another well-scene (Abraham’s servant and Rebekah, Moses and Miriam, and in the New Testament, Yeshua and the woman of Samaria). Wells were a scene of social interchange in the semi-arid climates of the Near East. The stone at the well figures prominently in this story, connecting it with the one that came before in which Jacob laid his head on a stone and made an altar out of it (Sarna). Now, the stone which keeps outsiders from using the local well is noted to be large. The locals say they are waiting for men to arrive and move the stone so they can water their flocks. But when Jacob sees Rachel, he is moved with love and moves the stone himself (Moses will similarly distinguish himself as strong at the well in Exodus 2). The motif of a stone shows how Jacob is experiencing blessing, hearing from and worshipping God and then finding a woman like his mother who will be the love of his life. The story of Jacob’s wooing of Rachel is set up with the usual customs of hospitality and matchmaking. Yet there is a problem, since Leah is the older sister and custom dictates a match for her before Rachel. Jacob’s blessings are not without tension.
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GENESIS 29:18 – 30:13
Jacob’s seven years for Rachel (18-20), Laban deceives by giving Leah instead (21-25), Jacob obligates himself seven more years for Rachel (26-30), Leah’s four sons (29:31-35), Bilhah’s two sons (30:1-8), Zilpah’s two sons (9-13).
This passage is interesting for the window it provides on customs, for its literary themes, and for revealing the origins of the tribal patriarchs. Jacob’s seven-year service is to pay the bride price, which was not given to him by his father as was the case for Isaac in 24:53 (Sarna). Laban values a cousin as a husband for his daughter because that is the way of pastoral nomads to preserve the clan (Sarna). Leah is able to be substituted because she was veiled on her wedding night, as evidenced by texts from the Near East about marriage (see 24:65, Sarna). The bridal week (vs. 27) is the week of feasting in the new marriage. Jacob only waited seven days to get Rachel, but worked seven years to pay off his debt for the bride price. In terms of literary themes, Jacob pretended to be Esau and now has the same trick played on him. But God’s providence is behind it all (Sarna). Leah, whom he would not have married, bears Levi and Judah, the two most important tribes. The inner-marital political maneuvering of the wives and their maids shows how nomadic customs and household politics led to the progenitors of the twelve tribes.
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Bargaining over mandrakes (14-15), Leah earns the marriage bed for mandrakes and bears two sons and a daughter (16-21), God remembers Rachel and she bears a son (22-24), Jacob seeks to leave wily Laban (25-27).
A mandrake (mandragora officinarum) is a small plant with yellow fruit and a long root which in some cases splits in two and resembles the shape of a human body. One nickname for Aphrodite was “lady of the mandrake” (Sarna). These plants are mentioned in Song of Songs 7:13-14. Rachel thinks these will end her barrenness, but Leah bears three children as a result of giving up the mandrakes (Sarna). Meanwhile, the narrator tells us that Rachel’s son comes as a result of God remembering her (implicitly, then, not the mandrakes). Leah has to “hire” her husband to get him in bed. The striving between wives is a tragic note in the tale of two graspers, Laban and Jacob, whose manipulations have trapped these women in a bitter struggle for affection. Jacob seeks now to part with Laban, but Laban can sense that God’s blessing, the blessing of Abraham, is with Jacob. Even outsiders can see the Abrahamic blessing if they look for it.
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GENESIS 30:28 – 31:16
Laban turns Jacob’s intent to leave into a negotiation (28-34), Laban manipulates the flock conditions to minimize Jacob’s portion (35-36), Jacob uses magical means (or pretends) to manipulate the flock (30:37-43), Jacob prepares to leave Laban (31:1-9), Jacob seeks his wives’ consent to leave and relates two dreams from God (10-14), Rachel and Leah also wish to leave their dishonest father (15-16).
Laban has grown richer with Jacob’s skillful work over the flocks. Jacob is like his grandfather in skill with animals and business. Rather than accepting Jacob’s leave, Laban attempts to offer a deal, but plans to sabotage the deal in order to keep the wealth for himself. Jacob probably expects this and has his own plan. The first part of the plan is related in 30:47-43 and involves magical means (rods of wood at the trough). But more is revealed about the plan in 31:8-12. God blessed Jacob with newborn goats and sheep that would belong to him and not Laban. Sarna attempts a convoluted scientific explanation. But it seems that Jacob knew that God would take care of the results. Thus, we are left to wonder: was the magical manipulation a trick to deceive Laban? Or was Jacob hedging his bets and using magic as well as trusting in God’s providence? The interplay of magic and divine providence has already been a theme (the story of the mandrakes). Whatever Jacob may or may not believe, the reader knows that God’s providence is what brought him blessing.
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Jacob flees and Rachel steals an idol (17-21), Laban pursues and is warned by a divine dream (22-24), Laban accuses Jacob’s camp of stealing an idol (25-30), Jacob says Laban may kill the thief (31-32), Rachel deceives her father (33-35), Jacob is angry with Laban (36).
Sarna thinks possibly Rachel stole the idol to prevent Laban from being able to use divination to find them as they fled. Or perhaps she felt she needed the security of a god to be with her. Laban’s speech is typical of abusers of others: he plays the victim though he has done worse to Jacob and his daughters. The story emphasizes Jacob’s integrity relative to Laban. Laban’s false accusations include the notion that Jacob forced Rachel and Leah with threats. Sarna points out the irony of Rachel’s claim to be on her period and thus unclean (ideas of impurity from menstruation predate the Torah): she devalues the idol so much, she sits on it. It is likely Rachel did not intend to make a statement against idolatry, but the narrator does through this story device.
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GENESIS 31:43 – 32:3 (32:2 in Christian Bibles)
Laban concedes that Jacob is an equal power (43), a covenant of equals between Laban and Jacob (44-54), Jacob reenters the land encountering angels (32:1-3).
Laban admits that he is powerless to oppose Jacob as they are now equal in power. He proposes a covenant of non-hostility. Jacob’s name for the place where they made a mound is Gal-ed, as Jacob is in the region of Gilead (the Transjordan region). The covenant ceremony consists of an altar and two covenant meals, one provided by Laban and the other by Jacob. Sarna notes the consistency of this form with texts about covenants in the period. Also, he argues that this is not likely a late fiction since Aram and Israel were bitter enemies in monarchic times. Laban names two deities, the God of Abraham and the god of Nahor (the Laban clan’s patriarch, see 22:20). These should be seen as two separate deities. The reader should note that Jacob only swears by “the Fear of his father, Isaac” (vs. 53). On returning to the land, Jacob encounters angels, just as he had when leaving. His coming and going are marked by signs of the divine presence, a visual testimony to him that the covenant blessings are centered in the land.
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GENESIS 32:4-13 (3-12 in Chr Bibles)
Jacob sends word to Esau (4-5), the messengers report that Esau is coming (6), Jacob prepares by dividing into two camps (7-8), Jacob prays (9-13).
Sarna notes that Jacob’s description to Esau of his wealth is deliberately understated. He mentions each element of his wealth in the singular. Not discernible in English translations, literally vs. 6 (5) says, “I have an ox, a donkey, a flock, and a slave, and a maidservant.” Jacob’s reasons may include: not wanting to boast to his brother whom he has wronged, not wanting to tempt him to attack, and wanting to surprise him with a large gift. Word that Esau is coming with four hundred men sounds like an attack. Jacob prepares and then prays. He begins by reminding God of the promise: “O Lord, who said to me . . .” Jacob is doing the very thing that God said. Now, can he trust God? Vs. 11 (10) is an unusually clear statement of the truth from Jacob. He is not worthy of the hesed and emet God has shown. These two words join together in meaning (a pattern called hendiadys) and could be rendered “faithful lovingkindness.” God has fulfilled every aspect of his promises to Jacob and it has been a covenant grant, not a treaty requiring payment from Jacob. How can Jacob become a mighty number if his camp is now destroyed by Esau and all are killed? The covenant, as has often been the case, is at stake in this tragedy between brothers.
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The gift for Esau (14-22), Jacob wrestles with a divine figure (23-30).
The total number of animals in Jacob’s gift is 550, staggered with space between the groups to increase the surprise or delight in the gift (Sarna). Jacob’s fear of Esau is evident in this huge tribute. God has so blessed Jacob, he can, in essence, return the fruits of the birthright (double portion of inheritance) to Esau. Jacob himself did not receive any wealth from his father, but paid his own way with Laban during all the years away. Esau, however, receives a fortune in tribute from the one who bought the inheritance rights from him. The story of the wrestling raises many questions. Who is the man Jacob wrestles? Why does the man accost Jacob? Why does the man want to be released before dawn? What does the story mean about the man wrenching Jacob’s hip? Why does Jacob think he has seen God? Why does Jacob get a new name? Why does the man bless Jacob in the end? Jacob has been a wrestler figuratively all his life and now his trial of faith is enacted literally (Alter). The divine figure has been identified as a river-spirit (from similar folklore), as God or an angel standing in for God, and as the angel of Esau/Edom. The purpose of the wrestling aligns with God’s work in Jacob’s life, so the wrestler represents God one way or another. God is teaching Jacob his own limits and his future. Alter finds the key in his interpretation of the name Israel (notoriously hard to decipher). Names with el as a suffix have God as the subject (“God will prevail”) and not the object (“one who defeats God”). Jacob (and his children) may wrestle, but God will prevail. The divine figure does not want Jacob to see him in daylight. Jacob does not want to let go until he receives a blessing. The giving of the name is the blessing. Jacob and his children will remain forever under God’s rule. The relationship between God and man is depicted as a wrestling encounter. We seek blessing through manipulation of circumstances. But biblical wisdom is knowing that God will prevail. Nonetheless, clinging to God and holding out for blessing is not discouraged. As will be illustrated in Israel’s story again and again, striving with God and submitting to God are both part of our relationship. Those who refuse to let go are praised and those who know God will prevail are wise.
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GENESIS 32:31 – 33:5
Jacob’s reaction to the encounter (31), the custom of not eating the sinew (32-33), Jacob separates the family prior to meeting Esau (33:1-3), Esau greets Jacob with unexpected joy (4-5).
Jacob, rightly or wrongly, assumes that he has seen deity. It is a given that a mere vision of deity can kill a person. In many biblical encounters people fear death and Exodus 33:20 states this as a true principle. The custom of avoiding meat touching the hip sinew (gid hanasheh) has been specified as involving the sciatic nerve. Kosher meat in some places avoids nearly the entire back half of the animal while in others the nerve is carefully removed so all meat can be enjoyed. Jacob’s dividing of the children and their mothers is not about safety, but is to present them to Esau (Sarna). Their meeting is dramatic, with five active verbs: ran, embraced, falling, kissed, and wept. Jacob fears Esau’s unknown intentions, but instead of violence there is blessing, in keeping with God’s promise. Jacob now addresses Esau as a superior (“your servant”).
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The women and children bow to Esau (6-7), Jacob urges Esau to take the blessing (8-11), Jacob separates from Esau (12-16), prolonged stay in Succoth (17), Jacob dwells in Shechem (18-20).
With the main drama over, the narrative of Jacob and the consequences of his actions comes to a final dramatic irony. Having taken Esau’s birthright through shrewdness, Jacob has given it back in the form of the large gift of pastoral wealth (550 animals in all). Now in verse 11, though English translations often fail to capture it (the ESV is an exception), Jacob insists that Esau keep the gift and he calls it a blessing: “please accept my blessing that is brought to you.” Jacob is seeking to undo the hurt he has caused Esau. The irony continues as Jacob says “seeing you is as seeing the face of God.” The reader knows just before his meeting with Esau, Jacob in some mysterious sense saw “the face of God” (32:30). Jacob’s striving, his determination to prevail, his taking of the father’s blessing by deception, God makes known to him are truly acts of wrestling with the divine. Facing his fear of Esau represents the human side of that wrestling whereas his mystical encounter at the Jabbok river just before represents the divine side. The events of this present world are mirrored in the world above and the issues in Jacob’s life concern nothing less than the passing down of covenant blessings. Like Jacob, the people of Israel throughout history will be wrestling in the human and divine realm, with God always prevailing. In this parting of the brothers, it seems that Jacob deceives Esau once again. He speaks of coming to Seir to visit Esau (vs. 14), but instead he goes to Succoth and then, after a prolonged stay there, moves to Shechem.
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GENESIS 34:1 – 35:11
Shechem assaults Dinah (1-7), Hamor and Shechem seek to try to smooth things over with marriage (8-12), Jacob’s sons deceive Hamor’s clan (13-17), Hamor has his men circumcised (18-24), Jacob’s sons slaughter the whole clan (25-29), Jacob is wrathful (30-31), God instructs Jacob to move to Bethel (35:1), Jacob orders all idols put away (2-7), the death of Deborah (8), God appears to Jacob (9-11).
NOTES: Shechem’s assault on Dinah has three verbs: took her, lay with her, and raped/shamed her. The third verb is slightly obscure, but is used in other contexts for oppression in slavery and also for sexual offenses (see esp. Deut 21:14 and 22:14). It is very unlikely that Shechem seduced Dinah. Jacob’s objection to his sons’ deception and slaughter of a town has two motives: their action puts Jacob’s clan at risk and their action is immoral which puts Jacob at risk with God. Jacob knows his family is to represent divine justice in the land of Canaan, but instead his sons practice blood vengeance which God hates. On his deathbed, Jacob denounces the immorality of Simeon and Levi (49:5-7). The note about Deborah, Rebekah’s nurse, in 35:8, seems out of place. She has no connection to the story. Sarna surmises that this historical note was meaningful to the original readers because of some lost tradition about Deborah and the place of Bethel. Jacob’s divine leading to go to Bethel completes his journey toward God and the covenant of his fathers. Sarna observes that this is the first tension between paganism and the covenant faith as Jacob requires all those in his clan to put away idols. Jacob had sworn to renounce idols if God brought him back to Bethel. In the vision there, God once again reaffirms that Jacob’s line is chosen, will be fruitful, and will father many nations. The note about Jacob fathering nations is strange, since all descendants of Jacob are Israelites. Is this a hint of the later division of Israel into a northern (Israel) and southern kingdom (Judah)?
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GENESIS 35:12 – 36:19
The encounter with God at Bethel (12-15), Rachel’s death (16-20), Reuben’s sin (21-22), Jacob’s sons (23-26), Isaac’s death (27-29), Esau’s line (36:1-19).
At the place where Jacob had first heard from God (28:10-22) he receives the final affirmation of the covenant promises. The land will belong to Jacob’s descendants. He either makes a new pillar or repairs the older one he had already set up here at Bethel and offers wine and oil on it. As Sarna observes, after the first encounter at Bethel, Jacob traveled north and saw Rachel, only to be separated from her while working for Laban. Now, after the second encounter he is separated from her again. Jacob retells the events of his life in 48:3-7 in this order, mentioning the theophany at Bethel followed by the death of Rachel. Reuben lays with Bilhah after Rachel’s death to preserve his mother Leah’s supremacy (Bilhah would be a shamed woman after Reuben’s act) and also to assert his claim to dominance in the family (even suggesting that he threatened Jacob’s role as patriarch). The tribe of Reuben was discredited by this act and lost their primacy. Esau’s descendants are listed to show fulfillment of the line of Isaac and the promise of many nations to come from the Abrahamic line.
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The Horites in Edom’s territory (20-30), the Edomite kings (31-39), the clans of Esau (40-43).
Edom is an important rival nation to Israel in the future. The genealogy of Esau, of Seir the Horite, and the list of kings and clans is important for the later history of Israel. A note like 36:31 (” before any king reigned over the Israelites”) is an example of undeniable evidence that the Torah was at least edited much after the time of Moses. Sarna notes that the prophecy of 25:23 (“the older shall serve the younger”) and 27:40 (“you shall serve your brother”) occurred in the days of David (2 Sam 8:2, 13-14; 1 Kgs 11:14-17).
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The Joseph conflict begins (1-4), Joseph’s dreams (5-11).
So much of Israel’s later history was decided by the actions of the tribal patriarchs. The primacy of Judah and Joseph (Ephraim) are a result of the actions of the patriarchs (and the low place of Reuben and Simeon likewise). Brotherly jealousy and the striving in a family for supremacy form the theme for Joseph’s troubles. The narratives of Joseph are very different from those that precede it. This is a story that will be told in detail. It has been called a novella. It is unique in ancient literature for its realism and advanced narrative technique. The story abounds with symbolism about the place of Israel and the nations in God’s plan of redemption of the world. God is behind the scenes in the Joseph story. This is now the way God will work in Israel’s history, not in theophanies, but in unseen blessing and trials. Joseph is a favorite son and the eldest sons resent him for his place with Jacob and also for his naive decision to report their misdeeds to his father and also to tell them of his dreams of supremacy. The dreams are true and we will find later that they come from God. Yet Joseph does not yet understand the workings of leadership in the reality of jealousy and conflict. He will learn through trials and become a leader of awesome magnitude in his era.
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Joseph sent to check on his brothers in Shechem (12-14), a man points Joseph to Dothan (15-17), the brothers plot to kill Joseph (18-20), Reuben saves Joseph’s life (21-22).
Sarna suggests that this incident takes place not long after the Dinah incident of ch. 34, since Joseph and Dinah are of similar age (30:21-24) and Joseph is now seventeen (37:2). Jacob is perhaps worried about the brothers getting involved in more trouble in Shechem. Joseph either does not know that his brothers despise him or he naively thinks he is safe. The arrival in Shechem (a five day journey from Hebron) and further journey to Dothan (thirteen more miles northwest) reveals Joseph as obedient and persistent in his duties. By contrast, the brothers are quick to resort to evil. Reuben tries to save Joseph but has little mastery over his brothers so that he can only partially save him. He later is contrite about his inability to save Joseph (42:22) and offers his two sons’ lives as a promise that he will not fail to protect Benjamin’s life (42:37). The pit they plan to throw Joseph into is a cistern, a reservoir dug into the rock to hold runoff water. Reuben plans to rescue Joseph from the cistern and return him to Jacob, but that plan will go awry.
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The brothers remove Joseph’s robe (23), they cast Joseph in a pit and eat a meal (24-25a), Judah suggests selling Joseph to some passing Ishmaelites (25b-27), passing Midianites sell Joseph to some Ishmaelites (28), Reuben finds Joseph missing and reports it to the brothers (29-30), the brothers deceive Jacob into thinking Joseph is dead (31-35), Medanites (Midianites?) sell Joseph to Potiphar in Egypt (36).
Do we try to read this story as a unity or, following clues that it contains some discrepancies, do we separate out the two stories that appear to have been combined into one? The medieval rabbinic commentators have worked out several methods to try and keep the story unified. Yet is possible to find seams in the story and divide it back out into two similar but slightly different versions (see Joel Baden, The Composition of the Pentateuch, for a thorough explanation). See below for an explanation of the story if we separate out what appears to be two versions. If we try to read the story as a unity, it is necessary to assume that Ishmaelites and Midianites are the same. We have explain the contradiction that in vs. 28 Midianites sold Joseph to passing Ishmaelites, who then took him to Egypt, while in vs. 26, Midianites brought him to Egypt and sold him. Rabbinic commentators solve this by assuming many steps in selling Joseph (such as Midianites to Ishmaelites back to Midianites and then sold in Egypt). We also have to assume that the brothers merely suggested selling Joseph, but did not actually do so (but see 45:4). These many problems are the basis of the theory of two versions combined into one. Regardless of how we deal with the details, the main points of the story are clear. Jacob’s sons are deceivers who outdo their father in trickery. Joseph’s entry into Egypt as a slave, however it happened exactly, will end up prefiguring the enslavement of the Hebrews by Pharaoh. Some refer to Joseph’s entry into Egypt as the Eisodus (migration in) which sets up the later Exodus (migration out). The emotional complexity of the story can be seen in that both Reuben and Judah, though apparently seeming indifferent, try to save Joseph’s life. These unspoken feelings will come up again later in the story in interactions between Reuben and the brothers (42:22), Reuben and Jacob (42:37), and Judah and Joseph (44:32-34). Jacob’s grief over what he thinks is his the dead son of his favorite wife will become an emotional theme involving Benjamin in the later parts of this story. The Joseph story is detailed and powerful on the level of story and also as a prefiguring of the covenant and history.
THE TWO-VERSION THEORY: See Joel Baden, The Composition of the Pentateuch, for a detailed explanation. One version can be found by separating out 37:19-20, 23, 25b-27, 28b, 31-35 (thought to be from an ancient Judean source, J) and the other is in 37:18, 21-22, 24-25a, 28a, 29-30, 36 (thought to be from an ancient northern Israelite source, E). It is helpful to use a computer Bible to cut and paste and view the two theorized stories separately. Separating vs. 28 is crucial to this theory. The first part, 28a, (“Then Midianite traders passed by and they drew Joseph up out of the pit”) goes with the E story in which Midianites removed Joseph and sold him without the brother’s knowledge. Vs. 28b (“… and sold him to the Ishmaelites for twenty shekels of silver; and they brought Joseph to Egypt”) continues the thought in vs. 27 (“and the brothers listened to him …”) in the J story, where the brothers sold Joseph to Ishmaelites. In the E story, it is Reuben who tries to save Joseph (by suggesting they throw him alive in a pit) and in the J story, it is Judah (by suggesting they sell Joseph). The two versions can be compared to examples in the gospels (such as the Gerasene and Gadarene demoniac stories) which have more than one version with slight differences in detail. Putting the two versions together into one story would be like combining a story from Matthew with its parallel in Luke and attempting to harmonize the differences. The best evidence for the two version theory is that Genesis 37:28 shows Midianites selling Joseph to passing Ishmaelites while 37:36 shows Midianites selling Joseph to Potiphar in Egypt. This discrepancy is difficult to explain away.
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Judah’s Canaanite marriage and his sons (1-5), Tamar and Judah’s sons (6-11), Tamar deceives Judah (12-26), birth of Perez and Zerah (27-30).
This tale of Judah and Tamar interrupts and heightens the suspense of the Joseph novella. Sarna observes parallels between the two tales: both involve a deception, a kid from the flock, the production of evidence, temptation to sex, and issues between brothers. Joseph will become the primary tribe (Ephraim) of the northern kingdom and Judah of the southern. These juxtaposed stories reveal the origins of kingdoms and fulfill the “kings will come from your loins” promise to Jacob in 35:11.
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In bondage the Lord is with Joseph (1-2), divine and human favor falls on Joseph (3-6).
The Joseph novella resumes after the Judah and Tamar incident. No notice of divine favor on Judah played into his story at all. Judah and Joseph are contrasted in a number of ways. Joseph’s journey and bondage in Egypt prefigures Israel’s coming bondage. The Abrahamic promise brings favor to Joseph as it will to Israelites in later times. Divine favor on Joseph brings blessing to his gentile master, a recurring picture of the mutual blessing theme of Genesis 12:3 and other parts of the Abrahamic promise. The strange note in vs. 6 has drawn several interpretations. What does it mean that Potiphar was concerned about which food Joseph ate? Some see this as a euphemism for Potiphar’s wife based on Proverbs 30:20 (Sarna). Others suggest this is about Egyptians not dining with foreigners based on Genesis 43:32.
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Potiphar’s wife tries to seduce Joseph (7-10), Potiphar’s wife falsely accuses Joseph (11-19), Joseph has divine and human favor in prison (20-23).
The second descent of Joseph into bondage is as dramatic as the first. He has moved from favorite son to slave and then from favorite slave to prisoner. But the ascent of Joseph is equally dramatic: from slave to favorite and then from prisoner to favorite. With every tragedy, Joseph finds that divine favor lifts him up. No place is beyond the reach of God’s providence. Just so, the covenant promises will follow Israel in all exiles and wanderings. Some interpreters have suggested that the Joseph story might have become especially appreciated during the exile in Babylon and after. The faithful in Israel, those who clung to the teachings of Isaiah and the community of disciples who came from Isaiah, could have looked to the Joseph story with hope. Vs. 21 assures Israel that “Hashem was with Joseph” even in prison and that, vs. 23, Joseph could succeed through wisdom and righteousness. The most dramatic declines can be reversed and God is with those who trust in him even in depressing circumstances.
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The baker and cupbearer join Joseph in prison (1-4), dreams and Joseph’s ability to divinely interpret (5-8), Joseph interprets the cupbearer’s dream (9-15), Joseph interprets the baker’s dream (16-19), it happens as Joseph said (20-22), the cupbearer does not remember Joseph (23).
The prophetic and wisdom nature of the Joseph story is strong in this section. The dreams of the cupbearer and baker are like riddles, making their interpretation a matter of wisdom like the sages of the Near East. Yet the interpretation Joseph gets is from God, making them prophetic. At the same time, Joseph is an innocent sufferer, a theme of wisdom literature. Much of Israel’s later suffering in history is a matter of judgment for sin, unlike the Joseph story. But some of Israel’s suffering is innocent, unjust hatred against the blessed people of God. A number of texts in later Israelite tradition will deal with people hating Israel without cause. Mutual cursing instead of mutual blessing is the way of the world and Israel is hated for being blessed. In this sense, Joseph prefigures Israel’s later history (and in his relations with foreign nations prefiguring Israel and the nations in the divine economy). Israel, like Joseph, is the source of divine knowledge given to the nations, but Israel, like Joseph, is not remembered by the nations as the source of knowledge and blessing.
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Pharaoh’s dream of cows (1-4), Pharaoh’s dream of stalks of grain (5-7), the magicians cannot interpret (8), the cupbearer at last remembers Joseph (9-14).
As the Joseph story prefigures Israel’s later history, we should note that what makes the nations turn to Joseph/Israel is divine revelation. The nations (Pharaoh, Egypt) must turn to Israel to know God’s will and promises. The pattern of mutual blessing from Genesis 12:3 operates in these terms: the nations receive God’s word from Israel, in turn the nations bless Israel, in turn God blesses the nations (see R. Kendall Soulen, The God of Israel and Christian Theology). Joseph is freed at last after a long imprisonment (so Israel’s history will be one involving suffering) and Pharaoh is about the be greatly blessed.
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Joseph says God, not he, will answer (15-16), Pharaoh’s dreams recounted (17-24), Joseph gives God’s answer (25-32), Joseph’s wisdom and counsel (33-36), Pharaoh recognizes divine power in Joseph (37-38).
The Joseph story is at pains to say, in its prefiguring of Israel’s later history, that it is God’s self-disclosure revealed to Israel that brings wisdom and blessing. Thus, Joseph denies being the interpreter, showing himself a model Israelite whose faith in divine revelation and wisdom in rejecting self-sufficiency exalts him. There is a parallel between David and Joseph, two figures who understood in confusing times the centrality of divine revelation and power. Again, in keeping with the message of prefiguring Israel’s later history and demonstrating how the Abrahamic promise works, Joseph blesses the gentiles with divine revelation and is himself blessed with liberation and exaltation. The mutual blessing principle of Genesis 12:3 continues to assert itself in the story.
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Joseph is made a ruler of Egypt (39-43), Joseph is married to Asenath and begins his administration (44-46), Joseph implements the plan for mass storage of grain (47-49), Joseph’s two sons (50-52).
This section conveys the blessings that come to Joseph in keeping with the covenant promise of mutual blessing (as per Genesis 12:3). Joseph’s life in Egypt is historically symbolic life of the relation between Israel and the nations. In terms of the covenant theme, we see here the blessing of Israel (Joseph) by a nation which in turn receives blessing from God, as promised. In terms of the unfolding drama, the famine is what will bring the brothers unwittingly to the one they cast out. Several untranslatable words and names occur. In vs. 43, the people shout “Abrek!” to Joseph as he passes in the chariot. Following a rabbinic interpretation, most English translations render this “bow,” but Sarna argues the meaning has been lost. The name given to Joseph, Zaphenath-paneah, is also unknown, but may mean something like “God speaks” or “creator of life” (Sarna). The city On is later known as Heliopolis, a great center of Egyptian religion. Potiphera, though a name similar to Potiphar, is different enough to realistically refer to a different person (cf. 37:46). Joseph’s sons receive names fitting with their meaning in Joseph’s experience of sorrow and then blessing. Ephraim will become the largest tribe of the northern kingdom of Israel, a future rival with Judah. Manasseh (Menasheh, a Piel participle from nashah) means “he who causes forgetfulness” and Ephraim (related to the root parah) means either “doubly fruitful” or “fruitful place.” These meanings are explained by the brief sayings in vss. 51-52. Joseph recognizes divine favor in the birth of his sons by giving them names with meaning to express his sense of being redeemed by God.
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GENESIS 41:53 – 42:18
The famine happens as Joseph foretold (41:53-57), Joseph’s brothers come to Egypt for grain (42:1-5), Joseph conceals his identity and tests his brothers (6-18).
When the Nile did not flood throughout the growing regions of Egypt, the entire surrounding area suffered since Egypt was a major producer of grain. Seven years of poor floodwaters would be a devastating famine. Often justice is measure for measure. Joseph puts his brothers to the test, putting them in bondage as they did to him. How will they stand up to the strain of imprisonment? Sarna suggests he may also have wished to see how rivalries would affect their decision regarding which brother to send back to Jacob to fetch Benjamin. Joseph, who has absolute power to imprison or kill, chooses first to test.
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GENESIS 42:19 – 43:15
Joseph sends them to bring Benjamin (19-20), the brothers unwittingly reveal their remorse in front of Joseph (21-23), Joseph chooses Simeon as hostage and sends them away (24-26), return to Canaan (27-28), Jacob’s grief and refusal (42:29-38), the second journey with Judah as a guarantor for Benjamin (43:1-15).
Joseph receives some atoning satisfaction for his tragedy, as the brothers unknowingly reveal their guilt. The story of the brothers’ guilt and Joseph’s rise from tragic circumstances prefigures later tribal rivalries. If the tribes of Israel were to be united in their faith in God instead of engaging in rivalries, the nation would be blessed. He chooses Simeon, the next oldest, after hearing of Reuben’s innocence in 42:22 (Sarna). Simeon, for his wrong in the matter of Shechem (34:25) will amount to nothing as a tribe, becoming absorbed into the territory of Judah. Only two things make the second trip to Egypt happen: desperation in light of the famine and Judah’s surety to his father for Benjamin’s life.
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The brothers with Benjamin are received in Joseph’s private home (16-18), the brothers ask the steward about the money in their packs (19-23), they are received with hospitality (24-25), the brothers present their gift and bow before Joseph (26-28), Joseph blesses Benjamin (29).
The house steward is apparently in on the game Joseph is playing with his brothers. He tells them that their God, the God of their fathers, must have caused their money to appear in their packs because, he insists, he received their payment. We know that Joseph deliberately had the money replaced in their sacks, so the steward’s words are a lie (see 42:25). Joseph is not finished testing his brothers and tormenting them.
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GENESIS 43:30 – 44:17
Joseph is overcome (30), the meal and Benjamin’s favor (43:31-34), Joseph tests them again (44:1-2), Joseph’s agents catch them on the way to arrest them (3-10), the brothers rend their clothes as the silver cup is found in Benjamin’s sack (11-13), Joseph states his intention to keep Benjamin as a slave (14-17).
NOTES: The meal seems a strange part of the narrative, but may be included as a counterpoint to the meal the brothers ate after putting Joseph in the pit. Giving Benjamin a larger portion may have been a test to see if the brothers resent Benjamin as they had resented Joseph (Sarna). The final test is the hardest. If the brothers stay with Benjamin, they cannot take the food home and save their families and their father. If they abandon Benjamin, they will break their assurances to their father and slay him with grief.
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Judah’s appeal (18), Judah recounts Joseph’s demand and the fact that bringing Benjamin will kill Jacob (19-24), Judah recounts Jacob’s declaration that losing Benjamin will kill him (25-29), Judah assures Joseph that Jacob will die with grief (30).
Joseph has been testing his brothers, seeing if they have genuine remorse for their crime and if they have changed. Judah’s speech will convince Joseph at last, since Judah is the leader of the brothers. Judah had been the one to save Joseph’s life by suggesting they sell him to the caravan (37:26). Now Judah’s speech is so full of humility and pathos, Joseph is at last about to lose his emotional control and finally relent to help his brothers. Particularly poignant is the report of Jacob’s grief for Joseph, “Surely he has been torn to pieces!” and what will happen if the same fate befalls Benjamin, “You will bring down my gray hairs to Sheol!” Although it seems Joseph has been callous, waiting too long to bring restoration, when he finally does, the past offense between the brothers will be truly dealt with and the reconciliation will be deep.
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GENESIS 44:31 – 45:7
Judah offers himself as slave in Benjamin’s place (44:31-34), Joseph breaks down (45:1-2), Joseph reveals himself to his brothers (3), Joseph explains the divine purpose (4-7).
Joseph, who recounts the meaning of dreams, is essentially a prophet. Interpreting the divine purpose in history is also a form of prophecy. For this reason, in Jewish Bibles, the section containing Joshua through Kings is known as the “Former Prophets.” The essence of prophecy is the disclosure of God’s thoughts to humans. Joseph sees the tragedy and reversal of his life as salvation for the family of Israel. This divine purpose means that some suffering in life is consistent with redemption and deliverance. The interplay of perfect justice (the righteous never suffer) and the working of evil is a repeated theme in the Hebrew Bible. One aspect of Israel’s history of suffering is the knowledge that God is bringing redemption through it. So it is that Joseph tells his brothers “God sent me before you to preserve life.” Can a good thing, a measure of salvation, come directly from an act of evil? Yes, it can, and God’s way in this present world is to “work all things according to the counsel of his will” (Eph 1:11). In other words, the tragedies that people weave through our many choices, God allows, but he makes through them a thread of salvation that cannot fail. Israel’s eisodus (immigration into Egypt) began with some brothers selling one of their own as a slave, but God planned to bring out a nation of slaves in the Exodus. Occasionally, through the eyes of a prophet like Joseph, we get glimpses of the thread of salvation that runs through history.
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God sent me here (8), Joseph sends the brothers to bring Jacob and the whole family into Egypt (9-13), Joseph embraces his brothers (14-15), Pharaoh grants a choice place for Israel to dwell (16-18).
The theme of the nations blessing Israel comes full circle. Israel (literally Jacob as Israel and the whole group of patriarchal Israel) is invited to dwell in the choice land of Egypt. This is a sort of exile that begins in blessing, though it will become a tribulation in later generations. It is the eisodus (immigration into Egypt) which will become the Exodus (emigration out from Egypt). Joseph has saved Egypt and now Egypt saves Israel. Genesis 12:3 continues to reverberate as the Joseph narratives flesh out in historical story what the covenant promises mean.
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Pharaoh offers full provision for Joseph’s family (19-20), Joseph weighs them down with provisions and gives extra to Benjamin (21-24), the brothers come to Jacob (25-27), Jacob is revived with hope (28).
Sarna notes that it is fitting that one of the gifts Joseph gives the brothers is an extra set of garments, since their hateful action against him involved a garment. Jacob’s spirit was revived upon hearing that Joseph was still alive. The concept behind these words seems to be that the great sadness Jacob carried with him concerning his son’s death was like a death of part of himself as well. But the news of life revived what was dead in Jacob’s soul.
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GENESIS 45:28 – 46:27
Jacob’s determination to see Joseph again (45:28), vision of God at Beersheba (46:1-4), the journey to Egypt (5-7), Jacob’s genealogy (8-27).
NOTES: Having had the dead part of his soul revived (from yesterday’s reading, 45:27), Jacob is determined to see Joseph in Egypt. As Jacob is leaving the land there is some anxiety evident in the story about the chosen people leaving the promised land. Beersheba is a place where Abraham and Isaac had sojourned. It was along the way to Egypt, so Jacob stopped in Beersheba at the family pillar or altar. As before when Jacob left the land and then when he re-entered, God appears and assures him the Abrahamic promise will continue to be in force. Only after this does Jacob allow his sons to place him and their possessions in the wagons sent to bring them into Egypt. It is possible that Jacob was afraid to leave the land without hearing from God. Note that God has not spoken to Joseph or appeared to him, yet the way of God with Jacob is different than with Joseph.
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GENESIS 46:28 – 47:10
Joseph rides out to meet his father (28-30), preparing to meet with Pharaoh (46:31-34), Pharaoh and the brothers (47:1-6), Pharaoh and Jacob (7-10).
The Grand Vizier of all Egypt (Joseph) rides out on a chariot to embrace Jacob. The picture is one of the amazing results of God’s promises to the Abrahamic clan. In vss. 31-34, Joseph recognizes the importance of the meeting as the specifics of Pharaoh’s promise of a land grant will be fulfilled. Ever the careful and wise administrator, Joseph prepares for the meeting. Joseph uses the revulsion townspeople have for herders and nomads to influence the location of the land grant. The fact that Joseph’s family requests only to sojourn is significant. In the Passover Haggadah, this is the basis of a tradition that the intention was only to remain here, and out of the land of promise, temporarily. Sarna suggests that Pharaoh’s response, which is to Joseph directly and not to the brothers, indicates a superior aloofness. Pharaoh is granting this favor to Joseph and not to the brothers per se. Yet in the next scene, Pharaoh shows respect to Jacob, likely impressed by his age. Jacob’s age makes him a formidable person, one who has seen much and knows much, so that even Pharaoh is impressed.
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Joseph settles and sustains his family in Goshen (11-12), Joseph saves all Egypt and acquires all property for Pharaoh (13-19), Joseph nationalizes the land and makes the people tenant farmers (20-26), Israel prospers in Goshen (27).
The story of Israel settling in Goshen forms bookmarks for the beginning and end of this section. What comes between is an account of Joseph’s role in increasing Pharaoh’s power. Saving the people from famine, Joseph acquires their property in full for the throne. Far from caring that they are no longer property holders, the middle classes of Egypt are grateful and Pharaoh’s wealth and power become immense. While most of the peoples diminish in greatness during the Egyptian famine, the blessings of Genesis 12 are at work and Israel receives a land grant during this time. Pharaoh acquires the land of other peoples, but through Joseph makes a direct grant to Israel. They are now described with plural verbs, preparing the reader for the next phase of the story, as Israel multiplies and moves toward rescue from slavery.
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GENESIS 47:28 – 48:9
Jacob prepares for death and burial (47:28-31), Jacob adopts Ephraim and Manasseh (48:1-9).
There are a number of unusual features in this text. What is the purpose of Jacob’s bowing at the foot of his bed? Why does Jacob adopt Ephraim and Manasseh? Why does he talk about the burial place of Rachel? And why does he not recognize his grandsons when they are presented before him? Sarna notes the patterns in the ages of the patriarchs. Jacob’s time in Egypt is the same as Joseph’s in Canaan (17 years). The lifespans of the patriarchs are a mathematical pattern (Abraham: 5 X 5 X 7 = 175, Isaac: 6 X 6 X 5 = 180, Jacob: 7 X 7 X 3 = 147). Jacob will soon “lie down with my fathers,” an expression which Sarna shows that this is not merely a reference to burial (but a vague notion of afterlife). Jacob’s bowing could be to Joseph, out of gratitude or deference, though it is possibly to God, a sign of his reverence for the covenant (which might be his motive in asking to be buried in Canaan). Jacob adopts Ephraim and Manasseh, perhaps to make clear that they are part of the inheritance of the patriarchs and the divine covenant. Luz is the original name of Bethel (28:19). Further, in recounting the death and burial of Rachel, a digression it seems, from the adoption discussion, Jacob reveals that he felt Rachel should have had more children if she had not died young. He is also adopting Ephraim and Manasseh to give Rachel more children (Sarna). Jacob does not seem to recognize his grandchildren. This could be simply his poor eyesight (vs. 10). But Sarna suggests it is also part of the adoption proceedings, that Jacob questions Joseph about the sons so that they are formally presented for adoption.
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Jacob embraces his adopted sons (10-11), Jacob blesses the boys (12-16).
Joseph brings Ephraim and Manasseh near to Jacob, placing them on his knees as part of an adoption ritual. In 30:3, Rachel spoke of Bilhah bearing children “on my knees.” Now Joseph gives his sons to his aged father, placing them on Jacob’s knees for embracing and to signify that he has born children on Jacob’s knees. Sarna calls it a legitimation ritual, with the knees symbolizing physical birth and so indicating that the children belong by adoption to the one on whose knees they are placed. Perhaps the birth of the boys outside of the land, to an Egyptian mother, led Joseph to a ceremony of adoption to insure the inclusion of his clan in the future people of Israel. The narrative goes out of the way to depict Jacob as reversing the order of the blessing, with Ephraim getting Jacob’s right hand. Ephraim will be the larger tribe, the dominant tribe which, for much of its history, will exceed even Judah in power. Jacob’s description of God, with the image of a shepherd who has led him through his own willful battle with faith, is remarkable. Jacob himself has been a shepherd, raised sons in the occupation of shepherding, and now how sees himself as the sheep before the great Shepherd. Though in his young life he struggled greatly with the faith of his fathers, Jacob is now a venerable patriarch himself, passing down faith in the Shepherd through his blessing.
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Joseph objects to Jacob crossing the blessings (17-18), Jacob foretells the greatness of Ephraim (19), Ephraim and Manasseh as a blessing (20), Jacob meets with Joseph before dying to confer a gift (21-22).
The theme of reversal of older and younger is of course the story of Jacob himself, who supplanted Esau. He passes this reversal of primogeniture on to Ephraim, who will supplant Manasseh. Yet, Manasseh will be a successful tribe used by all Israel in a blessing formula as well (vs. 20). The modern Sabbath custom of blessing boys in the name of Ephraim and Manasseh continues from this passage. Ephraim became the most powerful tribe among Israel’s northern tribes, a rival to Judah in the south. Jacob announces that his death is coming soon and confers a gift to Joseph. The problem is understanding the meaning of the gift which is called sh’chem achad. Traditional interpretation has taken it to mean “one greater portion” given to Joseph over his brothers. The idea that Joseph received the birthright (double portion) is affirmed in 1 Chronicles 5:2. Yet, the words sh’chem achad don’t carry this meaning. Most likely this is a reference to the city of Shechem (though the meaning of achad is unclear and it is grammatically in the wrong form). Joseph ends up being buried in Shechem (Jos 24:32). Sarna lists evidence that Shechem may have been conquered in pre-Mosaic times. Jacob’s strange statement that he wrested it from the Amorites with sword and bow does not refer to any story recorded in the Bible, but perhaps this was part of Shechem’s known history. Shechem would become a major city in Manasseh. So though unusual, it seems the meaning of the verse is that Jacob conferred upon Joseph’s son Manasseh the destiny of dwelling in Shechem.
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Jacob’s last words to tell what is to come (1), Reuben (2-4), Simeon and Levi (5-7), Judah (8-12), Zebulun (13), Issachar (14-15), Dan (16-17), a prayer of Jacob interrupts the poem (18).
Sarna calls Jacob’s blessing a combination of three genres: (1) the deathbed blessing (27:27; 28:1-4, 39), (2) the farewell address such as Joshua’s (Jos 23); (3) the tribal poem (Deut 33; Jud 5). Jacob’s final words mix blessings with woes, make geographical points, comment on historical matters, and mix the past and the future from Jacob’s point of view. The medieval Jewish commentators noted the many historical references that were future to Jacob and considered them prophecy. Modern critical scholars often consider them later additions. Both prophecy and later additions are possible. We can recognize in Torah that there are additions from later than the time of Moses and so we may not be surprised to find some here, but rejecting the possibility of prophecy is unnecessary. The order of the tribes is unique in this poem and is based on the mothers: Leah’s six sons, Bilhah, Zilpah, Bilhah, Zilpah, and then Rachel’s two sons. Special issues in this section include the curious absence of any reference to Levi as the priestly tribe. Judah’s predominance does not begin in history until the time of the monarchy, but is prominent in the poem. Genesis 49:10 has messianic implications though its exact translation is obscure and much has been written about it. Zebulun is described as doing commerce by sea, though their territory in Joshua is landlocked. Sarna thinks this and similar references refer to interaction with the Philistines, a seafaring people. Jacob’s interrupting prayer in vs. 18 could be a cry resulting from seeing the future of Dan and the sad story of Samson.
**EXTRA NOTE: 49:10 in the Hebrew text we have received says, “The scepter shall not depart from Judah, nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet, until Shiloh comes.” Almost everyone thinks the Hebrew text has been slightly corrupted in transmission and possible emendations should be considered. One option is translation below, which assumes a minor change and renders it, “. . . so that tribute shall come to him.” I prefer another option: “. . . until it comes to whom it belongs” (also a minor change in the Hebrew and related to Ezekiel 21:27).
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Gad (19), Asher (20), Naphtali (21), Joseph (22-26).
Many elements in these poetic lines refer to incidents during the time of the Judges. Gad resided east of the Jordan (in the Transjordan) and warred on and off with Ammonites, Moabites, and Arameans. Asher lived north of Carmel (modern Haifa) on the coast and perhaps prospered by association with the nearby Phoenicians. Naphtali is the tribe of Barak, the general who served under Deborah. Rashi found that the “good words” of Naphtali refers to the rejoicing and the song of Deborah which praise God. Joseph’s testament is longer, as is Judah’s. In tribal strength, Ephraim (one of the two Joseph tribes) will dominate the northern tribes of Israel as Judah dominates the south. The image of a wild ass is likely a wordplay on Ephraimite (Sarna), and emphasizes independence. But the real power in Ephraim will be the covenant relationship with the Mighty One, a Shepherd to Ephraim. And the blessings of Jacob to Joseph are more than the blessings of earlier generations, even enduring to everlasting hills. That is to say, Jacob senses, with little specific revelation from God about details, that the relationship of God with Ephraim (who stands for the northern ten tribes) extends beyond this world to the next.
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GENESIS 49:27 – 50:20
Benjamin (27), Jacob’s last instructions and death (49:28-33), mourning and burial (50:1-15), the brothers and Joseph (16-20).
NOTES: Benjamin will become a warlike tribe as the account in Judges 20 attests. Sarna notes that their territory, being between Judah and Ephraim, was a common staging area for war. Jacob instructs his sons to bury him in the Cave of Machpelah near Hebron. We learn that he had buried Leah there (whereas Rachel was buried near Bethlehem). Joseph has Jacob embalmed or mummified as a powerful Egyptian lord would be (later Joseph will also be mummified). Jacob is buried in state with a huge contingent of Egyptian officials and chariots. The blessing theme of Genesis 12 shows through again, as a humble patriarch receives a funeral fit for a king, blessed by the nations. The brothers worry after Jacob’s death that Joseph will at last seek vengeance. This leads to one of the most significant theological statements in the Bible: “You meant evil against me, but God meant it for good.” Evil is redeemed, not ignored, by the One who works all things to the counsel of his will. Sarna puts it in terms of Joseph’s personal theology: people cannot seek vengeance which alone belongs to God. Yet Joseph’s comment in vs. 20 is bigger than his personal theology. Human intentions of selfishness and evil will be redeemed by God who turns history towards a consummation of goodness and healing. Human evil does not thwart God’s plan, but he turns it to good by the end.
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Joseph’s promise to sustain his family in Egypt (21), Joseph’s long life and the blessing of grandchildren (22-23), Joseph announces his death and foretells God’s visitation on the children of Israel (24-25), Joseph’s death (26).
Sarna finds hints that Israel’s situation in Egypt was already deteriorating before Joseph died. Joseph’s assurance of sustenance in vs 21 and his repeated statement that “God will take notice of you” (or “visit you”) in vss. 24-25, suggest possibly that Israel already felt the weight of being in a foreign land and the need for redemption. Further, why did Joseph not request burial in the land immediately? His request that they should do this at the future time when God will visit them and brings them into the land suggests that the people of Israel were unable to make the journey in Joseph’s later days. Strangely, there is no notice of the land mourning or of any great ceremony at Joseph’s death. Perhaps this is all literary foreshadowing of the coming enslavement. The book of Genesis ends with a note that the next step in the promise is vital, that the people of Abraham would inherit the land promised to Abraham.
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