Written Assignments

The Meaning of Genesis


Web Resources for This Assignment

The Creation and Fall
Babel

The Meaning of Genesis

   Genesis is an aetiological story: its purpose is to explain the present world through its beginnings. Unlike most creations stories, the author (or authors) of Genesis is almost completely unconcerned with any other aspect of creation besides human beings. The first stories of the book, then, have as their central goal explaining the nature of human beings and their relationship to the creating god, Yahweh.
   The most important question to answer, then, is what the text has to say about the nature of humanity and its relationship to Yahweh. In order to answer this question, I'd like you to do a literal reading of both the creation of humanity and the destruction of Babel. Both of these stories are key stories in defining the unique nature of human beings in Hebrew thought and how the Hebrews conceived of the relationship between humanity and God.
   By literal interpretation, I mean interpretation that uses only what is actually said in the text of Genesis . You are not to add any other interpretations that you've heard along the way. For instance, if you say that the serpent is the devil, well, you're making that up. It's not in the text. If you say that Yahweh destroys Babel because of the pride of its people, again, you're making that up (or someone else made it up and you believed them). Yahweh does give a reason for destroying Babel and it's not because of Babel's pride.

The Interpretation

   I want you to answer the following questions in order and in two to three sentences. I don't want you to make up answers or supply answers that you've heard somewhere else. I want you to prove each and every thing you say by giving in full a quote from the text that literally supports your argument. You are not allowed to argue any interpretation which can't be obviously proved from a direct quote.
  • Question One
    What is the difference between the way Yahweh creates humanity and the way Yahweh creates the rest of creation? What do you make of that difference?
  • Question Two
    What does it mean that Yahweh creates humanity "in his own image"? (Remember: you can only use what is actually written in the text. You must use a quote from the text that obviously answers this question. You're not allowed to answer the question by repeating something you've heard.)
  • Question Three
    What is the literal meaning of Knowledge of Good and Evil?
  • Question Four
    What does it mean for Adam and Eve to disobey Yahweh? Does the rest of creation disobey Yahweh when he gives commands? What does that tell you about the unique nature of humanity?
  • Question Five
    Yahweh bestows separate punishments on Adam, Eve, and the serpent for their part in the disobedience. But the expulsion from the Garden is not one of those punishments. What reason does Yahweh give for expelling Adam and Eve from the garden? What does that tell you about the nature and potential of human beings? What is the relationship between Yahweh and humanity?
  • Question Six
    One of Adam's sons creates civilization, that is, it is one of Adam's sons who first builds a city and invents urbanization. Who creates civilization in the text? Who creates the arts of civilization, such as metallurgy and music? What do you make of the fact that it is the one son and his descendants that invent civilization? What does that tell you about the Hebrew view of civilization?
  • Question Seven
    Why do people settle down in Babel and build a city? (They give two reasons.) How would you interpret building a city in the light of your answer to question six?
  • Question Eight
    Why does Yahweh disperse the people of Babel? What reason does he give? (Quote this directly.) How do you interpret this reason in the light of your answer to question five? What is Yahweh's view of human potential?
  • Question Nine
    Last question. The story of the Fall is the story of a disobeyed command. The story of Abraham and Isaac plays out the same drama: Abraham is given a command, only this time it's obeyed. Look at the text carefully: does the author tell you why Abraham obeyed? Can you find a reason? If you can't find one in the text of the story, what do you make of the fact that it has been left out? Why does the author not give a reason?
  • Question Ten
    Now that you've answered all these questions, what is the ideal relationship between humanity and Yahweh? How does that relationship go wrong?
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