Genesis

Genesis: Introduction

   For the purposes of this course, the Old Testament or Hebrew Bible is a book of the Ancient Near East, the literature of the ancient Israelites. We will be studying it not as divine revelation, but as the central authority of Hebrew belief and culture. Much of it originated in oral tradition, and the text we have often represents a late stage in which it was finally written down.

   Genesis 1-11 tells of the creation of the world and the beginnings of the human race; Genesis 12-50 follows the stories of the great Israelite patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph. Exodus to Deuteronomy continue with the story of the escape from Egypt, the covenant and the law given on Mt. Sinai, and the wanderings in the wilderness up to the point where they are ready to enter Canaan, the Promised Land. You will notice that there are in fact two accounts of the creation, the first running from Genesis 1.1 to the middle of 2.4, the second from that point on. What important differences are there in the two accounts? As you read on, you should also notice two slightly different versions of the tale of Noah and the ark. You may also notice that the deity is referred to in two ways: as "God" and as "Yahweh." Scholars consider that these discrepancies arose because the material in Genesis once existed in two different forms: (a) a source ("J") written down in the 10th or 9th century B.C., probably in Judah, which refers to the deity as YHWH (Yahweh), rendered inaccurately into English as "Jehovah" and translated in some English versions as "the Lord": and (b) a source written down in perhaps the 5th century B.C., known as "P" because it seems to have been preserved by the priests, this version refers to the deity as ALHM (Elohim), a plural noun, "Gods," but it means "God" or "Lord." These two sources, as well as a third, less important version) were eventually edited into one version, perhaps in the 5th century B.C., and inconsistencies between the two traditions were, in some cases, retained rather than eliminated.

   In the translation here, I have striven to render the Hebrew as literally as possible to give you a feel for what the text is like in the original language. Notice that the vocabulary used is in fact very small and that the narrative uses polysyndeton (stringing together clauses and sentences with the word "and") all the time, much more so than most translations you've read. These are, in fact, vital aspects of the original text.

   Hebrew text taken from Biblia Hebraica , ed. by Rudolf Kittel (Stuttgart: Würtumbergische Bibelaustalt, 1937). The following extracts are my own translation from the Hebrew (1994, Richard Hooker).


   Try to answer the following questions:

   1. Aetiology. The story of Adam and Eve is an aetiological one, that is, it explains the beginnings of something, in this case the human race and its characteristics. How many different aspects of humanity does this story explain? What is the nature of divinity in the story and the relationship of the human to the divine? What are the differences between Adam and Eve? Is the snake just a snake? Finally, what is meant by "knowledge of good and evil"?
   2. Human Difference. What are the essential points of the Cain and Abel story? of the Flood story? of the Babel story? of the Abraham and Isaac story? All of these stories in some way depict relationships between God and humans, or between humans. How are humans divided from the divine? from each other?
   3. Abraham and Isaac. The story of Abraham's readiness to sacrifice his son Isaac (chapter 22) has had immense influence on later thought and literature. For example, St. Paul used it as a demonstration of Abraham's faith, though he lived before the Law and regarded the sacrifice and Covenant (Romans 4.9 ff.) as a precedent for God's willingness to sacrifice his own son, Jesus, for humanity; Kierkegaard took it as the basis for Fear and Trembling . More importantly, the storyline is a very common one throughout literature, common in Greek and Middle Eastern mythographical traditions. Note carefully how sparingly the story is told. What kind of detail is given? What, do you think, is left out?


CONTENTS OF GENESIS IN THIS READER




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1996, Richard Hooker
Updated 2-17-97