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By Tremper Longman III
ZONDERVANCopyright © 2016 Tremper Longman III
All rights reserved.
Introduction to Genesis
If asked to name the first book of the Bible, many people think that the correct answer is Genesis, and in a sense they are correct. But in another sense Genesis is not the first book; that distinction goes to the Torah, also known as the Pentateuch.
Pentateuch is a term formed from the Greek whose etymological meaning is "five scrolls." This name reminds us that Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy are really one literary composition, but this one literary composition is divided into five parts because an ancient scroll could not contain more than one-fifth of this majestic and powerful work.
The main story is found in Exodus through Deuteronomy. These books are not only a literary unity, but they also tell an uninterrupted story. The story begins with the birth of Moses (Exod 1 – 2) and ends with an account of his death (Deut 34). The story focusses on the exodus, the salvation event par excellence in the Old Testament, and brings the Israelites, freed from Egyptian bondage and brought into the service of Yahweh, to the plains of Moab, poised to enter the promised land.
Genesis is a prequel to the main story of the Pentateuch, giving the background to the events that lead up to Israel's dramatic deliverance. Genesis begins with an account of the creation of the cosmos and of humanity. Though created innocent, humanity chose to rebel against God and thus, as Paul says (Rom 5:12 – 21), introduced sin and death into the world.
When creator God blessed Adam and Eve, they lived in a harmonious relationship with God and thus in a harmonious relationship with each other and their world. The name Eden, meaning "abundance" or "luxury," conveys a harmony between humanity and the world as well. That harmony was fractured by their rebellion against God, and thus they forfeited a blessed existence. No longer was their relationship with God or with each other or even with themselves harmonious.
Starting with Genesis 3:15, the punishment on the serpent, God declares his intention to defeat evil and Genesis continues by narrating God's passionate pursuit of his sinful creatures. Genesis 4 – 11 speaks of God's interaction with sinful humanity from the time of the initial rebellion up until the time of Abraham. We have here three stories (Cain and Abel; the flood; the tower of Babel) connected by genealogies that show the passage of time and contribute to the theological teaching of this section of the book.
As we will explore more fully in the commentary proper, these stories follow the same general pattern as the account of the rebellion. Each speaks of sin and God's judgment, which is first announced by God and then executed by him. Even in the context of judgment of sin, God also extends a token of his grace (a mark on Cain, the preservation of Noah and his family, languages) as he did to Adam and Eve (clothing). In these initial stories, humans show themselves to be addicted to sin and God shows that he will not give sin a free pass, but will judge sin. But, equally significantly, through the token of grace, God shows that he will not give up on us.
Indeed, that passionate pursuit eventually leads God to choose Abraham and his descendants. He promises to make his descendants a "great nation," bless them, and use him and his descendants to bring a blessing to "all peoples on earth" (Gen 12:1 – 3, citing v. 3).
The story of Abraham in the main follows how the patriarch responds to threats and obstacles to the fulfillment of the promises, most pointedly connected to Sarah's barrenness. Indeed, as we will indicate in the commentary proper, the focus in Genesis 12 and following is on the promised seed and how the covenant promises pass down through the generations. As the commentary will show, Abraham responds mostly with fear and manipulation as he grasps for the fulfillment of the promises, but on occasion (Gen 15:6) and certainly at the end (Gen 22), Abraham displays confidence and trust in God.
After the death of Abraham, the narrator's attention turns next to Isaac, who is the son chosen to carry forward the covenantal promises to the next generation. Isaac is only rarely the main character in a story, though, and most readers find the Jacob story more engaging. Jacob and Esau are Isaac's two sons and, in this case, the younger is the one chosen to continue the line of covenant promise. Esau, and Ishmael before him, are not chosen, but, as we will see, that does not mean God does not care about them and their descendants. Far from it. God blesses them in many ways as well.
Jacob's story ultimately leads to the final section of Genesis, commonly referred to as the Joseph narrative. Indeed, the focus is on Joseph, but all the sons are in view here. They, after all, are the sons of Jacob, who gives his new name Israel to the nation that descends from him, and his twelve sons are the patronyms of the twelve tribes of Israel. Their actions here, particularly Joseph's and Judah's, are relevant to the later history of Israel.
The book of Genesis is, as the name implies, a book of beginnings: the beginning of the cosmos, the beginning of humanity, the beginning of Israel. In narrative terms a beginning leads to a middle and to an end. The book, in other words, is ultimately not to be read isolated from the rest of the Pentateuch, the Old Testament, or finally the Christian canon as a whole.
The ending of Genesis makes it clear that the story of God's work with his people does not end with its close. In Genesis 50:22 – 26, in anticipation of his death, Joseph anticipates the return of Israel as he makes his brothers swear to take his bones to the promised land and bury them there.
Composition, Transmission, and Canonicity
Authorship and Date
The question of the authorship and the date of writing of the book of Genesis has been one of the most contested questions in biblical scholarship for over two centuries. As a matter of fact, in many quarters one's answer to this question is a matter of orthodoxy and thus evokes great passion.
The issue of the authorship of Genesis is inextricably bound to the question of who wrote the Torah (or Pentateuch), which as we observed above is a literary, if not an authorial, whole. On one side, for some, orthodoxy is signaled by the simple statement that Moses wrote the whole of the Pentateuch (with maybe some minor exceptions known as postmosaica [passages that had to be written after the death of Moses, see Gen 11:28 and 14:14 for examples] and amosaica [passages that would be awkward for Moses to write; Num 12:4]). On the other extreme are those who say that Moses wrote none of the Pentateuch, but rather the Pentateuch was composed much later than the time the Bible purported that he lived (if, in the minds of some, he lived at all).
While the extremes can be represented in such a straightforward and simple way (the author is Moses or not), there are a number of variations among scholars that might fall into these two general categories. For the purposes of this commentary, it is not necessary for us to get into the details of these views. No matter who wrote the book of Genesis or how it was written, we are going to concentrate on the final form of the book. The commentary will use the NIV (2011) as a base, which is a translation of the Codex Leningradensis as presented in the Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia in consultation with important variant texts (when the NIV departs from Leningradensis, it is noted in a footnote). Such a text, we believe, is not an exact replica of the original text of the final form (the so-called autograph), but we are confident that it is extremely close.
Thus, here we will simply describe our understanding of the composition of Genesis (the Pentateuch) and refer the interested reader to our fuller discussion of the matter elsewhere where we also interact with rival views. In the following discussion, whatever we say about the Pentateuch pertains to the book of Genesis, though we will also on occasion refer specifically to the book of Genesis.
Right from the start it is important to note that the Pentateuch is anonymous. Nowhere in the Pentateuch is an author named, not Moses or any other person. However, that said, a number of passages in the Pentateuch mention that Moses wrote things down. Consider the following:
Then the Lord said to Moses, "Write this on a scroll as something to be remembered and make sure that Joshua hears it ..." (Exod 17:14)
When Moses went and told the people all the Lord's words and laws, they responded with one voice, "Everything the Lord has said we will do." Moses then wrote down everything the Lord had said. (Exod 24:3 – 4, in reference to the law God gave Moses)
At the Lord's command Moses recorded [wrote down] the stages in their journey. (Num 33:2)
After Moses finished writing in a book the words of this law from beginning to end ... (Deut 31:24)
And these references are just a sample of a number of other passages that could be cited (see also Exod 24:12; 34:28; Deut 27:3, 8; 31:19). Notice that none of these passages concern the writing of the book of Genesis (see below).
Certainly the passages that speak of Moses writing things down do not claim that Moses wrote the entirety of the Pentateuch, but they do imply that Moses wrote material that was incorporated into the Pentateuch. With this in mind, we turn now to references to the "book of the law of Moses" or "the book of Moses" (with variants) found in biblical books that follow the Pentateuch. The first example comes from Joshua 1, and then they reverberate through the rest of the Old Testament. The following are just a few examples:
"Be strong and very courageous. Be careful to obey all the law my servant Moses gave you; do not turn from it to the right or to the left, that you may be successful wherever you go. Keep this Book of the Law always on your lips ..." (Josh 1:7 – 8a)
Yet he did not put their children to death, but acted in accordance with what is written in the Law, in the Book of Moses, where the Lord commanded ... (2 Chr 25:4)
On that day the Book of Moses was read aloud in the hearing of the people ... (Neh 13:1)
These references to the Book or Law of Moses are not necessarily, and until the postexilic period are unlikely, indicating the Pentateuch in its final form as we know it, but still they attest to some body of writing that was connected to the figure of Moses.
When we come to the New Testament, however, such references are more likely to refer to the final form of the Pentateuch, though still they do not mean that Moses wrote every word. But they do imply a belief that Moses had an integral connection with the composition of the Pentateuch.
In the New Testament, when quoting the Pentateuch, people often spoke of Moses being the author. For example, the disciples, referring to Deuteronomy 24:1 – 4, questioned Jesus, "'Why then,' they asked, 'did Moses command that a man give his wife a certificate of divorce and send her away?'" (Matt 19:7). Jewish leaders asked Jesus a question based on Deuteronomy 25:5 – 10 by saying, "'Teacher,' they said, 'Moses told us that if a man dies without having children, his brother must marry the widow and raise up offspring for him'" (Matt 22:24). Jesus himself, quoting the fifth commandment (Exod 20:12; Deut 5:16) and a case law (Exod 21:17; Lev 20:9), said, "For Moses said, 'Honor your father and mother,' and 'Anyone who curses their father or mother is to be put to death" (Mark 7:10). For other New Testament references see Mark 12:26; John 1:17, 5:46, 7:23.
In light of the references to Moses' writing in the Pentateuch and the post-pentateuchal citations to the Pentateuch that associate Moses with its composition, it seems reasonable to affirm that the origins of the Pentateuch are connected to this great biblical figure.
But to say that the composition, even the origins, of the Pentateuch is to be associated with Moses certainly does not mean he wrote every word. Traditional approaches to this question acknowledge that Moses did not write the entirety of the Pentateuch when they point to a so-called postmosaica.
Postmosaica are passages that had to be written after the death of Moses, and of course, the most obvious postmosaica is the account of his death in Deuteronomy 34. There are postmosaica in the book of Genesis as well. While Ur is an ancient city predating Moses, the reference to Ur of the Chaldeans (see Gen 11:31) is a postmosaica since the Chaldeans were an Aramaicspeaking tribe that lived in the first millennium BC, long after the death of Moses. In Genesis 14:14 the narrator reports that Abram chased the four ancient Near Eastern kings who kidnapped Lot "as far as Dan." This reference to the city of Dan is a postmosaica because this city, earlier called Laish, was not named Dan until the time of the Judges (see Judg 18), and of course the name derived from the tribe of Dan named after Jacob's son Dan, Abraham's great grandson.
While some people believe that Moses wrote everything in the Pentateuch except a handful of postmosaica, the postmosaica may only be the tip of the iceberg. These postmosaica establish a principle that later inspired editors/ redactors can contribute to the writing of the Pentateuch.
For our next comment, we turn specifically to the book of Genesis. Of course, the narrative speaks of events that take place long before the birth of Moses. It is interesting that Moses is never mentioned in the book even as writing things down. Instead, we encounter a formula that appears eleven times in the book (2:4; 5:1; 6:9; 10:1; 11:10, 27; 25:12, 19; 36:1, 9; 37:2). This formula is introduced by elleh toledotPN, "This is the account of PN," where PN is the personal name of the person whose descendants will be the subject of the following section. These indicate the use of oral and/or written sources (see 5:1) for the writing of the book of Genesis.
Taking seriously the indications within the Pentateuch itself, along with the post-pentateuchal references to the Book/Law of Moses, one might conclude that the Pentateuch finds its origins in Moses, who used sources particularly in the writing of Genesis. The postmosaica indicate that there were editorial additions. These additions may only be the most obvious examples of textual material added after the time of Moses and we cannot determine precisely what was authored by Moses or added by later inspired editors. In the final analysis, it is not necessary to do so because what is canonical is not restricted to what Moses wrote, but to the final composition of the Pentateuch, which may not have reached final form until the postexilic period.
The book of Genesis (as the first part of the five-part Torah) has always been accepted as canon (in Jewish terminology it "makes the hands unclean," since coming into contact with something holy can render a person ritually unclean.)3 Christians share the same canon as first-century Pharisees. The Sadducees, however, only accepted the Torah as authoritative, but this, of course, meant that they affirmed the book of Genesis.4 In brief, the canonicity of Genesis is without controversy.
In Jewish circles, the first book of the Bible is known by its opening phrase bereshit ("in the beginning"). In the English Bible tradition, based on the Septuagint, the book's name is Genesis, from a Greek word that means "origins." These names are appropriate because this book is a book of origins, beginning with the origins of the cosmos and humanity and moving on to the story of the origins of the people of Israel in the call of Abraham and the promise that his descendants will be a "great nation" (Gen 12:2).
The Bible contains books of different literary types. What kind of book is Genesis?
The book talks about past events and to that extent can be called a work of history. However, its central concern is not politics or economics or military history, but rather it focuses on God's relationship with his human creatures and eventually with Abraham and his descendants. In that sense, Genesis is a theological history.
The argument that all of Genesis is a theological history is rooted in the consistent use of the waw-consecutive verbal form, which is the Hebrew form used to narrate past action5 as well as the appearance of the toledot formula throughout the whole book. These two features appear to indicate that Genesis 1 – 11 and 12 – 50 share a similar genre. That said, there is not only similarity in the intent to speak of the past but also a difference between Genesis 1 – 11 and 12 – 50 in how the author presents the past.
Excerpted from Genesis by Tremper Longman III. Copyright © 2016 Tremper Longman III. Excerpted by permission of ZONDERVAN.
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