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The New Interpreter's Bible One-Volume Commentary
By Beverly Roberts Gaventa, David Petersen
Abingdon PressCopyright © 2010 Abingdon Press
All rights reserved.
Dennis T. Olson
The book of Genesis brings together stories about the beginning of the world and humanity (Gen 1–11) with stories about the beginning of the particular people of Israel and their earliest ancestors (Gen 12–50). As such, Genesis is important in setting God's interaction and concern with God's specially chosen people, Israel, within the broader universal horizon of God's interaction and concern for all humanity and all creation.
Genesis 1–11 recount God's good creation of the heavens and the earth as well as repeated incidents of humans disobeying God, hurting fellow humans, and being discontent with what they are—human creatures tied to the earth. The several human rebellions are followed by devastating consequences, but also by God's continued blessing of humanity and divine acts of mercy and restraint. However, as the reader reaches the end of Gen 11, it is clear that the world and humanity have not been restored to the harmony and goodness that God had intended for God's creation in Gen 1. God's several attempts to deal with humanity as a whole prove less than fully successful. Thus, God moves to try a new strategy.
In Gen 12–50, God's new venture involves the selection of one special family within all the families of the earth who would become the vehicle of God's blessing of all the other "families of the earth" (Gen 12:3). God focuses on the family of Abraham and Sarah, the ancestors of the people of Israel. Genesis 12–50 is primarily a series of family stories involving Israel's ancestors and their interactions with other nations. The ancestors originate in Mesopotamia (modern-day Iraq), travel to Canaan (modern-day Israel/Palestine), and then move back and forth among the lands of Canaan, Egypt, and Mesopotamia.
Most modern scholars agree that the book of Genesis developed through several stages of collecting, writing, and editing over hundreds of years, sometime between the 8th and 5th centuries BCE. In this period, Israel was forced to reflect on its role as God's chosen nation as it interacted with the successive empires, cultures, and religions of Assyria, Babylon, and Persia as well as other neighboring nations. In particular, Israel's experience of forced migration from the promised land of Judah and the destruction of the holy city of Jerusalem by an army of the Babylonian empire in 587 BCE evoked a definitive reexamination of its core traditions and self-understanding as the people of God among the other nations of the world. The Babylonian exile, however, only solidified and sharpened what ancient Israel had learned earlier and continued to learn at various points throughout its history. God had chosen Israel from among the nations. God would stay committed to God's people, even though Israel was a young nation in comparison to the older and more powerful empires of the world. God would continue to bless Israel's ancestors, even though they often endured severe struggles, suffering, and near death, all of which appeared at the time to contradict God's promises to God's people. In the end, Genesis proclaims, God will be faithful.
I. The Creation of the World and the Beginnings of Humankind (1:1-11:32)
A. Two Stories of Creation (1:1–2:25
1:1–2:3. The First Creation Story—The Heavens and the Earth
2:4–25. The Second Creation Story—The Garden of Eden
B. Two Disobedience Stories (3:1–4:26)
3:1–24.Adam and Eve—The First Act of Human Disobedience
4:1–26. Cain Murders Abel—The Second Act of Human Disobedience
C. Ten Generations from Adam and Eve to Noah (5:1–32)
D. Breaking the Boundary Between Divine and Human—The Birth of Giants (6:1–4)
E. The Flood Story (6:5–9:29)
6:5–22. God Reveals to Noah the Plan for the Flood and the Ark
7:1–8:19. The Great Flood
8:20–9:17. God's Promise and Covenant with Noah
9:18–10:32. The Descendants of Noah
F. The Tower of Babel and the Confusion of Human Language (11:1-9)
G. The Family Line from Shem to Abraham (11:10–32)
II. The Family Stories of Israel's Ancestors (12:1–50:26)
A. The Family Stories of Abraham and Sarah and Their Son Isaac (12:1–25:18)
12:1–9. God Calls Abram with a Promise of Blessing
12:10–20. Abram and Sarai in Egypt: The First Wife-Sister Story
13:1–14:24. Abram's Generosity and Care for His Nephew Lot
15:1–21. God's Covenant with Abram: Descendants and Land
16:1–17:27. The Promise: From Abram-Hagar-Ishmael to Abraham-Sarah-Isaac
18:1–19:38. God's Promise Repeated, God's Justice Demonstrated
20:1–18. Abraham and Sarah in Canaan: The Second WifeSister Story
21:1–21. The Arrival of Isaac and the Sending Away of Hagar-Ishmael
21:22–34. Abraham Reconciles with the Canaanite King Abimelech
22:1–24. God Commands Abraham to Sacrifice His Son Isaac
23:1–20. Abraham Buys an Expensive Piece of the Promised Land
24:1–67. Isaac Obtains a Wife, Rebekah, from Family in Mesopotamia
25:1–18. Abraham's Death and the Descendants He Leaves Behind
B. The Family Stories of Isaac's Son, Jacob (25:19–36:43)
25:19–34. The Twins Jacob and Esau: Birth and Rivalry
26:1–33. Isaac and the Philistine King Abimelech: Echoes of Abraham
26:34–28:9. Jacob Steals the Blessing of the Elder Esau and Flees
28:10–22. God's Blessing of Jacob at Bethel
29:1–31:55. Jacob and Laban: Jacob Prospers in Mesopotamia
32:1–33:17. Jacob Wrestles with God and Reconciles with Esau
33:18–34:31. Rape and Revenge: Jacob's Daughter Dinah
35:1–29. Jacob's Return to Bethel: Birth and Death
36:1–43. The Family Line of Esau
C. The Family Stories of Jacob's Sons: Joseph and Judah (37:1–50:26)
37:1–36. Joseph and His Brothers: Dreams and Schemes
38:1–30. Judah and Tamar: Deception, Death, and New Life
39:1–23. Joseph and Potiphar's Wife
40:1–23. Joseph and the Two Dreams of the Prisoners
41:1–57. Joseph and the Two Dreams of Pharaoh
42:1–43:34. Joseph and His Brothers: Two Encounters in Egypt
44:1–34. The Test: Judah Offers Himself as a Substitute for Benjamin
45:1–28. Joseph Reveals Himself to His Brothers
46:1–47:31. Jacob and His Sons Join Joseph in Egypt
48:1–22. Jacob Blesses Ephraim and Manasseh, Sons of Joseph
49:1–33. Jacob's Deathbed Blessing of His Twelve Sons
50:1–26. Jacob's Death and Joseph's Forgiveness of His Brothers
I. The Creation of the World and the Beginnings of Humankind (1:1–11:32)
The opening chapters of Genesis describe God's continuing commitment to sustain and bless God's good creation and its inhabitants, including all human beings. God does so in spite of human disobedience and wrongdoing that leads to broken relationships between humans and God (Gen 3), humans and one another (Gen 4; 6), and also humans and non-human creation (3:15, 17–19; 9:1–5). The stories of Gen 1–11 contain elements that are mythic in character and not part of our normal human experience: a talking snake (3:1), human lifetimes that last nearly a thousand years (5:5), divine beings called "sons of God" who come to earth and procreate with humans (6:1– 4), a catastrophic worldwide flood (7:17–24), and a time when all people of the world spoke only one language (11:1). Although some of these elements may seem strange and otherworldly, the stories of Gen 1–11 use these and other elements to explore profound and enduring truths about reality and the interactions of God, humans, and the world.
A. Two Stories of Creation (1:1–2:25)
The Bible begins by placing two different stories about the creation of the world side by side in Gen 1 and 2. These two versions arose at different times in Israel's history. Most scholars argue that the date of the composition of the creation story in Gen 2:4–24 is earlier than the composition of the creation story in Gen 1:1–2:3. Indeed, the earlier creation story reflects the first part of an extended tradition that weaves intermittently in and out of the book of Genesis. Some scholars understand this earlier tradition, sometimes termed by scholars as the Yahwist tradition (abbreviated as J from the German spelling Jahweh), as extending not only through Genesis but intermittently throughout much of the Pentateuch (the five books of Genesis-Deuteronomy). Other scholars would deny such a view, arguing instead that this earlier tradition exists only in Genesis. For our purposes, we will refer to this earlier set of traditions in Genesis as the "non-Priestly" tradition, differentiated from the later Priestly tradition which begins in Gen 1 and then extends into Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers.
The later creation story in Gen 1:1–2:3, the Priestly version, likely came together in its present form at a later time than the Gen 2 creation account, probably during or after the Babylonian exile of the sixth century BCE. The key differences between the Priestly (P) creation story and the earlier non-Priestly creation story include the following: the divine name ("God" in P; "LORD God" in non-P); the state of the world before creation begins (watery chaos in P–1:2; dry desert in non-P–2:5-6); the order or sequence of what is created (six days with man and woman created together at the same time as the last of the creatures in P; the man created first, then the animals, and finally the woman in non-P); the mode of God's creating (by divine words of command in P–1:3, 6, 9; by God "forming," "planting," "making" in non-P–2:7, 8, 19, 22); the arena of creation (cosmic with the heavens and the earth in P; a smaller scale and localized garden of Eden in non-P); the portrayal of God (in full control, orderly, and transcendent in P; more intimate, hands-on, and experimental in non-P); and in literary style (a carefully ordered framework of seven days with a litany of repetitions in P; a more haphazard narrative of trial and error in non-P).
This pairing of two different creation stories at the beginning of Genesis illustrates a characteristic mode by which Genesis often renders truth. Genesis frequently sets up a dialogue among a variety of voices and stories that provide different but complementary angles of insight into a given event, theme, or relationship. Genesis thereby invites the reader to see a fuller truth by holding different but complementary viewpoints together at the same time.
1:1–2:3. The First Creation Story—The Heavens and the Earth. The first version of the creation story (Gen 1:1–2:3) begins with the world as a dark and formless void that hangs over primeval waters of chaos ("the deep"). God's "wind" (ruakh), which can also mean "spirit" or "breath," enters into this dark and empty chaos, joined with a divine word of command, "Let there be light" (v. 1). This "spirit/wind" coupled with God's command begins to create out of the earlier chaos an ordered, interdependent, and organic system that sustains life, goodness, and a balance of work and rest. Creation happens in Gen 1 within the framework and structure of a seven-day week. During the first three days of creation, God creates three broad regions into which God will later place their proper inhabitants: light/darkness, sky/sea, and dry land (1:3–13). God then creates the occupants of each region. The sun, moon, and stars inhabit and "rule over" the regions of light and dark (Day Four). Sea creatures (including "the great sea monsters") and birds inhabit the sea and sky (Day Five). Animals and humans occupy the dry land (1:14–31).
The creation story slows down and spends some time on the creation of the human, providing important insights into the nature and vocation of the human within God's creation. First of all, God commands, "Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness" (1:26). God is speaking here to other heavenly beings, reflecting the ancient motif of a heavenly community of divine beings (1 Kgs 22, Job 1, Ps 82, Isa 6). God's motivation for creation is not because God is lonely in the universe. Rather, creation involves God's desire for deepening and broadening the community of relationships that already exists in the divine realm. In creation, God's pre-existing experience of community spills over into a new arena and dimension, the realm of time (created by the alternation of light and dark, day and night) and space (the various ordered regions of sky, sea, and land).
Second, the human is created in God's "image" or "likeness" (1:26), reflecting a practice among ancient Near Eastern kings who erected stone statues or images of themselves throughout their realm as an extension and reminder of the king's dominion over the region. Given this background, humans are called to be living images or likenesses of God and extensions of God's dominion over all the earth. God entrusts humans with responsibility to exercise their dominion (1:28) in God's image of care and concern for all creation, including its most vulnerable members (see the model of a good Israelite king's "dominion" in Ps 72:8–14).
Third, humans are created together in community from the very beginning with both genders reflecting "the image of God": "in the image of God he created them, male and female he created them" (1:27). The image of God is neither exclusively male nor female but somehow encompasses both (cf. Deut 4:16).
Finally, the humans are the last in the series of created regions and creatures, all of which God evaluates as being "very good" (1:31). Although each part was pronounced "good" earlier (1:4, 12, 18, 21), it is only when the whole community of interdependent creatures and parts work together to foster life and blessing that God pronounces it all as "very good." Creation is "good," but it is not perfect or without continuing threats of chaos, disorder, and brokenness. The primeval waters of chaos were pushed by God's great dome (1:6–7) to the edges above and by the land below, but the threatening waters do not disappear. The waters of chaos remain as an element of the created order and will return later in the Genesis narrative in the flood narrative (Gen 7:11). God's world does not appear as a perfect paradise but rather as a "very good" creation (1:31).
After six days of work, God "rested on the seventh day" and "hallowed it" (2:2–3). This text is cited as the explanation for one of the Ten Commandments in Exod 20:8–11, mandating that the seventh day of every week be set aside as a day of rest and no work. The Sabbath in the Priestly tradition is anchored in creation so that the requirement of regular sabbath rest is built into every creature, both humans and animals, both Israelites and non-Israelites ("your son and daughter ... the alien resident in your town ... your livestock"–Exod 20:10). By resting on the Sabbath, God willingly enters into and becomes subject to the created framework of human time that God has just created. This becomes the first instance of God's gracious accommodation or self-limiting for the sake of God's creation. God's example also becomes a pedagogical model that promotes a healthy balance of work and rest, care of creation, and worship of the Creator.
2:4–25. The Second Creation Story—The Garden of Eden. Genesis 2:4 contains a recurring formulaic sentence that marks the beginning of new sections throughout Genesis: "These are the generations of" (sometimes translated as "these are the stories of" or "these are the descendants of": Gen 2:4; 6:9; 10:1; 11:27; 25:19; 37:2). Here it marks the beginning of a second creation story that has its own additional heading: "In the day that the LORD God made the earth and the heavens" (cf. Gen 1:1).
This second creation account begins with the image of a dry desert or wilderness. Like the waters of chaos that began the creation story in Gen 1, the wilderness is a frequent biblical image of a fearful place of chaos, evil, and death (Isa 21:1–3; 43:15–21). Two things are required to turn this dry desert into a flourishing garden of life: water and someone to till the ground. A stream appears and waters the ground (2:6). Meanwhile, the Lord God "forms" a man ('adam) from the dust of the ground ('adamah). The verb "forms" is a verb used of a potter who molds clay and portrays God's intimate involvement in the creative process. The Hebrew word play between "man" ('adam) and "ground" ('adamah) signifies the bond between the earth and the human earth creature who was created from the dust and who, in death, will return to dust (Gen 3:19). What distinguishes the human is that God breathes into the human lump of clay "the breath (ruakh) of life," and only then does the human become "a living being." Life is an intimately given divine gift with every human breath a reminder of the giftedness of life.
God's hands-on interaction continues in Gen 2:8–9 with God planting a lush garden of beauty and bounty in Eden. Two fruit trees stand at the center of the garden, the "tree of life" and the "tree of the knowledge of good and evil." These two trees will come into play later in the narrative (Gen 2:17; 3:1–7, 22–24). The garden of Eden is not a vacation resort for the human but a workplace in which the human exercises a vocation: to "till and keep" the garden (2:15). Alongside this vocational responsibility is also freedom ("you may freely eat of every tree"–2:16) mixed with one limiting prohibition ("but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall [the Hebrew is emphatic—add 'surely'] die"–2:17). This combination of positive responsibilities, negative limits, and wide freedoms sets the stage both for the exuberant joys as well as the deep tragedies of human existence, "the knowledge of good" and "the knowledge of evil."
Excerpted from The New Interpreter's Bible One-Volume Commentary by Beverly Roberts Gaventa, David Petersen. Copyright © 2010 Abingdon Press. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press.
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