“The opening verse of Genesis is majestic in its simplicity: ‘In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.'” 

Genesis tells so many familiar stories which we learned as children. This study can lead us to accessing those stories as adults in the context of 21st century understanding.

The magnificent beginning of the Bible tells the story of the creation of the universe through the cataclysmic flood. These stories have been told and retold for thousands of years. Today the challenge is understanding the way those timeless tales speak to our modern understanding of history and science.

The rest of Genesis is the “history” of those who came to understand one God. Abraham, his faith and struggle, is the story of every man. Although these tales are thought to have originated as folklore and then recorded and edited for centuries, they speak to our hearts today.

Abraham’s descendants’ adventures in the land we know as the Middle East and trials in Egypt inform us regarding the beliefs of our Jewish neighbors. These stories were part of Jesus’ childhood as they are today part of ours.

Pursue this study to understand more about the way these stories were recorded and included in scripture and to explore your own faith journey and access to the Bible.

Meet Our Professors

Joel Baden

Professor of Hebrew Bible

Professor Joel Baden is a specialist in the Pentateuch, Biblical Hebrew, and disability theory in biblical studies. He is the author of the numerous articles, essays, and books on individual pentateuchal texts, critical methodology, and Biblical Hebrew; future projects include commentaries on Deuteronomy and Exodus. He holds degrees in Judaic Studies (BA, Yale), Semitic Languages (MA, University of Chicago), and Hebrew Bible (PhD, Harvard).

John J. Collins

Holmes Professor of Old Testament Criticism and Interpretation

John J. Collins, a native of Ireland, was a professor of Hebrew Bible at the University of Chicago from 1991 until his arrival at YDS in 2000. He previously taught at the University of Notre Dame. He has published widely on the subjects of apocalypticism, wisdom, Hellenistic Judaism, and the Dead Sea Scrolls. He has participated in the editing of the Dead Sea Scrolls and is the general editor of the Yale Anchor Bible series. He holds degrees from University College Dublin (BA, MA, and an honorary D. Litt.) and Harvard University (PhD).


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I. Introduction

 The Book of Genesis tells the story first of humankind and then of the ancestors of Israel, from the creation down to the sojourn of the Israelites in Egypt. We may break it down into three large segments: the primeval history in Genesis 1-11; the stories of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in Genesis 12-36; and the Joseph story in chapters 37-50 (with an interlude about Judah in Genesis 38). The material in these three segments is of different kinds.

The primeval history tells the story of the beginnings, from Creation through the Flood, culminating with the tower of Babel. Much, perhaps all, of this material is pre-historic: it is material for which there is and can be no historical record. Most scholars nowadays characterize it as myth, and in fact it has numerous parallels with the myths of ancient Mesopotamia.

The stories of the patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, in contrast, are set in historical time, but they hardly qualify as history by modern standards. They are made up of short episodes, which seem to have originated as folklore, but were edited over centuries and cast in the form of sequential history.

The story of Joseph differs from other material in the book because it is a developed story that runs over several chapters, and has the character of a novella.

These segments, however, did not circulate as separate stories, at least not in the form in which we have them. Here, as in the rest of the Pentateuch, we can distinguish different strands or sources, known as the Yahwist (J for the German spelling Jahwist), Elohist (E) and Priestly (P) that run through the segments. Even if the segments we have distinguished were composed at different times, they were combined into these strands before they were woven together to form the text of Genesis as we have it.

Only two of these strands, the Yahwist and the Priestly, are found in the primeval history, and they are easily distinguished. The Yahwist source takes its name from the fact that God is called Yahweh from the beginning, whereas in the other sources the divine name is only revealed in Exodus. J is a good story-teller and the deity is represented in a colorful, anthropomorphic, form. The Priestly source, in contrast, is rather dry. It is greatly concerned with genealogies and with the origin of cultic and ritual observances, such as the Sabbath. The first account of creation, in Genesis 1:1 to 2:4a, is a classic P composition. The story of Adam and Eve is a Yahwist composition, although it is unusual insofar as it refers to God as Yahweh Elohim, (perhaps an editor’s attempt to make clear the identity of Elohim from P in Genesis 1 and Yahweh from J in Genesis 2–3). The story of the Flood provides an exceptionally clear example of a case where these two stories have been woven together.

For a long time, the Yahwist source was thought to have been composed in Jerusalem early in the period of the monarchy, perhaps as early as the tenth century BCE. Nearly all scholars now think that date is too early. Some have gone to the other extreme and think it was composed during the Babylonian Exile, in the sixth century BCE. Others favor a date at some time during the monarchy (eighth or seventh century BCE). The main argument for a late date arises from the primeval history, which is deeply influenced by Babylonian myths, such as the Atrahasis story and the Epic of Gilgamesh. The exiles of Judah were obviously exposed to Babylonian culture during the Exile, but Judean scribes may well have been acquainted with Mesopotamian literature long before that. At present, however, there is no consensus about the date of the J source. A stronger and clearer case can be made that the Priestly source took shape during the Exile or a little later, although it may have incorporated older traditions.

The Patriarchal Stories

A new phase in biblical history is ushered in by the appearance of Abraham, or Abram as he is initially called. (His name is changed to Abraham in Gen 17:5; his wife is initially Sarai, but her name is changed to Sarah in 17:15.) Abram is first introduced in a genealogical list in chapter 11, which is part of the Priestly source. In 11:31 we are told that he departed from “Ur of the Chaldeans” with his father Terah and his wife Sarai, “to go into the land of Canaan,” but settled in Haran on the way. This notice is also part of the Priestly source, but another reference to Ur of the Chaldeans in 15:7 is usually understood as non-priestly. The tradition that the ancestors of Israel came from Haran is also attested elsewhere in Genesis. Ur was a famous and ancient city in southern Mesopotamia that flourished in the third millennium BCE. It could be called “Ur of the Chaldeans,” however, only after the rise of the Neo-Babylonian Empire, in the late seventh century BCE. The reference to Ur of the Chaldeans in 15:7, then, must be a secondary addition, unless we ascribe a very late date to J.

The Patriarchs and History

The internal chronology of the Bible suggests a date around 2100 BCE for Abraham, and a time around 1876 BCE for the descent of his grandson Jacob into Egypt with his family. Only extremely conservative scholars would now take these dates at face value, in view of the prodigious life spans attributed to the patriarchs, but many have tried to set the stories of Genesis against the background of an historical era. It is not unreasonable to expect that even a work of fiction should provide clues as to the time of its composition. Unlike many biblical books, however, the patriarchal stories are practically void of reference to public events that might be known from other sources.

In older textbooks and Study Bibles, the Patriarchs are often dated to the Second Millennium BCE, in the centuries prior to the Exodus, which was thought to have occurred in the thirteenth century BCE.  But

several considerations tell against such an early background. The Philistines, who are mentioned in Gen 21:32-34; 26:1, 8, 14-15, were one of the Sea Peoples who invaded the coastal plain in the twelfth century, and gave their name to “Palestine.” The Arameans, who figure especially in the Jacob stories, are attested only from the end of the second millennium (eleventh century BCE). The earliest mention of the camel as a domesticated animal dates only from the eleventh century BCE, and its use became common only some centuries later. Archeological evidence suggests that Beersheba was not settled before the twelfth century BCE. Even if we allow that some references may have been added secondarily, this evidence makes it unlikely that these stories originated earlier than the end of the second millennium BCE or the beginning of the first. The stories may still preserve reminiscences of an earlier time. The preference for names that end in –el (rather than –yah) in the patriarchal stories points to a time before the rise of YHWH as the god of Israel. But the stories cannot be taken as witnesses to pre-Israelite reality in any simple sense.

The Patriarchal Stories as Legends

In fact, the stories of Genesis do not lend themselves easily to historical analysis. More than a hundred years ago, a German scholar named Hermann Gunkel showed they belong not to the genre of historiography but to that of legend. Legend, according to Gunkel, is originally oral tradition, while history is usually found in written form. Written material is more easily given a fixed form, whereas oral variants of the same tales tend to proliferate. History treats great public occurrences, while legend deals with more personal and private matters. The clearest criterion of legend, wrote Gunkel, is that it frequently reports things that are incredible. It is poetry rather than prose, and a different sort of plausibility applies. As poetry, legend aims to please, to elevate, to inspire, and to move. It does not tell “what actually happened” in a way that would satisfy a modern historian.

Gunkel went on to distinguish several kinds of legends in Genesis. Etiological legends claim to explain the cause or origin of a phenomenon (e.g., the story of Lot’s wife explains the origin of a pillar of salt). Ethnological legends explain the origin of a people or of their customs (the story of Cain explains why Kenites are itinerant). Etymological legends explain the origin of names (there are two accounts of the origin of the name of Beersheba: Gen 21:31; 26:33). Ceremonial legends explain the origin of a ritual (the story of the Passover is an obvious example; the covenant with Abraham in Genesis 17 explains why his descendants practice circumcision). Gunkel did not rule out the possibility that historical reminiscences might be preserved in such legends, but he changed the focus of inquiry, from the events behind the text to the function of the story and its setting in life, or Sitz im Leben. His question was, why, and in what kind of setting, was this story told? Many stories were presumably told in a cultic setting—for example, to explain why Bethel was a holy place (Genesis 28)—but some may also have been told simply for entertainment.

It is clear, however, that at some point these traditions were linked together to form a genealogy of the ancestors of Israel. Jacob is identified as the father of the people of Israel; his name is changed to Israel in Genesis 32. His twelve sons give their names to the tribes that constitute Israel. Moreover, he is associated with the central hill country, which was the heartland of Israel before the rise of the monarchy. Yet in Genesis priority is given to Abraham, who is associated with the area later known as Judah. There are two periods in biblical history when such a construction would have made sense. One was in the time of David and Solomon, when (at least according to the biblical account) all Israel was united under a Judean monarchy. The other was after the fall of the northern kingdom of Israel in 722 BCE, when Judah had reason and opportunity to assert its leadership of all Israel, north and south, and this remained true into the postexilic period. Both J and E, however, already assume the succession of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and so it is likely that the linkage of the patriarchs was already established at an early time, before these sources were compiled.

There is good reason to think that the linking of the patriarchs in a genealogical succession was an early attempt to define the people of Israel, by showing how the tribes were related to each other. It is important that the genealogical links bind Judah and Benjamin (the eventual southern kingdom) to the northern tribes, and so create a basis for regarding all Israel as a unity. It is also noteworthy that these stories insist that Abraham and his descendants were not Canaanites. They allegedly came from Mesopotamia, via Syria, and continued to go back to Syria to seek wives for some generations. The more recent archeological work in Israel rather suggests that the Israelites emerged out of Canaan. There is no evidence of the intrusion of a different material culture, such as we might expect if they had actually come from another country. The persistent attempt to deny Canaanite origins can be explained as a way of marking a boundary between Israel and Canaan. Since the Canaanites were the Israelites’ nearest neighbors, this was the most necessary boundary if Israel were to have its own identity. The patriarchal stories viewed as a whole, then, can be understood as an attempt to define Israel over against its neighbors, by positing some relationships and denying others.

Many of the stories in Genesis are folkloric in character, and they surely evolved over centuries. A few features of these stories, however, are significant for their historical background, even if they do not suggest a specific date. There is no reference in Genesis to an Israelite or Judean king. This fact lends some credibility to the view that the stories first took shape before the rise of the monarchy, although they must have been edited long after that. Also, the religion of the patriarchs is significantly different from that of Deuteronomy or the Priestly source.

Patriarchal Religion

The patriarchs also worship God in specific places, as manifestations of the God El. El was the common Hebrew, and Northwest Semitic, word for “god,” but it was also the name of the high god in the Canaanite myths from Ugarit, an ancient port city in today’s northern Syria. In Genesis 14 Abraham gives a tithe to Melchizedek, king of Salem (presumably Jerusalem), priest of El Elyon (God Most High). By so doing he recognizes, and lends legitimacy to, an established Canaanite cult. In fact, El and YHWH are recognized as one and the same god in biblical religion. According to the Elohist and Priestly strands of the Pentateuch, the name YHWH was not revealed until Exodus, and so the patriarchs worshiped El in his various manifestations. In contrast, the Canaanite god Baal is not mentioned at all in Genesis, and the patriarchs are never said to worship a goddess. So the patriarchs appear to participate in Canaanite religion in a modified form, or to appropriate it in a selective way. It is possible, of course, that the selectivity is due to later editors, who edited out of the tradition religious observances that might be deemed offensive.

There is a striking discrepancy between the manner of worship practiced by the patriarchs and that which is commanded later in the Bible. Wherever the patriarchs go, they build altars to the Lord. Abram builds an altar by the oak of Mamre, and again between Bethel and Ai. Later he plants a tamarisk tree at Beersheba, and calls there on the name of the Lord. Isaac builds an altar in Beersheba, and Jacob at Bethel and Shechem. At Bethel, Jacob takes the stone he had used as a pillow and sets it up as a pillar, and pours oil on it. Later, in Deuteronomy 12, Israel is commanded to restrict sacrificial worship to the one “place which the Lord your God shall choose.” Then: “you must demolish completely all the places where the nations whom you are about to dispossess served their gods on the mountain heights, on the hills, and under every leafy tree. Break down their altars, smash their pillars, burn their sacred poles with fire, and hew down the idols of their gods” (Deut 12:2-3).

Deuteronomic law did not apply to the patriarchs, who were supposed to have lived before Moses. Nonetheless, the association of the patriarchs with a given shrine marked it as a holy place, and gave it legitimacy in the eyes of later tradition. In fact, several stories in Genesis seem to have been preserved in order to legitimate, or establish the holiness of, specific sites. In the books of Kings, and sometimes in the prophets, great scorn is poured on the rival sanctuary of Bethel, which was one of two state temples erected by King Jeroboam I, when the northern kingdom of Israel seceded from Jerusalem (1 Kgs 12:25-33; the other one was at Dan, on the northern border of Israel). Yet in Genesis 28 we read how Jacob discovered that Bethel was “none other than the house of God and gate of heaven” (28:17). This would seem to establish that Bethel was a holy place, and so lend credibility to Jeroboam’s sanctuary.

It is at least clear that the stories of Genesis were not the work of the Deuteronomistic school, which made the centralization of religion into a criterion for true religion. In part, at least, the religion of the patriarchs was the kind of observance that the Deuteronomists sought to suppress. The stories about the patriarchs must have been established as part of Israel’s heritage too strongly for the Deuteronomists to repudiate them. It is reasonable then to conclude that Genesis reflects a form of popular, family religion that flourished before the Deuteronomic reform. One cannot, however, take these stories as a reliable or full account of Israelite religion in any period. They are stories about a past, which was always idealized to some extent, and may have been edited to some degree besides. They are of some value to the historian of religion, but that value is limited by the lack of explicit historical data.

Regardless of their historical value, the tales of the patriarchs remain powerful as stories. In large part this is because, like all good folklore, they touch on perennial issues, such as jealousy between a woman and her rival (Sarah and Hagar) or rivalry between brothers (Jacob and Esau). Many of the stories are entertaining—Abraham’s ability to outwit the pharaoh or the gentle story of Isaac and Rebekah in Genesis 24. Others are tales of terror, in the phrase of Phyllis Trible, a modern biblical scholar—the command to Abraham to sacrifice his only son, or Lot’s willingness to sacrifice his daughters to the men of Sodom (Genesis 19). When the stories are read as Scripture, they become more problematic, because of a common but ill-founded assumption that all Scripture should be edifying. The stories of Genesis are often challenging and stimulating, but they seldom if ever propose simple models to be imitated.


Nahum M. Sarna, Understanding Genesis (New York: Schocken, 1966), xvii-xxx.

Further Reading:

Ronald Hendel, The Book of Genesis. A Biography (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2013).

Questions for Discussion:

  1. Where is the line between the stories in Genesis that we more readily accept as non-historical ancient myth and those stories that we begin to read as historically plausible? Why do we draw the line where we do?
  2. How many difference genres, or types of literature, are represented in Genesis/. What might this tell us about the origins of the book?
  3. Why does Genesis hold such appeal for the modern reader? Is it simply because it comes first?


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II. Creation

The opening verse of Genesis is majestic in its simplicity: “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.” Originally, the Hebrew was written without vowels. The vowels were added later as points above and below the consonants. The consonantal text can also be translated as: “In the beginning, when God created the heavens and the earth. . . .” The Babylonian creation myth, Enuma Elish, similarly begins with a temporal clause. (There is another possible reflection of the Babylonian myth in Gen 1:2. The Hebrew word for “the deep” [tehom] is a cognate of the name of the Babylonian monster Tiamat in Enuma Elish.) If the opening words are translated as a temporal clause, it is clear that we are not speaking of creation out of nothing. Already when God set about creating the heavens and the earth, there was a formless void (tohu wabohu), and the wind or spirit of God was hovering over the waters. God proceeds to bring order out of chaos simply by uttering commands.

In Genesis 1, God creates simply by issuing commands. This is exceptional even within the Hebrew Bible. We see a more “hands-on” approach to creation in Genesis 2, where God fashions Adam from the earth. Other passages allude to a mythic account of creation involving a battle with a dragon or sea monster (Job 26:12; Isa 51:9). There were precedents for creation by divine word in Egyptian mythology, but there is an evident contrast here with Genesis 2 and with the creation mythologies of Mesopotamia. The God of the Priestly writers is more exalted, or more remote, than the God of J.

The creation is arranged in seven days:

1) Light: separation of light and darkness
2) Firmament; separation of lower and upper water
3a) Dry land; separation of water and dry land
3b) Vegetation
4) Sun, moon, and stars; separation of day and night
5)  Water and air creatures
6a) Land creatures; human beings
6b) Vegetation given to birds, animals and human beings as food
7) God rests

The narrative is formulaic. There are frequent pronouncements that “God saw that it was good,” and after the sixth day, everything is pronounced “very good.” At the same time, the narrative is not fully consistent. The pronouncement that “it was good” is lacking for the second and fourth days, and there are double acts of creation on the third and sixth days. The duplications are necessary to fit the work of creation into six days, thereby allowing the Creator to rest on the seventh, in effect inaugurating the Sabbath day. The fact that the whole process ends in a liturgical observance is typical of the Priestly source. Also typical is the emphasis on separation—of light and darkness, upper waters and lower waters, and so on. In the Priestly creation, everything must be in its proper place.

Genesis 1 does not represent creation as instantaneous. It takes place over a period of time. (The days need not be taken literally. With the Lord, a thousand years is as a day. But neither should they be converted into some longer period of time. The point of the story is to provide a divine precedent for resting on the seventh day). Occasionally, scholars try to argue that this description is compatible with modern science. The original formless void, we are told, represents the “soupy” state of the universe at its inception. One biblical scholar has even suggested that the breath of God represents the “big bang.” This kind of attempt to find scientific truth in the Bible is misguided. Genesis 1, like all ancient accounts of the beginning of the universe, is an act of imagination that tells us more about the values of the authors than about the physical universe. The gradual progress of creation over seven days has nothing whatever to do with the scientific idea of evolution. People who try to read Genesis 1 as a scientific account are making an elementary genre mistake – misconstruing the kind of story it is, and the kind of truth that can be gleaned from it.

The creation of humanity

Human beings are created on the sixth day. While humankind is designated by the masculine word adam, both male and female are explicitly included. (The rabbis later speculated that the first human being was a hermaphrodite, both male and female, an idea that is known most famously from Plato’s dialogue, the Symposium). Both males and females, then, are created in the image of God. In the ancient Near East, images were very important for cult and worship, as the presence of the divinity was made manifest to the worshipers in the statues. At least in the period after the Exile, no such images were used in the cult of YHWH. Instead, according to the Priestly writer, the presence of God was made manifest in human beings. Moreover, gods in the ancient Near East were often depicted in the form of animals. Such depictions are rejected here. Near Eastern deities were also often depicted in human form. If human beings are made in the divine image, it follows that the Deity has humanlike form. In the modern world, we tend to say that God is conceived or imagined in human form—our knowledge of human form comes first and what we say about the Deity is an inference. In the ancient world, however, the divine typically comes first, and human beings are thought to be an imitation of the divine form. This account of creation, then, attributes great dignity to human beings, both male and female. The Priestly account of creation, then, is remarkably humanistic. One should not, of course, exaggerate the egalitarianism of the story. Genesis 1 says nothing about the social roles of men and women. In the rest of the Pentateuch, the Priestly source is no less patriarchal than the other sources – all are products of an ancient Near Eastern world.

The fact that humanity is made in the image of God is seldom recalled later in the Bible, but there is one notable instance in Gen 9:5-6, where it is invoked to guard the sanctity of life. God, we are told, will require a reckoning for the lifeblood of humans:

“Whoever sheds the blood of a human, by a human shall that person’s blood be shed; for in his own image God made humankind.”

The sanctity of life is not absolute: the punishment for murder is death. But it is clear that the intention of the passage is to deter people from shedding blood.

It should also be noted that all humanity is made in the image of God. This status is not reserved for Israel or any other segment of humanity.

Male and female

The distinction between male and female in Gen 1:27 leads directly to the command to be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth. In Jewish tradition, this has often been viewed as a commandment, which would exclude the option of celibacy for the religiously observant. The Priestly account of creation, then, affirms human sexuality, and seems to rule out at the outset an ethic of abstinence and asceticism. This point is important, as the Priestly rules of purity in Leviticus have often been taken to suggest a rather negative view of sexuality.  In its context in Genesis, however, the directive to increase and multiply is rather an exhortation, or even an authorization: it is good to marry and have children. One might well argue that this commandment, if such it be, has now been adequately fulfilled. The problem in the modern world is population control. This was seldom a problem in the ancient world, because of short life spans and the inability to control the spread of disease. (Plague and disease are created specifically to prevent over-population in Babylonian mythology.)  As we will find in Genesis 2, Genesis 1 is an attempt to explain the world as the author saw it, rather than a prescription that can be taken as valid in all times and places.

Gen 1:27 is often invoked in modern debates about homosexuality on the grounds that people were created male and female so that they might procreate. The primeval couple were Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve. It should be clear that no such argument can be based on Genesis 1. As we have seen, the account of creation in Genesis 1 is highly schematic. To say that God created Day and Night is not to deny that there are such things as Dusk and Dawn. Genesis only makes sweeping generalities, emphasizing the typical. Transgender people, and people whose sexuality are ambiguous are presumably created by God too, and Genesis says nothing to suggest that they are not the image of God.

There are only two unambiguous statements about homosexual relations in the Hebrew Bible. Both, as it happens, are in the Priestly tradition, more specifically in the Holiness Code, in Lev 18:22 and 20:13. These verses declare that “if a man lies with a male as with a woman” (literally, “the lyings of a woman”), it is an abomination, and both must be put to death. Scholars debate the exact meaning of “the lyings of a woman” but the reference is most probably to male homosexual relations. Remarkably, lesbian relations are not singled out for condemnation anywhere in the Hebrew Bible. Leviticus does not appeal to the account of creation as the basis for this ruling. It seems to be part of a priestly concern with improper combinations: “you shall not let your animals breed with a different kind, you shall not sow your field with two kinds of seed, nor shall you put on a garment made of two different materials” (Lev 19:19). Few people in the modern world regard all these prohibitions as binding. For our present purposes, however, it is enough to note that Genesis 1 does not address the question of homosexual relations at all.

Dominion over the rest of creation.

Gen 1:28 tells the first human beings to have “dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing.”

This verse has drawn the ire of some environmentalists, who trace the human exploitation of nature to biblical roots. Human sovereignty over creation has not always been a blessing, and it has often been abused. Genesis, however, was not giving humanity a license to do whatever it wished. Genesis 1 only allows for vegetarian food: “See I have given you every plant yielding seed that is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit; you shall have them for food.” Only after the Flood will provision be made for eating meat. In the P account, creation is good and self-sustaining even before humanity is created. In Genesis 2, the rest of creation exists to serve humanity’s needs.

The Sabbath rest, with which the account of creation ends, also sets a limit to the human exploitation of the earth. The implications of the Sabbath will later be filled out in Exodus 20:9 (a priestly addition to the Decalogue): Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work – you, our son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns. For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth the sea and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day.”

Perhaps the most striking thing about the Priestly creation account, however, is its positive tone. Everything is very good. The origin of sin and evil is not addressed. The story in Genesis 2-3 will set a very different tone.

This is not the only account of creation that we find in the Bible. The prophets and poetic books often allude to a more openly mythological account, in which the Lord “stretches out Zaphon over the void, and hangs the earth upon nothing” (Job 26: 7). Creation also involved a battle with the Sea and its monsters: “By his power, he stilled the Sea; by his understanding he struck down Rahab” (Job 26:12; compare Isa 51:9). The idea that creation involves a battle with the Deep and its monsters is familiar from Ancient Near Eastern mythology. According to Psalm 104, God set the earth on its foundations and set a boundary for the sea that it must not pass (Psalm 104:9).  We should not then think of Genesis 1 simply as THE biblical account of creation, but rather as one of several accounts, which acquires special importance because of its place at the beginning of the canonical text.


Sarna, Understanding Genesis, 1–23.

Further Reading:

Phyllis A. Bird, “Male and Female He Created Them. Gen. 1:27b in the Context of the Priestly Account of Creation,” in eadem, Missing Persons and Mistaken Identities: Women and Gender in Ancient Israel (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1997) 123-54.

Mark S. Smith, The Priestly Vision of Genesis 1 (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2010).

Questions for Discussion:

  1. What are the implications of the many similarities with Babylonian creation stories for our understanding of the meaning of Genesis 1?
  2. How much of Genesis 1 should we consider determinative for for our current worldview?
  3. Why do we tell creation stories? What larger cultural purpose do they serve?


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III. Garden of Eden

The J account begins with one of the most familiar of all biblical narratives—the story of Adam and Eve. There is surprisingly little reference to this story in the remainder of the Hebrew Bible, although there are several allusions to the garden of Eden as a place of remarkable fertility. For clear allusions to Adam and Eve we have to wait until Ben Sira, in the early second century BCE, and the Dead Sea Scrolls.

The story focuses on the creation of humanity. Little is said about the creation of heaven and earth, except that they are the work of YHWH, and that the earth was not watered initially. The man (adam is the generic Hebrew word for human being) is made from the dust of the ground and animated by the breath of life. In the Babylonian myth of Atrahasis, humanity is also made from clay, mixed in that case with the flesh and blood of a slain god. In the biblical story, the breath of God is the element of divine origin in the human makeup. In this rather simple understanding, life comes with the breath and ceases when the breath departs. Then human beings return to the state of clay.

Two trees are singled out in this garden: the tree of life in the middle of the garden, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. (The precise meaning of “the knowledge of good and evil” is disputed. It may mean “universal knowledge,” or it may mean the power of discernment between good and evil—cf. Isa 7:15-16, which refers to the age by which a child knows how to choose the good and reject the evil.) Symmetry would lead us to expect that if one tree is the tree of life, the corresponding one should be the tree of death, and sure enough, Adam is told that if he eats of it he shall die. The tree is not introduced to Adam under the negative name of death, however, but in its attractive aspect as the tree of knowledge. The plot of the story hinges on the idea that God does not want humanity to eat from the tree of knowledge. The idea that gods jealously guard their superiority over humanity is widespread in the ancient world. It is also found in the Greek myth of Prometheus, the hero who was condemned to torture because he stole fire from the gods to benefit humankind. Adam is not initially forbidden to eat from the tree of life.

The plot is complicated when the Creator decrees that “it is not good that the man should be alone.” In the J account, the man is allowed responsible participation in the choice of his mate. In the process, he is allowed to name all the beasts, but none of these is found to be a fit partner for him. God is not an unmoved mover who produces creation fully formed. Rather, the Creator proceeds by a process of trial and error, and engages in unsuccessful experiments. This is also the way creation is imagined in the Babylonian Atrahasis myth.

Finally, Adam finds a partner in the woman who is formed from his rib. Whether the manner in which the woman is created implies the subordination of woman to man is a matter of heated dispute. For two thousand years, the implication of subordination was thought to be obvious. In the words of St. Paul, in the course of his attempt to argue that women should cover their heads when they pray or prophesy: “man was not made from woman, but woman from man. Neither was man created for the sake of woman, but woman for the sake of man” (1 Cor 11:8-9; cf. 1 Tim 2:13, which forbids women to teach or have authority over men, because “Adam was formed first”). Even Paul recognized the anomaly of this claim. He added that though woman came from man, “so man comes through woman, and all things come from God” (1 Cor 11:12) and that “in the Lord, woman is not independent of man, or man independent of woman” (v. 11). In the Genesis text, the emphasis is on the closeness of the bond between man and woman: “This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh. . . . Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and clings to his wife, and they become one flesh.” (Gen 2:23-24: Usually in ancient Israel, the woman left her parents’ house to live with her husband; either the Genesis text reflects a time when this was not the custom or it simply means that for a man the bond with his wife takes precedence over that with his parents.) Despite all this, however, the reversal of the natural order of birth, by having the woman taken from the man’s body, cannot be denied. The order of creation surely implies an order of precedence. In the ancient (and modern) Near East, it was assumed that females should defer to males. But to speak of subordination here is too strong. In the account of the original creation the emphasis is on the closeness of the bond between male and female.

The man and wife were naked and not ashamed. This notice alerts us to the sexual overtones of the story. Some interpreters even hold that the “knowledge of good and evil” refers to sexual initiation. Immediately after their expulsion from Eden, we are told that Adam “knew his wife, Eve, and she conceived and bore Cain” (Gen 4:1). The verb “to know” often refers to sexual relations in biblical idiom. Genesis does not say explicitly that Adam “knew” his wife in the garden. Later Jewish tradition insisted that he did not, since the garden was holy, like the temple, because of the presence of God. Nonetheless, the motif of the forbidden fruit in Genesis 3 has always lent itself to a sexual interpretation. More fundamentally, however, the nudity of Adam and Eve symbolizes their initial innocence and lack of self-awareness—a state in which human beings are not sharply different from animals. By the end of the story they will have put on clothes and become human, for better or worse.

The Serpent

Genesis 3, however, introduces another character into the story: “the serpent was more crafty than any other wild animal that the Lord God had made” (3:1).  In later tradition, the serpent would be identified as Satan, or the devil. According to the Wisdom of Solomon (a Jewish text, written in Greek around the turn of the era, and included in the Catholic canon and Protestant Apocrypha), death entered the world “by the envy of the devil” (Wis 2:24). The New Testament book of Revelation refers to “the ancient serpent, who is called the Devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world” (Rev 12:9). The figure of the devil, however, is a latecomer on the biblical scene. When Satan appears in the Hebrew Bible (in the book of Job, and again in Chronicles), he is not yet quite “the devil”—in Job he appears among “the sons of God” in the heavenly court. Neither should the serpent in Genesis be interpreted as the devil. Talking animals are a standard device in the literary genre of the fable, which was developed most famously by the Greek writer Aesop. The appearance of a talking snake should alert even the most unsophisticated reader to the fictional nature of the story. The snake articulates the voice of temptation, but it is not yet a mythological figure such as Satan later became.

The Knowledge of Good and Evil

The snake leads the human couple to question the divine prohibition against eating from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil: “You will not die; for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” So the woman takes the forbidden fruit and eats, and then offers it to Adam, and he eats. Then “the eyes of both were opened and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together and made loincloths for themselves.” The “knowledge of good and evil” that they attain does not quite make them like gods, but it does give them self-awareness, and it sets them apart from the animals. There is an analogy here with the figure of Enkidu in the Babylonian Epic of Gilgamesh.

The evaluation of Adam’s action is severe. First God curses the snake, and condemns it to crawl on its belly and eat dust. Then he tells the woman that he will greatly increase her pain in childbearing (a subject that had not previously been mentioned). Yet she is told “your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you” (3:16). Finally, the man is told that “because you have listened to the voice of your wife” and eaten from the forbidden tree, the ground is cursed because of him. Consequently, “By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread until you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken. For you are dust, and to dust you shall return” (3:19). God then expels Adam and Eve from the garden, lest they put forth their hands and eat from the tree of life and live forever.

Disobedience and Fall

The story of Adam and Eve is known in Christian theology as the Fall, and it is assumed that the human condition, subject to suffering and death, are consequences of the sin of Adam. Adam and Eve are expelled from Eden as a punishment for eating the forbidden fruit. Moreover, God pronounces curses on the serpent and on the ground because of what Adam and Eve have done. The narrative can still be read, like that of Enkidu, as a coming of age story of the transition from a prehuman to a human state. But unlike the Babylonian story, Genesis judges this transition negatively. Even though no words meaning “sin” or “punishment” are used in the story, it is quite clear that the conditions in which men and women must henceforth live are explained as punishment for disobedience.

These conditions are described in God’s words to the serpent, the woman, and the man in Gen 3:14-19. It should be clear that these passages give us only the author’s assumptions about the nature of life. They are not descriptions that are universally valid. Still less can they be read as normative accounts of how life must, or should, be. The nature of these passages can be seen clearly in the words addressed to the snake:  “upon your belly you shall go, and dust you shall eat all the days of your life.” Snakes do not in fact eat dust; this was simply a misconception on the part of the author. The curse pronounced on the snake provides an etiology of the way the snake was thought to live. God’s words to the woman likewise reflect the author’s view of the female condition. There is pain in childbearing, and subordination to a husband who “will rule over you.” It is often pointed out that this condition is not the original design of creation. It is a punishment, imposed after Adam and Eve ate from the forbidden tree. It is a mistake to read this passage as if it were the normative expression of God’s will for women (as seems to be implied in the New Testament in 1 Tim 2:13-15, which says that woman will be saved through childbearing). In that case, one would also have to conclude that it is God’s will that snakes eat dust and that men earn their bread by the sweat of their brow. God’s words to the woman simply reflect the common experience of women in ancient Israel and throughout the ancient Near East. The passage is explanatory in nature. It is not prescriptive or normative.

If God’s words to the woman paint a grim picture of life, his words to the man are no less severe: “by the sweat of your brow you shall eat bread until you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken” (3:19). There is no hint here of any possibility of meaningful life after death. (The common assumption in the Hebrew Bible, as we shall see later, was that after death all people, good and bad, went to the shadowy underworld, Sheol, the counterpart of the Greek Hades.) The biblical text explains this by laying the blame on human beings. In part, the problem is disobedience to the divine command. More broadly, however, one could say that the problem is human overreaching. Like the heroes of Greek tragedy, Adam and Eve are guilty of hubris in their desire to be like God, knowing good and evil. One message of this story, which is a common message in ancient Near Eastern literature, is that human beings should know their place and stay in it.

Theological Misconceptions

More than most stories, these chapters of Genesis have been overlain with theological interpretations that have little basis in the Hebrew text. Since the time of St. Augustine, Christian theology has maintained the doctrine of original sin—the belief that human beings after Adam are born in a state of sin. There is a partial basis for this idea in the New Testament, where St. Paul asserts that “one man’s trespass led to condemnation for all” and “by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners” (Rom 5:18-19), but there is no suggestion of this in the text of Genesis. The story of Adam is paradigmatic, insofar as the temptation to eat forbidden fruit is typical of human experience. One might also suppose that an inclination to sin is inherited from one generation to another. But there is no suggestion in the biblical text that guilt is transmitted genetically.

Equally unfounded is the view that the responsibility for sin lay with Eve rather than with Adam. The earliest occurrence of this idea is found in the book of Ben Sira in the early second century BCE: “From a woman sin had its beginning, and because of her we all die” (Sir 25:24). It is repeated in the New Testament in 1 Tim 2:14: “Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor.” One may reasonably infer from the text of Genesis that the serpent approached Eve first because she was weaker, but Adam still bears the primary responsibility in the story. The command was given to him before Eve was created. Only after they have both eaten are their eyes opened. Adam and Eve suffer equally from the consequences of their action.

Finally, the words of God to the snake have been invested with theological meaning in Christianity: “I will put enmity between you and the woman and between your offspring and hers; he will strike your head and you will strike his heel.” Catholic Christianity has traditionally identified the woman as Mary, her seed as Jesus, and the snake as Satan. The passage is then read as a prophecy of the crushing of Satan and has inspired countless statues of Mary with a snake under her feet. Such allegorical interpretation has its place in a religious tradition, but we should be aware that it is not implied by the Hebrew text. Like the preceding verse, about the snake crawling on its belly and eating dust, this one is an etiology, meant to explain a fact of experience—snakes bite people, and people kill snakes.

The Contrast with Modern Values

The story of Adam and Eve is a compelling story, largely because the lure of forbidden fruit rings true to human experience, as does the sense that our enjoyment of paradisiac bliss is likely to be short-lived and doomed to frustration. It should be emphasized, however, that the worldview of this story is antithetical to modern Western culture. While Adam has free range over nearly all the garden, the limit imposed by the divine command is crucial. Obedience to a higher authority is an essential element of the biblical ethic. For modern culture, in contrast, the sky is the limit and people are constantly encouraged to “go for it.” One may debate the relative merits of the two approaches to life, but the fundamental difference between them must be acknowledged.


Sarna, Understanding Exodus, 23–32.

Further Reading:

James Barr, The Garden of Eden and the Hope of Immortality (London: SCM, 1992).

Phyllis Trible, God and the Rhetoric of Sexuality (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1978).

Questions for Discussion:

  1. In how many ways is the story of the Garden of Eden incompatible with Genesis 1?
  2. How defensible are the traditional interpretations of the story as the “Fall of Man”? How much culpability does Eve have in the biblical account?
  3. In the end, should we understand the decision to eat from the tree to be a good thing or a bad thing? What does the Bible seem to think about this?


Yale Bible Study


IV. The Flood

Continuing the run of the Bible’s greatest hits, the narrative that follows upon Creation, Adam and Eve, and Cain and Abel is—after a few genealogies to pass the time—the famous story of Noah and the Flood. For the single most deadly event in the history of God’s engagement with humanity, this is an episode that is most often recounted in children’s books and songs (“It rained and poured for forty daisies, daisies,” etc.). And while it seems at first like a relatively straightforward morality tale—humanity is wicked, humanity is punished, humanity is forgiven—this is in fact a complex narrative, comprising two distinctive views of the Flood. Its message is also not quite as simple as it might at first seem.

The Problem with the Flood Narrative

The story of the Flood in Genesis 6–9 has been, since the dawn of critical scholarship on the Bible, the primary text to which people have pointed to demonstrate the presence in the Pentateuch of multiple literary sources. The reason the passage has endured in this role up to the present is the simple fact that, although perhaps the most famous of all biblical stories, when one tries to read the narrative of the Flood one finds that it is, on the basic level of plot, impossible. The story begins with God discovering that the entire earth—“all flesh,” according to Gen 6:12—has become corrupt, and that the earth is filled with violence (hamas). God tells Moses that God has decided to destroy all flesh, but that Noah should make an ark. God promises to make a covenant with Noah, and instructs Noah to bring two of every living thing onto the ark “to keep alive with you; they shall be male and female.” And Noah does so (Gen 6:22): just as God commanded him, so he did.

Yet in the very next breath, something is deeply amiss. God once again tells Noah that all life is about to be destroyed, and that Noah should get into the ark. If this were all, we might just say that this God is a repetitive God. But there is more: God tells Noah also to take seven pairs—not one pair, male and female, but seven pairs, fourteen in total—of all clean animals and birds, but only one pair (male and female) of the unclean animals. It would seem, then, that Noah, having just collected one pair of every animal as instructed (“just as God commanded him, so he did,” Gen 6:22), is now told to go do it all over again, with many more animals, and with the distinction between clean and unclean. And, remarkably, “Noah did just as the Lord commanded him” (Gen 7:5).

The problems continue. Where did the water for the Flood come from? According to Gen 7:11, it was from above and below, from the release of the cosmic waters of creation: “the fountains of the great deep (tehom)” and “the floodgates of the sky.” According to Gen 7:12, it was rain—a lot of rain, but still just plain old rain.

There is a significant problem of chronology. On one hand, there is a very nice year-long sequence of events: the Flood comes in the seventeenth day of the second month of Noah’s six hundredth year; the waters rose for a hundred and fifty days (Gen 7:24), which is to say, for five months, such that the ark came to rest on Mount Ararat on the seventeenth day of the seventh month (Gen 8:4); on the first day of the tenth month, the mountains appeared; on Noah’s birthday, the first day of the first month of his six hundred and first year, the water began to dry up (8:13); and finally, on the twenty-seventh day of the second month—almost exactly one year after the waters first arrived—the earth was dry again. All well and good, until we see that there is time that is unaccounted for: most notably, the famous “forty days and forty nights” that the rain fell according to Gen 7:12, which is mentioned again in 8:6 as somehow coinciding with the first day of the tenth month. Thus forty days became, miraculously, seven and a half months. Then there are the seven days in which Noah waited for the dove to return, and the seven days after that (8:10–12).

As for that dove, which every child knows about, one should not forget about the raven that Noah sends out first. The raven (though it has gotten a bad reputation in the history of interpretation, in completely predictable black-and-white ways) actually does its job perfectly well, and does exactly the same job that Noah’s dove does with its three trips to and from the ark. There are, in other words, two different birds performing precisely the same function.

There are logical problems, the sort that don’t make it into the children’s books or songs. Most prominent: the minute that Noah gets off the ark, he proceeds to build an altar and offer animal sacrifices to God. It is unclear how this comports with God’s instructions to Noah to take the animals “to keep alive with you.” Even worse, just before Noah sacrifices the animals (8:20), God had just told him to bring the animals out “and let them swarm on the earth and be fruitful and multiply” (8:17).

Just as the Flood story begins with God’s repeated instructions to Noah, so it ends with another unnecessary repetition, of God’s promise never again to bring a Flood to destroy the earth. The first time, God makes the promise after smelling the odor of the sacrifices (8:21–22); the second time, it is the fulfillment of God’s statement before the Flood that there would be a covenant with Noah (9:1–17).

Two Flood Stories

These narrative problems, entirely on the level of the plot, make the Flood story in the canonical Bible difficult to read, difficult to the point of near-impossibility. Yet there is something notable about the narrative problems of the Flood story: they all come in binary pairs. Two repetitions, two birds, two origins of the waters, two calendrical systems. And when the opposing pairs are separated, it turns out that two perfectly good narratives emerge, each with distinctive and consistent narrative claims about what happened, when, how, and why.

And then comes the final step: the observation that each of these two stories is also remarkably consistent in terms of literary style. The classic marker for the distinction between the sources J and P is the use of the divine name—and though one does not even need to look at the divine names in the Flood story in order to properly divide it into its constituent sources, once one has accomplished that separation it turns out that, yes, the divine name appears only in one narrative strand, while the generic term “God,” elohim, appears in the other. There are other, terminological distinctions that also appear. The story that uses the divine name uses the phrase “all existence,” while its opposite narrative says “all flesh.” The words for the destruction are distinctive, “blot out” and “destroy.” Also for death: “die” and “perish.” “The earth” versus “the ground.” “Male and its mate” versus “male and female.” None of these stylistic features is necessary to identify the two stories, but they do serve as a wonderful confirmation that, indeed, there are two stories to be found here.

What, then, are these two Flood stories? According to the first, Noah is a decent chap with three sons, Shem, Ham, and Japhet, and the rest of the earth—all flesh—is corrupted and violent. God instructs Noah to build the ark and take two of each living thing, and Noah does so, and in the six hundredth year of his life, Noah goes into the ark with his wife, his sons, and his sons’ wives (a repeated refrain in this narrative). The waters come from above and below, and rise until everything dies; after a hundred and fifty days, God remembers Noah and sends a wind to drive back the waters. Eventually the ark comes to rest on Ararat, and Noah sends out the raven, which flies around until the waters have dried up entirely. Finally God tells Noah to come out of the ark, and tells everything to be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth; God makes a few new stipulations regarding the consumption of meat, which is presented as a novelty in human history here; and finally God makes a covenant with Noah and his sons that there will be no more floods, with the rainbow serving as the sign of the covenant.

This version of the Flood narrative is manifestly from the priestly source, P, which we met already in Genesis 1. What we have in this story is the undoing of the creation narrated so beautifully in the first chapter of Genesis. The waters that were carefully separated by God to reveal the earth, those waters that are above and below the world we know, are released, returning the earth to its pre-creation chaos. Once again it is a divine wind that marks the end of the chaos. The re-creation of the world is announced with the same divine blessing, be fruitful and multiply. There is the reference in this story to God making humanity in God’s image, straight out of Genesis 1. And the explicitly vegetarian state of humanity proclaimed in Genesis 1 is here undone, and humans are allowed to eat meat, although with restrictions.

This last point is particularly important, as it gives us the most important hint as to what the author of P imagined the rationale behind the Flood to have been. In the initial state of the world according to P, humans and animals are supposed to be peaceful vegans, living together in harmony. But we are told at the beginning of the Flood story that the world—all flesh—has degenerated into violence and corruption. Humans are killing humans, animals are killing animals, and each is killing the other. Everything is destroyed in the P story because everything, human and animal alike, has violated what was supposed to be the natural order. The permission given at the end of the Flood in P, therefore, is a sop to the natural inclination of living creatures to be violent. That violence is not entirely outlawed, which is (as we learn over and over again in this country, going back to Prohibition and beyond) an ineffective means of preventing something; it is, rather, subject to state (divine) control.

Quite a different story is told in the J version of the Flood. This story begins with God recognizing that humanity is inherently wicked—but that Noah is, at least in relative terms, okay. So Noah takes his seven pairs of clean and one pair of unclean animals, and the rain comes for forty days and forty nights, and everything on earth dies. At the end of the forty days, Noah sends out the dove, three times, and when it finally doesn’t return, Noah opens the ark and sees that everything is dry. He builds an altar and sacrifices—and here we see why God instructed him to bring so many animals, and in particular so many clean, which is another way of saying sacrificable, animals on board the ark! When God smells the sacrifices, God swears not to bring a Flood again: there is the divine recognition that though humanity may be inherently wicked, humanity also serves a purpose, in that it is only humans who are capable of providing God with sacrifices. There is no change in humanity’s regulations according to J, there is only a growing realization on the part of God that humans are imperfect and that those imperfections must be tolerated.

In the J story, there is a latent question of why, precisely, the animals had to die along with the humans. After all, both at the beginning and the end of the story it is emphasized that humanity is wicked by nature—quite distinct from the claim in the P story that “all flesh” was corrupted. So why a flood to wipe out the whole world, rather than a humanity-specific sort of devastation? The answer lies in the J version of creation and the J vision for humanity’s relationship with the rest of the world. In J, Adam is created first, and all of the animals exist only for the sake of humanity. (This is precisely the opposite of what we see in P, where creation is virtually complete before God creates humans.) According to J’s logic, once God decides to destroy humanity, the animals might as well go too, for without humans the animals serve no purpose.

Historical and Cross-cultural Considerations

The two Flood stories, intertwined in Genesis 6–9, are each complete, continuous, and internally consistent. And neither is dependent on or shows any knowledge of the other. In other words, there were in ancient Israel (at least) two independent narratives of the Flood floating around. We also know, of course, that these were not the only Flood stories being told in the ancient Near East, or around the world. Indeed, as has long been noted, virtually every culture has its Flood story. This has led many over the years to conjecture that there might be some historical truth behind the narrative, that there may in fact have been some prehistoric catastrophic flood event, the memory of which was preserved and transmitted in cultures across the globe.

It must be acknowledged, however, that there is no geological evidence for such a flood event. What we have instead is plenty of evidence for relatively localized floodings. These, it is safe to assume, were expanded by each individual culture into a momentous historical event—and it should be remembered that in the age before the internet, before globalization, before exploration or even substantial population movement, one’s local community was, for all intents and purposes, the world. Over generations, a local natural disaster easily transformed into a global catastrophe (in the same way that a local patriarchal figure could be transformed into a national or global progenitor—but more on that in the next session).

It is also worth remembering that stories travel from culture to culture, and indeed the biblical Flood stories are a very good example of such narrative migration. Given the climatological realities, it is fairly unthinkable that a story about a massive Flood should have originated in ancient Israel, where a lack of water, that is, famine, is the prevalent disaster (as we see repeatedly in the patriarchal stories and elsewhere), rather than too much water. Ever since the discovery and decipherment of the Mesopotamian epics of Gilgamesh and Atrahasis in the nineteenth century it has been clear that the biblical Flood account are both—though independently—derived from the Mesopotamian traditions (where flooding was, and continues to be, a serious problem). In the Mesopotamian Flood stories, we also have the salvation of a single human, the construction of an ark, the keeping of animals, the sending of birds, sacrifices—virtually every element that we find in the biblical accounts has a parallel.

This does not mean, however, that the biblical authors were simply translating the Mesopotamian epics into Hebrew. Along with the similarities are also significant differences, often in the most meaningful places. The biblical text presents one deity rather than many, and a deity with quite different justifications for bringing the Flood (in the Mesopotamian epics, the complaints of the gods against humanity are often quite banal, such as excess human noise). Although many scholars have presumed that the biblical accounts are a polemical reaction against the Mesopotamian traditions—along the lines of “you think it went like this, but we’re going to tell it the right way”—it seems more likely that in fact the process of transmission was lengthier and less sharp. It is probably safer to imagine that Mesopotamian Flood traditions came into Israel over many generations of cultural interaction, and that they were “translated” into the Israelite idiom, transmitted, and refined in multiple versions over many years. The biblical accounts are less Israelite “responses” to a Mesopotamian story, and more Israelite “versions” of originally Mesopotamian traditions. In both cultures, it should be noted, there was not one single authoritative rendition of the tale.

Across both cultures and in all versions, however, there is one consistent element of the Flood story. It marks the transition from the age before to the age of the present. In the biblical accounts in particular, this transition is indicated by God’s changed attitude toward humanity: the acceptance of what humanity is and how we behave. If there is a “fall” in Genesis, it is more here than in the Garden, for it is here that divine expectations are lowered to accommodate our inherent nature. The imperfections that we see around us and recognize in ourselves are officially and permanently encoded at the end of the Flood. Not only is there no going back to the Garden, there is no expectation on God’s part that we ever should.


Sarna, Understanding Genesis, 37–62.

Further Reading:

Norman Cohn, Noah’s Flood: The Genesis Story in Western Thought (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1999).

Jason Silverman, Opening Heaven’s Floodgates: The Genesis Flood Narrative, Its Context, and Reception. Piscataway, NJ: Gorgias Press, 2013.

Questions for Discussion:

  1. What details make the Flood a story difficult to follow as a narrative?
  2. What are the moral implications of a deity willing to commit global genocide?
  3. How does the biblical Flood story speak to present-day concerns about natural disasters, global warming, and the ecological movement as a whole?


Yale Bible Study


V. Call of Abraham

After only the briefest of introductions at the end of Genesis 11, and with no hint of the role he would go on to play in the biblical narrative, suddenly at the beginning of Genesis 12 Abraham—still known at this point in the story as Abram—is thrust onto the scene as the first recipient of what we call the promise to the patriarchs. The words are famous and familiar: “Go from your native land and from your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, and you shall be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse. And all the families of the earth shall bless themselves through you” (Gen 12:1–3).

This divine statement has often been taken as one of, if not the, primary examples of the principle of divine reward for righteous behavior. God tells Abraham to leave his native land in Mesopotamia and journey to Canaan; if Abraham does so, it is often thought, God will reward him by blessing him, by making him the founder of the Israelite people, the “great nation.” And it is true, Abraham does have to leave Mesopotamia and go to Canaan as a necessary first step. (Though this is in large part because it is assumed throughout the patriarchal stories, and indeed in much of the Bible, that Yahweh, the God of Israel, is a potent deity only in Israel; Abraham has to go there because that is where God will be able to actually do the things he promises.) But the structure of these verses, which is difficult if not impossible to replicate in English translation, suggests that the departure from Mesopotamia to Canaan is indeed only the first step, rather than being the main step.

Virtually every main verb in the promise has the same grammatical form in the original Hebrew (with the necessary shifts from first to second person): they are all expressions of will, what we call the imperative (for the second-person forms) and the cohortative (for the first-person forms). Abraham is instructed to leave his homeland; but God equally instructs himself to make Abraham into a great nation, and to bless him, and to curse his enemies, etc. And, importantly, God instructs Abraham, in the imperative, to “be a blessing.” This is not, as so many translators and commentators have thought, the result of God’s actions, that Abraham will be a blessing (at least not necessarily); it is something that Abraham must do. In other words, what God expresses in these verses is not a quid pro quo, but a partnership: God expects Abraham to do certain things, and God puts certain obligations on himself as well. All of these combined efforts are intended to lead to one outcome, marked by the only main verb in the promise that is not either imperative or cohortative: that the nations of the earth will bless themselves through Abraham.

The meaning of this last, crucial phrase is not necessarily clear. There have typically been two major readings. The first is “the nations of the earth shall be blessed through you”—which is to say, because of Abraham’s faithfulness and righteousness there will be benefit for the entire world. Abraham’s actions will have a global effect, and presumably a trans-historical one. For what may be obvious reasons, this is the reading most often preferred by Christian interpreters, as it provides a mechanism for reading the development and rise of Christianity back into the very first moments of Israel’s existence.

The traditional Jewish reading, however, is the one suggested above: “the nations of the earth shall bless themselves by you.” This interpretation is quite different: that the non-Israelite nations, upon seeing how blessed Abraham and his lineage are, will express blessing among themselves by invoking Abraham’s success. “May you be as blessed as Abraham”—just as, later on, Jacob blesses Joseph’s sons by saying, “By you shall Israel invoke blessings, saying, ‘God make you like Ephraim and Manasseh’” (Gen 48:20). If Abraham is a blessing, and if God makes Abraham a blessing, then the other nations of the world will look to Abraham as a model.

Despite its centrality in the narrative and its longevity in the history of interpretation, the divine words in Genesis 12:1–3 are not particularly clear. What does it mean that Abraham is “to be a blessing”? How will God bless Abraham? The crucial phrase in this speech is “I will make you a great nation,” for this is the part of the divine promise that is shared by all the pentateuchal authors and that forms the backdrop for the entire pentateuchal narrative arc. The Hebrew word used by God here for “nation” is goy, which is a political term (rather than the ethnic term ‘am, “people”). At the end of the primeval history, God had scattered humanity across the face of the planet, and the nations of the world had all established themselves in their various places. What God tells Abraham here is that Abraham will come to be another such nation, carved out from the existing world order. In order to become such a nation, two elements are required: a population of a certain size, and land in which those people can live. In other words, the two central planks of the divine promise throughout Genesis: land and progeny, distinct but inseparable.

The fulfillment of these two promise elements, and the challenges that the patriarchs and their descendants face in achieving that fulfillment, is what drives the narrative from Genesis 12 onward. The promise of land will not be fulfilled until the end of the Pentateuch, and in fact not even then; Genesis, however, is in many ways the story of the fulfillment of the aspect of progeny: the movement from one man, Abraham, to the twelve tribes of Israel. But to get from one to many, a seemingly unceasing run of obstacles has to be overcome, beginning first and foremost with the barrenness of Sarah—and after her of Rebekah and Rachel. Yet a promise is a promise, especially when it comes from God, and since the audience of Genesis stands at the end of the story, in full knowledge that Israel would become a full-fledged people, there is no doubt in the reader’s mind about whether God’s words will be fulfilled or not. It is the journey that is enriching, enlightening, and entertaining, not the journey’s foregone conclusion.

The association of Abraham with the promise of land and progeny must have been an ancient one, for it appears in each of the three sources of Genesis, J, E, and P. The promise in Genesis 12 is from J; the next one we encounter is the promise from E in Genesis 15. There has been significant disagreement in scholarship as to the source assignment of Genesis 15, with many scholars of earlier generations giving the promise material in the first few verses to J. Many scholars, past and present, also suspect that the material about the Exodus at the end of the chapter is secondary. On the first point, much of the disagreement is due to the fact that in this chapter, almost (but not quite) uniquely among those assigned to E, the divine name Yahweh is used. When most people have been taught that the division between J and E is done on the basis of the use of the divine names, this can appear to be a serious difficulty. Yet most pentateuchal scholars now agree that the use of the divine names is not, for the most part, a valid basis for dividing the sources. J uses both Yahweh and Elohim regularly. E seems to use Yahweh on occasion, though very infrequently. And even P, which is the source that most explicitly limits the name Yahweh to the time of Moses and afterward (see Exodus 6), uses it in the first verse of Genesis 17. Even if use of Yahweh in Genesis 15 creates a momentary disconnect, there are many other elements in the chapter that are not only quite in line with the overall E account, but that mark it apart from the J and P promises.

We may note first that here the promise appears in a very different sort of setting. It comes here not out of the blue, as in Genesis 12, but in response to Abraham’s apparent doubt: he has no heir. In response, God promises Abraham something that seems almost unbelievable: that he will indeed have a child of his own, despite his advanced age. And because Abraham takes God’s words on faith, God famously “reckoned it to him as righteousness” (Gen 15:6). This verse has a lengthy and important history of interpretation, most centrally in the writings of Paul. In its context in Genesis, however, it is not making any grand statement about faith versus works, and is not saying anything about “works of the law,” since the law has not been given yet. The verse speaks only of this moment in the narrative: that God thought it was a credit to Abraham that he believed that God could do such an ostensibly impossible thing. (Later in the E story, Abraham’s faith will be put to the test in the sacrifice of Isaac.)

In Genesis 15 we find two other interesting elements that do not appear in Genesis 12. One is the formal “cutting” of a covenant. Here we understand where that expression comes from, for there is a literal “cutting” that takes place here: Abraham takes his offerings and cuts them in half, after which God, appearing as fire, moves between the pieces. It has been conjectured that the meaning of this seemingly obscure ritual is symbolic: the one moving between the pieces takes on the obligation to fulfill his part of the deal, with the understanding that if he does not do so he should be cut in two like this animal. Whatever the original intent of the ceremony, the presence of a ceremony at all, the explicit mention of a covenant, is new to Genesis 15.

The other new element in Genesis 15 is the anticipation of the Exodus event. Abraham is told that he will indeed be given this land of Canaan, but he is also told that his descendants will have to abandon it, to return only after four generations. There are in fact very few explicit references anywhere in Genesis forward to the exodus, so this one stands out, especially given its prominent placement in the midst of the divine promise. It is mostly for this reason that people have thought that the entire passage from 15:13–16 is a later insertion. But there are no grounds for prohibiting a pentateuchal author from anticipating the Exodus in the patriarchal story, just as there are no grounds for saying that there cannot be remembrances of the patriarchal period in the narratives of the Exodus. That said, there is good reason to think that at least some of this material is secondary—in particular, the four-hundred-year enslavement and oppression mentioned in 15:13, which does not comport well at all with the four generations mentioned in 15:16. It is, as always, internal inconsistencies that drive us to see separate authors. If the reference to the Exodus event as a whole is not secondary, then, what purpose does it serve here? It may well be seen as a response on the part of the author to the obvious question that might arise, at least on the part of a reader familiar with the overarching narrative: why does God keep telling the patriarchs that they and their descendants will be given this land, when we know that the Israelites will have to take it back by force after the exodus?

Different still is the promise narrative of Genesis 17, from the priestly source. Here the most prominent novelty is the inclusion of circumcision as part of the covenant. The origins of circumcision as a practice are unknown, though it is known that circumcision was not an exclusively Israelite custom. It was known certainly in Egypt, and most likely also among the Canaanites. It was evidently not part of Mesopotamian culture, which has led some scholars to suggest that the emphasis on circumcision in Genesis 17 should lead us to date the text to the period of the exile, when the Israelites would have wanted to define themselves against their Babylonian context. Yet there is another culture that also did not practice circumcision, and that the Israelites had every reason to define themselves against: the Philistines (whose foreskins David is famously sent by Saul to collect).

Whatever the original purpose of circumcision, its use in the context of the patriarchal promise in Genesis 17 is distinctly theological. Although most have read this as something that Abraham and his family must do in order to receive the benefits promised by God—as if it is part of a quid pro quo—in fact there is something quite different going on here. The promise to make Abraham and his family into a great nation is, in Genesis 17 at least, a unilateral one on the part of God. It does not require circumcision in a transactional sense. God explicitly says that circumcision is the “sign of the covenant” (Gen 17:11). It is not part of the covenant itself. It is, rather, like many “signs” in the priestly source (including the rainbow at the end of the Flood), a reminder to God of an obligation that God has taken on. In the case of the Flood, the obligation is never again to destroy the world: when God sees the rainbow, the rains are supposed to stop before another catastrophe ensues. In the case of circumcision, the obligation is to make Abraham and his offspring fruitful and to multiply them (Gen 17:6). This, then, is how the sign of circumcision works: not as an identifying marker for Israelites to recognize each other (which would require a certain level of intimacy that was lost back in the Garden of Eden), but as a marker for God to recognize the Israelites from among the other nations of the world—such that when two Israelites engage in sexual intercourse, God should remember his obligation to make that coupling a fruitful one. Circumcision functions here much like the blood on the doorposts of the Israelite homes functions in the Passover story: as a means for God to distinguish between Israelite and non-Israelite.

The patriarchal promise is the most often-repeated narrative element in Genesis, and indeed in the entire Pentateuch. It is the central theme and plot device for all three of the sources in Genesis. Though it appears relatively infrequently outside of Genesis, the places that it is mentioned are always prominent ones: when God commits to rescue the Israelites from Egyptian oppression; at the episode of the golden calf; at the episode of the spies. In part because of its regular appearances, particularly in Genesis but elsewhere too, some scholars have suggested that the promise is a later element of the biblical story, one that was inserted by a redactor (or a series of redactors) in order to bind earlier independent pieces together under an overarching theological rubric. While it is certainly possible that some promise texts in the Pentateuch are of later origin—such as the one in Genesis 22, as we will see—the vast majority of the mentions of the patriarchal promise are firmly embedded in the separate sources. The fact that all the pentateuchal sources know of the promise, and the fact that they all construe it in slightly different ways, strongly suggests that instead of being a late theological addition the promise is in fact quite an early element in the tradition.

The call of Abraham, and the patriarchal promise, inaugurates a new era in the biblical historical scheme. From an entire world, one person was chosen; from that one person, an entire nation will grow, and that nation will, at least in the hopes of Genesis 12, have a world-wide impact.


Sarna, Understanding Genesis, 81–136.

Further Reading:

Joel S. Baden, The Promise to the Patriarchs (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013).

Questions for Discussion:

  1. Why is Abraham (and his offspring) chosen out of all humanity? How does the rationale for Abraham’s election matter for our own notions of being “chosen”?
  2. What are the obligations of the divine promise, both for Israel/us and for God?
  3. When we read all three of the calls together, Genesis 12, 15, and 17, what do we gain from this combination that we would be missing were there only one such passage?


Yale Bible Study


VI. Abraham and Isaac

A major theme in the Abraham cycle concerns the question of an heir who should inherit the promise. At first, Abraham worries that “the heir to my house is Eliezer of Damascus” (Gen 15:2). Then he has a child, Ishmael, by Hagar, Sarah’s slave girl. Here again there is an ethnographic aspect to the story: Ishmael becomes the ancestor of a desert tribe. Like the story of Jacob and Esau, the account of Ishmael explains how Israel was defined over against its neighbors by divine choices that seem quite arbitrary. But this story also raises moral questions, not only for modern sensibilities.

The story is told twice, with variations, in Genesis 16 (J) and 21 (E). In the J account, the conflict between Hagar and Sarai arises when Hagar becomes pregnant and looks on Sarai with contempt. Abram makes no attempt to defend her, but allows Sarai to do as she pleases, so that Hagar has to flee. The angel of the Lord intervenes, and persuades Hagar to return, by promising that her son will have plentiful offspring, even though he will be “a wild ass of a man” and will live “at odds with his kin.” But Hagar is also told to submit to her mistress. We are left in no doubt about Sarai’s greater importance in the eyes of the Lord. Abram does not come off well in this story, as he makes no attempt to defend his offspring; but, typically, he is not censured in the text.

The E account locates the conflict later, after Isaac is born and weaned. In this case Sarah’s harshness to Hagar has less justification: she cannot abide the thought that the son of a slave woman would be on a par with her son. This time Abraham is distressed, but God tells him that Sarah is right, and that through Isaac the promise will be transmitted. He then sends Hagar and her child off into the wilderness. The plight of mother and child in the desert anticipates the later wandering of Israel and that of the prophet Elijah. In each case God comes to the rescue. This time there is no reason for Hagar or Ishmael to return to Abraham, but God causes the boy to prosper in the wilderness. Here again the idea of divine election seems to take priority over human compassion. The story seems to champion ethnocentrism, by suggesting that those who do not belong to the chosen people can be sent away. We meet a chilling application of the same principle much later in the Bible in the book of Ezra, where Ezra makes the Judean men who have married foreign women send them away with their children. The Elohist softens the story by assuring us that God looked after Hagar and Ishmael. There is no such assurance in the book of Ezra. Once again, the story raises a profound issue, one that will come up many times in the Bible, but it hardly points to a satisfactory solution.

The sacrifice of Isaac

The crowning episode in the narratives about Abraham’s heirs is the sacrifice of Isaac in Genesis 22. The basic story, 22:1-14, 19, is generally ascribed to the E source, like the story of Hagar and Ishmael in Genesis 21. Verses 15-18 (“The angel of the Lord called to Abraham a second time . . .”) are generally recognized as a secondary addition, which integrates the story into the Yahwistic theme of the promise. There are some problems with the source-critical division, since “the angel of the Lord” is mentioned in v. 11 and v. 14 explains the name Moriah by the phrase “YHWH will see.” Evidently, the story has been reworked by different hands, and this helps explain why several different emphases can be detected in it. Nonetheless, the spare artistry of the story has been widely and rightly praised.

The opening verse is exceptional among the stories of Genesis in offering an explicit key to interpretation: “God tested Abraham.” The test is eventually aborted, but there is no doubt that Abraham passes. Abraham is commended in v. 12 and again in the redactional addition in vv. 16-18. This is not just any test, however. Abraham is told to take his only son, Isaac, whom he loves, and offer him up as a burnt offering. While the reader is told in advance that this is a test, Abraham is not. To appreciate the force of the story, the awfulness of the command must be taken fully seriously.

Another key to the story is provided by the theme of providence. Abraham tells Isaac that “God himself will provide a lamb for the burnt offering” (v. 8). At this point in the story, this is an understandable attempt to dodge the awful truth, but it is more prophetic than Abraham knows. When the angel of the Lord intervenes, Abraham names the place “the Lord will provide.”

Yet another key to the story lies in the repetition of the promise to Abraham in vv. 15-18. While this passage is an editorial addition, it integrates the story into the main theme that now binds the patriarchal stories together.

The fascination of the story, however, lies in the specific content of the command to Abraham to sacrifice his only legitimate son. We do not know how widely human (child) sacrifice was practiced in ancient Israel, but there can be no doubt that it was practiced, down close to the time of the Babylonian exile. Kings of Judah (Ahaz in the eighth century BCE, 2 Kgs 16:3; Manasseh in the seventh century BCE, 2 Kgs 21:6) made their sons “pass through fire,” that is, offered them as burnt offerings. There was an installation called the Topheth in Ge (valley) Hinnom outside Jerusalem, where children were burned as victims (hence the name Gehenna for hell in New Testament times). King Josiah destroyed the Topheth in the reform of 621 BCE, allegedly so that “no one would make a son or a daughter pass through fire as an offering to Molech” (2 Kgs 23:10). Molech is usually taken to be a Canaanite god, and some interpreters are quick to conclude that child sacrifice was a Canaanite custom. But there is evidence that it was also practiced in the name of YHWH, God of Israel. The eighth-century prophet Micah addresses a Yahwistic worshiper who wonders: “with what shall I come before the Lord, and bow myself before God on high? Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? . . . Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?” (Mic 6:6-8). Micah replies that God requires only justice and kindness, but the question shows that a worshiper of YHWH could contemplate child sacrifice in the eighth century BCE.

Child sacrifice actually appears to be commanded in Exod 22:28-29: “The firstborn of your sons you shall give to me. You shall do the same with your oxen and with your sheep: seven days it shall remain with its mother; on the eighth you shall give it to me” (Hebrew verse 28, English verse 29). This commandment is modified in Exod 34:19-20, which likewise says that “all that first opens the womb is mine,” but adds, “all the firstborn of your sons you shall redeem.” (Similarly, the firstborn of a donkey could be redeemed by substituting a lamb, but if it was not redeemed it had to be killed.)  Underlying this commandment is the conviction that all life is from God, and that God’s right to the firstborn must be acknowledged, in order to ensure future fertility. We should expect that human firstborn sons were normally redeemed, as commanded in Exodus 34, but it is remarkable that the stark commandment in Exodus 22 is left on the books.

YHWH is also said to have commanded human sacrifice in Ezek 20:25-26: “Moreover, I gave them statutes that were not good and ordinances by which they could not live. I defiled them through all their very gifts, in their offering up all their firstborn, in order that I might horrify them, so that they might know that I am the Lord.” Ezekiel does not attribute child sacrifice to Canaanite influence. He may have had Exodus 22 in mind. In any case, he provides further testimony that child sacrifice was practiced in Judah, down to the time of the exile. The polemic against child sacrifice in Deuteronomy and Jeremiah would not have been necessary if this had not been the case.

Unlike Deuteronomy and Jeremiah, Genesis 22 does not condemn child sacrifice or polemicize against it. On the contrary, Abraham is praised for his willingness to carry it out. He does not have to go through with it, but that may be an exceptional case, because of Abraham’s exceptional standing. There is a counterpoint to this story in Judges 11, in the story of Jephthah. Jephthah makes a vow to the Lord that if he is victorious in battle he will sacrifice “whoever comes out of the doors of my house to meet me.” The language clearly implies human sacrifice. Unfortunately for Jephthah, he is greeted by his only daughter. He expresses more grief than Abraham, and is no less steadfast in fulfilling his vow. Modern commentators often fault Jephthah, since, unlike Abraham, he brought his misfortune on himself by a rash vow. But the Bible does not pronounce his vow rash, or pass judgment on him at all. (The New Testament proclaims him, like Abraham, a hero of faith, in Heb 11:32-34). Moreover, he seems to make his vow under the influence of the spirit of the Lord (Judg 11:20-21). In this case there is no ram in the bushes. The Lord does not always provide a substitute.

While child sacrifice is not repudiated in Genesis 22, it was emphatically rejected by the later tradition. The tradition continued to praise the obedience of Abraham, but there is evident discomfort both with the idea that God gave such a command and with Abraham’s willingness to carry it out. On the one hand, it was suggested that the idea of the sacrifice came from Satan, just as Satan incited God to test Job. So the book of Jubilees, in the second century BCE, has the idea originate with Mastema, leader of the host of demons (Jub. 17:16). On the other hand, Targum Neofiti (an Aramaic paraphrase of the Bible from the early Christian period) has Abraham tell Isaac openly that he is to be sacrificed. Isaac responds by asking Abraham to bind him properly, so that he may not kick and make the sacrifice unfit. (In Jewish tradition, the sacrifice of Isaac is known as the Akedah, or Binding.) Other Jewish sources from the early Christian era also emphasize that Isaac was a willing victim and that his willingness was meritorious. This interpretation of the story may already be found in a fragmentary text from the Dead Sea Scrolls from the pre-Christian era (4Q225).

The story continues to fascinate philosophers and theologians down to modern times. The Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard reasoned that Abraham could only be justified by “the teleological suspension of the ethical”—the idea that ethical standards do not apply to a divine command. Immanuel Kant, the great German philosopher of the Enlightenment, offered a more penetrating critique. For Kant, the problem was how one can know whether such a command comes from God in the first place: “There are certain cases in which man can be convinced that it cannot be God whose voice he thinks he hears; when the voice commands him to do what is opposed to the moral law, though the phenomenon seem to him ever so majestic and surpassing the whole of nature, he must count it a deception.” (See Kant, The Conflict of the Faculties [Trans. M. J. Gregor; New York: Abaris, 1979] 115). He went on to cite the story of Abraham as a case in point. This is of course a modern critique, which arises in a world where God is not thought to speak to people on a daily basis, and claims of divine revelation are regarded as problematic. We shall find, however, that such a critique is not as foreign to the Bible as we might suppose. Increasingly, as the biblical history unfolds, the authenticity of revelation becomes a problem. We shall find this especially in the debates over true and false prophecy. In the matter of revelation, as in the matter of child sacrifice, we must acknowledge development in the biblical corpus, although that development does not necessarily proceed in a straight line.

The story of the (near) sacrifice of Isaac is a troubling one for modern interpreters, because of the extravagant divine approval for Abraham’s willingness to do something that is not only regarded as criminal in the modern world but that was also widely condemned in the Bible itself. The problem cannot be resolved by the fact that he was acting in obedience to a divine command. The problem with divine commands is the difficulty of recognizing what is authentically divine. In the 1990’s a man who had converted to a conservative Christian sect was put on trial in California for killing his daughter, whom he apparently loved, because he thought God was telling him to do so. He was found not guilty by reason of insanity, although he showed no other signs of insanity. (See Carol Delaney, Abraham on Trial (Princeton, 1998). Jews and Christians will say that Abraham was different, and it is often argued that we should not judge Abraham by modern criteria. But if Abraham is not judged by modern criteria, is he at all relevant to modern readers?

Scripture teaches in many ways, not always by positive example. It contains lessons on the dangers of fanatical faith as well as calls for social justice and moral behavior.


Sarna, Understanding Genesis, 154–65.

Further Reading:

John J. Collins, “Faith Without Works: Biblical Ethics and the Sacrifice of Isaac,” in idem, Encounters with Biblical Theology (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2005) 47-58.

Questions for Discussion:

  1. What are moral implications of a God who even requests the sacrifice of a child, even if the act is eventually unfulfilled?
  2. How does the story of the sacrifice of Isaac speak to modern-day religious fundamentalism?
  3. How do we reckon with, integrate, or reject those parts of our biblical tradition that we find ethically or morally problematic from a modern perspective?


Yale Bible Study


VII. Jacob

Jacob is in many ways the first real character in the Bible—and perhaps the last until we meet David in the books of Samuel. Unlike Abraham, who is somewhat uninteresting, and Isaac, who is borderline nonexistent, Jacob has a life full of adventure, ups and downs, and entertainment. What’s more, unlike most other biblical characters, Jacob’s persona develops over the course of his life story.

What defines Jacob’s character most of all is his somewhat mischievous nature. To put it in broader folkloristic terms, Jacob is a classic trickster. He takes advantage of those around him for his own benefit. The first inklings of this character trait are clear in his emergence from his mother Rebekah’s womb, as he grasps on to the heel of his older brother Esau, whom we have already been told Jacob will supplant. Esau is indeed the “heel” of the Jacob story. As the older brother, he holds the birthright—the larger portion of Isaac’s inheritance that is due to the eldest son. But Jacob knows Esau’s weakness: his unintellectual physicality, which leads him to unthinkingly trade his birthright for a bowl of stew at a moment of intense hunger.

Later, Jacob will use his wiles to take Esau’s paternal blessing as well. These blessings, though perhaps less tangible than the land holdings that come with the birthright, were still enormously important. It was the father’s dying wishes for his sons that were thought to determine the course of future events and status, as we can see clearly in Jacob’s own dying blessings to his twelve sons in Genesis 49, or Noah’s blessings (and curse) of his sons in Genesis 9. The blessing dominance over the other siblings was highly desired; words were thought to have very real power. Jacob once again attacks the weak spot: in this case not Esau’s brutish nature, but Isaac’s elderly blindness.

Later still, when he has gone to his relatives in Aram to find a wife (and to escape Esau’s wrath over the theft of Isaac’s blessing), Jacob finds himself again in a position to outsmart those around him—again a family member—to his own material advantage. Laban may not have a stellar reputation in the biblical account, and certainly in the history of interpretation that followed, but Jacob’s tricking of him can feel somewhat mean-spirited anyway. Laban’s weakness is his greed: his desire for Jacob to work for him (for twenty years!) for virtually no wages. (This sounds particularly harsh and unkind, but it should be remembered that Jacob does agree to these terms at the beginning of the story—Jacob, at least, isn’t being swindled.) Jacob takes advantage of Laban’s greed by proposing a division of the flocks that would appear to leave all the healthy animals in Laban’s possession and all the weaker ones in Jacob’s. But Jacob has a trick up his sleeve—in this case, something fairly close to a real magic trick, which results in his flocks multiplying at the expense of Laban’s.

Jacob’s behavior in these episodes can at times lead to some ethical concerns: is this really how we want to picture our beloved and admired ancestors behaving? Would we not rather that they were, perhaps, more noble than this? It should be remembered, however, that the folk figure of the trickster is indeed an ancient and well-respected one, and moreover one that carried no negative connotations. It is also important to recall that while these stories are now part of what we consider Scripture, they did not originate as such. They belonged, rather, to the oral literature of ancient Israel, the folk tales that were passed down from generation to generation and around from community to community. They were not told for moral or ethical edification, but for entertainment: it would undoubtedly have given the audience much pleasure to hear about their ancestor besting those around him, especially through the use of his intellect and wiles—for most of its history, after all, Israel was never really capable of besting anyone by direct force (in the style of an Esau) or by the exertion of power (as with Laban).

The ethical question of Jacob’s behavior is also mitigated somewhat by the rest of the narrative of his life, in which he is as much the victim of trickery as he is its perpetrator. The two most notable such episodes are Laban’s replacement of Rachel with Leah on Jacob’s wedding night—just as Jacob took advantage of Isaac’s inability to see, so too Laban used the darkness as a cover for his tricking of Jacob—and, most prominently, Jacob’s own sons convincing Jacob that his beloved son Joseph had been attacked and killed by a wild beast. This latter deception has a special ring of comeuppance to it: just as Jacob used animal skins to trick his father Isaac into being unable to recognize him as the younger son, so Joseph’s brothers use animal skins to trick Jacob—this time, however, by a false act of recognition, the seeing of Joseph’s coat in its mangled state and the inference that Joseph must be dead.

By the end of his life, Jacob has gone from trickster to tricked, and has generally slowed down considerably. The man who was once practically a pure schemer is, after the births of his twelve sons, far more passive. This comes to light particularly in the story of the rape of Dinah in Genesis 34, where Jacob hears about the rape but keeps silent, and even rebukes his sons for acting rashly when they exact revenge against Shechem.

One of the prominent stories about Jacob, and certainly one of the most famous, is the encounter with the divine beings at Bethel: the angels going up and down the ladder, and Jacob’s statement, “Surely God is in this place and I did not know it” (Gen 28:16). While this story has come to serve as a reflection on the ubiquity of the divine presence, it originally served virtually the opposite function: it was, like so many of the stories in the patriarchal narratives, an explanation for the existence in Bethel of a cultic site, a sanctuary. These types of stories are known as cultic etiologies, and they litter the patriarchal accounts. Every time a character stops at a certain place and builds an altar, or sets up a pillar, or finds a significant tree, it is probably a cultic etiology. It is in these moments that we can see the great antiquity of so many of these patriarchal traditions. Certainly in the post-exilic period, when there was really only one functional sanctuary, the Temple in Jerusalem, stories like this would make little sense. Even in the pre-exilic period, if we take the arguments of Deuteronomy seriously, there would be significant opposition to the celebration of sanctuaries outside of Jerusalem—these cultic sites inaugurated by the patriarchs are what Deuteronomy condemns as the “high places,” “under every green tree.”

But in the stories of the patriarchs, these sites are not condemned at all. What we see here are probably the local legends about how the sanctuaries came into existence—the ancient equivalent of “George Washington slept here.” Bethel was clearly a significant cultic site from an early period (and one that would later become rather infamous as one of the sanctuaries set up by Jeroboam in opposition to Jerusalem). There must have been a legend, undoubtedly originating from Bethel itself, that it was founded by a patriarch. The antiquity of this legend is clear, however, from the fact that Genesis itself cannot decide which patriarch actually established the altar at Bethel. In Genesis 28 (E) and 35 (P) it is decidedly Jacob; but according to J in Genesis 12, it is Abraham.

The patriarchal narratives do more than simply explain the etiologies for Israelite sanctuaries. One of the prominent features of these stories is that the characters almost always stand for larger ethnic or national entities. Abraham’s nephew Lot begets two sons, Ammon and Moab, who are quite clearly the neighboring nations of the same names. Ishmael represents the Arab tribes of the wilderness between Canaan and Egypt. Esau is explicitly identified as Edom. Laban stands for Aram, the great power to the north. Jacob, of course, is Israel, and his sons the twelve tribes. The relationships among the individuals in the patriarchal stories represent the relationships among the peoples and nations within and surrounding Israel.

It is noteworthy that among the immediately neighboring peoples, the only two that are not somehow genetically connected with Israel according to the patriarchal narratives are Egypt and Canaan. The absence of Egypt is easily explainable as the result of the Exodus story, in which Egypt is the absolute enemy. But Canaan is more interesting, especially as scholars now agree that the community of Israel emerged from within Canaanite society. In other words, the people with whom Israel was in reality most closely connected is the same people that Israel explicitly excludes from its familial history in Genesis. (Note that the story in which the Canaanites play the most prominent part is the rape of Dinah in Genesis 34, where the potential for kinship between Jacob’s people and Shechem’s people is strongly considered, but ultimately rejected in favor of a far more aggressive stance.)

Much of the concern in the patriarchal stories is for the explanation and understanding of the social world of ancient Israel, both within the family structure and between tribes and peoples. One might observe the repeated emphasis on marriage within the family, what is known as endogamy: in Genesis 24 Abraham sends his servant to ensure that Isaac marries from within the family; in Genesis 27 Isaac and Rebekah do the same for Jacob (and are dismayed that Esau does not). This is a well-established principle of tribal and clan-based societies. Marriage entailed the exchange or division of land, and it was generally of utmost importance in that agricultural context that land remain in the clan. This concern is probably at the heart of many patriarchal stories, in which the right to possession of various towns and fields and burial places is attributed to the earliest cultural memories, way back to the first founders of the family line, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. But it was just as important to establish the continuity of land possession looking forward. Thus the push for endogamy, so as to keep familial property within the family.

The problem, however, is that it is eventually impossible to marry solely within the family. Eventually outsiders must be brought into the fold. In order to keep these exogamous relationships at least theoretically part of the established social order, the notion of “fictive kinship” was employed: the creation or admission of a common ancestor back there in the mists of time. This process of fictive kinship is probably behind the patriarchal corpus as a whole. The individual tribes of Israel most likely only coalesced into a single self-identifying nation relatively late in history, perhaps some time in the eleventh or even tenth centuries BCE. It was this self-identification as a single people that would have inspired the idea of a common ancestor: hence Jacob, probably a local ancestor from the region of Bethel, became Israel, the forefather of all twelve tribes. So too most likely the local ancestors Isaac (perhaps from the Beersheva region) and Abraham (often associated in the stories with Hebron) were included in the ancestry. As social groups intermarried and intermingled and began to think of themselves as unities, so too their ancestry became united by the genealogical linking of their respective ancestral figures.

Thus although the literary stories of the patriarchs may be of limited historical value—there is no evidence that anyone named Abraham, Isaac, or Jacob ever did any of the things with which they are credited in Genesis—the existence of these stories and their relationships to one another may very well give us a window into the history, or at least the social history, of premonarchic Israel. In the spread of oral traditions, in the connections between characters, and in their movements across Canaan, we can see growth of the increasingly complex web of relationships among early Israelite tribes.


Sarna, Understanding Genesis, 181–210.

Further Reading:

Susan Niditch, Underdogs and Tricksters (San Francisco: Harper, 1987) p. 70-125.

Questions for Discussion:

  1. Is Jacob ultimately a sympathetic character?
  2. What about Esau?
  3. How does a family story become a national narrative?


Yale Bible Study


VIII. Joseph

The story of Joseph is immediately recognizable as quite different in character from the patriarchal narratives that precede it. Whereas the patriarchal stories are episodic, infrequently lasting more than a single chapter, if that long, and quite often serve etiological purposes of one sort or another that attest to their antiquity, the Joseph material is quite the opposite. There are few if any etiologies in these chapters (and the few there are seem to be more related to Egypt than to Israel, such as the passage in Genesis 47 in which Egyptian royal ownership of all non-temple lands is traced back to Joseph’s innovation!). And while there are scenes in the Joseph story, it is not episodic by any means, but is a continuous whole that begins in Genesis 37 and does not reach its logical conclusion until Genesis 50. For this reason the Joseph story has often been classified as a novella, more akin to the books of Esther and Ruth than to the rest of Genesis.

Yet for all its continuity and self-contained structure, there are indications that even the Joseph story is composed of multiple strands. This is clearest in the very first chapter, Genesis 37, where the narrative comes to a grinding halt in verse 28: “When Midianite traders passed by, they pulled Joseph out of the pit and sold him to the Ishmaelites for twenty pieces of silver, and they took Joseph to Egypt.” On a plain reading, it would seem that although the brothers saw the Ishmaelites coming in v. 25, and decided to sell Joseph to them in v. 27, remarkably in v. 28 they were scooped by the Midianites, who stole Joseph from the pit where his brothers had placed him, and then sold Joseph to the Ishmaelites themselves. As if that weren’t confusing enough, v. 36 then goes on to say that it was in fact the Midianites who sold Joseph to Potiphar in Egypt.

Genesis 37, like so many other chapters, can be divided neatly into two stories that are each complete and continuous. In one, from J, Joseph’s brothers hate him because he is the favorite of Jacob and because of his dreams; they plan to kill him, but before they have a chance they see the Ishmaelites coming by and Judah convinces them to turn the murder into a profitable sale. They sell Joseph to the Ishmaelites, who bring him to Egypt, and the brothers then proceed to kill the kid and dip Joseph’s coat in it, thereby completing the cycle of trickery inaugurated by Jacob back when he fooled Isaac into giving him Esau’s blessing. In the E story, by contrast, Joseph’s brothers hate him because he gives bad reports about them to Jacob, and they plan to kill him. Reuben, however, convinces the other brothers to throw Joseph into a pit instead of killing him with their own hands, with the intention of coming back later on and rescuing Joseph. But in that interim between throwing Joseph into the pit and Reuben’s return, the Midianites come by and steal Joseph from the pit. Reuben is distraught, and the Midianites bring Joseph down to Egypt.

Although the rest of the Joseph story is less easy to separate into sources than Genesis 37, there are indications that the double strands continue throughout. Most notably, in Genesis 40, while speaking to Pharaoh’s butler and baker, Joseph says “I was stolen from the land of the Hebrews” (40:15), in accordance with the E story; in Genesis 45, when Joseph reveals himself to his brothers, he says “I am your brother Joseph, whom you sold into Egypt” (45:4).

Despite its inconsistencies, the canonical Joseph story has a fairly consistent message throughout, with a moral to the story that is stated by Joseph himself: “Although you intended me harm, God intended it for good” (50:20). After the regular divine appearances to the patriarchs, in the Joseph story God is suddenly conspicuously quiet. Everything that happens seems to be the result of chance or kismet (the appearances of the Ishmaelites and Midianites, the butler and baker ending up with Joseph, Pharaoh’s dreams, the famine that drives the brothers back to Joseph, etc.). The narrative as a whole testifies to faith in divine providence: the understanding that although God’s hand may not be visible, one should trust that it is guiding events in the background, for the benefit of the faithful.

The prominence of this theme has led some scholars to see in the Joseph story an undercurrent of wisdom tradition, of the type found in the book of Proverbs. Trust in divine providence and the admission that humans have little control over events, and must therefore simply do the best that they can—these are all themes known to wisdom literature and seemingly present also in the Joseph story. Whether any direct connection between Joseph and wisdom can be drawn or not—though it should be noted that wisdom traditions were very much at home in Egypt of all Israel’s neighbors—at the very least the Joseph story takes great advantage of the sort of vicissitudes that typify wisdom thought.

The ups and downs of the Joseph story take place on three levels. There is the level of the plot of the Joseph narrative: Joseph begins on a high note, as Jacob’s favorite; he is quickly broughth low by his brothers’ machinations; he is up again when Potiphar comes to trust him; down again after the episode with Potiphar’s wife; apparently up when he interprets the butler’s dream successfully; down again when the butler forgets him; and up to stay when Pharaoh’s dreams lead to his appointment as vizier in Egypt. Perhaps in an attempt to make them feel the way he was made to, Joseph replicates this roller coaster ride in his treatment of his brothers when they appear in Egypt. He begins by treating them as spies; then he relents; but he demands that they leave one brother behind while they get Benjamin; when they return he treats them as honored guests; but he hides his cup in Benjamin’s bag and accuses them of theft; finally he reveals himself and all is well.

The third level is the broadest: the Joseph story serves as a hinge or fulcrum point in the pentateuchal narrative writ large. The separation of Joseph from the rest of Jacob’s sons seems a bad thing; as Joseph says, however, his presence in Egypt is what saves the Israelites from starvation when the famine hits. Yet it is because Joseph has the power to save the Israelites that Israel ends up in Egypt, and subject to the Egyptian oppression and enslavement that constitute Israel’s lowest moments. Then again, without the oppression there could be no Exodus, the event that would come to define Israel as a people.

As the transition between the patriarchs and the Exodus account, the Joseph story plays a central role, and one that has been subject to much scholarly scrutiny. It is widely assumed that the patriarchal and Exodus narratives have independent origins as contradictory accounts of how Israel came to occupy Canaan. In the patriarchal version represented by Genesis, the land was promised to the patriarchs and their offspring, and this was the explanation for why the Israelites were where they were: because generation upon generation ago God had promised this land to their ancestors, and they had been there ever since. In the Exodus version, God brought the Israelites out of Egypt and through the wilderness and promised them the land of Canaan, but only after they conquered it and took it from its various native inhabitants (the Canaanites, Hittites, Hivites, Jebusites, etc.). At some point, these two traditions of Israel’s origins were brought together—probably through the process of fictive kinship that we saw already in the discussion of Jacob. But there was a logical problem in connecting these two traditions: one of them ended in Canaan, and the other started in Egypt. A narrative mechanism was needed to bring the two major blocks together into a single story, a means of getting Jacob’s descendants from Canaan to Egypt so that they could be enslaved and brought back to Canaan again. The Joseph story is that narrative mechanism.

It seems likely that the Joseph story was created specifically to serve this larger purpose. This may well account for its novella-like character: it is not the product of the long accretion of oral traditions about Joseph, as the other patriarchal traditions were, but came into being fully formed, as it were.

It is for this reason that it is also unnecessary to look in the Joseph story for some trace of an historical event. Scholars have long been fascinated by the ostensible similarities between the story of Joseph and the period in Egyptian history when Egypt was ruled by a Semitic people know as the Hyksos. It has been posited that the cultural memory of a time when some early Canaanite peoples were in command of Egypt, even having their own pharaonic dynasty, might lie behind this notion of Joseph rising to such prominence in Pharaoh’s court in Genesis. Yet this resemblance is superficial at best. Joseph looks much more like the common narratives of “the Jew in the foreign court,” represented by Esther and Daniel in later biblical literature. It has also been shown that many of the references to Egyptian culture in the Joseph story are most at home in the first millennium BCE, rather than the seventeenth century BCE when the Hyksos ruled Egypt.

At the beginning and end of the Joseph story are two chapters that stand out from their contexts and are worth a moment’s attention. Genesis 38 tells the story of Judah and Tamar. In this sort of narrative interlude, we hear about how Judah’s sons died in succession, with Tamar being passed as wife from one to the next, until finally Judah refused to give her to his youngest son. Tamar, recognizing that Judah’s behavior was condemning her to a life of perpetual widowhood, dressed as a prostitute and slept with Judah herself. When Judah discovers that she is pregnant, he orders her burned for—irony of ironies—“playing the harlot.” Yet Tamar produces the items that Judah had given her as pledges for payment when he slept with her, and Judah recognizes immediately what has happened. He admits the error of his ways at once: “She is more in the right than I” (Gen 38:26).

Despite the fact that this story seems to stand very much apart from the rest of the Joseph narrative, it is nonetheless deeply interwoven in the fabric of the Jacob cycle. Judah, it may be noted, is the victim of deception, revealed here in the very words that it is perpetrated in Genesis 27 and 37: “Recognize this.” Just as Isaac fails to recognize Jacob in disguise, and just as Jacob recognizes Joseph’s torn coat and falsely believes his son to be dead, so Judah recognizes his own possessions in Tamar’s hand and understands that he has done her wrong. Though this appears to be a story that condemns Judah, it is (like much in the Joseph narrative) a story in which ostensible bad turns out very much for the good. For the chapter ends with the births of Perez and Zerah, Judah and Tamar’s twins—and Perez will be, according to the conclusion to the book of Ruth, the ancestor of King David. The tale of Genesis 38 is an etiology for the Judahite origins of David: it is through Judah’s error in judgment, and his subsequent recognition of that error, that Israel’s great national history would come to be written.

Genesis 49 is in many ways a parallel text to Genesis 38, though they are entirely different in form. While Genesis 38 is a tightly drawn narrative, Genesis 49 contains a rambling poem, the purported last words of Jacob to his twelve sons, in which he tells them what their fates will be. What is said about each son is, of course, in fact a saying about the tribe that each would come to represent. These “tribal sayings” seem to have quite an ancient origin, perhaps going back in some cases before the period of the monarchy. Most are not in fact predictions, as they are presented in the narrative, but more like mottos (many of the sayings are either wordplays or animal metaphors).

The first three sayings, however (covering the four tribes of Reuben, Simeon and Levi, and Judah), are of a different character. The sayings about Reuben and Simeon and Levi effectively exclude those tribes from Jacob’s inheritance and blessing. This is important because it clears the way for Judah to get the first real blessing, and to stand in essence as the eldest son. Like the story in Genesis 38, this poem sets the scene for Judah’s rise to prominence in the period of David and Solomon. In Genesis 49, Judah’s kingship is even explicitly mentioned: “The scepter shall not depart from Judah, nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet” (Gen 49:10). This saying, like those for Reuben and Simeon and Levi, has the form of prediction, but is surely not. The mention of kingship in Judah is a clear reference to the Davidic dynasty, and thus must be dated sometime in that period. This may serve as a reminder to us that although we can roughly date large segments of the Bible, these were not stable texts from the moment of their composition to the moment that we read them today. These are texts that have been reworked, supplemented, and edited over the generations, as historical circumstances changed. The poem in Genesis 49 may be generally one of the oldest pieces of writing in the entire Bible; the verses about Reuben, Simeon, Levi, and especially Judah, however, must be later.


Sarna, Understanding Genesis, 211–231.

Further Reading:

Robert Alter, The Art of Biblical Narrative (New York: Basic, 1981) 3-12; 107-13; 159-77.

Questions for Discussion:

  1. If Joseph (and narrator) understand everything in his story to be pre-ordained by God for the purpose of saving Israelites, can talk about there being any villains in the narrative?
  2. If the Joseph story leads to the enslavement in Egypt, then should we think of it positively or negatively? How do we fit individual episodes into the overall national trajectory?
  3. How do the literary qualities of the Joseph story affect our sense of its historical veracity?