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The Old Testament




"Genesis" comes from a Greek word meaning "origin" or "source"; the same root underlies the word "genetics," the science that probes the chemical origins of life. The book's name in Hebrew is Bereshit (the first word of the Genesis narrative), which means "In the beginning."

Traditionalists regard Genesis, the first book of the Pentateuch, as having been given directly by God to Moses at Mount Sinai. Biblical critics, on the other hand, hold that Genesis consists of a series of separate documents set down by the J, E, and P writers and woven together by an editor or editors around 400 B.C. (For an introduction to the critical theory and an indication of what the letters J, E, and P stand for, see "The Development of the Canon" in The Old Testament Background section.)

According to calculations made in the seventeenth century by the Irish archbishop James Ussher (and still included in many editions of the King James Bible), Genesis extends from the year 4004 B.C., when God created the world, to the death of Joseph in Egypt 2315 years later. Today, few commentators are as certain as Ussher was of the precision of biblical chronology. Most astronomers maintain that the universe is not thousands but billions of years old, and archaeological evidence indicates that humanlike creatures have roamed the earth for millions of years. Numerous attempts have been made, both in our own time and in preceding centuries, to harmonize the biblical account of Creation with scientific theories and discoveries. In recent decades, Christian fundamentalists have based a "creation science" on acceptance of the truth of the Bible as a scientific document. Many of the believing Christians and Jews who dispute the fundamentalist view regard the truths of the Bible not necessarily as scientific or historical truths but as truths of faith, basic to the Judeo-Christian view of life as an extension of God's creative power.

Not in dispute is the literary majesty of Genesis. In this one book are found accounts of God's awesome creative and destructive powers, the origins of the universe, the fashioning of the first man and the first woman, the beginnings of good and evil, the first followers of Yahweh, and the covenant between God and humankind. No book is more central to the development in Western culture of the meaning of good and evil and a sense of humanity's place in the world.


In only a few pages, the Book of Genesis attempts to answer the most profound questions anyone can ask. Is there an order to the universe? Is there any power greater than ourselves? Where did humankind come from, and what is the purpose of life on earth? How did evil and suffering originate?

NOTE: A distinctive feature of Creation in the Book of Genesis is that it is ex nihilo- a Latin expression meaning "out of nothing." Before Creation, says Genesis 1:2, "the earth was without form, and void." Nothing is said of God's existence prior to Creation, nor is any reason given for this act.

The opening chapters of Genesis offer a blueprint for Creation, as God- here called Elohim- molds a formless and watery world into the environment familiar to our senses. (Mesopotamian myths also associate water with primeval chaos.) God's initial task is to create light and separate it from darkness, thereby making the first day. On the second day, God makes Heaven (also translated as the heavens, or sky); on the third day, Earth (or dry land), seas, and plants; on the fourth day, stars, sun, and moon; on the fifth day, creatures of the sea and sky; on the sixth day, creatures of the land, including man "in His own image." You may have noticed that after each of the first five days God examines His Creation and pronounces it "good," but on the sixth day- the day on which man and woman emerge- God calls His handiwork "very good" (1:31). The message, stated explicitly in 1:28- 30, is that humanity represents the fulfillment of the creative design. Just as God has no rival as the shaping and controlling force in the universe, so humanity has no rival as ruler of the natural world. In Genesis 2:1-3, after six days of "making," God ceases His labors and sanctifies the seventh day as a day of rest.

NOTE: The English word "Sabbath," or seventh day, comes from the Hebrew "Shabbat," which itself stems from shavat, or "rest." The concept of a special day of refreshment or celebration may have its origin in the Babylonian shapattu, a once-a-month celebration of the full moon. However, the idea of a weekly day of rest- a day, moreover, that is as sacred as any of the days of active creation- seems wholly without precedent. Remembrance of the Sabbath is the only ritual specified in the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:8-11).

Genesis 2:4 takes you right back to the beginning. Why does the Bible repeat the Creation story? As you read 2:4-25, try to keep clearly in mind the first version of Creation. Notice, for example, that in the first narrative, animals are created before human beings, but in the second version the animals are created for and named by man. In the first version, male and female are created together; in the second, the woman is fashioned from the man, to serve as a helper for him.

What do these differences mean? If you accept the idea that the Bible has several authors, this passage offers powerful support. God is referred to not as Elohim but as Yahweh Elohim (the Lord God) or Yahweh. The documentary hypothesis holds that the change of names and new order of Creation reflect a different tradition and a different author. According to this theory, the editor of the finished text, regarding the writings of both authors as sacred, simply placed them side by side, without attempting to harmonize their contradictions. Traditionalists answer this argument by maintaining that the two versions of Creation reflect different emphases. The first version, they say, reflects the nature of the world as it ought to be. The second- including the subordination of woman to man, the disobedience of Adam and Eve, and the expulsion from paradise- reflect the world as it is.

NOTE: "Adam" and "Eve" look like personal names, and they are common as first names today, but they have hidden Hebrew meanings. "Adam" in the Hebrew original means "man" and is related to the word for "earth" or "dust" (see God's curse on Adam at 3:19). The name "Eve" comes from the Hebrew chavah, which means "mother of all living things."

The story of Adam and Eve's temptation and fall (2:15-3:24) is deceptively simple. God places Adam in the Garden of Eden and tells him that he is free to eat the fruit of every tree in the garden except one- the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. God warns him that the penalty for eating the fruit is death. One day a serpent appears before Eve, who has been told of God's warning. The serpent persuades Eve to taste the fruit, and she gives some of it to Adam. Adam and Eve then try to hide from God, but He finds them and, confirming their wrongdoing, punishes them and the serpent.

On the simplest level, this is a story of an angry parent punishing his disobedient children- a scene you have perhaps lived through when you sampled the cake that was reserved for guests, puffed on a forbidden cigarette, or stayed out too late on a date. But if you read this story really closely, you will find many problems- the same kinds of problems that have troubled commentators for more than 2000 years.

  1. Why, was it wrong to eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil? One possible answer is that it was wrong simply because God said so. The fruit itself was not evil- only the eating of it in defiance of God's warning. Another explanation is that before eating the fruit, humanity was incapable of sinning. Once the fruit was eaten, however, people were for the first time aware of the difference between right and wrong, and thus capable of choosing evil; no longer innocent, Adam and Eve could no longer remain in paradise. A third answer is that God will accept no rivals. The serpent promises Eve that if she and Adam taste the fruit they "will be as gods, knowing good and evil." Eating the fruit means that Adam and Eve no longer wish to serve God but to be gods. (Remember this interpretation when you come to the Tower of Babel episode at 11:1-9.) A fourth possible answer connects the tasting of the fruit with the discovery of sexuality; evidence for this explanation is that Adam and Eve's first feelings after eating the fruit are nakedness and shame. After girls and boys become women and men, they cannot remain in the state of innocence the Garden of Eden represents.

  2. What are the consequences of Adam and Eve's disobedience? God's curses are explicit: the serpent will crawl on his belly and live in the dust; Eve will feel pain in childbirth and be ruled by her husband; Adam will have to work hard for a living until the day he dies; and Adam and Eve will be forever barred from the Garden of Eden. But what of the broader implications of this fall from grace? Christian doctrine holds that because of the first fall, all human beings are tarnished with original sin. Only with the coming of Jesus Christ and through faith in the Redeemer can this stain be removed from one's soul. Judaism, on the other hand, denies that humanity is inherently stained. Instead, it emphasizes the importance of doing good deeds, of fulfilling the biblical commandments and avoiding evil impulses.

  3. If God is omniscient, or all-knowing, then He must have known that Eve and Adam were going to eat the fruit. If so, why did He plant the forbidden tree in the garden? Moreover, why were Adam and Eve punished for a crime that was foreknown and foreordained- a crime that, seemingly, they had no choice but to commit? Such questions point to the central dilemma of reconciling the Old Testament concept of an omniscient and omnipotent (all-powerful) God with our strongly held belief in our own free will. Attempts to resolve this dilemma still play a vital role in Christian and Jewish writings on theology.

NOTE: Two symbols in the Eden story have also been variously interpreted. Many ancient Near Eastern myths portray serpents as opposing the will of the gods; late Hebrew and Christian writings identify the serpent with Satan, a devil figure. Grapes, figs, and citrons- products of the Mediterranean world- have all served in Jewish tradition as "fruits" of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Many Christian writers have regarded the forbidden fruit as an apple, in part because the Latin word for apple (malus) also means "bad."

The Bible offers a grim portrait of life between the expulsion from Eden and the coming of the patriarchs.

Adam and Eve have two sons: Cain, a farmer, and Abel, a shepherd. In time, each offers a sacrifice to the Lord, but Cain's sacrifice of crops is rejected, while Abel's offering of his choicest lambs is accepted. The text does not say exactly why God accepts one offering and not the other. Perhaps the fact that Abel offers the "firstlings" of his flock (4:4) is meant to show that his devotion to God is more sincere than Cain's. Or perhaps a bias toward animal sacrifice is the kind of favoritism a shepherd people (and many scholars believe the ancient Hebrews began as shepherds) would expect of their tribal deity. A third interpretation holds that God's reasons are often unfathomable, and that Cain is a tragic figure because he knows he has been rejected by God but cannot comprehend the reason for the rejection.

Enraged and jealous at the favored treatment his brother has received, Cain lures Abel out into a field and kills him. When the Lord asks Cain where Abel is, Cain answers, "Am I my brother's keeper?" (4:9). But God already knows what has happened. Notice that Cain's punishment for this first murder is like that of Adam and Eve for their first disobedience- banishment and a lifetime of shame and struggle.

NOTE: Favoritism shown to a younger son and the bitterness that results from such favoritism are themes that recur often in Genesis. Watch for these themes as you read of Ishmael and Isaac, Esau and Jacob, and Joseph and his brothers.

The line of Adam extends not through Cain but through a later son, Seth. After many generations and many centuries, humanity has become completely corrupt. God regrets having made mankind and resolves to destroy his Creation. Only Noah, "a just man and perfect in his generations" (6:9), will be allowed to survive the coming flood and, by building a great ark, preserve a remnant of animal life. This great vessel, about 450 feet long and 45 feet high (assuming that 1 cubit = 18 inches), takes Noah about 100 years to build, and he is 600 years old when the deluge begins. The rains last 40 days, but the flood itself lasts almost a year. When, at last, the flood waters have completely receded, Noah makes a sacrifice to God, who pledges never again to destroy the world because of human wickedness.

There are many levels to the Noah story. On a simple level, you can find in the Noah story an ancient attempt to explain why floods and rainbows happen. The fact that flood stories appear in several Mesopotamian documents, notably the Gilgamesh Epic, has encouraged some critics to view this story as little more than a Hebrew version of an old Near Eastern myth. Some traditionalists, on the other hand, look to the appearance of similar stories in other sources as confirmation of the historical truth of the biblical narrative. Many commentators focus on the differences between the Gilgamesh and Noah accounts. While the Near Eastern myths dwell on the role of gods and heroes, the Old Testament makes no attempt to glorify or deify Noah; he is a good man of his time, but no god. Moreover, the coming of the flood and the agreement made by God with Noah after the deluge have a moral dimension wholly lacking in the Mesopotamian tales. Polytheists often thought of natural disasters as the results of quarrels among the gods; the monotheistic Hebrews thought of such calamities as God's punishment for human wrongdoing.

NOTE: Have you begun to mark your text for basic themes and concepts? If so, be sure to mark Noah as a prophet, because he acts on God's behalf. Be sure also to note the pledge God makes to Noah as one of a series of covenants between God and His people.

The theme of divine punishment for human wrongdoing makes another appearance in the story of the Tower of Babel (11:1-9), which also represents an attempt to explain the dispersion of peoples and profusion of languages in the world. There is general agreement among scholars that the tower that threatened to "reach unto heaven" is a Babylonian ziggurat, perhaps the Temple of Marduk in Babylon; the word Babel is itself linked both to Babylon and to the resultant "babble" of languages that God created to confound the tower builders' aspirations. Interpreters differ on the question of whether the builders are punished because of their aspirations to godhood and unlimited pride in human endeavor, or because a jealous God feared that the tower would be used to launch a physical assault on heaven, or because the ancient Hebrews saw this ancient story as a way to show their God's supremacy to the gods of Babylon.


The first ten chapters of Genesis deal with the early history of all humanity. With the appearance of Abraham in chapter 11, however, the Bible begins to concern itself primarily with the history of the Hebrew people. After listing the ancestors of Abraham (at first called Abram, "the father is exalted"), the Bible announces the first of God's great commandments and promises to the Hebrew patriarch (12:1-3):

Get thee out of thy country, and from thy kindred, and from thy father's house, unto a land that I will shew thee:
And I will make of thee a great nation, and I will bless thee, and make thy name great; and thou shalt be a blessing.

Why did God choose Abraham and not someone else? Genesis, remarkably, is silent on this question, offering no special praise for Abraham at the outset. Some commentators take this silence to mean that Abraham is chosen through no merit of his own but rather through God's grace, to fulfill the divine purpose. Others hold that elsewhere in Genesis, Abraham shows the special qualities that led God to single him out. Within the Jewish tradition, many folktales attest to Abraham's early rejection of idolatry and adherence to the one God. An attempt to join the two interpretations leads to the idea that God chose Abraham, but that Abraham also chose God by consenting to obey God's commands.

At the age of seventy-five, Abraham leaves the land of his ancestors in Mesopotamia and journeys with his wife Sarah (at first called Sarai, a dialectal version of the Hebrew word for "princess"), his nephew Lot, and all the rest of their household to the land of Canaan, which God then identifies as His gift to Abraham and his descendants- the Promised Land. After a brief sojourn in Egypt, they return to Canaan, where Lot and Abraham go their separate ways. Lot settles in the east, in the plain of the Jordan River, but Abraham remains in Canaan. There God renews his covenant with Abraham, promising the old man- who is still childless- that his seed, his descendants, will be as numberless as the dust of the earth and that they will have their own land to live in (13:14-18).

Several years later, Abraham finally begets his first child, Ishmael, traditionally regarded as the patriarch of the Arab people. The mother of this child is not Sarah but Hagar, an Egyptian servant. Later, after Sarah bears Abraham a son of her own (Isaac), Hagar and Ishmael will be cast out at Sarah's insistence. Before Sarah conceives, however, she and Abraham are visited by God, who restates His earlier pledges to the patriarch and, as a sign of the covenant between them, commands Abraham, all the males of his household, and all his male descendants to be circumcised (17:10-14).

NOTE: Circumcision- surgical removal of the foreskin covering the head of the penis- is the sign of the Abrahamic covenant, just as the rainbow is the sign of God's covenant with Noah. The Hebrews did not invent circumcision, which was widely practiced in the Near East in biblical times. What the Hebrews did was to change the practice from a rite of sexual initiation, performed at puberty, to a ritual of religious commitment, performed when a boy is eight days old.

Of all God's promises to Abraham, the one the patriarch and his wife find most difficult to believe is the pledge that Abraham, now ninety-nine years of age, and Sarah, at age ninety, will conceive a son, Isaac ("he laughs"), with whom God will renew His covenant. Genesis tells us that both Abraham and Sarah laugh at this prophecy, prompting God to rebuke them, asking, "Is any thing too hard for the Lord?" (18:14). This idea that the Lord can overcome all obstacles is a recurrent theme in the Old Testament; look for it, for example, when you read Numbers 13-14 and the Book of Judges.

Notice that Genesis does not portray Abraham and Sarah as the passive instruments of the divine will. They show very human weaknesses and doubts, and an evident willingness to question- even quarrel with- God. When God reveals to Abraham His intention to destroy the wicked cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, the patriarch questions God closely, pleading with Him to change His plans for the sake of the few righteous people who might live there (18:23-32). This dialogue, which reveals both God's mercy and Abraham's integrity, gives no help at all to the unsalvageable Sodom and Gomorrah, which are consumed by "brimstone and fire" (19:24), with Lot and his two daughters the lone survivors. Lot's wife, also given the chance to escape, hesitates and is turned into a "pillar of salt" (19:26).

The image of the pillar of salt, which surely belongs to the world of folklore and legend, forever defines Lot's wife, whose name is never given in the Bible. But even much more familiar characters, with well-known names, tend to be defined in the popular imagination by simple words and concepts. If you are at all familiar with the Old Testament, you probably associate law with Moses, wisdom with Solomon, a slingshot with David. Abraham, on the other hand, issues no law codes, tries no cases, commands no armies. He too is a hero, but a hero of faith.

Just what it means to be a hero of faith Genesis 21-22 now makes clear. If you have not already read these chapters, do so now. No summary or commentary can hope to convey the disturbing power of Genesis 22:1-19, and if you do not read what the Bible says of Abraham and his son Isaac, you cheat yourself of a story that lies at the heart of Old Testament ethics and spirituality.

A brief review of the narrative. Isaac is born, as God foretold. His circumcision, followed by Ishmael's banishment, makes Isaac Abraham's true heir. Suddenly, however, God commands Abraham to ascend one of the mountains of Moriah, there to offer Isaac as a sacrifice to the Lord. Abraham, making no protest, does as he is told. He binds Isaac, places him upon an altar, and is about to slay him when, just as suddenly, an angel of the Lord orders him to stop. A ram found caught in a nearby thicket is offered as a substitute sacrifice, and father and son descend the mountain and head back home.

NOTE: Responding to Abraham's show of steadfast faith, God reaffirms the covenant, this time in terms even more expansive than before. Compare the images of stars and sand at 22:17 with those of the stars at 15:5 and the "dust of the earth" at 13:16.

Looked at closely, the Akedah- the Hebrew term for the binding of Isaac- raises some very profound questions.

  1. What do you learn about God from what He says and does in this story? Why does God need to test Abraham's faith, and what kind of God asks a righteous man for this kind of sacrifice? Does an all- knowing God test Abraham only because He is sure the patriarch will pass the test? Or is the test designed to show Abraham that just as God can do anything, even the "impossible" (remember how old Isaac's parents are when the child is born!), so He is prepared to ask humanity to do the impossible in His service?

  2. What does the test reveal about the character of Abraham? Why does Abraham dispute with God about the fate of Sodom and Gomorrah but not about the command to sacrifice his own son? One possible answer to this second question is that when God announces the cities' planned destruction, He is sharing a confidence with Abraham, not making a commandment; plans can be discussed and revised, but a divine order cannot be. Christianity has laid great stress on the binding of Isaac both because it shows Abraham's justification by faith (and not just good deeds) and because the offering of Isaac prefigures in the New Testament the crucifixion of Jesus, God's only begotten son.

  3. What does the story say about the society of the time? Notice that Sarah, the boy's mother, barely figures in this story, nor does Isaac raise any protest. In the patriarchal world of the Old Testament, Abraham's power as head of the household is unquestioned. (Compare's Lot's offer to protect his guests by offering up his daughters at 19:8.) In this world, also, the gods were thought to demand human sacrifice; the fact that in the Akedah story the sacrifice is commanded but not carried out can be seen as the Hebrews' rejection of the practice.

  4. What lessons does the binding of Isaac hold for faith and ethics? In Fear and Trembling, the nineteenth-century Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard asked his readers to consider what would happen if some dutiful churchgoer, after hearing his pastor preach the virtues of Abraham, went home and sacrificed his own child at the urging of some heavenly voice? Imagine, said Kierkegaard, the outrage the preacher and community would heap on this person for doing what we so comfortably praise Abraham for doing- following without hesitation the dictates of his faith. Is the kind of faith that Abraham shows appropriate only to an age of miracles? How, in our modern world, can we distinguish the calling of genuine faith from a murderous lunacy?


Chapters 23-25 mark the passing of generations. Sarah dies, and a marriage with a non-Canaanite, Rebekah, is arranged for Isaac. At 25:7-8 comes the death of Abraham himself, at the ripe age of 175, but not before he takes another wife, Keturah, and has six more children. The genealogies at 25:2-4 are the Bible's way of accounting for the manifold tribes of the ancient Near East. As for the exceptionally long lifetimes of the patriarchs and their biblical forerunners, some commentators have attempted to second- guess the biblical chronology, speculating, for example, that one of our years might count for two in Genesis (thus Abraham would die at the age of 87 1/2 rather than 175). Other writers accept the legendary qualities of the narrative, already suggested at 6:4, "There were giants in the earth in those days." Probably the ancient Israelites who did not believe in life after death, thought of long life and prosperity as expressions of the Lord's blessings.

Although God appears before Isaac to reaffirm the Abrahamic covenant, Isaac plays a much less significant role in Genesis than does his father. Attention soon shifts to Isaac and Rebekah's twin sons, the hairy Esau (ancestor of the Edomites) and the smooth-skinned Jacob. Although Esau is the first to emerge from the womb, all signs indicate that Jacob will inherit the birthright that is customarily the firstborn's due. One day, when Esau comes home famished, Jacob seizes the advantage by exacting from Esau a pledge to give up his birthright- that is, his inheritance- in exchange for a bowl of lentil soup. The rivalry between the two sons splits the family down the middle, with Isaac taking Esau's part and Rebekah favoring Jacob. This saga of jealousy and domestic intrigue reaches a climax when Isaac, old and nearly blind, calls for Esau, a hunter, to make him a dish of his favorite meat stew and so receive Isaac's deathbed blessing. While Esau is out hunting venison for the stew, Rebekah connives to make her own stew, dresses Jacob in animal skins to make him seem hairy, and sends Jacob in to his father to receive the blessing under false pretenses. The ruse works, but Esau, furious at being cheated, swears to kill Jacob once Isaac has died and the period of mourning is over. Rebekah then warns Jacob, who, before fleeing the household, again receives a blessing from his father. Notice that this time the blessing is given by Isaac knowingly and is therefore untainted by deception.

NOTE: Does Esau get a raw deal? Commentators have long assumed that Esau, who so readily gives up his birthright, thereby proves himself unworthy of it. On the other hand, Jacob's evident ambition for the birthright is no virtue, nor does the Bible commend the deceit by which he gets it. (This is the old question of whether the ends justify the means.) Many writers have focused on Esau's uncivilized qualities and on the animal appetites he feeds in Isaac.

The story of Jacob in exile mingles the most miraculous visions with another round of domestic entanglements. On the way toward Laban's house at Haran, Jacob has a dream in which he sees angels of God ascending and descending a ladder or stairway that stretches from earth all the way to heaven; this vision is the occasion for yet another renewal and extension of the Abrahamic covenant (28:13-15). At Haran, Jacob takes not one wife but two- first the unwanted Leah, through the trickery of Jacob's uncle Laban, then Rachel, Leah's younger sister and Jacob's true love. Much of Jacob's stay with Laban can be seen as an essay in theft and deception, extending the theme introduced with Isaac's falsely procured blessing. Laban repeatedly cheats Jacob, and when after twenty years Jacob flees Haran with Leah and Rachel and all their children, Rachel secretly takes Laban's household idols with her and then, through another deception, prevents her father from discovering the theft. Why does Rachel take the idols? Perhaps as good-luck objects, or as a sign that Laban no longer has any power over Jacob's household. Unquestionably, she is disloyal to her father, and Jacob's oath at 31:32- that whoever stole the idols shall not live- bears bitter fruit when Rachel dies in childbirth several years later. (For another example of a rash oath with tragic consequences, see the story of Jephthah and his daughter at Judges 11:30-40.)

In the interim, Jacob has a second visionary experience (32:22-32). While on his way from Laban's toward an uncertain reunion with Esau, Jacob is met at the ford of the river Jabbok by a mysterious figure. The two wrestle until daybreak, with the wounded Jacob refusing to let go until the stranger gives him a blessing. Not only does the stranger bless Jacob, but he also gives him a new name, Israel, meaning (according to various commentators) "one who strives with God" or "may God rule." From this episode come the terms Israelite, children of Israel (that is, the descendants of Jacob), land of Israel, and State of Israel.

Who is this mysterious stranger who wrestles with Jacob? A river demon? An angel of heaven? God Himself? Jacob's guilty conscience at having cheated Esau? The darker side of his own nature? Whatever your opinion, you can be sure the arguments over the precise identity of Jacob's adversary will not soon be resolved. There is, however, a general agreement that the struggle serves to purify Jacob/Israel, making possible at long last the reconciliation with Esau (33:1-17).

You might think that freedom from Laban and resolution of the quarrel with Esau would usher in a period of tranquility in Jacob's life. But that is not what happens. Like Adam, Abraham, and Isaac before him, Jacob must now endure the consequences of jealousy, rivalry, and deceit within his own household. Chapter 34 opens with the rape of Jacob's daughter Dinah by Shechem, the son of Hamor the Hivite. Shechem and Hamor then come to Jacob and his sons, offering to pay any bride-price so long as Dinah can become Shechem's wife. Jacob's sons tell Hamor and Shechem that there can be no intermarriage unless Shechem and his people allow themselves to be circumcised. Shechem gladly accepts the offer, but on the third day after the mass circumcision, before the wounds have had a chance to heal, Dinah's brothers Simeon and Levi treacherously kill the men and seize all their wealth, wives, and children.

NOTE: Genesis does not excuse the rape of Dinah, nor does it deny the right of Dinah's family to seek vengeance. But when Jacob's sons induce the men of Shechem to circumcise themselves, they are wrongfully using the sign of God's covenant with Abraham as a tactic to gain blood revenge.

Chapter 35 brings the deaths of Rachel and Isaac, and chapter 36 lists the descendants of Esau (that is, the ancestors of the Edomites). In chapter 37, the tale of family conflict resumes, with the familiar story of Joseph and his brothers. Genesis offers many reasons why the other brothers are jealous of him: he is the child of Jacob's old age, his father's favorite; Jacob has given him a "coat of many colours" (in one modern translation, an "ornamented tunic"); he tattles on his brothers' misdeeds; and he has dreams in which, symbolically, his father and brothers bow down to him. The brothers seize the boy Joseph, strip off his coat, cast him into a pit, and for twenty pieces of silver sell him into slavery in Egypt. Then they dip the coat in goat blood and bring it to Jacob, who concludes that an evil beast has eaten his beloved son.

"And the Lord was with Joseph," says Genesis 39:2, introducing the remarkable series of events that raise Joseph, now a mature man, from slavery to vast political and economic power. (The phrase "And the Lord was with..." recurs in the Old Testament in connection with such important figures as Moses, Joshua, and David. It's a literary device- a sign that good things are in store for this character and, if the character is a leader, that good things are in store for his people.) Falsely accused of adultery with the wife of Potiphar, his master, Joseph is cast into prison. There he is treated kindly and earns a reputation as an interpreter of dreams. When Pharaoh, the ruler of Egypt, has two dreams that none of his wise men can interpret, Joseph is called from prison. He tells Pharaoh that both dreams- one of cattle, the other of corn- signify that seven years of bountiful harvests will be followed by seven years of famine. The devastating effects of famine can be avoided, says Joseph, only if Pharaoh appoints someone to see that the surpluses from the good years are safely stockpiled and then distributed during the lean years that follow. Impressed by this wisdom, which Joseph attributes to Yahweh, Pharaoh appoints Joseph, then only thirty years old, to oversee all Egyptian agriculture. He executes his office so well that when famine does arrive, Egypt has enough grain to feed its people and sell at a profit to other afflicted lands. Meanwhile, in famine-stricken Canaan, Jacob sends ten of his remaining sons- all except Benjamin- to Egypt to buy grain. When they come to Joseph, he recognizes them but they do not recognize him.

Why don't Joseph's brothers know who he is? One answer is that two decades have passed, during which Joseph has passed from adolescence to mature manhood. A second answer is that when his brothers last saw him, he was on his way into slavery. How could they have imagined that this young Hebrew would rise to a position of power in Egypt second only to that of Pharaoh himself? Moreover, by the time the brothers go down to Egypt, Joseph has become fully assimilated. He speaks like an Egyptian, dresses like an Egyptian, and has an Egyptian wife and an Egyptian name.

NOTE: Joseph's new name, Zaphenath-paneah, can be translated as "revealer of secret things." Notice how, in the chapters that follow, Joseph's boyhood dreams are fulfilled, just as all the dreams he interprets in Egypt have already come to pass. In its treatment of dreams as revelations of the future, the Bible adheres to prevailing sentiment in ancient Egypt and elsewhere.

Joseph's brothers appear before him at 42:6, but Joseph keeps his true identity secret from them until 45:3. The intervening chapters detail an elaborate plot through which Joseph, by testing and humiliating his former tormentors, seeks to work out his simultaneous desires for revenge and reconciliation. The key event of Joseph's scheme is the false imprisonment of Benjamin, Jacob's new favorite, on charges that recall Rachel's crime. Not until Judah offers himself as a slave instead of Benjamin- an offer that shows the brothers' growing love for their father and for each other- can the test end and Joseph reveal himself. In time, Jacob himself moves down to Egypt, and at 46:29 father and son have a tearful reunion. The Book of Genesis ends with Jacob's blessing two of Joseph's sons, Ephraim and Manasseh; with the testament of Jacob, embodying his judgments on all his sons (a passage attributed by modern scholars to the period of the Judges, around the eleventh century B.C.); and with the deaths of Jacob and Joseph in Egypt.

[The Old Testament Contents]



Exodus- a Greek word for "going out"- is the second book of the Old Testament. (In Hebrew the book is called Shemot, or "Names," from verse 1:1, "Now these are the names....") Orthodox Jews and fundamentalist Christians believe that Exodus, like Genesis and the other three books of the Pentateuch, was given by God directly to Moses on Mount Sinai. Some critics regard Exodus as an intricate amalgam of texts from the J, E, and P writers. According to this view, the E writer, or Elohist, is solely or primarily responsible for chapters 20-23, including the Ten Commandments. To P, the priestly writer, belongs sole or primary credit for chapters 25-31 and 35-40, which deal with the building of the Tabernacle, the tent-sanctuary in which the presence of God was to abide among the people.

The Book of Exodus falls into two main sections. Chapters 1-18 are in the narrative style of Genesis and describe the Hebrews' enslavement in and liberation from Egypt. Chapters 19-40 record the giving of the Law to Moses at Sinai. Except for the episode of the golden calf (chapters 32-34), this second section is cast in the legal style that dominates the remainder of the Pentateuch.


The Bible traces with swift strokes the descent of the Hebrews from power and prosperity under Joseph to bondage under Pharaoh (1:8):

Now there arose up a new king over Egypt, which knew not Joseph.

Pharaoh's fear, according to Exodus, is that the Hebrews have grown so powerful and so numerous that they pose a threat to the integrity and stability of the state. To suppress this threat, Pharaoh reduces the Israelites to bondage, makes their work conditions intolerable, and then orders that every Hebrew male child be killed at birth. When the courageous midwives refuse to perform this act of cruelty, the king decrees that every Hebrew male infant be drowned in the Nile.

This biblical account of the persecution of the Israelites has not been confirmed, but scholars have long known that the period from about 1750 to 1500 B.C. was a time of great upheaval in Egypt. During most of this period, Egypt was ruled by the Hyksos, invaders from Palestine. Historians caution against making any simple equation between Hyksos and Hebrews. Nevertheless, it is surely consistent with the biblical account to assume that the fall of the Hyksos around 1500 B.C. was in some way connected with the drastic decline in the fortunes of the Hebrews, who were, like the Hyksos, Semites from Canaan. These dates are consistent with a biblical chronology that places Joseph's rise to power at around 1700 B.C. and the departure from Egypt at between 1250 B.C. and 1200 B.C., during the reign of the pharaoh Raamses II. (Some history books spell this name Ramses, Rameses, or Ramesses.)

At Exodus 2:1 attention shifts to Moses, a Levite infant saved from death in the Nile when his mother sets him adrift in a basket of bulrushes and he is discovered and raised by Pharaoh's own daughter. Critics of the Bible have noted that infanticide was alien to Egyptian but not to Mesopotamian tradition. They point to the Akkadian legend of King Sargon as the main source of the story of Moses' birth:

My priestly mother conceived me, in secret she bore me.
She set me in a basket of rushes, with bitumen she sealed my lid.
She cast me into the river which rose not over me.
The river bore me up and carried me to Akki, the drawer of water.

Raised in the royal household, Moses becomes an outlaw when he kills an Egyptian overseer he sees mistreating a Hebrew slave. Moses flees to the land of the Midianites and marries Zipporah, the daughter of Jethro, a Midianite priest. While Moses is tending Jethro's flocks, he comes to Mount Horeb, where God, speaking from a burning bush, calls upon Moses to serve as His messenger in setting the children of Israel free. As you read this important scene (3:1-4:18), you should watch for at least three things. The first is the theme of the reluctant prophet, who cannot understand why God has chosen him and who regards his calling as at least as much a burden as an honor (compare Jeremiah and Jonah). The second is the theme of the flawed hero, which appears here as a lack of eloquence or a speech defect (4:10) that makes Moses doubt his ability to lead his people. The third theme is heralded by Moses' fear that the Israelites will not believe he was chosen by God. God's answer is that He will provide Moses with a series of signs- gestures of miraculous power or, some might say, magic tricks- that will convince the people that the Lord is with him. In a broader sense, Moses' question raises the problem that recurs throughout the remainder of the Pentateuch: how can a people so scarred by slavery learn to embrace freedom and its own divine mission?

NOTE: Were you puzzled in the burning bush episode by God's answer (3:14) to Moses' question of what God's name is?

And God said unto Moses, I AM THAT I AM: and He said, Thus shalt thou say unto the children of Israel, I AM hath sent me unto you.

The Hebrew for this reply is Ehyeh-Asher-Ehyeh, which has also been translated as "I will be what I will be" or "I will be whatever I want to be." Some commentators contend that Ehyeh is a variant of Yahweh, making God's answer "I am Ehyeh, whom you know as Yahweh."

Chapters 5-12 depict the efforts of Moses and his brother Aaron, speaking for God, to compel Pharaoh to allow the Israelites to leave Egypt. These efforts begin with a series of contests between Moses and Aaron and Pharaoh's magicians, testing which group can produce the most impressive miracle. At Exodus 7:20 comes the first of the famous ten plagues, blood pollution of the Nile River. Eight more plagues follow in rapid succession, each one more troublesome than the last: frogs, lice, swarms of insects, cattle disease, boils, a devastating hail-storm, locusts, and- building toward the climax- three days of impenetrable darkness.

Were these truly miracles? Or were they a series of natural disasters strung together by later writers as evidences of God's judgment on Egypt? These are questions you must decide for yourself. As you decide, however, you should bear in mind that from the viewpoint of the Bible, the issue is almost irrelevant. Neither the Hebrews nor the Egyptians would have seen such calamities in isolation. Whatever our opinions might be now, both Egyptians and Hebrews would have agreed that such natural disasters were sure signs that someone's God (or gods) had been mightily offended.

NOTE: Why, instead of this series of afflictions, doesn't God free the Israelites with a single stroke? The answer seems to be that a gradual plan gives God the opportunity more fully to reveal His greatness (11:9):

And the Lord said unto Moses, Pharaoh shall not hearken unto you; that My wonders may be multiplied in the land of Egypt.

This protracted testing leaves no doubt that the Egyptians deserve their ultimate punishment and allows the Israelites to appreciate the wonder of their deliverance.

At 11:4-5, Moses announces the last and most catastrophic of the ten plagues, the killing of all the firstborn; this judgment recalls the brutality of the murder of the Israelite infants (1:22). Lines 12:1-20 prescribe rituals for the observance of Passover, a festival celebrated by Jews to this day.

Initially, the killing of the firstborn so terrifies the Egyptians that they allow the Israelites to leave. But God having once again "hardened the heart of Pharaoh" (14:8), the Egyptian army, equipped with chariots and horsemen, soon overtakes the Israelites, who have made camp by the edge of the sea. Blaming Moses for their predicament, the terrified Israelites show their willingness to surrender the joys of freedom for the false security of bondage (14:12):

Is not this the word that we did tell thee in Egypt, saying, Let us alone, that we may serve the Egyptians? [See 5:21.] For it had been better for us to serve the Egyptians, than that we should die in the wilderness.

Moses reassures the people by telling them that the Lord is still with them. In one of the most famous scenes in all world literature (14:21-28), Moses stretches out his hand and the waters divide, allowing the Israelites to escape; but their pursuers get bogged down and the waters close over them, drowning the entire Egyptian army. The Israelites then celebrate their deliverance with a magnificent hymn of thanksgiving (15:20-21):

And Miriam the prophetess, the sister of Aaron, took a timbrel in her hand; and all the women went out after her with timbrels and with dances.
And Miriam answered them, Sing ye to the Lord, for He hath triumphed gloriously; the horse and his rider hath he thrown into the sea.

NOTE: You should be aware of some of the historical problems the Book of Exodus raises. At 12:37 the number of Hebrew men taking part in the Exodus is given as 600,000, a number equal to perhaps 20 percent of the total population of Egypt at that time. On the other hand, the only notice taken of the Israelites in Egyptian documents of the period is an inscription reading, "Israel lies desolate; its seed is no more." Is it possible that such a mass movement could have been entirely overlooked by Egyptian historians? Scholars who answer no to that question have attempted to revise the biblical figure down by a factor of 100, to about 6000. But if this revision is correct, what are we to make of the passage early in Exodus (1:7-12) that links the persecution of the Israelites with their rapid population growth?

Freed of the external threat from the Egyptians, the Israelites now face the dangers of fear, doubt, and dissension. The wilderness through which they wander is spiritual as well as physical: the source of their rebelliousness is not only physical hardship but also the lack of a fully developed sense of law, order, and community to replace their clearly defined life in Egypt. For the people's physical needs the Lord provides sweet water, manna, and quail; for their spiritual needs, God will provide at Mount Sinai a new covenant and a code of commandments that will change the face of civilization forever.


At Mount Sinai, God commands Moses to tell the children of Israel (19:4-6) as follows:

Ye have seen what I did unto the Egyptians, and how I bare you on eagles' wings, and brought you unto Myself.
Now therefore, if ye will obey My voice indeed, and keep My covenant, then ye shall be a peculiar treasure unto Me above all people: for all the earth is Mine:
And Ye shall be unto Me a kingdom of priests, and an holy nation....

What kind of covenant is this? When you agree to help a friend with her history homework if she'll help you with your math, the two of you are making a covenant. If several nations agree to a treaty banning nuclear weapons, that too is a covenant- but, like your homework assignment, a covenant between equals. Commentators have long recognized that the biblical agreements between God and the people of Israel do not fit this description. Rather, they are covenants between unequals. In that sense they resemble the treaties drawn up by another Near Eastern people, the Hittites, to define the relationship between Hittite rulers and the kings of subject peoples. In such treaties, the sovereign promises to protect his subjects, but only if they follow his laws and remain loyal to him. If the subjects disobey him- if (in terms of the Sinai covenant) they break his commandments- they no longer enjoy the sovereign's protection. The qualities that distinguish the Sinai covenant from such Hittite treaties are, first, that the two parties to it are God and an entire people, the people of Israel; and, second, that the God of all peoples has chosen to make this special agreement with one people only. This is the doctrine of the "chosen people." Such "chosenness" has sometimes been thought to confer on the Israelites some special privilege or source of pride, but it can also be seen as burdening them with an awesome responsibility. The prophets dwell insistently on the terrible punishments awaiting a people that takes such an obligation lightly.

After the Israelites at Sinai have agreed to accept the covenant and have prepared themselves for the giving of the law, God descends to the mountaintop, where Moses joins Him to receive the Ten Commandments, or Decalogue (20:1-17). Like so much else about the Old Testament, the Decalogue is shrouded in religious controversy. Although there is little doubt about the ethical importance of the Decalogue, different faiths number the Ten Commandments in different ways.

The great code that constitutes most of the remainder of the Pentateuch is of enormous importance for students of religion, ethics, and law. Orthodox Jews regard it as God's supreme self-revelation and gift to humanity. According to Jewish mystics, the Torah existed even before Creation. Most modern scholars, on the other hand, do not regard the Torah as unprecedented. They point out that at least 500 years before the codification of the Torah, the eighteenth-century Babylonian ruler Hammurabi caused to be compiled the famous law code that bears his name. As in the Bible, the law is credited to a divine being- in Hammurabi's case, to the sun-god Shamash. Nor was Hammurabi's code the first. Indeed, from a historical point of view, the Pentateuchal code is only the grand climax to a Near Eastern legal tradition that extends back over 4000 years.

NOTE: The differences between the Pentateuch and its precursors are at least as important as the similarities. Nothing in the Hammurabi Code, for example, quite resembles the monotheism and universalism the Ten Commandments embody. In the Decalogue all the commandments stem from the first- "I am the Lord your God"- and each of the ten is presented as applicable regardless of nationality, wealth, or social status.

From a literary perspective, two episodes in the remaining chapters of Exodus are especially interesting. The first comes in chapter 24, when after Moses tells the people the words of the Lord, the people again answer "with one voice," saying, "All the words which the Lord hath said we will do" (24:3). After the sacrifices and ceremonies that seal the covenant, Moses once again ascends Mount Sinai, and he remains there for forty days and forty nights (compare the Noah story at Genesis 7:4).

In the second interesting episode, Moses is hidden on the cloud-covered mountaintop, and the people- denied not only a visible God but a visible leader- grow restless and confused. They confront Aaron with their demands (32:1):

Up, make us gods, which shall go before us; for as for this Moses, the man that brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we wot [know] not what is become of him.

In reading 32:2-5, you have a basic choice to make: how do you assess the character of Aaron? How could Aaron not know that in fashioning a "molten" or golden calf he was violating a commandment conveyed explicitly from God through his brother Moses? Do you see him as an unwise or ineffectual leader, yielding to the people's shortsighted demands rather than holding the people to their covenant? Or do you see in his words, "To morrow is a feast to the Lord," an attempt both to postpone the idolatrous ritual and to cast it in the best possible light? How convincing do you find Aaron's explanation to Moses at 32:22-24?

Moses descends from the mountaintop and, furious at the sound and sight of a drunken orgy, smashes the stone tablets of the law. The Lord keeps His word to Moses not to destroy the children of Israel, but He does send a plague to punish the people. As for the stone tablets, God orders Moses to make new ones, which God Himself will inscribe anew. The covenant, though shattered by the faithlessness of the people, will now be restored, as Moses ascends Mount Sinai for another forty days and forty nights. When he returns, the people will know Moses' ever-growing closeness with the Lord by the radiance of his face (34:29-30), as if Moses were the moon and Yahweh the most glorious of the ancient sun-gods.


- ROMAN CATHOLIC PREVAILING PROTESTANT PREVAILING JEWISH AND LUTHERAN AND ORTHODOX CHRISTIAN - 1 I am the Lord your I am the Lord your I am the Lord your God, who brought you God. You shall God. You shall out of Egypt. have no other gods have no other gods before Me. You before Me. shall make no idols [graven images]. - 2 You shall have no You shall not swear You shall make no other Gods before Me. falsely [take the idols. You shall make no name of the Lord in idols. vain]. - 3 You shall not swear Remember the You shall not swear falsely. Sabbath day. falsely. - 4 Remember the Honor your father Remember the Sabbath day. and mother. Sabbath day. - 5 Honor your father You shall not Honor your father and mother. murder [kill]. and mother. - 6 You shall not You shall not You shall not murder. commit adultery. murder. - 7 You shall not You shall not You shall not commit adultery. steal. commit adultery. - 8 You shall not You shall not You shall not steal. bear false witness. steal. - 9 You shall not You shall not covet You shall not bear false witness. your neighbor's bear false witness. wife. - 10 You shall not covet You shall not covet You shall not covet your neighbor's your neighbor's your neighbor's house, wife, etc. house, etc. house, wife, etc. -



ECC [The Old Testament Contents] []

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