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The Core Curriculum


1000 BCE – 500 BCE

Hand of God.jpg

Hand of God and the Creation of Man by Michelangelo Buonarroti, 1508-1512 CE  (Artstor/UCSD Slide Gallery)Hand of God and the Creation of Man by Michelangelo Buonarroti, 1508-1512 CE (Artstor/UCSD Slide Gallery)
The word Genesis is Greek, meaning origins or birth. This is a paraphrase of the original Hebrew title, Bereshit, which means in the beginning and is the first word of the book. The term Genesis accurately renders the content of the book, since it narrates the prehistory of the Israelites, down to their sojourn in Egypt. Genesis 1-11 is a sweeping historical narrative of the Creation and early history of humanity, while Genesis 12-50 focuses on ancestors of the nation of Israel and their relationship with the ancestors of the neighboring peoples. The events portrayed in Genesis, if they happened, appear to reflect the reality of eighteenth to the sixteenth century BC. The stories told in the Bible should be considered heavily modified oral tales that received fixed form as much as a thousand years after the events purport to take place.

The first five books of the Bible are termed the Pentateuch or the Torah. In traditional views of biblical authorship, they are thought to have been dictated by God to Moses, who recorded them. Any reader of the Bible, however, will note disjunctures, anachronisms, and doublets, which strongly rule out the possibility of a single author. The most compelling theory of authorship was presented in the nineteenth century by Julius Wellhausen. His Documentary Hypothesis identified four key sources J, E, P, and D and the redactor, R, who fused together the four separate documents.
The background to Genesis lies in the collapse of the unified kingdom of Israel, after the death of Solomon at about the end of the tenth century. Until 722 BCE when the Assyrians destroyed Samaria, the capital of Israel, the kingdoms of Israel and Judah existed alongside each other. After the destruction of Israel, refugees carried the written traditions of the E source to the south, where it fused with the J source.  Between the destruction of the kingdom of Judah in 586 BCE and the return of the exiles in the Persian period, J, E, and P were fused together, along with D, leading to the creation of the Pentateuch by a redactor. The first reference to a scroll of the Law, bearing some resemblance to the first five books as we have them comes from Ezra the Scribe, a figure who lived in the fifth century BC.

The J source dates from between the 10th century to the end of the 8th century.  The letter J signifies its use of the name Yahweh to refer to God. This source is explicitly interested in the ancestors of the kingdom of Judah, such as Judah the son of Jacob, Abraham, and Isaac. The second source, E dates to around 800 BC, deriving its name from its use of Elohim to refer to God. The E source discusses the ancestral heroes of the northern kingdom; these include Reuben, the oldest son of Jacob and Ephraim.

The other major contributor to Genesis was the P or priestly source, which is known for its obsession with priestly cult, purity laws, and genealogy. Sections of the P source are quite early, dating to the tenth century BC, but the majority dates to the postexilic period. In Genesis, the P source is often juxtaposed with J or E sources, presenting a more universalist reading of specific J and E episodes. The first creation story of Genesis 1.1- 31is attributed to the P source, while the second creation story, Genesis 2.1-25 is attributed to the J source.

The D, or Deuteronomic source has little relationship to Genesis, since it concentrates on the book of Deuteronomy and the historical books. The book of Deuteronomy is dated to the middle of 7th century and was edited once more after the Exile. The book has a strong connection with the court of King Josiah of Judah who reigned from 640-610 BC.  Deuteronomy and the Deuteronomic history judge the rulers of the Israelites based on the extent to which they centralized worship at the Temple in Jerusalem and combated the worship of other gods.


Nathan Schumer, Department of Religion, Columbia University


Works Consulted:

The Anchor Bible, Job. Introduction, translation and notes by Marvin H. Pope. Doubleday & Company, Inc, Garden City, New York 1965, 1973

The Anchor Bible, Genesis. Introduction, translation and notes by EA Speiser. Doubleday & Company, Inc, Garden City, New York 1964 

Collins, John Joseph. Introduction to the Hebrew Bible. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, c2004

The Cambridge Companion to the Bible, Bruce Chilton, general editor.  Cambridge ; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008

The New Interpreter's Bible, edited by Beverly R. Gaventa and David Peterson. Nashville: Abingdon Press, c2010