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The Core Curriculum

Unknown

1000 BCE – 500 BCE

Hand of God.jpg

Hand of God and the Creation of Man. Sistine Chapel.: 1508-1512 CE Michelangelo Buonarroti. ArtStor: UCSD Slide GalleryHand of God and the Creation of Man. Sistine Chapel.: 1508-1512 CE Michelangelo Buonarroti. 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.

Historical Contexts

Genesis

A key point of biblical scholarship is that the Biblical text shares important material with other Creation myths of the Ancient Near East. Of these, the Enuma Elish and the Epic of Gilgamesh are the most prominent. Both predate the earliest text of Genesis by at least a millennium. The Enuma Elish narrates the fratricidal struggles between different generations of gods, culminating in the rise of the present order as upheld by the god Marduk. The Hebrew Bible’s version contrasts sharply with the Enuma Elish, since it proclaims the singular power of the God Yahweh throughout the course of creation. The Epic of Gilgamesh (based on the earlier Epic of Atrahasis) also resembles the Bible, inasmuch as it narrates a flood story.  Both flood stories contain common elements such as the construction of an ark, the motif of a released dove, and the final episode of sacrifice, whose scent pleases the gods/God. These similarities are deliberately modified in the biblical text to magnify Yahweh against his Near Eastern background. 

Another important context is the political realities in present day Israel and Syria. The disputes between the northern kingdom of Israel and the southern kingdom of Judah shaped the book of Genesis. Tribal domains characterized these kingdoms, whose eponymous ancestors were characters in the book of Genesis. In the southern kingdom, the tribes were Judah and Benjamin, while the north consisted of the ten other tribes (including the two half tribes of Ephraim and Manasseh). These two kingdoms warred against each other in a series of shifting alliances throughout their existence. During this time, myths about their ancestors hardened, so that the activities of their specific tribal ancestors were utilized as claims to legitimacy, priority, and territory. These myths were combined in the composite JE source. Thus, it is possible to find doublings that directly contradict each other. In the Joseph story in Genesis, one version states that Joseph was saved, and then sold to Midianites by Reuben, presumably reflecting E’s northern sensibilities and one where he was saved, then sold to Ishmaelites by Judah, reflecting J’s prejudices. Both the J and the E source claim Joseph as an important Israelite ancestor, yet they each present their own particular ancestor as playing the crucial role in the Joseph narrative. 

Readings of biblical texts are highly shaped by questions of methodology. While source criticism is one of the fundamental means by which the biblical text is explored, other methodologies have played an important role. In the mid-19th century, form criticism arose in contrast to source criticism, focusing on the form and genre of smaller pieces of biblical literature. This method attempted to understand the social location of a particular piece of the Bible. Another longstanding tradition of scholarship examined the Bible against its Near Eastern background or in relation to archaeological finds from the Biblical period. In the 1960s, the Bible was subject to readings of the New Critical perspective, which focused on its coherent identity as a literary text. This gave rise to an array of new methods. Current biblical scholarship is characterized by the extensive variety of critical and theoretical methods which are brought to bear on this text.

Nathan Schumer, Department of Religion, Columbia University

Sources:

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 ;
Introduction to the Hebrew Bible Collins, John Joseph, Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, c2004;
The Cambridge Companion to the Bible Bruce Chilton, general editor ; Howard Clark Kee ... [et al.]. Cambridge ; New York : Cambridge University Press, 2008.
The New Interpreter's Bible edited by Beverly R. Gaventa and David Peterson. Nashville : Abingdon Press, c2010.