Reading the Bible as Literature
Week Two: Genesis 25-42
This second week of reading Genesis continued to provide rich history and rich stories of characters that turn out to be more than they appear. Last week, I mentioned my annoyance with the Bible writers’ propensity for listing lineages in quick succession. This practice has always bothered me because it seemed indulgent and unnecessary – we never even hear many of these names again, anywhere in the bible (okay, maybe one time, a name gets dropped in Jeremiah or something, but seriously). For that reason, I have always read for the fun and fascinating parables and stories, like those of Jacob and Esau, Jacob’s Ladder, Jacob wrestling the Angel, Joseph and his coat of many colors, and Joseph’s interpretation of dreams. All of these occur in this portion of Genesis, but a closer, researched-based reading this time has also revealed much more.
Repeating Storylines: Have you noticed that there is a lot of repetition in the bible stories? In last week’s reading, for example, we learned about the family lines of Cain and Abel. If we look closely, their ancestors are very similarly named. In addition, this week’s reading demonstrated a repetition of the “overpopulated land” story. In this case, Esau and his family leave because the land won’t support both his and his brother Jacob’s families; we saw this exact issue with Abraham and Lot. These are just two examples of something that happens quite frequently, even in retelling from perspectives (i.e. the biblical narrator telling of events, for example, and then one of the biblical characters re-telling the entire thing, nearly word-for-word, to another character). So, why does this happen? History explains that there were actually three early versions of Genesis, one each (E and J) as written by the two Israeli tribes (northern and southern), and another (P), written later by priests. In an effort two coordinate the E and J texts, the writers (editors) of the P text often duplicated material in an effort to explain (in reverse chronology) some important historical features that were “priestly concerns,” such as record-keeping, major historical events, geography, etc. They also edited the two earlier text with additional legend to explain some of that history. (The earlier texts were once thought to have been written by Moses, hence why the KJV still lists the first 5 books—known as the Pentateuch—as “Books of Moses,” but now there seems to be consensus that these were written much later, and by many people, during the time of the Jewish exile.)
People As Places/Tribes: Another fascinating feature, related to the above editing traditions, is the fact that names, especially of important and first-born individuals, or familial relations (e.g. sons and brothers), often represent much more than just a single character in the story. This begins right away, in sections of last week’s reading. For example, the word Elohim, translated, means “gods,” not “God,” and a translation from the Hebrew word for “Adam,” means “mankind,” rather than “man.” So, what we now think of as “God created Man,” because of the tendency to translate this way, might actually work better as, “the gods created mankind” (or, when god brings the animals to Adam to be named, might more accurately be: “the gods brought all the animals to humankind.”) So, how did one man and one woman populate the earth? Well, if we are really talking about “womankind” and “mankind,” then it makes much more sense, and is more historically and biologically accurate.
The names Cain and Abel probably represent the relationship between the tribes of Elam and Sumeria. The names of Noah’s sons probably represent the geographical tribes of Arabia, Persia, Assyria, etc., and their languages (semitic or not). In this week’s reading, we see similar historical naming as representative of tribal affairs in the story of Jacob and Esau. The story of Jacob (Israel) and Esau (Edom) is one in which the younger brother (Jacob/Israel) usurps the role and benefits of the elder brother (Esau/Edom), despite tradition and with god’s blessing. Similarly, the Edomites, historically, rose to power and became a strong civilization first, but the Israelites, a younger tribe, would eventually rise and displace the Edomites. In this way, and in many other examples too numerous to outline, the Priest’s edition of Genesis seems to personify, in biblical characters, entire histories of civilizations, including their rise and fall, as well as natural disasters (such as the flood, which likely did happen but may have been borrowed/adapted from other cultures: see the Epics of Gilgamesh and Atrahasis).
OTHER INTERESTING BITS:
Chapter 27: Jacob tricking his father to bless him, rather than Esau, demonstrates both Isaac’s devious personality (allowing him room to “grow up” and accept god, which he later does) and represents the cultural histories of two tribes, the Israelites and Edomites.
Chapter 28: Jacob is “blinded” ironically in the situation with Laban, just as Jacob took advantage of his blinded father. This is perhaps when Jacob begins to become a better person, worthy of the blessing/covenant bestowed upon him.
Chapter 32: Jacob wrestles with a man, whom is taken to be an angel or some version of god. This seems to represent Jacob’s life-long struggle with god, after which he becomes “Israel” and also a better man, accepting god and the struggle, rather than fighting it any longer.
Chapter 37: Why is Joseph so favored, in such a large family? He is Jacob’s 11th son, and yet Jacob treats him with great favor, even giving him a “coat of many colors.” It’s important to remember that Jacob was Rachel’s first-born (Gen 30:22), and Rachel was Jacob’s favored wife (the one for whom he gave up 20 years of his life in service to Laban).