Genesis 25-42 #2018BibleRBR

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).


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).

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Genesis 1-24 #2018BibleRBR

Reading the Bible as Literature

Week One: Genesis 1-24

Genesis is one of the most interesting and rewarding books of the bible. There is a whole lot going on, and a lot that precedes/prefigures events that come later, both in the Old Testament and in the New Testament. Sure, there are some dull moments, where we get into things like the “Son of _ ; Son of _ ; who lived until 800 and _” nonsense, but mostly, the stories are fascinating, the people are familiar, and God is beginning to demonstrate the kind of deity he is. Adam and Eve. Cain and Abel. Noah. Abraham and Sarah. Isaac and Ishmael. Babel. Sodom & Gomorrah. I mean, this is just a wild beginning to any book!

Speaking of which: what is up with this God? I remember when I last read the bible through, about 3 years ago, I kept thinking, “man, this guy is a real jerk!” He seems to overreact to every little human flaw (or attempt at greatness), and to “test” (sic: “tempt”) his most devout followers in the most absolutely ridiculous way. Upon this reading, though, I’m wondering about the “lessons” behind God’s actions, rather than focusing on the actions themselves. Let’s take two, for example:

First, after Eve and Adam eat the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good & Evil, they are expelled from the Garden of Eden. In my recollection, and in many modern-day references, it is only this post hoc ergo propter hoc (cause and effect) that is the focus. They disobeyed God, so he gets rid of them. But I think this misses an important piece: God says in Genesis 3:22 that they are being expelled before they can eat from the Tree of Life. In other words, it is not just that they disobeyed God and are now tarnished with the knowledge of good and evil (which essentially makes their innocence null & void and will cause them to know sin), but that if they stay, they may also become immortal. If they are “all knowing” and immortal, then they are much too close to being god-like; or, in God’s words, they would become “like one of us.”

Second, after the flood and re-populating of the Earth, Noah’s descendants begin to spread and to form different tribes, occupying different lands (nations). Eventually, many generations later, the tribes come together to build a ziggurat, a massive tower that would reach toward the heavens. This is the Tower of Babel, and it was meant to be mankind’s shining achievement, proof that men could work together toward a common goal, and succeed. But for some reason this angers and disturbs God. Why? Why wouldn’t he want his children to come together and learn and grow, and communicate? Well, as with the Tree of Knowledge, Genesis 11:6 tells us God saw their work and thinks, “nothing will be restrained from them,” if they are all of one language and one purpose.

In other words: these two glimpses at God’s methods seem to me to reveal a deity who is concerned, like much of ancient mythology (Greek & Roman, anyway) is concerned, with man’s hubris. Go too far, strive for too much, believe one’s self too important, and you are surely to fall and fail, hard. Is it possible, then, that the underlying message, here, is one of a compassionate God who must do some extremely shady things in order to guide mankind toward humility?

Other Interesting Bits:

  • Genesis 3:15: seems to be the first prophecy of the coming of Christ.
  • Genesis 5:22-24: notes, “Enoch walked with God; and he was not; for God took him.” Why is his death different from all the others? Is it because he is a seventh son?
  • Genesis 14:21-24: Abraham refuses the spoils of war because he doesn’t want to be indebted to a potentially corrupt king. (This I’m noting only because it reminds me of a stoic philosophy, which is another journey I’m on).
  • Genesis 15: God’s covenant with Abraham relays the act of cutting animals in half and lining them in an aisle for the men to walk down, to “cut the deal.” This practice of cutting animals in half and walking together between them, symbolizing an important agreement between two parties, is literally where that phrase, “let’s cut a deal” comes from.
  • Genesis 16: The story of Sarah and Hagar = the inspiration for Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale.
  • Genesis 19:1-29: The story of Sodom & Gomorrah. As it turns out, this does not seem to be a direct condemnation of homosexuality; indeed, there is no shock or disgust expressed at the idea that the men want to have sex with the new arrivals (identified as men, although I’m interested in reading earlier untranslated texts to see what the actual pronouns are; angels are traditionally non-gendered, so more investigation is needed). Instead, what upsets God about their actions seems to be a confluence of attitudes: lust, violence, rage, covetousness and, perhaps most importantly, refusal to respect that Lot has placed the visitors under the protection of his household, which is an ancient and sacred custom in multiple cultures and mythologies.  

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