Michael D. Coogan

in The New Oxford Annotated Bible with the Apocrypha, Augmented Third Edition, New Revised Standard Version

Published in print February 2007 | ISBN: 9780195288803
Published online April 2009 |

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Genesis, meaning “origin” (genealogical), covers the time from creation to the descent of Jacob and his sons into Egypt. The book is generally divided into a “primeval history” focusing on all of humanity (chs 1–11 ) and an “ancestral history” focusing on Abraham and his descendants (chs 12–50 ).

The primeval history has two major sections that parallel each other: (1) the creation of the cosmos and stories of the first humans ( 1.1–6.4 ); and (2) the flood and dispersal of post-flood humanity ( 6.5–11.9 ). It features universal traditions similar to myths in other cultures, particularly in the ancient Near East and Greece. For example, the Mesopotamian Atrahasis epic was written hundreds of years before chs 1–11 , yet it parallels numerous particulars of the biblical narrative as it describes the creation of the world, a flood, and the vow of the gods (here plural) not to destroy life with a flood again.

The ancestral history picks up where the primeval history left off and tells the story of God's choice of Abraham and the transmission of the promise ( 12.1–3 ) through Isaac and Jacob (whose name is changed to Israel in 32.28; 35.10 ), down to the twelve sons of Jacob/Israel, the progenitors of the people of Israel. These stories are closest to oral folklore, so it is often difficult to find ancient textual parallels to chs 12–50 . Nevertheless, recent scholarship has found similarities between Israelite tales about the matriarchs and patriarchs and modern legends told in oral cultures. For example, there are some striking parallels between the depiction of the clever deceptions of Jacob and others (e.g., 25.27–34; 27.1–45 ) and the celebration of wily “tricksters” in Native American and other traditions.

These different parts of Genesis are united by a set of “toledot” (“descendants”) headings, each of which guides the reader in the major focus of the section that follows it ( 2.4; 5.1; 6.9; 10.1; 11.10, 27; 25.12, 19; 36.1, 9; 37.2 ). They lead from a focus on the world at the outset to the final focus of the book on the twelve sons born to Jacob. In addition, other patterns also characterize these genealogically defined sections, such as the parallels between the pre-flood and flood/postflood stories of chs 1–11 that were noted above. Using these kinds of guides, we can outline Genesis as follows. The narrative opens with the pre-flood primeval history, creation and its aftermath (including Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, etc.): 2.4–6.8 . It then moves to the flood and post-flood primeval history, the re-creation of the world and replay of destructive patterns from before the flood (Noah and his sons, Tower of Babel): 6.9–11.9 . Then follows a genealogical bridge to the ancestral history: 11.10–26 . The longest part of the narrative is the ancestral history, the giving of the promise to the sons of Jacob/Israel: 11.28–50.26 . This is in three parts: First, the gift of the promise to Abraham and divine designation of Isaac (not Ishmael) as heir of the promise ( 11.28–25.11 ); second, the divergent destinies of the descendants of Ishmael ( 25.12–18 ) and Isaac (Esau and Jacob in 25.19–35.29 ); third, the divergent destinies of the descendants of Esau ( 36.1–43 ) and the sons of Jacob/Israel (Joseph and his brothers in 37.1–50.26 ).

Genesis has been a major focus of study for almost every approach in biblical scholarship. Two hundred and fifty years of historical‐critical scholarship have established that Genesis was written over many centuries, using oral and written traditions. In particular, most scholars now recognize that Genesis is a postexilic combination of two bodies of material: (1) a “Priestly” editorial layer or source (P) beginning with the seven-day creation account in 1.1–2.3 , and (2) a “non‐Priestly” source beginning with the garden of Eden story in 2.4–3.24 . In addition to 1.1–2.3 , the Priestly layer encompasses most of the genealogies in Genesis, the above discussed genealogical headings, a version of the flood narrative that culminated in the Noah covenant of 9.7–17 , the covenant of circumcision with Abraham in 17.1–27 , and related promise texts in 26.34–35; 27.46–28.9; 35.9–15; and 48.3–6 . The non‐Priestly layer encompasses almost everything else. In its present form the Priestly layer is integrally related to the non‐Priestly material and forms an editorial framework for much of it. Scholars continue to debate, however, the exact relationship between the Priestly and non‐Priestly material, and whether a large portion of the present Priestly layer in Genesis once may have been part of a Priestly source that originally stood separate from the non‐Priestly material and had even been designed to replace it.

Ever since the work of Graf and Wellhausen in the late nineteenth century, most scholars have recognized that the earliest origins of Genesis probably are to be found in the non‐Priestly material. Nevertheless, there is considerable debate about the history of the formation of that material. Over the last hundred years most scholars have maintained that the bulk of the non‐Priestly material of Genesis was formed out of the combination of materials from two hypothesized Pentateuchal sources: a “Yahwistic” document (J) written in the South during the reign of David or Solomon and an “Elohistic” document (E) written one or two centuries later in the Northern kingdom of Israel. Recently, however, many would date crucial elements of the hypothesized “Yahwistic” document four hundred years later to the time of exile. Moreover, many specialists working with Genesis no longer think there was an “Elohistic” source. Rather than non‐Priestly material being formed out of interwoven “Yahwistic” and “Elohistic” documents, some scholars think that the earliest written origins of the non‐Priestly material are to be found in hypothesized preexilic independent documents focusing on different parts of the story: for instance, a separate, Atrahasis‐like “primeval history” or separate Jacob and Joseph stories. Thus, the early history of the written formation of Genesis and other Pentateuchal books remains an unresolved problem in Pentateuchal research.

Recent years have seen a proliferation of other approaches to Genesis, particularly literary studies of Genesis in its present form and feminist rereadings of the plentiful narratives in Genesis featuring women. For example, some feminist scholars have questioned whether the garden of Eden story in 2.4–3.24 is as critical of women as it has often been seen to be. Others have highlighted the crucial role of the matriarchs as actors in the Genesis drama, especially as determiners of which son of a given patriarch will inherit the promise (e.g., Sarah and Rebekah) or as influencers of the levels of privilege among brothers (e.g., Rachel).

Because of the mythic and legendary character of much material in Genesis, it is less often used now than it once was as a reliable source of historical information. Yet, perhaps partly as a result of its long process of formation, the book of Genesis has proven its ability to speak to people of varying cultures and times. It is not just a story about things happening in a bygone age. It is a crystallization of Israel's most fervent beliefs and hopes as expressed in genealogy and vivid narrative.

Chapter.  37625 words. 

Subjects: Religious Studies ; Biblical Studies

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