I (insincerely) apologise for the ‘click-bait’ title; the aim of the post is to point out how people far more intelligent than I read the Book of Genesis on a scholarly academic level in university courses and beyond across the world! As I pointed out in my very first post, the Bible should not be taken at face value, and most definitely cannot be read “literally”.
As an example of this, here’s a fun question: how was eating from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil ‘sinful’ or ‘evil’ for Adam and Eve if they had no ‘knowledge of good and evil’? One proposed apologetic to this concern is that they had no reason to distrust Yahweh, who had never done wrong to them.
This evades the question spectacularly. How could they know (or even postulate) that Yahweh had only ever been “good” to them if they had no knowledge of ‘good’? The narrator’s voice tells us that ‘the tree was good for food… a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise’.1
By denying the primitive couple the right to eat from the tree, Yahweh’s will was to keep the couple in moral ignorance forever. If you object to this idea, are you then suggesting that the command was given duplicitously? Did Yahweh know full well that the couple would disobey the imperative and – moreover – secretly hoped and planned all along that they would do so? (I myself used to argue that this enabled them to “freely choose whether to love God or not”, not realising the difficulty here.) This is a bizarre dilemma which I would like Christians who believe in the Garden of Eden account to clear up for me. If you have an opinion, please let me know in the comments.
Regardless, Adam and Eve were evicted from Eden not because they “sinned”, but because they may have become immortal, morally conscious beings who could rival other divine beings such as himself / themselves.2
Then the Lord God said, “See, the man has become like one of us, knowing good and evil; and now, he might reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life, and eat, and live forever”— therefore the Lord God sent him forth from the garden of Eden, to till the ground from which he was taken. He drove out the man; and at the east of the Garden of Eden he placed the cherubim, and a sword flaming and turning to guard the way to the tree of life.
‘Bereshit’ (בְּרֵאשִׁית) means ‘at / in [the] head / beginning’; Genesis is an ‘etiological’ book, i.e. it intends to tell us the origin of certain facts of life and customs. The opening words evoke the spirit of a childhood story: ‘once upon a time’.
Gen. 2-3 explains why: (i) ‘a man leaves his father and his mother and clings to his wife’; (ii) ‘upon [their] belly [snakes] shall go’; (iii) ‘in pain you shall bring forth children’ [if you are a woman]; and (iv) ‘by the sweat of your face you shall eat bread until you return to the ground’ [if you are a man]. Gen. 4 gives us ‘the ancestor of those who live in tents and have livestock’ (Jabal), and ‘the ancestor of all those who play the lyre and pipe’ (Jubal).
(Tangent – can you imagine being their mother and trying to call for them? My mum struggles to tell ‘Harry’ and ‘David’ apart!)
Gen. 6 tells us that the ‘sons of God’ saw that the ‘daughters of men’ were beautiful and they intermarried, producing ‘heroes that were of old, warriors of renown’, a.k.a. ‘Nephilim’. As a result of this human-angel intercourse, we see the origin of 120-year lifespans.3 In Gen. 9, we find out that rainbows are ‘a sign of the covenant’ between Elohim and ‘every living creature of all flesh’ that ‘the waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh’.4 We also discover why we eat meat now, when ‘in the beginning’, one could say that ‘this was not so’.
Noah was ‘the first to plant a vineyard’. Why does God hate Canaanites so much as to instigate genocide against them in hundreds (or thousands) of years’ time?5 Well, it appears to be that Noah cursed his son Ham’s son (called Canaan) as a result of Noah getting drunk on the ‘fruit of the vine’, falling asleep naked, and Ham having been a little indiscrete about this.6
Gen. 10 features the ‘ethnogenesis’ of nearby nations and their peoples. If read literally, we would expect every human being to have descended from a pair of common ancestors who lived in the Middle East (the hypothesis), rather than multiple folks from Africa (the evidence). Don’t forget that the cursèd Canaanites had the dubious honour of living in Sodom and Gomorrah, which were very sinful places, though nobody agreed why.
‘Now the whole earth had one language and the same words’, up until Gen. 11, when a particularly inconvenient ziggurat (Babylonian tower) was being built. Yahweh was worried that ‘nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them’, so he ‘confused the language of all the earth’.7 After this, a 99-year-old man circumcised himself, his 13-year-old son and every slave in his household without anaesthetic and sterilisation so that his offspring could be specially regarded. This fellow was Abraham. Thus, Gen. 17 explains the origin of the ethnically differentiating practice of circumcision.
Gen. 19 gives us the ‘shameful origin of Moab and Ammon’ via drunken incestuous relations between Lot (Abraham’s nephew) and his daughters. Yes – Genesis really does sound a lot like an ethnic smear campaign the more you read it, unfortunately.
There is a scholarly debate about Gen. 22, where Abraham almost sacrifices his son Isaac on Elohim / Yahweh’s command, as to whether or not this is supposed to be an etiological tale explaining the end of human sacrifice, which we know was a feature of some ancient religious traditions in the Middle East and beyond. If so, the story is cleverly constructed in such a way that those who would have been practising the custom would not be offended, since it appears here as originally divinely inspired.8
Without Gen. 29-30, we would know neither where the Levites came from nor where the Overly Attached Girlfriend descends from either: ‘… she envied her sister; and she said to Jacob, “Give me children, or I shall die!”’9 In Gen. 32, we learn the origins of Kashrut (dietary laws).10
‘Therefore to this day the Israelites do not eat the thigh muscle that is on the hip socket because he struck Jacob on the hip socket at the thigh muscle.’
This continues today; thighs are not Kosher. Strict dietary laws were a cornerstone of ancient Israelite identity and continue to be today for Jewish people. Later, Gen. 36 details Edom‘s origins from Esau. I hope you are seeing the pattern here, which understandably strikes modern readers as a little bit racist. As the later prophet Malachi puts it:11
‘Is not Esau Jacob’s brother?’, says the Lord, ‘Yet I have loved Jacob but I have hated Esau; I have made his hill country a desolation and his heritage a desert for jackals.’
Canaanite is by far the most common ethnic term in the Hebrew Bible. The pattern of polemics suggests that most Israelites knew that they had a shared common remote ancestry and once common culture.
In summary, one could say that every chapter of Genesis was racist.
Most importantly of all, however, Gen. 37-50 links the origins of mankind to Israel’s founding myth – the story of the Exodus from Egypt. This bridging function is critical to Israel’s own origins and ethnogenesis so that the ancient Israelites and modern Jews can understand themselves and where they came from “as a people”.
Then Joseph said to his brothers, ‘I am about to die; but God will surely come to you, and bring you up out of this land to the land that he swore to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob.’
Conclusion – A Book of Origins
Genesis is the second longest book of the Hebrew Bible at 32,000 words, which is roughly half the length of a novel.13 It is deceptively lengthy for an opening chapter! The general hypothesis for its length is that every origin story known among the community got progressively bundled together and it became a tricky document to redact due to the popularity and longstanding oral tradition associated with each tale.
The countless instances of ‘therefore the name of ‘X’ is ‘Y’ to this day’ and similar expressions continuously mark the genre of the Book of Genesis as that of etiology and ethnogenesis.14 The connective structure ‘al–ken’ (עַלכֵּן) is the norm for introducing such etiologies and ethnogeneses.15 These were stories to explain why places were called what they were, how certain customs came to be, and the beginnings of national conflicts.
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- Gen. 3:6. ↩
- There is an implicit limit on Elohim / Yahweh’s omnipotence here as elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible and New Testament. On the most uncontroversial level, ‘God cannot be tempted by evil’ (James 1:13) and ‘he cannot deny himself’ (2 Timothy 2:11-13). Yahweh is also unable to assist Judah against iron chariots, as discussed here. Also, it becomes messy whether to use singular or plural here due to the Elohim / Yahweh problem of two sets of different Genesis source narratives being sat side-by-side. ↩
- Gen. 6:1-4. However, a number of figures lived beyond 120 years, such as Abraham, who lived to 175 years, according to Gen. 25:7. ↩
- Gen. 9:1-4. The Genesis flood narrative is constructed from two different stories, as discussed here. In this passage, it is Elohim who is / are speaking. ↩
- In the Book of Joshua, the eponymous hero ‘carries out a systematic campaign against the civilians of Canaan — men, women and children — that amounts to genocide’. Dever, W. G. (2003). Who Were the Early Israelites and Where Did They Come From?. Cambridge: Eerdmans. p. 38. Few academics regard Joshua as having much value as a historical source for the time in which it is seemingly set (13th century BCE); the majority position is that it was compiled in the 7th century BCE under King Josiah (640-609 BCE), hence its pro-Monarchic tone. Most believe that ancient Israelite communities were indigenous to Canaan. For information on this widely held standpoint, see Dever’s book above, this lecture (2013) or alternatively, you could read: Brett, M. G. (2003). ‘Israel’s Indigenous Origins: Cultural Hybridity and the Formation of Israelite Ethnicity’. Biblical Interpretation. Vol. 11, Iss. 3. pp. 400-412. ↩
- Gen. 9:18-27. ↩
- Gen. 11:1-9. ↩
- The Akedah narrative of Abraham being prepared to sacrifice his son Isaac shows many signs of being a multi-authored passage with the editing taking place over centuries. The core of the story looks like it originally ended with the actual sacrifice of Isaac, who does not appear after this in any of the other Elohist (E) passages. A later pious redactor from a time in which human sacrifice was no longer seen to be acceptable is theorised to have altered the story to the familiar one we know now, where Isaac survives. See: Levenson, Jon D. (1993). The Death and Resurrection of the Beloved Son: The Transformation of Child Sacrifice in Judaism and Christianity. London: Yale University Press. pp. 3-17, 111-124; Coats, George W. (1983). Genesis, with an Introduction to Narrative Literature. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans. pp. 97-176. ↩
- Gen. 30:1. ↩
- Gen. 32:32. ↩
- Malachi 1:1-4. ↩
- Dever, W. G. (2003). Who Were the Early Israelites and Where Did They Come From?. Cambridge: Eerdmans. p. 219. See footnote  above for more information on the actual archaeological origins of ancient Israel and why ancient Israelites might have produced documents which so vehemently denied this. ↩
- Kranz, J. (2014). ‘Word Counts for Every Book of the Bible’. OverviewBible. ↩
- There are a huge number of name etiologies in the Book of Genesis. Here are some examples: Gen. 26:20-22, 33; 28:19; 30:13; 32:2. ↩
- Behrendt, L. (2015). ‘Etiology’. Jewish-Christian Intersections. Genesis contains around 60 relevant instances of ‘ken’ (עַל) by my count. ↩