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The Book of Genesis (from the Latin Vulgate, in turn borrowed or transliterated from Greek γένεσις, meaning "origin"; Hebrew: בְּרֵאשִׁית, Bərēšīṯ, "In [the] beginning") is the first book of the Hebrew Bible (the Tanakh) and the Christian Old Testament.
The basic narrative expresses the central theme: God creates the world (along with creating the first man and woman) and appoints man as his regent, but man proves disobedient and God destroys his world through the Flood. The new post-Flood world is equally corrupt, but God does not destroy it, instead calling one man, Abraham, to be the seed of its salvation. At God's command Abraham descends from his home into the land of Canaan, given to him by God, where he dwells as a sojourner, as does his son Isaac and his grandson Jacob. Jacob's name is changed to Israel, and through the agency of his son Joseph, the children of Israel descend into Egypt, 70 people in all with their households, and God promises them a future of greatness. Genesis ends with Israel in Egypt, ready for the coming of Moses and the Exodus. The narrative is punctuated by a series of covenants with God, successively narrowing in scope from all mankind (the covenant with Noah) to a special relationship with one people alone (Abraham and his descendants through Isaac and Jacob).
The book's author or authors appear to have structured it around ten "toledot" sections (the "these are the generations of..." phrases), but modern commentators see it in terms of a "primeval history" (chapters 1–11) followed by the cycle of Patriarchal stories (chapters 12–50). In Judaism, the theological importance of Genesis centers on the covenants linking God to his Chosen People and the people to the Promised Land. Christianity has interpreted Genesis as the prefiguration of certain cardinal Christian beliefs, primarily the need for salvation (the hope or assurance of all Christians) and the redemptive act of Christ on the Cross as the fulfillment of covenant promises as the Son of God. Tradition credits Moses as the author of Genesis, as well as Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and most of Deuteronomy, but modern scholars increasingly see them as a product of the 6th and 5th centuries BC.
Genesis appears to be structured around the recurring phrase elleh toledot, meaning "these are the generations," with the first use of the phrase referring to the "generations of heaven and earth" and the remainder marking individuals—Noah, the "sons of Noah", Shem, etc., down to Jacob. It is not clear, however, what this meant to the original authors, and most modern commentators divide it into two parts based on subject matter, a "primeval history" (chapters 1–11) and a "patriarchal history" (chapters 12–50). While the first is far shorter than the second, it sets out the basic themes and provides an interpretive key for understanding the entire book. The "primeval history" has a symmetrical structure hinged around chapters 6–9, the flood story, with the events before the flood mirrored by the events after. The "patriarchal history" recounts the events of the major patriarchs Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, to whom God reveals himself and to whom the promise of descendants and land is made, while the story of Joseph serves to take the Israelites into Egypt in preparation for the next book, Exodus.
God creates the world in six days and consecrates the seventh as a day of rest. God creates Adam and Eve and all the animals in the Garden of Eden but instructs them not to eat the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil. A talking serpent entices Eve into eating it anyway, and she entices Adam, whereupon God curses them and throws them out in the fall of man. Eve bears two sons, Cain and Abel. Cain kills Abel after God accepts Abel's offering but not Cain's. God then curses Cain. Eve bears another son, Seth, to take Abel's place.
After many generations of Adam have passed from the lines of Cain and Seth, the world becomes corrupted by the sin of man and Nephilim, and God determines to wipe out mankind. First, he instructs the righteous Noah and his family to build a huge boat and put examples of all the animals on it. Then God sends a great flood to wipe out the rest of the world. When the waters recede, God promises that he will not destroy the world a second time with water with the rainbow as the symbol of his promise. But upon seeing mankind cooperating to build a great tower city, the Tower of Babel, God divides humanity with many languages and sets them apart with confusion.
God instructs Abram to travel from his home in Mesopotamia to the land of Canaan. There God makes a covenant with Abram promising that his descendants shall be as numerous as the stars. But that people will suffer oppression in a foreign land for four hundred years, after which they will inherit the land "from the river of Egypt to the great river, the river Euphrates." Abram's name is changed to Abraham and that of his wife Sarai to Sarah, and circumcision of all males is instituted as the sign of the covenant. Because Sarah is old, she tells Abraham to take her Egyptian handmaiden, Hagar, as a second wife. Through Hagar, Abraham fathers Ishmael.
God resolves to destroy the city of Sodom and Gomorrah for the sins of its people. Abraham protests and gets God to agree not to destroy the city if 10 righteous men can be found. Angels save Abraham's nephew Lot and his family but his wife looks back on the destruction against their command and is turned into a pillar of salt. Lot's daughters, concerned that they are fugitives who will never find husbands, get him drunk to become pregnant by him, and give birth to the ancestors of the Moabites and Ammonites.
Abraham and Sarah go to the foreign land of Gerar, pretending to be brother and sister (they are half-siblings). The King of Gerar takes Sarah for his wife, but God warns him to return her, and he obeys. God sends Sarah a son to be named Isaac, through whom the covenant will be established. At Sarah's insistence, Ishmael and his mother Hagar are driven out into the wilderness, but God saves them and promises to make Ishmael a great nation.
God tests Abraham by demanding that he sacrifice Isaac. As Abraham is about to lay the knife upon his son, God restrains him, promising him numberless descendants. On the death of Sarah, Abraham purchases Machpelah (believed to be modern Hebron) for a family tomb and sends his servant to Mesopotamia to find among his relations a wife for Isaac, and Rebekah is chosen. Other children are born to Abraham by another wife, Keturah, among whose descendants are the Midianites, and he dies in a prosperous old age and is buried in his tomb at Hebron.
Isaac's wife Rebecca gives birth to the twins Esau, father of the Edomites, and Jacob. Through deception, Jacob becomes the heir instead of Esau and gains his father's blessing. He flees to his uncle where he prospers and earns his two wives, Rachel and Leah. Jacob's name is changed to Israel, and by his wives and their handmaidens he has twelve sons, the ancestors of the twelve tribes of the Children of Israel, and a daughter, Dinah.
Joseph, Jacob's favorite son, is sold into slavery in Egypt by his jealous brothers. But Joseph prospers, after hardship, with God's guidance of interpreting Pharaoh's dream of upcoming famine. He is then reunited with his father and brothers, who don't recognize him but who plead for food. After much manipulation, he reveals himself and lets them and their households into Egypt, where Pharaoh assigns to them the land of Goshen. Jacob calls his sons to his bedside and reveals their future before he dies. Joseph lives to an old age and exhorts his brethren, if God should lead them out of the country, to take his bones with them.
For much of the 20th century most scholars agreed that the five books of the Pentateuch—Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy—came from four sources, the Yahwist, the Elohist, the Deuteronomist and the Priestly source, each telling the same basic story, and joined together by various editors. Since the 1970s there has been a revolution in scholarship: the Elohist source is now widely regarded as no more than a variation on the Yahwist, while the Priestly source is increasingly seen not as a document but as a body of revisions and expansions to the Yahwist (or "non-Priestly") material. (The Deuteronomistic source does not appear in Genesis).
In composing the Patriarchal history the Yahwist drew on four separate blocks of traditional stories about Abraham, Jacob, Judah and Joseph, combining them with genealogies, itineraries and the "promise" theme to create a unified whole. Similarly, when composing the "primeval history" he drew on Greek and Mesopotamian sources, editing and adding to them to create a unified work that fit his theological agenda. The Yahwistic work was then revised and expanded into the final edition by the authors of the Priestly source.
Examples of repeated and duplicate stories are used to identify the separate sources. In Genesis these include three different accounts of a Patriarch claiming that his wife was his sister, the two creation stories, and the two versions of Abraham sending Hagar and Ishmael into the desert.
This leaves the question of when these works were created. Scholars in the first half of the 20th century came to the conclusion that the Yahwist was produced in the monarchic period, specifically at the court of Solomon, and the Priestly work in the middle of the 5th century BC (the author was even identified as Ezra), but more recent thinking is that the Yahwist was written either just before or during the Babylonian exile of the 6th century, and the Priestly final edition was made late in the Exilic period or soon after.
As for why the book was created, a theory which has gained considerable interest, although still controversial is "Persian imperial authorisation". This proposes that the Persians, after their conquest of Babylon in 538 BC, agreed to grant Jerusalem a large measure of local autonomy within the empire, but required the local authorities to produce a single law code accepted by the entire community. The two powerful groups making up the community—the priestly families who controlled the Temple and who traced their origin to Moses and the wilderness wanderings, and the major landowning families who made up the "elders" and who traced their own origins to Abraham, who had "given" them the land—were in conflict over many issues, and each had its own "history of origins", but the Persian promise of greatly increased local autonomy for all provided a powerful incentive to cooperate in producing a single text.
Genesis is perhaps best seen as an example of "antiquarian history", a type of literature telling of the first appearance of humans, the stories of ancestors and heroes, and the origins of culture, cities and so forth. The most notable examples are found in the work of Greek historians of the 6th century BC: their intention was to connect notable families of their own day to a distant and heroic past, and in doing so they did not distinguish between myth, legend, and facts. Professor Jean-Louis Ska of the Pontifical Biblical Institute calls the basic rule of the antiquarian historian the "law of conservation": everything old is valuable, nothing is eliminated. Ska also points out the purpose behind such antiquarian histories: antiquity is needed to prove the worth of Israel's traditions to the nations (the neighbours of the Jews in early Persian Palestine), and to reconcile and unite the various factions within Israel itself.
In 1978 David Clines published his influential The Theme of the Pentateuch – influential because he was one of the first to take up the question of the theme of the entire five books. Clines' conclusion was that the overall theme is "the partial fulfillment – which implies also the partial nonfulfillment – of the promise to or blessing of the Patriarchs." (By calling the fulfillment "partial" Clines was drawing attention to the fact that at the end of Deuteronomy the people are still outside Canaan).
The patriarchs, or ancestors, are Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, with their wives (Joseph is normally excluded). Through the patriarchs God announces the election of Israel, meaning that he has chosen Israel to be his special people and committed himself to their future. God tells the patriarchs that he will be faithful to their descendants (i.e. to Israel), and Israel is expected to have faith in God and his promise. ("Faith" in the context of Genesis and the Hebrew bible means agreement to the promissory relationship, not a body of belief).
The promise itself has three parts: offspring, blessings, and land. The fulfilment of the promise to each patriarch depends on having a male heir, and the story is constantly complicated by the fact that each prospective mother – Sarah, Rebekah and Rachel – is barren. The ancestors, however, retain their faith in God and God in each case gives a son – in Jacob's case, twelve sons, the foundation of the chosen Israelites. All three promises are more richly fulfilled in each succeeding generation, until through Joseph "all the world" is saved from famine, and by bringing the children of Israel down to Egypt he becomes the means through which the promise can be fulfilled.
Scholars generally agree that the theme of divine promise unites the patriarchal cycles, but many would dispute the efficacy of trying to examine Genesis' theology by pursuing a single overarching theme, instead citing as more productive the analysis of the Abraham cycle, the Jacob cycle, and the Joseph cycle, and the Yahwist and Priestly sources. The problem lies in finding a way to unite the patriarchal theme of divine promise to the primeval history, with its theme of God's continuing mercy in the face of man's sinful nature. One solution is to see the patriarchal stories as resulting from God's decision not to remain alienated from mankind: God creates the world and mankind, mankind rebels, and God "elects" (chooses) Abraham.
To this basic plot (which comes from the Yahwist) the Priestly source has added a series of covenants dividing history into stages, each with its own distinctive "sign". The first covenant is between God and all living creatures, and is marked by the sign of the rainbow; the second is with the descendants of Abraham (Ishmaelites and others as well as Israelites), and its sign is circumcision; and the last, which doesn't appear until the book of Exodus, is with Israel alone, and its sign is Sabbath. Each covenant is mediated by a great leader (Noah, Abraham, Moses), and at each stage God progressively reveals himself by his name (Elohim with Noah, El Shaddai with Abraham, Yahweh with Moses).
Perhaps the most well known passage of the Hebrew Bible, the first phrase of Genesis has traditionally been translated as "In the beginning God created". However, "some modern [translators] believe that a more accurate translation is 'When God began to create'", which is the same as the 1962 NJPS Torah translation. The idea that God created the world out of nothing (creatio ex nihilo) is central today to Judaism, Christianity and Islam, but it is not found in Genesis, nor in the entire Hebrew Bible directly.
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