Posts Tagged ‘Genesis’

Rarely does the book called Isaiah indulge in retrospect. Particularly in the second half of the book, the operational summons is to sing a new song, to forget the former things, to embrace YHWH’s penchant for doing something shockingly new.

In this light, the first section of the book’s fifty-first chapter raises a readerly eyebrow.

Listen to me, you that pursue righteousness, you that seek the LORD. Look to the rock from which you were hewn, and to the quarry from which you were dug.

Look to Abraham your father and to Sarah who bore you; for he was but one when I called him, but I blessed him and made him many.

Isaiah 51:1-2 (NRSV)

This chain of three imperatives is manifestly retrospective, although it would be wrong to call it nostalgic.

There must be something about ‘Abraham your father and … Sarah who bore you’ that elevates the ancestral couple as worthy of the exilic community’s contemplation. Indeed, the immediate text signals wherein that virtue lies and the context further ornaments the allusion.

First, the text of these two verses gives every indication of alluding to the famous calling of Abraham, with its promised of remarkably multiplied progeny.

Now the LORD said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”

Genesis 12:1-3 (NRSV)

Besides the naming of Abraham and Sarah, the Isaiah text picks up the notion of blessing (ברכה and verbal ברך). Additionally, both texts emphasize the dimension of multiplication towards vastness. In Genesis, this notion manifests as promissory: ‘I will make you a great nation’ (ואעשׁך לגוי גדול) and ‘and make your name great’ (ואגדלה שׁמך). In the allusive Isaiah text, the language is slightly different:

…for he was but one when I called him, but I blessed him and made him many.

Isaiah 51:2 (NRSV)

One discovers, then, in both texts the notion of blessing towards vastness.

So much for the evident textual links that make Isaiah 51.1-2 a recontextualized echo of Genesis 12.1-3.

Yet the Abrahamic motif has not been concluded just yet. In the hands of the Isaianic interpretation of the exiles’ plight, there is more to say.

The clear and immediate insistence is that YHWH is still capable of multiplying his people via blessing towards vastness. What became true of Abraham and Sarah represents an invitation for the exiles to trust YHWH’s intention to multiply them in similar fashion.

Yet is striking that the ensuing verses are thick with reference to the paradoxical but intensely Isaianic notion of subjugating the nations in those peoples’ own interest.

Listen to me, my people, and give heed to me, my nation; for a teaching will go out from me, and my justice for a light to the peoples.

I will bring near my deliverance swiftly, my salvation has gone out and my arms will rule the peoples; the coastlands wait for me, and for my arm they hope.

Isaiah 51:4-5 (NRSV)

It appears, then, that this forward-looking book finds Abraham and Sarah to be worthy objects for a bit of retrospective pondering. This is so precisely because in the experience of the iconic patriarch and matriarch one discerns YHWH’s purpose to bless his people towards vastness in a way that has global implications for those nations who find themselves conjoined to YHWH’s little people.

If the Isaianic tradition constitutes exilic prophets coaxing out the meaning of the prophetic deposit that has become their treasure and also of conjuring the bracing concept of an imminent New Exodus, then it is also true that the tradition can reach even farther back into Israel’s long memory. When it does so, it becomes a summons to trust that YHWH’s stubborn insistence upon blessing not only Abraham and Sarah but also those nations who will look favorably upon them has survived the storm of exile.

In the hands of Isaiah’s interpreters, retrospect becomes prospect and memory, instruction.


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The Bible is unflinching about the human predicament.

But the serpent said to the woman, ‘You will not surely die. For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.’ So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate, and she also gave some to her husband who was with her, and he ate. Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked. And they sewed fig leaves together and made themselves loincloths. And they heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God among the trees of the garden. (Genesis 3:4–8 ESV)

How do we become un-lost?

How do we overcome our agnostic doubts, find our way through the morass of what we self-justifyingly call ‘the evidence’ to a defensible conclusion?

How do we assess this abiding sense of guilt against someone we can’t quite see?

How do we decide whether whether we are, finally, alone? Or not?

But the Lord God called to the man and said to him, ‘Where are you?’ (Genesis 3:9 ESV)

The Bible’s story of human origins has the creator seeking out the first humans in their worst possible moment.

It has ever been so, and we are fortunate for it.

Absent a creator who—so we are told—pursues us and loves us in spite of everything, we are lost. We are on the fence. We cannot know if the aloneness we feel is real, or only the product of minds poorly equipped for the harshness of life.

To be lost out here is more than a feeling, and the jungle is vast.

But, wait! I hear someone …


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We sometimes believe God would listen to us if we could just calm things down a little and finish up the dusting.

The patriarchal narratives of Genesis offer no support to such an idea. Hagar’s remarkable interaction with Abraham’s God is unruly from start to finish. Yet the son of this servant of Abraham’s wife Sarai is named to honor God’s listening skills and the place of Hagar’s encounter with him after his powers of observation.

Nothing about the story escapes the prevailing unruliness. (more…)

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In the ‘account of Adam’s line’ that appears in Genesis chapter five, the genealogy’s structure assumes the very shape of the human situation.

The summary of each individual’s history begins with life and ends with death, this for a race that the narrative presents as deathless until they rebelled against the Creator who blessed them as soon as he had breathed life into them. An example establishes the pattern:

When Seth had lived 105 years, he became the father of Enosh. And after he became the father of Enosh, Seth lived 807 years and had other sons and daughters. Altogether, Seth lived 912 years, and then he died. (Genesis 5:6–8 NIV)

Modern translations rightly tidy up the flow of things with a subordinate clause (‘When A had lived 105 years …). The Hebrew text itself develops the human rhythm to a more austere beat:

And A lived X years and he engendered B … And all the days of A were Y years, and he died.

Always, he lived. Always he played his role in the sustaining of the race by engendering children. Always, he died. (more…)

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The Bible’s primeval history, as this is found in the early chapters of the book of Genesis, is arguably the most supple and satisfactory explanation of human experience ever written.

One aspect of this paradigmatic story involves the matter of guarding (Hebrew שׁמר).

The second panel of the two-paneled creation story sees ‘YHWH Elohim’ (commonly in English, ‘the Lord God’) planting a garden in the east and installing the man there. Although the text speaks here only of the man, the joint commissioning of man and woman in chapter one and the organic and relational union of the man and the woman subsequently in the second panel provide a more inclusive context. Significantly ha-adam (האדאם, commonly in English ‘Adam’ or ‘the man’) suggests ‘humanity’ and is linked in the text to ha-adamah (האדמה), meaning the soil.

When YHWH Elohim places the man in the garden, the latter is assigned to that place with a double purpose: to serve it and to guard it. Some readers, not unreasonably, discern priestly resonances in this assignment and relate garden and temple as almost interchangeable features of YHWH’s living space on earth. More straight-forward—if not exactly prosaic—translations choose words like till and keep.

And the LORD God planted a garden in Eden, in the east; and there he put the man whom he had formed. Out of the ground the LORD God made to grow every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food, the tree of life also in the midst of the garden, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. A river flows out of Eden to water the garden, and from there it divides and becomes four branches. The name of the first is Pishon; it is the one that flows around the whole land of Havilah, where there is gold; and the gold of that land is good; bdellium and onyx stone are there. The name of the second river is Gihon; it is the one that flows around the whole land of Cush. The name of the third river is Tigris, which flows east of Assyria. And the fourth river is the Euphrates. The LORD God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it. (Genesis 2:8–15 NRSV)

Famously, the first couple fails at this task. The appearance of an astute serpent invades the garden’s equanimity with deceptive guile, so fracturing the relational web that might have developed it as a paradise. It is plausible to assume that the couple possessed both the authority and the means to guard the garden from the usurping presence. Sadly, they did not do so.

In consequence the man and the woman find themselves exiled not only from each other but also from the garden itself. Like their eventual Israelite successors, the community divides and the people are expelled to a place of wandering that lies to the east of the soil that had been promised to them.

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. (Genesis 3:22–24 NRSV)

Humanity, in the persons of its progenitors, finds itself the object rather than the subject of guarding. Insofar as access to and care of YHWH’s living space is concerned, they are no longer the guards but now the intruders. In addition, the guarding role no longer appears in their relationship to the place. They now simply serve or till it. They have become, in a sense, the enemy, albeit one clothed and watched over by YHWH in an arrangement that has become decidedly distant.

Yet even east of Eden, the dignity of humankind’s commission has not become entirely lost. After one of the couple’s sons (Cain, lance) murders another (Abel, a vapor) in a jealous rage related to the now mediated access to their Maker, YHWH questions the fratricide.

Cain said to his brother Abel, ‘Let us go out to the field.’ And when they were in the field, Cain rose up against his brother Abel, and killed him. Then the LORD said to Cain, ‘Where is your brother Abel?’ He said, ‘I do not know; am I my brother’s keeper?’ (Genesis 4:8–9 NRSV)

With tragic pathos, the son of a couple doomed by their illicit acquisition of knowledge professes ignorance about the community’s most basic fact: the whereabouts of one of its own. What is more, he rejects the very purpose of his race. Virtually de-humanizing himself in the act, Cain spits damning words in the face of his Creator: ‘I will not be my brother’s guard!’.

Cain chooses bitter solitude. His shadow falls heavy upon us.

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The norm in the historiography of the other is to write him out of meaningful history. If it is inconvenient to demean one’s adversary—or if doing so requires too much energy—the obvious alternative is to ignore him.

So does it become possible to make the too trite claim that history is written by the victor. That mantra is more than a half-truth but falls short of the whole. It fails to reflect the complexity of who records and interprets the flow of lives and events and who does not. (more…)

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The unselfconscious cackles of the gratefully redeemed become all too suddenly the sullen scheming of unhealed hearts.

When YHWH had done the impossible by bringing a child from the desiccated womb of an elderly woman whose dubious heart was at least as resistant to reproduction as her nether parts, she surrendered her practiced enmity towards hope and laughed out loud. (more…)

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A brief codicil to the story of Jacob/Israel’s death and burial displays how deeply suspicion and fear had intruded themselves into the cells and sinews of Israel’s earliest generations:

Realizing that their father was dead, Joseph’s brothers said, ‘What if Joseph still bears a grudge against us and pays us back in full for all the wrong that we did to him?’

Joseph wept when his brothers approached him with their ugly negotiation about becoming his slaves if only Joseph would swear off the sad tradition of blood vengeance. After all they had been through, it seems to grieve this half-Hebrew, half-Egyptian head of state to learn that his brothers still did not consider him to be one of them. (more…)

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In the face of the mixed tones, hues, and points of view that show themselves in the ‘five books of Moses’, students of this material have often had recourse to complex theories of composition. Surely, the logic goes, such divergent perspectives require us to conjecture a broad mix of oral and literary traditions that by some mechanism became integrated into the document(s) that lie(s) before us.

It is a reasonable conjecture. In the nature of the case, scholars with their attention fixed on the minutiae of the data will sometimes take a good idea to a less than plausible extreme. Yet this does not discount the probability that complex layers of tradition have made their distinct and varied contributions to our Pentateuch, our Torah, our first five books of the Bible. (more…)

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Positions of large responsibility rarely allow one to follow his feelings. Like Michael Corleone in the Godfather movies—though hopefully with more redemptive outcomes—stewardship over the lives and fate of others requires us to become reasonable men or reasonable women.

Elevated to improbably sovereignty over the famine-time life of Egypt, the biblical Joseph is in many ways a model of self-control. The wife of Potiphar, for examples, finds her charms useless to her attempts to seduce Joseph. His discernment of dreams and the courage to articulate their meaning to people whose lives will be enriched or cut short in consequence show Joseph to be a man who knows who he is, what truth is, and how to reconcile the competing demands of each. (more…)

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