The first verse of Genesis is, in some ways, the most important verse in the Bible. While many Torah verses influenced history, Genesis 1:1 changed history in monumental ways.
• First, the verse posits a Creator of the universe. That means, among many other things, there is meaning to existence. If there is no Creator, there is no ultimate purpose to existence, including, of course, human existence. We humans can make up a meaning because we are the one species that cannot live without meaning. But the fact remains that we made it up.
• Second, the word “created” (bara) implies nothing preexisted Genesis 1:1. When bara is used in the Torah, it is used only with reference to God—because only God can create from nothing. Human beings cannot create; they can only “make,” like making something from something, such as wood and paper from trees.
• Third, everything—with the exception of God—has a beginning. Prior to God’s creating, there was nothing. That includes time. Thanks to Einstein, we know that time, too, had a beginning. God, therefore, also created time, which means God exists not only outside of nature but outside of time. God precedes time and will outlive time.
• Fourth, for the first time, a creation story has but one Creator. The moral and intellectual consequences of the Torah’s monotheism have changed the world. They are listed in detail in the commentary to Exodus 8:6 (and summarized in the commentary to Genesis 35:2).
• Fifth, unlike pre-Bible creation stories, there is complete silence regarding a birth of the deity. The God of Genesis 1:1, the God of the Bible, is not born.
• Sixth, for the first time in history, we are presented with a god who is completely separate from nature—because God created nature. God, for the first time, is not part of nature.
* Genesis is obviously a book concerned with origins—the origin of earth’s creation, of humankind, of institutions by which civilization is perpetuated, of one special family chosen by God as his own and designated as the medium of world blessing. Transcending all of these emphases on beginnings is God. There is no génesis theoú (theogony) in Scripture’s introductory book, nor any theobiography. He is one without rē’šîṯ (beginning) and ’aharîṯ (end).
* This proposal suggests the discovery in Genesis of eleven literary units or tablets, to which the Joseph narrative has been appended: Tablet 1: 1:1-2:4: The history/origin of the cosmos
Tablet 2: 2:5-5:2: This history/origin of Adam/mankind
Tablet 3: 5:3-6:9a: The history/origin of Noah
Tablet 4: 6:9b-10:1: The history/origin of Noah’s sons
Tablet 5: 10:2-11:10a: The history/origin of Shem
Tablet 6: 11:10b-27a: The history/origin of Terah
Tablet 7: 11:27b-25:12: The history/origin of Ishmael
Tablet 8: 25:13-19a: The history/origin of Isaac
Tablet 9: 25:19b-36:1: The history/origin of Esau (and Jacob)
Tablet 10: 36:2-9: The history/origin of Esau
Tablet 11: 36:10-37:2a: The history/origin of Jacob’s family
* It is hardly accidental that four-fifths of Genesis (chs. 12-50) describes the history of only four generations (Abraham to Joseph), while one-fifth of Genesis (chs. 1-11) describes the history of twenty generations (Adam to Abraham). Why is Genesis preoccupied maximally with the four generations, but only minimally with the first twenty generations?22 As an extension of this point, why does the Creation story, certainly an indispensable part of Genesis and all of Scripture for that matter, receive only two chapters, while the Abraham story is allotted thirteen chapters and part of two others? Why is the account of the “Fall” limited to one chapter, while the Joseph narrative occupies the last third of Genesis?
* Discussion about Genesis’ composition has run in cycles—in two uneven cycles at least—for the last two millennia. For almost eighteen hundred years (the first cycle) hardly anyone questioned the unity of Genesis, whether the writers were the rabbinical scholars of Judaism or the ecclesiastical scholars of Christendom. Thus a Maimonides within Judaism, an Augustine within Catholicism, and a Calvin within Protestantism shared no disagreement on the point of Genesis’ origin and composition. For all of them Genesis was a unified work, and more specifically, the work of Moses. It is now fashionable to label such an approach approach as “traditional” or “precritical.” The latter term especially is an opprobrious one, for it suggests that modern scholars consider such writers of only slight usefulness in the interpretation of the biblical text, essentially limited to showing how such commentators of old fill in the gaps in one’s treatment of the history of Genesis’ interpretation. Thus their contribution to the whole is primarily archaic.
* The second cycle of interpretations is approximately two centuries old. So dominant is it today that it has replaced the older precritical approach as the traditional one. To challenge it is to wade into the waters of heterodoxy, to risk the charge of hopeless obfuscation, or at worst, to be labeled “fundamentalist.”
* In brief, this [Julius Welhausen documentary] approach identifies four major literary strands behind the present canonical shape of the Pentateuch. In chronological order these are:
1. The Yahwist (J) (850 B.C.—Wellhausen; 960-930 B.C.—post-Wellhausen scholars), written anonymously in Judah during the reign of Solomon. This source traces Israel’s history from its patriarchal beginnings to its preparation for entry into Canaan; narratives from prepatriarchal times were added at some point. It may have functioned as the national epic for the Davidic/Davidic/Solomonic kingdom. “J” is the symbol for this document, primarily because of its almost exclusive use of “Yahweh.”29
2. The Elohist (E) (850 B.C.), also written anonymously in northern Israel, shortly after the collapse of the united monarchy. It covers substantially the same period of Israel’s history as J, but it starts with the patriarchs and not with creation. Because it prefers the name “Elohim” for God, it is styled the Elohist.30
3. Deuteronomy (D), written at least by the Josianic reform (ca. 620 B.C.), but perhaps as old as E, and originally from northern Israel, as was E. It is confined obviously, as far as the Pentateuch is concerned, to Deuteronomy.
4. The Priestly Writer (P) (550-450 B.C.), heavily concerned with chronological, liturgical, and genealogical matters. Wellhausen’s major innovation here was to shift the Priestly code from the earliest document to the latest document, written sometime after the Babylonian exile. Unlike J and E, P is not concerned with presenting presenting history as such, but with establishing the basis of Israel’s sacral institutions through their connection with history.
Thus, the Creation story provides the reason for the Sabbath’s instititution (Gen. 1), and the covenant with Abraham (Gen. 17) establishes the reason for circumcision. Today debate on P focuses on two issues: (1) Is it post-D (JEDP) or is it pre-D (JEPD)? (2) Is P a source or a redaction? These issues will be examined further below.
An analogy for this hypothesis might be an electrical cord. The wiring on the outside, visible to the eye, gives the impression of unity, one substance. Once the outer casing is removed, however, one detects immediately several different wires, indicated by color, inside the casing.
There are a number of reasons for positing the existence of a multi-traditional Pentateuch. In descending order of significance, they are:
(1) The different names for God. This is apparent, for example, in the Creation story, which uses “Elohim” consistently in 1:1-2:3 and “Yahweh Elohim” in 2:4-3:24, and in the Flood account (Gen. 6-9), which uses both “Elohim” and “Yahweh.”
(2) The presence of duplications, a story told twice (or thrice), but in such a way that the two accounts are irreconcilable. Thus there are two Creation accounts (1: 1-2:4a and 2:4bff.), two Flood accounts (meshed in chs. 6-9), two accounts of God’s covenant with Abraham (chs. 15 and 17), two accounts of Hagar’s banishment (chs. 16 and 21), two accounts of Jacob’s name change to Israel (chs. 32 and 35), two accounts of Joseph’s sale to merchants bound for Egypt (37:25-27, 28b and 37:28a, 36), three accounts of wife abduction (chs. 12, 20, and 26), and so forth.
(3) The presence of anachronisms, which must be dated much later than the patriarchal or the Mosaic period. One thinks, for example, of references to Abraham’s Ur as “Ur of the Chaldeans”—the “Chaldeans” do not appear in Mesopotamia until long after the patriarchal period; or of the mention of “Philistines” and domesticated “camels” in the Genesis narratives. The list of Edomite kings in Gen. 36 is interesting, especially in the light of the fact that the Edomites did not settle in Transjordan before the 13th century B.C.
(4) The detection in Genesis of distinctive literary styles or religious ideology within a section or unit. For instance, P’s style is reckoned to be more formal and repetitious, while J’s is more simple. Or again, J, with his anthropomorphic tendencies when talking about God, presents the contact between God and the patriarchs as direct, while E tends to dilute this contact by introducing dreams and angels as intermediate factors.
* Putting together, then, the perspective of Wellhausen-Gunkel-Noth, one arrives at the scholarly consensus that Genesis (and Exodus-Numbers as well) evidences the following stages of composition: 1. The oral formation of small narratives, 1800-1200 B.C. (Gunkel) 2. The assembling of these smaller narratives into larger complexes around history-like themes, as part of a liturgical affirmation of faith in community acts of worship, 1200-1000 B.C.38 (Noth) 3. The writing of the J source, 950 B.C. 4. The writing of the E source, 850 B.C. 5. The redaction of JE 6. The writing of the P source, 550 B.C. or later 7. The redaction of JEP, either by P himself or by an independent editor, ca. 400 B.C. (nos. 3-7, Wellhausen)
* Until the rise of source criticism in the 18th century, the unity of Genesis was taken for granted, with an occasional disclaimer to be heard only here or there. A concomitant of this position was the teaching of the Mosaic authorship of Genesis (and of the rest of the Pentateuch). It is accurate to say that those in the 20th century who have advocated that position are in the minority. To argue for the Mosaic authorship of Genesis was akin to arguing for the flatness of the earth. Among Jewish scholars, Benno Jacob, Umberto Cassuto, and M. H. Segal have been most vocal in their defense of the unity of Genesis’ authorship and composition.68 …In our judgment Cassuto has mounted the most convincing case against JEDP, and yet most of his conclusions have been ignored by the establishment of biblical scholarship, primarily because in their opinion his conclusions are rooted in polemics and apologetics, rather than in undistilled scholarship.
* Many biblical scholars would dispute the attempt even to discuss a theology of Genesis.
* Jacob, however, has a number of experiences with his brother and father before God enters the picture. Only after an encounter with Esau and Isaac is there an encounter with God. The interesting point here is that not one word is spoken by God about Jacob’s previous behavior with Esau (exploitation) or with Isaac (duplicity). It is ignored. Instead, Jacob becomes the recipient of an unsolicited series of divine promises. He is promised land, descendants, spiritual influence, and the presence of God. If election were based on merit and not on grace, Jacob would never have qualified!
* The point is frequently made throughout these chapters of Genesis that the selection of these patriarchs is not based on their behavior. They are not chosen because they are good. They are chosen on the basis of God’s sovereign will. Even when they are guilty of highly unethical behavior, God remains true to his promise. It is clear to the reader of Genesis that the patriarchs are not above engaging in highly questionable behavior. On two occasions Abraham encourages his wife to lie about her identity and places her in a very vulnerable position—in fact, makes her an adulteress (12:10-20). At his wife’s suggestion Abraham cohabits with another woman (ch. 16). Isaac imitates his father’s duplicity when he too finds himself an alien on foreign soil (ch. 26). Jacob exploits his brother (25:29-34), deceives his father (ch. 27), and even after his spiritual transformation and renaming still lies to Esau (33:12-18). Judah fathers twins by his daughter-in-law, who is disguised as a harlot (ch. 38). And Joseph brings false charges against his brothers (“you are spies”) and acts clandestinely to make them look like thieves. The interesting point in all of these instances of aberrant behavior is that God never clearly rebukes any of the patriarchs. He sends no voice of conscience after them, no Nathan with his condemning “you are the man.”
* All readers of Genesis have noticed the often dubious, even immoral, antics of the three patriarchs. By itself, this immorality is not unique, for Scripture is loaded with similar incidents in the lives of others of its characters. Witness a Saul, a David, a Solomon, one of the kings, or Israel as a whole (often portrayed as a harlot). In each of those instances, however, the culpable one pays a high price for disregarding God’s law. But the patriarchs escape prosecution. In fact, after the Tower of Babel story in Gen. 11, one does not encounter any story before Exod. 32 in which the followers of God experience the voice of judgment (except for Er and Onan, the sons of Judah, Gen. 38).
* If Gen. 12-50 is punctuated with stories highlighting unconscionable behavior in the lives of the major actors, so is Exod. 1-31. Why, for instance, does God give his people manna in the desert when they murmur and complain (Exod. 16)? God answers prayer; does he answer grumbling too?
* N. Sarna has correctly observed, “If Abraham’s migration can no longer be explained as part of a larger Amorite migration from east to west, it should be noted that what has fallen by the wayside is a scholarly hypothesis, not the Biblical text. Genesis itself presents the movement from Haran to Canaan as an individual, unique act undertaken in response to a divine call, an event, not an incident, that inaugurated a new and decisive stage in God’s plan of history. The factuality or otherwise of this Biblical evaluation lies beyond the scope of scholarly research.” In other words, events of salvation history can be neither proved nor disproved.
How then does Thompson understand the place of these patriarchal narratives in Israel? He believes that they were created ex nihilo by early Israelite communities in which an illusory past was imaginatively formed for the purpose of giving encouragement in the present and hope for the future. In other words, according to Thompson, it is the faith of the religious community that creates Abraham. This perspective is the direct opposite of the biblical writers’ view that it is Abraham who stimulates the faith of the religious community.120 How shall we account for the fact that the events of both the Exodus under Moses and the conquest under Joshua are grounded in the patriarchal events of Genesis? If the latter are fictional, then the grounds of faith are no more for the former—unless we have fictional events that are rooted in additional fictional events. We are not saying that the patriarchal traditions have to be true to be of value. Of course they do not. If they are not true, what is surrendered is the canonical witness of Genesis that biblical history at the covenant level begins not with an exodus from Egypt to which a patriarchal tradition has beeen appended, but with a patriarchal tradition out of which an exodus and conquest themes develop. We must also consider what is lost for the biblical message of redemption, the NT included, if the patriarchs are nonexistent. According to the biblical revelation Abraham is the first link in that program and Jesus Christ, the son of Abraham, climaxes God’s provision for the redemption of humanity.
* Is not the religion of the patriarchs self-evident, and therefore not in need of elaboration? Did not Abraham worship the same God as Moses? Did not John, Peter, and Paul worship the same God as Moses? Therefore, may not the modern believer, Jewish or Christian, claim that his God is Abraham’s God? The answer to all these questions is obviously yes. Yet the critical reader of Scripture might remind us that centuries passed between the time in which the patriarchs practiced their religion and the time in which these practices were actually committed to writing. Thus one might ask, “Do we know the religion per se of the patriarchs?” or only J’s, E’s, and P’s version of that religion? Is it possible that in the canonical structuring of the Torah, an otherwise complicated picture has been simplified? Several things separate patriarchal religion from Mosaic religion. For one thing, Abraham in particular is rooted directly, via his family, in a pagan, polytheistic milieu. It is one thing for Abraham to leave his world geographically. But how shall he leave it theologically? Nothing in Abraham’s background prepares him for that revolutionary transition. If Samuel did not recognize the voice of God and confused it with Eli’s, what means did Abraham possess in Ur or Haran for recognizing the voice of God when it called him? Is it possible that Abraham’s shift from a polytheistic faith to a monotheistic one was not an abrupt, overnight shift? If that is the case, one might expect to discover vestigial remains of that original faith throughout Gen. 12-50.
In Joseph Telushkin’s 666-page book, Biblical Literacy: The Most Important People, Events, and Ideas of the Hebrew Bible, there are four mentions of the word “theology.” By contrast, in the Victor Hamilton book referenced above, there are 104 mentions and in Prager’s commentary on Genesis there are 22 mentions. This is an example of why many traditional Jews find Prager’s commentary on the Torah “Christian” because he often sounds more Christian than Jewish. Traditional Jews do not talk about theology, they talk about what God demands of man, which is action aka mitzvot (divine commandments). What reconciles God to man in the Jewish view is behavior while in the Christian view it is faith (and works in the Catholic perspective).
The most widely used chumash (Pentateuch with commentary) used in Orthodox synagogues in the West is The Chumash: The Stone Edition, Full Size (ArtScroll) (English and Hebrew Edition) The Torah: Haftaros and Five Megillos with a Commentary Anthologized from the Rabbinic Writings. It contains no reference to the term “theology.”