Betsy and I just finished Genesis. It’s … a strange book.
Chapters 1-11 cover primeval, mythic-type events: Creation, expulsion from Eden, the first murder, the Flood, the Tower of Babel. A lot of the best-known Genesis stories come from these early chapters.
But the vast majority of the book, chapters 12-50, are about four generations of rich patriarchs: Abraham, Isaac, Jacob (Israel), and Joseph, along with their families.
It’s striking, first of all, how amoral this section of Genesis is. People do all kinds of things – killing, threatening to kill, enslaving, banishing, lying, cheating, sleeping around – with very little judgment from the text on what is and isn’t okay. In some cases, as when Abraham lies to Pharaoh and calls Sarah his sister, we get the impression it’s a bad thing. Other cases, like when Jacob cheats Esau out of his blessing, feel more positive. In still other cases, as when Lot’s daughters get him drunk and sleep with him, there seems to be no textual judgment at all, positive or negative; it’s just something that happens. Such lack of judgment would make sense in a work of fiction, but in the Bible – which people use as a source of moral guidance – it’s more surprising.
Likewise, there isn’t much about what kind of relationship humanity should have with God. God actually doesn’t appear too often in these chapters, and when he does, his exchanges with humans are very transactional: command and obey, request and provide. Unlike Noah, who was chosen for his righteousness, Abraham seems to be chosen without any clear reason. God simply says, without explanation or preamble: “I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great” (Gen 12:2). Likewise, Abraham’s descendants seem to inherit his blessing through blood, rather than virtue. Why has God chosen these people in particular? Why would God choose any people in particular? We’re never told, at least not in Genesis. Instead, God seems to be on Abraham’s side because, well, he’s Abraham.
So if Genesis isn’t primarily about laws, morals, or God, what is it about?
Mostly, it’s about inheritance. A lot of time and detail is spent on who marries who, who sleeps with who, sterility and fertility, birth order and birthright, the blessings of the father, and where people are buried. All this establishes the lineage and origin of the twelve tribes of Israel (and other tribes), the ancestors of King David, the blessings of God, and claims to ownership of various lands. It’s practical: I get this land, this blessing, this authority, not you.
From an ancient viewpoint, Genesis makes sense. People want origin stories, and they want to establish claims to what they have. For a modern Christian reader, though, the purpose of Genesis is less clear. A few passages are instructive (albeit troubling), like the Flood and Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice Isaac. And the book does provide important historical and cultural perspective for interpreting the rest of the Bible, including the teachings of Jesus.
But as a standalone book, it’s … well, it’s odd. Interesting and significant, of course, but odd.
That’s my, ahem, professional opinion.
On to Exodus!