Genesis: let’s start at the very beginning

This post is in the series Rite Reading.

The bible and Maria von Trapp share the same approach to learning: they start at the very beginning. Getting the do-re-mi of the scale right was essential to appreciating the sound of music; understanding the world as God’s good creation is the foundation for hearing the song of the universe.

The pillars of creation – a detail from M16, the Eagle Nebula © NASA, ESA, Hubble Heritage

The book of Genesis falls into two distinct sections: the opening eleven chapters belong to a time essentially outside history. They deal with the same topics as the myths of other ancient Mesopotamian cultures: creation, flood, humanity and god(s). However, they give these common elements their own spin. The biblical God does not need help making the world. The biblical world is not a battleground between gods, but a home for humanity made by a kind creator. This God does not typically create or destroy on a whim, or in competition with other deities, but looks for humanity’s well-being, while expecting his people to behave morally.

This last point is sometimes hard to see: very often in the Bible, a story is recounted without the author appearing to pass moral judgement. On other occasions there seems to be something of a gap between earlier understandings of God and morality, and those we think are moral today. But however much we might need to wrestle with the text, there is an overarching sense that a good God demands good behaviour from those God has dignified with the divine image.

The second section of the book elaborates tales of the ancestors, in particular Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. These stories have been long told and retold in different tribal contexts before they reach their written form. Eventually they get edited together into a single whole (with who knows hoe many intermediate stages).

Together they tell how an extended family of travelling cow and sheep herders ends up being associated with a particular land, a land promised to Abraham by God. This collection ends with a separate cycle of stories around Joseph, whose coat, sadly for musical theatre, simply had long sleeves rather than being amazingly technicolored. With Joseph, the family leave the land they had been promised and end up living rather a wealthy life in Egypt.

Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd-Webber knew a good story when they heard one. And I find it helps to read these stories by thinking of myself as a story-teller. You might want to imagine how, at the end of the day, the clan gathers after work around the fire, and the tribe’s poets and story-keepers tell some of the ancestral stories.

The tribe has camped tonight at Bethel as they travel with their flocks in search of good pasture. The elder recites a story about the ancestor Jacob, how he received his new name of Israel, and why therefore he called this place Bethel (which means “house of God”)1. The story tells the tribe something about the place, and reminds them that they too can expect to find God meeting them on their travels. When you read these stories in Genesis, you are reading well-worn and frequently told tales of guidance for the tribes that come to know themselves as the people of God.

Versions of the stories, set in a period that appears to fall roughly between 1800-1500 BC, probably got written down for the first time once Israel acquired a king and a temple. Scribes – i.e. professional writers – typically belong to a royal court or temple establishment. The versions we read today represent the end of several centuries of retelling and editing.

Sometimes, different versions of the same story were valued enough by different story-tellers and editors, that they end up side by side in the final edition. For example, in the main storyline of the great flood, Noah takes two of each kind of animal aboard the ark. The final edition also includes (at the beginning of Genesis 7) a short excerpt from another later tradition. In that version, Noah is told to take seven pairs of clean (ritually acceptable) animals, and one pair of unclean animals into the ark. If you run across something that seems to you like a contradiction or repetition, it probably represents the end result of this process of collecting. The editors would rather have two different versions woven together, both of which they valued, than lose one for the sake of consistency.

It may not be the modern way of editing, but consistency seems to be a modern virtue, not an ancient one. It is when we try to make the stories fit our pre-conceived notions of what they should be like, that we stop appreciating the oral story-telling artistry that has gone into making them. We worry over the detail and miss the meaning. The 19th century American poet and essayist Ralph Waldo Emmerson once wrote: “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.”2 The collectors and editors of the biblical texts were far less bothered by foolish consistencies than some of their modern readers and interpreters.


  1. It’s all there in chapter 35 of Genesis.
  2. Self-Reliance (Essays, First Series)

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