Reading Genesis as a Book

The story of the family that will become the people of Israel is seen as the focus of a larger, universal history.

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The following article is reprinted from Genesis: Translation and Commentary, with the permission of  W.W. Norton.

Genesis comprises two large literary units--the Primeval History (chapters 1-11) and the Patriarchal Tales (chapters 12-50). The two differ not only in subject but to some extent in style and perspective.

The approach to the history of Israel and Israel's relationship with God that will be the material of the rest of the Hebrew Bible is undertaken through gradually narrowing concentric circles: first an account of the origins of the world, of the vegetable and animal king­dom and of humankind, then a narrative explanation of the origins of all the known peoples, from Greece to Africa to Mesopotamia and Asia Minor, and of the primary institutions of civilization, including the memorable fable about the source of linguistic division.

National History against the Backdrop of Universal Origins

The Mesopotamian family of Terah is introduced at the end of this universal history in chapter 11, and then when God calls Abraham out of Ur of the Chaldees at the beginning of chapter 12, we move on to the story of the beginnings of the Israelite nation, though the national focus of the narrative is given moral depth because the universal perspective of the first part of Genesis is never really forgotten.

reading genesis as a bookSome critics have plausibly imagined this whole large process of biblical literature as a divine experiment with the quirky and unpredictable stuff of human freedom, an experiment plagued by repeated failure and dedicated to renewed attempts: first Adam and Eve, then the generation of Noah, then the builders of the Tower of Babel, and finally Abraham and his seed.

Although the Creation story with which the Primeval History begins does look forward to the proliferation of humanity and the human conquest of the natural world, by and large the first 11 chapters of Genesis are concerned with origins, not eventualities--with the past, not the future: "He was the first of all who play on the lyre and pipe" (4:21), the narrator says of Jubal, one of the antediluvians [people who lived before the Flood]. The literal phrasing of the Hebrew here, as in a series of analo­gous verses, is "he was the father of. . .” That idiom is emblematic of the Primeval History, which is really a record of the archetypal fathers. a genealogy of human institutions and of ethnic and linguistic identity.

Contrasting Views and Styles

Although the Patriarchal Tales are in one obvious way also the story of a chain of fathers--Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob--the horizon these tales constantly invoke is the future, not the past. God repeatedly tells Abraham what He intends to do with and for the offspring of Abraham in time to come.

Both in the impending near future of Egyptian enslavement and in the long-term future of national greatness. It is perfectly apt that the Patriarchal Tales should conclude with Jacobs deathbed poem envisaging the destiny of the future tribes of Israel, which he prefaces with the words, "Gather round, that I may tellyouwhat shall befall you in the days to come" (49:1).

The Primeval History, in contrast to what follows in Genesis, cultivates a kind of narrative that is fablelike or legendary and sometimes residually mythic. The human actors in these stories are kept at a certain distance, and seem more generalized types than individual characters with distinctive personal histories. The style tends much more than that of the Patriarchal Tales to formal symmetries, refrainlike repetitions, parallelisms, and other rhetorical devices of a prose that often aspires to the dignity of poetry, or that invites us to hear the echo of epic poetry in its cadences.

Dialogue and the Patriarchal Tales

As everywhere in biblical narrative, dialogue is an important vehicle, but in the Primeval History it does not have the central role it will play later, and one finds few of the touches of vivid mimesis that make dialogue in the Patriarchal Tales so brilliant an instrument for the representation of human--and human and divine--interactions. In sum, this rapid report of the dis­tant early stages of the human story adopts something of a distancing procedure in the style and the narrative modes with which it tells the story.

God's very first words to Abraham at the beginning of chapter 12 enjoin him to abandon land, birthplace, and father's house. These very terms, or at least this very sphere, will become the arena of the narra­tive to the end of Genesis.

The human creature is now to be repre­sented not against the background of the heavens and the earth and civilization as such, but rather within the tense and constricted theater of the paternal domain, in tent and wheatfield and sheepfold, in the minute rhythms of quotidian existence, working out all hopes of grand destiny in the coil of familial relationships, the internecine, sometimes deadly, warring of brothers and fathers and sons and wives.

A Shift in Narrative Style

In keeping with this major shift in focus from the Primeval History to the Patriar­chal Tales, style and narrative mode shift as well. The studied formal­ity of the first 11 chapters--epitomized in the symmetries and the intricate repetition of word and sound in the story of the Tower of Babel--gives way to a more flexible and varied prose. Dialogue is accorded more prominence and embodies a more lively realism.

When, for example, Sarai gives Abram her slave-girl Hagar as a concu­bine, and the proudly pregnant Hagar then treats her with disdain, the matriarch berates her husband in the following fashion: "This outrage against me is because of you! I myself put my slavegirl in your embrace and when she saw she had conceived, I became slight in her eyes" (16:5). Sarai's first sentence here has an explosive compactness in the Hebrew, being only two words, hamasi 'alekha, that resists translation.

In any case, these lines smoldering with the fires of female resentment convey a sense of living speech and complexity of feeling and relation­ship one does not encounter before the Patriarchal Tales: the frus­trated long-barren wife at cross-purposes with herself and with her husband, first aspiring to maternity through the surrogate of her slave-girl, then after the fact of her new co-wife's pregnancy, tasting a new humiliation, indignant at the slave s presumption, ready to blame her husband, who has been only the instrument of her will.

Such vivid immediacy in the representation of the densely problematic nature of individual lives in everyday settings is an innovation not only in comparison with the Primeval History but also in comparison with virtually all of ancient literature.

The Relationship between the Two Stories

What nevertheless strongly binds the two large units of the Book of Genesis is both outlook and theme. The unfolding history of the family that is to become the people of Israel is seen, as I have suggested, as the crucial focus of a larger, universal history. The very peregrinations of the family back and forth between Mesopotamia and Canaan and down to Egypt intimate that its scope involves not just the land Israel has been promised but the wider reach of known cultures.

National existence, moreover, is emphatically imagined as a strenuous effort to renew the act of creation. The Creation story repeatedly highlights the injunction to be fruitful and multiply while the Patriarchal Tales, in the very process of frequently echoing this language of fertility from the opening chapters, make clear that procreation, far from being an automatic biological process, is fraught with dangers, is constantly under the threat of being deflected or cut off.

Abraham must live long years with the seeming mockery of a divine promise of numberless offspring as he and his wife advance childless into hoary old age. Near the end of the book, Jacob's whole family fears it may perish in the great famine, and Joseph must assure his brothers that God has sent him ahead of them to Egypt in order to sustain life.

A Complete Story--With a Sequel

Genesis begins with the making of heaven and earth and all life, and ends with the image of a mummy--Joseph's--in a coffin. But implicit in the end is a promise of more life to come, of irrepressible procreation, and that renewal of creation will be manifested, even under the weight of oppression, at the beginning of Exodus.

Genesis, then, works with disparate materials, puts together its story with two large and very different building blocks, but nevertheless achieves the cohesiveness, the continuity of theme and motif, and the sense of completion of an archetectonically conceived book. Although it looks forward to its sequel, it stands as a book, inviting our attention as an audience that follows the tale from beginning to end.

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Robert Alter

Robert Alter is the Class of 1937 Professor of Hebrew and Comparative Literature at the University of California at Berkeley, where he has taught since 1967.