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.

Print this page Print this page

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.

Did you like this article?  MyJewishLearning is a not-for-profit organization.

Please consider making a donation today.

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.