Nahum Sarna, gen. ed. The JPS Torah Commentary: Genesis, בראשית. Jewish Publication Society, 1989. (414 pages)
I’ve been wanting to write my notes and reviews on the JPS Commentaries for a while. But I’ll be honest, that is a daunting task. So, beginning this night, I’ll begin to post the TOCs of each edition, and over time and study add the notes and personal comments when feasible.
THE COMMENTARY TO GENESIS
The Title | In rabbinic sources, this name is sometimes expanded to Sefer Bereshit (The Book of Bereshit). The practice of naming a book by its opening word or words was widespread in the ANE (Ancient Near East). Occasionally, other titles were current among Jews, such as Sefer ha-Yashar (The Book of the Upright), which refers to the patriarchs, whose lives inform the bulk of the work. Still another title, found in medieval manuscripts is Sefer Beri’at ha-‘Olam (The Book of the Creation of the World).
The Lectionary Divisions | Though there are 50 chapters today, this system was borrowed from the Christian Bibles by Rabbi Solomon ben Ishmael (ca.133) during a time of medieval religious polemics. The Christian-Jewish debates, which often focused upon the interpretation of scriptural passages, necessitated a common, standardized system of reference. In Palestine and Egypt, the readings were usually completed in triennial, or three-year, cycles. Genesis was variously divided into forty-three or forty-five such sedarim. Eventually, the Babylonian practice of completing the reading of the entire Torah in one year became universal. In this system, Genesis was completed in twelve weeks, each division being known as a parashah.
The Contents and Role of Genesis | There are three main subject units, presented chronologically: a description of Creation (1:1-2:3); the emergence, development, and degeneration of the human race (2:4-11:26); and (in the bulk of the book) the account of the lives of the founding fathers of the people of Israel (11:27-50:26). In its entirety the book claims to cover a time span of 2,309 years, a figure that is computed from the data found in the narratives and the genealogies in the traditional Hebrew text. It offers a rapid sketch of 1,948 years of universal human history, from Adam to the birth of Abraham, with the remaining 361 years to the death of Joseph comprising the bulk of the work. Put otherwise: Nearly 80 percent of the contents of Genesis is devoted to about 17 percent of the time span that is covered.
The imbalance is there by design. The theme of Creation, important as it is, serves merely as an introduction to the book’s central motif: God’s role in history. The opening chapters are a prologue to the historical drama that begins in chapter 12. In other words,
in order to understand the divinely ordained history and destiny of Israel, the nature of God, the nature of humankind created by God, and the relationships between the two–the entire Hebrew Bible is both God-centered and Israel-centered–one must look back to the beginning of things.