JPS Torah Commentary: Genesis בראשית | Notes & Review

Posted on May 20, 2010


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 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.

Creation (3)

Eden and the Expulsion: The Human Condition (16)

Reality Outside Eden (30)

The Book of Genealogies (40)

Noah and the Flood (47)

Epilogue: The Regeneration and Reordering of Society (60)

The Depravity of Canaan (63)

The Table of Nations (67)

The Tower of Babel (80)

From Shem to Abraham: Transition to the Patriarchs (84)

God’s Election of Abraham (88)

Abram’s Rescue of Lot (101)

The covenant Between the Pieces (111)

Sarah, Hagar, and the Birth of Ishmael (118)

The COvenant in the FLesh (122)

The Character of Abraham; the Nature of God (128)

The Destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah (134)

Abraham, Sarah, and Abimelech (140)

The Akedah: The Binding of Isaac (150)

The Offspring of Nahor (154)

The Cave of Machpelah (156)

The Betrothal of Isaac (161)

The Genealogies of Abraham (170)

Isaac, Father of Two Nations (177)

The Adventures of Isaac (183)

Jacob Purloins the Blessing (189)

Jacob’s Encounter with God (197)

Jacob’s Marriages (201)

The Birth of Jacob’s Children (206)

Jacob and Laban: The Finale (213)

HJacob and Esau Once Again (223)

Reunion and Return (229)

The Ravishing of Dinah (233)

The Bethel Tradition (239)

Family Affairs (243)

The Line of Esau (246)

Prologue to the Joseph Story (254)

Judah and Tamar (263)

Joseph in Potiphar’s Household (271)

Joseph in Prison (276)

Joseph’s Liberation and Rise to Power (280)

Joseph and His Brothers–Once Again (291)

The Second Journey to Egypt (297)

The Brothers’ Last Trial (303)

The Reconciliation (308)

The Migration to Egypt (312)

Joseph’s Agrarian Policies (320)

Jacob Prepares for Death (323)

The Testament of Jacob (331)

Mourning and Burial (347)

Joseph and His Brothers: The Finale (349)


1. The Cherubim (375)

2. The Chronology of the Flood (376)

3. The Noachide Commandments (376)

4. “Abram the Hebrew” (377)

5. Pidyon Shevuyim: “Redemption of Captives” (379)

6. Melchizedek (380)

7. ‘El ‘Elyon (381)

8. “Creator of Heaven and Earth” (382)

9. Ben Meshek-Dammesek ‘Eli’ezer (382)

10. Angelology (383)

11. ‘El Shaddai (384)

12. Circumcision (385)

13. The Cities of the Plain (387)

14. Beer-sheba (389)

15. The Land of the Philistines (390)

16. The Land of Moriah (391)

17. The Meaning of the Akedah (392)

18. The Akedah in Jewish Tradition (393)

19. The Hittites of Hebron (395)

20. “God of the Father” (396)

21. Jacob: The Moral Issue (397)

22. Bethel (398)

23. The Twelve Sons and the Twelve Tribes (400)

24. Jacob’s Struggle with the Angel (403)

25. The Name “Israel” (404)

26. Shechem (405)

27. Ephrath, Rachel’s Tomb, and Migdal-eder (407)

28. The Edomite King List (408)

29. Joseph and Potiphar’s Wife (410)

30. The Genealogical Lists (411)