Understanding Genesis | Notes & Review

Posted on September 30, 2011


Nahum Sarna. Understanding Genesis: The World of the Bible in the Light of History. Schocken Books, 1966.


…the very concept of a Canon of Scripture, of a fixed corpus of sacred books, implies a long process of selection and rejection from among a host of candidates. (xvii)

Until the Hellenization of the East, it is extremely unlikely that anyone in the ancient world, outside of the congregation of Israel, had the slightest interest in the Jewish people, its history and literature. …It is nothing short of miraculous that this literature, the product of a small people in  a tiny segment of the ancient world that knew independence for but brief interludes, that possessed no political power and that generally encountered nothing but animosity, should not only have survived, but should have conquered, too. There is one simple explanation. The books of the Hebrew Bible survived because men firmly and fervently believed them to be the inspired word of God, sacred literature. (xix)

…it is beyond doubt that it was not the stamp of canonization that affirmed the holiness of a book; rather the reverse. Sanctity antedated and preconditioned the final act of canonization. (xix)

Excellent new translations into modern English, a deluge of popular works on archaeology, a plethora of encyclopedias, dictionaries, historical atlases, reliable non-technical commentaries of recent vintage, all deprive any literate person of the excuse of ignorance. Only the motivation is lacking. (xx)

This book, the first of a projected series, is designed to make the Bible of Israel intelligible, relevant and, hopefully, inspiring to a sophisticated generation, possessed of intellectual curiosity and ethical sensitivity. (xxii)

Literalism involves a fundamental misconception of the mental processes of biblical man and ignorance of his modes of self-expression. It thus misrepresents the purport of the narrative, obscures the meaningful and enduring in it and destroys its relevancy. (xxiii)

…there must yet remain that elusive, indefinable, essence which lies beyond the scope and ken of the scientific method, and which is meaningful only to the ear that is receptive and attuned. Spiritual insight and sensitivity are as indispensable a scholarly ingredient as a faultless methodology. It is not unreasonable to demand, surely, that an awareness of the existential human predicament be an essential prerequisite for the understanding of the biblical message that addresses itself precisely to this predicament. (xxv)

In actual fact, no advanced cultural or religious tradition has ever existed in a vacuum; it cannot therefore be studied in isolation. (xxvi)

…the culture of Canaan was essentially a mixed one, for its geographic position perforce imparted to it a richly international character that impeded the maintenance of individuality and the development of cultural and religious independence. In view of all this, the discovery of numerous parallels between Israel and her neighbors should hardly occasion surprise and chagrin. (xxvii)

…to ignore subtle differences is to present an unbalanced and untrue perspective and to pervert the scientific method. Accordingly, we have constantly emphasized in this book the importance of difference, and have been at pains to delineate those areas in which Israel parted company with its neighbors. (xxvii)

…but nowhere has monotheism ever been found historically as an outgrowth or development of polytheism. Nowhere else in the contemporary world did it become the regnant idea, obsessive and historically significant. Israel’s monotheism constituted a new creation, a revolution in religion, a sudden transformation. (xxviii)

That Israel, alone of the peoples of Near Eastern antiquity, arrived at such a concept is a phenomenon that cannot be ignored in the scientific study of the Bible. (xxix)

It is as though the accidents of geography, topography and environmental conditions all conspired to produce irresistible centrifugal forces that could not but make for a maximum of ethnic diversity, for the intensification of the rivalry of political and strategic interests, and the interpenetration and interweaving of religions and cultures. (xxix)

CHAPTER I: Creation

Not science; The purpose of the narrative; Enuma Elish; The meaning of myth; The function of Enuma Elish; The function of the Genesis narrative; The biblical Creation account is non-political and non-cultic; The Creation account is non-mythological; Mythology, magic and God’s freedom; “Let there be!”; “Male and female He created them”; Man the pinnacle of Creation; The nature of God; The Sabbath; The cosmic Battle; The Garden of Eden; Cain and Abel.

Not science

Biblical man, despite his undoubted intellectual and spiritual endowments, did not base his views of the universe and its laws on the critical use of empirical data. …Rather, his thinking was imaginative, and his expressions of thought were concrete, pictorial, emotional, and poetic. hence, it is a naive and futile exercise to attempt to reconcile the biblical accounts of creation with the findings of modern science. (2-3)

The literalistic approach serves to direct attention to those aspects of the narrative that reflect the time and place of its composition, while it tends to obscure the elements that are meaningful and enduring, thus distorting the biblical message and destroying its relevancy. (3)

The purpose of the narrative

Whether the Hebrew Genesis account was meant to be science or not, it was certainly meant to convey statements of faith. As will be shown, it is part of the biblical polemic against paganism and an introduction to the religious ideas characteristic of the whole of biblical literature. It tells us something about the nature of the one God who is the Creator and supreme sovereign of the world and whose will is absolute. It asserts that God is outside the realm of nature, which is wholly subservient to Him. he has no myth; that is, there are no stories about any events in His life. Magic plays no part in the worship of Him. The story also tells us something of the nature of man, a God-like creature, uniquely endowed with dignity, honor and infinite worth, into whose hands God has entrusted mastery over His creation. Finally, this narrative tells us something about the biblical concept of reality. It proclaims the essential goodness of life and assumes a universal moral order governing human society. (3)

To be sure, these affirmations are not stated in modern philosophical terms. But, as we have already pointed out, the audience of the biblical writers had its own literary idiom. Therefore, to understand them properly we must not confuse the idiom with the idea, the metaphor with the reality behind it. The two have to be disentangled from each other and the idea conveyed must be translated into the idiom of our own day. (3)

The meaning of myth

Since time immemorial man has used his faculty of detached thinking and his propensity to introspection to reflect upon the nature of the world about him, to wonder about the origin of things and to record in literary form his answers–be they mythical or speculative–to the mysteries of existence. [VIA: “myth” does not equal “fairy tale” or “imagination.”] (6)

A myth may be a vital cultural force. It can be a vehicle for the expression of ideas that activate human behavior, that reflect and validate the distinctive forms and qualities of a civilization, that signify a dynamic attitude to the universe and embody a vision of society. (6)

The function of the Genesis narrative

The theme of creation, important as it is in the Bible, is nevertheless only introductory to what is its central motif, namely, the Exodus from Egypt. God’s acts in history, rather than His role as Creator, are predominant in biblical thought. (8)

“Male and female He created them”

In polytheistic mythologies creation is always expressed in terms of procreation. Apparently, paganism was unable to conceive of any primal creative force other than in terms of sex. (12)

The sabbath

…there are no biblical sources recounting the founding of the weekly sabbath-day. The antiquity of its existence is presupposed in all the legislation and even in the narratives. …There cannot be any doubt that the sabbath belongs to the most ancient of Israel’s sacred days. (19)

The garden of Eden

God does not interrogate the serpent, and the voluble reptile utters not a sound in the presence of the Deity. (26)

The Garden of Eden incident is thus a landmark in the development of the understanding of the nature of man, his predicament and destiny. Man is a free moral agent and this freedom magnifies immeasurably his responsibility for his actions. (27)

In short, we are being told by the Garden of Eden story that evil is a product of human behavior, not a principle inherent in the cosmos. (27)

Cain and Abel

…the story of Cain and Abel must once have existed as an independent, full-bodied tale. (29)

The Bible is thus, in its treatment of the very first recorded act of worship, formulating two basic concepts that characterize the religion of Israel. (29)

…The Bible is expressing one of the most profound, if saddest, truths in the history of religions when it shows how an originally well-intentioned act of divine worship could become the cause of the first murder committed by man. (30)


The biblical account; History or legend? The origins of the Hebrew account; The Mesopotamian provenance of the biblical version; The Mesopotamian flood stories; the Epic of Gilgamesh; The origin of the Mesopotamian stories; The biblical-Mesopotamian parallels; The biblical-Mesopotamian contrasts; The omnipotence of God and the limitations of the gods; The motivation for the Flood; The salvation of the gods; The motivation for the Flood; The salvation of the hero; The moral sin; The mythological contrast; The new creation; The blessing, the covenant, and the rainbow.

History or legend?

Whatever historical foundations may possibly underlie such traditions, it is clear that popular imagination has been at work magnifying local disastrous floods into catastrophes of universal proportions. (38)

The omnipotence of God and the limitations of the gods

In both instances the building of an ark, rather than a ship, is intended to attribute the hero’s deliverance solely to the will of God, and not to any human skill. (49)

The motivation for the Flood

As we emphasized in the previous chapter, the inability to produce a divinely sanctioned, absolute, standard of right and wrong was among the inherent limitations of mythological polytheism. (51)

The moral sin

The story of the Flood, like that of Sodom and Gomorrah, presupposes the existence of a universal moral law governing the world for the infraction of which God, the Supreme Judge, brings men to account. It asserts through the medium of the narrative, that man cannot undermine the moral basis of society without endangering the very existence of civilization. In fact, society, by its own corruption, actually may be said to initiate a process of inevitable retribution. (52)

The mythological contrast

One of the universal beliefs of paganism was that the gods required food and drink to sustain their immortal and supramundane quality (54)

In other words, the Deluge is directly connected with Creation. it is, in fact, the exact reversal of it. …it means that in biblical theology human wickedness, the inhumanity of man to man, undermines the very foundations of society. (55)

The blessing, the covenant, and the rainbow

…the symbol of divine bellicosity and hostility has been transformed into a token of eternal reconciliation between God and Man. (59)

CHAPTER III: The Tower of Babel

Introduction; The ethnological framework; One language; The dispersal of mankind; The rise of idolatry; “Come let us build a city”; “…and a tower”; “Come let us make bricks and burn them hard”; “Brick served them as stone and bitumen served them as mortar”; “With its top in the sky”; “To make a name for ourselves”; The function of the ziqqurat; The anti-pagan polemic.

The ethnological framework

This emphatic reiteration of the common ancestry of post-diluvial men, and the stress upon their national divisions, serves two immediate purposes. it points up the natural, non-magical approach of the Bible to the problem of the rapid increase of humanity after the Flood, and it expresses at the same time the notion that this natural proliferation is in accord with the divine will. For the repeopling of the earth is a matter of great concern to God. (65)

We may conclude, therefore, that the biblical writer accepts ethnic diversity as a natural product of the multiplication of the human species in accordance with the divine blessing and will. But the rise of linguistic diversity and the dispersal of mankind over the face of the globe have to be separately accounted for. This, then, is one of the functions of the “Tower of Babel” narrative. (66)

The dispersal of mankind

The building project was thus a deliberate attempt to thwart the expressed will of God, something that would interfere with the unfolding of the divine scheme of history. It is in this light that the sin of the builders must be viewed and the vexation of God be regarded. (67)

The function of the ziqqurat

The prime motivation of the builders is said to have been the consolidation of the group unity. …The monumental edifice that resulted was a source of pride to every citizen, so that it served the entire community, politically, socially and religiously as an effective, cohesive force. (74)

The ziqqurat was thus a means by which man and god might establish direct contact with each other, and the construction of it would be an expression of the human desire to draw closer to the deity, an act of deep piety and religious fervor on the part of man. (75)

God’s transcendence is absolute and His independence of materiality complete. Not the monumental achievements of human ingenuity, but only the human heart can forge a link with God. (77)

The urbanization of society, the growth of material civilization and the rise of monumental architecture may all, from the Bible’s point of view, involve a retrograde step in man’s spiritual progress. This is a theme that receives its fullest treatment in the prophetic activity of a much later age. But it is highly significant that it appears for the first time at the very inception of Israel’s history. (77)

CHAPTER IV: The Patriarchal Period

The problems of chronology; Number harmony; the source material; The Mesopotamian background–its inconvenience; The religious contrasts: The inter-tribal relationships; The interethnic contrasts; The extrabiblical sources; The family of Shem.

Number harmony

Schematized chronology, the featuring of neatly balanced periods of time, thus constitutes the poetic superstructure, the rhetorical framework for the biblical exposition of certain profound ideas about human events and their inner, deeper, meaning. The patriarchal year numbers inform us, not about the precise passage of time, which is of relatively minor importance, but about the ideas that animate the biblical narrative. If the text has Sarah bearing a child at the age of ninety when she was, as is explicitly stated, beyond the child-bearing stage, it is but a poetic way of describing the emergence of the people of Israel a an extraordinary event. The use of numerical symmetry is Scripture’s way of conveying the conviction that the formative age in Israel’s history was not a series of haphazard incidents, but the beginning of the fulfillment of God’s grand design. Not blind chance, but the hand of God is at work preparing the way for the emergence of the people of Israel. In other words, the patriarchal chronologies constitute paradigmatic, rather than pragmatic history. (84-85)

The source material

The traditions of the Book of Genesis are now acknowledged to be an authentic reflection of the age with which they claim to deal. (85-86)

The Mesopotamian background — its inconvenience

There could not be any conceivable reason either for inventing these traditions or for abruptly discontinuing them at the end of the patriarchal period. They must, therefore, represent an authentic historical situation. (86)

This argument may be strengthened by yet another peculiarity of the narratives. Their foreign origin and associations make Abraham, Isaac and Jacob always strangers and aliens in Canaan. …It is in fact, highly significant that Israel never made conquest or settlement the basis of its rights to its national territory. Its title to the land derived solely from the everlasting validity of the divine promise to the patriarchs. It is this very inexpediency that authenticates the traditions of the Book of Genesis relative to the Mesopotamian origins of Israel. (86-87)

The religious contrasts

Much the same conclusion as to the antiquity of the patriarchal narratives may be derived from the simple fact that they have preserved materials offensive to the later religious consciousness of Israel. (87)

The family of Shem

Of thirty-eight names connected with the patriarchal family, no less than twenty-seven are never found again in the Bible. This fact, alone, makes it highly unlikely that the narratives are products of later inventiveness, and increases the probability that they reflect historic traditions actually derived from patriarchal times. (92)

CHAPTER V: From Mesopotamia to Canaan

The problem of Ur; The divine promise; The descent to Egypt; The wife-sister motif; Affirmation of the promise; The patriarchal wanderings.

The problem of Ur

…the association with Ur must reflect an authentic tradition since it is difficult to find a reason for its invention. (98)

It is no accident that exactly ten generations separate Noah from Adam and that exactly ten more bring us to the birth of Abraham. (100)

The divine promise

It should be noted that the divine blessing, bestowed while Abraham was still in Haran, made no mention of the gift of land. (101)

The promise of nationhood was supplemented by the grant of national territory, two themes that henceforth dominate biblical history and theology. (102)

The wife-sister motif

There was an institution, peculiar it would seem to Hurrian society, which may be described as “wife-sistership.” “Sistership” in Nuzi did not necessarily have anything to do with blood ties, for it could indicate a purely legal status. …In other words, Beltakkadummi enjoyed the dual status of wife-sistership which endowed her with superior privileges and protection, over and above those of an ordinary wife. (103)

CHAPTER VI: The Battle of the Kings

Its antiquity; The invasion route; Abram the Hebrew.

It is now recognized that this entire account is based upon a document of great antiquity. (111)

The insertion of YHWH, therefore, can only be meant to emphasize the identity, not the difference, between the God of Melchizedek and the God of Abraham, known to the people of Israel as YHWH. (117)

CHAPTER VII: The Covenant

The structure of chapter 15; The sequence of thought; Abraham’s heir; The moral rationalization; The form of the covenant; Hagar the concubine; The change of name; Circumcision; The new Abraham.

Each time God allays the doubts of the patriarch He employs and emphasizes a key word of the original question. (120)

It is of interest that neither the age of the patriarch, nor the locale of the event is recorded, contrary to the usual practice. These omissions are most likely deliberate and meant to stress that the divine promises, sealed by a covenant ceremonial, are eternally valid and free of all dependence on time and place. (121)

Abraham’s heir

It is now widely accepted that behind the biblical narrative lies the institution of adoption,… (122)

The form of the covenant

Here again, Scripture made use of existing Near Eastern convention which it adopted for its own purposes. to waht extent this is so may be gauged from the astonishing fact that the covenant completely lacks, as we have pointed out, mutuality. it is a unilateral obligation assumed by God without any reciprocal responsibilities being imposed upon Abraham. The use of established legal forms of treaty-making to express such a situation is a dramatic way of conveying the immutable nature of the divine promise. In a society in which the capriciousness of the gods was taken for granted, the “covenant between the pieces,” like the covenant with Noah, set religion on a bold, new, independent course. (127)

Hagar the concubine

It is stated quite openly that Sarah treated Hagar harshly, as if to leave no doubt as to where the sympathies of Scripture lie, God, as the guardian of the weak and the suffering, reveals Himself to the lowly maidservant bringing her a message of comfort and hope. (129)

The change of name

The name of a man was intimately involved in the very essence of his being and inextricably intertwined with his personality. (129) Conversely, anonymity is equivalent to non-being. (130)

If Isaac, alone, undergoes no change of name, it is only because his was divinely ordained even before birth. In this way Scripture is expressing once again the idea of the God-given destiny of the patriarchs and the notion that the origins and fate of the people of Israel are central to the divine plan of history. It is probably this that accounts for the curious fact that the patriarchal names, as well as the names of the great biblical heroes like Moses, Aaron, David and Solomon, are unique to their bearers, never being attached to any other personage in all of scriptural literature. (131)


The practice of circumcision is widely attested in the ancient world. (131) God is not instituting a totally new and unknown rite, but is adapting and transforming an existing custom. (132)

  1. It is now conceived of as being divinely ordained and as deriving its sanction solely from that fact.
  2. it cannot be abrogated.
  3. the Bible shifted its performance from puberty to the eighth day of birth
  4. the rite has been invested with entirely new and original meaning.

It is described both as a “sign of the covenant” and as a covenant itself. (132)

CHAPTER VIII: Sodom and Gomorrah

The historical background; The nature of the catastrophe; Abraham and the Sodom story; The sin of Sodom; The concept of God; The absence of repentance; The doctrine of merit.

The nature of the catastrophe

Consider this. Abraham, the elect of God, the founder of the people of Israel and proponent of a faith which turned its back upon contemporary religious notions, and to which the conduct of the inhabitants of Sodom was utterly abhorrent, stands before God to plead for the lives of pagans of another race; pagans, what is more, who were to become the eternal symbol of human depravity. He neither rejoices at the downfall of evil, nor adopts an attitude of indifference. He feels a sense of kinship with those human beings of Sodom and a sense of involvement in their fate. In this way, the scriptural narrative has cast the father of the Jewish people in a representative role that foreshadows the later prophetic conviction of the destiny of Israel among the nations. (143)

The sin of Sodom

The “outcry” of Sodom, then, implies, above all, heinous moral and social corruption, an arrogant disregard of elementary human rights, a cynical insensitivity to the sufferings of others. (cf. Ezekiel 16:49-50)

The idea that there is an intimate, in fact, inextricable, connection between the socio-moral condition of a people and its ultimate fate is one of the main pillars upon which stands the entire biblical interpretation of history. (146)

The doctrine of merit

The patriarch had established the principle that the wrathful judgment of God could be averted through the merit of an innocent nucleus; so God delivered Lot from the catastrophe through the merit of Abraham. This “doctrine of merit” is a not infrequent theme in the Bible and constitutes the first of many such incidents in which the righteousness of chosen individuals may sustain other individuals or even an entire group through its protective power. (150)

The Sodom and Gomorrah saga is, accordingly, the precursor of this biblical “doctrine of merit,” a doctrine that has profound consequences for man, for it implies that the individual is of supreme importance and that from his actions may flow beneficial consequences for all society. (151)

CHAPTER IX: The Birth of Isaac and the Akedah

The expulsion of Hagar and Ishmael; The binding of Isaac; Human sacrifice in the ancient Near East; The ancient nucleus; The Akedah and the call at Haran; The shift of emphasis; The trial of faith.

Human sacrifice int he ancient Near East

…by the second millennium B.C.E., the age of the patriarchs, it had long been accepted that animal offering was, in normal circumstances, a perfectly satisfactory surrogate. …Canaan, however, seems to have been something of an exception in this respect. (158)

The ancient nucleus

All this is in such glaring contradiction to the Torah legislation and prophetic teaching that the conclusion is inescapable that the core of the Akedah narrative must belong to the earliest strata of Israelite traditions, containing echoes of a dim past and reflecting a popular, unofficial, notion of religion. (159)

The Akedah and the call at Haran

The Torah, then, has used the ancient Akedah tale to encase the account of the spiritual odyssey of Abraham within a literary framework, opening and closing with divine communications that involve agonizing decisions carried to completion with unflinching loyalty, and culminating in promises of a glorious posterity. (161)

In other words, the Akedah in its final form is not an attempt to combat existing practice, but is itself a product of a religious attitude that recoils naturally from associating God with human sacrifice and which felt the need to explain the ancient tradition as an unprecedented and unrepeatable event, as a test of faith. …That God rejected the practice as utterly abhorrent was taken for granted. (162)

The trial of faith

…the value of an act may lie as much in the inward intention of the doer as in the final execution. …Tradition has rightly seen in Abraham the exemplar of steadfast, disinterested loyalty to God. (163)

CHAPTER X: Winding Up Affairs

A resident-alien; The Hittites; The negotiations; The purposes of the story; A wife for Isaac; The oath; The aspect of faith; The symbol of Isaac; The role of providence; The wifely virtues; Laban; Marriage by consent; The genealogical framework.

CHAPTER XI: Jacob and Esau

The birth of the twins; The moral issue; The importance of the birthright; The transference of the birthright; The oral testament.

…there is every reason to believe that Jacob’s dealings with Esau and his father represent a stage of morality in which the successful application of shrewd opportunism was highly respected. (188)

CHAPTER XII: Jacob and Laban

The vision at Bethel; Jacob in Laban’s household; The tribes; Jacob’s escape; Jacob across Jabbok.

The vision at Bethel

The details of the scriptural narrative reveal a subtle and deliberate rejection of pagan notions even as they employ their idiom. (193)

In sum: the biblical narrative ignores the non-Israelite sacred history of Bethel, inferentially dissociates itself from all pagan connections, and recasts events and motifs in the light of Israelite concepts. (194)

The tribes

The phenomenon we are here discussing is unique to the Bible in the literature of the ancient world. No other people, as far is is known, had a genealogical concept of history. …In biblical historiography, on the other hand, a pedigree became the literary form through which ethnic origins and groupings are described. (197)

In other words, tribal relationships are treated as family relationships and are expressed in terms of such, by being reconstructed into genealogies. (198)

Jacob across Jabbok

The thigh, being regarded as the seat of the reproductive powers, would acquire an especially sacral character. But none of these reasons is given in the biblical account. Instead, an “historic” explanation is produced, so that the practice commemorates an event of epochal importance in the life of the patriarch. (206)

Is it not remarkable that Jacob’s nocturnal encounter with the angel and the change of name to Israel should occur precisely at the moment he crosses the boundary into the first territory of the promised land to be occupied in the future by the people of Israel? (206)


“A coat of many colors”; The dreams; The sale into slavery; In Potiphar’s house; The interpretation of dreams; The seven-year famine; Joseph’s elevation; The reconciliation; The settlement in Goshen; The nationalization of land; The death of Jacob and Joseph.

The miraculous or supernatural element is conspicuously absent. …God never intervenes openly and directly in Joseph’s life as He does with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. (211)

The dreams

In each experience the theophany is straightforward and the message perfectly clear. This is not the case with Joseph’s dreams, nor with those of the butler and the baker and Pharaoh. Here, the symbol, not the words, is the language of intelligence, nad the dream is therefore enigmatic. Against this background, it is not to be wondered at that dreams are frequently productive of anxiety. To be ignorant of the true meaning is to be deprived of knowledge that might well be vital to one’s welfare. Notice how in each of the cryptic dreams God does not figure explicitly in the content. Yet it is tacitly accepted that He is the ultimate source of the message being conveyed. This does not mean that the ancients did not recognize such a thing as an idle dream. They did; and that is why dreams in the Joseph biography always come in pairs, to prove their seriousness. (213)

In Potiphar’s house

Probably nothing is more indicative of the wide chasm separating Israel from its neighbors than the line of argument used by Joseph in rejecting the repeated entreaties of the would-be adultress. (217)

The interpretation of dreams

Why Potiphar chose to incarcerate Joseph instead of executing him, as might have been expected, we can never know. (217)

The settlement in Goshen

This divine communication serves the purpose of transforming the descent to Egypt from a family visit into an event of national significance, which has its preordained place in God’s scheme of things. (224)

— VIA —

There are many more treasures to be mined. The above are just the “highlights of the highlights.”

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