Book of Genesis Summary
What's bigger, pound for pound: your phone book, your dictionary, or your Bible? Chances are your Bible stands a chance. It's pretty thick and scary-looking. But the good news is that Genesis is the easiest needle to find in this giant haystack because it's the very first book of the whole thing.
The stories in Genesis can be best understood in two parts, Oreo cookie style. The first part is the prequel. It's about the origin of everything from why snakes slither on their bellies to why people speak different languages to how Superman found himself on earth. Okay, not that last one.
The second part zooms in and is more narrowly focused on one family's long saga. A guy named Abraham is the Big Daddy of this clan, and we read all about what four generations of his descendants did after him. Seems basic enough, right? Well, it's pretty complex. There will be more names and locations in Genesis than in a Russian novel.
The first eleven chapters of Genesis are like a combination of creation myth, the Star Wars crawl, and a TV miniseries. Here's how it goes down:
- God creates the cosmos and humanity (twice, actually).
- Adam and Eve, the first humans, make cataclysmic (bad or good?) choices and get booted from the Garden of Eden.
- Their son Cain kills their other son Abel.
- Civilization at large becomes wicked. The bad kind.
- Noah, his family, and a numerically select group of animals are spared from a massive flood in order to restart creation.
- God "confuses" human speech by turning their one language into many, then scatters all people throughout the world. All because humanity tried to build a tower into the heavens. Silly humans, Trix are for kids.
That's a lot for eleven chapters.
The rest of the book of Genesis (12:1-50:26) is a reality TV-style family saga told in old-fashioned biblical prose. The stories are generally about the patriarchs of the family (think Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob), but women like as Sarah, Rebekah, Leah, and Rachel will get in on the action, too.
Here are the deets:
- The deity sends Abraham to Canaan.
- The deity cuts two important deals with Abraham (Genesis 15, 17) promising a thriving lineage and land, meaning lots of kids and a place to put them for generations.
- Put very shortly, Abraham has two sons, Ishmael via Hagar and Isaac via Sarah. Isaac is much more important, even though he's the second born.
- Hospitality norms are breached by the male inhabitants in Sodom and Gomorrah. They try to rape the visitors. Result? God destroys the cities.
- Abraham rejects and expels Hagar and Ishmael into the wilderness.
- Abraham almost sacrifices Isaac at God's command.
- Isaac marries Rebekah, and they have twins: Esau the firstborn, then Jacob.
- Jacob, by aid of his mother, finagles his twin brother Esau's birthright.
- Jacob acquires two brides, Leah and Rachel, by working for his uncle Laban. He has twelve sons and one daughter.
- The girl gets raped and her brothers wipe out a whole village in vengeance.
- Jacob's son Joseph is sold into slavery by his older brothers. Not cool.
- Sidebar: Tamar dupes her father-in-law Judah into having sex with her and getting her pregnant.
- As a slave in Egypt, Joseph gets sexually harassed and then wrongfully accused of sexual assault. He's thrown in prison.
- Joseph interprets Pharaoh's dreams and goes from prisoner to CFO of Egypt in one day.
- A famine brings Joseph's brothers to Egypt.
- Joseph concocts a clever way to reveal himself to his brothers and gets some revenge on them for selling him into slavery by making them wiggle and worry.
- Jacob and his family move to Egypt, where Jacob blesses Joseph's son and shares his final words with his sons.
- Jacob dies. Joseph makes up with his brothers, and then he dies, too.
We know. This is an absurd amount of information. It can be like getting caught up on all the family gossip over the holidays or sitting through an episode of Gossip Girl. And you know what? We love Gossip Girl.
The Opening Line Isn't "In the Beginning..." for Nothing
- This is the first creation story. God creates, establishes, and puts everything into motion, and then rests. And he does it all in seven days. Not bad for a week's work.
- You lovers of trivia will want to note the not-so-trivial fact that the Hebrew word for God used throughout this story of creation is 'elohim. Typically, the LORD (in all capital letters) is reserved as a translation for YHWH, which is God's proper name.
- Before creation, God's breath is hovering over a "formless void" (1:2 NRSV) or in Hebrew, tohu wabohu, which are two words that denote pure emptiness, blankness, and in some contexts, even futility and meaninglessness.
- On day one, God first separates light from darkness.
- On day two, God creates the Heavens or the Sky as well as the oceans by fastening a huge wedge between them.
- How would you draw that?
- On day three, God herds all of the water into one place so that there can appear dry land as well as everything else that comes with fertile soil, such as trees, plants, seeds, and all kinds of vegetation.
- The first three days set the pattern for what turns out to be a highly repetitive and very well-structured story.
- Key ingredients for each day of creation include: (1) God's declaration of what is about to be created, (2) its successful completion, and (3) God's own review of the handiwork, which God thinks is fabulous.
- God is usually pretty impressed with himself, for several times "he saw that it was good" (1:10, 12, 18, 21, 25, 31)—not to brag or anything.
- On day four, God orders the lights in the sky, the stars, sun, and moon. These make it possible to keep track of time so that the sacred calendar is built into very fibers of creation itself.
- On day five, God generates creatures of the sea and air, including "the great sea monsters." Nessie?
- God commands the creatures to "be fruitful and multiply" (1: 22). Translation: the animals are supposed to have lots of babies.
- On day six, God creates the land creatures, cattle, crawling things, wild animals, and humankind.
- Notice that in the first creation account, God creates "humankind" (1:26-27 NRSV). The KJV's "God created man" (1:26-27) is misleading.
- The first creation story assumes that women are created at this point as well. How else are they supposed to be fruitful and multiply?
- Why is God speaking in the plural in 1:26 ("let us […] our")? Is God the top dog in a court of many otherworldly beings, or what?
- God grants humankind "dominion" (1:28) over the sea, air, and land creatures. "Dominion" means not only that they will rule all of this, but also that they are responsible for taking care of it. That's a nod to all of you lovely Tree Huggers out there.
- God commands humanity to "be fruitful and multiply" (1:28). Again, more babies.
- On day seven, God's so pleased with all that he's made that he decides to take a rest.
- The seventh day is set apart as unique and holy. Go and check out Exodus 20:8-11, where God's rest after creation is cited as a precedent for the command to keep the Sabbath.
Chapters 2:4b – 2:25
- Now God starts creating again. Didn't he already do all of this? Well yes, but here follows a very different account of creation.
- It's like watching the old Batman and then the new Batman back to back.
- It's a good idea to compare the details and themes of the two versions, both for similarities and differences. Get started by noting that the second story lacks the grand structuring principles of the first. There's none of this first-day-second-day-let-there-be stuff.
- FYI, the deity's name is slightly different here than in the first account of creation. Instead of the name God ('elohim in Hebrew) you will find the name Lord God (YHWH 'elohim in Hebrew).
- Using the name Lord God is a very personal way of referring to the deity. It's kind of like his private nickname.
- This account starts with the earth and heavens already in place. There are just no shrubs or plants yet.
- There's no rain or humans to do all the work yet either.
- With no rain, the water's got to boil up from below to saturate the soil. Weird.
- The deity forms a "man from the dust of the ground" (2:7). If you look closely, there's a cool pun in the Hebrew. The word for "man" is 'adam and the word for "ground" is 'adamah. Aha.
- The deity breathes life into the man's nostrils. Don't try that at home.
- Then he plants a garden in Eden and puts the man there.
- Every luscious and beautiful tree grows in the garden at God's command, including "the tree of life" and "the tree of the knowledge of good and evil" (2:9).
- Eden is watered by a river, and the river divides into branches named (1) Pishon, which goes through Havilah (where there's gold), (2) Gihon, which winds its way through Cush, (3) Tigris, which runs to the east of Ashur, and (4) Euphrates.
- The man is supposed to take care of the garden.
- God lays down some ground rules for the man. He's not allowed to eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. If he does, he'll have to become a being who dies. (You probably know how this one ends).
- God decides to find a suitable partner for this poor lonely guy. He'll need a "help meet" (2:18 KJV), whatever that is, or (even better) a "helper" (NRSV). Robert Altar translates the difficult Hebrew a "sustainer beside him." Take your pick.
- God creates a bunch of animals of all kinds.
- The man gets to name all the creatures, "dog, turkey, cow," but none of the creatures are suitable mates. We sure are glad about that.
- Next up, the deity puts the man under with a heavy dosage of divine anesthetic and removes a rib from his side to create the woman.
- God presents the handiwork to the man, and he's glad to see her. He names her woman (Hebrew: 'ishah) because she was taken from man (Hebrew: 'ish).
- And that's why people get married—to become "one flesh."
- The husband and wife are buck naked, even after their honeymoon, and they don't have a problem with that. Nice.
- So, yes, this is very different from the first creation account. There was definitely nothing about nudity in the first story.
Getting the Boot
- A cunning serpent decides to probe the woman's knowledge of God's very first and only command (2:16-17).
- She knows the law pretty well, and quotes it more or less verbatim, but she does add that they're not allowed even to touch the tree (3:3). This stipulation is absent from God's statement of the rule (2:16-17).
- The serpent and the woman are the first to engage in Bible study as they probe and debate the meaning of God's rule and its possible ambivalence.
- The serpent insists that the woman will not die if she eats, but will know good and evil, and this will make her god-like.
- The woman eats the fruit, which looks to her about as yummy as pizza looks to starving teenage boys. Be careful, Shmoopers: it's not an apple, just an unknown type of fruit. The apple's a later elaboration.
- She shares with her husband. Like ya do.
- Their eyes are opened and they realize they're naked (recall 2:25). It's kind of like one of those dreams where you're giving a speech before class and suddenly you realize that you're in your underwear.
- That leads them to implement the very first act of culture: making clothes. From fig leaves.
- They hear the deity enjoying an evening walk in the garden.
- Wait, what?! God is walking?
- This is a very (big word alert) anthropomorphic image of the YHWH 'elohim (i.e., Lord God). That just means that God is imagined as doing things humans do. Like walk.
- The man and woman hide from the deity because they totally know they messed up.
- The deity calls out to the man: "Where art thou?" (3:9 KJV). They're not very good at playing hide and seek.
- The man fesses up, "I heard the sound of you in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked; and I hid myself" (3:10 NRSV).
- The Lord God interrogates the couple using one of those great rhetorical tactics that parents love to use. You ate from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, didn't you?
- The man blames the woman for giving him the fruit.
- The man dares to implicate God as well, as is clear from the way he phrases his response: "the woman whom you gave to be with me" is the one who gave him the fruit.
- The lady follows suit and blames the serpent.
- Everyone gets punished by the Lord God. Womp womp.
- The serpent has to crawl and eat every creature's dust. People will stomp on serpents, who will in turn bite them in the heel. They were scared of snakes back then, too.
- The woman has to bear kids, which will hurt a lot. Plus, the man will rule over her.
- Notice how it's the woman who's responsible for knowledge and the dawn of human culture. Those are good things, right? Without the woman who ate from the tree, there'd be no knowledge—no Shmoop—and we'd all be running around naked. But we're living in a post-feminist world, we know.
- The man has to farm soil that's not very fertile. He'll have to sweat, and then when it's all said and done, he'll die and return to the very dust from which he came.
- The man names the woman "Eve" (in Hebrew: hawah), which sounds like the word for "life" (hayah). She's the primal mother, after all. Perhaps this is a little hope after God's severe punishments.
- The deity offers the two some nicer clothes.
- He worries that the man might eat from the tree of life now and live forever. He's already become god-like in his knowledge of good and evil.
- Big question: who is God talking to in 3:22? Who's the "us"? Other gods maybe? Check out 1:27 for more of this "us"-business.
- Just to be safe, God kicks the man and Eve out of Eden and appoints the Cherubim as otherworldly bouncers.
- God also sets up a flaming and whirling sword. No one's going to get to the tree of life, that's for sure.
Cain Whacks His Bro
- Next up, the man "knew" his wife. That's a nice way of saying they did it, which is a nice way of saying they had sex. The English translation, "knew," reflects the fact that the Hebrew uses this euphemism, too.
First born: Cain. His name in Hebrew (qayin) sounds like qanah, which the NRSV translates as "produced" (4:1).
- Second born: Abel, a herdsman of sheep. Cain, on the other hand, is a farmer like his father.
- Cain offers part of his harvest to God, and Abel offers the first born livestock. Both offerings are very choice, but the Lord likes the livestock better. The deity's not a vegetarian, after all, and would rather have a burger than some lettuce.
- Cain gets wicked jealous, and the Lord chides him for it in the very cryptic words of ancient poetry.
- Solution? Cain lures Abel out to a field and kills him.
- The Lord asks Cain, "Where is Abel your brother?" (4:9 NRSV). Sounds similar to the question to Adam in 3:9, right?
- Cain claims not to know—he's not his brother's guardian, after all. The words are ironic, since we all know exactly what just went down.
- It turns out God knows, too, because Abel's blood is crying out to him. Yep, his blood seeped right into the soil, and that soil will no longer produce for Cain. That's bad news for a farmer, that's for sure.
- For more punishment, Cain will wander restlessly all over the earth. Looks like he's being driven away just like his father was.
- In general, there are many similarities between 4:1-15 and 3:8-24. We dare you to find 'em all.
- Cain complains that he just can't take this punishment. He'll have to hide from God's presence, and whoever finds him will kill him. Hmmm… why?
- God heeds Cain's worries and declares that whoever kills him will be sorry.
- The deity places a mark on Cain, which is supposed to protect him. Kind of like a holy tattoo.
- Cain wanders his way to Nod, which is "east of Eden" (4:16). Sound familiar? That's because Steinbeck had his way with these words, too.
- All of the sudden, Cain marries (does this contradict 4:12?) and has a son named Enoch.
- Then he builds a city, which he names Enoch, after his son. Sigh—we pine for the days of Shmoopville.
- Cain's great-great-great grandson's name is Lamech, and with two wives, he's the world's first polygamist.
- Among Cain's descendants are several overachievers: Jabal's the first to dwell in tents with livestock; Jubal's the first musician. Civilization is advancing big-time.
- Lamech (Remember him from 4:18-19?) recites to his wives a cryptic warrior-poem in which he brags that he killed a guy and a boy for wounding him. Sure, Cain will be avenged badly (see 4:15), but Lamech will avenge himself with even more destruction.
- Adam and Eve are still going at it, and God "appoints" (Hebrew: shat) for Eve a third son named Seth (Hebrew: shet), who's a replacement for Abel. Pssst, Eve: don't tell Seth that. It might mess him up.
- Seth has a son named Enosh.
- Oh, and one last thing: this is about the time when people start calling the deity by his nickname, the Lord (in Hebrew YHWH).
A Bunch of Begats
- This chapter is about people makin' babies. Looks like everyone's obeying God's command to "be fruitful and multiply" (1:28).
- The narrator starts by summarizing the creation of humankind. The summary is consistent in language with the first creation story (compare 1:26-28), and we are also back to God (Hebrew: 'elohim) as the name for the deity as in 1:1-2:4.
- The genealogy is pretty formulaic and repetitive. The basic recurrent elements include: (1) how long each figure lives before bearing a son; (2) the name of the son; (3) how long each figure lives after bearing a son; (3) the fact of their death; (4) the total number of years for their life. Ta da!
- These pre-flood figures are notably very old when they die. They usually fall just short of one thousand years.
- Yep, that's 1,000 years.
- FYI, there's no textual indication that years are being counted differently than normal. The bare fact is that these figures of the primordial age had a much longer lifespan than subsequent characters in the story do. Maybe we should be thinking of these guys as semi-divine, larger-than-life heroes of old.
- Departures from the typical genealogical formulas are very significant, and we get two of them.
- The first has to do with Enoch: "Enoch walked with God; then he was no more, because God took him" (5:24 NRSV). Hmmm, where did God take him?
- In later Jewish literature, Enoch returns and reveals all the secrets of heaven and the future. Nifty.
- The second departure from genealogical formula is with Noah, whose name sounds like the Hebrew word for "console" (nahem). Noah's is five hundred years old when he begets Shem, Ham, and Japheth.
- Sorry, we just wanted to say beget one more time.
The Nephilim or Giants
- Boy would Noah have a killer college admissions essay.
- We all know the story of the flood, but sometimes we overlook the little prequel.
- Ready? Go. The "sons of God" think that human females are hot tickets. We've been suspecting that God's not alone (remember the plurals of 1:26 and 3:22), and now other divine beings play an active role in the story.
- Take a time out to join us in recognizing that some of these archaic strands within the Hebrew Bible reveal a degree of—big word alert!—"polytheism," that is, the acceptance of several deities, opposed to "monotheism" or the affirmation that God is singular.
- So these sons of God start marrying these ladies. Greek myth is full of gods like Zeus who fall in love with mortal women, so this isn't out of the ordinary.
- In response, God decides to limit the lifespan of mortals to a mere 120 years. Here again the Hebrew is back to God's nickname YHWH (the Lord).
- The gods make it with their mortal brides, and they give birth to the "Nephilim" (6:4 NRSV), who are part-divine beings who walked the earth in pre-flood times. Nephilim is more or less a straight transliteration of the Hebrew word, which literally means "fallen" (without the connotations of the Christian concept of "the fall").
- In a vestige of ancient Hebrew myth, the narrator simply says of these fellows that they "were the heroes that were of old, warriors of renown" (6:4 NRSV).
Chapters 6:5 - 9:17
Surfs Up, Noah
- It's not long before God recognizes that human beings are always bent on doing evil.
- He's sorry he started this whole human thing, and he feels grief. Here are some more anthropomorphic ideas about God (rewind to 3:8).
- What else can the deity do but wipe out humanity and every other created creature? Uh oh.
- But Noah stands out for being a stand-up guy, and the Lord is favorable toward him.
- The earth itself is saturated with violence (remember Abel's blood?), and what better way to cleanse the earth than by a flood?
- The deity explains this logic to Noah in 6:13. Earth is dirtied by violence, and must be wiped out along with those who did the dirtying.
- God issues detailed instructions to Noah about how to build an ark—a.k.a. a really big boat. Think Ikea instructions times a zillion.
- Basically, God makes a "covenant" (i.e., deal) with Noah.
- ALARM! Sorry, just wanted to make sure we had your attention. Pay attention, because this will be the first of several "covenants" between God and mortals in Genesis.
- Here's the deal: Noah, his wife, his three sons, and their wives will enter the ark together with a male and female of every other living creature. Two dogs, two cats, two worms, two werewolves, two roaches, two alligators… okay, we made some of those up, but you get the gist.
- They also better store up a bunch of food. Good call.
- Now, starting in 7:1, the deity tells Noah that he's righteous again and gives him similar-ish but different instructions. This time, Noah's supposed to take seven pairs of ritually pure animals and one pair of the ritually impure. Hmmm, that's different from 6:20.
- The deity's name has also switched from God ('elohim) to the nickname Lord (YHWH).
- Explanation, please? Just as there are two creation stories (1:1-2:4 and 2:4-25), so there are two flood stories. But the two flood stories are interwoven rather than juxtaposed. Good luck trying to untangle them.
- The deity tells Noah that the flood's going to start in seven days. And that, folks, will do every living thing in for good.
- Noah obeys.
- Noah's only six hundred years old when the flood comes.
- Everyone gets into the boat, and just as predicted, the waters of the flood come after seven days.
- The whole of creation sort of implodes. The cosmic damn breaks, and creation is deconstructed, Top Chef style.
- Rain falls for forty days and nights.
- Don't worry, everyone who's supposed to be on the boat is on the boat, including the animals. The Lord shuts them in safe and secure. (Note again the repetitions that are the result of combining two accounts.)
- The waters deepen, and the boat floats along. Everything is submerged—mountains and all. Every living creature perishes.
- The language of 7:21 actually reminds us of the sixth day of creation (1:24-27). Creation is reversing on itself, like a slow-motion rewind.
- The narrator emphasizes again that all of life is extinguished, all of it, except Noah and those who are with him.
- Got it?
- The waters consume the earth for 150 days.
- Finally, God remembers Noah and everyone in the boat.
- The deity sends a "wind" (Hebrew: ruah) over the waters, and they start to subside. 8:1 recalls 1:2, where there's only God's "wind" before anything else. In other words, we're back to where we started. Creation sort of needs to be rebuilt.
- God fixes the broken dam to hold the water back, just like the deity did on the second day of creation (rewind to 1:7).
- Slowly but surely, the waters recede.
- After 150 days, the ark is docked on a peak of the mountains of Ararat.
- The waters recede still further, and so the mountains "appear" (8:5), just like the dry earth "appeared" at the creation in 1:9. Yep, that's some re-creation for you.
- After 40 more days, Noah opens a window in the boat, and lets out a raven. Next up, he lets out a dove, but it returns because it couldn't find any land.
- Seven more days pass, and Noah lets the dove out again.
- Third time's a charm! If you pay attention, the Hebrew narrator loves triplets like this one (sometimes it's the fourth time that's a charm).
- Now the dove returns with a leaf in its beak. Noah's a smart guy. He knows that this means the waters are receding.
- After seven more days, Noah lets the dove go forth again. This time, the dove doesn't come back. They're back in business.
- Finally, Noah opens the boat's roof, and, check it out, all of the earth is dry.
- After a while, the ground gets even dryer—no mud or anything.
- The deity orders Noah and everyone else out of the boat.
- He tells them to "be fruitful and multiply" (8:17). Yeah, that's another echo of the creation story (recall this order in 1:28) and another sign of re-creation after destruction.
- The first thing Noah does is build an altar and offer one each of the pure animals that had been on the ark.
- The Lord smells the barbie, and is pleased. It turns out he missed the mortals sacrificing to him during the flood.
- The deity decides never to destroy humankind again. Huzzah!
- It's not that anything has changed. The deity knows humans are still evil. But he's still not going to do any more universal destruction stuff.
- But there are going to be some rules.
- First, they're supposed to "be fruitful and multiply" again (9:1), just as in 1:28. Having lots of babies is the only way to repopulate the earth.
- God reminds Noah and company of their dominion over all of the animals. Translation: they're allowed to eat them.
- Oh, but don't eat the blood. That's not allowed.
- Second, the deity has had enough of this violence stuff.
- Pay attention to the logic and mechanics of this. Remember, it was violence that led to the need for the flood in the first place (rewind to 6:11-13). The blood soaked into the earth like a sponge and cried out to God, who had to wash it clean (see 4:10-12).
- So the deity lays down the law with regard to this violence business. Essentially, life is required for life. That's fair, right? It's tit for tat, or what goes around comes around.
- If an animal kills a human being, then the animal will be killed.
- If a human kills another human, then the human will be killed. Or, as the narrator of Genesis famously puts it, "Whoever sheds the blood of a human, by a human shall that person's blood be shed; for in his own image God made humankind." (9:6 NRSV)
- Take a second to notice the proportion: life for life, no more and no less. Then contrast the ill-proportion of Lamech, who earlier killed a man and boy for one little wound or bruise (4:23-24). It seems like God's trying to put a stop to that kind of thing.
- After laying out these basic ground rules, it's covenant time.
- Here's how it goes down: humankind is to avoid violence and have babies; and in return, God promises never to destroy the earth again (at least not by flood). This sounds like a pretty sweet deal.
- Here's a sign of this deal: God will put his own "bow" (as in bow and arrow) in the clouds. Yep, this deity has weapons. God's ready for a fight.
Wine and Voyeurism
- Noah's sons are Shem, Ham, and Japheth (we feel like we've heard that before), and now Ham has a son named Canaan.
- As it turns out, all nations can be traced back to these three sons.
- Noah, who's a famer, plants a vineyard. Big deal alert. The vineyard yields wine, and wine yields a Noah who's kind of trashed.
- Noah's laying in his tent "uncovered" (9:21), that is, buck naked.
- Ham—we're reminded he's "the father of Canaan" (9:22)—enters into his tent and sees Noah lying there nude. He informs his brothers outside.
- Shem and Japheth walk backwards into the tent with a cloak and cover up their dad's unmentionables. They didn't see a thing! Smart.
- Noah wakes up, and after his hangover passes, he learns what Ham did. What exactly did Ham do wrong? That's an issue that's provoked constant speculation.
- Noah curses Ham's son Canaan, who'll be a slave to the offspring of Shem and Japheth. In contrast he blesses Shem and Japheth and prays to God that they be numerous.
- Note: the Canaanites will become Israel's big-time enemies and rivals—worse even than Ohio State versus Michigan, Red Sox versus Yankees, Dawson versus Pacey… you get the point. This story's mostly an explanation of the origin of this long-time enmity.
- Noah lives another 350 years after the flood and dies at the ripe old age of 950.
The Origin of Nations
- All of 10:1-32 may appear at first glance to be a sleep-inducing genealogy. But pay as much attention as you can, because it tells the story of the emergence of the world's nations, which can be traced back to Noah's three sons.
- Here are some highlights.
- Japheth's ancestors will form the "coastland peoples" (10:5), who are likely none other than Greeks, who colonized the coastland of Palestine.
- Ham's ancestors will form a whole host of nations and empires with whom Israel will have to deal in what will be very brutal international politics, including Akkadia, Assyria, Babylonia, as well as the Canaanites and Philistines.
- Nimrod is singled out here for special mention. In a way that is far removed from our English put-down ("you nimrod!"), this guy is a mighty warrior and hunter, who establishes nations that will become expansive empires as well as important cities, such as Nineveh.
- Shem is likewise the father of a whole bunch of nations.
- The conclusion of the genealogy is pretty fitting: "from these the nations spread abroad on the earth after the flood" (10:32 NRSV).
- Shem is likewise the father of a whole bunch of nations.
- The conclusion of the genealogy is pretty fitting: "from these the nations spread abroad on the earth after the flood" (10:32 NRSV).
The Origin of Nations Again: The Tower of Babel
- Two creation stories. Two flood stories. And now two stories about the origin of the nations. Get the hint? The compilers of Genesis love this sort of stuff.
- Here we are again with one language. That means we can take this as yet another account of national origins. After all, we've already read about the origin of different languages in 10:5, 20, and 31.
- Traveling from the east, people settle in a valley named Shinar.
- They decide, "let us make bricks" (11:3 NRSV), and then, "let us build ourselves a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves; otherwise we shall be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth" (11:4 NRSV).
- This sounds like a good plan. People like at least their names to live on after they die. And besides, the tower can be a way for them to stay together.
- Now the deity (here his nickname YHWH or Lord is used again) pays a visit to the tower.
- In another very human-like portrayal, God "goes down" and "sees" (11:5). Recall that this deity also walks in the garden, grieves, and enjoys the smell of Noah's good cookin' on the sacrificial barbie (3:8; 6:6; 8:21). This is typical of the story-teller who uses the deity's nickname Lord (Hebrew: YHWH).
- The deity reasons that with one language, these people can do anything. They've already built a tower to the heavens, which is God's territory.
- So the deity proposes, "let us go down, and confuse their language there" (11:7). That'll confuse the pants off these little ambitious mortals.
- It's kind of similar to God's logic for banishing Adam and Eve (3:22-24) and for limiting the lifespan of mortals (6:3). These people need limits or they'll usurp the very deity that created them.
- Who is God talking to and who's the "us" of 11:7? Here we have more evidence of several otherworldly beings with the deity (also, 1:26-2; 3:22; 6:1-4).
- The Lord scatters the people, which is exactly what they feared in 11:4. The Hebrew story-tellers love this kind of symmetry. If you pay attention, there are many other examples as the story unfolds.
- And that's why this place is called Babel.
More Begats: From Shem to Abraham
- Here's another list of begats in the same style of 5:3-32.
- BTW, 5:3-32 records 10 generations between Adam and Noah, and likewise 11:10-32 records 10 generations between Noah and Abram.
- Both genealogies are a way of fast forwarding the narrative, first from the creation and its aftermath to Noah and the flood, and then from the flood and its aftermath to Abram (who will later be called Abraham).
- With Abram, we leave the primordial history of the whole creation (all of humanity and civilization in general) and start the national history of Israel, which will continue to unfold throughout Genesis.
- Abram, Sarai, and Lot set forth from Ur and settle with Abram's father in Haran.
- The end of the begats is important in setting the stage for the beginning of Israel's national history. Bye-bye, big-picture story of creation and civilization; hello, zoomed-in story of Israel.
Ready, Set, Go! Abram On the Move
- The deity commands Abram, "Go!" He's supposed to settle in the land the deity will show to him.
- The deity makes some big promises: Abram will give rise to a huge nation; he'll have more name-recognition than Michael Jackson; the fate of all nations will depend on how they treat Abram and the nation that stems from him.
- It's a simple equation: bless Abram, be blessed. Curse Abram, be cursed. Any questions?
- He's 75 when he leaves Haran, and he takes his wife Sarai with him. Lot tags along with them, and Abram also takes his slaves. Yes, Abram was a slave-owner, and one of these slaves will play an important role as the story unfolds. Keep your eye out.
- They all arrive in Canaan, specifically at a place called Shechem. This map will show you his basic route.
- The narrator underlines that the Canaanite people are still living in the land. Abram is basically an immigrant.
- The Lord appears to Abram and makes more big promises. Listen up: This land belongs to you and your kids. Okay, this flies in the face of reality, for it's the Canaanites who are living here now (12:7).
- Abram builds an altar, and then he moves to another place, builds another altar, and invokes the deity by his nickname, the Lord (Hebrew: YHWH) (people have been calling the deity that since 4:26).
- Abram is still on the move, and lays his hat now in the Negeb.
Abram Tells a Fib
- Famine strikes, and Abram has to go down to Egypt to survive.
- Check out the tension with the deity's promise in 12:7. Did God give Abram a bum land? It's like being sold a car that's a lemon. This is the first hint that God's promises do not always come about in a way that is easy or straightforward.
- As they arrive near Egypt, Abram tells Sarai that she's such a catch that the Egyptians will try to kill him and let her live.
- The best strategy is to tell them Sarai's his sister.
- And guess what? Abram is right. The Egyptians think Sarai is a total babe. Even the higher-ups are telling the Pharaoh (a.k.a. the absolute ruler of Egypt) about this new supermodel in town.
- Pharaoh lets her hang in his court, and Pharaoh treats Abram very well. He even gives him a bunch of cool stuff: sheep, cattle, donkeys, slaves, and camels.
- Abram's loving it, but the deity has other ideas.
- The Lord unleashes devastating plagues upon Pharaoh and his whole household.
- A bell is ringing. It's telling you that this sounds an awful lot like the first twelve chapters of the biblical book of Exodus. Right?
- Pharaoh somehow realizes that the plagues are caused by the fact that he's harboring Abram's wife in his court. But the narrator is mum about how he figured it out.
- Pharaoh tells Abram to take his wife and get out of his face.
- But Abram gets to keep all his stuff. So he keeps his life and wife and gets a brand new Mustang, all while there's a famine in his own land.
- Abram's a crafty guy.
Chapter 13 – 14
Abram and Lot Break Up
- The land simply cannot support both Abram and Lot. They're like brothers who've gotten too old to share a room.
- There's a family feud between Abram and Lot's herdsmen, and Abram wants to make up with Lot. Can't we just all get along?
- He suggests that they split up. He lets Lot choose which part of the country he wants for his own. Never mind the Canaanites and Perizites (13:7).
- Lot tells Abram that he'll take that land that looks oh-so-good, and the two go their separate ways, Abram to Canaan and Lot to the suburbs of Sodom.
- Lot's decision seems like a good choice, but the fact is that the people of Sodom are nasty.
- The deity makes another promise to Abram.
- As the leader of his own little empire, Abram now has to fend for himself in the big-time power game of international politics. After all, there are a bunch of kings, alliances, and huge wars.
- What's important to note is that the battles take place near the Dead Sea where Lot chose to settle (13:12; 14:3).
- Also, the kings of Sodom and Gomorrah are embroiled in the fighting (14:8) and eventually lose when their cities are plundered (14:11).
- Lot lives in a suburb of Sodom, so it is not surprising to learn that he was taken captive by the victorious kings.
- But someone escapes and informs Abram of Lot's plight. Abram summons his allies to arms and with an army of 318 fighters, he overtakes those who captured Lot far to the north past Damascus.
- Guess what? He wins.
- Abram brings back Lot along with Lot's stuff as well as women and other captives.
- But the king of Sodom has regrouped and goes out to meet them.
- A king named Melchizedek, which in Hebrew means, "righteous king," brings Abram bread and wine. He is king over Salem as well as priest of "God Most High" (14:18 NRSV).
- Sound familiar? Salem is the place that will later be called Jerusalem, the future capital of Israel and home to Israel's kings.
- Melchizedek blesses Abram as well as God Most High, who's given victory to Abram over his enemies in war.
- Abram gives him 10% of "everything" (14:20).
- The king of Sodom recognizes that Abram acted as his ally by chasing down and defeating the armies that destroyed his city.
- He tries to split the booty with him, but Abram doesn't want anything, not even a sandal's strap.
- Abram tells his allies to take their share, but as for him, he's happy only with what his chosen fighters ate along the way.
- That's some intriguing, very measured, and exceedingly just foreign policy.
Deal or No Deal?
- The deity tells Abram in a vision that he has nothing to fear—he'll protect Abram like a shield. That's a relief with all these foreign wars going on and all (14:1-24).
- Now Abram gets a little sassy: protection is good and all, but what about kids? A family would be nice.
- The deity takes Abram outside, shows him the stars, and promises him that his offspring will be as numerous as those stars (recall 13:16, where they'll be as numerous as the dust). Yowza.
- The deity signals his commitment to deliver by making a covenant with Abram, and the two seal it with a ritual act.
- Don't try this at home! Abram chops a bunch of animals in two and sets the two halves opposite each other.
- As the sun is setting, Abram falls fast asleep.
- Then a "deep and terrifying darkness descended upon him" (15:12 NRSV).
- The deity foretells for Abram what will happen in the opening chapters of the biblical book of Exodus. If you've ever watched Cecil B. DeMille's The Ten Commandments, you'll know what he's talking about.
- His descendants will be foreigners and immigrants in a land that does not belong to them for—count 'em—400 long years.
- But God will judge the nation (namely, Egypt), and bring Abram's offspring forth with lots of wealth.
- As for Abram, he'll die way before all this happens when he's good and old.
- After four generations, Abram's offspring will return to Canaan.
- The deity explains, "for the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet complete" (15:16 NRSV).
- As soon as the sun sets, a smoking pot of fire and a torch passes between the pieces of the animals Abram has placed out.
- The deity reiterates the promises to Abraham, but after 15:13-16, we know that the fulfillment of this promise is deferred until much later. A lot of suffering's going to happen first.
Wanted: New-born Baby
- Here God is, promising Abram a huge family over and over again (13:16; 15:5), but his wife Sarai has not yet born a child. That is simply a big fat contradiction.
- Sarai takes matters into her own hands and offers her slave girl to Abram. They'll produce an heir this way.
- This is essentially old fashioned surrogacy. Such arrangements are well-attested in other ancient Mesopotamian legal texts, too. No big deal.
- Sarah's servant Hagar becomes pregnant. Now Hagar is no longer a slave, but a wife. And she's the wife with the baby. So Hagar is feeling pretty good about herself, and she "looked with contempt upon" Sarai (16:4 NRSV).
- Sarai feels slighted and blames Abram for the whole situation. Abram's response? He passes the buck back to Sarai. She can do whatever she wants with Hagar.
- Sarai mistreats Hagar, reminding her who's boss, so Hagar runs away to escape the miserable situation.
- The deity's emissary finds her by a spring of water in Shur headed south, probably back to Egypt, her home country (see 16:3).
- The messenger addresses her as Hagar, and then reminds her of her proper place when he calls her the "slave-girl of Sarai" (16:8 NRSV). He wants to know where she's come from and where she's going.
- She responds that she's trying to escape her "mistress" Sarai. Hagar doesn't deny she's a slave.
- The deity's envoy commands her to return and "submit" to Sarai. The messenger's no advocate on behalf of abused women here—hard to swallow in modern times, that's for sure.
- But the envoy does lift her prospects somewhat when he promises that she'll spawn numerous offspring, beyond counting. Kind of like the promise God made to Abram in 13:16 and 15:5, right?
- The messenger continues that she'll have a son, whom she's supposed to name Ishmael, "for the Lord has given heed" to Hagar's suffering. The Hebrew for "give heed" (sham'a) sounds like Ishmael.
- He sure will be one "wild ass of a man" (16:12 NRSV). That's really what it says, no joke.
- Hagar gives a new name to the deity: "El-roi," which she explains with the question, "Have I really seen God and remained alive after seeing him?" (16:13 NRSV).
- And that's why the well where this occurred is called—get ready for a mouthful—Beer-lahai-roi. Try saying that five times fast.
- The deity appears to Abram at the age of 90 and cuts another deal with him: Abram's job is to be blameless and walk with the Lord. In return, the deity will make Abram's lineage great.
- Then—big reveal—the Lord changes Abram's name to Abraham. Aha. We've been waiting for that.
- Abraham will spawn several nations and kings.
- But for Abram's part, every dude needs to be circumcised. Circumcision is the mark of the deal between the Lord and the descendants of Abraham, and it must be done on the eighth day after the baby is born.
- Every male must be snipped.
- He who is not snipped "shall be cut off from his people," for he's broken the deal with the deity (17:14 NRSV).
- While he's at it, God changes Sarai's name to Sarah. She will have a son, and her descendants will form nations and become kings.
- Abraham's rolling on the ground laughing his pants off. She's 90. How on earth will she have a son? (We're with him.)
- God insists that Sarah will bear a son and declares the boy's name will be Isaac. Sure, God. Sure.
- Next up, everyone gets circumcised.
All About Abe
- The Lord appears to Abraham at the hottest part of the day while Abraham's chilling on his porch.
- But Abraham sees three men. The three men switch in and out with God throughout this story. Try to keep track. And while you're at it, think about this: what are the implications of this regarding the modes of divine epiphany?
- Abraham shows some hospitality, bowing to them as a sign of respect, begging them to honor him with their presence, and serving up a feast.
- While they're eating, the three guests ask where his wife Sarah is. Abraham points to her tent.
- Then one of the guests declares that she will have a son. Hmmm, we've heard this before.
- Sarah eavesdrops on the conversation and chuckles to herself because—we mean, she's already gone through menopause. Abraham laughed about this too, but he wasn't quite as discreet as Sarah (compare 17:17-18).
- The Lord won't let it go. He interrogates Abraham for Sarah's laughter.
- Guess what? Sarah lies about laughing, but come on, who's fooling who? The Lord busts Sarah on her lie.
- The three men set out toward Sodom, and Abraham walks with them as he says goodbye.
- The Lord tells Abraham that the outcry of Sodom and Gomorrah is very loud, which means that their wickedness is serious stuff.
- The Lord's going to go check it out, and if things are as bad as they sound, there's going to be trouble.
- Abraham turns philosophical on us and starts questioning the nature of justice. He asks a fair question: will God destroy the righteous with the wicked?
- Even if there's fifty good people, isn't it unfair to destroy everyone? God should distinguish between the innocent and the guilty. He is, after all, the "Judge of all the earth" (18:26). Doesn't that mean he should act with justice?
- The Lord thinks Abraham has a good point. The deity didn't cut a bunch of deals with this guy for nothing.
- Abraham pushes harder and asks whether this holds true for forty-five innocent people.
- (Don't worry, he prefaces his remark by humbly admitting he is but dust and ashes. That's a smart thing to do when talking to authority figures, we guess.)
- God agrees. God will not destroy the cities if there are forty-five righteous people there.
- This continues until Abraham whittles the Lord down from fifty to ten righteous people.
- Yep, Abraham just bargained with God.
- Two messengers arrive at Sodom, and Lot shows them great respect and hospitality, just like Abraham did in 18:1-3.
- But the rest of Sodom is not so hospitable. Basically, the people of Sodom want to sex them up.
- Lot steps out of the house and asks the mob to knock it off. He offers his two virgin daughters to the mob instead.
- Wait, what?
- Yep. Lot offers them with the stipulation that the mob can do with them what they please, but that the male guests are off limits.
- The mob isn't happy. After all, Lot is really a foreigner in their land. Why's he judging them? That's not how it works.
- They threaten to rape Lot and then the guests, but the guests grab Lot and bring him inside, blinding the men outside with a bright light so none of them can find the door.
- His guests tell Lot to split with his family because they are going to take this city down. And sure enough, the Lord rains "brimstone and fire" upon Sodom and Gomorrah. Everything is wiped out: the cities, all the inhabitants (except Lot), and even what is growing in the soil.
- The messenger instructed them not to look back, but Lot's wife can't resist. Consequently, she is turned into a pillar of salt. Why not?
- In the morning, Abraham proceeds to the place where he earlier debated with God over the cities' fate. All he sees is that the land is sizzling. The cities did not even have ten good people.
- Only Lot is innocent, and God sends Lot out remembering Abraham's principle that God should not destroy the innocent along with the guilty (recall 18:23).
An Incestuous Interlude
- Lot heads off and settles in the hills, in a cave with his two daughters.
- The daughters are worried that they're going to be old, unmarried hags, so they hatch a plan to get their father drunk and "lie with him" in order to preserve their lineage.
- Yes, that means what you think it means.
- Sure enough, they get him drunk and they both manage to have sex with him without him noticing.
- They both become pregnant. The elder's son is named Moab, which means something like, "from daddy." Ick. The younger's son is named Benammi, which means something like, "son of my own folk." Ick again.
- These guys turn out to be Israel's enemies.
- One last thing: Abraham pulls a repeat of the sister-wife trick, this time with Abimelech.
Sarah Gives Birth and Hagar Gets the Boot
- Sure enough, Sarah gets pregnant and gives birth to a son.
- That's right—the 90-year-old lady had a baby. The narrator emphasizes that this is in accordance with what the deity has been saying all along (remember 15:5; 17:16-19; 18:10?)
- Abraham names his son Isaac, which in Hebrew means "one who laughs." He did make his parents laugh quite a bit before he was born.
- Abraham circumcises Isaac when he's eight days old—as per his agreement with God—and he celebrates Isaac's weaning with a party.
- Sarah sees Ishmael, who is not named here, but called, "the son of Hagar, the Egyptian, whom she had borne to Abraham" (21:9 NRSV). These epithets in the place of the name help us get why Sarah is so upset.
- Ishmael is "playing" (21:9 NRSV) or "mocking" (KJV) or simply "laughing." The real point is that the verb used is formed from the same root as Isaac's name and means, "to laugh."
- Sarah tells Abraham to eject "this slave girl with her son" (21:10 NRSV). Still no proper names being used.
- God tells Abraham to listen to Sarah and not to worry.
- Abraham sends Hagar away, and she and Ishmael wander through the wilderness of Beersheba.
- The water Abraham gave them doesn't go very far, and they soon run out. Hagar is worried and "casts" Ishmael under a bush (21:15).
- But God's messenger comes to comfort Hagar: Ishmael's descendants will be a great nation.
- Suddenly, God opens Hagar's eyes, and she sees a well of water and gives Ishmael a drink.
- And guess what? Ishmael gets married and does just fine.
- One last thing: Abraham and Abimelech make treaties. Of particular importance is a well.
The Binding of Isaac (a.k.a. the Akedah)
- Get ready, because God is about to test Abraham—big time.
- How? Well, Abraham is ordered to sacrifice his only son, Isaac. God, of course, recognizes that Abraham loves Isaac, but he commands Abraham, "Go!" (22:2). (Sounds like that same command in 12:1, the opening of Abraham's story.)
- This time, God is commanding him to go to the land of Moriah and offer Isaac as a burnt offering.
- This should strike us as rather shocking given all the attention focused on Sarah's need to bear a son and his priority over Ishmael in the preceding chapters.
- Plus, the promises in 13:16, 15:5, and 21:12 are all dependent on this kid.
- Abraham gets up extra early, prepares a donkey, and orders two servants to go along. He also splits the wood he'll need for the offering and finally starts on his way.
- The narrator pays lots of attention to the details, slowing down the pace of the story and creating suspense.
- After three days, he arrives at the spot.
- Abraham tells his two attendants to stay with the donkey, while he and Isaac go to worship. They take the wood and the knife and go on their way.
- Isaac addresses Abraham, "Father!" (22:7 NRSV). Abraham responds, "Here I am, my son" (22:7 NRSV). All of the intimate familial language is supposed to hit us right where it hurts.
- Isaac can put two and two together. He sees the wood and the fire, but wants to know where the sheep is.
- Abraham responds, "God will provide the lamb for a burnt offering, my son" (22:8 NRSV).
- Take a second to dwell on Abraham's response. Is Abraham lying to Isaac to protect him from knowing the brutal reality of what he has to do? Or is he in a way speaking to God, suggesting that God really should provide a lamb?
- Oh, also, Hebrew doesn't use commas. That means that "burnt offering" and "my son" in 22:8 are simply juxtaposed next to one another. It's possible to understand Abraham as saying, "God will provide for a burnt offering, which will be my son."
- You can bet your bottom dollar that the ambiguities in 22:8 are intentional.
- Now back to our show.
- They journey on together, and finally arrive at the appointed place. Abraham builds an altar, lays out the wood, and binds Isaac.
- BTW, the Hebrew verb for "bind" is 'aqad, which why this story frequently goes by the title of the "Akedah."
- The narrator emphasizes again that Isaac is "his son" (22:9) in order to milk as much pathos as possible from this story.
- Abraham places Isaac on top of the wood on the altar, reaches out his hand, and takes the knife.
- Notice that the narrative-pace is still very slow. Every detail is narrated. The purpose is to create suspense. (We're helping, we know.)
- And then… the deity's messenger calls to Abraham and tells him that he doesn't have to go through with it. It's pretty clear that he "fears" God, so he can stop before he actually does the deed.
- Abraham sacrifices a ram instead of his son.
- He names the place, "The Lord will provide" (22:14 NRSV), which in Hebrew looks like this, YHWH-yireh, from which the KJV gets, "Jehova Jireh," a phrase with a bit of cultural currency these days.
- The messenger re-confirms the covenant.
- The end.
- Sarah is 127 years old when she dies at Hebron.
- Abraham is sad and mournful for a while, but he has to negotiate a place for Sarah's burial. Since Abraham is an immigrant, it's not as easy as it sounds.
- He buys a cave at Machpelah and sort of gets ripped off. Oh well, he can bury his wife there now.
- Abraham sends his servant to get a wife for Isaac in Haran, and the servant comes home with Rebekah.
- Abraham marries another wife named Keturah, who has kids, but Abraham gives all of the inheritance to Isaac. Score.
- He dies, very old, full of years, and is "gathered to his people" (25:8 NRSV). Genesis really doesn't have much more to say than this about the afterlife.
- Isaac and Ishmael bury him with Sarah in Machpelah, the cave Abraham bought in 23:1-20.
Then Come Jacob and Esau in the Baby Carriage
- Isaac is forty when he gets hitched to Rebekah. He prays to the Lord for his barren wife to become pregnant, and, bam, Rebekah's barren womb is filled. Two babies, actually. That's some good praying.
- The babies wrestle in her womb, and Rebekah goes somewhere to ask the deity what's going on.
- The Lord tells her that one of them is stronger than the other, and the elder will serve the younger. That's the norm in Genesis (just think of Ishmael-Isaac), but backwards in terms of the larger social world, where the firstborn is usually top dog.
- The first twin born is Esau, and he's red and hairy. Hmmm. These kinds of descriptions of the character's physical appearance are rare in biblical narratives. Why here?
- The second twin grabs the heel (Hebrew: 'aqeb) of the first, so he is called Jacob (Hebrew: ya'aqob).
- Jacob is "plain" (25:27 KJV) or "quiet" (NRSV). The adjective can mean something like "morally astute," which is of course ironic given Jacob's subsequent actions.
- Isaac loves Esau, who, as a skillful hunter, brings his dad lots of juicy meat. But Rebekah loves Jacob, who's a mama's boy and stays near the tents.
- One day, Jacob cooks up some stew. Esau comes in from the field, starving, and asks somewhat brutishly for some "red stuff" (25:30 NRSV).
- And that, folks, is how Esau gets his nickname, Edom, which plays on the Hebrew for "red stuff" ('adom). Edom will be one of Israel's future enemies.
- Jacob negotiates: some stew for Esau's birthright.
- Sounds sketchy to us, but Esau's starving to death, so it seems like a good deal to him.
- Esau swears his birthright over to Jacob, and in return, Jacob gives him the stew, plus some bread. The bread is free. No charge.
- Esau eats, drinks, rises, and goes off. The narrator remarks that he clearly doesn't value the birthright.
- Isaac's life is very similar to his father Abraham's. He, too, leaves Canaan to escape a famine, makes a covenant with God, tries to pull the sister-wife switch, gets super rich, cuts a deal with Abimelech, and argues over wells.
- Fast forward. Isaac is old and his vision is going. He calls for Esau and wants to bless him after Esau hunts and grills up some meat for him.
- Rebekah overhears the whole conversation and reports the details to Jacob.
- She urges Jacob to do it himself so that he might acquire the blessing. Isaac won't know the difference. He's blind.
- She dresses Jacob up in his brother's clothes and puts some animal fur on his hands and back. Then she hands Jacob the food.
- Jacob goes to his old, near-sighted dad and commits what we would today call identity theft by pretending to be Esau.
- Isaac eats and downs some wine. Then Isaac kisses Jacob, and notices that he smells just like Esau (Jacob is wearing his clothes, after all).
- Finally, Isaac gives Jacob his blessing.
- Then tornado-like confusion ensues when Esau returns from his hunt. Isaac and Esau realize what Jacob did, and Esau's none too happy about it.
- Rebekah overhears Esau plotting to kill Jacob and tells Jacob to take off and go hang out with the extended family in Haran.
First Abraham, Then Isaac, Now Jacob
- Isaac blesses Jacob, then prohibits him from marrying a foreign woman. This negative attitude toward marriage with foreigners is pretty typical in Genesis (see also 24:3-4; 26:34-35; 27:46). Instead, Jacob's supposed to marry a woman from Rebekah's family.
- Isaac says that the deity will help Jacob have lots of babies, and adds that Jacob is the heir to Abraham's promise.
- How's that for continuity?
- That means he will possess the land of Canaan just like God promised to Abraham.
- One day, when Jacob is on his way to the house of his uncle Laban (Remember him? Check out 24:28-60), Esau overhears Isaac's order to Jacob not to marry a foreign wife.
- So Esau up and marries Ishmael's daughter Mahalath and with some other wives.
- On his way to his uncle Laban's place, Jacob stops for the night. He uses a stone for a pillow and falls asleep.
- Now it's gets trippy.
- He dreams about some kind of ladder, stairway, or ramp, which rises all the way to heaven. Yep, it's a stairway to heaven.
- Still in the dream, messengers of God are going up and down the stairway.
- Then it gets even better: the deity appears to Jacob and tells him that land of Canaan will be all his. Muahaha.
- Jacob re-names the place Bethel, which means "house of God."
- Unlike Abraham and Isaac, who are quiet after God makes big promises, Jacob presses the Lord for more. He more or less says, "I'll tell you what, big dog: if you do all you promised, plus throw in some food and clothes, then I'll worship you as my God right here in Bethel. I'll even throw in 10% of my earnings."
Chapters 29 - 33
Jacob and His Ladies
- Jacob is heading east when he runs into some shepherds at a well.
- The narrator emphasizes the big stone at the mouth of the well. The shepherds there roll it away every day to water the sheep.
- Then Rachel arrives to water her sheep. Cue spotlight.
- Jacob removes the stone all by himself. Who is this guy, Hercules?
- Next attempt at a pick-up: Jacob waters his uncle's sheep for Rachel.
- And then, the big moment: he kisses Rachel and weeps. Yeah, he's strong and sensitive. Don't get too excited, it's just a hello kiss, European style.
- Rachel tells Laban that Jacob has shown up, and Laban is psyched. He runs to welcome him and calls him "my bone and my flesh" (29:14). Remember what he got the last time these distant relatives visited him (recall 24:53)?
- Jacob stays with Laban for a month and then tells him that he'll work for seven years for Rachel's hand in marriage.
- Fast forward seven years. (Hey, why draw it out?)
- Laban throws a big wedding party, but afterwards, Laban delivers Leah into Jacob' s tent. Of course, Jacob thinks it's Rachel, and they have sex.
- In the morning Jacob realizes it's Leah, not Rachel, and he confronts Laban about the deception.
- Laban points out that it's not the regional custom to marry off a younger sibling when the older is available. He offers the same terms for Rachel, but he can marry her before the seven years of service are up. Jacob takes the deal.
- God makes Leah fertile because she is so unloved by Jacob, while Rachel is left barren. Guess he's just trying to even the playing field.
- With some pinch-hitting from their midwives, the final score is: Leah 8, Rachel 3. Of course, daughters don't count.
- Jacob asks Laban to pay him with all of the speckled goats. He leaves out the fact that he's devised a way for the flocks to produce more speckled goats than not. Can you say embezzlement?
- The Lord commands Jacob to return to the place of his birth, so with everyone in agreement, Jacob packs up the family and the property.
- While Laban's shearing his flocks, Rachel steals all of his household idols. And just like that, Jacob takes off.
- Laban tries to go after him, but God intervenes via a dream and warns Laban to lay off or watch out.
- Laban catches up with Jacob anyway, and after some idol-hiding, he and Jacob make a pact.
- Jacob is moving closer to his homeland and he finally settles where he sees angels of God.
- At this point, Jacob sends messengers to Esau, trying to make amends.
- Esau receives the message and sends word that he and 400 of his men will meet with Jacob.
400 men? Yowza. Jacob panics. He thinks Esau is going to kick his butt. Don't forget that that Esau was plotting to kill Jacob before he left (27:41). So Jacob prays to God for protection.
- While it's still night, Jacob escorts his family across the Jabbok river.
- Then he stays on the other side alone, where he wrestles with a "man" until daybreak. The man then changes Jacob's name to Israel, which means something like "striving with God," as the narrator is sure to mention (32:28).
- The next morning, Jacob sees Esau coming with his posse of 400 men. It's the moment of truth.
- And… here's where we all breathe a big sigh of relief. Esau's not going to slaughter Jacob. Phew.
- Dinah, the daughter of Leah and Jacob, heads out to see the other women of the territory. While she's out, Shechem rapes her.
- Jacob and his sons are naturally very upset. Men are supposed to protect their women and not doing so implies some serious dishonor.
- Hamor suggests that Jacob's sons intermarry with the Hivites. We already know what Israel's clan tends to think about intermarriage (check out 24:2-4; 26:34-35; 27:46; 28:1-9), so Jacob's sons answer Hamor and Shechem dishonestly.
- They want revenge for the way Shechem treated their sister.
- They claim that they cannot give their sister to Shechem in marriage because he's uncircumcised.
- Jacob's sons offer a condition. If all the males among Hamor and Shechem's clan get circumcised, then they can all intermarry.
- Hamor and Shechem agree to the deal. Now all they have to do is sell it to the rest of the guys in the city. Not so easy, but they get the job done.
- Surprise twist! Simeon and Levi, Dinah's brothers, go to the city and slaughter all the men, including Hamor and Shechem, while they're still recovering from the circumcision. The other brothers loot the city.
- And now for the million-dollar question: who has the moral high ground here?
Chapters 35 – 36
Epiphany, Death, and Sex
- God commands Jacob to build an altar at Bethel. By this point, he knows to trust God, so he does what he's told. When Rebekah's nurse Deborah dies, she's buried near Bethel under an oak which is called Allon-bakuth or "oak of weeping."
- God appears to Jacob again, and reiterates his name change to Israel. Oh, yeah, we'd almost forgotten about that
- Rachel goes into labor and bears a son with the help of a midwife, who encourages her with the good news that she's bearing a son.
- Rachel dies in childbirth, and Jacob names his son Benjamin.
The final score in the Leah-Rachel child-bearing contest is Leah 8, Rachel 4. That's quite a blowout.
- Rachel is buried on the road to Bethlehem, and Jacob sets up a pillar to mark her grave, which is still there, "to this day" (35:20 NRSV).
- The narrator inserts a little who's who of Jacob's four wives and twelve sons. We'll let you check that part out.
- Jacob visits Isaac in Hebron, and Isaac dies at the ripe old age of 180. Esau and Jacob bury him.
- The narrator reminds us that Esau took foreign wives and had foreign children in Canaan. This is a big no-no in Genesis (24:2-4; 26:34-35; 27:46; 28:1-9).
- And now, for the thrilling finale: their descendants are listed.
Chapter 37 - 38
- Now the story shifts to Jacob's son. Yep, it's still a family affair.
- Joseph is Jacob's favorite (come on, everyone has one), so Jacob gives him a fancy coat. Oh, also, Joseph dreams of his brothers' sheaves bowing down to his sheaf. Then he goes and tells them about all about it.
- First, a fancy coat and now this? Cue jealous brothers.
- What does he think he's going to do? Rule over them or something?
- Then Joseph dreams a second similar dream and blabs to everyone all about it.
- His brothers are fuming at this point. Joseph's the second youngest of Jacob's children, so he definitely shouldn't be getting all this attention.
- Joseph's brothers are pasturing their father's sheep at Shechem, when Israel sends Joseph out to meet up with his brothers and report back to him.
- Joseph's brothers see him coming and conspire to kill him. The only question is how they should they do it.
- Plan A: they kill Joseph, then throw him into a pit and say some wild animals killed him.
- Plan B: throw Joseph into a pit, but don't kill him.
- When Joseph arrives near his brothers, they strip off his big fancy coat and throw him into a pit. Guess it was Plan B FTW.
- Meanwhile, the brothers are eating and see a group of Ishmaelite businessmen traveling from Gilead to Egypt.
- Judah, one of Joseph's older brothers, suggests selling Joseph to the Ishmaelites so that technically they are not guilty of murder. Plus, they can make some money while they're at it.
- And that's just what they do. The brothers sell Joseph to the Ishmaelites for twenty pieces of silver.
- The brothers take Joseph's robe, kill a goat, dip the robe in the blood, and bring it to their father as if Joseph is dead. Jacob is upset, to say the least.
- Meanwhile, the businessmen who bought Joseph take him to Egypt and sell him to one of the higher-ups in the Pharaoh's court, "the captain of the bodyguard" (37:36 NRSV).
- Judah finds a lady named Tamar for his first son, but the wicked son dies. You know what that means. Oh, you don't?
- Well, Judah explains to his second son Onan that he must follow the laws of Levirate marriage, which are elaborated in Deuteronomy 25:5-10. These laws dictate that the brother of a dead husband must marry the widowed wife (his sister-in-law) and produce an heir in order to keep the lineage of the deceased brother alive.
- But when it comes time for Onan to ejaculate during sexual intercourse, he withdraws his penis and "spills his seed" on the ground. This is what we call coitus interruptus, or, um, pulling out.
- Here's the deal. Onan knew any baby Tamar bore would not be his heir, but his brother's.
- Well, that's just not going to fly with God, so he kills Onan.
- Judah sends Tamar back to her father's house until Judah's youngest son, Shelah, is old enough for marriage.
- After a while, Tamar takes matters into her own hands. She disguises herself as a prostitute and approaches Judah.
- She asks for three very personal items: signet, cord, and staff. She will hold these as a pledge until Judah pays her with a kid from his flock. That's like the biblical equivalent of a social security card, credit cards, and driver's license.
- Next thing you know, Tamar conceives a baby.
- Judah learns that Tamar is pregnant "by harlotry" (38:24 NRSV), and he declares that she must be burned.
- Tamar makes it known that the father of her baby is none other than… Judah. Oh, and she has his social security card. No one can deny it.
- Tamar births twin boys named Perez and Zerah.
Chapters 39 – 41
Joseph Becomes CFO of Egypt
- Joseph's story continues. He becomes a successful steward in the house of a high Egyptian official.
- Just one problem: the official's wife tries to seduce Joseph. Joseph resists her efforts at seduction, but then she accuses him of trying to rape her. She's got proof: Joseph is nude, and she's got his clothes. (Really, Joseph was only trying to escape her lustful clutches.)
- It's off to prison for Joseph, and while he's there, Joseph accurately interprets the dreams of Pharaoh's cupbearer and baker.
- Two years later, Pharaoh himself has a couple dreams and he calls for magicians and wise men to help him interpret.
- Just to be clear: yes, magicians are mentioned in the Bible, but they're less like Criss Angel and more like on-hand religious-esque officials. Anyway, not even these authorities know what the dreams mean.
- But wait! The chief cupbearer remembers Joseph from prison and tells the Pharaoh about his skill in dream interpretation.
- So Pharaoh sends for Joseph, who gets to shave and change his clothes.
- Basically, Joseph interprets that the dreams are predicting seven years of abundance followed by seven years of famine. He suggests that Pharaoh find a real smart CFO to guide Egypt through the years to come. He'll need to save up big time during the seven years of abundance in preparation for the not-so-good years ahead.
- Guess who gets the gig? That's right: Joseph.
- During the seven years of abundance, Joseph stores up tons of food. And sure enough, when the famine arrives, Joseph opens the storehouse. Jackpot.
- The famine is so bad that even people from other countries come to Egypt for relief.
Trip One: Brothers in Egypt
- Remember that famine? Well, Jacob and his family feel it, too. Jacob sends his sons (Joseph's brothers) to Egypt for grain.
- He sends all of them except Benjamin, his youngest and Joseph's only full brother by Rachel. He doesn't want Benny to get hurt.
- The brothers arrive in Egypt and bow down before Joseph.
- An alarm should be going off. It's telling you that Joseph's first dream is now fulfilled. Remember 37:6-7? Yeah, that happened.
- Joseph recognizes them (same old brothers) but they don't recognize the now-super-important Joseph. This means Joseph is about to have some fun.
- Joseph accuses them of being spies. To prove they're not, they may leave to get their youngest brother, but one of them will be imprisoned until they return.
- The brothers interpret this sentence as retribution for wronging Joseph. Hmmm, they're kind of right, aren't they?The irony is everywhere.
- Joseph chains up Simeon. He's the deposit guaranteeing their return with little Ben. But before they go, Joseph slips the silver they used to pay for the grain into their baggage along with more grain and other supplies. This one's on Egypt.
- The brothers travel back to their father and make their report to Jacob.
- Then they all discover the silver in their bags.
- Yikes! They're frightened. What a strange trip.
- Still, Jacob refuses to send Benjamin. He doesn't want to lose him, too.
Chapters 43 – 44
Trip Two: the Brothers in Egypt Again
- The famine is still going strong, and the family has already eaten up the provisions they got from their first trip to Egypt.
- Jacob tells them to go back and buy more food.
- Judah pipes up: they were told not to come back unless they bring their youngest brother Ben with them. He kind of promises to take care of the little guy.
- Sounds like he's redeeming himself for hatching the plot to sell Joseph into slavery (recall 37:26-27).
- They head off, and in Egypt, Joseph invites them all over to his house, and Joseph's servant releases Simeon to them.
- Joseph arrives, and his brothers bow down and give him the money and goodies they brought with them. They all eat, drink, and get toasted.
- Then Joseph arranges for the servant to put food and the silver they used to pay for it in their bags. Just like last time.
- Plus, he directs the servant to put his very own silver goblet in Ben's bag. What's Joseph up to?
- After the brothers depart, Joseph sends the steward of his house after the brothers. He's supposed to accuse them of stealing the cup. Aha.
- The steward finds the silver cup in Ben's bag.
- Judah speaks up. After all, he's the one who pledged to Jacob that he would bring Ben back to him. And now, Ben's going to be killed, and they're all going to become slaves. This is what you might call a last-ditch effort.
- Joseph says he'll take Ben as his slave and let everyone else go.
- In a lengthy speech, Judah tries to persuade Joseph to take him and let Ben go instead. He argues that his father just won't be able to live without Ben, who's the only other surviving son of Rachel.
- Joseph finally outs himself. And his first question: is his father is still alive?
- His brothers are totally dumbfounded and don't answer. We'd be a little shocked ourselves.
- Joseph takes the chance to credit God with their survival from the famine.
- Think about what he's saying: the brothers may have been the ones who sold him into slavery, but God is the one who sent him down here to sustain them through the famine. Wait. Does that mean God's will is working through jealousy, deceit, and crime? Yowza.
- Joseph instructs his brothers to tell his father that God made him lord of Egypt.
- Cue big, sappy reunion scene.
- The news of Joseph's little family reunion spreads to Pharaoh. Pharaoh tells Joseph to move his family to Egypt. Plus, Pharaoh himself will finance the move down. Nice deal.
- Joseph bestows gifts and fine clothes upon his brothers and gives more to Benjamin than the others.
- Finally, they tell Jacob that Joseph is alive and—get this, pop—he's practically the king of Egypt.
- Initially skeptical, Jacob finally exclaims with joy and wants to see Joseph. ASAP.
Chapters 46 – 49
Jacob & Co.
- With God's blessing Jacob moves his entire family, property, and goods to Egypt.
- Jacob and Joseph meet up in Goshen, and it gets emotional.
- A big meeting with Pharaoh comes around, and Joseph introduces five of his brothers as representatives for the entire family.
- Pharaoh tells Joseph to take them to Goshen and, if they're capable, make them handlers of livestock instead of shepherds. Pharaoh leases his own royal livestock for them to tend. Fancy.
- Then Joseph introduces his father Jacob. Parent-teacher conference, anyone?
- Joseph sets everyone up with some land and food and makes sure everyone has enough.
- The famine is getting really bad in Egypt, and each year, the Egyptians have to pay more and more in order to eat.
- Don't be afraid to say it: Joseph's profiting off of other people's misery. Or is he just a good ol' fashioned capitalist?
- Pharaoh takes possession of the land and the people, and the people thank Joseph for their survival.
- At this point, Jacob is 147 years old. He knows death is drawing near, so he summons Joseph and requests that he bury him with their ancestors and not in Egypt.
- Joseph takes his two sons to see Jacob. Jacob explains that Joseph's two sons, Manasseh and Ephraim, will now be counted as if they were Jacob's sons.
- Sounds trivial, but the twelve tribes of Israel later will be Reuben, Gad, Simeon, Judah, Dan, Benjamin, Asher, Naphtali, Zebulun, Issachar, Manasseh, and Ephraim.
- Joseph's tribe is actually two tribes named after his sons, and Levi doesn't get a tribe at all. Why not? Because he's going to be the father of all priests.
- Jacob, who's mostly called Israel now, gives a formulaic blessing to Manasseh and Ephraim. Now Jacob's having trouble seeing, just like his father, Isaac, did (recall 27:1).
- Jacob blesses the younger son, Ephraim, with the right hand, typically reserved for the eldest son.
- Jacob gathers all of his sons and tells them about their future lives. He reminds them where he wants to be buried, and then he dies.
- It was a good run.
Burial and Reconciliation
- Break out the tissues. The family mourns Jacob's death, and Joseph orders his physicians to embalm Jacob. Yep, they're making him a mummy.
- Joseph requests permission from Pharaoh to leave Egypt to bury his father in Canaan, and sure enough, they bury him according to his wishes in the cave at Machpelah.
- The brothers ask for forgiveness.
- Joseph credits God with the good fortune that resulted from their devious action. Compare what he says here with what he says in 45:4-10. Now try to unpack the implications of that theology.
- Everything is all good between Joseph and his brothers. Joseph will continue to take care of them. That's what fam is for.
- Joseph dies, is turned into a mummy, and is placed in a coffin in Egypt.
- And that, Shmoopers, is the end of the beginning.