begin at the beginning

As you begin to make your way through the familiar and unfamiliar stories of Genesis, I want to offer some background relating to the ‘genesis’, if you will, of the Bible, specifically, the first five books of the Bible, called the Torah (“teaching” in Hebrew) within Judaism, or the Five Books of Moses- Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy. Today’s passage comes from Robert Alter’s book, The Five Books of Moses, A Translation with Commentary. In fact, I may lean heavily on Alter’s work in these early weeks with the Old Testament. It describes, with brevity, the Documentary Hypothesis of Genesis’ composition. The hypothesis, which achieved great acclaim in the twentieth century, is a great place to start (though newer scholarship has begun to question some of its assumptions and conclusions):

Much of what I have to say in my commentary about the details of the narrative presupposes that Genesis is a coherent book, what we moderns would think of as a work of literature. But, as many readers may be aware, two centuries of biblical scholarship have generally assumed that Genesis- and indeed each of the Five Books of Moses as well as most other biblical texts- is not strictly speaking a book but rather an accretion of sundry traditions, shot through with disjunctions and contradictions, and accumulated in an uneven editorial process over several centuries. There are knotty issues of the dating and the evolution of the text that have been debated by generations of scholars… but I do think that the historical and textual criticism of the Bible is not so damaging to a literary reading of the text as is often assumed…

Let me just say a few words about the different strands that are detectable in Genesis, Exodus, and Numbers… Since well back into the nineteenth century, it has been the consensus of biblical scholarship that Genesis, together with two of the next three books of the Pentateuch [“five books” in Hebrew], is woven together from three distinct literary sources or “documents”- the Yahwistic document (designated J), the Elohistic document (E), and the Priestly document (P). Most scholars have concluded that J and E are considerably earlier than P, which could be as late as the sixth century B.C.E. (the period after the return from the Babylonian exile)…

One need not claim that Genesis is a unitary artwork, like, say, a novel by Henry James, in order to grant it integrity as a book.”

What I appreciate about Alter’s approach is his willingness to stand within the historical/critical tradition, while at the same time considering the text as having a cohesive integrity, “a unitary artwork.” To the best of my ability, I hope to mimic his approach as we proceed.

Have you seen evidence of the ‘woven strands’ in these first few chapters?

What are your initials reflections on reading Genesis?

Emotional responses?

Please share!

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About RevMcC

I am a pastor, licensed social worker, consultant and workshop leader. I live in Brooklyn, NY, (the greatest place ever) with my husband and two children (the greatest people ever). I am an unqualified extrovert and lover of God. I try to live my life with gratitude, wonder, curiosity and attention.
This entry was posted in Bible Study, Five Books of Moses; Pentateuch; Torah, Theology and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to begin at the beginning

  1. cathy says:

    Dear All –

    I am absolutely loving my read through the first book of the bible. Even though I have read the bible for most of my life, I never really enjoyed starting from the beginning as the density of the text overwhelmed and discouraged me. This time around, however, I find myself immersed in the text, in the intricately woven stories that are as technical and creative as the creator Himself. I no longer consider it a textbook of sorts, as a precursor for the “good” stuff that’s to come in the New Testament. Rather, I see it as a descriptive and prescriptive narrative that shows the emotions, the cultures, the imagination of our God whose love for His people is at once constant and fickle. I still gloss over the many technical names of places and people and my eyes strain to process the many, many details but I am really enjoying this glorious ride into the Word.

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