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Excerpts from Genesis

Prof's Notes: The book of Genesis is a scripture used by both Judaism and Christianity. It contains creation myths, the story of Noah and the Ark, and loads of family drama centered on Abraham and his descendents.

Although Abraham is a central figure for Christianity and Islam, he was first revered as the ancestor of the Hebrews and the spiritual father of the religion that developed into Judaism. Abraham's family, according to tradition, originated in the city of Ur in Sumeria. This means that his worldview would have been most similar to that of our Mesopotamians from Class 4. This means Abraham believed that natural forces were controlled by deities and that deities were fickle and liable to change their minds quickly.

In the passages that follow, we find Abraham in conversation with a new deity, Yahweh - a desert god who was not worshipped in Mesopotamia. Yahweh ("the Lord") makes a covenant (a binding promise) with Abraham that Yahweh will grant Abraham descendents and land in exchange for his worship.

It's worth noting that Genesis was written around the 6th century BCE, long after Abraham's life and death (c. 1700 BCE). The story was handed down as oral tradition, but when written down, it may have more closely reflected the concerns of the Jewish men and women living in exile after the Assyrian and Babylonian conquests in the 8th and 7th centuries BCE. The conquests removed the Israelites from the kingdom of Israel (formerly Canaan, now Israel/Palestine) and scattered a formerly unified people throughout the cities of a foreign empire. The stories therefore aren't precisely historical. Instead, these vignettes are intended to remind readers of their identity, the character of their deity, and the importance of the territory from which they have been removed.

God’s Covenant with Abram (Genesis 15:1-20)
After these things the word of the Lord1 came to Abram in a vision, “Do not be afraid, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great.” But Abram said, “O Lord God, what will you give me,2 for I continue childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?” And Abram said, “You have given me no offspring, and so a slave born in my house is to be my heir.” But the word of the Lord came to him, “This man shall not be your heir; no one but your very own issue shall be your heir.” He brought him outside and said, “Look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your descendants be.” And he believed the Lord; and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness.

Then he said to him, “I am the Lord who brought you from Ur3 of the Chaldeans4, to give you this land to possess.” But he said, “O Lord God, how am I to know that I shall possess it?” He said to him, “Bring me a heifer three years old, a female goat three years old, a ram three years old, a turtledove, and a young pigeon.” He brought him all these and cut them in two, laying each half over against the other; but he did not cut the birds in two.5 And when birds of prey came down on the carcasses, Abram drove them away.

As the sun was going down, a deep sleep fell upon Abram, and a deep and terrifying darkness descended upon him. Then the Lord said to Abram, “Know this for certain, that your offspring shall be aliens in a land that is not theirs, and shall be slaves there, and they shall be oppressed for four hundred years but I will bring judgment on the nation that they serve, and afterward they shall come out with great possessions. As for yourself, you shall go to your ancestors in peace; you shall be6 buried in a good old age. And they shall come back here in the fourth generation; for the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet complete.”

When the sun had gone down and it was dark, a smoking fire pot and a flaming torch passed between these pieces. On that day the Lord made a covenant with Abram, saying, “To your descendants I give this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the river Euphrates, the land of the Kenites, the Kenizzites, the Kadmonites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Rephaim, the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Girgashites, and the Jebusites.”7

The Sign of the Covenant (Genesis 17:1-25)
When Abram was ninety-nine years old, the Lord appeared to Abram, and said to him, “I am God Almighty; walk before me, and be blameless. And I will make my covenant between me and you, and will make you exceedingly numerous.” Then Abram fell on his face; and God said to him, “As for me, this is my covenant with you: You shall be the ancestor of a multitude of nations. No longer shall your name be Abram, but your name shall be Abraham; for I have made you the ancestor of a multitude of nations. I will make you exceedingly fruitful; and I will make nations of you, and kings shall come from you. I will establish my covenant between me and you, and your offspring after you throughout their generations, for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you. And I will give to you, and to your offspring after you, the land where you are now an alien, all the land of Canaan, for a perpetual holding; and I will be their God.”

God said to Abraham, “As for you, you shall keep my covenant, you and your offspring after you throughout their generations. This is my covenant, which you shall keep, between me and you and your offspring after you: Every male among you shall be circumcised. You shall circumcise the flesh of your foreskins, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and you. Throughout your generations every male among you shall be circumcised when he is eight days old, including the slave born in your house and the one bought with your money from any foreigner who is not of your offspring. Both the slave born in your house and the one bought with your money must be circumcised. So shall my covenant be in your flesh an everlasting covenant. Any uncircumcised male who is not circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin shall be cut off from his people; he has broken my covenant.”8

God said to Abraham, “As for Sarai your wife, you shall not call her Sarai, but Sarah shall be her name. I will bless her, and moreover I will give you a son by her. I will bless her, and she shall give rise to nations; kings of peoples shall come from her.” Then Abraham fell on his face and laughed, and said to himself, “Can a child be born to a man who is a hundred years old? Can Sarah, who is ninety years old, bear a child?” And Abraham said to God, “O that Ishmael9 might live in your sight!” God said, “No, but your wife Sarah shall bear you a son, and you shall name him Isaac. I will establish my covenant with him as an everlasting covenant for his offspring after him. As for Ishmael, I have heard you; I will bless him and make him fruitful and exceedingly numerous; he shall be the father of twelve princes, and I will make him a great nation. But my covenant I will establish with Isaac, whom Sarah shall bear to you at this season next year.” And when he had finished talking with him, God went up from Abraham.

Then Abraham took his son Ishmael and all the slaves born in his house or bought with his money, every male among the men of Abraham’s house, and he circumcised the flesh of their foreskins that very day, as God had said to him.

The Birth of Isaac (Genesis 21:1-7)
The Lord dealt with Sarah as he had said, and the Lord did for Sarah as he had promised. Sarah conceived and bore Abraham a son in his old age, at the time of which God had spoken to him. Abraham gave the name Isaac to his son whom Sarah bore him. And Abraham circumcised his son Isaac when he was eight days old, as God had commanded him. Abraham was a hundred years old when his son Isaac was born to him. Now Sarah said, “God has brought laughter for me; everyone who hears will laugh with me.”10 And she said, “Who would ever have said to Abraham that Sarah would nurse children? Yet I have borne him a son in his old age.”

The Command to Sacrifice Isaac (Genesis 22:1-19)

After these things God tested Abraham. He said to him, “Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.” He said, “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains that I shall show you.”11 So Abraham rose early in the morning, saddled his donkey, and took two of his young men with him, and his son Isaac; he cut the wood for the burnt offering, and set out and went to the place in the distance that God had shown him. On the third day Abraham looked up and saw the place far away. Then Abraham said to his young men, “Stay here with the donkey; the boy and I will go over there; we will worship, and then we will come back to you.” Abraham took the wood of the burnt offering and laid it on his son Isaac, and he himself carried the fire and the knife. So the two of them walked on together. Isaac said to his father Abraham, “Father!” And he said, “Here I am, my son.” He said, “The fire and the wood are here, but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?” Abraham said, “God himself will provide the lamb for a burnt offering, my son.” So the two of them walked on together.

When they came to the place that God had shown him, Abraham built an altar there and laid the wood in order. He bound his son Isaac, and laid him on the altar, on top of the wood.

Then Abraham reached out his hand and took the knife to kill his son. But the angel of the Lord called to him from heaven, and said, “Abraham, Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.” He said, “Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him; for now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me.” And Abraham looked up and saw a ram, caught in a thicket by its horns. Abraham went and took the ram and offered it up as a burnt offering instead of his son. So Abraham called that place “The Lord will provide”; as it is said to this day, “On the mount of the Lord it shall be provided.”12

The angel of the Lord called to Abraham a second time from heaven, and said, “By myself I have sworn, says the Lord: Because you have done this, and have not withheld your son, your only son, I will indeed bless you, and I will make your offspring as numerous as the stars of heaven and as the sand that is on the seashore. And your offspring shall possess the gate of their enemies, and by your offspring shall all the nations of the earth gain blessing for themselves, because you have obeyed my voice.” So Abraham returned to his young men, and they arose and went together to Beer-sheba; and Abraham lived at Beer-sheba.

  1. As you read the following passages, it's worth noting that, although Yahweh is a new god to Abram, it is not as if Abram is worshipping a deity for the first time in his life. His original city, Ur, had a number of patron deities - most notably Nanna, a moon god. These deities likely fell out of favor with Abram due to political chaos and violence in his city at the time he likely left Ur. The failure of the patron god to provide peace and safety may have sent him searching for a new god he could perceive as powerful enough to make and keep promises.
  2. How would you characterize the conversations between Yahweh and Abram in these passages? Is there anything that surprises you about the conversations? What does the nature of these conversations tell us about the Israelites' relationship to their deity?
  3. Ur: a city in Mesopotamia, relatively close to Uruk, Gilgamesh's city. If you'd like to explore the ruins a bit and see where the city is located, here's a handy Google Map.
  4. Chaldea is the Greek name for the Babylonian empire that existed from about the 9th to 6th centuries BCE. The use of this term tells us a.) that there was Greek influence on the author of this written text and b.) that the text may well have been written long after the existence of Abram, who generally supposed to have lived around 1700 BCE.
  5. The animals sacrificed in the story would typically have been offered as sacrifices in the temple in Jerusalem before the Babylonian Exile.
  6. This passage refers to a later story in the book of Genesis in which the many descendants of Abraham's great-grandsons moved to Egypt and were enslaved by the pharaoh. According to the story, they were ultimately rescued by Moses, a prophet and leader appointed by Yahweh. Although the event is not documented in Egyptian sources, it remains a central story within the Jewish tradition.
  7. Do note that the land "given" to Abram in this story is already ocupied by a host of other people groups. In the biblical narrative, this results in a lot of warfare for the ancient Israelites. We'll talk a little more in class about what the historical reality may have looked like for the Israelites and these other people groups.
  8. This is a weighty mark of the covenant, specifically for male members of Abraham's family. What purpose(s) might a physical mark serve for this god, Abraham, his descendents?
  9. Ishmael, according to Genesis, was the son of Abram and Sarai's Egyptian slave/servant, Hagar. You can read Ishmael's birth story in Gen. 16 and the story of Hagar and Ishmael's exile in Gen. 21. Ishmael is often regarded as an ancestor of Muhammad and serves as an important figure in Judaism, Islam, and Christianity.
  10. Isaac, in Hebrew, translates to "laughter" or "he who laughs." Fun play on words, yes?
  11. It's tempting as 21st century people to condemn human sacrifice. (It makes me a little queasy, if I'm honest.) But it's worth noting that this wouldn't have seemed entirely out of the ordinary for people living in the ancient near east. Human sacrifice wasn't precisely widespread, but it wasn't exceptional either, and served a specific ritual purpose within Mesopotamian and near eastern religions. This article from the NYT is a fair primer, if you'd like to read more.
  12. People and places are renamed a few times in this text. It might be worth considering why that is...