Tim Bulkeley of the 5 minute Bible and sans blogue is teaching a course on the book of Genesis. Tim is simultaneously blogging and podcasting on the subject. For example, he has podcasts on Genesis as an edited text, on humour in the book of Genesis, and the audience of the book of Genesis.
The first thing I want to say about Tim’s podcasts is how much I admire the clarity and concision of the five minute presentations. That said, the picture of the raptly attentive children in a public library, the teaser graphic associated with his who is the audience for Genesis post, had me hoping that he would address the question of children as an audience for the book of Genesis, which I think is an interesting topic. My 8 year old daughter is mesmerized by her Manga Bible version of the Genesis narrative. Anna not only pays attention to the fine details of the graphics and dialogue boxes, but enjoys getting the genealogies right: the genealogy of the patriarchs and matriarchs is laid out graphically in the Manga version. I like what Fleming Routledge has to say on the subject:
In the case of Old Testament stories taught to children, we are constantly tempted to moralize them, to make them teach a useful lesson according to our own ideas of what we should be imparting to students. Not only does this domesticate and tame the unruly “strange world of the Bible”; it is also boring for children. … The pastors of congregations can help to guide the teaching of children by delivering sermons in the adult congregation which seek to impart a sense of wonder and amazement. Over time, the adults who teach children will pick this up.
Fleming Rutledge. And God Spoke to Abraham: Preaching from the Old Testament (Kindle Locations 360-366). Kindle Edition. The print version was published by Eerdmans in 2011; Lauren Winner offers a crackerjack review in Books & Culture here.
For the rest, I wonder whether it would have been more fruitful to take a concrete example of how Genesis was heard from within the Hebrew Bible rather than speculate, as Tim does in his podcast, about Ezra and the Samaritans vs. the Yehudians of the mid-Persian period as audiences of the book of Genesis. Speculation about the reception history of the Torah in the mid Persian period continues to enjoy a vogue among biblical scholars. I am not against the thought experiment. I am as convinced as the next student of the Bible that the book of Genesis, more or less in the form we have it, was read by Ezra, the inhabitants of Yehud and Samaria, and their respective diasporas, in the mid-fifth century BCE. My point is another. We have hard evidence for how it was read from substantially earlier and substantially later periods (for the latter, thanks to 1 Chron and extrabiblical parabiblical writings).
For example, several interwoven themes of Gen 32:10-13 are reprised, not just in Isa 48:19 but in the larger whole of Isa 48:1-21; in fact entire passages from the Jacob cycle and beyond are reprised in Isa 48. Israel’s triumph through an act of God is at stake. In Isa 40-55, Israel’s vindication in the court of history – its ṣedāqă – is understood, without remainder, as God’s vindication of Israel; very often God is, without remainder, Israel’s vindex, the one who rectifies an intolerable situation. Isa 48, along with 46:12-13, aligns itself with the sola gratia and sola fide themes that reach expression in Gen 12; 15; 32-33; 35; and Isa 40-55 generally: the command to leave one’s home (Isa 48:20-21; Gen 12:1-3; 15:7); otherwise put, the command to return to the land of one’s ancestors (Gen 32-33; 35), along with God’s promises of success (throughout Gen 12-35 and Isa 40-55), are benevolent divine provisions the appropriation of which is contingent upon responding to the divine word with faith. Faith in the sense of reliance on God’s promises is expressis verbis in Gen 15. It is also clear that virtually every pericope of Isa 40-55, not to mention Gen 12:1-3 and parallels, aims to elicit faith. In Isa 40-55, divine benevolence, the call to faith, and the expectation of salvation construed as justification cohere.
If I have not misunderstood, we know quite a bit about the audience of Genesis at one juncture: Jacob/Israel in exile in the 530s BCE. Otherwise said, we know quite a bit about how some of the survivors and descendants of the deportations of 598 and 586 BCE – the author of Isa 40-55 in primis - understood the book of Genesis: as a template of hope of palingenesis in the midst of exile, want, and suffering.
Some people will be disappointed to hear that Isa 40-55 is about the divine gift of rectification received in faith, but that is, it seems to me, the long and short of it, even if a great deal of the Hebrew Bible has very different emphases.
The long and short of the book of Genesis is different. Originating sins and originating acts of divine promise are the heart of the book of Genesis. I would say that “original sin” as it would later be called, with an almost obsessive focus on the narrative of Gen 3, does not consist of the creature wanting to be like his Creator. Rather, it consists of pursuing something that is a right and proper end in itself – in fact, the most laudable end of all, to be like God – by forbidden means.
The proper way to become like God is not through knowing more or knowing good and evil. The proper way to become like God is by being solicitous in all of one’s relationships. For the first couple that meant, within the purview of Gen 2, to cultivate and tend the garden they were given and to exist in mutuality with one another to a degree unlike what is possible between man and beast. Within the purview of Gen 1-3, mankind is meant to dominate his surroundings in full awareness of the goodness of all of God’s creation. He is meant, as are all other living creatures, to procreate in imitation of, dependence on, and distinction from, his Creator.1 He is like God precisely in his vocation to creative activity and power. He is meant to be God’s viceroy on earth. Instead, as Gen 3 points out, he allows a power other than God to dominate him, a trickster.
To be sure, the plot of Gen 3 is more complex than that. It is the woman God gave man who is the focus of the story. Her desire, aesthetic and intellectual at the same time, awesome in itself, is the occasion of her downfall as soon as she acquiesces to a power at odds with the power who gave her life and breath. “Her command over her passive cohort,” as Ronald Hendel puts it, leads to his demise as well. When they do precisely what they were told not to do, their eyes are opened, just as the trickster predicted. But what they see, Hendel points out, “is an ironic surprise – their nakedness, of which they are now ashamed.”2 Beyond the terrible and enduring consequences of the original sin, the narrative zeros in on God’s solicitous care for the creatures who defy him: “The Lord GOD made garments of skin for the man and his wife, and he clothed them” (Gen 3:21). They are banished from the place God originally gave them following their act of seeking to be all that one can be and to have all that one can have – by a prodigal path.
Yet banishment is a far cry from death, the consequence God warned of should they do precisely what he told them not to do (Gen 2:17). The God who punishes is, at one and the same time, merciful and solicitous.
The pattern is repeated in the case of fratricide (Gen 4). Cain is not repaid in the same coin. A reality external to the transgressor is once again the instigator: "If you do not do right, sin crouches at the door; its urge is toward you" (Gen 4:7). Primal sin in Gen 3 and 4 has to do with humanity’s proclivity to allow itself to be dominated by a power other than God. The phenomenology of wrongdoing the episodes encapsulate is comprehensible to modern no less than ancient human beings who know themselves, no less than Luther, to battle demons who threaten to undo them.
Beyond that, the Torah hardly stops the account of original sins with the first pair. Nor does it immediately lunge forward to the designation of blood to atone for blood in Lev 4-5 and to the provision for expiation of wrongdoing through a blood rite, a transference rite, and acknowledgment of wrongdoing on an annual Day of Atonement, per Lev 16. The connection between the blood of Abel, the offence (ḥaṭṭāʾt) it represents, and the blood of the slaughtered animal which serves to purge (ḥiṭṭē’) the sanctuary of defilement through contact with a people of unclean hands and lips is salient, and is rightly highlighted in a recent biblical theology,3 but there are other originating sins to which Genesis bears witness: that of the divine beings who mated with humankind and produced the nefarious heroes of old (Gen 6:1-4); that of the entire earth the inhabitants of which devise nothing but evil all day long (Gen 6:5); that of the residents of Babylon who sought to build a city able to dominate the four corners of the earth, and a tower able to reach into the heavens (Gen 11); that attempted by the men of Sodom, young and old, against innocent strangers (Gen 19); that of Sarah against Hagar and her son (Gen 21:8-21); that of Jacob against Esau, which triggers Esau’s fury (Gen 27); that of the brothers of Joseph who try to rid themselves of Joseph’s existence (Gen 37). The parade goes on in Exodus and Numbers. Everywhere we see a God who by no means clears the guilty. At the same time, he mitigates punishment, forgives, and blesses (Exod 33-34). Moreover, said God gives gifts of great substance to those who put their faith in him (Gen 15): the promises of progeny and land; provisions of deliverance, a singular locus of God’s presence, a priesthood, and an array of moral and religious norms that cry out for contemporization.
Such is the God of the Torah. That said God continues to offer these gifts to the people that understands itself to be addressed in the “Hear O Israel” of Deuteronomy is the premise of Judaism to this day. That said God continues to offer vindication to those who receive his promises in faith, promises that are thought to be renewed and re-oriented in Jesus as presented in the New Testament, is the premise of Christianity to this day.
1 Paul Niskanen, “The Poetics of Adam: The Creation of אדם in the Image of אלהים,” JBL 129 (2009): 417-436.
2 Ronald Hendel, Genesis: Introduction and Notes, in The HarperCollins Study Bible Revised Edition (Harold W. Attridge et al., eds.; New York: HarperCollins, 2006), 3-82; 9.
3 Reinhard Feldmeier and Hermann Spieckermann, Der Gott der Lebendigen: Eine biblische Gottslehre (Topoi Biblischer Theologie 1; Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2011) 309-310; ET idem, God of the Living: A Biblical Theology (tr. Mark E. Biddle; Waco: Baylor University Press, 2011) 309-310.