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The Oxford Bible Commentary Line-by-line commentary for the New Revised Standard Version Bible.

Genesis - Introduction

Genesis forms part of a series of ‘historical’ books that begin with the creation of the world and end with the destruction of the tiny kingdom of Judah in the sixth century BCE (the final chs. of 2 Kings). The events narrated are all arranged in a single chronological sequence into which the non-narrative material, mainly poems and laws, has been fitted. But this great history was not originally conceived as a single work. It is generally agreed that it consists of two complexes, but the point at which the first ends and the second begins has long been a disputed question. According to ancient tradition the first complex comprises the first five books, ending with Deuteronomy. This is known to the Jews by the name of Torah (or ‘the law’), and is the first and most sacred part of the canon of the Hebrew Scriptures. Modern scholars know it as the Pentateuch, a Greek word meaning ‘(of) five books’. However, its integrity was challenged in the nineteenth century CE, when many scholars held that it is incomplete without Joshua: it is only in Josh that God's promise, made in Genesis, of possession of the land of Canaan is fulfilled (hence the term Hexateuch, six books). This hypothesis has few supporters today. In 1948 Martin Noth (ET 1972) also rejected the traditional view but in a contrary sense: the first four books constituted a complete work (the Tetrateuch). Deuteronomy, though later joined with these to form the Pentateuch, belonged to a second and distinct work, the Deuteronomistic History, comprising Deuteronomy, Joshua, Judges, Samuel, and Kings. Noth's theory has been widely accepted. It may perhaps seem that these questions are irrelevant to a study of Genesis; but this is not so. Genesis, although it has its own distinctive character—it is the only book in the Pentateuch that is not dominated by the figure of Moses—is intimately linked with the books that follow, and can only be fully understood as part of a more extended history. It is essentially a book of promise, a preface to all that follows in the history of Israel, having specific links to many events narrated in those books. It establishes the identity of the nation of Israel and of its God. In particular, it is a necessary prelude to the great events associated with the Exodus from Egypt, which is the foundation of Jewish history and faith. At the same time it presents the reader with the God who is creator of the world but also a God who cares for his human creatures and reveals his nature especially in his protection and guidance of those whom he chose to be his special people.

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