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Citation for Some Particular Helps in Reading Individual Passages

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Boadt, Lawrence . "Genesis." In The Catholic Study Bible. Oxford Biblical Studies Online. Nov 29, 2021. <http://www.oxfordbiblicalcstudies.com/article/book/obso-9780195282801/obso-9780195282801-div1-16>.


Boadt, Lawrence . "Genesis." In The Catholic Study Bible. Oxford Biblical Studies Online, http://www.oxfordbiblicalcstudies.com/article/book/obso-9780195282801/obso-9780195282801-div1-16 (accessed Nov 29, 2021).

Some Particular Helps in Reading Individual Passages

Genesis is a literary masterpiece as well as an inspiring theological message. To appreciate it better, here are a few examples of what to note about sections as we read:

Genesis 1, 1–2, 4a

The six days of creation are divided into two panels of three days each that are matched. See chart at top of RG 105 .

A comparison of the two panels reveals that in the first three days God builds a stage of heavens, water, and land; and in the corresponding second three days fills this stage with its primary actors, each in turn. The last day in each panel, days three and six, have a double task. This serves to emphasize how especially fertile the land is. Moreover, the climactic seventh day is a celebration of the goodness of this creation and becomes the model for human rest and celebration of divine goodness each week.

The pattern of creation was not invented by the P authors. The same order is followed in the ancient creation myth from Babylon called the Enuma Elish in which Marduk, the chief god of Babylon and young king of all the gods, fashions the world from the body of Tiamat, the mother goddess whom he had slain in battle. The Enuma Elish describes Marduk's creative actions in a sequence with many parallels to the account in Genesis 1 . See chart at bottom of RG 105 .

Genesis 2, 4b—3, 24

This is an independent account of the creation that is older than Genesis 1 and uses a number of mythic story themes known also in Mesopotamia, although the biblical version is unique as a whole and far more sophisticated in its vision than anything else we have found in the ancient world. However, similarities exist between parts of Genesis 2–3 and the following:

  • 1. The Myth of Etana (ANET 114–118). A great eagle eats the young of a serpent who, in turn, catches the eagle and traps it in a pit with the help of the gods. Meanwhile, Etana, a first human being, is childless, and he prays to the gods to get to heaven to eat of the plant of birth. The sun god Shamash leads Etana to the eagle, who promises to fly him to heaven to reach the plant of birth (or new life). The story breaks off, but it seems that he gets there.

  • 2. The Myth of Adapa (ANET 101–102). The gods create a first man, Adapa, who has great wisdom. He catches and breaks the wings of the south wind one day because it prevents him from fishing. When the gods begin to miss the breeze, they find out that Adapa has caused this, and so Anu, the head of the gods, summons him to heaven to account for himself. He is warned not to accept Anu's offer of the bread and water of life, because it is really the food of death. When

    Prologue: Introductory Statement that God Can Control Chaos
    Day 1 Heavens and light are made Day 4 Specific lights fashioned in the sky
    Day 2 Waters established on their own Day 5 Fish and sea creatures made to fill the water
    Day 3 Dry land made and vegetation added Day 6 The animals are created for the land, and then, finally, humans
    Day 7 Epilogue: God rests after completing all creation and is in total control
    Anu extends the offer, Adapa refuses what really does turn out to be the bread and water of life, and thus loses the chance for immortality for human beings.

  • 3. The Myth of Atrahasis (ANET 104). This is also a story of the creation of human beings as servants to the gods to keep the world running and save the gods from laboring. In time, they also revolt against the heavy labor; when plagues fail to diminish their numbers, the gods send a flood to punish them. Only Atrahasis and his family on their ark manage to escape and restart the human race.

  • 4. The Myth of Baal (ANET 129–142). Baal is the chief ruling god of the Canaanites and is known from written tablets found at Ugarit, a town in northern Syria. It tells of El, the father of the gods who lives as ruler of the heavens and the earth at the “source of the two rivers,” and the struggles of Baal, one of his younger sons, the god of the Mediterranean rainstorm and the resulting fertility for the earth, to rule the earth. Baal must battle against the gods Sea and Death for the kingship. Many themes resemble those of the Enuma Elish.

  • 4. Ezekiel 28, 11–19 . This is an important version of creation related by Ezekiel about the king of Tyre, which possibly reflects Canaanite beliefs that the first man was a king, paradise was a sacred mountain, that it was covered with precious stones, and that the king was known for great wisdom. Then he sinned and was driven from the mountains by means of cherubim, a kind of protective animal god.

  • 5. Gilgamesh (ANET 72–99). This Babylonian myth tells the story of two great god‐men heroes who challenge the gods themselves for rule of the earth. For example, the hero Gilgamesh and his friend Enkidu cut down the sacred trees in the cedar forest of the gods, which is forbidden. When the gods punish Enkidu by death, Gilgamesh searches for the key to immortality by finding the hero of the flood (which corresponds to Noah), one Utnapishtim. When Gilgamesh fails the test for immortality, he is given a second chance when given the plant of continued rejuvenation, but he loses even that to a serpent. In the end, he must return home fully mortal and learn to bear his lot.

More ancient parallels can also be found, but these should be enough to help us read the accounts of human origins and sin in the light of the pressing questions faced by all the ancient religious stories: why are the gods immortal but not

Enuma Elish Genesis 1
1. It begins with a conquest of chaos by order = The opening statement of Gn 1, 1–2
2. Heavens created and separated from the water = Day 2, the creation of heavens and separation of the waters
3. The earth is set over the waters = Day 3, the land appears from the waters
4. Creation of sun and moon = Day 4, sun and moon are set in heaven
5. (No mention of plants or animals) = (Days 5–6, the creation of fish, birds, and animals)
6. Creation of human beings = Day 6, the creation of humans
7. The gods rest and celebrate = Day 7, God rests
we humans? Why do we receive punishment from the gods in life? What is our fate? The major differences between the biblical accounts and the stories of other religions center on the clear connection in the Bible between a single God's loving care for humanity, the moral refusal of people to obey God, and the justified reason that God imposed a sentence of mortality upon us together with a change in our relation to the land that now requires backbreaking labor to make it a blessing.

Genesis 4, 1–16

The story of Cain and Abel offers a moral about how when evil flourishes it leads even to fratricide. But it also builds on an age‐old theme of the conflict between the farmer and the herder. The musical Oklahoma sings how the farmer and the cowman should be friends, but their interests conflict—the farmer wants to fence in and protect his plot of land, and the cowman requires wide‐open spaces over which the cattle or sheep can move to new pastures. This was a conflict well known to the early Israelites, who as nomadic shepherds came up against the protected and settled lands of the Canaanite farmers.

Genesis 4, 17–22; 5, 1–32

The genealogies of Genesis 4–5 with the enormous ages of the patriarchs are not intended to be understood as literally exact. We can compare them to the enormous ages given to the primeval kings of Sumeria who lived before the great flood in an ancient list (ANET 265):

  • A‐lu‐lim 28,800 years

  • Alalgar 36,000 years

  • En‐men‐lu‐anna 43,200 years

  • En‐men‐gal‐anna 28,800 years

  • Dumuzi 36,000 years

  • En‐sipa‐zi‐anna 28,800 years

  • En‐men‐dur‐anna 21,000 years

  • Ubar‐tutu 18,600 years

  • The flood

Such genealogy lists are typical of many peoples who keep largely oral traditions. The parallel lists in Genesis 4 and 5 show signs of such an oral tradition. They contain some identical and many similar names, so they probably both go back to a single core list. But they differ in length, with eight generations in chapter 4 and ten in chapter 5 . In oral tradition, the first and last names in a list are carefully preserved, but the middle names tend to change from place to place, depending on where those lists are recited. Such lists are an exciting and mysterious device for imagining how far back our ancestors go and how long the world has existed. And they serve the biblical authors well as a way of linking the wondrous events of ancient days to the more historical times we all know about.

Genesis 6, 1–9, 27

Two observations should preface serious study of what the flood story means. First, this story must have been very important, because both the Yahwist and the Priestly traditions had separate versions of the flood and both were considered important enough to save. Second, it has a very strong resemblance to similar flood stories told in both Babylon and Syria, although it has some differences from both.

The more famous parallel is in the Gilgamesh myth where the hero, Utnapishtim, is warned to build an ark and take some of every kind of animal on earth aboard before the gods destroy the world with a flood. After the flood has killed all living things left on the land, the hero sends out birds (just as in Gn 8, 6–12 ) after the ark becomes stuck on a mountain peak. When the hero finally leaves the ark, he offers a sacrifice to the gods. They are so grateful that they bless him and make him immortal. This is quite close to the plot of Genesis except that in the pagan versions, no real cause of human evil is given for why the gods decreed a flood; in the biblical version, Noah does not receive immortality as a gift at the end. In still another ancient flood myth, Atra‐Hasis, the authors retain the same basic plot, but suggest that the gods were tired of the human noise that disturbed their sleep, and so decided to do away with humans.

Again, Genesis 6–9 must be read through the eyes of the ancient Israelite who knew of the pagan versions and their account of strained relations between the divine and human worlds. The author insists that the God of Israel acted entirely out of justice and in response to moral evil in humans but still continued to love them and hold out the promise of blessing at the end. This is confirmed by restoring the earlier blessing of Genesis 1 in 9, 1–17 . It is made specific to Israel as a chosen people in the final story of 9, 18–27 where the descendants of Noah's son Shem will be blessed over the peoples that stem from his other sons, Ham and Japheth.

Genesis 9, 28–10, 32

A new genealogical list is placed after the flood story to confirm that the renewed divine blessing multiplied to reconstruct an entire world of peoples and nations. This section is made up of two separate traditional lists of names for the world's peoples, one from the P school, and the other from J. The earlier list of J can be generally recognized right away in 10, 8–30 by its more narrative flavor; the P list in 9, 28–10, 7 and 10, 21–24 (and continued in 10, 31f ) is much drier, simply presented as a list of names. But the editors of Genesis 1–11 have skillfully put them together to form a montage of different peoples spreading from the family home of Noah after the flood to fill the far corners of the earth.

Genesis 11, 1–9

The tower of Babel story is an excellent example of the J writer at work. It is told with humor and irony, and it makes a very pointed attack against pagan religious ideas. It is a story about words and speaking, but it is the misuse of words that is at stake. The plot pictures all people speaking the same language, which leads them to an enormous sin of pride. They seek to build a temple high enough to reach heaven so that they might have “a name for themselves,” that is, to be like God. But note that as they build this tremendous monument, God looks down from heaven and can barely make it out because it is so puny by God's standards. He must come down to see it. As punishment, he halts their sinful ambition by confusing their languages. The author then ends with a bit of sharp humor. The city of such arrogance was called Babel, but God made it balal, the verb in Hebrew for “confused in language.” Thus verse 9 is a pun and as such mocks the claims of Babylon and its god Marduk to rule over other peoples.

Genesis 11, 10–32

The primeval history now closes with a P list parallel to that of Genesis 5, 1–32 . It links the primeval events of chapters 1 through 11 with the concrete call of Abraham in the very real towns of Ur and Harran in Mesopotamia. Like Genesis 5, 1–32 it bridges the time between major moments or stages of divine intervention. Each patriarch is recorded with the age at which he died. The lengths are much less than those of the ten before the flood, descending from 600 years for Shem, the son of Noah, down to the four hundreds for Arpachshad, Shelah, and Eber, and rapidly down to the two hundreds for the remaining names. Of course, like the ages in chapter 5 , these are not to be taken as actual ages, but as a device for showing that the “golden age” of olden times was rapidly coming to an end as the people became more and more like ourselves.

Name lists were important in the ancient world for remembering who was related to whom. And it will seem obvious, by the time we have looked at many of these lists, that the names do not really represent individuals at all, but whole tribes or peoples. This can be direct, as in 10, 22 where P writes that Shem was the father of Elam, Assyria, and the Arameans; or indirect, when a nation is identified by a famous founder or hero, such as Ishmael, the son of Abraham, who is listed as the father of the Arabs in Genesis 25, 12–18 .

Structure of the Genealogies in Genesis 1–11

The name lists in Genesis 1–11 are very important parts of the overall story by highlighting the passage of time between crucial moments of sin and grace, and by serving as times of blessing between the particular stories of sin and punishment. Thus, it can be charted as shown on RG 108 .

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