Reading Genesis as a Book

The story of the family that will become the people of Israel is seen as the focus of a larger, universal history.


The following article is reprinted from
Genesis: Translation and Commentary
, with the permission of  W.W. Norton.

Genesis comprises two large literary units–the Primeval History (chapters 1-11) and the Patriarchal Tales (chapters 12-50). The two differ not only in subject but to some extent in style and perspective.

The approach to the history of Israel and Israel’s relationship with God that will be the material of the rest of the Hebrew Bible is undertaken through gradually narrowing concentric circles: first an account of the origins of the world, of the vegetable and animal king­dom and of humankind, then a narrative explanation of the origins of all the known peoples, from Greece to Africa to Mesopotamia and Asia Minor, and of the primary institutions of civilization, including the memorable fable about the source of linguistic division.

National History against the Backdrop of Universal Origins

The Mesopotamian family of Terah is introduced at the end of this universal history in chapter 11, and then when God calls Abraham out of Ur of the Chaldees at the beginning of chapter 12, we move on to the story of the beginnings of the Israelite nation, though the national focus of the narrative is given moral depth because the universal perspective of the first part of Genesis is never really forgotten.

reading genesis as a bookSome critics have plausibly imagined this whole large process of biblical literature as a divine experiment with the quirky and unpredictable stuff of human freedom, an experiment plagued by repeated failure and dedicated to renewed attempts: first Adam and Eve, then the generation of Noah, then the builders of the Tower of Babel, and finally Abraham and his seed.

Although the Creation story with which the Primeval History begins does look forward to the proliferation of humanity and the human conquest of the natural world, by and large the first 11 chapters of Genesis are concerned with origins, not eventualities–with the past, not the future: “He was the first of all who play on the lyre and pipe” (4:21), the narrator says of Jubal, one of the antediluvians [people who lived before the Flood]. The literal phrasing of the Hebrew here, as in a series of analo­gous verses, is “he was the father of. . .” That idiom is emblematic of the Primeval History, which is really a record of the archetypal fathers. a genealogy of human institutions and of ethnic and linguistic identity.

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Robert Alter is the Class of 1937 Professor of Hebrew and Comparative Literature at the University of California at Berkeley, where he has taught since 1967.

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