Christians know and love the stories of Genesis. We tell them to our children and preach them from the pulpit. Novelists and poets allude to them in their writing. These stories of brothers and sisters, wives and husbands, friends and enemies help us reflect on our experiences with family members, congregational struggles, and generational conflicts.
Conflict over the purpose and historicity of the first chapters of Genesis has often served to divide Christians against one another rather than uniting them in thankful praise to the Creator and Sustainer of life. Anabaptist groups have an internal alarm that sounds when they see the Bible used to attack, ridicule, and destroy. Bearing witness in a way that respects the other person has been a guiding testimony in the tradition, if not always in practice.
Importance of family life has been central in Anabaptist communities. Indeed in the early centuries, men and women were more likely to address one another as “brother” and “sister” than any other form of address. Thus an Anabaptist reading of Genesis cannot avoid recognizing the tensions and challenges of family life reflected in narratives of the ancestral families: Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebekah, Jacob, Leah, and Rachel as well as their children. The intention of God to create a community/family both blessed in itself and a blessing to others threads its way through all these narratives. Sometimes it is easier to understand and value God's patience with the faults and foibles of Abraham and Judah, Rebekah and Rachel, than practice such patience in our own families and congregations.
Authorship, Date, Setting
Many years of study have not settled with certainty the date and community responsible for the final form of Genesis. Scholars in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries sought to identify written documents that may have been collected and reshaped into the final form of Genesis. At the end of the nineteenth century Julius Welhausen brought such a proposal together in what came to be known as the “Documentary Hypothesis.” Variations of the documentary hypothesis continue to influence scholars. However the study of oral literature in ancient society gradually called into question the understanding that written documents provided the material from which the book emerged.
Ancient Israel was an oral culture. Relatively few people could read and write. Every narrative or poem, written or not, was shaped by this oral culture. Most scholars now talk about Genesis as a collection of traditions – some originally oral, others written. These stories were told in many villages, sanctuaries, and cities over centuries. We do not know as much as we would like about the process of gathering, shaping, and retelling. Some material seems to reflect the perspective of scribes and sages in the south while some is likely from the north. Other material reflects the language and orientation of the priestly community. It is likely that Genesis did not reach its final written form until the sixth to the fourth centuries BCE, a period in which Israel struggled to redefine itself as a dispersed people of faith.
The long standing attribution of Genesis to Moses functions as a testimony to its value and authority. However most scholars believe that whatever contributions Moses made to its composition, they were not as an author as we currently think of that role. Regardless of the process that shaped the five books we have today, Moses is the central person in Israel's birth as the people of God. The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob called Moses to deliver the people from oppression and to renew and expand the covenant between God and their ancestors.
Form and Rhetoric
Although we frequently lift individual episodes out of Genesis for reflection, we must not forget that the stories come to us as a part of larger units called “sagas.” The Genesis sagas bring together a variety of material: narratives, poems, anecdotes, genealogies. The saga incorporates this material in an extended narrative with its own identifiable theme and artistic focus. Therefore, while the episodes in Genesis have value in themselves, we do not want to lose sight of their place and function in the larger narrative.
The first section of Genesis (1-11) has been treated separately from the remainder of the book. Chapters 1-11 centered on the beginning of the human family, whereas chapters 12-50 focus on several generations of one family. Recognizing the distinctiveness of the first eleven chapters, scholars have noted several threads that hold Genesis together. For example the divine promise, featured so prominently in the ancestral sagas, plays a central role in God's redefining and reenergizing life at the conclusion of the flood narrative (Gen 9). Similarly, the element of blessing that powers the ancestral sagas beginning in Genesis 12:1-3 is equally important in the creation drama (Gen 1:28).
The focus of the ancestral sagas is not limited to the struggles and success of one family. By divine declaration, through Sarah and Abraham and their descendants “all the families of the earth shall receive blessing” (Gen 12:3). God's concern for all humanity (demonstrated in chapters 1-11) continues as the chosen family carries from one generation to the next God's promise to bless all families.
Summary and Comment
Genesis 1-11 Beginnings
Focused on the pre-Abrahamic development of life on earth, the initial unit moves very quickly from harmony to hostility. Chapter 1 employs poetic drama to portray God's creation of a world with symmetry, harmony, and fertility. Organized in the pattern of the seven-day week, it displays a creation-implanted rhythm of work and rest. The human family, male and female, is charged with the opportunity and responsibility to manage God's creation as those made in the divine image.
Chapter 1 employs poetic drama to portray God's creation of a world with symmetry, harmony, and fertility. Organized in the pattern of the seven—day week, it displays a creation-implanted rhythm of work and rest. The human family, male and female, is charged with the opportunity and responsibility to manage God's creation as those made in the divine image.
Chapters 2–3, a complementary account of beginnings, moves from creation in its beauty and fertility toward disruption and death. Emphasizing the intimacy of the bond of the man and the woman as the divine response to loneliness, God placed them in a lush garden, entrusting them with the garden's care. Bestowing upon them the freedom to enjoy the fruit of the garden, God forbade them from eating from one of the trees. Death would result from eating the fruit of that one tree.
Genesis 3, in brief but powerful prose, narrates the couple's decision to disobey God's one limitation. Telling us that the snake was craftier than other animals, the narrative moves quickly from the decision to eat the fruit from the tree, to the immediate consequence. The couple realizes that the harmony of creation has been broken. Shame has replaced delight in their self-perception and relationship; the man and the woman “saw” and “made,” “heard” and “hid.”
Christian theology has named this “the fall,” language not used in Genesis. Instead the text employs narrative movement from disobedience/transgression to consequences. The consequences affect the natural world as well as the human community. Death now defines the end of life in a disrupted and difficult world.
Genesis 4–8 moves from this transgression to another and another, actions that eventually break God's heart (6:6). In contrast to the “very good” that God saw at the conclusion of creation (1:31), now God sees evil in every impulse of the human heart (6:5). God decides to start over.
The church has found the flood story both delightful and disconcerting. Children enjoy the drama, picturing the ark overloaded with animals. Adults often struggle to understand a narrative in which most of the human and natural world is destroyed. Many have pointed out the lack of internal narrative consistency, e.g., two pairs of all the animals (6:19-20) or seven pairs of the clean animals (7:2-3) Like most narratives in Genesis, the Flood Story was told and retold in villages and sanctuaries throughout ancient Israel. We are not surprised that in the transmission of the tradition, the narrative emerged with details which we find inconsistent.
Focus on those details may cause us to miss the central issue: when God's judgment floods a world destroyed by sin, can anybody, indeed anything, survive? In pivotal sentences, the narrative relives that even then God's grace will mitigate divine anger: so “God remembered Noah and all the wild animals and all the domestic animals that were with him in the ark” (8:1). Immediately the water begins to recede. God introduces a new covenant, a covenant that takes into account the disharmony caused by human disobedience (9:1-11).
The problem of sin has not gone away. The sin that deeply grieved God before the Flood afflicts the family that left the ark (9:18-28.). Nor does it end with Noah's family. Genesis 11 concludes this unit with a transgression narrative that involves “all the people on the earth” (11:1). In this narrative, people seek to use their unity to protect and preserve themselves, thus distorting their relationship with God. Faced with a people preoccupied with self-preservation, God acted to confuse their language, perhaps avoiding a future controlled by such a self-centered focus.
The narratives of Genesis 1-11 capture our interest. The genealogies don't. Nevertheless these genealogies also have an important narrative function. In the midst of the problems and crises that plague the divine and human community, life goes on one generation after another. God's presence can be seen in the magnificent rhythm of life, just as surely as in drama of disobedience, judgment, and grace.
Genesis 11:27-25:18 The Saga of Abraham and Sarah
Most of us read the saga of Abram/Abraham and Sarai/Sarah more as a series of episodes than as a single narrative. Indeed the episodic characteristic of the genre shows itself more clearly in this saga than in the ancestral sagas that follow (Jacob, Gen 25–36 and Joseph, Gen 37–50.). Probably the “call” of Abram (12:1-4) and the “near sacrifice of Isaac” (22:1-19) are the best known episodes. Fewer readers can recall the warfare that made Lot a hostage (Gen 14) or the conflict over water rights for which Beersheba was named (Gen 21).
The saga of Sarah and Abraham begins not with Genesis 12, but with the genealogy in 11:27-32. Two elements stand out in this genealogy. Twice it emphasizes that Sarah is barren (11:30). Will God's covenantal promise to Noah be realized? If so something new must happen. A second critical element follows immediately. Terah, Abraham's father, takes the family from Ur toward Canaan. However, they do not reach their destination. Instead they settle in Haran where Terah dies. As the annotated genealogy concludes, Abraham has no child and lives in an area that is not the original destination. The text does not explain either the cause of the infertility or the stop in Haran. Such descriptive brevity is an important feature of Hebrew narrative. This brevity draws listener/reader into the story as we seek to fill in the “gaps.”
God's speech to the barren refugee family (12:1-3) promises a future where none has existed. The relocation, halted in Haran with Terah's death, begins again by God's command. This speech, featuring instruction (12:1) and promise (12:2-3), directs Abraham to resume the journey toward the land that I will show you. Their travel terminates in Canaan, the original destination.
Blessing (Heb. brk) is repeated five times in this brief speech. This repetition emphasizes blessing as central to this divine promise. The promise of blessing is not exhausted on Abraham and his family. God has opted to use this family to bestow blessing, fertility, prosperity, and community on all the peoples of the earth.
In the midst of reporting the family's arrival in Canaan, Genesis 12:4-9 reiterates God's promise, I give this land to your descendants (12:7). But what about this promised future? The Canaanites live in the land; Sarah remains barren!
As is common in Hebrew narrative, the opening scene establishes the plot tension. The dissonance between God's promise and problems in Canaan as well as the barrenness of Sarah provides the energy which drives the narrative toward its conclusion.
The episodes that follow illustrate the difficulty Sarah and Abraham experience as they seek to actualize God's promise of descendants and land. Immediately after Abraham built an altar, famine consumed the land, forcing the family to take refuge in Egypt. There Abraham aggravates their situation by seeking to trade Sarah for safety. Prompted by divine intervention, Pharaoh recognizes the problem, returns Sarah, and expels the renegade refugees (12:10-20). Problems continue. Security in Canaan is threatened by bickering between those herding Abraham's livestock and those herding Lot's. Abraham and Lot agree to separate. Lot chooses the Jordan valley leaving Abraham with the hill country (13:1-18). In the hill country of Canaan conflict flares up between Abraham and his neighbors, conflict that ends with a peace treaty between Abraham and Melchizedek, the king of Salem (14:1-24).
Be that as it may, Abraham and Sarah still have no descendant and their living environment is not secure. Abraham calls the problems to God's attention. God simply repeats the promise, this time reinforcing it with a covenant (15:1-21).
The narrative then turns to the lack of an heir. At Sarah's suggestion, they decide to adopt a child, using Sarah's Egyptian servant as their surrogate. This results in conflict. Harsh treatment by Sarah prompts Hagar to flee. Blessed by a divine messenger, Hagar eventually returns home (16:1-16). Subsequently God reiterates the promise, first with a covenant and then an annunciation of a son to be born to Sarah (17:1–18:15).
The fulfillment of this promise is delayed by two conflict narratives, trouble in Sodom and an unexplained second sojourn in Gerar (18:16–20:18). At long last, Sarah becomes pregnant and gives birth to Isaac (21:1-7). That further aggravates the tension between Sarah and Hagar. At Sarah's request, Abraham expels Hagar and Ishmael to the arid wasteland near Beer-sheba. Hearing the boy's cry, God intervenes, rescuing them from dehydration (21:8-21).
Sarah and Abraham have an heir, Isaac. However, the narrative takes an unexpected and dangerous turn. God puts the divine promise in danger, instructing Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac! What follows is the silent trip of father and son to offer a sacrifice at the sanctuary at Moriah, silence broken only by Isaac's question, Where is the lamb? and Abraham's response, God himself will provide the lamb. God does provide the animal, and Abraham offers the sacrifice in place of his son.
The narrative tension introduced at the beginning of the unit has been resolved, at least to some degree. Abraham and Sarah have a son confirmed by God as their heir. However the promise of a secure land remains unresolved. This saga concludes with testamentary activities of Sarah and Abraham including their death and Isaac's marriage to Rebekah 22:20–25:18.
Genesis 25:19–36:43 The Saga of Jacob
The saga of Abraham and Sarah began with the lack of an heir and concluded with the deaths of Sarah and Abraham. This new saga begins with the birth of two sons to Isaac and Rebekah and concludes with the death of Isaac. That parallelism might suggest that this be designated the saga of Isaac. Be that as it may, Jacob is the primary character throughout. Isaac appears only in the opening and closing scenes.
As we expect, this saga opens with the tension that defines the plot. Although infertility plays a role in this narrative, family conflict becomes the most serious threat to God's promise in Genesis 12. How can all the promise be realized through Abraham and Sarah's family constantly in conflict—conflict that damages the relationships, distant relatives as well as immediate family.
The basic flow of the saga is “interrupted” twice, chapters 26 and 34. While these interruptions function to allow “narrative time” to pass, these also feature conflict, conflict with groups outside the family. Chapter 26 relates, for the third time, an episode in which a famine forces the family to flee as refugees—this time to Gerar, a territory controlled by Abimelech. Again the patriarch places his wife in danger, passing her off as his sister. This time the danger is not really dangerous. Abimelech sees Isaac “caressing” Rebekah and confronts Isaac with his lie. However a second incident increases the tension between Isaac and the people of Gerar. They argue over a well dug by Isaac's servants. Together these problems are settled by a formal agreement and they separate “in peace” (26:31).
Difficult and dangerous conflict threatens the very core of the family: brother against brother, wife divided from husband, uncle versus nephew and sister against sister. Some of the family conflicts end peacefully others do not.
However the antagonism between the twins, Esau and Jacob, is fundamental to the plot. Rebekah feels the twins struggle against each other even before they are born (25:22). Their conflict is fueled by Jacob's desire to be dominant even though he was born second. Their conflict escalates when Isaac and Rebekah each favor a different son and reaches a crisis when Jacob deceives his father, Isaac, stealing from Esau his first-born inheritance. Enraged, Esau threatens to kill his brother (27:1-41). Rachel instructs her favorite son to flee (28:5). Jacob's departure leaves the brothers' conflict unresolved.
Jacob arrives in Haran and soon finds himself in conflict with his uncle. The story opens with Jacob's arrival at a shepherd's well (29:2). Never cautious, Jacob instructs the shepherds to open the well and water their sheep. They reject Jacob's “instruction” (29:8). However, when another shepherd (Rachel) arrives, Jacob greets her by opening the well, watering her flocks, and sealing his greeting with a kiss (29:11). Informed about the arrival of his sister's son, Laban invited Jacob to stay.
Instead of a salary for work he might do, Jacob wants Rachel, Laban's youngest daughter -- the statuesque, beautiful daughter. Concerning Leah the narrator says only that she has soft or tender eyes (more probable translation). Laban agrees that Jacob would make a good husband for Rachel, but avoids direct response to his nephew's request.
The conflict between Laban and Jacob bursts into flames when Jacob discovers that he has married Leah and not Rachel (29:25). Eventually Jacob marries Rachel as well, but that sets up the next conflict: Jacob loved Rachel more than Leah (29:30). The narrative drops the conflict between Jacob and Laban to focus on the conflict between the sisters, Leah and Rachel.
If in the Jacob saga, “the good life” for the male is to be the “first born” in the family, for the female “the good life” requires love and fertility. Unfortunately neither sister has both. The beautiful Rachel is loved but barren, and the “ordinary” Leah is fertile but not loved. Both women long for the part of life they have been denied. Leah expresses her longing through the names she gives her sons: Reuben, Perhaps now my husband will love me (29:32); Simeon, The Lord heard that I am not loved (29:33). Eventually, Leah gives up on love from her husband: Judah, This time I will praise the Lord (29:35).
Rachel has the love her sister seeks, but no child. Eventually Rachel turns to the process of adoption that Sarah used when she was barren (Gen 16). Rachel gives her personal attendant, Bilhah, to Jacob. Rachel gives these adopted sons names that express her desire—Dan: The Lord has vindicated me . . . and given me a son (30:6).
The sisters go back and forth in an effort to obtain what they want and the other has. Finally, Rachel becomes pregnant and gives birth to a son. But one son is not enough. She names him, Joseph: May the Lord give me another son (29:24).
The conflict between the sisters is never settled. They can function as sisters, but the agony expressed in the names of their sons remains unsatisfied. Rachel does have another son whom she names Ben-Oni: son of my sorrow (35:18). As the name indicates, there is no joy in this birth. Rachel dies in child birth and Jacob renames this son, Benjamin. Rachel, the beloved wife, is buried in a tomb near Ephrath. Little more is said about Leah except that the unloved fertile wife is buried in Jacob's family tomb (49:31).
Leaving that conflict unresolved, the saga returns to the conflict between Jacob and Laban. Like their initial conflict, the “visible” issue involves Jacob's wages. Once again this serves as the pretext for their struggle for dominance. In the midst of their escalating battle, Jacob decides to flee (31:2). Jacob's flight with his wives, Laban's daughters, serves a final provocation. The narrator comments that Jacob “stole Laban's heart by not telling him that he was leaving” (31:20). Eventually Laban caught up with his fleeing family and the two men engage in a verbal battle of mutual accusation.
Eventually Laban, not Jacob, proposes that they make a covenant (31:44) – not a covenant of reconciliation, but a mutual non-aggression treaty (31:48-53). They agree not to cross the established stone boundary for the purpose of doing harm to the other (31:52). Laban's concluding words are used in church liturgy (the Mizpah benediction): May the Lord watch between you and me while we are absent from one another (31:49).
Having resolved the Jacob/Laban conflict with a treaty, the narrative returns to the conflict that initiated the saga, Esau and Jacob. As Jacob begins his journey “home” (31:33), he sends a message to Esau indicating his desire to restore their relationship. Jacob's messengers return reporting that Esau is “coming to meet you with four hundred men” (32:6). Neither Jacob nor the reader knows whether this is a friendly or hostile response from the one who previously said, I will kill my brother, Jacob (27:41). Jacob prepares a lavish gift and organizes his family for one purpose: I may be able to pacify Esau (32:20). After spending a night alone struggling with God, Jacob reorganizes his family, placing Rachel and Joseph last, but deciding that he will go first (33:3).
Jacob approached his brother bowing as a servant before his master. Esau responds to Jacob embracing him not as a master greets a servant, but as brother to brother (33:4). This greeting, similar to the one which met the “prodigal son” in Jesus' parable (Luke 15:20), happens without comment, and sets the tone for their conversation. The narrative does not provide a perfect conclusion. Throughout their dialog Jacob refers to Esau as my master: Esau responds calling Jacob, my brother (33:8-9). Esau invites Jacob to return with him. Jacob agrees to meet him at Seir (33:14). Esau goes to Seir, but Jacob does not follow, going instead to Succoth and then Shechem (33:16-17). The narrative allows the readers to draw their own conclusion about the relationship of the twins going forward. Interspersed in the narrative of Jacob's journey to Haran and back, are occasions when Jacob encounters God. While some of these encounters involve divine instruction and/or promise, two meetings feature considerable drama. In 28:12-18 God comes to Jacob in a dream reiterating the promise as first heard by Abraham and Sarah. Filled with awe, Jacob names the place Bethel (the House of God) and makes a vow. Not surprisingly, Jacob's vow is conditional: If God is with me, and protects me, . . . and gives me bread to eat and clothes to wear, and I return safely, . . . then the Lord shall be my God . . . .” (28:20-21).
Another even more dramatic encounter occurs at the Jabbok just before Jacob meets Esau (32:22-32). That night, when Jacob was alone, a “certain one” confronts him. At the end of the confrontation Jacob realizes that he has encountered God. In the midst of it, however, Jacob knows only that he is locked in a struggle with someone. Seemingly Jacob both wins and loses. He comes blessed, but also crippled and blessed. Jacob has won his way in the relationship, but carries scars of the battle.
Genesis 34 provides another interlude in the saga. Like the previous “interlude” (Gen 26), this is a story of conflict with those outside the family. Shechem, the crown prince of his territory rapes Dinah, the daughter of Leah. The Prince then seeks to make it right by marrying Dinah, whom he loves. Shechem's father, Hamor, asks Jacob to allow the marriage – offering in return to make Jacob's family citizens of their territory. Jacob's sons agree to the “treaty,” but only if the men of Hamor's family agree to be circumcised – a stipulation to which Hamor and Shechem agree. When the men are still recovering from the circumcision, Jacob's sons slaughter them and loot their city! Obviously, this conflict with the people of the land does not end peacefully!
The concluding chapter (35) of the saga includes a wide variety of material functioning as testamentary activities. The construction of a sanctuary brings the family together at Bethel and confirms Jacob's name as Israel (35:1-16). Rachel's nurse, Deborah, dies; Benjamin is born and Rachel dies (35:8,16-20). The saga concludes with Isaac's death. The twin brothers, whose conflict drove this narrative, join to bury their father (35:28). Lest Esau's role be forgotten, the epilogue to the saga lists Esau's genealogy (Genesis 36).
Genesis 37:1 – 50:26 The Saga of Joseph
More than the other sagas of Genesis, the Joseph saga comes to us as a short story (novella). The narrative is relatively complex. Characters move in and out of the drama. We are given a glimpse into the private feelings of Joseph. The story takes Joseph from youth to death. The life of his family mixes with the national politics of Egypt. As in the other sagas, lists and tales interrupt the flow of the main plot, for example, the brief narrative of Judah and Tamar (Gen 38) and the testamentary blessing by Jacob (Gen 49).
This saga uses both Jacob and Israel as the name of Joseph's father, probably reflecting accounts of this story told in different locations and times. In the tradition, the name Jacob most often refers to the ancestor and Israel to the community of his descendants. The use of both in this story reminds us that this is both a family and a community story.
The introductory tension that carries the plot is located in the interaction between Jacob, his favorite son Joseph, and his other sons. Again God's promise in Genesis 12:1-3 appears to be endangered by troubling family dynamics.
Jacob provides a “royal” cloak for the son of his favorite wife, unmatched by anything given his other sons. For his part Joseph brings his father a “bad report” concerning his brothers. Joseph further escalates the tension by relating dreams in which he is the “king” and all his family is bowing down to him.
The favoritism, the cloak, the negative report, the dreams all served to escalate the hatred of his brothers: “they hated [Joseph] all the more because of his dreams and his words” (37:8). The brothers found an opportunity for revenge when Jacob sent Joseph to check up on his brothers and the family flocks. Some brothers wanted to kill Jacob making it look like the work of a wild animal, but the elder brothers Reuben and Judah refused to allow them to shed the blood of their brother. Instead the brothers followed Judah's suggestion and sold him to a passing caravan of traders, a transaction completed in Reuben's absence (37:29-30). The brothers covered their crime by dipping Joseph's “royal” cloak in animal blood and taking it to their father. Jacob broke down into inconsolable grief: “In grief I will go down to my son in Sheol” (37:35). Meanwhile, the traders sold Joseph to Potiphar, an Egyptian royal official.
In Genesis 38, we find a narrative “digression” which functions to allow time to pass in the primary story. The story places Judah's family in a Canaanite village, where he is married to an unnamed Canaanite (the daughter of Shua). Judah selects Tamar, a Canaanite, as a wife for Er, his eldest son. The normal course of Judah's family is disrupted when Er offends God and dies childless (38:7). Judah instructs his second son, Onan, to assume the responsibility of providing an heir for Er with Tamar. Onan sabotages that plan by spilling his semen on the ground. This offense results in Er's death (Gen 38:10). Judah had only one son left. Reluctant to risk the life of his son, Shelah, Judah told Tamar to wait for Shelah to come of age (38:11).
A long time passes. Still Tamar waits. Eventually Tamar takes matters into her own hands. Learning that Judah was on his way to Timnah for the sheep shearing, Tamar, dressed as a veiled prostitute, waits by the side of the road. As he is passing by Judah asks her for sex, unaware of her identity. Tamar demands and receives Judah's staff, seal, and cord, as collateral for the agreed upon price. When Judah sent his friend back to redeem his collateral, Tamar was gone (38:22).
About three months later, Judah learns that Tamar is pregnant, presumably from prostitution. Judah orders her brought out and executed. Tamar presented to the “judge,” Judah, his staff, seal, and cord. Realizing what had happened, Judah says, “she is more righteous than I, since I did not give her to my son Shelah” (Gen 38:26). In this narrative, righteousness is located in actions that promote the welfare of the community.
While the primary narrative function of this “digression” allows time to pass after the traders sold Joseph to Potiphar, chapter 38 displays again that flawed character of God's chosen family. Can God's promise be realized by such a family as this? The answer is Yes, as we shall see in the conclusion of the story of Joseph (50:20).
Returning in Genesis 39 to the primary story, with God's accompaniment Joseph is appointed steward in charge of Potiphar's household. With responsibility comes danger. Potiphar's wife, attracted to Joseph, orders him to “lie with me” (39:7). Joseph refuses. Potiphar's wife, failing to persuade Joseph, seizes Joseph's cloak and uses it as evidence of attempted rape. Potiphar throws Joseph in prison. Joseph's competent composure prompts the prison official to appoint Joseph as prison supervisor. (39:23).
In prison, Joseph gains additional stature as a divinely endowed interpreter of dreams (40:1-23). His interpretive skill eventually brings him to the attention of Pharaoh. Royal dreams that confounded all the sages of Egypt, caused the wine steward to remember “the young Hebrew” in prison (41:12). Joseph's interpretive gifts in behalf of Pharaoh resulted in his installation as vice regent and the chief administrator of Egypt (41:43).
Joseph's administrative oversight of food conservation and distribution during a famine put him in a position to reconnect and eventually to reconcile with his family. However, lest we yield to the temptation to idealize Joseph, the narrative relates that during the famine he wielded his power ruthlessly. He confiscated livestock and land in exchange for food and the narrator tells us: Joseph enslaved the people throughout all of Egypt (47:20-21).
Like the Egyptian people, the famine reduced Jacob to begging for food. Learning that there was food in Egypt, Jacob sent his sons to obtain grain so that we may live and not die (42:2). Benjamin, now Jacob's favorite, did not accompany his brothers. What follows is a long, dramatic series of negotiations between Jacob's sons and the vice regent of Egypt. For the Hebrew brothers these negotiations concerned food. But for Joseph this drama was driven by his desire to reunite with his full brother, Benjamin. Facing the choice of starvation or sending Benjamin to Egypt with his brothers, Jacob agreed to let him go. For Jacob, the loss of Benjamin as well as Joseph, would leave him “childless:” if I'm left childless, then I'm left childless(43:14 CEB).
Pursuing his own agenda, Joseph arranged for it to appear like Benjamin stole the royal administrator's personal silver cup (44:1-2). When the cup was discovered in Benjamin's sack of grain, the vice regent ordered the guilty person be kept as his personal slave. Standing by his guarantee to his father to protect Benjamin, Judah begged that he be enslaved instead of Benjamin 44:33.
Joseph's emotions prevented him from continuing the pretense. He revealed himself to his brothers: I am your brother, Joseph, whom you sold into Egypt (45:4). This prompted an emotional reunion with his brothers and his father. Jacob/Israel relocated his family to Egypt and died in peace: [Israel] drew up his feet into the bed, breathed his last, and was gathered to his people (49:33).
The father's death did not end the tension in the family. In fact, it renewed the brothers' fear that now Joseph would pay them back for their treatment of him. Joseph put that fear to rest: Even though you intended to harm me, God intended it for good, to save the lives of many people, as has happened. So don't be afraid; I will take care of you and your children (50:20-21).
Those words of Joseph sum up not only the theme of the saga devoted to him, but represent God's abiding presence in all three ancestral sagas. Each saga features occasional faithful actions scattered among moments of disobedience and doubt, arrogance and violation, fear, shame, and guilt. Through it all, God worked for good to save the lives of many people, as indeed happened. Anabaptists understand very well that the story of every individual and community features obedience and disobedience, success and failure. There is no life free of trouble, trouble caused by one's own failing as well as by corruption within the human and natural environment. In and through it all, God works for good. As disciples of Jesus Christ we are called not only to personal faithfulness, but to work along with God, for good that the lives of many might be blessed as has and will happen.
Other thematic threads woven throughout Genesis resonate with Anabaptists. Like our biblical ancestors we find conflict a constant companion, at home or the office, in the city or the nation, within intentional religious communities as well as the diverse global culture. Some of these conflicts can be resolved and others managed. Still other conflicts persist, difficult, sometimes dangerous. Whatever and wherever conflict erupts, God enters in, providing light where darkness rules, life where death controls, a new generation when this one tires, tomorrow where today stops.
The narrative in Genesis presents God as both the creator and sustainer of life. Genesis 1–11 portrays God delighted with creation as it emerges (1:31) and overcome with grief and anger as the “good creation” is nearly destroyed by disobedience (6:5,11). Even in this brokenness, God affirms his unconditional commitment to every living creature, humans and animals (9:9ff.).
The ancestral sagas narrate God's commitment to sustain, indeed bless, all the families of the earth through the agency of the Abrahamic family. God remains committed to the covenant and this family, seeking to effect good, to save life, even when the family almost destroys itself in self-interest. As faith descendants of Abraham and Sarah, we live as people of God's covenant, called as agents of divine blessing: Through you all the families of the earth shall be blessed (Gen 12:3). As people empowered by divine grace, we are sent to share God's grace where we find ourselves: at home and at work, with friend and with enemy.
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Towner, W. Sibley. Genesis. Westminster Bible Companion. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2001.
Turner, Laurence A. Genesis. Readings: A New Biblical Commentary. Edited by J. Jarick. Sheffield, UK: Sheffield, 2000.
Westermann, Claus. Blessing in the Bible and the Life of the Church. Overtures to Biblical Theology. Translated by Keith Crim. Philadelphia, PA: Fortress, 1978.
––––––. Genesis 1–11: A Commentary. Translated by J. Scullion. Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1984.
––––––. Genesis 12–36: A Commentary. Translated by J. Scullion. Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1985.
––––––. Genesis 37–50: A Commentary. Translated by J. Scullion. Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1986.
Recommended Essays in the Commentary
Blessing in Genesis
Characteristics of Hebrew Narrative
Genres of Hebrew Literature
Invitation to Comment
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|—Eugene F. Roop|