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Thursday, January 7, 2016

Exodus: Genesis "Pre-story"

Genesis: how we got to the "Book of Exodus"
Chapter 1 is a very orderly and majestic account of creation, culminating in God’s day of rest. Creation is geo-centric and earthbound in its focus. The repetition of positive assessment (God saw it was good) is important. The Jewish account is much different from the “mythical” accounts of their neighbors (where creation is the debris of some battle between gods). Here, ‘God speaks’ and ‘it was so’. The ordering of chaos is a recurrent theme. Too much water (chaos is water) is solved by parting water and making dry land. Humans (male and female created at once) are in “the image and likeness” of God. (Recall there are to be no graven images in Judaism!) Humans are to subdue and shepherd the earth--the verbs are strong (one is also translated as rape). It seems to imply struggle and a need for vigilance. The world breaks down without the effort of keeping order. Humans are given the task of lordship/dominion over the earth and its inhabitants.
Chapters 2, 3, & 4 provide a more intimate account of creation. Here God makes man first (not last), using the dust of the earth (there are four words adam’, a’dam, adom, edom, all meaning “red” and a pun on “adamah meaning “land”). The "dust-man" is filled with the breath (neshema-from the root “to pant” as in labor) and becomes a living soul (nephesh- from root ‘to breathe, to pant’ and means: soul, self, life, creature, person, appetite, mind, living being, desire, emotion, passion). However, there is no declaration of human status as “image and likeness” of God. The original situation, a garden in Eden (which means “delight, pleasure” and it denotes “fertility” per Jewish Study Bible), would seem to be an idyllic circumstance. Here the dry land needs water and the garden needs tending. The tree of the knowledge of good and bad stands as the test. Man and woman are made for monogamy. With the ‘Fall’ there is a curse and exile. This echoes Israel’s experience later (again and again) in the Bible.
Chapter 5 provides ten generations (of extended life span) through Seth. However, many names sound similar to the descendants of Cain. Genealogy are very significant in the Bible as it is one’s source of identity.
Chapter 6-10 The Noah saga serves as a second creation account. Here the waters return and cover the earth again. The sin and evil of humans leads God to “regret” He made mankind. The Hebrew verb, nacham, means to breathe strongly (in pity or in regret) and implies repentance! Noah finds favor with God. He is righteous, blameless, and walks with God--so he and his family are saved (much different from the pagan flood stories where the gods find people noisy and irritating and a hero must battle the sea god to save them). The account serves as a model for “the holy remnant” and the ark will reappear in Exodus in the baby Moses story. Chapter 10 concludes with another genealogy explaining the “from these (three sons) the nations branched out over the earth after the flood (or the Middle East!!!)
Chapter 11 A brief interlude about Babel (towers of Babylon are no doubt a reference) explains that human language was mixed up. Humans tried not to be scattered, but God scattered them. (In Acts, on Pentecost, this is reversed when the different tribes are gathered together and all understand the language). The ten generations of Shem (with increasingly more realistic life spans) culminate with Abram. The name, a contraction of abiram (exalted father; high chieftan) will later be changed, in chapter 17, to Abraham (father/chief of a multitude).
Chapter 12-25 God’s call and promise (12:1-3) [“Go forth from your land and father’s house to a land I will show you” ; “I will make you a great nation, I will bless you, I will make your name great, you shall be a blessing, I will bless those who bless you and curse those who curse you, all the families of the earth shall bless themselves by you”] result in obedience (Abraham goes forth as commanded). In Egypt Pharaoh is plagued for taking his wife. There are numerous stories, some repetitive and parallel, with various promises of progeny and God’s faithfulness and blessing. There are numerous threats to Abraham and the promise of a son (including one he makes himself, Ishmael). There is a story of hospitality/blessing (The three visitors) and inhospitality/destruction (Sodom and Gomorah). Finally in chapter 21 Isaac is born, and in 22 Abraham’s faith is tested (sacrifice Isaac). The Christological parallels are sufficient for its own class- for our purposes Isaac is spared, God’s son is not, God provides the “lamb”! Sarah dies and Abraham seeks a kinswoman to wed his son. Rebekah is chosen and “Isaac loved her.” More children of Abraham are listed by a new wife, Kiturah, but Isaac and Ismael have pride of place, with Isaac, the true heir, being a (quiet) transition figure to Jacob.

Chapter 27 begins the Jacob saga. Jacob is a man among the tents and a trickster while his brother Essau (Edom, red-ruddy and the nation) is a manly man. Essau has an impulsive nature and, at Jacob’s insistence, gives up his birth rite for a pot of “red stuff” stew when he is hungry. Later, when old, blind Isaac wants to give a blessing, with his mother’s help Jacob tricks his father. The blessing (27:28-29) echoes God’s blessing of Abraham. Essau, cheated out of everything, plots revenge, but Rebekah sends away Jacob to save his life. From this point, it is Jacob who suffers at the hands of deceivers. His relative Laban switches the sister he worked seven years to marry (Rachel) for weak-eyed older sister Leah. An additional seven years are required for his true love. Twelve sons and a daughter are produced (by the two women and their maids). Laban and his sons withhold wages from him, but Jacob is able to build up his flocks through his wise dealings and God’s blessing. Things having gotten worse, Jacob and his family sneak away one night, but are caught a week later by his angry in-laws. God’s angel warns Laban to do no harm. Ch 32 Jacob encounters “a man” at the river in the darkness of night, with whom he wrestles. At day break we learn that Jacob, crippled in the hip by the night visitor, has seen a “divine being” and lived (he calls the place Penuel). Jewish interpretations vary widely as to the mysterious figure and the meaning of the event. Ch 33 The next day Jacob’s brother, Esau, arrives, a successful chief of a great throng. Jacob’s saga ends with his own beloved son Joseph as the center of attention. Hated by his brothers, the dreamer is sold into slavery and ends up in Egypt, where his skills help him rise to prominence in Potiphar’s house. However, the man’s wife takes a liking to the land and seeks to seduce him. Rebuffed by the virtuous youth, she accuses him of attempted rape and he is sent off to prison. Once more he rises to a position of trust, and after interpreting the dreams of fellow prisoners who work for Pharaoh, he waits for his release. When the unnamed “King of Egypt” has a dream which none can interpret, Joseph is brought in. Solving the puzzle, he is soon the leading man in Egypt, placed in charge to prepare for the great famine which the King has dreamed about. Everything happens as Joseph had discerned and Egypt’s king became rich. The brothers of Joseph arrive to buy grain, not knowing it is Joseph before them. After a period of trial, in which the suffering brothers declare that their misfortune is because of what they had done to Joseph, he finally reveals his identity. The entire family (seventy souls) moves to Egypt, including Jacob. Chapter 49 recounts Jacob’s blessing on each of his sons (the language is sometimes cryptic, more ancient, with much Hebrew word play which cannot be conveyed in the English; and the meaning hotly debate for centuries). When Jacob dies, Joseph has a remarkable funeral with “great and solemn lamentation” and returns his father’s remains to the burial site in the cave purchased by Abraham in the field near Mamre. Chapter 50 closes with the death of Joseph. He tells his brothers that someday God will take notice of them; then he makes the sons of Israel swear “When God has taken notice of you, you shall carry my bones from here.” Joseph is buried in Egypt. The promise to Abraham is unfulfilled. His progeny are aliens in a foreign land.

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