Galloping through Genesis

Galloping Through Genesis


The first 3 chapters of Genesis tell how the universe was created and how human beings came into existence. Chapters 1-11 are referred to as the "Primeval History" because they tell the story of human beings (as understood by the Biblical narrators) up to the point where Abraham, the patriarch of Judaism, Islam, and Christianity, is called by God to go to a new land, which will eventually become Israel. In this section we find the story of Cain and Abel (though we don't learn where Cain's wife came from), the story of Noah and the flood, the tower of Babel and a good deal more, including a great many genealogies or "begats."

This story is told from the point of view of the Jewish people and their own history; it references only nations and cultures with which they were familiar. Nevertheless, a certain Bishop Ussher felt it could be used to calculate the date of the world. Here's a little snip and a web reference:

James Ussher (1581-1656), Archbishop of Armagh, Primate of All Ireland, and Vice-Chancellor of Trinity College in Dublin was highly regarded in his day as a churchman and as a scholar. Of his many works, his treatise on chronology has proved the most durable. Based on an intricate correlation of Middle Eastern and Mediterranean histories and Holy writ, it was incorporated into an authorized version of the Bible printed in 1701, and thus came to be regarded with almost as much unquestioning reverence as the Bible itself. Having established the first day of creation as Sunday 23 October 4004 BC, by the arguments set forth in the passage below, Ussher calculated the dates of other biblical events, concluding, for example, that Adam and Eve were driven from Paradise on Monday 10 November 4004 BC, and that the ark touched down on Mt Ararat on 5 May 2348 BC `on a Wednesday'.
— Craig, G. Y. and E. J. Jones. A Geological Miscellany. Princeton University Press, 1982.   Pasted from <>

Starting with chapter 12, we begin to accompany Abraham on his journey of faith. God promises to make him the father of a great nation if he will believe in God and do his will. Abraham and his wife Sarah become old and they both despair of every having a child with which to fulfill this promise. Sarah finally gives her concubine Hagar to Abraham so that he at least will have a son, and Ishmael is born of their union. Not surprisingly, conflicts arise between Hagar, mother of the heir, and Sarah, wife of the patriarch. And then, miraculously, despite the fact that Sarah is no longer menstruating, she bears a son as well, who is named Isaac. Conflicts escalate between the two mothers and finally Hagar is driven into the wilderness with her son where God sees her thirst and promises that her son will also be father of a great nation. The Arabs consider Ishmael to be the father of their nation, and in this way Jews and Arabs are descended from half-brothers; the conflicts among them also go back to the very origins of their nations.

In the story of Abraham we hear of various times when Abraham chose to act as though Sarah were his sister rather than his wife to avoid unpleasant confrontations; as it turns out, she was indeed his half-sister, but he omitted the additional fact that she was also his wife when convenient.  We learn of his cousin Lot, of Sodom and Gomorrah, of Lot's wife who turns into a pillar of salt, and of God's demand that Abraham sacrifice Isaac, the son of promise, on an altar (Gen. 22)

Isaac has two sons, Esau and Jacob, who are quite opposite in temperament. They are described as "hairy" and "smooth" respectively. Jacob is a great trickster and, despite being the younger son, manages to trick the inheritance to which his elder brother is entitled out of his father. (Gen. 27) This is an early appearance of a theme which emerges frequently in the Hebrew Bible, in which the younger son, who is generally given no inheritance by the custom of primogeniture, ends up inheriting or in some other way coming out on top after all. We see this with the story Joseph, which is a sort of novella constituting the end of Genesis (Gen. 37-50). Joseph is the 12th son of Jacob, who loves him dearly because he is the son of his old age. He gives him a coat of many colors as a sign of his favor. Not surprisingly, Joseph's brothers don't much care for this sort of favoritism and sell him into slavery in Egypt. But then in one of those wonderful reversals which keep coming up in Bible stories, Joseph ends up become the Grand Vizier of Egypt at a time of prosperity; he is warned in a dream to save the fruits of this prosperity for seven years of famime which will follow and, as a result of his foresight, he is able to save not only the people of Egypt but also his father and brothers and all of their families from starvation.

The summation of the story is one of my favorites: His brothers are terrified of what he will do to them (knowing that they fully deserve the worst he could do), and offer to become his slaves.  He replies:

"Do not be afraid! Am I in the place of God? Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good, as he is doing today." (Gen. 50:19b-20)

And so we end Genesis with the Children of Isreal (the descendants of Abraham and Isaac) in the land of Egypt where they are welcomed and given places to live and work.

Exodus picks up where Genesis leaves off, but warns that everything is not well when it declares "Now a new king arose over Egypt who did not know Joseph." (Ex. 1:8) And so the Exodus from Egypt under the leadership of Moses begins.

A NOTE ON DATES: Unlike Bishop Ussher, most modern scholars do not believe it is possible to date the history of Genesis very precisely. Without going into a great deal of detail (and well aware that many long and complex arguments may arise from my saying this), the description of the society in which Abraham moved and the kind of life he lived suggests that he may have been active somewhere in the vicinity of 2200 Before the Common Era (BCE – generally preferred to "Before Christ" - BC – in recognition that not everyone divides time in the Christian manner). The Exodus cannot be dated precisely and arguments have been made for a range of 1450 BCE to 1200 BCE. My best guess is that the Exodus occurred somewhere around 1250 BCE. Unfortunately, there's nothing in the Egyptian historical records to substantiate this; indeed, there are those who argue that the Exodus was a much smaller movement of people out of Egypt than is recorded in the book of Exodus, such that it might simply not have been worth noting in the records of that great empire.