Chapter 2: Legend. <I>Covenant with the Fathers (Genesis 12-50) </I>
He is Yahweh our God;
his judgments are in all the earth
He is mindful of his covenant for ever,
of the word that he commanded, for a thousand
the covenant which he made with Abraham,
his sworn promise to Isaac,
which he confirmed to Jacob as a statute,
to Israel as an everlasting covenant. . . .
A. Abraham (Gen. 12-23)
What we read about Abraham is hardly the distillation of hero tales, for what is recalled in Genesis is not the exploits of Abraham but the initiative, the actions and the purpose of Yahweh in his relationship with Abraham. Yahweh chose Abraham. It is his election. He brought him forth from among the peoples. He initiated all that is intimately implied in the relationship between the namer and the one named. The judgment of Abraham’s faithfulness was passed by Yahweh, not Abraham, nor Israel. Yahweh made the covenant.
Abraham is obviously not remembered here for the sake of the man Abraham, nor simply because of the relationship between God and that man. The Yahweh-Abraham covenant is remembered not primarily for what was but what is. The people of Israel, the descendants of Abraham, read of themselves in the stories of their first patriarch. They understand the terms of their own existence, and its essential meaning, in the Yahweh-Abraham relationship.
1. Election, Covenant and Response
Like the primeval stories, the narratives about Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Joseph are also confessional in character. They too articulate the faith of Israel, expressing what Israel essentially believes about herself in relation to the chasm between God and universal man. Israel answers the unresolved questions of the primeval story with a perfectly astounding affirmation: the problems of man’s rebellion against God will be answered — and are in fact now being answered — by God’s own initiative and action in human history in and through Abraham and the nation Israel — in whom all the families of the earth must ultimately be blessed.
This is the sense of Gen. 12:1-3. In the call of Abraham, Israel understands herself to have been called. The divine election of Abraham stands as a constant reminder of her own election. The promises to Abraham of significant nationhood and divine protection are promises to Israel. Israel need not say, “Let us make a name for ourselves” (11:4) Yahweh does this, for his own purposes: “I will . . . make your name great. What are the purposes? “So that you will be a blessing . . . in you all the families of the earth will be blessed.” The very existence of Israel is explained, justified and defined in the three verses.
Israel also understands that Abraham’s response is her own appropriate response to divine election.
Now the Lord said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. [12:1]
So Abram went, as the Lord had told him. [12:4]
This is faith, which alone makes possible the fulfillment of election purpose.
In chapter 15, the response of faith is again exemplified in Abraham. The patriarch is childless. The fulfillment of the promise requires an heir to the promise. When Abraham voices his anxiety,
behold, the word of the Lord came to him, “. . . your own son shall be your heir. . . . Look toward heaven, and number the stars, if you are able to number them. . . . So shall your descendants be.”
And again, as in his call, Abraham responds in faith:
And he believed the Lord; and he reckoned it to him as righteousness.
It may be that Israel draws a significant comparison between Abraham and Noah. “Noah was a righteous man” (6:9) , and yet the new beginning in righteousness came quickly to an abysmal failure in the continued evil of “the imagination of man’s heart” (8:2 in) In contrast, we find no reason whatever given for the election of Abraham, nor anything to suggest that he merited the choice. In the full context of the Abraham stories, it can hardly be maintained that he was a righteous man. Faith, rather, is the distinguishing quality, which, as the stories (and the Bible) understand it, cannot in its very nature be primary, self-generated, meritorious. Faith is the response of trust to the divine initiative — and to the unrighteous Abraham (and therefore to Israel) faith is accounted as righteousness, faith becomes an attainable righteousness.
There follows now in chapter in an account, obviously ancient in origin, of the making of a covenant in which God in solemn, primitive symbol commits himself to the promises inherent in the election of Abraham. Abraham’s response of faith in verse 6 has given way immediately — and as we shall see, characteristically — to unfaith, to doubt. Abraham asks in v. 8 how he shall know that he (his descendants) shall possess the land. He is told to sever three animals and place the severed halves opposite each other. Now,
When the sun had gone down and it was dark, behold, a smoking fire pot and a flaming torch passed between these pieces. On that day the Lord made a covenant with Abram. . [15:17,18]
There can be no doubt that the narrative means to represent Yahweh himself as passing between the pieces and as committing himself thereby in a binding ritual act. The rite suggests the probable origin of the most common Old Testament phrase for the making of a covenant, that is, literally, to cut a covenant. We know from documents recovered from the Hittite kingdom dating from the second millennium B.C. that covenants were sealed in the same symbolism;1 and in Jer. 34:18 we are given to understand the seriousness of the commitment thus made:
Thus says the Lord [v. 17] . . . the men who transgressed my covenant and did not keep the terms of the covenant which they made before me, I will make like the calf which they cut in two and passed between its parts . . .
All of this is remarkably revealing of the faith of Israel. The covenant with Abraham in Gen. 15 is not of the type known among the Hittites, in which a vassal is bound by a king to certain obligations. Abraham is not yet asked to make any commitment on his part in return for the divine promises. It is not even a covenant in which both parties are bound. This is a one-way covenant, and it is the King, the Lord, who alone is bound, not the weaker party to the covenant!
Israel preserves and cherishes the account of Abraham’s election in chapter in 2, and reads in it her own experience of election in Egypt. In the story of chapter 15 in which Yahweh voluntarily binds himself, and himself alone, in covenant to Abraham, Israel reads her own experience of the exodus from Egypt, Yahweh’s voluntary commitment to fulfill the promise inherent in Israel’s election.
It is surely significant that in the arrangement of the stories about Abraham in Genesis, Abraham’s own symbolic binding in covenant — to make of it, finally, a dual covenant — appears only after Yahweh has graciously sealed his own commitment. In chapter 17 Yahweh asks for the rite of circumcision as a sign of the covenant. Israel preserves here what she remembers to be the order of her own experience: it is only after election and exodus that she herself completes a two-way covenant at Sinai. It is the faith of Israel that she is asked to make her own commitment to Yahweh only after he has declared and demonstrated and sealed his own commitment. In the light of this belief we better understand how Israel’s hope and faith in the ultimate fulfillment of tile divine promise survived her own violation of the terms of the covenant and her destruction as a nation. The prior commitment was Yahweh’s.
He is the Lord our God;
his judgments are in all the earth
He is mindful of his covenant for ever,
of the word that he commanded, for a thousand
the covenant which he made with Abraham,
his sworn promise to Isaac,
which he confirmed to Jacob as a statute,
to Israel as an everlasting covenant. . . .
The same covenant faith is expressed in Ps. 89, where the central figure is David.
If his children forsake my law
and do not walk according to my ordinances,
if they violate my statutes
and do not keep my commandments,
then I will punish their transgression with the rod
and their iniquity with scourges;
but I will not remove from him [that is, Israel, seen
corporately in the person of David] my stead-
or be false to my faithfulness.
I will not violate my covenant,
or alter the word that went forth from my lips.
2. Tensions of the Covenant: Faith and Unfaith
When Abraham acts in faith, he is a model of faith. His response in trust to the divine initiative is exemplary. The stories may well, then, reflect an idealizing tendency in Israel: we should respond in faith as did our father Abraham. It is a tendency, however, which has worked at best incompletely: for the cycle of stories about Abraham is liberally sprinkled with a knowing realism that seems to speak out of Israel’s own experience under covenant.
The second important episode in the present arrangement of the narratives, following immediately upon the account of, Abraham’s call, response and consequent journey to Canaan, shows the great Patriarch, who has just acted with exemplary faith, behaving as if the divine promise had never occurred at all. Implicitly denying the validity of the promise of divine protection, he seeks to guarantee his own security during an emergency sojourn in Egypt (12:10 ff.) In perpetrating a lie about his wife (v. 13) — with obvious consequences for her (v. 15) — Abraham acts in gross unfaith. Israel reads her own experience in Abraham. Israel knows the response of faith. She also knows repeatedly in her historical existence the act which constitutes an unqualified denial of her faith.
This same tension between faith and unfaith is reflected elsewhere in the Abraham cycle, as well as in the stories of Isaac and Jacob. The essential plot of the story of the lie is repeated a second time of Abraham in chapter 20 where the scene is Gerar, not Egypt, and where, with a greater show of moral sensitivity, the story attempts to mitigate the patriarch’s lie (v. 12) and maintain the sexual integrity of his wife (vv. 4-6) The plot appears a third time with Isaac as the lying patriarch in 26:6-11.
Again in effect denying his call, his election and his covenant promise, Abraham tries in other ways to take matters into his own hands. The divine promise of significant nationhood from his own progeny obviously demands an heir. But he and his wife are old and they have no son. The Hagar-Ishmael stories of chapter 16 and chapter 21:7-21 represent another aspect of the tension between faith and unfaith. Despairing of the fulfillment of the promise, Abraham and Sarah attempt to actualize the promise themselves through Sarah’s maid, Hagar (16:2 ff.) , with the unhappy results of Sarah’s jealousy and the brutal expulsion of Hagar. In the second Hagar story, Sarah’s own child, Isaac, is born (21:2) but even this evidence of the validity of the divine promise is not enough: in gross unfaith, again, Sarah insists and Abraham acquiesces in the expulsion of Hagar and her son Ishmael. Sarah’s words convey the denial of God’s power to bring the promise to fulfillment:
Cast out this slave woman with her son; for the son of this slave woman shall not be heir with my son Isaac. [21: 10]
Here, too, Israel reads her own experience of seeking to take matters of the covenant, the Yahweh covenant, into her own hands, to force, by her own means, in her own way, in trust in her own devices, the fulfillment of the divine promise. Most tellingly, Abraham responds in bald distrust when, before Isaac is born, he laughs with derisive denial in — as it were — the very face of God!
And God said to Abraham. . . “I will bless her [Sarah], and . . . she shall be a mother of nations; kings of peoples shall come from her.” Then Abraham fell on his face and laughed, and said to himself, “Shall a child be born to a man who is a hundred years old? Shall Sarah, who is ninety years old, bear a child?” [17:15-17]
The stories of Abraham take their pattern from the experience of Israel, but they also speak instructively back to that same experience, illustrating not only the way of faith — but the way also of unfaith. The tension that Israel knew throughout her life as a nation between faith in an electing, acting, covenanting God on the one hand, and on the other the rational improbability, if not absurdity, of the divine promises implicit in her faith; the conflict between the divine demand to trust and the human doubt; the incongruity between divine promise for the nation and the incredible historical odds against fulfillment — all of this Israel is mindful of in the shaping of the stories, and in the reading and cherishing of the stories. Yet the final thrust of the Abraham cycle of stories is in substantiation of faith: the incredible happened to Abraham, the impossible occurred; and it occurred — how reassuring to rebellious Israel — in spite of the patriarch’s acts of unfaith! It is God who initiates. It is he who has spoken. He has committed himself to the covenant.
3. The Climax and Resolution of Tension
Nevertheless, the divine demand for the human response of faith remains. The promise thaws and dissolves itself into a dew without faith. Israel’s persistent, obstinate hope in the ultimate fulfillment of the promise is itself an act of faith, made defiantly in the face of her own repeated abandonment of faith. The only substance of the promise is in faith.
The story of the near-sacrifice of Isaac in chapter 22 is at once the climax and the resolution of the tension. It is a story told with consummate economy and skill. No word is wasted. Simplicity is the effective instrument of its power. Pathos is conveyed with no reference at all, no single word, descriptive of the emotions of father or son, but rather in dialogue and in chaste narration. In the call of Abraham (12:1) , the magnitude of the demand appears in the simple enumeration of what Abraham must voluntarily surrender:
your country and
your kindred and
your father’s house
to the land that I will show you [!]
Here, in 22:1 f., the absolute totality of what faith is asked to surrender is similarly expressed:
After these things God tested Abraham, and said to him “Abraham!” And he said, “Here am I.”
He [God] said, “Take
your only son
Isaac [the name!]
whom you love
. . and offer him there [in the land of Moriah] as a burnt offering
upon one of the mountains of which I shall tell you. [vv. 6b-8] . . . .So they went both of them together. And Isaac said to his father Abraham, “My father!” And he said, “Here am I, my son.” He said, “Behold, the fire and the wood; but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?” Abraham said, “God will provide himself the lamb for a burnt offering, my son.” So they went both of them together.
This is a story that maintains its literary power under the eyes of any reader, in any interpretation. But we suspect that the content of the narrative breaks down into absurdity except when it is read with the eyes of Israel’s faith, as an expression of what Israel understands to be the necessary totality of the response of faith. Like Abraham, Israel made a partial response of faith in breaking with the past and setting forth from Egypt for a land “that I will show you. Like Abraham, she had known immediate doubt and had sought to take matters into her own hands. Like Abraham, she believed that the enterprise was divinely initiated, divinely covenanted; and like him, she accepted and symbolized her own commitment to the covenant. But in every crisis of her history she suffered what she inevitably read into the story of the near-sacrifice of Isaac: the only tangible means of the fulfillment of the promise, preposterously achieved (to be sure, only by the mighty acts of God) , the only visible hope for ultimate fulfillment — in the case of Abraham, Isaac; in the case of Israel, her very historical existence — this she is asked to be willing to sacrifice. Destroy in faith the only concrete evidence that faith can be fulfilled!
Israel here comes very close to affirming precisely what is affirmed in the New Testament community of faith:
For whoever would save his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. [Matt 16:25; see Mark 8:35 and Luke 9:24]
This brings to a climax the tension between faith and unfaith. It points to, and illustrates, the only resolution of the tension — the complete and unqualified response of faith. We do not find the resolution historically enacted in and by Israel. The tension between faith and unfaith continued: the commitment of faith remained only partial. Israel’s prophets understood the nation’s destruction and exile as the result of unfaith, the taking of matters of the covenant into her own hands, the failure to make the total commitment of faith. The prophet Isaiah, in the latter part of the eighth century B.C., put it this way:
If you. will not believe,
surely you shall not be established.
For thus said the Lord God, the Holy One of Israel,
“In returning and rest you shall be saved;
in quietness and in trust shall be your strength.” And you would not. . . . [30:15]
Israel understands the story of the near-sacrifice of Isaac to say: Except we be willing to lose our life for Yahweh’s sake, we shall neither find nor save our life. The demand of faith is total. The response of faith must be unqualified, complete.
This is the climax of the Abraham cycle of stories. The narrative moves quickly now through the death of Sarah and the purchase of the cave of Machpelah (chapter 23) to the altogether charming story of Isaac’s successful quest for a wife (24) , the last days and death of Abraham (25: in ff.) and the introduction of Jacob, the central figure in the next significant cycle of stories in Genesis (25:19 ff.)
B. Myth, Legend and History
We have thus far looked at the stories about Abraham, and only at parts of the cycle, with empathy, from within, as we think Israel herself shaped, read, understood and interpreted the stories. This is also the way in which, primarily, we surveyed Gen. 1-11. But again, as there, questions inevitably arise out of the intellectual disposition of our own environment of the twentieth-century West. We are struck by an obvious difference between primeval and patriarchal stories: they differ in quality — they are not of the same literary stuff. Gen. 12-50 often returns the impression of reality, of flesh and blood in time and history. Some of this, in contrast to the first eleven chapters of Genesis, could have happened. Places frequented by Abraham and Jacob can be located — Mamre, Hebron, Bethel, Shechem, Dothan (all in the central hill country of Palestine) and Beer-sheba (in the south) Some of the personal names in Gen. 11:16 ff. were names of towns in the general area of Haran, Abraham’s immediate point of origin (11:31 f.) : Peleg, Serug, Nahor and Terah. What is described in the Patriarchal narratives purports to have occurred in literary, historical times, not preliterate prehistorical times. If we have no direct extrabiblical confirmation of Abraham and Jacob, we find, nevertheless, a remarkable correlation between what is reflected in the stories about their backgrounds and what we learn of life in the ancient Near East in the first half of the second millennium B.C.
The general credibility of the patriarchal backgrounds is greatly enhanced by archaeological discoveries. We know that the fertile lands of the Near East were overrun during several centuries following about 2000 B.C. by desert invaders — the same groups referred to in the Old Testament as Amorites. We suspect that Abraham’s migrations, and perhaps Jacob’s, are a part of this widespread Amorite movement, and in two archaeological finds, in particular, we find conditions of life described in terms remarkably similar to those of Abraham and Jacob. In the Tale of Sinuhe, dating from about 900 B.C., an Egyptian official of that name is forcibly exiled and takes refuge with an Amorite chieftain. The seminomadic life described with considerable color and detail accords very well with that of the patriarchal stories. A more important discovery was made in 1937 at Man, the capital of an extensive Amorite kingdom stretching in the eighteenth century B.C. from near Babylon in the east to Syria in the west. Thousands of clay documents were recovered from the archives of one of Man’s kings in that century, including several letters from a variety of people and places scattered over Syria and Mesopotamia. And, again, what is reflected here of life in the eighteenth century agrees remarkably with what is depicted in the Genesis narratives about Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.
At least two other finds tend to confirm the general accuracy of the patriarchal backgrounds. The Nuzi (or Nuzu) texts, discovered in an Assyrian town of that name, are largely concerned with business matters of the fifteenth century, and contain some significant parallels to episodes recorded in Genesis. The Ugarit texts, from Ras Shamrah on the Syrian coast, deal for the most part with Canaanite religion prior to Israel’s settlement in the land. They are important because they show rather conclusively that certain Mesopotamian aspects of Israel’s life and thought were not — as was believed previous to their discovery — mediated through the Canaanites, since there is no hint of them in this material, but must rather have come directly from Mesopotamia. This tends to confirm the tradition of the patriarchs that they maintained direct associations with Mesopotamia.
All of this is to say that there is a credibility about the Abraham-Isaac-Jacob cycles of stories — a credibility that tends to be confirmed by archaeology. But this is not to say that we therefore accept the stories as literally factual and accurate. We certainly cannot take as sober history or straight reporting, such things as these:
Abraham fears Sarah’s beauty as a threat to his own safety when she is over sixty-five and again when she is past ninety (12 and 20)
He laughs at the idea of having a son at the age of ninety-nine (17:17) , but forty years later, without so much as batting an eye, he marries Keturah and apparently accepts the subsequent offspring in stride (25:1 ff.)
The Amalekites are represented as settled in southern Palestine in Abraham’s time (14:7) ; yet Amalek himself, who presumably founded the clan, is a grandson of Esau who in turn is the grandson of Abraham.
And this is only to illustrate the relatively common occurrence of incongruity, anachronism, exaggeration and discrepancy in the patriarchal stories. To say that the general backgrounds, the local color, the atmosphere of the environment, and even the existence of the patriarchs — to say that this is to the best of our knowledge true is not, on the other hand, to say that the stories are, in the usual sense of the word, history.
The term “history” is commonly used of written accounts of public events recorded upon reliable contemporary evidence. But, with the exception of Gen. 14, and possibly certain aspects of the Joseph story, we simply are not dealing in Gen. 12-50 with public events but almost entirely with private affairs of a domestic and sometimes intimate nature. Details of private meetings, conversations and family frictions are not the stuff of history. In the main, we may say that Genesis is comprised of two literary forms. The first eleven chapters are chiefly myth; and the stories of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Joseph are best termed legend. By the term “myth” we mean to convey our understanding that what is narrated is not a literal occurrence of the past; and by legend, that the story probably has a basis in an actual person or occurrence of the past.2
But this is certainly not to say that myth and legend are in a broader sense of the word “unhistorical.” If we understand history as that which belongs to the past and which throws light upon the past, then myth and legend have a high historical value. If neither is strictly a factual account of that with which in narrative form it is concerned, both myth and legend may be true — and demonstrably are in Genesis — in reflecting the mind, the aspirations, the hopes and fears and beliefs of the peoples among whom they circulated. The myths of Genesis tell us, as no objective history of public events could, what the community of Israel essentially believed about God’s relationship to the world and to man; and the legends of the Fathers record Israel’s understanding of herself, her own relationship to God and the world, her own sense of sin and inadequacy in tension with her conviction of special divine Election, her fears on the one hand and her highest hopes on the other. Supremely the myths and legends of Genesis tell us of the faith of Israel, of what this continuing community believed about God not abstractly but in his active relationship to world and Israelite history.
It may be that we fail rightly to understand legend and its relationship to history because we have not rightly understood history, and perhaps particularly, biblical history. No true history is mere reporting. No true historian can avoid interpreting the past: he reconstructs and tells the story of the past because it is relevant and instructive to the present, and he must tell it in such a way that it is intelligible to the present. History, as well as legend, is concerned with the relationship of the past and the present. And in the Old Testament, history and legend and myth are in peculiar affinity because all three are first concerned to tell, not of man’s, but of God’s activity. Whatever the original intent of Old Testament myth and legend, it is shaped, preserved and understood in Israel by faith. So, precisely, Israel also remembers, records and interprets her history by faith.
We must ask, then, How are legend and history different? They differ in two respects, chiefly; that is, in the manner in which they visualize the past, and in the matters with which they are in the main concerned. Legend and history take form in two highly differentiated strata in the life of Israel. We do not necessarily infer that legend is early and history late, for legend and history may develop simultaneously around the same subject, as they apparently do, for example, in the case of the prophet Elijah, in the ninth century. We simply mean that legend looks at the past, distant or near, and retells it in a spontaneous and intuitive manner. Legend, no less than history, remembers the past; but it remembers it with a creative abandon, in disregard of history’s concern, always present whatever the degree of interpretation, to give a rational and coherent reconstruction. The factors of spontaneity and intuition in legend bring into focus other matters than those upon which history chiefly concentrates. Old Testament history recounts events, the lives of great men, prophets, priests and kings, migrations, wars, political decisions — everything affecting the exterior life of the nation, the observable course of her turbulent history. Legend treats the interior history, related, to be sure, but not the same. It tells the inner history of Israel’s fears and hopes, the realities and aspirations of her existence, what she thinks and knows herself to be on the one hand, and what she believes that she may be on the other. It tells, in short, the inner history of her life with God.3
It follows that in legend what is past is only apparently so, or perhaps rather that if the past is past it is also present. Distinctions in time, the measure of time, and the correlation of time and event are, if not obliterated, reduced to insignificance. Legend retains from the rubrics of history only the concern for sequence; yet in legend it is always a sequence determined not by past event but by present faith. The legends of Gen. 12-50 may recall in major outline an actual sequence; but it is certain that the order and arrangement of the stories correspond to the inner story, the sequence as faith dictates sequence. Old Testament history consistently understands and interprets the present from the past; and if, thus, the past is in the present, its meaning for the present is precisely because it is past — by what God has done Israel understands what God is doing and what he will do. Legend does not make history’s distinction in tenses. The past has meaning not for its “wasness” but for its “isness” and it is therefore the power of legend to reduce into a single episode — Gen. 22, for example — the progress, experience and heritage of centuries of faith.
All of this is to say, then, that myth and legend in the Old Testament serve for us a historical purpose: the literature of Genesis informs us in a unique way about the faith of the community of Israel, about what Israel believed.
We cannot, however, fail to observe certain characteristics of legend which do not contribute directly to this purpose. If, in Genesis, individual legends and originally separate cycles of legends are combined in such a way as to convey the theological drama of Israel, if the spoken lines are the lines of the play, we observe at the same time that this literary material of legend always refuses to yield itself completely to such editorial, theological design.. It insists on maintaining at the same time its own identity — that is, if the characters do speak the lines of the theological drama, they also continue to speak their own lines as well. If Abraham and Jacob are Israel in the first millennium B.C., they are also Abraham and Jacob of the second millennium B.C. If the stories convey an “isness” they continue to convey a “wasness.” Particularly at certain points, we sense the oral quality of the stories: this, or this, or this strikes us as something told, even though we read it now. We become part of a listening group, with a group sensitivity. Here we sense satisfaction in a good story for the sake of a good story and pleasure in the qualities of a good story precisely because they contribute to a good story — the well-turned phrase, tension and suspense, eloquent dialogue, repartee, and even humor. All of this appears in the Lot-Abraham cycle in chapters 13-14 and 18-19; and we should be dull indeed if we missed in chapter 23 the pleasure both of the teller and the hearer in the humor of the exceedingly polite negotiations over the purchase of the cave of Machpelah. One of the best examples of the use of humor in legend occurs in the next chapter. Abraham, now a man of great wealth, sends one of his servants back to his old homeland, Nahor near Haran, to find a wife for his son Isaac. The servant takes with him gifts appropriate to the wealth of his master, and when he finds Rebekah, he presents her with a ring and bracelets of impressive value, and asks for hospitality. Rebekah runs home; and what has been a story told with beautiful simplicity and effective description now is artfully relieved in humor at Laban’s expense. When Laban, Rebekah’s brother,
saw the ring, and the bracelets on his sister’s arms. . . he said [to Abraham’s servant], “Come in, 0 blessed of the Lord; why do you stand outside?”
There is obvious pleasure in the stories for their qualities simply as good stories. We cannot but note also that the legends of Genesis, like the myths, still bear the signs of frequent etiological influence and motivation. Legend, too, is interested in the explanation of existing phenomena in terms of origin. Most of the legends of Genesis can, in fact, be classified according to etiological type.
1. The ethnological legend arises to account for — which generally means to give the origin of — the characteristics and nature and geography relating to known tribes and ethnic groups. For example, the fact that the descendants of Lot, Ammon and Moab (ch. 19), are not in Palestine but in the more barren territory to the East and South is a phenomenon explained in the division of the territory between Abraham and Lot (ch. 13). Underlying many of the legends is a central ethnological theme — the explanation of how the people of Israel rightfully possess the land of Canaan.
2. The etymological legend explaining the origin of names is also common in Genesis. We have already indicated the great significance attached to names in Israel, and indeed among all ancient peoples. Because the name is one with the essence of the thing named great care and ceremony were exercised in the giving of names; and we find reflected in the legends of Genesis an inordinate interest in the origin of ancient names of both places and people. The explanation of Isaac’s name (from a word meaning “laughter”) is indicated in the thrice-repeated narrative motif of laughter over the idea and fact of Isaac’s birth (17:17, 18:12, 21:6) So is Ishmael’s (16:11, 17:20, 21:17) The meaning “heelholder” is given to the name Jacob with the explanation that he was born holding his twin brother by the heel (25:26). The town of Zoar (trifle) got its name because Lot pleaded with Yahweh for its preservation on the ground that it was “a little one” (19:20). There are yet other instances in Genesis where the legend may properly be classified as etymological, or where one aspect of the legend has to do with the meaning of a name.
3. The cult legend accounts for the sacredness of a sanctuary or a ritual act or custom. Thus, all of the major sanctuaries of Israel are associated with experiences of the patriarchs, as, for example, Jacob at Bethel (28:10 ff.). The rite of circumcision, attributed in its origin to Abraham in Gen. 17 is elsewhere associated with Moses (Exod. 4:24-26) and again, apparently, with Joshua (Josh. 5:2 ff.) although here it is recognized that this is not the first occasion.4
If the legends of Genesis have been employed editorially in such a way as to express the faith of Israel and if, in the legends of the patriarchs, Israel sees her own experience mirrored, it is also true that the legends retain at the same time their own stamp, something of their own unique character. The appreciation of the qualities of entertainment and the recognition of the major etiological motives help us to understand the origin and nature of the legend in Israel.
Before leaving the Abraham cycle of stories and this general discussion of myth, legend and history, two other items appear for brief consideration. The first has to do with the introduction in the Abraham cycle of what scholars have long regarded as a third source in Genesis (with J and P) , the E document (later than J; so called because of its preference for the divine name elohim). The source appears for the first time probably at chapter 15 and is illustrated at its best in the second Hagar episode (21:8-21; the first, in chapter 16, is usually ascribed to J) and in the story of the near-sacrifice of Isaac (22)5
The second item has to do with chapter 14, which has been for years and remains a literary and historical enigma. We can easily understand its incorporation: it redounds in every way to Abraham’s credit and favor; and the Melchizedek episode, vv. 17 ff., clearly had pointed significance in Israel after the establishment of Jerusalem as the capital by David and the building of Solomon’s temple (Salem, v. 18, = Jerusalem; Melchizedek is not only king, but “priest of the God most high” to whom Abraham gives “a tenth of everything”) The later Temple tax (tithe = tenth) is here given ultimate precedent and example in Abraham. But the chapter defies literary classification, betraying none of the common characteristics of J or P or E; all attempts to give positive identification to the kings named in vv. 1 and 2 have thus far failed; and the historical accuracy of the account continues in question.
C. The Jacob Cycle (Gen. 24-36, 38)
The character of Isaac is hardly sufficiently drawn to return an impression of independence; or perhaps it would be better to say that the stories about Isaac appear more as a link between the Abraham and Jacob cycles than as an independent unit of stories. In chapter 24, which tells how Rebekah is found and brought to Isaac, the chief character is Abraham’s servant, and what transpires is for the most part in the name of Abraham. After considerations of a statistical nature, chapter 25 moves to the birth of Jacob and Esau and Esau’s sacrifice (or Jacob’s theft) of the birthright. It is only chapter 26 which features Isaac, yet what we find here, among other things, is a story of Isaac’s denial of Rebekah’s true relationship to him (already twice told of Abraham and Sarah, in chs. 12 and 20) , and a repetition of the divine promise to Abraham, in the name of Abraham:
I am the God of Abraham your father; fear not, for I am with you and will bless you and multiply your descendants for my servant Abraham’s sake. [26:24, but see also vv. 1-5]
Yet another motif carried over from Abraham is that of the barren wife:
And Isaac prayed to the Lord for his wife, because she was barren; and the Lord granted his prayer. . . . [25:21]
Isaac is a link between Abraham and Jacob, repeating and transmitting the essential character of the patriarch as the man of divine promise. Isaac acts in faith and implicitly understands that he bears the covenant. Yet, having acted in faith, and having received offspring as a tangible evidence of the promise at work, he, like his father, acts in unfaith (26:7) immediately following the virtual repetition of the full promise made to Abraham (26:3 f.) : he, too, attempts to insure his own safety, his own security. It is hardly accidental that the story of the denial of the wife is repeated three times: Israel thus underlines her own repeated effort to take the divine promise into her own hands and to manipulate its fulfillment.
We have already suggested that the idealizing tendency, common to legend in general, is conspicuously weak in the stories of the patriarchs. We see suggestions of the tendency at work in the Abraham cycle to shape the character of the Patriarch to the pattern of faith, the ideal of faith. But the tendency fails. The cycle is pervaded by a realism derived, we suspect, in part from contact with historical reality and in part from Israel’s realistic reading of her own experience and her own character in the Abraham stories.
1. The Jacob Stories and the Faith of Israel
The cycle of stories which revolves around the character of Jacob differs from that of Abraham. If the idealizing tendency has had only a partial influence on the Abraham material, it is almost totally absent in the Jacob stories. Jacob is presented with a, singularly high degree of realism. We find little, if any, effort to “improve” the character of Jacob: no word or phrase appears to relieve his premeditated treachery against his father Isaac (27:1 ff.) , and his twin brother Esau (25:29 ff. and 27:30 ff.) Even in the scene of their reconciliation, Jacob is guilty of rank deceit of Esau. When Jacob returns to Canaan after an absence of twenty years and is met on his way by a forgiving Esau, Jacob agrees to take up his residence beside his brother in the south of the land, in Seir.
So Esau returned that day on his way to Seir. But Jacob journeyed to Succoth, and built himself a house. . . . [33:16 f.]
When we add to this the detailed description of Jacob’s unmitigated crime against Laban (30:25 ff.), we are not putting it too strongly when we say that Jacob is depicted, quite candidly, as a disreputable character.
Why is this so? If, as we suspect, the myths and legends of Genesis are shaped by Israel’s faith, what does this mean? The Abraham stories are pointed to the climax of the account of the near-sacrifice of Isaac, the ideal response of faith. Why is the corresponding point in the Jacob cycle the story of the patriarch’s violent, night-long wrestling bout with the deity, and his refusal to surrender even to the very end of the struggle (32:22-30)?
Can it be that the two cycles of stories come to their final form with two different historical epochs in mind? Abraham strikingly personifies the era of Israel’s historical beginnings, the time of Moses and the Exodus.6 The cycle bears a particular correspondence to that first dramatic epoch in Israel’s life without which, indeed, there would never have been an Israel. Like Abraham, Israel is called by Yahweh out of the known and the familiar, to the unknown and the strange, to a land that only Yahweh knows. Like Abraham, Israel is elected in her first historical epoch to an unseen destiny whose only substance is in divine promise. Like Abraham, Israel made, in Egypt, the response of faith: she demonstrated there her readiness to lose her life in order to find it. Like him, she knew even in that first and most glorious phase of her life the tension between faith and unfaith, the inescapable temptation to take matters of divine promise into her own hands. And as also in the case of Abraham, these tensions were resolved at length in an act of faith which resulted in the partial substantiation of the promise — the acquisition of a land.
With the acquisition of the land Israel becomes Israel, the nation Israel. And Jacob is Israel. The account of the changing of Jacob’s name to Israel is twice given, once from J (32:28) and again from P (35:10). Recall the significance in Israel of the name, the psychological content of meaning given in Israel to the relationship between the Namer and the one named; and recall, too, that the name is of the essence of the object named. Jacob is Jacob-Israel: Israel is Jacob-Israel. The nation Israel is of the same essence as the man Israel. If the Abraham stories are shaped by the first phase of Israel’s history, that phase in which Israel became Israel, and if they are read and interpreted in Israel as a personalized account of her formative faith in her formative event, we may well wonder whether there is not a corresponding relationship between the Jacob stories and the middle phase of her history, the era of her autonomous existence in her own land, on her own soil. We will presently raise the possibility of a similar relationship between the Joseph story and the third and final phase of her history in the Old Testament.
The sense of such correspondence may have been as much unconscious as conscious. That it was there we have no doubt. That it informs us richly of what Israel believed about herself we are certain. Israel believed herself to be divinely elected, chosen by Yahweh for purposes fully known only to himself. But the Jacob stories emphasize a central point of interpretation: Israel’s election is understood not as merited or earned, but as the free choice of Yahweh, for reasons known only to himself. Election and the covenant remain a reality not by virtue of what Israel is, and how she behaves in her history, but simply by virtue of the grace and love of God. This is the central meaning of the stories about Jacob. It is an emphasis which the great prophets powerfully and eloquently reiterate.
We see this theme expressed in several ways in the Jacob cycle. In the ancient East pre-eminence is naturally given-or naturally expected to fall upon — the older son, or the eldest son. This is the normal expectation. Jacob, although a twin, is the younger brother. But here is the mystery and freedom of God’s way in election: the lesser vehicle, Jacob-Israel, bears the promise and the blessing. And this is a point of emphasis in Israel by no means confined to Jacob. Preeminence is also the lot of Joseph, Gideon (Judg. 6:15) , David and Solomon, all, to name only a few, younger sons. It is surely in part this same quality of election which the apostle Paul had in mind in the New Testament when he wrote:
God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise, God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong. God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God. [I Cor. 1:27-29]
In shaping and preserving and cherishing the stories of Jacob as her own story, Israel understood that it was God’s election, in which she had no cause to boast.
In the realistic portrayal of the character of Jacob, Israel sees herself portrayed; and she is reminded again in the portrayal that election is certainly not ethically and morally merited. Jacob-Israel is no Galahad, whose strength is in purity of heart. Election is hers not because of any intrinsic goodness and nobility of her own, but rather, as it would appear, despite the deviousness of her ways, in the grace and purpose of God. It is precisely here that the Jacob cycle expresses its own peculiar tension, comparable to the tension between faith and unfaith that characterizes the Abraham cycle. It is a tension between human perversity and divine purpose, between human sin and divine grace. It is a tension precisely articulated later in the Joseph narrative when Joseph, reunited with his treacherous brothers, declares, “You meant evil against me; but God meant it for good” (50:20)
Or, to use a more graphic figure, we may say that the Jacob narrative in its present unified structure is internally supported like a bridge, on two pillars — the accounts of Jacob at Bethel (28:10 ff.) and at Peniel (32:22 ff.)7 The story of Jacob’s vision of the ladder at Bethel and the accompanying detailed repetition of the divine promise and blessing follow immediately upon the accounts of Jacob’s underhanded acquisition of his brother’s birthright (25) , his subsequent bald treachery in securing the first-born’s blessing (ch. 27- Jacob does not figure at all in ch. 26) , and his ignominious flight from home before the wrath of his brother (27:41-45). And now, with an abruptness that itself emphasized the mystery and freedom of divine action, Jacob receives the blessing of God apparently on his first stop away from home. The mantle of Abraham and Isaac’s blessing is placed around Jacob, with the added words,
Behold, I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land; for I will not leave you until I have done that of which I have spoken to you. [28:15]
If Israel read the shame of her own sinfulness in the sins of Jacob, she also understood that the divine promise to Jacob was the promise of Yahweh to Israel.
There follows the story of a Jacob now bent on the acquisition of wealth, determined and unprincipled enough to get it at any cost. He carries through a systematic twenty-year operation in which Laban, his father-in-law (or brother-in-law — and no mean competitor, he!) , is completely fleeced. With virtually all of Laban’s wealth successfully acquired in chapter 30, the second verse of the next chapter stands as a remarkable understatement:
And Jacob saw that Laban did not regard him with favor as before [!]. [31:2]
Again Jacob is forced to flee, this time in the opposite direction. With his treachery against Laban just behind him, and the awful reminder of his shame against father and brother just ahead in the inevitable meeting with Esau, God falls upon him as a nocturnal spirit who, after a struggle that endures throughout the night, again gives — this time simply in a name — both promise and blessing:
Your name shall no more be called Jacob, but Israel [that is, “He who strives with God” or “God strives”], for you have striven with God and with men, and have prevailed. [32:28]
Remembering that the faith of Israel is portrayed in the legends of Genesis primarily by the selection and arrangement of narratives which had an independent and often ancient origin, we need not wonder that the story of Peniel retains something of the enigmatic and primitive from its origin. But the editorial intention is clear. This is the second pillar of faith, supporting the bridge of the Jacob narrative. Remove the two pillars of Bethel and Peniel, and the whole structure collapses. Jacob is — Jacob. In and of himself he is treacherous, deceitful, acquisitive, prideful and self-centered. He cannot even make the response of faith that Abraham did: at Bethel the admission is wrung from his lips, “Surely Yahweh is in this place; and I did not know it”; and at Peniel he is uncertain even of the identity of his visitor and fights all night against Yahweh.
The story of Jacob is supported only by divine grace, only by divine intention and purpose. Or, to return to a description of the Jacob cycle in terms of tension, it is characterized by a tension between human perversity and divine grace, a tension resolved only in the obvious final inequality of any contest between man and God. God can take even the evil intention of man and convert it to good, if he so wills.
So, in the long central phase of her history from the acquisition to the loss of the land, Israel is — Israel. Nor can she make, save only sporadically, the response of faith which she herself had made in that first phase of her history, as her prophets are wont to remind her. Israel’s history too is a story of sustained tension between her own perversity and the purpose of God: hers, too is a history which she herself understands to be supported only by the grace of God, and his purpose for her declared of old that in her all the families of the earth should be blessed. This is the story of Jacob; but he is Jacob-Israel and it is also the story of Israel.
2. The Jacob Stories as Literature and History
Like the primeval history, like the Abraham cycle, the Jacob narratives are shaped by faith. But there are prior levels of interpretation, again, which we cannot ignore. The individual stories still speak at points with qualities of expression characteristic of their origin and background in ancient folklore, when the stories were primarily motivated by etiology of one sort or another, or by the love, simply, of a good story, or by the desire to entertain and to be entertained. In the Abraham stories we detect, among other motives, the desire to validate Israel’s claim to the land of Canaan. This remains a strong implication of the story of the quarrel between Lot (the father of the nations Moab and Ammon) and Abraham, and Lot’s free choice of the land to the east and south of Canaan proper (13) The same motive partially underlies the repeated promise of the land to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and the pointed denial of the claims of others, for example Ishmael (the Ishmaelites) and Esau (the Edomites) as well as Moab and Ammon. As in the Abraham stories, so too in the Jacob narratives, the sacredness and often the very name of ancient Canaanite sanctuaries are attributed to the visit of a patriarch to the scene, as witness, only for example, the stories of Bethel (28) and Peniel (32) This too contributes somewhat more subtly to the validation of Israel’s claim.
We assume that many of the stories circulated orally before they came to be recorded in writing; and again we sense the pleasure and response of the listening group to the well-told and well-executed tale, to the lyrical phrase, or to the effective description. Listen to these lines for their chasteness, their descriptive power, or their sheer beauty — and this is in translation!
. . . Esau was a skilful hunter, a man of the field, while Jacob was a quiet man, dwelling in tents. Isaac loved Esau, because he ate of his game; but Rebekah loved Jacob. [25:27 f.]
From Isaac’s blessing of Jacob:
See, the smell of my son
is as the smell of a field which the Lord
May God give you of the dew of heaven,
and of the fatness of the earth. . . .
This word of blessing, solemnly spoken, cannot be recalled. It is a dynamic word, releasing the power of accomplishment, even though intended for the first born. It is thus that we understand the weight of anguish in the negative parallelism of Isaac’s blessing of Esau:
Behold, away from the fatness of the earth
shall your dwelling be,
and away from the dew of heaven on high.
Hear, too, this line so simply but eloquently descriptive of the love of a man for a maid:
Jacob served seven years for Rachel, and they seemed to him but a few days because of the love he had for her. [29:20]
Sympathy of storyteller and listener for the unloved Leah is implicated in a single line put on her lips when she bears her first child:
When Yahweh saw that Leah was hated, he opened her womb . . . . and she said. . . surely now my husband will love me. [29:31 f.]
And in the meeting between Jacob and Esau, when Jacob approaches filled with apprehension, remembering his earlier deceit, and about to deceive again, it is Esau who steals the scene with an unqualified expression of forgiveness and affection:
Esau ran to meet him, and embraced him, and fell on his neck and kissed him, and they wept. [33:4]
And listening to the story, we all understand that while one wept simply in the release of personal apprehension, the other wept in love.
Although the individual stories are employed and arranged editorially for a serious overall purpose, we can still hear in some of them the sound of laughter. If faith gives form to the structure of the stories of Genesis, and if the stories are therefore instructive to the continuing faith of Israel, it is also clear that Israel, early and late, enjoyed the narratives of the fathers. They laughed at Laban, the acquisitive Laban, running forth to greet the representative of the wealthy house of Abraham (24:29 ff.) They laughed again when the eager performance was repeated by the same man with the current heir, Jacob. Recalling, as it were, the financial rating of the family, Laban
ran to meet him, and embraced him and kissed him, and brought him to his house.., and Laban said to him, “Surely you are my bone and my flesh!” [29:13 f.]
Earlier, when Jacob first arrives in the country of Laban, he comes upon a well covered by a large stone which can be removed only by the assembled strength of a host of shepherds. But
when Jacob saw Rachel the daughter of Laban his mother’s brother, and the sheep of Laban his mother’s brother [Jacob and Laban have a lot in common!], Jacob went up and rolled the stone from the well’s mouth. . . . [29: 10]
The whole thing was a very taxing emotional experience. In the next verse we read:
Jacob kissed Rachel, and wept aloud.
These stories were told and heard, recorded and read — and enjoyed! The composition of the stories into a structure now reflecting profound meditation on the meaning of history and the nature and activity of God in history has not obscured a zestful appreciation of the life that produced the stories. Words, phrases and individual narratives may have a kind of double-entendre. As we have earlier remarked, the characters in Genesis speak their own lines, lines in immediate contact with the realities of their own existence, as well as the lines of the theological drama of God’s concern in love to reconcile man and himself. And this is to distinguish the very essence of biblical religion: it is never detached and speculative, it is never theoretical. Myth, to be meaningful, must be given historical setting, with names, and places, and even genealogies. Legend is always in contact with historical reality. And history, interpreted in faith, as to be sure it always is, is nevertheless always history — blood, sweat and tears, the full spectrum of earthiness, given meaning and purpose in the activity of God in the same earthy arena! Precisely this is why passing generations in all the passing centuries have found the Bible to be relevant.
Granting the absence of shorthand in the first half of the second millennium B.C., granting that detailed objective reality undergoes distortion in the mold of popular legend, granting that etiology is not science and that oral tradition is not scientific history — granting all of this, we may nevertheless reiterate what we have already affirmed in discussing the Abraham cycle of stories, but in words vastly more authoritative than our own:
It is . . . uncertain to what extent we can adopt the traditional order of events or the precise motivation attributed to them. Nor can we accept every picturesque detail as it stands in our present narrative. But as a whole the picture in Genesis [of the Patriarchs] is historical, and there is no reason to doubt the general accuracy of the biographical details and the sketches of personality which make the Patriarchs come alive with a vividness unknown to a single extrabiblical character in the whole vast literature of the ancient Near East.8
3. Transition from Jacob to Joseph (Gen. 34-36, 38)
The story of the rape of Dinah, the daughter of Jacob and Leah (34) is placed in Shechem, in the central hill country of Canaan where Jacob has moved sometime, apparently, after escaping Esau’s invitation to settle beside him in Seir (see 33:17 ff.) Remembering Abraham’s outright purchase of land for a family sepulcher near or in Mamre (Hebron) in the southern hill country (23) , we see a further partial validation of Israel’s claim to the land in the notice that Jacob also buys land in or near the city of Shechem (33:19)
In the past it has been common to give the story of Dinah — and indeed many other patriarchal narratives — a tribal interpretation. Shechem is a city inhabited by the tribe of Hamor. Dinah is a weak tribe aggressively assaulted by the tribe of Hamor. In this interpretation Simeon and Levi are also tribes, of course, who, in alliance with Dinah, wreak revenge upon the Hamorites in Shechem. This interpretation concludes the episode by seeing allusion to a final retaliation by Canaanites upon Simeon and Levi in the Blessing of Jacob:
Cursed be their anger [Simeon and Levi], for it
and their wrath, for it is cruel!
I will divide them in Jacob
and scatter them in Israel.
This is certainly ingenious, as is the similar interpretation of the death of Rachel at the birth of Benjamin (35:16 ff.) , a story allegedly signifying the breakup of the Rachel tribe in Palestine when the tribe of Benjamin was formed after the acquisition of the land under Joshua.
But all of this is, to say the least, highly conjectural. Tribal implications there may be and no doubt are, and in the Dinah episode it may well be that characteristics of the tribes of Simeon and Levi are read into the men. There is a mutual relationship and agreement between Jacob’s strongly-worded rebuke of the treacherous action of the two men (34:25-31) and the pertinent words from the Blessing of Jacob, which clearly reflects a postsettlement, and tribal, point of view:
Simeon and Levi are brothers;
weapons of violence are their swords.
O my soul, come not into their council;
0 my spirit, be not joined to their company;
for in their anger they slay men. [49:5 f.]
But the admittedly neat package of the tribal interpretation is a little too neat; and it does violence to the vividness and sense of reality which pervade the account of Gen. 34. No less than other stories in the Jacob cycle, it reflects the background of the patriarchal age — frictions between groups (Hamor and Jacob) ; a level of sexual morality beyond the reach of our judgment and in any judgment ennobled by the integrity of Hamor and the love of his son for Dinah; the effort on the part of both families to effect a peaceful settlement honoring the religious sensibilities of the abused; the despicable violation of the terms of agreement by two of Jacob’s sons; and finally, in perfect consonance with the general character of Jacob, his sharp rebuke of his sons not on moral but on utilitarian grounds:
You have brought trouble on me by making me odious to the inhabitants of the land . . . my numbers are few, and if they gather themselves against me and attack me, I shall be destroyed, both I and my household. [34:30]
Jacob was not destroyed. But if we accept the present sequence, he is apparently forced to move from Shechem to Bethel, quite possibly a contributing factor in his loss of Rachel at the birth of Benjamin. We see again in this narrative of chapter 35 the influence of faith upon the patriarchal story. It is an age which accepts a corporate sense of responsibility: the guilt (or the merit — see the story of Abraham’s intercession for Sodom and Gomorrah in ch. 14) of one or a few falls upon the entire family or the entire tribe or even, as we shall later see, upon the whole nation. Jacob-Israel, corporately, bears the responsibility for the treachery of Simeon and Levi. But again, and even with the possible implication of divine judgment in the death of Rachel, we see the repeated motif of the Jacob cycle: the tension between sin and divine grace, the expression of faith that Jacob-Israel is saved and redeemed only by the will and purpose of God (35:5) , and finally the repetition of the promise and the blessing, and the second account of the changing of Jacob’s name to Israel. In the concluding sequence (chs. 34-35) the essential structure of the Jacob narrative is reiterated.
Following the brief notice of Jacob’s reunion with his father and brother and the death of Isaac (35:27-29) at Hebron in the south of Canaan, we read in chapter 36 a detailed Edomite genealogy, an extensive listing of the descendants of Esau. Apparently drawn from an old and reliable source, it includes the description of a division of land between Jacob and Esau strikingly similar to the more elaborate account of the separation of Abraham and Lot (36:6-8, cf. 13:5-12) The motive in the preservation of such stories is clear. Israel sees the legitimacy of her claim to the land not alone in the promise and gift of Yahweh. In the sustained if intermittent violent disputes with her near neighbors, Ammon and Moab (Lot) , and Edom (Esau) , Israel continues to recognize her close kinship with these semitic groups but insists in the stories that her claim to Canaan was validated long before she came out of Egypt and into the land under Joshua.
Finally, before turning to the Joseph story which begins in chapter 37, we ought to look briefly at its abrupt interruption in the narrative of chapter 38. It is clearly no part of the well-articulated and highly integrated narrative of Joseph. We can only guess as to why it stands where it does, why it came to its present position in Genesis. Perhaps this story of Judah and Tamar in chapter 38 is deliberately juxtaposed with the episode of Joseph’s morally victorious encounter with his master’s wife in Egypt in chapter 39 to point up the contrast between a son of Jacob and, at least for the remainder of Genesis, the son of Jacob. The same sharp contrast is an emphatic motif of the Tale of Joseph.
Whatever the reason for the insertion of chapter 38, it reflects in its present form an historical perspective later than the time of the great King David, about 1000 B.C. The story of Tamar and Judah is concerned with the genealogy of David: a product of this peculiar union is Perez who, according to the last verses of the book of Ruth (4: 18-22) , is an ancestor of David. We note also that the story illustrates a principle in Israel known as levirate marriage, and given legal formulation in Deuteronomy:
If brothers dwell together, and one of them dies and has no son, the wife of the dead shall not be married outside the family to a stranger; her husband’s brother shall go in to her, and take her as his wife, and perform the duty of a husband’s brother to her. [Deut. 25:5]
Our story of Judah and his daughter-in-law Tamar, as also in fact the book of Ruth, indicates that in early Israel the levirate obligation might be extended to any near male relative.9 We note finally that this is a good story, not, obviously, in the sense that it is morally elevating (it candidly reflects the morality of the age) , but in the remarkably graphic portrayal of character, especially Tamar, the deft integration of plot, and the skillful employment of suspense.
D. The Joseph Story (Gen. 37, 39-50)
1. As Literature
The Joseph narrative differs in marked degree from the cycles of stories about Abraham and Jacob. If the Jacob narratives appear to be somewhat better knit than the more episodic Abraham cycle, it is nevertheless clear that neither one has the integration of the Tale of Joseph. Here it is clearly one story, not a series of episodes. The plot is carefully, almost flawlessly, executed. There is no significant deviation from a central interest in the life and fortune of Joseph himself. The story moves, in highly integrated progression, from beginning to the high tension of its climax and finally to the moving resolution of the plot.
All the more remarkable, then — and all the more difficult of conclusive explanation — is the apparent phenomenon of a double tradition now unified in the single story. The usual explanation is that the present form of the narrative is a combination of J and E; and it is common to illustrate the alleged interweaving of the two accounts in an analysis of the first chapter in the tale, chapter 37. We are told that discrepancies in the chapter — such discrepancies certainly exist, here and elsewhere — are to be explained as follows. The two accounts, J and E, both draw from a common oral source, or, still as oral tradition, the Joseph story circulated simultaneously in central and southern Canaan. When given written form, the J version represented the peculiarities of the southern story, E, those of the northern account. The present form of the story is a skillful editorial combination of the two, designated JE.
Thus, according to J, it is Judah (with tribal residence in the south) who prevents the murder of Joseph and persuades his brothers instead to sell Joseph (vv. 26 and 27) to a passing band of Ishmaelites (v. 28b) But in the story according to E, it is Reuben (identified with the tribes settling through central Canaan) who interposes with advice that Joseph be placed in a pit-probably a well gone dry, or nearly dry — (vv. 22-24) , from which predicament Joseph is extricated by passing Midianites. So, too, we are to explain other inconsistencies. The hate of the brothers is inspired by Joseph’s tattling propensities and the favoritism of the father Jacob according to J (vv. 2-4, in part) ; while in E it is his obnoxious communication of his grandiose dreams to his brothers (vv. 5-11)
The hypothesis remains attractive. It also remains a hypothesis. But whether in fact the variants in the story are due to a written compilation from two parallel written accounts, or whether, as has been suggested of late, they are better attributed to natural deviations within a single oral tradition, we cannot now know. Acknowledging the variants, we find them hardly at all disruptive of the smooth flow and integration of the tale.
It is not surprising that the story of Joseph has inspired a distinguished literary work by one of the great novelists of modern time, the four Joseph novels by Thomas Mann. If his interpretations are not always our own, there are scenes and episodes which the reader of the Tetralogy will never forget: the inspired Tamar (38) motivated not by the simple passion of seduction but, convinced that Judah will bear the Blessing (see 49:8 ff.) , by a profound determination to have a part in covenant history; or Serah, a granddaughter of Jacob, gracefully breaking the news of Joseph’s survival to the old Patriarch in a song; or Mann’s sensitive interpretation of the barrenness of Rachel as divine judgment not against Rachel herself, but against Jacob for his consuming and therefore idolatrous love of Rachel. But if one supposes that the moving subtleties of the Joseph novels are all Mann’s creation, let him read the biblical story again!10
2. As History
Genesis is an introduction to the story of Israel and as such it is clearly motivated in part by a concern to explain how and why that story has its historical beginning in Egypt. We have every reason to suspect that qualities inherent in folklore and legend have attached themselves to the person of Joseph, who provides the immediate link with Egypt. We quite agree that this is no more sober history than the narratives about Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. We, too, observe the fabulous fortunes of Joseph and understand the fictitious charge that Horatio Alger stole his plots from the story of Joseph. We also know that the Pharaoh of Egypt is nowhere named and that other details of the story suggest an imprecise contact with reality.
On the other hand, and surveying the total picture from Abraham to Joseph, we must also reaffirm the positive. If there is an imprecision in detail, the broad tones and the basic outlines convey a remarkably solid contact with reality. True, we still cannot even fix a date for Abraham, Jacob or Joseph. But we can say, on the strength of extrabiblical and contemporary archaeological evidence from Egypt north and east and south again around that fertile crescent, that Gen.12 -50 properly belongs to and is a part of the life of the ancient Near East during the first half of the second millennium B.C.
More particularly, and with pointed significance for the tale of Joseph, we know that Egypt, which earlier in this period controlled the affairs of Palestine, was itself under the rule of foreign dynasties (the fifteenth to the seventeenth dynasties) from a point in the eighteenth century to about the middle of the sixteenth century B.C. These conquerors of Egypt, known as the Hyksos, were, like the Hebrews, of Semitic stock; and although Egyptian records from the period are almost entirely lacking, a noted archaeologist and scholar is able to conclude on the evidence of records both before and after the period of Hyksos rule that “an intimate connection between the Hebrew settlement in Egypt and the Hyksos conquest may be considered certain.”11
Under the circumstances of Semitic rule in Egypt, the story of the rise to power of a young and able Palestinian Semite is not at all in itself incredible. Nor, in view of the known influx into Egypt of large numbers of emigrants from Palestine and Syria during the Hyksos period, is it difficult to understand the residential move of the Jacob group (Gen. 47)
We do not want to overstate the measure of correlation between biblical story and external fact. On the other hand, it is important to recognize the general relationship between Gen. 12-50 and the actual life and times of the Patriarchal age. It is especially important for Old Testament study because, as almost every page of the Old Testament testifies, this correlation was deemed by Israel herself to be of prime importance! Against the charge that the faith of Israel always distorts the history of Israel, which, granted, it sometimes does, we have also to remember an integrity already given in the equation. It is a distinguishing characteristic of the faith of Israel from her earliest beginnings that God makes himself known in history, that is, in the course of human events. God, this Yahweh, is the be-all and end-all of Israel’s existence; and if that summum bonum of the knowledge of God is to be had, it must be had in the knowledge of what takes place in the human arena of history. In such a faith, Israel will not knowingly and willfully distort the image of history in which alone she can find the image of God.
And so, we call it legend. Perhaps there is no better term to convey at once both a measurable and significant correlation with external reality on the one hand, and, on the other, an imprecision in sequence and detail. And yet we find ourselves in the strongest agreement with the German scholar, Professor von Rad, whom we have cited before, in his own expressed feeling that after all, legend is not an adequate term, so long as it is commonly understood simply as a mixture of history and unrestrained popular imagination (one part history, nine parts imagination — our comment, not his) We much better understand legend as a combination of history and meditation, and as motivated primarily by a concern to give expression to the meaning of history, as that meaning is conveyed by the faith that God makes himself known therein.12
3. As Faith
There are differences of a literary kind between the narratives of Joseph and Abraham-Jacob. There is also the strong suggestion of a somewhat different theological perspective underlying these narratives. We sense in the Joseph story in contrast to the Abraham-Jacob cycles what we may call for want of a better term a theological sophistication. Yahweh demands of Joseph no sacrifice (Abraham — 22) There is no face-to-face-ness (18) and certainly no wrestling with the deity (Jacob — 32) There is no tension in Joseph himself between faith and unfaith (Abraham) , or between his own sinfulness and the grace of God (Jacob) Rather, insofar as these tensions appear, it is Joseph’s brothers who reflect them. It is they, the sons of Jacob, the children of Israel, who violate the covenant faith, who act in ignorance or defiance of the divine promise, who take matters of the covenant family into their own hands and act in unfaith. It is their own evil intention, their sinfulness — not Joseph’s — that is forgiven. It is they who are divinely judged in the precariousness of their own existence. It is they who are redeemed by the grace and mercy of God in spite of their evil intention. All of this is given summary expression in Joseph’s words to his brothers at the scene of their final reconciliation:
As for you, you meant evil against me; but God meant it for good. [50:20]
No less than in the Abraham and Jacob stories, Israel reads in the Joseph story something of her own inner experience of life lived under the rule and covenant of God. But the continuity of analogy is in the brothers not Joseph.
What, then, of Joseph? What is Joseph’s place in the faith of Israel? How does the character of Joseph reflect the faith of Israel? And if the characterization is in part shaped by faith, what is its message back to the community of faith out of which it grew and in which it was cherished?
We do not pretend to be in a position to give a final answer to these questions; and in attempting answers, we are aware of other questions inherent in the very answers. We have already suggested a particular correspondence between Abraham and Jacob and the first and second phases of Israel’s history, respectively. We have tried to show, to be sure briefly, that the Abraham cycle is particularly relevant in the faith of Israel to that first historical epoch in Israel’s history when she left a land (Egypt) to gain a land (Canaan) ; while the same is to be said of the Jacob cycle and its relatedness in faith to the story of Israel in the land of promise.
We wonder if there does not exist a comparable relationship of correspondence between the Joseph story and that third phase of Israel’s history which is separated from the second by the sixth-century catastrophe of the Fall of the state of Israel and the Babylonian Exile. The prophets of Israel, many of them standing between the glorious event of the Exodus and the tragic event of the Fall, interpreted both events as essentially the same in character, that is, as resulting from the purposive action of God in history. They predicted the Fall, or saw it in retrospect, as the judgment of God upon an unfaithful and sinful nation, but they understood the function of the catastrophe to be ultimately, like the Exodus event, positive and redemptive in character. The covenant, violated by Israel, was God’s covenant, and the judgment, so far from terminating the covenant, was seen as the only means of effectively perpetuating the covenant purpose — now in a purified remnant of the nation, or in one from the nation. The remnant or the one, and we find both concepts before as well as after the Fall, is a projection of faith, an assertion of hope in the ultimate fulfillment of the covenant promise. What we term Messianism is essentially this faith, this hope. The word Messiah, which means literally “anointed one,” points strictly, of course, to an individual; but in the psychology of Israel with its facile and often unconscious transitions from individual to corporate personality, we are hardly wrong in allowing a broader definition to the term Messianism, in which emphasis is placed upon the redemptive function of the human entity, whether group or individual. We are only lately coming to understand this characteristic psychological relationship between the one and the many in Israel; but it is with this understanding that we may see Messianism in the broadest sense in the divine promise to Abraham: “In you all the families of the earth will be blessed” (12:3, R.S.V. margin)
We wonder whether we do not have also to interpret the Joseph story in the same broad sense of Messianism, and as especially corresponding to that third phase of Israel’s life in which the messianic hope came into sharpest focus. Joseph is one of the sons of Jacob, to be sure; but he is much more one from the children of Israel. His uniqueness, his separation, is a theme of the Genesis narratives long before the notice of his birth (30:24) in the repeated accent through the Jacob cycle on the notes of Jacob’s consuming love and the barrenness of Rachel. And if the introductory chapter in the Joseph story (37) is in fact a combination of J and E, we see again the “method in the madness” that wove them together in the consequently doubled emphasis on the separation of Joseph from the group: it is Joseph against, and therefore set off from, his brothers in bringing the ill report (37:2, E) ; it is Joseph whom “Israel loved . . more than any other of his children” (v. 3, J) ; the “robe with sleeves” (R.S.V.; robe of many colors in some of the older translations) is given to Joseph (v. 3b, E) ; and it is Joseph who dreams the dreams of his own uniqueness (vv. 5 ff., E)
Joseph is not so much one of the brothers as he is one from the brothers. His very survival (how strongly suggestive of the nation’s Fall and Restoration) is from the human standpoint incredible, to say nothing of the final position of power which he attains. Against fantastic human odds, God preserves the life of Joseph and brings him at length to that position in which he is responsible for saving the life not only of the Jacob-Israel group, but indeed of the whole world:
Moreover, all the earth came to Egypt to Joseph to buy grain, because the famine was severe over all the earth. [41:57] The same motif of salvation is expressed in spiritualized terms by a great anonymous prophet who, in the time not long after the fall of the state of Israel, sees the means of salvation emerging in the Servant of Yahweh. The Servant may be one, or, collectively, many, but this entity embodies the ultimate fulfillment of Israel’s covenant hope:
It is too light a thing that you should be my
to raise up the tribes of Jacob
and to restore the preserved of Israel;
I will give you as a light to the nations,
that my salvation may reach to the end of
If there is a particular correspondence in Abraham to the first Israel (Exodus and Settlement) and in Jacob to the second (the period of the Kingdoms) , something of the same correspondence is to be seen in Joseph to the third Israel, to her profound hope that out of willful intention of evil, out of the consequent judgment of destruction and tragedy, God would yet through human means raise up the tribes of Jacob and bring his light of redemption to all the earth.
The correspondence, as with Abraham and Jacob, is imprecise. In the Joseph story too the players speak their own lines, lines created long before the historical phases to which they bear their correspondence. We do not for a moment mean to suggest that Gen. 12-50 was created out of whole cloth as an allegorical, fictional, personalized “history” of Israel. On the contrary, we have tried to make it plain that the bulk of the material comes in fact out of Israel’s ancient past, transmitted first orally, and given its most significant written formulation by the Yahwist in the tenth century B.C., when the second phase of Israel’s history was only just beginning to unfold. Nor do we mean to say, then, that the story of Joseph came into being as a messianic message with the intention of treating Joseph as a messianic figure. We do mean to suggest the possibility and even the probability that in the unmistakable implications of messianism in Joseph, the germ of the later development of the concept was something already given in Israel’s early traditions, precisely as the germinal faith in one God as Creator (Gen. 2) , Judge (3-11) and Redeemer (12 ff.) was also given in the same traditions received by the Yahwist.
These concepts certainly underwent development and elaboration in the course of Israel’s literary history, and beyond any doubt the meaning and significance of these given qualities of faith and hope came to full realization in Israel only as her history moved from high promise to frustration and finally to the rebirth of hope. Nor do we, at least, doubt that the unfolding meaning of all that was given in early tradition was in appreciable measure reflected in the long editorial process of the compilation of the present Old Testament canon. And here we must speak with real appreciation for the hypothesis of documents underlying the present text. Whatever the literal accuracy of the scheme of JEDP (in Genesis JEP) , the fact of periodic and thorough rethinking and rearrangement of the material is indisputable: the scheme of documents at least reflects the certainty that the tradition maintained a strong vitality and relevance in the life of Israel throughout Old Testament history. If what is conveyed in the sequence of symbols J — E — JE — P — JEP (by R = Redactor) and we are thinking only of Genesis now — be sometime proved in error, the symbolism nevertheless testifies with essential accuracy to the continuing discovery in every age of Israel’s history of the fresh import and meaning of what was already given in her earliest traditions.
Finally, then, Genesis receives its last rethinking, its ultimate refinement in the age of restoration following Israel’s destruction and exile. The last edition of Genesis is the work of an editor, a redactor who surveys the full sweep of Israel’s history. We call him R; and in his case, too, we cannot be sure whether he was one or many. It does not matter. Nor do we know the extent of his revision. It was probably very slight, beyond the work of combining earlier works. But as the Yahwist had done centuries earlier, he left behind him not only an introduction to the history of Israel, but a theological prelude sounding now the themes recurrent and dominant in the history which he surveyed.
It is in this sense that we may say of Genesis that it both informs and is informed by that which it introduces. It is in this sense that we may speak of Genesis as a “meditation on history.”13 Gerhard von Rad recalls with approval the suggestion of the Jewish biblical scholar Franz Rosenzweig: we ought no longer to think of the symbol R as standing for Redactor but rather, for Rab benu, which means, in Hebrew, our master”; since for the final form in which we receive the work, we are indebted to him and to his interpretation.14 His was the same historical perspective which gave rise to this prayer:
Thou art the Lord, the God who didst choose Abram and bring him forth . . . and give him the name Abraham; and thou didst find his heart faithful before thee, and didst make with him the covenant. . . . [Neh. 9:7 f.]
1The Hittite kingdom flourished, in what is now Turkey, during the middle centuries of the second millennium BC. We are indebted here to Professor G. D. Mendenhall in a paper presented before the Old Testament Colloquium, Fall, 1953.
2 The problem of terminology is particularly acute here. Neither of the two sections of Genesis is consistent: both now comprise varied literary material. For example, Gen. S is totally different from Gen. 2, and Gen. 24 from Gen. 28. And the term ‘myth’ is especially difficult. I use it for want of a better term, intentionally implying an ultimate mythological background for much of the material in Gen.1-11, but recognizing at the same time the thoroughgoing way in which Israel “historicized” all of her myths. See further Arthur Weiner, Glaube und Geschichte im Alten Testament, Kohihammer, Stuttgart, 1931, pp. 23 ff.
3 Here I must make particular acknowledgment of von Rad’s Des Erste Buch Mose, cited in Chapter I. Readers familiar with that work will recognize both the dependence upon, and the departure from, von Rad’s interpretation.
4 The classification of legend follows in general that of Hermann Gunkel (tr. W. H. Carruth) , The Legends of Genesis (Chicago: The Open Court Publishing Co., 1901)
5 For a detailed discussion of the E document, see any standard Introduction.
6 So, also, Robert C. Dentan, “The Unity of the Old Testament,” Interpretation, Vol. V, No. 2 (April, 1951) , especially p. 164.
7 So von Rad, op. cit., p. 29.
8 W. F. Albright, The Biblical Period (Pittsburgh, 1950) , p. 7, reprinted from The Jews; Their History, Culture, and Religion (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1949) , ed. Louis Finkeistein.
9 See Millar Burrows, An Outline of Biblical Theology (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1946) , pp. 295 f.
10And see also David Daube, Studies in Biblical Law (Cambridge: The University Press, 1947)
11Albright, op. cit., p. 7.
12 Von Rad, op. cit., pp. 27 f.
13 Dentan, loc. cit.
14 Op. cit., p. 32.