Pete Enns: What is Genesis About? (2)

Tree amid Rainy Green

UPDATE: I have added some articles to the IM bulletin Board (right column) that complement our studies this week.

Note from CM: Here is part two of Pete Enns’s enlightening overview of the purpose of Genesis in the final edition of the Hebrew Bible. Pete blogs at The Bible for Normal People. He also has a new The Bible for Normal People podcast for you to check out. HERE is one place you can access it.

• • •

More on What Genesis is Really About (if you keep one eye focused on the monarchy)
by Pete Enns

Following up on my last post, which likely changed your life forever, let’s channel Gary Rendsburg’s article a bit more and explore a few more ways that David and the monarchy are embedded into the stories in Genesis (in no particular order).

Esau’s “blessing” and Edom’s revolt. You may recall in Genesis that younger brother Jacob twice outmaneuvered his elder brother Esau (nickname Edom, Genesis 25:25 and 30).

The first time (Genesis 25:29-34), Esau (who is clearly some kind of dolt), sold his rights as firstborn for a hot lunch. As far as I’m concerned, that one’s on Esau. But in 27:1-40, Jacob, at the urging of his helicopter mother Rebekah, tricked old, nearly blind, Isaac into giving him Esau’s blessing too (by dressing up as Esau).

After Isaac blesses Jacob by mistake with a very awesome blessing that really couldn’t be topped (27:27-29), Esau returned from his hunt (the brutish, hairy guy is always out hunting) expecting to be blessed by his father. Isaac realizes he has been deceived, basically freaks out, followed by Esau freaking out event more, begging his father, “Have you only one blessing, father? Bless me, me also, father?” (v. 38)

Yes, Esau. Jacob only has one blessing, and he shot it all on Jacob. And it’s quite a blessing, which includes agricultural bounty and—to get to our point—political supremacy:

Let peoples serve you, and nations bow down to you. Be lord over your brothers, and may your mother’s sons bow down to you. (27:29)

Looks to me, Esau, that you’ll be under your brother’s thumb. (You really need to stay home more and keep an eye on things.)

The plural “brothers” and “your mother’s sons” may seem odd at first blush, given that Jacob only has one brother, the disenfranchised Esau. But in Hebrew “brothers” and “sons” often simply mean “kin” and “descendants.” And these plurals are a clue as to the ultimate meaning of this exchange.

If we remember that Jacob’s name will be changed to Israel later in the story (32:28 and 35:10), it’s not to hard to see what
is really being said here: the Israelites will have political supremacy of their kin—which include Edom (Esau’s nickname) and the other two trans-Jordan nations: Ammon and Moab.

Like Edom/Esau, Ammon and Moab are also kin, but more distantly. As Genesis tells the story, these nations stem from the union of Lot (Abraham’s nephew, Isaac’s cousin) and his daughters (19:30-38)—and if that’s not political propaganda, I don’t know what is.

The plurals “brothers” and “sons” make perfect sense if we see in Genesis later political realities embedded into the past. Genesis draws up Israel’s political map, and the younger son of Jacob will reign over them.

Back to Esau. Isaac has exhausted his good blessing by giving it to Jacob, and so he has to scrounge up a blessing for Esau. And this is all he has left (vv. 39-40):

See, away from the fatness of the earth shall your home be, and away from the dew of heaven on high. By your sword you shall live, and you shall serve your brother; but when you break loose, you shall break his yoke from your neck.

Not much of a blessing. Sort of an anti-blessing if you ask me, the opposite of Jacob’s: weak agriculture and political subservience—but with one ray of hope: Esau/Edom will eventually break free from his brother.

And so he does.

According to 2 Samuel 8:13-14, the nation of Edom came under Israelite control under David  and then revolted about 150 years later during the reign of the southern (Judahite) king Jehoram (2 Kings 8:20-24).

And so, Esau/Edom served his brother for a time until he broke loose. It seems like Isaac’s “blessing” to Esau was preview of coming attractions pertaining to the political events of the middle of the 9th c. BCE.

As we saw in the last post, the monarchy is the context for the writing of Genesis, and monarchic concerns are embedded into the ancient narratives of Genesis.

Israel’s ideal boundaries. In Genesis 15:18, God promises Abraham the land of Canaan for his descendants. The description of the boundaries is extensive—stemming from the Euphrates River down to Egypt.

These extensive boundaries appear elsewhere in the Israel’s story only during the time of the monarchy, specifically the early, ideal, days of the monarchy during the reign of Solomon (1 Kings 4:20-21) before he got cocky and disobedient.

The promise to Abraham was written with the monarchy in view—not predictively but retrospectively.

Abraham’s near sacrifice of Isaac. In this famous story (Genesis 22), Abraham’s near sacrifice of his son Isaac is stopped at the last second when God provided a ram for the sacrifice as a substitute. The story ends,

So Abraham called that place, “The LORD will provide”; as it is said to this day, “On the mount of the LORD it shall be provided.” (v. 14)

Here is the earliest reference in the Old Testament to the “mount of the LORD,” and the other occurrences (in Isaiah, Micah, and Psalm 24) all refer to Mount Zion, which is Jerusalem with its Temple built during the reign of Solomon.

The writer of this story is living during the monarchic period (“as it is said to this day”) and embedding the origins of Temple sacrifice in the near sacrifice of Isaac, where an animal was substituted for a human.

The everlasting covenant. The Hebrew term berit `olam (everlasting covenant) is used in the Old Testament of only 3 people: Noah (Genesis 9:16), Abraham (Genesis 17), and David (2 Samuel 23:5). God’s relationship with David is like one we have not seen for a long time, since the dawn of time, since Israel’s beginnings.

There are more examples in the article—some a little subtle, others that take a lot more explaining. But the similarities between the stories in Genesis and the later monarchy that we’ve looked at here and in the last post are hard to dismiss.

Key elements of the monarchy find their origin in the deep past of Israel’s origins. To read Genesis well means to read it with one eye on David, the monarchy, and ultimately the southern nation of Judah.

This way of looking at Genesis may be seem to some to undercut the Bible, and I get that. But it’s not. It’s really only about trying to understand when and why Genesis was written by paying careful attention to the clues the writer left there.

29 thoughts on “Pete Enns: What is Genesis About? (2)

  1. Or both the Septuagint and the Samaritan took from a previous alternate version or versions. It gets fuzzy back in there. Most differences are fairly insignificant but it does show things weren’t as set in stone as we’ve been taught.


  2. Wow. So the Septuagint followed that version? That’s really interesting. I’ll check out the Wikipedia article. Thanks for sharing this.


  3. Deb, I wanted to find this out for myself before I went to bed. Here’s a bit of what the Wikipedia entry on the Samaritan Pentateuch says: “Some six thousand differences exist between the Samaritan and the Masoretic Text. Most are minor variations in the spelling of words or grammatical constructions, but others involve significant semantic changes, such as the uniquely Samaritan commandment to construct an altar on Mount Gerizim. Nearly two thousand of these textual variations agree with the Koine Greek Septuagint and some are shared with the Latin Vulgate.”

    There’s quite a bit more you could read for yourself. What interested me most was the agreement with the Septuagint, which is the Greek Old Testament translation used in the New Testament writings and still in use today in the Eastern wing of the church. Bottom line seems to be that the Samaritan Bible matches in large part as you say.


  4. I believe I’ve reached the stage of not worrying about whether or not they really happened. People two hundred years after the putative events described couldn’t have known if they really happened or not; neither can we millennia later, despite the tools and resources of our historical science. If we let anything significant ride on our ability to be certain that they did in fact happen, we are still only taking a shot in the dark, however much we may deceive ourselves into thinking and believing otherwise.


  5. It’s entirely possible that there might have been a historical David but at best he would have been local tribal chieftain. My actual point was about the world empire described in Biblical sources. There’s just no evidence for this. And there should be. I’m sorry but the suggestion in the review that it existed and the Egyptians just didn’t notice is absurd.

    We’re in the same situation here as we are with the Exodus narrative and the Conquest narrative. These accounts were written hundreds of years after the events they claim to narrate by folks who in many cases were living in vastly different circumstances than the people they were writing about would have really lived. The editors and composers of this material had access to older writings, sure, but they adapted and shaped them to address their own contemporary concerns.

    None of this is easy to internalize for someone like myself who grew up being taught that reading the Bible was like reading a newspaper account written by God. But we have to follow the evidence where it leads.

    I can speak from personal experience of how extraordinary these stories are and how they open up to us when we stop worrying about whether or not they really happened.


  6. I read the NY Times book review noted by CM and it is worth reading if you have any interest in this matter. My familiarity with the subject is mostly from reading the Biblical Archeology Review. What strikes me most in the debate as to whether David and Solomon were actual historical characters is that the rabid deniers are quite similar to the rabid evolutionists in that their main agenda apparently is that of Evangelical Atheism. I am quite content to join Rendsburg in “accepting the biblical record as more or less historical .” Denying the historicity of David is not as extreme as the claim I read recently that Jesus never lived and the stories were invented something like a thousand years ago. I’d like to be there to hear that guy’s life review on the other side. It’ll all come out in the warsh.


  7. If I recall correctly, the Samaritans in Jesus’ day only had the Torah because the rest of scripture was compiled after the collapse of the northern kingdom. Does the version they had match in large part with the five books we attribute to Moses today?


  8. > there is no historical or archeological evidence

    If we rewrite that to “no *conclusive* … evidence” then I am in agreement.

    We also need to keep in mind our modern visions of “empire” vs. what that meant in the biblical time frame – their thriving metropolis may well have been a large and filthy village enhanced by some brick/stone construction

    I have no doubt that up-scaling of the remembered empire occurred for those in exile – of course it did. Lost places I remember fondly were certainly not as great as lingering memory recalls them. That’s what people do.


  9. Well, they do have their audience. Just like “The Return of the Chaos Monsters — and Other Backstories of the Bible” by Gregory Mobley, Enns helps open the door.


  10. Keeping in mind their history as not only exiles but as nomads. A mythical (or true) past can give great hope and focus to people. Make Israel Great Again and all that.

    Good insights, CM.


  11. The history of Israel IS the history of David. And well done NT authors for linking that entire history up to Jesus.


  12. The first note from Gary Rendsburg’s article highlights the big problem though.

    “I need to mention here that many scholars today doubt the historicity of the material in 2 Samuel
    and 1 Kings concerning David and Solomon, the building projects in Jerusalem, the extent of the
    empire, and so on. This is not the forum to enter into an extended discussion on this matter, so I
    will need to beg your forbearance and ask you to join me in accepting the biblical record as more
    or less historical .”

    The truth is that there is no historical or archeological evidence for the existence of the Davidic world empire described in these Biblical sources. The likelihood is that the “monarchy” is itself a literary creation. But obviously Rensburg and Enns are not prepared to go there.


  13. Over the past two days I found myself standing on top of a big rock contemplating the heavens above, only to be disturbed by metallic sounds from below. Looking down I see this guy with a big hammer and chisel working away. I found myself having evangelical palpitations, and discover that I’m not the only one. To be fair, what we are reading is CM’s extract of Pete Enn’s extract, so I went to the source and read what turns out to be a lecture given by a Jewish scholar in the setting of Jewish Bible study. This somehow immediately calmed the palpitations, and as I read the presentation over the next hour I ended up with a number of “Aha!” light bulbs above my head.

    This is some really good stuff. Rather than chipping away at the rock of my salvation, I found it revealing that rock to be an outcrop of a much larger bedrock below. The main point proposed is that the account in Genesis as we have it today came along with the major change in the society of Israel from pastoral tribalism to monarchic empire during the lifetimes of David and Solomon. This makes a great deal of sense as presented in the lecture. It is not saying that the Bible stories were made up out of whole cloth, it is saying that these stories were already familiar to the people and were enhanced and adapted to help the people adjust to the massive change in their world view and situation. This for me has implications for our own potential massive change today with changed understanding of story.

    The end result for me is the renewed desire to read the Olden Testament historical narratives again with this enlarged understanding. The scholar, Gary Rendsburg, shows how the stories the people were familiar with shared a tradition of being told in poetic form with the rest of ancient middle eastern culture, and that one of the innovations of the enhanced stories was to use a prose form, which apparently originated in Egypt. This makes sense to me in that Moses was highly educated in Egypt. If I see any lack in Rendsburg’s view it is that he seems to give little or no acknowledgement to the contribution of Moses in the compilation of the Torah. I’m recommending you take the time to read the lecture and I’m open to reading other work by Gary Rendsburg.


  14. “(T)he Hebrew Bible is a book that has been shaped to give eschatological hope to the exiles, and the two main characters signifying that Hope are Abraham and David.”

    That, I have no problem with. 😉


  15. Ben I don’t see it as “propaganda” at all, because the fact that it may have been written during the monarchy only explains part of it. Why did those who later compiled, composed, and edited the Hebrew Bible use these materials as they did? I think it was to give hope to the exiles — to encourage them to look to the model of a king like David as their hope for God fulfilling his promises of restoration and, ultimately, new creation.


  16. As I will try to show tomorrow, I think this interpretation paves the way for Jesus. In the final editing of the Hebrew Bible, the exiles were being challenged to look for a king like David as the answer to their dilemma. Those who survived the Exile were the people of Judah — it was only natural (as well as inspired!) for them to express their hope in Davidic terms.

    As I said in a comment to Robert yesterday, the Hebrew Bible is a book that has been shaped to give eschatological hope to the exiles, and the two main characters signifying that Hope are Abraham and David.


  17. +1

    We need to read-through the political charge of the text . . . which is something we should attempt to do with all texts [only the driest reference texts are ultimately apolitical].

    Perhaps on occasion that charge also bears some message. There is no way to honestly read Scripture as apolitical.


  18. It does not bother me much – but I believe there is much less distance between “inspired myth and origins poetry” and “down and dirty political propaganda” than appears to be commonly accepted.

    I do not view political propaganda as “dirty”; generally “Art” is medium bearing a message we approve of, and “Propaganda” is medium bearing a message we disapprove of. The healthiest response to Propaganda is to think about it – just like Art [poetry and myth]. Within both lie the potential for understanding. Intellectually discarding what one thinks to be Propaganda is denying that we are all enmeshed in power structures [inherently political].

    After all David, and the lineage of Israel, is very much the nearly the whole narrative of Scripture. It has only passing interest in anything else.

    This, for me actually makes it all the easier to understand. I know how to read-through politically charged writing. As an encoded moral/theological formula Scripture is – bluntly – a hot mess; that is the much harder reading [and I know longer put much stock in it].


  19. I am a big believer in typological interpretation and recapitulation – especially as applied to Christ and the Gospels in relation to the OT. But here, I can’t help but think that Enns is carrying an interesting idea just a *bit* further than the texts warrant.


  20. Enns is saying we should keep one eye focused on the monarchy when reading Genesis, not both eyes. The other eye can continue to take in the view of inspired myth, origins poetry, narrative arc of the entire OT and what CM has called the distinctive and unique Jewishness of the scriptures, but minus the naivette of thinking that impure human motivations (which are more often than not political) didn’t have a big part in putting it all together. None of this means that God was not also involved in the history of Israel and the creation of the scriptures; it’s just that God worked through the very fallible human means at hand, just as he worked through imperfect natural processes via evolution to create humanity itself (and everything else).


  21. Strangely, this ‘reinterpretation’ bothers me far more than stepping away from a literal reading of Genesis 1 & 2.

    Bible as inspired myth and origins poetry was bearable.
    Bible as down and dirty political propaganda, not so much…


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: