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Genesis 12–50: The Ancestral Story

1 Introduction

2 Abraham Cycle (11:27–25:11)

3 Jacob Cycle (25:19–35:29)

4 Joseph Cycle (37:1–50:26)

5 Genesis as a Book

Study Guide


Abraham cycle, Abram, Abraham, Abrahamic Covenant, Ancestors, Ancestral Story, Aram, Benjamin, Birthright, Circumcision, Covenant, Cycle, Edom, Eponym, Esau, Goshen, Hagar, Isaac, Ishmael, Jacob, Jacob cycle, Joseph, Joseph cycle, Judah, Laban, Leah, Lot, Matriarchs, Patriarchs, Pharaoh, Potiphar, Rachel, Rebekah, Saga, Sarai, Sarah, Theophany, Toledot, Ur

Sacrifice of Isaac

Caravaggio's Sacrifice of Isaac

The story of Abraham’s near sacrifice of Isaac in Genesis 22 is the climax of the Abraham stories. It conveys the nature and extent of Abraham’s commitment to his God. This detail from Caravaggio’s famous painting isolates the hand of Abraham holding a knife to Isaac’s throat, there- by freezing the story’s moment of truth.

Source: Drawing by Daniel Hornschemeier Bandstra based on Caravaggio’s Sacrifice of Isaac (Florence: Uffizi, 1603, oil on canvas).


Genetic inheritance profoundly shapes every individual—from hair color to body shape, even personality quirks. Each of us inevitably resembles mother and father, and this can be hopeful or discouraging. Each of us naturally wants to shape our

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own identity and be our own person, but we might get disheartened once we realize how much we have turned out to be like our parents.

This can be the source of rebellion against parents and frustration that we cannot ultimately escape our genetic history. Genetic research confirms the scientific side of what the writers of Israel seemed to realize long ago. Telling the story of their ancestors was the way that the tellers came to understand their own being.

The history of Israel really begins with family history, and the Ancestral Story is the account of Israel’s earliest forebears. The great Hebrew storytellers instinctively knew that Israel’s parentage could teach a great deal about the nation’s character.

The Ancestral story is the prehistory of Israel, the cultural genetics of the nation. The Ancestral Story is dominated by sibling rivalry and family infighting. Yet the tales also have international significance. The names of many of the characters are eponyms; hence, they are eponymous ancestors. An eponym is one who gives his name to a people, place, or institution. For example, Jacob’s name was changed to Israel, and his sons bore the names of Israel’s tribes.

The main protagonists of the Ancestral Story are Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. They are often referred to as the patriarchs, or first fathers, of Israel. Male family and clan heads dominated social structures in Israel although the powerful role of matriarchs, or first mothers, is evident throughout the biblical story. Calling Israel a patriarchal society would oversimplify its complex social organization. The Ancestral Story gives ample witness to the essential functions of women in shaping national destiny. Most of the episodes of the Ancestral Story are tales of family life with a domestic orientation, and the matriarchs are dominant players.

The primary literary form of the Ancestral Story is the saga. A saga is a legendary narrative about an ancestor or community figure. The plot of a saga is simple and recounts the leader’s success in weathering threats or overcoming obstacles. Sagas explore human experiences and may have been intended to support the reader through life’s problems.

Overall, the Ancestral Story does not have the same architecture as the Primeval Story, which, as we saw in Chapter 1, was organized into two series of parallel developments. The Ancestral Story is organized into three major saga collections. Each collection is called a cycle because the stories revolve around a major ancestral figure, respectively, Abraham, Jacob, and Joseph. These three cycles are separated from each other by brief genealogical notices of the two ancestral offspring who branched off from the trajectory of Israel, namely, Ishmael and Esau.

The Abraham and Jacob cycles could be called albums, the episodes being similar to snapshots. The individual tales within each cycle are not altogether tightly connected nor are they ordered by a linear plot structure. Nonetheless, threads and themes unite the collections. In contrast, the stories of the Joseph cycle are dramatically unified in what may be the world’s earliest novella. It is replete with consistent characterization, theatrical tension, and narrative suspense—as befitting any good tale.

The literary shape of the Ancestral Story is much easier to establish than the ancestors’ relationship to history (Figure 2.1). No outside source makes reference to the ancestors of Israel, and Genesis makes no unambiguous references to otherwise known historical figures. Authorities have attempted to establish the time frame of the ancestors using biblical parallels to the known social customs. On this basis, the ancestors have been positioned in the Middle Bronze period

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Time Line: The Ancestors

FIGURE 2.1 Time Line: The Ancestors

Many interpreters place the ancestors in the Middle Bronze period, but this cannot be established conclusively.

Go to the companion website and see the table “Chronological Data Relating to the Ancestors.”

(2000–1550 BCE; see Kitchen, 1995). Other authorities have challenged the social and historical parallels and have built a case that the Ancestral Story is largely a fictional account written long after Judah’s exile in Babylonia (see Thompson, 2000). According to this view, the story reflects the later community’s understanding of its identity and as such is not a historically reliable chronicle of actual events. This view is supported by anachronisms in the narrative. For example, the city of Abraham’s origin is called Ur of the Chaldeans, but the term Chaldean could only apply to southern Mesopotamia from the tenth to eighth centuries BCE at the earliest.

1.1 The Ancestral Story: A Summary

When God held out the promise of a homeland and a large family, Abram/Abraham migrated from Ur in southern Mesopotamia to Palestine (Genesis Chapter 12). Because of a famine, he and his wife Sarai/Sarah sought refuge in Egypt. Abram and Lot had competing claims to Canaan and finally separated (13). Note that the names Abram and Sarai are used to refer, respectively, to the first patriarch Abraham and the first matriarch Sarah from the time of their departure from Ur until the covenant of circumcision. At this point God changed their names to Abraham (17:5) and Sarah (17:15). Where a distinction is not relevant, discussions will use the names Abraham and Sarah.

God made a covenant with Abram as an assurance that he would fulfill his promise of offspring (15). After many years had passed, Abram and Sarai still did not have a son. Sarai had her husband lay with her servant Hagar (16), and Ishmael was born to be the surrogate heir. God reaffirmed the covenant promise of offspring, founded the ritual of circumcision, and gave new names to Abram and Sarai (17).

When Abraham was almost 100 years old and Sarah almost 90, God announced that they would have their own son (18–19). After the promised son Isaac was born, Ishmael and Hagar came into conflict with Sarah and were driven away (21). Then God tested Abraham’s faith by commanding him to slaughter and sacrifice Isaac. At the last moment, God stopped Abraham from killing Isaac (22). Sarah died

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shortly thereafter and was buried in a plot purchased by Abraham (23). Then Abraham sent his servant to the Terah clan in Aram to get a wife for Isaac (24). Isaac married Rebekah, and Abraham passed away knowing his line would continue (25).

Twin sons, Esau and Jacob, were born to Isaac and Rebekah. The firstborn Esau sold his birthright to Jacob (25). Residing in Gerar, Isaac felt threatened and deceived Abimelech the king by saying that Rebekah was his sister (26). Later, Jacob and Rebekah deceived Isaac and stole the family blessing from Esau (27). Jacob fled from his brother (28) and lived for an extended period of time with his uncle Laban in Haran. Eventually, he married Leah and Rachel, the daughters of Laban, and had many children (29–31). Rachel was his favored wife. Laban grew jealous of Jacob because his flocks increased at Laban’s expense. So Jacob felt compelled to leave with his family and considerable belongings. Returning to Palestine, he wrestled with God (32), and then he met up with Esau (33). Jacob and his family settled in Palestine but tried to remain separate and distinct from the Canaanites who lived in the land, as the story of Shechem illustrates (34). Jacob journeyed to Bethel and settled there (35).

Jacob blatantly showed favoritism to Joseph. For this as well as for Joseph’s own arrogance, his brothers despised him and eventually sold him into Egyptian slavery. He became a servant to Potiphar, an Egyptian official (37). An interlude describes Judah and Tamar’s conflict over marriage rights and offspring (38). Back on the main story line, Joseph faithfully served Potiphar but was sent to jail after Potiphar’s wife tried to seduce him and Joseph rebuffed her. While in jail, Joseph distinguished himself by his trustworthiness and his ability to interpret dreams (39–40). When Pharaoh had a series of dreams he could not comprehend, Joseph was summoned to interpret them. Pharaoh was pleased with his reading and appointed him to a high government post (41). Under his leadership, Egypt prepared for a famine, thus providing the occasion for a reunion with his brothers. When they came to buy grain, he accused them of espionage and imprisoned one of his brothers, inflicting on Simeon the ordeal that he himself had suffered because of them (42). Eventually, he revealed his identity to them and forgave them (43–45).

Joseph brought his entire family to live in the Goshen region of Egypt, a fertile area in the eastern Nile delta. They grew into a sizable clan under the care of Jacob. In his old age, Jacob passed the family blessing on to his grandchildren, Ephraim and Manasseh, (48) and to his sons (49). Shortly afterward, Jacob died and was taken back to Canaan for burial. Before Joseph died in Egypt, he extracted a promise from his family that they would not bury him in Egypt but would carry his bones back to Canaan (50).

1.2 Reading Guide

As you read the Ancestral Story pay special attention to the following issues that are common to all three cycles:


1. Each tracks how God extends blessing to the ancestral family and from them to others, but each cycle has its own variation on the theme.

2. Each employs a journey motif that mirrors in some way the movement from barrenness to blessing.

3. From the perspective of text composition, the first episode of each cycle also contains in some embryonic form the dynamics of the blessing theme, especially as it relates to offspring and land.

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See if you can identify the thematic episode of each cycle and the specific features of blessing it signals.

We saw that the Primeval Story has two underlying contributors, a writer who used Elohim for God and one who used Yhwh. These same writers also contribute episodes to the Ancestral Story, and a third contributor appears. The classical documentary hypothesis identifies the three sources as the Yahwist, the Elohist, and the Priestly writers, which we described in Part 1, “The Torah: Prologue.”

Beginning here with the Ancestral Story and continuing through Numbers, we will be using these designations to identify the three sources. Again we should point out that not all scholars agree with every detail of the documentary hypothesis or even with the general approach. But it has proved to be a useful tool for reading texts closely, is still used widely in the scholarly literature, and can provide plausible explanations for certain features in the text.

2 ABRAHAM CYCLE (11:27–25:11)

The Abraham cycle continues the primeval theme of blessing and lays the groundwork for the history of Israel. The new beginning notably coincides with its hero, Abraham, departing for a new land. Reflecting universal epic patterns (see Campbell, 1968), the hero’s journey is played out in Abraham’s story. He leaves his comfortable surroundings with an eager but simple faith, faces many dangers, and occasionally stumbles. Through these challenges, his faith matures and his relationship with God deepens. When God commands Abraham to sacrifice his son, he faces his most difficult challenge—and is forever changed.

The Abraham cycle of stories formally begins with the toledot of Terah (11:27–32). This genealogical notice mentions two essential details: Abram married Sarai, who was barren, and Abram’s clan left Ur for Canaan but stopped short and settled in Haran. These facts set the stage for the two itineraries that drive the cycle. The first is the metaphorical journey from barrenness to fertility; the unifying motif of this cycle is the concern for a son. The second itinerary is the geographical journey from Mesopotamia to the Promised Land (Figure 2.2).

For years, historians and archaeologists have been looking for evidence to substantiate the biblical picture of Abraham (see Kitchen, 2003). However, there is no specific mention of Abraham or his associates in any ancient extrabiblical text. Some have suggested that Abraham’s wide-ranging travels through the Middle East may be related to the well-known movements of the Amorites of the second millennium BCE. Also, the type of names held by Israelite ancestors fits the pattern of Amorite personal names. Abraham was not necessarily an Amorite, but the biblical portrait of him correlates generally with patterns of Bronze Age migrations in western Mesopotamia.

2.1 Call and Covenant (12–17)

The first episode of the Abraham cycle articulates what God intended to do with Abram. The divine charge in 12:1–3 contains the programmatic theme of the cycle. In it Yhwh makes some rather bold promises to Abraham, perhaps as an incentive to get him moving. Having given up everything to follow Yhwh’s lead, Abraham awaits fulfillment of the promises, but as years turn

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Abraham's Journey

FIGURE 2.2 Abraham’s Journey

According to Genesis, Abraham’s clan originally came from southern Mesopotamia and then settled in western Mesopotamia. Abraham, Sarah, and Lot traveled from Haran to Canaan. After arriving in Canaan, Abraham’s principle sphere of activity is the territory of Judah.

into decades, Abraham verges on disillusionment—still no children, still no land. Through various means, including the device of covenant, God maintains Abraham’s hope.

2.1.1 To and From Canaan (12–14)

The divine promise speech in 12:1–3 is crucial for understanding the theological intention of the Yahwist source. Abraham was commanded to leave his home and his family and follow Yhwh’s leading to a new land.

Now Yhwh said to Abram, “Go from the land of your birth and your kin and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. And I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and him who curses you I will curse; and through you all the families of the earth shall bless themselves/be blessed.” (12:1–3)

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God essentially promised Abraham three things: a homeland, offspring, and, less tangible than these two, that he would be a blessing. Take note of the phrases “great nation” and “make your name great” in Yhwh’s speech. God is the one who will secure Abraham’s future greatness. This language recalls the earlier significance of name (Hebrew shem) in Genesis 6:4 (“men of a name”), in 11:4 (“make a name for ourselves”), and as the genealogy of Shem. The name God will make for Abraham will reverse humanity’s previous misguided aspirations.

The prominence of the word blessing in this text suggests that God had something special in store for Abraham. But not only for him; through Abraham, all humanity would be blessed and move out from under Yhwh’s curse. This is as close as we come to identifying an overall theological theme in the Yahwist narrative. Perhaps the Yahwist writer, theoretically connected to the Davidic or Solomonic court, believed that God’s blessings had been given to David, especially through the gift of an empire, and he saw this as the beginning of the renewal of society—perhaps even a new world order.

Go to the companion website and see the table “The ‘Bless Themselves’ Passages in the Ancestral Story.” The last statement of the divine call in verse 3 can either be translated “be blessed” or “bless themselves.” This table lays out the collection of texts that use this phrase.

Abraham followed Yhwh’s command and traveled from Haran to Canaan. He stopped at two places, Shechem and the region of Bethel, before arriving in the Negev. At both Shechem and Bethel, he built an altar to Yhwh, demonstrating his devotion to God, and perhaps also, at least in the eyes of later Israelites, founding these sites as authentic worship centers and staking claim to these lands.

No sooner had Abraham journeyed to Canaan under Yhwh’s promise than a famine forced him and Sarah to go elsewhere in search of sustenance. Arriving in Egypt, Abraham feared for his life because he believed that the Egyptians would kill him to gain his beautiful Sarah. He and Sarah agreed to keep their spousal relationship a secret so that he would be spared. Pharaoh, the ruler of Egypt, did take Sarah into his court, but as a consequence Yhwh afflicted the royal house with plagues. When confronted by Pharaoh, Abraham admitted his deception and was summarily expelled.

This story is notable for a number of reasons. First, Abraham is pictured in a less than flattering way. The story reveals his striking lack of faith—notable because he had just received Yhwh’s remarkable promises. The episode is strategic for the theological plot development of the cycle. It benchmarks Abraham’s insecurity and sets the story up for Abraham to grow in trust and confidence in Yhwh’s promises as the narrative progresses. Second, the famine, the journey from Canaan to Egypt and back, Pharaoh, and plagues foreshadow the large-scale confrontation between the Hebrews and Egyptians that will be told in the book of Exodus (see RTOT Chapter 3).

After the famine, another threat to the promise of land came by way of Abraham’s nephew, Lot. Both of their flocks had grown so large that they started competing for pasturage. In a fit of generosity and evidently also a show of faith, Abraham allowed Lot to choose where he wished to be. Lot chose the well-watered Jordan valley. In response, God reiterated to Abraham his promises of land and offspring (13:14–17), and Abraham moved to the Hebron area.

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In the meantime, Lot drifted toward Sodom and Gomorrah. A coalition of Middle Eastern kings ransacked these cities and carried off Lot. Abraham mustered a fighting force of 318 men out of his own estate and gave chase. His troops recovered the goods and people stolen from the cities of the plain. On his journey back to Hebron, Melchizedek, the king of Salem (possibly Jerusalem), blessed Abraham in the name of “El Elyon, Creator of heaven and earth” (14:19). This episode illustrates how powerful Abraham had become, displays concretely how the nations were blessed through him, and confirms that he was blessed by God.

2.1.2 Heir to the Promise (15–16)

Although Yhwh had promised that Abraham would become a great nation, in advanced old age he and Sarah still did not have children. In Chapter 15, a highly significant passage, Yhwh approaches Abraham and confirms his promises with a covenant. A covenant is an oath-bound relationship with defined expectations and obligations. The texts of many ancient Middle Eastern covenants have survived and been analyzed for setting and form. Covenants originated in politics and international law and have standard elements. Treaty covenants and charter covenants were the two main types (see McCarthy, 1978).

A treaty covenant defined and regulated a relationship between nations. The parties to the covenant could be of equal power and status (a parity covenant) or unequal status (a suzerain–vassal covenant). The covenant that God made with Israel through Moses at Mount Sinai was a suzerain–vassal type (see also RTOT Chapter 3 and RTOT Chapter 5). Ancient treaty covenants are analogous to the formal international alliances and trade agreements modern countries still negotiate.

A charter covenant consisted of a grant of property. The grant was usually made to reward faithfulness or loyal service. For example, kings would give land to loyal military officers after a campaign; hence, it is sometimes called a royal land grant covenant (see Weinfeld, 1970). In Genesis 15, the Yahwist uses the charter form of covenant to give shape to God’s commitment to Abraham. It is a unilateral divine promise in which God binds himself by an oath to provide land to Abraham and his offspring in perpetuity.

The documentary source of this episode is a bit difficult to pin down. Yhwh is used throughout the story, and this is usually indicative of the Yahwist source. It might also be assigned to the Yahwist source on account of its style and theme. But it does contain some inconsistencies that suggest it might have come from elsewhere, perhaps the Elohist source. Verses 3, 5, and 13–16 are usually assigned to the Elohist source because revelations in visionary form are typically an Elohist characteristic. Blenkinsopp (1992, 122–124) suggests that Chapter 15 was “written or extensively rewritten by a D author.” The Abraham charter covenant is similar in structure to the David charter covenant in 2 Samuel 7 (see RTOT Chapter 8), leading Clements (1967) to argue that Genesis 15 and 2 Samuel 7 come from the same source.

Here is the text of this remarkable covenant ceremony:

After these events, the word of Yhwh came to Abram in a vision, “Don’t be afraid, Abram . . . ” (15:1a)

Yhwh came to Abraham in a vision, indicating Abraham’s special relationship with God. The phrase “the word of Yhwh came” typically introduces prophetic revelation (see 1 Samuel 15:10 and Hosea 1:1). Fear is a natural reaction when someone

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is in the presence of God, and therefore “don’t be afraid” is a phrase that frequently introduces announcements of salvation (see 21:17; 26:24; 35:17; as well as Isaiah 10:24).

“. . . I am your shield. Your reward will be very great.” (15:1b)

Yhwh declared himself to be Abraham’s shield—that is, his protector. The reward would not be contracted wages for service rendered but an unexpected favor in appreciation for faithful service.

Abram said, “My Lord Yhwh, what of lasting significance can you give me since I continue to be childless, with Eliezer of Damascus, a servant, standing to inherit my estate!” Abram further stated, “You have not given me offspring. One of my servants stands as my heir.” Then there was a word of Yhwh for him, “That one shall not be your heir! One who comes from your own loins—he will be your heir.” He took him outside and said, “Look at the heavens and count the stars if you can. So will your offspring be.” He placed his trust in Yhwh, and he (Yhwh) considered that a righteous act. (15:2–6)

Because Abraham had no son born to him, his inheritance was due to go to his servant, Eliezer of Damascus. This story demonstrates that concern over descendants is central to the plot line. This will be a continuing interest of the Yahwist within the Ancestral Story. Lacking a son, Abraham was not sure that God’s promise would ever be realized. After God reassured him that he would have numerous offspring—even more than the stars—Abraham committed his future to God, even though he saw no evidence that fulfillment was even a possibility. God took Abraham’s faith as an indication that he wanted to stand in a relationship of living trust with him. The word righteous is significant. Righteousness in the Torah applies to human activity. Righteous acts are God-approved ones, whereby the doer demonstrates that he or she intends to stand in a relationship of dependence on God. Here, Abraham’s faith is reckoned as a righteous act.

The next part of the story (verses 7–12, not given here) describes a rather strange ceremony. Abraham slaughtered a heifer, goat, ram, turtledove, and pigeon, and he placed the animal halves in two rows. Then Abraham was cast into a deep sleep, and Yhwh appeared to him and symbolically passed between the animal halves.

When the sun set and it was dark, a smoking oven and a flaming torch passed between these pieces. (15:17)

This ceremony drew Abraham into a formal relationship with deity. Through this ritual action God demonstrated to Abraham the depth of his commitment. The narrative says that God took the form of a smoking oven pot and torch for the purposes of the ceremony. According to the Hebrew Bible (depending on how the notion of the image of God is understood), God has no physical form, but when he does appear, he is typically represented by smoke and fire. Such a symbolic appearance of God is called a theophany. The most notable appearance was his descent onto Mount Sinai in Exodus 19, when he appeared to the Israelites and delivered the Ten Commandments.

The ceremony takes on the meaning of a ritual of self-condemnation. By passing between the bisected animals, Yhwh was symbolically calling down upon himself the same fate that the animals suffered in the event that he would he be unfaithful

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to the covenant promise. In this ceremonial way, the deity staked the divine life on the promise of offspring and the promise that they would possess the land of Canaan.

On that day Yhwh cut a covenant with Abram: “To your offspring I give this land: from the River of Egypt to the Great River, the Euphrates.” (15:18)

The entire encounter between Abraham and Yhwh in this passage is summarized in the statement, “Yhwh cut a covenant with Abram.” In biblical language, “to cut a covenant” refers to the animals that were ceremonially cut in half. Cutting animals in a covenant ceremony may have been a traditional practice. Cutting an ass in half was part of a ritual of covenant ratification attested in Mari. The cutting of the animals and passing between the pieces is ritualized self-condemnation, invoking mutilation and death on oneself if one is disloyal to the covenant.

Here, the cutting ritual was used to ensure Yhwh’s grant of offspring and land. Charter covenants typically specify land boundaries, and such is the case here. Yhwh gave Abraham a grant of land and finalized it with a charter covenant because Abraham had demonstrated his faith. Not accidentally, these borders correspond with the limits of the Davidic–Solomonic kingdom (see 1 Kings 4:21). The point is that Israel’s claim to the land, even to the definition of the borders, was traced back to the covenant promise Yhwh made to Abraham.

Despite the covenant and the promises, Abraham and Sarah were unable to have children for a long time. They grew impatient and Sarah arranged for a surrogate wife for Abraham, Hagar, who bore a son, Ishmael (Chapter 16). Hagar then refused to take second place behind Sarah. Sarah made life so difficult for Hagar that she fled into the wilderness, only to return later to Sarah and Abraham.

These stories clearly reflect the concern for an heir, which was the ancestors’ great hope for the future. They also reveal the uncertain nature of the inheritance, given the constant threat of infertility. Perhaps the fixation on such matters reflects the monarchic setting of the Yahwist narrative and its consuming interest in heirs and succession within the royal house of David (see RTOT Chapter 8).

2.1.3 Covenant of Circumcision (17)

As Genesis 12:1–3 is central to the Yahwist’s theology of promise, so Genesis 17 is foundational to the Priestly theology of covenant. In the following passage, notice how the God of Abraham goes by three different designations—Yhwh, El Shaddai, and Elohim. From creation until Abraham, the deity was Elohim. Then he revealed himself to Abraham and the other ancestors as El Shaddai. The ancestors never knew his name to be Yhwh. Here, in one of its rare uses of the name Yhwh, the Priestly tradition makes the identification between Yhwh and El Shaddai explicit so that readers will not be confused. In the Priestly historical record, God did not clarify that he was both Yhwh and El Shaddai until he spoke to Moses (Exodus 6:3). In 17:3 the Priestly writer reverts to Elohim, which is his normal pre-Exodus designation for God.

Abram was ninety-nine years old. Yhwh appeared to Abram and said to him, “I am El Shaddai. Live in my presence and be perfect. So I will put my covenant between me and you: I will multiply you greatly. Abram fell on his face. Then Elohim spoke with him: My covenant now is with you; you will be the father of a multitude of nations. And your name will no longer be Abram, but your name shall be Abraham, for I will make you the father of a multitude of nations. I will make you very prolific, and I will make you nations, and kings will come from you. I will solidify my covenant between me and you and your offspring after you for generations, as a long-lasting covenant as your Elohim and your offspring’s Elohim after you. And I will make the land of your sojournings, the land of Canaan, your and your offspring’s long-lasting possession. And I will be their Elohim. Elohim said to Abraham, “You will keep my covenant, you and your offspring after you. This is the covenant you will keep, the one between me and you and your offspring after you: Circumcise every male.” (17:1–10)

The language of multitudes and multiplying recalls the blessing placed on humanity in Genesis 1:28. The Priestly writer viewed Abraham as the fulfiller of the promise given at creation. “Father of a multitude of nations” is the Priestly equivalent to the Yahwistic promise of becoming a great nation, which Yhwh pledged to Abraham in 12:2.

The imminent fulfillment of the promise of offspring was signaled by a name change. Abram, meaning “Exalted Father,” was changed to Abraham, “Father of a Multitude,” affirming that the promise of offspring was still intact. Immediately after God reaffirmed the promises, called the Abrahamic covenant, circumcision was introduced as the ceremony and perpetual sign of Abraham’s commitment to God (Figure 2.3).

This covenant is a new development because here for the first time God requires Abraham to do something to demonstrate his good faith as part of the covenant arrangement. This covenant assumes the structure of a treaty covenant, with mutual rights and obligations, in contrast to a charter covenant. In this case, Abraham had to perform the ritual of circumcision on himself, Ishmael, and all the males in

The Practice of Circumcision

FIGURE 2.3 The Practice of Circumcision

This Egyptian tomb painting from sixth dynasty (2350–2000 BCE) Saqqara illustrates the practice of circumcision, which was performed on males between the ages of 6 and 12 years of age. Circumcision was not unique to the Israelites, as this painting demonstrates, but the Israelites invested it with unique significance by using it as the mark of the covenant. Circumcision is the surgical removal of the foreskin of the penis and is still practiced today by many families. For parents who choose to have their sons circumcised, it usually takes place in the hospital a day or two after birth. In the Jewish community it happens with great ceremony eight days after a son is born (see Hoffman, 1996).

Source: Drawing by Barry Bandstra based on a Saqqara tomb painting from the Sixth Dynasty (2350–2000 BCE).

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his household. Abraham vowed to live in such a way that would please God—live “perfectly,” the text says.

Circumcision established itself within Judaism as a distinctive mark of covenant commitment. Sealing the covenant by circumcising the organ of procreation with a knife, with its implied threat of sterility, has the effect of symbolically handing over the possibility of offspring to the grace of God. By practicing the rite from generation to generation, the Israelites almost literally placed their future into the hands of the God of covenant. Contrast the Yahwist perspective in which covenant was primarily a reminder that Yhwh granted blessing in perpetuity. For the Yahwist, covenant took the form of a charter covenant given to Abraham with no required action in return, only a commitment of faith. By retaining both notions of covenant within the Abrahamic narrative, the final edition affirms that the two covenants complement each other.

Go to the companion website and see the tables “Priestly Statements of the Ancestral Covenant” and “The Term Covenant in Genesis and Exodus.”

2.2 Abraham and Isaac (18–22)

The decisive action of the Abraham cycle takes place surrounding the birth of the son of promise. Surrogate son Ishmael and dependent nephew Lot were marginalized and made satellites of the ancestral orbit, while true son Isaac emerged from the matriarchal womb to take his destined place. But not all threats to the promise automatically vanished. Indeed, the promise was to face its greatest challenge just at the point that fulfillment seemed sure.

2.2.1 Birth Announcement (18–19)

One day three men appeared at Abraham’s door. As the account develops, we learn that one is Yhwh and the other two are apparently the angels that rescue Lot. Abraham prepared a Bedouin banquet for these visitors, and the disguised Yhwh in return promised that Abraham and Sarah would have a son by the same time next year. When Sarah overheard this prediction, she could not suppress a loud guffaw because she was so old.

After the meal, Abraham and “the men” gazed down on Sodom, and Yhwh revealed that he intended to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah for their wickedness. Because Lot lived there, Abraham bargained with God to save Sodom if even ten righteous people could be found. But it turned out that there were not enough to save the city.

The two angels entered Sodom to rescue Lot. To demonstrate the depravity of Sodom, we are told that the men of the city demanded that Lot throw out his visitors so they could “sodomize” them. The angels urged Lot to leave, and he took his wife and two daughters with him. After they reached safety,

Yhwh rained brimstone and fire from Yhwh out of heaven on Sodom and Gomorrah (19:24).

But when Lot’s wife cast a longing glance back toward Sodom, she was converted into a salt pillar. Lot’s daughters despaired of finding husbands, so they got their father drunk enough to sleep with them. Their children of incest became the Moabites and Ammonites; the Israelites had quite an outrageous way of defaming their neighbors.

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2.2.2 Threat (20–21)

The Primeval Story does not contain any material from the Elohist source. The first Elohist stories that we can find in Genesis have to do with the ancestors. Genesis 15 seems to bear some of the characteristics of the Elohist source, but Chapter 20 is the first full-scale Elohist episode. Here, Abraham and Sarah encounter Abimelech, and Abraham again seems threatened. It is an instructive and interesting story because it contains many of the central themes of the Elohist.

Abraham traveled from there to the area of the Negev and made his home between Kadesh and Shur. When he was staying in Gerar Abraham claimed about his wife Sarah, “She is my sister.” So Abimelech, king of Gerar, had someone get Sarah. (20:1–2)

It is not clear where “there” was. It probably refers to Mamre-Hebron, the last known home of Abraham. From “there,” Abraham and Sarah moved to the area around Gerar. Its powerful king, Abimelech, took Sarah for his wife. The motif of a patriarch claiming that his wife is his sister is also found in Genesis 12:10–20 and 26:6–11, both by the Yahwist. Having this particular motif repeated in three separate stories indicates it is a type-scene (see Alter, 1981) and it is one of the supporting reasons for a multiple literary source theory of the Pentateuch.

We learn that Abimelech desired Sarah—a bit strange, because according to Genesis 17:17, she was 90 years old. Remember, though, that these seemingly incongruous points arise because of the combination of stories from different sources, and we may just have to accept the fact that certain inconsistencies like this remain unresolved in the final text.

Elohim came to Abimelech in a dream at night and said to him, “You are a dead man on account of the woman you have taken. She is married.” Now, Abimelech had not made any sexual advances. He said, “My Lord, would you kill people even though they were innocent? Did he not say to me, ‘She is my sister’? And she is the one who said, ‘He is my brother.’ With a pure heart and clean hands I did this.” (20:3–5)

Characteristic of the Elohist, God does not appear directly but communicates in dreams or visions. Also, this story contains a first for Genesis: In a dream, God comes to Abimelech, a foreigner no less. This opens up an intriguing possibility that Israel’s God could be in relationship with a foreigner and that a righteous Gentile could actually exist.

Furthermore, the question of Abimelech’s guilt is thorny. He is guilty of wrong because he took someone else’s wife, but he is innocent insofar as he was deceived by Abraham. On top of that, Abimelech never even touched Sarah. So why should he be found guilty?

Elohim said to him in the dream, “I, too, know that you did this with a pure heart. It was I that kept you from sinning against me; for that reason I did not let you touch her. Now then, return the man’s wife. He is a prophet, he will pray for you, and you will live. But if you do not return her, you should know that you will die, you, and everything that belongs to you.” (20:6–7)

God came to Abimelech a second time in a dream and revealed that he had been working in Abimelech’s life to prevent him from doing anything wrong. Is

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the Elohist telling us God providentially attends to the behavior even of non-Israelites?

Note also the language used to describe Abraham. God calls him a prophet. This is the first time the label “prophet” is used in the Hebrew Bible. Here the term refers to someone who is able to intercede between God and other people. The Elohist source as a whole appears to be intimately associated with prophetic circles in the north and so would naturally be interested in prophetic models and in tracing the prophetic calling to Israel’s earliest history.

So Abimelech rose early in the morning, and called all his servants, and told them everything; and the men were very afraid. Then Abimelech called Abraham, and said to him, “What did you do to us? What did I do to you, that you should bring on me and my kingdom this problem? You did things to me that shouldn’t have been done.” Abimelech also said to Abraham, “What were you thinking when you did this thing?” (20:8–10)

Abimelech took the whole matter very seriously. He called together his servants and they talked about it. Then he turned the tables and blamed the situation on Abraham. Abraham really was the guilty one because he had led Abimelech into trouble with his deception.

Abraham said, “I did it because I thought, ‘There is no fear of Elohim at all in this place. They will kill me because of my wife. Besides, she is my sister anyway, the daughter of my father (though not the daughter of my mother), and she became my wife.’ When Elohim made me leave my father’s house, I said to her, ‘This is how you should show your loyalty to me: everywhere we go, say of me, “He is my brother.”’” (20:11–13)

The reason Abraham acted the way he did is now made clear. He was concerned that there was no “fear of God” in Gerar. In fact, Abimelech and his men seemed to have had a very healthy respect for God, confirmed by the way in which God came to Abimelech directly, warned him, and saved him from disaster. The story seems to suggest that Abraham had underestimated the moral character of these foreigners. Apparently, “fear of God,” a big interest of the Elohist, was not to be found exclusively in Israel.

Then Abimelech took sheep and oxen, and male and female slaves, and gave them to Abraham, and returned his wife Sarah to him. And Abimelech said, “Now, my land is open to you; live where you want to.” To Sarah he said, “See, I have given your brother a thousand pieces of silver; it is your vindication in the eyes of all who are with you; and it proves to everyone that you are in the right.” Then Abraham prayed to Elohim; and Elohim healed Abimelech, and also healed his wife and female slaves so that they could bear children. For Yhwh had closed all the wombs of the house of Abimelech because of Sarah, Abraham’s wife. (20:14–18)

Abimelech graciously gave gifts to Abraham to make a public acknowledgment of responsibility. Furthermore, he issued Abraham an open invitation to settle anywhere he wanted. Then Abraham interceded prophetically, and Abimelech and his people were made whole again. Even though Abraham was the one at fault, curiously he is also the one who can remedy the situation. He is a prophet and hence capable of mediating healing to Abimelech and his people.

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TABLE 2.1 Akedah Summons and Response

Unit 1 (12:1–2)

Unit 2 (12:7–8)

Unit 3 (12:11–12)
Elohim summons Abraham Isaac summons Abraham Angel of Yhwh summons Abraham
Elohim: “Abraham! Isaac: “Father! Angel: “Abraham, Abraham!
Abraham: “I am right here. Abraham: “I am right here. Abraham: “I am right here.
Command: “Take your son . . .” Question: “Where is the sacrificial lamb? Command: “Do not reach out your hand to the boy.
Abraham: “Elohim himself will provide a lamb for the offering, my son.”

The account of the birth of Isaac (21:1–7) is amazingly brief given the tremendous buildup. We learn that Abraham was 100 years old at his birth and Sarah was 90. The child was named Isaac, meaning “he laughs,” to memorialize Sarah’s incredulous response upon hearing that she would become pregnant in her old age. Setting precedent for Jewish covenant practice, Isaac was circumcised on the eighth day.

2.2.3 Testing (22)

The story of the almost sacrifice of Isaac is one of the most profound tales of the Torah. It conveys a deep lesson in testing and faith. Not only is it one of the most poignant tales in the Hebrew Bible, but it is also well told.

In the larger thematic development of the Abraham cycle, the birth narrative of Isaac and the subsequent expulsion of Ishmael set the stage for this Elohist account of Isaac’s near sacrifice. Now that Isaac is the only son, God tests Abraham to expose the authenticity and true object of his faith. This episode is segmented into three units on the basis of repeated phrases. Each of the units is introduced with a summons addressed to Abraham (Table 2.1). In each unit Abraham responds the same way.

The following discussion of Genesis 22 examines the account by units. The words in boldface are the elements of the text that reveal the structure.

1. Elohim summons Abraham

After these events, Elohim tested Abraham. He said to him, “Abraham!” He answered, “I am right here.” He said, “Take your son, your only one, he whom you love, Isaac, and go to the land of Moriah, and sacrifice him there as a whole burnt offering on one of the mountains, the one I will tell you.” (22:1–2)

The first sentence of this unit is the theme statement. “Elohim tested Abraham” gives us the purpose of the story right at the beginning. God was testing Abraham’s faith. Many Elohist stories have to do with faith and faithfulness. Interest in this theme can be partially explained by conditions at the time the Elohist source was written. It was a time of severe testing in Israel, and a story like this assured the people that God was behind such testing and it served a purpose.

Unit 1 contains God’s command to sacrifice Isaac on a mountain. Moriah is impossible to locate geographically. The later tradition of 2 Chronicles 3:1 identifies Mount Moriah with the site of Solomon’s temple. The connection this story draws between Abraham and Solomon’s temple through the interpretation of the Chronicles tradition gives the site of the temple an ancestral connection; hence, the site acquires greater venerability.

Abraham got up early in the morning and saddled his donkey and took two of his servants with him, and Isaac his son. He cut offering wood and journeyed to the place Elohim told him. On the third day Abraham glanced up and saw the place in the distance. Abraham said to his servants, “Stay here with the donkey. I and the boy will go there. We will worship and we will return to you.” Abraham took the offering wood and put it on his son Isaac. He took in his own hand the fire and the knife. And the two of them walked together. (22:3–6)

Unit 1 contains emotionally charged narrative. Abraham and his dear son together traveled to the mountain. They ascended the mountain, Isaac carrying in his own arms the wood that was intended to ignite him as a burnt offering to God. The notice that “the two of them walked together” is touching in its simplicity.

2. Isaac summons Abraham

Isaac said to Abraham his father, “Father!” And he said, “I am right here, my son.” And he said, “The fire’s here, and the wood. Where is the sacrificial lamb?” Abraham said, “Elohim himself will provide a lamb for the offering, my son.” And the two of them walked together. They came to the place Elohim told him and Abraham built there the altar and arranged the wood and bound Isaac, his son, and put him on top of the wood. Abraham reached out his hand and took the knife to slaughter his son. (22:7–10)

Unit 2 is distinctive among the three units. Only here Abraham replies a second time. He says, “God himself will provide a lamb for the offering, my son.” By the way, catch the double meaning in the phrase “God will provide a lamb, my son.” “My son” is both the one addressed and the lamb. At this point, Abraham makes his most profound statement of faith: “God will provide.” Note how the story centralizes Abraham’s profession of faith by placing it in the middle of the three-unit literary structure.

Note also how Abraham went all the way and bound Isaac on the altar. This story is called “the binding of Isaac” or the akedah, meaning” binding,” in the Jewish tradition, referring to Abraham binding Isaac in verse 9.

3. Angel summons Abraham

The Angel of Yhwh called to him from heaven, “Abraham, Abraham!” And he said, “I am right here.” And he said, “Do not reach out your hand to the boy and do not do anything to him. For now I know that you fear Elohim. You have not held back your son, your only one, from me.” Abraham raised his eyes and saw a ram right there, with one of its horns caught in a thicket. Abraham went and took the ram and sacrificed it as a whole burnt offering in place of his son. (22:11–13)

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In the nick of time, the angel of Yhwh stopped Abraham. The sacrifice was halted because God now had confirmation that Abraham truly feared him. That established, Abraham sacrificed a ram in place of his son. Note the introduction of the name of God “Yhwh” at this point in the story. Verses 11–18 have certain characteristics of the Yahwist, especially the mention of blessing. Perhaps this indicates that the Elohist used an earlier form of the story from the Yahwist source, which he reshaped into his own version.

Note also how units 1 and 3 are tightly linked. Verses 2 and 12 are linked by the phrase “your son, your only one.” Verse 2 establishes the test: “take your son.” Verse 12 records passing the test: “you have not withheld your son.” The concepts of “testing” (22:1) and “the fear of God” (22:12) are found in proximity only here and in Exodus 20:20, the conclusion of the Ten Commandments narrative. Perhaps we are to infer from this that Abraham is presented as a model for Israel by the way he demonstrates full and immediate obedience to God’s word (see Moberly, 1992).

Abraham called the name of that place “Yhwh provides.” To this day it is said, “On Yhwh’s mountain it will be provided.” (22:14)

Tradition apparently had invested this place with great significance, even though today we do not know exactly where it was. In the editor’s own day, it was still an important place of worship. It gets its name from the ram that God made available as a substitute for Isaac.

The Angel of Yhwh called to Abraham a second time from heaven and said, “I swear by myself (Yhwh’s oracle) that because you did this, you did not withhold your son, your only one, I will richly bless you and greatly increase your offspring, like the stars of heaven and the sand of the sea shore. And your offspring will inherit the gate of their enemies. All the nations of the earth will bless themselves through your offspring, because you obeyed my voice.” (22:15–18)

Having passed the test of faith, God repeated the promise of blessing. Abraham’s offspring would increase, and he would be richly blessed. This reaffirms the Yahwist principle that blessing follows obedience. The analogies of sand and stars recall the covenant promises found in Genesis 13:16 and 15:5, respectively. The phrase “sand of the seashore” also creates a link to 1 Kings 4:20 where this promise was seen to be fulfilled in the Solomonic kingdom. This further reinforces the theological understanding that the blessings of the later monarchy were founded on the promises to the ancestors.

And Abraham returned to the servants and they journeyed to Beersheba together. And Abraham lived in Beersheba. (22:19)

Abraham traveled to the southern part of Palestine, called the Negev, where he established himself in Beersheba. Curiously, Isaac is not mentioned in the conclusion, only Abraham and the servants. This leads some to suggest that in an earlier form of the story Isaac was actually sacrificed, but this is pure speculation. Still, having survived a close encounter with the knife, one might think Isaac would have been explicitly mentioned. Yet the focus of the entire episode is on Abraham. In this remarkable story, we see a changed man, one radically different from the early Abraham of Chapter 12. Back then he was insecure and afraid of losing his

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TABLE 2.2 Genesis 12 and Genesis 22 Parallels: Call and Testing


Call of Abram (Genesis 12)


Testing of Abraham (Genesis 22)
1 Go [Hebrew lek-leka] from your land 2 Go [Hebrew lek-leka] to the land
6 Moreh 2 Moriah
All peoples on earth will be blessed/bless themselves through you
Through your offspring all the nations on earth will bless themselves

own life. He deceived the Pharaoh of Egypt in order to save his own skin. He did not trust God to ensure his future, even though God had promised to do so.

The new Abraham of this episode declined to cling to what, humanly speaking, must have been his last hope for a future. He did not take Isaac and run from God. Instead, willing to sacrifice Isaac, he obeyed God. By this he demonstrated his deep and secure faith in the promises of God. The testing of Abraham episode within the Abraham cycle displays his maturation in the faith.

There are structural indications in the overall account of Abraham that the writer intends us to see the Abraham of Chapter 22, the “late” Abraham, in relation to the “early” Abraham. Verbal and thematic parallels create a point–counterpoint relationship between Genesis 12 and 22 (Table 2.2).

Table 2.2 displays the parallels between the two episodes. These parallels suggest that these two stories are to be seen in juxtaposition, as a kind of framework or inclusion, around the Abraham collection of stories. What is the point of these connections? The editor who brought J and E together urges us to see the testing of Abraham as a major step toward the realization of the promises stated in 12:1–7. As a result of his willingness to sacrifice his son, Isaac, Abraham demonstrated that he relies implicitly on the promises of God. He staked his future on God, not on the life of his son. Thus, the account of Abraham finds satisfying resolution.

That said, it is possible that this story had a different meaning before it found its way into the Ancestral Story. It is probable that this Abraham–Isaac story originally existed independently before the Elohist or any other source existed. Using the procedures of form criticism to recover the original setting of the isolated tale, some scholars have suggested that the original intent of this story was to displace child sacrifice as a form of worship and replace it with animal sacrifice (see Levenson, 1993).

Perhaps this is the story the Elohist found. Reconstructing the course of its inclusion into the book of Genesis, the Elohist took the core story and supplemented it with the promise of blessing and other details from the Yahwist source. He was interested in the story for his own reasons and reshaped it to show how God may test one’s faith yet ultimately provide. This story is a likely example of an early tale that meant one thing, then was taken up by a later writer and given new meaning in connection with his themes and interests, and lastly incorporated into a larger cycle of stories as its climax and fulfillment.

Go to the companion website and view the Sacrifice of Isaac Gallery. The near sacrifice of Isaac has given rise to a variety of artistic interpretations, from ancient mosaics to modern paintings.

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2.3 Last Days (23:1–25:11)

After the testing of Abraham, the cycle seems to end quickly. First, Sarah died. Abraham approached Ephron, a Hittite who owned property near Hebron, and bought from him a field that contained a cave, called the Cave of Machpelah, where he buried Sarah (Figure 2.4).

Then Abraham took steps to ensure the continuity of the family by securing a wife for Isaac. However, a wife from among the Canaanites would not do. Abraham sent his servant to Aram, where earlier his clan had settled after leaving Ur (see 11:31 and Figure 2.2). He bought Rebekah back, she became the mother of Esau and Jacob, and the blessing continued.

Abraham in Canaan

FIGURE 2.4 Abraham in Canaan

The Abraham traditions are mostly located in southern Palestine, especially Judah and the Negev. These traditions are mostly associated with the Yahwist source document.

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2.4 Interlude: The Ishmael Toledot (25:12–18)

While not the son who continued the covenant promise, Ishmael nonetheless was blessed, and he became a great nation in his own right (17:19–22). The offspring of Ishmael were twelve tribes, which according to tradition developed into the Arabic peoples.

3 JACOB CYCLE (25:19–35:29)

The Jacob cycle continues the themes of the Abraham cycle, including blessing, offspring, and land, but it gives each theme a new twist. The Abraham cycle dealt with fertility and offspring via the father-to-son relationship. The Jacob cycle analyzes the brother-to-brother relationship within the promise. If there is more than one son, who should inherit the promise? Is there an ironclad law that the firstborn gets it? The action of these stories is driven by sibling rivalry.

Jacob, impelled by his own (and sometimes also his mother’s) scheming and trickery, connived to possess the blessing. Do we see here a repeat of primeval sin, trying to steal rather than await God’s favor? The Jacob cycle proceeds in a threefold series of struggles. First, Jacob outwits his twin brother, Esau, to gain possession of the family birthright. Second, Jacob outmaneuvers his Aramean Uncle Laban and acquires substantial wealth. Third, Jacob outlasts Elohim in a wrestling match, determined to receive divine blessing.

As with the Abraham cycle, so too with the Jacob cycle, the story also involves a good deal of travel. Jacob’s maturation involves a multistage journey (Figure 2.5) necessitated by his own deceptions and built around significant encounters with the deity.

3.1 Jacob versus Esau: Stealing the Blessing (25:19–28:22)

The birth narrative of Jacob and Esau establishes points of contact with the Abraham cycle. Rebekah was barren and, like Sarah before her, she had children only after Yhwh intervened. The pregnancy proved painful as the babies jostled each other in the womb. Yhwh revealed that this was happening because the twins would be rivals.

Two nations are in your womb, and two peoples born of you will be divided; the one will be stronger than the other, the elder will serve the younger. (25:23)

The brothers would struggle with each other, but the outcome was foreordained. The younger would win. The Jacob cycle finds a parallel with the Abraham cycle in the rivalry of the favored sons Ishmael and Isaac, though the earlier rivalry was played out more by the mothers. In the present case, the cycle is driven by Jacob’s determination not to let Esau get the inheritance. First, Jacob bought the birthright (25:27–34) from Esau, who was willing to sell it for a pittance. The birthright is the right of the firstborn to inherit the family estate. Then Jacob deceived his father, Isaac, into giving him the blessing that was intended for Esau (27). The irony of the cycle is that Jacob did not know he had been foreordained to prevail. He schemed to get what God had already granted him at birth.

There is also a transparently deeper level to the sibling conflict. The divine oracle to Rebekah reveals that these stories are about more than just brothers at odds. “Two

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Jacob’s Travels

FIGURE 2.5 Jacob’s Travels

Most of the sites associated with Jacob are located in northern Palestine and Transjordan, especially the tribal territories of Ephraim and Manasseh. With its interest in this region, especially Bethel and Penuel (for a time the capital of Jeroboam’s kingdom; see 1 Kings 12:25), the Jacob cycle seems to legitimate the beginnings of the northern kingdom’s religious institutions.

nations are in your womb”—they are stories of national conflict. These tales prefigure the later antagonism of Israel and Edom. Jacob and Esau are, respectively, the eponymous ancestors of Israel and Edom.

Throughout their history, Israel and Edom were bitter rivals. The Edomites refused the Israelites passage during the wilderness sojourn (Numbers 20:14–21). David defeated the Edomites (2 Samuel 8:13–14) in the process of establishing his kingdom. On many occasions, Israel’s prophets condemned the Edomites. The Jacob–Esau conflict is, among other things, a story of the origin of Israelite–Edomite animosity (see Dicou, 1994 and Edelman, 1995).

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TABLE 2.3 Jacob Cycle Theme Words

Hebrew words are typically constructed from a root of three consonants. Various noun and verb forms are differentiated by the vowels associated with these consonants. There appears to be a deliberate use of the b, k/q, and r sounds in the Jacob cycle to create focus, a feature lost in translation.


Hebrew Word

Hebrew Consonants
Firstborn bekor b-k-r
Birthright bekorah b-k-r
Blessing berakah b-r-k

The birth account and the birthright episode relate Esau to Edom. Esau’s red and hairy appearance provide opportunity to pun on the place names Edom (from the word red) and Seir (sounds like hairy). The land of Seir was the homeland of the Edomites. Jacob sounds like heel, and he had a hold on Esau’s heel coming out of the womb. A more precise linguistic derivation of the name Jacob relates it to the word for “protect” so that Jacob (probably originally Jacob-el) means “May God protect.” Later in the cycle, God will change Jacob’s name to Israel (32:28).

The blessings intended for the firstborn go to the younger. Whether intended or not, this reversal of tradition, as well as the unity of birthright and blessing, seem to be reinforced by clever word choice. Firstborn and birthright derive from the same root, and blessing has the same consonants, with the second and third reversed (Table 2.3). In addition, Rebekah, who loves Jacob over Esau, has a name sounding suspiciously close to these thematic terms.

Throughout the Ancestral Story, threats to the promise come both from inside, in the form of barrenness, and from outside, in the form of enemies. Sandwiched between Jacob buying the birthright and stealing the blessing is the tale of Isaac and Rebekah’s sojourn in Philistia where they found themselves in danger (26:1–11). Isaac deceived the local population into thinking Rebekah was his sister so that he would not be killed for her. Where have we heard this before? You will recall similar situations with Abraham and Sarah (12:10–20 with Pharaoh in Egypt and 20:1–18 with Abimelech in Gerar).

Later, as Isaac’s holdings increased, he came into conflict with the Philistines over water rights and wells. The conflict was settled amicably when both parties agreed to a nonaggression treaty. The culminating episode of Jacob’s early life is his flight from the Promised Land to Mesopotamia. Fearing Esau, he fled for his life and headed to Aram, the territory of Rebekah’s brother Laban. Leaving parents behind and traveling alone, Jacob stopped for the night in a remote and lonely place. Jacob is now on his own. Or is he?

Genesis 28:10–22 is one of two passages in the Jacob cycle where the patriarch has a direct encounter with God. The two places are marked by complementary names. In this passage the place comes to be called Bethel; the other place was Penuel.

Jacob left Beersheba and walked toward Haran. When he reached the place, he spent the night there, because the sun had set. Taking one of the stones of the

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place, he put it under his head and lay down to sleep in that place. He had a dream. There was a stairway set on the ground with its top reaching to heaven. Angels of Elohim were going up and down it. Yhwh stood above him/it and said, “I am Yhwh, the Elohim of Abraham your father and the Elohim of Isaac. The land on which you sleep, to you I will give it and to your descendants. Your descendants will be like the dust of the earth. You will spread out to the west and to the east and to the north and to the south. By you and your descendants will all the families of the earth bless themselves/be blessed. I am with you and will protect you wherever you go, and will return you to this land. I will not leave you until I have done what I have spoken to you.” Jacob woke from his sleep and said, “Surely Yhwh is in this place, and I did not know it.” He was afraid, and said, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of Elohim, and this is the gate of heaven.” (28:10–17)

In this dream, God spoke to Jacob and personally confirmed the promises of descendants and land that had been transferred to him by his father Isaac. Many phrases echo earlier promise statements, including the transnational component “all the families of the earth bless themselves/be blessed” (12:3) and “dust of the earth” (13:16).

This episode appears to have elements of both Yahwist and Elohist writing. The shell of the story is the dream setting in which angels of Elohim appear on a stairway (11b–12, 17–18, 20–22). This bears the marks of the Elohist for whom theophanies typically occur in dreams. The Yahwist contributed the content of the divine oracle (13–16) and the location references (10–11a, 19). The Yahwist also contributed the Abraham promise statements in Genesis 12 and 13, which are similar to this passage.

In his dream, Jacob sees a stairway reaching to heaven. This component of the incident may be intended to provide counterpoint to the notorious primeval building project (Genesis 11:1–9). In that episode, humanity tried to build a tower with its top in heaven. Babel was to be the gate to heaven. In this episode, Jacob happens upon the authentic heavenly access point, Bethel. The similarity of the names Babel and Bethel may be more than just coincidence.

Jacob rose early in the morning and took the stone that he had put under his head and set it up as a pillar and poured oil on the top of it. He called the name of that place Bethel (previously the name of the city was Luz). Then Jacob vowed a vow, “If Elohim stays with me, and protects me on this path I go, and will give me bread to eat and clothes to wear, and I return to my father’s house in shalom, then Yhwh shall be my Elohim. This stone that I have set up as a pillar shall be the house of Elohim. Of all that you give me I will give a tenth back to you.” (28:18–22)

Jacob set up his stone pillow as a matsevah, or standing stone, an object often associated with a sacred place. Then he took a solemn vow pledging that he would adopt Yhwh as his God if his journey proved successful. The conditional character of the vow seems characteristic of the Jacob who was always ready to negotiate relationships to his own advantage. Though the word covenant is not used explicitly here, making a covenant may have been the intent of setting up and anointing the pillar. Elsewhere, Joshua set up a pillar as a witness to God’s covenant with Israel (Joshua 24:27), and this practice is also attested in Aramean treaties from Sfire

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(see Fitzmyer, 1967). Jacob’s obligation in covenant was to return a tithe, or tenth of his wealth, to God. Perhaps this pledge grounded the later Israelite practice of bringing a tithe to the priests at the Bethel sanctuary.

Jacob named this place Bethel, literally “house of El/god.” Excavations have suggested that Bethel (if it is to be identified with modern Beitin) may have been a Canaanite religious center. It certainly became a major worship center in Israel’s history. It housed the ark of the covenant at the time of the judges (see Judges 20:27). After the breakaway of Israel, Jeroboam chose Bethel as one of two national sanctuary cities. This story provides the initial holiness experience on which its later Israelite significance is grounded. When Jacob returned to Bethel after his journey, he erected an altar and Elohim appeared to him again (35:1–15).

3.2 Jacob versus Laban: Building a Family (29–31)

Jacob arrived in Haran and soon met Rachel at the local watering hole. He was warmly welcomed by Rachel and Laban after he revealed that he was Rebekah’s son. Jacob stayed with Laban and agreed to work seven years for the right to marry Rachel. On their wedding night, he slept with his bride, only to wake up in the morning to find he had consummated the marriage with Leah, Rachel’s older sister!

With righteous indignation Jacob confronted his uncle and exposed the deception.

“What have you done to me? Haven’t I worked with you for Rachel? Why have you deceived me?” (29:25)

Dripping with irony because of how we know Jacob himself has been deceiving people all his life, Laban replied, “But it is not done so in our place—to give the younger before the firstborn” (29:26)—not accidentally the motif of birthright also returns.

As a concession, Laban agreed to allow Jacob to marry Rachel, in return for seven more years of labor. It appears that Jacob, the consummate trickster, had himself been tricked.

Though in exile from the Promised Land, Jacob prospered. He sired a sizable family by his two wives and their handmaids, Zilpah and Bilhah. Leah bore him six sons, and when she was past childbearing her maid Zilpah served as a surrogate mother (remember the surrogacy of Hagar in the Abraham cycle), bearing another two. Rachel was at first barren (remember the barrenness motif of the Abraham cycle), so Bilhah became a surrogate bearing another two sons. Finally, Rachel became pregnant and bore Joseph. Later she had another son, Benjamin, but died in childbirth.

Jacob wished to return to Canaan with his family, yet Laban sought to retain him because he realized he was being blessed through Jacob (remember the ancestral blessing: “through you all the families of the earth will be blessed”). Jacob bargained with Laban to acquire his own holdings of sheep and goats, and by a devious (and scientifically dubious) breeding method, he increased his flocks to the detriment of Laban’s. Tensions mounted until Jacob found it prudent to leave. He took his family and flocks and left in the middle of the night. Rachel got in on the action and plundered Laban’s household gods.

When Laban found out that his daughters and grandchildren had left with Jacob, he pursued and confronted this Jacob who had “deceived” him (31:20, 26). Jacob

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and Laban parted ways after making a covenant and setting up a pillar. The covenant included a pledge that Laban would stop pursuing Jacob and Jacob would not return to Aram. Jacob now found himself between a rock and an angry brother. However, he had no choice but to continue on toward Canaan where he suspected Esau would be waiting to confront him. And right he was.

3.3 Jacob versus Elohim: Wrestling for a Blessing (32–35)

The final sequence of the Jacob cycle finds Jacob arriving in Canaan.

Jacob went on his way and angels of Elohim met him. Jacob said when he saw them, “This is the camp of Elohim.” (32:1–2)

A greeting party of angels was waiting for Jacob at the border, presumably ready to welcome and protect him. He might indeed need them for back in Canaan the great issues of his life and destiny would seek resolution, and resolution would come only after more conflict. Jacob expected to meet Esau, still enraged about having been deceived, shortly after entering Canaan. Jacob took great pains to soften Esau’s anger by sending ahead wave upon wave of gifts. He also made contingency plans to escape if Esau met his entourage with force.

However, a more trying confrontation would come before he had the chance to meet his brother. All alone, hence completely vulnerable (where were those angels now?), he met a fighting deity face to face. The story of Jacob’s wrestling with God, Genesis 32:22–32, demonstrates the patriarch, true to character, persistently taking advantage of every situation to secure a blessing.

That same night he got up and took his two wives, his two maids, and his eleven children, and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. He took them and sent them across the wadi, along with everything he owned. Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until the break of the day. (32:22–24)

Jacob separated himself from his flocks and family and remained on the far side of the Jabbok river. Should Jacob’s behavior be construed as an act of cowardice, or did he just need time alone to contemplate his future? The narrative does not tell us for sure. It may have been part of his scheme to distance himself from Esau, using his dependents and estate as buffers. Or he was going to call on God for help again (see 32:9–12), or it may have been both. In any case, the isolation of Jacob there at Penuel matches his isolation at Bethel at the beginning of his journey. Both leaving and returning, Jacob met his God alone.

Note how these introductory verses (22–24) meld the wrestling into the larger Jacob narrative by giving it a context. They are part of the Yahwist’s account of Jacob’s trip back to Canaan. The story of the wrestling proper (25–32) is itself actually quite self-contained and comes from the Elohist source. After the testing of Abraham story of Chapter 22, the Elohist contributed no other episode to the Abraham cycle. In fact, the Elohist seems to be more interested in Jacob than Abraham or Isaac. This is not surprising because many of the Jacob stories have Ephraimite, or Transjordan, locations, precisely the northern kingdom places dear to the Elohist tradition.

When the man saw that he could not gain the advantage over Jacob, he touched his hip socket; that put Jacob’s hip out of joint as he wrestled with him. Then he

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said, “Let me go, for day is breaking.” But Jacob said, “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.” And he said to him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Jacob.” Then he said, “Your name will no longer be called Jacob, but instead Israel, for you have wrestled with Elohim and with men, and have prevailed.” (32:25–28)

The assailant is called a “man,” but as the story develops it becomes clear that it is Elohim himself. Jacob, whose name means “heel-grabber”—hence “trickster”—undergoes a name change to Israel, which means “wrestles with God.” By giving an account of his dual name Jacob/Israel, the Elohist identifies Jacob as the patriarch of the nation of Israel. Again, the story is both personal and national.

Then Jacob asked him, “Please tell me your name.” But he said, “Why are you asking for my name?” And there he blessed him. So Jacob called the name of the place Peniel, saying, “I have seen Elohim face to face, and I am still alive.” The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel; he was limping because of his thigh. Therefore to this day the Israelites do not eat the muscle of the hip which is part of the hip socket, because he touched Jacob’s hip socket on the muscle of the hip. (32:29–32)

Penuel (and the alternate spelling Peniel) literally means “face of God,” because there Jacob saw God directly. A recurring theme in the Elohist is that one cannot look at God and live (see also Moses at the burning bush in Exodus 3). This reinforces the utter powerfulness of Elohim. Yet Jacob saw the face of God and lived—a sign that he was blessed indeed.

The final note in verse 32 is introduced by “Therefore to this day,” indicating that this version of the story was written down later than the event itself, namely, when Israelites were around. Working with the methodology of form criticism, some authorities have reasoned that this story contains the remains of a very early mythic tale of a river-spirit or demon. In many cultures, rivers were thought to possess a power that tried to thwart a crossing unless the river-spirit was appeased. This element may have been present at a very early stage. Although a primitive motif may have been behind this story at one time, those notions of demonic spirits have been sublimated in this version, since the one trying to stop Jacob is identified with Elohim. However old the core of the story may have been (see Barthes, 1974 and Miller, 1984), it is used here also to explain the Jewish avoidance of eating the thigh muscle, identified in Jewish tradition with the sciatic nerve.

The overall meaning of the story in its present context is elusive, yet at the very least it serves to characterize Jacob as persistent, even relentless, in his pursuit for blessing. Taken together with the other Jacob stories, this episode shows Jacob would stop at nothing to secure a personal advantage. He never could await his destiny; he always had to make it happen. Single mindedly and often deviously he pursued divine blessing. Divine destiny and human initiative are inextricably united in the Jacob cycle.

Recognizing that Jacob stands for all Israel, one might expect the story also to be saying something about the nation. Is it saying that Israel also worked hard to secure a blessing, sometimes too aggressively? Is it saying that all along, when Israel fought others, it was wrestling with God? Is the story suggesting that persistence pays off, and that despite sometimes questionable tactics, tenacity gains the blessing? Perhaps

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not in spite of, but because of, dubious methods? The story is wonderfully open and suggestive; perhaps it was meant for soul searching, both individual and communal.

After Jacob wrestled with God, he met Esau. It was a tense but nonviolent encounter, almost a letdown. The two brothers parted ways. In the gracious way that Esau received his brother, we see that time had changed the ruddy one as much as the trickster. Jacob saw in Esau’s embrace the evidence of God’s protection, and he said to Esau, “Seeing your face is like seeing the face of Elohim” (33:10)—a remark with apparent double meaning in light of Jacob’s recent encounter with God at Penuel, “face of God.

After leaving Esau, Jacob headed to Shechem where one of the Bible’s most disturbing stories has its setting (34; note that Shechem is both a town and a person in this story). Shechem, the son of Shechem’s ruler Hamor (whose name means “donkey”), ravished Jacob’s daughter Dinah and then sought to marry her, offering anything for the marriage rights. Jacob’s sons set one condition, that all Canaanite males in the town be circumcised. The Shechemites agreed, and on the third day when they were all in debilitating pain, Simeon and Levi, two of Jacob’s sons, entered the town and slaughtered all the males. They defended their actions to Jacob by claiming they were only avenging their sister’s honor. The story reinforces the separation of Canaanites and Israelites and attests the violent zeal of Simeon and Levi. Levi is the ancestor of the Levites, who have a special place within Israel as caretakers of the cult; in many stories, the Levites are notable for the violent way in which they uphold the honor of Yhwh (for example, their role in the golden calf incident, Exodus 32:25–29).

After this the family of Jacob, for obvious reasons, was no longer welcome in the region. Jacob returned to Bethel with his family (35, mentioned above) where he built an altar and set up a pillar to commemorate the fulfillment of God’s promises given there earlier when he was alone and a refugee; yet another standing stone.

The Jacob cycle reveals an interesting quality about our storytellers. As much as they revered their patriarchs and matriarchs, the biblical writers harbored no illusions. They realized that Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob—indeed the whole lot—had serious character flaws. Certainly the stories about Jacob’s ill treatment of Esau, the heinous behavior of Simeon and Levi, and the incest of Reuben (35:22) are at the top of the list. Israel’s stories about its forerunners are remarkably honest, especially in this cycle. Insofar as the nation identified itself with its forebears (remember, Jacob is Israel), the chosen people had an amazing capacity for self-criticism. The Israelites saw their own character revealed through their parentage, perhaps as a way to account for it, and it was not always a flattering picture.

As we have seen, the Jacob cycle has a thematic unity based on promises, especially the promise of blessing. In addition, the cycle evidences a literary symmetry. The following outline displays the broad narrative scheme that takes its shape from similar notions:


A—Birth of Jacob and Esau: Jacob gets the birthright (25)
  B—Isaac and Abimelech: conflict over land (26)
    C—Jacob flees from Esau with the blessing (27)
      D—Jacob at Bethel: “house of God” (28)
        E—Jacob stays with Laban (29–31)

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      D′—Jacob at Penuel: “face of God” (32)
    C′—Jacob and Esau reconciled (33)
  B′—Jacob and Shechem: conflict over marriage (34)
A′—Return to Canaan and death of Isaac (35)


As the outline illustrates, the stories have a recursive structure, with A returning to A′, B to B′, and so on. Chapters 26 and 34 have often seemed out of place to interpreters because they seemed to break the flow of Jacob-centered events. Yet in this structural scheme, these otherwise isolated and incongruous B episodes have a place. In literary, thematic, and architectural ways, the Jacob cycle displays a remarkable wholeness.

3.4 Interlude: The Esau Toledot (36)

An entire chapter is devoted to Esau’s descendants by his three wives. Esau, like Jacob, had received the promise that he would become a nation (25:23). The fulfillment of this promise is thus attested here. It also contains a list of kings who ruled Edom before the Israelite monarchy. This minor toledot serves to divide the major Jacob and Joseph cycles in the same way as the minor Ishmael toledot separated the Abraham and Jacob cycles (see Section 2.4).

4 JOSEPH CYCLE (37:1–50:26)

The Joseph cycle, Genesis 37–50, is one of the more well-crafted and cohesive works of Hebrew literature. Whereas most other Hebrew stories are only a few paragraphs long, the Joseph narrative sustains a story line over many chapters. In view of this, some scholars call it a short story, others a novella. Despite the variety of its presumed documentary sources, the Joseph cycle hangs together as a tale of sibling rivalry and providential deliverance. (24)

This block of text, Genesis 37–50, is called the Joseph cycle because Joseph is indisputably its main character, apart from Chapter 38. But it is somewhat curious that he should get so much attention. Judged on the basis of later tribal history, Joseph is not the most significant of Jacob/Israel’s sons. Instead, Judah might be the expected focus. The tribe of Judah becomes the source of so much later history and the home of the Davidic monarchy. Still, to make some sense out of Joseph’s centrality, Ephraim, the son of Joseph, does become the core of the northern kingdom; in fact, Joseph was the father of both Ephraim and Manasseh, the two largest of the ten northern tribes. Arguably this is one reason why the Elohist writer, who contributed a sizable proportion of the cycle, was interested.

Go to the companion website and see the table “Sources in the Joseph Cycle.” The Joseph cycle is a mixture of passages from the Yahwist, Elohist, and Priestly sources.

4.1 Joseph and His Brothers (37–45)

The Joseph cycle continues the theme of birth order and birthrights found in both the Abraham and Jacob cycles. Joseph is the son who receives the greatest attention; although he was the firstborn of Rachel, he was not the firstborn overall. Reuben was the firstborn, but he was denied preeminence because he slept with one of Jacob’s wives. Judah was one of the youngest sons of Jacob and Leah, yet he became one

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of the premier tribes of Israel. This theme of the preeminence of the younger is reinforced by Jacob switching the blessing on Manasseh (the firstborn) and Ephraim (see Greenspahn, 1994).

The birthright details may have been included in Israel’s epic to explain later geographical and social realities. The tribes of Judah and Ephraim rose to preeminence even though they did not descend from firstborn sons. An additional reason to make a point of birth order was to support the legitimacy of Israel’s greatest kings. David was the youngeand Benjamin, sons of Rachel, receive Jacob’s special affection, and this drives the plot. But the linkage between favored son and line of promise is not as obvious in this cycle as in the Jacob cycle. Although Joseph is the focus of narrative attention, by the end of the cycle, all Jacob’s sons receive paternal blessings before he dies.

Judah’s character development is a lesser thread running through the cycle. He is certainly secondary to Joseph judging by the lesser attention given to him in the narrative, but he is significant nonetheless. He convinced his brothers not to kill Joseph but rather to sell him into slavery. He briefly takes center stage in his dealings with Tamar and returns to the drama at the climax of the story when Benjamin was threatened and Judah offered to take his place. This willingness to sacrifice himself stands in stark contrast to his failure to take a risk for Tamar.

4.1.1 Joseph the Dreamer (37)

Joseph was the firstborn son of Jacob’s most-loved wife Rachel, and Jacob made no secret of favoring him. The motif of preferential parental treatment continues (remember, Isaac loved Esau, but Rebekah loved Jacob) and continues to be the source of family discontent.

The first episode of the cycle effectively foreshadows later events. Joseph had two dreams, and in both his family bowed down to him—Joseph expended no effort in trying to hide this. The dreams and Joseph’s skill at interpreting them also prefigured his interpretive insight at Pharaoh’s court.

Understandably, his brothers became jealous of the favoritism that Jacob showed Joseph, and they are equally put off by Joseph’s own superior airs. One day, when he was far from his father, making a delivery to his working brothers, they seized him with the intention of killing him. The narrative turns a bit murky here as both Reuben, the firstborn of Leah (the Elohist source’s contribution) and Judah, not the firstborn of Leah, (the Yahwist source’s contribution) seek to save his life. In the end, Judah convinced his siblings to sell Joseph to traders (sometimes called Ishmaelites, other times Midianites). They returned Joseph’s trademark colored tunic to Jacob all bloody and torn so that Jacob would believe he had been killed by an animal. Meanwhile, the traders carried Joseph down to Egypt and sold him to Potiphar, a royal official and captain of the guard.

4.1.2 Judah and Tamar (38)

With minimal transition, the cycle introduces this story about Judah’s family. Now Judah had married a Canaanite woman who bore him three sons. His firstborn son, Er, married Tamar, but he died before having any children. According to the Israelite law of levirate marriage (from the Latin levir, meaning “a husband’s brother”), the brother of a childless dead man is required to raise children to his

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dead brother’s name by marrying the widow (see Deuteronomy 25:5–10). Judah’s second son failed to perform his responsibility and died for it. Judah intentionally withheld his third son out of fear of losing him too.

Once Tamar realized that Judah would not provide her with a surrogate husband, she devised her own plan. She dressed as a prostitute, perhaps of the type associated with the Canaanite fertility cults of Baal and Asherah, intending to lure Judah into sleeping with her. Judah engaged her services one day, not realizing he was sleeping with his daughter-in-law. He left his seal and staff with her in place of the payment he would send later. When he attempted to make payment, the prostitute was nowhere to be found.

Three months later, Judah learned that Tamar was pregnant and thought it could only be because she had played the harlot because he had not provided her a proper husband. Judah imperiously decreed that she must be burned to death. When Tamar appeared for the execution, she produced Judah’s seal and staff and said, “Do you recognize these?” Immediately he acknowledged they were his and declared, “She is more righteous than I am.” Her righteousness was that she faithfully performed her duty toward her dead husband, to raise up offspring to perpetuate his name, whereas Judah had failed to do his duty by providing her a husband. Tamar gave birth to twins, the younger of whom went on to become an ancestor of David (see Ruth 4:18–21).

The reason for including this story is difficult to discern. It interrupts the encompassing Joseph plot and does not obviously connect to it. Perhaps the reason it was retained was because it centers on Judah, whose tribe later became the core of the Davidic kingdom. Some authorities have argued for its fittingness in this place on the basis of subtle literary allusions (see Alter, 1981). Judah may serve as a foil for Joseph in this way. Judah failed in his responsibility to his son and was exposed because of his sexual desire. In contrast, Joseph upheld his responsibility to his Egyptian master, Potiphar, by refusing to give in to the sexual advances of Potiphar’s wife.

Go to the companion website and see the table “Joseph Cycle Links to the Judah–Tamar Episode.” There are literary and linguistic allusions that connect the Judah–Tamar story to the Joseph cycle that surrounds it.

4.1.3 Joseph’s Rise to Power (39–41)

Joseph distinguished himself while serving Potiphar. Not only was Joseph a faithful servant, but he was also smart and handsome, so much so that Potiphar’s wife made sexual advances to him. One day Joseph rebuffed her seductions and fled the house. Out of spite, she accused him of rape, and he was thrown into prison. While there he again distinguished himself by his administrative abilities and trustworthiness, and when two inmates had dreams, he was able to interpret them convincingly.

Later, when Pharaoh had dreams he could not comprehend, Joseph was brought to court and interpreted those dreams as portents of seven coming years of agricultural abundance, to be followed by seven years of famine. The Pharaoh immediately put him in charge of food production and management so that the country could prepare for the coming crisis. On this particular point, Egyptian literary tradition provides documents with similarities to the Joseph story. “The Story of Two Brothers” (ANET, 23–25) has a scene similar to the seduction of Joseph, and “The

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Tradition of Seven Lean Years in Egypt” (ANET, 31–32) parallels the famine portion of Pharaoh’s dream.

4.1.4 Joseph versus His Brothers (42–45)

The famine affected Canaan as well as Egypt, and Jacob sent his sons to Egypt to buy grain. When they came before Joseph, now the high official in charge of food supplies, to make their purchase, they did not recognize him. He accused them of being spies and proceeded to interrogate them. In the process of detailing their background, they referred to their youngest brother Benjamin. Joseph agreed to sell them grain on condition that one of them remains in Egypt as pledge. They were required to return with their youngest brother to prove the truth of their story.

Once home they told Jacob that they would have to take Benjamin to Egypt if they expected to buy more grain. After their supplies were depleted, Jacob reluctantly agreed, and his sons traveled back to Egypt, this time with gifts to appease the harsh official. Joseph was overcome at the sight of Benjamin, but he managed to hide his emotions. Still not revealing his identity, Joseph threw a banquet for his brothers, seating them all in order of their age. The brothers were amazed but still did not recognize Joseph.

Joseph sent his brothers away heavily laden with grain, along with one of his own sacred artifacts hidden in Benjamin’s sack. Then he sent soldiers after them to accuse the brothers of stealing. The cup was found in Benjamin’s possession, and Joseph demanded that he become a slave and remain in Egypt. At this point, Judah came forward and pleaded with Joseph to reconsider, even going so far as to offer to take Benjamin’s place.

Joseph could no longer hold back. He cried out, “I am Joseph. Is my father still alive?” His brothers understandably were terrified at this revelation, but Joseph proceeded to explain how he had come to understand all of the past events as the work of God.

Do not be agitated or angry with yourselves because you sold me here. Elohim sent me ahead of you to preserve life. The famine has been in the land for two years, and five more years of no plowing or harvest are coming. Elohim sent me ahead of you to preserve a remnant on earth for you and to keep survivors alive for you. It was not you who sent me here, but Elohim. (45:5–8)

The Joseph cycle is notable for its general lack of God-talk and clearly differs in this respect from the other two cycles. There are no theophanies, no divine oracles to Joseph, no angels or visions, no direct divine interventions. The only explicitly religious dimension to the tale are these words, Joseph’s metaphysical interpretation of events. With them, Joseph presents an explanation of historical experience through divine providence. With its general absence of theological or covenantal perspective, it has been claimed that the Joseph cycle finds it closest affinity with the ancient Middle Eastern wisdom tradition (see Crenshaw, 1981). After these words and a tearful reunion, Joseph sent his brothers home with instruction to come back as soon as possible with everything, including their father Jacob.

4.2 Israel in Egypt (46–50)

When Jacob heard the news about Joseph, he eagerly packed up the family belongings and hastened to Egypt (Figure 2.6). Because of Joseph’s status and

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Semites Arrive in Egypt

FIGURE 2.6 Semites Arrive in Egypt

This painting on the wall of a tomb at Beni Hasan depicts people from Asia arriving in Egypt. In a similar manner, the clan of Jacob traveled from Canaan and settled in the Goshen region of the Nile Delta.

Source: Asiatic Semites Arrive in Egypt, from C. R. Lepsius, Denkmäler aus Ägypten und Äthiopien, Vol. 2 (Berlin, 1849–1859), plate 133.

importance, the family received royal permission to settle in Goshen, and they were treated well.

The themes of blessing and growth are most obvious in these final chapters. The family of Jacob prospered in Egypt, and he lavished the patriarchal blessing on each of his sons (Genesis 49), as well as on his favored grandsons (Genesis 48), before he died. This latter episode, the account of Jacob laying blessing on Joseph’s sons Manasseh and Ephraim, demonstrates that Jacob had lost none of his caprice. Joseph had positioned his sons before Jacob in such a way that the preferred right hand of blessing would fall on Manasseh’s head, the firstborn. But true to form, Jacob defied expectations, crossed his arms, and gave the younger Ephraim the better blessing.

Yet the richness of blessing was tempered by Israel’s family being in Egypt. Even as the blessings of fertility and benefit were coming to fruition, the promise of land was still elusive. Although the family was fruitful and multiplied, they were exiles from the land of promise because of the famine there.

Lastly, we should note that the Joseph cycle is important because it gave the explanation of how and why the Israelites ended up in Egypt. Looking ahead to the book of Exodus, where the Israelites are in bondage, we need to know how they got there. The Joseph cycle explains this, and points ahead to the time God rescues his people in the great exodus from Egypt.


The book of Genesis displays a remarkable unity of structure and purpose. Its structure is provided by a coherent and comprehensive plot line, as well as by the deliberate device of toledot introductory statements. The spiritual and moral themes of the book also engage the reader at a deeper level. It is no wonder that Genesis has fired the imagination of artists, writers, and theologians more than any other book of the Hebrew Bible.

The three literary sources of the Torah—the Yahwist narrative, the Elohist source, and the Priestly document—interweave to create the Ancestral Story. All

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TABLE 2.4 Translations (in Boldface) of the Term Toledot


Genesis 2:4a
New Revised Standard Version These are the generations of the heavens and the earth when they were created.
New International Version This is the account of the heavens and the earth when they were created.
New Jewish Publication Society Tanakh Such is the story of heaven and earth when they were created.
New King James Version This is the history of the heavens and the earth when they were created.
The Five Books of Moses (Fox, 1995) These are the begettings of the heavens and the earth: their being created.
The Five Books of Moses (Alter, 2004)
This is the tale of the heavens and the earth when they were created.

three sources are well attested in Genesis 12–50 and make significant contributions. Elohist passages appear here in the Pentateuch for the first time.

Go to the companion website and see the table “The Sources of the Ancestral Story.”

5.1 Toledot of Genesis

As we have already noticed, the overall structure of the Ancestral Story is provided by the repeated use of the Hebrew term toledot. Toledot means “generations” and comes from the Hebrew word for “giving birth.” It is rendered in various ways by different English translations, as you can see from the options available for handling Genesis 2:4 (see Table 2.4). The use of toledot to structure the book is usually attributed to a Priestly editor because it is supposed that priests controlled the genealogical and historical data.

The term toledot has to do with developments, outcomes, and begettings. When found in the phrase “These are the generations of X,” it introduces an account of what happens next to the offspring named in the toledot expression. Virtually every time it is found, it has a transitional function. It draws the preceding section to a conclusion while introducing the next section. The term is found twelve times in Genesis. Ten of those times, it is found at important break points in the narrative (the toledot in 10:32 is not in a formula, and the toledot in 36:9 is a repetition of the one in 36:1).

These ten toledot units divide Genesis into two collections of five each according to their subject focus: the Primeval Story and the Ancestral Story (see Table 2.5). The Primeval Story consists of five toledot units in a linear trajectory. The Ancestral Story consists of five toledot units of alternating interest: three major ones (1, 3, and 5) and two minor ones (2 and 4). The three major units contain cycles of stories, and the two minor ones consist merely of descendant lists. Thus, the ten toledots of Genesis display the direction of the story. The book begins with the widest possible scope, the cosmos, and gradually constricts its attention to Israel until it ends with the toledot of Jacob, the eponymous ancestor of the nation of Israel.

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TABLE 2.5 The Toledot of Genesis



What Becomes of It
1 Heavens and earth (2:4) Creation and expulsion (2:4b–4:26)
2 Adam (5:1) Adam to Noah genealogy (5:1–32) and Sons of God (6:1–4)
3 Noah (6:9) Flood and re-creation (6:9–9:29)
4 Shem, Ham, Japheth (10:1) Table of Nations (10) and Tower of Babel (11:1–9)
5 Shem (11:10) Shem to Terah genealogy (11:10–26)
6 Terah (11:27) Abraham cycle (11:27–25:11)
7 Ishmael (25:12) Ishmael genealogy (25:12–18)
8 Isaac (25:19) Jacob cycle (25:19–35:29)
9 Esau (36:1, 9) Esau genealogy (36:1–43)
Jacob (37:2)
Joseph cycle (37–50)

5.2 Themes of Genesis

Each narrative cycle has its own literary integrity. Yet there are common themes, motifs, and interests that serve to give the Ancestral Story a wholeness that is greater than the sum of its parts.

1. Divine–human relationship. These stories take for granted the existence of an intimate relationship between the ancestors and their patron God. The deity promises, protects, and directs the lives of the ancestors. He treats them differently than the people with whom they are in contact (and conflict). Still, these other people—be they Egyptian or Philistine, Edomite or Aramean—would find benefit in being associated with the ancestral family.

a. Promise. God determined and guided the ancestors’ future, and he pledged that future through promises. The consistent way in which the divine promises were transferred from one generation to the next signals their programmatic character. The promises ensured longevity through their offspring who would become a nation and ensured possession of the land of Canaan. In their Priestly form, the promises entailed fruitfulness and multiplication.

b. Covenant. The relationship between God and the ancestors was formalized by covenants. God bound himself by oath to fulfill his promises. In its Priestly form the covenant was termed everlasting. A succession of covenants progressively builds and defines the relationship of God with his world beginning with Noah, continuing with Abraham, and culminating with Moses at Mount Sinai.

c. God of the fathers. The patriarchs developed an intimate relationship with the deity such that Abraham could be found in conversation with God near his tent. God also came to Abraham and Jacob in visions. The deity came to be personally associated with the patriarchs and was termed “the Elohim of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.” God was not immediately present to Joseph in the same way and appears only as the force of history in Joseph’s lecture to his brothers. In Israel’s developing history, God seems to continue receding from personal contact (see Friedman, 1995).

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2. Offspring. Israel understood itself as having descended from Abraham in a line of succession miraculously engineered by God. Many of the stories touch on the question of family succession: conceiving, having children, determining the line of inheritance. The frequent genealogies and the toledot structure of Genesis reinforce this overall theme.

a. Firstborn. Consistently the oldest son does not end up being the favored son. Perhaps one of the lessons intended by all three cycles is that God does not follow human convention when he decides whom he will bless. He is unpredictable and likely as not will choose the younger over the older. Yet it must also be observed that each of the firstborn sons had some flaw that may have been the reason for their disqualification. Ishmael was the son of a concubine; Esau cheaply bartered away his status; Reuben slept with Bilhah, his father’s concubine. However, one could ask if their failings were inherently more heinous than some of the actions of Jacob or Judah.

b. Barrenness. As a further indication of the sovereignty of God, the younger son predestined for greatness was in almost every case conceived through the help of God after an extended period of barrenness: Isaac to Sarah, Jacob to Rebekah, Joseph to Rachel, Perez to Tamar (though more through Tamar’s initiative than God’s help). Divinely enabled conception of the gifted son is a pattern repeated later with Samson, Hannah and Samuel, and Jesus of Nazareth in the New Testament.

c. Matriarchs. Women were marginalized within the patriarchal social system of the ancient Middle East (see Jeansonne, 1990) Although they may not have had institutionalized power, they were not necessarily powerless. Within the family, they exercised considerable control. Israel’s matriarchs—strong willed, often employing trickery and deceit—were directly responsible for determining lines of descent and inheritance. Abraham deferred to Sarah, who expelled Hagar and her son Ishmael. Sarah and Rebekah agreed to play sister instead of spouse to save their husbands and keep the promise of offspring alive. Rebekah conspired with Jacob against her husband to steal the blessing from Isaac’s favorite son Esau. Rachel and Leah were rivals to Jacob’s sexual attention and presumably also rivals to inherit the promise. Rachel stole her father’s household gods and cleverly hid them from him. Tamar entrapped Judah into fathering a child by her and was judged more righteous for it. Quite possibly some of these women may have been models for the likes of Bathsheba who deftly secured the throne for her son Solomon over his rivals (see RTOT Chapter 9).

3. Land. Israel was vitally invested in the claim that Canaan was its heritage and homeland (see Brueggemann, 1977, and Weinfeld, 1993). The people found justification for that claim in the promise made first to Abraham and in the fact that he actually lived in Canaan for many years. Each of the cycles contains the notice that at least an earnest of land had been purchased; Abraham bought Ephron’s field near Hebron (23), and Jacob bought a plot near Shechem (33:18–20). The family of Jacob even purchased property in Egypt (47:27). The divine land promise is the foundation for Israel’s claim to the land and justifies their conquest of Canaan under Joshua in the 1200s BCE. All three ancestral cycles are shaped around geographical itineraries and always in respect to Canaan. Abraham left Mesopotamia

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and journeyed to Canaan with a sojourn in Egypt; Jacob left Canaan for Haran and returned to Canaan with great wealth and a large family. Joseph was deported to Egypt but eventually brought the entire family there to survive another famine. All these journeys suggest that Israel’s hold on the land was tenuous, and separation from the land was an inevitable experience. Perhaps these ancestral periods of exile and return shaped the hope of the Israelites who underwent their greatest trial in the Babylonian exile. Certainly, the ending of Genesis, as it leaves Jacob’s family in Egypt awaiting return to the Promised Land for the burial of Joseph’s bones, thrusts the reader onward to the book of Exodus expecting return and rest.



1. Covenant. What are the similarities and differences among the covenants that the deity makes with Abraham in 13:14–17, 15:17–21, and 17:1–21?

2. Theophany. What theophany episodes can be found in the Ancestral Story, and what are the ways that God appeared to people in each of the three literary sources?

3. Character development. How do the main characters of the Ancestral Story change from the beginning of a cycle to the end, and how do names change to reflect this?

4. Blessing. How does the theme of blessing and curse surface in each cycle, and how does blessing and curse connect thematically with the Primeval Story?

5. Type-scenes. What are the similarities among the stories about Sarah and the Pharaoh (Genesis 12:14–20), Sarah and Abimelech (Genesis 20:10–20), and Rebekah and Abimelech (Genesis 26:6–11)? Why these are said to be based on a type-scene?

6. Firstborn. How does the theme of firstborn sons in relation to the younger sons surface within each cycle? Why does the Ancestral Story give so much attention to family birth order? Why does the Ancestral Story seem to subvert the tradition of primogeniture?


1. National character. Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob are considered the fathers of the nation of Israel. In a way, telling their stories is telling the story of the Israelites. What episodes in the Ancestral Story reveal the character of Israel? What episodes may have reinforced a northern Israelite identity? What episodes may have reinforced a southern Judean identity? How do we use stories to clarify our personal identities and our national identities?

2. Trust. Which ancestral stories relate to the issue of trust in divine promises? List some specific episodes that stand out in your mind that have to do with issues of belief, trust, and faith. What developments can you trace in the growth and quality of the ancestors’ trust?

3. Matriarchs. What do the stories of the matriarchs reveal about the social roles of women in the ancestral period? How does the sociology of women in that time, insofar as you have been able to glean it from the texts, compare with your understanding of the role of women in society today? How has the portrayal of the Genesis matriarchs shaped traditional views of women? Is there material in the stories of the matriarchs and other women of Genesis that could be used to challenge traditional views?

4. Blessing. What is the meaning and the role of blessing in the Ancestral Story? In what ways are all people dependent on the blessing, encouragement, and support of others in order to develop constructive self-images and productive attitudes? Were the ancestors positive or negative models of how to respond to blessing? Have you found encouragement and blessing from anyone in particular, and if so, what affect has that had on your life?

5. Flawed forebears. The main characters of the Ancestral Story, both male and female, seem generally strong and determined, but at times they also revealed weaknesses. Can you identify examples of each? Do you see the patriarchs and matriarchs as the movers and shakers of Israel’s future in relation to the promises of God, or were they mostly just passive recipients of the divine promises?

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The Genesis of Ethics: How the Tormented Family of Genesis Leads Us to Moral Development, by Burton L. Visotzky (1996), reflects on the episodes of the Ancestral Story to gain perspective on contemporary moral formation. Abraham and Family: New Insights into the Patriarchal Narratives, edited by Herschel Shanks (2000), is a collection of provocative essays on the characters and episodes of the Ancestral Story. A Feminist Companion to Genesis (1993) and Genesis: The Feminist Companion to the Bible (1998), both edited by Athalya Brenner, consist of feminist readings of selected Genesis stories. David Rosenberg (of The Book of J fame) has written Abraham: The First Historical Biography (2006), a biography set within a reconstructed Sumerian context.