First book of the Bible.
Ascribed by tradition, though not by scholars, to Moses, the book of Genesis chronicles the creation of the world and everything in it, as well as God's early relationship to humanity. For purposes of critical analysis, Genesis is often divided into the primeval history (chapters 1 through 11), which includes the stories of God's creation of the universe, as well as the Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, and Noah stories, and the patriarchal history (chapters 12-50), which includes the narratives of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph. Altogether, the stories in Genesis span—according to the usual calculation—2,369 years. The sources from which Genesis was compiled, including Babylonian, Egyptian, and Hebrew myths and folklore, date from the tenth to fifth centuries b.c.
Modern scholars generally agree that there are three main literary sources within Genesis. Among these three groups of source documents, the two oldest are designated as “Yahwist” (or “J” for the German word for Yahweh) and “Elohist” (or “E”), respectively. These terms are derived from the distinctive name by which each author referred to God, either Yahweh or Elohim. The completed texts (rather than the various source materials) for the Yahwist compositions date from circa 950 b.c., and the Elohist compositions have been dated one to two centuries later. The third, later group of source texts, referred to as “Priestly” (or “P”), is believed to have been completed circa 538 to 450 b.c. The style of the P sources is somewhat different from that of J and E, in that P is more formal and more interested in factual information, such as geneologies and precise dates. J and E sources, on the other hand, tend to be more lyrical. Many scholars believe that the chapters of Genesis are comprised of a number of J, E, and P source documents that were at one time combined by a redactor (sometimes referred to as “R”).
Plot and Major Characters
The principal characters of Genesis include God and the individuals he created. Genesis tells the tale of God's creation of the universe, and then traces the history of mankind from Adam and Eve, through Abraham and his descendents. Genesis focuses primarily upon five persons: Adam, Noah, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. God appears repeatedly throughout the text, interacting with mankind largely through issuing commands and announcements, and punishing, forgiving, and testing those he created.
Many scholars have attempted to isolate the various themes threading their way throughout the book of Genesis. Some point to Genesis's emphasis on power and patriarchy, with God the Creator as the initial patriarch, followed later by Abraham and his descendents. Other critics note that the theme of sin and failure is woven throughout Genesis, from Adam and Eve's original sin, to sins of humanity as a whole, punishable by such acts as the great flood, from which only Noah and a select few escaped. Man's alienation from God, as a result of man's failures, has also been identified as one of the primary themes in Genesis.
Modern criticism of Genesis has centered on analysis of issues related to the composition of the text, and literary analyses focusing on such things as plot, theme, and use of literary devices. A number of critics have studied the myth sources from which, it is argued, Genesis was derived. Robert Graves and Raphael Patai review the deities of Hebrew myth that have found their way into the Bible, and examine the parallels between Greek and Hebrew mythology and religious attitudes, stating that one significant difference is that the Hebrew myths draw moral conclusions from the acts of their heroes. Similarly, William H. Ralston, Jr. compares the creation story in Genesis with other creation myths. For example, Ralston draws parallels between the story of Adam and Eve, and an older Palestinian myth; in both stories, Ralston obverses, a couple becomes alienated from one another and from God. Other commonalities have been observed as well. Peter Booth examines the relationship between the myth of Agamemnon and his sacrifice of Iphigeneia, and Abraham's near-sacrifice of his son Isaac. In addition to the study of myth as source material for Genesis, critics have also analyzed the method by which Genesis's final form was derived. Gerhard Von Rad views Genesis not as an independent book but as a part of the Hexateuch (the book of Genesis through the book of Joshua), and examines the way the Yahwist writer developed his source material. Von Rad also outlines the widely-accepted view that the source documents comprising the books Genesis to Joshua were woven together by a skillful redactor. Leslie Brisman, however, challenges the traditional view that the Yahwist and Eloist strands were “reacted to” by the author of the Priestly strand; Brisman maintains that a character identified with the Yahwist strand “reacted to” a composite of the Elohist and Priestly documents.
The plot and themes in Genesis offer numerous avenues of critical investigation. D. J. A. Clines examines the ways in which Genesis provides hints about the plot and meaning of the Bible. One such way is the series of “announcements” made by God. Clines studies how these announcements are fulfilled and what they lead the reader to believe. He maintains that often the announcements made in Genesis are not brought to fulfillment until much later in the Bible, as late as 2 Kings 25. In conclusion, Clines states that Genesis foreshadows the events to come in subsequent chapters of the Bible. Thematic studies of Genesis are another area of scholarly analysis. Edwin M. Good examines Genesis' thematic irony, which Good defines as the conjunction of several episodes which all point to an ironic theme or motif. Good identifies the thematic irony in a number of stories, including the stories of creation, Cain and Abel, the flood, Abraham, Jacob, and Joseph. The ironic theme of the first eleven chapters of Genesis, argues Good, is the perception of the incongruity between God's purpose in creating man, and man's actual nature. Like Good, D. J. A. Clines searches for the theme of Genesis 1-11. Clines offers two possible versions of the theme of this portion of Genesis: that man destroys God's creation, and despite God's forgiveness and/or punishment, sin continues; or: that no matter how severe man's sin, God's grace continues to save mankind from the consequences of sin. Another portion of the Genesis text singled out for thematic study is the story of Adam and Eve. Alan Jon Hauser contends that the theme of intimacy in Genesis 2 (God's creation of man and woman) is intertwined with the theme of alienation in Genesis 3 (man and woman's original sin against God). This dual theme, argues Hauser, integrates the narrative and is used as a literary device by the author to reveal the disruption of order that occurs in day-to-day life. While Hauser's analysis focuses on the disorder that apparently results from the sin of Adam and Eve, other critics view the end of this tale somewhat differently. Dan E. Burns studies the inconsistencies within this myth, finding that they are only problematic when viewed from a logical, rather than literary, standpoint. Burns concludes that the tale is best viewed as an awakening, rather than the fall of man. Similarly, Sam Dragga identifies several assumptions that are traditionally held about the Adam and Eve story, assumptions which yield a tragic interpretation of the myth. Dragga argues that when the connotations of these assumptions—such as the assumptions that the serpent's intentions are malicious or that God is omnipotent—are properly understood, the story may be viewed as one of man's liberation, rather than the fall of humanity.
SOURCE: “On the First Three Chapters of Genesis,” Daedalus, Vol. 87, Summer, 1958, pp. 37-64.
[In the following essay, Burke offers an examination of the covenants depicted in Genesis, focusing primarily on the nature of disorder, temptation, and man's “fall.”]
INTRODUCTION: ON COVENANT AND ORDER
We want so to relate the ideas of Creation, Covenant, and Fall that they can be seen to implicate one another inextricably, along with ideas of Sacrifice and Redemption.
Creation implies authority in the sense of originator, the designer or author of the things created.
Covenant implies authority in the sense of power, sovereignty—the highest or more radical sovereignty in case the Covenant is made by God.
The possibility of a “Fall” is implied in the idea of a Covenant insofar as the idea of a Covenant implies the possibility of its being violated. One does not make a covenant with stones or trees or fire—for such things cannot break agreements or defy commands, since they cannot even understand agreements or commands.
Also, the possibility of a “Fall” is implied in the idea of the Creation, insofar as the Creation was a kind of “divisiveness,” since it set up different categories of things which could be variously at odds with one another and which accordingly lack the...
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SOURCE: “Genesis: The Irony of Israel,” in Irony in the Old Testament, pp. 81-114, The Westminster Press, 1965.
[In the following essay, Good maintains that “thematic irony” is developed throughout the book of Genesis.Good discusses Genesis's use of such irony, from the creation myth through the stories of Abraham, Jacob, and Joseph.]
An essay on irony in the book of Genesis should probably be of book length. Such an essay, thoroughly done, would approximate a commentary, which would necessitate attention to many subjects that must here be passed by. I cannot consider in any detail the problems of the composition of the book of Genesis, whether they be solved by documentary analysis, by traditio-historical criticism, by form criticism, or by any other method. I will not, therefore, weary the reader with J, E, D, and P, as the study of irony in Genesis does not necessitate either a positive or a negative decision regarding the documentary hypothesis. Whatever account of the composition of the book of Genesis is accepted, the book achieved that final form in which we now read it. This study will consider the book as it now stands. If it can be shown that failure to analyze documents has seriously distorted the perception of irony in the text, I will then be prepared to mend my ways.
EDEN TO BABEL: VARIATIONS ON AN IRONIC THEME...
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SOURCE: “Then Men Said, ‘Let Us Make God in Our Image, After Our Likeness’,” Literature and Psychology, Vol. XXI, No. 2, 1971, pp. 69-79.
[In the following essay, Gonen analyzes the analogous relationship between Genesis's account of man's nature, and psychoanalytic ideas regarding man's nature. Gonen concludes that the description of God in Genesisreflects man's own image of what he is and what he would like to be.]
The story of man's banishment from the Garden of Eden has fascinated many thinkers who discovered a variety of meanings in the story. For example, Erikson (1950) sees this banishment as symbolizing the first ontogenetic catastrophe which occurs with teething. He asserts that at this particular point of time, the mother figure—the blissful and nourishing maternal environment which was always with the infant and which he trusted up to that time—begins to separate from him in response to his bites. This evokes what is to become a life long conflict between a basic sense of “trust” and a basic sense of “evil”. In another example, May (1967) sees in this story an Hegelian “fall upward” of man. After existing in a state of naive and pre-human happiness without anxiety and conflicts, Adam and Eve revolt against the benevolent dictatorship of God, develop human and moral consciousness, and differentiate themselves as persons. In doing this, however, they pay the...
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SOURCE: Introduction to Genesis: A Commentary, revised edition, pp. 13-43, The Westminster Press, 1972.
[In the following essay, Von Rad asserts that the book of Genesis should not be viewed as an independent work; rather, it is “significantly related” to the five Biblical books that follow it. Together, these six books—Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy—are commonly designated as the Hexateuch. Von Rad goes on to discuss the theme of the Hexateuch, and the development of the source materials into their current Biblical form.]
1. GENESIS AS PART OF THE HEXATEUCH
Genesis is not an independent book that can be interpreted by itself. On the contrary, the books Genesis to Joshua (Hexateuch) in their present form constitute an immense connected narrative. It matters little whether one is more interested in the great individual narrative sources that make up the book or in the composition as a whole which arose when a final redactor skillfully combined these individual sources. In either case, whereever he begins, the reader must keep in mind the narrative as a whole and the contexts into which all the individual parts fit and from which they are to be understood. The present, pronounced division of this originally unified material into the books of Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, etc., is merely a subsequent partition of...
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SOURCE: “That Old Serpent,” The Sewanee Review, Vol. LXXXI, No. 3, July-September, 1973, pp. 389-428.
[In the following essay, Ralston examines the composition and themes of Genesis, maintaining that the book emphasizes man's separation from God.]
The anonymous author of the primary literary document of the Old Testament, whose imagination has been determinative for the rest of Biblical literature, begins the story of his people, a narrative he was impelled to write by his experience of the person and the kingdom of David, with an account of creation. For this writer, the form of history, without which the events and circumstances of human life would hold no meaning, was Jahveh (a particular tribal name for the God whose own name was unknown, and who therefore remained beyond definition), whose power had created the physical world, and placed man within it. His nature was the ultimate origin, as his power was the final determinant, of “the way things are”.
The book of Genesis was revised again and again by the later Hebrew writers, but the basis of it has remained the mind of its primary anonymous author. In particular it is the third chapter of Genesis, the story of “man's first disobedience and the fruit of that forbidden tree”, which comes to us virtually unaltered from his hand, that is the key to his imagination and that...
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SOURCE: “Abraham and Agamemnon: A Comparative Study of Myth,” The Humanities Association Review, Vol. 25, No. 4, Fall, 1974, pp. 290-97.
[In the following essay, Booth analyzes the commonalities between the Greek myth of Agamemnon's sacrifice of Iphigeneia, and Abraham's near-sacrifice of Isaac in the book of Genesis.In particular, Booth studies the similarities in story patterns and aetiological features.]
The myths of Agamemnon's sacrifice of Iphigeneia and Abraham's near-sacrifice of Isaac have much in common. Out of similarities in story patterns emerge narrative unities of comparable primary characteristics suggesting variations on a single theme, a common matrix, and a spiritual dimension not characteristic of particular and independent legends.
Myth may be defined as traditional oral narrative transmitted from generation to generation by a pre-literate society or an illiterate segment of a society. Myth is a social not an individual phenomenon arising from group experience and reflecting, recollecting or expressing that experience in narrative form. Myths are usually classified according to the nature (as best it can be ascertained) of the original stimulus, as aetiological, liturgical, historical and what I shall call psyche myths. Myths of the historical type, usually called legends or sagas, may be either directly reminiscent of actual events in history or...
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SOURCE: “Theme in Genesis 1-11,” The Catholic Bible Quarterly, Vol. XXXVIII, No. 4, October, 1976, pp. 483-507.
[In the following essay, Clines studies the theme of the first eleven chapters of Genesis, emphasizing that this thematic investigation focuses on these chapters as a portion of Penteteuchal text, rather than on the individual sources from which Genesis was created. Clines goes on to survey the historical setting and literary pre-history of Genesis.]
I. THE NATURE OF “THEME”
Most recent studies of theme in the Pentateuch turn out to be investigations of the theme of the individual sources of the Pentateuch. Even though the chorus of dissent from the classic four-source analysis is swelling,1 most scholars still believe that the Graf-Wellhausen theory is the best we have,2 and articles and books are being written on “The Kerygma of the Yahwist,”3The Yahwist. The Bible's First Theologian,4 “The Elohistic Fragments in the Pentateuch,”5 “The Kerygma of the Priestly Writers,”6 and so on.
The aim however of this article is to enquire about the theme of a unit of Pentateuchal text, Gen 1-11, considered in and by itself. Almost everyone acknowledges that disparate materials went into the fashioning of Gen 1-11, and most believe they...
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SOURCE: “From Analysis to Synthesis: The Interpretation of Genesis 1-11,” Journal of Biblical Literature, Vol. 97, No. 1, March, 1978, pp. 23-39.
[In the following essay, Anderson argues that while scholars have often examined the source materials of Genesis,and how these materials were formulated into the final version of Genesis, a new critical approach examines Genesis as a synthesized whole. Anderson follows this approach in examining the flood story in Genesis.]
The vitality of biblical scholarship is shown by a disposition to test and challenge working hypotheses, even those that are supported by a broad consensus. Today there are new signals that call for advance, like the rustling of leaves in the tops of the balsam trees, to cite a biblical figure of speech (2 Sam 5:24).1 The purpose of this essay is to reexamine some old-fashioned views that have constituted the critical orthodoxy of the twentieth century and to look toward the new era of biblical study that is dawning. Attention will focus on the book of Genesis which has been a storm-center of biblical criticism in the modern period. In order to make the task somewhat manageable, however, I shall bracket out the patriarchal history and consider only the primeval history (Gen 1:1-11:26). But even this is too much to deal with; so, within the primeval history, I shall concentrate on the...
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SOURCE: “Genesis 2-3: The Theme of Intimacy and Alienation,” Art and Meaning in Biblical Literature, Journal for the Study of the Old Testament, Supplement Series, 19, 1982, pp. 20-36.
[In the following essay, Hauser examines the literary devices and techniques by which the author of Genesisdevelops the theme of intimacy in chapter two of Genesis, and alienation in chapter three. Hauser maintains that the author uses this intimacy/alienation theme as a motif to both focus and integrate the narrative, and to emphasize the disorder and divisiveness of human life.]
The narrative in Genesis 2-3 is one of the better-known pieces of Western literature, largely because it has the ability to focus the reader's attention on key issues relating to man's existence. The writer has artfully woven his story, using a limited number of characters and objects to present in brief but moving form the story of man's fall. Any attempt to make a complete analysis of this writer's work would be a major undertaking, especially when one considers the complexity of issues such as the role and identity of the serpent, or the form and function of the knowledge that woman so strongly desires. In this study I have a fairly limited goal: to analyze the writer's development of the two-dimensional theme of intimacy and alienation. These are my words, not his, but it is my conviction that they clearly...
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SOURCE: “Joseph, Judah, and Jacob,” in Literary Interpretations of Biblical Narratives, Vol. II, edited by Kenneth R. R. Gros Louis with James S. Ackerman, pp. 85-113. Abington, 1982.
[In the following essay, Ackerman explores the use of doubling in the Joseph narrative, noting that the author employs an “unusual” amount of doubling of speech and actions. Ackerman argues that this doubling is intentional and used for emphasis.]
Scholars have long noted the unusual amount of doubling in the Joseph story: three sets of dreams occur in pairs—by Joseph, by his fellow prisoners, and by Pharaoh.1 Joseph is twice confined—in the pit and in prison. The brothers make two trips to Egypt for grain, have two audiences with Joseph on each occasion, twice find money in their grain bags, make two attempts to gain Jacob's permission to send Benjamin to Egypt, and finally receive two invitations to settle in Egypt. Both Potiphar and the prison keeper leave everything in Joseph's hands. Potiphar's wife makes two attempts to seduce Joseph and then accuses him twice. Joseph serves two prominent prisoners (and two years elapse between their dreams and those of Pharaoh). Joseph twice accuses his brothers of spying, devises two plans to force the brothers to bring Benjamin to Egypt, and on two occasions places money in their sacks. Finally, the same goods (gum, balm, and myrrh) are twice brought from...
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Allen Scult, Michael Calvin McGee, and J. Kenneth Kuntz (essay date 1986)
SOURCE: “Genesis and Power: An Analysis of the Biblical Story of Creation,” The Quarterly Journal of Speech, Vol. 72, No. 2, May, 1986, pp. 113-31.
[In the following essay, the critics use two sections of Genesis, believed by many scholars to have been written by different authors, in order to examine the relationship between discourse and power. The critics maintain that the two texts complement one another and present a complete, balanced, persuasive vision of God's power.]
The relationship between truth and power has fascinated philosophers and rhetoricians for centuries. The basic problematic of the relationship may be traced to the truism that truth claims are made through discourse, and, as such, must be made persuasively. Therefore, the will to truth would seem to be subsumed by the will to power. On the other hand, in those areas that matter to us and in which we consider ourselves to be expert, we assume we can somehow break out of whatever persuasive power the discourse holds over us, compare it with something else, and thus assess its truth or falsity. Such has been the starting point of academic positivism in all its manifold forms, claiming to produce “truths,” and thus suggesting that the will to power can be subsumed by the will to truth, if the will to truth is properly...
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SOURCE: “Dream Form in Genesis 2.4b-3.24: Asleep in the Garden,” Journal for the Study of the Old Testament, No. 37, February, 1987, pp. 3-14.
[In the following essay, Burns analyzes the apparent inconsistencies in the Adam and Eve story, maintaining that such inconsistencies are only problematic when viewed from a logical, rather than literary, standpoint.]
The story of Adam and Eve as told in Gen. 2.4b-3.24 contains a number of apparent inconsistencies that challenge interpreters, and that draw the careful reader in for a closer look. The garden in Eden contains not one but two talismanic trees, the tree of knowledge and the tree of life, yet the central part of the narrative knows nothing of the tree of life. Additionally, God warned Adam not to eat from the tree of knowledge, ‘for in the day that you eat of it, you will surely die’; nevertheless, Adam goes on to live nearly a thousand years. Gerhard von Rad, Jerome Walsh, John McKenzie, and more recently Crossan, Jobling, and Boomershine have attempted to resolve the apparent inconsistencies with varying degrees of success. There are, as Robert Alter has observed, ‘aspects of the composite nature of biblical narrative texts that we cannot confidently encompass in our own explanatory system’, a fact which leads to the nagging suspicion that ‘the Hebrew writer may have known what he was doing but we do not’ (p. 136)....
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SOURCE: “What Happens in Genesis?” in What Does Eve Do to Help? and Other Readerly Questions to the Old Testament, Journal for the Study of the Old Testament, Supplement Series, 94, 1990, pp. 49-66.
[In the following essay, Clines examines the plot of Genesis, and argues that the book, by way of the announcements made by God in it, foretells the direction in which the narrative of later books of the Bible, extending through 2 Kings 25, will follow.]
What happens in Genesis? Genesis looks like a narrative book, with events being told in roughly chronological order and characters remaining reasonably recognizable throughout their appearances. So it is a proper question, when opening the book, to ask, What happens in this narrative? That is to say, plot is the subject of this enquiry. Of the author or sources of Genesis I confess (or allege, it is the same thing) that I know nothing, and so I assume nothing. But, like most readers everywhere, I expect narratives to have plots. Only after I have tried hard to discern a plot, and failed, will I decide that this book as a whole is no plotted story, but merely a chronicle or merely some incoherent collection of episodes.
But if I go looking for plot in Genesis, is there not perhaps a danger of inventing a plot where none exists? A possibility, perhaps, but not a danger. I have decided not to wince...
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SOURCE: “Introduction: The Documentary Hypothesis and Family Romance,” in The Voice of Jacob: On the Composition of Genesis, pp. ix-xviii, Indiana University Press, 1990.
[In the following essay, Brisman highlights the method by which Biblical scholars study the composition of Genesis, and suggests that literary motivations, rather than sociological ones, guided the development of the source material of Genesis into its final form.]
In the King James translation, the Decalogue begins (or almost begins) with the injunction “Thou shalt have no other gods before Me.” Although the Hebrew ‘al pānaî (as opposed to lěpānaî) clearly means “to my face” rather than “before my time,” there is a familiar truth represented in the English “before Me”: God's insistence on unrivaled priority of importance seems to require also a denial of antecedents. Christians and Jews may differ about whether the command is the first or the second in the Decalogue, but it is not hard to agree that the added ambiguity of the English accords with a theological absolute: This god tolerates no rivals, mediators, or predecessors. He is the original.
Human originality is a more problematic thing. Did any biblical writer “begin at the beginning,” or were all forever collecting, revising, transmuting material in more or less complicated relationship to the...
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SOURCE: “Genesis 2-3: A Story of Liberation,” Journal for the Study of the Old Testament, No. 55, September, 1992, pp. 3-13.
[In the following essay, Dragga surveys the assumptions that typically color one's understanding of the Adam and Eve story. Dragga argues that when these assumptions and their connotations are revealed and understood, the story may be viewed as one of the liberation of humans, rather than one of their fall.]
Genesis 2-3 is typically characterized as a tragic narrative of human failure and disgrace. This perspective, however, assumes that the human couple of the narrative is procreative prior to their act of disobedience, that the serpent who elicits their disobedience has malicious motivations, that the disobedience of the man and woman is disastrous, that the creator of the human couple is omnipotent, and that the removal of the man and woman from the garden of their creator constitutes a loss of paradise. Without the coloring of this series of assumptions, Genesis 2-3 might be interpreted as a story of liberation, a vivid and inspiring portrait of the origins of the human family.
THE PROCREATIVE COUPLE
In Genesis 2-3, the original human being is androgynous—hā’ādām.1 It is the androgynous human being who receives Yahweh's command: ‘You may freely eat of every tree of the garden;...
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Watson, Duane F. and Alan J. Hauser. Rhetorical Criticism of the Bible: A Comprehensive Bibliography with Notes on History and Method. Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1994, 206 p.
Discussion of two types of rhetorical criticism of the Bible—source and form criticism—followed by a bibliography that includes Genesis studies.
Cassuto, U. Commentary on the Book of Genesis. Part I: From Adam to Noah. Genesis I-VI 8. Jerusalem: The Magnes Press, Hebrew University, translated from the Hebrew by Israel Abrahams, 1944, 323 p.
Critical analyses of the creation story, the story of the Garden of Eden, the story of Cain and Abel, and the Book of the History of Adam.
Coats, George W. Genesis, with an Introduction to Narrative Literature. Grand Rapids, Mich.: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1983, 322 p.
Critical commentary on each of the following: the structure of the Pentateuch/Hexateuch, the theme of patriarchy in Genesis, the primeval history, and the stories of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.
Crenshaw, James. “Journey Into Oblivion: A Structural Analysis of Gen. 22:1-19. Soundings LVIII, No. 2 (Summer 1975): 243-56.
Examination of the literary structure of the story of Abraham's near-sacrifice of his...
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