(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)


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.

Textual History

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.

Major Themes

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.

Critical Reception

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.