The Beginner’s Guide to Understanding the Bible and Book of Genesis
The Hebrew Bible is the more academic term referring to the general collection of books which both Jews and Christians hold in common as sacred or inspired by God. In this episode, we will look at how this text emerged and came to be used and transmitted in the Jewish world. Jews call these writings simply the Bible or TNK whereas Christians usually call it the Old Testament to distinguish it from the New Testament. The latter refers to the Christian writings not accepted by Jews such as the four gospels, the book of Acts, the apostles’ letters, and the book of Revelation.
The Hebrew name these books are collectively known by in Jewish circles is the acronym “TNK [Pronounced Tanakh].”
The letter T corresponds to Torath Moshe or simply Torah which are also known as the five books of Moses. When these were translated to Greek, they came to be known as the Pentateuch which means the five books. These books are Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. Though traditional Jewish and Christian circles attribute the first five books of the Hebrew Bible to Moses, modern scholarship has vehemently challenged this position.
The letter N corresponds to the Naviem or prophets. These books are divided into three major sections: the earlier prophets namely Joshua, Judges, Samuel (1 and 2), and Kings (1 and 2); the latter prophets are namely Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel together with the twelve other prophets often combined and dubbed as “The Twelve.”
The letter K corresponds to the Ketuvim or writings. This section includes the books of Psalms, Proverbs, Job, the Five Scrolls, Daniel, Ezra-Nehemiah, and Chronicles (1 and 2). The Five scrolls are a collection of books within the writings of the TNK that includes the Song of Songs, Ruth, Lamentations, Ecclesiastes, and Esther.
Rabbinic authorities discussed the authority of the different books between 70 and 100 CE. Although they did not produce a formal list, it is around this time that we find references to a fixed number of authoritative books. These references are often associated with the Council of Jamnia after the fall of Jerusalem in 70 CE. This council is better thought of as a series of rabbinical meetings debating the authority of books that will eventually make up the canon rather than a council similar to the ecumenical councils where bishops met and ended the meeting with authoritative documents and directives. This list or canon differs from the Christian list of “Old Testament books” in order and number as Christians added other books. In a way, the different arrangements give a different flavour to the narrative of God interacting with His people, Israel.
It is worth mentioning that the 39 books that came to be codified as the Jewish Bible were almost written entirely in Hebrew except for a few parts in Aramaic such as in Daniel and a portion of the book of Ezra.
After the invention of the printing press, the image that comes to mind when one thinks of the Bible is a large book containing the various books of Scripture. However, the ancients thought of the Bible as scrolls of Scripture or more specifically the scrolls of the Torah or the scrolls of Naveim, etc. Scrolls were found in the temple and in synagogues for liturgical use in prayer services. Parts of the Hebrew Bible were and still used in daily prayers both in the synagogue and privately; the most famous of such prayers is the Shema Prayer “Listen O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord alone” (Deuteronomy 6:4) which an observant Jew is required to recite three times a day. And though the entire TNK is important to Jewish faith and life, the Torah takes a special role as it is entirely read on an annual basis and is to be studied by every devout male Jew.
There are three major versions of the Hebrew Bible: First, the Masoretic text or MT, the Septuagint or LXX, and the Targums. The Masoretic texts are based on ancient Jewish manuscripts, most of which come from the tenth and eleventh century CE. The Masoretic text is the most widely used text in today’s Jewish world. The second text is the Septuagint which was far more widespread in the ancient Greek-speaking world. It is a translation of the Hebrew Bible to Greek that was commissioned by Ptolemy II Philadelphus, king of Egypt in the first half of the third century CE. Finally, Targums, a translation that paraphrased the Hebrew Bible, spread after the Babylonian exile gave rise to many Jews who did not know Hebrew. Although the most famous Targum is the Aramaic one, any paraphrastic translation of the Hebrew Bible to the congregation’s common tongue may be referred to as Targum.
- Richard Soulen, Handbook Of Biblical Criticism, Fourth Edition, 1st edition (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011), 81–82.
- Soulen, 139.
- Soulen, 207.
- Adele Berlin and Marc Zvi Brettler, eds., The Jewish Study Bible: Second Edition, 2 edition (Oxford University Press, 2014), 2155.
- Berlin and Brettler, 2155.
- Berlin and Brettler, 2155.
- John Collins, INTRODUCTION TO THE HEBREW BIBLE, 1st edition (FORTRESS PRESS, 2018), 3–6.
- Collins, 7.
- Collins, 6.
- Collins, 639.
The Christian world adopted the Jewish Bible as part of its canon under the name Old Testament. However, there are variances between the canons of the different Christian denominations and occasionally within the canons of a single denomination. In this episode, we will explore the different canons of the Old Testament within the major Christian denominations namely: Catholicism, Protestantism, and Orthodoxy.
Across all Christian denominations, the first five books constitute the Torah or Pentateuch attributed to Moses the Prophet. These books are Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. Variations occur in subsequent sections of the Old Testament whether in terms of books included in the canon or the order thereof.
The second section of the Old Testament canon of the largest Christian denomination, namely Roman Catholicism, is known as Histories. It includes the books of Joshua, Judges, Ruth, 1 and 2 Samuel, 1 and 2 Kings, 1 and 2 Chronicles, Ezra, Nehemiah, Tobit, Judith, Esther, 1 and 2 Maccabees. The books of Tobit, Judith and 1 and 2 Maccabees do not constitute part of today’s Jewish Bible. They are perceived by Jews as useful literature rather than scriptural books. The third section known as Poetical or Wisdom books includes Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Solomon, Wisdom of Solomon and Sirach. The last two books, namely Wisdom of Solomon and Sirach, are not parts of today’s Jewish Bible. The fourth and final section is known as Prophets which includes Isaiah, Jeremiah, Lamentations, Baruch, Ezekiel, Daniel, Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi. The only book in this section not found in the Jewish Bible is that of Baruch. Thus far, all the books included in the Catholic canon of the Old Testament and not found in the Jewish Bible have been part of the Greek Septuagint translation of the Hebrew Bible. Whereas Catholics included them in their canon, Jews were content with considering them as useful literature rather than scripture.
The second section of the Protestant canon is known as histories. This section includes Joshua, Judges, Ruth, 1 and 2 Samuel, 1 and 2 Kings, 1 and 2 Chronicles, Ezra, Nehemiah, and Esther. The third section known as Poetical, or Wisdom books include Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Solomon. The fourth section known as prophets section includes Isaiah, Jeremiah, Lamentations, Ezekiel, Daniel, Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi. This is considered the official canon.
Although some protestant Bibles would include an extra section known as the Apocrypha where the books of the Catholic Old Testament not found in the Jewish Bible are included. This section is not however considered part of the official Protestant canon. As such, the Protestant Bible resembles the Jewish Bible in terms of the number of books included in the official canon and the exclusion of the books found in the Septuagint. However, the Protestant canon resembles the Catholic canon as far as the arrangement of the books into sections is concerned.
The Eastern Orthodox canon of Scripture resembles the Catholic canon in terms of the books included and the arrangement thereof. However, some variations are found. For example, what the Catholic canon calls 1 and 2 Samuel and 1 and 2 Kings, the Eastern Orthodox canon would call them 1 Kingdoms, 2 Kingdoms, 3 Kingdoms, and 4 Kingdoms. 1 and 2 Chronicles may be known in Orthodox circles as 1 Paraleipomenon and 2 Paraleipomenon. 2 Chronicles includes the Prayer of Manasseh which is not found in the Catholic or Protestant official canons. The book of Psalms includes an extra psalm rendering the number of Psalms 151 instead of the 150 found in the Catholic and Protestant Bibles. The Book of Daniel includes additional parts such as the story of Daniel and Susanna at its beginning, Bel and the Serpent at the end, and the hymn of the three young men. A third book of the Maccabees is also found in the Orthodox canon. In a way, the Eastern Orthodox canon acts as an expanded version of its Roman Catholic `counterpart given the additional parts it includes.
The Oriental Orthodox Churches are a unique case where the various Churches making up that single communion have variances within their canons of Scripture. For example, the Coptic Orthodox canon largely resembles the Eastern Orthodox canon whereas the Ethiopian Orthodox Church added more books such as the book of Enoch and the book of Jubilees (also known as the Book of Division). Furthermore, the Syriac Orthodox canon, having relied on the Peshitta version of the Bible, included four additional Psalms from 152-155 and an additional book namely 2 Baruch. Despite such variations within the canons of Scripture within Oriental Orthodoxy, all six churches agree in dogma and fundamental beliefs.
- Adele Berlin and Marc Zvi Brettler, eds., The Jewish Study Bible: Second Edition, 2 edition (Oxford University Press, 2014), 2155.
- Berlin and Brettler, 2155.
- Harold W. Attridge, ed., HarperCollins Study Bible: Fully Revised & Updated, Revised, Updated edition (HarperOne, 2017), xxxi.
- Thomas Nelson, The Orthodox Study Bible: Ancient Christianity Speaks to Today’s World, (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2008), xiii.
- Bruk A. Asale, “The Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church Canon of the Scriptures: Neither Open nor Closed,” The Bible Translator67, no. 2 (August 1, 2016): 202–22, https://doi.org/10.1177/2051677016651486.
- Stanley Calvin Pigue, “The Syriac Apocryphal Psalms: Text, Texture, and Commentary” (ProQuest Dissertations Publishing, 1988), https://search.proquest.com/docview/303681574?pq-origsite=primo.
In this episode, we will explore how the early Christian canon of the Old Testament came to be and the debates surrounding it in the early Church. When Christianity emerged, no one thought of it as a new world religion. Instead, Christians saw themselves as the followers of Israel’s Messiah who welcomes Jews and Gentiles alike to His kingdom that is to come. Early Christians read the same scriptures used by Jews in the synagogue, especially the book of Psalms. Given that Christianity was a messianic movement, there was a great deal of focus on the books of the Prophets that were used throughout the New Testament to prove that Jesus is the Messiah. Matthew’s frequent references that begin with “that the sayings of the prophet so and so may be fulfilled” is a testimony of this early Christian attitude shared by other New Testament authors such as John and Paul. Despite the centrality of the prophets to the new Jesus movement, the most frequently quoted book of the Old Testament in the New Testament is either Psalms or Deuteronomy. This depends on whether one is considering direct quotes or allusion to ideas within biblical books.
Though there was quite a clear idea of certain scrolls attributed to Moses and other prophets that were seen as authoritative, there was no canon of Scripture books that the Jews considered authoritative during the rise of the Jesus movement. However, there was minimal consistency about what sections of the Jewish Bible were authoritative and the authority of a few books were debated. Jews in Judea and Israel would have the TNKH scrolls as authoritative whereas Jews in Gentile lands were mostly reading the Septuagint, a translation of the Jewish Bible to Greek commissioned by King Ptolemy II with an appendix of a collection of books originally written in Greek describing the events of Jewish struggle in the second temple period; this collection would later be known as the deuterocanonical (doo·tr·ow·kuh·naa·nuh·kl) books in Catholic and Orthodox circles and apocryphal books in Protestant circles. Quite peculiarly, Samaritans only subscribed to a unique version of the five books of Moses and did not include the scrolls of the prophets or writings in their canon of Scripture.
As early as Paul the Apostle, the place of the Old Testament in general and the law in particular was a matter of debate. Paul the Apostle came to the conclusion that the law is good but that it was incomplete and that the Messiah came to fulfill it. With the coming of the Messiah, there is no need to observe the law by the gentiles. Jews may continue to observe the law, but they must know that they are not made righteous by the law but rather by the Messiah’s righteousness. Despite that, Paul continued to highly regard the Jewish scriptures often directly quoting them or alluding to their themes.
By the second century CE, a gnostic named Marcion challenged the authority of the Old Testament together with all the positive allusions to it mentioned in the New Testament. Eventually, he would create a version of the Bible with practically no Old Testament and a modified New Testament. Opposing him, Irenaeus of Lyons would compose two major works: Against the Heresies and The Apostolic Preaching. Although Irenaeus dedicated more time to defend tradition and provide a list of the books of the New Testament, he did dedicate some effort to retell the story of the Old Testament in the larger context of the salvation narrative in his book The Apostolic Preaching.
By the fourth century CE, a debate arose about which books are to be included in the Christian Canon of the Old Testament. Both sides of the debate believed that it was coherent to include the books which all Jews have taken to be authoritative. However, the deuterocanonical Greek books were a matter of debate as they became part of the Septuagint whereas they did not become part of the Hebrew text. Augustine held the view that these books teach about the relationship between God and the people of Israel in the era after the prophets and thus they should be included in the Christian Canon of the Old Testament. Jerome on the other hand believed that the Hebrew truth was superior. What Jerome meant by the Hebrew truth entailed his belief in the superiority of the Hebrew text to its Greek counterpart and in the number of books included in the Jewish Canon. Where there was a discrepancy between the Hebrew and Greek text, Jerome would also rely on the Hebrew text as he composed his Latin translation known as the vulgate. Eventually, the church would side with Augustine’s view against that of Jerome including the Deuterocanonical books as scriptural. It is important to note that this debate was in the context of whether Jerome ought to translate these books or not. The majority view of early Christianity was to perceive these books as canonical, even with the admission of Jerome.
Until the rise of the Reformation in the 16th century under the guidance of Martin Luther, no one debated the authority of these books since Augustine’s win of this debate.
Today, various canons of the Old Testament exist in the various churches as various schisms, manuscripts, translations emerged. Different Churches might have a different number of Old Testament books they hold as authoritative and even different number of chapters and verses. Interestingly, even a single communion might have a different list of Old Testament books based on geographical displacement rather than a theological dispute.
The Torah or the Pentateuch, commonly known as the five books of Moses, are common to the Jewish, Christian, and Samaritan canons. Throughout this episode, this collection of books will be referred to by the Hebrew name: Torah.
Genres such as narrative, covenants, laws of conduct, ceremonial laws among others are found throughout the Torah. Together, these genres serve to tell the reader the story of the beginnings, the stories of the Patriarchs and Matriarchs, the enslavement and exodus from Egypt, and the life of the Israelites in the desert of Sinai prior to inhabiting the promised land. Certain elements of the Torah such as unexplained repetitions and variations in names of God, historical figures, or geographical locations have engaged the minds of early Jewish rabbis and Christian theologians as well as modern and contemporary biblical scholars.
Early rabbis attempted to clarify these differences by giving a back story that could serve to contextualize discrepancies in the narrative. These creative narratives came to be known as midrash. Christian theologians of the Antiochian school took a similar route as did the rabbis trying to rationalize the narrative as much as possible. For example, how did Cain get married when only Adam and Eve were the first humans? Well, John Chrysostom would suggest he married one of his sisters whom Adam and Eve had after him. Christian theologians of the Alexandrian school like Origen would see in these discrepancies an intentional stumbling block aiming to guide the reader beyond the letter into a deeper sense of es . Other theologians assumed this might be due to multiple sources, authors, or an editor. While some might attribute this to modern scholarship, this claim is far more ancient than what might be anticipated.
Already in 2 Esdras, we hear Ezra saying,
“For your law has been burned, and so no one knows the things which have been done or will be done by you. If then I have found favor with you, send the holy spirit into me, and I will write everything that has happened in the world from the beginning, the things that were written in your law, so that people may be able to find the path, and that those who want to live in the last days may do so.
He answered me and said, “Go and gather the people, and tell them not to seek you for forty days. But prepare for yourself many writing tablets… and you shall come here, and I will light in your heart the lamp of understanding, which shall not be put out until what you are about to write is finished. And when you have finished, some things you shall make public, and some you shall deliver in secret to the wise; tomorrow at this hour you shall begin to write” (2 Esdras 14:21-26).
Briefly commenting on this, Jerome, a fourth century Christian theologian, would say,
“I don’t object either way if you want to call Moses the author of the Pentateuch or Ezra the restorer of the works. What remains to ask is whether this phrase [“to this day,” Deut 34:6], refers back to the ancient period or to the books that were published [when Ezra] put them together in writing.”
Like Jerome, modern scholarship has proposed alternative authorships to Moses. Unlike Jerome, many scholars attributed the authorship to multiple authors or sources. A classic example of their theories is the documentary hypothesis which assumes four major sources for the text of the Torah: First, the Yahwist source or “J” refers to sections of the Torah that refer to God with the name YHWH often translated as LORD. Second, the Elohist source or “E” is the source that utilizes the title Elohim to refer to God. Third, the Priestly source or “P” refers to the parts that are concerned with details such as genealogies, dates, measurements, and cultic ordinances in the temple, etc. Fourth, the Deuteronomistic source or “D” loosely refers to the contents of the book of Deuteronomy. The person or group that would eventually weave all four sources into one coherent composition would be known as the redactor. Though this is no longer the prevagglent view most scholars adhere to, it remained the classical view academics believed to be true for approximately a century.
Whether Jewish, Christian, or academic and whether subscribing to multiple authors, Moasic authorship, or authorship by Ezra, the fact remains that the Torah is complex enough for one to always struggle in understanding its narrative, repetitions, and elaborate details. And regardless of difficulties in the text, it provides a mode of meditating on eternal wisdom that Sirach would identify the Torah with divine wisdom itself saying, “All this [wisdom] is the book of the covenant of the Most High God, the law that Moses commanded us” (Sirach 24:23).
- For more on Midrash and the multiple meanings of this term, refer to Adele Berlin and Marc Zvi Brettler, eds., The Jewish Study Bible: Second Edition, 2 edition (Oxford University Press, 2014), 1879.
- Stephen Westerholm and Martin Westerholm, Reading Sacred Scripture: Voices from the History of Biblical Interpretation(Eerdmans, 2016), 116.
- Westerholm and Westerholm, 86.
- Jerome as quoted in Rebecca Scharbach Wollenberg, “The Book That Changed: Narratives of Ezran Authorship as Late Antique Biblical Criticism,” Journal of Biblical Literature 138, no. 1 (2019): 149, https://doi.org/10.15699/jbl.1381.2019.452918.
- Richard Soulen, Handbook Of Biblical Criticism, Fourth Edition, 1st edition (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011), 101.
- Soulen, 58.
- Soulen, 143.
- Soulen, 49.
- Soulen, 180.
- John Collins, INTRODUCTION TO THE HEBREW BIBLE, 1st edition (FORTRESS PRESS, 2018), 56.
In this episode, we will examine the first chapter of Genesis, the first book in the Torah, dealing with the six-day creation account. Today, we’re going to take a look at how the original recipients of this account might have read and understood it.
The original recipients were likely a group of faithful Jews immersed in the culture of the ancient Near East. While they differed in theological understanding and religious practices, they certainly experienced enough cultural overlap to understand references to common idioms, myths, and pagan gods. Whether one subscribes to the translation “In the beginning, God created heaven and earth” or “In the beginning when God began to create heaven and earth” (Genesis 1:1), the common element is the combination of heaven and earth. In the ancient Near East and in polytheistic settings, if you were to hear of a meeting place between heaven and earth, you would immediately think of a temple as that is the place where the God or gods of heaven dwelt with the earthly. Additionally, polytheistic creational myths entailed a creator god conquering another god (the god of chaos, for example), before becoming able or worthy to create. This creator god would then have a temple erected in his name where his image, often a statue, would be placed in its midst. But in the case of the monotheistic vision of the Israelites, God or Elohim is not fighting anyone nor does He need to show His power through a fight with a false deity. Instead, he creates with sovereignty, using His words to bring order to the place of chaos.
The second verse states, “the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters” (Genesis 1:2). This verse describes the chaos that would often be associated by the polytheists with a war among the gods. The elements of chaos here are not only the obvious “formless void and darkness covering the face of the deep,” but also “the face of the waters.” These “waters” were often associated with the Canaanite god of chaos who would normally need to have been conquered by the creator god. eHowever, the Hebrew word translated as wind here is “rua’h” which can be translated as wind or spirit. At any rate, the God of Israel does not fight chaos. Rather, He sweeps over it with His word without being impacted by it. Already, the God of Israel here transcends the gods of other nations as the narrative unfolds in a way that demythologizes the gods of the surrounding nations.
Surrounding Creation Myths:
Before we delve into the next verse, which details the six days of creation, let us dedicate some time to understanding what one of the surrounding myths might have said about creation. These creation myths shaped the minds of the ancient people in a way that differs from the way we think today. For example, we, as modern people, think that the created order was a vacuum of nothingness. But the ancients believed it to be something more akin to a malevolent force often personified as chaos. A classic example of these myths — which shares some similarities with the opening chapter of Genesis — is the Enuma Elish, the infamous Babylonian epic. Similarities aside, the epic presents the god Marduk as one who attains his supremacy and right to create the world by splitting his aquatic enemy Tiamat in half. Tiamat would appear in the Genesis account in the Hebrew word “tehom” translated as “deep”. Knowing the audience, Genesis 1 insists that the God of the Hebrews is not like Marduk, who has to attain supremacy. Rather, He is the supreme creator who does not need to prove his supremacy by initiating a war. Instead, He embraces the waters through His wind or spirit. Awareness of surrounding myths and polytheistic religions where the sun and moon were worshipped might have been the reason behind identifying them as greater and lesser lights as they were considered objects of worship in pagan culture.
The Six Days of Creation:
The six days of creation are best understood when juxtaposed by theme rather than in chronological order. For example, the first day in which the light is created is mirrored by the fourth day in which the greater and lesser lights are created. Likewise, the second day, when the sky is created by the separation of the waters above and the waters below, corresponds to the fifth day in which the sky and water creatures come to be as in birds and fish. Finally, the third day, in which the land and plants are created, is completed on the sixth day, when land animals and human beings are created. The sixth day—being the culmination of all of creation—is singled out by God declaring that all He has made is “very good,” as opposed to the mere “good,” which is seen in the previous days. Throughout the six days of creation, God is seen creating complementary binaries, including but not limited to: heaven and earth, water above the firmament and water below, land and water, man and woman, etc. The seventh day would come the unique day of the one Lord of Israel, with whom nothing can be compared. The Shabbat or Sabbath celebration is effectively inaugurated through this anaphoric narrative that culminates in the day of the Lord.
|Sabbath – the Seventh day (2:1-3)|
|Day 3 – Land and Plants||Day 6 – Land Animals and Humans|
|Day 2 – Sky (or separation of firmaments)||Day 5 – Fish and Birds|
|Day 1 – Light||Day 4 – Lights (sun and moon)|
Poetry and Liturgy:
Biblical scholars consider the text of Genesis 1-2:4 to be a liturgical poem as it includes repetitions and refrains. This comes from the days mirroring each other, as we just learned. Additionally, each day ends with the phrase “and there was evening and there was morning of a certain day,” which acts both as a divider and a refrain. The fact that ‘evening’ comes before ‘day’ in the refrain is likely a liturgical allusion to the Jewish practice of the day, which begins in the evening rather than in the morning. Christianity would eventually inherit the same practice from Judaism. All these implicit liturgical motifs pale in comparison to Genesis 2:1-3, which “became part of the Jewish liturgy as the introduction to the Kiddush, the prayer over wine to sanctify the Sabbath that is recited before the first meal of Shabbat on Friday night… This passage is characterized by the type of repetition that suggests it might have served in antiquity.” Furthermore, the text of Genesis 1:1 – 2:4 is carefully arranged so that the name of God appears thirty-five times, while the passage dedicated to the seventh day is precisely thirty-five words in Hebrew. Such numerical aspects of the text certainly served the minds of Jews devoted to Kabbala or Jewish mysticism. The liturgical use of this text formed the identity of the people of Israel as the people who celebrate the Shabbat weekly and whose lives are shaped by their allegiance to God, which is expressed by their identity as liturgical beings.
The Human Being:
The creation of the human being is the pinnacle of the sixth day where instead of simply speaking creation into existence, God seems to deliberate what the creation of the human being will entail. God then creates the human being in His image. If you remember, at the beginning of this episode, we mentioned that creation myths often ended with the erection of a temple where the image of the god is a statue amidst the temple. However, the cosmic temple which the God of Israel creates does not consist of the construction of a silly statue; rather, the human being is the best representation of the image of God. To associate the human being with the image of God was by no means peculiar to the Israelite faith, as other cultures would consider Pharaoh the King to be the image of god. The unique element here is that in a way every human being created by God is the image of God regardless of their royal status. The human being is thus given the animal kingdom to rule over as God’s covenant suggests “rule the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky, and all the living things that creep on the earth” (Genesis 1:28). The story of Eve being created from the side of Adam does not feature in this narrative of Genesis 1. Instead, God creates man and woman together and gives them the positive commandment to “be fertile and increase” and “to fill the earth.” Consequently, Jewish law sees in this text a commandment obligatory to Jewish men, but not to women.
The rest of chapter two offers us another perspective on creation, as the relationship between God and the human being puts on a different guise—which is quite telling of the theology of the Israelite religion, as well as the purpose of the human being in Jewish theology, which we will explore in future episodes.
- Jon D. Levenson, “The Temple and the World,” The Journal of Religion 64, no. 3 (1984): 295.
- Father Lawrence R. Farley, In the Beginning (Expanded Edition): A Fresh Look at the Early Chapters of Genesis (Alhambra, California: Sebastian Press, 2019), 26–27.
- Farley, 28.
- Adele Berlin and Marc Zvi Brettler, eds., The Jewish Study Bible: Second Edition, 2 edition (Oxford University Press, 2014), 11.
- Berlin and Brettler, 8.
- Berlin and Brettler, 12.
- Berlin and Brettler, 11.
- Animator is expected to create a table based on this table here as the narrator recites the preceding paragraph.
- John Collins, INTRODUCTION TO THE HEBREW BIBLE, 1st edition (FORTRESS PRESS, 2018), 12–13.
- Berlin and Brettler, The Jewish Study Bible, 35.
- Berlin and Brettler, 12.
- Berlin and Brettler, 12.
Whereas chapter one offers us a liturgical account of creation with God demythologizing the gods of the Babylonian and Canaanite religion, and emphasizing His sovereignty, this account, which begins in chapter 2 verse 4, offers a more intimate version of the creation narrative. In this account, we will see a more detailed description of what being human entails and how the first man and woman came to cultivate their identity in the mind of early Judaism.
At the beginning of this account, we see the clause “When the Lord God made heaven and earth” repeated again, but this time with an important addition: the Tetragrammaton, YHVH or YHWH. The tetragrammaton is the proper and mysterious name of the God of Israel, which is often translated as LORD. This name is to be contrasted with the more generic form “Elohim” simply meaning “God.” God being known by His special name, YHWH, fits with the overall ethos of divine familiarity in this narrative, as God appears more intimate and anthropomorphic (a term referring to describing God and His actions in human terms). For example, God is seen planting a garden which has the tree of life and the tree of knowledge of good and evil in its midst. More importantly, God is seen forming man, “adamah,” in Hebrew, or Adam, from the ground. God even breathes into the nostrils of Adam and brings him to the garden of Eden, which is a name that denotes fertility. Adam is unique, being from the earth while also having been endowed with the breath of life. In a sense, he has an element of heaven, the divine breath, and an element of earth, symbolized by the ground. In a nutshell, if the narrative in Genesis 1 is concerned with heaven and earth as the composition of a cosmic temple, the narrative at hand in Genesis 2 is presenting Adam as a microcosm containing heaven and earth within himself. This narrative can be contrasted with Atrahasis, a Babylonian myth where man is made from clay, and mixed with the flesh and blood of a slain god. As such, he is associated with both earth and the realm of the gods.
In the Genesis 1 narrative, God gives a positive commandment to the first humans, “to be fruitful and fill the earth.” The commandment given in this chapter, however, forbids the consumption of the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil. Regardless, the current narrative could not reflect the commandment of procreation rendered in Genesis 1 as the woman is yet to be created. This narrative also differs in the case of the animals and birds being created as potential helpers for Adam after his creation and that of the garden of Eden rather than before, as is the case in Genesis 1. Adam is then tasked with naming all of the living creatures, but he does not find a partner in the animals. While it might not sound very meaningful to us in our modern age, this text is developing an idea that will be fully realized in chapter 3, with the fall of humanity. The concept of naming in the ancient context was not a mere title, but the bestowing of an identity. Name and identity were so closely linked that whenever someone’s name was changed, ancient readers knew that the identity of that individual would change or develop further. Usually, the person naming is greater than the one being named or renamed. For example, God is greater than Abram (whom he renames Abraham) as the latter’s identity changes and he becomes the father of many nations (Genesis 17:1-8). In this passage, Adam, who is the rational creature endowed with the breath of life, names the irrational animals and birds. This establishes his vocation as a ruler over living creatures and his close affinity with the divine. However, when the woman is created from Adam’s rib, he says, “This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; this one shall be called Woman, for out of Man this one was taken.” Notice how Adam does not say “I call or name her woman;” rather, the sentence is in the passive voice so that Adam is not represented as one having authority over his wife. This would change after the fall where Adam calls his wife Eve (Genesis 3:20) just a few verses after God pronounces the judgement that her husband will rule over her (Genesis 3:16).
This account aims to explain how God intended for the relationship between man and woman to be. It is written that God made a helper for the man from his rib. The fact that she is designated a “helper” does not necessarily imply subordination to the man, but an indication of her role as complementary to that of the man. Man’s desire for companionship with a woman has been considered by a Talmudic rabbi to mean that even if a man has several sons, he is forbidden to be without a wife.
It is impossible to know what the Book of Genesis intended to communicate with the creation of woman from man’s rib, beyond the emphasis that it places on the intimacy between man and woman, as creatures who share the same flesh and bones. This intimacy is, ironically, emphasized in the words of Adam regarding a man leaving his father and mother to be joined to his wife. The irony here is twofold as Adam never had parents, and almost no man in the Hebrew Bible leaves his father and mother to find a wife (although a few find wives after leaving their parents for reasons aside from seeking a wife, as in the case of Jacob). As for Adam and Eve, they were naked and did not know due to their ignorance. Such ignorance can be contrasted with the shrewdness of the serpent that will be end up being responsible for their fall which we will examine in future episodes.
- Adele Berlin and Marc Zvi Brettler, eds., The Jewish Study Bible: Second Edition, 2 edition (Oxford University Press, 2014), 13.
- Berlin and Brettler, 13.
- John Collins, INTRODUCTION TO THE HEBREW BIBLE, 1st edition (FORTRESS PRESS, 2018), 72.
- John H. Walton, The Lost World Of Adam And Eve, 1st edition (Downers Grove, Illinois: IVP ACADEMIC, 2015), 195.
- Berlin and Brettler, The Jewish Study Bible, 14.
- Collins, INTRODUCTION TO THE HEBREW BIBLE, 73.
- Berlin and Brettler, The Jewish Study Bible, 14.
Biblical anthropology begins with the account of creation of man in the first two chapters of Genesis. In the first story of creation, man is the consummation of all creatures after whom God sees everything as “very good” rather than merely “good.” In the second story, man is the first creation signifying his role in creation as co-creator with God being the one who grants animals the fullness of their identity by naming them. In this episode, we will look at how the fathers understood the identity and destiny of the human being in relation to the Creator and the rest of the created order.
Composition in Man
Philosophy was sufficient for many to conclude that the human being is made of parts: mainly visible and invisible; body and soul. This belief was largely aligned with the basic Christian belief based on Genesis 1 and 2. However, diverse views existed in terms of the chronological order of the creation of the body and soul. Some having relied on the arrangement in Genesis 2 where the body is mentioned before the soul concluded that this is the chronological order of their creation. Others relying on their belief in the superiority of souls to bodies were led to believe in the pre-existence of souls. The Church denounced both beliefs declaring that the human being, body and soul, has one beginning in time. The Church’s faith regarding the origin and composition of the human being is best summarized in the words of Gregory of Nyssa,
“But as man is one, the being consisting of soul and body, we are to suppose that the beginning of his existence is one, common to both aspects, so that he should not be found to be antecedent and posterior to himself, as if the bodily element were first in point of time and the other were a later addition.”
The same idea is echoed in Athanasius of Alexandria in his infamous treatise On the Incarnation teaches that the human being naturally has a beginning and end inasmuch as he is made from body and soul. Divine grace is responsible for the preservation of Adam from subjection to corruption and death not that immortality is a natural quality to either his body or soul.
The Image and Likeness
Cyril of Alexandria in the first of his seven dialogues on the Holy Trinity indicates that being on the image of God entails humanity possessing elements of the divine beauty. Humanity is further elevated by possessing the divine breath which Cyril identifies with the Holy Spirit Himself. In Alexandria, it was common to see the image and likeness as almost synonymous notions of describing how the human being reflects God. In a way, it was seen by the Alexandrians as the Scripture’s way of saying that the human being resembles God to the rest of creation.
The Cappadocian fathers were inclined to draw a distinction between image and likeness. For example, Basil of Caesarea teaches that being on the image refers to the superiority of reason which the human being possesses by nature. Likeness, however, is what the human being is called to attain by free choice. If one is to apply the growth from image to likeness to our times, then Basil would content that being a rational human reflects the divine image whereas becoming a true Christian is what constitutes divine likeness.
The Human Destiny
The aforementioned sublime qualities God bestowed on the human being led the fathers to believe the destiny of the human to be a ruling being. As Basil puts it, “First the power to rule was conferred on you. O human, you are a ruling being.” The composition of the human being from soul and body made him simultaneously akin to God and the created world. As such, his rule over creation entailed him being a mediator reflecting God to creation and offering creation back to God in thanksgiving. Prior to the fall which interrupted this harmony between God, creation, and the human being, the state of Adam is eloquently described by Basil of Caesarea in the following words,
“There was a time when Adam was set on high, not in place but by free choice, when, having just then been given life, he looked up toward heaven and became exceedingly glad at the things he saw. He greatly loved his Benefactor, who gave him the enjoyment of eternal life, enabled him to rest amid the delights of paradise, gave him authority like that of the angels, made his way of life the same as that of the archangels, and let him hear the divine voice…”
- Gregory of Nyssa, On the Creation of Man 28.1 – 29.1
- Athanasius of Alexandria, On the Incarnation: Saint Athanasius, trans. Rev Dr John Behr (Yonkers, N.Y: SVS Press, 2012), 57.
- Cyril of Alexandria, ’Hiwar ’Hawl Al-Thalouth “Dialogues on the Trinity,” trans. Joseph Faltas, 1st ed. (Cairo, Egypt: The Institute of St. Anthony, 2014), 15.
- Cyril of Alexandria, David R. Maxwell, and Joel C. Elowsky, Commentary on John, Ancient Christian Texts (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2013), II. ch.1.
- Basil, Nonna Verna Harrison, and Verna E. F. Harrison, On The Human Condition: St Basil the Great (Crestwood, N.Y: SVS Press, 2005), 36.
- Basil, Harrison, and Harrison, 43.
- Basil, Harrison, and Harrison, 44.
- Basil, Harrison, and Harrison, 37.
- Basil, Harrison, and Harrison, 74.
Most of the early church fathers were learned scholars who studied philosophical theories of how creation came to be. It was the work of these theologians to reconcile what they knew about the world from science and philosophy with their theology whenever that was possible. In this episode, we will examine how the early Christian interpreters of scripture understood the relationship between the Creator and the created order in Genesis 1.
The theory of the four elements was infamous in the fourth century when most commentators on scripture were meditating on the book of Genesis. The theory entailed a belief that the elements of earth, air, fire, and water were the first elements created by God and that all things came from them. The prevalence of this theory made it feature in the writings of the fathers though they insisted that these four elements were also created by God. For the early fathers, God creating all things ex nihilo, that is out of nothing, was a matter of necessity.
For many of us, the word nothing implies a mere vacuum. However, for the early church fathers who were immersed in Greek culture, the assumption was that “nothing” was a state of nonbeing since “nothing” cannot exist as an entity of its own. Christian theologians used the doctrine of creation from nothing as an affirmation of (1) God’s freedom and God’s otherness to the world, being transcendent, (2) the world being created from nothing implies its contingency and dependence upon God for both existence and continuity, and (3) there is a gulf between the nature of the Uncreated Creator and the created order.
However, the way the created order came to be was very much an area where divergent perspectives could be sustained. For example, Origen links the “in the beginning” of Genesis with the “in the beginning” of the prologue of the Gospel of John leading him to see that all creation began in and through the Son, the Savior of all and the firstborn of all creation. Taking a more literal approach, Basil of Caesarea sees the beginning as a temporal reality marking the start of creation of the visible order. Basil then reasons that before the creation of the visible order, God created the world of angels with their intellectual and invisible natures for the happiness of all who love the Lord. Whether one takes Origen or Basil’s interpretation to be normative, the truth remains that God began the creation of the world because of His beneficent love.
The Days of Creation
Another area where the fathers tolerate disagreement was how one interprets the days of creation. Are we reading about twenty-four-hour days or are we merely being guided to think of periods of time being called days as a matter of convenience? We find Augustine of Hippo reasoning that these days of creation are in no way the same as the days we are familiar with. Cyprian suggests that each of these days is really a period of thousand years. As for Ephraim the Syrian, he finds no reason to assume anything allegorical about the days of creation yet he takes the liberty to insert the theory of the four elements into the narrative suggesting that God created them on the first day. Finally, John Chrysostom sees in the arrangement of the created order an opportunity to be overwhelmed by the wisdom and love of the Creator,
“It wasn’t simply for our use that he produced all these things; it was also for our benefit in the sense that we might see the overflowing abundance of his creatures and be overwhelmed at the Creator’s power, and be in a position to know that all these things were produced by a certain wisdom and ineffable love out of regard for the human being that was destined to come into being.”
The Trinity as Creator
In addition to the centrality of the world being created by God from nothing, the early fathers highlighted the involvement of all three persons of the Trinity. If the Son and the Spirit are involved in creation since the Spirit hovers over the face of the deep and the Father creates all things by His Word, then both the Son and the Spirit are properly considered divine. This line of thinking served the fathers in the context of the trinitarian controversies of the third and fourth century. The intimacy of the collaborative act of creation is best described by Irenaeus of Lyon’s metaphor that the Father created the world from nothing by His Wisdom or Son and Spirit as one makes things with their two hands. Early Christians believed that God continues to sustain the world and all its creatures by His Wisdom and Spirit.
Convergences and Divergences
The differences among the fathers commenting on the way God created the world did not amount to rivalries. This was largely a matter of opinion and implementation of different exegetic methods, as in whether one is using a literal, spiritual, or allegorical approach to the text. For the fathers, the fundamental questions that could not tolerate disagreement were: Who created the world? Was there anything before the creation of the world? And why did God create the world? A summary of their answers to these questions would be that the Father created the world from nothing by the Son through the Spirit and before that nothing was made that has been made because of His love for humankind. These divergences in interpretation are best described by Augustine of Hippo in his work On Christian Doctrine,
“And if a man in searching the Scriptures endeavours to get at the intention of the author through whom the Holy Spirit spoke, whether he succeeds in this endeavour, or whether he draws a different meaning from the words, but one that is not opposed to sound doctrine, he is free from blame so long as he is supported by the testimony of some other passage of Scripture. For the author perhaps saw this very meaning lay in the words which we are trying to interpret; and assuredly the Holy Spirit who through him spoke these words, foresaw that this interpretation could occur to the reader… [and] made provision that it should occur to him, seeing that it too is founded on truth. For what… more fruitful provision could God have made in regard to the Sacred Scriptures that the same words might be understood in several senses, all of which are sanctioned by the concurring testimony of other passages equally divine?”
In other words, there is room for blameless disagreement given that the explanation provided by different commentators does not amount to an opposition to the fundamental beliefs of the Christian faith. In fact, the Spirit might allow for the inspiration of a text that leads different readers to different interpretations for the greater benefit of the faithful.
- Most of the references and translations of patristic quotes used throughout this episode are retrieved from the Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture volume on Genesis 1-11 edited by Andrew Louth.
- Basil of Caesarea, Hexameron 2.2-3
- Origen of Alexandria, Homilies on Genesis 1.1
- Basil of Caesarea, Exegetical Homilies 1.5
- Augustine of Hippo, The Literal Interpretation of Genesis 4.27; 5.2
- Cyprian of Carthage, Treatise 11:11
- Ephraim the Syrian, Commentary on Genesis 1.1; 1.14.1; 1.15.1.
- John Chrysostom, Homilies on Genesis 7.13
- Irenaeus of Lyons, Against the Heresies, Book 5, 6.1
- Augustine, On Christian Doctrine, Book 3, Ch. 27.
In this episode, we will examine Genesis, Chapter 3 as part of the Hebrew Bible and Jewish faith while taking into account the surrounding ancient Near Eastern culture with its polytheistic connotations.
Chapter 2 ends with the descriptive statement that “And the man and his wife were both naked, and were not ashamed” (Genesis 2:25) which is to be contrasted with the opening verse in Chapter 3 stating that “Now the serpent was more crafty than any other wild animal that the Lord God had made” (Genesis 3:1). The text is already alluding to the contrast between the innocence of the man and his wife against the serpent’s craftiness, which will cost them their presence in the garden of Eden. While we all have an idea of what serpents look like, the serpent here is unique in that it does not begin to crawl on its belly until after God punishes it. As such, it is likely that the image that came to the minds of the original hearers of a walking serpent resembled a dragon as this was the common image of the Babylonian dragon associated with gods like Marduk and Tiamat. However, one must admit that the biblical text does not directly identify the serpent with the dragon god. Jewish and Christian exegetes or interpreters would later identify the serpent with Satan.
Responding to the serpent’s question as to whether God commanded them not to eat the fruit of any of the trees, Eve responds with the original commandment of God forbidding them not to eat of the fruit of the tree of knowledge only although with the additional prohibition against touching it; a prohibition never given by God. Some rabbis saw this addition in a positive light as they saw in it an allusion to the rabbinic principle of adding a protective commandment to avoid trespassing the original commandment pronounced by God. For example, the Lord commands that no young animal is to be boiled in its mother’s milk (Exodus 23:19), but the rabbis would intensify this commandment by forbidding the consumption of any dairy with meat under Kosher laws. Other rabbis saw the addition more negatively as they deemed adding to God’s commandment to be effectively subtracting from it.
After the serpent promises the woman to open her eyes and become divine, the woman’s thoughts go through a fatal progression that ends with the doom of both the man and the woman. Initially, the physical instinct suggests to the woman that “the tree was good for eating.” Moving from physicality to aesthetics, the woman finds the tree to be “a delight for the eyes.” Finally, the temptation culminates in the intellectual aspect as the tree becomes “desirable as a source of wisdom.” Together, the man and woman ate to find their eyes indeed opening and their mind possessing new knowledge though it led to them being ashamed of their nakedness.
Inquiring where they are, God speaks to the primal couple and the serpent to find a chain of blame with the man blaming his wife and the wife, in turn, blaming the serpent. Reversing the order, God pronounces the punishment of the serpent, the woman, then the man. The punishment pronounced against the serpent that it will eat dust is not to be taken literally as serpents do not eat dust. Rather, the allusion here is to the animosity between the serpent and the man made from dust. Simultaneously, the children of the primal couple will strike its head, that is to kill it. The woman is said to desire her husband though she will be subject to him. Some scholars suggest that this happens immediately after God finishes pronouncing His judgment as “The man name[s] his wife Eve” (Genesis 3:20), an allusion to him having similar authority as he once did with the animals, giving her an identity derived from her name. The man is likewise cursed to till the ground from which he was taken until he returns to it through death. Although cast out of the garden with curses and judgments pronounced against them, the final encounter between God and the primal couple is one of mercy with God making garments of skins to cover the nakedness they now feel.
Seeing the new human reality of Adam and Eve, God casts out the primal couple while placing a cherub with a flaming sword to guard the tree of life. The cherub is a supernatural being entrusted with the protection of sacred objects such as the tree of life in this case or the arc of the covenant in the future. The peculiarity of the tree of life made it open to the speculations of Jewish commentators who identified the tree of life with wisdom that remains available to those who grasp it based on Proverbs 3:18. Further identifying wisdom with the Torah, it became obvious in the vision of rabbis that the tree of life is the wise Torah that gives life to those who practice it.
Although the Jewish faith does not have a doctrine of the original or ancestral sin, the status and impact of this episode of disobedience engaged the minds of Jewish authors. Three common positions come from the intertestamental writings, a term referring to writings that did not constitute the Hebrew Bible but influenced people’s minds around the time of Jesus so much that some of these writings became part of the Christian Old Testament canon. One position comes from pseudo-Ezra, who writes, “O Adam, what have you done? For though it was you who sinned, the fall was not yours alone, but ours also who are your descendants” (2 Esdras 7:118). An alternative position comes from 2 Baruch, an apocalyptic text, stating, “For though Adam first sinned and brought untimely death upon all men, yet each one of those who were born from him has either prepared for his own soul its future torment or chosen for himself.”  A third position comes from Wisdom of Solomon, suggesting that “through the devil’s envy death entered the world, and those who belong to his company experience it” (Wisdom of Solomon 2:24).
- Adele Berlin and Marc Zvi Brettler, eds., The Jewish Study Bible: Second Edition, 2 edition (Oxford University Press, 2014), 14.
- Berlin and Brettler, 14–15.
- Berlin and Brettler, 15.
- John Collins, INTRODUCTION TO THE HEBREW BIBLE, 1st edition (FORTRESS PRESS, 2018), 76.
- Berlin and Brettler, The Jewish Study Bible, 16.
- Kristen E. Kvam, Linda S. Schearing, and Valarie H. Ziegler, Eve and Adam: Jewish, Christian, and Muslim Readings on Genesis and Gender (Indiana University Press, 1999), 30.
- Berlin and Brettler, The Jewish Study Bible, 16.
- Collins, INTRODUCTION TO THE HEBREW BIBLE, 77.
- Collins, 77.