A book within a book within a book

Written by Blue Pipe Thoughts.

The book of Genesis defies my attempts to turn each chapter into a short sentence. This is because many of the chapters read like books in themselves. Of course the bible itself is not really a single book at all, but a library of books, and I now begin to feel that Genesis is also somewhat like a library of books, so it’s kind of a book within a book within a book…

Creation and Destruction

  1. Gods joyfully creates everything from nothing
  2. The creation climax is Holy Sabbath rest – then we rewind slightly to hear a more human-focused version of creation in the place called Eden
  3. The first humans, Adam and Eve, want more than God has given them and take what is forbidden, so God drives them out from Eden (after making them some clothes)
  4. The first generations of humans find purpose, but struggle to relate to God; causing resentment and leading to murder
  5. A record of sons; beginning with Adam’s son Seth and ending several generations along with Noah’s three sons Shem, Ham and Japheth
  6. Human and divine creatures now live together on the earth, but God is appalled at how violent humans have become and prepares to destroy them all – except for Noah and family
  7. Noah, his family and two of every useful animal survive the flood God sends, floating safely in the ark Noah built (as per instructions)
  8. As the flood waters subside Noah sends bird scouts to check for land, and God promises never to destroy the fertile ground again (despite inevitable human wickedness)
  9. God sets the rainbow as a sign of this promise, meanwhile Noah gets drunk and passes out naked
  10. The clans descended from Noah spread out across the land
  11. God scotches a plan to build a great tower at Babel, and the genealogy from Shem to Terah (Abram’s Dad) is recorded

Abram and Sarai’s Story

  1. After travelling throughout the land that God has promised to his descendants, Abram shelters in hostile Egypt during a famine and ends up selling Sarai to an admirer – but a sickness attacks the man who bought her
  2. After being kicked out of Egypt because of what happened with Sarai, Abram travels across the land once again, finally settling in Hebron by the famous oaks belonging to Mamre
  3. Abram’s nephew Lot gets dangerously caught up in the squabbles of local leaders, but his fond uncle rescues him
  4. God cuts a covenant with Abram – literally – by having Abram cut five animals in half during a sacrificial ritual
  5. Desperate for a child, Sarai regrets arranging a surrogate pregnancy with Hagar; she drives her servant away, but Hagar meets God in the wilderness and returns to tell the tale
  6. Invited into a covenant with God, Abram becomes Abraham, and Sarai becomes Sarah; the son they bear will seal the covenant, which will be signified by circumcision
    (17b Abraham also pleads for Ishmael, his son by Hagar, whom God promises to bless)
  7. Three mysterious visitors announce that Sarah will be a mother in a year’s time (much to her amused consternation); the visitors go on to pronounce doom on Sodom, but Abraham pleads with God for the people there
  8. God finds nothing worth saving in Sodom and Gomorrah, only Lot and his two daughters escape the fiery destruction
  9. Once again we find Abraham selling Sarah into prostitution, once again God saves her by afflicting the bodies and dreams of the people Abraham sells her to
  10. Sarah bears Isaac, the long-promised son; she sends away Hagar and Ishmael now that the ‘extra’ son is not necessary, throughout this Abraham is busy making treaties over local water rights
  11. God tests Abraham by asking him to sacrifice his precious son, but then sends a ram to replace Isaac at the crucial moment
  12. Sarah dies and Abraham honours her by buying a permanent burial plot for her remains – even though the land is offered freely to him

Isaac and Rebekah’s Story

  1. Abraham sends a servant back to his father’s land to find a wife for Isaac, and God guides the man to Rebekah
  2. A record of sons, and sons of sons and then the story of Isaac’s two sons, first-born Esau and younger-son Jacob, who agree to exchange family position (over a pot of tasty stew)
  3. Famine drives Isaac and Rebekah into Philistine land but they struggle to find somewhere to settle, until God guides them
  4. Isaac agrees to give his patriarchal blessing on his son (in return for a pot of tasty stew) – but blesses the wrong son, thanks to Rebekah and Jacob’s scheming

Jacob’s Tribe

  1. To escape the friction caused by the stolen blessing, Jacob runs off to find a wife among Rebekah’s people, meeting God in a dream on the way
  2. Jacob wants to marry his uncle’s youngest daughter, but Laban insists that he wed the elder (Leah) before he can have Rachel, each daughter also provides an additional wife in the form of their female servants
  3. Much scheming for power takes place among the large family; Rachel and Leah use their children to gain stakes, while Jacob uses animal husbandry to trick Laban into gifting him a strong flock of sheep
  4. Jacob wants to return to his father’s land and tries to sneak away, but Laban tracks him down to confront him about the sheep thing
  5. After parting in peace from Laban, Jacob becomes afraid that Esau will not be pleased to see him, so he sends gifts to his brother, and wrestles with God during a night of restless sleep
  6. When the brothers finally meet on the road, Esau is overjoyed and wants Jacob to speed his journey, but Jacob insists on travelling at the pace of the slowest in his household
  7. The story of Dinah; when Jacob and Leah’s daughter is abducted by a nobleman, her older brothers avenge her viciously – even though the man proved more than willing to restore Dinah’s honour and marry her
  8. Jacob establishes an altar on the spot where he dreamt of God, receives the name Israel, and then continues travelling toward the land of his father; on the road another son (Benjamin) is born to Rachel – causing her death – and the final meeting between Isaac and his son eventually takes place at Mamre, where the older man dies
  9. Over time the land becomes overcrowded by the household and flocks of the two brothers, and it is Esau who leaves, establishing a dynasty in the mountains with his three wives Adah, Oholibamah and Basemath

The Story of Joseph and his brothers

  1. Joseph (Rachel’s first son) makes himself unpopular with his brothers because he keep telling them of his dreams, in which he will rule over them; filled with rage they sell him into slavery
  2. The story of Tamar; who used guile to ensure that Judah (one of Leah’s sons) couldn’t deny her rights as a wife, even though she bore him no children
  3. Over in Egypt, Joseph does well as a slave; everyone is attracted to him, including his master’s wife, causing a dicey situation which lands him in prison
  4. Even in prison Joseph is popular, and he also displays a talent for interpreting dreams
  5. After 2 years in prison, Joseph gets the chance to interpret the dreams of pharaoh and, when he predicts how the nation can survive a coming famine, is rewarded by being put in charge of preparing the nation
  6. Joseph finds himself with power over his brothers, who come to Egypt to buy grain during the famine; having plenty of reason to mistrust them, Joseph tests their honesty
  7. At Joseph’s request the brothers go home to fetch their youngest brother Benjamin; on their return Joseph is overwhelmed to see them all, but they still don’t recognise him
  8. Joseph tests his brothers by threatening to make Benjamin a slave when he is framed for theft, Judah offers himself in exchange – for the sake of their father, who apparently never recovered from the mysterious loss of Benjamin’s beloved older brother
  9. The big reveal; Joseph finally tells his brothers who he is, he forgives them for their treatment of him, and sends them home to get their father, Jacob
  10. The whole family relocates to Egypt; Joseph tells Pharaoh that they are just simple shepherds – in the hope he’ll overlook the large number of them
  11. Pharaoh and his priests become very powerful during the course of the ongoing famine, thanks to Joseph’s management
  12. In a deathbed scene, Jacob (now referred to as Israel) gives his patriarchal blessing to Joseph
  13. The final deathbed conversation continues with the naming and describing of the twelve tribes of Israel – according to the characteristics of each of the twelve sons that they are descended from
  14. Joseph gets permission from Pharaoh to return to Canaan to bury his father, and asks his descendants to do the same with his bones one day

Wow – what a mixture of wonderful poetry – and very long, dull lists of names! There were so many details that I had to leave out in order to try and keep some kind of narrative flow. Despite heavy pruning, some of my sentences are still ridiculously long, but I just couldn’t bear to pare it back any further. I had to leave out many fascinating side stories and characters, such as Rebekah’s nurse, Deborah, and the fling between Reuben and Bilhah (his step-mum), and the interesting catalogue of people who got buried in the family plot at Mamre.

It seems clear that these tales have got a little bit garbled in the retelling – surely Sarah in chapter 20 can’t have been offered for sale to another man by Abraham as she was in chapter 12 – aside from anything else she would have been quite an old lady at this point in the story?! As with the repetition of Sarah being sold, stew is apparently used twice to change the fate of Jacob and Esau. Again, this could be a jumbling of stories – or perhaps it was just a really special stew recipe?! I suspect though, that it has to do with the way these ancient stories from an oral tradition were gathered and written down.

In spite of the whole prostituted by her husband thing, I’m struck by the respect shown to Sarah both in her life and after she dies. Sarah is a woman of significant status – to Abraham, to the rest of the clan and to other people that they meet in their journeys. The story of Rebekah becoming Isaac’s wife is a long and romantic one; like Sarah, Rebekah had a high status in her own right before and after her marriage. We also discover that Isaac mourned his mother Sarah deeply and that when he weds Rebekah, they set up house together in Sarah’s tent – which interestingly did not become her husband’s property upon her death. Moving on to the next part of the story with Jacob though, the status of women seems to change for the worse. The wives and daughter of Jacob do not command the respect or seem to be held in as much affection by the men, as those in the generations of Sarah and Rebekah were. They are more often used like bargaining chips in the power struggles between men, and they also get caught up in their own power struggles.

The poem or song which makes up much of chapter 49, describing the characteristics of the twelve sons of Jacob, contains some funny moments: apparently Issachar is like a sturdy donkey (a double entendre perhaps?), Gad is a backstabber and Naphtali is a pretty boy. As well as the funny reference to Issachar, donkeys feature quite heavily elsewhere, their value and well-being seeming to be important. Fondness for animals and respect for women are not features I generally associate with Old Testament books, so this interpretation of Genesis, although it was a challenge to condense, was also a joy to discover and create. And right there is part of the reason for this enterprise – meditating on scripture and enjoying doing so!