Genesis Overview: Abraham, Beginnings

a) Abraham and Sarah in Egypt (12.10-13.1 in J)

"The composition of the Abraham stories begins with a narrative that is offensive and difficult to interpret" (p167), appearing in different contexts in Chapters 22, 26. J inserts the story, somewhat loosely, between 12.8 and 13.2.

12.10: As soon as Abraham reaches the South, Famine strikes, forcing him into Egypt.

12.11-13: Abraham's wife is still young (contrast P in 12.4, 17.1-7), so he passes her off as his sister (cf the tradition that she is his half-sister (20.12 in E).

12.14-20: Matters develop as Abraham anticipated and God intervenes, not to punish him for his lie and betrayal but to save Sarah. He is severely reprimanded and is pulled out under military escort. There is no explanation of details which become trivial beside Yahweh's intervention. Lessons: next to Yahweh, explanations are fruitless; within the overarching story, Yahweh does not allow his promise to miscarry; we must not be diverted by Abraham's moral problem. Compare with Genesis 20. ((VR never explains why the narrative is "offensive", what do we think? - KC))

b) The Separation from Lot (13.2-18)

13.2-7: Abraham's people were not war-like Bedouins but peaceful nomads with small cattle, looking for fertile space with indigenous consent. But large herds need a lot of ground.

13.8-13: Abraham is shown in a good light although he is the elder (cf. 15.1-6;22.1). 13.10 uses narrative to portray the psychological reality. The narrator anxious to show the beauty of the land and the depravity of its peoples. The comparison of Abraham with Lot, cf. 13.1-13, 13.14-18). The narrative in 13.1-10 is "fictional and pre-supposes a connected story of lot's fate: (p172).

13.14-17: This passage expands an older tradition. 13.17 is a legal transaction. Our narrative continues in Chapter 15.

VR indicates no source.

c) God's promise and covenant with Abraham (15)

It is impossible to allocate sources to this chapter, although many scholars think that its opening is the opening of the Elohist (E) narrative.

15.1: The use of vision refers to the prophetic period, foreign to Abraham.

15.2-5: Abraham is hesitant, haunted by childlessness. At the exciting point at the end of 15.5 the narrative breaks off.

15.6: The narrator turns from star-gazing to theology, asserted not described. Righteousness is relational, based on belief, not deeds.

15.7-8: A new opening which the redactor tries to link to previous material.

15.9-12: The two narratives of 1-6 and 7-8 have been in parallel but now the latter branches off into covenant making. ((The division of the animals explains Damian Hurst art works - KC)). The participants curse themselves if the covenant is broken. Uniquely, God is a contractor. The birds may signify the attempts of evil to thwart the covenant. There is a special sleep that deadens all bodily activity but prepares the person for a vision.

15.13-16: These verses are an insertion from E, distinguished by its theoretical spirit from enclosing material, in which: "God's extensive speech ruptures the description of the exciting preparatory events, and by introducing Yahweh in the act of speaking at this point anticipates something of what is to come. "The paragraph refers to the dark stretch of history which is to be experienced by Abraham's descendants before the promise is fulfilled. ... It is 'etiological, ..." (p187), explaining the long-delayed fulfilment, including exile in Egypt; Yahweh had planned it all. Overall: God rules the world; nations ripen for judgment; there is a special plan for his chosen people; God reveals his plans to Israel; they are to be understood in faith.

15.17: The theophany is described realistically but with some reticence; the ceremony is mysterious and silent; it should not be taken to pre-figure Sinai.

15.18-21: The covenant is expressed almost legalistically; the size of the land is the same as it was at the time of Solomon at its greatest extent (cf. 1 Kings 4.21), except for the Southern border with Egypt. 15.19-21 is a late addition containing all that is known at the time about ancient names.

In summary, 15.7-18 is "... probably one of the oldest narratives in the tradition about the patriarchs" (p189), transmitted with great care, dealing with the pre Mosaic cult of the "God of the fathers". Yet the tradition might have been formed late and projected backwards. The division of the spiritual (15.1-6) and the narrative (15.7 ff.) is very clear.

d) Hagar & Ishmael's Birth (16 in H, with P)

16.1-3: Compare this J text with E 21.8 ff; 16.3,15-16 in P. 16.1 a crisp introduction; the problem of Chapters 12-13,15 is not the childlessness but the delay in fulfilling the promise. Sarah articulates the dilemma that life is Yahweh's (cf. 30.2, 33.5; Psalm 127.3). The solution is both customary and legal but one senses that the author thinks it shabby.

16.4-6: Hagar's change of mind threatens Sarah as wife and mistress so she appeals, quite properly, to Abraham to whom Hagar belongs and who is, in any case, responsible for law in his house. Sarah's appeal is none too sympathetic but she forces Abraham to reverse (para 146 of Hammurabi's code reverts such maids who put themselves on a par with a mistress back to slaves). Abraham plays a sorry part in this muddle.

16.7-8: Hagar is far from Mamre at the Egyptian border. The word translated as angel, as in the case of the Greek angelos literally means messenger which can be heavenly or human (the Latin term Angelus is the first to confine the concept as heavenly being). The rare OT appearances of angels are signs of Yahweh's graciousness; there is a conflation of Yahweh and what the angel says in his name. The spectacular appearances of Yahweh in the older tradition was modified to angel.

16.9-14: The designation of warring Bedouin Ishmael seems rather admirable than shameful.

16.15-16: There is no conclusion to the J narrative; it is replaced by two verses of P, 16.15-16 (as well as 16.3) in order to make sense of Chapter 21.

Unusually for J, the account is in no way aetiological but is a dramatic device to "heighten the suspense" (p196). The human attempt to get round Sarah's barren state ends in a complex legal-psychological cul de sac but the author is reticent and simply wants the reader to see and hear. "... A child conceived in defiance or in little faith cannot be the heir of promise." (p196).

KC V/14

Buy this book from

Related Study Sheets…