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I live in Bedford, England. Having retired from teaching; I am now a research student at the University of Bedfordshire researching into Threshold Concepts in the context of A-level Physics. I love reading! I enjoy in particular fiction (mostly great and classic fiction although I also enjoy whodunnits), biography, history and smart thinking. I have also recently become a keen playgoer to London Fringe Theatre. I enjoy mostly classics and I read the playscripts and add those to the blog. I am a member of Bedford Writers' Circle. See their website here: http://bedford-writers.co.uk/ Follow me on twitter: @daja57

Sunday, 29 July 2018

"The Book of Genesis" by Gary Rendsburg

Rather than being a book, this is a course of lectures accompanied by a course booklet. There are 24 lectures each lasting about half an hour.

In his own terms, Rendsburg is a ‘maximalist’: he believes that “because so much of the Bible has been demonstrated to be historically accurate” its basic historical accuracy should be accepted even where there is no supporting evidence (except for Gen 1 - 11 which all but fundamentalists agree are mythic).

The aim of Professor Rendsburg is to demonstrate that Genesis should be viewed as a single text, with a coherent narrative, which employs some clever (if rather basic to today's authors) literary devices. Some of these 'literary devices' enable him to explain away inconsistencies in the text which seem to make the single narrative theory less likely than the (more commonly held) multiple sources theory. For example, in lecture 20 (on Genesis 37) he addresses the vexed question of who took Jospeh to Egypt? In Gen 37:25 - 26 the brothers see Ishmaelites and decide to sell J to them. In Gen 37: 28 Midianites take J from pit and sell him to Ishmelites. In Gen 37: 36 Medanites sell Joseph to Potiphar in Egypt. And in Gen 39:1 Potiphar buys J from Ishmaelites. But this, says Rendsburg, is not because there were a variety of conflicting sources. No. It is because “the confusion reflects the confusion in Joseph's mind”. It is a literary device. Yeah. Right.

I find this a problem because there is so much of Rendsburg's work that is enlightening and informative but doubts about one part of his work spreads uncertainty to others.

For example, he acknowledges that the problem of the first person plural to describe god has three possible solutions:
  • It is an echo of polytheism
  • It is a reference to angels (but angels a later invention).
  • It is the use of the royal ‘we’.
This third option is clearly Rendsburg's preferred option even though he admits that the royal first person plural is found nowhere else in “all of ancient Near Eastern literature”. It seems to me that to adopt such an option with zero corroborating evidence is to allow an a priori position to colour one's interpretation. 

Again, Rendsburg acknowledges there are two creation stories. In the first God is called Elohim (God) and in the second Yahweh Elohim (Lord God) in second. God creates by saying in first story and by doing in second story The order of creation is plants, animals, man in the first story but in the second it is man, animals, plants. In the first story men and women are created together and in the second story man is first, f and woman is an afterthought. This sounds like two traditions, two sources, merged to me. To Rendsburg it is the same story but the first has a cosmocentric emphasis and the second is anthropocentric.

Other contradictions acknowledged by Rendsburg include:

  • The number of animals of the Ark: one pair of each (Gen 6: 19 - 20) or seven pairs of each pure species and one pair of each impure species (Gen 7:2)
  • Esau’s wives have different names in Gen 26:34 cf Gen 36: 2 -3

The alternative to Rendsburg's account is the (mainstream) JEDP theory which identifies four sources for the first five books (the Pentateuch or Torah):

  • J in which God is called Yahweh
  • E in which God is called Elohim
  • D who is the writer of Deuteronomy
  • P wrote the Priestly bits, eg offering a difference between Levis and Priests as in Leviticus while D thinks all Levites are priests.

Rendsburg rejects JEDP (although accepting P and D are from different worship traditions) because he regards the dating as wrong (Genesis has no Persian loanwords and is therefore probably entirely written pre 550 BCE) and because he sees the narrative as a literary whole suffused with themes such as the younger son triumphant, the weak woman and the deceiver deceived. I can't quite see whu we can't have both: that Genesis was created from a variety of sources by someone who attempted to impose an overall structure with key themes.

Source materials
Some of the source materials from which Genesis might have been written include:

  • The Babylonian Creation story Enuma Elish
  • The Gilgamesh Epic which has multiple parallels with the Genesis flood (see this specific section)
  • The Canaanite epics of Aqhat and Kret which have 'childless hero' parallels with the story of Abraham
  • The Egyptian tale of Two Brothers (c 1200 BC) in which the wife of the older brother attempts to seduce the younger brother and when he says it would be a sin she falsely accuses him of rape has parallels with the Potiphar's wife section of the Joseph story (although Joseph says it would be a sin 'before God')
Pre-Bible sources referred to in the Bible:


  • Exodus 15 is a snippet of poetry using archaic language as is Judges 5.
  • Joshua 10:13 and 2Samuel 1:18 (containing poetry) refer to the Book of Jashar.
  • Numbers 21:14 refers to the Book of the Wars of the Lord (and contains snippets of poetry)

The Joseph story has a distinct Egyptian background:

  • Several Egyptian words in the story eg ‘abrek (“heart to you”)
  • Names are Egyptian
  • Joseph’s father in law is a priest from On city, later Heliopolis
  • Joseph shaves, Egyptian custom
  • Joseph interprets dreams: Egyptian custom
  • Joseph was embalmed after death: Egyptian custom

The literary structure of Genesis

Three main cycles: Abraham, Jacob, Joseph

Abraham and Jacob story have matching halves (eg Abraham cycle has 2 covenant stories, 2 rescues of Lot); second half matchers first half backwards (chiastic structure)

All cycles have a midway turning point (God called Elohim and Abram changes to Abraham, birth of Joseph)

  • Chiasm of Abraham:
    • Genealogy (of Terah)
    • Start of spiritual journey
    • Sarai in foreign palace; Abram and Lot part
    • Abram rescues Lot
    • Covenant with Abram; annunciation of Ishmael
    • Abram becomes Abraham; God called Elohim
    • Covenant with Abraham; annunciation of Isaac
    • Abraham rescues Lot
    • Sarah in foreign palace; Abraham and Ishmael part
    • Climax of spiritual journey
    • Genealogy (of Nahor)
  • Jacob cycle (each matching episode linked with a keyword)
    • Oracle, struggle in childbirth, Jacob born
    • Rebekah in foreign palace
    • Jacob fears Esau, flees
    • Messengers
    • Arrival at Harran
    • Jacob’s wives are fertile
    • Rachel gives birth to Joseph; Jacob decides to return to Canaan
    • Jacob’s flocks are fertile
    • Flight from Harran
    • Messengers
    • Jacob returns; fears Esau
    • Dinah in foreign palace
    • Struggle in childbirth; Jacob becomes Israel

Themes in Genesis
Rendsburg sees these as evidence that Genesis is a unified piece of literature.

  • Rendsburg sees a repeated theme in the Bible of lowly women (who, he says, represent Israel, a relatively powerless state) such as Sarah (lowly when Abraham bosses her around), Hagar (lowly when Sarah bosses her around), Tamar, prostitute Rahab who helps Israel conquer Jericho, Jael who tent-pegs Sisera etc;
  • Theme of the barren woman: Sarah: Abraham took slave girl Hagar, Rebekah (ref Gen 25: 21), Rachel (Jacob takes Bilhah);
  • Theme of the younger son supplanting the elder: Isaac and Ishmael, Jacob and Esau, Joseph and the rest, Judah and his three elder brothers. Also God favoured younger Abel over elder Cain. Also Aaron is older brother of Moses

When was the Bible written?
Part of the argument concerns when the Old Testament was written. Here is Rendburg's take on it.




  • Archaic poetry (c 1150 - 1000 BCE):
    • Exodus 15, some of Numbers 21, Judges 5
  • 1000 BCE - 400 BCE:
    • Genesis to Kings
    • Prophets
    • Psalms, Proverbs, Ruth, Lamentations, Ezra-Nehemiah
  • 400 BCE - 150 BCE:
    • Ecclesiastes, Esther, Chronicles, Daniel (164 BCE)
Rendsburg argues that oblique references to the Davidic-Solomionic monarchy (17:6 God tells Araham “kings shall spring from you”; 17:16 “kings shall spring from” Sarah; 15:18 God outlines boundaries of D-S kingdom; 49:10 “The sceptre shall not pass from Judah”) suggests Genesis written in 10th Century. Furthermore, Israel a confederation of tribes till 1020 BC when Saul became King. The boundaries in Gen 15.18 correspond to David’s (1000 - 965) or Solomon (965 - 930)

Chronology of the Joseph story

  • Egyptian papyrus from late 13th century BC describes a group of semites who arrive in eastern Nile delta with flocks feeling from drought and famine; Egyptians grant them permission to settle.
  • Generally scholars assume Joseph served during Hyksos dynasty (1675 - 1575 BCE)
  • Rendsburg asserts that 'most' agree that Ramses II (1291 - 1224) enslaved Israelites. This, he asserts, means that Joseph’s pharaoh was the previous pharaoh Seti I (1308 - 1291). On the other hand Rendsburg also says that the characters in Exodus are 3 to 5 generations from sons of Jacob suggesting that the Israelites were in Egypt for about 100 years. This pushes back the Joseph story to 1324 or before. 


The Creation
The creation was not from nothing. The earth predates the creation: “The earth was without form and void" (New English Bible); “The earth was formless and desolate" (Good News Version); “The earth hath existed waste and void" (Young’s Literal Translation); “The earth was without form and void" (Revised Standard Version)

Rendsburg says that this gets over the problem of evil. Polytheists can have evil gods but monotheists can't. But if the creation prior to god was evil (and “four of the five key words ... unformed, void, darkness, deep [are] symbolic of chaos and evil (only the wind is not of that ilk) then it can be argued that evil existed before god.

Of course, the second creation story has a different cause of the origin of evil: the eating of the fruit of the tree.

There are also a number of resonances with the Babylonian Creation story. This is the tale of a conflict between Tiamat, evil goddess of salt water, and Marduk, good sky god. “Marduk kills Tiamat and he creates the world out of her body, using the upper part of her body to create the vault of heaven and the lower part of her body to create the earth. The story continues with the creation of the sun, the moon, and the stars, and it finishes with the creation of man.

The Flood (Gen 6 - 8)
Other factors influencing our understanding of the source material include climate. Thus, Egypt depends on the regular flooding of the Nile and Mesopotamia is regularly flooded by the Tigris and the Euphrates. Canaan, however, has no major rivers and is dependent principally on rainfall. It seems unlikely that a Flood story could derive from this.

The Flood story seems to be an adaptation of the Gilgamesh epic. This was a literary classic in the ancient Near East existing in several translations including original Akkadian, Hittite and Hurrian. The Genesis story shares with Gilgamesh:

  • The building materials: wood, pitch and QNYM (probably qanim, reeds)
  • The dimensions
  • The number of decks
  • The order of description of materials then dimensions then number of decks
  • The population
  • The detailed description of the flood
  • The mountaintop landing
  • The birds (in both stories the landing appears before the birds are sent)
  • The sacrifices at the end

The differences are essentially theological:

  • Why the world was destroyed
  • Why a special person was chosen to survive
  • The covenant

Rendsburg asserts that the Flood story derived from the Gilgamesh story (rather than the other way round) because:

  • Flooding is typical in Mesopotamia but impossible in Canaan;
  • Ararat is north of Mesopotamia;
  • The Bible has Abraham coming from Mesopotamia;
  • adding stuff to a story (the theological stuff) is easier than subtracting it;
  • When Noah makes the sacrifice at the end God “smelt the soothing odour” which is a personification of God found nowhere else in the Bible but Gilgamesh Tablet XI line 161 reads “the gods smelled the sweet savour”.

Rendsburg uses this to doubt the JEDP theory because (apart from the discrepancy in the number of animals) the Flood story seems to come from one source. For me, the acknowledgement that bthere is a source for at least one story in the Bible lends credence to the idea that Genesis might be a portmanteau, edited work.

Abraham and Sarah.

On the face of it, these are not the sort of people you'd like to boast of having in your ancestry. When Sarah has a child she insists that Abraham sends his mistress Hagar and her young child Ishmael out into the wilderness so that Ishmael, Abraham's first-born, cannot have a share in Isaac's inheritance. Abraham twice passes his wife Sarah off as his sister thus deceiving other men and bringing down the curse of god on the apparently deceived man rather than on the husband/pimp. Abraham himself is so fundamentalist in his unquestioning obedience to the voice of god that he is prepared to murder his son Isaac because he thinks god has told him too.

Where does Abraham come from? The story says 'Ur' but Rendsburg suggests this is not the city state of Ur from the southern Mesopotamia region but Urfa, a city north of the Euphrates (Joshua 24:3 says Abraham came from “beside the Euphrates” (New English Bible; Rendsburg says “beyond the Euphrates”). This fits with local Urfa tradition, and the route described (through Harran to Canaan), and the homeland from which Isaac's bride comes (Aram-nahairim (Aram of the Two Rivers) Gen 24:10; Rendsburg says this is northern Mesopotamia) and Jacob's wife too (Paddan-aram to Laban’s home (via Harran) Rendsburg says this is also Aram-nahairim; wikipedia locates this as in Harran);
Harran is on the Turkish border, and tablets found there suggest Hurrian customs reflected in Abraham story:

  • Childless men adopted servants as heirs
  • Adopted sons superseded by later-born natural sons
  • Barren wives required by law to give their husbands a slavewoman

There are two odd moments in Genesis in each of which Abraham attempts to pass Sarah off as his sister; at first to pharaoh in Egypt and then to Canaanite king Abi-Melech. In both cases Sarah is taken into the household of the ruler (by implication into the harem) and in both cases the monarch’s apparent adultery (Sarah is married) displeases god and he punishes Pharaoh but only warns A-M, and in both stories the unwitting adulterer is angry with Abraham the deceiver. Abraham’s defence is that Sarah is his half-sister (same father). This suggests that this story is written later than Leviticus which bans incest with half-sisters.

Other interesting things that I learned:
  • Our present system of chapters and verses was “accomplished by Stephen Langton (c 1150 - 1228), the Archbishop of Canterbury
  • Genesis is unusual among ancient literature in that it is written in prose not poetry. But Egyptian religious stories were also prose.
  • Rendsburg distinguishes between the religion of ancient Israel which was monolatry, worship of one god, and religion during and after Babylonian exile which was monotheism, belief in one god. Belief in antiquity involved localised deities (Exodus 7:16 Moses asks Pharaoh that Israelites be allowed to go into desert to worship Yahweh “let his people go in order to worship him in the wilderness”; 1Sam 26:19 David curses men who have “banished me to serve other gods”). Rendsburg suggests that it was the desire to worship Yahweh whilst in exile that changed Jews from monolatrous to monotheistic.
  • Ziggurat figures both in Tower of Babel story and in Jacob’s ‘ladder’ (sullam means ladder or stairway or ziggurat)
  • Yahweh is seen as male. Hebrew language has genders and Yahweh always referred to using masculine nouns, pronouns and verbs. There is a metaphor of God as man marrying Israel as woman.
  • Genesis 1 God prescribes vegetarianism; Genesis 9 allows meat eating (but not blood)
  • Genesis 29:11 is the only place in the Bible where a single man kisses a single woman.
  • Gen 24:2: Abraham tells servant to swear while “placing his hand under hid thigh” ==> touch his testicles: ancient custom: single Latin route for testicles and testify.
  • The phrase ‘we-hinneh’ = ‘and behold’ is used as a literary device to move us to protagonist’s POV.
 This lecture series had had some extraordinarily interesting moments but it was spoiled by Rendsburg's adherence to a minority perspective. Because his arguments failed to convince me I felt uncertain whether what he said was an accurate reflection of the mainstream scholarship on Genesis. For example, there was no discussion of alternative chronologies for either the writing of Genesis or for the events written about. I even felt it necessary to check Biblical quotes ... and of course the varieties of translation cast doubt on any one argument. In the end I distrusted Rendsburg as an unbiased and I was unsatisfied that I understood the state of play of current Genesis scholarship.

July 2018

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