The Book of Genesis includes both an archetypal history, where characters say only a few words but perform deeds (eating from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, surviving a Flood) that echo through the ages and a psychologically real story of a family in the bronze age. Both histories combine in the story of Joseph, Lord of Dreams (“Ba’al Hahalomot”), who is thrown into a well, sold as a slave, thrown into another pit, elevated as “Father of Pharoah,” and becomes the Savior of the House of Israel. The story of the Lord of Dreams ends in the Tomb. But the story of the Man he points to, after He is put into a tomb, takes an unexpected turn.
The Cosmic Drama
Rather, for ancient readers, the most accessible part of Genesis seems to have been the first part, the archetypal drama. The pattern is the same — failed rebellion, and consequences — through the end can differ. These stories are told over a mythic past that may not be the same as a calendar-driven chronology. From the human fall,
to the social fall, with the LORD mercifully giving Cain a mark of protection:
And the LORD said to Cain
Why are you incensed,
and why is your face fallen?
For whether you offer well,
or other you do not
at the tent flap sin crouches
and for you it is longing
but you will rule over it.
And Cain said to Abel his brother, “Let us go out to the field.”
And when they were in the field, Cain rose against Abel his brother, and killed him.
And the LORD said to Cain, “Where is Abel your brother?”
And he said, “I do not know. Am I my brother’s keeper?
And He said, “What have you done? Listen! Your brother’s blood cries out to me from the soil. And so, cursed shall you be by the soil that gaped with its mouth to take your brother’s blood from your hand. If you till the soil, it will no longer give you its strength. A restless wanderer shall you be on the earth.”
And Cain said to the LORD, “My punishment is too great to bear. Now that You have driven me this day from the soil I must hide from Your presence, I shall be a restless wanderer on the earth, and whoever finds me will kill me.”
And the LORD said to him, “Therefore whoever kills Cain shall suffer seven-fold vengeance” And the LORD set a mark upon Cain so that whoever found him would not slay him.
to the angelic fall, a story in which both men (The offspring of purely human mating) and Nephilim (the offspring of humans and Sons of God) survive the catastrophic flood, at least in part:
And it happened as humankind began to multiply over the earth and daughters were born to them, that the sons of God saw that the daughters of man were comely , and they took themselves wives howsoever they chose. And the LORD said, “My breath shall not abide in the human forever, for he is but flesh. Let his days be a hundred and twenty years.”
The Nephilim were then on the earth, and afterward as well, the sons of God having come to bed with the daughters of man who bore them children: they are the heroes of yore, the men of reknown. And the LORD saw the evil of the human creature was great ont he earth, and that every scheme of his heart’s devising was only perpetually evil.
And God said to Noah, “The end of all flesh is come before Me, for the earth is filled with outrage by them, and I am now about to destroy them, with the earth… As for Me, I am about to bring the Flood, water upon the earth, to destroy all flesh that has within it the breath of life from under the heavens, everything on the earth shall perish. And I will set up My covenant with you, and you shall enter the ark, you and your sons and your wife and the wives of your sons, with you. And from allt hat lives, from all flesh, two of each thing you shall bring to the ark to keep alive with you, male and female they shall be.”
to the political fall (but again surviving the fall, “over all the earth”)
And they aid, “Come let us build a city and a tower with its top in the heavens, that we may make us a name, lest we be scattered over all the earth. And the LORD came down to see the city and the tower that the human creatures had built.
And the LORD said, “As one peoples with one language for all, if this is what they have begun to do, now nothing they plot to do will elude them. Come, let us go down and baffle their language sthere so that they will not understand each other’s language.”
And the LORD scattered them from there over all the earth and they left off building the city. Therefore it is called Babel, for there the LORD made the languages of all the earth babble. And from there the LORD scattered them over all the earth.
This universal lesson is told, over and over again, in different schematic imagery. The same Author (or “Editor”, or “Redactor”) is hammering this lesson in. It’s striking that the psychological dimension of this is the one most ignored by ancient authors, though (to me, at least) leaves the deepest impression.
The Human Interior
This is my third time reading Genesis, and the second time reading Robert Alter’s translation. It’s also the first time I read Genesis after discovering the ancient genre of the re-written Bible that covered much of the same material, such as Enoch, Jubilees, and the Qur’an. With this background, two things are striking:
The psychological realism in the stories of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, has no parallel in any of these other sources. The majestic view of creation was re-described by many ancient authors based on the text of Genesis. Consider for example Jacob’s failed theft of Esau’s inheritance. Isaac had intended to bless Esau with an inheritance, which Jacob defrauds Isaac into legally giving to him. Jacob calculated — wrongly – that Isaac and Esau would sacrifice the clear intent of the blessing in favor of tribal legalism. Instead, Isaac strongly hints that Esau needs to legally “rebel” or be legally a “servant” – which Esau only has to threaten to do for Jacob to get the message and get out:
And [Isaac] said, “Your brother has come in deceit and has taken your blessing.
By your sword shall you live
and your brother shall you serve
And when you rebel
you shall break off his hoke from your neck.
And Esau seethed with resentment against Jacob over the blessing his father had blessed him, and Esau said in his heart, “And soon as the time for mourning my father comes round, I will kill Jacob my brother.”
And Rebekah was told the words of Esau her elder son, and she sent and summoned Jacob her younger son and said to him, “Look, Esau your brother is consoling himself with the idea he will kill you. So now, my son, listen to my voice, and rise, flee to my brother Laban and Haran.”
Rebekah’s proposal of exile for Jacob is seen as a fitting punishment, though Isaac (both judge and gracious victim) modifies it to a mission for matrimony — a mission/exile that Isaac’s brother-in-law Laban (presumably as part of an understanding from Isaac) will extend for two decades:
And Isaac summoned Jacob and blessed him and commanded him and said to him, “You shall not take a wife from the daughters of Canaan. Rise, go to Paddan-Aram to the house of Bethuel your mother’s father, and take you from there a wife from the daughters of Laban, your mother’s brother. And may El Shaddai bless you and make you fruitful and multiply, so you become an assembly of peoples.”
Very few of the ancient writers (perhaps other than the author of Samuel) has the same sense of interior drama. The reader feels the fear of Jacob as the brother he swindles comes at him with a military formation,
a feeling that’s re-iterated as (despite any promise) Jacob’s procession is also arranged that, if Esau attacks his family, at least he and his wife and favorite children can escape:
And Jacob raised his eyes and saw and, look, Esau was coming, and with him were four hundred men. And he divided the children between Leah and Rachel, and between the two slave girls. And he placed the slave girls and their children first, and Leah and her children after them, and Rachel and Joseph last.
The bravery, and desperate hope, of Jacob’s approach:
And he passed before them, and bowed to the ground seven times until he drew near his brother.
The joy of Esau, at his rebellious and tricky brother coming back from far away… And the damage — the formality of Jacob’s reply — knowing the damage he did to Isaac and Esau in his failed usurpation, and not knowing how to repair it.
And Esau ran to meet him and embraced him and feel upon his neck and kissed him, and they wept. And he raised his eyes and saw the women and the children and he said, “Who are these with you?”
And he said, “The children with whom God has favored your servant.”
Even if Esau is graceful:
And Esau said, “I have much, my brother. Keep what you have.”
The Story of Joseph
All of these threads — the seemingly dark ending, the psychological realism, and archetypal reality, are combined int he Story of Joseph. The archetypal reality, the “Dreams,” is tied in so deeply to externally unfolding events (and reflect so well Joseph’s own beliefs and feelings), and are even commented on by other characters, that they are as real as any other part of the narrative.
And [Joseph] dreamed yet another dream and recounted it to his brothers, and he said, “Look, I dreamed a dream again, and, look, the sun and the moon and eleven stars were bowing to me.”
And he recounted it to his father and to his brothers, and his father rebuked him and said to him, “What is this dream that you have dreamed? Shall we really come, I and your mother and your brothers, to bow before you to the ground?”
The archetypal and psychological worlds collide even in the term Josephs’ brother use for him — dream master — in Hebrew, Ba’al Hahalomot, with Joseph sarcastically given Lordship over the transcarnate realm, and the archetypal pit and beast introduced into Joseph’s earthly reality:
And they said to each other, “Here comes that dream-master [Ba’al Hahalomot]! And so now, let us kill him and fling him into one of the pits and we can say, “a vicious beast has devoured him, and we shall see what will come of his dreams.”
And Joseph’s Lordship of dreams, his control over the unseen realm, extends beyond receiving them as well. He can also “read” dreams of others:
And [Joseph] asked Pharaoh’s courtiers who were with him under guard in his lord’s house, saying “Why are your faces downcast today?”
And they said to him, “We dreamed a dream and there is no one to solve it.” And Joseph said to them, “Are not solutions from God? Pray, recount them to me.”
And the chief cup-bearer recounted his dream to Joseph and said to him, “In my dream — and look, a vine was before me. And on the vine were three tendrils, and as it was budding, its blossom shot up, its clusters ripened to grapes.” And Pharaoh’s cup was in my hand. And I took the grapes and crushed them into Pharaoh’s cup and I placed the cup in Pharaoh’s palm.”
And Joseph said, “This is its solution. The three tendrils are three days. Three days hence Pharaoh will lift up your head and restore you to your place, and you will put Pharaoh’s cup in his hand, as you used to do when you were his cup-bearer. But if you remember I was with you once it goes well for you, do me the kindness, pray to mention me to Pharaoh and bring me out of this house.”
Joseph’s uncanny power “from God” and the intertwined world of archetype and physicality is even punned on by Joseph. He uses a pun in Hebrew that works in English as well – when his Chalice is stolen, he asked if he was not a man who could “divine” it — he both used the Chalice for bridging the seen and unseen realm, but seemingly had no need of it, either. The scene is a show of perfect contrition, as Joseph’s brothers (and once slavers) now cannot imagine the cruelty of bringing their father news of a sibling’s death. They also unwittingly answer Jacob’s question of if he would really bow down to Joseph: yes, for he is referred to as Joseph’s “servant”:
[Judah said, ] “And we said, ‘We cannot go down. If our youngest brother is with us, we shall go down. For we cannot see the face of the man if our youngest brother is not with us.’ And your servant, our father, said to us, “You know that two did my wife bear with me. And one went out from me and I thought, O, he’s been torn to shreds, and I have not seen him since. And should you take this one, too, from my presence and harm befall him, you would bring down my gray head in evil to Sheol.’ And so, should I come to your servant, my father, and the lad not be with us, he would die, and your servants would bring down the gray head of your servant, our father, in sorrow to Sheol. For your servant became a pledge for the lad to my father, saying ‘If I do not bring him to you, I will bear the blame to my father for all time.’ And so, let your servant, pray, stay instead of the lad as a slave to my lord, and let the lad go up with his brothers. For how shall I go up to my father, if the lad be not with us? Let me see not the evil that would find our my father!”
A Type of Savior
Genesis culminates in the story of Joseph, and Joseph resembles no-one so much as Christ
Between the Creation of the world:
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through Him, and without Him nothing was made that was made. In Him was life, and the life was the light of men. And the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not comprehend it.
and the burial of Jesus:
Then they took the body of Jesus, and bound it in strips of linen with the spices, as the custom of the Jews is to bury. Now in the place where He was crucified there was a garden, and in the garden a new tomb in which no one had yet been laid. So there they laid Jesus, because of the Jews’ Preparation Day, for the tomb was nearby.
the rejection by his brothers:
After these things Jesus walked in Galilee; for He did not want to walk in Judea, because the Jews sought to kill Him. Now the Jews’ Feast of Tabernacles was at hand.
His brothers therefore said to Him, “Depart from here and go into Judea, that Your disciples also may see the works that You are doing. For no one does anything in secret while he himself seeks to be known openly. If You do these things, show Yourself to the world.”
For even His brothers did not believe in Him.
and the intertwined world of the archetypal and the chronological, from seeing
Nathanael said to Him, “How do You know me?”
Jesus answered and said to him, “Before Philip called you, when you were under the fig tree, I saw you.”
Nathanael answered and said to Him, “Rabbi, You are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!”
Jesus answered and said to him, “Because I said to you, ‘I saw you under the fig tree,’ do you believe? You will see greater things than these.”
And He said to him, “Most assuredly, I say to you, hereafter you shall see heaven open, and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.”
Jesus likewise was able to divine, without a chalice
Now when He was in Jerusalem at the Passover, during the feast, many believed in His name when they saw the signs which He did. But Jesus did not commit Himself to them, because He knew all men, and had no need that anyone should testify of man, for He knew what was in man.
Or with one:
Jesus answered, “It is he to whom I shall give a piece of bread when I have dipped it.”
And having dipped the bread, He gave it to Judas Iscariot, the son of Simon. Now after the piece of bread, Satan entered him.
Then Jesus said to him, “What you do, do quickly.” But no one at the table knew for what reason He said this to him. For some thought, because Judas had the money box, that Jesus had said to him, “Buy those things we need for the feast,” or that he should give something to the poor.
It was to the advantage of both the brothers of Joseph and the friends of Jesus that he left:
And Joseph said to his brothers, “Come close to me, pray,” and they came close, and he said, “I am Joseph, your brother whom you sold into Egypt. And now, do not be pained and do not be incensed with yourselves that you sold me down here, because for sustenance God has sent me before you.
Two years now there has been famine in the heart of the land, and there are yet five years without plowing and harvest
And God has sent me before you to make you a remnant on earth and to preserve life, for you to be a great surviving group. And so, it is not you who sent me here but God, and He made me father to Pharaoh and lord of all his house and ruler over all the land of Egypt.
“But now I go away to Him who sent Me, and none of you asks Me, ‘Where are You going?’ But because I have said these things to you, sorrow has filled your heart. Nevertheless, I tell you the truth. It is to your advantage that I go away; for if I do not go away, the Helper will not come to you; but if I depart, I will send Him to you. And when He has come, He will convict the world of sin, and of righteousness, and of judgment: of sin, because they do not believe in Me; of righteousness, because I go to My Father and you see Me no more; of judgment because the ruler of this world is judged.
“I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. However, when He, the Spirit of truth, has come, He will guide you into all truth; for He will not speak on His own authority, but whatever He hears He will speak; and He will tell you things to come. He will glorify Me, for He will take of what is Mine and declare it to you. All things that the Father has are Mine. Therefore I said that He will take of Mine and declare it to you.
Joseph is terser:
And Joseph hurried out, for his feelings for his brothers overwhelmed him and he wanted to weep, and he went into the chamber and wept there.
And he bathed his face and came out and held himself in check and said, “Serve bread.”
And they served him and them separately and the Egyptians who were eating with him separately, for the Egyptians would not eat bread with the Hebrews, as it was abhorrent to Egypt.
Perhaps the best example of Christ and food. As St Augustine recognized, chronology and archetype are blended here:
One of His disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, said to Him, “There is a lad here who has five barley loaves and two small fish, but what are they among so many?”
Then Jesus said, “Make the people sit down.”
Now there was much grass in the place. So the men sat down, in number about five thousand. 11 And Jesus took the loaves, and when He had given thanks He distributed them to the disciples, and the disciples to those sitting down; and likewise of the fish, as much as they wanted.
So when they were filled, He said to His disciples, “Gather up the fragments that remain, so that nothing is lost.”
Therefore they gathered them up, and filled twelve baskets with the fragments of the five barley loaves which were left over by those who had eaten.
combining archetypal and chronological reality is his command to eat of my flesh, which is both a foundational aspect of the Christian tradition since ancient times, something that really and truly happened both then and now, and also exactly as controversial and hard to understand now as then:
Then Jesus said to them, “Most assuredly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you have no life in you. Whoever eats My flesh and drinks My blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day. For My flesh is food indeed, and My blood is drink indeed. He who eats My flesh and drinks My blood abides in Me, and I in him
From that time many of His disciples went back and walked with Him no more. Then Jesus said to the twelve, “Do you also want to go away?”
The First Book of the Bible begins with God, and the Spirit (Breath) of God:
When God began to create heaven and earth, and the earth then was welter and waste and darkness over the deep and God’s breath hovering over the waters, God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light.
Creating the Imagers of God:
And God created the human in his image
in the image of God He created him,
male and female He created them
It ends with the death of Israel:
And Joseph charged his servants the physicians to embalm his father, and the physicians embalmed Israel.
and the Tomb:
And Joseph died, a hundred and ten years old, and they embalmed him and he was put in a coffin in Egypt.
But the Tomb is not the end of the story. The amazing and unprecedented part of the Gospel is what happens after He is placed in a tomb:
Now the first day of the week Mary Magdalene went to the tomb early, while it was still dark, and saw that the stone had been taken away from the tomb. Then she ran and came to Simon Peter, and to the other disciple, whom Jesus loved, and said to them, “They have taken away the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid Him.”
Now when she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, and did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you seeking?”
She, supposing Him to be the gardener, said to Him, “Sir, if You have carried Him away, tell me where You have laid Him, and I will take Him away.”
Jesus said to her, “Mary!”
She turned and said to Him, “Rabboni!” (which is to say, Teacher).
I read Genesis in Robert Alter’s translation of The Hebrew Bible.