Hebrew Bible: Genesis Through Numbers

I had originally planned to write one post about each of the traditional groups of books in the Hebrew Bible: The Law, The Prophets, and the Writings. As I read, however, I realized that this is not the most natural grouping. Therefore, this first post will concentrate on the first four books, of the five which make up the Law and also known as the Torah to Jews and the Pentateuch to Christians.

Most of the current arrangement of the Hebrew Bible is a result of the scroll-based book technology on which it was stored. Long scrolls are unwieldy, so the Hebrew Bible was divided into “books” which would fit on a standard 30-foot scroll.  Also, it was common practice to store the scrolls in clay jars and it was convenient to have one jar for “Law” books, one for “Books by Prophets”, and so forth. This traditional organizational scheme was retained even after the Bible began to be written on codex-type books with pages.

One of the Clay Pots Used to Store the Dead Sea Scrolls

One of the Clay Pots Used to Store the Dead Sea Scrolls (Dale Gillard [CC BY 2.5] via Wikimedia Commons)

Even though they take up three scrolls, however, it is fairly clear that the books of Genesis, Exodus and Numbers are essentially a single, continuous work. Leviticus is a closely related, but separate work; even though the author places it within the same time-line as the other books by adding the introductory words “And the lord spoke to Moses saying:” at the start of each section, it is really not a narrative work at all so much as a ritual handbook for the priesthood.

Deuteronomy, while it is presented as Moses’ last speech to his followers, is actually the prelude for a completely new series of books, a national history which follows the Hebrew people from the initial invasion of Canaan, though the golden age of King Solomon, to the final conquest of the promised land by Babylon. Deuteronomy sets out the major theme for the rest of the story, which is basically “As long as the people remain holy and follow the law they will be rewarded with peace and prosperity, but as soon as they transgress punishment will result.” I will be writing about this Deuteronomistic history in my next post. For now, however, I will return to the other four books of the Law.

The Genesis-Exodus-Numbers cycle and the book of Leviticus were compiled at a time after the promised land had been conquered by the empire of Babylon. The Babylonian government prevented a possible insurgency by deporting the priests and aristocrats of Judah to other parts of the empire. In a semi-literate society, the elite are the main preservers and transmitters of culture. After they were removed, the native Hebrew culture was in danger of dying out. Meanwhile the upper-class Hebrews, living abroad, were at risk of being assimilated and adopting foreign ways. With the old verbal traditions imperiled, it became imperative to create a single, definitive version of the Jewish origin story and to write down as many of their key customs and rituals as possible.

The project was a remarkable success. There is no question that the existence of the Torah is one of the key factors which have allowed the Jewish people to retain their unique cultural identity throughout history. According to Edgar Schein, MIT Sloan’s famous Organizational Behavior scholar, culture is made up of artifacts, values, and assumptions. All three of these are recorded in the Torah. Artifacts are behaviors and physical objects which are observable to outsiders.   Examples of behaviors would be the cleanliness laws (Lev 11-18) and the rituals of the Levite priesthood. Examples of physical objects are the furniture of the Holy of Holies (Ex 25-27) or a special hair style (Lev 19:27). Deeper and more important  than artifacts are values, such as the sanctity of marriage (“Thou shalt not covet your neighbor’s wife.”, Ex 20:17) or proportionate punishment for crimes (“An eye for and eye and a tooth for a tooth” Ex 21:22). Deepest and most important are assumptions, such as the idea that God created mankind in his own image (Gen 1:26). By identifying and codifying all of these, the Torah provides a static snap-shot of Hebrew culture in the 6th century BCE, a fundamental baseline reference for all future Judaic culture.

In fact, some noted historians, particularly Arnold Toynbee, have suggested that Judaic culture never changed appreciably after this time. In A Study of History, Toynbee refers to the Jews as a “fossil society”. Toynbee probably should have chosen a more politic terminology; generations of writers have taken offense at the term and accused him of antisemitism. All he really meant was that the Jews, who 2600 years ago were one culture among numerous, relatively similar, Semitic cultures, have managed maintain their cultural integrity millennia after their neighboring cultures have become extinct or been assimilated into other civilizations.

So, having looked at why the books were written, let me turn to the story that they contain. I am, after all, a writer, so stories are my primary interest.

Genesis begins with two creation stories, then the story of the flood. In broad terms, these are similar to other surviving mythology which we have from the near and mid-east. Compare, for instance, the flood narrative in the Babylonian Epic of Gilgamesh, or the mythical battle between Marduk and Tiamat, which has echoes in the incident with the serpent (i.e. Tiamat) in Eden (Gen 3). Then, towards the end of Genesis 11, the book introduces Abram, who is herding sheep in Mesopotamia, where these myths come from. Abram, later known as Abraham,is the ancestor of all the Israelites. From this point on, the story follows his descendants from one generation to another.

The story itself is quite interesting from a historic point of view, even though we must make allowances for bias and the fact that the goal of whoever edited together to book was more to foster a sense of Jewish identity than to lay out an accurate historical account.

In the life of Abraham’s grandson Jacob his descendent, now an extended family of 70, emigrate to Egypt to become what we would now call guest workers. They are able to get permission to settle there because Jacob’s son Joseph has obtained a plum position in the Egyptian bureaucracy. They stay there for several generations, breeding prodigiously after the fashion of the poor everywhere. As time goes on, the narrative begins to describe them as slaves. Even today, in much of the world, the distinction between guest workers and slaves is often a blurry one.

Eventually relations between the Israelites and the Egyptian government deteriorate and they leave, either because labor conditions in Egypt had become intolerable, or because the Egyptians force them out. Probably, the political situation was complicated and messy and both sides were glad to see the last of each other. The Bible is only the Hebrew side of the story. The Egyptians of the time, while they kept extensive written records, were less interested in writing about what we would call “current events”. The first Egyptian work that mentions the episode at all was written at a much later period by the priest Manetho. All we have is a paraphrase of it as cited by the Roman historian Josephus from the first century C.E.. According to this account, the Hebrews were living in poverty and squalor when an epidemic had broken out among them. The Egyptians evicted them from the country because the plague was beginning to spread to the natives. Moses was an Egyptian priest who went among them to teach them rules of Hygiene and cleanliness modeled on those of the Egyptian priesthood.

Moses and Aaron Before Pharaoh

Moses and Aaron Before Pharaoh (Benjamin West [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

The biblical account, on the other hand, is that the Hebrews were oppressed by the Egyptians, who resented the incredible fertility granted under the terms of their covenant with God. Moses, an Israelite spokesman, created the plagues to force the Pharaoh to let them go. Perhaps in reality some elements of both stories are probably true.

Whatever actually happened in Egypt, the Hebrews migrate into the Syrian desert. During this period, Moses receives the Law from God and the narrative begins to be interspersed with passages of law. After living in the desert for 40 years, the Israelites have bred and trained enough fighting men to surge forth from the wilderness and overwhelm several small cities on the East bank of the Jordan River. The story in the Torah ends with the Israelite horde preparing to cross the river and invade the country of Canaan, under their leader Joshua. In my next post, I will talk about what happened after they crossed the Jordan and conquered their promised land.


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