Torah Portion of the Week: When, Where and Why Was Genesis Written?

Parashat Vayechi.

Parashat Vayechi (Genesis 47:28-50:26) marks the conclusion of the first book of the Bible. What is Genesis? We can start by saying what it is not: Genesis is neither a book nor is it first. It is not a separate entity, but rather part of the Pentateuch, which is in itself a complete work. Starting with Genesis and ending with Deuteronomy, the Torah is a book. Because of its length, the Torah had to be written on five discrete scrolls, like Samuel, Kings and Chronicles – all three of which are divided into two parts, but each of which is nonetheless a single book. Genesis is not a book but a volume within a book (regarding this matter and others discussed here, I have relied on an article by my teacher Baruch J. Schwartz, “The Torah: Its Five Books and Its Documents,” which appears in “The Literature of the Hebrew Bible: Introductions and Studies,” a Hebrew-language anthology edited by Zipora Talshir).

Whether Genesis is first is a complex issue. The question “What is the first book in the Bible?” has three meanings. The first concerns the order of the writings in the biblical canon, the second the chronological order of the events depicted. These two categories relating to order do not always overlap. We can ask “Who preceded whom, the Prophet Amos or the Prophet Jeremiah?” The Book of Jeremiah appears in the Bible before the Book of Amos, although Amos lived in the 8th century B.C.E., while Jeremiah was active more than a century later.

In the case of Genesis, the order of the Bible’s books overlaps the depicted events: The story of humanity’s origins appears in the Torah’s opening chapters and the Bible begins with the Torah, due to its importance. But, the chronological question “Who preceded whom?” has a third meaning, as well, related to the order in which the texts were written. The Book of Ruth, for example, describes a narrative that occurs in the era of the Judges, many years before the events depicted in Kings, although the prevailing hypothesis among scholars holds that Kings was written before Ruth.

When was Genesis written, and for what purpose? If we acknowledge that Genesis is not a stand-alone book but is part of the Pentateuch, we must ask such questions as they relate to the Torah in general. Things become further complicated because the Torah, as this column sometimes illustrates, is a single work but not a unified one: It contains redundancies, contradictions, narrative gaps and different styles. This has led biblical scholars to come up with various hypotheses concerning its composition, the common denominator of them being recognition that the Torah is the product of complex, protracted processes of creation, transmission, writing and editing. According to the most comprehensive of these theories, the Documentary Hypothesis, the Torah was created from four intertwined textual sources.

It turns out that not only is Genesis part of the Torah and that, as with its other parts, it derives from different sources. But none of those sources as created in a single day, ex nihilo; each is a literary expression of traditions, customs and stories transmitted orally from generation to generation. Frequently, traditions concerning an event – Creation, Noah’s Flood, Abraham’s journeys, Joseph’s story, etc. – were recorded in various versions, all of which were incorporated into the Torah in general and Genesis in particular. Each of these traditions also has a history, which sometimes precedes Israelite history. Archaeological excavations, for example, have uncovered Babylonian versions of the stories of Creation and the Flood that share prominent characteristics with the Torah’s narratives.

The tales of the patriarchs, which dominate most of Genesis, are set in the Land of Israel – the biblical “Land of Canaan” – and are based on the authors’ and readers’ profound knowledge of the land. Without such knowledge, many details in these tales cannot be understood. It is reasonable to assume that the Torah in general and Genesis in particular were written and were meant to be read by Israelites already securely settled in their land, long after the occurrence – real or mythological – of the events depicted therein. Although this theory contradicts the ancient Jewish belief that Moses wrote the Torah in the desert, that belief postdates the Torah: While the Torah presents God’s words to Moses, it does not claim that Moses himself wrote the entire text.

A famous example cited as proof that the Torah was written in Eretz Israel is found in the depiction of Abraham’s arrival in Canaan: “Abram passed through the land as far as the site of Shechem, at the terebinth of Moreh; the Canaanites were then in the land” (Gen. 12:6). As medieval commentators point out, the statement “the Canaanites were then in the land” indicates that by the time it was written, the Canaanites were no longer present. Thus, Moses could not have written it because, in his era, the Canaanites were still in the land (just as “When Grandma arrived here, the British still ruled the land,” could only have been written when the British no longer were here). Some scholars consider this statement a slip of the pen – as if the author inadvertently discloses at which time he or she was living, forgetting to present him/herself as Moses – and those who believe Moses wrote the Torah must consider it a later addition to the text he authored.

As Schwartz notes, however, the most reasonable possibility is that this is neither a slip nor a later addition, rather that the author had been living in the Land of Israel for many years and was not trying to conceal that fact. On first describing the patriarchs’ settling of the land, the author must remind readers what political reality existed there at the time, so that they can properly understand the tale.

The acknowledgment that the text was written in the Land of Israel and that its authors make no attempt to conceal that fact is the key to understanding Genesis and the Torah: This is the formative Jewish myth that offers explanations, meaning and significance to the Israelities’ existence in their land. In this myth, the patriarchs represent the Twelve Tribes, and the covenant between them and God is a literary expression and a theological explanation of the unique way of life led by those who consider themselves their descendants. Everything that has been said here about Genesis, which now draws to a close, is also the key to understanding the meaning of what happens to the Israelites later, after their journey to Egypt, as will be seen in the coming weeks.

All biblical quotations are taken from the JPS Tanakh: The Holy Scriptures, published 1985.