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The Book of Genesis

The Book of Genesis is the first book of the Bible, of the Old Testament. It starts explaining the creation of the universe, as we know it. Adam and Eve were the first humans but they were deceived into eating from the Tree of Knowledge. God had forbidden touching this tree that he had planted in the middle of the Garden of Eden. The act brought the first humans’ fall, their expulsion from paradise. Hence they would be mortals and from then on starts the history of the human race as explained by the tradition of the Hebrew people. Here as stories as told over centuries by wandering poets and tellers, who recall the old tales over campfire in the evening. These stories form the tradition of a people that cared about its origins, its history and that was avid for explanations of why the world was as they perceived. Why were there humans, why were humans mortal, why were there languages and different kinds of people? Venerated stories were repeated and accepted as universal truths by generations.

Genesis talks about the brother feud between Cain and Abel and of the birth of Seth, last son to Adam and Eve. The descendants of Cain and of Seth are enumerated in an attempt to explain the various people in the known world of the Hebrews. The enumeration goes until the flood came. The story of the great flood that destroyed the world is Noah’s story. Noah was the only to survive in the arch with his family and a small selection of all the animals. These stories have reverberations far into the memories of the people of the Tigris and Euphrates region.

With Noah the Book of Genesis tells of the first covenant of God with humans. Yahweh promised to Noah, the just, never to flood the earth again and as a sign of the covenant he drew the rainbow in the skies. The chapter on Noah contains again an enumeration of descendants. Now the list includes potentates and kings of the lands. One of these built the tower of Babel. God destroyed the tower because he saw that humans could do anything they put their mind to. But God created confusion by inventing the different languages. The tale of the tower of Babel is a masterpiece of folklore explanation of the existence of various languages. This was but one explanation of a puzzling fact of life. How many other tales of observation by the people on the strangeness and diversity of their world were lost?

One feels that the stories of the Book of Genesis try to explain anomalies of the world. Why was Egypt a land ruled by only one king? Joseph’s story explains in Hebrew terms and in Hebrew origins the united state. There was a famine in Egypt but Pharaoh through Joseph was prepared for it. Joseph gave food for money. When the money was gone he gave food for livestock and then land for grain and cattle. Thus, the whole country came into Pharaoh’s possession and Egypt became the land of one king, contrary to the political organisation of the Mesopotamian city-states with its various peoples living in the lands of Euphrates and Tigris where also the Hebrews originated. Only the lands of the priests did not go to Pharaoh. Was it priests that wrote the Book of Genesis? Other narratives tried to explain the diversity of the races that lived in the land of the Hebrews. The existence of two major races in Canaan was explained as the descendants of Isaac. Jacob became Israel and the Arabs descended from Ishmael and were consistently called Ishmaelites in Genesis. Many other stories like these must have existed but were probably not recorded in the Bible. The pieces that have come to use are all the more precious because we feel clearly the eager for understanding of the world by an inquisitive people.

The Book of Genesis testifies to at least a double tradition of narratives brought together in it. At least two traditions are intermixed in Genesis. Remnants of these remain in the Bible stories. In the chapter on Joseph’s life, Joseph was sold to Ishmaelites but it were Midianites that heaved him out of the well. When the Hebrews were invited by Pharaoh to dwell in Egypt, they can stay in the land of Goshen and later the site Rameses is mentioned, then Goshen again. Rameses could be the later name for in Exodus it is told how the Hebrews toiled at the construction of Rameses. Was this a site or the monuments of Pharaoh Rameses? Pieces of stories are inserted in the narratives and repeat what was already stated before. God is usually called Yahweh, but sometimes also El or El Shaddai. God caused Creation, but he is at first only called by that name and later on as Yahweh-God. Still later in the tales, one has the feeling that the deity that talks in dreams to Isaac and Jacob is not the God but a God. When that God speaks to Jacob, he calls himself ‘the God of your father Isaac’. This God asks to destroy effigies of other gods, so Jacob buries Laban’s house gods. Genesis is after the creation the tale of the interventions not of God but of one God among other. Only later, in the Book Exodus, will it be made clear that Yahweh means ‘he who is’, Yahweh probably being an old grammatical form of ‘to be’.

The Book of Genesis contains in its last chapters four life stories of patriarchs: Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Joseph. These are interspersed with what is no more than episodes on other characters like on a relative of Abraham, Lot. Joseph was a son of Jacob; Jacob was son of Isaac and Isaac son of Abraham. A direct line of descendants is told in Genesis and the line is a male line, though not always a line of first born but of the one chosen by Yahweh. How the Hebrews came to Canaan does not begin with Abraham however. Yahweh urged Abraham’s father, Terah, to leave the city of Ur of the Chaldaeans, which was a region around the rivers Euphrates and Tigris.

The Book of Genesis repeats with emphasis for each of the patriarchs that although the Hebrew are foreigners in the land of Canaan, this is their Promised Land. Pacts with Yahweh are each time promised by the God of the Hebrews.

Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph form a male line. But remarkably, the chapters are not just stories of men. Genesis talks insistently of the wives. Abraham’s Sarah, Isaac’s Rebekah and Jacob’s Rachel and Leah are strong characters. They are women with an own powerful will and proper desires. They are proud women, conscious of their status. They are faithful but not always loving and they dare to stand up against their husbands, even deceive them when they feel Yahweh’s design better than their husbands. Yahweh speaks to these women as well as to the men and Genesis emphasises that only through the particular chosen women can a race of own kin be perpetuated.

These stories of the lives of the first patriarchs relate of nomads wandering in country and deserts between the towns. Terah may have originated from a town, but the people fled or left a town not to return to dwell in cities for many centuries. The nomads travelled and Genesis tells of the journeys. Camps were set up near wells, camels were used and tents were their homes. The nomads sometimes split: Abraham and Lot started off together but go their own ways by common agreement when the land could not sustain them all. Towns were avoided. The nomad groups looked at cities with suspicion. Towns were places of corruption and of sin. The destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah is a tale of the evil that was considered to be in the towns. Nowhere have the writers or the ancient storytellers of the Book of Genesis sympathy for the towns. Abraham, Isaac and Jacob avoided them and lived in tents, though they lived near them and sometimes near the most mentioned large town of Shechem. In every story of the patriarchs do we read how often the groups changed camps. They were nervous, eager to travel. They were fertile however, grew rapidly in numbers and they were prosperous. They were indeed nomads that went from well to well and for which the cattle that accompanied them was small and sturdy. Genesis tells often of sheep and goats and occasionally of camels, not of oxen or of horses. The cities waged war on each other but Abraham, his children and grandchildren only intervened to save one of theirs or their honour. Abraham fought the kings that conquered Sodom because they had taken prisoner his nephew and companion Lot and Jacob’s sons killed the people of Shechem because their sister Dinah had been raped. The nomads travelled and when they settled they were always the foreigners in the land that needed to ask permission to stay. There are numerous tales of pacts and treaties with the people of the land, increasingly also treaties among the groups themselves. Melchizedek blessed Abraham, Abimelech and Phicol swore a covenant with Abraham, Isaac made an alliance with Abimelech; Jacob concluded a treaty with Laban.

Yahweh was the God of the nomad tribes. Other Gods existed, but repeatedly Yahweh asked to throw away the other Gods. And in each generation, more than once, Yahweh promised Canaan to the true descendants of Terah. The most remarkable episode is the wrestling of Jacob with Yahweh. Jacob does not let go all through the night and only stops when a blessing is promised. Yahweh gives Jacob the name Israel, for Jacob has shown his strength to God and to men and he has prevailed. Israel will henceforth be the eternal struggling nation, struggling within, struggling with God and with other nations. But the covenant stays valid, God promised it; he protects Israel and makes it prevail.

The artists that took to themes of the Book of Genesis looked at the characters of the Bible. But more than in the figures they were interested in the land. They made pictures of paradise and of the countries that the nomads travelled in. Few painters had actually been to Canaan. Particularly in the seventeenth century, the high century of Old Testament pictures, Canaan was a stronghold of the Muslims and practically inaccessible for Westerners. The painters hence used their imagination. Sometimes a few details gave an impression of orientalism. For northern painters Italy and its romantic landscapes were enough to create the sense of distance that separated the Northern Countries from the Bible. Also the pastoral narratives of the wandering shepherds reached the imagination of the artists. Hence numerous paintings showed scenes of groups of cattle, sheep and goats that accompanied the Bible stories. But next to the arcadian, lovely surroundings also particular tales were taken up. The tower of Babel and the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah thus were often used themes, but these were still views of landscapes in which the people were small. This was the general tenure that artists found in the Bible. The story of Genesis was a story of towering figures, of figures that lived thousands of years before our era, at the beginning of times. These giants were felt close. The patriarchs were wanderers in vast countries and deserts. The stories came from far times, the characters of the giants were lost in the land. Only few of the most powerful artists looked directly at the people and tried to grasp some of their reality.

Thus we will find in pictures of the Book of Genesis two themes: landscapes and characters. We will see the tradition of landscape painting, how it started in the north and how the tradition descended into Italy. One patron stands out among all: Cardinal Federico Borromeo of Milan. We will encounter his promotion of the arts in many pictures. The other theme of pictures of Genesis is naturally focused on the patriarchs and the epic characters, often women, who lived around them. We have wonderful pictures in which the psychology of the actors and the intense drama that they lived are shown.

The story of Joseph is different from the other Genesis tales. Internationalisation enters the history of the Hebrews. Joseph is taken to Egypt and becomes the main governor of Pharaoh. When there is a famine in Canaan, the wealth of Egypt attracts the Hebrews to the shelter of the civilisation and administration of Egypt. Joseph is the only patriarch not to have married a woman of his own kin. Jacob expressly accepts Joseph’s children into his Hebrew clan though, a rare act of absorption of non-Hebrews. With Joseph also the breadth and vision of the artists change. People come to the foreground, human and epic. And Yahweh seems to recede. Joseph merely interprets the dreams that Yahweh inspired. God is less powerfully involved in the story of the end of Genesis. Painters noticed.

Paintings of stories of the Bible were popular in Protestant Europe and mainly in the Netherlands. Pictures of the Old Testament are rare in Italy, especially during the Renaissance. Notable exceptions were pictures of the life of Joseph. The main reason for that was that many parallels could be drawn between Jesus’ life and passion and the Joseph stories. Thus the life of Joseph was a softer version of the life of Jesus.

Genesis starts with the creation of the universe, the creation of the Garden of Eden and with the creation of man.

The chapters of the Book Genesis are:

The Creation
Adam and Eve
Cain and Abel
The Ark of Noah
The Tower of Babel
Joseph the Egyptian

Copyright: René Dewil Back to the navigation screen (if that screen has been closed) Last updated: January 2007
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