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Kitto's Popular Cyclopedia of Biblical Literature


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Gen´esis, the first book of the Pentateuch. This venerable monument, with which the sacred literature of the Hebrews commences, and which forms its real basis, is divided into two main parts; one universal, and one special. The most ancient history of the whole human race is contained in Genesis 1-11, and the history of Israel's ancestors, the patriarchs, in Genesis 12-50. These two parts are, however, so intimately connected with each other, that it would be erroneous to ascribe to the first merely the aim of furnishing a universal history. The chief aim which pervades the whole is to show how the theocratic institution subsequently founded by Moses was rendered possible and necessary. The book, therefore, takes its starting-point from the original unity of the human race, and their original relation to God, and proceeds thence to the interruption of that relation by the appearance of sin, which gradually and progressively wrought an external and internal division in the human race for want of the principles of divine life which originally dwelt in man in general, but which had subsequently been preserved only among a small and separate race—a race which in progress of time became more and more isolated from all the other tribes of the earth, and enjoyed for a series of generations the special care, blessing, and guidance of the Lord. The mosaical theocracy appears, therefore, by the general tenor of Genesis, partly as a restoration of the original relation to God, of the communion of man with God, and partly as an institution which had been preparing by God himself through a long series of manifestations of his power, justice, and love. Genesis thus furnishes us with the primary view and notion of the whole of the theocracy, and may therefore be considered as the historical foundation without which the subsequent history of the covenant people would be incomplete and unintelligible.

The unity and composition of the work, which is a point in dispute among the critics in regard to all the books of the Pentateuch, have been particularly questioned in the case of Genesis. Some suppose that Genesis is founded on two principal original documents, distinguished by the terms Elohim and Jehovah, the names which they respectively give to God. That of Elohim is closely connected in its parts, and forms a whole, while that of Jehovah is a mere complementary document, supplying details at those points where the former is abrupt and deficient, etc. These two documents are said to have been subsequently combined by the hand of an editor, so able as often to render their separation difficult, if not altogether impossible. Others maintain that Genesis is a book closely connected in all its parts, and composed by only one author, while the use of the two different names of God is not owing to two different sources on which Genesis is founded, but solely to the different significations of these two names. The use of each of the two names, Jehovah and Elohim, is everywhere in Genesis adapted to the sense of the passages in which the writer has purposely inserted the one name or the other. This point of view is the more to be considered, as it is the peculiar object of the author to point out in Genesis the gradual and progressive development of the divine revelations. The opponents have in vain attempted to discover in Genesis a few contradictions indicative of different documents in it; their very admission, that a fixed plan and able compilation visibly pervade the whole of the book, is in itself a refutation of such supposed contradictions, since it is hardly to be conceived, that an editor or compiler who has shown so much skill and anxiety to give unity to the book should have cared so little about the removal of those contradictions. The whole of Genesis is pervaded by such a freedom in the selection and treatment of the existing traditions, such an absence of all trace of any previous source or documents which might in some measure have confined the writer within certain limits of views and expressions, as to render it quite impracticable to separate and fix upon them specifically, even if there were portions in Genesis drawn from earlier written documents.

That first question concerning the unity of the book is closely connected with another question, respecting its authenticity, or whether Moses was the author of Genesis. We confine ourselves here to only a few remarks on the authenticity of Genesis in particular, and refer the reader for further information to the article Pentateuch. Some critics have attempted to ascertain the period when Genesis was composed, from a few passages in it, which they say must be anachronisms, if Moses was really the author of the book. Among such passages are, in particular,;; 'And the Canaanite was then in the land.' This remark, they say, could only have been made by a writer who lived in Palestine after the extirpation of the Canaanites. But the sense of the passage is not that the Canaanites had not as yet been extirpated, but merely that Abraham, on his arrival in Canaan, had already found there the Canaanites. This notice was necessary, since the author subsequently describes the intercourse between Abraham and the Canaanites, the lords of the country. According to the explanation given to the passage by the opponents, such an observation would be quite a superfluous triviality. Also the name Hebron (; ), they say, was not introduced till after the time of Moses (; ). This, however, does not prove anything, since Hebron was the original Hebrew name for the place, which was subsequently changed into Arba (by a man of that name), but was restored by the Israelites on their entrance into Canaan. The opponents also maintain that the name of the place Dan () was given only in the post-Mosaical period (; ). But the two last passages speak of quite a different place. There were two places called Dan; Dan-Jaan (), and Dan-Laish, or Leshem. In Genesis, they further add, frequently occurs the name Bethel (;; ); while even in the time of Joshua the place was as yet called Luz (). But the name Bethel was not first given to the place by the Israelites in the time of Joshua, there being no occasion for it, since Bethel was the old patriarchal name, which the Israelites restored in the place of Luz, a name given by the Canaanites. Another passage in Genesis (), 'Before there reigned any king over the children of Israel,' is likewise supposed to have been written at a period when the Jews had already a king over them. But the broachers of these objections forget that this passage refers to those promises contained in the Pentateuch in general, and in Genesis in particular (comp. ), that there should hereafter be kings among the Israelites as an independent nation. In comparing Israel with Edom (Genesis 36), the sacred writer cannot refrain from observing that Edom, though left without divine promises of possessing kings, nevertheless possessed them, and obtained the glory of an independent kingdom, long before Israel could think of such an independence; and a little attention to the sense of the passage will show how admirably the observation suits a writer in the Mosaical period. The passage () where the land of Israel is described as extending from the river of Egypt (the Nile) to the great river (Euphrates), it is alleged, could only have been penned during the splendid period of the Jews, the times of David and Solomon. Literally taken, however, the remark is inapplicable to any period, since the kingdom of the Jews at no period of their history extended so far. That promise, must, therefore, be taken in a rhetorical sense, describing the central point of the proper country as situated between the two rivers.

With regard to the historical character of the book, Genesis consists of two contrasting parts: the first part introduces us into the greatest problems of the human mind, such as the Creation and the fall of man; and the second, into the quiet solitude of a small defined circle of families. In the former, the most sublime and wonderful events are described with childlike simplicity; while, in the latter, on the contrary, the most simple and common occurrences are interwoven with the sublimest thoughts and reflections, rendering the small family circle a whole world in history, and the principal actors in it prototypes for a whole nation, and for all times. The contents in general are strictly religious. Not the least trace of mythology appears in it. It is true that the narrations are fraught with wonders. But primeval wonders, the marvelous deeds of God, are the very subject of Genesis. None of these wonders, however, bear a fantastical impress, and there is no useless prodigality of them. They are all penetrated and connected by one common leading idea, and are all related to the counsel of God for the salvation of man. This principle sheds its lustrous beams through the whole of Genesis; therefore the wonders therein related are as little to be ascribed to the invention and imagination of man as the whole plan of God for human salvation. The foundation of the divine theocratical institution throws a strong light upon the early patriarchal times; the reality of the one proves the reality of the other, as described in Genesis.

The separate accounts in Genesis also manifest great internal evidence of truth if we closely examine them. They bear on their front the most beautiful impress of truth. The cosmogony in Genesis stands unequalled among all others known in the ancient world. No mythology, no ancient philosophy, has ever come up to the idea of a creation out of nothing. All the ancient systems end in Pantheism, Materialism, emanation-theory, etc. But the Biblical cosmogony occupies a place of its own, and therefore must not be ranked among, or confounded with, any of the ancient systems of mythology or philosophy. The mythological and philosophical cosmogonies may have been derived from the Biblical, as being later depravations and misrepresentations of Biblical truth; but the contents of Genesis cannot, vice versa, have been derived from mythology or philosophy. The historical delineation also of the Creation and of the fall of man does not bear the least national interest or coloring, but is of a truly universal nature, while every mythus bears the stamp of the national features of the nation and country where it originated and found development. All mythi are subject to continual development and variations, but among the Hebrews the accounts in Genesis stand firm and immutable for all times, without the least thing being added or altered in them for the purpose of further development, even by the New Testament. What a solid guarantee must there be in this foundation of all subsequent revelations, since it has been admitted and maintained by all generations with such immovable firmness! The ancient heathen traditions coincide in many points with the Biblical accounts, and serve to illustrate and confirm them. This is especially the case in the ancient traditions concerning the Deluge (), and in the list of nations in the tenth chapter; for instance (), Tarshish is called the son of Javan. This indicates that the ancient inhabitants of Tarshish or Tartessus in Spain were erroneously considered to be a Phoenician colony like those of other towns in its neighborhood, and that they sprang from Javan, that is, Greece. That they were of Greek origin is clear from the account of Herodotus. Also (), Nimrod, the ruler of Babel, is called the son of Cush, which is in remarkable unison with the mythological tales concerning Bel and his Egyptian descent. Sidon alone is mentioned (), but not Tyrus (comp. ), which arose only in the time of Joshua (); and that Sidon was an older town than Tyrus, by which it was afterwards eclipsed, is certified by a number of ancient reports.

With the patriarchal history (Genesis 12. sqq.) begins an historical sketch of a peculiar character. The circumstantial details in it allow us to examine more closely the historical character of these accounts. The numerous descriptions of the mode of life in those days furnish us with a very vivid picture. We meet everywhere a sublime simplicity quite worthy of patriarchal life, and never to be found again in later history. One cannot suppose that it would have been possible in a later period, estranged from ancient simplicity, to invent such a picture.

The fidelity of the author everywhere exhibits itself. Neither the blemishes in the history of Abraham, nor the gross sins of the sons of Jacob, among whom even Levi, the progenitor of the sacerdotal race, forms no exception, are concealed.

The same author, whose moral principles are so much blamed by the opponents of Genesis, on account of the description given of the life of Jacob, produces, in the history of Abraham, a picture of moral greatness which could have originated only in facts.

The faithfulness of the author manifests itself also especially in the description of the expedition of the kings from Upper to Western Asia; in his statements concerning the person of Melchizedek (Genesis 14); in the circumstantial details given of the incidents occurring at the purchase of the hereditary burial-place (Genesis 23); in the genealogies of Arabian tribes (Genesis 25); in the genealogy of Edom (Genesis 36); and in many remarkable details which are interwoven with the general accounts. In the history of Joseph the patriarchal history comes into contact with Egypt, and here the accounts given by ancient classical writers, as well as the monuments of Egypt, frequently furnish some splendid confirmations. For instance, the account given () of the manner in which the Pharaohs became proprietors of all the lands, with the exception of those belonging to the priests, is confirmed by Herodotus, and by Diodorus Siculus. The manner of embalming described in Genesis 50 entirely agrees with the description of Herodotus, ii. 84, etc.

For the important commentaries and writings on Genesis, see the article Pentateuch.





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Bibliography Information
Kitto, John, ed. Entry for 'Genesis'. "Kitto's Popular Cyclopedia of Biblical Literature".

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