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Bible Commentaries

Peake's Commentary on the BiblePeake's Commentary

- Genesis

by Arthur Peake



THE English title of the book goes back through the Vulg. to the LXX. It stands for the origin or creation of the world, the subject of the opening chapters. The usual Heb. title is B e reshith, “ In the beginning,” taken, as was commonly done, from the first word of the book. It is composed for the most part from the three documents, J, E, P, which are found also in Ex., Nu., and Jos. The general grounds for the analysis may be seen in the Introduction to the Pentateuch. The detailed analysis of this book, with reasons, is given in the commentary. In spite of persistent assertions to the contrary, there is no room for reasonable doubt that these documents are really present, and that the distribution of the matter among them has been in large measure successfully achieved. The sections belonging to P have been identified with the greatest certainty. But while it is frequently incontestable that a section belongs to JE, the fusion of the two documents has often been effected with such skill that their disentanglement is inevitably both delicate and difficult. For the non-Mosaic character of the book and the date of the documents it incorporates see the Introduction to the Pentateuch.

From the literary we pass to the historical problems. It is pointed out elsewhere (pp. 123f.) that even the later books of the Pent, contain many inconsistencies which prove that they cannot be a record of literal history. This is even more emphatically the ease with Gen. The literary analysis is not based exclusively or even mainly on differences in vocabulary and style, but on inconsistencies in statement which prove that the record is not impeccable in its accuracy. Here it may suffice to mention the discrepancies in the narratives of Creation and the Flood, the different accounts given as to the origin of the names Beersheba, Bethel, and Israel, the variations as to the names of Esau’ s wives. The story as it stands raises insuperable chronological difficulties. As illustrations we may take Sarah’ s adventure with Pharaoh when she was more than 65 and with Abimelech when she was 89; the sending of Jacob to marry into his mother’ s family when he was 77, and his actual marriage at 84 (p. 157); the representation of Benjamin as quite youthful when he was the father of ten sons; the crowding of all the events in Genesis 38, together with the birth of two sons to Perez ( Genesis 46:12), into 22 years, so that Judah becomes a grandfather in much less than 10 years.

Apart from internal inconsistencies there are intrinsic incredibilities. That the story of the Deluge is not unvarnished history is shown in the Introduction to it. The narrative of creation cannot be reconciled with our present knowledge except by special pleading which verges on dishonesty. The period allowed for human history is far too short; nor can we suppose that angels mated with women and begat a race of demigods ( Genesis 6:1-4).

Once this is recognised, better justice can be done to the character of the book, and the extent to which it contains actual history can be made the subject of dispassionate inquiry. It is a modern prejudice to suppose that historical inaccuracy is incompatible with genuine revelation, or that myth and legend are unworthy vehicles for the communication of spiritual truth. Myth and legend, like poetry and parable, often convey religious teaching much more effectively than bare historical narrative.

The line between myth and legend is hard to draw, but the general distinction is clear. Dr. Skinner says: “ The practically important distinction is that the legend does, and the myth does not, start from the plane of historic fact. The myth is properly a story of the gods, originating in an impression produced on the primitive mind by the more imposing phenomena of nature, while legend attaches itself to the personages and movements of real history” (ICC, p. viii). Much in Genesis 1-11 is of mythical origin; but it has been purified in various degrees by the religious genius of Israel and the spirit of revelation. The most naked piece of mythology is the story of the angel marriages ( Genesis 6:1-4), which was once, no doubt, much grosser. There are mythical elements in the story of the Tower of Babel. The narrative of Eden is rich in mythical traits: the garden of Yahweh where He walks after the heat of the day is over; the formation of man from the dust and of woman from the rib of man; the magical trees, one conferring immortality, the other supernatural knowledge; the serpent gifted with wisdom and the power of speech; the cherubim and the whirling fiery sword. The priestly narrative of creation ( Genesis 1:1 to Genesis 2:4 a) is ultimately derived from a frankly mythical story, still known to us in its Babylonian forms, but the striking feature is the all but complete obliteration of mythology. The same applies to the story of the Deluge. But if this originated in a historical event it belongs primarily to the category of legend, though in Babylonia it is legend turned into myth. Possibly the story of Cain and Abel, the curse on Canaan, and the blessing of Shem and Japheth refer to the relations of historic or prehistoric peoples.

In the patriarchal history the mythical element is naturally much less prominent. The wrestling of Jacob ( Genesis 32:24-32) is the most striking example. The story of his encounter with the angels at Mahanaim ( Genesis 32:1 f.) may be a faded variant of the same theme. His vision at Bethel of the angels passing up and down to heaven on the ladder ( Genesis 28:12) and the visit of the three heavenly beings to Abraham ( Genesis 28:18) have also a mythical colour. There may possibly be some connexion between the twelve sons of Jacob and the twelve signs of the Zodiac. We should have to recognise the thoroughly mythical character of the patriarchal narratives if we supposed with E. Meyer that the patriarchs were originally deities, or with Winckler that the stories are to be interpreted in terms of the astral mythology. The tangible evidence for the former view is extremely slight, and much of it capable of a less far-fetched explanation; the latter would involve the acceptance of a far-reaching theory which, in the judgment of most scholars, has not been substantiated, while this interpretation in particular is open to additional objections of its own. A more tenable view would be that the leading personalities were nations or tribes. It is in fact probable that at certain points tribal is disguised as personal history. Possibly, as already mentioned, Cain and Abel, more probably Shem, Japheth, and Canaan, should be so interpreted. So also the story of Judah in 38 ( cf. p. 162). Similarly, the story of Joseph’ s residence in Egypt, where he was subsequently joined by his father and brothers, might point to successive Hebrew migrations into Egypt. The birth of Benjamin after Jacob’ s return from Paddan-aram might express the fact that the tribe was formed after the settlement in Palestine. Similar interpretations might be put on the separation of Abraham and Lot, the story of Reuben and Bilhah, and that of Shechem and Dinah. Still, many of these instances are very dubious. It is important to observe that large sections of the history do not lend themselves to this interpretation. In the main the narratives about Abraham do not, nor those about Isaac, nor yet those about Joseph. The two most plausible instances are those of Jacob and Esau, and Jacob and Laban. The former are supposed to reflect the relations between Israel and Edom, the latter those between Israel and Syria. The narrative itself suggests this interpretation for the former. The prenatal struggles of Jacob and Esau prefigure the struggles of the nations, the elder of which is to serve the younger ( Genesis 25:23). This is practically endorsed in the blessings of Isaac ( Genesis 27:27-29, Genesis 27:39 f.), but with the addition that Esau will ultimately break off the yoke of Jacob. Yet the actual story is far from reflecting the later relations. Of course the bitterest antagonism between the two peoples belongs to the period after the destruction of Jerusalem, and such a hymn of hate as Isaiah 34 or Isaiah 63:1-6 would not have expressed Israel’ s feeling in the pre-exilic period. But Israel’ s subjugation of Edom in war is not very aptly represented by the narrative in Gen. Jacob buys the birthright by driving a hard bargain with Esau; he obtains the blessing by cheating and falsehood. Esau’ s anger is not pushed to extremities. Jacob secures his brother’ s friendship by grovelling submission and a very substantial present, and there is no suggestion of any hostility after his settlement in Palestine. Nor does the story of Jacob and Laban, closing with the friendly compact not to violate each other’ s territories, at all agree with the bitter and prolonged antagonism between Israel and Syria in the period of the monarchy.

The various attempts to interpret the patriarchs as gods, nations, or tribes are thus open to very serious objections. It is accordingly safer to recognise that the leading figures in the story were actual personalities. But this, of course, does not guarantee the stories in detail. The discrepancies sufficiently show this. The same incident is related with reference to more than one character or different accounts are given of the same thing. Comparative study shows the reappearance in our book of tales and motifs familiar in the folklore of other nations. Few things are more familiar than the way in which incidents or sayings originally anonymous gravitate to famous names. And it is not inopportune to point out that archaeological investigation has so far done nothing to rehabilitate any stories which a sober criticism has doubted, or to give the patriarchs any definite position in the history of their time. The crucial case here is that of Chedorlaomer’ s expedition (14), and this is examined in the introduction to that chapter. Fidelity in depicting local or national conditions is no guarantee of historicity, especially where conditions remain stable for many centuries.

Attention should be called to one feature which has played a prominent part in the creation or moulding of narratives in our book. Many of the stories are æ tiological, that is, they supply an answer to the question, What gave rise to such customs, instincts, conditions, names as those with which we are familiar? The story of Eden answers several such questions (p. 139). The story of Babel not only accounts for the existence of an unfinished or dilapidated tower, but explains why it is that although peoples have all a common parentage, they speak such different languages. Similar examples are the accounts as to the origin of the arts and modes of life, music, metal work, city building, vine culture and the manufacture of wine, the pastoral occupation. So, too, the origin of such a rite as circumcision or the taboo on the sinew of the hip, natural phenomena such as the rainbow and the desolate condition of the Dead Sea region. The land system of Egypt, so different from that of the Hebrews, is traced to Joseph’ s policy of turning the necessities of the famine to the royal interest. Explanations are given as to the origin of names: Eve, Cain, Seth, Noah, Abraham, Moab, Ben-ammi, Ishmael, Isaac, Jacob, Edom, Jacob’ s children, Perez, Manasseh, and Ephraim; and among names of places, Beer-lahai-roi, Zoar, Beersheba, Bethel, Mizpah, Mahanaim, Peniel, Succoth, Abel-mizraim.

A few words may be added on the religious and moral value of the book. Happily this does not depend upon its historical accuracy. Nothing shows more impressively the power of Israel’ s religion than a comparison between the polytheistic and unmoral stories of Creation and the Flood in their Babylonian forms and the pure monotheism and stern ethical quality of the Heb. narratives. Heathen material has been used, but it has been filled with the spirit of Israel’ s religion (p. 51). The conception of God, especially m the older documents, is often anthropomorphic, but genuine religion does not really suffer through a quality for which allowance can readily be made, which was specially helpful in earlier days for the concrete and vivid reality it gave to the idea of God, and which still invests the stories with much of their deathless charm. If the theological and ethical statements scattered through the book were to be collected they would include much moral and spiritual truth clothed with a worthy expression. But what is most precious would have escaped us. It is not the explicit formulation of principles and beliefs, nor even these distilled from the narratives, it is the narratives themselves as they stand which yield us most for edification, guidance, and inspiration. The records hold up the mirror to nature, they depict for us actual situations in which our common thoughts and emotions find ample play. Many types of character are here, no lifeless blocks on which the moralist sets off his wares, but warm and living, a human heart beating in the breast and human blood throbbing through the veins. As contributions to scientific history our estimate of their value may be reduced; as channels of instruction, warning, stimulus, they remain unimpaired, we might say enhanced in value, since attention is now concentrated on the abiding content rather than the transitory form. The surest way in which to gain from them the best they have to give us is not to be seeking over-anxiously for their moral, but to permit them to make their own impression through intimate familiarity with them, aided by close study of the best which has been written about them.

Literature. Commentaries: ( a) Driver (West. C), Bennett (Cent. B), Ryle (CB), Mitchell; ( b) Skinner (ICC), Spurrell; (c) *Dillmann (KEH), *Delitzsch, Holzinger (KHC), Gunkel (HK, SAT), Procksch; ( d) F. W. Robertson, Lectures on Genesis, Dods (Ex.B), Strahan, Hebrew Ideals. Other Literature: Discussions in OT Introductions and in Dictionaries of the Bible; Ball, Genesis (SBOT Heb.), Wade, The Book of Genesis, Bacon, The Genesis of Genesis, Budde, Die biblische Urgeschichte, Ryle, Early Narratives of Genesis, Gordon, The Early Traditions of Genesis.

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