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Genesis

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Introductory Material

As the first book of the Bible, Genesis is exceptionally important. Placed at the start of the Primary History (Genesis-Kings), Genesis functions as the introduction to a God-inspired metanarrative that addresses life’s important questions: Has creation a purpose? Where do humans fit into this world? What is wrong with our world? Is there a solution to the problems we face?

Genesis initiates a grand story. Like the opening pages of a novel, Genesis introduces the main characters and explains their relationship to one another other. Setting the scene, it provides information that helps the reader understand all that follows. Genesis establishes the dynamics of the plot that unfolds in the rest of Scripture.

A brief introduction cannot do justice to all that has been written about Genesis. What follows deliberately focuses on the challenge of how we can best read this ancient text that is foundational for understanding the entire Bible. Questions of authorship, date of composition, and historicity will receive limited attention.

To many readers, Genesis is a collection of disjointed short stories that have been brought together and supplemented with genealogical lists. Judged by modern Western styles of writing, Genesis does not appear to be a coherent literary work composed by a single author. It lacks the homogeneity that we are accustomed to seeing in modern literature.

There is little doubt that whoever shaped Genesis drew on existing materials. Genesis is not composed of items that are entirely homogeneous, but it is nevertheless a unified work. It is a literary collage that brings together different types of material to create a profound literary work. Genesis may be compared to a human body that consists of parts that are strikingly different, yet they share the same DNA and function together as a single entity. Despite the diversity of the body’s numerous parts, they exist in complete harmony. The same is true of Genesis.

Unfortunately, most studies of Genesis rarely engage with the whole book. It is common for some passages to be viewed as later additions that interrupt supposedly unified narratives. The account of Judah’s relationship with his daughter-in-law Tamar in Genesis 38, for example, is often considered to be a misplaced insertion into the story of Joseph’s mistreatment by his brothers. Yet, chapter 38 provides an important insight into the transformation of Judah’s character from a brother who is prepared to sell Joseph into slavery in Egypt (37:26–27) to a brother who is willing to sacrifice his own freedom and become a slave in Egypt in order that Joseph’s younger brother may go free (44:18–34). Judah’s change of heart is remarkable. Yet, without chapter 38, Genesis offers no explanation to account for his dramatic transformation.

When viewed as a unified whole, Genesis concludes by creating the expectation that future royalty will be associated with either the descendants of Judah or Joseph. Judah plays an important role in the final chapters of Genesis and should not be excised from the so-called Joseph Story simply because chapter 38 has, for some readers, the appearance of a later addition. Moreover, Genesis 38 begins and ends with themes that are central to understanding the plot of Genesis (e.g., firstborn; offspring; reversal of primogeniture). Something important is lost if we omit chapter 38 in reading Genesis.

Despite its episodic nature, the text of Genesis is more unified than many appreciate. Later episodes frequently presuppose or allude to earlier passages. Abraham’s action in calling Sarah his sister in 20:2 is incomprehensible without a prior knowledge of what is recorded in 12:11–13. Chapter 20 presupposes familiarity with the events recorded in 12:10–20. God’s speech to Jacob in 35:11–12 alludes to previous episodes. Not only do God’s words recall Jacob’s prior experiences at Bethel (28:13) and Peniel (32:28), but his command to be fruitful and multiply also echoes the creation mandate in 1:28, which is repeated to Noah (9:1, 7). The mention of one nation and many nations in 35:11 recalls God’s commitments to Abraham in chapters 15 (one nation) and 17 (many nations). God’s brief speech to Jacob connects episodes that in other ways do not appear to be linked.

Some scholars claim that Genesis is unreadable. The problem, however, lies not with Genesis but with the inability of modern scholars to understand how ancient Hebrew narratives were composed and read. This, however, is not a recent problem. It has a long history in the interpretation of Genesis. Failure to understand the narrative correctly is evident in how many read the story of Noah’s drunkenness in 9:20–27. Many commentators, both modern and ancient, assume that Ham acts inappropriately when Noah is drunk. However, a careful reading reveals that Canaan is the guilty party. Firstly, the narrator subtly introduces Canaan into the story by twice mentioning that Ham is his father (9:18, 22). Ham has other sons, but they are not named. Secondly, the narrator tells us that Noah was aware that his youngest son had acted in an unseemly manner (9:24). Nothing in the text suggests that Ham is Noah’s youngest son. However, in Hebrew the term “son” can also mean “grandson,” and Canaan is Noah’s youngest grandson (see 10:6). Finally, Noah curses only Canaan (9:25). If Canaan is not at fault, then Noah’s action is entirely inappropriate. Why should Noah curse Canaan for another’s misdeed? As for Ham, he merely sees his father’s nakedness and informs his brothers (9:22). Nothing in the text suggests that Ham abused Noah. So we see how, all too easily, Genesis can be misinterpreted.

Given its episodic nature, there is an unfortunate tendency to read Genesis in a piecemeal manner. Portions are read and interpreted with little consideration of the entire context within which they are placed. This approach is reflected in both academic and popular readings of Genesis, and it is highly detrimental to understanding the book as a unified literary work. Context is all-important. We must avoid atomising or dissecting the text into smaller parts. Since Genesis was created to form a single narrative, we must comprehend the whole to understand how its different parts contribute to its unity.

How should we read Genesis holistically? What is the entire book about? At the heart of Genesis lies a unique lineage that begins with Adam and Eve, and ends with the sons of Jacob, especially Joseph and Judah. Genesis is structured around this patriline, which highlights the son who is the principal heir to his father’s estate. According to the principle of primogeniture, this special status normally belongs to the firstborn son; however, in Genesis the patriline is frequently traced through a younger brother.

The importance of this patriline is reflected in how Genesis is structured. A distinctive heading, “These are the generations of . . .” (2:4; 6:9; 10:1; 11:10; 11:27; 25:12; 25:19; 36:1; 36:9; 37:2; cf. 5:1), recurs throughout the book. Using this heading the author of Genesis focuses on the immediate offspring of the person named in the heading. Not every section in Genesis addresses directly the central patriline. Some sections give brief details about those who are passed over (e.g., Ishmael in 25:13–18; Esau in 36:1–43; compare Cain in 4:17–24). Other parts of Genesis are much longer. The Abraham narrative in 11:27–25:11 describes at length Abraham and Sarah’s inability to have an heir, their own attempt to produce one, which gives rise to Ishmael, and God’s confirmation of Isaac as sole heir. The section headed under the name of Isaac (25:19–35:29) explores how his younger son, Jacob, succeeds as heir over his older twin brother, Esau. The chapters associated with Jacob’s sons (37:2–50:26) conclude by noting the importance of Joseph’s younger son, Ephraim, another example of a younger brother being placed ahead of an older sibling (48:17–20). However, alongside Joseph, the Genesis narrative gives prominence to Judah, and he receives from Jacob a blessing that associates him with future kingship (49:8–12).

While the patriarchal narratives in 11:27–50:26 highlight developments concerning the principal heirs of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, chapters 5–11 consist mainly of material associated with Noah and his sons (6:9–11:9), which is framed by two linear genealogies (5:1–32; 11:10–26). Each genealogy covers ten generations, linking Adam to Noah and Noah’s son Shem to Abraham. All of the important actors in Genesis belong to a single lineage.

Why is this unique family line so important? Why does the author of Genesis select and structure his materials to highlight it? The answer rests partially in God’s judgment on the mysterious serpent, which persuaded Adam and Eve to disobey God, betraying the trust he had placed in them to rule over the earth and all its creatures. God announces that an offspring of the woman will overcome the serpent (3:15), and the rest of Genesis takes the reader on a quest to find this unique person who will reverse the consequences of Adam and Eve’s disobedience in the Garden of Eden. Due to Cain’s killing Abel and the unrighteousness of his patriline (4:1–24), the family line linked to Eve’s third-born son, Seth, offers hope to a chaotic world. Seth’s patriline leads to Noah. Finding favour with God, Noah enables a remnant of people, animals, and birds to survive a devastating flood. From Noah, the patriline proceeds to Abraham. God promises Abraham that he will be a source of blessing to all the families of the ground (12:3). This promise is later encapsulated in an eternal covenant that speaks of Abraham being the father of many nations (17:4–5). This covenant is tied to the patriline that passes from Abraham to Isaac to Jacob. In a world under God’s curse, the patriarchs become a source of blessing to others.

As Genesis looks forward to the one who will overcome the serpent and bring blessing to the nations of the earth, the expectation crystallises that this future individual will exercise universal authority and establish God’s kingdom on the earth. In doing so, he will fulfil the mandate that was originally given to the first humans when they were created in the image of God (1:26–28). With Joseph partially foreshadowing this future king, Genesis anticipates the coming of God’s perfect vicegerent.

The quest for the promised serpent-slayer does not end in Genesis. Beyond Genesis, attention is focused initially on the tribe of Ephraim. Joshua, an Ephraimite, leads the people of Israel into the promised land. Afterwards, however, the tribe of Ephraim becomes morally corrupt and is eventually replaced by the tribe of Judah (Ps 78:67–72). This occurs in the time of David, whose ancestry is traced back to Judah’s son Perez (Gen 38:29; Ruth 4:18–22).

While Genesis foresees the creation of Israel as a great nation, it also anticipates a future offspring of Abraham who will bring God’s blessing to the nations of the earth. This offspring, according to the witness of the New Testament, is “Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham” (Matt 1:1; see also Acts 3:25–26; Gal 3:16).

There is much that Genesis does not tell us, and we must be cautious not to fill in the gaps inappropriately. We must also avoid reading back into Genesis ideas that come later. The events described are set in the distant past—the period of the patriarchs is to be dated around 2000 BC—and we cannot expect to find archaeological evidence for their existence given their seminomadic lifestyle and relative unimportance in the ancient world. Yet, there is much in Genesis that points to the historicity of what is reported.

As regards authorship, a long tradition has existed linking the book’s composition to Moses. This is possible, although we lack external evidence to confirm this, and Genesis itself says nothing about the person responsible for its creation. We know that the book now functions as the opening section of a larger narrative that concludes in the book of 2 Kings by recording the Babylonian destruction of Jerusalem in 586 BC. Genesis is best read as part of this larger story that, despite its tragic ending, still retains a hope that a Davidic king will one day bring to fulfilment the expectations it records.

Purpose

The book of Genesis traces a unique family line that leads towards a divinely-appointed, flawless vicegerent, a second Adam, who will be a source of blessing for the nations of the earth.

Key Verse

“I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”

— Genesis 12:3 ESV

Outline

I. God’s Creating of the Heavens and the Earth (1:1–2:3)

II. The Story of the Earth’s First Humans (2:4–4:26)

A. The Human Couple in the Garden of Eden (2:4–25)

B. Adam and Eve Betray God (3:1–24)

C. Adam and Eve’s Sons (4:1–26)

III. The Story of Adam’s Descendants (5:1–6:8)

A. Adam’s Patriline to Noah (5:1–32)

B. The Wickedness of Humanity (6:1–8)

IV. The Story of Noah’s Descendants (6:9–9:29)

A. Noah and the Flood (6:9–8:12)

B. The Aftermath of the Flood (8:13–9:17)

C. Noah’s Cursing of Canaan (9:18–29)

V. The Story of Noah’s Sons’ Descendants (10:1–11:9)

A. The Descendants of Noah’s Sons (10:1–32)

B. The City of Babel/Babylon (11:1–9)

VI. The Story of Shem’s Descendants (11:10–26)

VII. The Story of Terah’s Descendants (11:27–25:11)

A. Terah’s Family Introduced (11:27–32)

B. The Call of Abraham (12:1–9)

C. Abraham and Sarai in Egypt (12:10–20)

D. Lot Separates from Abraham (13:1–18)

E. Abraham Rescues Lot (14:1–24)

F. God’s Covenant of Nationhood with Abraham (15:1–21)

G. The Birth of Ishmael (16:1–16)

H. God’s Covenant of International Blessing (17:1–27)

I. Lot Is Rescued from Sodom (18:1–19:29)

J. Lot’s Daughters (19:30–38)

K. Abraham and Sarah in Gerar (20:1–18)

L. Isaac’s Birth and Confirmation as Abraham’s Heir (21:1–21)

M. Abraham and Abimelech at Beersheba (21:22–34)

N. The Testing of Abraham (22:1–19)

O. Nahor’s Children (22:20–24)

P. Sarah’s Death and Burial (23:1–20)

Q. Abraham Gets a Wife for Isaac (24:1–67)

R. Abraham’s Death and Burial (25:1–11)

VIII. The Story of Ishmael’s Descendants (25:12–18)

IX. The Story of Isaac’s Descendants (25:19–35:29)

A. The Birth of Esau and Jacob (25:19–26)

B. Esau Sells His Birthright to Jacob (25:27–34)

C. Isaac in Gerar (26:1–33)

D. Isaac Blesses Jacob (26:34–27:45)

E. Esau Threatens to Kill Jacob (27:46–28:9)

F. Jacob at Bethel (28:10–22)

G. Jacob Marries Rachel (29:1–30)

H. The Births of Jacob’s Children (29:31–30:24)

I. Jacob Prospers in Paddan Aram (30:25–43)

J. Jacob Returns to Canaan (31:1–55)

K. Jacob Prepares to Meet Esau (32:1–23)

L. Jacob Struggles with God at Peniel (32:24–32)

M. Jacob Is Reunited with Esau (33:1–20)

N. Dinah’s Relationship with Shechem (34:1–31)

O. Jacob Relocates to Bethel (35:1–15)

P. The Deaths of Rachel and Isaac (35:16–29)

X. The Story of Esau’s Descendants (36:1–37:1)

XI. The Story of Jacob’s Descendants (37:2–50:26)

A. Joseph Is Sold by His Brothers into Slavery (37:2–36)

B. Judah’s Relationship with Tamar (38:1–30)

C. Joseph and Potiphar’s Wife (39:1–23)

D. Joseph Interprets the Dreams of the King’s Prisoners (40:1–23)

E. Joseph Interprets Pharaoh’s Dreams (41:1–57)

F. Joseph’s Brothers’ First Trek to Egypt (42:1–38)

G. The Brothers’ Second Trek to Egypt (43:1–34)

H. Benjamin Is Accused of Theft (44:1–34)

I. Joseph’s Identity Revealed (45:1–28)

J. Jacob’s Family Moves to Egypt (46:1–27)

K. Jacob’s Family Settles in Goshen (46:28–47:12)

L. Joseph Administers Egypt during the Famine (47:13–26)

M. Jacob’s Request to Be Buried in Canaan (47:27–31)

N. Jacob Blesses Joseph and His Two Sons (48:1–22)

O. Jacob Blesses His Twelve Sons (49:1–28)

P. Jacob’s Death and Burial (49:29–50:14)

Q. Joseph Reassures His Brothers (50:15–21)

R. Joseph’s Death (50:22–26)

God’s Creating of the Heavens and the Earth (1:1–2:3)

1:1–2 Genesis 1:1–2:3 sets the scene for understanding the story that follows. In describing the creation of the world, the opening chapter of Genesis reveals how God has organised the world, commissioning humans to rule over it on his behalf. It is not written from a scientific perspective to explain the mechanics of what God did. The focus of the chapter is on how space and time have been organized or structured by God. Verses 1–2 introduce the creation account, which is arranged around seven days. While most English versions render the opening words of Genesis as “In the beginning God created . . .” and assume that verse 1 recounts the first act of creation, it is equally possible to adopt the translation “When God began to create . . . ,” taking verse 1 as a summary of what will be described in the rest of the chapter. Either way, God is the subject of all that happens. With absolute authority and power, he alone brings the heavens and the earth into being. He transcends everything that is created. The expression “the heavens and the earth” probably denotes here the entire universe, although we should observe that the same noun “earth” refers to two different entities in verses 2 and 10. The syntax of verse 2 suggests that it sets the scene for what follows. Verse 2 introduces darkness and waters, which figure prominently in Days 1 and 2, respectively. The separation of darkness (v. 4) and waters (v. 6) will be important as God begins to form and fill the earth. Whereas the darkness over the waters is static, the Spirit of God hovers, giving a sense of expectation that something is about to happen. The earth is “without form and void” (ESV) or “formless and empty” (CSB). Days 1–3 will record how God gives form or structure to what he is creating, and Days 4–6 will record how God fills creation.

1:3–5 The start of each creation day is marked by divine speech (vv. 3, 6, 9, 14, 20, 24). By issuing commands, God displays his majestic power. God’s creative activity in Days 1–3 involves the separation of items: light from darkness; water from water; dry land from water. On Day 1 the separation of light and darkness is presented not in terms of the presence or absence of electromagnetic radiation, but in terms of day and night. Day 1 describes the creation of a repeated pattern of darkness followed by light. Light does not eradicate darkness; it merely alternates with it. Day and night are formed. This results in the creation of time. This chronological structure is then reflected in the rest of the chapter, as day gives way to night in the evening, and as night gives way to day in the morning. As elsewhere in the earliest books of the Old Testament, the chronological day is understood to begin with sunrise. Later, due to Babylonian influence after the capture of Jerusalem in 586 BC, Judaeans viewed the day as starting with sunset.

Reflecting on the creation of light, God describes it as good. This introduces a theme that recurs throughout Genesis 1 (see vv. 4, 10, 12, 18, 21, 25, 31). We should not assume, however, that creation is perfect. What God initiates is incomplete. God’s creative activity merely begins a process that will take time to finish. Rather, “good” indicates that the forming and filling undertaken by God meets with his approval. As we shall observe in the events of Genesis 3, God’s “good” ordering of creation is disregarded by the human couple when they fail to exercise authority over the mysterious serpent.

1:6–8 Day 2 focuses on the separation of the waters mentioned in verse 2. The “expanse” (ESV) or “vault” (NIV) that separates the waters is called “Heaven” (ESV) or “sky” (NIV). In verses 14–15 “the expanse of the heavens” (ESV) or “the vault of the sky” (NIV) is the location where the sun, moon, and stars are located. This is also where the birds of the air fly (v. 20). Surprisingly, the ESV translation switches from “Heaven” (v. 8) to “the heavens” (v. 14) when rendering the same Hebrew term.

1:9–13 Day 3 continues the focus on water by recording how the waters under the heavens are organised by God to create dry land and seas. Once again, a process of separation is involved, distinguishing the waters, named “seas,” from the dry land, called “earth.” In this instance, the term “earth” does not denote the entire planet. Three distinctive regions are formed in Days 2–3: the heavens, the seas, and the earth (dry land). In Days 5–6 animated inhabitants will be created to populate these regions.

1:14–19 Day 4 corresponds closely with Day 1 and involves the separation of light (day) from darkness (night). Once more, the emphasis is upon the ordering of time, with the heavenly lights governing days and years, as well as seasons. God delegates authority to the two greater lights to govern time. He will later delegate authority to humans to govern other earthly creatures.

1:20–23 On Day 5 we encounter the creatures that will fill the waters and the sky, the two regions distinguished in Day 2. Blessed by God, they are to populate these regions. A parallel expectation involving land creatures will be introduced in Day 6.

1:24–31 Day 6, which describes the process by which the dry land will be filled with living creatures, corresponds with Day 3. Relative to Days 1–5, this day is the most important, its description being the fullest. As elsewhere, God’s words indicate that his activity in creating is merely the beginning of a process that he expects to be completed by the active participation of all that he has made. While God will finish his work of creating (2:1–3), this is not the end of the story, but merely the beginning. Importantly, God delegates to humans the responsibility to rule over the earth on his behalf. They are to be his vicegerents. In the ancient near East (ANE), it was commonly understood that the concept of being made in the image of a deity implied royalty. Strikingly, in Genesis 1 God grants to all humans a royal status. As God rules beneficently over the whole of creation, humans are expected to rule in the same way over the earth. By filling the earth, they are expected to extend God’s kingdom over the whole world. The brief instruction to “have dominion” possibly suggests that there will be opposition to humanity’s governance of the earth, a hint that may anticipate the serpent’s challenge to God’s authority in Genesis 3. God’s decision to make humans “in our image, after our likeness” probably points to a plurality in God’s nature. This idea is reinforced by the words of verse 27, which associate God’s image with male and female. This is compatible with the concept of the Trinity, but Genesis 1 by itself does not provide sufficient information to reveal a God who is Three in One.

2:1–3 Day 7 breaks the pattern found in Days 1–6. God’s work of creating is finished. He rested (or perhaps it might be better to translate the Hebrew text as, “he ceased”), not because he was tired, but because the task of continuing what he had started now falls to others. There is no expectation that God is going to start a second week once the seventh day is over. This suggests that the seven-day framework in Genesis 1:1–2:3 is meant to be understood as a literary analogy, rather than a historical week of seven days each lasting twenty-four hours.

The Story of the Earth’s First Humans (2:4–4:26)

The Human Couple in the Garden of Eden (2:4–25)

2:4–7 Whereas 1:1–2:3 provides a panoramic view of creation, 2:4–3:24 offers a close-up picture that centres on God’s special relationship with humans. While 1:1–2:3 portrays God as transcendent over all of creation, 2:4–3:24 highlights his immanence, concentrating on his activity on earth, especially in forming humans and providing them with a unique environment in which to flourish. This shift in perspective is reflected in the way God himself is designated. In 1:1–2:3 the generic noun “God” is used, but throughout 2:4–3:24 he is normally referred to as the “LORD God.” Behind the English translation “LORD” is a Hebrew word, consisting of the four consonants YHWH, which denotes a personal name. To avoid pronouncing this name out of reverence for God, ancient Jewish readers substituted for it the Hebrew term for “lord.” This practice is preserved in most English translations.

The transition between the opening account of creation and what follows is marked by a distinctive heading that recurs frequently throughout Genesis (see 6:9; 10:1; 11:10, 27; 25:12, 19; 36:1, 9; 37:2; cf. 5:1). Usually this heading, which is often translated, “These are the generations of . . . ,” indicates that what follows focuses on the immediate offspring of the person named in the heading. For example, the heading formula in 11:27 names Terah; the narrative that follows focuses on Terah’s sons, Abraham, Nahor, and Haran. Genesis 2:4 is something of an exception because it does not name a person but refers to “the heavens and the earth.” The narrative that follows will describe what results from the creation of the heavens and the earth.

Verse 5 sets the scene prior to the creation of the man and the garden. Two different types of vegetation are mentioned in verse 5, marking a distinction between cultivated and uncultivated plants. The former requires people, but they have not yet been created. A wordplay involving the nouns “man” (Hebrew ʾādām) and ground (‎Hebrew ʾădāmâ) underlines the close connection between them. The Lord God fashions the man from the ground and breathes life into him, thus creating a living being. God adopts a similar process to create other animals and birds (v. 19). Verse 7 conveys a sense of God’s personal interest in the man that he has created.

2:8–9 These verses introduce the unique location where the man will live. The “garden” contrasts with the “field” that is mentioned twice in verse 5 and later associated with the wild animals (2:20; 3:1, 13). The term “garden” suggests an enclosed area with an entrance (see 3:24), whereas “field” speaks of open country lacking protection. Of the trees that God causes to grow in the garden, two receive special mention: the tree of life, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. One tree is directly associated with life, and the other indirectly with death. As chapter 3 reveals, “knowing good and evil” is something that distinguishes God from people (see 3:5, 22). To aspire to this kind of knowledge involves determining what is good and what is evil. The tree of the knowledge of good and evil figures prominently in the events of chapter 3. After Adam and Eve betray God, they are barred from eating from the tree of life. This tree reappears in John’s vision of New Jerusalem (Rev 22:2; cf. 2:7; 22:14, 19).

2:10–14 These verses offer additional information about a river that irrigates the garden. Since this river feeds four rivers that flow through different regions, the garden must have an elevated and central location. Despite the many names mentioned in verses 10–14, the whereabouts of Eden is a mystery. Given what happens in chapter 3, it is unlikely that the narrator of Genesis intends his readers to search for Eden. The detailed information provided creates connections between the garden and later sanctuaries (for example, the river flowing out of the garden may be linked to Ezekiel’s vision of water flowing out from the temple [Ezek 47:1–12; cf. Rev 22:1–2]).

2:15–17 The Lord God settles the man in the garden. While most English translations imply that the man is to fulfil the role of a gardener, the Hebrew term underlying the verb “keep” may also be translated “guard” (see 3:24). The man is expected to guard the garden, a command that possibly anticipates the arrival of the serpent in the garden. Interestingly, the verbs “work” and “keep/guard” are used together in connection with the duties of the Levites in the tabernacle (see Num 3:7–8; 8:26; 18:5–6). This might imply that the garden was viewed as a sanctuary, but the evidence in favour of this is limited. It may be that later sanctuaries are intended to recall the garden and what it represented. God’s prohibition against eating from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil is not intended to prevent the man from flourishing in the garden. With this one exception, he is free to eat from “every tree of the garden” (v. 16). God’s instruction reveals that he has given the man freedom either to obey or to disobey him. The man is no puppet, controlled continually by God, which creates the possibility that evil may exist in the world. In the light of this possibility, it is no surprise that God issues a serious warning that the man must not eat from the tree.

2:18–20 God demonstrates his concern for the man’s well-being by creating “a helper fit for him” (v. 18). There is no reason to assume that this “helper” is inferior to the man. After all, God is frequently designated Israel’s helper (e.g., Exod 18:4; Deut 33:7, 26, 29). God brings to the man creatures found outside the garden (v. 19); possibly, the livestock are already within the garden (v. 20). By naming the animals and birds, the man exercises authority as God’s vicegerent (see 1:26–28).

2:21–25 The Lord God creates a companion suitable for the man. God could have shaped the woman from the dust of the ground as he did the man (v. 7); however, he intentionally forms her from the man’s “rib,” or “side,” to signal her complementary nature. As the man declares, “This . . . is bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh” (v. 23). The close correspondence between the man and the woman is reflected in the Hebrew terms ʾîš (“man/husband”) and ‎ʾîššāh (“woman/wife”), which appear for the first time in verse 23. The narrative of 2:4–25 presents the woman as a companion who is complementary and equal to the man. Building on this, verse 24 states that when the man and woman come together in intimacy, they “become one flesh.” God intends the marriage relationship to be heterosexual, monogamous, and permanent.

Adam and Eve Betray God (3:1–24)

3:1–5 The harmonious picture described in 2:4–25 is disrupted by the arrival of a new character. By describing the serpent as “crafty” (Hebrew ʿārûm), a subtle connection is made with the human couple who are portrayed in 2:25 as “naked” (ʿărûmmîm). As an animal associated with the “field” (v. 1), we do not expect to find a serpent in the garden. However, this talking serpent is no ordinary creature. Its history is not disclosed, but its conversation with the woman quickly reveals that it stands in opposition to God. In the light of the serpent’s behaviour, we must conclude that all was not perfect on earth before Adam and Eve disobeyed God. Elsewhere in Scripture the “ancient serpent” is identified as “the devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world” (Rev 12:9; cf. John 8:44; 1Jn 3:8; Rev 20:2). Although the serpent’s initial question appears innocent, it subtly modifies what God had said (2:16–17), implying a lack of generosity on God’s part. The woman attempts to correct the serpent, but she too does not convey accurately God’s command. Contradicting God’s stern warning (2:17), the serpent tells the woman that she will not die (v. 4). Enticing the woman to disobey God, the serpent suggests that by eating the fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, she and her husband will become like God. Although they have been made in God’s image and endowed with royal status (1:26–28), the serpent tempts them with the possibility of becoming like God himself.

3:6–7 As God’s vicegerents, the human couple should have ruled over the serpent (see 1:26, 28). As guardians of the garden (2:15), they should have expelled the serpent from it. On both accounts they fail. Tragically, they disregard the Creator’s instructions and succumb to the serpent’s clever half-truths. While the serpent’s words are not entirely false—their eyes are opened (v. 7), and God acknowledges that they have become “like God, knowing good and evil” (v. 22)—Eve herself later acknowledges that she has been deceived by the serpent (v. 13). By disregarding God, their actions have enormous consequences for humans and the world. Not only do the couple betray the trust that God had placed in them, but by siding with the serpent, they also come under its control. The serpent becomes the ruler of this world (cf. Matt 4:8–9; Luke 4:5–7; John 12:31; 14:30; 16:11). God’s plan to establish his kingdom on earth through his vicegerents is thwarted by the serpent. We must await the arrival of a future, perfect vicegerent before God’s kingdom will come on earth. Although the human couple do not die physically immediately after eating the fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, they die spiritually by being alienated from the One who gives them life.

3:8–13 Having betrayed the Lord God, the human couple fearfully hide from him. When God questions them separately, the man and the woman each point the finger of responsibility at another.

3:14–15 As the instigator of what has happened, the serpent is addressed first, and God places it under a severe curse that sets it apart from other creatures. Previously described as the shrewdest of all the beasts of the field (3:1), God humiliates the serpent by condemning it to go on its belly and eat dust. He also announces (a) that the offspring of the woman will be in conflict with the offspring of the serpent, and (b) that the offspring of the woman will overcome the serpent itself. While the reference to the offspring of the woman could refer to Eve’s descendants in the plural, the syntax of the second statement points towards the offspring being a single individual. This is how the earliest Greek translation understood the Hebrew text, and there are solid syntactical arguments that support this interpretation. For this reason, in early Christian tradition, this verse became known as the Protevangelium, the first announcement of the gospel. God’s pronouncement sets the agenda for the rest of Genesis as the narrative begins to trace a unique patriline that will eventually lead to the Davidic dynasty and ultimately to Jesus Christ. Verse 15 hints at what later will be understood to be Christ’s defeat of Satan. As God’s statement reveals, the offspring of the woman will suffer in the encounter with the serpent, but the contrast between heel and head suggests that the serpent will come away the worse in this conflict. Unfortunately, some scholars contend that the offspring of the woman refers to Eve’s descendants in the plural. Such a reading does not make sense in the light of the rest of Genesis, where often humanity is pictured opposing God (e.g., 6:5–8; 11:1–9), and in doing so, they side with the serpent.

3:16 Turning to the woman, God announces her punishment. While the general thrust of God’s initial words is clear, indicating that the woman will experience pain linked to bearing children, scholars are divided over the best interpretation of God’s final words to the woman. Interpretations differ depending in part upon how scholars understand the pre-fall relationship between the man and the woman. Regardless of how God’s pronouncement is understood, his words imply that the relationship between man and woman will be less than harmonious. Close parallels between 3:16 and 4:7 suggest that the woman will desire to dominate her husband, but he will want to control her. Tensions between the couple will undermine the harmony that God intended when he created the woman to be a suitable soulmate for the man.

3:17–19 Addressing the man, the Lord God rebukes him for disobeying his instructions. Reflecting his disobedience in eating from the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, the man’s punishment focuses on the provision of food. The harmony that ought to exist between the man and the ground (see 2:7) is disrupted. Like the woman, the man will experience “pain.” His pain is associated with the task of cultivating the ground (see 2:5). No mention is made of trees, possibly suggesting that the couple will be expelled from the garden of Eden where God has provided fruit-bearing trees in abundance (2:16; cf. 1:29). The man’s toil will continue throughout his lifetime and will only end when God reverses the process by which the man was formed: the man will return to the ground as dust (cf. 2:7).

3:20–21 After describing the judgements pronounced upon the serpent, the woman, and the man, the narrator brings this episode to a conclusion by focusing on their expulsion from the garden (vv. 22–24). Before doing this, however, some other details are included. The name Eve means “life,” which underlines the importance of her role in procreation. The birth of offspring is vital to the fulfilment of God’s purposes. While some commentators interpret God’s clothing of the man and his wife as something positive, possibly involving a sacrifice for sin, it is more likely that the animal-skin garments are intended to signify their loss of status as God’s vicegerents. Elsewhere in the Pentateuch, priestly clothing is made of linen, a plant-based material, and leather is avoided because of its association with death. Due to their betrayal of God, the human couple take on the appearance of other earthly creatures.

3:22–24 The tree of life is mentioned briefly in 2:9. To prevent the man from eating its fruit, God expels him from the garden. Previously, God intended the man to work the ground and keep/guard it (see 2:15). Outside the garden, the man is still required to work the ground, but the task of keeping/guarding is given to cherubim. A constantly moving sword of fire also prevents access to the tree of life. These barriers remain in place until the coming of New Jerusalem, when humans may eat from the tree of life (Rev 22:2, 14).

Adam and Eve’s Sons (4:1–26)

4:1–2 This section of Genesis focuses on the offspring of Eve, highlighting the importance of her procreative role and recalling God’s statement to the serpent in 3:15. Eve acknowledges God’s part in enabling her to bear children. Anticipating the gifts that they will present to God, verse 2 describes Cain as a cultivator and Abel as a herdsman.

4:3–7 Reflecting their distinctive vocations, Cain and Abel present different types of gifts to God. Nothing is said to indicate that these gifts are given to God to atone for sin. Sacrifices placed on an altar are first mentioned in 8:20–21. Whereas Cain merely offers “some of the fruit of the ground,” Abel presents “the firstborn of his flock and of their fat portions” (v. 4). Abel’s gift gains God’s attention because of its quality. Jealous of his brother, Cain becomes angry. Graciously, God encourages Cain to do better, warning him against the danger of being controlled by sin.

4:8–16 Ignoring God’s advice, Cain murders Abel. To highlight the dreadfulness of Cain’s premeditated action, verse 8 repeats twice the expression “Abel his brother,” underlining their close relationship. Cain’s evil behaviour contrasts sharply with the righteousness of his brother (see Matt 23:35; Heb 11:4). When Cain denies knowledge of what has happened, God confronts him by declaring that Abel’s blood cries out from the ground. By way of punishment, God distances Cain from the ground. His task as a “worker of the ground” (v. 2) becomes more arduous, recalling how God punished Adam in a similar fashion (3:17–19). Cain’s sin leads to increased alienation from the ground, and he becomes “a fugitive and a wanderer on the earth” (v. 14). Driven further eastward from Eden, Cain settles in the land of Nod; the name means “wandering.” Remarkably, God offers Cain protection despite his callousness in taking his brother’s life.

4:17–24 Following the death of Abel, the narrator of Genesis focuses on the patriline of Cain. Might it lead to an offspring who will overcome the serpent? Listing six generations, Cain’s patriline concludes with Lamech (vv. 17–18). To mark the end of the patriline, attention is focused on Lamech’s two wives and their children. No son is directly linked to Lamech, who is portrayed as a bigamist and murderer. Compared to his ancestor Cain, Lamech considers himself to be many times his superior (see v. 24), boasting of killing a young man who struck him. The brief comment associating Cain with the construction of a city, which he names after his son, anticipates the events narrated in 11:1–9. The expression “he built a city” in ESV might be more accurately rendered “he was building a city.” City building reflects the human desire to live in community and to develop skills associated with communal activities.

4:25–26 After tracing the patriline of Cain for five generations and arriving at Lamech, who sees himself as a greater Cain, the Genesis narrative jumps back in time to record the birth of another son to Eve. Importantly, in naming him Seth, which means “appointed,” Eve observes that God has provided him as a substitute for Abel. Her use of the term “offspring” recalls the promise in 3:15. Through Seth an alternative patriline will be established that is different from that of Cain, the details of which are set out in 5:1–32. Adding to the positive portrayal of the births of Seth and his son Enosh, verse 26 observes that some people began “to call upon the name of the Lord.” The Hebrew text does not include the term “people,” possibly implying that only some humans worshipped the Lord.

The Story of Adam’s Descendants (5:1–6:8)

Adam’s Patriline to Noah (5:1–32)

5:1–5 A new heading introduces the linear genealogy that is recorded in this chapter. This genealogy sets out the patriline of Adam, traced through Seth for ten generations. The opening verses of chapter 5 recall statements made in 1:26–27, underlining how God created humans in his image. However, Adam and Eve’s actions in the garden of Eden have changed the relationship between God and humans. Reflecting this, verse 3 speaks of Seth being made in the likeness of Adam rather than God. While Adam has other sons and daughters, only Seth is named, and this pattern is repeated throughout the rest of the chapter. By naming one person in each generation, the genealogy follows a unique line of offspring.

5:6–32 The patriline of Adam takes on special significance in the light of God’s promise regarding an offspring of the woman who will defeat the serpent (3:15). In verses 6–31 a distinctive pattern is repeated for each person named, but this is expanded for Enoch (vv. 21–24) and Lamech (vv. 28–31). Enoch’s special relationship with God is highlighted; remarkably, he does not die but is taken by God (v. 24). Lamech’s remarks hold out hope that his son Noah will have a special role to play in God’s purposes. The genealogy in chapter 5, which focuses exclusively on the members of Adam’s patriline, concludes by suggesting that Noah will bring relief from the painful toil linked to God’s punishment of Adam (3:17). Subsequently, the Genesis narrative devotes several chapters to Noah, highlighting his righteousness in contrast to other humans. However, Noah is not presented as the one who will overcome the serpent. The expectation is created that the patriline will continue through one of his sons, all of whom are named in verse 32. We must wait until chapter 11 to see how the patriline continues through Shem to the patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

The Wickedness of Humanity (6:1–8)

6:1–3 The linear genealogy of chapter 5 focuses on Adam’s patriline. Other sons and daughters are born in each generation, but nothing is said about the world’s growing population. Against this background, the opening verses of chapter 6 offer a brief panoramic view of humanity, centred on how the sons of God marry the daughters of man. This short passage has engendered much speculation regarding the identity of the “sons of God.” It seems unlikely that they are angelic beings, despite a long history of claims in support of this interpretation. The sudden appearance within the narrative of heavenly creatures who marry humans is difficult to explain (see Matt 22:30; Mark 12:25). More likely the “sons of God” are godly humans, whereas the “daughters of man” represent those who display ungodly characteristics. Verses 1–2 reveal that these groups inter-marry. Despite suggestions to the contrary, there is no reason to assume that the sons of God act inappropriately in taking wives. God’s decision to limit the lifespan of humans to 120 years is probably due to their inclination towards evil. In Genesis, those who live more than 120 years are generally perceived as being godly.

6:4 The Nephilim, who are described as being “mighty men,” should not be viewed as “heroes,” as in some English translations (e.g., NIV, NJB), but as infamous warriors, men of aggression. They represent a class of people, not an ethnic group. Consequently, they are found both before and after the flood (see Num 13:13). Their portrayal as warriors is in keeping with God’s condemnation of humanity in 6:11–13. The Nephilim contribute to the earth being filled with violence.

6:5–8 These verses record God’s bleak assessment of humanity’s depravity. Verse 5 conveys the ubiquity of human wickedness; people are inherently evil all the time. In the light of what has happened, God regretfully decides to wipe out all humans and other creatures that he has made. However, one man stands apart. Paralleling the linear genealogy of chapter 5, the panoramic account of 6:1–8 concludes by focusing on Noah, who finds favour with God.

The Story of Noah’s Descendants (6:9–9:29)

Noah and the Flood (6:9–8:12)

6:9–10 A new section in Genesis is marked by the heading at the start of verse 9. What follows focuses on Noah and his offspring. At the outset Noah’s righteousness is highlighted. Unlike others in his generation, he is blameless. And like Enoch (5:22–24), Noah walks with God (v. 9). Later in Genesis, God will instruct Abraham to walk before him and be blameless (17:1). This positive appraisal of Noah supports the optimistic expectations hinted at in 5:29 and 6:8. However, the mention of Noah’s three sons in verse 10 suggests that Noah is not the offspring of the woman who will overcome the serpent.

6:11–22 The Hebrew word translated “earth” may, on occasion, denote a smaller region; it is sometimes translated “land” (e.g., 12:1, 7; 23:7, 12, 13). For this reason, some scholars suggest that the flood recorded in chapters 6–9 may not have covered the entire world. Verses 11–12 emphasise how “all flesh” has corrupted the earth/land with violence. In chapters 6–9 “all flesh” denotes both humans and animals. God’s decision to destroy other creatures alongside humans (see 6:7) suggests that they have contributed to the earth being filled with violence. While many creatures will drown due to the flood, God’s rescue of Noah will include two of every sort of bird, animal, and creeping thing (vv. 19–20). God’s decision to destroy (Hebrew verb šḥt) all flesh (vv. 13, 17) is an appropriate punishment since all flesh has corrupted (Hebrew verb šḥt) the earth. The punishment corresponds to the seriousness of the crime. In the light of his decision to destroy all flesh, God instructs Noah to build a large wooden ark with compartments. This structure will house the different types of creatures mentioned in verse 20 (compare 6:7). The categories listed recall those recorded in 1:24–26, 28, 30. Echoing Genesis 1, the flood narrative describes the de-creation and re-creation of the earth. For ancient Israelites the flood would have been perceived as cleansing a land that has been polluted by bloodshed. The covenant mentioned briefly in verse 18 will be established by God after the flood has subsided (9:8–17).

7:1–5 God commands Noah to enter the ark, taking with him his family and different varieties of creatures. No explanation is given here concerning the distinction between clean and unclean animals. Leviticus 11:1–47 and Deuteronomy 14:3–20 distinguish between clean and unclean animals as regards the diet of the Israelites. In these passages most unclean animals are carnivores, whereas clean animals are herbivores. If this distinction applies to the flood story, then herbivores are favoured because they did not contribute to the violence that filled the earth. Having additional clean animals and birds may have been necessary for offering sacrifices (see 8:20).

7:6–9 The flow of the story is interrupted by the chronological notice in verse 6. Verses 7–9 confirm the identity of the ark’s occupants. Once more, Noah’s obedience is highlighted (v. 9; cf. 6:22; 7:5), confirming God’s assessment of Noah as righteous (7:1; cf. 6:9)

7:10–16 The start of the flood is dated with reference to Noah’s age. Further dates come in 8:4, 5, 13, 14. Two sources of water combine to create the flood. From below and above the earth is covered with water, reversing the creative process described in the opening chapter of Genesis. Expanding upon the details recorded in 7:7–9, verses 13–16 emphasise how pairs of every kind of creature are preserved from drowning.

7:17–24 The floodwaters continue to rise for forty days until even the mountains are covered. The forty days mentioned in verse 17 probably refers to the initial period of the flood waters rising and is a second reference to the forty days mentioned in 7:12. As God had indicated before sending the flood (6:17), every living creature on the earth/land dies (vv. 21–23). There is no escape for those outside the ark.

8:1–5 Verse 1 signals the turning point in the flood story, highlighting appropriately Noah’s importance for the survival of everyone in the ark. Recalling the opening scene in Genesis 1 with its reference to the Spirit (Hebrew rûaḥ) of God hovering over the waters (1:2), God sends a wind (Hebrew rûaḥ) to cause the waters to subside (v. 1). The events recorded in verse 2 reverse what is described in 7:11–12. The waters recede slowly. Over seventy days pass between the ark resting on the mountain and the mountain tops becoming visible.

8:6–12 The raven survives outside the ark by feeding on carrion, a solemn reminder of what has happened due to the flood. In marked contrast, the dove lives off vegetation. The behaviour of the dove over a period of three weeks reveals that the earth/land has dried sufficiently for plants to grow again.

The Aftermath of the Flood (8:13–9:17)

8:13–19 The chronological notice in verse 14 reveals that the flood lasted approximately 375 days from the first deluge until the earth/land dried out. In obedience to God’s command, Noah and all those with him exit the ark.

8:20–22 Noah’s first task on returning to the dry land is to offer burnt offerings on an altar. The Hebrew term for these offerings implies that they ascend upwards. As a pleasing/restful aroma, the offerings cause God to promise that he will never again “strike down every living creature” (v. 21). Noah’s actions are more than an expression of thanksgiving for being rescued from the flood; through this offering, he gains God’s favour for the whole of creation. God states that he will not add to the curse pronounced in 3:17 by sending another flood in the future. However, the curse given in 3:17 remains in place. God’s response to Noah’s offerings leads to the establishment of an eternal covenant (see 9:9–17). The reference to the inclination of the human heart being evil (v. 21) echoes what was said prior to the flood (6:5). Despite the flood, human nature has not changed for the better.

9:1–7 God blesses Noah and his sons, commanding them to be fruitful, multiply, and fill the earth (vv. 1, 7). Although God’s blessing echoes 1:28, in the present context there is no mention of humans subduing the earth or ruling other creatures. Due to Adam and Eve’s disobedience in the garden of Eden, humanity can no longer govern the earth on God’s behalf. Reflecting these changed circumstances, God addresses in verses 2–6 a post-alluvial world where violence will continue to impact the lives of all creatures. The Hebrew expression translated “every moving thing” (v. 3 ESV) possibly denotes only non-predatory animals. God draws an important distinction between human and animal life. Despite their opposition to God, all humans continue to have value in God’s eyes; this sets them apart from other creatures. Those who deliberately take the life of another person will be held accountable for their action. Despite God’s opposition to bloodshed, he gives permission for the life of a murderer to be taken. To ensure justice in the ancient world, capital punishment was the only option available to most communities when sentencing a murderer.

9:8–17 God informs Noah and his sons that he is establishing a covenant with them, their descendants, and all the creatures that survived in the ark. Since this covenant guarantees that God will not cut off “all flesh” by sending a flood (v. 11), it cannot have existed prior to Noah’s lifetime. Although the Hebrew term for “bow” can refer to a weapon, here it denotes a rainbow, an interpretation supported by the references to clouds in verses 13–16. As a sign of the covenant, the rainbow recalls what has occurred and offers reassurance regarding the future.

Noah’s Cursing of Canaan (9:18–29)

9:18–19 The Genesis story gradually moves from focusing on Noah to his three sons. For no immediately apparent reason we are told that Ham is the father of Canaan. This brief detail, which is repeated in 9:22 for emphasis, has an important bearing on the episode that is about to be told. By mentioning that the people of the whole earth are dispersed, verse 19 anticipates all that is recorded in 10:1–11:9.

9:20–27 The description of Noah as a man of the ground/soil recalls both the special relationship that existed between humans and the ground (see 2:5), and Lamech’s remarks concerning Noah in 5:29. After the flood has cleansed the earth from human defilement, the ground is more productive. However, Noah becomes drunk from the fruit of his labour. When his son Ham witnesses him naked, he informs his brothers. There is no reason to assume that Ham has done anything inappropriate, despite what is claimed by many commentators. Three factors point to Canaan as having mistreated Noah. Firstly, the narrator introduces his name in 9:18, 22; there must be some reason for highlighting Canaan but not his other brothers. Secondly, Noah reveals that his “youngest son” has acted inappropriately (v. 24). In the Hebrew text, the term “son” can also mean “grandson” (see 31:28). The reference to “youngest son” can readily apply to Canaan (see 10:6). Ham, however, is not Noah’s youngest son; he is never listed last when the names of Noah’s sons are recorded (see 9:18; cf. 5:32; 6:10; 10:1). Thirdly, Noah curses Canaan. If Ham or someone else is guilty of causing Noah to be naked, then it would be wrong for Canaan to be singled out and cursed. Unfortunately, the finger of guilt has often been pointed at Ham and inappropriately used to justify the enslavement of ethnic groups descended from him that are linked with Africa.

Noah’s pronouncements of cursing and blessing indicate that Shem will exercise authority over his brothers. As chapter 11 reveals, Shem is the one through whom the patriline will continue. Blessed by his father, Shem is to enable the descendants of Japheth to flourish, while restraining the behaviour of the descendants of his nephew Canaan.

9:28–29 The content of these verses recalls the pattern found in the genealogy of chapter 5. With this brief notice of his death, Noah’s part in the Genesis narrative concludes.

The Story of Noah’s Sons’ Descendants (10:1–11:9)

The Descendants of Noah’s Sons (10:1–32)

10:1 A new section of Genesis begins, focusing on the descendants of Shem, Ham, and Japheth. The contents of this chapter move from the youngest son, Japheth, to the eldest son, Shem. The chapter presents a panoramic view of an expanding human population in terms of clans/families, languages, lands, and nations. The picture provided is selective rather than comprehensive. Some of the details highlighted have a particular relevance for the subsequent story. While it is often claimed that, excluding Shem, Ham, and Japheth, seventy persons (or clans/tribes) are mentioned in this chapter—seventy implying the perfection of creation—the correct number is either seventy-one or seventy-two, if the Hebrew name ʾaššûr in 10:11 is taken to refer to a person Asshur and not the place Assyria.

10:2–5 The section about Japheth and his descendants is noticeably shorter than those concerning Ham and Shem. From the limited details provided, Japheth’s descendants are linked to the land and islands bordering the northern side of the Mediterranean Sea reaching possibly to the region around the Black Sea.

10:6–20 The material on Ham gives special attention to the descendants of Cush (vv. 8–12), Mizraim (vv. 13–14), and Canaan (vv. 15–19). When verse 8 states that Cush fathered Nimrod, this does not necessarily mean that Cush was the biological father of Nimrod; Cush’s sons are listed in verse 7, and Nimrod is not mentioned. Throughout chapter 10 the verb “fathered” may introduce future generations. Detailed information is provided about Nimrod, setting him apart from others named in this chapter. According to the ESV translation, Nimrod is the first “mighty man” on earth. However, the Nephilim mentioned in 6:3 are described using the same Hebrew term. The NIV rendering, “Nimrod, who became a mighty warrior on the earth,” is preferable. Importantly, Nimrod is linked to the building of Babel/Babylon. The Hebrew term bābel, usually translated Babel in verse 10 and in 11:9, is rendered Babylon in the rest of the Old Testament. The description of Nimrod being “a mighty hunter before the LORD” (v. 10) may strike some modern readers as a commendation, but the opposite meaning is intended. As a warrior, Nimrod establishes a kingdom, centred on Babel/Babylon, that stands in opposition to God. God intended people to rule over the earth (1:26, 28), but not as warriors. Verse 11 is perhaps best understood as referring to a man, Asshur, who establishes a kingdom centred on the cities of Nineveh, Rehoboth-Ir, Calah, and Resen (see KJV, NJB, TNK). The reference to “the great city” in verse 12 reappears in the story of Jonah and probably denotes an area that included Nineveh and Calah (see Jonah 3:3). The information about Nimrod and Asshur constructing, respectively, the cities of Babylon and Nineveh is noteworthy in the light of later developments. Nineveh is linked to God’s punishment of the northern kingdom of Israel in the late 8th century BC and Babylon to the demise of the southern kingdom of Judah in the early 6th century BC. Special attention is given in verses 15–19 to the descendants of Canaan, who are largely located in the western Levant. God will later allocate this territory to the descendants of Abraham (see Gen 15:18–21). This region is appropriately called the “land of Canaan” in 12:5; 13:12; 17:8; 23:2, 19.

10:21–31 Although he is the eldest of Noah’s son, Shem’s descendants are listed last. This reflects a common pattern in Genesis, where the family details of those in the patriline are placed after those of other siblings. Although the NIV describes Japheth as Shem’s older brother in verse 21, most English versions correctly note that Shem is older than Japheth (e.g., ESV, NJB, NRSV). The name Eber in verse 21 is linked to the term “Hebrew” in 14:13 and 39:17, Abraham and Joseph being descendants of Eber. The naming of Peleg, which means “division,” is probably connected to God’s scattering of the residents of Babel/Babylon (11:8–9).

10:32 The image of nations being created throughout the earth prepares for the call of Abraham, who will be a source of blessing for them (see 12:3; 17:4–6; 18:18).

The City of Babel/Babylon (11:1–9)

11:1–4 Chapter 10 describes how the earth’s population is scattered. 11:1–9, which functions as a flashback in time, explains why this scattering occurred. The construction of Babel probably occurs in the time of Nimrod (10:10) and just prior to the birth of Peleg (10:25). Verse 1 underlines the unity of the people. Although ESV reads “from the east” in verse 2, NIV’s translation “eastward” is more likely (cf. 13:11). Shinar is in southern Mesopotamia (modern Iraq). The people develop the technology to manufacture fired bricks and bitumen, enabling them to construct buildings in a region that lacked stone. The aspirations of the city builders centre on their desire to live without God. They wish to make a name for themselves, an action that recalls the Nephilim warriors (6:4) and their connection with Nimrod (10:8–10). To make a name for oneself is to place oneself ahead of God. By way of contrast, God will later promise to make Abraham’s name great (12:2). By constructing a tower that reaches to “the heavens,” the people look to move beyond the earth where God has placed them into the realm where God is present.

11:5–7 Despite the city builders’ desire to create a tower that will reach to the heavens, God must come down to see what they are doing. Their efforts fall far short of the goal they have set themselves. By confusing their language, God both punishes the people and prevents them from fulfilling other grand aspirations.

11:8–9 The city is named Babel, a wordplay on the Hebrew verb bālal, “to confuse.” Although we have become accustomed to speaking of the tower of Babel, the Hebrew term bābel is the usual name for the city of Babylon in the rest of the Old Testament. God had intended that people should fill the earth; however, his scattering of the city-builders does not fulfil his original intention because they do not rule over the earth on his behalf. The result of this dispersion has already been documented in chapter 10. At the outset of creation, God intended people to build a city for him on the earth, where he would dwell. Babel/Babylon is the antithesis of the city of God. Ultimately, God will create on a new earth a city where people from every tribe, nation, and language will enjoy his presence (Rev 7:9; 21:3, 24–27; 22:2).

The Story of Shem’s Descendants (11:10–26)

11:10–25 A new heading introduces a second linear genealogy (cf. 5:1–32) that continues the patriline that begins with the birth of Seth to Eve in 4:25. The Genesis narrative continues its quest for the offspring of Eve who will overcome the serpent. Although this genealogy gives the impression that it moves from father to son, we should be open to the possibility that the list may on occasions move from father to grandson. This may explain why Luke 3:35–36 introduces an additional generation between Arpachshad and Shelah, listing Cainan as the son of Arpachshad/Arphaxad and father of Shelah.

11:26 Shem’s patriline comes to an end with Terah and the naming of his three sons. In verses 11–25 only one son is named in each generation. We should be open to the possibility that the arrangement of the names of Terah’s sons is determined by importance rather than birth order (see comments on 11:31–32 below).

The Story of Terah’s Descendants (11:27–25:11)

Terah’s Family Introduced (11:27–32)

11:27–30 The start of a new section is marked by the heading in verse 27, signalling that what follows will focus on Terah’s sons. Though he is possibly not the eldest of the brothers, Abram (later renamed Abraham, 17:5) is listed first because he will dominate the narrative through to chapter 25. To set the scene for what is to follow, the narrator provides some important family details. The daughter of Haran (possibly the eldest of the brothers) marries her uncle Nahor. In Genesis there are various examples of endogamy, that is, marrying a close relative (see 20:12; 24:4; 28:2; 29:13–30). Such marriages were later prohibited when God established a special covenant relationship with the Israelites at Mount Sinai (see Lev 18:9; 20:17; Deut 27:22). Importantly, we learn that Sarai (later renamed Sarah) is unable to have children (v. 30). Sarah’s childlessness is an important motif in the ongoing narrative, forming an obstacle to the continuation of the patriline that has been traced to Terah. Ur of the Chaldeans lies in southern Mesopotamia.

11:31–32 Terah moves from Ur to Harran (also spelled Haran) in northern Mesopotamia, where he eventually dies. Although in English the name of the location Harran/Haran looks like the name of Terah’s son Haran, in the Hebrew text the two names are quite different. With the death of Terah, the narrative focuses on Abraham as the next member of the patriline. According to Acts 7:4, Abraham left Harran after the death of Terah. Genesis 12:4 states that Abraham was seventy-five years old when he left Harran. Since Terah dies at the age of 205 years old, Abraham must have been born when Terah was 132 years old. Yet 11:26 associates the births of Abraham, Nahor, and Haran with Terah’s seventieth year. Since it is unlikely that all three sons were born in Terah’s seventieth year, 11:26 may merely imply that Terah’s sons were born at some stage after he reached the age of seventy years old.

The Call of Abraham (12:1–9)

12:1–3 God’s invitation to Abraham to leave his homeland and family is one of the most important speeches in Genesis. It sets the agenda for all that follows in Abraham’s life. Importantly, this agenda has major implications for God’s redemptive purposes for the whole of humanity. With the call of Abraham, the tone of the narrative changes from highlighting God’s curses upon humanity in chapters 3–11 to emphasizing the possibility of blessing in chapters 12–50. God’s summons of Abraham offers hope against the background of Babel/Babylon and the scattering of the people (11:1–9). While some might claim that 12:1–3 is a turning point in Genesis, it builds on the expectations introduced in 3:15 concerning the offspring of the woman, which is linked to the patriline traced throughout Genesis.

God’s speech is best understood as having a command-promise structure that brings together two different aspects of how God will bless Abraham. The first part of the speech emphasizes that Abraham will become a great nation, an expectation that is developed in more detail in chapter 15. The second part of the speech begins with a command, “and be a blessing” (v. 2), although some English versions translate the Hebrew imperative as “and you will be a blessing” (e.g., NIV). The second half of God’s speech focuses on Abraham being a source of blessing for “all peoples of earth” (v. 3). Importantly, the idea of Abraham blessing others is developed in chapter 17, where God speaks of Abraham being the “father of many nations” (17:4–5). At the heart of the chapters devoted to Abraham is the idea that he will be the father of a “great nation” and the “father of many nations.”

God’s summons of Abraham holds out prospects that will not be fulfilled in Abraham’s own lifetime. These expectations shape future developments. Their fulfilment, however, depends on Abraham abandoning his own homeland and family. It also requires that Sarah’s childlessness will be overcome.

12:4–9 Abraham obeys the Lord’s command, taking his household to the land of Canaan. A further reference to Abraham’s nephew Lot (cf. 11:27, 31), prepares for his presence in later episodes. The author of Hebrews highlights Abraham’s trust in God as he migrates to a location unknown to him (Heb 11:8). When Abraham arrives in Canaan, God promises to give this land to his offspring (v. 7), despite the presence of the Canaanites (v. 6). The building of altars (vv. 7–8) underlines God’s special relationship with Abraham.

Abraham and Sarai in Egypt (12:10–20)

12:10–13 Abraham has journeyed southward through Canaan, from Shechem to Bethel to the Negev (vv. 6–9). Famine then causes him to trek onward to Egypt. In Egypt, out of fear for his own life, Abraham persuades Sarah to pretend that she is merely his sister. By doing so, Abraham displays a lack of trust in God’s protection.

12:14–16 Unfortunately, Abraham’s deception backfires, and Pharaoh takes Sarah to become one of his wives. While Pharaoh gives Abraham a variety of gifts, the loss of his wife endangers the fulfilment of God’s promises.

12:17–20 Although most English translations convey the idea that God struck Pharaoh and his household with severe plagues, the Hebrew text speaks of “blows” or “strikes.” When the King James Version was translated in the early 17th century, the English term “plague,” which is derived from the Latin noun plaga, meant a “blow” or “strike.” Although some English translations assume that verse 17 refers to diseases, the Hebrew text does not specify how God struck Pharaoh and his household. Some scholars suggest that God’s actions to release Sarah prefigure the release of the Israelites from slavery in Egypt at the time of the exodus. However, there is no reason to assume a typological connection between God’s striking Pharaoh on this occasion and the “signs and wonders” that Moses and Aaron perform in Egypt (see Exod 7:3).

Lot Separates from Abraham (13:1–18)

13:1–9 Abraham retraces his steps, returning to near Bethel (cf. 12:8–10). He is once more back in the territory that God will give to his descendants. However, the area around Bethel is unable to support the flocks and herds that belong to Abraham and his nephew Lot. Quarrels break out between their herdsmen. To prevent further disputes, Abraham proposes that he and his nephew part company.

13:10–13 Lot is drawn towards the fertile plain of the Jordan Valley with its abundant supply of water. His choice, however, brings him closer to the city of Sodom. When we next hear of him, he is living inside the city (14:12; cf. 19:3–11). Anticipating later events recorded in chapter 19, verse 10 speaks of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. Adding to a sense of foreboding regarding Lot’s choice, the wickedness of Sodom’s inhabitants is mentioned in verse 13. Despite appearing “like a garden of the Lord” (v. 10), Lot’s eastward journey (v.11) recalls the eastward expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden, and Cain’s eastward journey that took him away from God’s presence.

13:14–18 After Lot’s departure, the Lord reassures Abraham regarding his earlier promise that he would become a great nation (cf. 12:2). God’s speech mentions land, extending as far as Abraham can see in every direction, and offspring as numerous as “the dust of the earth” (v. 16; cf. 15:5; 22:17). Land and people are the essential components for creating a great nation. Abraham relocates to Hebron, where yet again he builds an altar to the Lord (cf. 12:7–8).

Abraham Rescues Lot (14:1–24)

14:1–12 An existing record of a campaign by the eastern kings, preserved in verses 1–11, has been taken over by the author of Genesis to provide the setting for the account of Abraham’s dramatic rescue of Lot. In the Hebrew text, verse 12 repeats closely the structure of verse 11. The account in verses 1–11 contains brief parenthetical remarks that update place names (e.g., Bela is equated with Zoar), enabling later readers to understand better the geography of all that happens. After defeating the kings of Sodom and Gomorrah, the four Mesopotamian kings plunder their cities. In the process of doing this, they take Lot prisoner (v. 12).

14:13–16 A survivor tells Abraham of Lot’s abduction. The designation “Hebrew” refers to the ethnic group to which Abraham and his descendants belong (e.g., Gen 39:14, 17; 41:12; Exod 1:15–17, 19; 2:6, 11). The term is linked to Abraham’s ancestor Eber (10:21; 11:14–16). After recruiting men from his own household and enlisting the support of his Amorite neighbours, Abraham orchestrates a surprise night-time attack that succeeds in freeing Lot and other hostages. The mention of “Dan” is anachronistic, for this is the name that the Israelites give to the city of Laish centuries later (Judg 18:27–29).

14:17–24 On his return from successfully defeating the eastern kings, Abraham meets the kings of Sodom and Salem. The name Salem, which resembles the Hebrew word for “peace” (šālôm), is possibly a shortened form of Jerusalem (see Ps 76:2). Apart from his generosity in providing food and wine, Melchizedek’s actions and words focus on God’s role in Abraham’s victory. In marked contrast, the unnamed king of Sodom thinks only of material possessions. Abraham affirms Melchizedek’s stance, while rejecting that of the king of Sodom. Although very little is said about Melchizedek, he is a priest-king whose name can be taken to mean “king of righteousness” (cf. Heb 7:2). The author of the New Testament book of Hebrews draws on a noteworthy reference to Melchizedek in Psalm 110:4 to explain how Jesus Christ is a unique high priest who does not belong to a hereditary line of priests (see Heb 5:1–10; 6:20–7:22). Unfortunately, most English translations of Hebrews 5:10 state that Jesus Christ became a priest in the “order of Melchizedek” (cf. Heb 6:20 ESV). A better translation would be “after the fashion of Melchizedek.” In Genesis 14 no mention is made of Melchizedek inheriting his priestly status from his father, and there is no indication that Melchizedek passed on his priesthood to one of his sons. It is the absence of a priestly order that is significant for the author of Hebrews. Abraham acknowledges the importance of the priestly blessing that he receives by giving to Melchizedek a tenth of everything that was captured from the eastern kings (v. 20; cf. 1Sam 8:15, 17). Abraham, however, refuses to take any of the plunder, lest the king of Sodom claim that he made Abraham rich (v. 23). Abraham distances himself from the king of Sodom due to the wickedness of the city.

God’s Covenant of Nationhood with Abraham (15:1–21)

15:1–5 In the aftermath of Abraham’s response to the kings of Salem and Sodom, God speaks to Abraham in a vision. God’s statement, “I am your shield,” introduces a wordplay in Hebrew involving Melchizedek’s remark, “who delivered your enemies into your hand” (14:20). God has already protected Abraham and now promises that he will continue to do so. In addition, because Abraham has rejected the plunder offered to him by the king of Sodom, God promises Abraham a “great reward” (v. 1). Whereas the NIV translation speaks of God being Abraham’s “very great reward,” other English translations interpret the Hebrew text as saying, “your reward shall/will be very great” (CSB, ESV, NRSV). This latter rendering seems more appropriate in the light of the rest of chapter 15, as Abraham proceeds to ask for an heir (vv. 2–3). Lacking a son of his own, Abraham’s heir is one of the male members of his household, Eliezer of Damascus. Possibly, he was acquired by Abraham on his journey to Canaan (see 17:23, 27; cf. 14:14). Despite Sarah’s inability to have children (11:30), God promises Abraham that his descendants will be as numerous as the stars.

15:6 The narrator interrupts his description of what has been happening to make an important observation concerning Abraham’s trust in God. Because Abraham displays an ongoing trust in what God says, God declares Abraham righteous. This righteousness is due to his faith in what God says and not based on actions that he has performed. In the New Testament, the apostle Paul quotes this verse three times, contending that God will consider Gentiles righteous not based on circumcision but on faith (see Rom 4:3, 22; Gal 3:6). From a different perspective, the apostle James quotes this verse to support his contention that faith without works is dead (Jas 2:21–24). For both Paul and James, faith is a vital element in the process by which people are made right with God.

15:7–17 After reassuring Abraham that he will have numerous descendants, God speaks once more to him, recalling that he brought Abraham from Ur of the Chaldeans to the land of Canaan in order that he would possess it. God’s words prompt Abraham to ask for a guarantee that this will happen (v. 8). Abraham’s request leads to an unusual ritual that involves the killing of various animals, after which Abraham is required to arrange their carcasses in two rows. When it is dark, “a smoking firepot with a blazing torch” (v. 17) pass between the pieces. While some scholars contend that this ritual involves a self-curse, drawing on a somewhat similar event in Jeremiah 34:18–19, it is possible that the ritual symbolises God’s presence among Abraham’s descendants (represented by the slaughtered animals). If this is the case, then the ritual anticipates the Israelites’ exodus from Egypt when God came to dwell among the people (cf. Exod 13:21–22; 14:24). This interpretation corresponds well with God’s remarks in verses 13–14. The Israelites will only possess the land of Canaan after God expels those already living there due to their wickedness. At that time “the sin of the Amorites” will have “reached its full measure” (v. 16; cf. Deut 9:4–6). ‎While the emphasis in God’s speech is on Abraham’s descendants possessing the land, God reassures Abraham that he will go to his ancestors in peace (v. 15). The expression “in peace” is striking, for the Hebrew concept of peace (šālôm) implies wholeness and well-being. God is not speaking of Abraham being at rest in a tomb but has in view an afterlife in which he will enjoy šālôm.

15:18–20 The chapter concludes with a summary statement concerning a covenant that God makes with Abraham. This covenant guarantees Abraham that his descendants will possess territory that runs from the “Wadi of Egypt” to the Euphrates, a large region that in Abraham’s time belonged to various people groups. Similar lists come elsewhere in the Old Testament (e.g., Exod 3:8, 17; 13:5; 23:23; 33:2; 34:11; Deut 7:1; 20:17), but this is the longest. Many of those mentioned are descendants of Canaan (see 10:15–19). The Jebusites, who are always placed last in these lists, were the last group to be conquered by the Israelites. This happened when David captured Jerusalem (2Sam 5:6–7). Importantly, the covenant made by God ensures that Abraham will become a great nation, recalling and guaranteeing God’s conditional promise in 12:2. No mention, however, is made of the nations being blessed through Abraham (12:3). This will become the focus of a further covenant introduced in chapter 17.

The Birth of Ishmael (16:1–16)

16:1–3 Sarah’s inability to bear children remains a barrier to the fulfilment of God’s promises (cf. 11:30). By this stage Sarah is about seventy-five years old. Hagar may have become Sarah’s maidservant during her time in Egypt (12:10–20). Implicitly blaming God for her childlessness, Sarah attempts to rectify the situation by giving Abraham a second wife. It is slightly misleading to call Hagar a “slave”; “maidservant” may be more appropriate. Sarah’s actions were culturally acceptable in the ANE; similar arrangements are later made by Rachel and Leah (30:1–13).

16:4–6 Although Sarah gives Hagar to Abraham to be his second wife, she expects Hagar to remain her maidservant. However, on becoming pregnant, Hagar’s attitude towards Sarah changes and she treats her mistress with contempt. When Sarah confronts Abraham regarding Hagar’s behaviour, he sides with Sarah. When Sarah mistreats Hagar by humiliating her, Hagar runs away.

16:7–14 Hagar flees toward Egypt, her homeland. Unexpectedly, “the angel of the Lord” (v. 7) appears to Hagar. This is the first appearance of the “angel of the Lord” in the Old Testament. For English readers this expression appears to imply that the angel belongs to the Lord and is a separate entity, but it is more likely that the Hebrew expression means “the angel that is the Lord.” This interpretation is in keeping with what is said in verse 13, which implies that the Lord spoke directly to Hagar, and with how the expression “the angel of the Lord” is used elsewhere in the Old Testament (e.g., Exod 3:2–6; Judg 6:11–24). By adopting the form of an angel, God can appear to humans without displaying all his majestic glory. God encourages Hagar to return to Abraham’s household and be submissive to Sarah, promising that her son will not be subservient to others but will enjoy the freedom of a wild donkey (v. 12). To underline that God has responded to Hagar’s misery, her son is to be named “Ishmael,” which means “God hears.” Because God responds to her need, Hagar calls him El Roi (the God who see me). Consequently, the location is called Beer Lahai Roi, which means “well of the living one who sees me.” God’s concern for Hagar is noteworthy given her precarious situation.

16:15–16 Encouraged by God, Hagar returns to Abraham’s household. When she gives birth to a son, Abraham names him, indicating that he views the child as his own. Since God intervened to send Hagar back, Abraham may well have considered Ishmael to be the solution to his lack of an heir (cf. 17:18). Ishmael, however, is not God’s answer to Abraham and Sarah’s childlessness.

God’s Covenant of International Blessing (17:1–27)

17:1–2 The narrative jumps forward eleven years after the birth of Ishmael. Once more God addresses Abraham. The dialogue that follows focuses on the establishment of a new and broader covenant that subsumes the covenant made in chapter 15. By introducing himself as “God Almighty,” the Lord highlights his powerfulness, a fitting characteristic in the light of his promise that Sarah will give birth to a son at the age of ninety (see 7:17). The syntax of the Hebrew text suggests that God’s promise to make this covenant is dependent upon Abraham’s obedience to the instruction to “walk before me and be blameless” (see ESV, NIV). These instructions recall an earlier description of Noah (6:9; cf. 5:22). Abraham is to resemble Noah in his relationship with God.

17:3–8 When Abraham with humility acknowledges the Lord’s presence, God outlines his responsibilities concerning this new covenant. He promises to make Abraham “the father of many nations,” a point emphasised through repetition in verses 4–5 and by changing the patriarch’s name from Abram to Abraham. Whereas the covenant in chapter 15 is restricted to Abraham being the father of one nation, this new covenant extends Abraham’s fatherhood to embrace other nations. In this context, Abraham’s fatherhood is best understood metaphorically. The designation “father” may be used of someone who is not the biological male parent of another. For example, later in Genesis, Joseph comments on how God has made him “a father to Pharaoh” (45:8). By focusing on Abraham’s fatherhood of many nations, this covenant links back to God’s promise in 12:3 that through Abraham “all peoples on earth will be blessed.” In contrast to the covenant of chapter 15, God describes this covenant as “an everlasting covenant.” While the emphasis here is on Abraham’s fatherhood of many nations, God reiterates that Abraham’s biological descendants will possess the land of Canaan (v. 8).

17:9–14 This section of God’s speech focuses on Abraham’s part within the covenant. God instructs him that every male must be circumcised, circumcision being the sign of the covenant (v. 11). Reflecting the international dimension of this covenant, Abraham is instructed to circumcise those born in his household and those bought from foreigners (vv. 12–13). In this context, circumcision does not indicate consanguinity. Since the sign of this covenant is associated with procreation, circumcision probably recalls the unique patriline that runs throughout Genesis. This association is reinforced by the observation that this covenant will be established only with Isaac and not with all the males who are circumcised (7:19–21). This distinction is significant. The benefits of the covenant may be enjoyed by many, but the covenant itself is established with only one person.

17:15–18 God’s attention turns to Abraham’s wife, whose name is changed from Sarai to Sarah. Both forms of her name mean “princess,” a fitting designation given that “kings of peoples will come from her” (v. 16). God’s promise that she will bear a son links her directly to the covenant that God is establishing with Abraham. Not surprisingly, Abraham responds with scepticism. He struggles to accept that after all this time Sarah will bear him a son. Consequently, he enquires about the status of Ishmael, whom he views as his own son.

17:19–21 God confirms that Sarah will bear Abraham a son. The name Isaac, which means “he laughs,” recalls Abraham’s incredulous response in verse 17 and introduces a motif that reappears in 18:12 and 21:6. While God states twice in verses 18–21 that the covenant will be established only with Isaac, he nevertheless reassures Abraham that Ishmael will be blessed and become a great nation. By linking the covenant to Isaac and his descendants, this covenant is tied to the central patriline of Genesis. The covenant will eventually find its fulfilment in Jesus Christ, through whom all the families of the earth will be blessed (see Acts 3:25–26; Gal 3:8–9, 14–16).

17:22–27 Abraham fulfils God’s instructions, circumcising all the male members of his household, including Ishmael. Their membership in Abraham’s household ensures that they will experience God’s blessing.

Lot Is Rescued from Sodom (18:1–19:29)

18:1–8 This episode presupposes the events of chapter 17. As in 17:1, the Lord appears to Abraham, but on this occasion the narrator sets the scene, describing in detail how the encounter took place. Abraham’s generous hospitality is exemplary. With haste he looks to provide the visitors with a substantial meal. Although the reader knows the identity of the Lord from verse 1, there is an element of ambiguity as to when Abraham makes this discovery. The Jewish scholars responsible for adding vowels to the original consonantal text of Genesis take the term “Lord” in verse 3 to refer to God. The NIV translation “my lord” offers a different reading of the Hebrew text. The author of Hebrews may have this episode in view when he speaks of showing hospitality to angels without knowing it (Heb 13:2).

18:9–16 Although God has announced that Abraham will be the father of many nations, the patriarch adopts a humble attitude towards the strangers. He stands as servant while the men feast. Sarah’s laugh of disbelief recalls Abraham’s reaction in 17:17 and anticipates the naming of Isaac (21:3–6).

18:17–21 Although most English versions assume that verses 17–19 describe what God said as he was leaving Abraham’s campsite, the Hebrew text implies that these words were spoken previously. God’s remarks explain why he now informs Abraham about the sin of Sodom and Gomorrah. In the context of his decision to punish the wicked inhabitants of the cities, God underlines that he has chosen Abraham in order to create a morally righteous and just world. Abraham’s household includes those who are not biologically related to him (cf. 17:12–13, 23). Aware of the seriousness of their sin, God takes time to confirm the wickedness of the people before pronouncing judgement. As his conversation with Abraham reveals, God does not punish without good reason.

18:22–33 Without mentioning him by name, Abraham reveals his concern for the safety of his nephew Lot, whom he views as righteous. For this reason, only the city of Sodom is specifically mentioned in the dialogue between God and Abraham (v. 26). The motifs of justice and righteousness pervade verses 17–33. In the light of God’s expectations for Abraham and his household (vv. 17–19), it is noteworthy that Abraham is concerned that God should act ethically. Abraham’s bold, but respectful, interaction with God reinforces the belief that the Lord will not punish inappropriately. The anticipated destruction of the cities is presented as a carefully considered and just judgement. In the end, only three residents of Sodom respond to the promptings of the two angels to escape from the city.

19:1–3 Continuing the story of chapter 18, it takes several hours for the two angels to travel from the great trees of Mamre to Sodom. Lot’s offer of hospitality to the visitors resembles Abraham’s actions in 18:1–8. Despite living in Sodom, Lot is more like Abraham than the people of the city. This explains why he is rescued from the destruction of the city, and why the apostle Peter speaks favourably of Lot’s righteousness (2Pet 2:6–8).

19:4–11 All the men of Sodom, young and old, are complicit in seeking to have sex with the two strangers (v. 4). While Lot attempts to buy them off by offering his two daughters, the men of Sodom are determined to have their way. It is easy to condemn Lot for gifting his daughters to the aggressive crowd surrounding his house, but he perceives this course of action to be the lesser of two evils. It is also the more costly option for him personally. It would have been understandable if Lot had put the protection of his family before that of the strangers. In judging Lot, however, we should not lose sight of the heinous behaviour of the men of Sodom. They label Lot a foreigner (v. 9), condemn him for judging them, and even threaten to abuse him sexually.

19:12–22 Lot’s visitors announce God’s intention to destroy the city. They encourage Lot to warn the members of his family and others associated with him. When Lot informs his future sons-in-law, they dismiss his warning as a joke. With the destruction of the city imminent, the angels grasp the hands of Lot, his wife, and their two daughters to lead them out of the city. Even in judgement, God displays mercy by rescuing Lot from the destruction that is about to descend upon Sodom and Gomorrah. Fearful of not reaching the safety of the mountains in time, Lot asks the strangers for permission to take refuge in the city of Bela, which is subsequently renamed Zoar (see 14:8).

19:23–26 At the start of the day, God destroys Sodom and Gomorrah by raining down burning sulphur on the cities. The destruction is total. After disregarding the strangers’ instruction not to look back (19:17), Lot’s wife is transformed into a pillar of salt. Her action indicates that her heart is in Sodom. She is so attached to the past that she fails to save her own life (cf. Luke 17:32).

19:27–29 The narrative switches back to Abraham, who surveys the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah from near the great trees of Mamre. Abraham’s prior intervention (18:22–33) has ensured Lot’s safe deliverance from Sodom.

Lot’s Daughters (19:30–38)

19:30–35 After fleeing Zoar, Lot and his daughters relocate to an isolated location in the mountains. Taking unusual steps to continue the family line, Lot’s daughter sleep with him after plying him with wine. Lot is so inebriated that he has no recollection of having intercourse with them.

19:36–38 The names of the boys reflect something of the incestuous behaviour that led to their births. Moab resembles the Hebrew expression underlying the words “from our father” (vv. 32, 34). Ben-Ammi means “son of my people.” Moab and Ben-Ammi become the eponymous ancestors of the Moabites and Ammonites, respectively, two nations that are often portrayed negatively in the Old Testament (e.g., Num 23–25; Deut 23:3–5; 2Kgs 3). One notable exception is the Moabitess Ruth, who becomes the wife of Boaz and gives birth to Obed, the grandfather of King David (see Ruth 1:3–4; 4:13–22). With these details concerning his descendants, Lot disappears from the Genesis narrative, and the attention turns to the birth of Isaac, Abraham’s son and heir.

Abraham and Sarah in Gerar (20:1–18)

20:1–2 Abraham relocates to Gerar in the south of Palestine. No reason is given for this, but the move has important implications for the events described in this chapter. Abraham and Sarah are unknown to the inhabitants of Gerar. Consequently, Abimelech, the king of Gerar, is oblivious to the fact that Sarah is Abraham’s wife. The brief remark in verse 2 that Abraham pretended Sarah was his sister presupposes that the reader already knows the earlier incident, which occurred when Abraham and Sarah travelled to Egypt (12:10–13). Although the ruse is designed to protect Abraham, it fails once more, and Sarah is taken by Abimelech.

20:3–7 On the very night of Sarah’s abduction, God appears to Abimelech. This swift intervention is important, because the narrative underlines several times that Abimelech did not touch Sarah. This excludes the possibility that he might be the father of the son that Sarah will soon bear (21:1–2). The brief conversation between God and Abimelech centres on the issue of the king’s innocence. Emphasising that Abraham and Sarah conspired in the deception, Abimelech challenges God to act justly. He describes his nation as “righteous” (v. 4; NIV reads, “innocent”), a comment that recalls Abraham’s intercession regarding the righteous in Sodom. While God recognises that Abimelech has not committed adultery, he nevertheless challenges the king to return Sarah to her husband. God’s brief remark that Abraham is a “prophet” is linked to the motif of prayer. As a prophet, who intercedes for others, Abraham is a source of blessing (cf. 12:3; 18:18).

20:8–13 Abimelech rightly challenges Abraham for potentially causing the king to commit adultery. In response, Abraham attempts to justify his actions. Firstly, he states that the people of Gerar do not fear God, a claim that appears to be contradicted by the narrator’s observation that Abimelech’s officials “were very much afraid” (v. 8). Secondly, Abraham contends that he spoke the truth when he said that Sarah was his sister. However, if this is true, it is only part of the truth, for the patriarch omits the fact that Sarah is also his wife. Thirdly, Abraham claims that this has been his normal practice ever since he left his father’s household. Yet, this explanation offers no justification for doing something that is deceptive. Abraham’s actions strongly imply that he fails to trust God for protection.

20:14–18 Abimelech comes across as more righteous than Abraham. Nevertheless, the king has taken Sarah to be one of his concubines. By way of restitution, Abimelech not only returns Sarah but also gives Abraham a variety of gifts, including 1,000 shekels of silver, an exceptionally large payment. Furthermore, he invites Abraham to settle in the land of Gerar. In the light of the king’s generosity, Abraham prays for him. After this, God heals Abimelech and the female members of his household so that they can have children again. God’s restoration of fertility to the women in Abimelech’s household provides a bridge to the next episode in which the Lord enables Sarah to become pregnant.

Isaac’s Birth and Confirmation as Abraham’s Heir (21:1–21)

21:1–2 The word order in the Hebrew text gives prominence to God, underlining that he is the one who makes it possible for Sarah to bear Abraham a son. In the space of two verses, there are three references to God doing what he had promised (see 17:16–21; 18:10–14). Sarah is around ninety years old when Isaac is born, making the birth very remarkable. God is true to his word, having promised Abraham a son and heir. By enabling Sarah to become pregnant, God plays a vital role in sustaining the unique patriline that is traced throughout the book of Genesis.

21:3–7 The wording of the Hebrew text in verse 3 emphasizes that this son belongs to Abraham. A more literal rendering is, “Abraham called the name of his son, the one born to him, whom Sarah bore to him, Isaac.” This emphasis is continued into verses 4–5 through the repetition of “his son” after the name Isaac. God had previously told Abraham that his son should be called Isaac (17:19). With good reason, Sarah is filled with joy and laughter at the birth of Isaac, whose name means “he laughs” (see 17:17; 18:12).

21:8–13 Isaac is possibly three years old when the weaning feast is held. At this stage Ishmael is about sixteen years old. The verb used to describe Ishmael’s mocking of his younger half-brother involves a further wordplay on Isaac’s name. While the narrative does not detail the precise nature of Ishmael’s actions, his behaviour offends Sarah deeply. Having stressed that Isaac is Abraham’s son in verses 3–7, the narrator highlights Ishmael’s status in verses 8–31 by repeatedly referring to him as the son of Hagar, who in turn is described as an Egyptian (v. 9) and a “slave woman” (or, more accurately, a “concubine”; vv. 10, 12, 13). The name Ishmael never appears in this chapter. Subtle details highlight Hagar and Ishmael’s lesser status within Abraham’s household. Sarah stresses Hagar’s identity as a concubine, telling Abraham that Ishmael should not share in his inheritance (v. 10). Sarah’s attitude toward Ishmael recalls the events surrounding his birth (16:1–16). Abraham is troubled by this tension within his household, for he considers Ishmael to be his son (v. 11). Into this fraught situation God speaks, emphasising that Abraham’s patriline will be continued through Isaac, as he had previously indicated (17:15–21). However, he reassures Abraham that “the son of the slave” will become a nation (cf. 16:10–12; 17:20). Although God excludes Ishmael from the lineage that will eventually lead to a unique king, he nevertheless promises that Ishmael’s descendants will form a significant nation.

21:14–19 Having been provided with food and water, Hagar and Ishmael leave Abraham’s campsite, possibly journeying towards Egypt. Their trek begins in an arid region where wells are essential to obtain water (cf. 21:30; 26:18). Before they find another well, their drinking water is finished. Exhausted and thirsty, Hagar places Ishmael under a bush for shelter from the sun. Some scholars suggest that this action indicates that Ishmael was still a very young child. However, there is no need to assume this. A teenager might well be exhausted after walking many miles in the sun. Hagar sits apart from Ishmael, perhaps hoping that he will not see her distress. Her words, “I cannot watch the boy die” (v. 16), could also be translated as a prayer: “Do not let me see the death of the child.” Possibly she recalls how previously the angel of the Lord appeared to her in the wilderness (16:7) and hopes that God will intervene a second time. God speaks to Hagar, confirming that her son will become a great nation (v. 18). The expression “angel of God” probably denotes God himself rather than a messenger (see the comments on the “angel of the Lord” in 16:7–14). The two references to God hearing the boy’s crying in verse 17 recall Ishmael’s name, which means “God hears.” After speaking reassuringly to Hagar, God enables her to see a well, from which she can draw water for her son.

21:20–21 Despite having instructed Abraham to send Hagar and Ishmael away, God does not abandon them. Importantly, the narrator states that God is with the boy. Ishmael settles in the region south of Gerar and marries an Egyptian woman. Further details regarding Ishmael’s sons are recorded in 25:12–18.

Abraham and Abimelech at Beersheba (21:22–34)

21:22–24 This episode builds upon Abraham’s previous encounter with Abimelech, king of Gerar (20:1–18). Having just stated that God was with Ishmael (21:20), the narrator introduces a new episode that focuses on God’s presence with Abraham. Abimelech says to Abraham, “God is with you in everything you do” (v. 22). The king of Gerar and his army commander are at one in the request they make to Abraham. They ask him to show ḥesed, which NIV translates as “kindness” (v. 23). The Hebrew term implies faithful love. The same noun is translated “love” by NIV in Exodus 20:6 with reference to God’s love for those who love him and keep his commandments. Abraham willingly agrees to Abimelech’s proposal.

21:25–31 Before committing formally to Abimelech’s request, Abraham highlights a problem regarding the possession of a well that he had dug (v. 25). The two men then make a friendship treaty that involves the gift of sheep and cattle to Abimelech (v. 27). After this, Abraham makes a further gift of seven ewe lambs to Abimelech (vv. 28–29). By accepting this gift, Abimelech acknowledges Abraham’s ownership of the well. The name of the well, Beersheba, can be understood to mean either “well of oath” or “well of seven” (the Hebrew words for “seven” and “oath” are similar).

21:32–34 Beersheba is located at some distance from where Abimelech dwells. This accounts for the king’s lack of knowledge regarding the ownership of the well (21:26). By planting a tree, Abraham indicates his commitment to dwelling at this location for a period. A sense of permanence is also reflected in the name “Eternal God” that Abraham gives to the Lord. The designation “Philistines” probably denotes a different group of people to those who only settled in southern Palestine around 1200 BC.

The Testing of Abraham (22:1–19)

22:1–2 This chapter, perhaps one of the best known in Genesis, builds on the episodes that precede it. Having sent Ishmael away, Isaac is now Abraham’s sole heir. He is the one to whom the divine promises will pass after the death of Abraham. Given this expectation, God’s command that Abraham should sacrifice his son is highly unusual. The incident raises many questions that remain unanswered. Importantly, at the outset the narrator indicates that God is testing Abraham. The purpose of the test is linked to the divine oath that comes in verses 16–18. The extent of Abraham’s willingness to trust and obey God is severely tested. All that God has been doing in Abraham’s life is threatened by this request to kill his only son, whom he loves. The potential sacrifice of Isaac places in jeopardy God’s prior promises to Abraham (cf. 17:19; 21:12). The name Moriah only occurs elsewhere in the Old Testament in 2 Chronicles 3:1, which states that Solomon built the Lord’s temple on Mount Moriah. While a general connection is made between the two locations, there is no need to assume that the sacrifice involving Isaac took place at the very spot where the temple was constructed by Solomon.

22:3–8 Abraham responds without delay to God’s request. Taking wood for the burnt offering, Abraham sets out for the region of Moriah. Two young men, perhaps of similar age to Isaac, accompany Abraham. Although the ESV refers to Isaac as a “boy” (v. 5), the Hebrew noun translated “boy” is also used to denote the two servants who travel with Abraham (vv. 3, 5, 19). We should not assume that Isaac is merely a young boy. When they arrive close to the mountain that God has chosen, Abraham instructs the young men to remain with the donkey while he and Isaac ascend the mountain. Abraham tells them, “We will worship and then we will come back to you” (v. 5). In the light of God’s instruction, Abraham’s remarks are noteworthy. Abraham anticipates that Isaac will return with him. Drawing on this expectation, the author of Hebrews observes, “Abraham reasoned that God could even raise the dead, and so in a manner of speaking he did receive Isaac back from death” (Heb 11:19). In a similar vein, when Isaac asks his father, “Where is the lamb for the burnt offering?” Abraham states that God himself will provide the sacrifice. Subsequent events confirm the truthfulness of all that Abraham says. Verses 6 and 8 paint a poignant picture of Abraham and Isaac walking together.

22:9–15 With minimum detail the narrator describes how Abraham prepares to sacrifice his son Isaac. We can only speculate as to what was said between father and son. For the narrator these details are irrelevant. Importantly, however, as Abraham is about to kill his son, the Lord intervenes. As elsewhere in Genesis, the designation “angel of the Lord” is used to denote God himself (see commentary on 16:7–14). God’s words confirm that Abraham has passed the test. However, the story does not end here. Abraham sees a ram that is trapped in a thicket. He takes it and offers it as a burnt offering. The divine provision of the sacrificial animal is significant. Only after it has been offered does God speak a second time from heaven.

22:16–19 God’s speech is exceptionally important. It brings the main part of the Abraham story to a climactic conclusion. God confirms through a solemn oath his previous promises to Abraham, beginning with what he said in 12:1–3. For his willingness to obey God in the most challenging of circumstances, God guarantees Abraham that he will have numerous descendants (cf. 13:16; 15:5) and that through one of these descendants “all nations on earth will be blessed” (v. 18). Although the NIV translation states, “Your descendants will take possession of the cities of their enemies,” the syntax of the Hebrew text points to a single descendant (cf. ESV, JPS, KJV). This expectation is in keeping with the idea that a single offspring of Eve will overcome the serpent. Echoing what is said in verse 18, Psalm 72:17 associates the blessing of the nations with a royal descendant of David, who will reign forever over the entire earth. The promises guaranteed by the divine oath in verses 16–18 are subsequently linked to Isaac (see 26:3–5). In the New Testament, the apostles Peter and Paul draw on the final part of this divine oath when they claim that Jesus Christ is the offspring of Abraham who brings blessing to the nations (Acts 3:25–26; Gal 3:16). Elsewhere, the apostle James uses the events of Genesis 22 to argue that Abraham’s actions were the outworking of his faith (Jas 2:21–24). To conclude this episode, the narrator notes that Abraham and the young men returned to Beersheba.

Nahor’s Children (22:20–24)

22:20–24 This short section forms a bridge between the main part of the Abraham narrative and the episodes recounting the death of Sarah and the acquisition of a wife for Isaac. Nahor and his wife, Milcah, are mentioned briefly in 11:27–29. The re-introduction of Nahor’s family, and especially the reference to Rebekah (v. 23), anticipates the events of chapter 24.

Sarah’s Death and Burial (23:1–20)

23:1–2 The details concerning Sarah’s death are kept to a minimum. Kiriath Arba is renamed Hebron centuries later (see Josh 14:15; 15:54; 20:7; Judg 1:10). Abraham has a long association with this region, for the “great trees of Mamre” are at Hebron (13:18). The brief comment that Kiriath Arba is in the land of Canaan may be a reminder that at this stage Abraham does not possess any land, despite God’s promises that the land will belong to his descendants (cf. 12:6–7; 13:14–17; 15:18–21; 17:8).

23:3–9 The native inhabitants of Hebron are designated Hittites in most English versions. The Hebrew text speaks of them being the children of Heth, who is listed in 10:15 as a son of Canaan. It is unlikely that the people of Hebron are related to the Hittites associated with Anatolia and Syria. Because Abraham’s request involves the acquisition of a burial site, he addresses the entire community at the gate of the city (v. 10). Abraham engages in a formal process to gain permanent possession of the burial site. Abraham describes his status as a “foreigner and stranger” (v. 4). Although he has been in the land for about sixty years, he has adopted a seminomadic lifestyle, living in a tent. As a resident foreigner, he owns no property in Canaan. Out of respect for Abraham, the inhabitants of Hebron willingly offer him the opportunity to bury Sarah in the choicest of their tombs. They view Abraham as a “mighty prince” (v. 5), an expression that might be better translated “prince of God” (cf. CSB, NJB). This latter translation emphasises Abraham’s relationship with God. Courteously, Abraham asks to buy the cave of Machpelah that belongs to Ephron.

23:10–16 Abraham graciously rejects Ephron’s generous offer, insisting that he will pay the price of the field containing the cave. The amount charged by Ephron takes into account the fact that Abraham will gain permanent possession of this field and cave. Abraham is not merely leasing it for a short period of time.

23:17–20 The inhabitants of Hebron witness the transaction that gives Abraham possession of the field and cave as a family burial site in perpetuity. In addition to Sarah, Abraham and others will be buried here (see 25:8–10; 35:27–29; 50:13).

Abraham Gets a Wife for Isaac (24:1–67)

24:1–9 As Abraham comes towards the end of his earthly life, the narrative highlights that the Lord has blessed him in every way (v. 1). Abraham’s servant will mention God’s blessing of his master when persuading Rebekah to leave her family and journey to Canaan (24:35). Abraham commissions his most trusted, senior servant to find a suitable wife for Isaac from his relatives in northern Mesopotamia. He is confident that God will guide his servant to the right woman.

24:10–14 The narrative switches scenes to the town of Nahor, Abraham’s brother. The servant has travelled about 500 miles to reach this location. On his arrival the servant prays to God for guidance in finding a wife for Isaac. In doing so, he looks for a woman who is exceptionally kind and hardworking; providing water for ten camels is a demanding activity. In asking God to show “kindness” to Abraham, the servant looks for a similar quality in the potential bride for Isaac.

24:15–27 God immediately answers the servant’s prayer. The positive description of Rebekah strongly implies that she is the one destined to be Isaac’s wife. This expectation is reinforced when she waters the camels, fulfilling to the letter the actions listed in the servant’s prayer (24:14). With nervous excitement the servant questions Rebekah. Her response causes him to worship God for his “kindness and faithfulness” to Abraham (v. 27). The servant readily acknowledges God’s providential guidance.

24:28–49 When Rebekah shares with her family what has happened, her brother Laban rushes to meet Abraham’s servant. Generously providing hospitality, Laban takes care of both the men and the camels. However, before eating, Abraham’s servant recounts in detail the purpose of his journey (vv. 34–41), his prayer on arriving at the city (vv. 42–44), and Rebekah’s actions (vv. 45–47). Emphasising God’s behind-the-scenes influence, the servant’s long speech creates an element of suspense for readers as they await the outcome.

24:50–61 Bethuel, Rebekah’s father, appears for the first time. He has not taken an active role in the story until now. Possibly, he is very elderly. Given that he and Laban respond together (vv. 50–51), it is likely that Laban shares with his father responsibility for the oversight of the family. While Rebekah’s family is in no hurry to see her depart, Abraham’s servant is anxious to return to Canaan. Rebekah’s willingness to go as soon as possible underlines her deep trust in God. Like Abraham, she is willing to leave her family and homeland. The blessing bestowed on Rebekah in verse 60 resembles the divine oath that God swears to Abraham in 22:16–18. While the NIV associates the final part of the blessing with Rebekah’s many offspring, a more precise rendering of the Hebrew text would be, “may your offspring possess the city (literally, gate) of those who hate him” (cf. ESV, KJV).

24:62–67 The scene switches to Canaan. Beer Lahai Roi is the name that was given to the well where God appeared to Hagar (16:7–14). Rebekah covers her face with her veil, as was the custom for a woman that was betrothed. With the arrival of Rebekah, Isaac finds comfort following the death of his mother.

Abraham’s Death and Burial (25:1–11)

25:1–6 Keturah, like Hagar, is designated a concubine (v. 6); the same term is used to describe Bilhah, Rachel’s servant, who bears sons for Jacob (35:22). Although Keturah is Abraham’s wife, she has a lower status than Sarah. This is reflected in the fact that her offspring will not share in the inheritance that is given to Isaac. Like Ishmael, the sons of Keturah settle outside the territory that will eventually belong to Isaac’s descendants.

25:7–11 Abraham is buried alongside Sarah in the cave of Machpelah (see 23:1–20). The brief remark that he was gathered to his people may indicate a belief in life after death. The same idiom is used elsewhere (e.g., 25:17; 35:29; 49:29, 33), and the “gathering” always takes place prior to the act of burial itself. The reference to Ishmael in verse 9 is noteworthy. Despite having been sent away from Abraham’s household (21:8–21), he maintains a close relationship with his father. However, Abraham’s patriline will continue through Isaac, Ishmael’s younger brother. The brief observation that God’s blessing is with Isaac (v. 11) brings the narrative section that started in 11:27 to a conclusion.

The Story of Ishmael's Descendants (25:12–18)

25:12–18 Following the record of Abraham’s burial, a short narrative section provides a few details about Ishmael’s descendants. Ishmael’s status as Abraham’s son is qualified by the comment that his mother was Sarah’s servant. This recalls the events of chapter 16. As God promised (17:20; 21:18), Ishmael’s descendants establish a great nation comprised of twelve tribes. The final phrase of verse 18 has been translated in contrasting ways. Whereas NIV reads, “And they lived in hostility toward all the tribes related to them,” the KJV has, “and he died in the presence of all his brethren,” and NRSV has, “he settled down alongside of all his people.” The closest parallel to the idiom used here comes in 50:1, which speaks of Joseph’s affection for his father. Possibly, verses 12–18 conclude with a positive comment about Ishmael, noting his affection for his brothers. This would explain his presence at the burial of Abraham (25:9).

The Story of Isaac’s Descendants (25:19–35:29)

The Birth of Esau and Jacob (25:19–26)

25:19–21 A new heading introduces a major narrative section that focuses on Isaac’s twin sons and that will run to 35:29. Some details regarding Isaac’s own life will be included in this section, especially in chapter 26, but the primary focus is on Esau and Jacob. Like Sarah, Rebekah is unable to have children. However, God answers Isaac’s pleas for his wife after they have been married twenty years, and she conceives. The brief mention of Laban anticipates future developments in the narrative.

25:22–23 The struggle between the two unborn babies will continue after they are born. This will be an important motif in subsequent episodes. The Lord’s message to Rebekah reveals that the principle of primogeniture will be overturned; the eldest son will not exercise authority over younger brothers after their father’s death. Similar reversals occur elsewhere in Genesis, playing an important part in the progression of the patriline that forms the backbone of the book.

25:24–26 When the boys are born, they are named Esau and Jacob. While the meaning of Esau is uncertain, Jacob means “heel,” an allusion to his grasping Esau’s heel. Later, Esau reveals that the idiom “to grasp someone by the heel” means “to cheat” or possibly “to supplant” (see 27:36).

Esau Sells His Birthright to Jacob (25:27–34)

25:27–28 The twin boys are far from identical in nature. Whereas hairy Esau favours an outdoors lifestyle involving hunting for game, Jacob prefers to remain at home, undertaking the domestic task of cooking. Reflecting something of their sons’ different personalities, their parents’ love for them is divided: Isaac loves Esau, but Rebekah loves Jacob.

25:29–34 Esau speaks disparagingly of Jacob’s stew, calling it “red stuff.” Although the ESV reads “red stew” in verse 30, the Hebrew text does not have the word “stew.” The Hebrew term for “red” resembles the name “Edom.” This alternative name given to Esau may have been influenced by his complexion, which is also red (25:25). His name, however, recalls this incident. Esau willingly sells his birthright to Jacob for the price of a bowl of lentil stew. His action not only displays contempt for the special status that he enjoys as firstborn son, but he also demeans the inheritance associated with the birthright. In Esau’s opinion it is worth practically nothing. In marked contrast, Jacob longs to have this inheritance, which includes the divine promises given to Abraham. Jacob’s exploitation of his brother’s hunger is despicable, but this is nothing compared to Esau’s contempt for his birthright, which the narrator highlights in the final words of this episode (v. 34). This account of the differing attitudes of the brothers towards the birthright sets the scene for what is to follow.

Isaac in Gerar (26:1–33)

26:1–6 Chapter 26 provides an interlude before the narrator picks up again on the strained relationship between Esau and Jacob. The opening words recall the famine that caused Abraham to go to Egypt (12:10–20). A similar famine prompts Isaac to move southward to the region of Gerar where Abraham had also settled for some years. This leads into a series of short episodes that portray Isaac as resembling closely his father. These subtly underscore that Isaac follows in Abraham’s footsteps and is heir to the divine promises. The Lord’s speech underlines that Isaac receives the divine promises given to Abraham (see 12:1–3). Particular attention is given to the oath that God swore after testing Abraham’s obedience (see 22:16–18). Since the name Abimelech, which means “my father is king,” may have been a throne name used by successive kings, we cannot be sure if this Abimelech is the same person as the one mentioned in chapters 20–21.

26:7–11 Isaac’s words in verse 7 echo those of Abraham (12:11–13). Having moved to Gerar, Isaac can pretend that Rebekah is his sister and not his wife. However, the ruse is uncovered by Abimelech, who challenges Isaac with words that recall what the king of Gerar said to Abraham in 20:9. Reassuringly, Abimelech offers protection to Isaac and Rebekah.

26:12–16 Isaac enjoys God’s blessing and prospers materially, as Abraham had done. However, the Philistine inhabitants of Gerar become jealous. To prevent potential conflict, Abimelech asks Isaac to move.

26:17–33 In the Valley of Gerar, Isaac reopens the wells that Abraham had dug (see 21:25–30). Isaac’s servants dig various wells, but disputes with the local inhabitants continue. Abraham encountered a similar problem (21:25). Eventually, Isaac relocates to Beersheba (see 21:30–31), where God appears to him and reaffirms the promises given to Abraham (v. 24). In addition, Abimelech comes to Isaac and makes a peace treaty with him, as he or his father had previously done with Abraham (21:22–27). Drawing out one further parallel between Isaac and Abraham, a well associated with the making of the treaty is called Shibah (v. 33), resulting in the location being known as Beersheba (compare 21:31). The events described in this chapter emphasise how Isaac resembles Abraham, suggesting that he is a suitable heir to the divine promises. This raises the question, Who will be Isaac’s heir, Esau or Jacob?

Isaac Blesses Jacob (26:34–27:45)

26:34–35 The negative portrait of Esau that surfaces in 25:29–34 is reinforced by these brief comments about his two Hittite wives. The narrator records later that Rebekah expresses disgust regarding Esau’s choice of wives (see 27:46). Jacob, by way of contrast, will be encouraged to find a wife from among his own relatives in Paddan Aram (27:46–28:2). When Esau learns later of his parents’ displeasure regarding his Hittite wives, he takes another wife, a descendant of Ishmael (28:6–9).

27:1–4 Due to his declining eyesight, Isaac decides to bestow on Esau the paternal blessing associated with the firstborn birthright. This will confirm Esau as heir to the divine promises. Isaac’s decision to bless Esau appears to be influenced by his son’s ability to hunt wild game (cf. 25:28), rather than his suitability to receive the divine promises. Isaac’s blindness is both physical and spiritual.

27:5–17 Rebekah’s intervention is significant. She is the instigator of the deception, wanting to ensure that Jacob receives the firstborn blessing instead of Esau. Her brief reference to “the presence of the Lord” (v. 7) suggests that she appreciates the spiritual dimension of what is happening. Not only does Rebekah tell Jacob what to do, but when questioned by him, she also promises to take full responsibility should the deception fail (v. 13). The narrator underlines Rebekah’s chief role in the deception by making her the subject of the verbs in verses 15–17.

27:18–25 Despite Isaac’s reservations, Jacob persuades him that he is Esau. His disguise works well, given his father’s blindness. The Hebrew word for “firstborn,” bĕkōr (v. 19), resembles closely the term for “birthright,” bĕkōrâ, which comes in 25:31–34. Both terms are like the Hebrew word for “blessing,” bĕrākâ. Importantly, in Genesis the firstborn receives the paternal blessing and, in turn, imparts blessing to others.

27:26–29 After smelling Jacob’s clothes (see 27:15), Isaac proceeds to bless his son, confident that this is Esau. The blessing that Isaac pronounces is extraordinary when viewed from a purely human perspective. The blessing anticipates universal sovereignty, recalling God’s promise to Abraham that he would be the father of many nations. A strong link between this blessing and God’s promises to Abraham is also reflected in the final words of verse 29, which echo 12:3.

27:30–37 When Esau appears with food for his father, Isaac realises that he has been deceived by Jacob (v. 35). The blessing, however, is irrevocable (v. 37). In the light of what has happened, Esau speaks of how Jacob has cheated or supplanted him twice. Drawing attention to Jacob’s name, which means “cheater” or “supplanter,” Esau claims that Jacob stole from him both his birthright and his blessing. However, according to 25:29–34, Esau sold his birthright to Jacob for a bowl of stew. By doing so, he forfeited his claim to the blessing, and Jacob receives what is rightfully his. Unwittingly, but appropriately, Isaac gives Jacob the authority to oversee his relatives.

27:38–40 Responding to Esau’s plea for a blessing, Isaac pronounces what most English versions take to be an anti-blessing. Isaac’s words suggest that the relationship between the descendants of Jacob and Esau will sometimes be violent, a fact that is borne out in the history of the nations of Israel and Edom (e.g., Num 20:18–21; 1Kgs 11:14–16; 2Kgs 8:20–22).

27:41–45 Esau harbours a grudge against his younger brother, hoping to kill him when their father dies. When Rebekah learns of this threat to Jacob’s life, she encourages him to flee to her relatives in Paddan Aram until Esau’s anger subsides.

Esau Threatens to Kill Jacob (27:46–28:9)

27:46 To ensure that Jacob will go to Paddan Aram, Rebekah persuades Isaac that Jacob should not take a Hittite wife, as Esau has done (see 26:34).

28:1–5 Isaac blesses Jacob again, instructing him to find a wife from among his relatives in Paddan Aram. Importantly, Isaac’s blessing of Jacob recalls the divine promises given to his father, Abraham. Isaac prays that these promises will pass to Jacob. However, for the promises to be fulfilled, Jacob will need to have a wife, who will bear him a son. Jacob’s quest for a suitable wife will dominate the narrative in chapters 28–29. Jacob will recall this blessing years later (see 48:4).

28:6–9 When Esau discovers that Jacob has been sent away to Paddan Aram to find a wife from among his relatives, he responds by taking another wife for himself. Hoping to gain his parents’ approval, he marries a daughter of Ishmael, his uncle.

Jacob at Bethel (28:10–22)

28:10–17 Genesis records two important encounters between Jacob and God. The first of these occurs as he is on his way out of the land of Canaan. The second takes places on his return (32:22–32). On this occasion Jacob has covered about one-tenth of the 600–mile journey from Beersheba to Paddan Aram. In his dream he sees a stairway or ladder that connects earth to heaven. He also observes the Lord, standing either beside him or above the stairway; the Hebrew text is ambiguous. With either interpretation, Jacob speaks of God being “in this place” (v. 16). Importantly, although Jacob is in the process of leaving Canaan, God reassures him that he will bring him back to this land. God’s words strongly imply that the divine promises associated with Abraham and Isaac are now linked to Jacob (see 22:16–18; 26:2–5).

28:18–22 To mark the significance of what has occurred, Jacob sets up a stone as a pillar and calls the place Bethel, which means “house of God.” His vow implies that he will only embrace the Lord as his God if God brings him safely back to the land of Canaan. At this stage Jacob lacks a personal commitment to the Lord.

Jacob Marries Rachel (29:1–30)

29:1–6 After travelling about 600 miles, Jacob arrives in Paddan Aram. He soon discovers that the shepherds know Laban his uncle. More importantly, he meets for the first time Rachel, whose name means “ewe.” Flocks of sheep and goats will figure prominently during Jacob’s stay with Laban.

29:7–12 Jacob flouts local conventions by watering Rachel’s flock first, which recalls his unconventional actions concerning Esau and the birthright. The narrator emphasizes how Rachel and her sheep belong to Laban. By the end of Jacob’s stay in Paddan Aram twenty years later, they will be his.

29:13–14 Laban’s response to Jacob’s account of what has happened may indicate that he sees Jacob as more than simply a relative. Laban possibly views Jacob as being like him in character. As the narrative continues, Laban will deceive his nephew on various occasions.

29:15–20 In the ANE it was normal for a man to give a betrothal present (sometimes unhelpfully called a bride-price) to his bride’s father. Jacob, however, has nothing to give. Consequently, he offers to work for Laban for seven years to marry Rachel. Laban responds positively, probably believing that this arrangement will give him significant control over all that Jacob does. By committing to serve Laban, Jacob places in danger his own status as heir to Abraham and Isaac.

29:21–24 After seven years of service, Jacob asks Laban to arrange a marriage feast. Perhaps due the darkness of night and having consumed much wine, Jacob is oblivious to the fact that Laban gives him Leah rather than Rachel. The Hebrew term for “feast” in verse 22 could be translated “drinking.”

29:25–30 When Jacob accuses Laban of deception, Laban indirectly reproaches Jacob for having taken the firstborn birthright and blessing from Esau. By replacing Rachel with Leah, Laban gives Jacob a taste of his own medicine. The references to the maid servants Zilpah (v. 24) and Bilhah (v. 29) anticipate later developments in the story when they will become surrogate mothers for Leah and Rachel, respectively (30:1–13), and second wives for Jacob. In Genesis, polygamy is always portrayed as less than ideal. Jacob’s greater love for Rachel will be a source of tension within the family.

The Births of Jacob’s Children (29:31–30:24)

29:31–35 Reflecting his concern for Leah, God enables her to have children, while Rachel remains childless. Since Jacob has sexual relations with Leah, the translation “was hated” (ESV) is too severe; a better rendering of the Hebrew text would be “was slighted.” Each of the sons born to Leah receives a name that involves a wordplay based on Leah’s comments. The names of Reuben and Simeon pick up on God’s seeing and hearing. By the time Leah gives birth to a third son, she is hopeful that Jacob will no longer disregard her. With the birth of Judah, Leah praises God. God figures prominently in three of the four statements made by Leah. As the mother of Levi and Judah, Leah’s descendants will include the Aaronic priests and Davidic kings, respectively.

30:1–8 Jealous of Leah’s ability to have children, Rachel directs her anger towards Jacob. As Sarah had previously done (see 16:1–4), Rachel offers her maid servant to Jacob so that she may bear children on Rachel’s behalf. By naming the two boys born to Bilhah, Rachel views them as her own. Both names focus on Rachel’s struggle with her older sister. The ESV translation “God has judged me” (v. 6) might better be rendered, “God has vindicated me,” taking the name Dan to mean “vindication.”

30:9–13 When she is unable to have more children, Leah follows Rachel’s example and gives her maid servant, Zilpah, to Jacob. Claiming the boys as her own, Leah gives them names that reflect her joy at having two more sons.

30:14–21 Rachel may have believed that the mandrakes would help her become pregnant. However, to acquire them, she permits Leah to sleep with Jacob. Consequently, Leah becomes pregnant and gives birth to Issachar. Once more, Leah recognises God’s role in enabling her to have a son (v. 18). Rachel, however, remains childless. Ironically, in the struggle between the two sisters, Jacob becomes an object to be bought and sold for the price of some mandrakes. After the birth of Issachar, Leah becomes pregnant again. She names her next son Zebulun, which means “honour,” in the hope that Jacob will honour her because she has given him six sons in all. Yet again, Leah acknowledges that God has enabled her to bear a child. The brief reference to Dinah’s birth in verse 21 anticipates events that are recorded in 34:1–31.

30:22–24 These verses emphasise God’s part in enabling Rachel to bear a son, a point underlined in Rachel’s remarks. The name Joseph, meaning “may he add” in Hebrew, involves a wordplay on the verb “add” and the expression “has taken away.”

Jacob Prospers in Paddan Aram (30:25–43)

30:25–34 After the birth of Joseph, Jacob asks Laban’s permission to return to the land of Canaan, but Laban is reluctant to let his nephew depart. As a polytheist, Laban believes in many gods. However, he has become aware that one deity, the Lord, has blessed him because of Jacob. This is a significant observation, reflecting the important connection that exists between the members of the unique patriline recorded in Genesis and the motif of blessing (cf. 12:3; 18:18; 22:18). Laban offers Jacob a financial incentive to remain in Paddan Aram, hoping to prosper materially through Jacob’s presence. The proposal made by Jacob involves distinguishing white flock animals (i.e., sheep and goats) from others that are speckled, spotted, or black. This arrangement reflects the names of the two men. In Hebrew “Laban” means “white.” Jacob’s name (yaʿăqōb) resembles the words for “speckled” (nāqōd) and “streaked” (ʿāqōd).

30:35–36 As soon as the proposal is agreed upon, Laban removes from his flocks all the sheep and goats that would have been allocated to Jacob. He gives these animals to his other sons, immediately depriving Jacob of them. Laban does everything possible to prevent Jacob from prospering.

30:37–43 It is not apparent how Jacob’s use of multicoloured sticks influences the breeding pattern of the sheep and goats. To enhance the quality of his flock, Jacob ensures that only the strongest animals breed among the peeled sticks. Despite Laban’s efforts to limit his nephew’s wealth, over a period of six years Jacob acquires large flocks, as well as servants, camels, and donkeys. Given the breeding process involved, Laban has no grounds on which to claim that Jacob has stolen his animals. God is the one who rewards Jacob for serving Laban.

Jacob Returns to Canaan (31:1–55)

31:1–3 Perhaps out of jealousy, Laban’s sons wrongly accuse Jacob of taking what belongs to their father. Laban also changes his attitude towards Jacob. Against this background, God instructs Jacob to return to the land of his fathers, an allusion to Abraham and Isaac. God’s promise to be with Jacob echoes what he said twenty years previously at Bethel (28:15).

31:4–16 Addressing Rachel and Leah, Jacob highlights how God has prospered him despite all that their father has done to prevent this happening. Affirming that God has been with him (v. 5), Jacob describes how “the angel of God” has spoken to him in a dream. The angel’s words strongly imply that “the angel of God” is God himself and not some other entity (see commentary on 16:7–14). God encourages Jacob to return to the land of Canaan. By identifying himself as “the God of Bethel,” God recalls his previous commitment to be with Jacob and to bring him back to Bethel (see 28:11–22).

31:17–21 Without delay Jacob and his family set out for the land of Canaan. The household idols stolen by Rachel are probably small figurines. Rachel possibly believes that without these items Laban will be disempowered in some fashion. These idols may be included among the “foreign gods” mentioned in 35:2, which Jacob buries under a large tree near Shechem (35:4). Immediately after speaking of Rachel’s theft of the household idols, the Hebrew text of verse 20 speaks of Jacob stealing the heart of Laban. Most English translations understand the idiom about stealing someone’s heart to mean “to deceive/trick.” The motif of theft recurs throughout the account of Jacob’s departure from Laban’s household (see 31:26, 27, 30, 31, 43).

31:22–35 After Jacob has travelled ten days, Laban overtakes him. God, however, intervenes to warn Laban against mistreating Jacob (v. 24). Laban’s speech abounds in accusations of theft: Jacob has taken his daughters (v. 26) and his gods (v. 30). By referring to “the God of your father” (v. 29), Laban distinguishes this deity from his own gods. Whereas Jacob is a monotheist, Laban is a polytheist. Later, this distinction will be reflected in Jacob’s single stone and Laban’s many stones, which serve as witnesses to the treaty that is made (31:45–46). Jacob’s remarks regarding the theft of Laban’s household gods add to the drama of the encounter. Has he unwittingly condemned Rachel to death? By picturing Rachel sitting on the gods, the narrator highlights their feebleness. Unlike the God of Bethel (vv. 24, 29), they are unable to communicate with Laban.

31:36–42 Jacob addresses Laban directly, underlining how he has acted with integrity in faithfully serving his uncle for twenty years. Jacob acknowledges the important part that God has played in giving him success. The expression “Fear of Isaac” and the variation “Fear of his father Isaac” (31:53) both designate God, drawing attention to the idea that he is someone to be respected (cf. 20:11; 22:12).

31:43–55 Laban maintains his claim of ownership over his daughters, grandchildren, and flocks, but he recognises that he is powerless to take them back to Paddan Aram. Consequently, he makes a friendship treaty with Jacob, possibly looking to ensure that Jacob will not replace him as head of the family in Paddan Aram (see v. 52). In the ANE, gods were normally invoked as witnesses to treaties. The number of stones used by Jacob and Laban may reflect their differing theological outlooks. As a monotheist, Jacob places one stone as a witness; as a polytheist, Laban uses many stones. In line with this, the expression “the God of Nahor” might be better translated “the gods of Nahor.” In the Hebrew text of verse 53, the verb “judge” is plural, implying more than one deity. Whereas Laban calls on various deities to witness the treaty, Jacob invokes only “the Fear of his father Isaac.”

Jacob Prepares to Meet Esau (32:1–23)

32:1–2 These verses provide an interesting introduction to the episode that immediately follows. With Laban’s departure, Jacob meets some angels of God. The name Mahanaim means “two camps,” a reference to God’s camp and Jacob’s camp. The presence of God’s camp offers reassurance to Jacob. The only other occurrence of the expression “angels of God” comes in 28:12 with reference to Jacob’s vision at Bethel. Jacob’s experience of the angels and camps possibly inspires his subsequent actions.

32:3–5 Jacob sends messengers to Esau, who has settled south-east of the Dead Sea outside the land of Canaan. The Hebrew term for messengers can also denote angels. This connects these verses, which speak of human messengers, with the preceding verses, which mention God’s angels. Jacob’s message to his brother is couched in exceptionally deferential language. He refers twice to Esau as “my lord” and describes himself as Esau’s “servant.” Jacob’s servant-like attitude towards his brother is striking in the light of what has been said previously about the older serving the younger (see 25:23; 27:37). Jacob adopts a similar deferential stance when he meets Esau in person (see 33:1–15).

32:6–8 The report of Esau coming with 400 men fills Jacob with fear. Perhaps inspired by the name Mahanaim (v. 2), Jacob splits his own camp into two parts.

32:9–12 After taking practical steps to protect those with him, Jacob prays to God. This prayer is the longest recorded in Genesis, and Jacob’s tone is noteworthy. For the first time, he addresses God using his personal name, YHWH (translated “LORD” in most English versions). Jacob bargained with God at Bethel (28:20–22), but he now speaks of being unworthy of God’s steadfast love and faithfulness. Speaking modestly of himself as he petitions God for help, Jacob comes across as a different person to the man who left Canaan twenty years previously. Praying for protection, Jacob recalls God’s promise to make his offspring numerous (cf. 28:14).

32:13–23 Hoping to win his estranged brother’s favour, Jacob sends a series of gifts ahead of the two camps that he has organised. In the Hebrew text of verse 20, the noun “face” appears four times. The concept of “face” recurs as a significant motif in the episodes that follow (see 32:30; 33:10).

Jacob Struggles with God at Peniel (32:24–32)

32:24–29 When Jacob is on his own, a stranger appears and wrestles with him. Although he is initially described as a “man” (v. 24), it gradually becomes apparent in verses 28 and 30 that Jacob’s opponent is God, who has come in human form (cf. 18:1–15). Jacob doggedly refuses to let his opponent go free, despite having his hip dislocated. His desire to be blessed motivates him in his struggle with God. Jacob longs to inherit the blessings given to Abraham and Isaac. Although it seems strange that God should ask Jacob, “What is your name?” (v. 27), the question is rhetorical, drawing attention to his name, which means “cheater” or “supplanter” (see 27:36). By changing his name to Israel, God highlights how Jacob has been transformed. The name Israel is comprised of ʾēl (“God”) and yśr, a verbal form probably derived from the root śrh (“to contend/strive”). Although verse 28 gives the impression that Jacob is called Israel because he has striven with God, this may be another example of wordplay, rather than an explanation of the etymology of the name Israel. In such names, God is normally the subject of the verb. Consequently, Israel most likely means “God will contend/strive” or “may God contend/strive.” The name Israel emphasizes what God does, rather than what Jacob does. God’s blessing comes as a gift to those who trust in his power to deliver. God’s refusal to answer Jacob’s question implies that Jacob should already know his name.

32:30–32 These verses conclude the night-time episode, capturing something of its significance. In the naming of Peniel, which means “face of God,” Jacob highlights the intimacy of his encounter with God. Jacob meets God face to face and survives. This event not only confirms that he is heir to the promises given to Abraham and Isaac, but it also prepares him for his encounter with Esau. God gives him hope that he will be delivered from the wrath of his brother.

Jacob Is Reunited with Esau (33:1–20)

33:1–2 As Esau and his men approach, Jacob organises his family, offering maximum protection to Rachel and Joseph. Jacob’s fondness for Joseph, which will figure prominently in later episodes, is already evident at this stage in the narrative.

33:3–4 Refusing to take refuge behind his family, Jacob goes before them. To indicate his respect for Esau, he bows to the ground seven times. His actions are counter to the expectations expressed by Isaac when he blessed Jacob (see 27:29; cf. 25:23). Very publicly, Jacob honours Esau. Remarkably, Esau runs towards his brother and embraces him. In the culture of the Middle East, it is highly unusual for an elderly man of status to run to greet someone. His actions resemble those of the father who welcomes home his lost son (Luke 15:20).

33:5–7 Jacob had left Canaan without any possessions. With good reason, Esau questions him regarding the women and children. Once again, Joseph is selected for special mention (cf. 33:2).

33:8–11 As recorded earlier in 32:13–21, Jacob had sent servants ahead of him with groups of domesticated animals as a gift for Esau. Jacob consistently portrays himself as inferior to Esau. Whereas Esau describes Jacob as his brother (v. 9), Jacob always refers to Esau as his lord (vv. 8, 13, 14, 15). Recalling his encounter with God at Peniel, Jacob compares seeing Esau’s face to seeing the face of God. God dealt graciously with Jacob, and now Esau has done the same. Adding to the theme of reconciliation, Jacob describes his gift to Esau in verse 11 as “my blessing” (ESV). Jacob looks to make amends for having taken the blessing due to Esau.

33:12–17 Esau’s invitation strongly suggests that the brothers have been fully reconciled, but Jacob graciously declines. The journey to Seir is about a hundred miles. Jacob’s family and their livestock have already trekked nearly 500 miles. Instead, Jacob journeys about five miles to Succoth.

33:18–20 Eventually, Jacob relocates to Shechem where he purchases part of a field on which to pitch his tent. His actions recall those of Abraham when he arrived in the land of Canaan (see 12:6–7). For the first time we read of Jacob building an altar. By naming it “the God of Israel” (v. 20), Jacob expresses his personal commitment to serve the God who blessed him at Peniel. The mention of Shechem, the son of Hamor, forms a bridge to the next episode.

Dinah’s Relationship with Shechem (34:1–31)

34:1–4 While Jacob’s daughter Dinah is an important character in the events recorded in this chapter, the narrative reveals little about her response to what happens. This is important to observe, because this story is included within Genesis primarily for what it reveals about Jacob’s relationship with his sons Simeon and Levi. Their actions prompt their exclusion from the patriline that is traced in Genesis. This is reflected in Jacob’s deathbed remarks, which highlight their violent behaviour (49:5–7). Modern readers may struggle to understand this passage if they focus exclusively on what happens between Shechem and Dinah. While the narrator reveals that something inappropriate took place (v. 2), insufficient information is provided to determine with certainty the true nature of Shechem’s relationship with Dinah. He possibly rapes her, as some translations assume (e.g., CSB, NIV), or he has pre-marital sex with her, which in that culture would have impacted Dinah’s status as an unmarried virgin (i.e., “humiliated her,” ESV). Regardless of what happened initially, Dinah and Shechem appear to be together when the brothers attack the men of the city. This makes it unlikely that Shechem sexually assaulted Dinah in a violent manner. Moreover, verses 3–4 emphasise that Shechem loves Dinah and wants to marry her. In reading this chapter, we should be careful not to impose upon the narrative modern values regarding sexual relationships, especially when the Hebrew text uses terminology that is ambiguous.

34:5–17 Hamor’s visit to Jacob sets the scene for the confrontation between Jacob’s sons and Shechem. Hamor wants to facilitate a marriage between Dinah and his son, but Jacob’s sons are outraged by what has happened. When Shechem offers them a substantial betrothal gift to have Dinah as his wife, Jacob’s sons respond deceitfully, asking for every male in the city to be circumcised. God’s covenant with Abraham involved circumcision, but the covenant centred on Abraham being a source of blessing to other nations by becoming their spiritual father (17:4–5). Jacob’s sons exploit the kinship aspect of the covenant for a malevolent purpose, undermining completely God’s expectations regarding the covenant.

34:18–24 Motivated by his desire to marry Dinah, Shechem, with his father’s help, persuades the men of the city to be circumcised. Ironically, Hamor and Shechem state that Jacob’s sons are “at peace with us” (v. 21), unaware of the treachery that is planned.

34:25–29 Simeon and Levi’s surprise attack far exceeds any punishment that might have been appropriate for Shechem’s treatment of Dinah. Their duplicity is all the more repugnant because they exploit circumcision, which God intended to be associated with the blessing of the nations.

34:30–31 Jacob challenges Simeon and Levi, fearful that their actions may provoke others living nearby to attack his household. His two sons, however, attempt to justify their actions by stating that Shechem treated Dinah like a prostitute. This claim possibly suggests that they interpreted what happened between Shechem and Dinah as something other than rape.

Jacob Relocates to Bethel (35:1–15)

35:1–5 Obeying God’s instruction, Jacob prepares to relocate to Bethel. As the location where God first appeared to him when he was fleeing from Esau (see 28:11–22), Bethel—meaning “house of God”—is in Jacob’s eyes a sacred location. Confirming his commitment to serve only the Lord, Jacob instructs those with him to rid themselves of foreign gods (see 31:34–35). Jacob’s speech underlines how God has been with him, recalling God’s promise in 28:15. When Jacob leaves Shechem, God continues to protect him from attack (v. 5; cf. 34:30).

35:6–8 Arriving at Bethel, Jacob builds an altar as commanded by God. The name El-Bethel—meaning “God of the house of God”—resembles in form the name given to the altar at Shechem (see 33:20).

35:9–15 God appears to Jacob again, repeating something of what was said at Peniel (32:28) and previously at Bethel (28:13). God’s blessing of Jacob recalls how God blessed Abraham (24:1) and Isaac (25:11; 26:12). God’s words also echo the creation mandate (1:28), which was repeated to Noah (9:1, 7). Strikingly, God speaks of a nation and a company of nations coming from Jacob. This brings to mind God’s promise that Abraham would be the father of many nations (17:4–6), with one of those nations comprising his biological descendants (15:1–21). The reference to kings coming from Jacob’s body (v. 11) reinforces the expectation that the patriline traced in Genesis will lead to a perfect vicegerent who will establish God’s kingdom on earth.

The Deaths of Rachel and Isaac (35:16–29)

35:16–20 Rachel named her son Ben-oni, meaning “son of my sorrow.” Jacob, on the other hand, call him Benjamin, meaning “son of the right hand” (v. 18). The circumstances surrounding his birth may have caused Jacob to have a special affection for Benjamin.

35:21–26 Reuben’s inappropriate relationship with Bilhah is mentioned briefly. Importantly, his actions cause Jacob to deny him the status of firstborn (see v. 23), which is subsequently given to Joseph (see 49:4; 1Chr 5:1–2). This is significant as regards the patriline recorded in Genesis. His loss of the firstborn status to Joseph may explain Reuben’s attempt to rescue Joseph in 37:21–22, 29. He possibly hopes to regain his father’s favour.

35:27–29 Isaac dies twenty years after Jacob returns from Paddan Aram. Regarding the expression “gathered to his people,” see the commentary on 25:8.

The Story of Esau's Descendants (36:1–37:1)

36:1–8 This short passage, which focuses on Esau’s time in the land of Canaan, explains the rationale for his move to the hill country of Seir. Esau’s separation from Jacob recalls Lot’s split from Abraham (see 13:6–7). Attention is also given to the sons born to Esau in Canaan. A comparison with the names given to Esau’s wives in 26:34 and 28:9 suggests that one of them may have been changed at some stage. If Ishmael’s daughter took on the name Basemath, meaning “perfume,” in place of Mahalath, it may have caused Basemath daughter of Elon to change her name to Adah. Oholibamah appears to be Esau’s fourth wife. Although the ESV translation “Oholibamah the daughter of Anah the daughter of Zibeon” (vv. 2, 14) implies that Anah is a woman, Anah is Oholibamah’s father. The expression “daughter of Zibeon” means in this instance “granddaughter of Zibeon” (CSB; see v. 24). This fuller designation, “Oholibamah the daughter of Anah the daughter of Zibeon,” is given to avoid confusing this Oholibamah with another woman of the same name whose father is also called Anah (see v. 25). The two men called Anah, mentioned in verses 24 and 25, are nephew and uncle, respectively (compare vv. 20 and 24). The nephew Anah names his daughter after his female cousin, a practice that sometimes occurs even today.

36:9–14 These verses list the sons and grandsons that were with Esau in the hill country of Seir after leaving the land of Canaan.

36:15–19 As Esau’s family settles in the hill country of Seir, his sons establish clans over which they rule as chiefs. A comparison with verses 20–30 reveals that Esau’s family creates fourteen clans, whereas Seir’s descendants form only seven clans (see vv. 20–21, 29–30).

36:20–30 This passage provides information about the descendants of Seir. It is noteworthy that the same name is sometimes given to different individuals who are relatives. This is true for the male names Anah and Dishon, and the female name Oholibamah. Consequently, the Oholibamah born to Anah the son of Seir (v. 25) is not Esau’s wife, who is the daughter of Anah the son of Zibeon (vv. 2, 14).

36:31–39 After recording the chiefs descended from Esau (vv. 15–19) and Seir (vv. 20–30), these verses list the names of kings who reigned in the land of Edom. These kings do not appear to belong to a single dynasty and are associated with different cities. The author of verse 31 either knows of or anticipates the establishment of a monarchy in Israel. The movement from tribal leaders to kings reflected in verses 20–39 will be replicated by the descendants of Jacob, Esau’s brother.

36:40–43 Only a few of the names listed here have been mentioned elsewhere in this chapter. These names are associated with different areas in the territory of Edom.

37:1 After recording how Esau’s family settles in the hill country of Seir (36:9­­–43), the narrative’s focus returns to Jacob. As a bridge to the next main section of Genesis, this verse, which parallels 36:8, places Jacob in the land of Canaan.

The Story of Jacob’s Descendants (37:2–50:26)

Joseph Is Sold by His Brothers into Slavery (37:2–36)

37:2–4 The opening words of verse 2 signal the start of a new section in Genesis (see commentary on 2:4). The narrative that follows concentrates on Jacob’s children. Pride of place is given to Joseph, Jacob’s youngest son, apart from Benjamin. He is the only son to be named specifically in the initial verses, although others could have been named had the narrator wished. Apart from Joseph, Reuben is the first to be named (v. 21). The prominence given to Joseph is noteworthy, given that the book of Genesis is interested in tracing a unique patriline that will eventually lead to a perfect vicegerent who will overthrow the serpent (see 3:15). The expectation that Joseph will be the one through whom the patriline will continue is reinforced by the observation that Jacob/Israel loved Joseph more than any of his other sons. He even clothes him with an ornate robe fit for a prince; this same kind of robe is only mentioned elsewhere in the Old Testament in 2 Samuel 13:18–19 in connection with royalty. Jacob treats Joseph as his “firstborn,” a status that is confirmed in chapter 48, when Joseph, through his son Ephraim, receives the blessing given to the firstborn son (cf. 1Chr 5:1–2).

Joseph displays the qualities that we might expect in the heir to the promises given to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Even as a young man, he demonstrates integrity. Unfortunately, by reporting on some of his brothers, he alienates himself from them. The sons of Bilhah, Rachel’s servant, are Dan and Naphtali; the sons of Zilpah, Leah’s servant, are Gad and Asher (see 29:31–30:24).

37:5–11 Joseph’s dreams exacerbate the tension that exists between him and his brothers. Both dreams portray Joseph as exercising authority over his older brothers. Their response in verse 8 underlines the expectation that Joseph will rule over them. While Jacob rebukes Joseph, he does not dismiss the dreams as trivial. Perhaps, he recalls the blessing his father Isaac bestowed upon him when he said, “Be lord over your brothers, and may the sons of your mother bow down to you” (27:29). Joseph’s dreams point to him being the son through whom the patriline will be traced. Not surprisingly, Joseph’s ten older brothers become increasingly jealous of him.

37:12–17 The mention of Shechem recalls the tragic events narrated in chapter 33. Perhaps Jacob is concerned regarding the safety of his sons. Joseph’s search for his brothers takes him well away from his father, making it easy for his brothers to turn against him.

37:18–30 Fratricide is a recurring motif in Genesis, beginning with Cain’s murder of Abel (4:8). Although his brothers initially want to kill Joseph, Reuben’s intervention stops them from taking his life immediately. As Jacob’s firstborn son, Reuben is possibly motivated to rescue Joseph in the hope of regaining his father’s favour, which he appears to have lost because he slept with his father’s concubine, Bilhah (see 35:22 and 49:3–4). When he discovers later that Joseph is missing, he tears his clothes in grief, but not necessarily out of concern for Joseph. His comment, “Where can I turn now?” reveals that he is primarily interested in his own well-being, not Joseph’s. Although Judah’s intervention prevents Joseph from being left to die in a waterless pit, his proposal for Joseph appears to be motivated by financial gain, not a heartfelt concern for his brother’s safety. His persuasive words abound in irony as he speaks of Joseph being “our brother, our own flesh and blood” (v. 27). Joseph’s brothers have no qualms about selling him into slavery. The merchants travelling to Egypt could be designated as either Ishmaelites, perhaps a broader term, or Midianites, a more specific term (cf. Judg 8:22–26).

37:31–35 Jacob’s deception by his sons recalls how he deceived his father using the skins of slaughtered goats (27:15–16). By implication, his reference to a “vicious animal” (v. 33) highlights the inner nature of Joseph’s brothers. The news of Joseph’s death fills Jacob with grief; he refuses to be consoled. He believes he will carry his grief with him to the grave.

37:36 Potiphar’s official title may indicate that he was Pharaoh’s chief executioner, which may explain why Joseph is later imprisoned alongside men who have fallen into disfavour with the king of Egypt.

Judah’s Relationship with Tamar (38:1–30)

38:1–11 Turning away from Joseph, the Genesis narrative focuses on Jacob’s fourth-born son, Judah. This is somewhat unexpected, although he may have been perceived by his father as the natural successor to Joseph. His older brothers, Reuben, Simeon, and Levi, have all forfeited the status of “firstborn” by acting inappropriately, as Jacob confirms later when he “blesses” his sons (see 49:3–7). Judah’s separation from his brothers suggests that he has little interest in remaining part of Jacob’s family, a fact reinforced by his marriage to a Canaanite woman. However, by focusing on Judah’s sons, the narrator signals that his family line is significant. This possibility is highlighted by the twofold reference in verses 6–7 to Er being Judah’s firstborn, as the motif of firstborn is important in Genesis. Furthermore, the graphic description of Onan’s intimate behaviour in refusing to provide offspring for his firstborn brother alerts the careful reader to the possibility that the family line of Judah may have a role to play in overcoming the serpent. In the ANE a brother was expected to marry his stepsister if she was widowed and childless (see Deut 25:5–10; Ruth 1:11–13; Matt 22:24–25; Luke 20:28). God’s punishment of both Er and Onan presents a barrier to the continuation of the patriline. Judah’s callous treatment of his daughter-in-law, who has now been widowed twice, suggests that Tamar will play no part in continuing the family line.

38:12–26 When Judah evades giving his third son, Shelah, to Tamar as a husband, she takes exceptionally unusual steps to continue Judah’s lineage. After the death of his wife, on a journey away from his home, Judah inappropriately has intercourse with a prostitute, not realising that she is Tamar in disguise. When subsequently he discovers that his daughter-in-law is pregnant through prostitution, he is indignant and wants to execute her by burning. When he is confronted by his own hypocrisy, however, not to mention his failure to provide a husband for Tamar, Judah confesses that Tamar has acted righteously, but he has not. Tamar’s unconventional intervention has a profound impact upon Judah. Due to Tamar’s actions, Judah’s character is transformed. When he appears later in Genesis, he acts very differently.

38:27–30 The narrator brings his account of Judah’s relationship with Tamar to a conclusion by recording the birth of their twins. To avoid confusion when Tamar is giving birth, the midwife ties a scarlet thread on the first wrist to appear and identifies this baby as the firstborn. However, unexpectedly this wrist is drawn back, and the other baby emerges first from Tamar’s womb. This bizarre event is a further example in Genesis of a firstborn son being overtaken by a younger brother. Importantly, Perez, the twin who breaks through, establishes a patriline that leads to King David (see Ruth 4:18–22). David’s patriline eventually leads to Jesus Christ (see Matt 1:2–17). Later in Genesis, when Jacob addresses his sons from his deathbed, his blessing of Judah contains royal expectations (49:8–12). By placing narratives that focus on Joseph (ch. 37) and Judah (ch. 38) side by side, the narrator of Genesis creates the possibility that the one to overcome the serpent may be descended from either Joseph or Judah. While Joseph’s lineage through Ephraim enjoys prominence initially, God eventually rejects it when he chooses David to be king over Israel (see Ps 78:67–72). Although Tamar acts in a very unconventional way, she is commended for her determination to continue the family line of Judah. She is one of only three women to be named in Matthew’s genealogy of Jesus (Matt 1:3).

Joseph and Potiphar’s Wife (39:1–23)

39:1 By largely repeating 37:36, this verse picks up the story of Joseph’s arrival in Egypt.

39:2–6a The statement “The LORD was with Joseph so that he prospered” (v. 2) sets the tone for all that follows. Although references to “the LORD” occur infrequently throughout 37:2–50:26, “the LORD” is mentioned five times in verses 2–5. Joseph’s success in Egypt is clearly attributed to God, who blesses others because of Joseph. The twofold reference to blessing in verse 5 recalls God’s commitment to Abraham that through his offspring all the nations of the earth will be blessed (12:3). As the Lord blessed others through Jacob (30:27), now he does so through Joseph. The motif of blessing is closely linked to the members of the central patriline in Genesis. Despite having been sold as a slave into Egypt, the Lord enables Joseph to find favour in Potiphar’s eyes, resulting in his promotion within Potiphar’s household.

39:6b–9 Due to his handsome appearance, Potiphar’s wife is attracted to Joseph, a young man of about twenty years of age; Joseph is described as seventeen years old in 37:2. Despite her attempts to entice him, he remains loyal to his master, Potiphar. He views adultery as a “great wickedness and sin against God” (v. 9). Joseph’s integrity is rooted in his desire not to offend God.

39:10–19 Potiphar’s wife is persistent in her pursuit of Joseph. When she grabs his cloak to compel him to sleep with her, he flees, leaving the cloak with her. Jilted, she takes revenge on Joseph. She gathers her household servants and accuses Joseph of having made advances towards her. She then repeats her accusation to her husband, implying that he is complicit in what has happened because he brought Joseph into his household. By describing Joseph as “that Hebrew slave” (v. 17), Potiphar’s wife emphasises Joseph’s foreignness, possibly exploiting xenophobic fears that her husband may have had. She further manipulates Potiphar by referring to Joseph as “your slave” (v. 19).

39:20–23 Swayed by his wife’s lies, Potiphar imprisons Joseph. Potiphar’s status as “captain of the guard” (39:1) accounts for Joseph being interned where “the king’s prisoners were confined” (v. 20). This placement will prove to be providential because it later brings Joseph into contact with the king’s chief cupbearer (see 41:9–13). The brief description of Joseph’s experience in prison echoes 39:2–6. As in Potiphar’s house, the Lord is with Joseph, granting him favour in the eyes of others and success in whatever he does.

Joseph Interprets the Dreams of the King’s Prisoners (40:1–23)

40:1–4 As royal attendants, the chief cupbearer and chief baker enjoyed privileged positions within the Egyptian royal court, as they would have provided the king with food and drink. But they offended the king, and now they are detained in the prison where Joseph already is. The Hebrew term translated “officials” (v. 2) is also used to describe Potiphar (37:36; 39:1), which may explain why the cupbearer and baker are treated with some respect in prison. Joseph is assigned to serve them by “the captain of the guard,” possibly Potiphar (see 37:36; 39:1), but more likely another official of similar standing.

40:5–8 The cupbearer and baker are deeply troubled by their dreams, which they perceive as revealing something significant. However, due to their imprisonment, they have no access to sorcerer-priests or wise men who might interpret their dreams (cf. 41:8). Joseph’s response is noteworthy because it reflects his commitment to God; only God can interpret dreams.

40:9–19 The dreams of the two men share common features but communicate very different outcomes. Both dreams emphasise the number three, which Joseph interprets as denoting three days. Both men’s dreams involve Pharaoh lifting their head (vv. 13, 19), but with very different connotations. In the case of the cupbearer, he will be restored to his position within the royal court. In the case of the baker, he will be executed by having his head cut off. After informing the cupbearer of his restoration to royal favour, Joseph asks to be remembered, emphasising the unjust treatment that has resulted in him being imprisoned. Joseph hopes that the experience of the cupbearer will make him sympathetic to his plight. Joseph’s ability to interpret the dreams correctly, which is indirectly attributed to God’s presence with him, will later play a vital part in having him released from prison.

40:20–23 These verses describe the fulfilment of the two dreams, as Joseph predicted. Pharaoh’s birthday probably refers to the anniversary of his coronation as king, a special occasion. Despite Joseph’s request, the chief cupbearer does not remember him; on the contrary, he forgets him (v. 23).

Joseph Interprets Pharaoh’s Dreams (41:1–57)

41:1–7 After the release of the chief cupbearer, Joseph remains in prison for a further two years. He is now about thirty years old. Pharaoh’s two dreams have corresponding features and share a common pattern.

41:8–13 Troubled by his dreams, Pharaoh seeks an interpretation. The Hebrew term translated “magicians” refers to sorcerer-priests. In ancient Egypt, religious practices were undertaken by priests who studied ritual and magical texts. In the story of the Israelites’ exodus from Egypt, sorcerer-priests replicate two of the miraculous signs performed by Moses and Aaron in the presence of a later Pharaoh (Exod 7:11, 22; 8:7). When the priests and wise men fail to interpret Pharaoh’s dreams, the chief cupbearer recalls when Joseph interpreted his dream and that of the chief baker.

41:14–16 With haste and appropriate preparation, Joseph is brought before Pharaoh. The brief description of the process by which Joseph is taken from the dungeon and clothed recalls how years previously his brothers stripped him and placed him in a pit (37:23–24). The same Hebrew term denotes the “cistern” into which Joseph’s brothers placed him and the “dungeon” where he is imprisoned. Joseph’s release from prison marks an important reversal in his life. When challenged by the Egyptian king regarding his ability to interpret dreams, Joseph, as previously, indicates that only God can interpret them (see 40:8).

41:17–24 Pharaoh recounts his dreams. By repeating what has already been recorded in 41:1–7, the importance of the dreams is highlighted. Pharaoh’s additional comments regarding the ugly cows underscores their horridness. By retelling the dreams in full, an element of suspense is created as the reader, like Pharaoh, awaits their interpretation.

41:25–36 As he interprets the dreams, Joseph tells Pharaoh that God has revealed what he will do in the immediate future (vv. 25, 28, 32). To prepare for the seven years of famine, Joseph presents to Pharaoh a plan for storing grain during the seven years of plenty.

41:37–45 Pharaoh’s assessment of Joseph’s ability to interpret his dreams centres on the fact that he is someone “in whom is the spirit of God” (v. 38). While the Egyptian king may not have appreciated the full significance of what he said, he recognises the importance of Joseph’s relationship with God. Elsewhere in the OT, Bezalel is empowered by “the Spirit of God” to oversee the construction of the portable sanctuary (Exod 31:3; 35:31), and various individuals are empowered by “the Spirit of the LORD” to be leaders (e.g., Judg 3:10; 11:29; 13:25; 1Sam 10:6; 16:13).

The Hebrew noun translated “palace” in verse 40 is elsewhere rendered “house.” For a third time Joseph is given responsibility over a “house” in Egypt (see 39:4, 22–23). Joseph’s natural ability to exercise oversight is in keeping with the expectations associated with the patriline linked to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Previously, Joseph’s clothing was taken from him by his brothers when he became a slave and by Potiphar’s wife when he became a prisoner (37:23; 39:12). On this occasion, however, Joseph is robed in fine linen, a symbol of his appointment as Pharaoh’s deputy. Having appointed Joseph to rule over Egypt, Pharaoh takes various steps to integrate Joseph into Egyptian life and culture. Consequently, when his brothers later encounter Joseph, they do not perceive him to be a Hebrew.

41:46–52 The names of Joseph’s sons reflect his changed circumstances. Manasseh resembles the Hebrew word “forget”; Joseph looks to put the hardships of the past behind him. Ephraim recalls the Hebrew term “fruitful”; as Joseph acknowledges, God has made him fruitful in the land of his suffering. In the naming of both boys, Joseph refers to God. Despite his marriage to the daughter of an Egyptian priest, Joseph does not abandon the God of his fathers. To the contrary, he sees the hand of God in all that has happened to him.

41:53–57 As Joseph predicted, the seven years of plenty are followed by seven years of famine. When the famine results in shortages of food, Pharaoh tells his people to go to Joseph. Joseph’s oversight of the grain that has been stored sets the scene for his encounter with his brothers. As the shortage of food impacts surrounding countries, Joseph’s family will come to Egypt in search of grain.

Joseph’s Brothers’ First Trek to Egypt (42:1–38)

42:1–5 Due to the severity of the famine in Canaan, Jacob sends ten of his sons to Egypt to buy grain. Benjamin remains with his father, who fears that some terrible harm will befall his youngest son as it did Joseph. Jacob’s concern for Benjamin becomes an important issue in the ensuing narrative.

42:6–17 Joseph’s brothers encounter him in Egypt but fail to recognise him. They have no reason to suppose that the “governor of the land” (v. 6) is their brother, whom they sold into slavery twenty years previously. As they bow before him, Joseph recalls his teenage dreams (37:5–11). Although he recognises his brothers, Joseph conceals his identity and speaks to them through an interpreter (42:23). Joseph wants to discern their inner nature. Have they changed over the years? Would they act now as they did in the past? By calling them spies, Joseph draws them out regarding their real identity. When they tell Joseph, “The youngest is now with our father, and one is no more” (v. 13), their words abound in irony, for the “one who is no more” stands before them. When they reveal that their youngest brother is with their father in Canaan, Joseph takes the opportunity to test his brothers’ integrity. One of them shall return to Canaan and bring their youngest brother to Egypt. However, before sending a brother back to Canaan, Joseph detains all of them for three days.

42:18–28 On the third day, Joseph comes to his unsuspecting brothers with a more lenient proposal. He offers nine of them the opportunity to return home. In their presence, he overhears his brothers speaking in Hebrew to one another. They surmise that they are now being punished for mistreating Joseph. Their confession impacts Joseph emotionally. Possibly influenced by Reuben’s comments (v. 22), Joseph does not choose him, the eldest brother, to remain in Egypt. Rather, he opts for Simeon, the second eldest brother. By keeping one brother in Egypt, Joseph shrewdly recreates the situation that occurred twenty years previously when his brothers sent him to Egypt. Will the nine brothers return to their father and deceive him regarding Simeon’s absence? Possibly recalling that his brothers sold him for money, Joseph secretly arranges for the money they brought to pay for the grain to be placed in their sacks. Unaware of Joseph’s instructions, his brothers are filled with fear when one of them discovers his silver in a sack of grain. They sense that God may be acting against them (v. 28; cf. v. 21).

42:29–38 In contrast to their deceitful behaviour when Joseph was sold into slavery, the brothers give Jacob a truthful account of what has occurred, explaining that they must bring their youngest brother to Egypt. To their dismay they then discover in their grain sacks the silver that each man took to Egypt. Filled with fear, Jacob speaks of how, having lost Joseph and Simeon, he may also now lose Benjamin. Jacob’s concern is unlikely to have been lessened by Reuben’s response. A man who is willing to kill his own sons is not someone to be trusted. Jacob’s reply recalls what he said previously when his sons deceived him regarding Joseph’s death (37:35). Strikingly, when Jacob states, “His brother is dead and he is the only one left,” he deliberately ignores the existence of all his other sons. Since only Rachel’s sons appear to matter to Jacob, he is not prepared to risk losing Benjamin to get Simeon back.

The Brothers’ Second Trek to Egypt (43:1–34)

43:1–14 When the grain they brought from Egypt runs out, Jacob has no choice but to send his sons back to Egypt to replenish their supply. Judah reminds his father, however, that their trip will be unsuccessful unless they bring Benjamin with them. This is the first reference to Judah since chapter 38. In subsequent episodes, he will play an important role as spokesman for the brothers (43:8–10; 44:14–34; 46:28). In sharp contrast to Reuben (42:37), Judah takes upon himself responsibility for Benjamin’s safety (vv. 8–9). This sets Judah apart from his brothers. Accepting that there is no other option, Jacob instructs his sons to return to Egypt. They are to take with them special gifts for “the man,” as well as double the silver that they took previously. This will enable them to pay for the grain they have already received and the grain they hope to acquire on this journey. Interestingly, Jacob prays that God Almighty will cause “the man” to be merciful towards them. In the light of their callous treatment of Joseph, his prayer is especially relevant. Underlining his deep attachment to Benjamin, Jacob names him specifically, but simply refers to Simeon as “your other brother” (v. 14).

43:15–28 When Jacob’s sons come to Joseph, he arranges for them to have a meal in his house. Remembering the silver that was placed in their sacks, the brothers are fearful that this is a trap to enslave them. When they inform Joseph’s steward about the silver that they found in their sacks, he reassures them that all is well; he received their payment in full. Strikingly, the Egyptian steward speaks of “God, the God of your father” putting treasure in their sacks (v. 23). Now reunited with Simeon, the brothers prepare for the meal at Joseph’s house. When Joseph appears, once again they bow before him (vv. 26, 28; see 42:6; cf. 37:5–11).

43:29–34 To emphasise Joseph’s special attachment to Benjamin, both being born to Rachel, the narrator writes, “his brother Benjamin, his own mother’s son” (v. 29). On seeing Benjamin after some twenty years, Joseph struggles to maintain his composure. Once more, Joseph weeps (v. 30), but with greater emotion than previously (see 42:24). However, he still refrains from disclosing his real identity to his brothers. Due to cultural factors, the Egyptians present at the meal do not eat with the Hebrews. This facilitates Joseph’s desire to conceal his identity from his brothers. To their surprise, they are seated according to age. This adds to their growing belief that this powerful Egyptian can discern the truth through divination. Joseph’s feelings for his brother Benjamin are reflected in the food portions given to him. The brief reference to feasting and drinking with Joseph (v. 34) sets the scene for Benjamin to be charged with the theft of Joseph’s silver cup.

Benjamin Is Accused of Theft (44:1–34)

44:1–2 By having each man’s silver replaced in his sack, Joseph intentionally creates a climate of uncertainty. The brothers are at a loss to explain what is happening. By having his own silver cup placed in Benjamin’s sack, Joseph ensures that his younger brother will be found guilty of theft.

44:3–13 To add to his brothers’ discomfort regarding the inexplicable events taking place, Joseph’s steward implies that his master has the power of divination (v. 5); Joseph himself will make the same point later (44:15). With no reason to believe Joseph’s cup is with them, the brothers reject the steward’s charge of theft. Confident of their innocence, they say, “If any of your servants is found to have it, he will die; and the rest of us will become my lord’s slaves” (v. 9). Adopting a less severe approach, Joseph’s steward says that only the one guilty of theft will become his slave. When the steward finds the silver cup in Benjamin’s sack, the brothers are devastated. They tear their clothes in grief, as Jacob did on hearing of Joseph’s death (37:29).

44:14–17 After they return to Joseph’s house, Judah takes on the role of spokesman for the brothers. Once more the brothers bow before Joseph (v. 14). Joseph’s claim that he can know things by divination unsettles his brothers (v. 15). Displaying great deference to Joseph, the wording of Judah’s confession in verse 16 implies that God has revealed to Joseph the brothers’ guilt. Since they coldheartedly sold their brother into slavery, Judah expects, based on moral equivalence, that their punishment will reflect their crime: they will become slaves. However, with great ingenuity, Joseph presents his older brother with a revealing choice that replicates what happened to him. He offers them the opportunity to return home safely at the expense of leaving Benjamin as a slave (v. 17). Will they selfishly consign Benjamin to slavery in Egypt, as they did with Joseph?

44:18–34 While Judah had been the instigator of selling Joseph into slavery (37:26–27), he now intervenes on behalf of Benjamin in one of the longest human speeches recorded in Genesis. Recounting details of what has already transpired, Judah highlights his concern for the well-being of his father, Jacob. He fears that Jacob will die of grief if anything harmful should happen to Benjamin. After highlighting Jacob’s reluctance to send Benjamin to Egypt and his own willingness to take responsibility for Benjamin, Judah offers himself as a slave in place of Joseph’s younger brother. Where previously Judah had willingly sold Joseph into slavery in Egypt, he now selflessly volunteers to become a slave so that Benjamin may return safely to his father. As a mark of his transformed character, the slave trader is prepared to become a slave in place of his youngest brother.

Joseph’s Identity Revealed (45:1–28)

45:1–15 Joseph’s composure is undone by Judah’s passionate appeal. He breaks down in tears for a third time (see 42:24; 43:30), but on this occasion he does so in the presence of his brothers. He weeps so loudly that his Egyptian attendants, whom he has asked to leave the room, hear him. When Joseph reveals his identity, his brothers are speechless, terrified by this revelation. With remarkable generosity of spirit, Joseph looks to calm the fears of his brothers. Three times Joseph affirms in his short speech that God send him to Egypt (vv. 5, 7, 8). Joseph’s explanation of what has occurred reflects his strong belief in God’s providential activity. Behind all that has happened, it was God’s plan to send Joseph to Egypt for the purpose of saving lives, especially those of his brothers and their families (see 50:20). Emphasising God’s role in all that has occurred, Joseph speaks of how God has made him “father to Pharaoh, lord of his entire household and ruler of all Egypt” (v. 8). Joseph’s status as “father” to the Egyptian king recalls God’s commitment to Abraham that he would be the father of a multitude of nations (17:4–5). Through Joseph God blesses the nations, prefiguring a greater Joseph who, as God’s perfect vicegerent, will establish God’s kingdom on the earth.

Goshen (v. 10) was probably a region in the eastern delta of the River Nile, near the city of Rowaty. In later centuries, when it came under the control of the Hyksos, this city was named Avaris. When the Hyksos were expelled from Egypt, the city was renamed Peru-Nefer and then Pi-Ramesses (see 47:11; cf. Exod 1:11).

After disclosing his identity, Joseph encourages his brothers to return quickly to Canaan to bring Jacob’s entire family to Egypt. Joseph’s concern for his father frames his entire speech (vv. 3–13). Having displayed his special feelings for Benjamin by naming him specifically in his speech (v. 12), Joseph passionately hugs his brother (v. 14). He then demonstrates his affection for all his other brothers by kissing them, all the time weeping with joy.

Although Joseph’s behaviour in hiding his identity from his brothers has been interpreted by some as being heartless and selfish, in that it continued his father’s heartache longer than necessary and inflicted hardship on his brothers, his actions lead to meaningful reconciliation. In contrast to the deceit of his older brothers, Joseph’s deception causes his brothers to acknowledge their wrongdoing and leads to the reunification of the entire family.

45:16–28 The scene switches to the royal court, where news of the arrival of Joseph’s brothers is received positively by Pharaoh and his officials. Out of respect for Joseph, Pharaoh instructs him to bring his family to Egypt, where they are to be given the best of the land. Joseph provides his brothers with new clothing, an indication that he has graciously forgiven them, possibly recalling how they took away his ornate robe when they sold him into slavery in Egypt. Once more Joseph demonstrates his deep affection for Benjamin by giving him “three hundred shekels of silver and five sets of clothes” (v. 22). Joseph’s gift to his younger brother far exceeds the twenty shekels his brothers shared when they sold Joseph as a slave (37:28). Understandably, Jacob is reluctant to believe that his favourite son is still alive. However, on hearing the testimony of his sons and seeing the carts Joseph has provided, he is persuaded and announces that he will go to Egypt so that he may see Joseph before he dies.

Jacob’s Family Moves to Egypt (46:1–27)

46:1–4 On his journey to Egypt, Jacob arrives at Beersheba, a location where his grandfather Abraham and father, Isaac, had both lived for a period (see 21:22–34; 26:23–33). Previously, during a famine, Abraham had travelled to Egypt with unfortunate consequences (12:10–20). During another famine, God prohibited Isaac from going to Egypt (26:1–6). Possibly recalling these events, Jacob may have been reluctant to go to Egypt without God’s permission. God had spoken to Jacob’s father, Isaac, at night at Beersheba (26:23–24); he now speaks reassuringly to Jacob.

The Hebrew text of verse 4 emphasises the “I” that refers to God. God reassures Jacob that his journey to Egypt will not undermine the divine promises given to Abraham and Isaac. God will make Jacob into a great nation (v. 3), recalling his promise to Abraham (12:2), which was repeated to Jacob at Bethel when he was fleeing from Esau (28:13–15). God promises to be present with Jacob in Egypt and to bring him back to the land of Canaan (v. 4). God also promises that Joseph will “close your eyes” (v. 4), a reference to Jacob’s death. In the Hebrew text, the wording of the promises made in verse 4 does not require them to be fulfilled in the order spoken by God. Later, we discover that Jacob dies in Egypt in Joseph’s presence (49:33), but his body is buried in Canaan (50:1–14). In the light of this, it is worth observing that in the NT, the author of Hebrews states that God’s promises regarding possession of the land will be fulfilled for the patriarchs—Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob—in the life to come (Heb 11:8–16, 39–40). With God’s backing, Jacob takes his whole family to Egypt. This important development is part of God’s plan for Abraham’s descendants (cf. 15:13–14).

46:5–27 With an element of repetition, this section highlights that Jacob’s entire family relocated to Egypt. All Jacob’s offspring, without exception, leave Canaan. The summary statement in verses 5–7 is followed in verses 8–25 with the names of the “sons of Israel,” grouped according to Jacob’s wives: Leah (vv. 8–15); Zilpah (vv. 16–18); Rachel (vv. 19–22); and Bilhah (vv. 23–25). Apart from naming two women, Dinah (v. 15) and Serah (v. 17), all the other names refer to the sons, grandsons, and great-grandsons of Jacob/Israel. Their wives are not named and are not included in the total of sixty-six, mentioned in verse 26. A careful analysis of this list of Jacob’s offspring reveals minor discrepancies that are not easily explained. Leah’s children listed in verses 8–15 include six sons, one daughter, twenty-five grandchildren, and two great-grandsons, a total of thirty-four. Yet, verse 15 states that the sons and daughters were “thirty-three in all.” Possibly, the name of Ohad (v. 10) should be deleted; he is not included in similar lists in Number 26:12–13 and 1 Chronicles 4:24. Alternatively, Dinah, the one woman listed, might not be included in the total of thirty-three. To complicate the issue further, Er and Onan are named, but, as noted in verse 12, they die in Canaan and, therefore, cannot be included in the count of those who went to Egypt.

According to verse 26, a total of sixty-six direct descendants accompanied Jacob to Egypt when he departed from Beersheba. Joseph and his two sons, Manasseh and Ephraim, are already in Egypt. Adding Jacob to the total, seventy members of his family settle in Egypt, excluding wives. This total of seventy corresponds with the sum of the numbers given in verses 15, 18, 22 and 25: thirty-three, sixteen, fourteen, and seven, respectively. Yet, Leah’s thirty-three offspring include Er and Onan, both of whom died in Canaan. Interestingly, the earliest Greek translation of Genesis, the LXX, gives a total of seventy-four, expanding Joseph’s offspring to include seven males, and not two as in the Hebrew text of verse 20. Acts 7:14 records a total of seventy-five; this is achieved by adding Jacob to the total of seventy-four found in the LXX. Given the issues associated with the names and numbers in this passage, it is possible that when the earliest manuscripts were copied by hand, some minor mistakes may have arisen.

Jacob’s Family Settles in Goshen (46:28–47:12)

46:28–34 Jacob assigns to Judah the task of getting directions to Goshen from Joseph. Jacob considers Judah trustworthy and will later bestow on him a very positive blessing (49:8–12). When Jacob’s family arrives, Joseph comes to see his father. The reunion is highly emotional. To ensure that they are not assimilated into Egyptian society, Joseph exploits an Egyptian dislike of shepherds to ensure that his family is settled in Goshen, which keeps them at a distance from the Egyptians.

47:1–12 With his family now in Egypt, Joseph brings five of his brothers to have an audience with Pharaoh. Before the king of Egypt, they request to settle with their livestock in Goshen. After this, Joseph presents his elderly father to Pharaoh. In the light of how the patriline of Genesis is linked to the concept of blessing, Jacob’s blessing of Pharaoh is probably more than simply a polite form of greeting and farewell (vv. 7, 10).

Jacob is 130 years old when he arrives in Egypt. When he comments, “My years have been few and difficult” (v. 9), he possibly compares his life with that of Abraham and Isaac, who lived 175 and 180 years, respectively. Compared to them, Jacob may have considered his years as few. As regards his years being difficult, Jacob may have in view his forced exile to Paddan Aram and his loss of Joseph, his favourite son. His comment about “the pilgrimage of my fathers” is possibly a reference to their seminomadic lifestyle, recognising that they had no permanent dwelling in Canaan. In the New Testament, the author of Hebrews speaks of how the patriarchs followed this lifestyle, anticipating a city designed and built by God (Heb 11:9–16). The “district of Rameses” (v. 11) probably lay within the region of Goshen. The designation “Rameses” may reflect the names in use at the time when Genesis was first composed. It possibly derives from the Egyptian king Rameses I who ruled over Egypt in the early 13th century BC.

Joseph Administers Egypt during the Famine (47:13–26)

47:13–26 With the arrival of Jacob’s family in Egypt, the narrator concentrates on Joseph’s role during the famine. Joseph uses his God-given administrative skills to keep the people of Egypt alive. He is portrayed as a compassionate governor who does not exploit the people for personal gain. To ensure that Egyptians can purchase grain, Joseph enables them to sell their land to Pharaoh. However, the people are permitted to keep four-fifths of all that they grow. Later, when the Israelites settle in Canaan, they give one-tenth of their main harvest to God, acknowledging that he has given them the land.

Jacob’s Request to Be Buried in Canaan (47:27–31)

47:27–31 Jacob’s family increases numerically, a sign of divine blessing (see 1:28; 9:1, 7; 17:20; 28:3; 35:11; 48:4). Over time the dramatic expansion of Jacob’s family leads to oppression when a new Pharaoh becomes ruler of Egypt (see Exod 1:7). With death approaching, Jacob asks Joseph to bury him in Canaan. Although he dies in Egypt, Joseph arranges for his father to be interred in Canaan (49:29–50:14).

The NIV translation of 47:31 reads “staff” (Hebrew maṭṭeh), as does the earliest Greek translation. Most modern English translation adopt the reading “bed” (Hebrew miṭṭāh), the form found in the Masoretic (Hebrew) Text. The NIV translators may have been influenced by Hebrews 11:21, which reads “staff.” However, the event mentioned in Hebrews 11:21 is not the one being described here in verse 31.

Jacob Blesses Joseph and His Two Sons (48:1–22)

48:1–7 Joseph does not come to his father with the expectation that Jacob will bless his sons, Manasseh and Ephraim. Addressing Joseph, Jacob recalls the divine promises that he received from God at Luz (i.e., Bethel; see 35:11). Jacob’s summary of what God promised is not an exact quotation of the divine speech recorded in 35:11–12. Moreover, some of the wording recalls the blessing Jacob received from his father, Isaac, in 28:3–4. In addition, the expression “everlasting possession” in verse 4 occurs elsewhere in Genesis only in 17:8, although it summarises well God’s promises concerning the land of Canaan that are frequently repeated (e.g., 28:13; 35:12). He also recalls the death of Rachel, mentioning Ephrath twice. The brief comment associating Ephrath with Bethlehem (v. 7) is noteworthy because of Bethlehem’s link to the Davidic dynasty. Although Jacob is going to give the blessing of the firstborn to Ephraim, there is possibly a brief hint here that Bethlehem will be significant in the future (see also Ruth 4:11–22; 1Sam 16:1).

48:8–20 On his death bed, Jacob desires to bless his sons. Before he addresses each of his own sons (49:1–28), he blesses Joseph’s two sons, Manasseh and Ephraim. They are the only grandchildren that he blesses. In blessing Joseph’s sons, Jacob places them alongside Joseph’s brothers, so that through his two sons, Joseph receives a double portion of the land of Canaan when it is shared between twelve tribes. (The tribe of Levi does not receive a share of the land.) This reflects Joseph’s status as firstborn (see 1Chr 5:1–2). Importantly, Jacob places Ephraim before his older brother, Manasseh (v. 14). When Joseph attempts to ensure that Manasseh receives the blessing of the firstborn, Jacob insists on giving the firstborn blessing to Ephraim. His actions recall how Jacob received the firstborn blessing from his father, Isaac, over his older brother, Esau (27:1–45). Beyond Genesis the tribe of Ephraim enjoys considerable prominence. When the Israelites take possession of the land of Canaan, it is an Ephraimite, Joshua, who leads them into the promised land. However, in future generations the Ephraimites forfeit their privileged position by becoming increasing immoral. They are eventually rejected by God in the time of the prophet Samuel when leadership of the nation is given to the tribe of Judah (see Ps 78:67–71).

Through blessing Ephraim and Manasseh, Jacob also blesses Joseph (v. 15). Jacob’s pronouncement underlines that God is the one who blesses. As evidence of this, Jacob points to God’s presence with his grandfather, Abraham, and his father, Isaac. Jacob himself has also known God’s guidance and protection. His use of the term “angel” to denote God alludes to the expression “angel of the LORD/God,” which designates God himself when he appears to people (e.g., 16:7–14; 21:15–21; 22:11–18; 31:11–13).

By placing Ephraim before Manasseh, Jacob anticipates that the divine promises given to Abraham will be linked to Joseph’s younger son. While Jacob does not diminish Manasseh’s future —“he also shall become a people, and he also shall be great”—he speaks of Ephraim’s descendants becoming “a multitude of nations” (v. 19). Behind this expectation is God’s promise to Jacob that “a nation and a company of nations” (35:11) will come from him, a promise rooted in God’s covenant with Abraham that he would be a “father of many nations” (17:4–6).

48:21–22 Jacob reassures Joseph that his family will return to Canaan; the pronouns “you” and “your” are plural in the Hebrew text of verse 21. Verse 22 is open to various meanings. The Hebrew word translated “ridge of land” is also the place named Shechem, in the hill country of Ephraim (Josh 20:7). Later, Joseph’s bones would be buried there, confirming that this territory would belong to his descendants (Josh 24:32).

Jacob Blesses His Twelve Sons (49:1–28)

49:1–2 After blessing Joseph’s sons, Jacob gathers all his sons around him. His deathbed speech takes on special significance because it consists of blessings (see 49:28) that will influence what happens in the future. Due to their poetic nature, the contents of Jacob’s blessings are not always easy to interpret. In some instances, Jacob’s pronouncements are linked to his sons’ past actions. While some of the blessings are not especially positive in nature, the blessings of Judah (vv. 8–12) and Joseph (vv. 22–26) stand apart from all the others in terms of both length and importance.

49:3–4 Although Reuben is Jacob’s firstborn son, his inappropriate liaison with Bilhah, one of Jacob’s wives (see 35:22–23), results in Jacob giving the status of firstborn to Joseph (see 1Chr 5:1–2). Jacob’s remarks reflect his distrust of Reuben. Beyond Genesis, the story of Israel contains no mention of any judge, king, or prophet belonging to the tribe of Reuben.

49:5–7 Simeon and Levi are the only two sons grouped together. Recalling their aggressive actions against the men of Shechem (see 34:25–26), Jacob announces that their descendants will be dispersed throughout the land of Canaan to dissipate their power. Whereas the tribe of Simeon is given territory that is surrounded by the tribe of Judah (Josh 19:1–9), the tribe of Levi is allocated forty-eight cities spread throughout the whole region (Num 18:23–24; 35:1–8; Josh 21:1–45).

49:8–12 Jacob’s blessing of Judah is longer and more positive than those given to his older brothers. Jacob’s remarks associate future kingship with Judah’s descendants; this becomes a reality when God establishes a dynasty through David, the son of Jesse. Jacob’s positive assessment of the future tribe of Judah reflects the leadership role that Judah played within Jacob’s family (43:3, 8; 44:14, 16, 18; 46:28). Echoing how his father, Isaac, blessed him (27:29), Jacob speaks of Judah’s brothers bowing down to him (v. 8) and “the obedience of the nations” (v. 10) being his. This announcement is somewhat unexpected, given the dreams of Joseph (37:5–10) and Jacob’s blessing of Ephraim as the firstborn (48:12–20). The mention of a sceptre and a ruler’s staff underscores the royal status that will come to the tribe of Judah. Associated with this status is victory over enemies (v. 8) and agricultural abundance (v. 11). As part of a developing picture, the hopes associated with one of Judah’s descendants are in keeping with messianic expectation found elsewhere in the Old Testament (e.g., Ps 72). In the light of this, it is understandable that the lion imagery of verse 9 gives rise to the expression “the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David” that is used to designate Jesus Christ (Rev 5:5).

49:13–15 Jacob’s comments concerning Zebulun and Issachar are brief when compared to those concerning Judah. Zebulun is linked with the Mediterranean coast near Sidon. Issachar is compared to a donkey that will serve others.

49:16–17 Jacob’s comments concerning Dan involve a wordplay on his name, which means “he judged” (see 30:6). Although the wording of verse 16 gives a favourable impression of Dan, the picture conveyed in verse 17 is less so.

49:18 Interrupting what he says regarding his sons, Jacob speaks of waiting for God’s deliverance.

49:19–21 Jacob’s comments regarding Gad, Asher, and Naphtali are brief. The Gadites will attack raiders as they retreat (v. 19). The tribe of Asher will enjoy copious food (v. 20). The tribe of Naphtali will have freedom to flourish numerically (v. 21).

49:22–26 In marked contrast to the statements made in verses 13–21, Jacob’s blessing of Joseph is extensive, reflecting his status as favourite son and the one who replaces Reuben as the firstborn. Jacob introduces the idea of fruitfulness, a theme that recurs throughout Genesis. It is also associated with the name of Joseph’s son Ephraim (see 41:50–52). Despite opposition, Joseph remained strong with God’s help. Jacob prays that the assorted blessings of the Almighty will rest on Joseph, whom he describes as “the prince among his brothers” (v. 26). Moses pronounces a very similar blessing on Joseph’s descendants centuries later, but with significant additions (see Deut 33:13–17).

49:27 Benjamin is the last son blessed by Jacob. His expectations for Benjamin’s descendants associate them with violent behaviour (see Judg 19:12–30).

49:28 The descendants of Jacob’s sons will form the twelve tribes of Israel. Jacob does not bless them all equally but bestows on Judah and Joseph blessings that far surpass those given to their brothers. This will have a significant impact on the future of each tribe, especially as regards the establishment of kingship within Israel and the fulfilment of the divine promises given to the patriarchs.

Jacob’s Death and Burial (49:29–50:14)

49:29–33 Jacob requests to be buried with Abraham and Isaac in the cave at Hebron, which Abraham bought from Ephron (see 23:1–20; 25:8–10; 35:27–29). Interestingly, Jacob states that he is about “to be gathered to my people” (v. 29). As verse 33 confirms, this occurs when Jacob breathes his last; he is gathered to his people at the point of dying, and not when he is placed alongside them in the tomb. This points to a belief in life after death that involves people being reunited with others (cf. 25:8).

50:1–3 Joseph’s love for his father is reflected in his grief when Jacob passes away. To fulfil his father’s request to be buried in Canaan, Joseph arranges for his body to be embalmed. Since this was not commonly practised outside Egypt, Joseph assigns the task to his Egyptian physicians.

50:4–11 After getting permission from Pharaoh, Joseph transports his father’s embalmed body to Canaan. A large funeral cortege, including prominent Egyptian officials, makes its way to Hebron, possibly travelling through Trans-Jordan. The significance of the occasion is captured by the name given to “the threshing floor of Atad” (v. 11). From the context, the designation “Abel-Mizraim” means “mourning of the Egyptians.” To the local Canaanites, this event was exceptionally unusual.

50:12–14 Fulfilling their father’s last request, Jacob’s sons bury him in the cave near Mamre (see 23:1–20; cf. 25:8–10; 35:27–29). The entire cortege then returns to Egypt. By naming Joseph, the narrator highlights his prominent status. With the death of Jacob, Joseph becomes head of the family.

Joseph Reassures His Brothers (50:15–21)

50:15–17 Their harsh treatment of Joseph in the past weighs heavily on his brothers. Although he has shown exceptional forgiveness, they fear that with the death of Jacob, Joseph will exact revenge. Knowing Joseph’s respect for his father, his brothers send a message to Joseph purporting to be a request from Jacob that he should forgive his brothers. On hearing their message, Joseph weeps. He is disheartened that his brothers do not perceive his forgiveness as truly genuine.

50:18–21 Filled with apprehension, Joseph’s brothers fall before him. Their action recalls Joseph’s dreams (37:5–10). Having sold Joseph into slavery, they now offer to become his slaves, hoping that he will spare their lives. Joseph reassures them that they should not fear. While their intentions were evil, God has brought good out of what has happened; many lives have been saved.

Joseph’s Death (50:22–26)

50:22–23 As the book of Genesis moves towards a conclusion, the narrator notes that Joseph’s family line continues beyond his sons, Ephraim and Manasseh. The expression “the third generation of Ephraim’s children” probably refers to Joseph’s great-grandchildren.

50:24–26 Now close to death, Joseph reassures his wider family that God will eventually bring them from Egypt to Canaan, to the land promised by God to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. When this happens, they are to transport Joseph’s remains to Canaan. Consequently, when Joseph dies, they place his embalmed body in a coffin. Coffins were not normally used by the ancient Israelites when burying their dead, so Joseph’s burial is unique. His request is later fulfilled when the Israelites leave Egypt (Exod 13:19).

Bibliography

Kidner, D. Genesis: An Introduction and Commentary. TOTC. Leicester: Inter-Varsity Press, 1967.

Mathews, K. A. Genesis 1-11:26. NAC 1A. Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 1995.

–––. Genesis 11:27-50:26. NAC 1B. Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 2005.

McKeown, J. Genesis. Two Horizons Old Testament Commentary 1. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2008.

Provan, I. W. Discovering Genesis: Content, Interpretation, Reception. Discovering Biblical Texts. London: SPCK, 2015.

Steinmann, A. E. Genesis: An Introduction and Commentary. Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries 1. London/Downers Grove: IVP, 2019.

Waltke, B. K. and C. J. Fredricks. Genesis: A Commentary. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2001.

Wenham, G. J. Genesis 1-15. Word Biblical Commentary 1. Waco: Word, 1987.

–––. Genesis 16-50. Word Biblical Commentary 2. Dallas: Word, 1994.

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Genesis 1

ESV

The Creation of the World

1:1 In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was without form and void, and darkness was over the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters.

And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. And God saw that the light was good. And God separated the light from the darkness. God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day.

And God said, “Let there be an expanse1 in the midst of the waters, and let it separate the waters from the waters.” And God made2 the expanse and separated the waters that were under the expanse from the waters that were above the expanse. And it was so. And God called the expanse Heaven.3 And there was evening and there was morning, the second day.

And God said, “Let the waters under the heavens be gathered together into one place, and let the dry land appear.” And it was so. 10 God called the dry land Earth,4 and the waters that were gathered together he called Seas. And God saw that it was good.

11 And God said, “Let the earth sprout vegetation, plants5 yielding seed, and fruit trees bearing fruit in which is their seed, each according to its kind, on the earth.” And it was so. 12 The earth brought forth vegetation, plants yielding seed according to their own kinds, and trees bearing fruit in which is their seed, each according to its kind. And God saw that it was good. 13 And there was evening and there was morning, the third day.

14 And God said, “Let there be lights in the expanse of the heavens to separate the day from the night. And let them be for signs and for seasons,6 and for days and years, 15 and let them be lights in the expanse of the heavens to give light upon the earth.” And it was so. 16 And God made the two great lights—the greater light to rule the day and the lesser light to rule the night—and the stars. 17 And God set them in the expanse of the heavens to give light on the earth, 18 to rule over the day and over the night, and to separate the light from the darkness. And God saw that it was good. 19 And there was evening and there was morning, the fourth day.

20 And God said, “Let the waters swarm with swarms of living creatures, and let birds7 fly above the earth across the expanse of the heavens.” 21 So God created the great sea creatures and every living creature that moves, with which the waters swarm, according to their kinds, and every winged bird according to its kind. And God saw that it was good. 22 And God blessed them, saying, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the waters in the seas, and let birds multiply on the earth.” 23 And there was evening and there was morning, the fifth day.

24 And God said, “Let the earth bring forth living creatures according to their kinds—livestock and creeping things and beasts of the earth according to their kinds.” And it was so. 25 And God made the beasts of the earth according to their kinds and the livestock according to their kinds, and everything that creeps on the ground according to its kind. And God saw that it was good.

26 Then God said, “Let us make man8 in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.”


27   So God created man in his own image,
    in the image of God he created him;
    male and female he created them.

28 And God blessed them. And God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.” 29 And God said, “Behold, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is on the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit. You shall have them for food. 30 And to every beast of the earth and to every bird of the heavens and to everything that creeps on the earth, everything that has the breath of life, I have given every green plant for food.” And it was so. 31 And God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good. And there was evening and there was morning, the sixth day.

Footnotes

[1] 1:6 Or a canopy; also verses 7, 8, 14, 15, 17, 20

[2] 1:7 Or fashioned; also verse 16

[3] 1:8 Or Sky; also verses 9, 14, 15, 17, 20, 26, 28, 30; 2:1

[4] 1:10 Or Land; also verses 11, 12, 22, 24, 25, 26, 28, 30; 2:1

[5] 1:11 Or small plants; also verses 12, 29

[6] 1:14 Or appointed times

[7] 1:20 Or flying things; see Leviticus 11:19–20

[8] 1:26 The Hebrew word for man (adam) is the generic term for mankind and becomes the proper name Adam

(ESV)

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