Overview – Sefer Bereshit

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Structure of the Book

Sefer Bereshit divides into two main sections, Chapters 1-11 which speak of universal history: the creation, destruction and recreation of the world at large, and Chapters 12-50 which focus on the selection of the individuals who were to father Hashem's chosen nation. The book further subdivides into units based on the chosen line of each era.  The phrase "ואלה תולדות" serves to separate these subsections as it highlights and opposes the rejected and selected lines:

  • "אֵלֶּה תוֹלְדוֹת הַשָּׁמַיִם וְהָאָרֶץ" – Bereshit 2:4 introduces the stories of the first humans, the family of Adam.
  • "זֶה סֵפֶר תּוֹלְדֹת אָדָם" – Chapter 5 closes the Adam narratives and segues into the stories of Noach, as it lists Adam's descendants through the chosen line of Shet until Noach. 
  • "אֵלֶּה תּוֹלְדֹת נֹחַ" Chapter 6:9 zooms into Noach's family who is alone chosen to survive the flood. These verses, thus, introduce the Noach narratives
  • "וְאֵלֶּה תּוֹלְדֹת בְּנֵי נֹחַ" – Chapter 10 lists all of Noach's descendants (chosen to repopulate the destroyed world), while Chapter 11 ("אֵלֶּה תּוֹלְדֹת שֵׁם") focuses on the line of Shem in particular, the selected of Noach's sons. The last descendasnt mentioned in Avraham.  These chapters, thus, close the Noach narrative and segue into the Avraham stories.. 
  •  "וְאֵלֶּה תּוֹלְדֹת תֶּרַח" – Bereshit 11:27 zooms into the line of Terach, introducing the the choice of Avraham.  The Avraham narratives end in Bereshit 25 with a genealogy list of the rejected line of Yishmael ("וְאֵלֶּה תֹּלְדֹת יִשְׁמָעֵאל")
  • "וְאֵלֶּה תּוֹלְדֹת יִצְחָק" – Bereshit 25:19 opens the Yitzchak narratives. These end in Bereshit 36 with a genealogy list of the rejected line of Esav ("וְאֵלֶּה תֹּלְדוֹת עֵשָׂו").
  • "אֵלֶּה תֹּלְדוֹת יַעֲקֹב" – Bereshit 37 introduces the last section of the book which discusses the offspring of the chosen Yaakov, later to become the twelve tribes of Israel.

For elaboration regarding the book's structure, see Structure – Sefer Bereshit

Purpose of the Book

What is the purpose of Sefer Bereshit? In contrast to the rest of Torah which contains both narrative and legal material, Sefer Bereshit is almost exclusively narrative in nature.  In addition, where the other books focus on the Nation of Israel and its relationship with Hashem, Bereshit instead discusses events on both the universal level and on the smaller family plane, but not on the national level. Why are these events important to share?1  Should not the Torah have begun with the description of the formation of the nation and its accompanying legal codes in Sefer Shemot?2

Several answers have been proposed:

Background to Torah

Sefer Bereshit serves as an introduction to the rest of Torah, providing crucial background for understanding its laws, history, and belief system:

  • Legal Background – RashbamBereshit 1:1About R. Shemuel b. Meir suggests that without the description of creation in Sefer Bereshit, certain laws, such as Shabbat, would not be understandable.
  • Historical Background –  A central motif of Sefer Bereshit is Hashem's repeated promises of "land" and "seed".  These are offset by the simultaneous prophecy  that the nation would be enslaved in a foreign land before finally conquering Canaan.  These promises are crucial for understanding the rest of Torah which details the exile in Egypt and journey back to Israel. 
  • Justification for Choice of Israel – In its depiction of the sins of early mankind, Sefer Bereshit provides the rationale for why Hashem chose Israel as His chosen nation, while rejecting others.3
  • Fundamentals of Belief –  By starting Torah with creation, Hashem introduces Himself as Creator and not only as Redeemer.4  ShadalBereshit 1:1About R. Shemuel David Luzzatto points out that this is crucial for belief in monotheism5 and RambanBereshit 1:1About R. Moshe b. Nachman notes that as this is one of the fundamentals of our faith, it is inconceivable that the Torah could start anywhere else.  Cassuto adds that many of the early stories in Torah serve to oppose the myths prevalent in the Ancient Near East regarding creation, gods, angels, etc.

Lessons and Values

The stories of Sefer Bereshit inculcate many lessons regarding proper behavior, character traits, and beliefs. Though these could be given over in a legal code, they are much more powerful lessons when learned via the actions of real people:

  • Universal Values – ShadalBereshit 1:1About R. Shemuel David Luzzatto suggests that the story of Creation is needed to  teach the unity of both God6 and the human species (אחדות העולם ואחדות המין האנושי).  While the former promotes monotheism, the latter is the foundation for social justice and love of mankind.  Without the recognition that we all stem from one source, dissent and power struggles ensue between nations.
  • Obedience to and Belief in Hashem – Throughout Sefer Bereshit the Patriarchs continually demonstrate their faith in Hashem and their willingness to follow His word. Avraham's unwavering obedience at the Akeidah provides, perhaps, the strongest example of what it means to give of your entire being to Hashem.
  • Coping with difficulty – The forefather/mothers' lives were far from idyllic.  They included displacement from home and family, barrenness, political conflicts, family strife, economic difficulties and famine.  Their steadfast faith throughout serves as a model for others attempting to overcome life's hurdles.  See, for example, Barren Women.
  • Delayed gratification / deferred benefit – Hashem's promises to the Patriarchs were fulfilled only generations after they died. As such, the forefathers spent their lives toiling for their descendants, not themselves.  This stands in stark contrast to the other protagonists of the book who look for immediate and physical gratification rather than future spiritual rewards.7
  • The dangers of favoritism and repercussions of jealousy – Many of the stories of Sefer Bereshit revolve around this theme, from Kayin's killing of Hevel in the beginning of the book, to the blessing of Yaakov in the middle, and the sale of Yosef at the end.
  • Lessons from Individuals
  • For other lessons that can be learned from the book, see Radak9 who often discusses "טעמי הסיפורים" and Ralbag who lists the "תועלות" of every unit

Historical Patterns:  מעשה אבות סימן לבנים

The actions of the forefathers as described in Sefer Bereshit paved the way for the future behavior of their descendants and foretold the pivotal events which were to befall the nation

Events TanchumaLekh Lekha 9About the Tanchuma points to the many parallels between the life of Avraham and the lives of his descendants,10 showing how they shared both blessings11 and travails.12  RambanBereshit 1:1Bereshit 12:6Bereshit 12:9-10Bereshit 14:1Bereshit 15:9Bereshit 15:12Bereshit 16:6Bereshit 26:1Bereshit 26:20Bereshit 28:12Bereshit 29:2Bereshit 32:4About R. Moshe b. Nachman develops the idea, attempting to show how even some of the seemingly inconsequential acts of our forefathers foreshadow events to come:

  • Descent to Egypt – Ramban13 suggests that the story of Avraham's sojourn in Egypt predicts the events to befall the nation there.14 He even claims that the future exile came as punishment for Avraham's initial descent and Endangering of Sarah.15
  • Four kingdoms – Ramban points to several stories as foreshadowing the four kingdoms which are to rule over Israel, including the Battle of the Kings, the Covenant of the Pieces, and Yaakov's Dream in Beit El.
  • Batei Mikdash – Ramban suggests that the stories of both Yitzchak's digging of wells and Yaakov's meeting by a well hint to the future Mikdash, while the "עגלה משולשת ועז משולשת" in the Covenant of the Pieces represent the three types of sacrifices (Olah, Chatat16 and Shelamim).
  • Fall to Rome – Ramban views Yaakov's unnecessary meeting with Esav as predicting the future pact made by the Hasmonean kings with Rome, which eventually caused Israel's fall at the hands of Rome.

Themes

There are several issues and themes which surface repeatedly throughout the book:

Selection and Rejection

Much of Sefer Bereshit revolves around the selection and rejection of both nations and individuals.  It is not always so clear from the text, however, what was so objectionable about the characters who are rejected.  In fact, commentators often vary widely in their evaluation of the various protagonists of the sefer:

  • Rejection of Kayin's line – Kayin's murder of Hevel appears to be a fairly obvious explanation for his rejection, but see Kayin – Intentional or Unintentional Murderer, that not all agree regarding the severity of his crime.  See also Lemekh's Monologue for different takes on whether or not Kayin's violent streak continued in his descendants.
  • Destruction of the world – What led to Hashem's decision to despair of the world and destroy it via the flood?  See also  בני הא־להים and בנות .האדם.
  • Cursing Canaan‎ – What did Canaan do that was so terrible that it resulted in his being cursed?
  • Generation of the Dispersal – Were the builders of the tower of Bavel embarking on a malicious project that called for punishment, or, might their actions be viewed as an error in judgement and Hashem's intervention as a protective rather than punitive measure?
  • Lot rejected – How should Lot's character be understood? 
  • Yishmael rejected – Given the scarcity of verses which discuss Yishmael's actions, evaluating his character is no simple task. This leads some commentators to portray him as a neutral or even positive figure, and others to label him extremely problematic.
  • Esav rejected – Though the Torah is unequivocal in endorsing Yaakov as the third patriarch, its evaluation of Esav is less clear.  Was he really a totally wicked character?

Religiosity of the Patriarchs and Matriarchs

To what degree did the Patriarchs and Matriarchs observe the laws later set forth in Torah? To what extent did they share its value system? Is it possible that not all our ancestors began as pure monotheistic believers, and that for some, belief in one God was rather the result of a religious journey?

  • Avot and Mitzvot – Did the Avot observe the commandments? On one hand, they lived centuries before the Torah was given and many of its laws would be meaningless to them. On the other hand, it seems paradoxical to conceive of the founders of a religion not observing even its most basic commandments!
  • Akeidat Yitzchak –  How did Avraham, living among pagans who held child sacrifice to be the highest display of religious devotion, feel about the practice?  Did he share their belief until Hashem taught him otherwise, or had he always viewed the practice as immoral?17 
  • Rachel's Stealing of the Terafim – Why did Rachel take her father's idols?  What does her action teach about her own personal religious beliefs?18
  • Did Yaakov's Sons Marry Canaanites – While Avraham and Rivka clearly take pains to ensure that their chosen sons do not marry Canaanites, there is no explicit mention that Yaakov shared this concern regarding his children's marriages.  Why not?
  • Yosef in Egypt – How did the many years of Yosef's estrangement from his family affect his religious identification? See Yosef's Treatment of his Family and Yosef's Double Portion for discussion of the possibility that he and his family might have begun to assimilate in Egypt.

Morality of the Avot

The Torah presents Israel's leaders as real people, allowing readers to identify with and learn from their behavior. The forefathers often make excellent role models (see examples above). Yet, at other times they act in ways which make the reader question whether they are indeed worthy of emulation.  How are we to understand such stories?  Is it legitimate to criticize the Avot, or should any stories that cast shadows on their reputations be reinterpreted?  The issue comes up repeatedly in Sefer Bereshit:

  • Endangering Sarai in Egypt‎ – Was Avraham correct in putting Sarah in danger of potential rape so as to save his own life?
  • Oppressing Hagar – Was Sarah's oppression of the pregnant Hagar justified?
  • Banishment of Hagar and Yishmael – Though Hashem explicitly backs Sarah's decision to expel Yishmael, one wonders what crime of Yishmael could have been so heinous as to deserve banishment from his home?
  • Sale of the Birthright – Did Yaakov exploit Esav's vulnerability in order to gain the birthright?  Did paying for it with a mere bowl of lentils not constitute extortion?  How else might the story be understood?
  • Yaakov's Taking of the Blessing – Were Rivka and Yaakov justified in deceiving Yitzchak so as to ensure that Yaakov received his father's blessing?
  • Sin and Slaughter of Shekhem – How are we to evaluate Shimon and Levi's slaughter of an entire city in retribution for an individual's rape of their sister?
  • The Sale of Yosef – How can the heads of the future tribes sell their own brother into slavery?  See Who Sold Yosef for Rashbam's opinion that actually they did not!
  • Yosef's Economic Policies – Yosef's policies during the years of famine, when he takes all of the Egyptian's money, cattle and land, seem extremely harsh.  Did the famine really necessitate such draconian measures or was Yosef taking advantage of the Egyptians?

Chronological Issues

When recording any story, an author must balance the competing demands of chronological and thematic order. Sefer Bereshit is no exception, and though chronological order appears to be its default setting, there are several stories where the dating is debated:

  • Covenant of the Pieces - Commentators question the ordering of the Avraham narratives, and the dating of the Covenant of the Pieces in particular.  This relates to apparent contradictions in the Biblical text regarding the duration of the exile and bondage in Egypt. See Avraham's AliyahBereshit 15 – One Prophecy or Two, and Duration of the Egyptian Exile.
  • Birth of the Yaakov's Sons – The chronology of the birth of Yaakov's sons is also questioned as the text appears to leave only six years for the birth of twelve children, seven from Leah alone!19  The issue further relates to the ages of Shimon and Levi when they massacred Shekhem,20 and the inclusion of Chetzron and Chamul21 in the list of those who descend to Egypt. See The Births and Relative Ages of Yaakov's Children for details.

Ancient Near East

As Israel did not live in a vaccum, archaeological finds and Ancient Near Eastern texts can sometimes be helpful in shedding light on the meaning of the Biblical text.

  • Varying accounts of events – Comparison of Mesopotamian accounts of Creation or the Flood with those of Tanakh serves to highlight the differing belief systems and values of the two cultures.  For example, see The Mabbul and Mesopotamian Myths.
  • Law and cultural norms – Legal documents from the ancient near east have been used by many scholars in attempts to learn about the legal norms of the Patriarchal period, and how these might elucidate certain Biblical stories.
    • See Banishment of Hagar and Yishmael for opinions which use the Laws of Lipit Ishtar and the Code of Hammurabi to defend Sarah's expulsion of Hagar and Yishmael.22
    • See Rachel's Stealing of the Terafim for the suggestion (based on Nuzi adoption documents) that possession of household gods had ramifications for inheritance, and how this might explain Rachel's taking of Lavan's figurines.23
    • See Endangering Sarai in Egypt regarding the role played by brothers in the nuptial process in the ancient near east and how this might explain what really lay behind Avraham's request that Sarah pass herself off as his sister.

Theological Issues

Many theological and philosophical issues are raised through the various stories of Sefer Bereshit:

  • Angels – What is Torah's view of angels? When מלאכים are mentioned in Tanakh need this always refer to a celestial being?  Are angels corporeal?  Do they have free will and the ability to sin? For some stories where these issues come to the fore see: Avraham's Guests – Angels or Men?, בני הא־להים and בנות האדם, Wrestling With Angels and Men,
  • Hashem's knowledge and free will – Did the Divine prediction of the Egyptian and exile and its aftermath leave any room for free will on the part of either the Egyptians or Israelites?  Could the Israelites have opted never to descend to Egypt? Could the Egyptians have chosen not to subjugate the Israelites? If not, why were they punished? See Exile and Enslavement – Divinely Designed, Israelite Free Choice and Egyptian Free Choice.
  • Collective punishment and salvation –  In Avraham's Prayer for Sedom, he questions how Hashem can punish the innocent together with the wicked.  It is not clear, though, whether this had been Hashem's intention. Does Hashem find collective punishment problematic?  Is it unusual or the norm in Tanakh?  Is it any less just than collective salvation (what Avraham seems to request)?24 
  • Divine versus human morality – What is the proper course of action when human conceptions of morality, or even the Torah's own ethical system, conflict with a Divine command? The issue comes to the fore in the story of Akeidat Yitzchak. How can a just and ethical God, who later in the Torah denounces murder and the revolting practice of child sacrifice, demand of Avraham to kill his child?
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