In this episode of The Bible for Normal People Podcast, Pete lays out what reading Genesis from a historical appraoch looks like as he explores the following questions:
- What is Genesis about?
- For what purpose was Genesis written?
- What is the Old Testament, as a whole, reflecting on?
- What is Gary Rendsburg’s big takeaway in his lecture, “The Genesis of the Bible”?
- Is the description of the borders of the land in Genesis 15 really a description of a later geopolitical reality?
- What is idealized geography?
- Why is the emphasis on Judah in Genesis so significant?
- What is the Divided Monarchy?
- Why does Genesis contain a list of Edomite kings?
- In Genesis, why does God have a tendency to favor the younger brother over one or more of the elder brothers?
- Why does it seem like the story of Judah and Tamar is randomly inserted into Genesis?
- What parallels do we find between the stories of Judah and David?
Pithy, shareable, less-than-280-character statements from Pete Enns you can share.
- “Genesis is not a children’s story nor a book of history, at least not in the modern sense, and it’s not a book of science. It’s actually a book of Israel’s self-identity as a nation.” @peteenns
- “Isaac’s blessing to Esau … seems to be a description of politics during the monarchic period. All we have to do is, instead of reading Jacob and Esau as people, read them as representatives of nations.” @peteenns
- “You see where this is going, right? The younger brother survives. The younger brother is clearly favored by God. Judah’s prominence in Genesis as a person is really about Judah’s prominence later on as a nation.” @peteenns
- “God’s favor for the nation of Judah has been featured, hinted at, and foreshadowed in various ways throughout Genesis. Genesis previews Judah’s dominance.” @peteenns
- “If we’re tuned into the clues, Genesis is prepared to tell us something about a struggling nation, defining its own beliefs about God and its self-identification as God’s people.” @peteenns
Mentioned in This Episode
- Website: thebiblefornormalpeople.com
- Article: The Genesis of the Bible
- Support: patreon.com/thebiblefornormalpeople
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Okay, now, as for this episode, we’re going to look at Genesis from an angle I’m guessing will be new to many of you. We’re going to focus on the big picture. What is Genesis as a whole about? For what purpose was it written? What is it doing?
Those are the big questions we’re going after. And to answer that question, I’m going to be channeling quite a bit of an essay I came across a few years ago written in 2004 by the biblical scholar Gary Rendsburg, who was a professor at Rutgers University in New Jersey. It’s not a technical article, but a public lecture called “The Genesis of the Bible,” and you can find the manuscript online in case you want to read it after hearing this, and I hope you do because we’re only going to go through some of the highlights.
Now, if you’re new to the whole idea of biblical scholarship, this is a mind-bending essay, but it’s also readable. You know, when I teach my college students on Torah or Genesis, I actually assign this essay and we usually have a lot of “aha moments” when we discuss it together.
So, that’s what we’re going to do. We’re going to walk through Rendsburg’s main points, and I’ll be adding some of my own and at the end I hope this angle on Genesis will give you some “aha moments” of your own and perhaps motivate you to dig deeper. Or at the very least to see that, you know, Genesis is not a children’s story nor a book of history, at least not in the modern sense, and it’s not a book of science. It’s actually a book of Israel’s self-identity as a nation. That’s the big point, right? Genesis is a book of Israel’s self-identity as a nation, which doesn’t happen until much later after the book of Exodus.
And with that, we’re getting to the gist of Rendsburg’s point. The Book of Genesis was written during the period of the monarchy and, therefore, reflects the history of the monarchy. Now remember, the monarchy begins with bad King Saul around, eh, around 1000 BCE – give or take half a century – and it ends in 586 BCE when the people of Judah are exiled to Babylon. That’s over four hundred years. Now, let me say something to the nerdy among you, okay? Rendsburg argues that the motivation for writing Genesis was specifically the reigns of David and Solomon which were about the 10th Century. I would also add, as would mainstream biblical scholars, that Genesis also reflects a much later time going into the post-exilic period after the Israelites return from exile, which means after 539 BCE. And Rendsburg, I assume, would certainly agree but it doesn’t really come up in his popular lecture, but for our purposes, all that doesn’t really matter. See, it’s a nerd aside here, it doesn’t really matter. The main point is that Genesis reflects the period of the monarchy either while the monarchy is live and active or after it’s dead and gone and probably both.
You know, the period of the monarchy is not a side issue in the Old Testament, it’s actually surprisingly central. Of the 39, listen to this statistic here, of the 39 Old Testament books, at least as Protestants count them, of the 39 Old Testament books, 29 of them, that’s 75%, deal with the whole issue of entering the Land of Canaan, securing it, setting up a monarchy, being exiled from the land, and then the drama of returning back to the land of Canaan.
Those 29 books are basically what Protestants call the historical books and the prophetic books. That’s 29 books. And this period in Israel’s nationhood, judging by how much space the Old Testament devotes to it, right? But this period of Israel’s nationhood is the crescendo of Israel’s story. It’s what the Old Testament is, as a whole, reflecting on.
Okay, so what does this have to do with Genesis? Well, plenty. The Book of Genesis speaks to that time period. That’s Rendsburg’s big takeaway. Yes, Genesis is the first book of the Bible and it deals with beginnings – the beginning of the cosmos, the beginning of the people of Israel, starting with Abraham and on and on. But, here is the point, there’s something deeper happening in Genesis and once you see it, it’s very hard to unsee it. Let me explain with an analogy that Rendsburg uses, and I think it will help us sort of get out of the gate and not get too lost along the way.
So, think of Arthur Miller’s 1953 play, “The Crucible.” It’s about the 17th Century Salem Witch Trials, only it’s not. Well, on the surface it is, but lying just beneath the surface is Miller’s real topic, something happening in his day. Remember, 1950s – McCarthyism. For about five years, Senator Joe McCarthy was on a witch-hunt for Communists infiltrating America and he held hearings making wild, unfounded accusations of people being communists or communist sympathizers. You know, Miller himself was accused and hence he wrote, “The Crucible,” a commentary on McCarthyism using the Salem Witch Trials from 300 years earlier as a literary device. Hmm.
Or, close to my era is the 1969 movie, MASH. As you know it’s a strong anti-war film and it’s set in the Korean War, but it’s really a condemnation of the then-current Vietnam War.
You see the point. Both The Crucible and MASH are commenting on a present-day issue clothed in a story from the past. And Rendsburg is saying that Genesis basically works like that, telling a present-day story from the point of the view of the writer, telling a present-day story, a present-day being the monarchy, using stories from the deep past.
Alright, let me put this another way because this is important, the book of Genesis was not written to talk about the old days for their own sake. Like “The Crucible” and MASH, Genesis is a commentary on the writer’s present reality. See, that’s new, isn’t it? Right?
Well, let’s get into some examples from Genesis that support this notion. But I want to begin with something that Rendsburg actually doesn’t cover, but I think it’s a great way to kick things off and it concerns Adam. And if you’re familiar with things I have written about this, especially in The Evolution of Adam and some of the blog posts, you’ll know where this is going, but bear with me.
See, rather than seeing the story of Adam as an account of, you know, the historical first human being or something like that – which is an assumption many people make – think of the Adam story instead as a condensed version of Israel’s entire saga. The two-chapter story of Adam and the long story of Israel, well, they parallel each other. And so, when you read the story of Adam, you’re supposed to think Israel. Now, what I’m saying here, this is actually a medieval rabbinic idea, and if you take a step back and see the big picture, it really starts to make some sense.
See, here’s the parallel: Adam was created by God out of dust and placed into a precious land, the Garden of Eden, a lush paradise, in fact, it’s God’s own place. And God gives him a command to follow: not to eat of the Tree of Knowledge, lest he die – that’s how the story goes – lest he die on the very same day that he eats of it. Of course, as the story goes, he and Eve do eat of it, but rather than being struck down dead, they’re driven out of the land, they are expelled. They are exiled as it were. Likewise, Israel was delivered by God from the dust of slavery and placed, by God, in another lush land, Canaan, the land flowing with milk and honey and God gives the Israelites commands, the Law of Moses. If they obey the commands, they will stay in the land and thrive in it. But if they disobey, they will be exiled from the land, which of course is exactly what happens.
See, those parallels are striking, and again, I didn’t invent them. It’s also very interesting to me that, for example, in Deuteronomy 30 and Ezekiel 37, Israel’s exile from Canaan into captivity is referred to as a death, just like Adam’s death turns out to be, well, a way of talking about his exile.
But let’s not get lost here in all the details. The Adam Story is a brief narrative snapshot of Israel’s entire story – both start off great, both are marked by disobedience, and end in exile. See, that’s our first clue that Genesis, it’s speaking to the heart of Israel’s story, what those 29 books of the Old Testament are focused on: land and monarchy ending in exile.
Okay, let’s get to Rendsburg now. He throws out a lot of other clues, actually more than we have time to get into here. Some are brief while others need a bit of unpacking and I only ask that you hold off judging any one example until you see the big picture that Rendsburg is painting for us.
Alright, so let’s get to these. I’ve got seven in all and the Adam story that I just gave is #1. And the rest are from Rendsburg with some added points by yours truly.
#2 – In Genesis 17, God promises to Abraham that he and Sarah will have not only descendants, but specifically kings as their descendants. Now, this can be understood as a prediction of the monarchy if, you know, IF that’s how you feel that’s fine with me. I’m not going to try and change your mind, but again, wait for the whole thing. Rendsburg and biblical scholars as a whole say that this is actually a clue that the story was written at a time when, well, Israelite kingship was a thing. God’s famous, miraculous intervention in Abraham and Sarah having a child in their old age, well, that was to produce a line of kings. See, the point of this story seems curiously king-centric, like, where is this coming from? Why talk about kings at all in Genesis 17? Hold that thought.
#3 – In Genesis 15, God promises to Abraham that his descendants will one day possess the land of Canaan and its borders would extend from something called the River of Egypt in the South, that’s not the Nile by the way. It’s like a little brook or something, but its borders would extend through the river of Egypt in the south all the way up to the Euphrates River in the north. Now, those very precise borders are not mentioned again until, when? The reign of Solomon in I Kings 4. See, these two curiously match up and, again, the question is which came first? Is Genesis a prediction of the time of Solomon or are Solomon’s borders written into the story of Abraham by a writer living during the monarchy as a way of, let’s say, accenting God’s blessing on Solomon. In other words, is the description of the borders of the land in Genesis 15 really a description of a later geopolitical reality?
Now – nerdy side issue if you give me ten seconds, lest I get angry comments – scholars routinely think that this description of Israel’s borders, you know, going from all the way south the River of Egypt all the way up to the Euphrates. Scholars think that that’s just way too big. This never happened. It’s what’s called an idealized geography. It’s what the Israelites saw as ideally the boundaries, even if historically Israel’s boundaries were never quite this big. So, I know that, but be that as it may, the point is that the monarchic geopolitical ideal, Solomon’s time, that comes first, and the writing of Genesis is second.
Alright, #4 -This concerns the emphasis in Genesis on Judah, one of the twelve sons of father Jacob. Now, we can see in a number of places pretty clearly how Judah is special. One of which is Father Jacob’s dying words to Judah that we find in Genesis 49. See, this is Jacob’s deathbed farewell to his twelve sons where he addresses each son in turn. Judah definitely gets the highest praise. In fact, Jacob describes his son Judah and only Judah in royal terms. Like, “the kingly scepter will not depart from Judah.”
See, Judah in Genesis is already destined for kingship. Judah plays, we’re still on number four here, Judah plays a prominent role elsewhere in Genesis and we’ll look at another example later. I just want to point out here that Genesis is “Judah heavy” and, oh by the way, Judah later grows into a tribe and that tribe happens to produce, guess who? Kings David and Solomon. And later on, it’s also the name of the southern nation after Israel’s split in two after the death of Solomon. This is called the Divided Monarchy. Judah, the southern nation was ruled by twenty Davidic kings, twenty kings in the line of David, for about roughly, we’ll say 350 years until the Babylonian exile.
Oh, and one more thing, Judah of the twelve tribes and this tribe became a nation all to itself, Judah is the only tribe that survived the exile. They alone returned. And they’re also the ones responsible, we’re getting into a lot here folks but hang with me, they’re also responsible for producing what Christians call the Old Testament. Folks, this emphasis on Judah is very, very significant. It is a huge clue and we’ll come back to this a little bit later towards the end.
Okay, so that’s four clues down, three to go. And these three have a few more moving parts, so let’s just take a minute. Feel free to pause, do some sit-ups or something because we’ve got some ground to cover here in the next three clues. Okay, you ready?
So, #5 – Some of the stories in Genesis seem to be drawing a picture of the political map of Israel and her neighbors during the monarchic period. So, across the Jordan River, we have Israel’s eastern neighbors the Ammonites and the Moabites. Folks, if you have a chance to look at a map, that might really help here just to see these things. Now, these two eastern neighbors, the Ammonites and the Moabites, they don’t really get along with Israel and they wind up being subdued by David. David conquers them. That’s cool. But you know, we’re introduced to these two nations already back in Genesis 19 and there the writer of Genesis gives their origin stories, where the Ammonites and Moabites came from. Now, if you remember the story of Lot, who is Abraham’s nephew, well Ammon and Moab are the names of his sons born to him and – eww – Lot’s own daughters.
See, the vibe you get from reading the story of the birth of Ammon and Moab, and if you keep the monarchy in mind, the vibe is something like this, “Hey, you know, we’re the chosen people from the line of Abraham. We’re born, our founder was born, of God’s direct, miraculous intervention. But these two nations, they stem from incest.” It’s very common for biblical scholars to see this as, eh, basically nationalistic propaganda.
Or take Israel’s southern neighbor Edom, the Edomites. You may recall in Genesis the story of Jacob and his elder first-born brother Esau. You know, the fraternal twins who have a very tense relationship. Esau, in Genesis, is also called Edom, which is a pretty clear attempt to drive home the idea that, you know, think Edom when you read this story about Esau. And of course, Jacob will soon have his name changed to Israel.
See, these two characters, Jacob and Esau, they might simply be people in Genesis that eventually give rise to the nations of Israel and Edom, or and this is where Rendsburg is coming from, they might actually represent those nations like Adam, right, is not so much a person but a way of talking about Israel as a whole. Well, Jacob and Esau might be a way of talking about the relationship between Israel and Edom, and that’s the point Rendsburg is making.
Now, I know we have some moving parts here, but let me flesh this out a bit. There are some details we need to throw onto the table so we can get to the big point.
In one famous scene in Genesis, Jacob, remember him? He disguises himself as his hairy, smelly brother Esau and tricks their father Isaac, right, into giving him, Jacob, his elder brother’s blessing, a blessing that is reserved for the first-born. Right after that, Esau shows up for his blessing, clueless, and his father breaks the news to him that they’ve been duped but still Isaac manages to give the elder son Esau another blessing of sorts. A Plan B blessing, the best he can come up with in this situation. And that blessing that Isaac gives Esau includes this line, let me read it to you. Isaac says to Esau, “By your sword you [Esau] shall live. And you shall serve your brother [Jacob]; but when you break loose, you shall break his yoke from your neck.” See, Esau will one day break free from Jacob after serving him for a time.
But see, here’s the point, the character Esau never serves Jacob and never breaks free from him. But this story makes a lot of sense as a story of nations rather than people. Isaac’s blessing does happen on a political level.
Now, I know this is getting a bit involved, but I didn’t write this stuff, right? I’m just trying to explain it, so hang with me. Israel’s relationship with the nation of Edom during the monarchy was different than with the nations of Ammon and Moab. Ammon and Moab, as I said, were subdued by David. They were conquered as vassals and a vassal is an independent nation that now owes allegiance to the conquering nation.
But the relationship between Israel and Edom was different. It was closer. Sort of like they’re brothers or something. You see, David actually ruled over Edom as its king. That’s a different again, closer kind of political relationship, but then we read later on in the book of 1 Kings 11, look it up, we read there that when they had their chance, the Edomites rebelled against the Israelites, and they gained their independence. So, you see what’s happening. Isaac’s blessing to Esau, “you shall serve your brother but when you break loose, you shall break his yoke from his neck,” well that seems to be, and only seems to be a description of politics during the monarchic period. All we have to do is, instead of reading Jacob and Esau as people, read them as representatives of nations.
Alright, one more thing to throw in the mix, we’re still on clue number five and the whole drawing Israel’s political map, okay? One more thing about Edom, and this is very cool. Genesis 36 contains a list of Edomite kings, and that list is introduced in verse 31. It’s a short verse, here it is: “These are the kings who reigned in the land of Edom, before any king reigned over the Israelites.” And this is a really striking thing to read in Genesis for a couple of reasons, you know. First is the simple fact that Genesis contains a list of Edomite kings. Like, why? Who cares? Genesis is about the period of the patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Especially since Edom as a nation didn’t exist until much later, probably the 13th century, what is a list of Edomite kings doing there? Seems like an intrusion.
Second, that line, “These are the kings who reigned in the land of Edom, before any king reigned over the Israelites,” well, that seems to assume that Israelite kingship was a thing when that line was written: the reality of Israelite kingship is a given. Now again, some might say that this is predictive prophesy, but I think it’s getting to be a bit of a stretch here. But, you know, just read chapter 36 in context and it’s completely clear that this line is not presented as prophesy in any way, shape, or form or prediction of the future. It’s written from the point-of-view of the writer.
See, Rendsburg thinks that this list emphasizes that Edom’s royal line exists for a time and then comes to an end when David takes over. Like, you know, here’s the list but when Israelite kings show up, the list ends.
It really seems clear that the writer of Genesis is writing from a monarchic point-of-view and about things that happened during the monarchy.
Again, a lot of balls in the air here, so here’s the bottom line for clue number five: the stories in Genesis of Ammon, Moab, Esau, and Jacob are not really stories about people and what they did. They are really stories of nations. Namely, of how they arose and how they rank below Israel. Like “The Crucible” and MASH, Genesis is commenting on present realities by means of the past.
Okay, #5 was very long. I warned you. Do you want to do more sit-ups? Go ahead, here’s your chance. Okay, press pause. Done pressing pause. #6 is long too. Another long one, here we go.
Genesis, which you may have noticed if you’ve read Genesis, Genesis has a few bro stories. And, you know, again, you probably noticed this, but the implications of these bro stories are very enlightening. See, here’s the deal, in Genesis, God has a tendency to inexplicably favor the younger brother over one or more of the elder brothers and then that younger brother, he rises to prominence sort of leapfrogging over the elder brother or brothers and that causes tensions between them. That’s sibling rivalry.
We just saw this with younger brother Jacob receiving the firstborn blessing over Esau, his brother. And that was a pretty rotten trick, frankly. But here’s the thing, God never chastises Jacob for doing so, in fact, God blesses him. He renames him Israel and from him will come the twelve tribes of the nation. You know, this clearly has God’s blessing. And the brothers, however, as a result have a very tense relationship. See, when Esau realizes what Jacob had done, he wants to kill him and so Jacob has to flee. So, we have leapfrogging of one over the other and we have sibling rivalry.
And speaking of brothers who want to kill each other in Genesis, way back in chapter 4, Cain the elder kills Abel the younger, why? Because God, for frankly no apparent good reason, prefers the sacrifice of younger brother Abel over the elder brother Cain. See, the echoes of the Jacob and Esau story are very hard to miss.
And then, later on in Genesis, there’s baby brother Joseph who starts off as a spoiled brat with enough tension among the brothers that they throw him into an empty well, sell him into slavery, and then fake his death. And as far as Father Isaac goes, his favorite son is dead. Remember, he was fooled because the brothers took goat’s blood and smeared his, you know, Joseph’s tunic with it so Isaac thought he was dead. No DNA tests back then.
But here’s the thing, this scorned younger brother is actually elevated over his brothers. He becomes second in command in Egypt and through him and his authority his father Jacob and his brothers survive the famine and settle in Egypt. And you know, while we’re at it in Genesis, remember Ishmael is Abraham’s eldest son but he fades into the background when Isaac is born and he is the favorite son.
See, Genesis has several stories of sibling rivalry tied to this, let’s say this upsetting of the pecking order. And one more example, and for us this is the most important. It’s the elevation of Judah that I mentioned before. See, Judah is the actual number four eldest son born to Jacob and one of Jacob’s wives Leah and he leapfrogged to number one. Right? Judah rose from four to one. How did that happen? Well, two stories in Genesis tell us.
First, Reuben, who is the eldest son, slept with his father Jacob’s concubine which is a sign of disrespect, so he’s out. Simeon and Levi, they’re two and three in the pecking order, what did they do to get knocked out of line? Well, earlier, it’s a complicated story, but earlier they tricked and then massacred the Shechemites after their sister Dinah had been raped by one of them. It’s a complicated story again, but that’s the gist of it.
See, as a result, these three brothers lost their place in the pecking order and Judah rose to the top. And again, remember the prominence of Judah we saw in Jacob’s farewell address in Genesis 49. Judah is the royal line and the one tribe that survives exile.
Okay, hold that thought.
And these younger brother stories don’t stop in Genesis. Moses is the younger brother and the chosen deliverer, not Aaron. Again, David of the tribe of Judah, he’s the youngest of his brothers and yet to everyone’s shock, he becomes king. Likewise, David’s son Solomon ascends to the throne even though his elder brother Adonijah is standing right there. He leapfrogs, right?
So, interesting sidenote about Adonijah, and we can go on and on about this too, but we won’t. He really wanted to be king and he was the rightful heir and when he saw his chances slipping away, he had plans to sleep with his father David’s concubine, which symbolically, would be laying claim to David’s throne. Remember, that’s the sin of Rueben and like Rueben, Adonijah loses his place in line. Folks, these stories are so interconnected it’s not funny and they all point to the monarchy.
Okay now, let’s take this idea one step further and with that we’re getting to what I think is the really big point. The divine favor for the non-firstborn is also baked into the story of Israel as a nation, and here is where things get really interesting. And, again, a little quick history review.
I mentioned this before, let me just go through this very quickly again. Judah is one of the twelve tribes. And Judah is also the name of the southern nation after the nation of Israel split into north and south. This happened after the death of Solomon around 930 BCE. Now, remember Judah’s three elder brothers. Firstborn Reuben, well his tribe is just a rather small northern tribe, nothing major. Levi? Well, that’s the tribe where priests come from and that tribe is granted no land of its own. And the tribe of Simeon? If you look at a map at the back of your Bible, its borders are absorbed within the borders of Judah like it doesn’t even exist. The younger Judah is prominent.
And then, the northern king was lost forever, was crushed by the Assyrians a couple hundred years later in 722 BCE, leaving only Judah in the south to survive. You see, the younger brother Judah rises to prominence and is the only tribe, the only son of Jacob that survives. The North never returns from exile when the Assyrians took them, but the South, Judah, does return from Babylonian captivity and carries on, again, beginning in 539 BCE if you’re interested in dates.
So, you see where this is going, right? The younger brother survives. The younger brother is clearly favored by God. Judah’s prominence in Genesis as a person is really about Judah’s prominence later on as a nation.
Now I know this is a lot to process and I’m leaving some things out, but let’s take a bird’s eye view. Judah returns from exile and it’s Judah and Judah alone that carries on this story of the children of Abraham. And you see these Israelites who would come to be called Judeans and then later Jews, right? Judahite, Judean, Jews all hangs together. But these Judahites are the ones who, very important point here, I’ve said it before, I’m going to say it again, but these Judahites are the ones who created the Jewish Bible, the Christian Old Testament. And they wrote the story of the history of their people from the point-of-view of themselves, the survivors. They wrote the story. Because they survived they saw themselves, the people of Judah, as the pick of the litter. After all, they’re still standing by the will and grace of God. This act of God’s favor for the nation of Judah has been featured, hinted at, and foreshadowed in various ways throughout Genesis. Genesis previews Judah’s dominance.
Okay, that was a lot. Rendsburg covers much more ground, but we have time for just one more. This is #7 if you’re not too exhausted to count, and it again concerns David specifically.
See, all this David stuff, side note, this is why Rendsburg argues that these stories were written probably very close to the time of David, I’m not sure if that’s a necessary conclusion but David is definitely a focus here.
Okay, #7 – Let’s, we need to keep three stories afloat just for a couple of minutes here. One is the famous story of David’s rape of Bathsheba and the murder of her husband Uriah to cover up the pregnancy. The second story is what follows just two chapters later. It’s the rape of David’s daughter, Tamar, by her half-brother Amnon. And that’s bad enough, but David lets Amnon get off the hook, doesn’t punish him, which is astounding, frankly. And that really steamed Tamar’s full-brother, Absalom, who bided his time and eventually killed Amnon, which set off like a whole thing that we’re not even going to get into.
See, both of these stories involving David are in the Book of 2 Samuel. The third story is the story of Judah and Tamar in Genesis 38 (yes, Tamar – the same name as in that one David story). So, we’re looking here at two stories of David, Bathsheba and Tamar, and one story about Judah, also involving a Tamar.
Well, one odd thing everyone notices about the Judah and Tamar story in Genesis 38 is that it interrupts the story of Joseph. See, that began in chapter 37, then you have Judah and Tamar which seems totally irrelevant in chapter 38, and then the Joseph story just sort of picks up again in chapter 39 and goes to the end of the book. That awkward interruption actually draws attention to the story. It really forces us to ask, “What is this doing?”
And I’m going to say I think that’s very, very intentional on the part of the writer of Genesis to put it here in a place where it seems like an abrupt intrusion which means you have to sort of think about it.
Well, this is the story of, again, Judah, the fourth son of Jacob, and he marries a Canaanite woman, which is weird, whose name is not given but she’s simply called the “daughter of Shua,” and together they have three sons. The eldest son married Tamar, but he was evil and struck down by God. According to custom, the second son was to assume the family duty of impregnating the dead brother’s wife, only he refused so God struck him down too. That left the youngest brother, but he was too young to carry out the duties, and plus Judah was just petrified of losing him too. So, Judah asked Tamar just to be patient for a while, let the boy grow up. So, she went back to live with her father for the time being and she waited.
Now long story short, Judah’s wife, the daughter of Shua, died. And after a period of mourning, he went off on a business trip of sorts to the far-off town of Adullam. When Tamar heard of this, she dressed up like a prostitute and waited for him to show up. See, apparently Judah had been dragging his heels about handing over his youngest son to her, so Tamar was now taking matters into her own hands. She’s getting ripped off and she intends to get pregnant somehow.
So, Judah, he shows up to this town and upon seeing her and not seeing through the disguise, he was only too happy to hop in the sack with her and of course Tamar got pregnant. When later on and the disguises are off and Judah hears that his daughter-in-law Tamar was pregnant, he demanded that she be burned alive. At least, that’s until the whole story was revealed, and Judah saw that he was actually in the wrong and Tamar was in the right.
Okay, so, let’s just get to the point here, right? These three stories are related in some fascinating ways and not accidently. When we read about the unjust sexual exploit of Judah in Genesis 38, the writer intends for us to be thinking about the unjust sexual exploits of David the Judahite.
And here are the main reasons why these stories are related. I just think this is so clever. This is why I love reading the Bible, it just never gets old. Such clever writers.
Okay, for one thing, David and Judah are both shepherds. And they both separate from their families at a point in time by going down to the town of Adullam. If you want chapter and verse in both stories, I’ll leave that to Rendsburg’s article. Okay, so small thing, but still fascinating.
But the second one is even more fascinating. And when I first saw this, about forty lightbulbs went off in my head. And I just knew that the story had to be connected with David somehow, okay, Judah’s wife is not named, as I said, but referred to as the daughter of Shua. In Hebrew, daughter of Shua is bat-shua. David’s wife is Bathsheba. Which in Hebrew is bat-sheva. Do you hear that? Batshua and Batsheva. There’s only one letter difference between them. No, the names are not exactly the same, but the names are similar enough to get you thinking like, you know, telling your daughter Maria the story with a moral lesson you want to get across to her and you begin,
“Once upon a time there was a little girl named Marian.”
“Hey, wait a minute daddy, that sounds like my name.”
“Good, I’ve got you thinking.”
Interestingly in 1 Chronicles, this is a key issue here too. Judah’s wife and David’s wife are both called Batshua, there’s no daughter of Shua, no Bathsheba. They’re both given the same name because that’s certainly how the author of 1 Chronicles understood the connection between these two stories.
You know, it really seems that Judah and David are mirroring each other.
A third parallel in both cases – the perpetrator is forced to admit his guilt publicly. Judah in front of the town and David when he’s confronted by the prophet Nathan for rape and murder.
Fourth, and rather obvious point, both Judah and David have a Tamar in their lives. Judah’s daughter-in-law and David’s daughter. Both of whom are at the center of an injustice involving sexual intercourse.
There are a few other connections Rendsburg makes but we don’t need to get into all of that. Let’s just take a stab at the significance of these three overlapping stories. And here I am channeling Rendsburg and adding a bit of my own thinking.
The story of Judah and Tamar, like so much of Genesis, is really a way of talking about a later period of Israel’s history. In this case, the life of David, namely his major sexual injustice with respect to both Bathsheba and then his daughter Tamar, both of which lead him to lose his kingship for a while until he won it back. It’s a big moment. The stories of Bathsheba and Tamar in 2 Samuel present David in a bad light, but not nearly as bad as they could. It’s like they’re holding back from panning David completely, much like politicians do today. You know, when they do all sorts of hard things, their supporters acknowledge it, but then move on and not hold anyone accountable. Politics hasn’t changed.
See this story of Judah and Tamar can be seen in one of two ways, it could be a safer way of condemning David, right? It’s indirect. The names are sort of the same but not the same, right? He’s not mentioned explicitly and the readers can draw the connections themselves. Or, on the other hand, it could be another way of getting David off the hook somewhat, now listen to this, by saying, “Hey, you know, tribe of Judah. Judah will be Judah. Boys will be boys. Our forefather Judah was no saint, don’t get me wrong, but look how God used him anyway.” Feel free, by the way, to make any connection you want to contemporary American presidential politics. Anyway, the bottom line is that Judah and Tamar, that story is not a random story of the past randomly inserted into Genesis. It’s another example of the deeper meaning of Genesis as a commentary on the monarchy.
Okay, we’ve covered a lot of ground here today, folks. Let’s bring this to a close, right? Here are the seven clues that we covered, just a quick overview:
- Adam story is a preview of Israel’s national story.
- The land promised to Abraham matches the borders during Solomon’s reign.
- Abraham and Sarah’s descendants will be kings.
- Judah son of Jacob is destined for kingship. Again, remember David comes from the Tribe of Judah.
- Genesis draws a political map of Israel’s neighbors.
- God’s preference for the younger over the elder brother, especially Judah.
- The Judah and Tamar story connects to the life of David.
Now, I’d like to offer a name for this way of reading Genesis, it might not catch on, but I think it does this approach justice. I’d like to call it the…
I’d like to call it the historical approach to Genesis, because that’s what we’ve been doing. We’ve been reading Genesis historically.
And you’re like whaaaat, what are you talking about?! See, very often normally we think of historical as referring really to events. So, a historical reading of Genesis would focus on whether or not this, that, or the other thing happened. You know, was there a flood? Did Abraham really live and almost sacrifice his son? Was there a Joseph and was this Joseph sold into slavery and when did that happen? All these kinds of things. Those are historical questions, but I’m using historical differently. Not about events, but about authorship. We’ve been looking at the historical period during which Genesis was written.
If we’re alert to the kinds of things that Rendsburg brings to light, we are learning a lot about history. Namely the history of the author. We’re not learning about what happened back then, we’re learning more about the monarchic context of the author, which led him to talk about figures from the past like Abraham and Judah and the others the way that he does. Don’t lose sight of the fact that what we’ve been doing here – looking at the time of the author – is absolutely a historical topic.
Right? Let me close with this. This is sort of a bottom line. If any of this has been convincing, it will likely reorient our thinking about what Genesis is doing, what Genesis is about. Genesis is not a history lesson about Adam, Abraham, and the rest. It’s not a science lesson. It’s not a book of moral lessons for us to follow. Rather, if we’re tuned into the clues Genesis is prepared to tell us something about a struggling nation, defining its own beliefs about God and its self-identification of God’s people. There are other angles from which to read Genesis, but if we truly want to understand Genesis, this angle cannot be ignored.[Music begins]
Pete: Okay folks, thanks for listening as always and we’ll catch you again on the next episode. See you.
Stephanie: Okay normal people, you have made it through another entire episode of listening to Pete and Jared drone on and on. Well done to you. And well done to everyone who supports us by rating the podcast, giving us a review, or telling others about the show. We’re especially thankful for our producer’s group over on Patreon. They’re the reason we’re able to keep bringing podcasts and other content to you. If you would like to help support the podcast, head over to patreon.com/thebiblefornormalpeople, where for as little as $3 a month you can receive bonus material, be a part of an online community, get course discounts, and much more. We couldn’t do what we do without your support.
Dave: Our show is produced by Stephanie Speight, Audio Engineer Dave Gerhart, Creative Director Tessa Stultz, Community Champion Ashley Ward, and Web Developer Nick Striegel. For Pete, Jared, and the entire Bible for Normal People team, thanks for listening.[Music ends [Outtakes] [BEEP]
Pete: But from a different angle than I am guessing will be new to many of you…
Okay, that’s a dumb sentence, start again.[Clears throat] [BEEP]
Pete: Because we can only go through some of the highlights of what his argument is there. That’s a horrible thing. I got to do that last sentence.[BEEP]
Pete: [Clears throat again, then sighs in disgust]
Ah, Dave I may be clearing my throat a bit here today, I’ve got some congestion. And also, you know, if just a reminder, if you hear me, if there’s a pause where I’m smacking my lips or something like that, if you can cut that stuff out. That’s probably best. Mmkay.[BEEP]
Pete: This concerns, oh gosh, sorry, I got to start again. When I ad-lib, I get into trouble.[BEEP]
Pete: Hold on a second, David. I got a text message. I gotta see if it’s important. And, of course, it’s not. Okay.[End of recorded material]