An Exposition of Genesis 2:4-11:32

John L. Harris  |  Southwestern Journal of Theology Vol. 44 - Fall 2001


In Genesis 2:4-11:32, human beings appear at their best and worst. The creation account thrusts the reader back in time and allows a glimpse of Eden in all of its splendor and perfection. However, in an instant, this flawless world collapsed, and the human race found itself in the midst of sin and all its consequences.

Theologically, these chapters help people to understand human existence and the world in which they live. God is portrayed as Creator, and humanity is depicted as alienated from God, corrupt in relationships, and guilty of spoiling the earth. Yet, God has chosen to redeem both the human race and the world.

Genesis 2:4-3:24: Creation, Sin, and Consequences

Genesis 2 and 3 focus upon the tension between humanity as God’s creation and humanity as limited by sin and death. These chapters explain the contrast between God’s ideal world and the world of human experi­ence. The first scene in the Genesis drama (2:4-17) begins with a general statement concerning the creation of the “heavens” and the “earth” and then focuses exclusively upon the terrestrial: the absence of plants, rain, human beings, and the presence of streams that watered the ground.[1]John H. Sailhamer, “Genesis,” in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, vol. 2 (Genesis­ Numbers), ed. Frank E. Gaebelein (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1990), 40, views Genesis 2:4-6 as a precursor to the fall and flood narratives. The focus is on those parts of the land directly affected by the fall (i.e., the shrubs and plants anticipate the thorns and thistles). Similarly, the absence of rain alludes to the flood. The reference to “no man to work the ground” points to the time when the man and woman are cast from the garden “to work the ground” (Genesis 3:23). These introductory comments lead to the creation of man, the locus of the account.

The formation of man is described quickly and straight­ forwardly. Like a potter shaping clay (cf. Jeremiah 18:2ff.), God formed “man” (‘ adam) from “dust” (‘ adamah). The pun emphasizes man’s relationship to the earth. He was cre ated from it; his job was to cultivate it; and upon his death, he will certainly return to it.[2]Gordon J. Wenham, Genesis 1-15, Word Biblical Commentary (Waco, Texas: Word Books, Publisher, 1987), 59.

Next, the LORD God (i.e., YHWH Elohim) breathed into man’s nostrils the “breath of life,” and man became a “living soul.” This act had the intimacy of a kiss unknown anywhere else in the created world.[3]Walter Brueggemann, Genesis, Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1982), 40. God did not speak man into being from a distance, but worked as a craftsman, fash­ioning him and breathing life breath into him.[4]Robert Alter, Genesis: Translation and Commentary (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1996), 7. This divine breath made man a “living soul,” uniting both the physical and the spiritual.

Following the puzzling geographic descriptions of verses 10-14, the narrative resumes its anthropological concern by stating the purpose of man’s presence in the garden: YHWH Elohim had put him in the garden to work it and care for it. The ideal existence for man is work, not idleness. From the beginning, the human creature was given a voca­tion and was expected to share in God’s work.[5]Brueggemann, 46.

Having put man in the garden, God issued a command: “You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; but you must not eat from the tree of knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat of it you will surely die.”[6]All Scripture references are from the New International Version unless otherwise noted. This set the boundaries of man’s enjoyment of the garden and fellow­ ship with God. Man was not to be confused by multiple issues; only one divine ordinance must be obeyed. Unrestricted freedom does not exist. Man was called upon by God to exercise restraint and self-discipline in the gratifi­cation of his appetite.

To savor what is “good,” man must obey God’s com­mand. Man was allowed to eat of all trees, except the one tree that would lead to human autonomy and an improper independence of the creator. Any human endeavor apart from a God-given frame of reference is mutiny.[7]Cf. Bill T. Arnold, Encountering the Book of Genesis (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1998), 34.

God’s prohibition is clear, but not its purpose. The tree of knowledge of good and evil is enigmatic, unparalleled outside this narrative. It seems to be a symbol of moral accountability and autonomy; however, the meaning of “knowledge of good and evil” is uncertain.[8]Suggestions include moral discernment, sexual knowledge, and wisdom. Wenham, 63-64; Nahum M. Sarna, Genesis, The JPS Torah Commentary (Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society, 1989), 19. It seems that man was already a moral being with the ability to discern, for he would have no accountability apart from the power to choose. Man already knew “good,” but he had not yet experienced “evil” (i.e., disobedience to God). Eating the fruit would furnish man with the knowledge not previously experienced: disobedience and evil. The warning may be appropriately translated, “For when you eat of it you will be doomed to die.”

The second scene (2:18-25) develops the anthropologi­cal concern by presenting a second creation related to, but distinct from, the first. God concluded something was still lacking; it was not good for man to be alone. A social being is feeble in solitude (cf. Ecclesiastes 4:9-12). His well-being required a fresh, special, and creative act of God.

Man needed a companion, a partner, a wife, a “helper” (cezer).[9]Cf. Walter Vogels, “It is Not Good that the ‘Mensch’ Should Be Alone; I will Make Him/Her a Helper Fit for Him/Her,” Eglise et Theologie 9 (1978): 9-35. The term is used twenty-one times in the Hebrew Bible, the majority of which refer to God as a “helper” to man or Israel. Christoph Barth, God With Us: A Theological Introduction to the Old Testament, ed. Geoffrey W. Bromiley (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1991), 24; Claus Westermann, Genesis 1-11: A Commentary, trans. John J. Scullion (Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1984), 227; Derek Kidner, Genesis: An Introduction and Commentary, Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries (Downer’s Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1967), 65; and Clarence Vos, Women in Old Testament Worship (Delft: Judels and Brinkman, 1968), 16. Thus, God made a decision to act: “I will make a helper suitable (a compound prepositional phrase meaning “matching him”; literally it is “like opposite him”) for him.” The phrase cezer kenegdo (i.e., “a helper corresponding to”) occurs only two times in the Hebrew Bible and is a clear statement that in contrast to the inferior animals (2:20), the woman is to be considered the spiritual and intellectual equal of man.

Once man’s need was recognized, God “made” ( banah, literally “built”) woman from the man’s “rib.” The word “rib” (tsela) carries a number of meanings; thus, it is diffi­cult to determine the exact nature of the “rib.” The emergence of woman was as stunning as the previous emergence of man; they belonged together.[10]CF. Brueggemann, 47. Curiously, the extant literature of the ancient Near East has pre­served no other account of the creation of primordial woman; the present narrative is there­ fore unique. The narrative has a poetic flavor and should not be read as an account of surgery or as an explanation of man’s anatomy.[11]Wenham, 69.

When God brought her to man, he received her with an euphoric and jubilant expression: “This is now bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called ‘woman,’ for she was taken out of man.” Man recognized his own like­ness in the woman. This phrase contains a pun (“woman”[‘ ishshah], “man” [‘ish] ) probably demonstrating the organ­ic and spiritual unity of the genders. The equal partners were bound to one another in a “one flesh” relationship.

This does not denote merely the sexual union that follows marriage, or the children conceived in marriage, or even the spiritual and emotional relationship that it involves. Rather, it affirms that just as blood relations are one flesh and bone, so marriage creates a similar kinship relation between man and wife; they are perfectly suited to one another.[12]Ibid., 71.

Genesis 2:25 serves as a bridge between Genesis 2 and 3. The verse states that man and woman were “both naked (‘arummim), and they felt no shame.” This is a strongly positive image, connoting such prelapsarian qualities as innocence, freedom, openness, and sexual intimacy in mar­riage.

Scene three moves swiftly into a new agenda. Harmony is replaced by discord, mutual trust by suspicion. The description of the snake as “crafty” (‘arum; 3:1) seems to be a word play with “naked” (‘arummim; 2:25), drawing the reader into the story and connecting with the previous nar­rative. However, it is the serpent that most catches the read­er’s attention.

The serpent has always been a mysterious creature.[13]In the ancient world the serpent represented health, fertility, immortality, occult wisdom, and chaotic evil. Here the serpent is called one of the “wild animals that the LORD God had made.” Sailhamer, 50, states this statement excludes the notion that the serpent was a super­ natural being. It enters the narrative as one of God’s created animals; however what distinguishes the serpent from the rest of the beasts is its cleverness. The word “crafty” does not necessarily carry a negative connotation but often communicates wis­dom and adroitness.[14]Sailhamer, 50. Perhaps this description is meant to foreshadow humanity’s quest for “wisdom.”

In only two speeches, the serpent upsets the balance of trust and obedience between humans and their creator. It emphatically contradicted God’s prohibition in 2:17 and then ascribed self-serving motives to God, undermining his credibility. The snake told no outright lies, merely highly suggestive half-truths. It never demanded that woman and man eat. The serpent’s allegations presented the possibility of an extension of human existence beyond the limits set by God at creation, an increase of life not only in the sense of intellectual enrichment but also of familiarity with, and power over, mysteries that lie beyond the human grasp.[15]Gerhard von Rad, Genesis: A Commentary, trans. John H. Marks, rev. ed, Old Testament Library (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1972), 89. In responding to the serpent, the woman went a bit too far in her zeal. She extended the restriction, for God never said, “and you must not touch it.” The addition seems to display a slight weakness in the woman’s thinking, for she allowed herself the suggestion of an unreasonably strict God.[16]John Skinner, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on Genesis, The International Critical Commentary, 2d ed. (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1980), 74, states, “A Jewish legend says that the serpent took advantage of this innocent and immaterial variation by forcing her to touch the fruit, and then arguing that as death had not followed the touch, so it would not follow the eating.”

In a climax of rapid action, the text powerfully presents the woman contemplating the tree. The reader is drawn into the drama: “good for food,” “a delight to the eyes,” “desired to make one wise.” What follows is plucking and eating. The narrative contains no shock or indignation. The unthinkable is described simply and unsensationally, without dramatic break. Without a word, the woman handed to her husband “who was with her,” the fruit, which he accepted and ate. The text is silent of any resistance or even hesita­tion by the man. It should be noted that in speaking to the woman, the serpent consistently used the plural form, suggesting that the man was all the time within ear’s reach of the conversation and was equally seduced by its persuasive­ness. The man was a full participant in the sin.

Immediately after eating, the pair realized that they were “naked” (‘erummim). The effect of the fall was not simply that man and woman became aware that they were naked (arom), but rather that they discerned that they were naked (erom) in the sense of being “under God’s judgment” (cf. Deuteronomy 28:48; Ezekiel 16:39; 23:29). The result of sin was quick and devastating; husband and wife were not comfortable with each other or with God. Hiddenness and shame replaced openness, honesty, and trust.

Scene four (3:8-24) moves the plot from sin to judg­ment. The pericope opens with the “sound” of the LORD God “walking” in the garden (cf. Deuteronomy 5:25; 8:20; 13:18; 15:5), and man and woman hiding. What follows has the structure of a legal trial: identification of the guilty, the hearing, defense, and sentencing. God’s dialogue with man and woman consisted of a series of questions: “Where are you?”; “Who told you that you were naked?”; “Have you eaten from the tree that I commanded you not to eat from?”; and “What is this you have done?”

The responses of both man and woman to God’s inquiries were so human. There was no admission of guilt; they defended themselves, preoccupied with self-preserva­ tion. The man was first to respond and cast the blame upon woman and, obliquely, on God. Here, the reader sees the most divisive effects of sin: setting humanity against one another and alienating them from their all-caring creator.

The woman, in like manner, blamed the serpent. Retribution followed disobedience. Whereas the snake was once “crafty,” it is now “cursed,” and God proclaimed an abhorrence between the serpent and the woman ( 3:15). In contrast to the serpent, neither the woman nor the man were cursed. They were, however, punished. The couple’s sentences disrupted their appointed roles and described the limited nature of human existence in its separation from God.

The woman was created to be the man’s partner and to share in the act of creation by bearing children. Now, bear­ing children will be painful, her “desire” will be for her hus­band, and the man will “rule over” her. This text should not be read as God’s decree for woman to be subservient (i.e., inferior) to men any more than one would take 3:16 as God’s will for a woman to suffer as much as possible in childbirth. This pericope is descriptive. It explains why women have pain and why marriage holds the potential for great abuse. It should never be used to justify male tyranny in any form. This new relationship was not God’s original intention (hence the punishment). Male domination is an aspect of the deterioration in the human condition that resulted from defiance of God’s divine will.[17]Sarna, 28.

Man’s punishment did not strike him directly; the land was cursed. Man was afflicted in his basic role of food-pro­ducer. Hardship and frustration accompany work.

Genesis 3:20-24 presents the final scene in this pericope: man called his wife “Eve,” God provided man and woman with proper clothing, and man and woman were expelled from the garden. Here the reader learns that humanity will no longer have access to the tree of life; instead of human beings caring for the garden, armed cherubim will be stationed to keep them out. Human autonomy leads to alienation from God and ultimately death.

Genesis 4:1-26: Cain, Sin, and Consequences

Genesis 4 illustrates the harsh realities of life outside the garden and provides a transition and staging nar­rative connecting the preceding incidents to those that are to follow.[18]The structure of the story of Cain’s sin mirrors the story of Adam’s sin. The serpent or God reasons with the potential sinner; Adam or Cain sins; God uncovers the sin and asks questions. Both stories conclude with punishments. The accounts underscore the theme that will domi­nate Genesis 1-11: human disobedience results in the forteiture of God’s blessing.   Cf. David A. Dorsey, The Literary Structure of the Old Testament: A Commentary on Genesis-Malachi (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1999), 49. Genesis 4:1-16 moves quickly from sta­ble family to unresolved alienation. Adam “knew” Eve, and she gave birth to Cain (“to acquire” or “smith”), who became a farmer, and later to Abel (“vapor” or “nothing­ness”), who became a shepherd. After the birth of Cain, Eve announced, “With the help of the LORD I have brought forth a man.” Is this a shout of triumph that she has created just as the LORD had done, or is it a statement affirming God’s provision? Although the former suggestion seems consistent with the recurring theme of humans seek­ing a blessing reserved only for God, there is simply too much ambiguity to make a dogmatic assertion.

Genesis 4:3-5 sets the story, defines the plot, and intro­duces sacrifice into the narrative. Cain offered from the produce of the earth, Abel from his flock. The brothers’ offer­ings appear to be intended to express gratitude to God for divine provision, and they also seem to be spontaneous, not in response to a divine command. God accepted Abel’s sac­rifice, but rejected Cain’s. The rejection is not explained in the narrative. In response, Cain was both angry and depressed. God promised acceptance if Cain did what is right. Cain must master the sin (i.e., anger that leads to action) that was “crouching” at the door. When he did not, his depression and anger gave way to an irrational act of aggression: while in the field (LXX), Cain killed Abel.

Retribution quickly followed the transgression, and God conducted a trial. God came to Cain asking questions, echoing his interrogation of Adam and Eve. Like them, Cain denied personal responsibility. The pericope reaches its cli­max with God’s pronouncement of Cain’s guilt and punishment; God “cursed” Cain to be a fugitive (i.e., a vagrant, an outcast), consigned to cultivate a land with no life in it. The curse reflected the expulsion from the family that was the fate of those in tribal societies who murdered close relatives.

Under the weight of the curse, Cain lamented and sought mercy (4:13-14). His cry to God can be rendered either “My sin is too great to be forgiven” or “Is my sin too great to be forgiven?”[19]Sarna, 34.  Thus, Cain’s words can be under­ stood either as an expression of his remorse and repentance or simply as a complaint at the prospect of a life of unrest and harassment without peace.[20]Sailhamer, 65, holds the former view; von Rad, 107, and Wenham, 108, hold the latter.

The conclusion of the trial narrative 4:15-16 portrays Cain under protective custody. God placed a sign on Cain. This mark was not to disgrace him, but served as a reference to God’s mysterious protective care. The real punishment was being cast away from the presence of God. Cain lived in the land of “Nod” (i.e., “wandering”), east of Eden.

Although Cain was an outcast, his life and lineage contin­ued. His genealogy ties what precedes with what follows. Cain begot Enoch and then built a city and named it after his son. The founding of this city is presented as the beginning of urban civilization and later becomes a place of refuge for the “manslayer” (cf. Numbers 35:12; Deuteronomy 19:11-13).[21]Wenham, 111, points to the strange fact that Cain builds the first city immediately after his condemnation to a life of wandering.

Lamech is introduced in 4:18. He was apparently the first polygamist, married to both Adah (“dawn, ornament, pretty”) and Zillah (“dusk, shadow”). However, because polygamy is frequently found among the patriarchs, the nar­rator may not be condemning the practice of polygamy itself. He was more interested in illustrating how all human activity, including marriage, is negatively affected by sin.[22]Ibid., 112.

A further illustration of the declining moral condition of the human race is Lamech’s primitive song of vengeance (4:23-24), known commonly as the “Song of the Sword.” This poem appears to be a compilation of Lamech’s taunts, threats, and boastings, and may suggest that in the family of the undisciplined murderer, vengeance runs rampant, uncontrolled, and without limits.[23]Sarna, 39. God’s crowning creation appears to be not unified, but increasingly scattered, alienat­ed, and hostile.[24]Brueggemann, 65-66. One must wonder if Jesus framed his statement in Matthew 18:22 about forgiving seventy times seven with a conscious reference to this passage.

Genesis 4 ends on a note of hope, with the birth of Seth and Enosh. It was at this time that “men began to call on the name of the LORD.” This statement seems to note the origin of regular religion and worship, just as the preceding verses noted the origins of farming, music, and metallurgy.

Genesis 5:1-9:29: Noah, Sin, and Consequences

The heading in 5:1 signals a major break: “This is the written account of Adam’s line.” Genesis 5:1-32 presents a genealogy divided into ten sections, from Adam to Noah. Most segments follow an exact literary pat­ tern: x lived q years, and then fathered z; x lived r years after he had fathered z, fathering other sons and daughters; x’s entire life lasted q+r years; then he died.[25]The long lives enjoyed by the patriarchs are in accord with the widespread notion that asso­ ciates ancient heroes with longevity. However, the life spans of the biblical figures pale in comparison to the Mesopotamian kings. The combined total of the reigning years of the ten antediluvian Icings in the list of Berossus totals 432,000; that of the Sumerian King List totals 241,200. By contrast, in Genesis 5, the years from Adam to the flood number only 1,656. What the specific figures represent individually and collectively, whether they are invested with symbolic meaning or are the constituents of some comprehensive schematization, is presently unknown. Cf. Sarna, 40-41. With this highly structured configuration, the biblical author presents a high­ly selective and episodic exposition in conformity with larger theological purposes. Hence, the author was able to bring otherwise disconnected occurrences together and present a smooth transition from the wholesome beginning of humanity to its shameful arrival at the flood.

The prologue (1-3) directs the reader’s attention back to the course of events in Genesis 1, specifically the creation of human beings in the “image and likeness” of God. Just as Adam was created in the “image and likeness” of God, he had a son “in his own likeness, in his own image.” The effect of these verses is to cast God in the role of the father of all humanity. The picture is that of a loving father insur­ing the well-being of his children through the provision of an inherited blessing.[26]Sailhamer, 70-71. This is a story of a God who cares.

Of the ten patriarchs enumerated in the genealogy, two are singled out for special attention: Enoch, the seventh, and Noah, the tenth. Enoch “walked with God” (5:22, 24; cf. 6:9). In other words, he was a person of exceptional piety and devotion to God.[27]Westermann, Genesis 1-11, 358, states that “walked with God” describes a way of life morally pleasing to God. This intimate relationship with God resulted in an unusual action: “then he was no more, because God took him away.” This phrase stands in contrast to the repeated expression of “and then he died.” While this phrase could suggest something other than death, it is also used as an euphemism of death in Ezekiel 24:16, 18 and Jonah 4:3. It is perhaps the Elijah narrative (1 Kings 2) that gave rise to the belief that Enoch also underwent this expe­rience.[28]Sarna, 43. Whatever one’s interpretation, the author was recounting a sudden, unexpected, and unexplained disap­pearance.

The second person singled out for special attention is Noah, whose name means “rest” or “comfort.” The conso­lation promised in 5:29 is a reversal of the consequences of sin. God had not abandoned the cursed earth, but help must come from the very ground, and not as a spirit or from heaven.[29]Brueggemann, 69. Noah held the promise of a new beginning: the hopes of creation are not qualified by human choice, but by the actions and promises of God.

The conclusion of the genealogical list in Genesis 5 has been restructured to accommodate the flood narrative, which has been inserted between the notations of Noah’s age at the time he begat sons ( 5:32) and the length of his life and death (9:29 ). The prelude to the flood narrative contains two episodes recounting the confusion and degen­eration characterizing the rest of humanity: a story about the sons of God cohabiting with the daughters of men (6:1-4) and God’s decision to annihilate the human race (6:5-8 ). As in the previous unit, this one closes with a hopeful note: Noah found favor in the eyes of God.

The account given in Genesis 6:1-4 of the marriages between the “sons of God” and the “daughters of men” is surely one of the strangest of all the Genesis narratives.[30]Umberto Cassuto, Biblical and Oriental Studies, trans. Israel Abrahams, vol. 1 (Jerusalem: Magness Press, 1973), 17. It is so full of difficulties as to defy certainty of interpretation. The perplexities arise from the theme of the story, from its apparent intrusiveness with the larger narrative, from its extreme terseness, and from some of its vocabulary and syntax.[31]Sarna, 45. It seems that this pericope is a transition between the genealogies of Cain and Seth and the flood account.[32]Victor P. Hamilton, The Book of Genesis: Chapters 1-17, New International Commentary on the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1990), 26. It attributes the flood to the wickedness of mankind.

The primary difficulty in interpretation involves the iden­tification of the “sons of God.” The most ancient view, also held by most modern commentators, identifies them as angels.[33]von Rad, 114. Cf F. B. Huey, Jr., and John Walton, “Are the Sons of God in Genesis 6 Angels?” in The Genesis Debate: Persistent Questions about Creation and the Flood, ed. Ronald F. Youngblood (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1986), 184-209; Robert C. Newman, “The Ancient Exegesis of Genesis 6:2, 4,” Grace Theological Journal 5 (Spring 1984): 15; Westermann, Genesis 1-11, 365, and Wenham, 140. The context of Job 1:6; 2:1; 38:7 unmis­takably proves the reference to be to the angelic host, the celestial entourage of God. Another view proposes that the “sons of God” were kings. This view was introduced into Jewish exegesis about the middle of the second century A.D., partly out of conviction that angels could not indulge in sexual inter­ course and partly to suppress speculation about them. It subsequently became the most common rabbinic view and has a number of Christian advocates.[34]Around the second century A.D. Simeon B. Yohai identified the “sons of God” as the “sons of the nobles,” and he pronounced a curse upon all who would call them “sons of God.” A third view identi­fies the “sons of God” as Sethites, which for a long time was the preferred Christian exegesis, but it has few advo­cates today.[35]H. C. Leupold, Exposition of Genesis, vol. 1 (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1982), 250. It was not until the first century A.D. that Julius Africanus proposed tht the “sons of God” were the descendants of Seth. Cf. Arnold, 58; and Wenham, 140.

Whatever the identification, it is clear that a new stage had been reached in the spread of sin and evil in human his­tory. This text reports a perversion of the order appointed by God, but he is still the only giver of life.[36]Brueggemann, 73. God respond­ed by limiting the human life span (6:3) and by deciding to annihilate the human race (6:7).

God’s decision was conceived in suffering: “The LORD was grieved that he had made man on the earth” (6:6). The flood narrative is not about God’s anger but about his grief. He is not an angry tyrant, but a troubled parent who grieves over the alienation. Noah (i.e., “comfort”) was the only one who gave God consolation. These verses show that the flood is a reversal of God’s work in creation. The uni­versal cataclysm into which the world is about to be plunged is not a result of fate, but the considered judgment of God made inevitable by human evil.[37]Sarna, 47; Brueggemann, 75.

The flood narrative (6:9-9:17) progresses as follows: God gives Noah instructions for ensuring his survival, and Noah obeys (6:9-22 ); God sends a flood that destroys humanity (7:1-8:14); and God restores and reorders the world (8:15-9:17). Scholars seem to be in agreement that the story is symmetrically arranged, although they disagree on the number and identification of the parts.

The drama contained in 6:9-22 begins with the descrip­tion of one who stands in contrast to the “violence of all flesh” (6:11). Noah is righteousness (tsadik) and “walked with God.” The description of the cataclysm is brief. The surge of waters from the great deep below and from the heavens above is a striking reversal of the second day of cre­ation. The world returned to chaos. However the waters of disorder could not sever God’s commitment to his creation:”God remembered Noah.” God’s remembrance was an act of gracious engagement with his covenant partner malting new life possible.[38]Brueggemann, 85; Sarna, 56. This is the turning point in the narrative. The flood recedes and life returns.

After disembarking, Noah built an altar and offered burnt offerings (8:20). His worship not only expressed gratitude, but probably also had an expiatory function. Now that the earth had been purged of its evil, Noah’s sacrifice symbolized the restoration of harmony between God and humanity. God was pleased and spoke “in his heart,” the same place where God felt pain (6:6; 8:21). In speaking to himself, God evaluated humanity as hopelessly sinful. The inclination of their heart was still evil. The waters had not changed that. Thus, hope for humanity is not premised upon possibility thinking or human actualization; it will depend solely upon God. He resolved to sustain the world, the pitiful state of humanity notwithstanding. Humankind’s rebellion will not sway him from his dream for creation. The flood did not change humanity, but it certainly had an effect upon God, who now will approach his creation with unlimited patience and forbearance. The human/divine relationship is now one between a continuously grieving God and a resistant world.[39]Brueggemann, 81.

God’s speech to Noah in 9:1-7 is the third time God has blessed mankind (cf. 1:28; 5:2) and told them to be fruitful and multiply (1:28; 8:17). The intent and mandates of cre­ation were also operative in this new creation, but not all things were the same. Humanity had been given dominion over the animals (1:28), but humans may now kill for food (9:3). Human blood, however, could not be shed. The tight chiastic formulation repeating each word of the first clause in reverse order in the second (i.e., shed, blood, man, man, blood, shed) emphasizes the strict correspondence of punishment to offense.[40]Wenham, 193; cf. Sarna. The death of the murderer is required because murder strikes at the image of God. It is a direct and unbridled revolt against God.[41]Westermann, Genesis 1-11, 468.

The final section of God’s monologue declares that the post-flood, post-chaos situation was decisively different. God said, “Never again.” The rainbow signified the estab­lishment of a covenant (9:12-16). The bow is a promise to creation and reminds God of his vow. He is no longer in pursuit of an enemy.

Functioning as an epilogue to the flood story, 9:18-27 tells of an outrage, its punishment, an act of piety, and its reward. The textpresumes the evil imagination of humanity. A father curses one son and blesses two. This pericope takes its place in the stories of crime and punishment that form a group within the text of Genesis 1-11. This passage, however, differs from the rest in that God is not the one who punishes, there is an act of piety, and blessings and curse define the destinies of peoples.[42]Ibid., 483.

The story begins with Noah planting a vineyard, drinking wine, becoming inebriated, and lying naked. Ham observed his father’s nakedness and “told his two brothers.” Not only did he not cover his father, he gossiped about his father’s indiscretion as well. Shem and Japheth took actions to cover their father. The author seems to be purposely drawing a stark contrast between the actions of Ham and those of the pious brothers.

When Noah awoke and learned what his son had done, he pronounced the first curse given by a human. However, Ham, the perpetrator, was displaced in the curse by his son Canaan. The reader is not told why. There are several pro­ posed explanations. First, God had recently pronounced his blessing on Noah and his sons (9:1), so Noah could not unsay that promise. Second, there may be an element of mirroring punishment: Noah’s youngest son, Ham, sinned against him; therefore, Ham’s youngest son, Canaan, should be punished for his father’s wickedness. Third, the sons of Noah embody and personify the character of their descen­dants. The Canaanites were notorious throughout the Hebrew Bible for their aberrant sexual practices; Ham’s indiscretion toward his father may be seen as a typical of the later Canaanites.[43]Wenham, 201. Cf. Kidner, 104. Fourth, the text should read “cursed be [the father of] Canaan,” a phrase that has already appeared twice in the narrative. Fifth, Canaan was an active partici­pant with Ham in the offense against Noah.[44]Sarna, 66.

Whatever the reason for displacing Ham with Canaan, the curse decreed that the son who dishonored his father was to live in disgrace, humiliation, and servitude to his own brothers; it was in the context of a family unit. It is a possibility that the matters of a family narrative are used to characterize political realities at some point in Israel’s history.[45]Brueggemann, 90.

The section closes with the death of Noah in 9:28-29. The resumption of genealogy sets the stage for the Table of Nations of Genesis 10, which will constitute a historical divider between the flood account and the next narrative episode, the Tower of Babel.

Genesis 10:1-11:32: Nations, Sin, and Consequences

The narrative of Genesis 10:1-11:32 is arranged in three units, each introduced by the phrase “This is the account of. . .” (10:1; 11:10, 27). The first division consists of two items featuring the theme of human dispersion throughout the earth: the Table of Nations, organized around Noah’s three sons (10:1-32) and the Tower of Babel (11:1-9). The second and third sections are brief genealogies. The tripartite structure of Genesis 10 expresses the three-fold division of humanity. The basic principle of organization is not racial, ethnic, or linguistic, but regional and political. The message of chapter 10 is clear: all people belong to the human race and thus share an intimate relationship.

Several times, Genesis 10 mentions that the numerous peoples “spread out” (10:2), that the “earth was divided” (10:25), and that there were differing “languages” (10:5, 20, 31), but no explanation of the dispersion of humanity is offered. The method of dissemination and resulting diversity in speech, however, is clearly described in Genesis 11:1-9. These two literary units are linked by a number of key words and phrases, but the most obvious is the use of “scatter” (10:18; 11:4, 8, 9).

The Tower of Babel narrative is a short but brilliant example of Hebrew storytelling.[46]So far, no literary parallel to the Tower of Babel narrative has been discovered. Cf. Westermann, Genesis 1-11, 539; Wenham, 236; Sarna, 80-81. Word plays, chiasmus, paronomasia, and alliteration are just a few of the devices used to unify and accentuate the pericope. It opens with the movement of a one-language people “eastward” to the “plain in Shinar.” Thus, the starting point was a land west of Babylon. Similarly, Adam, Eve, and Cain moved “east­ ward” (3:24; 4:16). It is probable that the author was draw­ing the founding of Babylon into a larger scheme contrast­ing God’s way of blessing (e.g., Eden) to humanity’s own attempt to find good. In Genesis, when humanity moves “eastward,” the land of blessing is left behind.[47]Sailhamer, 103-4.

Upon discovering a favorable place, the people built a city with a tower in order to “make a name” for themselves and “not be scattered over the face of the whole earth” (11:4). The theological point is that humankind’s resolve is in conflict with God’s. The sin of the people was not their desire to build a city, but their ambition. They wanted   group solidarity. The resultant edifice would have been a great source of civic pride and social unity; however, their desire for a singular society challenged God’s command to “fill the earth.” Humanity did not wish to spread abroad but wanted to stay in their own safe mode of homogeneity.[48]Sarna, 83; Brueggemann, 99.

The people’s actions called for correlative, divine inter­vention ( 5-9). Humanity feared scattering; God scattered. Although the confusion of their language was not as cata­strophic as previous judgments, the message is clear: God controls human destiny. Human circulation is willed by God (1:28). Scattering fulfilled God’s intent for creation. The city was called “Babel” as a constant reminder of the failure of godless folly.

A new movement in the narrative is introduced by the phrase, “This is the account of Shem” (11:10). With this short genealogy from Shem to Abram (11:10-26), the read­er is moved from primeval history, where the events affected all humanity, to the ancestral period. Like the genealogy from Adam to Noah (Genesis 5), this one also features ten generations and is highly structured, using the same formulaic language as the earlier genealogy, but omitting the phrase “and all the days of x were q+r years, and he died.” This cadenced, highly structured format communicates a sense of restored order, in contrast to the structurally and thematically fractured preceding unit.

Genesis 11 closes with a description of Terah and his descendants, focusing upon Abram, who was the tenth generation from Shem, just as Noah was the tenth from Adam. The purpose of the pericope (11:27-32) is to introduce Abram and Sarah, who constituted the turning point in human history.[49]Sarna, 84. The concentration upon Abram is not arbi­trary or unexpected. He stood in a long line of those who received God’s blessings and promises. What is startling is the barrenness of Sarah. The reference is cryptic and seems only descriptive, for there is no suggestion of punishment or curse. It serves as an effective metaphor for hopelessness; there is no foreseen future. The marvel of biblical faith is that barrenness is the arena of God’s life-giving action.[50]Brueggemann, 116.


As Genesis 11 closes, the world is distorted by human rebellion, but there is hope. Throughout the stones of sin, punishment, and provision found in Genesis 2:4-11:32, the message is explicit: by overstepping the God-given boundaries, human beings negatively impact their relationship with God and with others; however, in spite of human disobedience, God still cares, provides redemption, and never leaves humanity without a godly witness.


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