Understanding Genesis blends a historical analysis of the book of Genesis with a theological analysis, by someone who appears to be a Jewish author with a practicing faith in God. The analysis is interesting because it takes neither the “liberal” approach that the Bible is simply a man-made document derived from surrounding documents, nor the common Christian approach of assuming that the text describes everything accurately and trying to fit reality to that. Instead, to Sarna, Genesis appears to be the retelling of stories and myths already in the consciousness of the author’s readers. The retelling, however, has a different purpose than the source material. The author takes what are often pagan myths and turns them into illustrations of an all-powerful God who created everything and has certain demands on man, and who interacts with people clearly and directly.

The account of the creation of the world has very strong similarities to other Near-Eastern creation myths. However, it is the differences that appear to carry the important information. The other creation stories are myths, that is, “biographies” of the gods, however, no history is given for God. The other stories show in-fighting between the gods and eventually the world being created on the bones of a dead god, while the Biblical account portrays just one, uncontested, omnipotent creator whose very words cause things to come into being. The other creation stories describe the “master” gods creating man “slaves” to do their menial labor, a reflection of the society they come from. Instead, in the Bible, God gives man rulership over the earth; man is the pinnacle of creation, being made in His image. So although there is clearly strong influence from the indigenous creation myths, the Biblical account makes radical changes in who God is and what man’s relationship to Him is.

Similarly, while the Garden of Eden is not entirely unique, it removes the pagan elements. There are no magical elements; the tree of good and evil does not give the eaters any ability to hide from God, for instance. God is still clearly in charge, unlike magic, which gives man a way to manipulate the situation. At the same time, it makes very different statement about the nature of evil: evil comes from man, it is not inherent in the universe. In fact, man is shown as having free will, being able to defy God’s purposes (although if he does, he must face the consequences). It also shows that, while being like God is the Biblical ideal, being like God is not about knowledge, but about us imitating the character of God in our actions.

The account of Cain and Abel is illustrative of Sarna’s historical approach. He notes that the story has a number of problems, like where did Cain get his wife from or why did God give him a mark to protect him from people when there were no other people yet, and concludes that it must have been a separate story where these details made sense. Like creation, it need not even have been Israelite or monotheistic. The Biblical story is not about the events; the events simply reveal the nature of the world. So the narrative is weak in consistency, but strong in demonstrating that worship and piety are related, as Cain merely fulfilled an obligation (brought fruits of the soil) instead of an offering (Abel brought the best). By repeating seven times that Cain is Abel’s brother, it establishes a strong link that Cain actually did have a responsibility to Abel, which he broke by killing him. It asserts an external moral law that is enforced by God, and that breaking it is really a sin against God. So Cain is banned from society (since murder is crime against society), but he is also banned from God’s presence, because he has sinned against God. Finally, the story talks about Abel’s blood crying out to God, showing that injustice sets in motion opposing forces sustained by God, as demonstrated later on at Sodom.

The story of the flood has similarities to many Mesopotamian flood stories, although it does not appear to derive from any one in particular. Since there is no geologic or archeological evidence for a global flood, these stories must refer to a cataclysmic local flood, although some Mesopotamian sources have lists of kings before and after the flood similar to the Biblical geneologies. The Biblical account uses it to teach about God and man. Again, these are highlighted by the differences with the Mesopotamian stories. The Mesopotamian stories are unclear about the reason for the flood, but one story says it was because humans were to noisy and the gods couldn’t sleep. There is not agreement among the gods about this, and one god saves a favored couple by warning them to build a boat. After the flood, the couple sacrifices to the gods, who are starving since obviously no one has been sacrificing to them during the flood, so they crowd around “like flies.” In the Epic of Gilgamesh, the couple is arbitrarily granted immortality by the very god that started the flood (maybe due to regretting his action?). In contrast, the flood is brought about because of wickedness—not, idolatry as might be expected, but because of injustice, which implies that societal justice is a universal requirement and that failure to be just endangers society and mankind. In fact, injustice brings about an act of uncreation: in Creation God separated the waters above from the ones below, and now He lets then reunite (the rains come down from above, and water wells up from below). God does not argue, but simply decides. Noah is not chosen because he is God’s favorite, but because of his righteousness. God does not warn Noah, He commands him to build an ark. Not a boat, which Noah can stear, but an ark, which implies dependency on God. After the waters return to the place God put them, Noah also sacrifices to God, but God merely smells the offering (He is not hungry). He accepts the offering and bestows a promise that there will be no danger of uncreation in future—in stark contrast with the polytheistic accounts who offer no promises that the gods won’t quarrel again, or get upset with man again. In fact, again we see one family blessed and explicitly tasked with multiplying and filling the earth.

Man apparently did not want to fill the earth. Instead, they intentionally built a city to congregate together, and began a tower to reach heaven. This Tower of Babel story is not of Mesopotamian origin, since the ziggurat of Babylon described was a source of pride, but is written by someone obviously familiar with Mesopotamian practices. The story accurately describes Babylonian building methods (bricks “baked hard”) but author, like Herodotus later, notes with some surprise that bricks are used instead of stone and bitumen is used instead of mortar, suggesting that the author lives in Canaan where stone is abundant. Mesopotamian polytheism saw the ziggurats as towers to heaven, enabling man to reach the gods, and built in part by the gods (some cylinder seals show the gods participating in the building activities. The biblical account describes the building process in purely human terms, and then notes that God decided to go down—first, He already knew about it, and second, man did not go up to God, but God came down. Furthermore, man was thwarted in his disobedience of not filling the earth, and in his attempt at reaching God.

At this point the author of Genesis focuses on how God created the people of Israel. Sarna repeatedly observes that the text from here on reflects faithfully preserved, accurate, ancient origins, presumably from external stories, no longer extant, that were circulating among the 12 tribes. This is shown by the attitude towards the people the patriarchs are among. The Arameans are viewed positively (Laban, brother of Isaac’s wife and father of Jacob/Israel’s children, is listed as an Aramean), despite later animosity. The patriarchs dwell peacefully among the people of Canaan. Easu, who upsets his mother by marrying Canaanites, is not said to be an idolater. The relationships between the tribes are different from their later relationships (Levi is an unimportant tribe, for instance). Incidents that reflect poorly on the patriarchs are faithfully recorded, and when the five kings of the Sodom area rebel only four are listed by name, while the fifth is listed as the king of his city; presumably the author is faithfully recording the tradition which no longer preserved the fifth king’s name. Another indication is that many of the interactions between the patriarchs and God and other people take the form of ancient legal formulae and traditions, which Sarna illuminates through texts from Nuzi, a region near Haran, which describe similar marriage arrangements as the patriarchs. Similarly, the names of the people in Genesis are names of or related to various Mesopotamian deities.

Sarna has a brief discussion of the dates in Genesis. He views the numbers as unlikely to be strictly factually correct. Instead, they are carefully chosen values that, in Mesopotamian numerology, suggest that God is behind the events. Times tend to be 40 years (a standard unspecified long time) or multiples of 5 or multiples of 5 plus 7. The life spans of the patriarchs are an interesting series
175 yrs 
7 * 5^2
180 yrs
5 * 6^2
147 yrs
3 * 7^2
7, 5, and 3 are primes and decrease; 5, 6, 7 increase, and are all squared (and 2 is, itself, prime). It should also be noted that Abraham lived 100 years in Canaan and was 100 years old when Isaac was born. He lived 75 years with his father and 75 years with his son. Jacob lived 17 years with Joseph in Canaan and 17 years with Joseph in Egypt. Joseph lived to be 110 years old, the ideal Egyptian length of life. Moses lived to be 120, the maximum length God assigned to mens’ lives.

Abraham was from Ur, likely from a time when Ur was a Mesopotamian cultural center. It was destroyed in 1950 BC, possibly prompting his father to migrate to Canaan, like many others of the time period. The family names of Abraham’s family are all names related to the worship of the moon, which were central to the worship both in Ur and in Haran, where Abraham’s father settled down. Either in Ur or Haran, Abram marries Sarah, in a wife-sister relationship. Nuzi documents record that sibling status was often legal, and that a girl may be sold as a sister to someone else; when she was also a wife, she would get double protection.

After Abraham had been there a while, God tells him to move to Canaan. According to Sarna, God could not create the kind of nation He wanted in Mesopotamia. Mesopotamia had many things to be proud of: a long history, magnificent monuments, administrative excellence, extensive agriculture through a magnificent network of irrigation canals, and foreign trade. On the other hand, polytheism created a pervasive cultural anxiety: it could offer no personal security because the gods were capricious, and it could offer no moral authority due to the multiplicty of divine opinions (included a goddess so well-known to be faithless that Gilgamesh says so to her face). Yet, society was working smoothly and unlikely to be disrupted. So Abraham is told to go to Canaan. After he acts out of faith, God promises him land, possibly telling him to walk the land as that was how one took legal possession of a gift of land.

The patriarchs appear to have been semi-nomads in the early stages of urbanization. The camel was not domesticated until later so they were not bedouin: they walked in the areas between the major cities with donkeys. Isaac even planted crops. This semi-stationary lifestyle supported a relatively large population since Abraham could immediately get an posse of 300 men to rescue Lot, although he obviously occupies an insecure position because after crushingly defeating the multiple kings that ravaged their way all the way down the eastern edge of Canaan, God still has to personally reassure Abraham that He will protect him. Although Abraham interacted with the cities, he was somewhat aloof from the natives. He only gets involved to rescue his nephew Lot and refuses the kings’ offer of the plunder because he does not want any association with them.

God has been increasingly revealing his intentions to Abraham. At first it was simply “Go to the land I will show you.” Then God said “I will give you and your offspring this land.” Then “I give you (pl) this land.” Having apparently trusted God to keep him from the mortal danger involved in rescuing Lot (which he had to attempt, as Lot was part of the family, despite having freely chosen to live in evil Sodom) it became “I hereby give you and your offspring this land forever.” At this point, Abraham asks God how this will be, because his servant is his heir. God promises a son, which not only illustrates the goodness of God, but also that you can dialog with God. He does not expect blind faith in contradiction to reality (Abraham has no son, and is too old). God promises the land, but in the distant future, because sin of the Canaanites had not reached its full measure, which reveals additional aspects of God. The promise is not because God likes Abraham, or even that He chose Him. Unlike the Mesopotamian gods, God does not do things just because He likes someone. He chose Abraham because He wanted to build a nation, and Abraham gets the land because the inhabitants are evil. But he cannot have it until they are so wicked that the land vomits them out (which God promises and later does to Israel if they reach the same state). Later, God repeatedly tells Israel that it was not because of any other their merit that they received the land.

The covenant marks a turning point in Abraham as he begins to be the promised blessing to all nations. He receives a name change. In the ancient world your name was related to your essence; anonymity was non-existance. In Egypt, Atum created the gods by naming the parts of his body, and erasing all occurrences of someone’s name caused their afterworld existence to cease. Biblically, names complete creation (God creates, Adam names), so a new name symbolizes the completion of God’s work in Abraham. This is also indicated by the covenant of circumcision. Circumcision was practiced by all the people in the area except for the Philistines, but it was done at puberty. For Israel, circumcision becomes a reminder of a divine covenant, not a social or healthful practice.

We see Abraham demonstrate being a blessing for others when he intercedes for Sodom and Gomorrah. Sodom and Gomorrah are so wicked that there is an outcry and God decides to investigate. The word “outcry” indicate the crying out of injustice, the same word used of the blood of Abel. Ezekiel specifically states that the sin of Sodom was not idolatry or even the obvious sexual sin, but injustice. Abraham knew this, but still intercedes with God to save the city, just as God intended Israel to be among the nations. God investigates, and the author demonstrates the evil of the city by noting that every man came out to molest the visitors, a gross violation of the Semitic expectation of hospitality. So God destroys it. The description of the location suggests that the current location is now under the south end of the Dead Sea, which has been slowly filling up and spreading southward. Geologically the actual destruction could not have been volcanic, but the cities lie on a fault line, and the area has petroleum pits; large earthquakes can produce lightning, which would ignite the escaping subterranean gas which would then burn the petroleum, causing the destruction described. This story shows Abraham praying for a foreign nation that he abhors; it shows that God is just in His judgment; and it shows Lot being rescued not by his own merit, but because of the righteousness of Abraham. It establishes that a person can be saved by someone else’s righteousness. (In fact, God laments to one of the prophets that He could find no one righteous to intercede for Israel.)

The rest of the discussion of Genesis is largely a discussion of the events and the Nuzi documents illustratating that particular argreement, which the interested reader of this review will find helpful. Regarding the interpretation of the text, only a few things stand out. The story of Abraham sacrificing Isaac is a very old story, and while the story clearly assumes that God could be ok with human sacrifice, the lack of details of the location combined with subsequent events show that the author is trying to demonstrate that God abhors human sacrifice, but that it is now clear that Abraham desires God over the promise, which would obviously be ended with the death of Isaac. Sarna does not consider the possibility raised in the New Testament that Abraham assumed that God could bring Isaac back to life.

Other highlights include Abraham’s servant, sent to get a wife for Isaac. He gives the first spontaneous prayer for guidance in the Bible. He does not pray that God would show him the woman. Instead, he sets up a situation that demonstrates that the girl is generous and kind to strangers, and asks that the girl with those wifely virtues be whom God wants.

In the story of Jacob, he begins by taking advantage of his brother and deceiving his father. To the naive reader, it seems like he gets away with it. However, a number of points show his moral lapses ricocheting back onto him. Just as he used his father’s darkness to trick him into thinking he was his brother, so Laban does with Jacob’s wife. We hear of no sons of Laban at the beginning, so it is likely that Jacob became a legally adopted heir, but when Laban has sons later, Jacob is mistreated and eventually flees. He apparently almost drowns in the switfly flowing Jabbok river when he crosses into Canaan, hence the wrestling with the angel story (which has strong similarities to stories that personify treacherous crossings as wrestling with the river spirit, which you can win if only you can hold on long enough). His favorite wife dies early, his favorite son is taken from him. At the end of his life, Jacob can only say that his years were few and hard, quite a contrast with Abraham and Isaac who died full of years. So the biblical account actually strongly condemns Jacob’s actions.

Sarna is not very concerned with the variance between science and the first part of Genesis and has only a brief discussion in the introduction. However, since this reviewer is a member of the evangelical Christian community which is currently (early 21st century) wringing its hands over the issue, it is worth a short discussion of the issue. The problem between science and the Bible is caused by the insistence by Christians that the Bible must be interpreted literally. Sarna, who from various comments in the book appears to be a Jew with a deep faith in God, himself briefly dismisses literal interpretation in page seven of the introduction, where he says “If [Understanding Genesis] rejects the literalist approach to Scripture, it is solely because that approach cannot stand the test of critical scholarly examination. Literalism involves a fundamental misconception of the mental processes of biblical man and ignorance of his modes expression.” Put more colloquially, Sarna’s opinion is that interpreting Genesis literally is not only completely at odds with observable facts, but moreover, the authors of the Bible viewed history not as a sequence of events but as God interacting with man.

So it is worth considering Genesis, especially the first chapters, not as a modern history of facts, but as a story of God’s interaction with man. The author clearly felt the need to correct Mesopotamian errors in the nature of God and took pains to clearly contrast the Biblical narratives with the Mesopotamian versions that his readers were presumably familiar with. Presumably he thought that the basic facts of stories were correct. There is no need to consider him mistaken. Rain comes down from the sky, so clearly there must be water there. Water comes up from the ground, so there must be water there as well. The waters keep trying to unite (rain comes down, springs bubble up, and the rivers, especially the Tigris and Euphrates, periodically mount flood attacks on the land). So it is reasonable that God had to forcibly separate the water to produce land. Likewise, children come from a man and wife, so it is reasonable that they came from one couple, who obviously must have been made by God. Given that every society known to the author throughout Mesopotamia considered man to have come from a garden, why would he think otherwise? Even if man originated some other way, perhaps the way to Mesopotamia involved immigration from a garden (and anything would be, compared to Mesopotamia). But clearly, man rebelled consistently against God. So the information contained in Genesis is not what happened. That was already largely agreed on by everyone. The information of Genesis is the revelation that there is one God who did it, one God whom we rebelled against again and again, one God uncapricious God who consistently enforces a minimum societal morality, one God whom we cannot reach with a ziggurat but who comes down, one God who implements his will unfazed by our rebellion.

Sarna has written an intriguing analysis of the book of Genesis that is both scholarly sound and yet strongly based in faith. He shows how the author of Genesis weaves revelations about the nature of God into his narrative, and reveals patterns in the stories that subtly show that what is on the surface might not be the true intent of the author. Sarna is at his best in looking at how the text draws from but differs from accounts contemporary to the author. Unfortunately, Sarna is not as skilled at interpreting the text, so much of the later parts of the book pretty much just say what the text already says. Still, this is a book that likely to provide a well-reasoned and different point of view to the normal Christian interpretations. I strongly recommend this book to everyone interested in Genesis, whether Christian, Jewish, or atheistic scholar.
Review: 9.2
This is a scholarly book and is written that way. It is sometimes a little stuffy in the writing style, but the author expertly uses the English language. The content is excellent, especially when comparing contemporary accounts. The author’s use of external sources is excellent. However, where there are no external sources to guide, the author seems to have little to say about the text itself; the insights in the book diminish as the book progresses past the mythological-seeming first eleven chapters. I am unsure if this is a 100-year book. The content will be just as excellent in 100 years, but it is entirely possible that someone can combine the authors insights with textual insights and produce a really superb book. Until then, read this one.