These are the great stories of the Bible with unforgettable mythic characters and events that dominate our lives even today. Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, Noah and Lot, Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Ishmael, Jacob and Esau, and Joseph and the twelve sons of Israel are as real as any super heroes or fictional characters in history. They are flawed heroes, not gods.. They are anything but perfect. In what sense are they real people and is this a work of fiction?
History is always an interpretation. Who knows what really happened over four thousand years ago? Sometimes we call this period, pre-historic. These stories are as good as any at trying to explain how the Israelites felt about themselves some 2500-3000 years ago. These ancient oral traditions were gathered and written down in order to explain what they were doing then. We know more about the belief of these ancient authors than about the people they were talking about. These mythic characters had power over their lives.
The Yahweh tradition made no attempt at being historical. Everything takes place in some vague somewhere and sometime. Yahweh appears a little capricious choosing who he likes and who he does not. The priestly tradition, however, loved order, genealogies, and clear structure, in trying to put things into a wider perspective, yet explaining why they do things the way that they did them. The Elohist tradition tries to put God into a more distant governing, but kind power.
God had special relationships with these archetype patriarch heroes, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. The three great belief religious systems of the west, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam share in this Abrahamic heritage. Joseph, the son of Jacob, and his Technicolor coat ended up almost ruling Egypt when his brothers turned against him.
The general narrative is that there is a loving caring God who spoke with these bigger than life characters. Yahweh has chosen these guys to be fruitful and prosperous, to inhabit a land, to be righteous, to follow Yahweh, and be circumcised. God is almighty.
The details are shocking as we see these heroes with warts and all. The primordial man, Adam could not even follow a simple divine order not to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Eve, mother of all, gets duped by a snake of all things. Cain kills Able because God somehow liked him better. The world gets populated either by the sons of Adam and Eve having sex with Eve, their sisters, or female animals. There are no other options if you want to follow the single source theory. Only the multiple source theory allows for other female humans from other humans.
Noah is an interesting character who follows God’s orders, but he does not get much credit, except as a builder before some giant flood hit the Middle East. He actually is the origin of all humans according to this story, since all humans were destroyed, except for him and his family. All of these stories of magic trees, wonderful gardens, and massive floods can be found in most religions of the world. This seems to be something that humans crave that is part of practically all oral traditions.
The story of Abraham is more complicated. Somehow he is the father of all the good guys and the bad guys. His two sons Isaac and Ishmael become symbolic of good and evil. Isaac, born of Sarah, is good, and actually appears as one of the nicer figures in these stories. Ishmael, however, born of the slave woman from Egypt, Hagar, is bad. When you add in Keturah and her children you can figure out how the Middle East was populated.
Isaac is a very sympathetic figure, if only because Abraham was going to offer him as a sacrifice to God, until he was stopped by an angel. He marries his cousin, which was quite normal and has twin boys, who fight all the time for his favor. In a twist of fate and deceit, Jacob and not Esau, who was the oldest by seconds or minutes, gets everything. Eventually, they make up and all prosper. None of these characters are poor people. They have lots of livestock and slaves.
Jacob is the most deceitful. He tricks his brother Esau all the time. He meets his match with his uncle Laban, who tricks him also. Jacob marries two sisters at once, both his first cousins. Just as Abram became Abraham, Jacob became Israel, as the new names become important. Jacob who becomes Israel has twelve sons with four different women, the two sisters Rachel and Leah, plus their female maid servants. This then becomes the twelve tribes of Israel.
The most interesting personality is Joseph, who was not liked by his ten brothers who tried to kill him. He gets sold as a slave to an Egyptian. Due to his ability to discern dreams he becomes the second in command in Egypt and even gets an Egyptian name. When his brothers come to get grain during a famine, they do not recognize him, but he recognizes them. He puts them through all kinds of demands, until there is a grand reunion and the whole family moves to Egypt.
This all explains why the sons of Israel were in Egypt, where Moses will try to get them out of there. Joseph seems like a wise man, who speaks his mind. One of the key concepts of Genesis is genealogy, showing how people are connected to each other via birth. Marriages seem to be with very close relatives. First cousins are not abnormal. Another key concept is land, particularly the land of Canaan. Over and over again, these characters are promised this land. In some cases they are already there.
Finally the covenant idea is clearly dominant. God has made a special pact with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, to be their God. The main element of this pact is male circumcision. It may sound odd to us today, but that clearly was in the minds of the biblical authors. They made male circumcision a really important religious activity.
Thus Genesis is the foundation book of religious stories about the fallibility of man and his need and fear of God in this life. These mythical religious persons, who have spoken with God, are not always living up to the ideal, but they keep trying despite themselves. This is an important lesson of all people and all times. Be true to yourself and your relationship with a higher power even when you are not perfect.