Did you miss one of Fr Wilcox's Sunday Old Testament classes?  Keep reading to see all the handouts from the class!


Old Testament Handout # 1

An Outline of the Life of Abraham (Genesis 11:26–25:10)

The story of Abraham is not his biography in the sense we understand biographies. Much has been untold or edited: what remains of the episodes (pericopes) in his story are theological in their intent. Even events which don’t seem inherently “religious” in his story have theological content. Part of the fun of reading his story is to try and discern what this content is. Our question with each part of the story is “What is the author/editor(s) trying to tell us?” Anybody can guess. Look at what the text says!

Bear this in mind, though: the context of the story is as important – and maybe even more important – to understanding the text as is the pericope itself. The pericope tells us a story – the context of the pericope – its place in the overall story – tells us what it means, and helps us understand it.

Introduction to Abraham’s story – Genesis 11:26-12:6

Introduction of Characters: Abram, Sarai, Lot – God’s call to Abram – the family travels to Haran from Ur, then later to Canaan

Abram & Lot Travel to Egypt – Genesis 12:10-20

Because of famine in Canaan, Abram and Lot travel to Egypt –   Abram’s Deception – Sarai Is Taken into Pharaoh’s Palace – Abraham rewarded, then, after plagues descend on Pharaoh’s house, they are sent out of Egypt – Abram departs with wealth from Egypt (note parallels to Moses, Pharaoh and the Exodus; also note Genesis chapter 20:12: “ [Sarah] is indeed my sister, the daughter of my father but not the daughter of my mother…” See also Genesis 26:6-11, for what seems to be a bad habit of the family.)

Abram and Lot Separate – Genesis 13

Abram and Lot return to Bethel, but the land cannot support them both “for their possessions were so great” -  Abram asks Lot to choose whatever land he wishes; he chooses the Jordan Valley – God promises to Abram a third time – Abram settles in Hebron

Abram Rescues Lot – Genesis 14

Lot and all he owns are taken captive during a revolt against the king of Elam by local chieftains – Abram rescues Lot and recaptures his property – Abram meets with the King of Sodom and Mechizedek the Priest of Salem, who blesses him

God’s Assurances, Abram’s Complaint and the Covenant – Genesis 15

God promises great rewards to Abram – Abram complains that he has no son, no heir to receive God’s promise -  God’s response and Abram’s belief – “He reckoned it to him as righteousness” - the Ceremonial of the Covenant – Abram’s Dream and God’s Promise

Sarai’s Bareness, Hagar’s Pregnancy and Their Conflict – Genesis 16

Sarai gives Abram her slave Hagar to bear him children – Hagar conceives – the resulting conflict causes Hagar to run away to  the desert where she meets an angels who sents her back after assuring her of the future of her child’s offspring – she gives birth  to Ishmael

The Covenant Deepened, New Names and Specific Promises – Genesis 17

God speaks to Abram about the Covenant between them, renewing His promises and giving Abram a new name -  the sign of circumcision – Sarai’s new name as the Mother of Nations – the promise of Isaac and future of Ishmael

Visitor(s) at the Oaks at Mamre – Genesis 18:1-15

Three visitors receive Abraham’s hospitality – prophecy of Isaac’s birth and Sarah’s laughter – “The Lord said” in  vv 10, 13

Abraham’s Intercession for Sodom – Genesis 18:16-33

          “Suppose ten are found there?”

The Hospitality of Lot and the Inhospitality of Sodom, the Rescue of Lot & His Family – Genesis 19:1-23

Two angels come to Sodom where Lot offers them hospitality – the men of Sodom storm Lot’s house and he offers them his two daughters to protect his guests – the angels defend themselves and those of Lot’s household – they send Lot and his family from Sodom

The Destruction of Sodom, the Disobedience of Lot’s Wife and the Deception of His Daughters – Genesis 19:24-38

God destroys Sodom and Gomorrah – Lot’s wife turned to salt – Lot’s daughters and their father: their respective offspring are the Moabites and the Ammonites

Abraham, Sarah and Abimelech, King of Gerar – Genesis 20:1-18

Abraham tells Abimelech that Sarah is his sister (again?) – God speaks to Abimelech, who remonstrates with the Lord and confronts Abraham – Abraham’s defense (20:11-13) – Abimelech sends them on their way with gifts and money and is restored to health through Abraham’s prayers

The Birth of Isaac and the Expulsion of Hagar and Ishmael – Genesis 21:1-21

God keeps His promise: Sarah conceives and bears Isaac (and laughs again!) – she orders Abraham to banish Hagar and Ishmael, which he does following God’s assurance that Ishmael will prosper – an angel cares for Hagar

The Covenant between Abraham and Abimelech and the Well of Beersheba – Genesis 21:25-34

Abimelech and Abraham make a covenant to do no harm one to the other – they agree as to the ownership of the well of Beersheba

Abraham and the Sacrifice of Isaac – Genesis 22:1-19

God tells Abraham to offer Isaac as a sacrifice – Abraham gathers the materials and sets out to Moriah – Isaac’s question and Abraham’s response – the sacrifice is prepared and the angel calls for him to stop – “You have not withheld your son, your only son, from Me” – the ram in the thicket – God again reassures Abraham of His promises

Sarah’s Death and the Purchase of a Burial Place – Genesis 23

          Sarah dies and Abraham purchases a burial site for their graves

A Wife for Isaac – Genesis 24

Abraham sends his chief servant to find a wife for Isaac, not among the Canaanites but in Nahor, amongst his kinsmen in Haran – the servant’s prayer – Rebecca meets every requirement of his prayer – the servant returns with Rebecca to Abraham, and Isaac is happy of her

Abraham’s Final Years, Death and Burial – Genesis 25:1-11

Abraham, “well advanced in years,” marries Keturah and she bears him six sons – Isaac is his heir and, together with Ishmael, buries him alongside Sarah.

In 14 chapters, Genesis sketches a portrait of Abraham. Though preceded by tales of Adam and Noah, Abraham is the first and greatest of the heroes of Genesis. He is the first of the “patriarchs” – the fathers – Isaac, Jacob and Joseph, each of whom plays his part in continuing the covenant and receiving its promise. Abraham is presented in the traditions the Book of Genesis preserves as a man of faith, a man who heard God’s call and answered it – sometimes confidently and sometimes haltingly. The climax of his story takes place when he is tested on Mount Moriah and places his trust completely in the hands of God. After a lifetime struggling with the demands of faith, Abraham has become the man of faith, and God’s promises traced through the rest of the Old Testament are fulfilled because of it.


Old Testament Handout # 2

God’s Covenant with Abraham

The story of Abraham, told in Genesis 12-25, is not, as we’ve discussed, a biography. It’s a collection of stories about Abraham that center around the covenant God makes with him. This covenant is the basis for the relationship between God and the Jews that becomes the main story of the Old Testament. The covenant God makes with Abraham is the basis for the later covenant He makes with Moses and the children of Israel at Mount Sinai. The great prophets of the Old Testament, Isaiah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel, will hearken back to this covenantal relationship as fundamental to the Jews being Jews. The story Genesis tells us, in its thirteen chapters focusing on Abraham, is the groundwork on which all the rest of the Old Testament depends.

The following stories, drawn from the tales of Abraham, unfold the covenant as it develops in Abraham’s life, from the initial call of God, to the Sacrifice of Isaac, “his only son.” The other stories of Abraham are fascinating but secondary to these. As we see from the other stories of Abraham, and most especially in these tales, Abraham is not a static character. He grows, it’s fair to say, INTO the covenant he and God make.

Genesis 12 opens with God’s promise to Abram (I’m using the ESV – the English Standard Version – for most of these quotes):

Now the Lord said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” (Genesis 12.1-3)

When Abram arrives in Canaan, the Lord appeared to him and said, “To your offspring I will give this land.” (Genesis 12.7) God has promised that Abraham’s children will be a great nation. The land He has led him to will be his.

After Abram and Lot go their ways, Abram allowing Lot the first choice of land, the Lord again speaks to Abram, re-assuring him: “The Lord said to Abram, after Lot had separated from him, ‘Lift up your eyes and look from the place where you are, northward and southward and eastward and westward, for all the land that you see I will give to you and to your offspring forever. I will make your offspring as the dust of the earth, so that if one can count the dust of the earth, your offspring also can be counted. Arise, walk through the length and the breadth of the land, for I will give it to you.’ ” (Genesis 13.14-17)

After rescuing Lot from captivity, Abram is blessed by Melchizedek the priest and king of Salem, one of the blessings God has promised him: “Melchizedek, king of Salem brought out bread and wine. (He was priest of God Most High.) And he blessed him and said, ‘Blessed be Abram by God Most High, Creator of heaven and earth; and blessed be God Most High, Who has delivered your enemies into your hand!’ ” (Genesis 14.18-20)

Sometime later, God again reminds Abram of his promise to “make of him a great nation”: “the word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision: ‘Fear not, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great.’ But Abram said, ‘O Lord God, what will You give me, for I continue childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?’ And Abram said, ‘Behold, You have given me no offspring, and a member of my household will be my heir.” And behold, the word of the Lord came to him: ‘This man shall not be your heir; your very own son shall be your heir.’ And He brought him outside and said, ‘Look toward heaven, and number the stars, if you are able to number them.’ Then He said to him, ‘So shall your offspring be.’ And he believed the Lord, and He counted it to him as righteousness.” (Genesis 15.1-6)

Abram’s reference to Eliezer of Damascus, one of his servants, as his heir reflects a common practice in the ancient Middle East of adopting a beloved slave as heir. It seems Abram has already done this, a sign of his doubts that God will keep His promise. His belief in God’s promise results in Abram being “counted righteous” – in a restored relationship – with God.

This being now the case, the covenant is now made (the Hebrew noun for covenant – berith – is a form to the Hebrew verb meaning to cut; in Hebrew {I’m told by those who actually know the language}, the phrase “to make a covenant” translates literally as “to cut a covenant” – think of that in relation to circumcision!): “And the Lord said to him, ‘I am the Lord Who brought you out from Ur of the Chaldeans to give you this land to possess.’ But he said, ‘O Lord God, how am I to know that I shall possess it?’ He said to him, ‘Bring Me a heifer three years old, a female goat three years old, a ram three years old, a turtledove, and a young pigeon.” And he brought Him all these, cut them in half, and laid each half over against the other. (Genesis 15.7-10)

The covenant is literally cut. The animals, cut in half and laid before the parties of the covenant – each half to one side forming a path that can be walked between – are sacrificed as a solemn sign. In the world of Abram, this laying out of the sacrifice was the first part of a covenant ceremony. The two parties then passed between the sacrifice. So what comes next is full of meaning, though it’s left unexplained in the text: “As the sun was going down, a deep sleep fell on Abram. And behold, dreadful and great darkness fell upon him… and behold, a smoking fire pot and a flaming torch passed between the pieces. On that day the Lord made a covenant with Abram, saying, ‘To your offspring I give this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the river Euphrates…’ ” (Genesis 15.12, 17-18)

God Himself (signified by the smoking incense pot and the burning torch) passes between the carcasses, but Abram does not. He sleeps through it.

What are we to make of this? What does it mean?

The promises are solemnly affirmed; the covenant is cut and Abram slumbers. The Lord passes through the sacrifices but not Abram. Why?

Thirteen years after the birth of Ishmael, the son of Abram by Hagar, the Lord speaks again to Abram, with familiar words and promises: “I am God Almighty; walk before Me, and be blameless, that I may make My covenant between Me and you, and may multiply you greatly.” Then Abram fell on his face. And God said to him, “Behold, My covenant is with you, and you shall be the father of a multitude of nations. No longer shall your name be called Abram, but your name shall be Abraham, for I have made you the father of a multitude of nations. I will make you exceedingly fruitful, and I will make you into nations, and kings shall come from you. And I will establish My covenant between Me and you and your offspring after you throughout their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you. And I will give to you and to your offspring after you the land of your sojournings, all the land of Canaan, for an everlasting possession, and I will be their God.” (Genesis 17.1-8)

Then comes the sign of the covenant Abram and his descendants are to keep in perpetuity, their “cutting of the covenant”:  “God said to Abraham, ‘As for you, you shall keep My covenant, you and your offspring after you throughout their generations. This is My covenant…between Me and you and your offspring after you: Every male among you shall be circumcised… it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and you…Every male throughout your generations, shall surely be circumcised. So shall My covenant be in your flesh an everlasting covenant.” (Genesis 17.9-13)

As God gave Abraham a new name, so too He re-named Sarai. The new names are a sign of the promises of God coming to fruition in Abraham and his wife, long after their fulfillment was physically impossible: And God said to Abraham, “As for Sarai your wife, you shall not call her name Sarai, but Sarah shall be her name. I will bless her, and moreover, I will give you a son by her. I will bless her, and she shall become nations; kings of peoples shall come from her.” Then Abraham fell on his face and laughed and said to himself, “Shall a child be born to a man who is a hundred years old? Shall Sarah, who is ninety years old, bear a child?” And Abraham said to God, “Oh that Ishmael might live before you!” God said, “No, but Sarah your wife shall bear you a son, and you shall call his name Isaac. I will establish My covenant with him as an everlasting covenant for his offspring after him. As for Ishmael, I have heard you; behold, I have blessed him and will make him fruitful and multiply him greatly. He shall father twelve princes, and I will make him into a great nation. But I will establish My covenant with Isaac, whom Sarah shall bear to you at this time next year.”

No doubt Abraham believed God would keep His promises. He had Ishmael, his son by Hagar. When God tells Abraham that Sarah is an integral part of His promises, Abraham doesn’t argue (but he can’t help laughing at the impossibility of the situation. He responds by commending Ishmael to God and bluntly insisting on Sarah’s role as “Mother of Many Nations.” Abraham believes God without knowing how He will make it happen. But his response shows his faithfulness to God. He gets out what we can hope is a very sharp knife and steady hands, starts circumcising every man in his home and employ. 

Later, after Isaac, the child of the promise, is born and begins to grow up, God puts Abraham to the most dreadful of trials. He is to kill his long-awaited and much-loved son. If you read the story (Genesis 22.1-19), Abraham raises no objection. In fact, the author depicts no response of Abraham but one: obedience to God’s command. His words to Isaac, along with his actions, show us that he now trusts God whatever comes. “God will Himself provide the lamb for a burnt offering, my son.” At the last moment, an angel stops him from killing Isaac. He speaks words to Abraham he has heard before, but now there is no doubt God’s promises will be kept or question as to how they will come to be.

“And the angel of the Lord called to Abraham a second time from heaven and said, ‘By myself I have sworn, declares the Lord, because you have done this and have not withheld your son, your only son, I will surely bless you, and I will surely multiply your offspring as the stars of heaven and as the sand that is on the seashore. And your offspring shall possess the gate of his enemies, and in your offspring shall all the nations of the earth be blessed, because you have obeyed My voice.’ ” (Genesis 22.15-18)


Old Testament Handout # 3

Outline of the Book of Genesis

The Creation of the Cosmos, the Heavens and the Earth (1:1–2:3)

The Creation of the Man and the Woman, Their Offspring, and the Spread of Civilization (2:4–4:26)

The Generations from Adam and Eve (5:1–6:8)

The Flood, Salvation of Noah and the First Covenant (6:9–9:29)

The Proud Tower Built and the Peoples Confounded (10:1–11:9)

The Genealogy from Noah (11:10–26)

Episodes from the Lives of of Abraham and Sarah; the Second Covenant (11:27–25:18)

Episodes from the Lives of Isaac and Jacob; the Promise Continues (25:19–36:43)

The Story of Joseph (37:1–50:26)

Though it’s the product of a number of different authors who wrote centuries apart, the book of Genesis essentially falls into two sections: the first eleven chapters describe the creation of the cosmos, with the world at its center, and the creation of world with man at its apex. Genesis depicts God the Creator as intimately involved with His creation. He forms man from the earth and draws woman from his side. He breathes life into them. He created them as His companions, intending them to exercise lordship over His creation. The Fall altered their relationship with Him, and the succeeding chapters tell of man’s growing estrangement from God, and the consequences it brings. This culminates in the story of the Flood and the salvation of Noah and his family. Never again, He promises, will He destroy man like this, but the arrogance of the nations which descend from Noah leave mankind in dire straits.

The rest of the book of Genesis (from the 12th chapter till it ends with chapter 50), through a series of vignettes, tells of the covenant god makes with Abraham, and how that covenant comes to life in Abraham’s descendants. God speaks to Abram, as He did to Adam and to Noah, promising a new relationship built on a covenant. The stories that follow for the rest of the book of Genesis, episodes from the lives of Abraham, Sarah and their offspring (and many relations), culminate in the story of Joseph, the Dreamer who made good. Through the adventures of Father Abraham and his family, the meaning and fulfillment of God’s covenant unfolds.

Composing the Book of Genesis

Many – not all! – scholars date the Exodus from Egypt at 1250-1200 BC and reckon the period of the “Judges” (“chieftains” is more accurate but also more prosaic!) from about 1200 BC till the anointing of Saul as king of Israel about 1040 BC. Sometime between then and the mid-point of King David’s reign (1000 BC – 961 BC), the oral tales that make up much of the book of Genesis were written down (sometimes in differing versions, as we’ve seen & discussed). Scholars believe there were at least three versions of the stories that were eventually incorporated into the single book of Genesis (more on that later). These versions were codified by Jewish Scribes and Rabbis into the books now called the Torah, or Five Books of Moses (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy) sometime during the Jewish Exile in Babylon (from about 600-540 BC).

So the “composition” of the book of Genesis took centuries to complete, and many hands went into it. This accounts for differences in literary style, duplicate versions of the same story, and, most intriguing of all, different theological outlooks.What are we to make of all this as we read? Well, the Church reveres the Bible not because it’s a very old book, but because God speaks through it, irregularities and all. The Babylonian editors created a masterpiece, not stylistically or historically, but theologically. They turned a diversity of tales into a sweeping epic of what God had been – and was in their own day – doing with His people and the Covenants He made with them.


Old Testament Handout # 4

An Outline of the Life of Isaac (Genesis 22-27)

As we noted with Abraham, the biblical account of the story of Isaac is not a biography but a series of vignettes, episodes which tell us certain events in the life of Isaac that the authors/editors believe are important in the larger story of the Book of Genesis. Much has been untold or edited: what remains in Isaac’s story is theological in intent, even events which don’t seem obviously “religious.” As we read and ponder the individual vignettes in Isaac’s life (and there aren’t many as compared to the rest of his family), we should try to discern what part each plays in telling us about Isaac, but more importantly, what part Isaac’s story plays in the Book of Genesis. Because his life comes to us as part of a literary construct (ie first, the Book of Genesis and then, the Pentateuch as a whole), he, like each of the other Patriarchs, is plays a part in a much larger context. By understanding his role in the story of the descendants of Abraham, we will later be able to catch the broad sweep of the Old Testament as a whole.

Unlike Abraham, Isaac’s story is “bound up” (pardon the poor pun) with that of his parents. Abraham is introduced to us with little background. His story is one of a man beginning a new life and his forbearers play very little part in it. Isaac, on the other hand, is the fulfillment of a long-standing promise made by God and is essential to
Abraham’s own story. The first part of Genesis 21 tells us of Isaac’s birth and the contention that comes up because of Sarah’s jealousy of Hagar and her son, Ishmael. In chapter 22, the story of the Sacrifice of Isaac (called in Jewish tradition “The Binding”), we see Isaac as an obedient and curious teen-ager. Chapter 24 tells the story of finding a wife for Isaac, but though the story is thoroughly told, Isaac doesn’t appear in it till the end. 

The story of Isaac is integral to Abraham’s story, and the story of Isaac’s sons, Jacob and Esau, is likewise integral to his. Less of the Book of Genesis is devoted to Isaac than to any of the Patriarchs. Why? What do the stories which the authors/editors have chosen to pass on tell us about Isaac’s character? What do they tell us about his place in the Book of Genesis?

The Birth of Isaac – Genesis 21.1-8

          Isaac is born, named and circumcised.

The Testing of Abraham: the Binding of Isaac – Genesis 22.1-19

Isaac obediently accompanies his father to Mt Moriah and obeys even when bound and placed on the altar

Isaac Meets Rebecca – Genesis 24.62-67

After the longest single narrative in the Patriarchal tradition (of which Isaac plays no part!), Isaac meets Rebecca and takes her as his wife

Isaac Buries His  Father – Genesis 25.5-11

Abraham leaves all he has to Isaac as his heir – Issac and Ishmael bury Abraham in the family tombs at Machpelah alongside Sarah – Isaac makes his home at Beer-lahai-roi.

The Birth of Isaac’s Sons – Genesis 25.19-26

          Rebecca gives birth to twins sons of Isaac, Esau and Jacob

God Confirms to Isaac His Promises to Abraham – Genesis 26.1-6

God appears to Isaac and tells him to remain in Canaan – He confirms the covenant He made with Abraham also with Isaac – Isaac obeys God and settles in Gerar

The Deception of Abimelech – Genesis 26.7-11

As Abraham did earlier regarding Sarah, Isaac lies to Abimelech about the status of his relationship with Rebecca – the outcome is much the same (Abimelech is learning about this family!)

Isaac Prospers and Leaves Gerar – Genesis 26.12-23

Isaac grows rich and expands his holdings – Abimelech asks his to move on – God blesses him with more lands and wells – Isaac settles in Beersheba

God Assures Isaac of His Blessing and Isaac Makes a Treaty with Abimelech – Genesis 26.24-33

God recalls Abraham and the Covenant and promises to continue His blessings to Isaac – Abimelech appears and concludes a treaty with Isaac

The Deception of Isaac and the Blessing of Jacob – Genesis 27.1-45

Jacob deceives Isaac into giving him Esau’s inheritance – Isaac will not revoke his blessing after he discovers the truth

Isaac Sends Jacob to Paddam-Aram to Find a Wife – Genesis 27.46-28.9

Isaac sends Jacob to find a wife among their kinsfolk in Harran – Esau tries to win his father’s favor by marrying into Ishmael’s family

When Isaac sent Jacob to Paddam-Aram in Harram (which Abraham left to journey to Canaan at the beginning of the story), his place in the story, for all practical purposes, comes to an end. It now becomes the story of Jacob. Isaac’s death is recorded in Genesis 35.28, coming after a list of the sons of Jacob. Verse 29 says: “He died and was gathered to his father’s kin at a very great age, and his sons Esau and Jacob buried him.”


Old Testament Handout # 5

The Names of God Used in the Book of Genesis

Two Names of God dominate the Book of Genesis, Yahweh (in the KJV, “Jehovah”) and Elohim. But scattered through Genesis other Names are mentioned as well. The following list of those Names, with a meaning and brief description as to the derivation of each, may help us understand why it was used. The context of the story provides much of the insight here, but many of these Names also have a linguistic context we can’t duplicate in English; sometimes the Hebrew word is a pun only understandable when the setting of the story is combined with the grammatical structure of the phrase!

Seven different Names of God are used in Genesis. Each emphasizes some “aspect” of God, something of His character revealed in the story being told. Some are used very frequently – Elohim and Yahweh, the others much less so, with Yahweh Yireh being used only once. Other Names are used throughout the Old Testament, but many of these in our list are the most ancient.

Yahweh has a special place in this list because of all the Scriptural Names of God, this is the Name under which He revealed Himself. We might say it’s His personal Name. All the others are to some extent descriptive. Eventually, as the notes below tell, this Name came to be regarded as so sacred it could not be pronounced. That remains the case with Orthodox Jews today. When they read the Scriptures at the synagogue, the word Adonai is almost always inserted by the reader in its place.

Two of the Names, Elohim and Adonai, are always used in the plural form when speaking of God. When used as singular forms, neither refers to God but either to some underlying word (note “eloah” and “adon” below). Christians have, for many centuries, taken this as indicative of a Trinitarian undertone, particularly as Elohim is the Name used in the first account of creation, found in Genesis 1.

“El” is the generic word for God used throughout the Fertile Crescent from before the time of the Patriarchs and beyond. Elohim, El Olam, El Shaddai and El Elyon all employ this generic word but, by using it in connection with another word, turn it to specifically refer to the God they’ve encountered. In this, they followed the practice of their time and place. Sumerian, Babylonian, Assyrian and Akkadian cultures did the same, combing “El” with words from their languages as names for their gods.

The Seven Names of God in Genesis

Elohim (God, Judge, Creator) used 218 times in Genesis

Meaning and Derivation: Elohim is translated as “God.” The derivation of the Name Elohim is debated among scholars. Some believe it derived from ‘el which, in turn, comes from the root, ‘wl (which means “strong”). Others think that Elohim is derived from two roots: ‘elh (an Akkadian form of the word for “god”) taken with with ‘eloah (which means “fear”). Still others presume that both ‘el and Elohim come from ‘eloah.

Yahweh (Lord, Jehovah) used 141 times in Genesis

Meaning and Derivation: Yahweh is the personal Name of God. According to Jewish tradition, it is too holy to say aloud. The Name Yahweh (YHWH) is often referred to as the Tetragrammaton (which means “the four letters”). While Yahweh is first used in Genesis 2, God did not reveal Himself as Yahweh until the third chapter of Exodus. The modern spelling, “Yahweh,” includes vowels to assist in pronunciation, but we don’t actually know how the word was anciently pronounced. During the third century AD, the Jews stopped saying the Name for fear of violating the commandment “Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain.” As a result, Adonai is most often the verbal substitute for Yahweh.

Yahweh Yireh (the Lord Provider) used once in Genesis

Meaning and Derivation: Yahweh is translated as “The Existing One” or “Lord.” Yahweh is derived from the Hebrew word Havah meaning “to be” or “to exist.” A form of the word means “to become” and can be understood as “to become known” – denoting God who reveals Himself unceasingly. Yahweh Yireh is a symbolic name given to Mount Moriah by Abraham to recall God’s intervention in the sacrifice of Isaac by providing a substitute for his son.

El Olam (the Everlasting God) used 13 times in Genesis

Meaning and Derivation: El is another name that is translated as “God” and can be used in conjunction with other words to designate various aspects of God's character. Olam comes from the root word ‘lm, which literally means “forever,” “eternity,” or “everlasting.” The combination of the two words produces El Olam – “The Eternal God.”

El Shaddai (Lord God Almighty) used 6 times in Genesis

Meaning and Derivation: As noted in the heading above El is another name that is translated as “God” and can be used together with other words to designate various aspects of God. Another word much like Shaddai, and from which many believe it derived, is shad meaning "breast" in Hebrew (scholars believe it ultimately derives from an Akkadian word shadu, “mountain,” denoting strength and power). Thus God is referred to as nourishing, satisfying, and supplying His people with all their needs. Connected with the word El, this denotes a God who freely nourishes and blesses those under His care.

El Elyon (the Most High God) used 5 times in Genesis

Meaning and Derivation: El is another name that is translated as “God” and can be used in conjunction with other words to designate various aspects of God's character. Elyon literally means “Most High” and is used both as an adjective and a noun in Genesis and throughout the Old Testament. It expresses the extreme sovereignty and majesty of God and His highest preeminence. When the two words are combined - El Elyon - it becomes “the most exalted God.”

Adonai (Lord) used 8 times in Genesis

Meaning and Derivation: Adonai is the verbal parallel to Yahweh and Jehovah. Adonai is plural; the singular is adon. In reference to God the plural Adonai is used. When the singular adon is used, it usually refers to a human lord. Adon is used 215 times to refer to men. Occasionally in Scripture and predominantly in the Psalms, the singular adon is used to refer to God as well. As mentioned above under Yahweh, the Jews usually substituted Adonai when reading sacred texts which contained YHWH so as to avoid speaking aloud the Sacred Name. Adonai can be translated literally as, “my lords’ ” (ie., both plural and possessive forms).


Preface to Old Testament Handout # 6 A


The Story of Abraham according to the Yahwist

YHWH in the Yahwist’s Story of Abraham

Handout 6 A is a “working text” of the Yahwist’s story of Abraham. Scholars call it “J” because in German, the language in which much of the early textual work was done, “Yahwist” is “Jahvist.” As we’ve discussed, two of the three principal authors of Abraham’s story are distinguished by the word they characteristically use for God. The Yahwist uses the name Yahweh most often, though other words for God (Elohim, Adonai) are also in the stories. In the version below, every time God is referred to or addressed, I’ve indicated in parenthesis which name or word was used in the Hebrew text. In the case of Yahweh, I’ve followed the traditional English custom since the Bible was printed in our language: when the name Yahweh is used in the original, the word “Lord” is set in small capitals looking like this: Lord.  In the text of our handout, I’ve followed that with the traditional Hebrew “tetragrammaton” (“four letters”) [YHWH], to make it obvious.

The use of Yahweh is not only a distinguishing sign of the author, but he uses it as an aid to his story-telling. You’ll note that when the author writes as narrator, Yahweh is used as if it were the ordinary noun for God (the author means more by it, which we’ll go into later). When someone in the text speaks to God, or about Him, however, note the different words or combinations that are used. When Hagar, an Egyptian, speaks to God, she does not address Him as Yahweh, but “El” – the generic word for a god in every Semitic language of the day. When Abraham speaks to God, he does sometimes use the word “Yahweh,” but never by itself. He combines the Name with other added words of respect (“Yahweh Elohim,” translated as O Lord God with the added vocative) or different words altogether (Adonai, Lord or Master). There’s a fun word play in the text which it’s easy for us to overlook but just the thing which delighted Jewish readers of Hebrew. In the story of the courtship of Rebecca (Genesis 24, pp 8-10 of Handout # 6A), all the main words Genesis uses for God are frequently used together, not only in the same sentence, but in close proximity within the sentence. The speaker, presumably Abraham’s trusted servant Eliezar (Genesis 15.2), speaks to God as Yahweh, but when he does, he invariably adds Elohim Hashamayim, “the God of Heaven.” Another word used both to address God and to talk about Him is Adonai. Adonai is the plural form of adon, which means “lord” or “master.” Nowhere in the Hebrew Bible is adon ever used of God. God is only spoken of as Lord or Master using the plural – not unlike the royal “we,” sometimes called the “plural of majesty.” But in Eliezar’s descriptions – his telling and re-telling of events – he often uses Yahweh, Elohim and adon (speaking of his master Abraham) within adjoining phrases; they tumble out one after another. You can see this in the text as each of these words is printed in bold.

The use of Yahweh in Genesis distinguishes him from the other authors whose works were incorporated into the text to form our book of Genesis. The other authors never use the Name because, according to their chronologies and theologies, the Name Yahweh was unknown to the Jews till the time of Moses, to whom it was revealed (Exodus 3.14). God later tells Moses (Exodus 6.3) that, though He “appeared” to Abraham, Issac and Jacob, “by My Name YHWH I did not make myself known to them.” Nevertheless, the Yahwist uses the Name of God throughout his work beginning with his account of the creation (Genesis 2.4b).

The Theology of the Yahwist

The Yahwist’s use isn’t a chronological error, but is done purposefully, with a theological intention.

We can’t say much about the form of the “original sources” of the Yahwist’s work (folk tales, tribal stories, family histories, poetry, sermons, religious instruction, customs and traditions) but we can say he wrote with an intention which guided all his work. From the myriad of sources at hand, the Yahwist chose those which would enable him to tell the story – the religious story – he was impelled to write. For him, it was a story that began at creation and ended with the conquest of Canaan by the descendants of the twelve sons of Israel (Jacob). His story had one over-riding theme: God’s promises are fulfilled. The first part of Genesis, chapters 1-11, are the background to his story, but a necessary prelude to the latter part of the book. He tells of the creation and sin of man, sin which begins with Adam and continues until, with frustration, God destroys most of humanity in the Flood, saving only the righteous Noah and his family. He makes a promise to His creation, that never again will He destroy it. From Noah’s sons, however, spring the peoples who, in their hubris, try to build a tower to raise themselves to God. Again, in frustration God turns to another man, Abraham, with whom He makes a covenant and binds Himself with its promises. The rest of the Yahwist’s tale, through the book of Judges, is the story of the fulfilling of the three promises He made to Abraham.

God’s three covenants (with Noah, Abraham and Moses) are at the heart of the Yahwist’s theology. None of them are abrogated; each deepens and cements the one preceding.

The Yahwist doesn’t write theological treatises. He reveals Who God is, not through dogmatic discourse (not that there’s anything wrong with that!) but through stories about men and women. We discern God in His interactions with people (He walks and talks with Adam in the Garden, He and His companions have lunch with Abraham, He hears Hagar’s cries of despair and rescues her), in the daily activities their lives (Abraham’s duplicity with pharaoh, his generosities with Lot, his purchase of a burial site for his family) and in the larger sweep of history (the disintegration of the Akkadian Empire opens Abram to God’s call to leave his home and a famine in Canaan moves the sons of Jacob to Egypt).

The scope of the Yahwist’s vision influences the later writings that will become the Book of Genesis –and the people who actually do the editing and compilation, the scribes in Babylon. While each other author or editor will tweak the Yahwist’s work or look to refine it, his vision of God and His dealings with men is remains from his day to ours, the story of Genesis.

Characteristics of the Yahwist’s Work

Besides the continual reference to God as Yahweh, there are other distinctive words and phrases the Yahwist uses which distinguish him from the other authors of Genesis (and the rest of the Torah). These include the name of the mountain where Moses receives the Ten Commandments; the Yahwist calls it Sinai, the others, Horeb; the Yahwist names Jacob, the son of Isaac, “Jacob,” the others name him “Israel”; and in the Yahwist’s dictionary, the “aboriginal” inhabitants of Canaan are called Canaanites, while the other authors call them “Amorrhites.” While not all the differences in terminology are theologically motivated, some are. As we look into the different “authors” of Genesis, we’ll come to see their distinctive approaches and how these all come together to form the canonical book of Genesis.

The Yahwist stands distinct more than in his choice of one word over another. His writing style is vivid and witty, and he relishes a good story. He took the old tales of the Hebrew peoples and breathed new life into their heroes and villains. Other writers of Abraham’s story pass along information (Gen 14, for example) and advance the “story-line,” but few ever rise to the Yahwist’s insights into the lives of the protagonists. Think of Abraham, unhappily caught up in the quarrel between Sarai and Hagar, or the thoughtless Esau duped into betraying his future for a bowl of soup.

 It’s not the in Yahwist’s vocabulary or writing style that his greatest distinction is found, but in his vision. As I mentioned above, the theological scope of the Yahwist will forever influence our understanding of and belief in God.  While theirs is much else to be said (and a great deal more I lack the insight to point out), I do want to touch on two things which are noteworthy in the Yahwist’s writing. 

First, essential to the Yahwist’s tale in Genesis, as a book of promises, is the necessity for Abraham, Isaac and Jacob to produce a male heir. The story is first complicated by the barrenness of each of their wives, but even moreso because each of their wives is a distinct person, with her own background, fears and desires. Unlike many women in the Old Testament, the women in the Yahwist’s narrative are honest-to-God, breathing human beings. Their personalities impact the story.

Second, and a bit more complex, the Yahwist has a catholicity of vision which allows him to tell stories without condemning people of the past for violations of standards or rules of the present. Writing at a time when the first Hebrew kings were actively suppressing dissident religious views that didn’t support the centrality of Jewish worship in the city of David or the temple of Solomon, he writes about God speaking to the patriarchs, revealing Himself in their daily lives. The Priestly author (called “P” by scholars) will try to “fix” this later (and will be successful to a great degree), but the Yahwist’s vision will not only persist, it will be resurrected in Babylon, when the Jews are in despair about a God Who seems to have abandoned them.

Date and Place of the Yahwist’s Work

The general consensus among scholars puts the Yahwist’s composition at about 950BC, during the reign of either King David or his son, Solomon. For a variety of reasons, from the centralization of government in Jerusalem under Solomon to differing regional linguistic uses in the Hebrew of ancient Israel, the Yahwist has been placed in southern Israel, around Jerusalem (in what will be the kingdom of Judah after Solomon’s kingdom falls apart shortly after his death). That being said, consensus doesn’t mean unanimity. There are some scholars of repute who date the work of the Yahwist considerably later, even to placing the composition in Babylon during the Captivity (586 BC or later), but such a late date answers few problems and raises many more.

If 950 BC is a reasonably accurate date for the Yahwist’s composition (archaeologists date the beginning of written Hebrew at about 1000 BC – before that the Jews adapted a pictographic script used by the Canaanites), it’s the earliest of the works that were later formed into the book of Genesis. But much of the material it describes or details is much earlier. If Abraham lived about 1750 BC (as is widely believed), linguists, archaeologists and historians agree that the Yahwist’s text accurately depicts a time much earlier than when he wrote. As a single example, Abram’s statement to the pharaoh in Egypt that Sarai was his sister, something which the Yahwist records without comment, it turns out is most certainly true, at least in a legal sense. In the Akkadian world (long vanished by the Yahwist’s time) of Abram, the universal custom in Akkad was for men of substance to formally adopt their wives as sisters before the consummation of the marriage. This was done, among other reasons, to preserve property rights and genealogical lines. The custom died with the final fading of Akkadian culture, within a few generations of Abram’s journey to Canaan. Many traces of the Akkadian language and customs are reflected in the Yahwist’s work which would have been foreign to the Yahwist’s own experience. These details, together with the stories of Abraham which make up his work, show how faithfully the Yahwist’s account reflects materials 800 years before he wrote. The oral traditions he drew on for his composition were amazingly accurate.

What about the Missing Stuff?

In the Yahwist’s tale of Abraham, there are things we don’t find in the book of Genesis. Most obvious is the story of the “Binding of Issac,” as the rabbis came to call the potential sacrifice of Abraham’s son. Abraham’s death isn’t mentioned by the Yahwist, and we could list several other stories and a batch of details, too. This is the Yahwist’s tale and he chose what he wanted – and didn’t want – to include in it. He had a story to tell and it’s wonderful that we can still read it today.

That being said, as great as the Yahwist’s contributions to the book of Genesis are, they are not the canonical book. The other authors, the later compilers and editors that brought Genesis to its final form are essential to telling the story of the beginning of God’s dealing with men. In Handout # 6 B, we’ll study the Elhoist’s (“E”) contributions to the story of Abraham.


Preface 1 to Old Testament Handout # 6 B

The Story of Abraham according to the Elohist

 Elohim in the Elohist’s Story of Abraham

This is a preface Handout # 6 B, the handout being a “working text” of the Elohist’s account of the story of Abraham. As one of the easy-to-distinguish marks of the Yahwist’s story is his use of YHWH when referring to God, in a similar way the Elohist pointed avoids using God’s Name and instead uses differing forms of the generic word for God common among Semitic peoples of the Fertile Crescent, “EL.” The form the Elohist uses most often is Elohim. This is a plural form of El, used not to imply multiple gods, but as the “plural of majesty.” The Yahwist used YHWH throughout his narrative, before the episode in the book of Exodus when God reveals His Name YHWH to Moses, because the Yahwist is making a theological point  - YHWH is the Creator in early Genesis (chapter 2), the one who makes a covenant with Abraham, Who  leads the people by Moses and fulfills His promise of delivering Canaan to Abraham’s descendants. The Elohist avoids the use of YHWH for theological reasons as well, although obviously different ones. The Elohist sees God’s relationship with Israel as a progressive series of deepening steps, from the generic El of Semites to the specific God, YHWH, of the Jews. The Yahwist stresses God’s universality, the Elohist emphasizes His particular relationship to the Jews.

The Text and Structure of the Elohist’s Work

We’ve noted that the Yahwist is the most prolific of the authors of the book of Genesis (he is much less that in the succeeding books of the Pentateuch). The place of the Elohist in Genesis, and particularly in the story of Abraham, is significantly smaller, as Handout B shows, when compared with 6 A.

It’s also obvious, looking at where the text begins, that the text of Elohist’s work is fragmentary and incomplete.  The Elohist’s text seems to begin in the middle of a conversation between God and Abraham (Genesis 15. 3a & 5), which concludes with verses 13-15 of the same chapter. Note the odd junction of the promise of an heir (v 5) with the “prophecy” of the Egyptian captivity and exodus. It’s not accidental on the Elohist’s part.

The Elohist’s account adds five episodes to the story of Abraham as outlined by the Yahwist: the above-mentioned promise and prophecy; the unsavory story of Abraham, Sarah and the upright Abimelech; the banishment and rescue of Hagar and her son; the covenant at Beersheba between Abraham and Abimelech; and the story of the “Binding of Isaac.”

There are two obvious intrusions, probably the work of either scribal “correctors” or later redactors that have produced some consternation to scholars for centuries. The first is in the middle of page 2 of your handout. You see that verse 18 is bracketed. In that verse the Name YHWH is used, in violation of the Elohist’s practice. Read this story (of Abimelech’s deception) and consider the relationship of verses 17b & 18 to the rest of the text. Does it fit? Does it raised any questions in your mind?

The second intrusion of YHWH into the Elohist’s text is the entire text on page 5 of your handout, Genesis 22.15-19. This is even more interesting than the previous insertion, because it seems to be the conclusion of the “Binding” story, of which the Yahwist has no account. Read the story of the “binding of Isaac” (page 4 of your handout) but when you come to page 5, read only the last verse, 19. Does the account seem complete without verses15-18? 

Both these intrusions show us some of the intriguing puzzles facing textual scholars. As we look at the Elohist’s stories of Abraham, what do we make of them? They would seem to be only part of a larger, somehow missing, version. The first bit, particularly, is obviously a fragment. Some scholars believe that the Elohist’s accounts of previous stories has been lost. Others think the Elohist simply picked up the Yahwist’s text (which was certainly written at least 100-200 years before) and added to it, filling in the blanks, as it were. Still others attribute these textual conundrums to the 6th-5th century BC redactors who, they suggest, not only formed a single book of these various accounts but “harmonized” it. Any of these hypotheses, none of them, of a combination may be correct. What do you think?


Old Testament Handout # 6 B

The Story of Abraham according to the Elhoist


And Abram said, “Behold, you have given me no offspring.” And he brought him outside and said, “Look toward heaven, and number the stars, if you are able to number them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your offspring be.” (Gen 15.3a, 5)

The Lord (Elohim) said to Abram, “Know for certain that your offspring will be sojourners in a land that is not theirs and will be servants there, and they will be afflicted for four hundred years. But I will bring judgment on the nation that they serve, and afterward they shall come out with great possessions. As for you, you shall go to your fathers in peace; you shall be buried in a good old age. And they shall come back here in the fourth generation, for the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet complete.” (Gen 15.13-16)

He sojourned in Gerar. And Abraham said of Sarah his wife, “She is my sister.” And Abimelech king of Gerar sent and took Sarah. But God (Elohim) came to Abimelech in a dream by night and said to him, “Behold, you are a dead man because of the woman whom you have taken, for she is a man’s wife.” Now Abimelech had not approached her. So he said, “Lord, will you kill an innocent people? Did he not himself say to me, ‘She is my sister’? And she herself said, ‘He is my brother.’ In the integrity of my heart and the innocence of my hands I have done this.” Then God (Elohim) said to him in the dream, “Yes, I know that you have done this in the integrity of your heart, and it was I who kept you from sinning against me. Therefore I did not let you touch her. Now then, return the man’s wife, for he is a prophet, so that he will pray for you, and you shall live. But if you do not return her, know that you shall surely die, you and all who are yours.” (Gen 20.1b-7)

So Abimelech rose early in the morning and called all his servants and told them all these things. And the men were very much afraid. Then Abimelech called Abraham and said to him, “What have you done to us? And how have I sinned against you, that you have brought on me and my kingdom a great sin? You have done to me things that ought not to be done.” And Abimelech said to Abraham, “What did you see, that you did this thing?” Abraham said, “I did it because I thought, ‘There is no fear of God at all in this place, and they will kill me because of my wife.’ Besides, she is indeed my sister, the daughter of my father though not the daughter of my mother, and she became my wife. And when God caused me to wander from my father’s house, I said to her, ‘This is the kindness you must do me: at every place to which we come, say of me, “He is my brother.”’”

Then Abimelech took sheep and oxen, and male servants and female servants, and gave them to Abraham, and returned Sarah his wife to him. And Abimelech said, “Behold, my land is before you; dwell where it pleases you.” To Sarah he said, “Behold, I have given your brother a thousand pieces of silver. It is a sign of your innocence in the eyes of all who are with you, and before everyone you are vindicated.” Then Abraham prayed to God, and God healed Abimelech, and also healed his wife and female slaves so that they bore children. [For the Lord (YHWH) had closed all the wombs of the house of Abimelech because of Sarah, Abraham’s wife.] (Gen 20.8-17; [18])

And Sarah said, “God (Elohim) has made laughter for me; everyone who hears will laugh over me.” And the child grew and was weaned. And Abraham made a great feast on the day that Isaac was weaned. But Sarah saw the son of Hagar the Egyptian, whom she had borne to Abraham, laughing. So she said to Abraham, “Cast out this slave woman with her son, for the son of this slave woman shall not be heir with my son Isaac.” And the thing was very displeasing to Abraham on account of his son. But God (Elohim) said to Abraham, “Be not displeased because of the boy and because of your slave woman. Whatever Sarah says to you, do as she tells you, for through Isaac shall your offspring be named. And I will make a nation of the son of the slave woman also, because he is your offspring.” So Abraham rose early in the morning and took bread and a skin of water and gave it to Hagar, putting it on her shoulder, along with the child, and sent her away. And she departed and wandered in the wilderness of Beersheba. (Gen 21.8-14)

When the water in the skin was gone, she put the child under one of the bushes. Then she went and sat down opposite him a good way off, about the distance of a bowshot, for she said, “Let me not look on the death of the child.” And as she sat opposite him, she lifted up her voice and wept. And God (Elohim) heard the voice of the boy, and the angel of God (Elohim) called to Hagar from heaven and said to her, “What troubles you, Hagar? Fear not, for God (Elohim) has heard the voice of the boy where he is. Up! Lift up the boy, and hold him fast with your hand, for I will make him into a great nation.” Then God (Elohim) opened her eyes, and she saw a well of water. And she went and filled the skin with water and gave the boy a drink. And God (Elohim) was with the boy, and he grew up. He lived in the wilderness and became an expert with the bow. He lived in the wilderness of Paran, and his mother took a wife for him from the land of Egypt. (Gen 21.9-21)

At that time Abimelech and Phicol the commander of his army said to Abraham, “God (Elohim) is with you in all that you do. Now therefore swear to me here by God (Elohim) that you will not deal falsely with me or with my descendants or with my posterity, but as I have dealt kindly with you, so you will deal with me and with the land where you have sojourned.” And Abraham said, “I will swear.” (Gen 21. 22-24)

When Abraham reproved Abimelech about a well of water that Abimelech’s servants had seized, Abimelech said, “I do not know who has done this thing; you did not tell me, and I have not heard of it until today.” So Abraham took sheep and oxen and gave them to Abimelech, and the two men made a covenant. Abraham set seven ewe lambs of the flock apart. And Abimelech said to Abraham, “What is the meaning of these seven ewe lambs that you have set apart?” He said, “These seven ewe lambs you will take from my hand, that this may be a witness for me that I dug this well.” Therefore that place was called Beersheba, because there both of them swore an oath. So they made a covenant at Beersheba. Then Abimelech and Phicol the commander of his army rose up and returned to the land of the Philistines. Abraham planted a tamarisk tree in Beersheba and called there on the name of the Lord, the Everlasting God (El-Olam). And Abraham sojourned many days in the land of the Philistines. (Gen 21. 25-34)

After these things God (Elohim) tested Abraham and said to him, “Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.” He said, “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains of which I shall tell you.” So Abraham rose early in the morning, saddled his donkey, and took two of his young men with him, and his son Isaac. And he cut the wood for the burnt offering and arose and went to the place of which God (Elohim) had told him. On the third day Abraham lifted up his eyes and saw the place from afar. Then Abraham said to his young men, “Stay here with the donkey; I and the boy will go over there and worship and come again to you.” And Abraham took the wood of the burnt offering and laid it on Isaac his son. And he took in his hand the fire and the knife. So they went both of them together. And Isaac said to his father Abraham, “My father!” And he said, “Here I am, my son.” He said, “Behold, the fire and the wood, but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?” Abraham said, “God (Elohim) will provide for himself the lamb for a burnt offering, my son.” So they went both of them together. (Gen 22.1-8)

When they came to the place of which God (Elohim) had told him, Abraham built the altar there and laid the wood in order and bound Isaac his son and laid him on the altar, on top of the wood. Then Abraham reached out his hand and took the knife to slaughter his son. But the angel of the Lord called to him from heaven and said, “Abraham, Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.” He said, “Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him, for now I know that you fear God (Elohim), seeing you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me.” And Abraham lifted up his eyes and looked, and behold, behind him was a ram, caught in a thicket by his horns. And Abraham went and took the ram and offered it up as a burnt offering instead of his son. So Abraham called the name of that place, “The [Lord (YHWH)] will provide”; as it is said to this day, “On the mount of the [Lord (YHWH)] it shall be provided.” (Gen 22.9-14)

[And the angel of the [Lord (YHWH)] called to Abraham a second time from heaven and said, “By myself I have sworn, declares the [Lord (YHWH)], because you have done this and have not withheld your son, your only son, I will surely bless you, and I will surely multiply your offspring as the stars of heaven and as the sand that is on the seashore. And your offspring shall possess the gate of his enemies, and in your offspring shall all the nations of the earth be blessed, because you have obeyed my voice.” So Abraham returned to his young men, and they arose and went together to Beersheba. And Abraham lived at Beersheba.] (Gen 22.15-19)

Old Testament Handout #7


The Levels of Scriptural Interpretation

In 587 BC, the Babylonian King, Nebuchadnezzar II, laid siege to and captured Jerusalem. The temple, built more than 400 years earlier by King Solomon, was destroyed. It was the custom of the Babylonians (and other kingdoms and empires of the time) to bring the upper classes, skilled artisans and leading intellectuals of conquered peoples to their capital and resettle them there. Two things generally resulted: fresh talent came into the service of the victorious king and those cultural and civic leaders who might be likely to foment rebellions were kept under a close, watchful eye. After the fall of Jerusalem, Nebuchadnezzar ordered the deportation of the king of Judah, his family and many of Jerusalem’s leading citizens to Babylon. Over the following 20 years, three waves of Jews were deported to Babylon. Jeremiah the Prophet, who was a witness to the cataclysmic events, writes that about 4,600 men were “carried away” to Babylon. When their families are included in the number, an estimated 15,000 people, from the higher echelons of Jewish society, went into exile.

The Babylonians set up a puppet government in Judah, and, after an attempt to overthrew it failed, several hundred Jewish families involved in the plot fled the country and made a new home for themselves in Egypt.

Though the fall of Jerusalem and the destruction of the remnants of the Davidic kingdom were tragedies, these two groups of Jews living in exile were responsible for the formation of the Old Testament as we know it.

Babylon had for centuries been the intellectual center of the Fertile Crescent. The Jewish religious and intellectual leaders who found themselves exiled there were both challenged and stimulated by the many communities of other exiles they found there, as well as the richer intellectual climate of the great city.

Without the Temple, the Jews in Babylon had to find other ways to preserve and practice their religion. The religious and historical books they brought with them became the focus of their faith and practice. Over time they developed the notion that these books were in some sense sacred texts; they found in them an indispensible tool with which they could maintain their Jewish identity and faith (the idea of a “canon” or seeing the books as the Voice of God in written form would still take another four hundred years to crystallize, but these notions began to take root in Babylon). Likewise the synagogue, which people for twenty centuries have regarded as essential to the practice of Judaism, was invented in Babylon.

After an exile of about three generations, Cyrus the Great conquered the Babylonians and granted permission for the Jews in captivity to return home. The story of the returnees is told in the Biblical books of Ezra and Nehemiah. While many Jews did return over the next 20 years or so, many more chose instead to remain in Babylon, as did the Jews whose ancestors had fled to Egypt.

The scribes (soferim in Hebrew; sofer is singular, the –im ending in Hebrew indicates the plural form; cf cherub & cherubim) were originally civil and religious functionaries, originating in the time of King David (1000 BC). While we might think of a scribe as someone bent over an ancient text, copying it by hand, the soferim were originally something much more like government archivists. The religious scribes were Levites, from priestly families, charged with keeping records, genealogies, etc, as well as serving the king as consultants on religious matters. At the time of the Babylonian Exile, these religious scribes were responsible for the preservation and interpretation of the texts which were to become, under their guidance, the Sacred Scriptures. As the exiles began returning from Babylon (520 BC), Ezra the Scribe took a leading role in re-establishing the practice of religion among the Jews in Palestine. Over the next several centuries, the scribes, as the interpreters and “teachers of the Law,” developed into the rabbis. This transition was well under way by the time of Christ. After the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans in AD 70, there is no further mention in Jewish literature of the position of “sofer” as a teacher; a “sofer” is now a copyist. The teacher is now exclusively called “rabbi,” and is the recognized interpreter of the Law and Scriptures.

What follows is an outline of the Jewish approach to Scriptural interpretation with principles that go back to Babylon and Alexandria, 300-200 years before the birth of Christ. One of the greatest expositors of the Torah was Julius Philo Judaeus (c 30 BC-AD 40), a descendant of one of the Jewish families who fled to Egypt to escape Nebuchadnezzar’s wrath four hundred years earlier.

Alexandria, where Philo was born and lived, had been the center of education in the Greek and Roman world. All sorts of schools (literary, historical, philosophical, medical and legal) collected around the great Library there. Alexandria, in Philo’s day, had the largest Jewish population in the Roman Empire outside Palestine itself. Philo came from a wealthy and well-connected family there. His father was a friend of Julius Caesar and, when Caesar was in Egypt, Caesar gave him and his direct male heirs the rights of Roman citizenship (Philo’s first name – Julius – is a result of the friendship of the two men). His family also had close ties with Herod, the Roman’s puppet king of Judea.

Philo’s education and resulting close connections with the academic community of Alexandria made him painfully aware of the intellectual disregard in which Jewish religion was held. The great work of his life was to attempt to change that perception – by uniting the precepts of Hellenistic philosophy (Platonism, Aristotelianism and Roman Stoicism) with the doctrines of Judaism. This meant interpreting the Jewish scriptures in a non-literal way, principally through the use of an allegorical method of interpretation so popular among the academic and intellectual elites at the time. He came to believe that the literal meaning of the text got in the way of the true and eternal meaning, so he devoted much of his adult life to writing allegorical commentaries on the Torah, the first five books of the Old Testament.

While Philo’s distain for the literal text was never shared by the great majority of Jewish scholars, his notion of allegorizing the text, finding in it more than one meaning, was already a part of the Jewish tradition of interpretation. Over the next few centuries, the rabbis crystallized the different approaches to the Scriptures into the system of four “levels” of interpretation outlined below. Our Lord Himself would have heard and known much of what follows in His own day.

According to the  Rabbis, Scripture had four “levels” of interpretation. These were distinguished, each by a single descriptive word which served as a simple definition. These are (in Hebrew): P’shat, meaning “plain,” Remez, meaning “hint,” D’rash, meaning “search,” and Sud, meaning “mystery.” These were formed into an acronym PRDS, and when “pronunciation vowels” are added, it forms the Hebrew word PARDES. Pardes means “garden,” “orchard” or “paradise.” Rabbis said (still say) the study of PaRDeS “took one to the boundaries of the Garden” (of Eden).

Each of these succeeding levels is “deeper,” “more intense” in the meaning it conveys from its predecessor. The rabbis compared these exegetical levels to “peeling back the layers of an onion.”

The first level of interpretation is P’shat (pronounced peh-shaht’), the text’s literal, plain or “simple” meaning. The level seeks to interpret scripture in its natural, normal sense using the customary meanings of the words, and reading the text in relation to its larger setting. The p’shat takes into account that some texts may use literary forms – poetry, figurative language, metaphors or similes – that need to be recognized and understood as such. Again, it is part of rabbinic tradition that “the p'shat is the keystone of understanding torah.” The famous Rabbi Kahana is quoted in the Talmud as saying “no passage can lose its p’shat. It cannot depart from its plain meaning.”

The next “level” is Remez (pronounced reh-mez'), a hint, suggestion or nudge, pointing to an implied or deeper meaning in the text than may seem immediately obvious. To search for the remez is to look for the allegorical meaning in the text. Since every text is held to have meaning at each of the “levels,” there IS an allegorical meaning underneath the p’shat. If there is none obvious, one should consult related or traditionally associated texts, look for philological or grammatical similarities with key words, or compare the text with others that contain similar ideas to find the unseen connections that DO exist.

The third “level is D’rash (pronounced deh-rahsh'), to seek or search out the meaning of the text. But the d’rash is actually a two-fold process, first  combining the p’shat with the remez, bringing the two “levels” of meaning together and to find the “practical meaning” of the text. The d’rash is thus the “application of the text” (in both its plain and allegorical meanings) to people’s lives. D’rash is described as “uncovering the text’s moral meaning.” Remez required the interpreter to search out the allegorical meaning of the text; d’rash required him to engage in eisegesis – using his imagination to find hidden meanings in the text. Custom allowed him, in “uncovering” the hidden meanings, to link two seemingly unrelated texts to discover a meaning not found in either. D’rash was the principal method used by Jewish preachers to explain the practical meaning of any reading heard during synagogue services. It was the content of the preacher’s sermon.

Finally, the four and highest “level” of interpretation is Sud (pronounced sood, like “wood”), which means “mystery.” This is the hidden, secret or mystic meaning of a text. Finding this meaning involves, among other things, breaking the text in question into its individual words and each word into letters. In the process the interpreter will look for other words using the same letters to help him find hidden or mysterious connections between them (we say “anagrams” but the Jews didn’t have a single word for this). Thus, we take a text. Since I thought to use the word “name” for our little exercise, I’ve looked up a random verse from Genesis using the word. Genesis 17.5 is “No longer shall your name be called Abram, but your name shall be Abraham, for I have made you the father of a multitude of nations.” Now, taking the word “name” we can form at least three other words from it: amen, mane, mean (those are the only ones I can think of). Next, we look at the four words and try to find (or concoct) some link between these words. This will allow us to discover the mystery hidden in the text. We’ll play with this a bit in class.

You know that before the adoption of Arabic numerals, the letters of ancient languages had numerical equivalents. In Roman numerals, for example, I=1, II=2, III=3, IV=4, V=5, X=10, L=50, C=100, D=500, M=1000, etc. The same is true for Babylonian, Greek, Hebrew and every other written language of the Fertile Crescent. In a practice called gematria, similar in concept and practice to our modest anagram exercise, the rabbis broke sentences, words and letters into their numerical equivalents, added or subtracted them, recombined the new numbers into letters, words or sentences to find (or imagine) new meanings. My ignorance of Hebrew forbids me from attempting anything like this, but the Book of Daniel, with its complex association of numbers of days and weeks and years having hidden meanings is a symbolic use of gematria. In the Greek text of the Book of Revelation, the number of the Beast, 666, is classic gematria used with Greek letters/numbers (if you add up the “numbers” of NERO CAESAR, they come to 666).

Origen, the head of the great Christian Academy in Alexandria, was one of the great scriptural scholars of the early Church (he died in 253). Fluent in Hebrew, he studied the Old Testament both in its Greek and Hebrew versions. He was profoundly influenced by Philo’s writings, though for Origen, as for the Jewish rabbis, the literal meaning of the text was not to be disregarded (though, like Philo, he allegorized Old Testament texts he found crude or “unworthy of God” to the point of negating the literal meaning. Origen taught that the highest and truest meaning of Scripture, particularly the Old Testament, could only be discovered through allegory. This became so entrenched in Alexandria that to this day, many Coptic Orthodox biblical scholars defend Origen’s use of allegory, if not all his conclusions, and regard it as necessary to a full understanding of Scripture. Origen, who studied with some of the most renowned Alexandrian rabbis of his day, adopted the principles of p’shat and remez (leaving the third and fourth levels aside) in his work.

Why does this matter? Because the texts we’re reading, beginning with Genesis, were given final form by men who were operating with these principles of exegesis. They looked at the Scriptures through the prism of these “rules.” If we understand their assumptions and methods, the texts we have received which form the “canon” (the Greek word for “measuring stick”), the Sacred Scripture of the Church, we can appreciate the immense complexity that undergirds the Bible. Wonderfully, this complex Book speaks directly to the simplest of hearers in a way that no scholarship can obscure. But those who look into the depths of Scripture discover meanings the rabbis felt compelled to search out.


Fr Wilcox's OT Class Notes