This talk is by Catherine Upchurch.

How did you come to know the stories of Genesis?  Lends itself to visual depiction.

A compilation of stories: murder, adultery, love stories, floods, wars, etc.  Capture a life of a people who have encountered the divine.  Transformative, not just informative.

“Telling stories doesn’t make sense out of everything that happens – it puts us in touch with grace.”  Jerre Roberts

They introduce us to the God of creation whose word has the power to transform chaos into order and sin into redemption.   Even when we are at our worst – God can find us and redeem us.  God’s will gets accomplished through very flawed people – like us.

GRACE:  An encounter with the divine, that has the power to orient us toward the kingdom of God.

“Genesis” – “origin” or “beginning”

  1. Origins of creation
  2. Origins of a people in covenant with God

These stories were never intended to be read as historical, or biographical, or scientific treatises.

THE crucial event of the people of Israel was the exodus from Egypt and the covenant made at Sinai.  All else is seen through this lens.

We do believe that the biblical tradition is inspired by God.  What does that mean?  Not in a trance, not by dictation of words.   God used the human authors while being respectful of their humanity.,

The Scriptures, written under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, have God as their author, and have been handed on as such to the Church herself.   To compose the sacred books, God chose certain men who, all the while he employed them in this task, made full use of their powers and faculties so that, though he acted in them and by them, it was as true authors that they consigned to writing whatever God wanted written, and no more.   Dei Verbum paragraph 11.

(the above would also be true with regard to the story-telling phase, the later writing down, the editing and selecting of the books processes.  And in our reading and discussing and teaching as a church community.)

The words of God, expressed in human words, are in every way like human language, just as the Word of the eternal Father, when he took on himself the weak flesh of human beings, became like them.  Dei Verbum paragraph 13.

The bible was written by humans in a particular (and changing) time and place, subject to the historical circumstances and languages that surrounded them.  Therefore their work is subject to all of the limitations imposed by them.  And yet, AT THE SAME TIME, the source of truth is God.

The deeper truth of Genesis 1 to 11 is that God created the universe with a plan, an order, out of love.  These chapters are not a textbook of science and were NEVER read that way until biblical fundamentalism emerged in the late 1800’s in the U. S.

Genesis 12 – 50:

  • the tribal history of Israel’s ancestors
    • 12 – 36 covers the earliest ancestors
    • 37 – 50 Jacob / Israel and his sons

There is an historical underpinning to these stories BUT identifying it is slippery.

The context of these stories will be very important for understanding.

Attention must be paid to literary forms, for the fact is that truth is differently presented and expressed in various types of writing.  Dei Verbum paragraph 12.

Approach the text with faith and reason as well as our imaginations to encounter our God through the events and people in the stories.  God is speaking to us today through them.

Ask this question as you read and ponder: “Why did the author include this story?”

How did Genesis get written?

  • Not on the spot dictation
  • First in oral form, not connected as one narrative
  • Came together (orally) as the history of the people in ancient times
  • As critical biblical study emerged in 1800’s – different strands within the Torah began to stand out.  Use of particular words for God, experiences clearly part of a later time etc.

Pentateuch: the first five books of the bible, the Books of Moses, aka “the Law” or “TORAH”.  Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy.

See Sr. Joan Cook section of the Introduction to the commentary: Documentary Hypothesis.  Not important to fixate on which strand: Yahwhist, Elohist, Priestly or Deuteronomist.  Except to understand apparent contradictions or second telling of the same story.

Marcion, second century bishop, argued against any Christian need for the Old Testament.  Rejected by church.

“Genesis is the prelude to the spiritual and political history of Israel, and as such it is also part of our history, since we remain in historical and spiritual continuity with Israel.”  Michael Maher.




Chapters 1-11 stand somewhat apart from the remainder of Genesis.  They are “pre-historical”, “in the beginning”.   Stories of creation, idyllic time, sin, exile, and the origins of nations.  These are the origin myths of the people from whom our faith and understanding of “why things are the way they are” are derived.  They are “myths” in the very best sense of the term.





Genesis 12-50 shares the “stories of the patriarchs”.  These chapters are also mythic in nature.  Rather than telling the story of the world, they are focused on the origins of the particular people of Israel and their interaction with the nations around them.






Westermann G 1-11 p. 3: “The origin of the world and of humankind is presented in such a way that a succession of generations stretches from creation to Abraham.  A series of happenings is set into these genealogies, sometimes being merely mentioned, sometimes being narrated in detail.  The genealogies trace the long succession of centuries from Adam to Abraham as well as the gradual expansion over the surface of the earth.  They move from the first human pair to the furthest boundaries of the inhabited world as it was known at the time.”

Westermann G 1-11 p. 1: The debates about the origins of the universe now take place in the realm of science.  BUT “The Christian Churches throughout the world continue in their formal worship to acknowledge their belief in God, the creator of heaven and earth, and every attempt to detach faith in the creator from faith in Christ has miscarried.”

Westermann G 1-11 p. 1: “The Christian faith does not take its stand on an event at the beginning, but on an event in the “middle of the time”; but because it looks to the whole, it must speak of the beginning.  If Jesus Christ came as the savior of all humanity, then his coming in “the middle of time” must have something to do with the beginning.  The Pauline and Johannine theologies alike are at pains to relate the event “in the middle” with the event at the beginning.”




Westermann G 1-11 p. 2: “A pre-Christian tradition (the Old Testament) penetrates the Christian confession of faith in God the creator; traditions which preceded Israel and from outside Israel penetrate what Israel has to say about God the creator, the LORD, the God of Israel.”

Westermann G 1-11 p. 6: Creation stories mix closely with the flood story, both in Israel and other cultures.  The creation story also is strongly connected to the story of the Exodus from Egypt (Israel’s mid-point of history as Jesus is for Christians).

Westermann G 1-11 p. 20: our Genesis creation stories have much in common with those of other cultures far and wide.  No need to be defensive – it helps us to relate to these other faiths and their truth as they know it.

Fox p. 3: “On its most obvious level Genesis is a book about origins.  It seeks to link the origin of the people of Israel with that of the world, relating in the process how various human characteristics and institutions arose. …   Genesis, however, is different (from other cultures) in that, like the rest of the Torah, it downplays the heroic element of the people’s origins and in its place stresses God’s role in them.”

Fox p. 3, 4:  Seven themes in the book of Genesis:

  1. Origins – world, humanity, peoples, Israel
  2. Order – creation, morality  – genealogies, times, numerical patterns, etc.
  3. Blessing   –   (what Catholics would call grace)
  4. Covenant – God makes legal agreements with humanity
  5. God punishes / will punish evil-doers – seeks justice for all
  6. Sibling conflict – the younger often chosen over the older.  God rules – not us or our preferences.
  7. Testing –  God tests those who are to carry out God’s mission

The narratives within the larger narrative of Genesis are full of contradictions, tension, moral quandary, violence and more.

Fox p. 9: “It appears that the Mesopotamian origins of Israel are reflected in such narratives as the Creation, the Flood, and the Tower of Babel, and are transformed or repudiated in the biblical versions.  What in the older culture appears arbitrary and chaotic has been changed in the Bible into stories that stress morality and order.  Furthermore, human beings in Genesis Chapters 1-11, despite their failure to live up to god’s expectations, are nevertheless considered capable of doing so, in contrast to the Mesopotamian view that humankind was created merely to be slaves to the gods.”


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