The Bible Educator

Edited by the Rev. E. H. Plumptree, M.A.,

The Pentateuch.


By The Very Rev. E. Payne Smith, D.D., Dean of Canterbury.


THE first book of the Pentateuch, called in Hebrew Bereshith (In the beginning), and in Greek Genesis (Generation), is occupied with events anterior to the time of Moses, and relating in part only to the Mosaic institutions. But without some such introduction, not merely would those institutions have been in great measure unintelligible, but they would have concerned one small nation only, which never possessed any largo political influence, and have been destitute of all general interest. It is the Book of Genesis which connects them with the fortunes of the whole world; which draws aside the curtain from the obscure beginnings of mankind, discloses to us the main facts of his early History, and shows what was the relation which the Jew held to the Gentile, and in what way the destinies of all nations were affected by the position of that people, which it was the business of Moses to form.

If, then, the rest of the Old Testament is Jewish, the Book of Genesis is wide as the whole world; and the Gospel, in revealing a way of salvation open to all languages, and nations, and tongues, was but reverting to the old ground taken up at the beginning; while the Jewish polity and law was the connecting link between the two, and was called into existence, not for its own sake, but as the means for carrying out a purpose as universal as creation itself (Rom. viii. 19 - 23).

The narratives, then, of the Book of Genesis are of universal interest. They give us the creation and purpose of the world, the fortunes of its earliest inhabitants, the upgrowth of primeval nations, the original settlement of mankind, and the gradual formation of one special nation called to play a unique part in human history. Whence did Moses obtain these narratives? How did he become possessed of this extraordinary knowledge?

Now the current idea that he received the contents of the Book of Genesis by special revelation is at variance with everything in the book itself. Upon the very face of it. Genesis is a compilation, and is stated so to be. Besides the account of creation, there are no less than eleven separate documents in it, each beginning with the title, " These are the generations; " each at its commencement somewhat recapitulating the previous history, and, excepting the first — the generation of the heavens — each connecting the narrative with the fortunes of some one remarkable man.

Whence, then, did Moses obtain these documents? We conclude that they were records preserved by the heads of the Semitic race; and for this reason — that there is no attempt made to reduce them to verbal agreement. Thus, Esau's wives are mentioned in Gen. xxvi. 34, in " the generations of Isaac; " and again in chap, xxxvi. 2, in " the generations of Esau." The facts are identical; the names are different. In each ease those given in the document are retained. Now this fact is one of the strongest internal testimonies that we have to do with genuine historical records. Had there been that dovetailing and resetting and skilful manipulation by a series of Jehovists and Deuteronomists which the new race of critics suppose, Esau's wives would have been managed better. As it is, they testify to the fidelity with which these documents have been preserved for us.

For a long time these records must have been handed down from generation to generation by oral tradition. I need say nothing in proof of the extreme accuracy with which, in the East, the genealogies of the tribes, and even whole treatises containing, it may be, the doctrines of some philosophic sect, or the like, are thus preserved. When writing became common, and still more since printing has made the multiplication of records so easy, the memory has ceased to be that faithful guardian of matters entrusted to its keeping which it was when it alone was answerable for the preservation of human knowledge. What I am more anxious to point out is the effect of this method upon the documents themselves. A printed or written record may be diffuse, and enter into exact details. A record entrusted to the memory must be succinct and compendious, and must omit details. Now half the difficulties in the Book of Genesis arise from commentators dealing with it as they would with modern materials. Forgetting that in Genesis we have the oldest records in existence; that for a vast period they were presented simply by the memory; that they have been cast into a form fit for the memory to retain, and that, therefore, they omit all unnecessary details, commentators discuss and criticise them in a manner suitable only to modem written documents. Effects of this will be pointed out hereafter; but bearing it in mind, we propose now to take in order the twelve portions of which Genesis consists.

The first is the account of creation, and extends to the end of the 3rd verso of chap. ii. Now of this we grant that the knowledge contained in it could have been made known to the writer only by revelation; and, accordingly, this portion alone is without the heading " These are the generations." To whom the revelation was made we know not; whether to one of the patriarchs or to Moses himself. Let us suppose the latter; and that during his forty years' sojourn in Midian, while God was forming him for his high office, and he was himself studying those old records of the history of his race, of which he had obtained copies during the previous period in which lie had been a powerful prince of the royal family; let us, I say, suppose that during this contemplative period of his life this history of creation was made known to him. We are quite sure that Moses was well acquainted with the traditions of his race, because it was this knowledge which made him take his side with them, and abandon his high position to share their misery. We know, too, that he lived at a period when literature flourished in Egypt, and when there were many scholars occupied with the study of the past. Naturally, therefore, he would acquaint himself with the documents preserved in the archives of his race. Whether or not he found the history of creation among these records, or received it himself by revelation, makes no practical difference in its value. But how was the revelation made? The study of the narrative makes it probable that it was by a succession of scenes passing before the prophet's mental vision, and leaving certain great truths deeply impressed upon his mind.1 To these scones he has prefixed a preface, consisting of the first two verses; the conceptions in which are as grand as they are philosophically true. God is all in all; the solo Author of being; the One who alone both is and works by His own power; and matter is created by Him, and subordinate to His will. But at first all is shapeless and void: the sole moving thing in that formless abyss is the Spirit of God, present to evoke life and energy out of the chaotic mass. And then follow six scenes, each described as an evening — a period of deepening gloom — and a morning — a period of growing light — and the two forming one creative day. What vast intervals may have elapsed between each of these days we know net. It is more important to notice that much, necessarily, is metaphorical. When God spake, it was not by an articulate voice ringing through the air, but as he speaks now, by a law silently impressed upon the material universe. Those laws are eternal; and, therefore, in obedience to the command, " Let there be light," not merely does the sun now shine, but numerous other changes in matter, in obedience to the laws of chemical affinities, are accompanied by the emission of light and heat.

The creative document is a grand and glorious introduction to the rest of Holy Scripture; but it was not intended to teach geology or astronomy: rightly understood, it does not contradict these sciences, but its real object was to set forth two main truths — the first, that all the laws and workings of nature are the workings of God; the second, that of all this working man is the final cause. In every stage of creation God is the active principle pervading all; of all that is done man is the end, and the earth was made such as it is that it might be a fit stage for human activity. Yet, though creation is described thus partially, as the adaptation of the world simply to be a habitation for man, there is, nevertheless, a wonderful real agreement with our advancing knowledge of astronomy and geology, and especially with what is called the nebular hypothesis of creation.

At first there is a shapeless existence of matter, which, as it consolidates, is pervaded by light. Next begins the work of separation. In the second scene the globe of the earth has been formed, and has cooled enough for the watery vapours to condense and descend as rain upon its surface; while round it an expanse, as the would translated " firmament " means in the Hebrew — an open space — is left; an atmosphere or sky, in which vapours uncondensed can float. And then the earth begins to dry, and partly by volcanic action, partly by rents and rifts in the crust of the earth, as its cooling mass contracted, vast receptacles are formed for the waters, and dry land appears. This land gradually is covered by vegetation, rising at last to its perfection in the fruit-bearing tree; and the seer points out how, from the first, a law was impressed on all vegetative life by which its reproduction was ensured.

The fourth day marks a period of repose. The scene set forth before the prophet's eyes was the green earth, illumined by the bright shining of the sun; while the moon and the stars lit up the evening gloom. The earth is no longer enveloped by clouds, but has cooled enough for the atmosphere to be clear; while the exuberant vegetation of the third period has absorbed the carbonic gases noxious to animal life.

Now it is possible that the higher forms of vegetation did not come into existence until the atmosphere was thus cleared. Fish, birds and beasts may all have been created before the highest vegetable forms were reached. There is nothing in the creative record requiring us to reject whatever geologists may tell us on this subject. All that Moses teaches us is that the third great stage in creation was the clothing of the earth, as it dried, with vegetation. The interposition of the fourth day loads us to suppose that there was a long period between the earliest stages of vegetable and of animal life. But the special work of the third day did not end upon it. It is going on at this very minute, and vegetation is still adapting itself to the changes in progress upon the face of the earth. Let a land be drained, and a higher vegetation will immediately take the place of the endogenous plants which previously flourished there.

The last two stages are occupied with the production of the various forms of animal life. On the fifth day we have all animals sprung from eggs, and of these the highest form is reached in those huge saurians, which form the glory of geological museums. In our version the word is wrongly translated " whales." The original word really includes all animals of the serpent and lizard class, and is specially used of the crocodile (rendered "dragon" in Isa. li. 9; Ezek. xxix. 3; but "whale" in Ezek. xxxii. 2). Whales, with all the mammalia, are reached only on the sixth day; and the perfection of creation is represented as man; and to man lordship over the rest is therefore given.

But with this the narrative is not content. It further connects man directly with God. He is made only after divine counsel has been taken; he bears the effigy and stamp of divinity upon him; and the seventh day is consecrated for him as a day of rest, because he is capable of communion and converse with the infinite God. Such is the record of creation with which the Christian Scriptures begin.

The second document commences at chap. ii. 4, and reaches the cud of chap. iv. It is called the " generations of the heaven and the earth," and contains a record of Adam's creation, of his original state, of his fall, of the promise upon which all revelation turns, and of the first step towards the fulfillment of that promise in the birth of Seth. The document is more or less allegorical, and as such is referred to in the Revelation of St. John, where the same metaphor of the Tree of Life, with which Scripture begins, is again used in its closing words; and the New Jerusalem takes the place of the Paradise of Eden. But while we can never tell how much is simple fact, and how much allegory, the doctrines of this section are not merely most clear, but are the framework of the whole of the rest of the Bible. It teaches us of man's original state of innceency, of woman taken from his flank — " rib " is a quaint old mistranslation — to be Ills second self, the author first of his ruin, and then of his recovery, and the mother of the avenging Seed; of his peaceful toil in Paradise, of his fall wrought by the machinations of an enemy from without, and of the promise of a Deliverer. Upon the fall follows death by a brother's hand, and the separation of mankind into the children of God and the race of Cain, who are, however, described as foremost in all the arts of civilisation, and famous, if we may judge by their names, for the beauty of their women.

It is in this record that we first find that remarkable use of the name of the Deity, which has been the fruitful source of so much modern criticism. In the account of creation the Deity is called simply God, in Hebrew Elohim. Here he is called Jehovah God, Jehovah Elohim. Now the name Jehovah was the especial title of the Deity in his covenant relation to the Jews, and God says of it to Moses, that he was known to Abraham and the patriarchs by the name El-Shaddai, God Almighty, "but by my name Jehovah was I not known to them" (Exod. vi. 3). But this cannot mean that the name itself was unknown to them tilll the time of Moses; for besides other proper names Moses' own mother is called Joehebed (Jehovah's glory); and the word would not have been thus shortened, unless its. use in proper names had become common. The meaning must rather be that the name Jehovah was now to be the peculiar title of the Deity in his relation to the Jews. Still from the first there was something especially sacred about it. And thus it is used very appropriately in this second record, in which man is introduced to us in covenant with God; but henceforward both names occur in nearly every section of Genesis, though Jehovah, rendered in our version " LORD " in capitals, is used with a fuller meaning, and is never put into the mouth of any but members of the chosen family.

It would involve too large a space to enter upon the numerous other questions connected with this section. Let us simply mention one most easy to ask, most difficult to answer: Was this creation of man the same as that recorded in the precious section? Were Adam and Eve the male and female spoken of in Gen. i. 27? The brevity of the narrative, and its evident intention to teach us spiritual truths, and not those of anthropology, render all such speculations out of place. Cain, however, speaks as if the children of Adam were not the sole inhabitants of the earth (chap. iv. 14, 15, 17), and there is often in the Hebrew a contrast between the Adam, the name given to Adam's descendants, and men generally. For instance, in chap. iv. 26 it is not the family of Adam, but the Enosh who begin to call upon the name of Jehovah. But passing over such questions as incapable of solution, and among them I class all discussions about the geography of the garden of Eden, which a great bishop in the thirteenth century, Gregory Bar-Hebraeus, ingeniously explained of the convolutions of the human brain, I proceed to the third section, "The book of the generations of Adam " (chap. v. — vi. 8).

This section is the groundwork of all attempts to frame a chronology of the antediluvian period, but is obviously unfitted for this purpose; for it has come down to us in three shapes, of which the Samaritan makes the space from Adam to the flood 1307 years, the Hebrew test in its present form 1656, and the Greek text of the Septuagint 2262 years. Which of these texts is of primary authority, no living scholar would venture to say. The object of the section, besides giving us the genealogy of the Messiah, is to introduce the account of the general corruption of mankind leading on to the flood. As regards the extreme longevity of the patriarchs, it is to be noted that the account is consistent with itself; for they are represented as not arriving at maturity till what with us would be an advanced age. Noah is even 500 years old before he has a son; Methuselah and Lamech are 180; Enoch, the youngest of all, is 65. But we probably have a compendium merely, of which the explanation, is now impossible, owing to the loss of the traditionary knowledge once handed down with it. Perhaps each patriarch at first had his own " generations," which Moses may have omitted, as conducing nothing to the purpose of his work. That something of this sort has happened is suggested by this alone being called a " book " — a word belonging to far later times. I will only further notice that the 120 years mentioned in chap. vi. 3, do not signify the shortened space now allotted to human life, but the respite between the prediction of the deluge and its fulfilment; and that the names of the patriarchs are in very antiquated Hebrew, resembling more closely some of the Phoenician dialects.

As regards the intermarriages which caused man's wide-spread depravity, the Hebrew gives a very different idea from what is currently supposed. It says, " It came to pass when the Adam began to multiply upon the face of the ground, and daughters wore born to them, that the sons of the Elohim saw the daughters of the Adam." "Elohim" means not merely God, but mighty men, and is rendered "judges" in Exod. xxi. 6; xxii. 8. These " sons of the mighty " could not possibly be the descendants of Seth, who very properly would marry daughters of the Adam, of which they were members themselves; but whether they were the descendants of Cain, who possibly on his flight from home had forfeited the Adamic name, and who certainly were the most advanced in civilisation and wealth, is more than I can tell. But certainly it was not the women, but these bold, strong men, who introduced vice and depravity among the descendants of Seth. The fourth section, " The generations of Noah," extending from chap. vi. 9 to the end of chap, ii., gives the account of the flood, for which the previous section had served as an introduction.

The general truth of this narrative is confirmed not merely by the universal traditions of mankind, but by recent discoveries, one of the most interesting of which is the Chaldaean account of the deluge lately deciphered by Mr. G. Smith, from terracotta tablets in the British Museum, brought from Nineveh. But besides this the internal evidence shows that we have to do with a document which has presented the original statements of an eye-witness. It would need the intervention of but one or two persons to convey Shem's account of the flood to Abraham, in whose days it was probably committed to writing. And thus in chap. vii. 19 we may well conclude that we have Shem's own words, narrating the awful sight which presented itself to him as he gazed from the ark, the waters mightily prevailing everywhere as far as the eye could reach, and every mountain under the whole sky or horizon covered. Many commentators have indeed imagined that "the whole heaven " is to be taken in an astronomical sense, of the whole atmosphere enveloping the earth; but this is to do violence to the language, and to mistake the whole character of the record. It is a veritable history, carefully preserved by tradition in the family of Shem till the age of writing. " The whole heaven " — i.e. the whole sky — means just what it would in our mouths — the whole sky as far as we could see it; and when we are asked whether the flood covered the mountains of Auvergue, we have yet to learn that France came within the range of the patriarch's vision.

So in the next verse, of the depth of the waters, how was it known that it was fifteen cubits? Not by magic, but because this would be somewhat more than the draught of a vessel so enormous as the ark; as it grounded nowhere, but moved calmly onwards with its living freight, it is plain that the depth of the waters must have been greater than the draught of the ark, and no laud was in sight till it reached the mountains — i.e., the chain of Ararat; and there it grounded immediately.

But how was this vast collection of animals fed, kept clean, and tended during their long stay of a year and ten days in the ark? How was so huge a vessel built? How were the large supplies of food gathered and stored up? With what limitations are we to understand the command to receive all clean and unclean animals within its sanctuary? A fuller narrative would have explained all these difficulties; as it is, we can only suggest the probability that Noah's household helped him to build the ark, and entered it with him. This would be in accordance with the usual manner of the earlier Scriptures, nor does the passage in St. Peter's first epistle (iii. 20) militate against it. For these eight souls the ark was built, and Noah's household, if they entered it, did so simply in his right. The open louvres which ran all round the ark (vi. 16) would suffice for light and ventilation; Noah's numerous household would have enough to do to tend and feed the animals on board; and as for their number, the laws of Biblical language require us to limit it, to say nothing of what reverence for the Deity obliges us to believe, viz., that G^d works nothing unnecessarily. Scripture is its own best interpreter, and the word we render " all " does not mean in Hebrew as much as our word. In Exod. ix. 6 we read that "all the cattle of Egypt died" of the murrain. Yet in verse 9 they appear again, and in verse 20 we find the Egyptians still generally possessed of herds. In fact, the Hebrew word is used wherever anything happens on a large scale, but constantly admits of very considerable exceptions. As a rule, Hebrew is a language poor in words, and the words themselves are very indefinite in their signification.

The fifth section is " the generations of the sons of Noah," extending from chap. x. 1 to xi. 9. It is the most precious relic of ancient ethnography, and German critics like Knobel have acknowledged it to be the only trustworthy document relating to the original peopling of the earth. It ends with the confusion of tongues, by a law of God which still holds good. The use of a common Bible, the study of great classical writers like Shakespeare, these and the like things keep our language now free from great change. Remove these influences, and prevent people from travelling, and in ten years every village would have a patois, and in fifty years a distinct language of its own.

The sixth section is called " The generations of Shem." It carries the genealogy down to Terah. His generations form the seventh section, extending from chap, xi. 27 to chap. xxv. 11. The principal figure is now Abraham, but the section takes its name from Terah, by the same rule by which the history of Joseph is called " The generations of Jacob."

Starting from Ur of the Chaldees, in the plain between the Tigris and the Euphrates, the whole family of Terah moves northward; but on the way Harau, the youngest son, dies, and Terah will go no farther, but remains at the place where the body was buried. And with him stays Nahor; but Abraham and Lot, Harau's son, in time pursue their journey. Slowly, with numerous herds and dependents, their black tents of camel's hair move along the eastern bank of the Euphrates, till, probably at Carchemish, the wanderers are able to ford the mighty stream. Henceforward Abraham is called the Hebrew, " the man from the other side," for it was rarely that that barrier was crossed. His route now lies southward, but at Damascus he seems to have long halted, charmed with tie fertility of the place; at all events, Josephus describes him, from ancient authorities, as having come with an army, and reigned there. But finally God's providence urges him on, till Palestine is reached, and he settles there, first at Sichem, and then under the terebinths at Mamre.

Enriched still more by Ms visit to Egypt, where, however, his faith failed him, we find him able to arm 318 trained servants, and risk a battle with Chedorlaomer and his confederate kings; and on his return he is blessed by a mysterious priest-king, who is the typo of our Lord. And now the narrative is concerned with the trial of the patriarch's faith, till at length the promised child is vouchsafed; the last trial, the yielding again to God of his dear son, undergone; and not until Rebekah is installed in the tent of Sarah, does he descend into his grave.

The eighth, a very short section, gives us " the generations of Ishmael." Then follow the generations of Isaac, extending from chap. xxv. 19 to the end of chap. xxxv. In chap, xxxvi. two generations of Esau are given; the first in vs. 1 - 8, containing his personal history till he settled in Mount Seir, because Canaan was not large enough to contain him and Jacob, owing to their great wealth; the second in the rest of the chapter, carrying down the history of the Edomites till the times of the Jewish monarchy (see verse 31), and therefore long after Moses' time.

Now there is nothing improbable in the supposition that Ezra may have completed the history of the Edomites. Moses apparently, when forming these documents into a whole, added many remarks, and especially we may usually refer to him the often recurring phrase " unto this day," which is seldom used except of events long anterior to Moses' time. In the Septuagint version of the Bible we constantly find additions of this kind: thus it adds to Josh. xvi. an account of the conquest of the Canaanites in Gezer by Pharaoh, and his bestowal of their territory on his daughter, the wife of Solomon. So again in Josh. xxiv. 30 it adds that the flint knives with which the Israelites had been circumcised in Gilgal were buried with Joshua in his tomb. Such instances warn us of the probability of many similar additions to the historical parts of the Scriptures. What is really surprising is that it is so seldom that anything occurs of which the most acute critic can suggest that it shows traces of an age later than that of Moses. In a manuscript every transcriber who possesses additional knowledge is tempted to add it to the record, and notes in the margin are sure finally to be inserted in the text. Here, too, it is remarkable that two genealogies of Esau come together; and if the later, containing the political history of Edom, wore entirely inserted at a later period, there would be nothing extraordinary in it, though this does not appear to have been the case. Later prophets might reasonably add to and perfect records given, not to satisfy our historical curiosity, but to show us the chart of salvation. It is interesting, however, to observe how the history, both in the case of the Cainites, of Ishmael, and of Esau, follows the rejected race for a short period, and then reverts to the main line; so as to give without flaw the ancestry of the promised Seed. With this great purpose of Scripture nothing is allowed to interfere.

The last section, from chap. xxxvii. 2 to the end of chap. 1., is called " the generations of Jacob," and ends with that patriarch's burial. Much of Jacob's history had been given in the generations of Isaac; while Joseph is now the centre of interest. But Jacob had become the head of the family, and as such his name holds the foremost place. I have already shown how full this section is of local knowledge and colouring. I will only add that it is the last of the " Generations." There is now a gap of some centuries before the next stage in the development of God's great plan is reached. Planted by the fostering hand of Joseph in a very laud of plenty; separated from the nations of Canaan by the wilderness of Sinai; kept distinct from the Egyptian-s by differences of custom, and by their occupation as shepherds, the Israelites were exactly so situated as best suited their growth into a nation unlike all other nations upon earth; and who, after having served for a great and marvellous purpose, still retain their intense nationality, and remain like a strange waif of ancient times deeply scarred and marked with the undying traces of their wonderful history.



1) Compare Hugh Miller's Testimony of the Rocks, sect. iv.