When looking at the Book of books we find many stories written over a long time. Those assembled books reflect a long historical period within a single group or “school”, presenting us with many stories giving us an idea how the world with mankind evolved.
We must not think that all ancient Israelite traditions were preserved in the Torah. This would also not be necessary. Much was probably lost. Without knowing what was lost, we cannot suggest how and why the redactor(s) made their selection and by what principles they ordered their materials. It must suffice to note that in contrast to modern editing, which works toward articulating a single viewpoint, the redaction of the Torah, like the editing of other ancient works, did not create a purely consistent, singular perspective but incorporated a variety of voices and perspectives.
The ultimate result of this redaction, most likely completed during the Babylonian exile (586–538 bce) or soon thereafter in the early Persian period, was the creation of a very long book, narrating what must have been felt to be the formative period of Israel, from the period of the creation of the world through the death of Moshe. For the world had to know about the People chosen by God. Therefore the events narrated in the First Book of the Kitvei Hakodesh (Bereishit or Bereshith chs 1-11) describe the creation of the world and its population by many nations and serve as an introduction to the singling out of one nation, Israel. The stories of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the ancestors of Israel, form the national prehistory. We can come to know the people that is preferred by the Bore, Who let us see in His Heart. Israel comes into existence as a nation in Exodus, and the foremost events of its national history are the exodus from Egypt, the revelation at Sinai, and the coming to the promised land. These events are central to Shemoth or Exodus – Devarim or Deuteronomy.
In the ancient Near Eastern world in which Israel emerged, beginnings were deemed to be crucial, for the origins of things were thought to disclose their character and purpose. as human being we can and should learn from our previous history. By knowing what happened to our ancestors and by learning how they reacted we too can from our own character based on what we can learn from our ancestors their experiences. In Genesis, the origins of Israel — the people known later as the “Jews” — lie in a mysterious promise of God to a Mesopotamian whose name is Abram (changed in ch 17 to “Abraham”). God gives us an insight in His Plan with mankind. He allows us to know how everything came into being but also let us see how He reacted in certain circumstances and treated man. He also let us see who He follows up closer and lets us also know the reasons why He does so.
He allows us to come to know what His Plan is with the offspring of Abraham. The essence of the promise to him, is that He will make of him a great nation, bless him abundantly, and grant him the land of Canaan. Ostensibly absurd when it first comes, the promise faces one obstacle after another throughout the course of Genesis — principally, the barrenness of Abraham’s primary wife (and of other matriarchs in the next two generations) and the murderous fraternal rivalry among his descendants. And yet, by the end of Genesis, all the obstacles notwithstanding, the twelve tribes that make up the Bnei Yisroel or people Israel have indeed come into existence, an Israelite effectively rules a superpower (Egypt), and the promise of the land, though far from fulfilment (which comes about only in the book of Joshua), is anything but forgotten.
The book of Genesis is thus, in more senses than one, a primary source for Jewish theology. It presents its ideas on the relationship of God to nature, to the human race in general, and to the people Israel in particular in ways that are, however, foreign to the expectations of most modern readers. It is therefore all too easy to miss the seriousness and profundity of its messages. For the vehicle through which Genesis conveys its worldview is neither the theological tract nor the rigorous philosophical proof nor the confession of faith. That vehicle is, rather, narrative. The theology must be inferred from stories, and the lived relationship with God takes precedence over abstract theology. Those who think of stories (including mythology) as fit only for children not only misunderstand the thought–world and the literary conventions of the ancient Near East; they also condemn themselves to miss the complexity and sophistication of the stories of Genesis. For these are narratives that have evoked interpretation upon interpretation from biblical times into our own day and have occupied the attention of some of the keenest thinkers in human history.
One aspect of narrative in Genesis that requires special attention is its high tolerance for different versions of the same event, a well–known feature of ancient Near Eastern literature, from earliest times through rabbinic midrash.
The book presents, for example, two accounts of Abram/Abraham’s attempting to pass his wife off as his sister (12:10–20; 20:1–18; cf. 26:1–11), two accounts of God’s making a covenant with him (ch 15 and 17), and two accounts of how Jacob’s name was changed to Israel (32:23–33; 35:9–15). In these instances, most modern biblical scholars see different antecedent documents that editors (known as redactors) have combined to give us the text now in our hands. This could not have happened, however, if the existence of variation were seen as a serious defect or if rigid consistency were deemed essential to effective storytelling. Rather, the redactors have chosen a different approach, refusing to discard many variants as inauthentic or inaccurate, instead treating the different versions as sequential events in the same longer story. The result is a certain measure of repetition, to be sure, but the repetition is in the service of a sophisticated presentation of themes with variations in a book rich in narrative analogy, revealing echo, and suggestive contrast.
For the Rabbis of Talmudic times and their successors through the centuries, the exploration of those subtle literary features provided an indispensable insight not only into the first book of the Torah (the most sacred part of the Tanakh) but also into the mind of God Himself.