We are often fooled by stories, lulled into reading them merely as narratives, or for entertainment. But in every story this is also a subtext, and sometimes many of them. Japanese folklore tells us a great deal about the society, culture, and worldview of Japan, just as French movies reveal how the French wallow in sadness and Dostoyevsky shows how Russians delight in existential angst.
The Torah is no different in this respect. The stories of this foundational text for Western Civilization seem simple enough, but even the “surface” subtext includes concepts like personal growth, right and wrong, love, and responsibility for our actions. It is an anti-pagan worldview that rejects destiny or fate while embracing the value of personal relationships and free will. An entire culture and moral language are communicated through the text, one that was rich enough to be used for the foundations of Judaism, Christianity and Islam.
Still, much of Genesis comes with virtually no judgment from G-d: we read, for example, of Joseph’s telling of his dreams and then the way he remembers them and brings the family back together. Throughout all of this, the text does not tell us what to think, who has erred or excelled. We are left to figure that out ourselves.
But if G-d does not openly judge in post-Babel Genesis, the rest of the Torah most certainly is full of judgment. Commandments of all kinds are issued, ways to connect with our fellow man and with G-d, ways in which we can grow as people and as responsible members of society.
So why is Genesis in the canon in the first place? We know the Torah is a text that exists for a reason – the word itself (as used in the text) means “guide” or “recipe,” which is not at all the same as a history or textbook on zoology or economics. The reason is given often enough later in the text: the Torah is there to teach us how to connect to G-d and to our fellow man, to build ourselves, our families and our societies up, to aim to be holy.
Here is the question: What if the entire purpose of Genesis is to explain the commandments that follow?
If we frame the question in this way, then the answer seems to be an unqualified “YES!” We are told not to murder: Cain did that. We are told to respect women: strong men in Genesis simply took what (and who) they wanted. We are told to love our neighbor as ourselves: Genesis contains the first displays of empathy, of apologies and forgiveness. Indeed, all the lessons we use in the Torah for human relationships are displayed in Genesis: brothers learning to love one another; husbands and wives learning to consult one another and treating each other with respect; brothers looking out for each other and their sisters; fathers and sons growing into seeking to live together instead of apart. We are told that if we oppress the ger, the stranger, then our wives will be widows and our children orphans – and we learn that from Avraham and Sarah who oppress the first ger, Hagar. Her children, the Ishmaelites, have been hellbent on making Jews widows and orphans ever since.
With relation to our Creator, we learn from Leah how to bring G-d into the way we name children. We are told to honor G-d’s creative gifts to us (bringing first fruits) and not to simply try to pay protection money: we learn that from Cain and Abel. The commandment of a Nazirite hearkens back to the Garden of Eden, and so do the commandments regarding the Red Heifer, symbolically connecting back to a time before death. We bring sacrifices because Noach invented the first elevation offering to thank G-d. Others in Genesis similarly conceive of sacrifices which are commanded later in the text. Speaking evil of others is found in Genesis, and it becomes the basis for a host of commandments, from Metzorah (commonly mistranslated as “leper”) to dealing with tzaraas (“leprosy”). Insulating ourselves from death and the consequences of our actions is found in the tar that coats Noach’s ark; the same word is translated as atonement later in the text. Jacob invents tents for his flock, building a house for himself: G-d imitates that for His flock when we leave Egypt, including building a home for Himself as well.
Not a single one of the commandments found in the Torah seems to be conceived from first principles or even from divine whimsy or caprice. Every one can be traced back to Genesis or at any rate before the Exodus. Things that we might take for granted, like avoiding idols, purifying ourselves and dressing up when we go pray to G-d were in fact invented by our forefathers – in this case, Jacob. The reminders of G-d’s presence that we put on our doorposts and wear daily come because Jewish history has many examples of people acting without keeping G-d in mind at all times (Joseph’s brothers actions are a prime case).
Our festivals similarly are grounded in Genesis. We have Passover because Avram did not empathize with Sarai when he let her be taken into Pharaoh’s harem, and we are told to commemorate the Exodus each year in part because Avram and Sarai did not celebrate their own Exodus. Shavuos (Tabernacles) comes from Cain and Abel, the token to show we acknowledge G-d is the source of creativity of all kinds in this world. Rosh Hashanah reminds us of our purpose, to blow the divine spirit into the natural world, acclaiming G-d in a renewal ceremony dedicated to a better, and different, future. Yom Kippur reminds us of the kaparah (the protective pitch on the skin of the ark) in the Flood, surviving and persisting thanks to G-d’s mercy. Even the offerings on Yom Kippur relate to earlier errors that were never corrected – the twin goats remind us of Jacob’s deception of his father.
Mankind even invents the ritual impurity, the inability to be spiritually elevated; this idea becomes deeply involved in laws in Leviticus. And, as we noticed earlier this week, even the laws regarding a woman’s menstruation seem to be founded in Genesis: For [Rachel] said to her father, “Let not my lord take it amiss that I cannot rise before you, for the period of women is upon me.” (Gen. 31:35). By defining herself by her physical condition, Rachel says that she cannot be elevated into action, into standing before the Lord. Which explains why a menstruating woman is not allowed to go to the Tabernacle/Temple.
All of this brings Genesis into focus: it forms the explanation for the rest of the text. The stories are not merely stories; every word, every letter, ties the entire text together into one complete piece.
Note that I have written, sometimes extensively, illustrating and explaining the above examples and many others. Contact me with any questions or comments! (email is email@example.com)
[a @kidcoder, @blessedblacksmith, @eliyahumasinter, and @susanquinn collaboration]