You may read an introduction to Genesis and find an outline, here.
A prayer to use before reading from Thomas Aquinas (c. 1225-1274) a prominent theologian of the medieval period.
II. The Story of Abraham 12:1-25:18
C. 15:1-17:27 The Covenant with Abraham and the Birth of Ishmael
17:1-27: The Covenant with Abraham: Commentators differ in their opinion about this passage. Some think this is a parallel to Chapter 15 from a different source, others believe this is a revision ( not a renewal) of the earlier covenant. In this covenant, in addition to Abram as father, Sarai is named as mother. In addition this time, something is required of Abram. Verse 7 God commits to Abram and to us. Verse 5,15. This is not the only time someone’s name will change. The changing of a name signifies a change in status. Abram ( exalted father) is changed to Abraham (father of a multitude) and Sarai to Sarah. Sarah is thought to be a less archaic form of Sarai, both meaning princess. Notice that Sarah participates in the covenant as an individual and not “through” Abraham.
Verses 10-14 notice the word play, In Hebrew to make a covenant is berit, literally to cut a covenant. Here to not make the covenant, not cut the covenant means one will be cut off from his people. Circumcision was common among people in the ancient Near East, typically dones as an initiation into puberty or prior to marriage. This command to Abraham moves the practice from young adulthod to eight days after birth, perhaps changing the significance from sexual to spiritual? Gunther Plaut in The Torah: A Modern Commentary writes; Few, if any, Jewish practices are more significant than berit milah,the covenant of circumcision. While it does not make a child born to Jewish parents into a Jew, it confrims his special relationship to the God and the traditions of Israel…Neglcting to circumcise a child was, therefore, more than merely neglect of a rite; it was a rejection of God’s sign and was subject to divine punishment, to being “cut off from the people,”i.e., from the covenant. Indeed, throughout history, the continued observance of circumcision has been a mark of the Jewish will to survive, while its discontinuance has been a signal of assimilation. (118) Notice in verses 12-13 who is included.
Verse 20, even though Ishmael is not the one through whom the covenant proceeds, he is not abandoned.
D. 18:1-19:38 Sodom and Gomorrah
18:1-15 Abraham’s Hospitality: Verses 1-8 show a characteristic of Abraham, hospitality. Notice what hospitality looked like in Abraham’s time. What should hospitality look like in our time? Is this text about hospitality toward other humans, or toward God, or both? Verses 9-15 the promise of a son is reiterated. Why does Sarah laugh and why is God’s question in verse 13 directed at Abraham rather than Sarah? Does Sarah know of the promises of chapter 17? Is Abraham’s laughter in chapter 17 apparently treated differently than Sarah’s laughter in chapter 18? How does God respond to their laughter?
18:16-33 Abraham, Lot and Sodom: Verses 17-19 are an inner monologue. Is this a turning point in God’s relationship with Abraham? Verses 20-22 God responds to the cries of the people. Verses 23-33 Abraham questions God! What does this say about the relationship between God and humans? Remember that righteous is not the same as sinless. What is the relationship between the righteous and the unrighteous? Does the presence of righteous people affect the lives of the non righteous?
19:1-38 Sodom and Gomorrah; How is Lot’s hospitality different from Abraham’s? In what ways is it similar? How does their hospitality differ from the actions of the people of Sodom? Lot’s offer of his daughters to protect his guests seems horribly wrong to us. Some commentators suggest that this shows the extreme lengths to which Lot will go to protect his guests. Others think this shows the level of the depravity of Sodom. Sometimes this text is used to condemn homosexuality. Is that what this text is about? Ezekiel (16:49-50) describes Sodom’s sins as pride and moral insensitivity. See also Isa 1:9-10; Jer 23:14;Lam 4:6;Zeph 2:9; Matt 10:14-15,11:23-24;Luke 10:12, 17:29; 2 Pet: 2:8) “Jewish tradition stresses social rather than sexual aberrations as the reason for the cities destruction.” (Plaut, 133)
Beginning at verse 12 notice how hard the men have to work to convince Lot and his family to leave. By verse 16 they take them by the hand and lead them out of the city. Lot doesn’t want to go to the mountain, (v19) but eventually does (v30). All in all, Lot seems confused about what to do.
Verses 31-38 Ironically Lot who offered his daughters as sexual objects is now a sexual object for his daughters. Interestingly the text does not condemn the daughters. One grandson of Lot, Moab, becomes an ancestor of David and Jesus.
E. 20:1-22:24 Abraham, Sarah, Isaac: Three stories of danger to Abraham’s family
20:1-18 Abraham and Sarah in Gerar: This story parallels 12:10-20 and 26:1-11. It is interesting to compare the stories but there is value in considering this particular story in this locations. Some commentators believe this is the same or a similar story from another source. It is also worthwhile to consider how this story functions in this particular location. Abraham doesn’t seem to have learned from his previous experience. How must Sarah feel? Once again God protects Sarah. Does Abraham believe God’s promise of a son through Sarah? Interestingly Abimelech is a gentile with whom God communicates and even is involved in his life. How does Abimelech respond when he learns who Sarah is? How does Abraham respond when his deception is uncovered? Verse 17 is the first mention of prayer in Torah. Abraham has, again, brought trouble rather then blessing but by prayer is able to set things right.
What do these stories of Sodom and Gomorrah and Gerar tell us about the relationship of God with God’s people and those not of the covenant? What do they say about sin and its consequences? These stories deal with complex issues and avoid simplistic answers.
Read More About It.
The following are several good general reference works to aid your reading of the Torah.
Anderson, Bernhard W., Katheryn Pfister Darr, “Understanding the Old Testament” Abridged fourth Edition. (Upper Saddle River,New Jersey: Prentice Hall) 1998.
Keck, Leander E., ed. “The New Interpreter’s Bible, Volume 1. (Nashville”Abingdon Press) 1994.
Mays, James L. ed. “HarperCollins Bible Commentary” (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco) 2000.
Metzger, Bruce M., Roland E. Murphy, eds. “The New Oxford Annotated Bible with the Apocryphal/Deuterocanonical Books” (New York: Oxford University Press) 1994.
Plaut, W. Gunther, ed. “The Torah: A Modern Commentary” (New York: Union of American Hebrew Congregations) 1981.