The creation account in the opening chapter of Genesis, the first book of the Hebrew Bible, is familiar throughout the entire Western world. It has even been said that this scenario, in which God brings forth the earth and everything on it in a burst of creation, fits in with modern scientific theories about the origin of the universe, specifically the Big Bang. Scholars have shown conclusively that Genesis reflects earlier accounts from Sumerian and Babylonian literature, and that it is the product of several authors and editors, none of whom is likely to have been Moses, to whom the first five books, also known as the Torah, arev traditionally attributed. The uneven narrative even incorporates two distinctly different stories of creation, and has God speaking in the plural, as if to confirm the impression that for the earliest Hebrews, Yahweh was understood as the most powerful god among many. On the sixth day of creation, God says, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness” (1:26). And in the famous account of the temptation by the serpent, who “beguiled” Eve into eating the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (no mention of an “apple,” by the way), which she passed on to Adam. God then observes, “Behold, the man has become like one of us, knowing good and evil.”
Confusing matters further is the fact that Judaism has sternly forbidden the creation of physical images of God, while Genesis again states that God created man in His image and likeness. But the notion of humanity mirroring God helps to underline a crucial contribution of Judaic theology — the belief that human life itself is sacred because it is modeled after the Supreme Being.
A second sequence beginning with Gen. 2:4 states, “In the day that the Lord God made the earth and the heavens, when no plant of the field was yet in the earth and no herb of the field had yet sprung up . . . then the Lord God formed man of dust from the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living being.” Biblical scholars now agree that this account stems from an earlier text than that of Genesis 1, and that the two were brought together by an editor in the 7th century BCE.
The early chapters of Genesis also narrate the familiar stories of Cain slaying his brother Abel, the general decline in humanity following the fall of Adam, and the Flood sent by God to punish the wicked ways into which men and women had descended. This story, in which God selects the one righteous man left on earth, Noah, and commands him to build an ark to preserve human and animal life, has unmistakable parallels in pre-existing literature of the region. Archaeologists agree that a real flood or floods of astonishing proportions did take place in the region of Babylonia and Sumeria sometime during the 4th and 3rd millennia BCE. An ancient Babylonian account written in the 17th century BCE describes a flood sent by a god who regrets having created humanity. In this story, another god intervenes to warn a priest-king named Ziusudra, who survives by building a large boat. An early Sumerian king-list identifies Ziusudra as king of the city of Shuruppak in Babylonia c.2900 BCE. Whether the Biblical authors were relating a story that had been handed down to them, or reinterpreting an old narrative in a moralistic, monotheistic context, is hard to say.
Abram, a descendant of Noah whose name God later changes to Abraham, is said to have come from Ur, an historical Sumerian city of the 4th and 3rd millennia, not far from Shuruppak. God directs him to leave his father’s house and go “to the land that I will show you.” Further, God promises to make of Abram’s descendants “a great nation,” and makes a covenant with him, saying: “To your descendants I will give this land.” Historically, the Hebrews probably began as one of a group of wandering tribes known as Habiru, a hard-to-classify group of herders, often warlike and predatory, who roamed the regions of Mesopotamia, Syria, Palestine, and Egypt in search of water and pastures. They tended to settle near established kingdoms until their numbers grew too great and the local powers urged them to move on. The image of the Jewish people as “strangers and sojourners” appears repeatedly in the Bible, and in retrospect appears to have had prophetic overtones.
The fact that Abram came from a highly civilized city such as Ur explains his sophistication in dealing with the various local kings he encounters, and finally in executing the covenant with God, accepting obedience to a higher moral law in exchange for land for him and his descendants. That covenant, originally offered to Noah after the Flood, is a continuing theme throughout the first five books of the Bible as it passes on from Abraham to Isaac to Jacob (whose name is changed by the Lord to Israel). The covenant is not merely inherited, however; it is renewed personally by God in each instance, as when God appears to Jacob and says, “I am God Almighty: be fruitful and multiply; a nation and a company of nations shall be of thee, and kings shall come out of thy loins. And the land which I gave to Abraham and Isaac, to thee I will give it, and to thy seed after thee will I give the land.” (Gen. 35:11-12)
The same covenant is later renewed with Moses, who in some ways played a more decisive role in the evolution of Judaism than Abraham did. Abraham was the founding father of the Hebrew people, but Moses was the one whose leadership and shaping of the laws formulated the essential Jewish contribution to world religious thought. The Promised Land of the covenant took on greater significance as the Israelites sojourned in Egypt as a slave people, and dreamed of returning. The land was generally referred to as the land of Canaan, roughly corresponding to later Palestine and modern day Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, and Israel. Although the Hebrews inhabited Canaan in small numbers before the Egyptian captivity, and many never left to go to Egypt, it was not made into an Israelite nation until the return of Moses and Joshua from Egypt.