Encyclopedia of the Literature of Empire - Mary Ellen Snodgrass 2010


Genesis (ca. 500 B.c.)

The basis of the Torah and the first book of the Bible, Genesis (Beginning) is a Judaic CREATION text preceding the laws of Moses. Written at the beginning of the Persian rule of Palestine and replicated on 24 of the DEAD SEA SCROLLS, the action covers the arrival of Abram and Sarai in 1950 B.C. from Ur, a Mesopotamian city north of the Persian Gulf between the Euphrates and Tigris rivers (present-day south-central Iraq). A distillation of Ephraimite and Judean STORYTELLING, Genesis echoes the Sumerian account of the GODDESS LORE of Inanna, keeper of a sacred garden. The completed Hebrew book begins with the creation of Adam and Eve and advances to the lethal jealousies of their sons Abel and Cain, the latter a murderer marked as the eternal pariah. The high point of Genesis is the patriarchy of Abram, a nomadic tribal leader who sires the Jews and Arabs. From cosmology to a civilized monotheism, the story ranges from the mythic man (adam) formed from dust (’adamah) to a realistic drama of a family who travels more than 2,500 miles to Hebron, a homeland west of the Dead Sea.

Like the Hawaiian Kumulipo (The Beginning, 1897), translated into English by Queen Liliuokalani, the dynamics of Genesis incorporates politics and religion. In chapters 6-8, the classic flood motif set in Mesopotamia and Sumer during the Bronze Age depicts Noah as the model of righteousness. By chapter 11, impiety again distorts civilizing principles during construction of the Tower of Babel, a possible reference to the raising of a brick ziggurat temple to Ningal, the moon goddess, in Ur, located in present-day Iraq at the delta of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. As a fable of international disunion, Genesis introduces nationhood, different language families, and the history of Abram and Sarai, who rename themselves Abraham and Sarah (Genesis 17:5, 17:15) for “father of nations” and “princess,” an indication of elevation from nomads to royalty.

In Haran in southeastern Turkey, a PROPHECY of a stable nation precedes a divine covenant that establishes a race known to history as the “chosen people.” Perhaps as propaganda for the nation of Israel, the Abrahamic covenant pledges, “I will make of thee a great nation, and I will bless thee, and make thy name great; and thou shalt be a blessing: And I will bless them that bless thee, and curse him that curseth thee: and in thee shall all families of the earth be blessed” (Genesis 12:2-3).

The First Conflict

Abraham's siring of Ishmael by the Egyptian handmaiden Hagar precipitates a family crisis emblematic of tribal blood feuds. The family survives the destruction of the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, corrupt fleshpots that contrast the faith and clan commitment of Abraham's household. After Sarah conceives her first child at age 90, the couple welcome Isaac, whom they name the Hebrew word for “laughter” for their joy in parenthood in old age (Genesis 21:6). After fabulist Baroness Karen Blixen's sojourn in British East Africa (present-day Kenya), she wrote about empire building in Africa under the pseudonym ISAK DINESEN, an allusion to the centrality of the chosen people to the world family.

Genesis miniaturizes national antipathies in family disunion, an emblem of God's earthly lineage. Abraham's delight gives place to jealousy in chapter 21, when Sarah secures Isaac's primacy by ordering Hagar and Ishmael into desert exile in Beersheba, a hill town of southern Israel near Hebron, Sarah's eventual burial place between the Dead Sea and the Mediterranean. Destiny concludes the breakup of the household with God's promise to elevate Ishmael from wanderer to nation builder, a harbinger of the Arab hegemony. Implicit in the separation of sons lies a curse on Jews, Arabs, and the world at large, a universal burden deriving from a father's disinheritance of his firstborn. Crises in the next three generations of patriarchs—Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, and the 12 tribes of Israel—cover a multiplicity of envy, deceptions, and threats to justice and sanctity. The multigenerational history sets the stage for EXODUS, the Hebrews' retreat around 1446 B.C. from servitude to the Egyptian empire to new nationhood in Palestine.


Cross, Frank Moore. From Epic to Canon: History and

Literature in Ancient Israel. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998.

Genesis. In the Holy Bible. Iowa Falls, Iowa: World Bible Publishers, 1986.