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An Exegetical Study of Genesis 15

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The Abraham narrative in Genesis is one of the best-known stories in the Old Testament, and Abraham (or Abram, as he is referred to here)1 is a key figure in the wider picture of the whole Pentateuch. Indeed, Abram becomes the key human figure in the Pentateuch if we accept the assessment of D. J. A. Clines that the focal point and theme of these books is “the partial fulfilment … of the promise to or blessing of the patriarchs”, and in particular the promise(s) to Abraham, first made in Genesis 12:1-3. In terms of the canonical form of the Pentateuch as we have it, this is an assessment which I find compelling and which will be of service in the exegesis of this text.

I will be primarily dealing with the text of Genesis 15 on its own terms, in its canonical setting, and dealing with its content, narrative and function within this setting. Of course, numerous important critical, historical and theological questions have been raised of this text, which I will not have space to explore fully in this exegesis, except where they have a significant bearing on the meaning of the text.

Taking, then, the text on its own terms, what kind of text is Genesis 15? The text is presented as a narrative, but is clearly not in the genre of the materialist, post-Enlightenment writing of history. The world of Genesis 15 is one that is open to the supernatural – Yahweh3 speaks and makes promises and prophecies. 4 It is also theologized narrative in the way that it functions within Genesis as a restatement of the promises of Yahweh in the form of a covenant, and in the ways in which it points forward to events yet to occur.

Yet this text is not presented as a myth either – there is a sharpness and detail to the characterization of Abraham that suggests he is to be taken as a real, “flesh and blood” figure and not merely device by which to express timeless metaphysical truths. 5 Gerhard von Rad’s description of the “Patriarchal Narratives” of Genesis 12-50 as “saga” may be useful here. 6 This use of “saga” denotes a retelling of an “actual event that occurred once for all in the realm of history”, but at the same time one which reflects the historical experience and theological reflection of the narrator. This seems to be what is going on in Genesis 15, and certainly from the perspective of other Old Testament authors, Abraham is seen as being both an historical figure and theologically significant in a way which transcends his own time. 8 This viewing of Genesis 15 as the retelling of events by a later hand is in fact one that is sanctioned by the text; specifically, as R. W. L Moberly urges, 9 by reflection on the traditional ascription of the work to Moses.

Whatever is thought about the veracity of this claim, and most modern scholars would consider Genesis extremely unlikely to have been written by Moses, the traditional view of authorship seems to require the view that we are dealing with a text that is an Israelite perspective on a pre-Israelite event. Of course, non-traditional theories of composition and authorship also entail that we are dealing with a later perspective on pre-Israelite events; my point here is that this is actually a view endorsed and required by the text itself in its canonical setting, quite apart from the conclusions of modern source-critical analyses.

This, I think, explains in a satisfactory way why the canonical form of the text has Abraham and the Patriarchs worshipping and referring to their God as ‘Yahweh’ (especially noticeable in Genesis 15) when, according to Exodus 6:3, this name was revealed first to Moses. The author, whether thought to be Moses himself or a later hand, is so confident that the one true God worshipped by Abraham is Yahweh that he (or they) feel(s) free to use the divine name when retelling stories of pre-Israelite events. 0 In my view, an appeal to the use of different source documents, with a Yahwistic tradition (J), holding that the name Yahweh was always known and used, set against a Priestly tradition (P), holding that the name was first revealed to Moses, leaves unanswered the question of why the author(s) of the final and canonical form of the text appear(s) unconcerned about the inconsistency.

Unless we adopt a model of redaction that limited itself to what might be called a cut-and-paste methodology, we have to deal with the fact that the canonical Pentateuch contains this apparent inconsistency. 1 It seems rather more reasonable to suggest that the name Yahweh is used deliberately and theologically, and that what we are dealing with is not an inconsistency left by a careless and uncreative editor, but a deliberate statement that the God with whom Abraham had to do is the same God worshipped by the Israelites; and conversely that the Israelites are inheritors of the promises made to Abraham, including those in Genesis 15.

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