COVENANT AND CONVERSATION- Genesis The Book of Beginnings II

In the Synagogue Praying

Genesis:  The Book of Beginnings

 (Bereshit – In the Beginning)


          Some time ago a learned friend suggested to me that we study the bible that Jesus would have studied. The idea was to become familiar with what a young Jewish lad would have studied and learned as he grew up in the land of Israel during the period that Jesus would have lived.  Acquiring that knowledge we felt would enhance and deepen our own faith.  We began with a study of Exodus guided by a text written by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks.  We learned about the escape from bondage and the making of the nation of Israel from the perspective of a Jewish Rabbi and were amazed to find such striking similarities with our own Christian understandings. 

          We have now completed the study of Exodus and have begun the study of Genesis.  It may seem illogical to start with the second book but Exodus deals with the relationship of God to Israel and raises questions about the relationship of a nation or group of people to God and Genesis deals with the relationship of the individual to God thereby making the perfect “prequel” if you will.

          The following paper is meant to introduce the reader to the parashat hashavua which is roughly the Jewish equivalent of the Christian Revised Common Lectionary. It sets out the readings for the week from the Torah to be read in the synagogue and follows a yearly cycle. 

          For me this study represents a journey of discovery and fascination. I have always had Jewish friends and acquaintances but their Jewish practices have always remained shrouded in a cloak of mystery.  This study has removed much of that cloak and revealed things which are most relevant to my own faith.  In the past my concept was similar to most Christians who think that the Torah, the Old Testament, is passé and superseded by the New.  Like Marcion[1] many Christians feel it has no relevance to their faith or their daily lives. I now beg to differ in the most strenuous way.  It is my belief that without a sound grounding in the Torah and an understanding of Judaism the Gospels cannot be read or understood in their fullness. 

Living With the Times: The Parasha

Genesis is Judaism’s foundational work, a philosophy of the human condition under the sovereignty of God.  It is less about God, than about human beings and their relationship with God.  The theology is always implicit rather than explicit.  What Genesis is, in fact, is philosophy written in a deliberately non-philosophical way. It deals with all the central questions of philosophy: what exists, what can we know, are we free, and how we should behave. But it does so in a way quite unlike the philosophical classics; philosophy is truth as system, Genesis is truth as story.  We learn about what exists by way of a story about creation. We learn about knowledge through a tangled tale of the first man, the first woman, a serpent and a tree.  We begin to understand human freedom and its abuse through the story of Cain.  We learn how to behave through the lives of Abraham and Sarah and their children.  The protagonists of Genesis are astonishingly human; a world away from the heroes and heroines of myth.  They are not mighty warriors or miracle workers, nor rulers commanding armies and winning legendary victories. They are ordinary people made extraordinary by their willingness to follow God. [2]

          As Christians why should we study the Old Testament especially as revealed through the exegesis and analysis of Jewish Rabbis?  These stories may seem to lack relevance in today’s world but when studied carefully they reveal truths about our relationship to God and how we are intended to live our lives. The sixth Rebbe[3], a famous Rabbi, once remarked to his students that “we must live with the times” to which his students responded in confusion: Do not the enemies of faith argue that the past is dead and long live the future? The Rebbe then explained that what he actually meant was that we must live with the weekly portion of Torah, in Hebrew the parashat hashavua, as it applies to our daily life in the present.  We must take the eternal of the ages and use it to interpret the ephemeral of the present.  Thus, the reading and study of the ancient scriptures brings into focus eternal truths relevant and applicable in today’s world.  And, as pointed out by Rabbi Sacks Genesis in particular reveals to us aspects of God’s relationship with ordinary people made extraordinary by their willingness to follow him.

          The Hebrew Scriptures studied through the lens of Judaic interpretations and practice has much to tell us about Christianity also. Some scholars[4] maintain that the Christian Gospels are deeply Jewish, and were written to function as “liturgical” documents which were designed to be read in the synagogue along with the Hebrew Scriptures. They maintain that they reflect the Jewish scriptures, Jewish history, and Jewish patterns of worship.  And, that they were written from a Jewish perspective inside a Jewish worldview and based on sacred writings with which only a Jew would be conversant.  To read the gospels properly they maintain one must have knowledge of Jewish culture, Jewish symbols, Jewish icons and the tradition of Jewish storytelling.[5] It requires an understanding of what Jews call “midrash”. [6]

          Therefore, a logical way to proceed with a study of the Hebrew Scriptures is to follow the course of readings prescribed by the parashat hashavua.  In Judaism Genesis is divided into twelve parasha each prescribing a select number of verses to read each week.  Along with those verses one should add a commentary, or Midrash which interprets the parasha in terms of the problems facing us in our lives today.  One such commentary is called Covenant and Conversation by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks.  Rabbi Sacks has prepared a one volume commentary for each of the five books of Moses which Jews refer to as Torah which in Hebrew means instruction, teaching, or law. Christians refer to the same material as the Pentateuch.[7] 

Genesis is divided into twelve parasha.  These are as follows:

Name Meaning Genesis
Bereshit In the beginning 1:1-6:8
Noah or Noach Noah (rest) 6:9-11:32
Lekh-Lekha Go forth yourself 12:1-17:27
Vayera And He Appeared 18:1-22:24
Hayei Sara Life of Sarah 23:1-25:18
Toledot Generations 25:19-28:9
Vayetzeh And he went out 28:10-32:3
Vayishlah And he sent 32:4-36:43
Vayeshev And he settled 37:1-40.23
Miketz At the end of 41:1-44:17
Vayigash And he drew near 44:18-47:27
Vayehi And he lived 47:28-50:26

      In the words of one scholar[8] these parashat form the music of the Jewish year. And, the way in which the parasha fit into the Jewish calendar is as follows:

Autumn is Genesis (Bereshit), with its tales of beginnings, the birth of the world, of humanity and of the Jewish people.

Winter is Exodus (Shemot) the story of exile and redemption, slavery and freedom and the beginning of the long journey through the wilderness in search of the Promised Land. 

Spring is Leviticus (Vaykra) with its laws of sacrifice . . . shot through with ethical grandeur and at its fulcrum the two great moral imperatives of all – to love our neighbour as ourselves and the far harder yet ultimately more important command to love the stranger, the other, the one not like ourselves.

Numbers (Bemidbar) ushers in Shavuot, the festival of revelation, and does so with the story of the Israelites in the wilderness, a fraught tale of backslidings and rebellions, perhaps the most realistic narrative ever told of the birth of a nation. 

Summer is Deuteronomy (Devarim) . . . the book of Moses’s addresses in the last month of his life, his vision – never surpassed – of Jewish history and destiny as the people of the covenant, charged with living the faithfulness to God.

As one Rabbi points out Torah is a book not only to be read but to be lived. It is like a fugue weaving the eternal and ephemeral, the timeless and the timely.  And, that is what the Rebbe meant, that it is the weekly encounter between the now and the then, the moment and eternity, which frames Jewish consciousness and gives that unique sense of living out a narrative, a biblical story to which we ourselves are writing the latest chapter.      

    The text of Torah is our covenant with God, our written constitution as a nation under His sovereignty. Its interpretation has been the subject of ongoing conversation for as long as Jews have studied the divine word, a conversation that began at Sinai thirty-three centuries ago and has not ceased since.  Every age has added its commentaries and so must ours.  Participating in that conversation is a major part of what it is to be a Jew.  For we are the people who never stopped learning the Book of Life, our most precious gift from the God of life. [9]

          As we study the Hebrew Scriptures we find what seem to be amazing parallels to Christian teaching.   I would argue that we really shouldn’t be surprised as this is where it comes from in large measure that is the covenantal experience of the Jews with God over the course of the past thirty-three centuries. 

[1] Marcion of Sinope  c. 85 – c. 160  was an important figure in early Christianity. Marcion preached that the god who sent Jesus into the world was a different, higher deity than the creator god of Judaism.  In contrast to other leaders of the nascent Christian Church, however, Marcion declared that Christianity was in complete discontinuity with Judaism and entirely opposed to the Tanakh.

[2] Jonathan Sacks, Covenant and ConversationGenesis:  The Book of Beginnings (Maggid Books Jerusalem 2009).

[3] The Rebbe: Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn was an Orthodox rabbi and the sixth Rebbe of the Chabad Lubavitch chasidic movement. He is also known as the Frierdiker Rebbe, the Rebbe RaYYaTz, or the Rebbe Rayatz. Wikipedia

[4] The Right Reverend John S. Spong, Bishop of Newark, Biblical Literalism: A Gentile Heresy (Harper Collins Publishers, New York 2016

[5] Spong, supra.

[6] Midrash:  Midrash is biblical exegesis by ancient Judaic authorities, using a mode of interpretation prominent in the Talmud. Midrash and rabbinic readings “discern value in texts, words, and letters, as potential revelatory spaces,” writes the Hebrew scholar Wilda C. Gafney. Wikipedia. 

[7] Some authorities state that in  Judaism the word Torah can refer to both the written and oral traditions but that the Pentateuch refers only to the written texts of the books. Wikipedia, Torah. 

[8] Sacks, page 3.

[9]  Sacks, page 3.