The story begins with creation, and creation is largely a matter of dividing: dividing the region of order from the region of chaos (tohu wabohu), then light from darkness, then the waters above from the waters below, then the waters below from the dry land, then “the lights in the vault of the heavens to divide the day from the night,” then the system of division that we call time (“the fixed times and … days and years”).

Once this creation (bara’) is complete, nothing like it ever happens again. The Lord himself does not create any more, but rather engages in yatsar – making or fashioning or fabricating, that is, working from pre-existing materials. He is now no longer a Creator but a Craftsman. He “fashions” a man from the dust of the earth, and then a woman from the rib of the man. (“The LORD God built the rib He had taken from the human into a woman.”) He also names what he has fashioned.

After fashioning and naming, he gives commands, which are disobeyed – and with that we have the elemental axes of the first eleven books of Genesis:

  • making/naming
  • commanding/disobeying

Almost everything that happens until the appearance of Abram can be understood in these terms. When Eve gives birth to her first son, she declares “I have got me a man with the LORD,” and Robert Alter (whose translation I am using here) points out that the verb “got” can connote “make” – like God himself, Eve may be saying, I have made a man. Cain’s name means “smith,” and so the third human being becomes the first technologist: the builder of a city (4:17) whose descendants include “the first of tent dwellers with livestock,” “the first of all who play on the lyre and pipe,” and one “who forged every tool of copper and iron”: the pastoralist, the artist, the metalworker, all people dependent on technology, though very different technologies. Makers and doers.

It is perhaps significant that this first technologist and first urbanist is also a disobeyer, indeed a murderer. (Did he use a tool to murder his brother, I wonder?) Later, in Chapter 11, when we see the massive coordinated effort to build a great Tower that reaches up to Heaven, we see perhaps the inevitable tendency of technological urbanism, as Garrison Keillor suggested many years ago in a piece on the Tower Project:

In answer to concern voiced by personnel about the future of the Super-Tall Tower project, the Company assures them that everything is fine. Also, all questions raised by Tower Critics have been taken care of: 1) While it’s true that money is needed for cancer & poverty, it will create 100,000 new jobs. 2) We’ll be able to see more from it than from any other tower. 3) With the Communist nations well along with the development of their tower, national prestige is at stake, & our confidence to meet the challenges of the future. 4) In answer to environmentalist groups, there is no viable data on which to base the whole concept of the “unbearable” hum of the elevator; anyway it would provide a warning to migrating birds. The problem of its long shadow angering the sun can be taken care of with certain sacrifices.

Re: building and making, we may – employing the strategy of division and distinction that characterized the Creation – say that the kinds are:

  • What the LORD himself makes
  • What He commands people to make (the Ark being the first example; there will be others)
  • What he allows people to make (e.g. clothing woven from fig leaves to cover their nakedness)
  • What he punishes people after the fact for making (e.g. a Super-Tall Tower)
  • What he pre-emptively forbids people to make – e.g. a graven image to worship – after which he punishes them for making it anyway

In any case, these are the great themes, as I see them, of the first eleven chapters of Genesis.

I might add one more theme (one which appears in Chapter 10), a development that will fundamentally shape the Patriarchal narratives: the rise of a diversity of human cultures, including the Sea Peoples, the Babylonians, the Ninevites, Sodom and Gomorrah (the “cities of the plain”), etc. This diversity is counterbalanced by the fact that there was on the earth only one language (11.1). When that changes, then diversity forever after exceeds commonality. And thus confusion and mistrust grow.