Book of Genesis

Course No. 6234
Professor Gary A. Rendsburg, Ph.D.
Rutgers University
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Course No. 6234
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Course Overview

The Book of Genesis, regardless of our faith, is something with which almost all of us in the Western world are familiar—a foundational work of our culture we have read and, we believe, understood. After all, its language, despite its remarkable elegance, is simple. Its powerful sentences are short. And its messages glisten with clarity.

Or do they?

Is it possible that the understanding of the Book of Genesis we've all grown up with isn't as complete as we'd like to believe? That its deceptively simple sentences and surface appearance hide from contemporary readers a purposeful and intricate structure designed to let its depth and detail and implication resonate with the readers and listeners of its own time? That we are overlooking, despite all of our modern sensibilities as readers, many of the astonishingly sophisticated literary devices and techniques used by the author—or, indeed, authors—of this beautiful work?

Professor Gary A. Rendsburg, who chairs the Department of Jewish Studies at Rutgers University, thinks so. And in the 24 lectures of The Book of Genesis he offers the tools needed to change our perceptions, showing us how we might read, hear, think about—and feel—its words as an ancient Hebrew would have, allowing us to gain a new appreciation of "one of the most remarkable literary compositions from the ancient world," as Professor Rendsburg says, the book with which both Jews and Christians alike begin their Bible.

Uncover New Meanings in Familiar Language

His approach to the Book of Genesis is one you may never have experienced before—a detailed, line-by-line literary parsing that gently probes its language, exploring how and why its effects were achieved; what its author—or authors—was saying; and revealing, between those lines, more information than most of us have ever dreamed was there.

As a noted scholar whose major interests include the literature of the Bible, the history of ancient Israel, the development of the Hebrew language, and the relationship between ancient Egypt and ancient Israel, Professor Rendsburg is an ideal choice for introducing what will be, for many, a new way of reading, as well as a wealth of fresh insights.

Among those insights, you'll learn:

  • The reasons the Book of Genesis has not one but two creation stories, and the very different messages they contain
  • The many contradictions (real or apparent) that appear in the book's pages, and the hints they offer about the book's authorship
  • The repeated appearances of barren women and younger sons in its stories and what these motifs stand for
  • The remarkably ordered large-scale narrative structure devised by the author (or authors) of the Book of Genesis to embody and convey its theological meaning.

Although this is clearly a course whose emphasis is literary, with detailed analysis dominating, Professor Rendsburg is ever mindful that the Book of Genesis remains, for many, a theological pillar underpinning religious faith. And he is both respectful of that reality and aware of it in an even broader context.

"In [the] first 11 chapters of Genesis, we see a universal story, a universal perspective, describing the relationship between God and humanity in general. Characters like Adam and Noah are not Israelites, per se; they represent all of humankind. ...

"This perhaps is the greatest lesson that we should learn from our course. The Bible is the record of the relationship between God and man—but the focus remains tenaciously on man.

"We follow mankind, through the early heroes of the Book of Genesis, in their attempt to find meaning in life; and we, as readers of the Bible, gain from that experience, extracting the lessons of their lives, and hopefully, finding meaning in our own lives."

The World of Genesis

And literary analysis is far from the only perspective Professor Rendsburg draws on. Throughout the lectures he surrounds his intense attention to the text with historical, social, and archeological context, always conveying the world in which Genesis was read and listened to, so that each journey into the deepest subtleties of language enables us to look outward as well, shaping what might have been "only" a literature course into much more.

Our close reading into this masterpiece of Hebraic literature becomes our gateway to a deeper understanding of the literatures of Babylon, Egypt, and Ugarit to which it is compared.

Our understanding of historical context allows us to follow conjectures as to where and when Abraham, the first of Israel's three great patriarchs—along with Isaac and Jacob—lived.

The lines of Joseph carry us into the world of Egypt, its royal courts, and even its funerary rituals of mummification.

Again and again, this course will surprise you as it shifts its focus from the nuance of language to educate, surprise, and sometimes even shock:

You'll learn the attractions and pitfalls of the "JEDP" theory—the name given to the standard or documentary hypothesis of how the five books of the Torah, or Pentateuch, were compiled from four separate sources, J, E, D, and P—a theory developed by a German scholar named Julius Wellhausen in the second half of the 19th century.

Earlier beliefs had seen this grouping as the revealed word of God before biblical scholars in the Enlightenment began a new effort to explain its many textual difficulties as a product of divergent sources. Professor Rendsburg takes the scholarly debate another step, by highlighting textual difficulties for the JEDP theory itself, and endeavors instead to read the Book of Genesis as a literary whole.

An Amateur Makes a Discovery for the Ages

You'll learn how the parallels between the Biblical story of the Flood and the version presented in the ancient Mesopotamian Epic of Gilgamesh were discovered in the late 19th century by a gifted amateur, a banknote engraver named George Smith. He had learned to read the Akkadian language of ancient Babylon and had volunteered to translate the cuneiform tablets being unearthed in Iraq and sent to the British Museum in London. It was there that Smith discovered the epic's Tablet XI and its account of the Flood.

And you'll learn about the extraordinary and difficult history of translating the Bible—which was originally written, of course, in Hebrew—into other languages.

Professor Rendsburg explains that the first translation of the Bible was a Greek translation produced in the 3rd century B.C.E. in Alexandria, Egypt. Known as the Septuagint, and abbreviated as "LXX," it enabled many Jews of the Diaspora (their dispersal into lands outside of Israel), who had lost fluency in their ancient language, to read and understand the Scriptures.

According to legend, the name of the translation derives from rounding off the number of Jewish scholars—six each from the original 12 tribes of Israel, for a total of 72—gathered in Alexandria by King Ptolemy II to provide the translation for the Great Library of Alexandria.

But other translation efforts did not go as smoothly.

Translating the Bible into English, for example, was opposed by the Church, which insisted on using only the Vulgate, or Latin translation, and forbade any translations into the vernacular. When Englishman John Wycliff produced such a forbidden translation in the 14th century, he was condemned by the Church and his books ordered burned. When another Englishman, William Tyndale, produced another English translation in the early part of the 16th century, he was condemned as a heretic by both the Catholic Church and the newly established Church of England and forced to flee to Germany. He was eventually captured by the authorities in Belgium and burned at the stake in 1536.

Yet even disturbing stories like this one never overshadow the impression left by the course's attention to the words of Genesis, which, even in translation, continually offer us fascinating glimpses of authorial mastery.

Thoughtful, engaging, and often deeply moving, The Book of Genesis offers a wonderful opportunity to experience this foundational work—not only of theology, but of literature —as never before. No matter how many times you may have read its lines, or the perspective from which you have approached them, you will almost certainly never experience them the same way again.

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24 lectures
 |  Average 31 minutes each
  • 1
    On Reading the Book of Genesis
    This lecture introduces the course's ground rules—a holistic (rather than separate-source) treatment that approaches the text as literature, history, and theological treatise that must be read with, and understood from, the world-view of its original readers. x
  • 2
    Genesis 1, The First Creation Story
    We plunge immediately into the biblical text, with the goal of learning how to read the literature of ancient Israel, so greatly removed from our own world in both time and place. x
  • 3
    Genesis 2–3, The Second Creation Story
    This lecture highlights the four major differences between the first and second creation accounts and discusses the main reason why Genesis, and hence the Bible, begins with two divergent narratives. x
  • 4
    An Overview of Ancient Israelite History
    This lecture presents historical background necessary for any study of the Bible, including the history of ancient Israel from Abraham, c. 1400 B.C.E., to the conquest of Alexander the Great, c. 330 B.C.E., and the development of the biblical canon. x
  • 5
    The Ancient Near East
    We survey the broad context of ancient Israel and its world—the ancient Near East divided into the three major geographical regions of Egypt, Canaan, and Mesopotamia. x
  • 6
    The JEDP Theory and Alternative Approaches
    The unified approach to the two creation accounts presented in Lecture 3 is one most scholars debate, citing many contradictions. This lecture introduces their four-source hypothesis, and discusses its good points and its problems. x
  • 7
    Genesis 6–8, The Flood Story
    We compare the Bible's account of the flood to the story incorporated in the Epic of Gilgamesh, the literary classic of ancient Mesopotamia, and also use the biblical version as a way of comparing the contrasting methods of the JEDP and unified-whole theories. x
  • 8
    Genesis 9, Covenant
    This lecture focuses on a crucial concept in biblical studies and how this idea of a bond between God and humanity, in general, and the people of Israel, in particular, distinguished ancient Israel from other cultures and religions of the ancient Near East. x
  • 9
    Genesis 12–22, The Abraham Story
    This lecture presents an overview of the Abraham narrative, focusing on the interrelated themes of God granting the land of Canaan to Abraham and Abraham's quest for an heir. x
  • 10
    When and Where Did Abraham Live?
    This question gives rise to considerable scholarly debate. We examine the arguments and also discuss the insights into Genesis provided by the archives and epic compositions, respectively, of two ancient cities. x
  • 11
    Genesis 21–22, Abraham Put to the Test
    We look in detail at the last two chapters of Abraham's story—including the Aqedah, or binding, of Isaac—giving a close reading to the text that focuses on the different literary techniques used by the author. x
  • 12
    Women in the Bible—Sarah and Hagar
    A relatively new avenue of biblical scholarship is an increased awareness of the many important female characters in the story. We illustrate the point by examining the roles of Sarah and Hagar in the Abraham narrative. x
  • 13
    Genesis 24, A Bride for Isaac
    We look at the longest prose narrative in the Torah—made so by the unusual method of its literary construction—and also explore the reasons for its focus on a minor, and anonymous, character. x
  • 14
    The Barren Woman and the Younger Son
    This lecture looks at the literary and theological reasons for the persistence of two key themes throughout Genesis—the woman unable to bear a child and the superseding of an older brother by a younger one. x
  • 15
    The Literary Structure of Genesis
    In this lecture we look systematically at the way individual stories are assembled to create a literary whole. We look at literary and theological reasons for mirroring structures within the stories of Abraham, Jacob, and Joseph, as well as parallel structures within the creation stories. x
  • 16
    Different Bible Translations
    We pause from our close reading of Genesis to examine the issue of different translations of the Bible—including the possible approaches and the reasons for them—illustrating the differences with several passages. x
  • 17
    Genesis 27, Jacob and Esau
    The well-known story of Jacob and Esau allows us to see the literary device of repetition at work, as well as Rebekah's role as instigator of the deception of Isaac and the punishment she receives for her actions. x
  • 18
    Genesis 29, Jacob and Rachel
    We discuss several literary devices available to ancient Israelite writers, including the use of "typescene"—the repeated narration of a theme or story using different characters or circumstances—in the tale of Jacob and Rachel meeting at the well. x
  • 19
    The Date of the Book of Genesis
    When was Genesis written? Previous lectures have dated it, in passing, to the 10th century. This lecture defends that conclusion, starting with the tendency of many authors to reveal and reflect the present when writing about the past. x
  • 20
    Genesis 37, Joseph and His Brothers
    This lecture focuses on the final main section of the Book of Genesis—the Joseph narrative—including a look at the difficult question of who actually transported Joseph to Egypt and the author's reasons for making this question so difficult. x
  • 21
    Genesis 38, The Story of Judah and Tamar
    We look at the links of theme and vocabulary between the stories of Judah and Tamar, and Joseph being taken to Egypt, and we explore the moral lesson Tamar's story was meant to convey to ancient Israelite readers. x
  • 22
    Genesis 39, The Story of Potiphar’s Wife
    This lecture examines a motif also present in ancient Greek and Egyptian texts—the handsome young man resisting seduction by his master's wife. We discuss the similarities and differences. x
  • 23
    The Egyptian Background of the Joseph Story
    There are many points of contact between the Joseph story and ancient Egypt. They show the author's intimate knowledge of Egyptian culture and his expectations that his Israelite audience would absorb many of the details. x
  • 24
    One Last Text—and the Text as a Whole
    The concluding lecture offers an opportunity to look ahead to the succeeding Book of Exodus, re-examines a key part of Genesis in light of what we discover, and reaches a major conclusion concerning what the Book of Genesis is really about. x

Lecture Titles

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  • 24 lectures on 4 DVDs
  • 168-page printed course guidebook
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Course Guidebook Details:
  • 168-page printed course guidebook
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  • Suggested readings

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Your professor

Gary A. Rendsburg

About Your Professor

Gary A. Rendsburg, Ph.D.
Rutgers University
Dr. Gary A. Rendsburg holds the Blanche and Irving Laurie Chair in Jewish History in the Department of Jewish Studies at Rutgers University, where he also holds an appointment in the History Department. He earned his M.A. and Ph.D. in Hebrew Studies from New York University and taught at Canisius College and Cornell University-the latter for 18 years-before joining the Rutgers faculty in 2004. The author of six books and...
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Reviews

Book of Genesis is rated 4.2 out of 5 by 96.
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Literary approach to Genesis The lecturer points out the genius of the author of Genesis who has far more structure and system in the book than I ever conceived. Though he may be a bit repetitive, he really is able to make one read it in a totally new way. I was surprised by this man, a tremendous authority on the Bible, discussing English translations of the Bible and seeming totally unaware of the fact that while the Church in England suppressed the translations of Wycliffe and Tunsdale, the Catholic Church had an authorized English translation of the Bible (though from the Vulgate) in the Douay-Rheims version, that actually predated the King James version. It wasn't that he criticized the translation but seemed unaware of the existence of the traditional Catholic translation. All in all, I have found this to be more informative and surprisingly so than I expected, though at times repetitive and dry.
Date published: 2019-03-02
Rated 1 out of 5 by from Robotic presentation Having read the content of this course I was looking forward to listening to it after having bought the audio download. I was greatly disappointed to hear, within the first few sentences, that the presentation was robotic and it sounded as if the text was being read by a computer. At best, it sounded like a very poor human reader reading from a set of notes. Knowing that I would be unable to listen to any more of this "style" of reading I rang the customer service desk to arrange a refund of the course price. I found them very helpful. I'm sure the course would be very good if it were presented by a different reader. Obviously, any course depends to a large extent on its presentation in addition to the content and this is particularly important for audio-only courses. I have to say, from this point of view, this is the worst course I have had to date.
Date published: 2019-01-08
Rated 5 out of 5 by from If it's 3:00 am...this must be She'ol ...Well, not really! These lectures are much better than that. I purchased this course some time ago (when it was on sale and I had a great coupon), thinking that someday I might want revisit Dr Rendsburg and his thorough lecture style...the one he displayed so well in the 'Dead Sea Scrolls' series. More recently I completed the 'Ancient Mesopotamia' course and was intrigued by the lectures dealing with the Gilgamesh Epic and the Enûma Eliš, and wondered if those myths and legends had had any affect on the creation stories in the Christian bible, or...more to the point...the Hebrew Torah, or the Old Testament.Further, I read a prose translation of the Gilgamesh Epic and was taken with the style in which it was written that made it a best seller some 4000 years ago...the book has been found (in fragments) throughout the area from the Levant to Ur. Great book...no spoilers here. So, now was the time for the Book of Genesis series, and I was not disappointed. Dr Rendsburg's thorough (some reviewers called it boring) discussion of the first book of the Torah as a literary work is wonderful, especially the side notes on translation differences/choices when moving between 'old' Hebrew and English (King James ver). The nuances in style show that the author was indeed a gifted story teller. In addition the author must have been widely read, and very much aware of the older literary genres within his Akkadian library. Notwithstanding the God/Marduk issues, the Book of Genesis is a book...fiction trying to be historic fiction...mostly about people, in this case the people of Israel. Possibly some of the characters in the book are historical characters (Abram, Joseph, Jacob, Judah, Daniel and Solomon), but others are either unknowable (that would be the God of the Hebrews) or just fictional characters to prove a point or define a particular noble trait (Adam, Eve, Cain, Abel and Noah). Literature abounds with types of works...ain't life grand! I very much liked these lectures and probably will do a redo at a later date. If you like a good story with **x, murder and intrigue, this one's right down your alley, and Dr Rendsburg is the best 'Cliff-Notes' you'll ever come across.
Date published: 2019-01-01
Rated 5 out of 5 by from I have had the DVDs for about a week and have seen 6 of 24 lectures. Expanded my view of Genesis and it is done excellently by Prof Rendsburg. I would have added more graphics to the lectures and more slides to keep it more interesting---somewhat boring at times--liven it up a little. The accompanying book/outline is excellent. Thanks!
Date published: 2018-11-02
Rated 3 out of 5 by from Adequate but no more than that. Professor Rendsburg presents Genesis in a highly idiosyncratic manner, at times looking at the book as literature, then as embedded within the history of Israel, and finally as instantiating core components of Judaic theology. This could be an amazing approach. Unfortunately, it merely allows him to weave from one approach to another in support of his view of the text; a view more often merely premised on "I prefer" than on deeply reasoned analysis. For example, Professor Rendsburg dissents from the consensus JEDP theory of Wellhausen. That strikes me as wonderful; I always root for new challenges to consensus views. Regrettably, Prof. Rendsburg begins his refutation of the JEDP view through a tedious exercise in amateur sociology, stating that Wellhausen was motivated by anti-Catholic and anti-Jewish bias (and this without stating one factual instance of these biases in Wellhausen himself). I would have been much more interested in a thoughtful analysis of Wellhausen's methodological flaws or other shortcomings (or in actual examples of bias) than in an ad hominem argument masquerading as analysis. The follow-on analysis is better but still superficial. The JEDP example is minor, perhaps, but seems emblematic of a certain lack of rigor on Professor Rendburg's part. With that said, the course is still interesting in parts, and I appreciate the reading offered. I'm dissapointed, though, for what might have been.
Date published: 2018-07-05
Rated 5 out of 5 by from About time It’s about time someone offers some real learning one of the greatest books of all times. You want some real understanding in your religious or spiritual life this is a great corse
Date published: 2018-04-27
Rated 4 out of 5 by from A In depth Analysis of Mankind's Greatest Book This in depth course provides its listener with a conscience understanding of the thoughts and ideas behind one of the greatest books of the Bible. Professor Gary Rendsburg main goals of this course is to try and understand the author's’ original meaning behind the texts of the Book of Genesis and the relation of the ancient Israelites in relations to their neighbors. He succeed very valiantly with his scholarship but I found his lecture style to be a little dry at times. What I liked best was that this course made me look at Genesis in a different light. While looking at it from a metaphorical and cultural perspective, Professor Rendsburg breathes new life into the Book of Genesis
Date published: 2018-03-06
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Superb This course is perhaps the best I have taken from Great Courses (and that is quite a few). Prof. Rendsburg brings tremendous scholarship to bear on the Book of Genesis. The result is new insights that are inspiring and that you will probably not find anywhere else. he deeper views you will get from this course will make you realize that you only scratched the surface with traditional interpretations. The presentation is first rate- he does not sound like he is reading from a book or paper. Highly recommended.
Date published: 2018-02-13
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