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929 Project: Genesis 5 – the most important verse

July 19, 2018

This series is coordinated with the 929 project, as explained in this post.  A table of abbreviations and acronyms used is available here.

Genesis 5 is the first of many, many chapters in the Hebrew Bible that would seem to be hard to blog about:  it appears to be a fairly boring genealogical recital.  Sure it has its oddities:  What is possibly meant by Genesis 5:24 with Enoch not dying but merely being no more because God took him?  (Speculation about this question may have been the impetus for the pseudepigrapha book of Enoch.)  Why does Lamech prophesize in Genesis 4:29 that Noah will bring relief from work and toil resulting from God’s curse on Adam?  But compared with much of the rest of Genesis, Genesis 5 is a bit of a snooze.

However, Ben Azzai found Genesis 5:1 to be the most important verse in the Hebrew Bible:

זה ספר תולדת אדם ביום ברא אלהים אדם בדמות אלהים עשה אתו

This is the book of the generations of Adam. In the day that God created man, in the likeness of God made he him; (KJV)

In choosing this verse, Ben Azzai differed from his teacher Rabbi Akiva who believed the most important verse was Leviticus 19:18:

לא תקם ולא תטר את בני עמך ואהבת לרעך כמוך אני ה׳

Thou shalt not avenge, nor bear any grudge against the children of thy people, but thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself: I am the LORD. (KJV)


In her 929 commentary, Dyonna Ginsburg writes the following:

[A]ccording to Ben Azzai, the Torah’s most important principle is that humanity was created in the divine image and that we all belong to the same family tree.  […] [H]is choice of proof text [is surprising].

The opening verse of Chapter 5 of the Book of Genesis is a repetition of things we’ve already been told before. Chapter 1 declares: “And God created man in His own image, in the image of God created He them (Genesis 1:27).” Chapter 4 begins listing Adam’s descendants, including the first two generations of the line of Seth. For all intents and purposes, then, the first 11 verses in Chapter 5 restate basic information previously conveyed to us in Chapter 4.

Whether it is the concept of divinely-endowed human dignity or the notion that all of humanity is descended from Adam, the verse Ben Azzai quotes does not teach us anything new.  Why, then, might he have chosen this verse? Perhaps, the answer lies in its placement in the larger narrative of the Book of Genesis.

Chapters 1 and 2 of Genesis tell the story of creation, full of hope and promise for humanity.  Chapter 3, with its focus on Adam and Eve’s expulsion from the Garden of Eden, introduces fallibility and abdication of responsibility to the human condition.  In Chapter 4, humanity descends into jealousy, violence, and bloodshed – a chapter bookended by the stories of Cain killing his brother and of Cain’s descendant, Lamech, who revels in acts of murder. After all this, comes Chapter 5, a genealogy of Adam, focusing on his third son, Seth.

The power of Chapter 5 Verse 1, then, is not in its originality, but in its reaffirmation of human goodness and connectivity against the backdrop of evidence to the contrary. Seen in this vein, Chapter 1’s assertion that humanity was created in God’s image is descriptive; Chapter 5’s is prescriptive. When humanity is at its worst, it is natural to retreat into our particularistic selves, wanting to protect our own. In his choice of verse, however, Ben Azzai arguably challenges us to fight that inclination, assert our shared humanity, and seek out the divine spark in others, even when it’s difficult.

(NB this blog entry was posted on July 30, 2018, and backdated to July 19 for reasons explained here.)

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