The Genesis record also oriented the nation of slaves to the concept of sacred history. The Israelites in Egypt were continually exposed to the Egyptian mythologies and world view, but the accounts in Genesis were quite different from the religious beliefs of the other peoples of the ancient Near East. The gods of the Egyptians, Mesopotamians and Canaanites were gods of nature, personifications of the mysterious forces of thunder, rain, fertility, the celestial bodies and the various landforms and bodies of water. The pagan festivals were the reenactment of sacred myths in which people celebrated the never-ending cycles of life, death and rebirth in nature, the changes of the seasons and the fertility of the soil.
The patriarchs, by contrast, came to know God by his mighty acts within history, his self-revelations and interventions. Yahweh had made himself known through a series of extraordinary events and self-disclosures. He appeared in visions (Ge. 15:1), dreams (Ge. 28:12-13) and theophany (Ge. 32:24-30). God himself interpreted and anticipated history so that his people could understand its meaning (Ge. 6:5-7; 11:5-9; 12:1-3; 15:13-16; 16:9-12; 18:20-21; 25:22-23; 26:2-5; 28:12-15; 35:9-12; 45:4-8; 50:19-21).
All these Genesis narratives focus upon the action of Yahweh. In the annals of other nations of the ancient Near East, the national histories tell of the glories of the nation and her military victories. Defeats were rarely recorded. In the stories of the patriarchs, the success of the clans depended upon the grace of God. The Genesis record quite graphically depicts the failures of the patriarchs. Some of them were little more than scoundrels. Yahweh is the one who did great things, and he kept his promises in spite of the patriarchs as much as because of them. Thus, the history of Genesis is sacred history.
Etiology is the use of a story to explain an ancient name, place or custom, and the Genesis record has a considerable number of them. When the Israelites made the trek from Egypt to Canaan, they encountered a variety of place names in the land of promise that recalled particular events in the Genesis record. Also, certain customs had been handed down for generations. Many of the stories of Genesis are etiological in nature, that is, they give historical explanations as to why certain places and people were named as they were (cf. Ge. 32:1-2, 7-10; 17:17; 18:11-15; 21:3-7) or why certain practices were observed (Ge.32:32). Explanations found later in the Pentateuch look backward to patterns found in Genesis (e.g., Ex.20:8-11). Such stories would have given the nation in the exodus a special sense of identity, and particularly, such stories would have assured them that the land of Canaan was rightfully theirs, since it was the land of their ancestors deeded to them by divine decree.
The power to name persons, objects and places was for the ancient person equivalent to holding power over that which was named, since the name was inextricably bound up with existence. Thus, to know that Jacob named Bethel (Ge. 28:16-19) and Peniel (32:29-30), for instance, or that Abraham and Isaac named Beersheba (Ge. 21:27-31); 26:32-33) would have enabled the Israelites in the conquest to regard these places as their own.
Because Israel’s faith was grounded in history, her creeds were historical in nature rather than abstractions of theology. They did not begin, “I believe in God, the Father Almighty...” Rather, they began, “Yahweh freed us from the land of Egypt, from the house of bondage...” (Ex. 20:1; Dt. 5:6; 6:21; Ps. 81:10). One of the oldest confessions, which depends upon the Genesis stories and which the Israelites were instructed to recite after entering the land, stressed that the patriarchs themselves did not see the fulfillment of the promise for numerous progeny and the full possession of Canaan (Dt. 26:1-11). Rather, their ancestor Jacob was a wandering Aramean. It was his descendants that Yahweh delivered from Egypt and brought into this good land. Such a recitation was to remind them that the proper fulfillment of the covenant in Genesis was accomplished in the exodus from Egypt and the conquest of Canaan.