A Strange Book Called “Jubilees”

In an earlier post I mentioned a piece of literature called Jubilees as an example of some of the works outside of most biblical canons that are receiving growing attention.  I would like to use a few more entries to introduce this book and its contents.  Western biblical scholarship was largely unaware of this book until about a century and a half ago.  Jubilees lay hidden in the more expansive Old Testament canon of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, available only in the Ge’ez language.  Awareness of the book that received the curious label “the Lesser Genesis” grew slowly until numerous fragments were found among the Dead Sea Scrolls in the middle of the twentieth century.  The discovery provided a definitive answer to lingering questions about whether Jubilees had any place within Second Temple Judaism.

Describing Jubilees is not easy.  Some interpreters use the category “re-written Bible” for this book and some others from the same period of time.  Jubilees  consists of a re-telling of Genesis 1-Exodus 15.  While attempts to assign a date of composition differ, nearly everyone agrees the Jubilees was written at some point during the second century B.C.E.  One of the new things that Jubilees does with the story is divide it up into periods of 49 years, the length of the biblical “jubilee” period as defined in Leviticus 25, and this feature has provided its current name.


Jubilees opens with Moses on Mount Sinai, conversing with God.  The purpose of the meeting is for Moses to hear and record the story of Israel, beginning at creation.  The opening chapter ends by introducing a figure called the Angle of the Presence, who will narrate the story to Moses for the remainder of the book.  One feature that strikes me is that this transaction of divine presence moves in the opposite direction from all of the tradition in the Hebrew Bible, where angels are present, especially the Angel of YHWH or Angle of the LORD, but they always precede the direct divine presence.  Even in the monumental scene of Moses and the burning bush in Exodus 3, Moses first encounters the voice of the Angel of YHWH, which then seems to transform into the divine voice.  Why does Jubilees reverse this move?  Does the choice tell us something about perceptions of the divine being during the period Jubilees was written?

Many differences between Jubilees and Genesis remarkably anticipate our own questions when we encounter the first book of the Bible.  The common questions about the origin of Cain’s wife in Genesis 4:17, for example, are resolved by naming two daughters, Awan and Azura, born to Adam and Eve.  The former marries Cain and the latter Seth.  There are differences that move beyond the trivial, however.  In Portraits of a Mature God:  Choices in Old Testament Theology, I described the deity of Genesis 1 as naïve, a description that bothers some readers, and this is understandable.  How can a deity repeatedly describe the creation as good and only five chapters later feel the need to destroy it completely because of its corruption?  Christian reading practices have inserted the  idea of “the Fall” into the disobedience of Adam and Eve and expanded this notion so that corrupts the entire world.  This does not fully resolve the question of divine naiveté, however, because we can still wonder how God could not see this coming.  Jubilees, on the other hand, removes all the declarations of goodness from the re-telling of Genesis 1.

More on Jubilees next time.


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