Chapter 1.
Era of Beginnings

Scripture Survey: Genesis 1-11

Extent of Time: From the beginning to about 2000 B.C.

Genesis 1-11 more or less serves as the introduction to the whole Bible. Themes developed throughout the rest of Scripture begin here. Everything from God's first revelation of Himself; to the creation of the universe, the earth, and humans; to the start of our relationship with and tragic first sin against Him unfolds in these chapters. The rest of the Bible makes little sense if we miss the key truths of Genesis 1-11.

This introduction is also vital to the rest of Genesis and to the other four books of the Pentateuch. The term "Pentateuch" (literally "five scrolls" in Hebrew) denotes the first five books of the Old Testament, the books of Moses (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy). They also go by the title Torah, meaning "instruction" or "law." After our act of treason against God in Genesis 3 and the widespread effects of that sin which follow in chapters 4-11, Genesis 12 begins the story of redemption. God chose Abraham and his family as the means by which He will bring salvations blessings to the whole world.

The books of Exodus through Deuteronomy trace the development of Abrahams family into a great nation. God redeems them from bondage in Egypt, enters into a covenant with them through Moses, then leads them through the wilderness to the border of Canaan. The Bible recognizes Moses, an eyewitness to nearly all the events recorded in these four books, as the author of the Pentateuch. Both written and oral sources available to him likely provided the basic material for Israel's history as recorded in Genesis. These sources may be reflected in the repeated use of the key word toledoth, meaning "generations of" or "accounts of," in the book.

2:4 The account of heaven and earth
5:1 The account of Adam
6:9 The account of Noah
10:1 The account of Noah's sons
11:10 The account of Shem
11:27 The account of Terah
25:12 The account of Ishmael
25:19 The account of Isaac
36:1 The account of Esau
37:2 The account of Jacob

Further, the entire five-book saga flows as a unit, a single narrative. The Hebrew text of Exodus begins with the linking word "and," joining the following events with those closing Genesis. Likewise is the case for Leviticus and Numbers. This latter book ends on the plains of Moab across Jordan from Canaan; Deuteronomy then continues the story with "the words that Moses spoke to all Israel beyond the Jordan" there on the plains of Moab (see Deuteronomy 1:1-5). We should therefore regard Genesis as Moses' introduction to the rest of the Pentateuch.

The period of beginnings develops as follows:

I. The creation account Genesis 1:1-2:25
A. The universe and its contents 1:1-2:4a
B. Human beings in their first dwelling place 2:4b-25
II. Humanity's fall and its consequences 3:1-6:4
A. Human disobedience and expulsion 3:1-24
B. Cain and Abel 4:1-24
C. The generation of Adam 4:25-6:4
III. The flood: God's judgment on humans 6:5-8:19
A. Preparation for the flood 6:5-22
B. The deluge 7:1-8:19
IV. Humanity's new beginning 8:20-11:32
A. The covenant with Noah 8:20-9:19
B. Noah and his sons 9:20-10:32
C. The tower of Babel 11:1-9
D. Shem and his descendants 11:10-32

The Creation Account

The first two chapters of Genesis attest the truth of Hebrews 11:3: "By faith we understand that the universe was created by the word of God, so that what is seen was not made out of things that are visible." Although Genesis 1 and 2 are not a complete account of how the universe came to be, they do provide the setting for God's beginning His relationship with humans. The narrative is therefore earth-centered, detailing how God prepares the planet for people made in His image to live and work, and to know, enjoy, and worship Him. These chapters do offer a true account of origins even though they are not intended as a scientific treatise. God, who spoke to Moses "face-to-face" (Deuteronomy 34:10), is the omniscient narrator of the creation events and no doubt revealed these details to Moses. Such revelation is possible because God is personal and created humans in His image. This God created all things. As the Bible opens, He receives no introduction and no pedigree traces His heritage, as if such a thing were possible. Since He is eternal, His existence is merely assumed as we read: "In the beginning God created...." What follows is, before anything else, His story.

A divine plan in creation

The first two chapters of Genesis present complementary accounts of creation. Chapter one portrays "the big picture," as if a camera lens zoomed out to see the entire sweep of how the universe began. Then follows a time-oriented, orderly sequence describing how God made everything. Fittingly, He is the subject of the first verb in the Bible. This term, bara, "to create," almost always has God as its subject when it occurs in the Old Testament. What's more, He created according to a structural design, as seen in the patterned refrain: "And God said... and it was so/there was.... It was good.... Evening and morning, day one," and so on through six days.

Order is also evident in how His work on these days "formed" and "filled" the nascent earth. According to 1:2, the planet was "formless and empty" (Hebrew tohu and bohu). Three sets of paired days accomplished His purpose:

Forming Filling
Day 1—light separated
from darkness
Day 4—lights define days
and seasons
Day 2—waters above separated
from waters below (sky and sea)
Day 5—creatures made for
sky and sea
Day 3—waters on earth separated
from dry, fertile ground
Day 6—creatures made for
fertile ground

Throughout 1:1-2:3, Moses uses God's name of power and transcendence, Elohim.

Three significant issues surface in the structure and language of Genesis 1. Although some interpreters have speculated that a gap of time existed between 1:1 and 1:2 (The "Gap Theory"), such a view is unnecessary and presents problems for the grammar of the passage. Additionally, the nature of the creative "days" has prompted much comment. A "Day-Age Theory" has suggested that these are not literal 24-hour days but actually long stretches of time which would allow for geological eras. Context and other uses of the word yom, "day," however, make this view unlikely. The chapter also introduces the important theme of "blessing" (Hebrew barak) whose rich meaning will unfold throughout Old Testament history.

Chapter two, while describing the same events as chapter one, does so as more of a personal vignette. Now Moses' "camera" zooms in to focus on a specific place—the garden of Eden—which God prepared for the humans where they could enjoy an ideal relationship with Him. This chapter has the "feel of home" to it: a garden, dust, trees, food, ground, rivers, work, minerals, and animals. Moses refers to God as Yahweh Elohim, "the Lord God," in this setting. His name of relationship, Yahweh, is His covenant name indicating His personal presence with His people and will play a vital role in communicating His character throughout the rest of the Old Testament.

Two notable features link chapters one and two. The first, a literary tie, is 2:1-3. While these verses technically open chapter two, they also serve to close the creative sequence of chapter one. Day seven is a day of ceasing, a day God sets apart and blesses. Another bond these chapters share is God's creation of human beings. In the summary verses 1:26-28, he makes the man and the woman "in his image," a concept vital to understanding human nature and the relationship between God and people forming the core or redemptive history. Chapter two describes this same event using words of artistry and sovereignty: God "formed" the man and "breathed" into him the breath of life (2:7).

The relation of humans to God and creation

This design of human beings as created in God's image has several implications. The fact that people bear His image implies both their significance and their insignificance, depending on where we place emphasis. Humans are valuable because they do reflect God's image; yet we are merely reflections of His nature and character. We are not God or gods. Further, since we reflect the divine nature, we are thinking, feeling, and acting beings. We have a moral center to our lives which displays our Maker's traits; our design in His likeness means that holiness, love, and wisdom inform our character and shape our conscious choices. In one word, we are persons. God is a personal being and we, too, reflect personhood in our makeup. This truth lies at the heart of our knowing God and experiencing Him in a personal relationship.

Genesis 1 and 2 reveal two crucial aspects of this relationship between God and the persons He made. First, in 1:26-28, the Lord gives the man and the woman what many refer to as the Cultural Mandate. They are to serve under His authority as delegated rulers of the earth. Its resources are to provide them with the needed materials to sustain and enhance life. Under the broad dimensions of this mandate they may build families, establish careers, network with friends, construct lifestyle centers, design sports cars, play basketball, cure diseases, and on and on. They must remember, though, God's absolute authority over all they do.

The story of their partnership actually begins in retrospect when Moses describes how God fashioned the woman. Eve becomes the "helper suitable" for the lonely man since no animal provided him with personal companionship (2:18-25). Now the garden became God's loving provision for the two of them to carry out His mandate to enjoy the fruits of life on the earth. Yet Eden also provided the means by which these two people were to prove their loyalty to Yahweh. They would enjoy life in all of its fullness—represented in the tree of life—only if they trusted His word by obeying His command not to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (2:9, 16-17).

Five status updates in Genesis 1-2

  1. God, as the single, sovereign, self-sufficient, glorious Creator made all there is.
  2. God's creation was ordered, coherent, and good—very good, actually.
  3. God's creation of earth was perfectly suited for human beings whom He made in His image in order to have a relationship with them.
  4. Humans live, work, marry, and exercise rule over the earth and are accountable to God—all of which involve their loyal worship of Him as God.
  5. God is distinct from His creation, in contrast to other deities in ancient Near Eastern creation myths.

Humanity's Fall and Its Consequences

In spite of God's ideal provisions for them, Adam and Eve violated their relationship with Him by giving their loyalty to someone else. This tragic fall set up all that follows in the biblical story of redemption. In fact, the rest of Scripture makes little sense without the tragic events of Genesis 3 and the dire effects flowing from the first human rebellion against God. It is important to note that the New Testament verifies that the fall was an actual event, not myth or legend (see Romans 5:12; 1 Timothy 2:13, 14).

Adam and Eve's disobedience and expulsion

The crucial break in Adam and Eve's relationship with God occurred because of their disloyalty to Him. They failed to trust God's word about the fruit of the tree, then disobeyed Him by eating it. In so doing they gave their loyalty to another—the tempter, who came in the form of a serpent. Clearly this rival to God was no mere reptile (see John 8:44; Romans 16:20; 2 Corinthians 11:3; Revelation 12:9; 20:2). This cunning, intelligent enemy of God lied to them and they willingly bought into his ploy. We must realize that their sin was not something as frivolous as eating a piece of fruit; rather, they committed treason against the infinite God who had made them and cared for them.

This God then pronounced judgment on all parties involved—the adversary (later revealed as Satan), the woman, and the man. Yet the Judge tempered judgment with mercy, a principle found throughout Scripture, in the promise that the "seed of the woman" would crush the serpent (3:15). This promise is sometimes called the protevangelium, or "first gospel," and is the first in an unfolding profile of the Messiah, God's Anointed One, who would restore the relationship between people and God (for examples, see Genesis 12:1-3; Numbers 24:17-19; 1 Samuel 2:10; 1 Chronicles 17:11-14; Psalm 2:1-12; Isaiah 7:14; 9:6-7; 52:13-53:12; and others).

The hope of redemption for human beings

The first hint that a new relationship with God might be possible came with the birth of Cain as Eve acknowledged the Lord's role in providing her son (4:1). After Cain's brutal murder of Abel, Adam and Eve found their hopes renewed when Seth was born. During his son's generation, people started "calling upon" (or "proclaiming in") the name of the Lord (4:25). Later generations cherished the hope of seeing relief from the curse, as in the case of Lamech who prophesied at the birth of Noah (5:28-30).

The first murder

Despite this tincture of grace, two rather negative features dominate human history between the fall and the flood (Genesis 4:1-6:8). First, the effects of the fall expand to infect all of society. Second, Scripture focuses primarily on the natural development of human culture, not on human redemption. Cain became the first murderer (4:8). His willful defiance in taking Abel's life grew out of his sacrifice that did not please God. The narrative in Genesis and later biblical texts indicate that Cain lacked Abel's faith and presented his offering with a wrong attitude as reflected in his evil life (see Hebrews 11:4; 1 John 3:12). When the Lord accepted Abel's sacrifice, Cain slaughtered his brother.

The ungodly line of Cain

Cain's family is highlighted in a genealogy which likely covers a lengthy time period (4:16-24). Here we can trace the origin and development of human culture in the ancient Near East. Urban life originates in the city Cain builds. Lamech (not the same man mentioned in Genesis 5) breaks God's pattern for monogamous marriage and defiantly touts his vengeful spirit (4:19, 23-24). In the course of time Cain's descendants cultivate the arts, including music, raise livestock, and develop metallurgy through the use of bronze and iron. Any recognition of or reference to God is conspicuously absent from the record of Cain's family.

The godly line of Seth

In contrast to Cain and his kin, Seth's generation showed a turn toward recognizing God. Seth was God's "appointed," and in the time of his son Enosh, people acknowledged Yahweh (4:25-26). Chapter five of Genesis contains a list of ten generations from Adam through Seth to Noah. Sadly this roster confirms the reign of death now ruling the human family as it repeats with ghastly regularity for each individual, "and he died." Except, that is, for Enoch. His life did not end in death. Because of his fellowship with God, the Lord "took him" (5:22-23). And when Noah was born, as noted above, his father Lamech expressed again the hope that humans would find relief from the curse under which people had suffered since God drove Adam and Eve from Eden.

The Flood: God's Judgment

In the days of Noah, human wickedness reached staggering levels. According to 6:5, evil had infected people to the core dominating all of life all the time. God regretted making human beings and planned to destroy the race (6:13, 17). Once again, however, mercy tempered judgment when God gave them a warning period of 120 years prior to the impending destruction. While the race as a whole continued to corrupt the earth and increase in its lust for power, God assured Noah that He would establish His covenant with him and his descendants (6:12, 18).

The Lord therefore commanded Noah to build an ark to keep he and his family safe during the coming flood. This ark, which was some 450' long, 75' wide, and 45' deep (assuming an 18" cubit) provided enough room for two each of the unclean animal species and for seven each of the clean. During the 377 days the flood waters covered the earth, God preserved life in the ark. This deluge was the most universal and severe judgment upon the human race in Old Testament times. Doubtless its effects were cataclysmic for the earths geological makeup. Yet its purpose was to destroy sinful humanity and at the same time renew the race through a godly remnant.

At the center of the flood narrative stands Noah, who alone with his family escaped death (6:9; 8:1). Throughout the period leading up to the flood, according to the text of Genesis, Noah obeyed God. Other references in Scripture to this divine judgment point to it as a warning for the rest of humanity (see Luke 17:27; Hebrews 11:7; 1 Peter 3:20; 2 Peter 2:5; 3:3-7). Through the flood God accomplished His purpose and established His covenant with Noah and his family.

Humanity's New Beginning

The renovated world after the flood offered people a new opportunity. In a sense, Noah was another Adam "blessed" by God and commissioned to "be fruitful and fill the earth" (9:1, 7; see 1:28). Noah's first act upon leaving the ark was building an altar to worship God.

God's covenant with Noah

In keeping with His promise of 6:18, God entered into a covenant with Noah. This unilateral or one-sided pledge involved Yahweh's word that He would never again destroy the world by a flood. He sealed the promise with the sign of the rainbow (9:11-17). God sustained human life by providing both animal and plant life for food. He also established human government, calling for proper punishment when one person took the life of another (9:6). The human race still awaited final redemption, however, still reeling from the curse of sin despite this new beginning. Canaan, Noah's grandson, received a curse because of his father Ham's disrespectful treatment of Noah (9:20-27). Many centuries later Ham's character flaw resurfaced in his descendants, the Canaanites. Yahweh then brought judgment upon them when He commanded Joshua and the Israelites to destroy them.

The tower of Babel

For a certain period of time the human race apparently remained in one area as a single cultural unit sharing a common language (11:1-9). They defied God's edict to spread out over the earth, however, as the effects of sin continued to afflict humanity. Their pride and rebellion against God was evident as they planned to build a tower in the land of Shinar. But God intervened and put an end to their mutiny by confusing their language. The name given to the place, "Babel," means "confusion" or "mixing."

The dispersion of Noah's sons

Genesis 10 describes the ethnic and geographic distribution of the human family. We should note that in chronological order chapter 10 actually follows 11:1-9. Seventy descendants of Noah's three sons and the nations they fathered spread out across parts of what are now the continents of Europe, Africa, and Asia. Japheth and his sons settled north and west in regions later known as Indo-European, specifically Greece; the Aegean, Caspian, and Black Seas; and Spain (10:2-5). The sons of Ham migrated south to Africa in places later called Egypt, Ethiopia, Libya, and others (10:6-14). Shem's family (the Semites) occupied the Persian Gulf region east of Canaan stretching north to south in the land later known as Mesopotamia (10:21-31).

The messianic line of Shem

Genesis 1-11 closes by narrowing the line from Adam to focus on one of Noah's sons, Shem (10:21-31; 11:10-32). The genealogy lists ten generations of Shem's descendants culminating with the family of Terah who migrated from Ur to Haran. Terah's son Abram, whose name later becomes Abraham (17:5), then took center stage in the story. God chose Abram to become the father of His elect people Israel and entered into a covenant with him. Through this nation and this covenant Yahweh planned to bring Messiah into the world so that He could bless all the nations by reconciling them to Himself (see Genesis 12:1-3; 22:15-18; Matthew 1:1-2; Acts 3:25-26; Romans 15:8-9; Galatians 3:8-9). The rest of the Old Testament is primarily the history and literature of these chosen people through whom God will work to make redemption available to all people.