Genesis

The Book of Beginnings

Title

God started everything. The Bible doesn’t begin with an argument for God’s existence; it begins by accepting that our existence depends on God. The ancient Greek translation of the Old Testament (called the Septuagint, or LXX) titled this first book Genesis, meaning “origins.” Eventually, English translators borrowed the word directly. The title used in Hebrew texts simply highlights the very first word, which means “in the beginning.”

Author and Date

Although Genesis does not name its author, and the events described in the text end almost three centuries before his birth, both the OT (Ex. 17:14; Num. 33:2; Josh. 8:31; 1 Ki. 2:3; 2 Ki. 14:6; Ezra 6:18; Neh. 13:1; Dan. 9:11, 13; Mal. 4:4) and the NT (Matt. 8:4; Mark 12:26; Luke 16:29; 24:27, 44; John 5:46; 7:22; Acts 15:1; Rom. 10:19; 1 Cor. 9:9; 2 Cor. 3:15) designate Moses as the author. In addition, Moses’ educational background makes him the likely candidate (Acts 7:22).

No compelling reasons have been offered to challenge Mosaic authorship. It’s estimated that Moses wrote Genesis in approximately 1445 to 1405 b.c. For a brief biographical sketch of Moses, read Exodus 1-6.

Background and Setting

The initial setting for Genesis is eternity past—before there was time. God, by willful act and divine word, spoke all creation into existence, furnished it, and finally breathed life into a lump of dirt that He fashioned in His image to become Adam. God made human beings the crowning point of His creation; that is, companions who would enjoy fellowship with Him and bring glory to His name.

The historical background for the early events in Genesis is clearly Mesopotamia. While it is difficult to pinpoint precisely the historical time frame in which this book was written, Israel first heard Genesis sometime prior to crossing the Jordan River and entering the Promised Land (ca. 1405 b.c.).

Genesis has three distinct and sequential geographical settings: (1) Mesopotamia (chapters 1-11); (2) the Promised Land (chapters 12-36); (3) Egypt (chapters 37-50). The time frames of these three segments are (1) creation to 2090 b.c.; (2) 2090 to 1897 b.c.; (3) 1897 to 1804 b.c. It’s notable that Genesis covers a longer span of history than any other book of the Bible.

Key People in Genesis

Historical and Theological Themes

In this book of beginnings, God revealed Himself and a new way of viewing the world to the children of Israel, which contrasted, at times sharply, with that of Israel’s neighbors. The author made no attempt to defend the existence of God or to present a thorough explanation of His person and works. Rather, Israel’s God distinguished Himself clearly from the alleged gods of her neighbors. Theological foundations are revealed which include God the Father, God the Son, God the Holy Spirit, man, sin, redemption, covenant, promise, Satan and angels, kingdom, revelation, Israel, judgment, and blessing.

Genesis 1-11 reveals the origins of the universe, i.e., the beginnings of time and space and many of the firsts in human experience, such as marriage, family, the Fall, sin, redemption, judgment, and nations. Genesis 12-50 explained to Israel how they came into existence as a family whose ancestry could be traced to Eber (hence the “Hebrews”; Gen. 10:24-25) and even more remotely to Shem, the son of Noah (hence the “Semites”; Gen. 10:21). God’s people came to understand not only their ancestry and family history, but also the origins of their institutions, customs, languages, and different cultures, especially basic human experiences such as sin and death.

Christ in ... Genesis

Jesus' Entrance Into Humanity was planned from before the beginning of time. God softened the punishment of the curse that resulted from the sin of Adam and Eve by offering a promise that someday a Seed would rise up to crush the serpent (3:15). Even though death came through Adam, Christ’s coming brought life to humankind (Rom. 5:12-21).

Genesis goes on to trace the first lines in God’s divine blueprint for Jesus’ birth. From the peoples of the earth, God singled out Abraham to be the father of a chosen nation. This nation continued through Abraham’s son Isaac, and then through Isaac’s son Jacob, concluding with the account of Jacob’s son Joseph. Genesis reveals God’s continual protection over the earliest people in Christ’s lineage.

Because they were preparing to enter Canaan and dispossess the Canaanite inhabitants of their homes and properties, God revealed their enemies’ backgrounds. In addition, they needed to understand the actual basis of the war they were about to declare, in light of the immorality of killing consistent with the other four books that Moses was writing (Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy). Ultimately, the Jewish nation would understand a selected portion of preceding world history and its own national background as a basis by which they would live in their new beginnings under Joshua’s leadership in the land, which had been promised to their original patriarchal forefather, Abraham.

Genesis 12:1-3 established a primary focus on God’s promises to Abraham. This narrowed their view from the entire world of peoples in Genesis 1-11 to one small nation, Israel, through whom God would progressively accomplish His redemptive plan. This underscored Israel’s mission to be “a light to the Gentiles” (Isa. 42:6). God promised land, descendants (seed), and blessing. This three-fold promise became, in turn, the basis of the covenant with Abraham (Gen. 15:1-20). The rest of Scripture bears out the fulfillment of these promises.

On a larger scale, Genesis 1-11 set forth a singular message about the character and works of God. In the sequence of accounts which make up these chapters of Scripture, a pattern emerges that reveals God’s abundant grace as He responded to the willful disobedience of mankind. Without exception, in each account God increased the manifestation of His grace. But also without exception, man responded in greater sinful rebellion. In biblical words, the more sin abounded the more did God’s grace abound (cf. Rom. 5:20).

One final theme of both theological and historical significance sets Genesis apart from other books of Scripture, in that the first book of Scripture corresponds closely with the final book. In the Book of Revelation, the paradise that was lost in Genesis will be regained. The apostle John clearly presented the events recorded in his book as future resolutions to the problems that began as a result of the curse in Genesis 3. His focus is upon the effects of the Fall in the undoing of creation and the manner in which God rids His creation of the curse effect. In John’s own words, “And there shall be no more curse” (Rev. 22:3). Not surprisingly, in the final chapter of God’s Word, believers will find themselves back in the Garden of Eden, the eternal paradise of God, eating from the tree of life (Rev. 22:1-14). At that time they will partake, wearing robes washed in the blood of the Lamb (Rev. 22:14).

Key Doctrines in Genesis

Most of the central teachings of Christianity have their roots in the Book of Genesis.

KEY WORDS IN

Genesis

God: Hebrew plural elohim—1:1, 12; 19:29; 24:42; 28:3; 35:11; 45:9; 50:24—the most used Hebrew term for God. The basic meaning is “the Almighty.” The Hebrew usage of this term in Genesis is called “the plural of majesty.” Unlike a normal plural, the Hebrew uses this plural to mean “the Fullness of Deity” or “God-Very God!” The plural form of this word has traditionally been recognized as indicating the plural nature of God. God is one, but God is also three distinct persons: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

Heavens: Hebrew shamayim—1:1, 8, 9; 2:1; 8:2; 11:4; 14:22; 24:3; 28:12. The Hebrew word for heavens may refer to the physical heavens, the sky and the atmosphere of earth (2:1, 4, 19), or to the dwelling place of God (Psalm 14:2), the spiritual heaven. The expression is related to the term for “to be high, lofty.” The physical heavens of creation testify to God’s glorious position and also to His creative genius (Psalm 19:1, 6).

Land: Hebrew erets—1:1, 10; 4:16; 12:1; 13:10; 41:36; 31:3; 35:12. The common OT word for land possesses several shades of meaning. In essence, all land belongs to God as its Creator (Psalm 24:1). When God promised the Israelites the land of Canaan, it was His to give. The land of Canaan was so representative of God’s covenant with the Israelites (12:1) that it became one of their identifying characteristics—the “people of the land” (13:15; 15:7).

Seed: Hebrew zera—1:11, 29; 13:15, 16; 15:18; 17:19; 28:14; 48:19; 32:12. The Hebrew word for seed can literally mean a plant’s seed (1:11, 12), or can figuratively mean one’s descendants (13:15). In Genesis, it refers specifically to the coming Messiah, in God’s promise that the woman’s Seed would crush the serpent (3:15; Num. 24:7; Isa. 6:13; Gal. 3:16). As such, the term takes on great importance in the Bible: Through Abraham’s seed, both collectively in Israel and singularly in Christ, God would reach out to save His people (15:3).

God’s Character in Genesis

Many of God’s character traits are first revealed in Genesis.

Interpretive Challenges

Grasping the individual messages of Genesis that make up the larger plan and purpose of the book presents no small challenge since both the individual accounts and the book’s overall message offer important lessons to faith and works. Genesis presents creation by divine fiat, ex nihilo, i.e., “out of nothing.” Three traumatic events of epic proportions, namely the Fall, the universal Flood, and the Dispersion of nations are presented as historical backdrop in order to understand world history. From Abraham on, the pattern is to focus on God’s redemption and blessing.

The customs of Genesis often differ considerably from those of our modern day. They must be explained against their ancient Near Eastern background. Each custom must be treated according to the immediate context of the passage before any attempt is made to explain it based on customs recorded in extrabiblical sources or even elsewhere in Scripture.

Outline

Genesis by content is comprised of two basic sections: (1) Primitive history (Gen. 1-11) and (2) Patriarchal history (Gen. 12-50). Primitive history records 4 major events: (1)Creation (Gen. 1-2); (2) the Fall (Gen. 3-5); (3) the Flood (Gen. 6-9); and (4) the Dispersion (Gen. 10-11). Patriarchal history spotlights four great men: (1) Abraham (Gen. 12:1-25:8); (2) Isaac (Gen. 21:1-35:29); (3) Jacob (Gen. 25:21-50:14); and (4) Joseph (Gen. 30:22-50:26).

The literary structure of Genesis is built on the frequently recurring phrase “the history/genealogy of” and is the basis for the following outline.

  1. The Creation of Heaven and Earth (1:1-2:3)
  2. The Generations of the Heavens and the Earth (2:4-4:26)
    1. Adam and Eve in Eden (2:4-25)
    2. The Fall and Its Outcomes (chap. 3)
    3. Murder of a Brother (4:1-24)
    4. Hope in the Descendants of Seth (4:25-26)
  3. The Generations of Adam (5:1-6:8)
    1. Genealogy—Seth to Noah (chap. 5)
    2. Rampant Sin Prior to the Flood (6:1-8)
  4. The Generations of Noah (6:9-9:29)
    1. Preparation for the Flood (6:9-7:9)
    2. The Flood and Deliverance (7:10-8:19)
    3. God’s Noahic Covenant (8:20-9:17)
    4. The History of Noah’s Descendants (9:18-29)
  5. The Generations of Shem, Ham, and Japheth (10:1-11:9)
    1. The Nations (chap. 10)
    2. Dispersion of the Nations (11:1-9)
  6. The Generations of Shem: Genealogy of Shem to Terah (11:10-26)
  7. The Generations of Terah (11:27-25:11)
    1. Genealogy (11:27-32)
    2. The Abrahamic Covenant: His Land and People (12:1-22:19)
      1. Journey to the Promised Land (12:1-9)
      2. Redemption from Egypt (12:10-20)
      3. Division of the land (chap. 13)
      4. Victory over the kings (chap. 14)
      5. The covenant ratified (chap. 15)
      6. Rejection of Hagar and Ishmael (chap. 16)
      7. The covenant confirmed (chap. 17)
      8. Birth of Isaac foretold (18:1-15)
      9. Sodom and Gomorrah (18:16-19:38)
      10. Philistine encounter (chap. 20)
      11. Isaac’s birth (chap. 21)
      12. Abraham’s act of faith with Isaac (22:1-19)
    3. Abraham’s Promised Seed (22:20-25:11)
      1. Rebekah’s background (22:20-24)
      2. Death of Sarah (chap. 23)
      3. Isaac’s marriage to Rebekah (chap. 24)
      4. Isaac the only heir (25:1-6)
      5. Death of Abraham (25:7-11)
  8. The Generations of Ishmael (25:12-18)
  9. The Generations of Isaac (25:19-35:29)
    1. Competition Between Esau and Jacob (25:19-34)
    2. Covenant Blessings to Isaac (chap. 26)
    3. Jacob’s Deception for the Blessing (27:1-40)
    4. Blessing on Jacob in a Foreign Land (27:41-32:32)
      1. Jacob sent to Laban (27:41-28:9)
      2. Angel at Bethel (28:10-22)
      3. Disagreements with Laban (29:1-30)
      4. Promised seed (29:31-30:24)
      5. Departure from Aram (30:25-31:55)
      6. Angels at Mahanaim and Penuel (chap. 32)
    5. Esau’s Reunion and Reconciliation with Jacob (33:1-17)
    6. Events and Deaths from Shechem to Mamre (33:18-35:29)
  10. The Generations of Esau (36:1-37:1)
  11. The Generations of Jacob (37:2-50:26)
    1. Joseph’s Dreams (37:2-11)
    2. Family Tragedy (37:12-38:30)
    3. Vice Regency over Egypt (chaps. 39-41)
    4. Reunion with Family (chaps. 42-45)
    5. Transition to Exodus (chaps. 46-50)
      1. Journey to Egypt (46:1-27)
      2. Occupation in Goshen (46:28-47:31)
      3. Blessings on the twelve tribes (48:1-49:28)
      4. Death and burial of Jacob in Canaan (49:29-50:14)
      5. Death of Joseph in Egypt (50:15-26)

Answers to Tough Questions

1. How does the Bible challenge or agree with current scientific theories?

Scientific theories, by their very definition, are subject to change and adjustment. Scripture remains as God’s revealed, unchanging declaration of truth. The Bible was not written as a challenge to any particular scientific theory, but scientific theories have often been designed to challenge or undermine biblical statements. They either agree with Scripture or are mistaken.

The description in Genesis 1:1 that “God created the heavens and the earth” yields three basic conclusions: (1) creation was a recent event measured in thousands not millions of years ago; (2) creation was ex nihilo, meaning that God created out of nothing; (3) creation was special, with light and time being the first of God’s creative acts, since the day-count (1:5) began before the creation of sun and moon (1:16).

2. What do Christians mean when they talk about the Fall?

The Fall refers to that moment in time when human beings first disobeyed God. Chapter 3 tells the painful episode. What Eve set into motion, Adam confirmed and completed by joining her. They sinned together. The willful decision of Adam and Eve created a state of rebellion between the creation and her Creator. In the Fall, our first ancestors declared us on Satan’s side.

The Bible makes it clear that the Fall brought sin into every subsequent person’s life (Rom. 5:12). Our capacity for sin is inborn. We are sinners before we have the opportunity to sin. Not only are we sinners because we sin; we first sin because we are sinners. Why? Because we have all inherited the effects of Adam’s fall.

3. How significant is the Flood in the overall biblical history?

The Bible treats the Flood as a worldwide event directly brought by God as a judgment on the sin of humanity. The Flood hangs like a warning cloud over all of subsequent history. Fortunately, that cloud also holds a rainbow of God’s promised grace.

The Flood illustrates several important aspects of God’s character and God’s relationship with His creation: (1) God retains ultimate control of world events; (2) God can and will judge sin; (3) God can and does exercise grace even in judgment; (4) an even more universal and final judgment will be carried out on the world based on God’s timetable.

4. Why did God cause the multiplication of languages and the dispersion of peoples in Genesis?

After the Flood, human civilization again began to spread across the earth. Later, the people decided to establish a city in tribute to themselves and as a way to keep from spreading across the earth (11:4). This was a double, prideful rebellion against God. First, their city, with its proposed tower, was to be a monument to their self-reliance. Second, the permanence of their settlement represented an effort to disobey God’s direct command to inhabit the whole earth.

Because God purposed to fill the earth with custodians, He responded to the people’s prideful rebellion. They had chosen to settle; He forced them to scatter. Their cooperation and self-reliance had been based on their shared language. Instead of using all their resources to obey God, they misused them for disobedience. God chose to complicate communication by multiplying the languages. The location where this confusion took place became known as Babel (related to a Hebrew word meaning “to confuse”). Later it became Babylon, the constant enemy of God’s people, and throughout Scripture the capital of human rebellion against God (Rev. 16:19; 17:5).

5. How are we to interpret the Bible (narratives in Genesis) when the customs of ancient peoples seem so different than our own?

Three tools help us in the task of interpreting events that happened so long ago and so far away: (1) The best interpretive tool in understanding a Bible passage is its immediate context. Surrounding verses will often yield clues to the observant about foreign or unusual details in a particular account. (2) One part of the Bible often explains, expands, and comments on another part. An ever-growing familiarity with all of Scripture will equip a student with significant insight into the culture of those who lived the history. (3) Some insight can be gained from ancient sources outside of Scripture, but these only supplement our primary sources in the Bible itself.

Once we are at home in the exotic and unfamiliar contexts of Scripture, we meet people in the Bible pages who are very much like us. These are not aliens, but our ancestors across the ages. Their struggles are ours. Their failures are all too familiar to us. The God who spoke to them still speaks to us.

MEANWHILE, IN OTHER PARTS OF THE WORLD...

Until after the Flood (chapters 6-9), world events center in the Middle East. Populations expand widely after Babel (chapter 11). By the time of the Patriarchs (about 2150 b.c.), Egypt is the world power. Egyptians are already using papyrus and ink for writing.

Further Study On Genesis

  1. How important is it to acknowledge God’s creative role in the origin of the universe as described in Genesis?
  2. What role do Adam and Eve play in the history of the human race?
  3. How much would we know about God if we only had the Book of Genesis?
  4. What biblical significance is given to such events as the eviction from the Garden of Eden, the Flood, the Tower of Babel?
  5. How does God’s promise to Abraham (12:1-3) affect the whole world?
  6. Who are the heroes of this book? Why?