GENESIS

MAIN POINT:

God created and sustains everything that exists. Though sin damaged God's creation and his relationship with humanity, God is at work in the world restoring both.

WRITER:

The book doesn't name the writer. An old Jewish tradition says Moses wrote the first five books in the Bible—Genesis through Deuteronomy. But Abraham, the book's starring character, lived at least 700 years before Moses, and perhaps almost 1,000 years. Many Bible experts say Genesis is a collection of stories passed down by word of mouth from one generation to the next. They say Jewish scholars assembled these stories into a book hundreds of years after Moses, during the time when kings ruled Israel.

DATE:

Genesis begins at the beginning of time and continues into the lifetime of Abraham's great-grandson, Joseph, who lived in about 1800 bc.

LOCATION:

The stories cover a lot of Middle Eastern territory, including what are now the countries of Iraq, Syria, Turkey, Israel, and Egypt.

God creates a wonderful universe, with the perfect world for humans. But it doesn't stay perfect for long.

If God's to blame, it's for giving humans the freedom to make their own decisions. The Bible, however, teaches that humans are the ones responsible because they misused that freedom.

God creates the first couple, Adam and Eve. He gives them the run of the planet and only one rule to obey. It's one rule too many. They aren't supposed to eat fruit from a particular tree. But they eat it anyway.

This sin not only hurts their intimate relationship with God. It somehow contaminates the entire world—like a spiritual toxin that breaks into the physical dimension. Paradise is lost.

The rest of the Bible is the story of God working to rebuild his relationship with humanity, to get rid of sin, and to restore his perfect creation.

Genesis tells about the beginning of God's restoration plan. God starts with one man who trusts him completely: Abraham. God promises to produce from Abraham a race of descendants who will be devoted to the Lord—a chosen people who will teach the world the value of choosing obedience to God over disobedience.

Abraham has two sons, Ishmael and Isaac. But only Isaac will continue the family line that produces the chosen people. Isaac also has two sons, Esau and Jacob. But only Jacob's family grows into the nation devoted to God. Jacob has 12 sons, and they become the founding fathers of Israel's 12 tribes.

By the end of Genesis, Jacob's extended family has fled a drought in what is now Israel. They are living as welcome refugees in Egypt. Unfortunately, they will wear out their welcome. But that's the story of Moses and the Exodus.

LOTS OF BEGINNINGS

There are plenty of good reasons to call this book Genesis. That name comes from a Greek word. It means "origin," "birth," or "beginning." And this is a book full of beginnings:

  • the universe
  • humanity
  • sin
  • civilization
  • the Jewish nation

CREATOR at work

In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was formless and empty, and darkness covered the deep waters. And the Spirit of God was hovering over the surface of the waters.

Genesis 1:1-2

God creates the physical universe, from the most distant stars to the starlight reflected in human eyes. In the creation story, God's work extends over seven days.

BIBLE BOOKS OUT OF ORDER

Creation starts the Bible, in the book of Genesis. The end of the world finishes it, in Revelation. That could lead us to think the Bible is printed in chronological order. But it's not.

If it were, Job would likely come after Genesis. That's because Job seems to have lived in about the time of Abraham, whose story appears in Genesis. Instead, Job's story comes after Esther, though this Persian queen wasn't born for at least 1,500 years after Abraham and Job.

The Bible is a library of 66 books written in many genres and over a span of more than a thousand years. How the books ended up in the order we find them in our Bibles today is complicated—so complicated that it leaves Bible experts guessing.

In Old Testament times, the books in the Jewish Bible were divided into several sections: Law, Prophets, and Writings. And the first section—the first five books in the Bible—seems to have been the earliest material the Jews considered sacred. Next came the Prophets. And then the Writings, which include books like Psalms, Job, and Esther.

The New Testament also fells into several categories. There are the four Gospels about Jesus. Next comes the story of how the church got started (Acts). Then there's a stack of letters, generally arranged from the longest to the shortest. That's why Paul's 16-chapter letter to the Romans comes first and Jude's one-chapter letter comes last. The prophecy in Revelation wraps up the Bible, turning all eyes to the future that God has in store for his people.

Some people read this creation story as a myth. Others read it like a science book, searching for clues about how the universe unfolded—some insisting that the story took place over seven 24-hour days.

WHY ARE WE HERE?

That's the big question. Why in the world did God create human beings?

Was he lonely? Did he have the same desire for children that many adults have today? Did he want someone to love—and to love him back?

Though Genesis doesn't directly answer those questions, it does provide at least one line of a job description for humans—a purpose for life: "They will reign over the fish in the sea, the birds in the sky, the livestock, all the wild animals on the earth, and the small animals that scurry along the ground" (Genesis 1:26).

There may be many reasons why God put human beings on this planet. But one of the reasons is to take care of his creation—to "tend and watch over it" (Genesis 2:15).

Many Bible experts say both approaches are too extreme. The story is no more a myth than God is, because the point of the story is to show that God created everything. In ancient times, there were many creation stories and many gods who got the credit. But the Bible writer wants to make sure the credit goes to where the credit belongs.

Many experts say there's also a problem reading this story like science. It was, after all, written some 2,500 years before Galileo launched the scientific revolution. That happened in the 1500s, when Galileo and others declared that the earth revolves around the sun. Scientists reading Genesis today might wonder how plants could grow (day three) before the sun was created (day four). They might also wonder why some Christians insist that the story took place over seven 24-hour days when the sun that is used to measure 24 hours wasn't created until day four.

In the Hebrew language, as in English, day can mean 24 hours, or something much longer: "In Abraham's day." That's part of the reason many Christians have no trouble with the idea that God may have taken eons to create the universe.

Yet Christians who prefer the literal six-day approach to creation offer a few questions of their own. If God created the world over a period of eons instead of 24-hour days, how could fruit trees have survived that long? Genesis says God created trees with seed-bearing fruit on day three. Yet it wasn't until the next day—or eon as some Christians would argue—that he created the insects necessary to pollinate those fruit trees.

The creation story has a finale—humanity: "Let us make human beings in our image, to be like us" (Genesis 1:26). Earlier, God had declared his work "good." But after creating humans, he upped his evaluation: "He saw that it was very good!" (Genesis 1:31).

ONE RULE too many

"You may freely eat the fruit of every tree in the garden—except the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. If you eat its fruit you are sure to die."

Genesis 2:16-17

Before there are 10 Commandments, there's just one. Adam and Eve aren't supposed to eat fruit from a particular tree in the Garden of Eden.

Why the fruit is off-limits is anyone's guess. Perhaps Adam and Eve aren't mature enough to eat fruit that gives insight about good and evil. Maybe God intends to give them that knowledge later.

A talking snake, described later in the Bible as "the ancient serpent called the devil, or Satan" (Revelation 12:9), convinces Eve to eat the fruit.

"You won't die!" the serpent tells her. "Your eyes will be opened as soon as you eat it, and you will be like God, knowing both good and evil" (Genesis 3:4-5).

Eve eats. She convinces Adam to do the same.

That single act of disobedience somehow changes life on this planet—for the worse. The rest of the Bible is the story of God working to correct the damage and to defeat sin.

Decimated. That's a fair word to describe what happens to the intimate relationship between God and humanity. Once upon a time, Adam and Eve had recognized the sound of God's footsteps, apparently because he spent time "walking in the garden" (Genesis 3:10). But now God orders the couple out of his garden, forever.

Some Bible readers speculate that:

If so, all that changes. Adam and Eve will eventually die. In the meantime, their survival will depend on Adam's hard work at battling weeds, weather, and critters to grow enough food to survive. Humanity will survive only through painful childbirth.

THE ORIGINAL SIN

Some Bible experts, especially in past centuries, have speculated that the world's first sin somehow changed God's creation in a physical way—even to the point of genetically altering humans. In other words, those experts are speculating that it's like Eden's forbidden fruit contained a chemical that tripped our DNA sin switch—and that ever since, humans have suffered from the effects of what theologians call "original sin" or the "sinful nature."

The effects are this: Given the choice of taking a walk on the sinfully wild side or the righteously mild side, we'll generally go wild.

Most Bible experts today reject this physics-bound theory about original sin, as though the idea is a few loony birds shy of a flock. They argue—with what certainly seems like solid logic—that if sin's a physical problem, we'll one day find a cure. And once we do, future generations can spend their free time debating whose sins Jesus died for. That, of course, doesn't track with the New Testament, which teaches that it's Jesus who saves us.

This much is clear, both in Bible teaching and in the personal observations of most people: "Everyone has sinned" (Romans 3:23).

How sin got a grip on people remains a mystery. But the Bible does tell us when it started: "When Adam sinned, sin entered the world. Adam's sin brought death, so death spread to everyone, for everyone sinned" (Romans 5:12).

The Bible also tells us how to break sin's grip: "Who will free me from this life that is dominated by sin and death? Thank God! The answer is in Jesus Christ our Lord... because you belong to him, the power of the life-giving Spirit has freed you from the power of sin that leads to death" (Romans 7:24-25; 8:2). (See also "Sinful Nature: The Short Course," page 382.)

WHAT "SONS OF GOD" married human women?

The sons of God saw the beautiful women and took any they wanted as their wives.

Genesis 6:2

The Bible adds that children of these matches became the heroes and famous warriors of ancient times.

This puzzles Bible experts. They offer three theories about who the "sons of God" were.

An angel of a husband. Angels were the "sons of God" that Genesis says married human women. That's the oldest theory about who those mysterious figures were. But other theories point to national leaders and to holy men.

NOAH and the flood

"I am about to cover the earth with a flood that will destroy every living thing that breathes."

Genesis 6:17

A WORLDWIDE FLOOD?

Bible experts debate whether the flood covered the entire world as we know it, or the entire world as the ancients knew it—perhaps just the region where civilization started.

The first known Middle Eastern cities sprang up in the fertile river valleys of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, in what is now Iraq and Iran. These rivers provided water for the people, animals, and crops. And they served as riverboat highways. Archaeologists have found evidence of massive floods that wiped out cities along the rivers.

But there was another flood farther north in about 4500 bc, geologists estimate. This flood took place about 200 miles north of Mount Ararat—the highest peak in the Ararat range. A whopper of a deluge, this flood turned the Black Sea from a freshwater lake to an ocean. It happened when the ocean broke through a narrow strip of land at what became the Bosporus Strait. Salt water rushed into the lake basin with the force of many Niagara Falls, pushing back the shoreline many miles.

Whether or not Noah's flood covered the entire earth, flood stories certainly do. They're woven into about 70 cultures—from Middle Easterners, to the American Indians, to the Chinese, to the South Pacific islanders.

The Epic of Gilgamesh, an ancient story from what is now Iraq, even tells of a Babylonian man who survived a flood by building a huge boat for his family and animals. Like Noah, he released a dove after the flood to see if it would find a resting place. The dove came back, just as it did for Noah.

Within 10 generations, people have become so sinful that "the Lord was sorry he had ever made them and put them on the earth. It broke his heart" (Genesis 6:6).

He decides to start over. He starts with the family of the only good human on earth: Noah. God decides to wash away the sin—and the sinners—with a massive flood. At God's instruction, Noah and his three sons build a floating warehouse that's longer than a football field, half as wide, and about four stories high.

The boat has the storage capacity of about 370 railroad boxcars, minus whatever interior space is used for support beams and walls. Noah loads the boat with supplies and with pairs of land animals, male and female.

For 40 days—perhaps a round number that simply means a long time—rain thunders down and geysers spray up from wells deep underground. By then, even the mountain peaks are entertaining curious fish.

Five months later, Noah's boat scrapes to a halt, running aground on a mountain in the Ararat range. That's somewhere on the border of what is now Turkey, Iran, and Armenia. But Noah and his passengers have to wait inside a little over a year. That's how long it takes for the land to dry out enough for Noah's family and the animals to leave the boat and begin repopulating the region.

God fills the sky with a rainbow. It's the seal on a promise he makes: "Never again will the floodwaters destroy all life" (Genesis 9:15).

ABRAHAM: Iraqi father of the Jews

"I am giving all this land, as far as you can see, to you and your descendants as a permanent possession. And I will give you so many descendants that, like the dust of the earth, they cannot be counted."

Genesis 13:15-16

Abraham grows up in the Euphrates River town of Ur, in what is now southern Iraq. It's the New York City of its day—busy, wealthy, and bursting with culture: art, crafts, and the oldest written language on record, called cuneiform. Instead of using an alphabet, ink, and paper, writers use reed sticks to press pictures into soft clay.

For reasons unknown, Abraham's father, Terah, decides to move his entire extended family to the boonies of Canaan. That's a bit like a New Yorker moving to the cornfields of Des Moines—both in distance and in culture shock. Perhaps Terah has a feeling in the 2100s bc that Ur is ripe for invasion. In fact, invaders arrive about a century later.

Terah stops halfway to Canaan. He settles some 600 miles upriver in the busy caravan town of Haran, on Turkey's side of the border with Syria. After Terah dies, God tells Abraham to finish the trip to Canaan. That's when God promises to grow Abraham's family into a great nation.

Quite a promise for a childless 75-year-old man with a 66-year-old wife.

But Abraham obeys God. So he packs up and moves his household entourage and his herds south to what is now Israel.

A decade later—and still no kids—Abraham's wife, Sarah, decides it's time to call in a surrogate mother. Ancient Middle Eastern custom allows it. By law, this child will belong to Sarah and Abraham. Sarah chooses her Egyptian-born servant, Hagar, as the substitute mother. Hagar gives birth to Abraham's first son, Ishmael.

But God says the son he has in mind for Abraham will come from Sarah. God actually shows up as a traveler in Abraham's camp and says so. Sarah overhears this. She's 91 at the time—way too old to have kids, she thinks, but not too old to laugh. God hears the laugh and assures her, in his gentle way, that he'll get the last laugh.

Within the year, Sarah gives birth to a boy. She names him Isaac, Hebrew for "laughter." Seems appropriate given the history, as well as the future. Isaac would fill the tent of his parents with joy.

Sarah doesn't want Isaac to grow up having to split Abraham's wealth with Ishmael. In these days, the oldest son usually gets a double share of the inheritance and becomes leader of the extended family. So Sarah convinces Abraham to send Hagar and her son away. God approves, promising to take care of both sons and to make them each into great nations.

DID PEOPLE REALLY LIVE HUNDREDS OF YEARS?

Before the devastating flood, people generally lived for centuries, according to the Bible. Some lived almost 1,000 years.

Methuselah lived longest: 969 years. If people lived that long today, Richard the Lionheart might still be telling his war stories—from the Crusades.

As high as these numbers are, they're dwarfed by those in other ancient records. A clay prism from the world's first known civilization, Sumer, in what is now Iraq, says only eight kings ruled the land up until the flood—and those eight ruled for a total of 241,200 years. That's an average of 30,000 years per king. The shortest reign was 18,600 years.

Maybe the ancients measured time differently than we do, some history experts guess. Or maybe these are polite exaggerations, a way of honoring beloved leaders—perhaps a bit like giving some folks today honorary doctorates even though they didn't spend a day in college.

Others wonder if the numbers might be accurate. Perhaps the flood somehow changed the world in a way that drastically cut life spans. Maybe constant cloud cover before the flood gave way to blue skies and harmful sun rays. Or maybe the geysers released toxins previously buried deep in the earth.

Isaac's descendants become the Jewish people. Ishmael is considered father of the Arab people. Ishmael has a dozen sons who start a dozen tribes scattered from Egypt to Saudi Arabia.

THEORIES on the toasting of Sodom

The Lord rained down fire and burning sulfur from the sky on Sodom and Gomorrah. He utterly destroyed them, along with the other cities and villages of the plain, wiping out all the people and every bit of vegetation.

Genesis 19:24-25

The twin sin cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, along with their satellite villages, were notorious in Bible times for "pride, gluttony, and laziness, while the poor and needy suffered outside her door" (Ezekiel 16:49). And because some men in Sodom tried to gang-rape angels sent to escort Lot out of town, this city also earned a reputation for rape and homosexuality. Sodomy, which is homosexual sex, takes its name from the city.

Bible experts don't know exactly where Sodom and the other cities were, or how God seared them off the planet.

As for the location, one of the most persistent theories puts them in or near the shallow water on the Dead Sea's south end. The idea is that in Bible times, this area was a fertile plain—not flooded as it is today.

At the moment, there are a couple of intriguing theories about how God destroyed the cities. Both depend on two facts. First, the entire area sits on a massive rip in the earth's crust, called the Great Rift Valley. Second, the region is rich in natural gas and minerals such as sulfur and salt. Israel and Jordan mine these resources today.

GOD TO ABRAHAM: "Kill your son"

"Take your son, your only son—yes, Isaac, whom you love so much.... Go and sacrifice him as a burnt offering."

Genesis 22:2

God orders Abraham to slaughter Isaac, hack his corpse into manageable pieces, and burn it to ashes. That's Abraham's son—the son God had promised would produce a nation of descendants who would inherit Israel.

What sense could that possibly make? Yet Abraham agrees. Some wonder if Abraham is expecting God to raise Isaac from the dead, piece by piece.

The Bible doesn't say how old Isaac is at the time. But Jewish legend says he's 37—and that the news of Abraham's plan shocks Sarah to death at age 127.

Father and son walk about three days north to Mount Moriah, the hill where Jews a thousand years later will build the Jerusalem temple. There, Abraham piles up stones to make a simple altar. He arranges wood on top. Then he ties up his son, lays him on the altar, and picks up a knife to slice his boy's throat for a quick death.

"Don't lay a hand on the boy!" says an angel—who may actually be the Lord himself. "Now I know that you truly fear God. You have not withheld from me even your son, your only son" (Genesis 22:12).

As if an all-knowing God needed to test Abraham's faith.

New Testament writers will later see in this story a foreshadowing of another Father-Son sacrifice. What Abraham was willing to do—sacrifice his son—God did.

Perhaps Abraham's story is to help people understand how much God suffered because of humanity's sin. Though it seems impossible for us to understand why Jesus had to die for the sins of human beings, the Bible teaches this is what happened. And it was God who sent Jesus to die. When the Roman soldier raised his hammer to drive in the nails on that Friday morning, no angel came to stop him.

But angels were there at dawn on Sunday.