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Introduction to the Book of Genesis

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General Info

The Hebrew title for Genesis is simply the first word in the book, bereshith (in [the] beginning).  The English title, Genesis, is Greek in origin and comes from the word geneseos, which appears in the Greek translation of the Old Testament (Septuagint LXX).  Depending on its context, the word can mean “birth”, “genealogy”, or “history of origin”.  The titles aptly describe the book, since it describes many beginnings such as the creation of the world, origin of the human race, introduction of sin and death, and God’s plan to restore blessing to the world through his chosen people.

Genesis introduces the reader to the rest of the Pentateuch, and to the rest of the Bible.  Moses lays the foundation for God’s subsequent revelation, and most other books of the Bible draw from its content, which is eventually brought to a conclusion in the Book of Revelation.  The paralleling of many subjects and themes of the first three chapters of Genesis and those in the last three chapters of Revelation speaks to the superintending inspiration of the Lord Himself, who assures us that all Scripture is God-breathed (2Ti 3:16) and that the human authors spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit (2Pe 1:21).

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Brief Survey

The Book of Genesis begins by simply stating that “In the Beginning, God…“”, then describes how he created the universe (ch 1 & 2).  In chapter 3, we see the fall of man after being tempted by Satan.  The remainder of Genesis chronicles God’s redemptive work to overcome the curse on mankind after the fall, which was due to sin.  The book contains family customs, genealogies, historical events and more, interlaced by the author’s comments under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.  Most sections begin with "This is the account of …" followed by the history of the next generation.

After the fall, the next few chapters describe the steady increase of evil on the earth.  This leads to the curse of judgment in the form of the flood, followed by grace in the form of blessing to Noah and a new beginning for mankind (ch 6-9).  Man still possessed his sin nature however, so it wasn’t long until we encounter the Tower of Babel and scattering of nations (ch 10-11).  This concludes the first eleven chapters, frequently referred to as “Primitive History”, spanning approximately 2000 years.

The next section (ch 12-50) is known as “Patriarchal History”, spanning four generations over approximately 350 years beginning with the birth of Abram (~2166 BC).  God makes a covenant with Abram (who name He would change to Abraham) promising to make his descendants into a great nation (His chosen people), and to give them the Promised Land of Canaan.  We then see the beginning of the fulfillment of God’s promise with the birth of Abraham’s promised son Isaac (ch 25-35) followed by the birth of Isaac’s sons, Jacob and Esau.  After a short synopsis of Esau’s line (ch 36), the remainder of Genesis (ch 37-50) is concerned with the chosen line of Jacob (Israel), particularly Judah and Joseph.  God preserves Abraham’s descendants during the great famine by sending the family to Egypt.  The book closes with God’s promise to rescue His people from Egypt.  This rescue is recorded in Exodus, the second book of the Bible.

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Key Verses

In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. (1:1)

And I will put enmity between you [Satan] and the woman, and between your offspring and hers [Christ]; he will crush your head, and you will strike his heel. (3:15)

The LORD saw how great man’s wickedness on the earth had become, and that every inclination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil all the time.  The LORD was grieved that he had made man on the earth, and his heart was filled with pain.  So the LORD said, “I will wipe mankind, whom I have created, from the face of the earth--men and animals, and creatures that move along the ground, and birds of the air--for I am grieved that I have made them.”  But Noah found favor in the eyes of the LORD. (6:5-8)

I will bless those who bless you [Abraham, nation of Israel], and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you. (12:3)

Abram [Abraham] believed the LORD, and he credited it to him as righteousness. (15:6)

He [Jacob aka Israel] had a dream in which he saw a stairway resting on the earth, with its top reaching to heaven, and the angels of God were ascending and descending on it.  There above it stood the LORD, and he said: “I am the LORD, the God of your father Abraham and the God of Isaac.  I will give you and your descendants the land on which you are lying.  Your descendants will be like the dust of the earth, and you will spread out to the west and to the east, to the north and to the south.  All peoples on earth will be blessed through you and your offspring.  I am with you and will watch over you wherever you go, and I will bring you back to this land.  I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.” (28:12-15)

Then Jacob called for his sons and said: “Gather around so I can tell you what will happen to you in days to come...  The scepter will not depart from Judah, nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet, until he [the Messiah] comes to whom it belongs and the obedience of the nations is his.” (49:1,10)

You intended to harm me [Joseph], but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives. (50:20)

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Author and Date

Both Scripture and tradition attribute the Book of Genesis to the prophet Moses, along with the rest of the Pentateuch (Genesis—Deuteronomy).  Moses was uniquely qualified to author this book, having been raised in the Pharaoh’s house and educated in all the wisdom of the Egyptians.  In compiling and writing the book, Moses used various sources such as collections of family records, oral traditions, ancient accounts of primeval events, and genealogies (all under direct inspiration from God). 

About 400 years after the death of Joseph (the last event to be recorded in Genesis), Moses used his literary skills to collect and compose the book during the desert wanderings in the 1400’s BC to provide Israel with the theological and historical foundation for the Exodus, the covenant at Sinai, and the establishment of the new nation.  This foundation was based upon the promises God made to their ancestors.

See Introduction to the Pentateuch - Author for more information, including modern challenges to the authorship.

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Historical Background

Genesis does not have a historical background which pre-dates the book.  Genesis is its own history.  It begins with the creation, and then explains in narrative form the nature and character of God, along with His relationship to man within the creation.  We see the original sin, God’s reaction, and its consequences (death).  We then observe Scripture’s first prophecy, referring to the cross, the remedy for sin.  Genesis then records the call of Abraham, through whom all the nations of the world will be blessed, and presents the forefathers of the nation of Israel.  We finally see how God preserves the nation by moving them to Egypt.

Thus, Genesis orients us to the Scriptures.  Indeed, almost every other book in the Bible refers or alludes back to the historical acts and doctrines introduced in Genesis.  We see the beginning of God’s plan to bless all nations through the covenant with Abraham (12:3).  While initially focusing on his biological descendants (the nation of Israel), it is ultimately fulfilled by Abraham’s greatest descendant, Jesus the Messiah, who initiated the Kingdom upon His first advent, and will fully consummate it with His future return.

Historicity:  Unlike many of the other books of the Bible, we don’t have a number of extra-biblical sources offering detailed historical accounts of the corresponding events recorded in Genesis.  We do however, have several parallel sources which support the historical nature and timeframe of many of the events.  Even the events of the first eleven chapters, commonly considered “myths and legends” by liberal “scholars”, are consistently similar to known Mesopotamian stories.  For example, we find the flood (Gen 6) in the Atrahasis and Gilgamesh epics and in the Sumerian flood story composed about 1600 BC.  The Sumerian King List, dated about 1900 BC, parallels the genealogies of chapters 5 and 11.  The names and customs of the patriarchal accounts are also consistent with what we know of early second millennium BC culture (from the Mari letters, Ebla and Nuzi tablets etc).  While the external sources confirm that the history recorded in Genesis is quite reliable, we must remember that Moses’ primary purpose was not to provide a comprehensive historical record, but to recount the activities, plan and purpose of the one true God.

See Intro to the Pentateuch for the timeline chart.

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Themes, Purpose and Theology

Genesis tells us that God created the world, including humans, and saw that it was good, Creation itself was then corrupted by man’s fall as the result of sin, but God provided a means for our redemption and restoration.  So, in the broadest terms, we could list the themes of Genesis as creation, man’s fall, and redemption.  More specifically, we can say that Genesis introduces almost all major themes and doctrines of the Bible, which is also the primary purpose of the book.  We’ll briefly examine a few these below.

Creation:  God created the world and gave man, created in His Image, dominion over the earth.

The Fall (Sin): Man rebels (sins) against God when tempted by Satan.  As a result, human nature and creation is corrupted.  Thus began the perpetual struggle between good and evil.  We can have confidence that God can use all things, even evil, to bring about the greater good for those who love Him (Rom 8:28), and will ultimately triumph over all evil.

Salvation:  Genesis introduces critical truths about our salvation which are further developed in later parts of Scripture.  God shows mercy and grace by promising a Savior who will offer us redemption from Satan’s clutches (3:15).  We see the first mention of salvation by faith in Abram’s response to God’s covenant (15:6).  We then find a great picture of the substitutionary, sacrificial atonement of Christ in the story of Abraham and his son Isaac in Chapter 22.  Just as Abraham was about to offer Isaac as a sacrifice, God provided a substitute for Isaac just as He provided His own Son Jesus as a sacrificial substitute for our sins.

Covenant:  Throughout the Bible, God establishes His relationship with humans through His covenants, so all believers have a covenantal relationship with God.  In Genesis, God made a covenant with Abraham and his descendants, promising to make them heirs of the land of Canaan, and a blessing to all the other nations of the world, thus providing Israel with the theological and historical basis for her existence as God’s chosen people.  The new covenant was later applied to all believers (1Pe 2:9-10).

Blessings and Curses:  Attached to the covenants in Genesis (and the remainder of the Old Testament) were the promise of blessings if the nation of Israel kept their part (remaining faithful to God), and curses should they disregard and violate the covenants.  The blessings would enable them to prosper by having a special relationship with their Creator, innumerable descendants, peace and security from their enemies, and bountiful crops from the land.  In turn, they were appointed to bring others into the covenant blessings.  On the other hand, the curses would alienate, deprive, and disinherit them from the blessings should they reject Him.  God desires to bless all people, but He is holy and just, and thus will not tolerate rebellion and unbelief.  In the same pattern throughout the Old Testament, the prophets spoke of even greater blessings and curses in the future for those who accept or reject God’s gift of salvation.

The Sovereignty and Providence of God:  All he preceding themes must be understood in the context of God’s providential working in history, from creation to some point in the future when His plan and promises are completely fulfilled.

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Interpretation Hints and Challenges

When interpreting Genesis, we must first realize that it is primarily a narrative of historical events in which God intervenes in history through Hebrew families to redeem His people from their fallen state.  It is written primarily as narrative and, while it is historically accurate since it was recorded under divine inspiration, it is not intended to be an exhaustive historical record of all events.  Therefore, we should let the narratives speak for themselves, and not get hung up on information which the author does not intend to convey.  Similarly, we should not attempt to add technical information to scientific issues.  Moses simply writes what he observes using ordinary language.  Regarding creation, he merely reports the facts, rather that attempting to explain every technical detail.  We must also not fall into liberal philosophy that precludes the supernatural (or miracles) from the historical events.  God exists, and is able to act as the ultimate cause of creation, and the immediate cause of specific events within history, including supernatural events.

Genesis should also be interpreted as instructional literature that lays the foundation for the coming Law.  It is highly probable that Moses was preparing his audience to receive God’s law and the fulfillment of the promises made to their forefathers.  Unlike the Israelites, we have access to all of the Bible, but take away the book of Genesis and we’d have a difficult time understanding Scripture.  How much harder would it be for Israel to receive the law with no previous revelation?

We’ve noted the main theme of God working to redeem His people, but there are several stories within the narratives which should catch our attention.  The main stories are the creation, fall of man, the flood, the Tower of Babel and resulting creation of nations, and the call of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.  We should watch how each story unfolds within the overarching main theme.  In addition, there are several other stories, which we could refer to as subplots within the main narratives, which we should also observe.

We’ve already mentioned the first important subplot, found in 3:14-15, in which God curses the serpent (Satan), vowing to put enmity between Satan and the woman, and between Satan’s offspring and hers.  We see the immediate fulfillment of this war between good and evil all through Genesis (Abel and Cain, Noah and the apostates, Isaac and Ishmael, Jacob and Esau).  It continues with Moses and Pharaoh in the book of Exodus, and is ultimately fulfilled when Satan strikes the heel of the Messiah at the cross, then Jesus crushes Satan’s head by rising from the dead and ascending to heaven.

We’ve also mentioned the second, that of the covenants.  In the first with Noah, God promises not to ever again extinguish human life from the earth via another flood.  In the Abrahamic covenant, God promises to bless him with the promised land of Canaan, and with a "seed" (ultimately fulfilled by Jesus Christ) who would become a great nation and bless all peoples.  This covenant was later renewed with Isaac and Jacob.  These promises later led to two additional covenants, the Mosaic covenant at the giving of the law (Ex 20-24), and the Davidic covenant bestowing kingship on the line of David (2Sam 7), an ancestor of the Christ.

Next, we see God making choices based solely on His sovereignty and good pleasure.  Several times, God departs from the current rules of culture by bypassing the firstborn son and choosing the younger to accomplish a certain purpose (Seth over Cain, Isaac over Ishmael, Jacob over Esau, Judah over Reuben).  He later chose the youngest son of Jesse (David), to be King over Israel.  God also often chose otherwise barren women such as Sarah (Isaac), Rebekah (Jacob) and Rachel (Joseph) to bear sons for whom He had special purpose.  This pattern continued through the Bible with Hannah (Samuel), the wife of Manoah (Samson), and Elizabeth (John the Baptist).  We also see this sovereignty in God’s choice of the nation of Israel (Dt 7:6-8, 9:4-6).

Many of us are familiar with the story of Joseph (chapter 37-50).  I’ve lost count of the number of sermon series and Bible studies that I’ve heard involving the life of Joseph.  Within this story however, is one of my favorite subplots, which scarcely receives much attention.  This plot centers on the spiritual and character development of Judah, beginning with selling his brother Joseph into slavery (ch 37), and followed by his moral failures with Tamar (ch 38).  His role begins to change years later during the famine, when he guarantees the safety of his brother Benjamin (ch 43), then offers to take his place when Benjamin is held prisoner in Egypt (ch 44).  When Jacob and his brothers move to Egypt, it is Judah who leads them there (ch 46).  Finally, we see Jacob’s blessing of Judah (49:8-12), which points to the coming of the Messiah, Jesus, who offers to take our place on the cross as His ancestor Judah did for Benjamin.

Finally, we should note the “other” genealogies, from which we see the origin of Israel’s neighbors, most of whom are not overly supportive of Israel throughout her history.  Some of the best known are Moab and Ammon, conceived by Lot and his two daughters (19:30-38), and Edom (another name for Esau, Jacob’s brother).  We must also mention Ishmael, son of Abraham and brother of Isaac.  Ishmael had only a small role in Scripture, but is now widely considered to be the father of the Arab nations, a huge thorn in the side of the Jewish nation to this very day.

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Genesis divides into two major sections, the primeval history of the world before Abraham (ch 1–11), and the history of the patriarchs (ch 12–50).  Essentially the first eleven chapters set the stage for God’s dealings with the patriarchs of the nation of Israel (Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and his sons) in the remainder of the book.

1:1 - 2:3 Creation
3:1 - 5:32 The Fall of Man;  The Account of Humanity from Adam to Noah;  Effect of Sin
6:1 - 9:29 Noah and the Flood
10:1 - 11:9 Judgment at the Tower of Babel;  The Scattering of Nations
12:1 - 25:18 The Life of Abraham;  The Abrahamic Covenant;  Destruction of Sodom;  Birth of Isaac
25:19 - 26:35 The Life of Isaac;  Birth of Esau and Jacob;  Blessing of Jacob
27:1 - 36:43 The Life of Jacob;  Marries Leah and Rachel;  Wrestles with God;  Name Changed to Israel
37:1 - 50:26 The Life of Joseph;  Sold into Slavery;  Becomes Ruler of Egypt;  Israelites Move to Egypt

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