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Summary of Genesis: Understanding the Basics of Genesis in the Bible

Beginnings are important, as they set the stage for everything that comes after. The book of Genesis is the same way. It narrates the beginning of creation, of man and woman, of sin, of God’s chosen nation, and of God’s plan for saving mankind. Since beginnings are so foundational for everything, the book of Genesis has become a core book for Christian apologetics (the defense of the faith). Many doctrines that are foundational for later Scripture are first articulated in Genesis. Some of these doctrines include the person and nature of God, sacrifice, sin, atonement, and the Messiah. This introduction will help the reader get a good grasp of this book of beginnings.

Title of Genesis

The term “Genesis” is the title of the book in the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament dating about 250 BC. It comes from the Greek word for beginning. This is an appropriate translation of its Hebrew title “Bereshit,” which literally means “in the beginning.” Typically, Hebrew titles for an Old Testament book come from the first word or one of the first few words of the book.

Author of Genesis

The author of the book is not stated in Genesis itself. However, the universal tradition is that Moses is the author of the book. This is supported by the New Testament, for example, Jesus in Matthew 19:1-8, as he quotes the Pentateuch (Genesis-Deuteronomy), which by the time of Christ was considered a unified work (of which Genesis was a part).

The Jewish historian Josephus also keeps the tradition of Moses as author (as seen in his preface to the Antiquities of the Jews). The Babylonian Talmud, dating about A.D. 600 in the section Baba Bathra 15 affirms Moses as the author of Genesis. Yet this tradition began to be challenged in the Middle Ages. A Jewish scholar by the name of Ibn Ezra (12th century A.D.) was the first significant scholar to question that Moses wrote the book of Genesis.

By the time of the 17th and 18 centuries, what was known as historical criticism, particularly the form known as source criticism, was beginning to dominate the study of the Pentateuch. The classic articulation of source criticism for the Pentateuch, known as the Documentary Hypothesis or JEDP theory, was articulated by Julius Wellhausen in 1889 in his Prologomena to the History of Ancient Israel. This theory divided up the Pentateuch into four smaller written sources called JEDP. J was for Jehovah (Yahweh), as it was believed this writer favored this term for God. E was for Elohim, as its writer was thought to use this term. D stood for Deuteronomy, and P stood for a priestly source, who focused on mostly legal/cultic material.


“The universal tradition is that Moses is the author of the book.”


While the Documentary Hypothesis is no longer the monolith behind the study of the authorship of Genesis, it still is considered the basic presupposition that most biblical academics start from. The Documentary Hypothesis begins with several presuppositions. First, Wellhausen believed that it was impossible for Moses to have written the Pentateuch because he didn’t believe that writing had been invented by 1500 B.C. (yet writing has since been found as early as 3000 B.C.). Second, the different uses of the divine name were thought to suggest different authors. Third, parallel accounts like the creation accounts in Genesis 1 and 2 could also suggest different authors. Fourth, different styles of writing suggest different authors.

Each of these presuppositions can be debunked. Writing was well established by Moses’ day, and Moses, who was raised in the royal court of Egypt, likely could read and write. As for the different terms for God, these are not necessarily due to an author’s preference as much as they actually denote different aspects to God. Yahweh (Jehovah) speaks of the covenantal/relational God while Elohim speaks of the divine Creator. These terms are simply used differently. A good example is Psalm 19 which is both a creation psalm and a Torah psalm (celebrating the “Torah,” a word meaning God’s laws). The first half of Psalm 19 uses Elohim, and the second half uses Yahweh (Jehovah).


“Writing was well established by Moses’ day, and Moses, who was raised in the royal court of Egypt, likely could read and write.”


Third, parallelism is very regular phenomenon in Hebrew, being prevalent in poetry but also found in narratives. It should be noted that most of the time these parallel accounts have a different focus than the other (as Genesis 1 focuses on general creation while Genesis 2 focuses on man). As for differences in style of writing, it is possible for a single author to write in multiple styles. In summary, I see no real compelling reason why Moses could not have been the author of Genesis.

Date of the Events

While Bishop James Usher added up all the genealogies to come up with a creation date of 4004 B.C., in no way can this date be considered part of official Christian dogma as the Hebrews were known to skip generations in genealogies. Moreover, the Hebrew term “son” can be used for son, grandson, descendant, even successor. It isn’t until Abraham that some dates can be tentatively assigned, with an early date for his birth being 2166 B.C., while some dates for his birth reach all the way down to the 1700s B.C. It seems best to take an earlier date for Abraham’s birth so the Patriarchs can be dated from 2166 B.C. to 1876 B.C. when the Israelites entered Egypt.

Structure/Outline

Genesis can be outlined in several ways. Some like to separate out the Primeval History (chapters 1-11), and then divide the rest of the book by the most significant characters (Abraham 12-15, Isaac 25, 26, Jacob 27-36, Joseph 37-50), though this approach is not completely accurate as you will get interruptions in certain accounts (such as Judah and Tamar’s story in Genesis 38 in the middle of Joseph’s narrative).

Genesis does seem to have an internal organizational scheme based on the Hebrew word toledot. It is roughly translated as “these are the generations of” or something similar and is a word that introduces the various genealogies in the book. After the brief introduction of Genesis which runs to 2:3, ten different toledot divide up the book: toledot of Adam (5:1-6:8), toledot of Noah (6:9-9:29), toledot of the sons of Noah (10:1-11:9), toledot of Shem (11:10-26), toledot of Terah (11:27-25:11), toledot of Ishmael (25:12-18), toledot of Isaac (25:19-35:29), toledot of Esau (36:1-37:1), and the toledot of Jacob (37:2-50:26).


Summary of Genesis: “Genesis does seem to have an internal organizational scheme based on the Hebrew word toledot.”


The Place/Purpose of Genesis in the Canon

Genesis sits first in both the Hebrew and Septuagint/English canon. Its canonicity has basically been assumed throughout its history. Every listing of the Hebrew canon that we know of lists it and puts it first. It is always part of the grouping of five books known as the “Pentateuch” (Genesis through Deuteronomy; literally “five scrolls” or “five tools”) or “Torah” (the Hebrew word for law). By the time of Jesus, Genesis, along with the rest of the books of Torah, was part of a weekly lectionary reading in the synagogues.

Overview of Genesis

Much of the material in Genesis would be familiar to anyone who spent much time in Sunday School. The Creation, the Fall, Noah’s Ark, the Tower of Babel, Abraham, and Joseph are known by many Christians on a basic level as well as by some non-Christians as well. The overall storyline of Genesis focuses on the fallenness of man and the beginnings of God’s plan for saving man.

God specifically chooses a family line starting with Adam’s son, Seth, continuing to Noah’s son, Shem, and finally to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. It is through this family line that God keeps alive the knowledge of Him, and ultimately it is through this line whom He will bring the agent of salvation, Christ, into the world. At the same time, man’s fallen state is apparent even in our heroes, as men like Noah, Abraham, and Jacob have flaws in their character. As righteous as some of them were, they still needed saving.

Genesis begins appropriately with the creation of the world but focuses quickly on man and woman. Originally mankind is in perfect fellowship with God in the garden, but they transgress the one prohibition by eating fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (Genesis 3). Thus, sin and death enter the world and God’s plan for saving man begins.


Summary of Genesis: “Sin and death enter the world and God’s plan for saving man begins.”


Adam and Eve bear children, and although Cain murders Abel, humanity expands. The line of Cain tends toward wickedness while the line of Seth (the third son) was the godlier line. However, as time goes by, man becomes more and more corrupt, leading to the grand reset by a great flood (Genesis 6-9) of which Noah, his family, and representatives of the animals survive by constructing a giant ark at God’s command. Humankind will again multiply, though originally they will refuse to “fill the earth” as commanded. Thus, God confuses human language at the Tower of Babel (Genesis 11).

God’s plan for saving man really gets its start by God’s calling of one man, Abram (later Abraham), to serve Him. God promises Abram the land of Canaan and many descendants, although Abram’s wife, Sarai (later Sarah) is barren. Though the couple must wait 25 years, God allows Sarah to conceive at 90 years old, and the child of promise, Isaac, is born (Genesis 21). Isaac’s wife Rebekah bears two sons, Esau and Jacob.

Jacob, who will be renamed Israel, fathers 12 sons who become the ancestors of the 12 tribes of Israel (Genesis 30-31). However, Jacob will have a favorite son, Joseph, whom his brothers sell into slavery due to jealousy (Genesis 37). Joseph ends up in Egypt where he eventually rises to become the second most powerful man in Egypt. In this position, he is able to save his family during a great famine by bringing the sons of Israel to Egypt. It is here that these 70 individuals will grow into a great nation by the time of the book of Exodus.


Summary of Genesis: “God’s plan for saving man really gets its start by God’s calling of one man, Abram (later Abraham), to serve Him.”


Key Passages in Genesis

Genesis 3:15

There are many important passages in Genesis, and so we have space for only a brief survey of some of the more important passages. A good place to start would be with Genesis 3:15, known as the Protoevangelium as early as Justin Martyr (AD 150). In the punishment placed upon the serpent, God states,

“I will put enmity, between you and the woman, between your offspring and her offspring; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel.” (Genesis 3:15 ESV)

Offspring or “seed” as it literally is, is a collective noun which could be a singular “seed” or multiple. However, the pronoun in Hebrew (“he”) is singular and likely refers to one of the woman’s descendants who will crush the serpent. The Septuagint backs up this opinion, for while “seed” in Greek is neuter, the pronoun is masculine. Perhaps this passage is hinted at when John declares that the Son of God “appeared . . . to destroy the devil’s work” (1 John 3:8, NIV).


“The pronoun in Hebrew (‘he’) is singular and likely refers to one of the woman’s descendants who will crush the serpent.”


Genesis 12:1-3

Another significant passage is the covenant with Abraham in Genesis 12:1-3. This covenant is also repeated both to Isaac (Genesis 26:1-4) and to Jacob (Genesis 28:13-22). While there is great focus on the promise of land and of many descendants, for Christians the focus shifts to how all are blessed through Abraham. Paul makes the argument in Galatians 3:7-9 that Gentiles like Abraham would be justified by faith and then quotes from Genesis 12:3 in stating that through Abraham all nations would be blessed.

Genesis 15:6

Another prominent passage also quoted in Galatians 3 (and often tied to Genesis 12) is Genesis 15:6:

“And he [Abraham] believed the Lord, and he counted it to him as righteousness.” (Genesis 15:6)

Some have called this “imputed righteousness” where God declares us righteous, rather than a state of lived righteousness (which would require sinless perfection). The importance of this verse lies in how one is justified, by faith rather than works of Law. Moreover, this justification happened before circumcision (Genesis 17) and before the giving of the Law (Exodus 20-23). Thus, Gentiles can be justified and, what’s more, be justified without adherence to the Law of Moses (see the debate in Acts 15).


“Gentiles can be justified and, what’s more, be justified without adherence to the Law of Moses.”


Genesis 22

Genesis 22 is a well-known passage that the Jews call the Akedah (“the binding”). In this account, God orders Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, the child of promise he had waited 25 years for and through whom all the nations of the earth would be blessed (as the beginning of the fulfillment of Genesis 12:1-3). Abraham is obedient to this seemingly contradictory request by God. We are informed by the writer of Hebrews (see chapter 11) that Abraham believed God was going to raise Isaac from the dead (an event which had not yet happened in history as far as we know, though it obviously later would). This great test of Abraham proves that God was the most important relationship in his life. It would also be remiss not to mention the obedience of the son, Isaac, who probably was at least in his teens, though many Jewish traditions place him in his twenties or thirties. It doesn’t take much imagination to see the parallel between Abraham and Isaac and God the Father and Son.

Genesis 49:10

While several more passages could be addressed, this last one is chosen due to its Messianic importance. Genesis 49:10 is translated by the NIV as,

“The scepter shall not depart from Judah nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet, until he to whom it belongs shall come and the obedience of the nations shall be his.”

There classically has been a translation issue here as many versions read “Shiloh” instead of “he to whom it belongs.” The reason for this problem is that Hebrew contained no spaces between words, and so it may be that the scribes mis-divided the Hebrew words to get the name “Shiloh,” which is the reading found in many versions. By contrast, “until he to whom it belongs shall come” is interpreted as a Messianic reference. So, what is the proper translation for this passage? While the term Shiloh could be a place name or even term for the Messiah, the reading “until He to whom it comes shall come” has the support of a passage from Ezekiel 21:27 which speaks of the downfall of the monarchy in Judah, and its phrase “the crown will not be restored until he to whom it rightfully belongs shall come” seems to support the NIV reading of Genesis 49:10.


“The scepter shall not depart from Judah nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet, until he to whom it belongs shall come and the obedience of the nations shall be his.”


Archaeological Discoveries Related to Genesis

When it comes to the relationship between Genesis and archaeological remains, relatively little can be said. This is due to the nature of the book, being of great antiquity of which fewer remains have been discovered. Moreover, the major characters were pastoralists, who likely left little when it comes to physical remains that would have lasted to this day.

However, a few archaeological remains are worthy of mention. First, the famous epic of Gilgamesh, first discovered at Nineveh in the 1840s, is considered one of the earliest narratives in history. Within it is a flood account with many parallels to the biblical story of Noah. The earliest copy of Gilgamesh dates to 1900 B.C., almost 500 years before Genesis was written by Moses.

Second is the ziggurat, the famed temple-towers of Babylonia. These towers are found all over southern Mesopotamia at Erech (Uruk), in Babylon (known as the Etemenanki), and in Abraham’s hometown of Ur, where one of the largest ziggurats was found being 200 feet long by 150 wide by 70 feet tall. Each ziggurat may have served as a temple for a deity with the very top containing a small shrine. The basic construction of these ziggurats matches the biblical description of the Tower of Babel, being made of brick held together with pitch.


“The basic construction of these ziggurats matches the biblical description of the Tower of Babel, being made of brick held together with pitch.”


Finally, Abraham’s hometown of Ur has been well excavated. It is located in southern Iraq about 10 miles west of the Euphrates. However, a small debate exists as two cities named Ur seemed to have existed, one in the north and another, larger Ur in the south. It is the southern city which is likely Abram’s hometown. It was first excavated by John George Taylor in 1854, but the largest excavations were done by Sir Charles Wooley in the 1930s which found Ur to have been inhabited as early as 4000 B.C.

Abram’s city, what is known as Ur III (third major period of habitation), was likely one of the most significant cities of the world and capital of a small empire in southern Mesopotamia. However, not long after Abram left the city (assuming a date for Abram pre 2000 B.C.), it was conquered by Elamite invaders. Interestingly enough, a Sumerian document called The Lamentation over the fall of Ur records the fall of the city, and this document has similar characteristics to the book of Lamentations which bemoans the fall of Jerusalem.

For Further Reading on Genesis

Hopefully this introduction to the book of Genesis provides you with a framework to begin to understand the book and its place in the canon of Scripture better. However, there is certainly much more to learn about Genesis and as such, a few recommendations of good resources are appropriate. While I cannot (and would not) endorse everything in the following volumes, they are well researched and done by competent individuals. Again, one might not always agree with their conclusions, and as always anything said must be compared to God’s Word.

I like Allen Ross’s Creation and Blessing: A Guide to the Study and Exposition of Genesis. The New American Commentaries on Genesis (two volumes) by Kenneth Matthews are helpful and usually fairly conservative. The New International Commentary on the Old Testament Genesis volumes by Victor Hamilton, a relatively well-known scholar, are also excellent. Considering the importance to keep up to date with more controversial issues within Genesis, you might check out the works of John Walton, many of which focus on Genesis 1-11. There are certainly many other high-quality resources (and some of less quality) than these on Genesis, but these hopefully will give you a good start in your further studies. May God bless your learning of His Word.

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