Genesis is the first book of the Hebrew Bible and Christian Old Testament. The basic premise of this book is to recount the stories of the Hebrew patriarchs and their covenant relationship with God. The Book of Genesis connects the God of the patriarchs with the beginning of time as the creator of the universe.
The book is a book of beginnings, as its Hebrew title suggests—bere’sît meaning “In the beginning.” The name “Genesis” comes from the transliteration of the Greek for the first word of the book, which means “origins.” Both titles appropriately describe the contents of the Book of Genesis. The book tells of the creation of the universe, the dawn of humanity, the origin of sin, and the beginning of the Hebrew people.
The book centers around the promise God gave to Abram (renamed Abraham, Gen 17:5), which is to make him the father of a multitude of people who would become a nation (12:1-3) living in a specific land (13:14-15). This promise divides the book into two sections. The first part (chapters 1-11) explains how the world came to be, why it is the way it is at the time of Abraham, and that God was involved the entire time. Time passes quickly in these chapters through genealogies that connect the stories of creation, the introduction of sin, the flood account, and God’s promise to Abram. This section contains two stories of God creating the world, each having a different sequence of events. In the first account (1:1-2:3) God made light and separated it from darkness. Next he made the heavens, sea, and land, then the plants, then the sun, moon, and stars, and then he created the birds, fish, and land animals. Finally, God created humans, both male and female. This event completed Creation. In the second Creation account (2:4-25), God made the heavens and Earth and then he created a man named Adam. Next, God created Eden, an idyllic garden full of plants, where he placed Adam. Afterward, God created animals and birds and finally he made a woman whom Adam named Eve.
While Eve lived in the garden, a serpent had a conversation with her and deceived her. Adam supported her and silently consented. They yielded to temptation by eating forbidden fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil and thereby introduced sin into the world. Sin quickly spread throughout Creation and intensified, as demonstrated in fratricide among Adam and Eve’s two sons, Cain and Abel. During 10 long generations sin increased to such an intolerable point that God sent a flood to destroy the world with the exception of a righteous man, Noah, and his family. Noah built an ark that saved him from the destruction of the flood. After the flood, one of Noah’s sons sins, an indication that the flood did not rid the world of this problem; thus God would have to find another solution. This dilemma leads to the promise to Abram, the next attempt at the problem of sin. Genealogies following the flood story provide an explanation for all the different people groups, nations, and languages in the world at the time of Abram and set the stage for Abram’s appearance.
Genesis 12-50 is the second part of the book. Time in this section slows as the author concentrates on the stories of four generations of patriarchs—Abraham and his descendants—and their struggles to fulfill God’s promise. Abraham, the original recipient of the promise, had various difficulties in producing children and staying in the promised land. His son Isaac had similar problems but managed to have twin sons who were in competition for their father’s inheritance and blessing. Jacob, the victorious twin, had his own problems establishing a place for himself. However, God reiterated the promise to Jacob and changed his name to Israel. Jacob married two sisters and their two servants and produced 12 sons and a daughter. These sons became the fathers of and namesakes of the Twelve Tribes of Israel and they represent the birth of the nation.
The Book of Genesis ends with a series of stories about Joseph, one of Jacob’s sons, and his adventures in Egypt. By the end of the book, not only was Joseph in Egypt but his father, all his brothers, and their families and flocks as well. This ending sets the stage for the Book of Exodus and God’s deliverance of his people from Egypt to the promised land.
Thus the Book of Genesis describes God as the creator of the universe who created everything including the first humans. Because humanity’s sin brought about the fall of Creation, Genesis tells that God took an active role in humanity’s salvation and in world events. In doing so, the book covers a time from the beginning of the universe to the second millennium BCE.
Stories from the Book of Genesis, especially the Creation stories, have been used as common themes in literature throughout history from John Milton’s Paradise Lost to Gary Larson’s Far Side cartoons to the Star Trek movies.
Terry W. Eddinger
See also Adam, Creation of; Bible and Time; Christianity; Cosmological Arguments; Creationism; God as Creator; Milton, John; Moses; Noah; Sin, Original; Time, Sacred
Towner, W. S. (2001). Genesis (Westminster Bible
Companion Series). Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox.
Wenham, G. J. (1987). Genesis 1-15. Word biblical commentary, Vol. 1. Waco, TX: Word Books.
Wenham, G. J. (1994). Genesis 16-50. Word biblical commentary, Vol. 2. Waco, TX: Word Books