Genesis means “beginnings” and it is the first book of the Bible. Genesis covers a lot of ground. It begins with the creation of the world and ends with Israel’s trek from its homeland of Canaan to Egypt to escape a famine—and where the Israelites would eventually become enslaved as we read in the next book, Exodus.
It is easy to get lost in the details of Genesis. To keep things ordered, think of Genesis as made up of three sections: the primordial history (chapters 1-11), Israel’s beginnings under Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, (chapters 12-36), and the story of Jacob’s son Joseph in Egypt (chapters 37-50).
Primordial means “at the beginning of time,” and chapters 1-11 set the stage for the story of Israel that begins in chapter 12. In these chapters we find some of the more challenging and controversial episodes of the Bible for modern readers. Genesis 1-3 gives us two different creation stories told from two different perspectives. Genesis 1 describes the formation of the cosmos in six days. God does not create out of nothing, but gives order to chaos, which is represented by the waters (or “the deep”). God’s spirit hovers over the chaotic waters and moves them around to make room for sky and earth. Then he fills the earth, sky, and sea with plant and animal life, culminating in the creation of humans on the sixth day and God’s rest from his labors on the seventh. Genesis 2-3 tells a very different story of Adam and Eve. They were created on different days (Adam first) and given a garden paradise called Eden to live in. They disobeyed God by listening to the tempting words of a serpent and eating the forbidden fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. They are then exiled from the garden, and so begins the human drama of sin and misery.
These stories give vastly different perspectives on creation to give readers different senses of who God is, which means that looking for literal truth here is missing the point. Also, these stories, if taken literally, are impossible for modern readers to accept, being aware of things like the age of the universe and evolution. But now we understand from the discovery of many other ancient creation stories from this part of the world, that Genesis describes origins in ancient, entirely symbolic, ways (myth). The same holds for the other stories in the primordial history: the flood story in chapters 6-9 and the spread of humanity and its various languages afterward (Tower of Babel, chapter 11). Genesis 1-11 do not describe actual events but are stories that allow the Israelites to talk about their God is different from the gods of other nations.
The next section brings our focus to Israel’s beginnings through Abraham, his son Isaac, and his grandson Jacob. Abraham’s father and brothers leave Ur in ancient Mesopotamia and travel to Haran, just north of Canaan. From there, God calls Abraham to journey to Canaan, the land God promises to give to his descendants forever. The story of Abraham’s family centers on their settling down in the land in relationship with God. As this story develops, Jacob is certainly a key figure. Jacob is renamed Israel, which means “he struggled with God,” after wrestling with God. This story captures well the nature of Israel’s relationship with God from that point on. Jacob also becomes the father of the twelve tribal leaders of Israel—and a nation is born.
Genesis ends with the story of Joseph. Joseph is one of Jacob’s sons, who, out of jealousy, is sold to a band of traders, who in turn sell him to Potiphar, the captain of the guard of Pharaoh, Egypt’s king. Joseph begins as a servant but, because of his ability to interpret dreams, eventually makes his way into Potiphar’s house as his trusted right hand man. Pharaoh then puts him in charge of all of the land of Egypt to administer a plan to save Egypt from the coming famine. His position of authority eventually led him be reunited with his long-lost brothers, and especially his father Jacob, who was sick with grief at the thought of losing his son. The book ends with Joseph’s death and the promise to bring his bones back into his homeland when the time comes.
Genesis is a long book and there are several hurdles along the way. We already saw one hurdle in the primordial history—it is out of accord with what we know about the origin of the world from science and archaeology. One of the biggest hurdles for readers is the long genealogies. You should feel free to skip or skim these chapters in Genesis, but remember that in the ancient world, establishing ancestry was vitally important for establishing a sense of tradition and authority. The long lists of names mean little to us, but they were of keen interest back then.
Another bump is the violence we see in the flood story, where God wipes out all of humanity out of anger for humanity’s wickedness. The flood story in Genesis is one of many ancient flood stories, and Israel’s version, as horrific as it sounds to us, is actually a bit milder than some other stories. For example, in one ancient flood story, the gods send a flood to kill humans because they are making too much noise. In the biblical story, the cause for the flood is something a bit more important: sin. Still, God’s actions here can cause problems for readers, and it is best not to dwell on it here but to keep reading. Know, also, that Christians and Jews through the ages have struggled with this issue, too. God’s violence in the Bible comes up more in other books (for example, Joshua) and so we will come back to this topic.
Genesis is also a bit repetitive and tedious at points, and you might find yourself wanting to skim now and then. You are not the first ones to feel that way, and it is OK to skim. Remember that repetition is a way that stories are often told, especially in an oral culture. Repetition may also indicate that Genesis is a book compiled from several other older stories to create one final version. The repetitions may be tedious, but they may also tell us something of the kind of literature Genesis is. Try not to get bogged down.
Finally, as you read, there are two key concepts in Genesis you will want to keep in mind. First, in chapter 1, God tells humanity to be “fruitful and multiply.” That idea shows up several times in the book, the first time after the flood story in chapter 9. Genesis is a book of new beginnings at various stages in Israel’s early existence. Second, the relationship between God and Abraham is called a “covenant,” a bond between God and his people where both parties play a role. “Covenant” is a central idea in the Old Testament, especially in the story if Moses and Mt. Sinai, and it begins in Genesis.
– Peter Enns