Genesis is a book of beginnings. It begins the Bible and it tells the story of the beginning of the universe, earth and humanity. It also tells the story of the beginning of Israel starting with the story of Abraham and his descendants.
Genesis has two distinct sections. Chapters 1-11 are the ancient stories of creation and all humanity. Chapters 12-50 are the particular story of Abraham and his descendants. The stories in Genesis are very old and were first passed on in oral tradition. With time the stories were written down. Genesis (as with the rest of Torah) brings together several oral and written traditions from various historical periods in one text. Careful readers will notice differences in tone and language in the text that reflect the various traditions preserved in the text. The text we have today was mostly finalized at the time of the Babylonian Exile. The Exile was a profoundly disruptive event that caused Israel to rethink who it was and who they understood their God to be. It was a time of serious reflection and it affects the way Israel thinks about itself and its relationship with God.
The interpretation of the first chapters of Genesis have been a source of debate and even controversy in some Christian circles. How should we read this text? As an accurate, even scientific account of creation? As metaphor? As poetry? As something altogether unique?
For our purposes we will not assume that the Genesis texts are about modern science. Our assumption will be that these texts are Israel’s statement about God and who God is and God’s relationship to the world and to humankind. Genesis is about God, not science. We will not be trying to prove or disprove connections between the early chapters of Genesis and modern science. For our reading, Genesis is Holy Scripture which tells us about God. Questions about whether events happened exactly as the text states will not concern us. We will concern ourselves with what the original audience thought (as best we are able) and why these texts were given to us. We will ask, why is this story told this way? And what can we discover about God and our relationship with God.
It helps to know something about the ancient near eastern world before we begin to read Genesis. In the ancient world people thought of the universe as a three storied world. There was water above and below the earth. Doors or windows allowed rain to fall.
Image from “Exploring Our Matrix”
Most ancient people believed in multiple gods- except Israel. Genesis is Israel’s statement of believe in their one God and the story of their relationship with that God. The early chapters of Genesis are not written to refute science, but rather there were written to refute polytheism- the belief in many gods. Israel is convinced that the sun, the moon, the stars are not gods but rather creations of the one true God.
Many ancient creation stories are violent stories. The earth and human beings arise out of strife and blood shed.
Additionally in the surrounding polytheistic cultures, human beings existed to serve the gods. Humans offered sacrifices to feed the gods. The gods need to be humored and cajoled, perhaps even bribed or tricked into providing water and sun for good harvests. Ancient people spent much time and energy placating gods and reminding the gods of their responsibility to human kind.
As you read Genesis, notice how very different Israel’s view is.
There are several major themes to watch for in Genesis: promise, blessing, election and family strife. Also watch for the role women play in the stories.
Genesis is a rich and complex book. Many good commentaries are available. In addition to the “Read More About It” lists, you may want to check out:
Brueggemann, Walter, Genesis: Interpretation Westminster John Knox Press
Polkinghorne, John, any number of books on science and religion
Walton, John H. The Lost World Of Genesis One: Ancient Cosmology and the Origins Debate, IVP Academic
I.The Primeval Story 1:1-11:26
A. 1:1-6:4 The Creation and Disruption of the Universe
1. 1:1-2:24 The Two Creation Accounts
2. 2:25-3:24 Crime and Punishment
3. 4:1-5:32 Sin and Curse, Cain and Abel
4. 6:1-8:22 The Flood
5. 9:1-11:26 Restoration, Noah, the Nations, and Babel
II. The Story of Abraham 12:1-25:18
A. 12:1-20 Abraham’s call and his response
B. 13:1-14:24 Abraham, Lot, and Melchizedek
C. 15:1-17:27 The Covenant with Abraham and the Birth of Ishmael
D. 18:1-19:38 Sodom and Gomorrah
E. 20:1-22:24 Abraham, Sarah, Isaac
F. 23:1-25:18 The death of Sarah, wooing of Rebekah, and the death of Abraham
III. The Story of Jacob 25:19-36:43
A. 25:19-28:22 Jacob and Esau
B. 29:1-31:54 Jacob in Haran and the return to Canaan
C. 31:55-36:43 Jacob and Esau Again
IV. The Story of Joseph 37:1-50:26
A. 37:1-36 Joseph’s Decent from Canaan to Egypt
B. 38:1-30 Judah and Tamar
C. 39:1-41:57 Joseph in Egypt
D. 42:1-45:28 Joseph and his brothers reconcile
E. 46:1-47:27 the Descent into Egypt
F. 47:28-50:26 Jacob’s death, Israel’s sons reconciled
Read More About It.
The following are several good general reference works to aid your reading of the Torah.
Anderson, Bernhard W., Katheryn Pfister Darr, “Understanding the Old Testament” Abridged fourth Edition. (Upper Saddle River,New Jersey: Prentice Hall) 1998.
Keck, Leander E., ed. “The New Interpreter’s Bible, Volume 1. (Nashville”Abingdon Press) 1994.
Mays, James L. ed. “HarperCollins Bible Commentary” (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco) 2000.
Metzger, Bruce M., Roland E. Murphy, eds. “The New Oxford Annotated Bible with the Apocryphal/Deuterocanonical Books” (New York: Oxford University Press) 1994.
Plaut, W. Gunther, ed. “The Torah: A Modern Commentary” (New York: Union of American Hebrew Congregations) 1981.