The title Genesis comes from the Greek translation (the Septuagint) and means ‘origin, source, creation’, whereas the Hebrew title (taken from the book’s opening words) is ‘In the beginning’. Both titles aptly suggest the book’s subject-matter, for it describes the origins of the universe, the world, mankind, human institutions (such as marriage), the nations and, above all, the people of Israel. God’s creative work in bringing all these things into being is focused in Genesis.
Another title, now more rarely used, is ‘The First Book of Moses’. This title highlights the fact that Genesis is the first part of a five-volume work, traditionally ascribed to Moses, otherwise called the Law or the Pentateuch. Genesis puts the lawgiving at Sinai (the subject-matter of Exodus to Deuteronomy) into historical perspective and provides a theological key to the interpretation of the laws and stories contained in those books.
Place and contents
Like the other books of the Bible, Genesis is primarily theological, i.e. it is concerned with describing who God is, how and why he acts and how he deals with mankind. Often the activity of God in human affairs is not obvious, either in our everyday life or even in some parts of the Bible (e.g. the book of Esther). But in Genesis, especially in the early chapters, God is the central actor. Here he constantly speaks and acts, displaying his power and character. Modern Christian readers, brought up to believe in one all-powerful holy God, may not be surprised by the religious content of Genesis. But ancient readers, coming to the book from a background of the many gods of paganism, would have been astonished by it.
The God of Genesis is not one of many localized gods of limited knowledge and power but the almighty Creator of the whole universe and Lord and Judge of all. It is this God who created mankind, cares for them and judges their misdeeds. It is this God who spoke to Abraham, prompting him to leave his homeland, settle in Canaan (the land of Israel) and bring up his family there. God promised Abraham that his descendants would dwell in Canaan, and Genesis records how, despite numerous mistakes, these promises gradually began to be realized. In the following biblical books a more complete fulfilment of these promises is described. It is this divine perspective that gives Genesis its unity and is central to the author’s understanding, and it needs always to be borne in mind as we attempt to relate the stories of Genesis to history. Genesis is not interested in events for their own sake but for what they disclose about the nature of God and his purposes.
Genesis and history
Many individuals pass across the stage of world history in Genesis. Yet, for the most part, their recorded deeds concern their own private families, not national or international affairs. The concern with birth and death, family disputes, grazing and burial rights etc. that characterizes these stories makes it plain that for the writer of Genesis the characters he described were real historical individuals. They are not personifications of clans or the products of his imagination.
Yet can we be sure that the stories in Genesis are really historical? As yet, no patriarchal marriage document or evidence of, for example, Jacob’s visit to Paddan Aram or Joseph’s work as vizier of Egypt has been discovered outside the Bible. This is hardly surprising given the very small proportion of information committed to writing in ancient times and the small fraction of texts that have survived and been discovered by archaeologists. This makes the chances of demonstrating the reality of one of the patriarchs remote, apart from what we find in the Bible. But there are many pointers in Genesis to the antiquity of its traditions, and these make it unlikely that the stories were the creation of religious ‘novelists’ writing long after the era they profess to describe, as some scholars suggest.
First, the names of the patriarchs are names that were frequently used in the early second millennium bc but only very rarely later. Names like Jacob, Isaac and Ishmael were standard names among the early Amorites (c. 1800 bc) but went out of fashion later. Other names in the patriarchal narratives, e.g. Serug, Nahor and Terah, confirm that the patriarchs came from the area of Haran.
Secondly, the social customs of the patriarchs fit those mentioned in ancient Near Eastern texts. Some of the practices (e.g. the custom of a man giving his daughter a dowry when she married) changed very little in two thousand years and so do not help us date the stories of the patriarchs exactly. They simply show the stories were true to life, whenever they were written. However, there are some customs which do seem to have changed with time, e.g. adopting a slave as an heir (Gn. 15) or calling the eldest boy rab (Gn. 25:23), and these place the biblical stories in an early period. Similarly, many features of the Joseph story find better parallels in second-millennium Egyptian texts than in later ones, and this again supports the antiquity of the stories about Joseph.
Thirdly, the religion and morality of the patriarchs appear to be earlier than what is found in other books of the Pentateuch. Sometimes the practice and beliefs of the patriarchs contradict the demands of the later law. For example, Abraham married his half-sister (Gn. 20:12; cf. Lv. 18:9), Jacob married two sisters (Gn. 29:21–30; cf. Lv. 18:18) and Jacob erected a stone pillar (Gn. 28:18); cf. Lv. 26:1; Dt. 16:21–22). In Genesis, God nearly always introduces himself as El, e.g. El Shaddai (‘God Almighty’; Gn. 17:1), El Elyon (‘God Most High’; Gn. 14:19). Later (after Ex. 6:3), Yahweh, ‘the Lord’, became the standard Israelite name for God.
These observations tend to confirm that the patriarchal stories are historical, though obviously we can never prove the details of particular incidents. But when we come to chapters 1–11 we are treading on different ground. Most of these stories deal with periods long before writing was invented, so they cannot be ‘history’ in the strict sense of the term or be verified by evidence from outside the Bible. However, Genesis does try to arrange the stories chronologically and explain things in terms of cause and effect. These are the hallmarks of history writing, so that T. Jacobsen has coined the term ‘mytho-historical’ to describe such literature (JBL, 100 (1981), p. 528). ‘Myth’ has negative overtones, so ‘proto-history’ is probably a better way to describe Genesis 1–11. In the present state of knowledge it is difficult to know how to relate these chapters to modern scientific discovery. It is more helpful (see below on the theology of Genesis and in the commentary) to read these chapters against the background of beliefs current in the ancient Near East. Then they will be seen to be offering a powerful critique of the belief in many gods. The writer of Genesis seems to assume the historicity of Adam, Eve and their descendants, for he links them all together in long family trees that end with Abraham. This shows that for him Adam was a real individual like Abraham or Isaac.
The authorship of Genesis has been one of the most discussed issues in biblical studies, so for a fuller explanation of the issues the reader should look at the article on the Pentateuch. However, the major viewpoints and the stance taken in the commentary are as follows:
Traditionally, Moses (c. 1300 bc) was regarded as the main author of Genesis and the following four books. However, it was accepted that certain remarks (e.g. 12:6; 36:31) showed that some parts of the book had been added later. The text of Genesis does not claim Moses as its author, in any case.
From the nineteenth century onwards main-line critical scholarship minimized the role of Moses in the composition of the Pentateuch. Indeed, the most widely-accepted view came to be that Genesis was composed from three major sources J (tenth century bc), E (ninth century bc), and P (sixth century bc). Genesis, it was held, went through a series of modifications with new material being added with each new edition.
Since the 1970s there have been many questions raised about the J, E, P documentary theory, with some scholars contesting the dating of the sources and others doubting their very existence. So far, no theory has emerged to replace the old source-critical consensus, so it is still assumed in many textbooks and commentaries.
While this critical debate has continued, it has become widely accepted that the commentator’s first job is to explain the present form of the text. Whether the author of Genesis used many sources or just one, what matters is the book as it stands. It is a beautifully constructed whole, full of vividly told stories, that convey a vision of God and his truth which is presupposed throughout the rest of the Bible. So what this commentary focuses on is the present final form of the text. This may well be considerably earlier than is often supposed (for fuller discussions see the article on the Pentateuch). Whoever wrote Genesis, in whatever period, was more interested in telling us about God than in giving us clues to his own identity.
The book of Genesis splits into two unequal parts. Chapters 1–11, the proto-history, focus on the origins of the human race, and chapters 12–50, the period of the patriarchs, focus on the origins of Israel. The much greater attention devoted to the patriarchs shows what was the chief concern of the author. So, in reviewing the main theological themes of Genesis, chapters 12–50 will be dealt with first and then chapters1–11, which give background to the choice of Abraham and his descendants.
Theology of Genesis 12–50
The key theological themes of Genesis 12–50, indeed of the whole Pentateuch, are set out in 12:1–3: ‘The Lord had said to Abram, “Leave your country, your people and your father’s household and go to the land I will show you. I will make you into a great nation and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.” ’ Here God makes four promises to Abraham: that he will be given a ‘land’ (1); that he will become a ‘great nation’ (2); that he will enjoy a special (covenant) relationship with God (3); and that through him all the nations will be blessed (3). Whenever God addresses the patriarchs in Genesis he refers to these promises, very often amplifying or making them more specific. For example, a ‘land’ (12:1) becomes ‘this land’ (12:7), ‘all the land you see … for ever’ (13:15) and ‘the whole land of Canaan … as an everlasting possession to you and your descendants after you’ (17:8).
To grasp the importance of the promises in Genesis the reader should look at all God’s speeches in the book noting the changes in wording between one passage and the next (12:1–3, 7; 13:14–17; 15:1–7, 13–21; 16:11–12; 17:1–21; 18:10–32; 21:12–13, 17; 22:11–18; 25:23; 26:2–5, 24; 28:13–15; 31:3; 32:27–29; 35:1, 9–12; 46:3–4). These changes show that God makes the promises ever more specific and dogmatic as the patriarchs respond in faith and obedience. But even their misbehaviour does not nullify the promises; it serves only to slow their fulfilment.
Not only does God make promises, but the patriarchs often mention them, or their friends or foes unwittingly allude to them (15:2, 8; 16:2; 17:17–18; 21:6–7; 24:7–8, 35–40, 60; 26:22, 28–29; 27:27–29; 28:2–4, 20–22; 29:32;30:24, 27; 31:5–16, 29, 42, 49–50; 32:9–12; 33:5, 10–11; 34:10, 21; 35:3; 41:52; 45:5–11; 48:3–22; 50:5, 19–21, 24–25). These quotations from, or allusions to, the promises indicate how important they were to the human actors in the story and to the writer of Genesis.
What is more, the episodes from the patriarchs’ lives recorded in Genesis illustrate the fulfilment of the promises. Presumably, the author of Genesis (like the evangelist John; see 20:30–31) knew much more about the patriarchs than he chose to tell. He picked out those episodes that showed how the promises came true, albeit slowly. D. J. A. Clines in The Theme of the Pentateuch (JSOT Press, 1979) has aptly defined the theme of the Pentateuch as the partial fulfilment of the promises to the patriarchs. Thus, in reading Genesis we must ask about every incident: how does this contribute to the fulfilment of the promises of land, nationhood, covenant relationship and blessing to the nations?
Clearly, not every aspect of these promises is in focus in every episode. Nor does their fulfilment proceed straightforwardly—there are many hiccoughs and setbacks. Genesis is most obviously concerned with the promise of descendants, that Abraham’s offspring will become a great nation. Yet, after the mention of Sarah’s barrenness in 11:30, it is not till 21:1 (twenty-five years later) that the promised son, Isaac, is born. Similarly, Isaac’s wife Rebekah conceived only after Isaac had prayed for a child for twenty years (25:20, 26). Similarly, Rachel, Jacob’s true love and only real wife in his eyes, was dismayed to find her rival Leah and Jacob’s slave wives bearing child after child before she bore one (30:23), and then she died giving birth to a second (35:16–19). By the end of Genesis (46:27) Abraham’s descendants numbered seventy, which is hardly a great nation. Although they increased dramatically during the period of Egyptian slavery, the promise of innumerable offspring still seems some way from complete fulfilment even in Exodus.
As for the land promise, all that Abraham acquired was a burial plot for his wife (23:1–20). Isaac gained permission to use some wells (26:22–23), and Jacob bought a shoulder of land near Shechem (33:19; cf. 48:22). At the end of Genesis none of Abraham’s descendants was living in Canaan, the land of promise; they had all migrated to Egypt. Indeed, entry to the land, though it is the dominating concern of Exodus to Deuteronomy, was not secured till the book of Joshua.
Some of the slowness in the fulfilment of the promises may be ascribed to unbelief or disobedience by the patriarchs (e.g. 12:10–20; 16:1–14; 27:1–45). Whatever they did, however, one aspect of the promise repeatedly proved true: God was with the patriarchs, blessing those who blessed them and cursing those who cursed them (12:3). Thus, despite the mortal danger Abraham believed himself to be in Egypt and Gerar, and his faithless fear which placed his wife in jeopardy, both Abraham and Sarah emerged safely and indeed enriched financially from their stays in foreign parts (12:10–20; 20:1–15). Similarly, Isaac prospered despite the opposition of the Philistines (ch. 26). Jacob was conscious that God went with him as he fled for his life to Paddan Aram, and it was through God’s help that he was able to escape the clutches of his double-crossing father-in-law and return in peace to a reconciliation with the brother who had planned to murder him (28:20–21; 31:42; 33:11). Above all, the career of Joseph demonstrated that God was with him, as he rose from prison cell to Pharaoh’s deputy (39:5, 23; 41:39).
Yet even here the promise was only partially fulfilled. God did make a covenant with Abraham (15:18), confirm it (17:7) and guarantee it (22:15–18). But these general covenants were just preambles to, and a foretaste of, the great covenant of Sinai to be made with Abraham’s descendants.
Finally, there was a partial fulfilment of the promise to the nations. Through Abraham’s efforts, the king of Sodom was rescued (14:17), and through his prayers, the childless women of Gerar conceived (20:17). Most dramatically of all, Joseph was instrumental in saving many lives, not just his own family’s but the Egyptians’ and those of other nations too (41:57). He pointed out that this was part of God’s plan (45:5–7; 50:20–21).
Theology of Genesis 1–11
Why was it necessary for God to choose Abraham, and who was the God who made these promises? How does Abraham fit into world history? It is these questions that Genesis 1–11 addresses.
Genesis 12–50 shows that the twelve tribes were the twelve sons or grandsons of Jacob (29:32–30:24; 35:18; 48:16). Israel’s nearest neighbours were descended from Jacob’s brother (Edom from Esau; 25:26; 36:1) or uncles (Ishmael; 25:12) or distant cousins (Moab and Ammon; 19:36–38). The table of nations in Genesis 10 shows how Israel was related to seventy other peoples known to the writer of Genesis. Israel, like the tribes of Syria and Arabia, was ultimately descended from Shem, one of Noah’s sons (10:21–28). The most distant nations known to Israel, including the Medes, Greeks and other Mediterranean peoples, are traced to Japheth, another son of Noah (10:2–5). Ham, Noah’s disgraced son, is said to have been the ancestor of Israel’s inveterate enemies, including the Egyptians, Babylonians and Canaanites (10:6–20). Thus, through this table of nations, Israel’s place among the nations of the ancient Near East is defined.
These opening chapters of Genesis also define Israel’s view of God over against the prevailing beliefs in many gods in the ancient orient. That the biblical story of mankind from creation to flood finds parallels in other ancient literature (such as the Atrahasis and Gilgamesh epics and the Sumerian Flood Story) has often been noticed. But even more significant is the way that Genesis, by retelling what to the author’s contemporaries were familiar stories, presents a new, indeed revolutionary, view of God and his relationship to the world and mankind.
Ancient orientals believed in a multitude of gods of limited power, knowledge and morality, so that religion was a dicey business. You could never be quite sure whether you had chosen the right deity, or whether he or she could bring you health and salvation. But the God of Genesis was unique and without equal. He was all-powerful, creating the whole universe (even the sun, moon and stars, often thought to be gods in their own right) by a simple command. He sent the flood and he stopped the flood. He saved Noah and his family because Noah was righteous, not because of favouritism. The God of Genesis was supremely concerned with human welfare. Unlike the Mesopotamian myths, which tell how the gods created mankind as an afterthought to provide themselves with food, Genesis declares that mankind was the goal of God’s creation whom God provided with food (1:26–29).
Yet though the creation of mankind was God’s crowning achievement he was, according to Genesis, totally flawed as ‘every inclination of the thought of his [man’s] heart was only evil all the time’ (6:5). It was human sin, not human fertility (as in the Atrahasis epic), that provoked the flood. And this profound pessimism about human nature and society again distinguishes Genesis’ theology from other ancient oriental beliefs. Mesopotamians (like many modern thinkers), for example, were believers in progress. They held that the Babylonian civilization was the most advanced and enlightened of all time. Genesis declares it was one of the most decadent (6:1–4; 11:1–9). Genesis traces an ‘avalanche of sin’, unleashed by Adam’s disobedience, aggravated by Cain’s murder and climaxed in the illicit marriages of 6:1–4, which eventually triggered off the flood. This great act of decreation was followed by a new creation as the new earth emerged from the waters, and Noah, a sort of second Adam, stepped out to till the land. But like the first Adam he too fell; his son Ham acted even worse; and human sinfulness reached another peak as the men of Babel attempted to build a tower that reached heaven. This led to another act of universal judgment in the scattering of the nations across the globe.
But it was a man who came from Ur, the centre of this corrupt civilization, that God called to leave his homeland, move to a new one and build a new nation, so that all the nations of the world should find blessing. For despite its gloom about human sin, Genesis is a fundamentally optimistic book. It declares that God’s purpose for mankind, first intimated at his creation (chapters 1–2), will ultimately be achieved through the offspring of Abraham.
F. D. Kidner, Genesis, TOTC (IVP, 1967).
D. Atkinson, The Message of Genesis 1–11, BST (IVP, 1990).
J. G. Baldwin, The Message of Genesis 12–50, BST (IVP, 1986).
J. H. Sailhammer, Genesis, EBC (Zondervan, 1990).
G. J. Wenham, Genesis 1–15, WBC (Word, 1987).
———, Genesis 16–50, WBC (Word, 1994).
c. circa, about (with dates)
JBL Journal of Biblical Literature
TOTC Tyndale Old Testament Commentary
BST The Bible Speaks Today
EBC Expositor’s Bible Commentary
WBC Word Biblical Commentary
Carson, D. A. (1994). New Bible commentary : 21st century edition. Rev. ed. of: The new Bible commentary. 3rd ed. / edited by D. Guthrie, J.A. Motyer. 1970. (4th ed.) (Gn 1.1). Leicester, England; Downers Grove, Ill., USA: Inter-Varsity Press.