How to read Genesis


  • Content: the story of the creation, of human disobedience and its tragic consequences, and of God's choosing Abraham and his offspring - the beginning of the story of redemption.

  • Historical coverage: from creation to the death of Joseph in Egypt (ca. 1600 B.C?)

  • Emphases: God as the Creator of all that is; God's creation of human beings in his image; the nature and consequences of human disobedience; the beginning of the divine covenants; God's choice of a people through whom he will bless the nations


For modern readers Genesis might appear to be a strange book, beginning as it does with God and creation, and ending with Joseph in a coffin in Egypt! But that strangeness is evidence that even though it has integrity as a book in its own right (careful structure and, organization), it is at the same time intended to set the whole biblical story in motion. Indeed, its opening word (Bereshith = "in [the] beginning") both serves as its title and is suggestive as to what the book is about. Thus it tells of the beginning of God's story-creation, human disobedience, and divine redemption-while it also begins the Pentateuch, the story of God's choosing and making a covenant with a people through whom he would bless all peoples (Gen 12:2-3).

The narrative of Genesis itself comes in two basic parts: a "prehistory" (chs. 1-11), the stories of creation, human origins, the fall of humanity, and the relentless progress of evil-all against the backdrop of God's enduring patience and love-and the story of the beginning of redemption through Abraham and his seed (chs. 12--50), with focus on the stories of Abraham (11:27 -25:11), Jacob (25 12-37:l), and Joseph (chs. 37-50). These stories are structured in part around a phrase that occurs ten times: "This is the account [genealogy/family history] of," a term which can refer both to "genealogies" proper (as with Shem, Ishmael, and Esau) and to "family stories." You will see that the major stories of Abraham, Jacob, and Joseph in each case come under the family story of the father (Terah, Isaac, and Jacob).

The overall narrative of Genesis thus begins immediately after the prologue (1:1-2:3) with the first human family in the Garden of Eden and works successively from Adam's family through Noah and Shem to Terah and Abraham and finally through Isaac to Jacob (Israel) and thus to Joseph. At the same time, the family lines of the rejected sons (Cain, Ishmael, Esau) are also given so that the "chosen seed" and the "rejected brother" are set off in contrast (the one has a story, the other only a genealogy). Finally, watch for one further framing device that holds the major part of the book together: God's use of Noah to preserve human life during the great deluge (chs. 6-9) and of Joseph to preserve human life during the great drought (chs. 37-50).


As you read this first book in the Bible, besides being aware of how the narrative unfolds according to the family stories, also be watching for both the major plot and several subplots that help to shape the larger family story, the story of the people of God.

The major plot has to do with God's intervening in the history of human fallenness by choosing ("electing") a man and his family. For even though the families of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob are the major players, you are never allowed to forget that God is the ultimate Protagonist-as is true in all the biblical narratives. Above all else, it is his story. God speaks and thereby creates the world and a people. It becomes their story (and ours) only as God has brought this family into being and made promises to them and covenanted with them to be their God. So keep looking for the way the major plot unfolds and for how the primary players become part of God's ultimate narrative.

At the same time, keep your eyes open for several subplots that are crucial to the larger story of the Old Testament people of God-and in some cases of the people constituted by the new covenant as well. Six of these are worthy of special attention.

The first of these-crucial to the whole biblical story-is the occurrence of the first two covenants between God and his people. The first covenant is with all of humankind through Noah and his sons, promising that God will never again cut off life from the earth (9:8-17).The second covenant is with Abraham, promising two things especially the gift of "seed" who will become a great nation to bless the nations, and the gift of land (12:2-7;15:1-21; cf. 17:3-8, where the covenant is ratified by the identifying mark of circumcision). The second covenant is repeated to Isaac (26:3-5) and Jacob (28: 13 - 15) and in turn serves as the basis for the next two Old Testament covenants: the gift of law (Exod 20-24) and the gift of kingship (2 Sam 7).

The second subplot is a bit subtle in Genesis itself, but is important to the later unfolding of the theme of holy war (see glossary) in the biblical story. It begins with God's curse on the serpent, that God "will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring [seed] and hers" (3: 14- 15). The crucial term here is "offspring,, (seed), picked up again in 12:7 with regard to the chosen people. This curse anticipates the holy-war motif that is accented in Exodus in particular (between Moses and Pharaoh, thus between God and the gods of Egypt; see Exod 15:1-18), is carried on further in the conquest of Canaan and its gods (which explains the curse of Canaan in Gen 9:25-27),and climaxes in the New Testament (in the story of Jesus Christ, and especially in the Revelation). Although in Genesis this motif does not take the form of holy war as such, you can nonetheless see it especially in the strife between brothers, between the ungodly and godly seed (Cain/Abel; Ishmael/ Isaac; Esau/Jacob), where the elder persecutes the younger through whom God has chosen to work (see Gal 4:29).

God's choice of the younger (or weaker, or most unlikely) to bear the righteous seed is a third subplot that begins in Genesis. Here it takes two forms in particular that are then repeated throughout the biblical story. First, God regularly bypasses the firstborn son in carrying out his purposes (a considerable breach of the cultural rules on the part of God): not Cain but Seth, not Ishmael but Isaac, not Esau but Jacob, not Reuben but Judah. Second, the godly seed is frequently born of an otherwise barren woman (Sarah, 18:11-12; Rebekah, 25:21; Rachel, 29:31). As you read through the whole biblical story, you will want to be on the lookout for this recurring motif (see, e.g.,1 Sam 1:1-2:1 1; Luke 1).

Related to this theme is the fact that the chosen ones are not chosen because of their own goodness; indeed, their flaws are faithfully narrated (Abraham in Gen 12:10-20; Isaac in 26:l-ll; Jacob throughout [note how dysfunctional the family is in ch. 37!]; Judah in 38:1-30). God does not choose them because of their inherent character; what makes them the godly seed is that in the end they trusted God and his promise that they would be his people-an exceedingly numerous people-and that they would inherit the land to which they first came as aliens.

A fourth subplot emerges later in the story, where Judah takes the leading role among the brothers in the long Joseph narrative (chs. 37-50). He emerges first in chapter 38, where his weaknesses and sinfulness are exposed. But his primary role begins in 43:8-9, where he guarantees the safety of his brother Benjamin, and it climaxes in his willingness to take the place of Benjamin in 44:18-34. All of this anticipates Jacob's blessing in 49:8-12, that the "scepter will not depart from Judah" (pointing to the Davidic kingdom and, beyond that, to Jesus Christ).

A fifth subplot is found in the anticipation of the next "chapter" in the story-slavery in Egypt. Interest in Egypt begins with the genealogy of Ham (10:i3-14; Mizraim is Hebrew for "Egypt"). The basic family narrative (Abraham to Joseph) begins with a famine that sends Abraham to Egypt (12:10-20) and concludes with another famine that causes Jacob and the entire family to settle in Egypt, whereas Isaac, while on his way toward Egpt during another famine, is expressly toldnotto go there (26:1-5).

Finally, the interest in detailing the origins of Israel's near neighbors, who become thorns in their sides throughout the Old Testament story, forms a sixth subplot. Besides the major players, Egypt and Canaan (10:13-19), note, in turn, Moab and Ammon (19:30-38) and Edom

(25:23; 27:39-40; 36:1-43), as well as the lesser role of Ishmael (39:1; cf. Ps 83:6).




Although written as prose, there is also a clearly poetic dimension to this creational prologue. Part of the poetry is the careful structure of this first "week," where day I corresponds to day 4, day 2 to day 5, and day 3 to day 6. Notice how the two sets of days respond to the earth's being "formless and empty" (1:2): Days 1-3 give "form" to the earth (light, sky, dry land), while days 4-6 fill the form with content. Thus:

Day 1 (1:3-5) Light

Day 2 (1:6-8) Sky and seas

Day 3 (1:9-13) Dry land/plant life

Day 4 (1:14-19) Sun, moon, stars

Day 5 (1:20-23) Sky and sea animals

Day 6 (1:24-31) Land animals eat plant life

Day 1 (2:2-3) God rests from this work

Watch for several emphases as you read some of which are picked up later in the biblical story-that God speaks everything into existence (cf. Ps 33:6; John 1:1-3); that God blessed what he created including the material world, calling it all "good"; that human beings, male and female, are created in God's own image and are given regency over the rest of creation; that God rested on the seventh day and set it aside as holy (thus setting the pattern of six days of work and one for rest; cf. Exod 20:8-11, God's great gift of rest to former slaves).


The Account of Human Beginnings

This is the first of the six "accounts" that make up the prehistory of Genesis 1- 11 . It falls into three clearly discernible parts, following present chapter divisions. It begins (2:4-25) with human beings created and placed in Eden, with its centerpiece of the two trees (of life; of the knowledge of good and evil-both reflecting God's own being); included are the warning not to eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, and the creation of Eve from Adam's side, with emphasis on their mutuality and partnership. Note how the story descends rapidly from there. The serpent beguiles them into disobedience (3:1-13), followed by God's cursing the serpent and the land and judging the woman and the man (3:14-19) and, after a momentary alleviation (3:21), by their punishment-the loss of God's presence (3:22-24).It

is important to be reminded here that Eden is seen as restored in the final vision of the Revelation (Rev 22:1-5)!

The descent is completed with the story of Cain's murder of his brother, Abel, and Cain's further banishment from God's presence (4:1-18), concluding on the twin notes of the arrogance of Cain's descendants (4:19-24) and, of the birth of Seth, with the hopeful note that "at that time people began to call on the name of the Lord" (4:25-26).


The Account of Adam's Family Line

This genealogy stands in contrast to Cain's line (compare the difference between the two Lamechs at the end of each). Note two important things about this genealogy: First, it begins (5:3) and ends (5:29) with echoes from the prologue (Seth is in Adam's likeness; Noah will bring comfort from the curse). Second one man in this lineage, Enoch (5:21-24), continues to experience God's presence. Despite some puzzling details, don't miss the point of 6:1-8: The utter degeneration of the human race leads God to act in judgment(6:6-7); mercifully, however, "Noah found favor in the eyes of the Lord" (6:8).


The Account of Noah

This narrative is so well known that you could easily miss its significant features. Note at the beginning how Noah's righteousness echoes Enoch's "walking with God" (6:9). Observe also how the story echoes the original creation story, so that in effect it becomes a "second creation" narrative: The flood returns the world to its state of being "formless and empty" (1:2), but Noah and the animals provide a link with the old while yet starting something new. The covenant with Noah is full of echoes from Genesis 1-2-the reestablishment of the seasonal cycles (8:22; cf . 1 :14); the command to multiply (9:1,7 ; cf. 1 :28); humankind in God's image (9:6; cf . 1:27). Here God is starting over, and thus he makes a covenant never to destroy the whole earth in such a fashion again. Alas, the story ends on a sour note (9:20-23)-a "fall" again, leading to the curse of Ham's seed, Canaan-but it concludes with the blessing of Shem (from whose seed redemption will emerge).


The Account of Shen, Ham, and Japheth

Here you find the development of human civilization into the three basic people groups known to the Israelites. Singled out in particular are Mizraim (Hebrew for "Egypt") and Canaan (10:13-20). Capping these accounts is the story of Babel, which leads directly to the Abraham narrative, as the story returns from the scattered nations to one man who will found a new nation through whom all the nations will be blessed.


The Account of Shem

This list of names isn't riveting reading, but it gets you from Noah's son Shem to Abram (Abraham), and thus to the "father" of the chosen people.


The Account of Terah

You can hardly miss seeing that Terah's son, Abraham, dominates this family story. Here you can watch how skillfully the narrative is presented. It introduces Abraham's family, who have moved partway to Canaan (11:27-32), with a special note about Sarah's barrenness (11:30). The key moments are in l2:1-9, where God calls Abraham to leave Haran and "go to the land I will show you" (12:1) and promises to make him "into a great nation" and to bless "all peoples on earth" through him (w. 2-3). After obediently traveling to the land inhabited by Canaanites (vv. 4-5), Abraham traverses the whole land and then is promised "To your offspring [seed] I will give this land" (w. 6-7),

whereupon "he built an altar there to the Lord and called on the name of the Lord" (w. 8-9). In the rest of the narrative, you will see these several themes played out in one form or another: The promised land will be given to the promised seed, who will become a great nation and thus a blessing to the nations-even though the Canaanites now possess the land and Sarah is barren!-and so Abraham trusts and worships the God who has promised this.

Thus the first narrative, which is about Abram's failure in Egypt (12:10-20), has to do with God's protecting the promised seed.The first Lot cycle (chs. 13-14) focuses on great nation and promised land while introducing Sodom and Gomorrah, and indicating Abraham's considerable significance in the land. The back-to-back narratives of chapters 15-16 come back to the promised seed from a barren woman, while the centerpiece narrative of chapter 17 focuses on all the themes together. The next narrative focuses again on the promised seed from a barren woman (18:1-15), which is picked up again in the series of three narratives in chapters 20 and 21 (Abimelech, the birth of Isaac, the expulsion of Ishmael). These narratives bookend the second Lot cycle (18:16-19:38), which begins with the great nation that will be a blessing on the nations (18:18). Here the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah and the incestuous conception of Moab and Ammon stand in contrast to Abraham's trust in God for the promised land, a theme picked up again in 21:22-34.

Four crucial narratives then conclude the family story of Terah. First comes the testing of Abraham as to whether he would be willing to give up to God his firstborn son (ch. 22).In this crucial narrative, be sure to note

(1) the renewal of the promises (w. 15-18),

(2) Abraham's obedience and implicit trust in God throughout,

(3) God's provision of a sacrifice in place of Isaac.

Taken together, the deaths of Sarah (ch. 23) and of Abraham (25:7 -11) complete the promised-land motif-a piece of the future promised land is purchased so that their bodies can rest there, waiting for the future to be fulfilled! These enclose the story of Isaac's marriage, which is included in the Abraham series because it continues the promised-seed motif, as does the introduction to the narrative of Abraham's death (25:1-6).

Note finally that unwise choices made in moments of shaky faith do not thwart God's purposes (the Pharaoh and Abimelech stories in chs. 12 and 20, and Hagar in ch. 16), while Abraham in his turn "believed the Lord, and [the Lord] credited it to him as righteousness" (15:6, a text that becomes especially important in Paul's letters). Thus Abraham's regular response to God is worship and obedience (12:7-8; 13:4, 18; 14:17 -20; 22:1-19).


The Account of Ishmael

This, the briefest of the origin stories, confirms that God fulfilled his promise (16:10) to make Ishmael, not just Isaac, into a great twelve tribe nation.


The Account of Isaac

The Isaac story is mainly about Jacob, who represents the chosen lineage.

Note how the promises made to Abraham are repeated for both Isaac (26:3-5) and Jacob (28:13-15). Again, following prayer, the promised seed is born to a barren woman (25:21-26). Esau's despising his firstborn right (25:29-34) shows his character (cf. Heb 12:16) and by implication that of his descendants, the Edomites-perennial enemies of Israel (see the book of Obadiah). In chapter 26 Isaac repeats Abraham's failure (chs. 12, 20) and as before, God intervenes to protect the promised seed. In chapters 27-28, despite Jacob's cheating Esau out of his father's blessing (and thus living up to his name, "he deceives"), note that God renews the Abrahamic covenant with him (28:10-22). This event also marks the beginning of a change in Jacob's character, evidenced in the events surrounding his reconciliation with Esau (chs. 32-33; note especially the narrative where his name is changed from Jacob to Israel).

In chapters 29-31 you begin to follow the expansion of the nation of Israel. The chosen family now numbers twelve sons whose offspring will form the twelve tribes, a concept reflected later in the tribal districts of the land and later still in Jesus'choosing twelve disciples, and even in the final architecture of the new Jerusalem that comes down out of heaven (Rev 21:12,74,21). Unfortunately, Jacob's sons (ch.34) reflect the character of the younger Jacob, a factor that plays a huge role at the beginning(37:12-36) of the final family story in Genesis (chs. 37-50).


The Account of Esau

Esau's lineage, the Edomites, became a great nation as promised but are also another of the neighbors who continually threaten the chosen people and their security in the promised land.


The Account of Jacob

The final family story is primarily about Joseph, whom God uses to rescue Israel (and the nations, thus blessing them, 12:2-3) from famine so that the promised seed can be preserved. You will find reading this story to be a different experience from what has gone before, since it is a single cohesive narrative (the longest of its kind in the Bible), with just three interruptions (the story of Judah in ch. 38, the genealogy in 46:8-27, and Jacob's "blessing" in ch. 49). Note how it begins and ends on the same note-his brothers bowing to him (37:5- 7; 50:18; cf.42:6). Look for the various themes that hold the story

together: God overturns the brothers' evil against Joseph; he allows Joseph to languish in prison (which came about because of Joseph's refusal to sin) but finally rescues him and elevates him through his divinely given ability to interpret dreams (note the repeated "the Lord was with Joseph," 39:2, 3, 21, 23)- again, God works through a younger, despised son. Note also at the end (ch. 48), Jacob's blessing of Joseph's two sons continues the pattern of God's choosing the younger (the unfavored one).

Finally, you will want to observe the role Judah plays in the narrative. Although his beginnings are anything but salutary (ch. 38), Judah later shows a repentant heart for his past role in the story ( 44:18-34). And eventually he is blessed as "the lion" through whose lineage will come the Davidic king (49:8-12) and, eventually the messianic king himself, Christ Jesus.

Although the narrative ends with Joseph in a coffin in Egypt (50:26), this too anticipates the next part of the narrative, the book of Exodus, where special note is made that the Israelites took the bones of Joseph with them because he had made them swear an oath, "God will surely come to your aid" (Exod 13:19).

Genesis begins the biblical story with God as Creator, human beings

as created in God's image but fallen, and God's response through a

redemptive creation of a chosen people-and doing so through all kinds

of circumstances( good and ill) and despite their faults.