Overview of the Book of Genesis

Overview of the Book of Genesis

Overview of the Book of Genesis

Author: The author is Moses.


To teach the Israelites God's design for them as a nation through the background of early world history and the lives of their patriarchs.

Date: c. 1446-1406 B.C.

Key Truths:

  • Although sin corrupted the ideal world Israel's God had created, redemption would come through God's chosen people.
  • The lives of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob provide many insights into the nature of God's covenant with his people and their hope for the future.
  • The lives of Joseph and his brothers reveal the ways in which the people of God are to relate to each other and to the world.


Because this book is part of the unified Pentateuch, establishing its authorship cannot be entirely separated from the composition of Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy (see "Introduction to the Pentateuch"). Evidences for Genesis itself suggest that, as is the case with the rest of the Pentateuch, Moses, under the Holy Spirit's inspiration, gave the book its essential substance; therefore, he may correctly be called its author. Later inspired editors modernized and supplemented it in a number of places to form the book as we have it today.

It would be arbitrary to exclude Genesis from the New Testament testimony that Moses authored the Pentateuch. More specifically, our Lord said, "Moses gave you circumcision" (John 7:22; see also Acts 15:1), a rite that was uniquely laid out in Genesis 17. It is not surprising that the founder of Israel's theocracy provided this masterful literary composition. Moses' superb training in the courts of Egypt, his exceptional spiritual gifts, and his divine call uniquely qualified him to compose the essential content and shape of the Pentateuch. The founder of Israel's theocracy of necessity would have given Israel its prior history, meaning and destiny, as well as its laws. Nearly every significant political and/or religious community in the ancient world retained accounts of its defining origins. In much the same way, Genesis furnished the theological and ethical underpinnings of the Torah: Israel's unique covenantal relationship with God (Deut. 9:5). Moreover, since creation myths were basic to pagan religions, it is reasonable to expect Israel's founder to have provided the Genesis creation account to counter them (see notes on Gen 1:1-2:3).

This outlook is corroborated by evidence of the antiquity of Genesis. Its first 11 chapters share many continuities and conscious discontinuities with ancient Near Eastern myths that preceded the time of Moses and were certainly known to him (e.g., the Enuma Elish, the Atrahasis epic and the 11th tablet of the Gilgamesh epic-Mesopotamian accounts of the creation and flood). Enuma Elish is also a title, so "Elish" is usually initial capped. Names and customs in the narratives about the patriarchs (Gen. 12-50) accurately reflect their era, suggesting an early author working from reliable documents. The Ebla texts (twenty-fourth century B.C.) mention Ebrium, very possibly the Eber of 10:21; and the Mari texts (eighteenth century B.C.) attest, among others, the names Abraham, Jacob, and Amorite. The practice of granting a birthright (i.e., additional privileges to an eldest son, Gen. 25:5-6, 32-34) was widespread in the ancient Near East, and the sale of an inheritance (Gen. 25:29-34) is documented at different periods in this area. The adoption of one's own slave (Gen. 15:3) is found in a Larsa letter from the Old Babylonian period, and the adoption of Ephraim and Manasseh by their grandfather (Gen. 48:5) may be compared with a similar adoption of a grandson at Ugarit (fourteenth century B.C.). The gift of a female slave as part of a dowry and her presentation to her husband by an infertile wife (Gen. 16:1-6 and their notes; see also Gen. 30:1-3) are attested in the Hammurapi Code (eighteenth century B.C.). In fact, some religious practices of the patriarchs antedate Moses. They worshiped God under such ancient names as El Olam ("the Eternal God"; Gen. 21:33) and El Shaddai (Gen 17:1). These names never recur in the Torah, except in Exodus 6:3, where the NIV84 translates El Shaddai as "God Almighty" (Num. 24:4 and Num. 24:16 employ Shaddai alone, translated "the Almighty"). Contrary to the Mosaic Law, and without the narrator's censure, Jacob erected a stone pillar (Gen. 28:18-22), Abraham married his half sister (Gen. 20:12), and Jacob simultaneously married sisters (Gen. 29:15-30; cf. Deut. 16:21-22; Lev. 18:9, 18, respectively). Moreover, of the 38 names by which the patriarchs and their families are called, 27 are never found again in the Bible. Only Genesis calls Hebron "Mamre," and only Genesis mentions Paddan Aram. These details indicate not only that Moses depended on earlier sources, but also that Genesis was written early in Israel's history, when there was little need to justify or condemn these earlier customs.

Time and Place of Writing:

Given the evidence linking Genesis and its contents to Moses and his era, we may reasonably conclude that the book's essential form and content date from about 1400 B.C. Insofar as David (c. 1000 B.C.) set the creation account (Gen. 1) to music (Psa. 8), a date of composition in the second millennium B.C. is certified for Genesis 1. Although words known to have been used only in the middle of the second millennium B.C. occasionally turn up in the text (see note on "the older" at Gen. 25:23), readers should note that the grammar and the place names (see note on "Dan" at Gen. 14:14) of Genesis, like the rest of the Pentateuch, have been modernized. Also, the king list in Genesis 36:31-43 appears to be an addendum dating after the time of Saul.

There is not enough evidence to determine precisely when Moses wrote the book of Genesis. He may have composed it as a way of calling the first generation of the exodus away from Egypt or, more likely, in conjunction with the rest of the Pentateuch for the second generation of the exodus as they prepared on the plains of Moab for the conquest of Canaan.

Original Audience:

The book of Genesis was written to provide encouragement to the Israelites as they faced the manifold challenges of separating from their background of slavery in Egypt and moving forward toward the conquest of the promised land. The narratives provide a prologue for the responsibilities the nation faced in the days of Moses. For instance, Genesis explicitly focuses on the rite of circumcision (Gen. 17:9-14), the prohibition against eating the sciatic nerve (Gen. 32:32) and Sabbath observance (Gen. 2:2-3). More importantly, Genesis recounts the origins of Israel, reaching back to the beginnings of human history and to the conflict between the Kingdom of God and the kingdom of the serpent - a conflict in which the nation of Israel was to play a crucial role. Genesis also recounts the election of Israel to a unique covenant relationship with the only God. According to that covenant, the descendants of the patriarchs would become a great nation in the land of promise, through whom the Gentiles would be blessed.

Purpose and Distinctives:

Following the ancient custom of naming books by their first word(s), the Hebrew title is bereshith, "in the beginning." Based on the book's content, the Greek title is geneseos (genesis), meaning "origin." Both titles are appropriate since the book is about the origin of sacred history.

A study of the literary structure of Genesis discloses the following highlights. The prologue (Gen. 1:1-2:3) is made apparent by a device at the book's beginning and conclusion: In the Hebrew text the word order of Genesis 1:1 is reversed in Genesis 2:1-3. After the prologue, Genesis is divided into ten parts marked out by the formula "This is the account of . . . " This heading is followed by a genealogy of the person named and/or by stories involving the person's notable descendants. The first three "accounts" pertain to history before the flood; the last seven, to times after the flood. The first three and the initial three of the seven parallel one another: They include stories about the developments of humanity universally at the creation out of the primordial, chaotic waters and at the re-creation after the flood (accounts one and four); the genealogy of the redemptive lines through Seth and Shem (accounts two and five); and the stories of the epochal covenant transactions with Noah and Abraham (accounts three and six). The final two pairs expand the Abrahamic line, contrasting his rejected offspring, Ishmael and Esau (accounts seven and nine), with stories about the elect, Isaac and Jacob (accounts eight and ten). The key to a story is often given in an opening revelation; e.g., the offer to Abraham (Gen. 12:1-3), the prenatal sign of the rivalry between Jacob and Esau (Gen. 25:22-23), and Joseph's dreams (Gen. 37:1-11). A transitional section is found at the end of the account (e.g., Gen. 4:25-26; 6:1-8; 9:18-29; 11:10-26 - see "Introduction: Outline"). The closing section of the last account contains strong links with Exodus, concluding with an oath Joseph elicited from his brothers to carry his embalmed body with them when God came to their aid to lead them back to Canaan (Gen. 50:24-25; Exod. 13:19).

The book's focus on the origins of Israel unfolds against a backdrop of concerns with matters that affect the world. Moses tells us that prior to God's election of the patriarchs (i.e., the fathers of Israel; Gen. 12-50), humanity asserted its independence from God by defying his command (Gen. 2-3). Human beings proved their depravity by token religion, fratricide, and unrestrained vengeance (as represented by Cain in Gen. 4); by tyranny, harems and continuous evil thoughts (as represented by the wicked kings of Gen. 6:1-8); and by the erection of their own kingdom against God (as represented by Nimrod's infamous tower (Gen. 10:8-12; see note on Gen. 11:1-9). God's verdict about humanity stands: "Every inclination of his heart is evil from childhood" (Gen. 8:21). Behind this dark history stands fallen humanity's spiritual father: the malevolent, cunning devil (Gen. 3).

Just as miraculously and surely as God sovereignly transformed the dark, mysterious chaos at earth's origins (Gen. 1:2) into a glorious habitat for humanity and brought it to rest (Gen. 1:3-2:3), so also God sovereignly elected his covenant people in Christ to conquer Satan (Gen. 3:15) and to bless the depraved world (Gen. 12:1-3). He unconditionally elected the patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, promising to make of their elect descendants the nation destined to bless the earth-a promise entailing an eternal seed, land and king (Gen. 12:1-3, 7; 13:14-17; 17:1-8; 26:2-6; 28:10-15). Before Jacob was born or had done either good or evil, God chose him rather than his older twin brother, Esau (Gen. 25:21-23). God even used Judah's scandalous wrongs against Tamar, as he did Tamar's own daring ruse, to advance the Messianic line (Gen. 38). The heavenly King displayed his glorious rule by miraculously preserving the matriarchs in pagan harems (Gen. 12:10-20; 20:1-18) and by opening their barren wombs (Gen. 17:15-22; 18:1-15; 21:1-7; 25:21; 29:31; 30:22). He overrode normal human practices time and again by choosing the younger, not the older, to inherit the blessing (see note on Gen. 25:23). Blatant prophecies and subtle types are sterling witnesses that God directs history. For example, Noah prophesied Shem's subjugation of Canaan (Gen. 9:24-26), and Abraham prefigured the greater exodus led by Moses when God delivered Abraham and Sarah from the oppression of Egypt with wealth (see note on Gen. 12:10-20).

God inclined the hearts of his elect to trust his promises and obey his commands. Against all hope, Abraham counted on God to bless him with innumerable offspring, and the narrator says that God credited that faith as on a par with keeping the law (Gen. 15:6). Confident of God's sure promises, Abraham gave up his rights to the land (Gen. 13), and later on Jacob (subsequently called Israel), clinging only to God (Gen. 32:9-12), symbolically gave back the birthright to Esau (Gen. 33). At the beginning of the Joseph story, Judah sold Joseph as a slave (Gen. 37:26-27), but at its end the former slave trader was willing to become a slave himself in the place of his brother (Gen. 44:33-34). Secure in the truth that God's sovereign design included sins as heinous as his attempted murder and enslavement at the hands of his brothers, Joseph forgave them without recrimination (Gen. 45:4-8; 50:24).

It must be admitted that there are a few difficulties in interpreting the book. There is tension between Genesis and modern science. Genesis is concerned about who created the universe and why. Science cannot answer these questions! Since speaking the world into existence does not satisfy non-Christian scientists they attempt to explain, through different branches of their ever-changing art, how the universe came into being. However, one must remember that God is the God of all true science and therefore true science will always agree with the correct interpretation of God's unchanging Word.

The authorship of Genesis has also been called into question. For the past century, scholars have contended that it is composed of conflicting documents by different writers, usually identified as:

J - for the writer or writers who referred to God as Jahweh/Yahweh, "the LORD."

E - for the writer or writers who referred to God as Elohim, "God."

P - for the writer or writers who were concerned with priestly matters.

D - for the writer or writers of Deuteronomy.

Although the JEPD approach, commonly the called the documentary hypothesis, is still widely accepted, few believe any longer that these documents can be used to reconstruct a history of Israel's religion, since all the alleged sources contain both early and late materials. To be sure, many documents were composed in the ancient Near East by combining earlier written sources, and Moses himself may have used them (see "Author"), but no criticism has successfully demonstrated that Moses himself could not have authorized or written from all four perspectives. Moreover, many scholars today question the criteria used for identifying these sources and emphasize instead the unity of the text in hand. For example, the flood story, a veritable textbook example of synthesis, according to the documentary hypothesis, is now conceded to have remarkable integrity (see note on Gen 6:9-9:29). See "Introduction to the Pentateuch."

Christ in Genesis:

What was begun in Genesis is fulfilled in Christ. The genealogy begun in Genesis 5 and advanced in Genesis 11 is completed with the birth of Jesus Christ (Matt. 1; Luke 3:23-38). He is the quintessential offspring promised to Abraham (Gen. 17:15-16; Gal. 3:16). The elect are blessed in him because he alone by his active obedience satisfied the law's demands and by his willingness to relinguish his rights of equality with God died in their stead. All who are baptized into him are Abraham's descendants (Gal. 3:26-29). The bold prophecies and subtle types in Genesis show that God was writing a history that was to be completed in Jesus. On the threshold of Biblical prophecy, Noah predicted that the Japhethites would find salvation through the Semites (Gen. 9:27), a prophecy fulfilled in the New Testament (Rom. 11; cf. note on Gen. 9:27), and God himself proclaimed that the woman's offspring would destroy Satan (Gen. 3:15). That offspring is Christ and his Church (Rom. 16:20). The gift of the bride to Adam prefigured the gift of the church to Christ (Gen. 2:18-25; Eph. 5:22-32); Melchizedek's priesthood is like that of the Son of God (Gen. 14:18-20; Heb 7). The paradise lost by the first Adam is restored by the last Adam (Christ). This marvelously unified sacred history certifies that the focus of Genesis is ultimately Christ.

Notes from the NIV Spirit of the Reformation Study Bible, Dr. Richard Pratt, ed. (Zondervan, 2003).

Introduction Material:

Introduction to the Pentateuch


Copyright, Authors, and Theological Editors of the SORSB

Answer by Dr. Richard L. Pratt, Jr.

Dr. Richard L. Pratt, Jr. is Co-Founder and President of Third Millennium Ministries who served as Professor of Old Testament at Reformed Theological Seminary and has authored numerous books.