The book of ‘Genesis’ takes its English name from the Greek title, Genesis, and means ‘beginning’. The title of the book in Hebrew is its opening word, bereshit, which means ‘In [the] beginning’. The book is thus presented as a book of beginnings, and opens the Bible with an account of how the world and its people got started and began to populate and settle the earth.
A reader of the finished book of Genesis will see that one simple outline of the book begins with chapters 1–11 as a so-called ‘primeval narrative’, set outside and/or before the story of Israel, and telling a story from the creation of the world through to the arrival of Abram (later ‘Abraham’). Then chapters 12–50 offer ‘ancestral narratives’ that focus on three major figures – and several other ones – in one family line: Abraham (chapters 12–25), Jacob (chapters 27–35), and Joseph (chapters 37–50).
There is a repeated phrase in the text, ‘these are the generations [or descendants] of X’, or ‘this is the account of X’: for example Genesis 6:9 – ‘this is the account of Noah’ (NIV). This kind of heading is used eleven times: Genesis 2:4; 5:1; 6:9; 10:1; 11:10; 11:27; 25:12; 25:19; 36:1; 36:9; 37:2, and suggests one way of thinking about the contents of the book. Although this is a helpful indicator, it is not obvious that these divisions actually pick out the key sections of the book. For example, none of them speak of Abraham, a major figure on any view, and when Genesis 37:2 says ‘this is the account of Jacob’, the chapters that follow are mainly about Joseph.
Traditional ascriptions of the book to Moses reflect the belief that the book carries an authority appropriate to a word from God through the figure of Moses. Some understand this as the claim that Moses was the author, in the way that authorship is understood today, while others argue that it is a way of tying the books to Moses’ authority without being a claim about who actually wrote anything down. There are also clues in the book itself that the writer(s) and/or editors are addressing readers who live later, and who need occasional explanatory information to clarify terms and details. (A good example of this is Genesis 12:6.)
In modern times biblical scholarship developed a view of different written sources (commonly called Documentary Hypothesis) which were combined to form the final version of the book. The supposed authors of these sources were given abbreviations relating to some aspect of their contribution: J was the ‘Jahwist’ (or more commonly now the ‘Yahwist’), so called because J uses the traditional name of God in Hebrew, ‘YHWH’ (consider the older English form, ‘Jehovah’). E was the ‘Elohist,’ who used the Hebrew word for God, ‘elohim’ (though this is often now not thought to be a separate tradition from J). P was a priestly author, concerned with questions of structure and order appropriate to a priestly perspective. All these authors were thought to write between the 10th and 5th centuries BCE, and were edited together perhaps in the 5th century BCE, possibly by P.
An example of how to think about the date of the book may be provided by the story of the tower of Babel. ‘Babel’ is the Hebrew word for Babylon, and the tower in question is perhaps to be understood as something like the famous Babylonian towers, called ziggurats. This story could derive from any time in the long period of Babylon’s influence. But its appearance in Genesis 11, at the transition point between the opening stories and the Abraham narratives, seems well designed to reflect on Israel’s status scattered through the Babylonian empire, in the 6th-century exile. In this kind of way, older literary sources and oral traditions from preceding times may have been brought together into the finished book of Genesis at around this time.
Genesis 1–11 is clearly giving the reader orientation to the world in which we live, and how to understand God and God’s ways with humans, in that world. It claims that readers should understand God as creator, or the author of life; that God’s creating work is good (as frequently repeated in Genesis 1); and that there is trouble in the world, coming through the failings (or sins) of humans. ‘Adam’ is the Hebrew word for ‘man’, and ‘Eve’ means ‘living’ (see Genesis 3:20)—these opening chapters are stories about human life understood in general terms. A fundamental point about Genesis 1–11 is the pattern of sin and judgment that repeats on different scales: the first sin; the first murder; the wickedness of the human heart; and in each case the response offered by God.
Genesis 12–50 continues straight on from this opening, and focuses on one particular family line of people God calls out to live in such a way as to spread blessing among those they live with (see Genesis 12:1-3). The actual interaction of Abraham and his descendants with other people is not always straightforwardly a blessing in the stories that follow, but those stories are realistic about the trials and tribulations of the life of faith as lived out among contrasting cultures and contexts. A major theme is the covenant that God enters into with Abraham (told in contrasting ways in Genesis 15 and 17). This is a way of understanding divine-human relationship as a mixture of grace and obligation, and sets a framework for subsequent developments in the narratives of Exodus and other books in the Pentateuch.
There is a long history of Jews and Christians reading and interpreting the book of Genesis in various ways. Many later books are ascribed to characters from Genesis (such as the books of Enoch), and there are interpretative paraphrases of Genesis, for example the Aramaic targums, that give insight into how the book was being read in later centuries. The Christian New Testament also offers various examples of how the book was received and read in the 1st century CE, such as in Paul’s discussion of Christ as a ‘second Adam’ (Romans 5).
The stories of Genesis continue to have a huge impact on all kinds of cultural and popular levels. They retain their power through media ranging from the artistic—such as Pieter Bruegel’s painting of the tower of Babel; the literary—such as in Steinbeck’s novel East of Eden; through to the musical—most famously in the long-running Joseph and his Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat. Even in a modern culture not overly familiar with the details of the biblical text, one still finds popular works drawing heavily upon Genesis.
Barton, Stephen C., and David Wilkinson, eds. Reading Genesis after Darwin. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009.
Briggs, Richard S. “The Book of Genesis.” Pages 19-50 in A Theological Introduction to the Pentateuch: Interpreting the Torah as Christian Scripture. Edited by Richard S. Briggs and Joel N. Lohr. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2012.
Hendel, Ronald, ed. Reading Genesis: Ten Methods. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010.
Moberly, R. W. L. The Theology of the Book of Genesis. Old Testament Theology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009.
Provan, Iain. Discovering Genesis: Content, Interpretation, Reception. Discovering Biblical Texts. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2016.