By Mary Jane Chaignot

The word "Genesis" is derived from the first Hebrew word of the book -- be-re'shith, usually translated, "In the beginning." "Genesis" comes from the Septuagint's translation of that word and has several related meanings: origin, beginning, becoming, birth, even descendants. Genesis is the first of five books comprising the "Pentateuch," the "Torah" (Law), or the five books of Moses, designated as such because they were supposedly authored by him -- though few believe that any more. It is now generally accepted that Genesis had many authors since it is essentially folk literature. These stories had a rich, traditional oral history long before they were ever put down in writing. The final editing probably was done by the priestly writers during the 6th century.

There are two main divisions in the book.

  • Chapters 1-11 are often referred to as the Primeval History.
  • Chapters 12-50 make up the Ancestral History of Israel.

The Primeval History deals with true origins, the beginning of everything. In it are stated the central beliefs about God's creation of the heavens and earth and what happened afterwards.

  • Bible Characters that other ancient cultures (Egyptian, Babylonian, Sumerian) had similar stories?
    • The Enuma Elish is a Babylonian creation story.
    • The Gilgamesh Epic is a Babylonian flood story.

But Genesis is unique because one characteristic of the stories of all other cultures is the fighting of the gods. The prevailing god would then impose his will upon all the others, thereby bringing order into the world. In Genesis, God acts alone and creates with an economy of words, rather than a plethora of weapons.

1:1-31 -- The six days of Creation

  • This is a beautiful account of the progression from chaos to cosmos.
  • There are six units of time, perfectly balanced into two parallel groups, describing four creative acts in three days. Each day begins with the formula "God says," and ends with "evening and morning" of that day. The first three days of creaton undo chaos through the progressive formation of the heavens, the waters, and dry land. The second three days of creation populate these entities in identical order, culminating in the creation of man made in God's image and likeness.

2:1-3 -- The Seventh Day

  • All of creation is pronounced good, and God rests, thereby providing the essential foundation for the Sabbath, though this word does not appear.

2:4-25 -- The creation of Adam and Eve -- oftentimes referred to as the Second Creation Story

  • If it is a creation story, its focus is totally different.
  • God breathes the breath of life into this creature of the dust (clay) and plants a garden where man can live. Man was to care for the garden but not eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Apparently he lived in the garden, but he was lonely. So God fashioned woman as a helper fit for him, to serve with him in the garden.

3:1-24 -- commonly referred to as the "Fall", but there is no such reference in the Hebrew Bible, nor is there any other reference to Adam and Eve in the OT.

  • It is an attempt to explain why the human condition is so different from the vision of God's ideal world. It tries to answer the question, "How did evil begin?" It does not make a case for primordial evil; evil was the result of man's poor choices.
  • The mysterious serpent convinces Adam and Eve that life will be better if they eat the fruit from the forbidden tree. They're convinced. God interrogates them, states the consequences, and banishes them from Eden, but not before making clothes for them.

4:1-26 -- Cain and Abel

  • The children of Adam and Eve offer further comment on human nature. Jealousy and strife lead to the murder of Abel, and Cain's denial of it to God. Further banishment is the result, ending in Cain's genealogy, which passes into extinction. Eve bears a son, Seth.

5:1-32 -- The Book of Genealogies

  • Humanity is given a fresh start. Beginning with Adam, it records ten generations, culminating in Noah. This lays out an orderly and divine unfoldment of history.

6:1-8 -- The Intermarriage of Celestial and Terrestrial Beings

  • What is one to make of this? This story has many parallels in other ancient cultures. Here, though, their activity remains under God's control and introduces his judgment of "great wickedness" and his "regret" at making humans in the first place. Only Noah remained faithful.

6:9-9:17 -- The Great Flood

  • This is actually the undoing of creation. But alongside judgment stands the promise of renewal.
  • God instructs Noah how to save himself by building the ark. Noah follows those instructions to the letter, and only his family is allowed in. After it rained for forty days and nights, it took almost a year for the earth to return to its pre-flood condition.
  • When dry land appears, Noah and his family disembark and offer sacrifices to God symbolizing the restoration of harmony between God and humanity.
  • God responds by making a covenant ratified with the sign of a rainbow.

9:18-29 -- The Blessing and Cursing of Noah and his Sons

  • Noah was blessed with a vineyard and cursed by the fact that he got drunk on its wine.
  • While Noah was inebriated, his son, Ham, did something to him, which is left unspecified.
  • Upon awakening, Noah cursed "Canaan" (Ham) and blessed his other two sons.

10:1-32 -- The Table of Nations

  • Seventy peoples are listed, the number suggesting completion. The entire human race can be traced back to one of these three sons.
  • The Japheth nations are to the north and west.
  • Ham includes Canaanites and Egyptians.
  • Shem is the forerunner of the Israelites and the people of Mesopotamia and Arabia.

11:1-9 -- The Tower of Babal

  • In this final story, people have once again turned from God. They intend to build a "tower" to the heavens to honor themselves.
  • God responds by confounding their speech and scattering them over the whole earth.

11:10-32 -- Transition to the Patriarchs

  • The incorrigible nature of mankind leads the author to focus on one line of descent -- Shem's.
  • Ten generations lie between Shem and Abraham, just as 10 generations separate Adam from Noah.
  • Previous stories have shown the breadth of God's blessings to humanity.
  • Now one family will be invited to know God more intimately.

The Ancestral History of Israel

The ancestral history records the traditions of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph. The time is estimated to be roughly 2000 and 1500 BCE - the middle Bronze Age.


12:1-7 -- God chooses Abraham

  • The command is abrupt, uncompromising -- "GO! the land I will show you."
  • The promises (seven, in all) are equally clear -- "you will be a blessing to others."
  • Abram gets up and goes, leaving his father, kin, and country.

12:9-25:11 - Chronicles the story of Abraham


12:10-20 -- Abraham and Sarah in Egypt; Sarah in Pharoah's palace


13:1-18 - Arrival in the promised land, separation of Lot and Abraham


14:1-24 - Abraham rescues Lot


15:1-21 - God makes a covenant with Abraham


16:1-16 -- Introduction of Hagar and the birth of Ishmael


17:1-17 - God reiterates covenant, institutes circumcision


18:1-15 - God promises a son to Sarah


18:16-33 -- God informs Abraham about problems in Sodom


19:1-29 - Depravity and destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah


19:30-38 -- Lot's daughters give birth to Ammon and Moab


20:1-18 - Abraham and Sarah in Gerar; Sarah in Abimelech's palace


21:1-21 - Birth of Isaac and explusion of Hagar and Ishmael


21:22-34 -- Abraham's covenant regarding the well at Beersheba


22:1-19 - The Binding of Isaac


22:20-24 -- Digression to Bethuel, introduces Rebekah's father


23:1-20 - Death and Burial of Sarah


24:1-67 - Abraham sends servant to find wife for Isaac


25:1-6 -- Abraham's descendants by wife, Keturah


25:7-11 - Death and Burial of Abraham


25:12-18 -- Follows the line of Ishmael, Abraham's first son


25:19-28:9 - The Story of Isaac, including the birth of the twins: Jacob and Esau


25:19-28 -- Birth of Esau and Jacob


25:29-34 -- Esau sells his birthright


26:1-33 - God reiterates His promises and recollections regarding Abraham and Sarah


26:34-45 -- Esau's Hittite wives


27:1-46 - Jacob deceives Isaac and receives the blessing intended for Esau


28:1-22 - Jacob flees to Paddan-aram and encounters God in a dream


29:1-35:27 - The Adventures of Jacob


29:1-30 - Jacob's marriages


29:31-30:24 -- Births of Jacob's sons and daughter


30:25-43 -- Jacob and Laban make a new contract


31:1-21 - Jacob and his wives and children leave for Canaan; Rachel steals the household gods


31:22-35 -- Laban pursues them


31:44-54 -- Jacob and Laban make a pact at Mizpah


32:4-33:31 - Jacob encounters Esau


34:1-31 - The rape of Dinah


35:1-15 - Jacob returns to Bethel


35:16-20 -- The death of Rachel and the birth of Benjamin


35:21-29 -- Family issues and the death of Isaac


36:1-43 - The Line of Esau


37:1-50:24 - The Trials and Triumphs of Joseph


37:1-36 - Joseph is sold into slavery


38:1-30 - Digression involving Tamar and Judah


39:1-23 - Joseph in Potiphar's household in Egypt


40:1-23 - Joseph in prison


41:1-56 - Joseph is released from prison and rises to power in Pharaoh's palace


42:1-28 - Joseph's brothers come to Egypt to buy grain, Simeon remains


42:29-38 -- Brothers return to Jacob, ask for Benjamin


43:1-34 - The Second Journey to Egypt; Joseph and his brothers -- again


44:1-12 - Joseph plants his cup in Benjamin's bag


44:13-34 -- Brothers return, plead for Benjamin's life


45:1-28 - Joseph reveals his true identity to his brothers


46:1-47:10 - Jacob and his family migrate to Egypt


47:11-27 -- Joseph provides for his family in Egypt


47:28-31 -- Jacob prepares for his death


48:1-22 - Jacob adopts and blesses Joseph's two sons


49:1-33 - Last Will and Testament of Jacob -- blessing of his sons


50:1-14 - Jacob dies and is buried


50:15-20 -- Joseph's brothers fear retaliation upon Jacob's death Joseph tells them: "Although you intended me harm, God intended it for good....."

This concludes the formative period of Israel's history. The divine promises have been fulfilled. They are a nation, though in a foreign land. Next month we will examine the issue of slavery and their nation's liberation through God's saving acts in Exodus.


Farmer, William. The International Bible Commentary. Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1998.

Gibson, John. Genesis, Daily Study Bible Series. Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1981.

Hartlet, John. Genesis, New International Biblical Commentary. Peabody, MA: Hendrikson Publishers, 2000.

McGrath, Allister. NIV Bible Commentary. London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1988.

Mills, Watson and Richared Wilson. Mercer Commentary on the Bible. Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 1995.

Sarna, Nahum. Genesis, The JPS Torah Commentary. New York: The Jewish Publication Society, 1989.