Who am I? Why am I here? What are the origins of myself and my people? Everyone asks these questions; the Israelites of old were no exception. The book of Genesis was written to tell this story.
Genesis is the first book of the Bible; “Genesis” is a Greek word meaning beginning, or origin, and in Hebrew, the book is called Bereshit, the first word in Genesis 1:1 (“in the beginning”). Genesis describes the origin of all things, setting the stage and providing the themes for the rest of the Bible.
Moses is generally considered to be the author of Genesis, although the Bible never explicitly identifies the author anywhere. There seem to be a few comments which were written later (e.g. Genesis 36:31), but the vast majority of the work likely comes from Moses and was written around 1500-1400 BCE.
The events described in Genesis take place from the beginning of time until around 1800 BCE. Genesis 1:1-3:34 describes the creation and the immediate consequences of sin: the creation of all things in six days, God’s rest on the seventh day, the Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve, Eve’s temptation, Adam and Eve’s sin, the curse, and their exile from the Garden. Genesis 4:1-11:26 feature the further degradation of mankind: Cain murdering Abel, the first genealogies, the complete deprivation of mankind, the Flood, the deliverance of Noah and his family, Noah’s descendants, the Tower of Babel and the confusion of language, and Shem’s family line.
At this point Genesis begins to focus upon one man, Abraham, and his descendants. Genesis 11:27-25:18 present the story of Abraham, who lived around 2000 BCE: God’s choice of Abraham, his move to Canaan, his deliverance of Lot, the destruction of Sodom, the promises and covenant of circumcision, the birth of Ishmael, the promise and birth of Isaac, Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice Isaac, and the marriage of Isaac and Rebekah. Genesis 25:19-37:1 provide the story of Isaac: the birth of Esau and Jacob, Jacob obtaining the blessing and birthright, Jacob’s exile to Paddan-Aram, his marriage to Leah and Rachel, their children, Jacob’s treatment by Laban, his departure, Jacob’s wrestling with God, reconciliation with Esau, resettlement in Canaan, and a description of Esau’s lineage.
The rest of Genesis, Genesis 37:2-50:26, present the story of Jacob: his favoritism toward Joseph his son, Joseph’s brothers selling him into slavery, Jacob’s son Judah’s descendant issues, Joseph’s time in Egypt as a slave, a prisoner, and ultimately his elevation to high authority, the famine, Joseph’s interactions with his brothers, Joseph’s revelation of himself to his brothers, the whole family’s move to Egypt, Jacob’s final blessings and prophecies of future events, and Jacob’s and Joseph’s deaths.
The importance of Genesis can hardly be overstated. For the Israelites Genesis explains where everyone came from and why they are a special people, the ones who have inherited the promises made by God to Abraham, the one man of all humanity with whom God chose to establish a relationship. Genesis explains why there are twelve tribes in Israel and why the descendants of Judah and Joseph receive special favor and privilege. By explaining how and why the Israelites ended up in Egypt, Genesis sets the stage for the events described in Exodus.
Yet Genesis is not just for the Israelites; in its pages we learn of our origins and of the Creator God who has provided all things. We learn why the creation has suffered corruption and about the curses which come from sin; we also are given the hope of redemption which will come through Abraham’s descendant, ultimately manifest as Jesus. Much can also be gained from the extensively developed characters in Genesis. We do well to learn about God our Creator from Genesis and seek to serve Him!
Ethan R. Longhenry