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Introduction to the Book of Genesis

Julian Spriggs M.A.

Title of the book

Genesis, meaning "origin" or "beginning", was the name given by the translators of the Greek. In the Hebrew Scriptures, the title is "In the beginning", from the first word of the Hebrew text.


Within biblical scholarship, there is a great debate over the authorship of the Pentateuch. Most liberal scholars deny that Moses was the author, claiming that the books were collected from different sources, and only came into their final form after the exile in Babylon. Most evangelical scholars would accept that Moses was the author of the five books.

There is strong internal evidence that Moses wrote Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy, which is supported by numerous quotations in the New Testament. Among conservative scholars, the normal belief is that Moses wrote Genesis also. However nowhere in the Bible does it actually say that Moses wrote Genesis, when Genesis is quoted in the N.T., it does not refer to Moses as the author.

Because the events of Genesis happened long before Moses was born, there are three possible ways the book of Genesis could have been compiled: One is that Moses received the information by direct revelation from God, and wrote it down. This is possible. The second is that Moses used material passed down the generations by oral tradition. This would be possible, but unreliable. The third is that Moses compiled Genesis using earlier written documents.

In the nineteenth century, many scholars attacked the reliability of Genesis because they believed that writing only began around the time of David (1000 BC), so no portion of Genesis (or any other Scripture) could be written before that time. This has now been proved to be very wrong, as many items of cuneiform writing dating back to earlier than 2000 BC have been found. In the early empires of Sumeria, Babylonia and Assyria, writing was readily available through professional scribes. These nations recorded even the smallest business transactions on written documents.

The first reference to writing is in Gen 5:1, "This is the written account of Adam's history". This suggests that the ability to write is as old as the human race. Even though this may seem surprising, there is no reason why God could not have given Adam this skill, considering that Adam had the linguistic skill to speak.

In these ancient Mesopotamian empires, written documents were written in cuneiform on clay tablets. Cuneiform is a system of writing achieved by making wedge shaped impressions on soft clay, rather than being a specific language. The clay came from the Euphrates valley, and when baked hard in the sun became almost imperishable. In Egypt, writing was normally on papyrus.


The phrase "these are the generations of" (Heb. toledot), occurs ten times in Genesis. The translators of the LXX named the book after this word, as the Hebrew word "toledot" translates into "Genesis" in Greek. This phrase is found in the following places in Genesis: the heavens and the earth (2:4), Adam (5:1), Noah (6:9), Noah’s sons (10:1,32), Shem (11:10), Terah (11:27), Ishmael (25:12-13), Isaac (25:19), Esau (Edom) (36:1,9), and Jacob (37:2).

Does the toledot mark the end, or the beginning of a section?

Scholars often assumed that the toledot phrase was an introduction to the section that followed, because several of these were followed with lists of genealogies. However the person named in the toledot often does not appear in the narrative that follows. So the word has often been taken to mean "descendants".

However, in Hebrew, the word "toledot" means family history, or origins, which would suggest that the toledot refers back to ancestors in the preceding narrative, rather than to descendants in the following narrative. This is shown clearly in the first toledot, "these are the generations of the heavens and the earth" (Gen 2:4). There is no reference to the heavens and the earth after Gen 2:4, so it must refer back.

In ancient writings in Mesopotamia, at the end of a clay tablet was a colophon. This gave a title or description of the contents of the tablet, the date or reason for the writing, and the name of the owner or writer of the tablet. If the owner could not write, then he would employ a scribe to write the tablet, but the scribe would include the name of the owner in the colophon, rather than his own name. So in Gen 5:1, "this is the written account of Adam's ancestry" indicates that this tablet was a written account owned by Adam, or written by Adam, rather than being a written account about Adam.

So each toledot probably functions as a colophon, or inscription placed at the end of a series of narratives. Genesis could well have been compiled (by Moses) from a collection of separate documents, which were originally written on clay tablets in cuneiform.

The last section, following the last toledot at Gen 37:2a, describes the life of Joseph in Egypt. The section has a very strong Egyptian flavour, and was probably written by Joseph on papyrus or leather, so it is without colophons, unless the colophon is preserved in Ex 1:1.

This suggestion is supported by the fact that each tablet ends before the death of the writer: Adam (5:1), died (5:5); Noah (6:9), died (9:29); Noah’s sons (10:1), died ch 10; Shem (11:10, died ch 11; Terah (11:27), died (11:32); Isaac (25:19), died (35:29); Jacob (37:2), died (49:33).

The Role of Moses

Genesis therefore consists of a compilation of nine to eleven independent tablets, which were handed down the generations of the patriarchs. Noah would have preserved them by taking them on the ark, as family histories are considered as most precious and worthy of careful preservation. Because Moses was brought up in the court of Egypt, he would have been able to read the cuneiform tablets, as well as the Egyptian language.

Moses would have three distinct tasks to perform: Firstly, he organised these earlier documents into the book of Genesis. By including the colophons, he clearly indicated his sources of information, just as a modern scholar includes his sources of information. Secondly, he translated the cuneiform tablets, and the Egyptian records of Joseph into Hebrew, if necessary. Thirdly, he updated the place names in Canaan for the Israelites at the time of the Exodus. We can see this in (14:2,3,7,8,15,17). Many of the place names had changed in the four centuries between Abraham and Moses. He left the old names in place, and added the new names as an explanatory note. For example, Hebron is identified in (Gen 23:2,19), and Bethlehem in (Gen 35:19), which would indicate that Moses wrote these additions before the entry to the Promised Land, otherwise they would have been unnecessary. Also, in (Gen 16:14) he says that the well to which Hagar fled is still there, as an explanation.

This means that Genesis, rather than being an unreliable and mythical account of human origins, written after the time of David, is in reality a transcript of the oldest series of written records in human history. Therefore we can rely on their accuracy, and be confident in the truth of their accounts. This would also show that the accounts of creation and the flood were original accounts written soon after the event, and were not derived from polytheistic Babylonian accounts. Also, it supports the fact that monotheism was the original religious belief, and not an evolutionary development of an original polytheism. Instead, polytheism was a degradation of the original pure knowledge of the one true God.

The suggested tablets are as follows
1. The generations of the heavens and the earth (1:1 - 2:4a)
Describes the six days of creation. No human author is given, because no man was present to record what happened. It was either written directly by God himself, and given to Adam, or otherwise given by revelation to Adam, who then recorded it.

2. The book of the generations of Adam (2:4b - 5:1)
Written by Adam to describe the Garden of Eden, the temptation, the fall, and the life of Cain and Abel.

3. The generations of Noah (5:2 1b - 6:9a)
Written by Noah, before the flood, to record the patriarchs before the flood. According to Genesis chapter five, Lamech (Noah's father) was contemporary with all the patriarchs. Noah had known all of them except Adam, Seth and Enoch. Noah recorded the rapid degeneration of the people of his time, and God's decision to destroy them.

4. The generations of the sons of Noah (6:9b - 10:1)
Written by Sham, Ham and Japheth, who recorded the building of the ark, and the flood, and some events after the flood, including Noah's prophecy about themselves, and Noah's death.

5. The generations of Shem (10:2 - 11:10a)
After Noah's death and the dispersion at Babel, the three sons of Noah were separated, and Shem took the responsibility of keeping the records. So he wrote about the confusion of languages at Babel, and the scattering of the families in the table of the nations.

6. The generations of Terah (11:10b-27a)
This is a brief document containing the genealogies in the line from Shem to Terah.

7. The generations of Isaac 11:27b - 25:19a)
This is a much longer document, written by Isaac, containing the life of Abraham, from his call by God, until his death, including events in Isaac's life before the death of his father. He probably included "the generations of Ishmael" (25:13-19a), the record of the family of Ishmael, which he obtained from Ishmael when Ishmael returned home to help Isaac bury his father (25:9).

8. The generations of Jacob (25:19b - 37:1a)
Another longer document, written by Jacob, giving the later events of the life of Isaac, as well as his own life, including the twenty years in service to Laban, and his return to Canaan, with the death of Rachel and Isaac. In the same way Isaac included the records of Ishmael, Jacob also included two documents from his brother Esau (ch 36), when Esau joined Jacob to bury his father Isaac (35:29).

9. The generations of the sons of Jacob (37:2b - Ex 1:1)
The wording of Ex 1:1 is very similar to the other colophons. The story of Joseph could only be recorded by him and his brothers. These were probably written down in Egypt, probably on papyrus, and finally included by Moses.

The Seed in the Book of Genesis

One of the most important themes of the Book of Genesis is the concept of the seed or offspring. It is this theme which brings the whole book together, as well as linking it to the rest of the Old Testament.

The Book of Genesis gives us a very selective record of events from Creation to the death of Joseph in Egypt. It begins with a broad picture of the early history of mankind, but the focus gradually narrows to one family, and this family line is traced down the generations.

In the account, there is a focus some particular individuals like Adam, Noah, Abraham, Jacob and Joseph. The genealogical lists move quickly down the generations to the next individual to be focussed on. Chapter five gives a father-son list linking Adam to Noah, and similarly, chapter eleven gives a father-son list linking Noah to Abraham. There are no branches in these lists, as no brothers or sisters are named. Occasionally some branches are briefly followed, like the descendants of Cain (ch 4), the table of the nations (ch 10), Nahor (ch 22), Keturah (ch 25) and Esau (ch 36). Apart from these, the major literary feature of the Book of Genesis is that it follows a single and distinctive family line, causing all the main characters and narratives to fit in this family line.

Closely linked with the genealogical structure is the Hebrew word “zera”, which is translated “seed”, “offspring”, “child”, or “descendants”. It is used 59 times in Genesis, and only 165 times in the whole of the rest of the Old Testament. By definition, a seed continues the line from whatever or whoever produced it, just as seeds produce only after their own kind (1:11-12).

Connection between the seed and the promise

In the Abraham stories there is an emphasis on barrenness of Sarah. She is introduced as being barren (11:29-30), but God promises that Abraham will become a great nation (12:2), saying: “To your offspring (seed) I will give this land (Canaan)” (12:7). The promise is repeated later, that the land will be given to your offspring (seed), and this offspring (seed) will be like the dust of the earth (13:14-17).

Later, Abraham seeks assurance from God because he is still childless, complaining, “You have given me no offspring (seed)”, and saying that a slave is to be his heir (15:3). God’s answer was to tell Abraham to look at the stars, and count them, promising, “So shall your descendants (seed) be” (15:5).

In the Hagar stories, when Ishmael is born, he is described as Abraham’s offspring (seed) (21:13), but Ishmael is not the promised son. Instead, Sarah will bear a son, who will be named Isaac. God promised that he will make a covenant with Isaac and his offspring (seed) (17:19-21, 21:12), so Hagar and Ishmael are expelled from Abraham’s household. This promise is repeated following Abraham’s test to sacrifice Isaac (22:16-18), and then renewed with Isaac (26:1-5, 24).

Abraham was determined that Isaac’s wife must come from his father’s household, so he sent a servant back to Aram. When Rebecca left Aram, her relatives gave her this blessing: “May you, our sister, become thousands of myriads; may your offspring (seed) gain possession of the gates of their foes.” (24:60).

In the next generation, Rebecca is also barren (25:21), but prays and has twins: Jacob and Esau. There is a prediction of enmity between them, that the younger will be stronger (25:23). The struggle between Jacob and Esau becomes a focus of the family story (ch 27-33). When Jacob goes to Aram to find a wife, by contrast Esau marries two Hittite women.

After the vision of Jacob’s Ladder, God renewed the promise to Jacob (28:13-15). The land will be given to your offspring (seed), your offspring (seed) will be like dust, and the nations blessed in your offspring (seed). Jacob eventually went to Egypt, with all his offspring (seed) with him (46:6-7), a total of 70 people.

In the complicated family life of Jacob, Rachel was initially barren (29:30), but eventually has Joseph, who became Jacob’s favourite son. The three oldest sons were excluded from the promise. Simeon and Levi were excluded after they took revenge on Shechem for the rape of Dinah (ch 34), which brought trouble on Jacob (v30). Reuben was excluded after he slept with father’s concubine Bilhah (35:22).

The Joseph stories are interrupted by strange story of Judah and Tamar (ch 38). There are three sons: Er, Onon and Shelah. Er marries Tamar, but Er and Onan are put to death. Lacking any sons, Tamar becomes pregnant by posing as cult prostitute to sleep with Judah (15-18). She has twin sons, Perez and Zerah, so the seed of Judah continues. Later we see that the family line down to David in the Book of Ruth starts with Perez (Ruth 4:18). Genesis gives a very negative account of Judah, but he gradually improves through the rest of the Joseph stories. He takes responsibility for Benjamin (43:8-9), acknowledges guilt of brothers (44:16), and volunteers to be Joseph’s slave so Benjamin can return to his father (44:18-34). Later Jacob sends Judah ahead to lead way to Goshen (46:28).

When Jacob blesses his sons (ch 48), there is a blessing on both sons of Joseph, a double blessing on the favourite son, who is treated as the firstborn. Both the sons of Joseph, Ephraim and Manasseh, receive a blessing (v14-20), with a greater blessing on the younger son Ephraim. In Jacob’s blessing, there is a particular focus on Judah (v8-12) and on Joseph (v22-26).

Some interesting features concerning the seed

1. The line of descent is shown very clearly and accurately, without any gaps. The ancestry is through the father, and descendants are always clearly named.

2. Each descendant must be biologically the seed of the father. Abraham could have adopted a slave as his heir (15:2-3), but God promised that his heir would come from his own body (15:4).

3. Barrenness was a major barrier, whether Sarah (11:30), Rebecca (25:21), or Rachel (29:31). All these women eventually bore children through divine intervention: Sarah (21:1), Rebecca (25:21) and Rachel (30:22).

4. The family line exists only due to the gracious work of God. After the birth of Seth, Eve said that God has granted me another child (4:25). God opened the womb of Sarah, Rebecca and Rachel. Abraham, aged 100, and Sarah, aged 90, were too old to bear children, but “The Lord was gracious to Sarah” (21:1). For Rebecca, Isaac prayed, and the Lord answered his prayer (25:21), and Rachel declared: “God has taken away my disgrace” (30:22-24).

5. The key figures in the family line had a special relationship with God, even if they had faults (like Noah being drunk, Abraham lying about his wife and Jacob being a deceiver). Noah was a righteous man who walked with God (6:9). In the covenant made with Abraham, God declared him righteous (15:6). This is repeated with Isaac, with less information, but Isaac certainly received God’s favour. Jacob’s character improves through the story. Abraham, Isaac and Jacob all build altars, offer sacrifices, and actively worship God, and we clearly see God’s care for Joseph.

6. The “seed” means there is a resemblance between the seed and the one who produced it, so the sons will resemble their fathers. Isaac has similarities with Abraham: both pretend their wives are their sister, both make a covenant with Abimelech, both have dispute with Gerar about wells, and for both the seed passes through the younger son.

7. The is a need to maintain the purity of the seed. Marriages with Canaanites are discouraged, so Abraham wants wife for Isaac from his relatives in Haran (ch 24), Isaac wants wife for Jacob from his relatives (28:1-5), and Esau’s marriage to two Hittite women distresses his parents (26:34-35). But, by contrast, there is the strange relationship between Judah and Tamar (ch 38).

8. The descent is not always through oldest son. In the story of Jacob and Esau (ch 25-27), Esau marries Hittite women so the descent goes through Jacob. With Isaac and Ishmael (ch 17, 21), Ishmael excluded because he is not the son of Sarah. Judah, the fourth son, is raised above his older brothers, Reuben, Simeon, Levi (ch 49), all of whom displease Jacob (35:22, 34:25-30). Joseph was the eleventh son, then Ephraim, the younger son, gets a greater blessing above his older brother Manasseh.

What is significance of this family tree?

This family tree has huge historical and theological significance. After the birth of Seth, Eve declared, “God has appointed for me another child (seed) instead of Abel because Cain killed him” (4:25). God said to the serpent, “I will put enmity between you and the woman and between your offspring (seed) and hers; he will strike your head and you will strike his heel.” (3:15). These words of victory over the serpent will be fulfilled through the seed of Seth, rather than the seed of Abel.

The concept of “seed” can be either be singular or collective. Eve uses it in the singular, but it is used collectively elsewhere (15:5, 28:14). However the line of descent is traced through book of Genesis through specific individuals, so the ultimate offspring (seed) of Eve refers to a specific individual. Therefore this passage often seen as the beginning of the Gospel. The seed of the serpent is Satan, while the seed of Eve is ultimately Jesus. Satan struck Jesus on the cross, but Jesus defeated him through his death and resurrection.

Through the Book of Genesis there is also a hint towards the establishment of the monarchy, the Davidic promise. This is seen when the line of the seed is traced down through Judah, that the seed will eventually become a royal dynasty. Even in Genesis, kings are often mentioned: kings will come from Abraham (17:6) and Sarah (17:16). Abraham has the status of a king without being a king. He is described as being superior to the kings of the east (ch 14). Abimelech king of Gerar makes treaty with Abraham (ch 21), and with Isaac (ch 26), showing their equal status. Kings will also come from Jacob (35:11), and the Hittites describe him as a mighty prince (23:6). Through his dreams God predicts that Joseph will rule over his brothers (37:8), and later becomes ruler of Egypt. In Jacob’s blessing on Judah (49:8-12), his brothers bow down to him, and he holds the sceptre and ruler’s staff. Later in history we see that the Davidic kings came from the tribe of Judah, and Jesus came as the son of David. In Jacob’s blessing on Joseph (49:22-26), there is no mention of either being king, but the tribes of Ephraim and Manasseh became prominent in northern kingdom of Israel, and the first king of northern kingdom of Israel was Jeroboam of the tribe of Ephraim.

One of the purposes of the Book of Genesis is to give the early ancestry of the royal line of David. The book traces one line of descent, which ends with Judah. Later in the Old Testament we see that there are similarities between the covenants with Abraham and with David, as both appear to be unconditional promises. There are also parallels between Tamar (ch 38) and Ruth, as both appear in Matthew’s genealogy (Matt 1). David was youngest son of family, which parallels the line of the seed in Genesis, that descent is not always through the oldest son.

In the New Testament, Paul sees the seed as being Christ. The promise was made to Abraham and his offspring, to one person, who is Christ. Now the promises were made to Abraham and to his offspring (seed); it does not say, “And to offsprings (seeds),” as of many; but it says, “And to your offspring (seed) that is, to one person, who is Christ. (Gal 3:16). Throughout the New Testament Jesus is described as son of David (eg. Rom 1:3, 2 Tim 2:8).

This theme of the seed means we need to read the Book of Genesis on these three different levels
1. stories of particular individuals: Adam, Noah, Abraham, Jacob, Joseph
2. stories which lead into the history of Israel and the establishment of Davidic monarch
3. stories which point to Christ, which lead to him through history of Israel.

It also points to the importance of reading Genesis as a complete document, with important themes and purposes running through the whole book.

Hints of Early Faith and Worship in Genesis

If we read Genesis carefully, we can see that long before the law of Moses was given on Mount Sinai, and many centuries before the institution of the sacrificial system, the patriarchs had an understanding on how to worship God. They knew that blood sacrifices were needed to atone for sin, that certain animals were clean and others were unclean, and that God had a system of laws which needed to be obeyed.

Blood sacrifices

After the fall, the LORD made garments of skins for Adam and Eve and clothed them (3:21). Evidently God did not consider that the fig leaves were adequate to cover their nakedness. This is first recorded sacrifice of animals, demonstrating that the shedding of the blood - the sacrifice of an innocent animal is necessary to cover sin and nakedness.

Abel’s sacrifice of a firstling from the flock was accepted (4:4), implying that he knew that a blood sacrifice was required to worship the Lord, while Cain’s offering of fruit was rejected. The author of Hebrews later declares that, by faith Abel offered God a more acceptable sacrifice than Cain’s (Heb 11:4).

After the birth of Seth, people began to invoke the name of the LORD (Yahweh) (4:26). This rather enigmatic statement may suggest the beginning of regular public worship of God.

Many of the patriarchs built altars and burnt sacrifices to God, including Noah after the flood (8:20) and Abraham who built an altar between Bethel and Ai, where he called on the name of the LORD (12:7, 13:4). He later built an altar at Hebron (13:18), and one on Mt. Moriah to sacrifice Isaac (22:9). Isaac also built an altar at Beersheba and called on the name of the LORD (26:25).

Clean and unclean animals

Before the flood, Noah took seven pairs of all clean animals on to the ark, and only one pair of unclean animals into the ark (7:2). After the flood, he sacrificed some of the clean animals and birds (8:20). Long before the Book of Leviticus was given, Noah knew which animals were clean and which were unclean.

The idea of law revealed by God

Again, long before God gave the law to Moses, the Lord appeared to Isaac and gave promises, because Abraham had obeyed God’s voice, and kept his commandments, statutes and laws (26:5). It is interesting that this is the same description of God’s law that is found in the Book of Deuteronomy (11:1), a passage which summarises the whole law of Moses.

These hints in the Book of Genesis suggest that the patriarchs had a greater revelation of God and knew more theology than we often think. However, these are only tantalising hints in the early chapters of Genesis. The purpose of these chapters was not to give a complete description of early faith in God, so we have to be very careful how we attempt to trace the development of faith and worship in Israel.

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