Genesis stands second to none in its importance for proclaiming “the whole will of God” (Acts 20:27). It presents the literary and theological underpinning of the whole canonical Scriptures. If we possessed a Bible without Genesis, we would have a “house of cards” without foundation or mortar. We cannot insure the continuing fruit of our spiritual heritage if we do not give place to its roots. The first verse declares the metaphysical assumption, that is, a present transcendent Creator-God, that acts as the philosophical cornerstone of the entire biblical revelation. Just as we have no gospel without the cross, we would have no salvation story without the sacred events of Moses’ first book. Although this is transparent for the ancestral accounts with its emphasis on the call of Abraham as the recipient of divine blessing (12:1-3), it is also true for the primeval history of chapters 1-11. Israel’s faith in God as Creator, not just Redeemer, provided an all-embracing framework as the fundamental , all-underlying premise for any talk about God, the world, Israel, and the individual. (Kenneth A Matthews, Genesis 1-11:26: The New American Commentary; 22)
We study Genesis so we can understand everything. Nothing in life, nothing in current world events, nothing in human history makes sense without understanding the following from Genesis:
- God is eternal.
- God created the world.
- God laid out the world as a perfect dwelling place for both Himself and man.
- God created man in His own image and placed him in the world to fellowship and know and bring glory to God.
- Man betrayed God by choosing to sin.
- Sin changed everything about creation by defiling God’s image in man, severing man’s fellowship with God, corrupting man’s dominion of the earth, and altering the created purpose of all things. Nothing in creation was unaffected by sin.
- God’s immediate response to man’s sin – after explaining its consequences – was to promise to redeem man and eventually bring all of creation back to its original purpose.
- God worked through history from the time of the fall forward to lay the groundwork for man’s redemption.
- Man showed again and again throughout history his depravity and need for redemption.
Structure of Genesis
Genesis is divided into two parts:
- History of the world before Abraham (1-11)
- History of the patriarchs and the line of the Messiah (12-50)
The first part covers four main events – Creation, Fall, Flood, Babel. The second part covers the lives of four main characters – Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph (Joseph is not in the line of the Messiah, but his story is told to explain how Israel’s descendants become a great nation in Egypt and to set the stage for the Passover).
The book divides itself into sections within the parts by use of verses that either introduce events or list genealogies that take the reader from one generation to a subsequent generation many years later. These verses are:
1:1 – In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth (this verse included only if it is read as a summary rather than the first step in creation)
2:4 – This is the account of the heavens and the earth when they were created, in the day that the Lord God made earth and heaven.
5:1 – This is the book of the generations of Adam.
6:9 – These are the records of the generations of Noah.
10:1 – Now these are the records of the generations of Shem, Ham, and Japheth, the sons of Noah;
11:10 – These are the records of the generations of Shem.
11:27 – Now these are the records of the generations of Terah.
25:12 – Now these are the records of the generations of Ishmael,
25:19 – Now these are the records of the generations of Isaac.
36:1 – Now these are the records of the generations of Esau.
37:2 – These are the records of the generations of Jacob.
Purpose/Scope of Genesis
Genesis is a targeted book with a few specific purposes. Its author did not intend for it to cover all aspects of the stories it tells or answer all questions any reader might have about its events. It wants to show that God is the Creator of all things, that He created for a purpose, that man spoiled everything at the fall, and that God works out His redemptive plans in human history. It shows that though man is sinful God continues to work through him and for him all to His glory. It is not written to be a comprehensive historical and scientific account. If a fact is not important for the overall purposes of the book, it is likely left out. In this way it is much like the gospels. The gospel writers each wanted to highlight different aspects of Christ’s life on earth. Consequently, they each took a different perspective on writing about His life and did not try to include every fact about every story or even present the stories in strictly chronological order. It is in a similar vein that the author of Genesis writes – he has a purpose other than trying to explain all aspects of creation and history. Thus we cannot impute our 21st Century western expectations of how a text like this should be written on to Genesis. We have to remember the ultimate purpose (and the culture it was written to) whenever we approach any of its accounts.
Interpreting Genesis is further complicated by the fact that it is also the inspired Word of God. This leads some readers to suppose that this infallible text will be omniscient, like its divine author. They then look for answers to questions that Genesis is not trying to answer. Yet like any other part of the Bible, Genesis is limited and selective in the information that it conveys; it does not tell readers everything that they could possibly want to know. Frequently, readers may ask questions, legitimate in themselves, that are not answered by the text. Genesis does not tell, for instance, how the serpent came to be God’s enemy or where Cain found a wife. Such questions could be multiplied many times. Consequently, one’s natural curiosity must be correctly channeled, for the inspired author of Genesis intentionally communicates only certain things. Yet the text does not cease to be the Word of God simply because it is limited in what it tells the reader; it need not be exhaustive in order to be true. (ESV Study Bible, “Introduction to Genesis”; 45)
Thus, there are questions left unanswered in the text – especially in the creation account – that can cause frustration if the overall purpose of the book is forgotten:
- The beginning in 1:1 is the beginning of what?
- When were the chaotic earth and waters of 1:2 created?
- How much time do the first two verses cover?
- Where does the light of 1:3 come from?
- How was there evening and morning without a sun?
- Why was Eve not shocked when the serpent spoke to her? Did animals talk before the fall?
- Why did Adam and Eve conceive children only after the fall (practically speaking)?
- Where did Cain find a wife?
- Do the genealogies describe single generations or are there gaps?
- What was the effect of the flood on creation?
- What were the logistics of having every animal on the ark?
- How was Sarah so old that child-bearing was a miracle, yet so beautiful as to put Abraham’s life in danger from other men?
None of this is to question its accuracy. It does not claim to be comprehensive, but it is the inspired word of God and thus completely true and accurate with what it does report. Genesis also is not simply a figurative or literary work – it recounts actual events.
Time of Genesis
The time period the book covers – without trying to count the potentially billions of years that could be in the creation story – is approximately 4000 BC (creation of Adam) to 1800 BC (death of Joseph).
Line of Messiah in Genesis
Throughout Genesis (and the whole Old Testament), the story follows the line of the Messiah and shows how God works through individuals and families to prepare the way for Jesus’ coming. The history in Genesis is ultimately the story of God preserving the line of Jesus by choosing specific people – and not choosing others – to further it.
[Interestingly, very little is written about Judah himself – it is his line that becomes important throughout the rest of the Old Testament]
Key Covenant Verses in Genesis
We do not understand redemption without Genesis. We do not understand God’s working throughout history without Genesis. Nothing else in the Bible makes sense without the history Genesis recounts. It is the basis of everything in the Bible. We understand God as both Creator and Redeemer because of Genesis – and He cannot be one without the other.