Each month, the Big Bible Project takes a book of the Bible as a theme for posts. This series acts as a tourist information point, highlighting some of the best-known parts of each book of the Bible and drawing attention to some hidden gems which you might not have thought to explore!
Genesis lays the foundations of the rest of the Bible story. It tells of the creation of the world by God’s hand, then gives the painfully honest account of humankind’s rebellion against his rule. It shows us the extent of his power and his justice, and also the cost of his relentless mercy towards us. It tells of his plan to redeem the world through a people he has chosen and cared for, despite what seem like insurmountable setbacks along the way. It is the gritty, earthy and above all encouraging story of the God who has merciful plans for his creation and who has the power to bring them to fulfilment.
Historical and Literary context
Genesis is the first book of the Bible in English and Hebrew Bibles. It is the first in a group of five books which are known as the ‘Law’ books, or the Pentateuch (meaning ‘five books’). Tradition has it that these books (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy) were written by Moses, who is a key figure in the story from Exodus to Deuteronomy, so they are sometimes also known as the books of Moses.
Academics continue to disagree over exactly when Genesis was written and who it was written by. Also, confusingly, it does not contain much by way of ‘Law’ – it is mostly narrative passages with some poetry and a healthy dose of genealogies spread throughout. In a broad sweep, it tells the story of how God created the world, how humankind rebelled against him, and how he began his plan to redeem them. It was written for God’s people, to tell them where they had come from and where they were going to – and it has that same message for us today.
It’s helpful to see Genesis in two main parts. The first (Chapters 1-11) tells the story of the creation of the world and the foundation of civilisation, poisoned by the fall of man and the rebellion of several generations of people against God. The second section (Chapters 12-50) begins with God calling Abram and making a covenant with him that, in many ways, the rest of the Bible looks back on. The rest of the book focuses on four generations of his family as begin to see that covenant fulfilled, despite their faults and failings.
It’s hard to emphasise just how foundational Genesis is to the rest of the Bible story, not just in creation and the sin of Adam and Eve but also in the promise-making and promise-keeping God who reveals himself in history.
Genesis is probably best-known for its creation accounts (Chapters 1 and 2). It is a shame that these chapters have been so heavily plundered in the science vs Christianity debate because, regardless of the specific mechanics of creation, they have a huge amount to teach us about who God is and what he is like.
The story of Adam and Eve (Chapters 2 and 3) has inspired everything from masterpieces of art to marketing campaigns for ice cream. If you can, try to forget the pantomime caricatures of popular culture as you read this story and focus instead on the wonderfully subtle dialogue which teaches us so much about temptation and the state of the human heart.
Noah’s Ark (Chapters 6-9) is a favourite Sunday school topic – you can colour in all the animals, you can build a big boat, you can stick down loads of cotton wool to make Noah’s obligatory beard. Note the hard edge to this story, though: this is just about the fiercest glimpse of God’s wrath that we have in the whole Bible, in response to the harshest judgment on the human condition. The rainbow is a reminder to God that he has promised not to repeat this episode. So it is incredibly humbling, but also shows us the incredible cost of God’s mercy towards us.
It would be remiss of me not to mention Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat (Chapters 37-50). The story is less flashy than Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical suggests, but it gives a powerful view of the God who is at work to fulfil his promises, often in the most unexpected ways, even when things seem at their bleakest.
Under the surface
We have 50 roughly equally-sized chapters in Genesis, but these are much later additions to the text. Originally, readers would have used literary clues to understand how the author had divided the material and to give a sense of the thrust of the book. The phrase ‘This is the account of…’ occurs ten times in Genesis, acting like headings for the passages that follow. (See Ge 2:4; 5:1; 6:9; 10:1; 11:10; 11:27; 25:12; 25:19; 36:1; and 37:2.) By using this technique, the author is helping us to notice the importance of each generation of his chosen people to his plan, and also allows us to subdivide the book into logical chunks.
One of the most theologically rich themes of Genesis is that of the ‘younger sons‘ who, despite a patriarchal society which favours the firstborn, always seem to receive God’s blessing ahead of the more likely candidates. The most obvious examples, though there are many others, are the stories of Cain and Abel (Chapter 4), Isaac and Ishmael (Chapters 16-25), and Jacob and Esau (Chapters 25-36). I am drawn to the parable of the prodigal son (Luke 15) as a further example of God’s merciful blessing on the undeserved younger son.
The names of many biblical characters and places are significant, and this is never more so than in Genesis. You’ll find it endlessly rewarding to read the footnotes as you go through Genesis. Right from Adam and Eve, the meanings of names are appropriate; sometimes ironic; and often include clever plays on words. This is not just artful writing; we can often learn important things about a person by what they are called, or about a place by how it is renamed. Famously, Abram is given the name Abraham to reflect God’s promise to make him the father of many nations (17:5). Perhaps more importantly, his grandson Jacob is given the new name Israel on account of his night-time encounter with God (32:28). That single verse says a huge amount about what it means to be the people of God – so much so that I wrote my dissertation on that passage.
Just to emphasise the importance of God’s mercy in Genesis, think of all the places where the story could have ended. These ‘false endings‘ are everywhere in Genesis. For starters, God might never have created the world to begin with. He may have destroyed it totally in response to Adam and Eve’s sin. He might not have warned Noah of the flood and given him what was required to build an ark. He may not have chosen Abraham or promised to build a nation from his descendants. He could have left Joseph to die in the well and allowed Jacob’s whole family die in the drought. Genesis is all about God’s initiative of mercy, often in the direst of circumstances, and his power to fulfil what he has promised.
In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. (1:1)
The Lord saw how great the wickedness of the human race had become on the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of the human heart was only evil all the time. The Lord regretted that he had made human beings on the earth, and his heart was deeply troubled. (6:5-6)
‘I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.’ (12:2-3)
Then the man said, ‘Your name will no longer be Jacob, but Israel, because you have struggled with God and with humans and have overcome.’ (32:28)
You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives. (50:20)