Genesis Overview: Creation of a Covenant People


1. Name

In the ancient Near East, it was customary to name books by their first word(s). Thus the first book in the Pentateuch is B’reshith, meaning “in the beginning.” The Septuagint gave it the name Γένεσις, meaning “birth”, “creation”, “cause”, “beginning”, “source” or “origin,” reflecting the book’s emphasis on beginnings.

2. Theme

“Human failure and God’s glorious purpose,”[footnote]G Crossley, The Old Testament Explained and Applied (Evangelical Press, 2003), 49.[/footnote] “Patriarchs and Promises,” “The Election of the Nation.”[footnote]J E Smith, The Pentateuch (Joplin, Mo.: College Press Pub. Co., 1993), Electronic Edition.[/footnote]

3. Purpose

The purpose of Genesis revolves around creation, patriarchs and promises and has been described in the following ways:

To teach the Israelites God’s design for them as a nation through the background of early world history and the lives of their Patriarchs.[footnote]Spirit of the Reformation Study Bible (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2003), 3.[/footnote]

The purpose of the first book of the Pentateuch is to give a brief survey of the history of Divine revelation from the beginning until the Israelites are brought into Egypt, ready to be formed into the theocratic nation. It relates the creation of the world, of man, God’s covenant with man, the fall into sin, the covenant of grace, and the lives of the patriarchs.[footnote]E J Young, An Introduction to the Old Testament (London: The Tyndale Press, 1953), 52[/footnote]

The purpose of Genesis is to document the fact that the God of Israel is Creator of all things and to trace the history of the human race from creation to the time of Israel’s development as a special people. Genesis reveals God’s cosmic intentions, describes humanity’s sinful refusal to conform to the divine purposes, and introduces those covenant arrangements and promises by means of which God would ultimately achieve his objectives despite human disobedience. This involves the selection of Abraham, who, through his innumerable offspring, would become the fountainhead of blessing to the whole world.[footnote]E H Merrill, Kingdom of Priests (Grand Rapids: Baker Books House, 1992), 23.[/footnote]

4. Key verses

In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth (Gen. 1:1).

And I will put enmity between thee and the woman, and between thy seed and her seed; it shall bruise thy head, and thou shalt bruise his heel (Gen. 3:15).

And he brought him forth abroad, and said, Look now toward heaven, and tell the stars, if thou be able to number them: and he said unto him, So shall thy seed be. And he believed in the LORD; and he counted it to him for righteousness (Gen. 15:5-6).

5. Key truths

  • Although sin corrupted the ideal world Israel’s God had created, redemption would come through God’s chosen people.
  • The lives of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob provide many insights into the nature of God’s covenant with his people and their hope for the future.
  • The lives of Joseph and his brothers reveal the ways in which the people of God are to relate to each other and to the world.[footnote]Spirit of the Reformation Study Bible (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2003), 3.[/footnote]


I. Author

Questions concerning Mosaic authorship have been addressed in Lecture 1.

II. Date

Earliest date: Moses could not have written until after his divine call at burning bush in Egypt.
Latest date: The latest possible date is just before his death in Moab (Deut. 34:5).
The book, therefore, could have been written any time between his call at the burning bush and his death. This would give an approximate date of 1446-1400 BC.

III. Historical Analysis

Historical analysis poses questions such as “What? Where? When? Who?” It does not tend to inquire into the literary forms, the theological themes, nor the New Testament elaboration and application.

1. Historical purpose

Genesis was written as a prologue to the rest of the Bible and to the History of Israel. Moses prepared Israel for being a theocratic nation in the Promised Land by describing the origin of the universe, of the physical world, of human life and cultures, and of the nation of Israel.

David Dorsey has argued that not only Genesis but Genesis 1:1 to Exodus 19:2 serves as a historical prologue to Yahweh’s great treaty with Israel at Sinai.[footnote]For more on this, see Gleason Archer Jr., A Survey of Old Testament Introduction, 3rd. ed. (Chicago: Moody Press, 1994), 274.[/footnote]

As such it traces past relations between the two covenanting parties, Yahweh and Israel, with the purpose of engendering gratitude, respect and trust on the part of vassal Israel toward their suzerain, Yahweh. It begins at the beginning, with creation, and surveys the historical relations between Yahweh and Israel from the earliest times until Israel’s arrival at Mt Sinai.[footnote]David Dorsey, The Literary Structure of the Old Testament (Baker Books, 1999), 48.[/footnote]

However, this emphasis on Sinai as the climax of Genesis deflects attention from the central importance of the Abrahamic covenant in Genesis 12-17. God’s promises to Abraham are the focal point for the rest of Genesis. By the end of Genesis, these promises are only partly fulfilled. Genesis, therefore, leaves us looking forward to ultimate fulfillment in a later generation.

2. History or myth?

Many scholars treat Genesis 1-11 as myth and regard Genesis 12-50 as the historical section. However this distinction is hard to sustain. Walter Kaiser noted that Genesis 1-11 contains “64 geographical terms, 88 personal names, 48 generic names and at least 21 identifiable cultural items” (such as wood, metals, buildings, musical instruments).[footnote]Walter Kaiser, “The Literary Form of Genesis 1-11,” New Perspectives on the Old Testament, (Waco, Tex.: Word, 1970), 59.[/footnote] He concluded that Genesis 1-11 is prose and not poetry and that historical narrative best describes the form of these chapters.[footnote]Ibid., pp. 59–60.[/footnote] The first eleven chapters are critical for understanding the rest of the Bible. They reveal God’s nature, the role of the world he created, and the position of man in that world.

3. Chronology

The book of Genesis covers a period of 2,200 years from the days of creation (4000+ BC) to the death of Joseph (1800 BC). The dates we can be reasonably sure of are:

2166 BC
2092 BC
2066 BC
2006 BC
1991 BC
1915 BC
1909 BC
1886 BC
1876 BC
1859 BC
1805 BC
Abram’s birth
Abram’s call
Isaac’s birth
Jacob’s birth
Abraham’s death
Joseph’s birth
Jacob & family move to Canaan
Isaac’s death
Jacob and family move to Egypt
Jacob’s death
Joseph died
[footnote]J H Walton, Charts of the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1994), 15.[/footnote]

The book begins with creation and ends with a coffin (Gen. 50:26).[footnote]J E Smith, The Pentateuch (2nd ed.). (Joplin, Mo.:College Press Pub. Co., 1993), Electronic Edition.[/footnote]

4. Historical Periods

J E Smith proposes that the history of Genesis be divided up as follows:

Four Pivotal Events: Creation, Fall, Flood, Dispersal (Gen. 1-11)

Four Pivotal Persons: Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph (Gen. 12-50).[footnote]Ibid., Electronic Edition.[/footnote]

Before relating the personal story of national Israel, the Bible first tells the sad universal story of all humankind.[footnote]B Arnold and B Beyer, Encountering the Old Testament (Baker Books, 1999), 78.[/footnote]

5. Genealogies

Chapter 5 traces ten generations of the faithful line of Adam from Seth to Noah. The long lives of these generations hint at the quality of humanity God created, though now gradually decaying as a result of sin.

The chapter 10 genealogy shows the decreasing lifetimes of the post-flood generations, thus again emphasizing the effects of sin. The patriarchs who lived before the Flood had an average lifespan of about 900 years (Gen. 5). The ages of post-Flood patriarchs dropped rapidly and gradually leveled off as can be seen from the ages of significant figures: Shem 600 years (Gen. 11:10-11), Eber 464 years (Gen. 11:16-17), Terah 205 years (Gen. 11:32), Abraham 175 years (Gen. 25:7), Isaac 180 years (Gen. 35:28), Jacob 147 years (Gen. 47:28), Joseph 147 years (Gen. 50:26).

The order of the genealogies is important. Cain’s genealogy (Gen. 4:17-24) is given before that of Seth (Gen. 4:25-26); those of Japheth and Ham (Gen. 10:1-4 and Gen. 10:6-8) are given before that of Shem (Gen. 10:21-22), even though Ham was presumably the youngest of the three brothers. The genealogies of Lot (Gen. 19:29-30) and Ishmael (Gen. 25:12-15) appear before that of Isaac (Gen. 25:19). So also Esau’s descendants (Gen. 36:1-10) are listed before those of Jacob (Gen. 37:2). The author’s motive in each case seems to be to dispose more briefly of the non-elect branches of the human line before taking up the genealogy of those patriarchs who had a genuine faith in Jehovah.

IV. Literary Analysis

1. Comparative outlines

E J Young,
Keil & Delitzsch
J E Smith G Crossley R Pratt
Introduction (Gen. 1:1 – Gen. 2:3)
Heaven & Earth (Gen. 2:4 – Gen. 4:26)
Adam (Gen. 5:1 – Gen. 6:8)
Noah (Gen. 6:9 –  Gen. 9:29)
Noah’s Sons (Gen. 10:1 – Gen. 11:9)
Shem (Gen. 11:10-26)
Terah (Gen. 11:27 – Gen. 25:11)
Ishmael (Gen. 25:12-18)
Isaac (Gen. 25:19 – Gen. 35:29)
Esau (Gen. 36:1 – Gen. 37:1)
Jacob (Gen. 37:2 – Gen. 50:26)
Beginnings of the created world (Gen. 1:1 – Gen. 11:9)
Beginnings of the chosen people (Gen. 11:10 – Gen. 50:26)
Four momentous events (Gen. 1:1 – Gen. 11:32): Creation, Fall, Flood, Babel
Four chosen leaders (Gen. 12:1 – Gen. 50:26): Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph
Primeval Times (Gen. 1:1 – Gen. 11:9)
Patriarchal Times (Gen. 11:10 – Gen. 37:1)
Joseph’s Times (Gen. 37:2 – Gen. 50:26)

The first eleven chapters of Genesis deal with the beginnings of the created world, and the last thirty-nine chapters focus on the beginnings of the chosen people.

The spiritual plan of the book can be outlined in three words: generation, degeneration, and regeneration. Another triad conveying the same meaning is: construction, destruction, and reconstruction.[footnote]J E Smith, The Pentateuch (2nd ed.) (College Press Pub. Co.: Joplin, Mo. 1993), Electronic Edition.[/footnote]

In his Introduction to the Old Testament E J Young agrees with the general division of the book into two parts:

Broadly speaking we may say that the book comprises two parts. The first of these deals with the period from the creation to the call of Abraham (Gen. 1-12), and the second with the call or preparation of the patriarchs. The first section is somewhat negative, showing the need for the segregation from the world of a peculiar people, and the remaining section serves the positive end of relating the segregation of that people.[footnote]E J Young, An Introduction to the Old Testament (The Tyndale Press, 1953), 52.[/footnote]

2. Toledot Analysis

Historical analysis tends to divide Genesis into sections which begin with the Hebrew word “Toledot.” This can be translated “this is the family history, this is the account, these are the generations.” In each instance the person or entity has been introduced in the preceding unit. There then follows the person’s genealogy and narratives relating to him and his descendants. There are some interesting parallels between accounts 1-3 before the flood, and 4-6 after the flood.

Toledot 1-3 Toledot 4-6
1. Creation out of dark and “chaotic” waters
2. Genealogy of Seth’s elect line
3. Covenant with Noah
4. Recreation after the flood
5. Genealogy of Shem’s elect line
6. Covenant with Abraham

Abraham’s line is followed in the last four accounts. This time, parallels are drawn between the rejected children and the elect children.

Toledot 7&9 Toledot 8&10
Rejected offspring: Ishmael
Rejected offspring: Esau
Elect offspring: Isaac
Elect offspring: Jacob

3. Original Audience and Message

In his Lectures on Genesis. Professor Richard Pratt of RTS explores the question: “What were Moses’ original readers/hearers most concerned about?” The answer depends on who were the original audience. It may have been the first generation of Israel who had just left Egypt. It may have been the second generation of Israel after Sinai and on the borders of Canaan. This second option would seem to be the more likely. However, the book may have been so inspired by God that it was applicable to both generations.

a. First generation of those who left Egypt

Their main concern was with the past. They looked back on their time in Egypt and asked: “Should we not have stayed? Were we right to leave?” (Ex. 3:11-14; Ex. 6:9-12; Ex. 14:10-12; Ex. 16:1-3; Ex. 17:3).

And when Pharaoh drew nigh, the children of Israel lifted up their eyes, and, behold, the Egyptians marched after them; and they were sore afraid: and the children of Israel cried out unto the LORD. And they said unto Moses, Because there were no graves in Egypt, hast thou taken us away to die in the wilderness? wherefore hast thou dealt thus with us, to carry us forth out of Egypt? Is not this the word that we did tell thee in Egypt, saying, Let us alone, that we may serve the Egyptians? For it had been better for us to serve the Egyptians, than that we should die in the wilderness (Ex. 14:10-12).

b. Second generation of those who left Egypt

As they prepared on the plains of Moab for the conquest of Canaan, the main concern of the second generation was about the future: “Should we enter the Promised Land? Is that not the land of giants?” ( Num. 13:1 – Num. 14:45; Deut. 1:19-46).

And they told him, and said, We came unto the land whither thou sentest us, and surely it floweth with milk and honey; and this is the fruit of it. Nevertheless the people be strong that dwell in the land, and the cities are walled, and very great: and moreover we saw the children of Anak there. The Amalekites dwell in the land of the south: and the Hittites, and the Jebusites, and the Amorites, dwell in the mountains: and the Canaanites dwell by the sea, and by the coast of Jordan (Num. 13:28-29).

The book of Genesis was originally written to encourage Israel to separate from Egypt and to conquer the Promised Land. How does Genesis do this? It does this by repeatedly revealing throughout the book, that God is the powerful and gracious Creator of “order” out of “disorder.” As we shall see, this revelation was intended to propel Israel out of the “disorder and darkness” of Egypt, and the wilderness, and towards the “order and light” of the Promised Land.

Moses wrote the history with a view not only to the present needs of his hearers but also their future responsibilities regarding the conquering of Canaan.

In Gen. 9:25 we are told about the curse on Canaan, and Gen. 18-19 chapters describe the immorality and destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. That same destruction now lay ahead for all of Canaan, for the sins of the Amorites had “reached its full measure” (Gen. 15:16). Not far from Canaan were located the nations of Moab, Ammon, and Edom, and early in her history Israel battled the people of Amalek and Midian. What was the origin of these troublesome neighbors who became a thorn in Israel’s side? Again, Genesis provides the answers, for Lot was the father of Moab and Ammon (Gen. 19:36-38), Edom and Amalek were descended from Esau (Gen. 36:1; Gen. 36:12), and Midian was a son of Abraham through his wife Keturah (Gen. 25:1-2). In spite of the close blood ties, however, these nations were often at each other’s throats (Ex. 17:8-16).[footnote]H Wolf, An Introduction to the Old Testament Pentateuch (Chicago: Moody Press, 1991), Electronic Edition.[/footnote]

If we approach Genesis mindful of the original audience and their twin concerns it will become clear that the narratives, while historically accurate and reliable, are structured in such a way as to address the special needs of the original readers. However, this does not rule out application and relevance to ourselves. Rather, discovering the original message helps us to apply the message to ourselves more accurately.

4. Genre

The form of literature will have an effect on our interpretation of it. So we have to ask questions regarding the genre of biblical literature.

a. Historical Narrative.

The book narrates history in a chronological manner from the creation to the sojourn in Egypt. The author intended his account to be read as accurate history.

…There are no dramatic genre shifts between the book of Genesis and the rest of the Pentateuch, and none between the Pentateuch and the so-called historical books that would lead us to read it in any other way than as history. Indeed, if we are speaking of the original intention of the biblical writer(s), the style of the book leaves little space to argue over the obvious conclusion that the author intended it to be read as a work of history that recounts what has taken place in the far-distant past.[footnote]R Dillard & T Longman III, An Introduction to the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1994), 49.[/footnote]

This conclusion rules out a mythological or parabolic interpretation of Genesis 1 and Genesis 2.

b. Heroic Narrative

Genesis sets before us a series of heroic narratives, accounts relating the conflicts of representatives of the community.

Heroes capture the popular imagination and focus a culture’s self-awareness, and the heroes of Genesis are no exception. Martin Luther caught the heroic spirit of the book when he wrote that the patriarchs were “the heroes, as it were, of the entire world.” Each of the hero stories that constitute the book of Genesis has its distinctive emphasis and flavor. Adam and Eve are the prototypical parents of the human race and the archetypal sinners. Noah is a solitary person of integrity in an evil age and the agent of God’s rescue for the human race. Abraham’s story is the story of a quest for a son and a land and of the spiritual conflicts and growth that this quest generates. The story of Jacob tells of a self-reliant trickster’s struggle to become a godly person. Joseph’s life reenacts the pattern of the suffering servant whose personal misfortunes bring about redemption for others.[footnote]L Ryken and T Longman III (Editors), The Complete Literary Guide to the Bible (Grand Rapids; Zondervan, 1993), 108.[/footnote]

c. Epic

More recently, literary scholars have described Genesis as an “epic.”

But the book of Genesis is more than an anthology of hero stories: it is also an epic. Tolstoy called it “the epic of Genesis,” and Erich Auerbach, comparing Genesis to Homer’s Odyssey, regarded it as being “equally epic.” Genesis is epic because it is a story of national destiny, recounting the story of the ancestors of the nation of Israel. The plot recounts a familiar epic feat of the formation of a nation under divine providence.[footnote]Ibid., 109.[/footnote]

5. Realism

Another literary quality of Genesis, as with all of Scripture, is its realism.

Part of the humanity of Genesis consists of what literary people call realism – the unexpurgated portrayal of human life at its sordid worst. Genesis is a shocking book. In it we find magnified images of sin – stories of sibling rivalry, family conflict, hatred, rape, incest, sexual perversion, deceit, and a host of other destructive behaviors. The characters of Genesis are portrayed as Cromwell wished to be painted – warts and all. Franz Delitzsch said about the patriarchs of Genesis that they are so deeply flawed “there is almost more shadow than light in them. . . . Their faults are the foil to their greatness with respect to the history of redemption….But we also find heightened images of virtue in Genesis. Half of the roll call of heroes of faith in Hebrews 11 comes from the pages of Genesis – worshipful Abel, righteous Noah, obedient Abraham, fruitful Sarah, and promise-expecting Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph. If the book of Genesis gives us memorable images of evil—the Fall, the corrupt earth destroyed by the Flood, Babel, Sodom and Gomorrah, a despised brother sold into slavery – it also gives us heightened images of good – the perfect creation, Paradise the perfect garden, covenant, altar, rainbow, Abraham’s willingness to offer Isaac on a mountain, Jacob’s being blessed by an angelic wrestler, Joseph’s refusal to give in to sexual temptation, and his reconciliation with his brothers. Genesis is more than a monument to our humanity, but it is not less. Writes one literary critic, “Genesis is not only the beginning of the Bible but the beginning of the biblical process: that record of our humanity at its worst, best, most mediocre, and most noble.”[footnote]Ibid., 110[/footnote]

6. Narrative Patterns and Typology

a. Repeating Patterns

The Genesis narrative is shaped so that key elements of one narrative are repeated in others. The cumulative effect of such stories is the sense that the whole of the real world has a shape and order that is reflected in the shape and order of the biblical narratives. The implication of such structure is that the world has design and purpose. You can study some of these parallel structures in Sailhamer’s chapter on Genesis in the Complete Literary Guide to the Bible. These examples show that a major aspect of the meaning of the biblical narratives lies fundamentally in the patterns of divine purpose that they infuse into our understanding of the world.

b. Narrative Typology

The narratives in Genesis recount events in such a way as to foreshadow and anticipate later events. By means of foreshadowing, central themes are developed and continually drawn to the reader’s attention, with the result that a further sense of purpose is added to the reader’s understanding of events. The sense of the biblical narratives is not only that God and his plan are at work in the history recounted in them but also that this history has a goal. The “first things” anticipate the fulfillment of the “last things.”

It seems clear that a “narrative typology” lies behind the composition of these texts. The author wants to show that the events of the past are pointers to those of the future.[footnote]Ibid.,110.[/footnote]

V. Thematic Analysis

Thematic analysis looks for the theological themes and principles being revealed in the sacred historical narratives. It asks questions such as “Why? How?” and searches for the meaning of God’s acts in history.

1. Beginnings

The main theme or subject matter consists of origins: the origin of the created world, of the human race, of marriage, of work, of the Sabbath, of sin, of redemption, of the various nations of earth, and then particularly of the covenant family which composes the redeemed people of God. Genesis describes the beginning of everything except God.

The Bible may be described as a four-part symphony, moving from creation to the fall, then on to redemption and finally re-creation. The book of Genesis lays the foundation for the rest of the Bible by narrating briefly the first two movements, while beginning the third. The fourth movement is the subject of the last two chapters of the Bible (Rev. 21-22), and it is interesting to note the pervasive creation imagery in those chapters (Rev. 21:1; Rev. 21:5; Rev. 22:1-6). The end of history is like the beginning in that a harmonious and wonderful relationship with God is reestablished.[footnote]R Dillard & T Longman III, An Introduction to the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1994), 51.[/footnote]

2. Covenant

As we noted in Lecture 1 (Overview of the Pentateuch), the themes of covenant and promise are prominent throughout the Pentateuch and that is no less true of Genesis. God entered into covenant with Adam before the flood (Genesis 3). He also made a covenant with Noah after the flood (Genesis 9). These two covenants encompass the whole of creation. However, despite this gracious activity of God towards His creatures, humanity constantly failed (Genesis 1-11). This highlighted the need, and paved the way, for the more limited covenant made with Abraham, head of the chosen race.

These two covenants, universal in extent, failed to preserve among men the true religion and hence provided the need for the more limited cove¬nant made with Abraham the head of the chosen race. Since man broke the universal covenants, the Lord segregated the chosen people from the remainder of the world, so that the true religion might grow and flourish and finally, in the open stage of the world, contend with and overcome the forces of evil. Thus, the two preliminary periods serve the purpose of making clear the insufficiency of the first two universal covenants and the necessity of selecting a particular people to be the Lord’s chosen race.[footnote]E J Young, An Introduction to the Old Testament (London: The Tyndale Press, 1953), 52.[/footnote]

Hence, the beginning of the patriarchal history (Gen. 12-50). According to the covenant, the descendants of the patriarchs would become a great nation in the land of promise, through whom the whole world would be blessed.

3. Election to a purpose

Implicit in God’s call of Abraham was the divine election. Explicit was the purpose for a future nation (Gen. 12:2-3).

God brought the nation of Israel into existence for a purpose: to serve as his instrument of salvation for the world. Too often, she assumed this election was only a privilege, and forgot it also brought responsibility…. God’s election of the patriarchs focuses more on his plans for them as his instruments of salvation to the world…Election in the patriarchal narratives is primarily to service.[footnote]B Arnold and B Beyer, Encountering the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1999), 99.[/footnote]

God chose Shem from the three sons of Noah as the one from whom the Savior would ultimately come. He chose Abraham from an idolatrous nation and made him the father of His chosen nation. He chose Isaac instead of Ishmael and Jacob instead of Esau. He appointed Joseph to be Israel’s deliverer raising him from the pit to the palace. He passes by the elder of Joseph’s sons and grants the blessing of the first born to Ephraim.

VI. New Testament Analysis

As we will notice, though Genesis is the first and earliest book in the Bible, it has a futuristic outlook which anticipates the coming of Christ. Many passages in Genesis are illuminated, elaborated and fulfilled in the New Testament.

What was begun in Genesis is fulfilled in Christ. The genealogy begun in chapter 5 and advanced in chapter 11 is completed with the birth of Jesus Christ (Matt. 1; Luke 3:23-38). He is the ultimate offspring promised to Abraham (Gen. 17:15-16; Gal. 3:16)…The bold prophecies and subtle types in Genesis show that God was writing a history that was to be completed in Jesus….This marvelously unified sacred history certifies that the focus of Genesis is ultimately Christ.[footnote]Spirit of the Reformation Study Bible (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2003), 5.[/footnote]

VII. The Message of Genesis

Original Message: God’s power to create order and light out of disorder and darkness in the universe and in individual lives should encourage Israel to leave the disorder and darkness of Egypt behind them, and confidently move towards the order and light of Canaan.
Present Message: God’s power to create order and light out of disorder and darkness should encourage the new Israel (the Church) to leave the “old world of Egypt” (this present evil world) behind and move toward the “new world of Canaan” (new heavens and earth).

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