An Overview of Genesis in the Bible

Review key facts and major themes for the first book in God's Word.

Overview-Genesis-Bible
(c) John Lund / Getty Images

As the first book in the Bible, Genesis sets the stage for everything that happens throughout the Scriptures. And while Genesis is best known for its passages connected with the creation of the world and for stories such as Noah's Ark, those who take the time to explore all 50 chapters will be well rewarded for their efforts.

As we begin this overview of Genesis, let's review some key facts that will help set the context for this important book of the Bible.

Key Facts

Author: Throughout church history, Moses has been almost universally credited as the author of Genesis. This makes sense, because the Scriptures themselves identify Moses as the primary author for the first five books of the Bible -- Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. These books are often referred to as the Pentateuch, or as "the Book of the Law."

[Note: check here for a more detailed overview of each book in the Pentateuch, and of its place as a literary genre in the Bible.]

Here's a key passage in support of Mosaic authorship for the Pentateuch:

Moses came and told the people all the commands of the Lord and all the ordinances. Then all the people responded with a single voice, “We will do everything that the Lord has commanded.” And Moses wrote down all the words of the Lord. He rose early the next morning and set up an altar and 12 pillars for the 12 tribes of Israel at the base of the mountain.
Exodus 24:3-4 (emphasis added)

There are also a number of passages that directly refer to the Pentateuch as "the Book of Moses." (See Numbers 13:1, for example, and Mark 12:26).

In recent decades, a number of Bible scholars have begun to cast some doubt on Moses' role as the author of Genesis and the other books of the Pentateuch.

These doubts are largely tied to the fact that the texts contain references to names of places that would not have been used until after Moses' lifetime. In addition, the Book of Deuteronomy contains details about Moses' death and burial (see Deuteronomy 34:1-8) -- details he likely did not write himself.

However, these facts do not make it necessary to eliminate Moses as the primary author of Genesis and the rest of the Pentateuch. Instead, it's likely that Moses wrote the vast majority of the material, which was supplemented by one or more editors who added material after Moses' death.

Date: Genesis was likely written between 1450 and 1400 B.C. (Different scholars have different opinions for the exact date, but most fall within this range.)

While the content covered in Genesis stretches all the way from the creation of the universe to the establishment of the Jewish people, the actual text was given to Moses (with the support of the Holy Spirit) more than 400 years after Joseph established a home for God's people in Egypt (see Exodus 12:40-41).

Background: As mentioned earlier, what we call the Book of Genesis was part of a larger revelation given to Moses by God. Neither Moses nor his original audience (the Israelites after the exodus from Egypt) were eyewitnesses to the stories of Adam and Eve, Abraham and Sarah, Jacob and Esau, etc.

However, it's likely that the Israelites were aware of these stories. They had probably been passed down for generations as part of the oral tradition of the Hebrew culture.

Therefore, Moses' act of recording the history of God's people was an important part of preparing the Israelites for the formation of their own nation. They had been rescued from the fire of slavery in Egypt, and they needed to understand where they had come from before they began their new future in the Promised Land.

The Structure of Genesis

There are several ways to subdivide the Book of Genesis into smaller chunks. The main way is to follow the main character within the narrative as it shifts from person to person among God's people -- Adam and Eve, then Seth, then Noah, then Abraham and Sarah, then Isaac, then Jacob, then Joseph.

However, one of the more interesting methods is to look for the phrase "This is the account of..." (or "These are the generations of..."). This phrase is repeated several times throughout Genesis, and repeated in such a way that it forms a natural outline for the book.

Bible scholars refer to these divisions by the Hebrew term toledoth, which means "generations." Here is the first example:

This is the account of the heavens and the earth when they were created, when the Lord God made the earth and the heavens.
Genesis 2:4

Each toledoth in the Book of Genesis follows a similar pattern. First, the repeated phrase "This is the account of" announces a new section in the narrative. Then, the following passages explain what was brought forth by the object or person named.

For example, the first toledoth (above) describes what was brought forth from "the heavens and the earth," which is humanity. Thus, the opening chapters of Genesis introduce the reader to the earliest interactions of Adam, Eve, and the first fruits of their family.

Here are the major toledoths or sections from the Book of Genesis:

  • 2:4-4:26 tell what heaven and earth produced, which is humanity.

  • 5:1-6:8 tell what Adam produced. This section describes the deepening conflict between those who seek to do God's will (those who Adam produced), and those who seek to reject God's will.

  • 6:9-9:29 tell what Noah produced. These chapters show how Noah's line stands apart from the sinfulness of the world. The world is judged by the flood, but Noah and his family are saved.

  • 10:1-11:9 tell what Noah’s sons produced. This section shows the continuing war between those who seek to serve God and those who choose to live in rebellion. The Tower of Babel is a major emphasis in this narrative.

  • 11:10-11:26 tell what Shem produced, which brings the attention back to the origins of the Hebrew people.

  • 11:27-25:11 tell what Terah produced. These chapters primarily tell the story of Abraham, who is the father of the Hebrews.

  • 25:12-25:18 tell what Ishmael produced. These verses briefly explore the descendants of Ishmael, who was Abraham's illegitimate son and father of many nations who later became enemies of the Israelites.

  • 25:19-35:29 tell what Isaac produced. Isaac was Abraham's son and the father of Jacob. It's Jacob, however, who is the main character in the narrative for these chapters. 

  • 36:1-37:1 tell what Esau produced. While Jacob continues the line of Abraham, Esau's descendants pull away from God and become another source of strife for the Israelites.

  • 37:2-50:26 tell what Jacob produced. This is the story of Joseph, which explains how the Hebrews became a nation and settled in the land of Egypt.

Major Themes

The word "Genesis" means "origins," and that is really the primary theme of this book. The text of Genesis sets the stage for the rest of the Bible by telling us how everything came into being, how everything went wrong, and how God initiated His plan to redeem what was lost.

Within that larger narrative, there are several interesting themes that should be pointed out in order to better understand what is happening throughout the story. For example:

  1. The children of God verses the children of the serpent. Immediately after Adam and Eve fell into sin, God promised that the children of Eve would forever be at war with the children of the serpent (see Genesis 3:15 below). This did not mean women would be afraid of snakes. Rather, this was a conflict between those who choose to do God's will (the children of Adam and Eve) and those who choose to reject God and follow their own sinfulness (the children of the serpent).

    This conflict is present throughout the Book of Genesis, and throughout the rest of the Bible as well. Those who chose to follow God were constantly harassed and oppressed by those who had no relationship with God. This struggle was ultimately resolved when Jesus, the perfect child of God, was murdered by sinful men -- yet in that seeming defeat, He secured victory of the serpent and made it possible for all people to be saved.
     
  2. God's covenant with Abraham and the Israelites. Beginning with Genesis 12, God established a series of covenants with Abraham (then Abram) that solidified the relationship between God and His chosen people. These covenants were not only meant to benefit the Israelites, however. Genesis 12:3 (see below) makes it clear that the ultimate goal of God choosing the Israelites as His people was to bring salvation to "all people" through one of Abraham's future descendants. The rest of the Old Testament describes God's relationship with His people, and the covenant was ultimately fulfilled through Jesus in the New Testament.
     
  3. God fulfilling His promises to maintain the covenant relationship with Israel. As part of God's covenant with Abraham (see Gen. 12:1-3), He promised three things: 1) that God would turn Abraham's descendants into a great nation, 2) that this nation would be given a promised land to call home, and 3) that God would use this people to bless all the nations of the earth. 

    The narrative of Genesis consistently shows threats to that promise. For example, the fact that Abraham's wife was barren became a major obstacle to God's promise that he would father a great nation. In each of these crisis moments, God steps in to remove obstacles and fulfill what He promised. It's these crises and moments of salvation that drive most of the story lines throughout the book.

Key Scripture Passages

14 Then the Lord God said to the serpent:

Because you have done this,
you are cursed more than any livestock
and more than any wild animal.
You will move on your belly
and eat dust all the days of your life.
15 I will put hostility between you and the woman,
and between your seed and her seed.
He will strike your head,
and you will strike his heel.
Genesis 3:14-15

The Lord said to Abram:

Go out from your land,
your relatives,
and your father’s house
to the land that I will show you.
I will make you into a great nation,
I will bless you,
I will make your name great,
and you will be a blessing.
I will bless those who bless you,
I will curse those who treat you with contempt,
and all the peoples on earth
will be blessed through you.
Genesis 12:1-3

24 Jacob was left alone, and a man wrestled with him until daybreak. 25 When the man saw that He could not defeat him, He struck Jacob’s hip socket as they wrestled and dislocated his hip. 26 Then He said to Jacob, “Let Me go, for it is daybreak.”

But Jacob said, “I will not let You go unless You bless me.”

27 “What is your name?” the man asked.

“Jacob,” he replied.

28 “Your name will no longer be Jacob,” He said. “It will be Israel because you have struggled with God and with men and have prevailed.”

29 Then Jacob asked Him, “Please tell me Your name.”

But He answered, “Why do you ask My name?” And He blessed him there.

30 Jacob then named the place Peniel, “For I have seen God face to face,” he said, “and I have been delivered.”
Genesis 32:24-30