Introductions: Genesis

from Feb 01, 2012 Category: Articles

Who wrote it? When was it written and why?

These are some of the important questions to answer as you explore any book of the Bible. To aid you in your study of God’s Word we have been adapting and posting some of the detailed book introductions found in The Reformation Study Bible. Having introduced you to the Gospels, we now start a series through the Pentateuch. 

Please allow The Reformation Study Bible to introduce you to…

The Book of Genesis

Author | Date & Occasion | Interpretive Difficulties | Characteristics & Themes


Because this anonymous book is part of the unified Pentateuch, establishing its authorship and date cannot be separated from that. Evidence relating to Genesis itself, however, suggests that, like the remainder of the Pentateuch, Moses gave the book its essential substance and later editors supplemented it, all by the Holy Spirit’s inspiration.

It would be arbitrary to exclude Genesis from the New Testament testimony that Moses (fifteenth century B.C.) authored the Pentateuch. More specifically, our Lord said that “Moses gave you circumcision” (John 7:22; Acts 15:1), which is uniquely given in Gen. 17. It is not surprising that the founder of Israel’s theocracy gave this masterful foundation to the Law. Its historical narrative furnished the theological and ethical underpinnings of the Torah: Israel’s unique covenantal relationship with God (Deut. 9:5) and its singular laws (e.g., the Sabbath,). Moreover, since creation myths are basic to pagan religions, it is natural that Moses would have included a creation account opposing the pagan myths. This account is, in addition, foundational to the Law Moses mediated.

This Bible’s own witness to Moses’ authorship is supported by extrabiblical data.

This Bible’s own witness to Moses’ authorship is supported by extrabiblical data. The first eleven chapters of Genesis share many parallels and conscious dissimilarities with ancient Near Eastern myths that preceded the time of Moses and were known to him (Mesopotamian creation accounts such as the Enuma Elish and flood accounts such as those included in the Atrahasis Epic and the eleventh tablet of the Gilgamesh Epic). Names and customs in the narratives about the patriarchs (Gen. 12–50) accurately reflect their era, suggesting an early author with reliable documents. The Ebla texts (twenty-fourth century B.C.) mention Ebrium, possibly the Eber of Gen. 10:21, and the Mari texts (eighteenth century B.C.) attest to names such as “Abraham,” “Jacob,” and “Amorite.” The practice of granting a birthright (i.e., additional privileges to the eldest son, Gen. 25:5–6, 32–34; 39:3–4; 43:33; 49:3) was widespread in the ancient Near East, and the sale of an inheritance (25:29–34) is documented at different periods in this area. The adoption of one’s own slave (Gen. 15:1–3) is found in a Larsa letter from Old Babylonia, and the adoption of Ephraim and Manasseh by their grandfather (Gen. 48:5) may be compared with a similar adoption of a grandson at Ugarit (fourteenth century B.C.). The gift of a female slave as part of a dowry and her presentation to her husband by an infertile wife (Gen. 16:1–6; 30:1–3) are attested in the laws of Hammurabi (c. 1750 B.C.). These and similar facts corroborate the historical reliability of the narrative.

Date and Occasion

Given the biblical and extrabiblical evidence linking Genesis and its contents to Moses and his era, we may reasonably conclude that the book dates from the fifteenth century B.C. Certainly, for example, since David (c. 1000 B.C.) set the creation account of Gen. 1 to music (Ps. 8), a date of composition in the second millennium is indicated for Gen. 1. Readers should be aware, however, that, although occasionally words known only from the middle of the second millennium appear in the text, the grammar of the Pentateuch was updated at some point, as were some place-names (Gen. 14:14 note). Also, the list of kings in Gen. 36:31–43 was apparently added after the time of Saul.

We may reasonably conclude that the book dates from the fifteenth century B.C.

Like its authorship and date, the purpose of Genesis cannot be considered apart from its place within the Pentateuch as a whole. The Pentateuch is a unique combination of history and law, a history that explains the origins of its laws. For example, the narratives in Genesis explain the rite of circumcision (Gen. 17:9–14), the prohibition against eating the sciatic tendon (Gen. 32:32), and Sabbath observance (Gen. 2:2, 3). More importantly, its narrative recounts God’s election of Israel to a unique covenant relationship with Him, in order to bless a fallen world. That covenant relationship consists of God’s commitment to the patriarchs to make of their elect offspring a great nation and the chosen nation’s commitment to obey Him and so to become a light to the Gentiles. Genesis recounts the origins of this redemptive nation, reaching back to the beginnings of mankind and the world and of the conflict between the kingdom of God and the kingdom of Satan in which the nation was to play a crucial role.

The Hebrew title, following the ancient custom of naming books by their first word(s), is bereshith, “in the beginning.” The Greek title, based on the book’s content, is genesis, “origin.” Both titles are appropriate since the book is about the origin of history.

Interpretive Difficulties

Great emphasis is placed on the unique significance of Jesus’ miracles, but some passages seem to suggest that belief based solely upon seeing signs is not a good thing.

The tension between Genesis and modern science about the origins of the universe and of living species is largely resolved when it is recognized that they are speaking from different perspectives. Genesis is concerned about who created and why, not about how and when. Science cannot answer the former questions, and Genesis is largely mute about the latter (Gen. 1:2, 5, 6, 11 and notes).

For the past century scholars holding to the “documentary hypothesis” have contended that Genesis is composed of conflicting documents: J (for Jahweh/Yahweh, “the LORD”), E (for Elohim, “God”), D (for Deuteronomist), and P (for Priestly writer). While this scheme is still widely accepted, few believe any longer that these documents can be used to reconstruct a history of Israel’s religion because all the alleged documents contain what are thought to be “early” and “late” materials. In other words, the alleged four documents actually share elements and characteristics that were supposed to belong in only one of these hypothetical sources (e.g., J contains material that would be expected to occur only in E). To be sure, documents were composed in the ancient Near East by combining earlier written sources, but Moses himself probably used them (Gen. 5:1 note). Moreover, many scholars today question the criteria used for identifying these alleged sources and emphasize instead the unity of the text as we have it. For example, the Flood story, once thought to be a classic example of the documentary hypothesis, is now conceded to have remarkable integrity (Gen. 6:9–9:29 note).

Characteristics and Themes

A study of the literary structure of Genesis discloses the following highlights. After the prologue Genesis is divided into ten parts marked out by the formula: “These are the generations of.” This heading is followed by a genealogy of the person named or by stories involving his notable descendants. The first three accounts pertain to the pre-Flood world and the last seven to the post-Flood period. Accounts one through three and four through six parallel one another: (a) stories about the developments of mankind universally at the creation and at the re-creation after the Flood (accounts one and four respectively); (b) the genealogy of the redemptive lines through Seth and Shem (accounts two and five); and (c) the stories of the epochal covenant transactions with Noah and Abraham (accounts three and six). The final two pairs of accounts expand the Abrahamic line, contrasting his rejected offspring, Ishmael and Esau (accounts seven and nine), with stories about the elect, Isaac and Jacob respectively (accounts eight and ten).

The paradise lost by the first Adam is restored by the Last Adam. This marvelously unified sacred history certifies that the focus of Genesis is Christ.

The key to the stories is often given in an opening revelation: e.g., the promise to Abraham (Gen. 12:1–3), the prenatal sign of the rivalry between Jacob and Esau (Gen. 25:22, 23), and Joseph’s dreams (Gen. 37:1–11). A transitional section is found at the end of the accounts (e.g., Gen. 4:25, 26; 6:1–8; 9:18–29; 11:10–26).

The closing section of the last account contains strong links with Exodus, concluding with an oath Joseph elicited from his brothers to take his embalmed body with them when God came to their aid and returned them to Canaan (Gen. 50:24, 25; Ex. 13:19).

The book’s focus on the origins of Israel unfolds against a backdrop of matters affecting the world. Moses tells us that prior to God’s election of the patriarchs, the fathers of Israel (Gen. 12–50), mankind asserted its independence from God by striving to know good and evil apart from God and in defiance of His command (Gen. 2; 3). Humans proved their depravity by token religion, fratricide, and unrestrained vengeance (Cain, Gen. 4); by tyranny, harems, and thinking evil continually (the pre-Flood kings, Gen. 6:1–8); and by erecting an anti-kingdom against God (Nimrod and the infamous tower, Gen. 10:8–12; 11:1–9 note). God’s verdict about mankind stands: “the intention of man’s heart is evil from his youth” (Gen. 8:21).

Just as miraculously and surely as God sovereignly transformed the dark, empty void at earth’s origin (Gen. 1:2) into a glorious habitat for mankind and brought it to rest (Gen. 1:3–2:3), so also God sovereignly elected His covenant people in Christ to conquer Satan (Gen. 3:15) and to bless the depraved world (Gen. 12:1–3). Unconditionally He elected the patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, promising to make of their elect descendants the nation destined to bless the earth, a promise entailing an eternal seed, land, and king (Gen. 12:1–3, 7; 13:14–17; 17:1–8; 26:2–6; 28:10–15). Before Jacob was born and had done either good or evil, God chose Jacob, not Esau, his older twin brother (Gen. 25:21–23). He chose Jacob, even though he cheated his brother, deceived his father, and blasphemed God (Gen. 27). God even used Judah’s scandalous wrongs against Tamar, and her daring ruse as well, to advance the messianic line (Gen. 38). The heavenly King displayed His glorious rule by miraculously preserving the matriarchs in pagan harems (Gen. 12:10–20; ch. 20) and opening their barren wombs (Gen. 17:15–22; 18:1–15; 21:1–7; 25:21; 29:31; 30:22). He overrode man’s ways and customs by time and again choosing the younger, not the older, to inherit the blessing (Gen. 25:23 note). Blatant prophecies and subtle types are sterling witnesses that God directs history. For example, Noah prophesied Shem’s subjugation of Canaan (Gen. 9:24–26), and the greater Exodus led by Moses was prefigured when God delivered Abraham and Sarah from the oppression of Egypt with wealth (Gen. 12:10–20 note).

God inclined the heart of His elect to trust His promises and to obey His commands. Against all hope, Abraham counted on God to give him an innumerable offspring, and the lawgiver says that God credited that as righteousness (Gen. 15:6). Confident of God’s sure promises, Abraham gave up his rights to the land (Gen. 13); and Jacob, renamed “Israel” and clinging only to God (Gen. 32), symbolically gave back the birthright to Esau (Gen. 33). At the beginning of the Joseph story, Judah sold Joseph as a slave (Gen. 37:26, 27), but at its end the former slave trader was willing to become a slave in the place of his brother (Gen. 44:33, 34). Secure in the truth that God’s gracious design had brought good out of sins as heinous as murder and slave trading, Joseph forgave his brothers without recrimination (Gen. 45:4–8; 50:24).

What was begun in Genesis is fulfilled in Christ. The genealogy begun in Gen. 5, and advanced in Gen. 11, is completed with the birth of Jesus Christ (Matt. 1; Luke 3:23–27). He is the ultimate offspring promised to Abraham (Gen. 12:1–3; Gal. 3:16). The elect are blessed in Him because He alone, by His active and passive obedience, satisfied the law’s demands and died in their stead. All who are baptized into Christ and united with Him by faith are Abraham’s descendants (Gal. 3:26–29). The bold prophecies and subtle types in Genesis show that God is writing a history leading to a rest in Christ. On the threshold of biblical prophecy Noah predicted that the Japhethites would find salvation through the Semites, a prophecy fulfilled in the New Testament (Gen. 9:27 and note), and God Himself proclaimed that the woman’s offspring would destroy Satan (Gen. 3:15). That offspring is Christ and His church (Rom. 16:20). The gift of the bride to Adam prefigures the gift of the church to Christ (Gen. 2:18–25; Eph. 5:22–32); Melchizedek’s priesthood is like the Son of God’s (Gen. 14:18–20; Heb. 7); and as Israel redeemed out of bondage in Egypt found rest, resources, and refuge in the Promised Land, the church redeemed out of the cursed world finds that life in Christ (Gen. 13:15 note). The paradise lost by the first Adam is restored by the Last Adam. This marvelously unified sacred history certifies that the focus of Genesis is Christ.

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Adapted from The Reformation Study Bible, © 2005 Ligonier Ministries.