We use cookies to enhance your experience on our website. By continuing to use our website, you are agreeing to our use of cookies. You can change your cookie settings at any time. Find out more
Select Bible Use this Lookup to open a specific Bible and passage. Start here to select a Bible.
Make selected Bible the default for Lookup tool.
Book: Ch.V. Select book from A-Z list, enter chapter and verse number, and click "Go."
  • Previous Result
  • Results
  • Look It Up Highlight any word or phrase, then click the button to begin a new search.
  • Highlight On / Off
  • Next Result

Genesis, The Book of

Genesis is the book of beginnings. Its account of primeval history (chaps. 1–11) extends from the creation of the world and humankind (chaps. 1–2) through its near destruction and preservation in the Flood (chaps. 6–9) to the spread of humankind over the earth (chaps. 10–11). The subsequent history of the ancestors extends from Abraham to the sons of Jacob.

Chapters 1–11: Primeval History.

Chapters 1–11 of Genesis form an internally coherent unity. The creation (chaps. 1–2) and Flood (chaps. 6–9) belong together; the crime against a brother (chap. 4) belongs within the story of rebellion against God (chap. 3; see Fall, The).

The building blocks of chapters 1–11 are narratives (chaps. 1; 2–3; 4; 6–9) and genealogies (chaps. 5; 10). The narratives recount the beginnings of the world and its people; they cover the creation of the earth and of human beings (chaps. 1–2), wrongdoing and punishment (chaps. 3; 4; 6–9; 11), the first signs of cultural development, and the scattering of tribes and tongues. It is through the genealogies that the events in Genesis 1–11 become a coherent story. The creator's blessing causes the expansion of humankind through the course of time (chap. 5: genealogy from Adam to Abraham) and the reach of space (chap. 10: the table of nations). Between the two genealogies stands the catastrophe of the Flood (chaps. 6–9), which is caused by the corruption of humankind and threatens to destroy its existence. The accounts of wrongdoing and punishment demonstrate the many possibilities for transgression; both the individual (chaps. 3; 4; 9) and the group (6.1–4, 5–9; 11) can overstep the boundaries set for human beings.

The narratives of creation.

The creation of the world and the creation of humankind are independent traditions, each found in early religions throughout the world; the creation of humankind is the earlier of the two. Creation stories did not arise out of a curiosity about origins but from a sense of the menace to human existence in an endangered world. The older narrative (chaps. 2–3) emphasizes the creation of the human race, intertwined with the story of its failure; the limits of sin and death are an integral part of human existence. Human beings themselves, formed from earthly elements, become living beings by receiving the breath of God. They are creatures in all aspects of their existence; these include territory (the garden), food (the fruit of the garden), labor (the tilling and keeping of garden), community (the creation of woman), language (the call and naming), and their relationship to God.

The later narrative (1.1–2.4) emphasizes the creation of the world. In early religions, creation occurs through action, through generation and birth, and through combat. In Genesis 1, everything that exists or becomes has its origins in God's commanding word. The distribution of creation over seven days forms a temporal unity that recalls the week and its culmination in the Sabbath, and it suggests that the history of creation and humanity also has an aim. The creation of plants and animals according to species show that a created order can include evolution rather than excluding it. The creation of the human “in God's image” means “corresponding to God,” that is, as a creature to whom God can speak and who can respond to God. Human dignity is based on this likeness to God. Human rule over the rest of creation is understood in terms of the rule of a king who is responsible for the well‐being of his subjects. The growth of humankind involves human effort and the advancement of culture. The refrain, “And God saw that it was good,” signifies that creation was good in God's eyes, that it was in accord with God's purpose.

The narratives of wrongdoing and punishment: human limitations.

The present human condition is explained as having emerged from the basic and polarized experiences of being at once secure in God and alienated from God. Created by God, the human creature can turn against God and thus incur guilt. This is recounted in the expulsion from the garden (chap. 3). The serpent, the source of temptation, is a creature of God; there is no explanation for the provenance of evil. But God seeks out even the guilty (“Where are you?” [3.9]), and they are able to defend themselves. The punishment is expulsion from the garden, from God's presence and from access to the tree of life (although mortality is already part of the human condition [3.19]). In chap. 4, crime against a brother augments the disobedience to God's command (“Where is your brother Abel?”). Separated from God, human beings become capable of murder and, in 9.20–28, of dishonoring their parents. To this is added the overstepping of boundaries by human communities, as in 6.1–4 (the sons of God), chaps. 6–9 (the destruction of humanity), and 11.1–9 (the tower of Babel).

Development of the text.

The development of the book of Genesis was a long process extending over centuries. The first book of Moses, or Genesis, as we know it, is only the final stage of this process. Oral tradition—narratives, genealogies, itineraries—played a large part in the evolution of this book; it was a long way to the present unity that combines all of primeval and ancestral history. The question of the identity of the author (in the modern sense) of Genesis is irrelevant. It was not writers or poets who desired and first formulated these accounts; their origins lie in the human communities to whose life they belonged. Thus they express an understanding of God, of the world, and of humanity, which did not yet make distinctions between knowledge and belief, between science, philosophy, history, and religion. This explains in part the parallels to the themes of the creation story in many other cultures. These parallels were not necessarily due to literary derivation; rather, questions about origins were asked everywhere in early human history. Therefore, primeval events cannot be understood or described as the beginning of history; it is misguided to inquire about their “historicity.” The appropriate question to ask of this material is not, “Did it really happen that way?” but, “Is it our world that is being portrayed? Is this description of human beings accurate?” The essential fact is that, in describing creation, people for the first time grasped the world, and humanity, as a whole.

Chapters 12–50: History of the Ancestors.

The narratives of the ancestors extend from Abraham and Sarah to the sojourn of Jacob's family in Egypt. For the most part, they are family stories, dealing with the basic relationships within a familial community: the relationship of parents and children (chaps. 12–25: Abraham, Sarah, and Hagar; Ishmael and Isaac), of siblings (chaps. 25–36: Jacob and Esau), and of both (chaps. 37–50: Joseph, his father, and brothers). In these stories the family is the paradigm of community from which all others arise. Human existence is experienced through the succession of generations. One's own identity is preserved in the tales of the ancestors, and only by telling those tales is a link with them established.

Three epochs are reflected in the three generations of Genesis. The first (chaps. 12–25) is dominated chiefly by primal events; life and death are repeatedly at stake. In the second (chaps. 26–36), institutions such as property rights, judicial practice, and sacred rites in sacred locations begin to play a role. The third (chaps. 37–50) reflects the confrontation of kin and kingship in Joseph's rule over his brothers.

The ancestral narratives grew out of oral traditions. They consist of various types of stories, genealogies, itineraries, and divine oracles. In the oral stage of transmission, these elements simply occurred in various versions and underwent many changes in the course of their existence. This is also true of the divine oracles, which trace their origins back to the ancestral period but owe their further development to a later time. Our concept of history cannot be applied to these narratives; they are not historical writing. Rather, they grew out of an interest in telling of one's own ancestors in order to preserve their memory, and this only made sense if the accounts did include true reports of actual persons: in a preliterary age, past events are narrated in order to allow their hearers to share in them.

In its written form, the text in chaps. 12–36 developed from the union of two independent texts, J (“Yahwist,” the earlier of the two) and P (“Priestly,” the more recent). The older text in chaps. 12–25 and 25–36 knits together stories and accounts from the era of the ancestors into a coherent history; the author functioned simultaneously as transmitter, poet, and theologian. This work subsequently underwent a series of expansions. The more recent work grew out of a priestly theology. In addition to its narratives, this text is dominated by genealogies and itineraries that describe the course of Abraham's life (Isaac's is only alluded to) and that of Jacob and Esau. Divine promises and calls occupy a central position in both sections (chaps. 17 and 35), and the concept of covenant is of prime significance. Characteristic of P are the etiologies of precultic rites, such as circumcision (chap. 17), kin marriage (chaps. 27–28), and burial on one's own land (chap. 23), which establish the family as the basic cell of the nation. This more recent text has radically altered the history from a theological point of view. A redactor (R) created a coherent presentation of ancestral history out of these two texts. (see Pentateuch for more detail.)

The time of the ancestors cannot be determined with certainty (attempts to fix its beginnings have ranged from 2200 to 1200 BCE). At any rate, it is the era before the Exodus and the settlement of the tribes in Canaan. The individuals and the societal structures belong to the prepolitical life‐style of pastoral nomads before they become settled, lacking economic or political safeguards, and passing by walled cities at a distance. They live with elemental threats to their survival: hunger and thirst, natural catastrophes, danger from those in power. For them, temporal continuity exists only in the succession of generations; the future is embodied in their offspring.

Chapters 12–25: the Abraham cycle.

These chapters contain a variety of tales about Abraham, framed by genealogies (11.27–32; 25.1–18) and connected by itineraries. The narratives follow two trajectories: one begins with Sarah's sterility (11.30) and leads to the birth of Isaac (21.1–7) through 12.10–20; 15.2–4, 16, 21; and 17.15–17; in addition there are the later accounts in chaps. 22; 23; and 24. This trajectory concerns the continuation of a family's life from one generation to another among threats and tensions. The Abraham‐Lot narratives (chaps. 13; 18; and 19) form a second trajectory, which deals with a family's territory. At the center are the destruction of Sodom and the rescue of Lot.

Beside the narratives, an independent line of tradition is found in the divine pronouncements. Their point of departure and core is the prophecy foretelling a son (15.2–3; 16.11; 18.10–14; 17.15–21), one of the earliest Abraham stories. The prophecies of blessing, multiplying, and landowning belong to a later tradition. At the center (chaps. 15–17), prophecies accumulate and form their own narratives.

Between the first ending (chap. 21) and the final one (chap. 25), three detailed stories belonging to a late phase of the Abraham tradition have been inserted (chaps. 22; 23; and 24). Abraham's questioning of God concerning the destruction of Sodom (chap. 18.16–33) also belongs to this late phase. The account of Abraham and the kings (chap. 14) is a very late addition.

Chapters 26–36: the Jacob‐Esau cycle.

The heart of chaps. 26–36 is the conflict between the brothers Jacob and Esau; at its center is Jacob's indenture to Laban (chaps. 29–31) and the birth of Jacob's sons (chaps. 29.31–30.24: the quarrel between Leah and Rachel). These too are tales of conflict. Genealogies form the introduction and conclusion, and the theme of flight and return (chaps. 29–33) provides a larger narrative framework. The conflicts concern territory, food supply, and social standing. Accounts of holy places and encounters with God have been inserted in this context (chaps. 28, 32, and 35). Chap. 26, a remnant of the oral tradition, and chap. 34, an episode from the time of the Judges, do not belong in this context. The conflicts in the Jacob‐Esau cycle take place in a familial setting and must be resolved there, since they all endanger the survival of the group; consequently, the narratives tend toward a peaceful resolution of conflict, as in the reconciliation of Jacob and Esau (chap. 33).

The religion of the ancestors.

The religion of the ancestral period differs from that of Israel in later times (see Israel, Religion of). It is entirely determined by a personal relationship to God, which corresponds to the life‐style of the ancestors. They are dependent on God's blessing; he bestows fertility on humans and their livestock, grants success in enterprise, and lets flocks increase and children mature. God is with them on their path; he helps them to find watering places, directs their journeys, and guides their departures and settlings. They are as dependent on God's promises as on his guidance, for they have no other safeguards for the future. While in chaps. 12–25 God's promises carry a vital significance for the whole, in chaps. 26–36 it is his blessing that occupies this position; God's blessing is the outcome even of the brothers' quarrel as well as of several other episodes.

God not only blesses, he is also the one who saves. He answers the lament of the childless with the promise of a child (17.15–19), which constitutes deliverance. God hears the cry of a thirsty child and leads the mother to a spring (21.15–19). In this relationship with God there is no need for laws. The curse does not yet stand beside the blessing, and the covenant is not yet paired with the threat of judgment. This is a prepolitical form of religion; the God of the ancestors has nothing to do with waging war.

In all these narratives, the ancestors are dealing with only one God. There is no sense of polytheistic influence from the surrounding culture. It is the single God on whom they call and in whom they trust, although one cannot describe the religion of the ancestors as a studied monotheism. They do not yet have an institutional cult; they have no temple, no priesthood, and no cultic laws. Whatever passes between God and human beings happens directly. Only expansions such as 18.16–38 contain intellectual reflections. It is only in such later passages, and not in the ancestral period, that theological concepts, such as faith, righteousness, trial, and covenant, receive significance. The later text of P begins to use language of a theological cast; and only in the later layers of tradition does one find the idealization of the ancestors and the accentuation of their merits.

Chapters 37–50: the Joseph story.

The narrative begins with a quarrel between Joseph and his brothers (chap. 37) and ends with their reconciliation and reunion (chaps. 45–46). In chaps. 46–50 as in 37, the Joseph story is connected with that of Jacob. These connections at the beginning and the end show that the Joseph narrative is meant to continue the ancestral history. The Joseph story in the narrow sense (chaps. 37–45 [except 38] along with sections of chaps. 46–50) is a unified work, complete in itself, from the hand of an unknown writer who was also a theologian. It is an extensive family history, which proceeds from an imminent rift in the family of Jacob to the healing of that rift. The story is structured around two settings: the house of Jacob and Pharaoh's court. It starts with the quarrel of Joseph and his brothers (chap. 37). Chaps. 37–41 tell of Joseph's rise in Egypt; chaps. 42–45 take up the journeys of Joseph's brothers to Egypt and end with their reconciliation. The kingdom is incorporated into the narrative by setting parts of the story at Pharaoh's court; the restoration of peace in Jacob's family becomes possible through Joseph's high position at the Egyptian court, and at the same time, famine is averted from the Egyptian people. Thus, the Joseph story corresponds to two periods in the history of the people of Israel, that of the kings and that of the ancestors, and creates a connection between them. The end of the story concerns Jacob's testament and death, and finally the death of Joseph. Chaps. 38 (Judah and Tamar) and 49 (sayings of the tribes) are not part of the Jacob story but were inserted later.

The Joseph story is a unified literary narrative, the work of one author in the early monarchic period. The author is not the same as that of the older J tradition (chaps. 12–36); the technique and style are different, for the Joseph story is not compiled from separate narratives and contains no genealogies or itineraries. This story is meant to be heard, not read; thus, the shape of the narrative is clearly defined, both as a whole and in the individual sections. Narrative techniques include key words (three pairs of dreams, Joseph's coat, famine) and doublets (two settings, two journeys, pairs of dreams). The lively description of people and interpersonal relations is characteristic, as in Joseph's rise and fall at court and the danger of abusing power.

The Joseph story is not a didactic wisdom narrative. Only chaps. 39–41 have a connection to wisdom literature, conditioned by their subject: the wisdom of a statesman at the royal court. Pharaoh describes Joseph as a wise statesman, but his is no artificially learned, scholastic wisdom, but instead a wisdom bestowed by God and matured by hard experience.

God is with Joseph in the low and high points of his life. The effect of his blessing is directed at an individual, but it also gains a universal scope when he averts famine from Egypt. He is the God of peace who heals the rift in the family of Jacob. The God who blesses is also the God who saves. He seeks after the guilty and makes possible forgiveness and reconciliation. The interpretation in 45.5–8 and 50.19–21 summarizes the action of God in this story: God has incorporated the evil doings of the brothers into his working of good. It is God's action that fashions the sequence of events into a whole; at the same time, the whole sequence of events is encompassed within it.

See also Interpretation, History of, article on Modern Biblical Criticism


Claus Westermann

  • Previous Result
  • Results
  • Look It Up Highlight any word or phrase, then click the button to begin a new search.
  • Highlight On / Off
  • Next Result
Oxford University Press

© 2022. All Rights Reserved. Cookie Policy | Privacy Policy | Legal Notice