The first book in the Bible (genesis is Greek for ‘beginning’) which describes the origin both of the universe and of the nation of Israel as having their birth outside themselves, in the creative purpose of God. The two accounts (Gen. 1 and 2) of the making of the world are not in the language of science but of theology; humanity exists because it was the intention of God for this to be so, as also does Israel, being his chosen people.
The stories within Genesis were transmitted orally over many generations, and some of them bear close resemblance to the myths of their Near Eastern neighbours, as is the case with the Flood (Gen. 6 to 9). Eventually they were committed to writing, and the various narratives were worked over by editors. Much scholarly labour has endeavoured to delineate the different sources which were editorially combined after the Exile to make the final version of Genesis. They are given the symbols J, E, and P, and have been assigned probable dates. Nevertheless this theory of composition is not universally accepted, and much interest nowadays is also taken in the narrative as we have it and in the theological stance represented by the work as a whole; there is less interest in breaking up the book into fragments and more concentration on the main themes of the book as it describes God’s promises and their fulfilment, though the existence of different literary strands is not denied. Certainly few would wish to return to the pre-19th-cent. view that the entire Pentateuch was written by Moses and that Gen. 1 to 11 could be regarded as historical narrative. There is on the other hand some support for authentic historical reminiscence in Gen. 12 to 50, in that the patriarchs seem to be invested with the kind of qualities and activities characteristic of the 2nd millennium BCE.
The themes of the book therefore are, first, that of creation by the one and only God, and secondly of the people whom God has specially chosen. Other peoples had come into existence but they had proved unable to live up to God’s expectations, and ‘all flesh (6: 12, 13) perished in the universal flood, save only the inhabitants of the ark. The promises to Noah, and to Abraham, Jacob, and Joseph, show that the magnitude of human failure, even among his own people, is answered by a divine forbearance.
Genesis is essentially the presupposition to all the history of Israel that follows in the book Exodus and thereafter, though the compilation of the Pentateuch was finalized only in the Persian period (6th cent. BCE).