An Overview of Genesis

TS_scrollIt is daunting to be posting anything about scripture when Eric Huntsman is posting alongside. It ought to be daunting in any case, but it is easier to ignore the fact that I am a mere dabbler when my posts stand alone. In any case, I will be posting revised versions of my study questions for the Old Testament Sunday School lessons.

I begin with several posts of background. These will all be cross-posted from Feast Upon the Word, a site you should become acquainted with if you aren’t already (and it is the blog daughter of its more important mother site, a site for commentary and explication of LDS scripture, Feast Upon the Word).

I will keep insisting on this as I go, but it is important to remember that these are not notes on how to teach a lesson, but study notes on the lesson material. Of course, one could study using the notes, then create a lesson. So they aren’t irrelevant to teaching the lesson, just not intended as lesson materials.


The Hebrew title is bereshit, “In the beginning,” the first word of the text.

I. “Genesis” is a transliteration of the Greek title of the book, genesis.

Speaking of Genesis, Margaret Barker says:

The word bara´ [“to create”] is similar in sound and form to the word for covenant, berith, and the Hebrew dictionary suggests that the root meaning of “covenant” is “to bind.” This similarity of the words for covenant-and-binding and the uniquely divine creative activity leads me to suspect that is the key to the older Creation story, that the words had been related. [The first or “invisible” creation] was a process of binding into bonds, engraving limits and definitions, and then using them to order the visible creation. (Temple Theology 44)

II. Genesis does not stand alone as a book. It is the first book of the five books of the Pentateuch, giving the background necessary for anyone wanting to understand Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. In other words, Genesis tells how the covenant came about that we see manifested in those four books. It claims to cover 2,000 years of history while the other books claim to cover only about 120 years.

III. Ways of thinking about the organization of Genesis:

III.A. As a group of stories with gradually narrowing focus:

  1. From the cosmos as a whole (1)
  2. To the nations (2-11)
  3. To Israel and his children, in particular, Joseph (12-50)

III.B. As a collection of stories about / histories of / accounts of the origin of:

  1. The cosmos (1:1-2:24)
  2. Adam (2:25-5:2)
  3. Noah (5:3-6:9)
  4. Noah’s sons (6:9-10:1)
  5. Shem (10:2-11:10)
  6. Terah (11:10-11:27)
  7. Ishmael (11:27-25:12)
  8. Isaac (25:13-15:19)
  9. Esau and Jacob (25:19-36:9)
  10. Jacob’s family (36:10-37:2)
  11. Joseph (37:2-36, 39:1-41:57)

(Interrupted by the story of Judah and Tamar 38:1-30)

12. Joseph’s family (42:1-50:26)

Notice that the creation story gets 2 chapters, while the story of Abraham gets 13.

Notice also that though chapters 1-11 tell us about 20 generations (from Adam to Abraham), chapters 12-50, by far the greatest part of the book, tell the story of only 4 generations.

One result: the fall of Adam and Eve gets 1 chapter and the story of Joseph gets 13 chapters, about one-third of the book.

Many have seen this division of Genesis as beginning with a prologue and then having only 10 parts, each having the heading “these are the generations of” (which could also be translated “this is the story of”):

  1. Prologue 1:1-2:3
  2. The generations of heaven & earth 2:4-4:26
  3. of Adam 5:1-6:8
  4. of Noah 6:9-9:29
  5. of Noah’s sons 10:1-11:9
  6. of Shem 11:10-11:26
  7. of Terah 11:27-25:11
  8. of Ishmael 25:12-25:18
  9. of Isaac 25:19-35:29
  10. of Esau 36:1-37:1
  11. of Jacob 37:2-50:26

C. Geographically:

  • Babylon (1-11)
  • Palestine (12-36)
  • Egypt (37-50)

D. According to the kind of history recounted (there are some extra bullet points and list numbers in some of what follows, for reasons I do not understand–ignore them):

1. Pre-patriarchal history (1-11): people who have land but lose it in some way

These stories deal with all of mankind, and they relate to stories shared by Israel with other Near Eastern traditions

    • Creation (1:1-2:25)
    • Crime & punishment (3:1-4:16)
    • The family of Adam & Eve (4:17-5:32)
    • The flood (6:1-9:29)
    • Noah’s son’s children (10:1-10:32)
    • The tower of Babel ((11:1-11:9)
    • Noah’s descendants from Shem to Terah (11:10-11:26)

2. Patriarchal history (12-50): people who do not have land but are promised it

These stories deal specifically with the ancestors of Israel and mention other nations only in passing.

    • Abraham and his families (11:27-25:18)
    • Isaac and Rebekah (25:19-26:35)
    • Jacob & his family ((27:1-36:43)
    • Joseph (37:1-50:26)

E. In terms of the Abrahamic covenant:

  1. From creation and covenant (the creation story and Adam and Eve)
  2. To degeneration (from Adam to Noah)
  3. To covenant (Abraham)
  4. To the blessings of covenant in family (from Abraham to Joseph)

F. Isaac M. Kikawada (“The Shape of Genesis 11:1–9,” in Rhetorical Criticism: Essays in Honor of James Muilenburg; I. M. Kikawada and A. Quinn, Before Abraham Was: The Unity of Genesis 1–11:

Genesis 1-11:

    1. Creation (1:1-2:3)
    2. First threat to creation (2:4-3:24)
    3. Second threat (4:1-26)
    4. Final threat (5:1-9:29)
    5. Resolution (10:1-11:32)

According to Kikawada, this structure mirrors the structure of Genesis as a whole:

    1. Creation
    2. Adam
    3. Cain
    4. Flood
    5. Dispersion / Primeval history (Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph)

G. Victor P. Hamilton points out that Genesis also mirrors the chiastic structure of the Pentateuch as a whole (The Book of Genesis: Chapter 1-17):

  • Genesis as a foretelling of Exodus
  • The Exodus story (Exodus-Numbers)
  • Retelling of the Exodus (Deuteronomy)

Comments to this post should be made at Feast Upon the Word