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The Book of Genesis

Updated on October 19, 2009

Genesis is the first book of the pentateuch, containing the earliest traditions of the Hebrews as to the origin of the world and of man, his fall, his cultural development, moral and spiritual decay, and of the intervention of God to prepare a people for himself through whom all the nations of the world should be blessed. So the story passes into the record of the Hebrew patriarchs, from Abraham to Joseph, and ends with the sojourn of the children of Israel (Jacob) in Egypt.

The material used in the book must originally have come from an oral tradition, though written sources are now known to be possible. The substantial Mosaic origin of the Pentateuchal tradition is regarded by the best authorities as certain. The historicity of the patriarchal narratives in Genesis seems to have been established by our increasing knowledge of ancient times. The early chapters are in a category by themselves, as they purport to describe events that happened (as modern physical and palaeontological science tells us) many millions of years before the patriarchs. They are not historical in the strict sense of the word. Whatever primitive lore lies behind them, however, they cannot be equated with the similar legends of Babylonia, nor is there any direct literary connection between them, as used to be thought.


Genesis originated as part of a larger literary unit that was only later broken up into books. That larger unit is the religious history of ancient Israel, usually called the Pentateuch (the present books of Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy) or the Hexateuch (these five together with Joshua). This literature developed as an elaboration and expansion of historical "creeds" such as those preserved in Deuteronomy 26:5-9 or Joshua 24:2-13. In it were traced Israel's origins from its chief forma­tive experiences down to its settlement in the land of Palestine. Also incorporated into the nar­rative were law codes formulated at various times in Israelite history. The entire complex came to be ascribed to Israel's founder and first lawgiver, Moses. This position has been modified as a re­sult of modem Biblical scholarship.

Genesis is a logical division of the original text of the Pentateuch. It represents a twofold introduction to the story of Israel's formation as a "Covenant people" - God's chosen people. The introduction consists of a "Book of Human Origins" (1:1 to 11:26) and a "Book of the Fathers", the patriarchal history (11:27 to 50:26).

The "Book of Origins" may be divided as follows: the Creation of the world and of man (1:1 to 2: 4a; "a" and "b" are used to refer to the first and second parts of a verse); the Creation of man and woman and their Fall (2:4b to 3:24); Cain and Abel (4:1-16); the origins of the Cainites (4:17-24); the origins of the Sethites and their genealogy (4:25 to 5:32); the sons of God and the daughters of men (6:1-4); the Flood epic and the covenant with Noah (6:5 to 9:17); the account of Noah's sons (9:18-29); the table of the origins of the nations (10:1-32); the tower of Babel (11:1-9); and the genealogy of the Shemites (11:10-26).

The patriarchal history comprises cycles of stories relating to three major figures of the pre-Israelite past, namely Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, together with supplementary traditions about other ancestors who were of secondary interest. After an introductory genealogy (11:27-32) there appears first the story of Abraham and Isaac (12:1 to 25:18). Included is a fragmentary his­tory, possibly of Moabite origin, of Lot, the an­cestor of the Moabites and Ammonites, who were related to the Israelites. There is also the history of Ishmael, who is regarded as the ancestor of the Arab peoples. The second major cycle (25:19 to 36:43) is that of Isaac and Jacob. This cycle also contains supplementary material, some of Edomite origin, relating to Esau, ancestor of the Edomites. Finally, there is the extensive and distinctive story of Joseph (37:1 to 50:26), the major in­trusions into which are a variant history of Judah in chapter 38 and the "blessings" of the Israelite tribes in chapter 49.

Religious Character

The connecting link between all these parts of Genesis as well as be­tween it and the other books of the Pentateuch, which it introduces, is a concept of divine intervention in man's history. This concept has been given the name Heilsgeschichte, "salvation history". Israel believed itself to be the product of a history in which it had encountered a God who had made it His Covenant people. The great events of this history are traced: the Exodus from Egypt; the experiences of the Red Sea, of Sinai, and of Kadesh, where Israel waited outside the promised land; and the occupation of the promised land. All these reveal a God of mercy and kindness, though also of justice and retribution, a God who had chosen Israel out of simple, gratuitous love (Deuteronomy 4:37). This historical perspective was imposed in Genesis both on the patriarchal legends that had been derived from Palestine and on the mixed Mesopotamian-Palestinian myths and sagas from which the book's first chapters are constructed.

Thus, in Genesis, Creation is seen no longer as mere myth, that is, as a religious conviction visualized in narrative. It is, instead, the first in a series of God's saving acts, by which he had brought forth an ordered universe out of primordial formlessness. Man was placed in that world as God's image and likeness, to be its ruler. But men proved unequal to the task. His willfulness set him in opposition to God and introduced disorder into the world (the Fall). After this followed murder and the hatred of man for man, for example, Cain and Abel, Lamech and the Cainites, and even cosmic disorder, which the story of the sons of God and the daughters of men attempts to explain. The Flood is understood in Genesis as both divine retribution and mercy: it brought an end to an evil generation, but a faithful remnant was preserved in the person of the righteous Noah and those who were saved for his sake.

After the Flood came a new creation and the emergence of the linguistic, cultural, and geographic divisions of mankind. Of these only the Shemites (the descendants of Noah's first son, and the ancestors of Israel) remain of direct interest to the story. After the story of the tower of Babel, we are brought to the genealogy of the Terahites, which is the specific family of the patriarchs.

Predominant in this first part of Genesis is not only the theme of divine mercy but also that of election: Abel was chosen in preference to Cain, Shem rather than Ham or Japheth. These are also the themes of the patriarchal history. Abra­ham is called to be the father of many nations, but only those descended through Isaac become the chosen. In turn, of Isaac's two sons it is Jacob alone whose progeny is destined to sire the tribes of the Covenant people. The extraordinary interest shown in the figure of Joseph reflects the long hegemony held by the tribe of Ephraim, depicted as descended from Joseph, over the Israelite federation. The patriarchal history points up the providential direction that guided Israel's remote ancestors but also stresses that they were merely pilgrims, sojourners, in the land of promise. The land was to become Israel's not by right of descent but through continued divine favor.


The content and themes of Genesis are not an original elaboration by its compiler or redactor. They preexisted in the sources from which the book has been composed.

The traditional belief was that Moses wrote the Pentateuch. By the middle of the 18th century A.D., however, it was recognized that the Pentateuch is not the work of a single author but a compilation of sources. As a result of two centuries of intense textual and literary criticism, few scholars of the 20th century would question the general validity of Pentateuchal source analysis, and most would concur with at least the substance of its conclusions. As respects Genesis the major sources are three, designated by the critics as J, E, and P.

J, originally so called because of its author's frequent use of the divine name Jahweh or Yahweh, has provided the substance of the nar­rative text of Genesis. Its author worked in Israel in the 10th or 9th century b. c., in the period of national enthusiasm created by the empire of David and Solomon. In J the figure of David always lies behind the evocation of the fathers Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (Israel). In David's accomplishment of the totaf conquest of Canaan and the subjugation of Edom and other neighbors, the fulfillment of God's promises to the patriarchs was seen. In the same spirit, J projects Israel's Yahwistic religion back to the patriarchs and even to pre-patriarchal times, calling the Creator by the name of Israel's God and tracing His cult from the days of primordial men (the Sethites, 4:26). J presupposes that such Israelite institutions as sacrifice and the distinction of foods existed from the beginning, and it repre­sents the patriarchs as having founded the chief Israelite sanctuaries of Beersheba, Bethel, Shechem, and Mamre.

J presents a story of all kinds of origins: of man and his Fall (2:4b-3:24), of the human arts and crafts (chapter 4), of languages at the tower of Babel (11:1-9), and many others. The author is capable of portraying with the utmost artlessness a God who walks "in the garden in the cool of the day" (3:8), who takes a meal in Abraham's tent (18:8), yet who is at the same time "judge of all the earth" (18:25). He is un­troubled theologically over the use of obviously mythological passages (6:1-4; 18), some of which he incorporated into his narrative with little if any modification.

Most scholars agree that J presupposes earlier sources, the various elements of which can usually be readily discerned. Whether some of these strands add up to a continuous narrative that pre­existed J and was taken over by J's author is a question that may be debated.

The E source is so named because of its author's preference for the common word Elohim, "god", "divine being", rather than Yahweh to designate the God of the patriarchs. It probably originated a century or so after J, in northern Israel, which became a separate nation after the death of Solomon and the division of his kingdom. Only fragments of the E source appear in Genesis, where it was used mainly to supplement the J story. It contained a patriarchal history somewhat parallel to J's, but apparently no pre­history section. The parallel elements in J and E have often been woven together, and it would seem that even before the final compiling of Genesis a JE history existed. E reflects to some extent the influence of the great prophetic move­ment that arose in the north. It is more sophisticated than J, but tells its story less interestingly. However, it also possesses passages of great sensitivity, such as the story of the sacrifice of Isaac in chapter 22.

If the basic content of Genesis has been provided by J, its present framework has been sup­plied by P. P is so named for being priestly writing. It is, by comparison with E, and especially with J, deficient in literary qualities, tedious in its repetitions, and much given to set phrases and catchwords. It is not a narrative in the same sense as the other sources, but a religious instruction elaborated in the priestly schools. P attained its final form during the Babylonian exile or shortly thereafter (5th century B.C.), probably not long before Genesis was redacted or edited from its three major sources into more or less its present form. P, like J, also prefixes a prehistorical section to a patriarchal "history". In 16:la, 3, 15, 16, P parallels the vivid J story of the rest of the chapter with a few dry statistics. Nevertheless, the Creation story of 1:1 to 2:4a is P's, and is a work of some artistry. It inculcates the theoretical monotheism and Creation theology learned from the Hebrew people's experience of the Exile in Babylon and from the great prophet of this period, the Second Isaiah. This story has been told with an eye to the Babylonian creation myths, against which it wages a subtle polemic.

Aside from the Flood story, where J and P accounts have been melded, P's main contribution to Genesis consists of short, matter-of-fact notations and of lengthy genealogies.

J, E, and P are all developments of earlier traditions, written or oral. The total complexity of the literary history of Genesis cannot be ap­preciated without the dimension provided by the form-critical studies that were first applied to Genesis at the beginning of the 20th century. Into the sources of Genesis have poured prose and poetic forms of many kinds, some of them a heritage from the dim pre-Israelite past. They include, besides the hero-sagas that account for the bulk of the patriarchal stories, such forms as myths (6:1-4, and many of the motifs in chapter 3); sagas to explain the origins of tribes, for example, the story of Cain and Abel, probably originally accounting for the Kenite nomads; cult-sagas, for example, stories accounting for the existence of some sanctuary or the sacrificial practices at it, as in chapter 22; genealogies and accounts of the origins of words, names, and peoples; wisdom motifs especially in the Joseph-story; liturgies and various kinds of poetry. Hardly any of these elements have retained their original form; rather they have been remolded through generations of storytelling.

Genesis and Biblical Criticism

The history related in Genesis is, of course, artificial, and a reconstruction. The Creation story is obviously precisely a story. It is a narrative credo professing faith in a creator-God whom it represents as bringing an ordered universe into being over a period of a week and then resting, as a good Israelite would, on the Sabbath. This story was composed in almost total ignorance of any scientific information about the structure of the universe and of the laws of nature. The story of man and woman in the garden of Eden is a myth to account for a disordered world. The fantastic ages assigned to the "patriarchs" before and after the Flood are intended to bridge the gaps in an otherwise unknown past. They also form part of a complicated and unhistorical chronology pur­sued by P throughout its tradition. The Flood epic, very similar in structure and detail to Babylonian prototypes now known, undoubtedly memorializes some real event. However, in its Biblical form it describes something that could never have literally occurred, depending as it does on an unreal conception of the world.

The patriarchal history also deals, mainly, with real figures and not merely with personifications of tribes or clans, though such personifications are also present, as in chapter 38. Yet the relationship of these figures in a single family is without doubt fictitious. The Israel that emerged in Palestine during the 13th to 11th century B.C. was not a single people, as might be the impression from the Biblical accounts. It was probably a mixture of the Israelite invaders and many native peoples. Furthermore, Egypt, Sinai, and Kadesh were not the consecutive experiences of a single people but the collected experiences of the various constituents of that people. Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob were in all likelihood the several ancestors of some of these constituents. Neither would it be possible to guarantee the historicity of any of the stories in the patriarchal cycles. Details have been freely transferred from one figure to another. There are extraneous traditions that can hardly be harmonized with their surrounding data; for example, the picture of Abraham in chapter 14 is quite different from that drawn in the rest of the stories about Abraham.

Nevertheless, modern criticism is disposed to take Genesis very seriously, not simply as a religious document but also for its contribution to history. Form-critical studies have revealed the great antiquity of much of its material. Consequently Genesis can put us in contact with Biblical origins, however much the story may have been transformed in the process of transmission. Archaeological and paleographical investigations during the 1950s and 1960s have also demonstrated how much authentic historical coloration has been preserved in the patriarchal stories. They have retained the memory of social customs and laws that did not survive into Israelite times and which, therefore, could not have been the figment of a later imagination. We know those times from archaeological research in a way that no Israelite author could have. In these stories we have saga or legend, not proper history as the modern historian understands it; but neither is Genesis simply a collection of tales created by the storytellers art.

Above all, however, Biblical critics of the 20th century are willing to measure Genesis by his­torical standards other than those of the 19th century. By those standards Genesis was condemned or defended in the time of the "Babel and Bible" controversy. That dispute developed when the Sumerian and Akkadian literatures of ancient Mesopotamia were discovered and deciphered in the 19th century. The conclusion was easily drawn that the message of Genesis was of no more relevance to the history of religions than the myths of Babylonia, whatever might be the other values of the book. But the 20th century idea of history is more attuned to that which inspired the authors of Genesis. This view recognizes that recording specific facts and dates is not the real object of history writing. Rather, the aim is to discover and portray realities that challenge human experience and demand an accounting. By the criteria of historicism Moses can hardly be said to have existed; yet Israel itself is the historical witness to Moses.

The Book of Genesis illustrated by Robert Crumb

The Book of Genesis illustrated by Robert Crumb is just that, the first book of the bible illustrated by Robert Crumb.

Crumb hasn't tried to add comedy to his cartooning, the text is straight outta the holy book.

Should anyone be shocked? While they shouldn't, plenty will be.

A literal illustrative translation of the Bible, as you'd expect (if you're aware of the content of Genesis), has naked women and men, lots of sex and plenty of gratuitous violence.

Four years in the making, this graphic retelling has already ruffled some religious feathers. Some of whom may or may not have actually held the actual book in their hands. Various religious groups, despite the fact that it's all in context and doesn't stray much from the original plot, are in uproar.

Branded as inappropriate (one wonders what translation that they've been reading) Crumb delivers a body of work fitting of a creative genius.

I highly recommend this book for Bible College students studying the Old Testament. It's visual and will help you memorize the events chronologically. Just don't let your lecturers find out you have it.

They might confiscate it. And enjoy it for themselves.


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    • profile image

      Larry Silverstein 

      8 years ago

      Myths & baloney!

      The Jewish Torah was rewritten by Ezra and he bulked them together with Babylonian myths, which he left for the Pharisees to collate & produce a Harry Potter Jewish Bible & as they say, the rest is history.

      Jesus told those who listened to his teachings, "Beware the leaven (teachings) of the Pharisees. Saul of Tarsus was a Pharisee and wasn't an apostle of Jesus when he was alive; so he had to invent the resurrection so that people would swallow his myths & gospel, which was contrary to what the apostles of Jesus preached (Galatians & 2 Corinthians chapter 11 etc.,).

    • profile image


      8 years ago

      Really accurate and very honest view. Thanks for this,

    • E. Nicolson profile image

      E. Nicolson 

      11 years ago

      Great hub -- full of information. Thank you

    • Paradise7 profile image


      11 years ago from Upstate New York

      Excellent hub, scholarly and well-researched. I've often wondered about the origins of the Bible, and found some very dense and difficult to understand books on the subject which didn't help me much, as it seemed the scholars of the Torah didn't agree with Comparative Religion scholars.

      This had a good, clear perspective and overview of the origins of Genesis. Thank you.


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