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Genesis: In The Beginning...

Updated on January 21, 2010

Genesis is the first book of the Old Testament and of the Pentateuch, or first five books of the Old Testament. It contains stories of the origins of the world, man, and the Hebrew people. The word "genesis" comes from a Greek word meaning "beginnings." In Hebrew the book is called Be-Reshit, meaning "In the beginning", which are the opening words of Genesis. Scholars believe that Genesis is a collection of documents and traditions dating from the 9th century B.C. to the 6th century B.C. and compiled into its present form in the 5th century B.C., after the Jews returned from the Babylonian Exile. This dating is supported by similarities, especially in the early chapters, to Babylonian mythology. Many scholars believe that the Genesis stories are only partly factual and that their main value lies in their stress on God as the creator of the universe and the protector of early man, particularly the Hebrews.

Genesis begins by telling how God creates a goodly world in all its basic parts, including plants and animals, and then places in it the first man and woman, Adam and Eve. In the Garden of Eden, where they live, work is unnecessary and suffering unknown until Adam and Eve disobey God by eating the forbidden fruit of the Tree of Knowledge. The doctrine of original sin derives from the disobedient act of Adam and Eve. It holds that each person is born without grace because of this original choice. God punishes Adam and Eve by expelling them from the Garden and subjecting them and all their descendants to the human ills of toil, strife, pain, sin, and death. Cain murders his brother Abel, and mankind becomes violent and corrupt. God again punishes man, this time with a Flood that devastates the earth. Only Noah, his family, and specimens of all the animals are permitted to escape destruction in the Ark. God then makes a covenant, or agreement, with Noah. In return for man's allegiance, God will give him dominance over the animals.

Genesis continues with the story of the Hebrew people. In a further covenant, God promises the worshipful Abraham, the first of the patriarchs, that He will make him the founder of a great nation and lead him to the Promised Land, Palestine (Canaan). Abraham's demonstrations of faith, especially his willingness to sacrifice his only son, Isaac, bring him the blessings of long life and prosperity. Isaac and his son Jacob also keep the covenant and prosper, although Jacob uses deception to gain his brother Esau's birthright. Jacob's 12 sons found the 12 tribes of Israel.

The last section of Genesis tells the story of Jacob's favored son, Joseph, who is sold into slavery by his jealous brothers and eventually becomes a powerful man in Egypt and brings the Hebrews to Egypt in time of famine. Genesis ends with the death of Joseph and the temporary prospering of the Hebrews in Egypt.


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