How to Study Genesis

Suppose I were to ask you to describe Genesis to me. In that case, you might describe it as about the origins of the earth, the creation, sin, and subsequent fall of Adam and Eve, Noah and the Ark, and Abraham. Have you ever asked what purpose the book was supposed to serve? It wasn’t to decide whether creation or science was accurate—a false dichotomy, if you will—or tell us how old the earth is. Sadly, the way the church has taught the Old Testament has been to wrap it up in the childhood stories we learn in Sunday school. We don’t know the entire story, but only the stories within the story. 

The book’s Hebrew name is the first word of the book, bere’šit, and means, “In the beginning.” The term “Genesis” came from the Greek translation of the book, which dates to the third–second centuries BCE. The same date as the oldest manuscript we have of Genesis from the Dead Sea Scrolls. The purpose of Genesis was to detail the foundational story of Israel. This was, therefore, a national epic, and nothing less. The first eleven chapters are a synopsis of the world and answer various questions: “How did the world get here?” “Where did evil come from?” “Wouldn’t we have all spoken one language?” The story moves from this toward Israel’s history, beginning in chapter twelve with Abraham’s story. From there, through his son and grandson, the latter would be the head of the nation and from whom every Israelite is a descendant. 

Since many people aren’t Israelites, they might read it differently than we do. Jews read it differently from Christians, and academics read it unlike Christians in a pew might. Depending on why you’re reading this book and in what context you generally operate will determine how you read Genesis. I was hoping you could take off your context and go with me into the mind of an ancient Israelite. To do that, I’ll have to explain to you how you can do that. Don’t worry. You’ll be Jewish in no time! 

Sections

I’ve already mentioned two significant sections of the book: the first eleven chapters are usually referred to as primeval history. In contrast, the remaining chapters tell Israel’s national record through their patriarchs. However, various sections are marked off by the Hebrew term in the book, toledoth. This word translates as either “generations,” “chronicles,” or “lineage.” Moses used this term as somewhat of a boundary marker for the different sections: 

Genesis 2:4b–4:26

Genesis 5:1–6:8

Genesis 6:9–9:29 (new creation in 8:1–9:29)

Genesis 10:1–11:9

Genesis 11:10–26

Genesis 11:27–25:11

Genesis 25:12–18

Genesis 25:19–35:29

Genesis 36:1–37:1

Genesis 37:1–50:26

We’ll study the book based on Moses’s sections for us. 

I am a massive fan of the Avengers movies. There are four of them by that title, with many more making up the entire franchise. However, what makes me appreciate them is that I’ve seen them all in their order. Genesis is but one book in a collection of five. To read Genesis isolated from the other four is to miss the entirety of what Moses did for Israel. Unlike modern scholars, as I read even from the mouth of Jesus in the gospels, Moses authored these books. However, I grant that they are written in the vernacular of monarchical Hebrew and redacted (edited). What does this mean? If you read the King James Bible, you know from its vernacular and history written in Elizabethan English the same as Shakespeare. However, if you’ve tried to read the original 1611 version, it’s rather hard to read. Editors have updated the vernacular while preserving the Elizabethan sway it held. The same is true of the Hebrew in which Genesis appears (cf. Josh 24:26). 

In addition to the actual Hebrew style used, some clues point us to a monarchical period: Genesis 12:6 and 13:7 mention how the Canaanites lived in the land at that time which suggests that whoever added that detail wrote when they were not in the land. The list of kings in Genesis 36 is placed within the context of “before any king reigned over the children of Israel” (Gen. 36:31). Whoever added this detail lived during Israel’s monarchical period, which began about 1000 BCE. Abraham lived another thousand years before then (2100 BCE or so). 

I don’t believe that the entire Pentateuch was in the sixth century BCE, but it was edited over centuries. Something that makes me think this, in addition to what I’ve already mentioned, is how Deuteronomy 34 records Moses’s death, which I’m confident he wouldn’t have written, and that no one to that day knew where he was buried (Deut. 34:7). Furthermore, there hadn’t been anyone like him up to that point (Deut. 34:10–12), but what point was that? This portion was likely added by someone who lived a long time after Moses, during the monarchical period of Israel’s history. Now that we have a setting, we’ll know how to read it: Israel’s national record before they were a kingdom. 

Since Moses is believed to have been the author of Genesis, we can safely say that he received the knowledge of the things written therein due to inspiration by the Holy Spirit. After all, we don’t learn about him until the next book of the Bible, so what we read about in Genesis wasn’t a result of an eye-witness account unless one considers God the eye-witness, who then passed it along to Moses.1


1 Daniel E. Fleming, “History in Genesis,” Westminster Theological Journal 65 (2003): 251–62.

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