For Jews the theological importance of Genesis centers on the Covenants linking God to his Chosen People and the people to the Promised Land. Christianity has reinterpreted Genesis as the prefiguration of Christian beliefs, notably the Christian view of Christ as the new Adam and the New Testament as the culmination of the covenants.
Structurally, Genesis consists of a "primeval history" (Genesis 1-11) and cycles of Patriarchal stories. The narrative of Joseph stands apart from these. It appears to have reached its final form in the 5th century BC, with a previous history of composition reaching back possibly to the 10th century.
"Genesis" (Greek Γένεσις, "birth", "origin") is the title given to the book in the Septuagint, a 3rd century BC translation of the original Hebrew scripture. In Hebrew it is called בְּרֵאשִׁית, B'reshit or Bərêšîth, "in the beginning", from the first words of the text, in line with the other four books of the Torah.
God forms Adam "from the dust of the ground...and man became a living being. God sets the man in the Garden of Eden and permits him to eat of all the fruit within it, except that of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, "for in the day that you eat of it you shall die." God makes "every beast of the field and every bird of the air, ... and whatever the man called each living creature, that was its name ... but for the man there was not found a helper fit for him." God causes the man to sleep, and makes a woman from one of his ribs, and the man awakes and names his companion Woman, "because she was taken out of Man. "And the man and his wife were both naked, and were not ashamed. The serpent tells the woman that she will not die if she eats the fruit of the tree: "When you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil." So the woman eats and gives to the man who also eats. "Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together and made themselves aprons." God curses the serpent: "upon your belly you shall go, and dust you shall eat all the days of your life;" the woman he punishes with pain in childbirth and with subordination to man: "your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you;" and the man he punishes with a life of toil: "In the sweat of your face you shall eat bread till you return to the ground." The man names his wife Eve, "because she was the mother of all living." "Behold," says God, "the man has become like one of us, knowing good and evil," and expels the couple from Eden, "lest he put forth his hand and take also of the tree of life, and eat, and live for ever." The gate of Eden is sealed by a cherub and a flaming sword "to guard the way to the tree of life.
Adam and Eve have two sons, Cain and Abel, the first a farmer, the second a shepherd. Each bring an offering to God, but God rejects Cain's offering. Cain murders Abel, and God then curses Cain: "When you till the ground, it shall no longer yield to you its strength; you shall be a fugitive and a wanderer on the earth." Cain fears that whoever meets him will kill him, but God places a mark on Cain to protect him, with the promise that "if any slays Cain, vengeance shall be taken on him sevenfold." Cain settles in the land of Nod, "away from the presence of the Lord."
The generations of Adam are described, including Enoch, who "walked with God...[and] was no more, for God took him", Methuselah, and Noah. The antediluvian Patriarchs are notable for their extreme longevity, with Methuselah living 969 years. The list ends with the birth of Noah's sons, from whom all humanity is descended.
God sets the days of man at 120 years. "The Nephilim were on the earth in those days, and also afterward, when the sons of God came in to the daughters of men, and they bore children to them. These were the mighty men that were of old, the men of renown.
Angered by the wickedness of mankind, God selects Noah, "a righteous man, blameless in his generation," and commands him to build an Ark, and to take on it his family and representatives of the animals. God destroys the world with a Flood, and afterwards enters into a covenant with Noah and his descendants, the entire human race, promising never again to destroy mankind in this way.
Noah plants a vineyard, drinks wine, and falls into a drunken sleep. Ham "uncovers his fathers nakedness," and Noah places a curse on Ham's son Canaan, saying that he and all his descendants shall henceforth be slaves to Ham's brothers Shem and Japheth
The seventy generations of the descendants of Noah are named, "and from these the nations spread abroad on the earth after the flood. Men decide to build "a tower with its top in the heavens" in the land of Shinar, "lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth." God fears the ambition of mankind: "This is only the beginning of what they will do; and nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them. Come, let us go down, and there confuse their language, that they may not understand one another's speech." And so mankind is scattered over the face of the earth, and the city "was called Babel, because there the Lord confused the language of all the earth.
The Generations of Shem brings the biblical genealogy down to the generation of Abraham.Terah leaves Ur of the Chaldees with his son Abram, Abram's wife Sarai, and his nephew Lot, the son of Abram's brother Haran, towards the land of Canaan. They settle in the city of Haran, where Terah dies. God commands Abram, "Go from your country and your kindred and your father's house to the land that I will show you, and I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and him who curses you I will curse; and by you all the families of the earth shall bless themselves." So Abram and his people and flocks journey to the land of Canaan, where God appears to Abram and says, "To your descendants I will give this land.
Abram is forced by famine to go into Egypt, where Pharaoh takes possession of his wife, the beautiful Sarai, who Abram has misrepresented as his sister. God strikes the king and his house with plagues, so that he returns Sarai and expels Abram and all his people from Egypt.
Abram returns to Canaan and separates from Lot in order to put an end to disputes about pasturage. He gives Lot the valley of the Jordan River, as far as Sodom, whose people "were wicked, great sinners against the ." To Abram God says, "Lift up your eyes, and look ... for all the land which you see I will give to you and to your descendants for ever. I will make your descendants as the dust of the earth; so that if one can count the dust of the earth, your descendants also can be counted. Arise, walk through the length and the breadth of the land, for I will give it to you.
Lot is taken prisoner during a war between the King of Shinar and the King of Sodom and their allies, "four kings against five." Abram rescues Lot and is blessed by Melchizedek, king of Salem (the future Jerusalem) and "priest of God Most High". Abram refuses the King of Sodom's offer of the spoils of victory, saying: "I have sworn to the God Most High, maker of heaven and earth, that I would not take a thread or a sandal-thong or anything that is yours, lest you should say, `I have made Abram rich.'
God makes a covenant with Abram, promising that Abram's descendants shall be as numerous as the stars in the heavens, that they shall suffer oppression in a foreign land for four hundred years, but that they shall inherit the land "from the river of Egypt to the great river, the river Euphrates.
Sarai, being childless, tells Abram to take his Egyptian handmaiden, Hagar, as wife. Hagar becomes pregnant with Ishmael, and God appears to her to promise that the child will be "a wild donkey of a man, his hand against every man and every man's hand against him," whose descendants "cannot be numbered.
God makes a covenant with Abram: Abram will have a numerous progeny and the possession of the land of Canaan, and Abram's name is changed to "Abraham and that of Sarai to "Sarah," and circumcision of all males is instituted as an external sign of the covenant. Abraham asks of God that Ishmael "might live in Thy sight," but God replies that Sarah will bear a son, who will be named Isaac, and that it is with Isaac and his descendants that the covenant will be established. "As for Ishmael, I have heard you; behold, I will bless him and make him fruitful and multiply him exceedingly; he shall be the father of twelve princes, and I will make him a great nation. But I will establish my covenant with Isaac.
God appears again to Abraham. Three strangers appear, and Abraham receives them hospitably. God tells him that Sarah will shortly bear a son, and Sarah, overhearing, laughs: "After I have grown old, and my husband is old, shall I have pleasure? God tells Abraham that he will punish Sodom, "because the outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah is great and their sin is very grave." The strangers depart. Abraham protests that it is not just "to slay the righteous with the wicked," and asks if the whole city can be spared if even ten righteous men are found there. God replies: "For the sake of ten I will not destroy it.
The two messengers are hospitably received by Lot. The men of Sodom surround the house and demand to have sexual relations with the strangers; Lot offers his two virgin daughters in place of the messengers, but the men refuse. Lot and his family are led out of Sodom, and Sodom and Gomorrah are destroyed by fire-and-brimstone; but Lot's wife, looking back, is turned to a pillar of salt. Lot's daughters, fearing that they will not find husbands and that Lot's line will die out, make their father drunk and lie with him; their children become the ancestors of the Moabites and Ammonites.
Abraham represents Sarah as his sister before Abimelech, king of Gerar. God visits a curse of barrenness upon Abimelech and his household and warns the king that Sarah is Abraham's wife, not his sister. Abimelech restores Sarah to Abraham, loads them both with gifts and sends them away.Isaac, saying, "God has made laughter for me, everyone who hears will laugh over me." At Sarah's insistence Ishmael and his mother Hagar are driven out into the wilderness. When Ishmael is near dying, an angel speaks to Hagar and promises that God will not forget them but will make of Ishmael a great nation; "Then God opened her eyes, and she saw a well of water; and she went, and filled the skin with water, "... And God was with the lad, and he grew up..." Abraham enters into a covenant with Abimelech, who confirms his right to the well of Beer-sheba.
God tests Abraham by commanding that he sacrifice Issac. Abraham obeys; but, as he is about to lay the knife upon his son, God restrains him, promising him numberless descendants. On the death of Sarah, Abraham purchases Machpelah for a family tomb and sends his servant to Mesopotamia, Nahor's home, to find among his relations a wife for Isaac; and Rebekah, Nahor's granddaughter, is chosen. Other children are born to Abraham by another wife, Keturah, among whose descendants are the Midianites; and he dies in a prosperous old age and is buried in his tomb at Hebron.Rebecca is barren, but Isaac prays to God, and she gives birth to the twins Esau, and Jacob.
Isaac represents Rebekah as his sister before Abimelech, king of Gerar. Abimelech learns of the deception and is angered. Isaac is fortunate in all his undertakings in that country. His prosperity excites the jealousy of Abimelech, who sends him away; but the king sees that Isaac is blessed by God and makes a covenant with him at the well of Beer-sheba.
Jacob deceives his father Isaac and obtains the blessing of prosperity which should have been Esau's. Fearing Esau's anger he flees to Haran, the home of his mother's brother Laban. Isaac, prohibiting Jacob from marrying a Canaanite woman, tells him to go and marry one of Laban's daughters. On the way, Jacob falls asleep on a stone and dreams of a ladder stretching from Heaven to Earth and thronged with angels, and God promises him prosperity and many descendants; and when he awakes Jacob sets the stone as a pillar and names the place Bethel.
Jacob hires himself to Laban on condition that, after having served for seven years as a herdsman, he shall marry the younger daughter, Rachel, with whom he is in love. At the end of this period Laban gives him the elder daughter, Leah, explaining that it is the custom to marry the elder before the younger. Jacob serves another seven years for Rachel, and he has sons by his two wives and their two handmaidens, the ancestors of the tribes of Israel. Jacob then works another seven years, deceiving Laban to increase his flocks at his uncle's expense, and gains great wealth in sheep, goats, camels, donkeys and slave-girls.
Jacob flees with his family and flocks from Laban; Laban pursues and catches him, but God warns Laban not to harm Jacob, and they are reconciled. On approaching his home he is in fear of Esau, to whom he sends presents under the care of his servants, and then sends his wives and children away. "And Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until the breaking of the day. Neither Jacob nor the stranger can prevail, but the man touches Jacob's thigh and pleads to be released before daybreak, but Jacob refuses to release the being until he agrees to give a blessing; the stranger then announces to Jacob that he shall bear the name "Israel", "for you have striven with God and with men, and have prevailed. and is freed. "The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel, limping because of his thigh.
The meeting with Esau proves friendly, and the brothers are reconciled: "to see your face is like seeing the face of God," is Jacob's greeting. The brothers part, and Jacob settles near the city of Shechem. Jacob's daughter Dinah goes out, and "Shechem the son of Hamor the Hivite, the prince of the land, saw her, he seized her and lay with her and humbled her". Shechem asks Jacob for Dinah's hand in marriage, but the sons of Jacob deceive the men of Shechem and slaughter them and take captive their wives and children and loot the city. Jacob is angered that his sons have brought upon him the enmity of the Canaanites, but his sons say, "Should he treat our sister as a harlot?
Jacob goes up to Bethel; there "God said to him, Your name is Jacob; no longer shall your name be called Jacob, but Israel shall be your name. So his name was called Israel"; and Jacob sets up a stone pillar at the place and names it Bethel. He goes up to his father Isaac at Hebron, and there Isaac dies and is buried.Joseph. Jacob's son Judah takes a Canaanite wife and has two sons, Er and Onan; Er dies, and his widow Tamar, disguised as a prostitute, tricks Judah into having a child by her (Onan, who should have fathered the child, refused). She gives birth to twins, the elder of whom is Pharez, ancestor of the future royal house of David. Joseph's jealous brothers sell him to some Ishmaelites and show Jacob the coat, dipped in goat's blood, as proof that Joseph is dead. Meanwhile the Midianites sell Joseph to Potiphar, the captain of Pharaoh's guard, but Potiphar's wife, unable to seduce Joseph, accuses him falsely, and he is cast into prison. Here he correctly interprets the dreams of two of his fellow prisoners, the king's butler and baker. Joseph next interprets the dream of Pharaoh, of seven fat cattle and seven lean cattle, as meaning seven years of plenty followed by seven years of famine, and advises Pharaoh to store grain during the good years. He is appointed second in the kingdom, and, in the ensuing famine, "all the earth came to Egypt to Joseph to buy grain, because the famine was severe over all the earth.
Jacob sends his sons to Egypt to buy grain. The brothers appear before Joseph, who recognizes them but does not reveal himself. After having proved them on this and on a second journey, and they having shown themselves so fearful and penitent that Judah even offers himself as a slave, Joseph reveals his identity, forgives his brothers the wrong they did him, and he promises to settle in Egypt both them and his father Jacob brings his whole family to Egypt, where Pharaoh assigns to them the land of Goshen. Jacob receives Joseph's sons Ephraim and Manasseh among his own sons, then calls his sons to his bedside and reveals their future to them. Jacob dies and is interred in the family tomb at Machpelah (Hebron). Joseph lives to see his great-grandchildren, and on his death-bed he exhorts his brethren, if God should remember them and lead them out of the country, to take his bones with them. The book ends with Joseph's remains being "put in a coffin in Egypt.
The "primeval history" consists of three narrative units separated by two genealogies and an ethnography (or ethno-geography):
The highly artificial and literary character of this unit makes it unlikely that any oral traditions lie behind it, and indeed its literary origins have long been identified in the corpus of Babylonian myths, especially the Enuma Elish. A Greek influence has also been discerned - the Table of Nations is apparently based on a 7th century Greek work by Hecataeus.
The Patriarchal cycles, in contrast, show strong signs of oral origins. Martin Noth has suggested that the three began as separate cycles, with the Abraham and Isaac stories linking up before being joined by the Jacob cycle. The Joseph story presents a strong contrast to the first three Patriarchal stories - for example, God never appears to Joseph in person or offers him guidance as he does with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, nor is there any mention of the Covenant. These factors, plus the fact that the story is presented as a tightly structured narrative rather than as a loosely connected collection of tales, has led some scholars to accept it a consciously contrived fictional addition to the book, added to provide a connection between the Patriarchal stories, which take place in Canaan, and the Exodus story, which begins in Egypt.
For centuries, Moses had been believed to have been the author of Genesis, and Wellhausen's hypothesis was thus received by traditionally-minded Jews and Christians as an attack on one of their central beliefs. But in the first half of the 20th century the science of Biblical archaeology, developed by William F. Albright and his followers, combined with the new methods of biblical scholarship known as source criticism and tradition history, developed by Hermann Gunkel, Robert Alter and Martin Noth, seemed to demonstrate that the stories of Genesis (or, at least, the stories of the Patriarchs; the early part of Genesis—from the Creation to the Tower of Babel—were already regarded as legendary by mainstream scholarship) were based in genuinely ancient oral tradition grounded in the material culture of the 2nd millennium BC. Thus by the middle of the 20th century it seemed that archaeology and scholarship had reconciled Wellhausen with a modified version of authorship by Moses.
This consensus was challenged in the 1970s by the publication of two books, Thomas L. Thompson's "The Historicity of the Patriarchal Narratives" (1974), and John Van Seters's "Abraham in History and Tradition" (1975), both of which pointed out that the archaeological evidence connecting the author of Genesis to the 2nd millennium BC could equally well apply to the 1st millennium, and that oral traditions were not nearly so easily recoverable as Gunkel and others had said. A third influential work, R. N. Whybray's "The Making of the Pentateuch" (1987), analysed the assumptions underlying Wellhausen's work and found them illogical and unconvincing, and William G. Dever attacked the philosophical foundations of Albrightean biblical archaeology, arguing that it was neither desirable nor possible to use the bible to interpret the archaeological record.
The theories currently being advanced can be divided into three: revisions of Wellhausen's documentary model, of which Richard Elliot Friedman's is one of the better known; fragmentary models such as that of R. N. Whybray, who sees the Torah as the product of a single author working from a multitude of small fragments rather than from large coherent source texts; and supplementary models such as that advanced by John Van Seters, who sees in Genesis the gradual accretion of material over many centuries and from many hands. The 19th century dating of the final form of Genesis and the Pentateuch to c. 500-450 BC continues to be widely accepted irrespective of the model adopted, although a minority of scholars known as biblical minimalists argue for a date largely or entirely within the last two centuries BC.
Alongside these new approaches to the history of the text has come an increasing interest in the way the narratives tell their stories, concentrating not on the origins of Genesis but on its meaning, both for the society which produced it and for the modern day, placing "a new emphasis on the narrative's purpose to shape audiences' perceptions of the world around them and to instruct them in how to live in this world and relate to its God.
In 1929 Albrecht Alt proposed that the Hebrews arrived in Canaan at different times and as different groups, each with its nameless "gods of the fathers," In time these gods were assimilated with the Canaanite El, and names such as "El, God of Israel" emerged. The "God of Abraham" then became identified with the "God of Isaac" and so on. Finally "Yahweh" was introduced in the Mosaic period. The authors of Genesis, living in a later period when Yahweh had become the only God, partly obscured and partly preserved this history in their attempt to demonstrate that the patriarchs shared their own monotheistic worship of Yahweh. According to Alt, the theology of the earliest period and of later fully-developed monotheistic Judaism were nevertheless identical: both Yahweh and the tribal gods revealed himself/themselves to the patriarchs, promised them descendants, and protected them in their wanderings; they in turn enjoyed a special relationship with their god, worshipped him, and established holy places in his honour.
In 1934 Julius Lewy, drawing on the recently discovered Ugarit texts, argued that the "God of Abraham" was not anonymous, but was probably El Shaddai, "El of the Mountain", El being identified with a mythical holy mountain. The name Shaddai, however, remains mysterious, and has also been identified with both a specific city and with a Hebrew root meaning "breast". In 1962 Frank Moore Cross concluded that the name Yahweh developed as one of the many epithets of El: "El the creator, he who causes to be." For Cross the continuity between El and Yahweh explained how the other El-names could continue to be used in Genesis, and why Baal - in Canaanite mythology a rival to El who gradually took over the father-god's position - was regarded with such hostility. More recently, Mark S. Smith has returned to the Ugarit texts to show how polytheism "was a feature of Israelite religion down through the end of the Iron Age and how monotheism emerged in the seventh and sixth centuries.
In contrast to this picture of a Canaanite background to Genesis, Lloyd R. Bailey (1968) and E.L. Abel (1973) have suggested that Abraham worshipped Sin the Amorite moon-god of Harran, pointing, among other things, to Abraham's association with Harran and Ur, both centres of the cult of Sin, to the epithet "Father of the gods" applied to Sin (comparable to Abram's name, "Exalted Father") and to the close similarity between names associated with Abraham and with Sin: Sarah/Sarratu (Sin's wife); Milcah/Malkatu (Sin's daughter); and Terah/Ter (a name of Sin). M. Haran has also distinguished between Canaanite and Patriarchal religion, pointing out that the Patriarchs never worship at existing shrines but build their own, fitting a semi-nomadic lifestyle. He also points to the invocation of Shaddai by Baalam and the identification of the Patriarchal God with the "sons of Eber" in Genesis 10:21 as evidence that their god was not originally Canaanite. Gordon Wenham has pointed out that Il/El is a well-known member of the third-millennium Mesopotamian pantheon, concluding: "Whether El was ever identified with the moon god is uncertain. To judge from the names of Abraham's relations and the cult of his home town, his ancestors at least were moon-god worshippers. Whether he continued to honour this god identifying him with El, or converted to El, is unclear.
The early Church, with its Jewish roots, assumed an authoritative nature for Genesis and based its own emerging theology on this and other Jewish holy texts. The author of the gospel of John paraphrased Genesis 1 to personify the eternal logos (Greek λογος, "reason", "word", "speech"): "In the beginning was the word, and the word was with God, and the word was God." This passage marks the first definitive emergence of the distinctive Christian concept of the Trinity, and thus of Christianity's emerging break with Judaism in the late 1st century. The serpent of Eden became Satan, and Genesis 3:15, "He shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel," became the Protevangelium, the "First Gospel", predicting the coming of the Messiah who would be victorious over evil and Satan; Jesus was interpreted as the "new Adam" who would redeem mankind from the sin of Eden, and the Ark of Noah became symbolic of the Church itself, offering salvation through the waters of baptism. The Abrahamic covenant was interpreted to further underline Christ's fulfillment of the Covenant with Abraham: God's promise of a chosen people had passed from the children of Abraham, who had rejected Jesus, and was bestowed upon all those (both Jew and Gentile) who accepted the new Covenant between God, in the divine person of his Son, and his Church.
Not only the general theology of Christianity but also specific narrative details of the new faith drew on the authority of Genesis: thus the three messengers who visit Abraham to announce the birth of Isaac are paralleled by an undisclosed number of magi who visit the infant Jesus; and the tale of Joseph in Egypt is echoed by the Holy Family's flight into Egypt.