Introduction to Genesis

An Introduction to The Book of Genesis


The title found in the English translation of the Bible, “Genesis,” is actually derived from the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Old Testament) rendering of Genesis 2:4, “This is the book of the generations [literally, “the genesis”] of heaven and earth.(1) As the title indicates, this first book of the Bible is the book of origins: the origin of the world, of the human race, of the various nations of the earth; and from a theological perspective, the origin of sin, of salvation, and of the covenant people of God through whom the promised Savior for the world (Gen. 3:15) would come.

As Dillard and Longman point out, “The Book of Genesis, as the first book of the Torah and indeed as the opening work of the Canon, is a book of foundations.(2) To be sure, the Book of Genesis is foundational for our understanding of God and man’s relationship to Him. The major theological concepts of the Bible are incomplete if the revelation provided in the Book of Genesis were to be omitted. From the very outset (Genesis 1) God presents Himself as the sovereign and majestic Creator. Man is revealed to be the creation of God, made in the image of his Creator (Gen. 1:27); created for fellowship with God (Gen. 3:8a,9); and accountable to God (Gen. 2:16-17.)

Not only does Genesis define man’s original state and purpose (namely, to borrow the words of the Westminster Catechism, “to glorify God and enjoy Him”), it also explains man’s present state of sin and misery, a condition Genesis attributes to man’s own act of rebellious defiance against his God and Maker (Gen. 3:6.) Subsequently, God must act in His capacity as the Righteous Judge of all the earth: the first man and his wife are banished from the presence of God; when the sinful degeneracy of mankind reaches its nadir (Gen. 6:5), the Righteous Judge executes a universal judgment in the form of a cataclysmic flood (Gen. 6:7), a precursor of the Final Judgment yet to come (2 Pet. 3:10.) But God also reveals Himself to be a God of mercy: He takes the initiative in seeking out Adam in his sin (Gen. 3:9); He makes the promise to provide a Savior (Gen. 3:15); and He provides a covering for man’s sinful nakedness (Gen. 3:21) until the appointed Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, has come and accomplished His perfect work of redemption. The whole remainder of the entire Bible is taken up with this subject matter: the preparation for the coming of the Savior; the accomplishment of the Savior’s work of redemption upon the cross of Calvary; the invitation extended to all mankind to accept the Savior and so be reconciled to God, thereby being made fit to inherit the kingdom of God and be spared from the judgment to come.

Having revealed the initial state of man in God’s creation; man’s fall into a state of sin and misery; God’s initiative in extending mercy to man and His promise of a Savior; the cataclysmic flood as the precursor of Final Judgment visited upon unrepentant mankind; and the perpetuation of sin throughout the renovated earth following the great flood, the first part of the Book of Genesis (chapters 1-11) closes. The remainder of the book (chapters 12-50) deals with the calling and development of God’s covenant people, through whom the promised Savior would eventually come. Genesis (chapter 15) records God’s covenant of grace established with Abram (later re-named “Abraham”); the succeeding generations of the covenant line in the persons of Isaac and Jacob; and the development of the covenant people into the extended family of Jacob (re-named “Israel.”) This first book of the Pentateuch closes with the covenant family re-located in Egypt (to preserve it from the corrupting influences of Canaan), the LORD having prepared a place for them by means of Joseph. The story of God’s covenant people, and the accomplishment of His great plan of redemption, is resumed and carried forth in the next book of the Pentateuch, whose very title proclaims God’s next great act: The Exodus.


The Traditional View

“In a strict sense,” writes R. Dillard and T. Longman, “the Torah [i.e.; the first five books of the Old Testament] is anonymous. Nowhere do these five books explicitly or implicitly claim that Moses is their exclusive author.(3) However, as Dillard and Longman go on to say, early Jewish and Christian tradition is virtually unanimous in ascribing Genesis through Deuteronomy to Moses.

Such Hebrew sources as the philosopher Philo and the historian Josephus, as well as the Mishnah (the collection of Jewish traditions about the Law, compiled about A.D. 200) and the Talmud (the authoritative body of Jewish tradition of which the Mishnah is a part), all testify to the Mosaic authorship of the entire Torah. But more significantly, the Scriptures of both the Old and New Testaments identify the first five books of the Bible as “the Book of Moses.” One may consider the following sampling: Mark 12:26 alludes to Exodus 3:6; Romans 10:5 alludes to Leviticus 18:5; Ezra 6:18 alludes to Numbers 3:6; Matthew 19:7 alludes to Deuteronomy 24:1-4. Although there is no specific reference to any individual passage from the Book of Genesis as being attributed to Mosaic authorship, Genesis is, nonetheless, included in our Lord’s comments recorded in Luke 24:27 and 44. Whereas the Jewish Scriptures were divided into the Torah, the Prophets, and the Writings, our Lord identifies these three divisions as “the Law of Moses, and the Prophets, and the Psalms” (Lk. 24:47.) One may also note Galatians 4:21-22, where the apostle Paul quotes the Book of Genesis (Gn. 16:15) as being a part of “the Law.”

The Challenge to the Traditional View

Although there were isolated individuals who questioned the literary coherence of Genesis through Deuteronomy, the most notable was the philosopher Baruch Spinoza (1632-1677.) He was soon followed by J. Astruc (1684-1766), a physician who developed what he thought to be a simple criterion for differentiating the two sources he believed were used in the composition of Genesis. Astruc sought to differentiate these supposed sources on the basis of the divine names that appeared in the text. Where the name “Elohim” was used, he attributed those portions of the book to one source; where the name “Jehovah” was used, Astruc attributed those portions to the second alleged source. Scholars during the next century (most notably J.G. Eichhorn, professor at Gottingen from 1788 to 1827) continued to search for sources.

The 1880’s were a pivotal decade in the development of this historical-critical approach to the study of the Pentateuch, because this decade saw the publication of J.H. Wellhausen’s monumental work, Prolegomena zur Geschichte Israels (published in Germany in 1883.) Wellhausen’s work had a massive influence on the scholars of his day and of succeeding generations.(4)

Wellhausen’s thesis was that the Pentateuch was composed of four basic sources. These sources, he maintained, can be differentiated from one another on the basis of the following criteria: (a) the use of different divine names (Elohim and Jehovah); (b) the existence of doublets (that is, the same basic story repeated more than once, sometimes involving different characters; for example, Abram deceiving Abimelech about his wife in Genesis 12:10-20 and Isaac doing the same thing as recorded in Genesis 26:1-11); (c) a difference in style (for instance, one source is said to be written in a formal, legislative manner, while another source is seen as being written in the descriptive style of public oratory); and (d) a difference in theological perspective, this is further expounded below where the four alleged sources are described.(5)

On the basis of the above-mentioned criteria, Wellhausen differentiated the following supposed sources. The first he called “J.” It bears this designation because the author made use of the divine name “Jehovah.” This source was held to be the earliest, being assigned to the time of David and Solomon in Jerusalem. The second source was labeled “E,” since this writer used the divine name “Elohim.” This source was alleged to have been written about a century later, somewhere in northern Israel. The third source was identified as “D,” because it is primarily, if not exclusively, limited to the material that appears in the Book of Deuteronomy. It was supposed that this source was composed in the eighth or seventh century B.C. The final source was called “P,” because it consists of the priestly literature contained in the Pentateuch. This source was assigned to the time of the Exile or shortly thereafter (somewhere between 550-450 B.C.) as the date of its composition.(6) Finally, all four of these sources, as the theory goes, were compiled by a skillful editor, known as a Redactor, who did his work sometime after the Babylonian Exile, perhaps as late as 400 B.C.(7)

The critical approach to the Pentateuch has always found conservative resistance from both Jewish and Christian circles. Incisive attacks were rendered against it in the nineteenth century by E.W. Hengstenberg and F. Delitzsch, and in the twentieth century by O.T. Allis, U. Cassuto, K. Kitchen, and G.J. Wenham.(8)

Recent years have witnessed a surge of skepticism about the documentary hypothesis (as it is called); in particular, doubt has been expressed concerning the criteria used to differentiate the alleged sources.

First, with regard to the divine names: the use of different divine names (Elohim and Jehovah) may result from stylistic practice rather than be the evidence of different documents. As H.C. Leupold points out, “Elohim” is the divine name that identifies God as the divine being whose power and attributes should rightly inspire mortals with a sense of His awesome majesty. “Jehovah,” however, signifies God as the One who is ever faithful to the covenant He has initiated with His people.(9) Furthermore, the use of multiple names for a god in a single text is reasonably common in extra-biblical Near Eastern texts.(10)

Second, with regard to the so-called “doublets:” there is absolutely no valid reason to reject the repeated instances experienced by the same person, or experienced by various persons, as being anything other than historical. There is no reason why a person cannot make the same “mistake” (or commit the same sin) on more than one occasion; or no reason as to why the same “mistake” cannot be repeated by another person at a later date. With regard to the doublet of Joseph’s dream (Gen. 37:5-11), rather than assume the presence of two distinct sources, why not apply to this passage the very interpretation that Joseph himself applies to the doublet of Pharaoh’s dream (Gen. 41:25-32)? Especially take note of Joseph’s words to Pharaoh recorded in Gen. 41:32, “The dream was repeated to Pharaoh twice because the thing is established by God, and God will shortly bring it to pass.”

Third, with regard to the difference in style: that difference (especially the story-like writing attributed to “J,” as opposed to the formal, list-oriented writing attributed to “P”) may indicate a difference in subject matter, rather than a difference in authorship.(11) H.C. Leupold analyzes the critics’ method of handling the difference in style between the “P” source (a formalistic and list-oriented approach) and the “D” source (the style of one gifted in the art of oratory.) Everything of a priestly, legislative character, as well as other formally structured passages such as Genesis 1, are assigned to “P.” From this collection of passages the critic makes deductions about the vocabulary particularly used by “P.” Then other passages throughout the Pentateuch that use this distinctive vocabulary and style are attributed to “P.” The same procedure is followed with regard to “D.” Leupold concludes, “The fact of the matter really is not that a different writer is at work, but that the same writer is dealing with an entirely different subject. No man can write a law book with the vocabulary of a book on history … the [critic’s] argument practically amount to this, that one man could not write “E” or “J” and also “P,” because one man could not write both history and law … In the final analysis, this is tantamount to saying that Moses could not have written such admonitions and exhortations as well as laws and history. The critics operate on the assumption that such flexibility of style is beyond the range of the capabilities of one man.(12)

Fourth, with regard to different theological perspectives: it is true that Exodus (20:24) assumes more than one place of worship, while Deuteronomy (12:2-7) calls for one centralized place of worship. But this difference is not due to a difference in theology between “P” and “D;” rather, the two texts are dealing with two different periods in the history of redemption. A close examination of Deuteronomy 12 indicates that the call for centralized worship was not for an immediate centralization, but one that would take effect when God had given His people rest from their enemies (Deut. 12:10.) This condition did not arise until late in David’s reign (2 Sam. 7:1), and soon after that the temple was constructed. Until that time, the law in Exodus 20:24 was in effect, regulating the building of multiple altars. The laws in Leviticus and Numbers envision the time after the central sanctuary was built.(13)

In the 1970’s through the 1990’s, an interest in the literary approach to the Bible recaptured the attention of biblical scholars. The results of their work have demonstrated that the Book of Genesis has a literary unity that displays artistic brilliance when judged according to the standards of its own Semitic culture. One of the most fascinating structural devices found in Genesis is the re-occurring Hebrew phrase, elleh toledot, (usually translated, “there are the generations of.”) This device provides a sense of unity to the Book of Genesis that cuts across (and thereby undermines) the hypothetical sources.(14) As Longman & Dillard point out, today the documentary hypothesis is “only loosely held” among scholars. However, it is important to understand its position, and its refutation, since its underlying assumptions are still held by many critical scholars and this position may still appear in popularized form.

The Significance of “elleh toledot” as It Occurs in Genesis

That the expression, “these are the generations of,” is a distinguishing feature of Genesis has long been recognized. Back in 1904 the Old Testament scholar S.R. Driver wrote, “the narrative of Genesis is cast into a framework or scheme, marked by the recurring formula ‘these are the generations of’ … the entire narrative as we now possess it is accommodated to it.(15) But, as V.P. Hamilton remarks,(16) scholars have debated whether this phrase introduces what follows (as a superscription) or whether it concludes what precedes it (as a subscription or colophon.)(17) Most scholars (E.J. Young, Longman & Dillard, and G. Archer, to name a few) have viewed this Hebrew formula as a superscription. However, R.K. Harrison (18) presents an interesting argument in favor of viewing the formula as a colophon.

Harrison begins by analyzing this Hebrew formula in the light of its ancient Near Eastern milieu. In the ancient world, clay was the preferred material upon which the wedge-shaped symbols (of cuneiform) were impressed. The resultant tablets contained a wide range of literary material, including letters, contracts, genealogical tables, and the like. It was the normal practice in Near Eastern antiquity for communications of this kind to commence with some sort of title, followed by the body of the text, and then a closing colophon, (which sometimes contained evidence of the scribe or the owner of the tablet and the date of its composition.) If a more lengthy communication required more than one tablet, the proper sequence of the series was preserved by means of a catch-line. The catch-line attempted to insure the continuity of the narrative by having the last few words of the previous tablet repeated at the beginning of the next tablet. (This practice still occurs in the Hebrew Bible, where on the bottom left-hand margin of the page the first word or two of the next page is inscribed.)

Harrison goes on to say, while scholars were agreed as to the importance of this Hebrew expression (elleh toledot), they appear to have misunderstood its usage. The reason is due to the fact that many of the sections in Genesis commence with a genealogy. This led scholars to connect the phrase, “these are the generation of,” with the genealogical list that immediately follows the phrase. (See, for example, Gen. 11:27. Most scholars would view 11:27 as the beginning of a new section that extends down through Gen. 25:11. Harrison, however, argues that Gen. 11:27a is the conclusion to the previous section and 11:27b is actually the beginning of a new section.) In support of his contention, Harrison points out that the principal facts concerning the person named in the phrase “these are the generations of” have been recorded before the phrase, they are not recorded after its occurrence. (For instance, when the expression, “these are the generations of Adam” [Gen. 5:1] occurs, nothing more is stated about Adam in Gen. 5:2-ff. apart from the mention of his age at death.) This is especially evident when one considers Genesis 37:2 where the formula reads, “these are the generations of Jacob.” What follows in Genesis 37:3-ff. is not the history of Jacob; it is, rather, the story of Joseph.

Harrison next goes on to discuss the more precise meaning of the phrase. In many of the older versions of the English Bible it is translated, “these are the generations of.” However, the Hebrew word, “toledot,” especially as it is used in the formula found throughout the Book of Genesis, may be better translated by such terms as “history,” “narrative,” or at times, “genealogical record.” Thus, the term “toledot” is used to describe history, and more particularly, in Genesis, the family history in its origins. That is to say, the phrase, “these are the generations of” (or, “this is the history of”) points back to the beginnings of the family history (or the origin of the creation in the case of Genesis 1:1-2:4), not forward to its later development through a line of descendants. Thus, according to Harrison, the key to the composition of Genesis is to recognize that each of the sections of the book concludes with the formula, rather than commencing with it. It should also be noted that, at least in some cases, the person named in the formula may have been the writer or the owner of the tablet, as opposed to being the subject of the proceeding narrative. A case in point is Genesis 6:9, where the phrase, “these are the generations (or, history) of Noah,” does not necessarily mean, “this is the history about Noah,” since it is primarily the succeeding section that describes the activities of this individual. In Genesis 6:9, as an example, the expression has more of the meaning, “this is the history compiled by, or possessed by, Noah.” Such an interpretation would be in full accord with ancient Near Eastern literary practices.

Harrison (following D.J. Wiseman) concludes that Genesis contains in the first thirty-six chapters a series of tablets whose contents were linked together to form a roughly chronological account of primeval and patriarchal life written from the standpoint of a Mesopotamian cultural milieu. The editing and incorporating of this material into its present form as the Book of Genesis and the initial volume of the Pentateuch was the work of Moses.(19)

Following Harrison’s methodology, the first thirty-six chapters of Genesis consist of the following sections (or tablets):

Genesis 1:1-2:4; The History of the Heavens and the Earth

Genesis 2:5-5:2; The History of Adam

Genesis 5:3-6:9a; The History of Noah (As noted above, this is more precisely the history compiled by or possessed by Noah.)

Genesis 6:9b-10:1; The History of the Sons of Noah (That is to say, the history of the origins of their family; a family history that was in their possession.)

Genesis 10:2-11:10a; The History of Shem

Genesis 11:10b-11:27a; The History of Terah (The history of the origin of his family; a family history that was in Terah’s possession.)

Genesis 11:27b-25:12; The History of Ishmael (As the elder son, the record of the family history would have initially been in Ishmael’s possession.)

Genesis 25:13-19a; The History of Isaac; Upon the death of Ishmael (?), Isaac would have inherited the record of the family history to which is appended the completion of Ishmael’s history.)

Genesis 25:19b-36:1; The History of Esau (Again, as the elder son of Isaac, it appears that Esau was in possession of the record of the family history; which, no doubt, was transferred to Jacob, as the succeeding head of the covenant line at a later date.)

Genesis 36:2-36:9; The History of Esau, The Father of the Edomites This is a record tracing the origin of the Edomites, who would play a significant role in Israel’s later history, from the time of their father, Esau.)

Genesis 36:10-37:2a; The History of Jacob (Once again, since this passage narrates the family of Esau, the title may be taken to mean, “The History in the Possession of Jacob;” a record perhaps passed on to him upon the death of Esau.)

All that remains to consider are the Joseph narratives that comprise the remainder of the book of Genesis (Gen. 37:2b-50:26.) According to Harrison, most probably this material was still in oral form when Moses was alive, and it may be that it was Moses who put it into its present written form.


The Genesis Creation Account Compared with the Babylonian Account

From the time George Smith introduced the Babylonian Gilgamesh Epic to English readers (1876), it was commonly assumed that the original material underlying Genesis 1 was the Babylonian Creation Epic known as Enuma Elish. A more careful study of similarities and differences, however, has made it evident that resemblances between the Babylonian and Israelite creation accounts are not as close as had been previously imagined.(20)

Indeed, the two accounts can hardly be said to be comparable at all. The Babylonian story (21) begins with a theogony (i.e.; an account of the origin of the gods.) This is in striking contrast to the true God who has revealed Himself in the Bible as the eternal and altogether self-sufficient Deity. The Babylonian account goes on to describe a titanic struggle among the gods for supremacy, with Markduk (the great Babylonian deity) finally prevailing over Tiamat. Markduk then proceeds to cleave Tiamat into two monstrous halves: the upper half he fixes in place as the heavens, the lower half he sets in place as the earth. He then compounds material of his own blood for the creation of man. As Leupold concludes, “This account of creation is so profoundly different from the Biblical account that the points of difference completely overshadow the incidental points of resemblance.(22)

The Historicity of Genesis Challenged

G. Archer raises the question, How seriously are we to take the narrative about Adam and Eve and the serpent in the Garden of Eden? Are we to view it as literal history? He points out that many prefer to regard it as a mere myth (or, “supra-history,” to use the Neo-orthodox term) in which the moral downfall of man is described by a fictitious episode designed to illustrate it. However, Archer goes on to assert, no decisive objections have ever been raised against the historicity of Adam and Eve either on historical, scientific or philosophical grounds.(23) Indeed, R. Dillard and T. Longman remark, “If we are speaking of the original intention of the biblical writer(s), the style of the book leaves little space to argue over the obvious conclusion that the author intended it to be read as a work of history that recounts what has taken place in the far-distant past.(24)

Archer goes on to point out that it is virtually impossible to accept the authority of Romans 5:12 (“through one man sin entered into the world”) and 5:17 (“by the trespass of the one [man] death reigned”) without inferring that the entire human race has descended from a single father. In Romans 5 Adam is contrasted with Christ. If, therefore, Christ was a historical figure, Adam himself must also have been a historical figure. Again, the divinely inspired apostle Paul takes the details of Genesis 2 and the account of the first temptation and fall as recorded in Genesis 3 as literal history (note 1 Timothy 2:13-14.) There can be no question, concludes Archer, that the New Testament authors accepted the literal historicity of Adam and Eve.(25)

 End Notes

1 Harrison, R.K.; Introduction to the Old Testament; Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., Grand Rapids, MI, 1969 (Fifth printing, November 1975); p. 542.

2 Longman, Tremper and Raymond Dillard; An Introduction to the Old Testament; Zondervan Publishing House, Grand Rapids, MI, 1994; p. 51.

3 Longman & Dillard, p 39.

4 Longman & Dillard, p. 40.

5 Longman & Dillard, pp. 40-41.

6 Hamilton, Victor P.; “Genesis,” Evangelical Commentary on the Bible, Edited by Walter A. Elwell; Baker Book House, Grand Rapids, MI, 1989; pp. 7-8.

7 Leupold, H.C.; Exposition of Genesis; Baker Book House, Grand Rapids, MI, 1942 (Eleventh Printing, June 1972); p. 14.

8 Longman & Dillard, p. 44.

9 H. C. Leupold, pp. 15-16.

10 Longman & Dillard, p. 45.

11 Longman & Dillard, p. 45.

12 H. C. Leupold, pp. 17-19.

13 Longman & Dillard, p. 46.

14 Longman & Dillard, pp. 46, 48.

15 R.K. Harrison, p. 544.

16 V.P. Hamilton, p. 8.

17 A colophon is an inscription placed at the end of a book or manuscript, usually presenting information relevant to the production of the manuscript.

18 R.K. Harrison, pp. 543-552.

19 As H. C. Leupold remarks, “Since sources were, no doubt, available and reliable, we see no reason why Moses should not have used all available material, being guided in his task by the Spirit of inspiration.” Leupold goes on to note that such books of Scripture as Kings and Chronicles testify to the abundant use of source materials (p.8.)

20 R.K. Harrison, p. 555.

21 As outlined by H.C. Leupold, pp. 27-28.

22 H. C. Leupold, p. 28.

23 Archer, Gleason L. Jr.; A Survey of Old Testament Introduction; Moody Press, Chicago, 1964 (Sixth Printing, 1970); p. 190.

24 Longman & Dillard, p. 49.

25 G. Archer, pp. 190-191.


 Archer, Gleason L. Jr.; A Survey of Old Testament Introduction; Moody Press, Chicago, 1964 (Sixth Printing, 1970.)

Hamilton, Victor P.; “Genesis,” Evangelical Commentary on the Bible, Edited by Walter A. Elwell; Baker Book House, Grand Rapids, MI, 1989.

Harrison, R.K.; Introduction to the Old Testament; Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., Grand Rapids, MI, 1969 (Fifth printing, November 1975.)

Leupold, H.C.; Exposition of Genesis; Baker Book House, Grand Rapids, MI, 1942 (Eleventh Printing, June 1972.)

Longman, Tremper and Raymond Dillard; An Introduction to the Old Testament; Zondervan Publishing House, Grand Rapids, MI, 1994.