The Background of Genesis
Author, Date, and Recipients
Traditionally, Moses is considered to have been the author of Genesis and the rest of the Pentateuch (see Numbers 33:2; Deuteronomy 31:24; John 5:46). Of course, Moses lived much later than the events of Genesis. Presumably, stories were passed down about those earlier events, and Moses brought them all together.
The first audience would have been the Israelites Moses led through the wilderness. For readers today, Genesis is an essential introduction to the rest of the Bible. It is rightly called the book of beginnings.
The theme of Genesis is creation, sin, and re-creation. God made the world very good, but first cursed it and then destroyed it in the flood because of man’s disobedience. The new world after the flood was also spoiled by human sin (ch. 11). God chose Abraham for a special purpose. Through his family, all nations would be blessed (Genesis 12:1–3). God’s purpose will eventually be fulfilled through Abraham’s descendants (ch. 49).
1. The Lord God commissions human beings to be his representatives on earth. They are to take care of the earth and govern the other creatures (Genesis 1:1–2:25).
2. Instead of acting as God’s representatives on earth, the first man and woman—Adam and Eve—listen to the serpent and follow his advice. Their disobedience has devastating results for all mankind and for the entire created world (Genesis 3:1–24; 6:5–6).
3. God graciously announces that Eve’s offspring will free humanity from the serpent’s control (Genesis 3:15). Genesis then begins tracing the history of one family that will become the people of Israel. This family has a special relationship with God and will become a source of blessing to fallen humanity (Genesis 12:1–3).
4. As a result of Adam’s disobedience, his unique relationship with the ground degenerates, resulting in hard work and later in flood and famine. But the special family descending from Adam also brings relief from the difficulties (Genesis 3:17–19; 5:29; 50:19–21).
5. While Eve’s punishment centers on pain in bearing children (Genesis 3:16), women play an essential role in continuing the unique family line. With God’s help, even barrenness is overcome (Genesis 11:30; 21:1–7; 25:21; 38:1–30).
6. The corruption of human nature causes families to be torn apart (Genesis 4:1–16; 13:5–8; 25:22–23; 27:41–45; 37:2–35). Although Genesis shows the reality of family conflicts, individual members of the chosen family can also help resolve those conflicts (Genesis 13:8–11; 33:1–11; 45:1–28; 50:15–21).
7. The wicked are exiled from Eden and scattered throughout the earth (Genesis 3:22–24; 4:12–16; 11:9), but God is kind to his chosen people and promises them a land of their own (Genesis 12:1–2, 7; 15:7–21; 28:13–14; 50:24).
8. God is prepared to destroy almost the entire human race because of its corruption (Genesis 6:7, 11–12; 18:17–33), but he still wants his world to be populated by righteous people (Genesis 1:28; 9:1; 15:1–5; 35:11).
I. Primeval History (1:1–11:26)
A. God’s creation and ordering of heaven and earth (1:1–2:3)
B. Earth’s first people (2:4–4:26)
C. Adam’s descendants (5:1–6:8)
D. Noah’s descendants (6:9–9:29)
E. The descendants of Noah’s sons (10:1–11:9)
F. Shem’s descendants (11:10–26)
II. Patriarchal History (11:27–50:26)
A. Terah’s descendants (11:27–25:18)
B. Isaac’s descendants (25:19–37:1)
C. Jacob’s descendants (37:2–50:26)
The Near East at the Time of Genesis
The Global Message of Genesis
The Beginning of the Redemptive Story
The book of Genesis begins the story of God’s relationship with mankind, tells the sad story of how that relationship went very wrong, and outlines God’s promised solution to that crisis—a solution that would reach its glorious conclusion in Jesus Christ.
Genesis 1 introduces the central person of the biblical story line: God is the Creator-Father-King. God created the human race in his own image, as his royal sons and daughters to establish his kingdom on earth (Genesis 1:26–28). As humanity multiplied upon the earth, they were to establish it as God’s kingdom, in which the will of God was done on earth as it was in heaven. The intended outcome was that the Creator-King would dwell among a flourishing human community in a kind of paradise-kingdom. Heaven and earth would intersect, and God would be all in all.
Despite the disastrous rebellion of the human race, this original intention for creation remains the goal of God’s cosmic restoration accomplished in Jesus Christ. The rest of redemptive history after the rebellion narrates and explains the unfolding of this cosmic restoration.
Genesis 3 recounts the crisis of redemptive history, consisting in mankind’s rebellion against God. Discontent with the role of ruling under God, Adam and Eve—enticed by Satan in the form of a serpent—grasp for equality with God. The outcome is disastrous. For their act of high treason, Adam and Eve are exiled from perfect fellowship with God in the garden of Eden and are barred from the tree of life. Sin and death enter the world. All of creation becomes enslaved to futility and corruption. Satan has successfully usurped mankind’s throne as ruler of the world (see Luke 4:5–6; John 12:31; 2 Corinthians 4:4; Ephesians 2:2).
Genesis 6 reports how mankind, created to fill the earth with the rule of God, fills it instead with violence (Genesis 6:11, 13). Originally created as “very good,” the earth now lies ruined because of sin (Genesis 1:31; 6:12). God’s patience runs out and, in grief, he determines to destroy humanity together with the ruined earth (Genesis 6:13). God reverses the creation process of Genesis 1 by opening creation’s floodgates above and below—to deluge the earth and return it to its pre-creation state of dark chaos (Genesis 1:2).
All life is extinguished, with the exception of a single family. Because of Noah’s righteousness, God preserves him and his family and a remnant of the animal world in a large boat. Then, the floods subside and Noah disembarks into a washed and clean new world. This is a new beginning. Although Noah subsequently fails, as Adam did before him, the redemptive pattern is set. God intends to fulfill his original creation intentions through a humanity led by a righteous head. Unlike Adam and Noah, however, the ultimate Adam, Jesus Christ, does in fact deliver a remnant by his righteousness, so that he and they together might rule over a holy, restored world (see Romans 5:12–21, 8:18–30; 1 Corinthians 15:20–28, 42–57).
Genesis 12:1–3 is God’s answer to the problem of mankind’s rebellion narrated in the book’s first eleven chapters. God promises Abraham a land, countless descendants, and that all the families of the earth will be blessed in him. Through Abraham’s descendants—Israel, and ultimately Israel’s royal king, Jesus—the Creator-King will reclaim his world. Blessing and life will overcome and swallow up the curse of Genesis 3. God is determined, by his grace, to restore humanity and the entire cosmos to the paradise it was in Eden.
Universal Themes in Genesis
The Image of God
Genesis teaches that everyone on earth is created in the image of God (Genesis 1:26–27; 9:6). This means that we are created like God in certain ways—for example, in our ability to love, speak, create, and reason, as well as in our ability to form relationships with our fellow humans. The image of God is also seen in the way humans are to rule the earth, under God, who rules over all. Because every person is made in God’s image, every person is inherently valuable to God and is to be treated with dignity regardless of ethnicity, age, class status, or gender.
Sin and the Problem of the Human Heart
Genesis shows clearly that the fallen human heart is filled with sin. The reason God determined to destroy mankind in the flood was that “every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually” (Genesis 6:5). Despite experiencing God’s judgment in the flood, however, mankind fell again into sin (Genesis 8:21). The flood, then, did not solve the problem of humanity’s sin and rebellion. Noah and his family passed the infection of sin on to their offspring and thus to all the nations of the earth. The world’s many expressions of rebellion against their Creator stem from the deeper, more fundamental problem of the fallen heart with its wayward desires. To fulfill his original intention for creation, God must find a way to forgive sin and to transform hard hearts with new desires. This divine mission would ultimately be fulfilled in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
The Global Message of Genesis for Today
Marriage and Sexuality
The original intention for marriage was, and still is, a permanent marriage relationship between a man and a woman, with the gift of sexuality being expressed within the freedom of this exclusive relationship. This divine ideal, set forth in Genesis 2:18–24, still stands, despite the sordid stories that Genesis records of how far short humans fall from God’s plan. We read of Lamech’s bigamy (Genesis 4:19–24), Sodom’s homosexual brutality (Genesis 19:1–29), Jacob’s polygamy (ch. 29–30), Shechem’s rape (Genesis 34:2), Reuben’s incest (Genesis 35:22; 49:4), Judah’s prostitution (Genesis 38:15–18), and the adulterous desires of Potiphar’s wife (Genesis 39:6–12). Jesus Christ reaffirmed the Genesis 2 ideal in his teaching, providing instruction concerning divorce in the process (Mark 10:2–12).
Ethnicity and Genocide
The “table of nations” in Genesis 10 traces all of the ethnic groups and peoples of the world to their common ancestors preserved on the ark (Noah and his family). It tells of the original genealogy of the entire world. The narrator’s use of a genealogy to describe humanity’s diverse ethnic, linguistic, and geographical complexity reveals that the human race is one massive extended family. Therefore ethnic arrogance, tribal wars, racism, and the atrocity of genocide—the murder of one group by another because of ethnic difference—are incomprehensible evils, since every person is related as family to every other person upon the earth. Because of humanity’s evil heart, however, only in Christ can such ethnic strife and racial injustice find their ultimate solution.
God commissioned humanity to manage the world as his stewards and not as selfish tyrants. Humanity must represent God and his character and his will, because God ultimately rules over the created order. The Creator-King is wise, loving, holy, compassionate, good, and just, and we must reflect his character in our attitude to environmental issues. We may harness and use the resources of the earth, but must not waste, abuse, or exploit them. Creation exists for God’s glory, and its beautiful interlocking ecosystems must be protected to fulfill this purpose. Moreover, humanity is utterly dependent upon the earth and its resources for life. For all these reasons, the preservation and stewardship of creation should be an urgent and significant priority for twenty-first century global Christians.