The Book of Genesis, there is a reason why it is the first book of the Bible. The English title is from the Greek transliteration of the Hebrew title Berešit, which means beginning, the same word is used in the first line of the book. As the name implies it is a book of origins, an account of how things began. What sort of beginning is it talking about, how does it fit in with the rest of scripture, and what relevance does it have for today? If it is truly is about the beginning, it affects how we understand God, read the Bible and how we perceive the world around us and our role in it. These are large questions which do not only concern the biblical scholar or theologian but every sincere believer in Christ. In this article I will try and narrow myself to what sort of interpretive lens we should use to understand this all important ancient text.
First of all we must not make the mistake of imposing our modern views of origins on to the text. I very much agree with Professor John Walton, an Old Testament scholar, who says it is not an account of material origins but rather of functional origins. In other words Genesis does not tell how matter came into existence but how the primordial “matter” of the cosmos was ordered for the important functions that mattered to people living in that period, that is, in the ancient Near East. It does not tell us how the house was built but how the house was made into a home. God inhabiting it with his living, breathing image called Man, to form a cosmic temple. Remember a temple is simply a house for a deity especially in the ancient Near East where ancient Israel was found (Isaiah 60:1-2.) It isn’t only Prof Walton but other Old Testament scholars agree that Genesis 1 should be understood as the creation of a cosmic temple. This is a completely different genre to a scientific text. Genesis does not seek to prove anything in modern science and we should not try to harmonize it with modern science. When we try to understand it with a scientific framework the text reads very oddly.
Another thing is that Genesis 1 does not explicitly teach creation ex nihilo, that is, God making the world out of nothing. Genesis 1 assumes it but we have to go to the New Testament before we see explicit statements about creation ex nihilo in passages like Hebrews 11:3. There are more resources on this site which go into more detail. Also the BioLogos Foundation website has excellent resources on the matter.
I went through all the trouble of a quick summary to reiterate the ideas of Genesis being an ancient Near Eastern text to help establish us on the right conceptual path before we explore other aspects of the book. What I did was to help us do something known as genre calibration. What literary critics mean by this is, every text falls into a particular genre so you need to know the genre before you can interpret the text correctly. For example you cannot read a children’s fantasy novel like Peter Pan in the same way you read a scientific journal publication. Another example can be found when you are watching a film or a television show. You do not watch the latest Marvel superhero blockbuster with the same expectations as a National Geographic documentary. I want us to recalibrate our minds to expect a text that belongs to a completely different time, era and culture to our own. This way the Book of Genesis can speak freely to the issues that concerned it. It then becomes our duty to figure out what it meant on its own terms.
Jews and Christians alike consider Genesis the foundational document of the Hebrew Bible. The New Testament canons follows from the Hebrew Bible and it too, as indicated by several passages, considers Genesis in the same light. Now the first 11 chapters of Genesis are pretty odd. We have stories of men and animals being created from the ground, a woman being made from a rib, trees that grant immortality, talking snakes, global floods, and towers reaching to the heavens. These mythic-like elements are very hard to understand and over the years several explanations have been offered. I mentioned in Literally Metaphorical that these opening chapters are closer to apocalyptic texts in the way we ought to understand them. I think that way because it employs a lot of symbolism that made sense in the cognitive environment of the ancient Near East. A cognitive environment is a certain shared way of understanding the world and communicating with each other by cultures that coexisted in a particular geographical area during a certain historical period.
Throughout the book we find different sorts of symbolism and metaphor embedded in the text but this is very apparent in the first 11 chapters. These chapters can therefore be regarded as ancient myth. By myth I only mean a kind of genre and do not imply it is false on unreliable. People in those times took the myths seriously but it is not the same as modern historiography, that is, how we do history today. These were the stories they told which articulated their worldviews thereby answering the big questions of life that concerned them. They were not simply recounting what had happened in the past with cold dispassionate facts. As we shall soon see there were theological, political and social issues that the text addressed.
We have already talked about Genesis’s genre and we have already brought up the content and the structure of the book so let’s go further into how the material is arranged. Genesis 1:1 – 11:9 comprises the first major segment of the book which scholars call primeval history. It serves as the epic origin myth for the world and the human race. We know this by a comparative approach where it is compared to other ancient texts in the period. The strong similarities tells us that it belonged to that ancient genre as I have already mentioned. However, there are important dissimilarities with the other origin myths of that period. Some scholars consider Genesis 1 so unique that they place it in its own genre. Perhaps the most startling difference to the ancient Near Eastern hearer of this creation narrative is that there is no theogony, that is, stories of how the gods came into being. The god of Genesis 1 is uncreated, alone and distinct from his creation. On account of this some view Genesis 1 as doubling as a polemic against the other religions of that period. The presence of only one distinct creator-god and other differences makes the Genesis text quite unique and significant.
The next major segment is from Genesis 11:10 – 50:26. This is known as patriarchal history. As the name suggests it is about the patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and also Joseph. By comparison the patriarchal story arc is far longer than the primeval arc. It is called the Book of Genesis so presumably it could have talked about the origins of so many more things in the world. Yet it is rather preoccupied in giving details on a shorter, narrow subject matter. The difference in the lengths of the major segments provides an important clue as to how interpret the text. By the sheer numbers Genesis is really about the origins of the Hebrew people. What the author (or authors as current biblical scholarship contends) spends most time on tells you what their main concern was. This off course does not make the first 11 chapters the optional prequel story. It does not merely setup the main story but it is a crucial part of the narrative without which we will never understand the focus on the Hebrew people. Besides in terms of the chronology of telling a well-rounded story it makes sense to start with the world and the human race before focusing on a specific group of people and how they fit into the grand scheme of things. Genesis should therefore be understood from the perspective of an Israelite. This means it is a story told by Israelites, according to how Israelites told stories to other Israelites. It is not about culturally neutral timeless truths immediately intelligible to whosoever reads it.
Apart from the major segments, scholars have demonstrated it has its own complex internal structure, separate from the chapter divisions which were added long after the text was composed. This internal structure is what should guide an organic reading of the text. This I believe also provides evidence that the text should be understood through the lens of the Hebrew people.
Now tôlědôt is the Hebrew word that is often translated as generations, history or account of something. It appears in Genesis 2:4 and several other times throughout the text. As it introduces a new section of the narrative in Genesis 2:4 it serves as a heading mark for new sections of the text. Prof Walton writes about it in the Lost World of Genesis One p. 45. saying,
All commentators have recognized the recurrent transitionary formula “This is the account (tôlědôt) of . . .” used eleven times by the author to identify the sections of the book of Genesis. This shows us that the author of Genesis indeed did use initial statements as literary introductions to sections. The first of these occurs in Genesis 2:4 as the first transition from the seven-day cosmogony to the Garden of Eden account. As a transitionary phrase it links what has come before to what comes next. Sometimes what follows is genealogical information that offers information about, for example, what became of Esau or Ishmael. Other times it is followed by narratives that offer information concerning, for instance, what came of Terah’s family (thus the stories of Abram). The point is that this formula can only continue an already established sequence—it cannot begin that sequence.
The word “beginning” would be the logical term to introduce such a sequence. It would indicate the initial period, while the tôlědôt sections would introduce successive periods. If this were the case, the book would now have twelve formally designated sections (much more logical than eleven, considering the numbers that have symbolic significance in the Bible).
Prof Walton argues that berešit, i.e., the “beginning” used in Genesis 1:1, introduces the initial sequence and tôlědôt introduces successive sequences which begin in the following verses: Genesis 2:4, 5:1, 6:9, 10:1, 11:10, 11:27, 25:12, 25:19, 36:1, 36:9 and 37:2. As you have probably noticed these sections are of varying lengths, and they do not follow strict chronological order, however they tell us the text is arranged according to a consistent plot structure. This means the primeval and the patriarchal stories are consistent with one another and should be seen as a continuous whole but told with a special attention to the Hebrew people. Furthermore, as Prof Walton mentioned, there are 12 sections which is an obvious nod to the twelve tribes of Israel. Even the structural arrangement tells you that it is primarily the origin story of Israel.
Apart from the internal evidence the external evidence, that is, evidence outside of Genesis, also tells us it should be interpreted according to the grand narrative of Israel. First of all, its immediate sequel is Exodus. Exodus picks up right after the events of Genesis after the death of Joseph. Exodus harks back to Genesis 15 where God tells Abram that his people would be oppressed in a foreign land but he would come and rescue them with a mighty hand. This exactly what happens in Exodus which focuses exclusively on the Israelite people. The accounts or tôlědôt of other nations do not feature at all. If Exodus is a sequel which is continuation of the preceding narrative then it is basically one big story being told. Since the sequel is consistent with the prequel we can say the prequel is also about Israel. This larger narrative plays a very important role in how we understand Genesis but we will visit that thought later.
When we look beyond Exodus most references to Genesis in the Hebrew Bible are almost all about the family of Abraham. Even Adam, who features so prominently in Christian theology, outside of Genesis is seldom mentioned. In fact there are more references to Adam in the New Testament than even in the Old. Abraham and the other patriarchs are mentioned numerous times throughout the entire Bible. This means not only the biblical authors but the biblical audience seemed to think what was most important about Genesis was the story of Abraham and his descendants. Again, I am by no means saying what went on before Abraham was of no importance. Beyond biology there was an important theological connection between Adam and Abraham for which reason they did not think it particular important to reference Adam explicitly. The following Midrash (ancient Jewish commentary on the Bible by rabbis) puts it so succinctly,
I will make Adam first, and if he goes astray I will send Abraham to sort it all out.
– Genesis Rabbah 14:6
Abraham is supposed to be the new Adam, God’s chosen vessel to redeem the world after Adam’s mistakes. The parallels are quite obvious.
God promises to bless Abraham and multiply his descendants if he obeys and worships him alone (Genesis 12.) Adam is also blessed to multiply and he is tasked with serving YHWH alone which he fails. Abram in Genesis 15 is rather declared righteous. Both had a covenant relationship with YHWH. God took Adam and placed him in a special land and in the same way God sent Abraham to a promised land. Adam and his offspring were to be a blessing to the world. Likewise Abraham and his descendants were supposed to bless the families of the world.
There is a focus on the family of Abraham because Genesis is about families. Ultimately it is about the family of God since humans are God’s image bearers, his children (Acts 17:28-29.) So after Adam and Eve, the next major couple is Noah and his wife. Noah is also blessed to multiply, is given authority of over the earth and also enters a covenant with God. From the narrative he is Adam 2.0 after creation is rebooted so to speak. Finally we get to the final first couple of the human race, Abram and Sarai. This the family through whom God has chosen to save the world even though they are paradoxically part of the problem as well.
All these allusions tell us Abraham has taken over from Adam as God’s chosen representative of the human race. Genesis 1 therefore tells us God has made a commitment to creation and to the human family as his vice regents, with and through whom he rules over creation. It is because of this commitment, better still covenant faithfulness, that we have a story of redemption. Instead of throwing away the creation he reaffirms the goodness of his original plan and through that same broken creation he immediately gets to work to save it. The seeds are sown for the long story of the incarnation which climaxed in Jesus the Messiah. God participating in his creation to save it. This is why Jesus had to belong to the family of Abraham. God had irrevocably chosen Abraham, a descendent of Adam, to fulfil humanity’s original purpose, to reflect the glory of God into the world and offer the praises of creation back to him for his glory.
So what do we do about the primeval story? We have seen there are explicit parallels with the patriarchal story and we also know biblical people interpreted it as a part of their story as summarized by the Midrash that was quoted. The Midrash tells us that even into the rabbinic period Jewish people still had those beliefs about what Genesis meant. New Testament scholar, N.T. Wright, says that Jewish people in the second Temple period, where ancient Rabbinism originated from, would have immediately recognized the story of the fall as their own story.
The story of Adam was about a family who was blessed by their god, and given a land and a covenant to be faithful him. They were deceived by a foreign entity, sinned and therefore were ejected from that choice land, into suffering and misery. But they were also given a promise by their god of restoration through a chosen leader who would arise from among them. This story sounded eerily familiar. It is exactly what had happened to Israel when they went into exile and by the time of Jesus, people were eagerly anticipating the promised saviour, the Messiah, to lead them back into the glory days where God would finally fulfil his promises. We do not have to go into the second Temple period to see this expectation. Moses says,
I call heaven and earth to witness against you today, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse. Therefore choose life, that you and your offspring may live, loving the LORD your God, obeying his voice and holding fast to him, for he is your life and length of days, that you may dwell in the land that the LORD swore to your fathers, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, to give them.” – Deuteronomy 30:19-20 ESV
Life and death, blessing and curse, is an obvious allusion to Genesis 2 & 3 with the tree of life versus the tree of knowledge of good and evil which results in death. If they choose to disobey, they too will experience “death”, that is not being able to flourish, by being expelled from the land. For Adam obedience to God met life, that is continued existence in the garden which gave him access to the tree of life, the elixir for his immortality. Likewise obedience to the Torah, God’s own word, was also thought to be life giving. Jesus himself remarked that the Jews of his time thought that eternal life was found in obedience to the Torah (John 5:39.)
Simply put, in the primeval epic of Genesis 1-11, the thematic templates and other metaphors for the rest of the narrative are established. The Israelite worldview is founded on those opening passages. It answers who made the world, why was it made, what their given purpose in the world is and why they keep failing at it. It also shows that they are mysteriously a part of the solution and it is only through the grace of their Maker that they can fulfil that purpose.
Even though Genesis is about Israel, it is about Israel for the world. They were the chosen instruments to fulfil a far grander cosmic narrative. The Genesis story is not about selfish nationalism. It is about how God revealed himself to one family so they could reflect his image into the world, and bring him glory through his creation. The story is then about how to return to that good initial primeval state but where evil is no longer a possibility but will be overcome by the love, faithfulness and goodness of God. The search for a new Eden.
In summary Genesis is centred on the origin of the Jewish people and their God-given mission to the world. It gives them their national and cultural identity as the specially chosen people of God and that shapes every other aspect of who they are. It also anticipates their chequered history and gives them the promise that God will not abandon them. God’s story, the story of the world, was being told through their unique story. It is this worldview narrative and the beliefs that arise from it that we should understand Genesis and the rest of the scriptural record.