Short Introduction to the Study of Genesis 1-11

No book of the Old Testament has received as much scholarly attention as Genesis. But that is not necessarily good news because, like the Internet, Genesis scholarship contains ample amounts of trash mixed with the treasure. In the brief discussion that follows we will rely on comments from evangelical Christian scholars whose views are generally consistent with what the church held to be true for the first seventeen centuries after Jesus rose from the dead.

Definition of a few terms

Before presenting a few quotations to clarify Genesis, we will establish a few terms. The Hebrew word Yahweh (yhwh) is what God revealed as his personal or covenant name, first in Genesis 2:4. Yahweh is usually translated Lord in English Bibles. One of our early quotes will include the phrase Yahwistic faith, and that uses the divine name in the form of an adjective; Yahwistic faith means faith in Yahweh.

When the Hebrew authors of biblical books used the word God in a more general sense, they used the Hebrew word elohim. This Hebrew word is sometimes used to refer to God, as in Genesis 1:1, and other times used to refer to the false gods worshipped by unbelievers.

Two other words will prove useful. The word primeval means: Belonging to the first ages; pristine; original; primitive; primary.[1] The word patriarch means: The father and ruler of a family; one who governs his family or descendants by paternal right.[2]

The nature of biblical history

The historical viewpoint of Genesis also pertains to the whole of the Bible. Old Testament scholar Alan Ross says:

The biblical account is actually a unique distillation of history…. It is less interested in recording events for the sake of history than in using these events as vehicles for communicating the verities of biblical faith. The Bible presents an interpretation of significant events from the perspective of Yahwistic faith.

In the biblical idea of history, the conviction concerning the reality and authority of Yahweh is the point of departure for any evaluation. Robinson says, The Bible takes it as axiomatic that God controls history, reveals himself in history, and directs it towards a final goal.[3]

The literary classification of Genesis

Those who cannot abide belief in a supernatural God who created the world and humanity like to categorize Genesis as myth or saga. Old Testament scholar Victor Hamilton says, Anything that is treated as the work of a supernatural being, but which a scientific worldview would interpret as the operation of impersonal laws and forces, is by this position understood as myth.[4]

The faithless approach described above emerged from the rise of a philosophical rationalism which seeks to put the Bible under the skeptical judgment of human scholarship. Of course, philosophical rationalism is not the view we accept or use in this study guide. We begin with the understanding that Genesis is part of Gods revelation to mankind, and we seek to understand how God has presented it.

Ross gives a useful description of the mixed literary types we find in Genesis:

It may be necessary to classify the three sections of Genesis individually. The primeval events [Genesis 1-11] are ancient traditions cast in a poetic narrative form that lends itself readily to oral transmission. The patriarchal events [Genesis 12-36] are reports about the ancestors that were retained in the family records. And the Joseph material [Genesis 37-50] forms a short story with its arc of tension and its resolution.[5]

The themes of Genesis

Ross presents some essential ideas that will help the reader understand what Genesis is all about:

Even a casual reading of the Book of Genesis reveals the prominence of the theme of blessing. The entire book turns on this motif and its antithetical motif, cursing. . . . There is another side to this tension between blessing and cursing, a conflict that works out on the human level and corresponds to the blessing and cursing. The motifs of good and evil characterize the human activities and circumstances in this struggle. That which is good is harmonious with the divine will; that which is evil conflicts with the divine will.[6]

Hamilton has drawn attention to another prominent theme. After noting that the patriarchal history constitutes about four fifths of Genesis, he says: Almost everybody who has written on the subject agrees that the theme of divine promise unites the patriarchal [accounts].[7] Hamilton then presents the findings of D.J.A. Clines. Clines identified three major promises in the five books of Moses (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy) known collectively as the Pentateuch. The promises from God relate to descendants, a relationship to God, and a land. Clines data breaks down like this:

  1. promise of descendants: Genesis, 19 times
  2. promise of relationship: Genesis, 10 times; Exodus, 8 times; Leviticus, 1 time
  3. promise of land: Genesis, 13 times; Exodus, 5 times
  4. allusions to the promise: Genesis, 17 times; Exodus, 11 times; Leviticus, 11 times; Numbers, 37 times; Deuteronomy, 50 times[8]

After establishing his view that the kingdom of God is the theme of the Bible, Bruce Waltke says the following themes of the kingdom emerge from Genesis: the seed [spiritual sons of Abraham], the land, Gods rule, the Ruler.[9] Whether you agree with this analysis, the attempt to tie Genesis into the entirety of the Bible is useful.

The literary structure of Genesis

Readers of Genesis will notice a refrain that repeats throughout the book: This is the account of . . . or These are the generations of . . . . The Hebrew behind these English words is regarded as a structural marker separating various sections of the book.

Ross expresses the meaning of the Hebrew marker (tledt) as: this is what became of ____, or this is where it started from (with reference to the following subject).[10] So, when we find the marker tledt in Genesis 2:4, it means, This is what became of the heavens and the earth. In Genesis 6:9, the term means, This is what became of Noah.

So, we have a sequence of stories that explain what became of the heavens and earth and important people such as Adam, Noah, Isaac and Jacob. But we must also notice a perceptible decline from the beginning of Genesis to the end. Ross quotes commentator Derek Kidner about this decline by saying: Man had travelled from Eden to a coffin [Josephs], and the chosen family far from Canaan to Egypt.[11]

Along with decline we have a narrowing of focus. In Genesis 1 the focus is universal when God creates the heavens and the earth. By the end of Genesis we are almost exclusively involved with the children of Jacob, whose descendants soon fell into disfavor with a new Pharaoh (Exodus 1). But they are the inheritors of Gods promises, and his hand is upon them.

Within each major section of Genesis the reader will find a deterioration due to sins pervasive reach. While God started the creation in pristine condition (very good, Genesis 1:31), by the time of Noah evil had become so widespread that God found it necessary to destroy all life on earth except for the family of Noah and those animals he took with him (Genesis 6). Similarly, Abraham exhibited greater faith than Isaac or Jacob. The reader should watch for this theme, which is unstated or implicit in the manner of most narrative literature.

The Flood

Genesis chapters 6-9 tell the somber story of how God destroyed his original creation by flooding it with water because of rampant violence. Many otherwise orthodox Christians wonder if this story is just a legend, but we offer three key reasons for upholding a world-wide flood which destroyed all but the tiniest part of human life, which God chose to spare:

  1. The Bible presents the flood in the same language as for all other historical events.
  2. Jesus plainly stated that the flood occurred just as Genesis describes it (Luke 17:27; Matt. 24:37-39).
  3. Dozens of cultures around the world have ancient stories of a world-wide flood. For an excellent chart and comparison, see http://nwcreation.net/noahlegends.html.

Copyright 2011 by Barry Applewhite, Plano, Texas. All rights reserved worldwide. Derived from material created for Christ Fellowship, McKinney, Texas. Used by permission.

Commentaries

Technical

Gordon J. Wenham, Genesis 115, Word Biblical Commentary (Nashville: Word Incorporated, 1987).

Victor P. Hamilton, The Book of Genesis: Chapters 1-17, The New International Commentary on the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1990).

Kenneth A. Mathews, Genesis 1-11:26, The New American Commentary (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 1996).

Advanced

Alan P. Ross, Creation and Blessing (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1988). [Recommended]

Easier

Derek Kidner, Genesis, Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2008). [Recommended]

Recommended Reading!

Tremper Longman III, How To Read Genesis (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2005).


[1] “primeval.” Webster’s Revised Unabridged Dictionary. MICRA, Inc. 19 Aug. 2008. <Dictionary.com http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/primeval>.

[2] “patriarch.” Webster’s Revised Unabridged Dictionary. MICRA, Inc. 19 Aug. 2008. <Dictionary.com http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/patriarch>.

[3] Alan P. Ross, Creation and Blessing (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1988) 59.

[4] Victor P. Hamilton, The Book of Genesis: Chapters 1-17, The New International Commentary on the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1990) 56-57.

[5] Ross, Creation and Blessing, 63.

[6] Ross, Creation and Blessing, 65-67.

[7] Hamilton, Genesis 1-17, 39.

[8] Hamilton, Genesis 1-17, 42.

[9] Bruce K. Waltke with Cathi J. Fredricks, Genesis (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2001)45-54.

[10] Ross, Creation & Blessing, 72-73.

[11] Ross, Creation & Blessing, 74.