Originally the first five books of the Bible were one. They were divided into their present form for convenience, and collectively are known as the Pentateuch (meaning ‘five volumes’). The books are also commonly referred to as the books of Moses, because Moses has traditionally been regarded as the author (see PENTATEUCH).
The name Genesis means ‘origin’ or ‘beginning’, and comes from the title given to the book by those who first translated the Hebrew Old Testament into Greek. The book speaks of the origins of the universe, of the human race, of human sin and of God’s way of salvation. Although the Bible mentions matters relating to the beginnings of the universe and the early days of the human race, its main concern is not with the scientific aspect of these matters (see CREATION). The Bible is concerned rather with the relationship between God and the people he placed in the world he had made. It shows in the opening chapters of Genesis how human beings, though created sinless, rebelled against God and corrupted human nature.
Their sin brought with it God’s judgment, but the judgment contained an element of mercy, as God repeatedly gave them the opportunity to start afresh. Still they rebelled, and still God did not destroy them. This leads Genesis into its second and major section, which shows how God worked in human affairs to provide a way of salvation. God chose to work through Abraham, one of the few surviving believers. He promised to make from Abraham a nation, to make that nation his people, and to give them Canaan as a national homeland. From that nation God would bring a Saviour, through whom the blessings of God’s salvation would go to all peoples of the world (Gen 12:1-3; 13:14-16). The book goes on to record the birth of this nation and the events that helped prepare it for its occupation of the promised land.
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Outline of contents
Genesis begins with the story of creation (1:1-2:3) and the rebellion of Adam and Eve (2:4-4:26). As the human race spread, so did human sin (5:1-6:4), till the rebellion became so widespread and so resistant to reform that God sent a flood that destroyed the entire generation, except for a few believers (6:5-8:19). From these believers, God made a new beginning and repopulated the devastated earth (8:20- 10:32), but as people became more secure and independent, so did they become more rebellious against God (11:1-9). Judgment inevitably followed, but in his grace God again preserved the faithful. One of these was a man from Mesopotamia named Abram, later renamed Abraham (11:10-26). After God announced to Abraham his promise of blessing (11:27-12:3), Abraham and his household moved into Canaan. When a famine hit the land, they went to Egypt, but in due course they returned and settled at Hebron, west of the Dead Sea (12:4-14:24).
(For a map and other details relevant to Abraham’s varied experiences see ABRAHAM.) God made a covenant with Abraham, in which he promised to give him a multitude of descendants (15:1-21); but the birth of Ishmael had no part in the fulfilment of that promise (16:1-16). God then confirmed the covenant with Abraham, giving the rite of circumcision as the sign and seal of the covenant (17:1-27). Some time later the promised son Isaac was born (18:1-21:34). God tested the faith and obedience of Abraham, but Abraham proved himself totally committed to God, no matter what the circumstances (22:1-23:20). Isaac married and produced two sons, Esau and Jacob (24:1-25:26). In accordance with God’s will, the blessing of Abraham passed to Jacob instead of to Esau. That, however, was no excuse for Jacob’s ruthlessness and deceit in obtaining the blessing (25:27-28:9). Jacob moved from Canaan to Mesopotamia to obtain a wife among his parents’ relatives. He stayed in Mesopotamia for twenty years, during which he built up a large family. He then left to settle again in Canaan (28:10-31:55).
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But first he had to be reconciled to his brother Esau, who by this time had developed a prosperous settlement in neighbouring territory to the south-east (32:1-36:43). Troubles arose among Jacob’s twelve sons, with the result that one of them, Joseph, was sold as a slave and taken to Egypt. But God was controlling the affairs of his people, and through a series of remarkable events, Joseph eventually became governor over Egypt. When the entire region was devastated by a famine, his wise administration saved the nation (37:1-41:57). More than twenty years after Joseph’s brothers had sold him as a slave, they met him in Egypt when they went there to buy food. The result was that the whole of Jacob’s household migrated to Egypt and settled in the fertile Nile Delta (42:1-47:26). In the specially marked-off area that Pharaoh had given them, Jacob’s large family could live together and multiply without being corrupted by Egyptian ideas. Jacob saw that a prosperous future lay ahead for his descendants and announced his blessings on them before he died (47:27-49:33). Years later Joseph died, but before his death he expressed his unwavering faith in God’s promises. He knew that just as God’s promise to Abraham of a nation had been largely fulfilled, so his promise of a homeland would also be fulfilled. The Israelites’ increasing prosperity in Egypt was rapidly preparing them for the day when they would be strong enough to move north and take possession of the promised land (50:1-26).