The name Genesis means ‘origin’ or ‘beginning’ and is a suitable name for the book of the Bible that speaks of the origins of the universe, of the human race, of human sin and of God’s way of salvation.
Though it stands at the beginning of our Bibles as an individual book, it was originally part of a much larger book commonly called the Pentateuch.
Hebrew, the mother tongue of the Israelite people, was the original language of the Old Testament. During the third century BC this Hebrew Old Testament was translated into Greek, the translation being known as the Septuagint (often written LXX), after ‘the seventy’ who translated it. From these translators we have borrowed the word Pentateuch as a name for the first five books of the Bible (from two Greek words, penta, meaning ‘five’, and teuchos, meaning ‘a volume’).
Originally the five books were one, but they were put into their present five-volume form so that they could fit conveniently on to five scrolls. The Hebrews referred to the whole Pentateuch simply as ‘the law’ (2 Chron 17:9; Neh 8:1-3,18; Matt 5:17-19; 11:13; 12:5; Luke 24:44).
Age-old tradition, both Hebrew and Christian, recognizes Moses as the author of the Pentateuch (2 Chron 35:12; Neh 8:1; 13:1; Dan 9:11; Mark 12:26; Luke 16:29-31; Acts 15:21), though the Pentateuch itself does not say who wrote it. Nevertheless, it mentions Moses’ literary activity. He wrote down the law that God gave to Israel (Exod 24:4; 34:27; Deut 31:9,24), he kept records of Israel’s history (Exod 17:14; Num 33:2) and he wrote poems and songs (Exod 15:1; Deut 1:22,30).
As leader of the nation, Moses was no doubt familiar with the family records, traditional stories and ancient songs that people of former generations had preserved and handed down, whether by word of mouth or in written form (cf. Gen 5:1; 6:9; 10:1; 11:10,27). Like other writers, he would have used material from various sources, especially in writing about places and events outside his own experience (Gen 26:33; 35:19-20; 47:26; Num 21:14). In addition he had direct contact with God and received divine revelations (Exod 3:4-6; 33:9-11; Deut 34:10). Under the guiding hand of God, all this material was put together to produce what we call the five books of Moses.
People who study biblical documents have at times suggested that the Pentateuch reached its final form much later than the time of Moses. They base their ideas on the similarities and contrasts they see in such things as narrative accounts, the names used for God, usage of certain words and phrases, and details of Israel’s religious system. Some even see a number of independent documents that were later combined into one.
Amid all the discussion that has taken place concerning these matters, people have sometimes forgotten that the important issue is not how the Pentateuch was written, but what it means. And in both the Hebrew and Christian Bibles it stands as a book whose unity is clear and whose message is the living Word of God (Neh 8:8,14; 9:3; John 5:39,46; Acts 28:23).
The book of Genesis
Those who gave the name ‘Genesis’ to the first book of the Bible were the translators of the Pentateuch. The ancient Hebrews called the book by its opening words, ‘In the beginning’. The book’s chief concern, however, is not with physical origins, but with the relationship God desires to have with the people who inhabit his earth.
Adam and Eve, though sinless when created, fell into sin, and the evil consequences of their sin passed on to the human race descended from them. Rebellious humanity deserved, and received, God’s judgment, but that judgment was always mixed with mercy. God did not destroy the human life he had created. Rather he worked through it to provide a way of salvation available to all. His way was to choose one man (Abraham), from whom he would build a nation (Israel), through which he would make his will known and eventually produce the Saviour of the world (Jesus).
The book of Genesis shows how human beings rebelled against God and fell under his judgment, but it shows also how God began to carry out his plan for their salvation. After recording his promises to
make from Abraham a nation and to give that nation a homeland in Canaan, it shows how the promises concerning both the land and the people began to be fulfilled.