Understanding the Book of Genesis
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Genesis, the first book of the Bible, is a stunning book. Christians should remember that Genesis was part of the Jewish Scriptures well before completing the Christian Bible. And so, to fully understand it, we need to listen to our Jewish friends.
Hard-line Jewish Theologians believe that God wrote Genesis by dictating it to Moses, and Moses chiselled away on the first tablet that didn’t have autocorrect! Most Jewish scholars believe a series of scribes wrote Genesis (as we know it today) after the Babylonian captivity.
In the ancient world, people told stories around campfires. That was the Netflix of the day, the people’s entertainment. This resulted in a lot of variances in the stories. And some of these differences are recorded in Genesis. Consider, there are two entirely different creation stories (Genesis 1 & 2), Abraham passes his wife off as his sister twice, and there are two accounts of how Jacob’s name was changed to Israel. Genesis reflects people’s memories rather than accurate history. My Rabbi friend put it this way, “Our people don’t have history; we have memory.” Genesis then unfolds people’s memories and stories and their interactions with God and one another.
It wasn’t until the 12th century BCE that people said, “We should write this stuff down.” And so, Scribes who are unknown to us today wrote all the stories down. Moses, regarded as the traditional author of the Bible’s first five books, lived a century before.
These Scribes attempted to capture the nation’s oral history—campfire stories with all their variances and disagreements. Codifying a written record of oral stories was a very long process. Many authors took a shot at it over 1000 years between 1200 and 200 BCE.
In 135 CE, the written Tanakh (Old Testament) was sealed. In other words, those who made decisions about sacred text decided the holy text was now complete. The Tanakh was considered the seed of Jewish (and Christian) tradition. And, of course, seeds naturally germinate and grow. Thus, Jews and Christians still enjoy its fruit today.
“Genesis” is the English name for the first book of the Bible. The Greek translation of the Hebrew word, toledoth (to-led-aw), is found 13 times in Genesis. Toledoth is a Story, record, account, or generation. Toledoth marks off the various sections of the book:
Genesis 2:4, “Such is the story of heaven and earth….”
Genesis 5:1, “This is the record of Adam’s line….”
Genesis 6:9, “These are the generations of Noah.”
The Hebrew name for Genesis is Bere’shit (beray sheet), the first word of the book translated as “in the beginning.” In the beginning, a time when time didn’t exist, God created time. Wow. Genesis deals with beginnings, particularly the beginning of the cosmos and Israel. Genesis ends with the death of Joseph (1445 BCE).
The book easily falls into two parts:
Genesis 1-11 (story / parable)
Genesis 12-50 (memory / history)
It is primarily not a history or science book but rather tells of Israel’s self-identity as a nation.
For example, the story of Adam is a parable, a condensed version of Israel’s story. Adam was created by God out of dust and placed in the garden. He was free to eat from EVERY tree except one. God said, if you disobey, you’ll die. Of course, Adam didn’t literally die. Instead, he and Eve were exiled from Eden. Consider the parallel with Israel, a nation created out of the dust (slavery) and placed in Canaan, a land flowing with milk and honey (very garden of Edenish). God gave them clear commands to obey and warnings against disobedience. Rebellion would lead to death. Consider Deuteronomy 30:19, “I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life so that you and your children may live.”
Like Adam, Israel disobeyed and faced exile. And so, Genesis is telling us something about a struggling nation as they return home from being refugees in a foreign land. They are rebuilding and reconnecting with their roots as they embrace a brand-new future. They remind themselves of their stories, who they are, and who their God is to them. The apostle Paul told the church, “These things happened to them as examples and were written down as warnings for us, on whom the culmination of the ages has come” (1 Cor. 10:11). From the parables, stories, and memories of Genesis, followers of Jesus today can find great encouragement in who we are in Christ and who our God is to us.