By Ps. Paul

01

In the Beginning

Summary of the Book of Genesis

This summary of the book of Genesis provides information about the title, author(s), date of writing, chronology, theme, theology, outline, a brief overview, and the chapters of the Book of Genesis.

Title

The first phrase in the Hebrew text of 1:1 is bereshith (“in [the] beginning”), which is also the Hebrew title of the book (books in ancient times customarily were named after their first word or two). The English title, Genesis, is Greek in origin and comes from the word geneseos, which appears in the pre-Christian Greek translation (Septuagint) of 2:45:1. Depending on its context, the word can mean “birth,” “genealogy,” or “history of origin.” In both its Hebrew and Greek forms, then, the traditional title of Genesis appropriately describes its contents, since it is primarily a book of beginnings.


Background

Chs. 1-38 reflect a great deal of what we know from other sources about ancient Mesopotamian life and culture. Creation, genealogies, destructive floods, geography and mapmaking, construction techniques, migrations of peoples, sale and purchase of land, legal customs and procedures, sheepherding and cattle-raising — all these subjects and many others were matters of vital concern to the peoples of Mesopotamia during this time. They were also of interest to the individuals, families and tribes of whom we read in the first 38 chapters of Genesis. The author appears to locate Eden, humankind’s first home, in or near Mesopotamia; the tower of Babel was built there; Abram was born there; Isaac took a wife from there; and Jacob lived there for 20 years. Although these patriarchs settled in Canaan, their original homeland was Mesopotamia.

The closest ancient literary parallels to Ge 1-38 also come from Mesopotamia. Enuma elish, the story of the god Marduk’s rise to supremacy in the Babylonian pantheon, is similar in some respects (though thoroughly mythical and polytheistic) to the Ge 1 creation account. Some of the features of certain king lists from Sumer bear striking resemblance to the genealogy in Ge 5. The 11th tablet of the Gilgamesh epic is quite similar in outline to the flood narrative in Ge 6-8. Several of the major events of Ge 1-8 are narrated in the same order as similar events in the Atrahasis epic. In fact, the latter features the same basic motif of creation-rebellion-flood as the Biblical account. Clay tablets found in 1974 at the ancient (c. 2500-2300 b.c.) site of Ebla (modern Tell Mardikh) in northern Syria may also contain some intriguing parallels.

Two other important sets of documents demonstrate the reflection of Mesopotamia in the first 38 chapters of Genesis. From the Mari letters, dating from the patriarchal period, we learn that the names of the patriarchs (including especially Abram, Jacob and Job) were typical of that time. The letters also clearly illustrate the freedom of travel that was possible between various parts of the Amorite world in which the patriarchs lived. The Nuzi tablets, though a few centuries later than the patriarchal period, shed light on patriarchal customs, which tended to survive virtually intact for many centuries. The inheritance right of an adopted household member or slave (see 15:1-4), the obligation of a barren wife to furnish her husband with sons through a servant girl (see 16:2-4), strictures against expelling such a servant girl and her son (see 21:10-11), the authority of oral statements in ancient Near Eastern law, such as the deathbed bequest (see 27:1-4,22-23,33) — these and other legal customs, social contracts and provisions are graphically illustrated in Mesopotamian documents.

As Ge 1-38 is Mesopotamian in character and background, so chs. 39 – 50 reflect Egyptian influence — though in not quite so direct a way. Examples of such influence are: Egyptian grape cultivation (40:9-11), the riverside scene (ch. 41), Egypt as Canaan’s breadbasket (ch. 42), Canaan as the source of numerous products for Egyptian consumption (ch. 43), Egyptian religious and social customs (the end of chs. 4346), Egyptian administrative procedures (ch. 47), Egyptian funerary practices (ch. 50) and several Egyptian words and names used throughout these chapters. The closest specific literary parallel from Egypt is the Tale of Two Brothers, which bears some resemblance to the story of Joseph and Potiphar’s wife (ch. 39). Egyptian autobiographical narratives (such as the Story of Sinuhe and the Report of Wenamun) and certain historical legends offer more general literary parallels.

Author and Date of Writing

Historically, Jews and Christians alike have held that Moses was the author/compiler of the first five books of the OT. These books, known also as the Pentateuch (meaning “five-volumed book”), were referred to in Jewish tradition as the five fifths of the law (of Moses). The Bible itself suggests Mosaic authorship of Genesis, since Ac 15:1 refers to circumcision as “the custom taught by Moses,” an allusion to Ge 17. However, a certain amount of later editorial updating does appear to be indicated (see, e.g., notes on 14:1436:3147:11).

The historical period during which Moses lived seems to be fixed with a fair degree of accuracy by 1 Kings. We are told that “the fourth year of Solomon’s reign over Israel” was the same as “the four hundred and eightieth year after the Israelites had come out of Egypt” (1Ki 6:1). Since the former was c. 966 b.c., the latter — and thus the date of the exodus — was c. 1446 (assuming that the 480 in 1Ki 6:1 is to be taken literally; see Introduction to Judges: Background). The 40-year period of Israel’s wanderings in the desert, which lasted from c. 1446 to c. 1406, would have been the most likely time for Moses to write the bulk of what is today known as the Pentateuch.

During the last three centuries many interpreters have claimed to find in the Pentateuch four underlying sources. The presumed documents, allegedly dating from the tenth to the fifth centuries b.c., are called J (for Jahweh/Yahweh, the personal OT name for God), E (for Elohim, a generic name for God), D (for Deuteronomic) and P (for Priestly). Each of these documents is claimed to have its own characteristics and its own theology, which often contradicts that of the other documents. The Pentateuch is thus depicted as a patchwork of stories, poems and laws. However, this view is not supported by conclusive evidence, and intensive archaeological and literary research has tended to undercut many of the arguments used to challenge Mosaic authorship.