What’s in a name?
Genesis is a transliteration of a Greek word meaning “origin,” “beginning” or “generation.” This name was given to the book from the Greek (Septuagint) translation of Genesis 2:4: “haute he biblos geneseos ouranou kai ges,” which means “This is the book of the generations of heaven and earth.”
The Hebrew Bible names the book after its first word, bere’shith, meaning “in the beginning.” It was standard practice in the ancient Near East to call a literary work by its initial word or phrase. Both the Hebrew and Greek titles are appropriate for Genesis, the record of historical origins.
Without the book of Genesis, the rest of the Bible would make little sense. Genesis lays a foundation that allows us to begin to answer the big questions in life, such as: Why are we here? Where did we come from? Where are we going? God answers these questions more fully as the Bible story unfolds. Genesis describes the beginning of the world, of human beings and civilization, of families and nations, of sin and salvation.
Genesis can be divided into a prologue (Gen. 1:1 – 2:3), and 10 sections introduced in the King James Version with the words “these are the generations of” (Gen. 2:4 – 4:26; 5:1 – 6:8; 6:9 – 9:29; 10:1 – 11:9; 11:10-26; 11:27 – 25:11; 25:12-18; 25:19 – 35:29; 36:1 – 37:1; 37:2 – 50:26).
Genesis traces a line of descendants from Adam to Jacob, highlighting God’s selection of, and commitment to, the family of Abraham – the family through whom he would implement his plan of salvation (Gen. 12:1-3).
The placing of the Genesis narrative in this genealogical framework shows that the accounts are intended to be understood as real-life histories of men and women.
How to read this book
Although Genesis gives us fascinating glimpses of the beginning of human history, it is not primarily a historical or scientific statement. Genesis makes the theological statement that God created men and women in his image and has an eternal purpose for them. Every scientific, historical or literary analysis that misses this point misunderstands the text of Genesis.
It cannot be emphasized too strongly that the primary value of Genesis, as indeed of all Scripture, is theological. It is possible to devote a great deal of time and energy to all kinds of incidental details and to miss the great theological issues. For example, the story of the Flood speaks of sin, judgment, redemption, new life. To be occupied with details about the [date and extent of the Flood, or about the] size of the ark, and with problems of feeding or of the disposal of refuse, is to be concerned with side issues. While God’s revelation was largely in historical events, and while history is of tremendous significance for the biblical revelation, it is the theological significance of events that is finally important. (New Bible Dictionary, p. 413)
Learning about God
The first thing Genesis teaches us is that God exists:
It is no accident that God is the subject of the first sentence of the Bible, for this word dominates the whole chapter…it is used some thirty-five times in as many verses of the story. The passage, indeed the Book, is about Him first of all; to read it with any other primary interest…is to misread it. (Derek Kidner, Genesis, Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries, p. 43)
Genesis also tells us that:
- The world exists only because God does, and because he chose to make it. The world does not have to exist. If nothing had ever been created, God would still exist, throughout all eternity.
- Everything depends on God and ultimately belongs to him (Psalm 89:11). Nothing can claim to exist by its own power or purpose. As a proverb states, “God without man is still God; but man without God is nothing.”
- It is possible to reject God, but to do this results in evil, chaos, destruction and pain. This is why sin is a tragic fact of human existence.
- In spite of our rejection of God, he has not rejected us. Genesis shows that God, from the beginning, has a plan to save humanity from its chosen path of sin and death.
God acts in history. In the midst of human affairs, with all our problems, struggles and uncertainties, God’s presence is certain. This was known by the patriarchs – the founding fathers of our faith – and, as Genesis teaches us, it can be known by Christians today.
Viewing Genesis from a New Testament vantage point, we see Jesus Christ in action as the eternal Word: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made” (John 1:1-3; see also Colossians 1:16).
Furthermore, Jesus’ ministry is anticipated in Genesis 3:15. The “offspring” of the woman who would crush the serpent’s (Satan’s) head is Jesus Christ, the “seed” of Abraham mentioned by Paul in Galatians 3:16.
Perhaps the greatest revelation of Christ in Genesis is found in God’s establishment of his covenant with Abraham (Gen. 12:1-3; 15:1-21; 17:1-21). God made glorious promises to Abraham. The apostle Paul explains how, through Jesus Christ, the New Testament church became the spiritual inheritors of many of those promises (Galatians 3:1-29). As we shall see, a proper understanding of God’s covenant with Abraham is indispensable to understanding the rest of the Bible story.
Genesis reveals much about the nature of God:
- God is the Creator and Life-giver (Gen. 1:1 — 2:9).
- God is personal and desires a relationship with human beings (Gen. 1:26 — 2:25; 15:1-2:1.).
- God is holy and judges sinful humans (Gen. 3:8-24; 6:5-7; 11:1-9; 18:16 — 19:29).
- God is merciful, even in judgment (Gen. 3:21; 4:15; 6:8; 18:32).
- God is sovereign over every power (Gen. 18:14; 26:12-16).
Satan: Genesis reveals an adversary who masqueraded as a serpent and influenced the first humans to sin. The Bible later names this adversary Satan, which means “adversary.” Through his influence, Satan generates discord, deception and disobedience among human beings (Genesis 3:1-7; 2 Corinthians 4:4; Revelation 12:9).
Redemption: Even as he expelled Adam and Eve from the garden because of sin, God prophesied that one of their descendants would save humanity (Genesis 3:15; Galatians 3:16; Revelation 13:8).
Election or calling: Abel, Noah, Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Jacob and Joseph are all called by God and chosen for their place in the history of God’s people.
Covenants: The Bible is a story of God’s successive covenants (agreements) with his people, culminating with Christ ushering in the new covenant. Genesis begins this story, recording God’s covenants with Noah and with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.
The Sabbath: God rested after the six days of creation, a pattern that would later be used to regulate Israelite life under the laws given through Moses (Genesis 2:2-3; Exodus 20:8-11).
Marriage and the family: From the beginning, God instituted marriage to unite husband and wife for life (Gen.. 2:21-25). God commanded Adam and Eve, “Be fruitful and increase in number” (Gen. 1:28). Marriage enables love to be expressed between husband and wife, and children to be brought up within a family.
What this book means for you
Genesis may be an ancient book, but its message is up-to-date. Its real-life stories are related in frank and honest detail. They contain vital lessons to help us improve our relationships with God, family and society.
Genesis illustrates the supreme importance of our relationship with God. God created humanity in his image (Gen. 1:26). He wants us to have a relationship with him, to place him first in our life. Abel did so, and God respected him (Gen. 4:4). Enoch walked with God (Gen. 5:22-24), as did Noah (Gen. 6:9). Abraham, Sarah, Isaac and Jacob all developed strong relationships with God – despite their mistakes. We can, too.
Genesis is also a book about family relationships. It shows how they can be destroyed by favoritism or by resentments handed down from previous generations. And it shows that even family members who hate each other can be reconciled. Read the story of Esau and Jacob (Gen. 27–33), and Joseph and his brothers (Gen. 42–46).
Finally, Genesis reminds us of our responsibilities to the world. When God commanded Adam “to work…and take care of” the garden of Eden (Gen. 2:15), he was trusting him with the stewardship of the earth. This still applies to us. We should look after our environment.
Even more important is our attitude toward other people. From the beginning we are told we should not harm others, for we are all made in God’s image (Gen. 9:5-6). Genesis reveals that God’s concern stretches out over all humanity, as it begins to reveal God’s plan of salvation through Jesus Christ.