Guide to the Book of Genesis
The book of Genesis is the first book of the Bible. It is divided into two main parts, with chapters 1-11 telling the story of God and the whole world, and chapters 12-50 focusing in on the story of God, a man, and his family. These two parts are connected by a sort of "hinge" story in the beginning of chapter 12. This literary design gives us a clue as to how to understand the message of the book as a whole, as well as how the entire story of the Bible comes together.
6:12 • Torah Series
Many Jewish and Christian traditions hold that Moses is the author of Genesis. However, authorship is not explicitly stated within the book.
The events described in Genesis generally take place in the ancient Near East and Egypt, the place where Jacob’s family settles.
Genesis is written as narrative with occasional poetic and discourse sections.
Genesis is divided into two main parts. Chapters 1-11 detail the story of God and his relationship to the whole word, while chapters 12-50 focus on the story of God’s relationship with Abraham and his family.
The book of Genesis begins with God taking disorder and darkness and creating out of it order, beauty, and goodness. He creates a world where life can flourish, as well as creatures to inhabit that world.
God makes humans, or adam in Hebrew, in "his image," a concept that has to do with their role in God’s world. They are made to be reflections of God’s character out in the world, and they are appointed representatives to rule God’s good world on his behalf. They are to harness this world’s potential, to care for it, and to make it a place where they can multiply and flourish. God blesses the humans—a key theme in this book—and gives them a garden from which they can begin their task of building the world.
It is important to note that these humans have a choice as to how they are going to build this world, represented neatly in the tree of knowledge of good and evil. Up until now, God has provided and defined for them what is good and what is not good, but at this point, God gives them the freedom and dignity to choose. Will they trust his definition of good and evil, or will they seize autonomy and define good and evil for themselves? The stakes are high here. To rebel against God is to embrace death by turning away from the tree of life, which represents the gift of life itself.
All of a sudden a mysterious figure, a snake, enters the story. It is given no introduction other than it is a creature that God made. It becomes clear, however, that the snake is in rebellion against God and wants to lead the humans into rebellion also, so that they’ll die. The snake tells them a different story about this tree of knowledge and the choice it represents. Seizing the knowledge of good and evil won’t bring death. On the contrary, it’s actually the way to life and to becoming like God himself.
The tragic irony, of course, is that the humans are already like God, as they are a reflection of his image. But instead of trusting God, they seize autonomy and take the knowledge of good and evil for themselves. In an instant, the whole story spirals downward.
The first casualty is in human relationships. The man and woman suddenly realize how vulnerable they are now; can they even trust each other? They make clothes to hide their bodies from each other. The second casualty is that the original intimacy between God and the humans is lost. The humans run and hide from God and start a game of blame-shifting about who rebelled against him first. At this point, the storytelling shifts into a series of short poems in which God declares to the snake and the humans the tragic consequences of their actions.
God first announces that, despite the snake’s apparent victory, it is destined for defeat and is cursed to eat dust. God promises that one day a "seed" or descendant will come from the woman and will deliver a lethal strike to the snake’s head. While this sounds like good news, the victory will come with a cost. While its head is crushed, the snake will deliver its own lethal strike to the descendant’s heel.
This mysterious promise of a wounded victor is an act of God’s grace. Although the humans have rebelled, God promises to rescue them, but it doesn’t erase the consequences of their choice. God informs them that every aspect of their life together, in the home and in the field, will be fraught with grief and pain as a result of their rebellion, ultimately leading to death.
Again, the story spirals downward. Chapters 3-11 trace the widening ripple effect of the rebellion and the fracturing of human relationships at every level.
The next story, about two brothers, Cain and Abel, shows this fracturing as well. Cain is so jealous of his brother that he wants to murder him. Despite God’s warning not to, Cain kills Abel. After the murder, Cain goes on to build a city where violence and oppression reign. This is epitomized in the story of Lamech, who is the first man in the Bible to have more than one wife, accumulating them like property. Lamech also sings a song about how he is more violent and vengeful than Cain ever was.
Then comes an odd story about the "sons of God." There are different views about who they are. The story could be referring to evil angelic beings, or it could be about ancient kings who claimed to descend from the gods. Like Lamech, they acquired as many wives as they wanted and produced the nephilim, great warriors of old. Whichever view is right, these people built more kingdoms that filled God’s world with more and more violence and corruption.
In response, we are told that God is broken with grief—humanity is ruining his good world as well as each other. Out of a passion to protect the goodness of his creation, he washes the world of humanity’s evil with a great flood. But he protects the one blameless human, Noah, and his family. God commissions Noah as a new Adam, repeating the divine blessing and commission. Our hopes are high, but soon Noah fails too, and in a garden no less! He plants a vineyard, gets drunk out of his mind, and then one of his sons, Ham, does something shameful to him. Our new Adam also ends up naked and ashamed. The downward spiral continues.
This all leads to the foundation of Babylon. Here, the people of ancient Mesopotamia come together around their new technology, the brick. They can make cities and towers bigger and faster than ever before, but they want to take things further and build a new type of tower that will reach up to the heavens. They will be the ones to reunite Heaven and Earth and make a name for themselves. This tower is the epitome of human rebellion and arrogance, the garden tragedy writ large. So God humbles their pride and scatters them around the world.
Now, Genesis 3-11 is a diverse group of stories, but they’re all exploring the same basic point—God keeps giving humans the chance to do the right thing with his world, and they keep ruining it instead. These stories are claiming that we live in a good world gone bad. We’ve all chosen to define good and evil for ourselves and have contributed to a world of broken relationships, conflict, violence, and ultimately death.
But there is still hope. God promised that one day a descendant would come, the wounded victor who will defeat evil at its source. Despite humanity’s evil, God is determined to bless and rescue his world. The big question is: What is God going to do?
After the debacle at Babylon, the author has placed a hinge story that links the two parts of the book of Genesis together. The author traces the genealogy of one family after the scattering of people from Babylon, and it leads to a man named Abram, later known as Abraham. God’s promise to Abraham at the beginning of chapter 12 opens up a whole new movement in the story—one of promise and blessing.
God calls on Abraham to leave his home to go to the land of Canaan, which God says will become his one day. In that land, God promises to make Abraham into a great nation, to make his name great, and to bless him. These promises reflect back on earlier parts of the book. Babylon arrogantly tried to make a "great name" for itself but was instead scattered across the earth. God in his generosity, however, will bestow a "great name" on this man Abraham. God’s blessing of Abraham also echoes back to the original blessing God gave all creation and humanity. Now the question is, Why is God going to bless this man and his family? The last line of God’s promise makes it clear: "So that all the families of the Earth will find blessing in you" (Gen. 12:3).
This is a key moment for understanding the rest of the biblical story. God’s plan is to rescue and bless his rebellious world through Abraham’s family, who will eventually be called Israel. Later, Israel will be called a "kingdom of priests" at Mount Sinai (Exod. 19:4-6) to show all the nations what God is like. Ultimately, this promise is picked up by the biblical prophets and poets who say its fulfillment will come through Israel’s messianic king, whose reign will bring justice and blessing to all the nations (Isa. 11; Ps. 72).
However, at this point in the story, none of that is clear. You just have to keep reading and watching as the promise develops. The rest of the book focuses on Abraham and his family—first Abraham himself, his son Isaac, Isaac’s son Jacob, and then Jacob’s 12 sons. The stories about Abraham’s family are united by two main themes. Each generation is marked by repeated moral failure. They make bad decisions that mess up their lives and put God’s promise into jeopardy. However, God remains faithful to them. Despite their failures, he rescues them from themselves and keeps reaffirming his commitment to bless them and bless the nations through them.
We begin with focusing on Abraham. God had promised him a huge family, but on two different occasions, he is afraid for his life because other men are attracted to his wife. His solution is to deny that he’s even married to her, which of course only causes more problems. Additionally, Abraham and his wife Sarah are unable to have children together, so Sarah arranges for Abraham to sleep with one of their servant girls, again creating even more problems.
Each time, however, God bails Abraham out, and in chapters 15 and 17 God even formalizes his promise to Abraham with an official commitment called a covenant. In a classic scene, he invites Abraham to look up at the night stars and count them, saying that’s how numerous his family will become. Now remember, he has no children, and he and Sarah have no way to produce children. Despite these very bad odds, Abraham looks up and simply trusts God’s promise. God graciously responds by entering into a covenant with him, promising that Abraham will become a father of many nations, that God’s blessing may come to the whole world. He asks Abraham to mark his family with the "sign of the covenant," or the circumcision of all males, as a symbol to remind them that their fruitfulness comes from God. Abraham did indeed go on to have many children and lived to the ripe old age of 175 (Gen. 25:7).
The Jacob stories play out even more dramatically. From birth, Jacob lives up to the meaning of his name, "deceiver." He cheats his brother Esau out of his inheritance and blessing by deceiving his old, blind father and then simply takes off. Jacob goes on to take four wives, even though he really only loves Rachel, creating all these rivalries within the family. The only thing that humbles him is being deceived by his uncle Laban, who cheats him out of years of his life. After all this humbling, Jacob returns to his homeland. And in a strange story, Jacob ends up wrestling with God. He demands that God’s blessing come to him—some things never change. Surprisingly, God honors Jacob’s determination by passing Abraham’s blessing on to him and renames him as Israel, which means "wrestles with God."
It is the last part, the story of Jacob’s sons, in which the key themes of the entire book of Genesis come to a head. Jacob loves his second youngest son, Joseph, more than the others and gives him special treatment as well as a colorful coat. The 10 older sons come to hate their brother Joseph, so they kidnap him and plan to kill him. However, at the last minute, they decide to sell him into slavery in Egypt, which they do. Talk about a dysfunctional family!
But God is with Joseph, and he orchestrates not only his release from prison, but also his rise to power. Pharaoh discovers Joseph and elevates him to second-in-command over all of Egypt. Then, during a famine, Joseph saves all of Egypt and also his brothers who had betrayed him. Once again, the folly and sin of Abraham’s family is met with the faithfulness of God, who can subvert even the evil of the brothers into an occasion to save life. In fact, this is what Joseph says near the end of the book: "You planned all this for evil, but God planned it for good, to save many lives" (Gen. 50:20).
Now, these words are very strategically placed here at the end because they summarize not only the story of Joseph and his brothers but also the entire book. From Genesis 3 onward, humans keep acting selfishly and doing evil, but God is not going to leave the world to its own devices. He remains faithful and determined to bless people despite their failure.
You can especially see this in the way the mysterious promise of the snake-crushing descendant gets developed throughout the book. God promised that this wounded victor would destroy the snake and defeat evil at its source (remember Genesis 3:15). Through the genealogies that run through the book, the author connects this promise to the line of Abraham. This defeat of evil is part of how God will bring his blessing to the nations. From Abraham, this promise is connected to Judah, Jacob’s fourth son. In an extremely important poem in chapter 49, an aging Jacob on his deathbed is blessing his 12 sons. When he comes to Judah, he predicts that Judah will become a tribe of Israel’s royal leaders and that one day a king will come who will command the obedience of the nations and fulfill God’s promise to restore the garden blessing to all the world.
After this, Jacob dies, and then Joseph does as well. The family down in Egypt continues to grow, and the book of Genesis closes with all these future promises left hanging. You’re forced to turn the page and read more to see how it will all turn out.
Out of disorder and darkness, God creates order, beauty, and goodness. From Genesis 3 onward, humans continue acting selfishly and doing evil, but God remains faithful and refuses to abandon them or his world.
Genesis Overview Poster
Scripture Reference Guide
Genesis 1-11 Script References
Genesis 1-11 Study Notes
Scripture Reference Guide
Genesis 12-50 Script References
Genesis 12-50 Study Notes