The most important thing to remember about the book of Genesis is that it’s a book of introductions which together serve as the introduction to the Law of Moses, which in turn serves as the introduction to the rest of the Bible.
History: Context & Background
Moses has traditionally been identified as the author of Genesis, having written it in roughly 1400BC, early during Israel’s 40-year sojourn in the desert. Scholarship over the past two centuries has explored the possibilities of a later authorship, as well as potential sources from before Moses’ time, though nothing conclusive has been agreed upon, leaving Moses still the most likely author (or compiler of pre-existing histories).
Literature: Style & Structure
Genesis is Greek for ‘genealogy’ or ‘generation’ or ‘origin.’ The book of Genesis, thus, is a collection of mythologies – not myths in the sense of necessarily being untrue, but myths in the sense of their dealing with how things began. Put another way, the purpose of Genesis accounts (or Origin Stories) is to explain the present, rather than relate the past. This is distinct from historical writings in that detailed precision about the past is of lesser importance than the present-day result of those histories.
The book of Genesis contains ten distinct Genesis accounts (or Origin Stories). In English translations these sections are usually (but not always) identifiable by the phrase “These are the generations of…” or “This is the account of…” Not all of the ten accounts are of equal length or even of equal significance in the rest of the biblical narrative, but were nonetheless provided for Israel’s remembrance of their origins.
1:1-2:3 Prologue / Introduction
2-4 Genesis of the World
5-6:8 Genesis of Adam
6-9 Origin of Noah
10-11:9 Origin of Shem & Ham & Japheth
11:20-26 Origin of Shem
11:27-25:11 Origin of Terah
25:12-18 Origin of Ishmael
25-35 Origin of Isaac
36 Origin of Esau
37-50 Origin of Jacob
Before the ten Genesis accounts is an introductory prose poem which describes an account of the creation of the world. Failure to recognize this creation account as distinct from the actual Genesis account of the world beginning in chapter 2 has led many people in the past couple centuries to define the doctrine of creation more narrowly than Moses intended to convey.
As for the place of this book within the rest of the canon of Scripture, Genesis is best understood as the prologue to the Old Covenant Law described in the rest of the five books of Moses. Covenants in written form typically include a background that describes the history of the relationship between the two covenant parties, and the book of Genesis serves as just that – outlining the interactions between God and his people through many generations into the past.
Theology: Themes & Insights
There are many repetitions of similar themes throughout the book of Genesis. The contrast of light v. dark in the Prologue sets the stage for the constant theme of good v. evil or obedience v. disobedience or relationship with God v. independence from God. Almost every character in almost every generation wrestles with the difficulty of following God in his or her own life situation. Some are nomads, some are refugees, some are civilization-builders, some are lowly slaves, and some are leaders of entire clans, yet all face the same challenge of answering God’s call to live for him and with him. The reality of the attraction and power of sin is visible at every stage of the way after the Fall of Adam and Eve.
Another critical theme that is repeated throughout the book is God’s persistent pursuit of his people. When sin drives his people away from him, God doesn’t cut them off and move on, but punishes them in a way that eventually draws them back. His goal from the start is loving communion between deity and humanity, and this theme is particularly critical in understanding not only the purpose of the Covenant to which Genesis serves as a backdrop, but the entirety of the Old Testament.