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This article is about Genesis, the first book of the Hebrew Bible. See Genesis (disambiguation) for other usages of the word.

Genesis (Greek: Γένεσις, having the meanings of "birth", "creation", "cause", "beginning", "source" and "origin") is the first book of the Torah (five books of Moses) and hence the first book of the Tanakh, part of the Hebrew Bible; it is also the first book of the Christian Old Testament.

In Hebrew, it is called בראשׁית (Bereshit or Bərêšîth, ), after the first word of the text in Hebrew (meaning "in the beginning of"). This follows the pattern of naming the other five books of the Pentateuch.



Genesis is presented as a historical work. Beginning with the Creation of the world, it recounts the primal history of humanity and the early history of the people of Israel as exemplified in the lives of its patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and their families. It contains the historical presupposition and basis of the national religious ideas and institutions of Israel, and serves as an introduction to its history, laws, customs and legends.

It is a well-planned and well-executed composition of a writer (or set of writers, see documentary hypothesis), who has recounted the traditions of the Israelites, combining them into a uniform work, while preserving the textual and formal peculiarities incident to their difference in origin and mode of transmission.

Dating and history

Based on the genealogies in Genesis and later parts of the Bible, both religious Jews and Christians have independently worked backwards to find the implied time of the Creation of the world, around the beginning of the 4th millennium BC. This dating is based on a literal reading of the creation account and the bases that the six days in which God created the heavens and the earth were 24-hour days, that Adam, Eve, and the Garden of Eden existed, and that a complete trace of events from Creation to a historically verifiable date is listed in the biblical account.

In the medieval era, religious rationalists such as Maimonides held that it was a gross error to read the creation stories literally; in this view, while the Bible is indeed the word of God, it was designed to teach deep metaphysical truths about the universe, and the surface stories were intended to be read as allegories.

The absence of independent evidence confirming the biblical narrative cause many scholars to question the accuracy or even the veracity of the historical account. This subject is discussed in The Bible and history.


Genesis as a completed book makes no claims about its authorship; Jewish tradition from early on assumed that the book was dictated, in its entirety, by God to Moses on Mount Sinai. For a number of reasons, this view is no longer accepted by many biblical scholars, non-Orthodox Jews, Catholics, and liberal Protestants. Instead, they accept a theory whose roots are based on cultural evolution and philosophical naturalism which teaches that the text of Genesis as we see it today was redacted together around 440 BC from earlier sources. See the Documentary hypothesis entry for more information.

Other scholars note that when Genesis was compiled, it was made up of earlier documents which were so little changed that even their literary tradition, which put the author's name at the end of each document, was preserved, thus preserving also the authors' true identities. This retains the concept of Moses being the author of Genesis, though making his role more that of an editor who chose the earlier works to include than as an author of every word.

Christian views

There are numerous references to Genesis in the New Testament. These references assume an authoritative nature for Genesis. While none of these references explicitely state an author for Genesis there are several places which attibute the books of the law(Torah) to Moses (Mark 12:19, 26; Luke 24:27).

The author of the gospel of John uses language similar to that in Genesis 1 when personifying the speech of God as the eternal Logos (Greek: λογος "reason", "word", "speech"), that is the origin of all things "with God", and "was God", and "became flesh and tabernacled among us". Many Christians interpret this as an example of apostolic teaching of the doctrine of the Trinity and the deity of Christ; however, Genesis standing alone does not clearly suggest this teaching, although there are some possible allusions to it, such as in Genesis 1:26 when God refers to himself in the plural.

Main themes

There is only one God, who has created the world. God has called all objects and living beings into existence by his word.

The universe when created was, in the judgment of God, good. Genesis expresses an optimistic satisfaction and pleasure in the world.

God as a personal being, referred to in anthropomorphic and anthropopathic terms. God may appear and speak to mankind.

Genesis makes no attempt to give a philosophically rigorous definition of God; its description is a practical and historical one. God is treated exclusively with reference to his dealings with the world and with man.

Mankind is the crown of Creation, and has been made in God's image.

All people are descended from Adam and Eve; this expresses the unity of the whole human race.

The Earth possesses for man a certain moral grandeur; man must include God's creatures in the respect that it demands in general, by not exploiting them for his own selfish uses.

Unlike other ancient religious texts from the near-east and middle-east, Genesis posits the existence of a one and only being that may properly be called God. All other non-human intelligences implied or stated to exist in the text may only be considered angels or the like. God is presented as being the sole creator of nature, and as existing outside of it and beyond it.

Some historians believe Genesis to be a more recent example of monotheistic belief than Zoroastrianism, interpreting the commandment "have no other gods before me" as an artifact of early henotheism among the Jews -- i.e., as evidence that the Hebrews were not to worship the gods of other peoples, but only their own tribal god. On the other hand, Genesis, in its present form, purports to give a record of beliefs prior to any surviving religious texts, describing the worship of other gods and local deities as a gradual development among the nations, who departed from original monotheism.

The primary purpose of the book is not historical or legal, but to explain man's origins, and to describe man's relationship to God, and how man's relationship to man must be seen in that light.

God created an eternal, unbreakable covenant with all mankind at the time of Noah; this is known as the Noachide covenant. This universal concern with all mankind is paralleled by a second covenant made to the descendants of Abraham in particular, through his son Isaac, in which their descendants will be chosen to have a special destiny.

The Jewish people are chosen to be in a special covenant with God; God says to Abraham "I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great; and you shall be a blessing. I will bless them that bless you, and curse him that curses you; and in you shall all families of the earth be blessed". God often repeats the promise that Abraham's descendants shall be as numerous as the stars in heaven and as the sand on the seashore.

The article on Biblical cosmology discusses the Bible's view of the cosmos, much of which derives from descriptions in Genesis.



Main article: Creation according to Genesis

The creation narrative in genesis can be split into two sections - the first section starts with an account of the Creation of the universe by God, which occurs in six days, the second section is more human-oriented, and less concerned with explaining how the Earth, its creatures and its features came to exist as they are today.

Within the first section, on the first day God created light; on the second, the firmament of heaven; on the third, he separated water and land, and created plant life; on the fourth day he created the sun, moon, and stars; on the fifth day marine life and birds; on the sixth day land animals, and man and woman. On the seventh day, the Sabbath, God rested, and sanctified the day.

Some may wonder whether it was this chapter of the Hebrew Bible that gives us our seven-day week, and may further speculate about the importance of the number seven. Research into the origin of the week tells us that it was widely spread throughout the ancient world, so widely that apart from claims such as Genesis, its origins cannot be determined with certainty.

The second section of the creation narrative explains that the earth was lifeless, how God brought moisture to the soil and how man was formed from the dust (Adam translates from Hebrew to mean 'Red Earth').

Adam and Eve

God formed Adam out of earth ("adama"), and set him in the Garden of Eden, to watch over it. Adam is allowed to eat of all the fruit within it, except that of the "Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil." God then brings all the animals to Adam, to serve as company for him. Adam gives names to all the animals, but finds no comfort in his loneliness. God then puts him into a deep sleep, takes a rib from his side, and from it forms a woman (called later "Eve"), to be a companion.

Eve is convinced by a talking serpent to eat of the forbidden fruit. Eve wisely questions the serpent and hesitates to take a bite. But after she finds it pleasant, Eve offers the fruit to Adam to eat it as well (the "original sin"). Adam asks no questions. He immediately takes a bite. As punishment the ground is cursed, the death sentence is imposed (although it takes some time to be fulfilled), and Adam and Eve are driven out of the garden. The entrance to the garden is then guarded by cherubim with a flaming sword.

Adam and Eve initially have two sons, Cain and Abel. There is a Chiastic structure in the first few verses relating Cain to Abel. Cain grows envious of the favor found by his brother before God, and slays him. The first murder is that of a brother. Cain is sentenced to wander over the earth as a fugitive. He finally settles in the land of Nod.

Enoch, one of Cain's sons, builds the first city. Another descendant, Lamech, takes two wives. Lamech's sons are the first dwellers in tents and owners of herds, and they are the earliest inventors of musical instruments and workers in brass and iron. Cain's descendants know nothing about God.

Another son, Seth, has in the meantime been born to Adam and Eve in place of the slain Abel. Seth's descendants never lose thought of God. The tenth in regular descent is Noah. Adam and Eve also have other sons and daughters. In line with most of the other biblical characters born before the flood whose ages are provided, Adam lived until the age of 930.

Note: the stories of Adam and Eve and Cain and Abel also appear in the Qur'an (see Similarities between the Bible and the Qur'an).

The Nephilim

The introduction to the story of Noah is one of the more cryptic sections in the Bible. The sons of God (alternatively: "sons of the Rulers") lusted after the daughters of man, and mated with them. The children of these unions were mighty men, called Men of the Name (alternatively: "Men of Renown"). In this time the Nephilim dwelled on the earth. The significance of the Nephilim is not explained.

Noah and the great flood

In response to the wickedness of mankind, God decides to cleanse the world and start again. God selects one man's family, the family of Noah, to survive the flood, as Noah is the most righteous man of his generation. God commands him to build a large ark, since the work of destruction is to be accomplished by means of a great flood. Noah obeys the command, entering the ark together with his family. Into this ark they bring a mating pair of each kind of animal and bird on Earth. Water bursts out of the ground and falls from the sky, and the world is flooded, destroying all living beings save those in the ark. When it has subsided, Noah's family leaves the ark, and God enters into a covenant with Noah and all his descendants, the entire human race. Noah plants a vineyard (ix. 20) and drinks of the produce. When, in a fit of intoxication, Noah is shamelessly treated by his son Ham, he curses the latter in the person of Ham's son Canaan, while his sons Shem and Japheth are blessed.

Chapter 10 reviews the peoples descended from Japheth, Ham, and Shem. The dispersion of humanity into separate races and nations is described in the story of the Tower of Babel. Humanity is dispersed by a "confusion of tongues," which God brought about when men attempted to build a tower that should reach up to heaven (xi. 1-9). A genealogy is given of Shem's descendants.

Note: the story of Noah also appears in the Qur'an (see Similarities between the Bible and the Qur'an).

Abram and Sarai

Terah, who lives at Ur of the Chaldees, has three sons, Abram, Nahor, and Haran. Haran's son is Lot. Nahor is married to Milcah, and Abram to Sarai, who has no children. God directs Abram to leave his home. Abram obeys, emigrating with his entire household and Lot, his brother's son, to the land of Canaan. Here God appears to him and promises that the land shall become the property of his descendants.

Abram is forced by a famine to leave the country and go to Egypt. The King of Egypt takes possession of the beautiful Sarai (whom Abram has misleadingly represented as his sister; she was in fact his half-sister). God smites the King with a disease, which the King recognizes as a sign from God; the King returns Sarai to Abram. Abram returns to Canaan, and separates from Lot in order to put an end to disputes about pasturage. He gives Lot the valley of the Jordan near Sodom. God again appears to Abram, and promises to him the whole country.

Abram and Melchizedek

Lot is taken prisoner by invading kings from the East during a war between Amraphel, King of Shinar, and Bera, King of Sodom, with their respective allies. Abram pursues the victors with his armed retainers. Returning with his warband after rescuing Lot and his clan, Abram is met by Melchizedek, the king and high priest of Salem (Jerusalem), who blesses him, and in return Abram gives him a tithe of his booty, refusing his share of the same. See Melchizedek and Tithe. After this exploit God again appears to Abram and promises him protection, a rich reward, and numerous progeny. These descendants will pass four hundred years in servitude in a strange land; but after God has judged their oppressors they shall leave the land of their affliction, and the fourth generation shall return to Canaan.

Hagar and Ishmael

Sarai is childless, so Sarai and Abram decide that they will produce an heir for Abram though his Egyptian handmaiden, Hagar. Abram takes her as a concubine and has a child with her, Ishmael. God again appears to Abram, and enters into a personal covenant with him securing Abram's future: God promises him a numerous progeny, changes his name to "Abraham" and that of Sarai to "Sarah," and institutes the circumcision of all males as an eternal sign of the covenant.

Sodom and Gomorrah

God sends Abraham three angels, whom Abraham receives hospitably. They announce to him that he will have a son within a year, although he and his wife are already very old. Abraham also hears that God's messengers intend to execute judgment upon the wicked inhabitants of Sodom and Gomorrah, whereupon he intercedes for the sinners, and endeavors to have their fate set aside. Two of the messengers go to Sodom, where they are hospitably received by Lot. The men of the city wish to lay shameless hands upon them. Having thus shown that they have deserved their fate, Sodom and Gomorrah are destroyed by fire-and-brimstone.

Only Lot and his two daughters are saved. Lot's incestuous relationship with his daughters, which resulted in the births of Ammon and Moab, is also described.

Abraham journeys to Gerar, the country of Abimelech. Here once again he represents Sarah as his sister, and Abimelech plans to gain possession of her. He desists on being warned by God.

Note: the story of Lot and Sodom and Gomorrah also appears in the Qur'an (see Similarities between the Bible and the Qur'an).

The birth of Isaac

At last the long-expected son is born, and receives the name of "Isaac" (Itzhak: "will laugh" in Hebrew). At Sarah's insistence Ishmael together with his mother Hagar is driven out of the house. They also have a great future promised to them by God. Abraham, during the banquet that he gives in honor of Isaac's birth, enters into a covenant with Abimelech, who confirms his right to the well Beer-sheba.

The story of Isaac also appears in the Qur'an (see Similarities between the Bible and the Qur'an).

The Near sacrifice of Isaac

Now that Abraham seems to have all his desires fulfilled, having even provided for the future of his son, God subjects him to the greatest trial of his faith by demanding Isaac as a sacrifice. Abraham obeys; but, as he is about to lay the knife upon his son, God restrains him, promising him numberless descendants. On the death of Sarah Abraham acquires Machpelah for a family tomb. Then he sends his servant to Mesopotamia, Nahor's home, to find among his relations a wife for Isaac; and Rebekah, Nahor's granddaughter, is chosen. Other children are born to Abraham by another wife, Keturah, among whose descendants are the Midianites; and he dies in a prosperous old age.

Note: the story of the sacrifice also appears in the Qur'an (see Similarities between the Bible and the Qur'an).

Esau and Jacob

After being married for twenty years Rebekah has twins by Isaac: Esau, who becomes a hunter, and Jacob (Ya'akov: "will follow"), who becomes a herdsman. Jacob persuades Esau to sell him his birthright, for which the latter does not care; notwithstanding this bargain, God appears to Isaac and repeats the promises given to Abraham. His wife, whom he represents as his sister, is endangered in the country of the Philistines, but King Abimelech himself averts disaster. In spite of the hostility of Abimelech's people, Isaac is fortunate in all his undertakings in that country, especially in digging wells. God appears to him at Beer-sheba, encourages him, and promises him blessings and numerous descendants; and Abimelech enters into a covenant with him at the same place. Esau marries Canaanite women, to the regret of his parents.

Rebekah persuades Jacob to dress himself as Esau, and thus obtain from his blinded by old age father the blessing intended for Esau. To escape his brother's vengeance, Jacob is sent to relations in Haran, being charged by Isaac to find a wife there. On the way God appears to him at night, promising protection and aid for himself and the land for his numerous descendants. Arrived at Haran, Jacob hires himself to Laban, his mother's brother, on condition that, after having served for seven years as a herdsman, he shall have for wife the younger daughter, Rachel, with whom he is in love. At the end of this period Laban gives him the elder daughter, Leah; Jacob therefore serves another seven years for Rachel, and after that six years more for cattle. In the meantime Leah bears him Reuben, Simeon, Levi, and Judah; by Rachel's maid Bilhah he has Dan and Naphtali; by Zilpah, Leah's maid, Gad and Asher; then, by Leah again, Issachar, Zebulun, and Dinah; and finally, by Rachel, Joseph. He also acquires much wealth in flocks.

Jacob wrestles with God

In fear of Laban, Jacob flees with his family, and soon becomes reconciled with Laban. On approaching his home he is in fear of Esau, to whom he sends presents. While sleeping, a being (variously regarded as God, an angel, or a man), appears to Jacob and wrestles with him. The mysterious one pleads to be released before daybreak, but Jacob refuses to release the being until he agrees to bless him. The being announces to Jacob that he shall bear the name "Israel," which means "one who wrestled with God" and is freed.

The meeting with Esau proves a friendly one, and the brothers separate reconciled. Jacob settles at Shalem. His sons Simeon and Levi take vengeance on the city of Shechem, whose prince has raped their sister Dinah. On the road from Beth-el Rachel gives birth to a son, Benjamin, and dies.

Joseph the dreamer

Joseph, Jacob's favorite son, is hated by his brothers on account of his dreams prognosticating his future dominion, and on the advice of Judah is secretly sold to a caravan of Ishmaelitic merchants going to Egypt. His brothers tell their father that a wild animal has devoured Joseph. Joseph, carried to Egypt, is there sold as a slave to Potiphar, one of Pharaoh's officials. He gains his master's confidence; but when the latter's wife, unable to seduce him, accuses him falsely, he is cast into prison (xxxix.). Here he correctly interprets the dreams of two of his fellow prisoners, the king's butler and baker. When Pharaoh is troubled by dreams that no one is able to interpret, the butler draws attention to Joseph. The latter is thereupon brought before Pharaoh, whose dreams he interprets to mean that seven years of abundance will be followed by seven years of famine. He advises the king to make provision accordingly, and is empowered to take the necessary steps, being appointed second in the kingdom. Joseph marries Asenath, the daughter of the priest Poti-pherah, by whom he has two sons, Manasseh and Ephraim (xli.).

When the famine comes it is felt even in Canaan; and Jacob sends his sons to Egypt to buy corn. The brothers appear before Joseph, who recognizes them, but does not reveal himself. After having proved them on this and on a second journey, and they having shown themselves so fearful and penitent that Judah even offers himself as a slave, Joseph reveals his identity, forgives his brothers the wrong they did him, and promises to settle in Egypt both them and his father (xlii.-xlv.). Jacob brings his whole family, numbering 66 persons, to Egypt, this making, inclusive of Joseph and his sons and himself, 70 persons. Pharaoh receives them amicably and assigns to them the land of Goshen (xlvi.-xlvii.). When Jacob feels the approach of death he sends for Joseph and his sons, and receives Ephraim and Manasseh among his own sons (xlviii.). Then he calls his sons to his bedside and reveals their future to them (xlix.). Jacob dies, and is solemnly interred in the family tomb at Machpelah. Joseph lives to see his great-grandchildren, and on his death-bed he exhorts his brethren, if God should remember them and lead them out of the country, to take his bones with them. The book ends with Joseph's remains being put "in a coffin in Egypt."

See also


  • Bruce Vawter "On Genesis: A New Reading", Doubleday & Co., 1977, An introduction to Genesis by a fine Catholic scholar. Genesis was Vawter's hobby.
  • E. A. Speiser "Genesis, The Anchor Bible", Volume 1. Garden City, New York: Doubleday & Company, 1964. (A translation with commentary and philological notes by a noted Semitic scholar. The series is written for laypeople and specialists alike.)

External links

Online versions and translations of Genesis:

Related articles:

Last updated: 10-18-2005 01:01:06
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