Genesis is the first book of both the Jewish and the Christian scriptures. Its name means ‘origins’ or ‘beginnings’. The first eleven chapters trace the beginnings of the world and the human race; chapters 12 to 50 trace the origins of the Jewish people, through the story of the patriarchs and matriarchs: Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca, Jacob/Israel and Rachel, and Joseph.
Although Genesis deals with the earliest times, the book probably did not reach its final form until the time of the Exile, or just after. It draws on two main strands of tradition: the ‘P’ or Priestly strand, and the ‘J’ or Jahwist (Yahwist) strand. Sometimes the two stand side by side, as in the two creation stories: Genesis 1-2.4a is the Priestly version, whereas Genesis 2.5 – 25 is the Yahwist version. Sometimes the two are intertwined, as in the story of Noah and the Flood in chapters 6-9.
The first eleven chapters are based around myths, often ones that were common to the Ancient Near East. There is a Babylonian Creation story that has parallels with Genesis 1, and a Babylonian Flood story found in the Gilgamesh Epic. Often these myths try to explain the origin of things, such as evil (the story of the Fall in 3, 1-24 and Cain and Abel in 4, 1-15) and different languages (the Tower of Babel in 11, 1-9). Though in outline the Genesis myths have much in common with other pagan stories, they have been reworked to fit the themes of this section, which are the goodness of God’s intention for creation contrasted with the inherent resistance to that goodness from humanity. So the section begins with two versions of the creation of the world, recounts several incidents that spoilt creation and God’s reaction to these, and ends with a new creation after the Flood.
Among the narratives are several genealogies. Although these purport to show relationships between families, they in fact are an attempt to explain the alliances which existed between tribes and nations at the time the stories were written.
The fact that there are two different versions of creation, the great ages of people recorded in the genealogies, and the appearance of giants and talking animals in theses stories all show that they are not meant to be taken as history or science as we understand them. Rather, they set the themes that recur throughout the Old Testament of human disobedience, divine judgement and divine faithfulness and love.
The second section of Genesis is composed of sagas or family histories. At one time, it was thought that these narratives could be rooted in history, since certain features seemed to fit the culture of the Ancient Near East in the second millennium BC. However, current scholarship is of the opinion that the narratives have been reworked over many generations, and it is impossible to discover where and when they originated.
The family connections are also not to be taken literally. Rather, they establish connections between groups of people and tell of their relationship with the God who became known to Moses as ‘The God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob’.
The first three sagas are cast in a conventional form, with episodes which tell of the securing of land, finding a wife and bearing sons to inherit. Although they are usually known as the story of the patriarchs, in all of them strong women play an important role. Again, the Priestly and Yahwist sources are intertwined in these stories. Sometimes it is possible to tell which is which by the focus of interest. Another distinction is the way that God communicates with human beings: in the older Yahwist strand he speaks directly; in the more recent Priestly strand, he communicates through angels.
It is clear that a number of originally quite distinct stories, perhaps about different characters, have been brought together in these sagas. This is particularly apparent in the story of Abraham, who is at different times a merchant, a shepherd and a king in charge of fighting men. The stories have been brought together to support a theological theme, which is the divine promise to the ancestors of Israel. This promise has two parts: the promise of the land of Israel, and the promise of blessing for all nations through Abraham’s descendants. Jewish interest has tended to concentrate on the first and Christian on the second.
The Joseph saga, in chapters 36 to 50 is a much more polished narrative, and Joseph is a very different character from his ancestors, a man who lives both in the Hebrew and in the Gentile world. He is a pattern both for the Jews in exile, and for Christians in a secular world, of how to remain loyal to God, and to live a successful life in the world. Like Jacob, he is a surprising choice to be the one who carries God’s promise forward, since he is not a very pleasant character.
However, his story is important, because it serves as a bridge between the stories of the ancestors, the earlier covenants with Noah and Abraham and the story of the family of Jacob/Israel who are the ancestors of the twelve tribes, and the narrative of the Exodus and the covenant at Sinai.