A Walk Through the Book of Genesis
Perhaps the most forthright and concise introduction I have ever heard about is the one which Readers Digest tells us occurred at the men’s night meeting of the Philomathic Club. The speaker didn’t receive the usual flower phrases of introduction. Instead, the woman simply said, “Get up, Gilbert.” The speaker was none other than the woman’s husband.
I probably feel the same way about introductions as “Gilbert” does. I especially dislike the introduction that goes like this: “And now it is my pleasure to introduce a man who needs no introduction.”
With this message we are commencing a study of one of the great books of the Bible, the book of Genesis. It does need an introduction. Derek Kidner says of this book,
There can scarcely be another part of Scripture over which so many battles, theological, scientific, historical and literary, have been fought, or so many strong opinions cherished.1
Our attitudes and presuppostions which we bring to the book of Genesis will largely determine what we get from it. For this reason, we must devote our attention to some introductory matters.
The title “Genesis” is a transliteration of the Greek word which is the title of the book of Genesis in the Septuagint, the ancient Greek translation of the Old Testament. In the Hebrew text, the word Bereshith, is the first word of the text, being translated, “in the beginning.”
J. Sidlow Baxter, in his excellent work, Explore the Book, sums up the difficulty of authorship by the question, “Is it Mosaic, or a mosaic?”2
That, in a nutshell, is the issue.
Traditionally, Moses has been held to be the author of Genesis over the centuries. A number of inferential evidences favor this conclusion.3 It would appear from a number of passages (e.g., Exodus 17:14; 24:4; 34:27; Leviticus 1:1; 4:1; 6:1,8,19,24; 7:22,28, etc.) that Moses wrote the other books of the Pentateuch (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy). It would indeed be unusual for the first word of Exodus to be “and” unless Moses wrote it as well.
In the New Testament, our Lord seemingly attributes the Pentateuch to Moses (Matt 8:4; 19:7,8; Mark 1:44; 7:10; 10:3,4; Luke 5:14; 16:29,31; John 5:45,46; 7:22,23). Other New Testament writers follow this same approach (Acts 3:22, 13:39; Rom 10:5,19; I Cor 9:9; II Cor 3:15). It is therefore hard not to conclude that Moses wrote all the Pentateuch, in spite of no one air-tight statement to this effect.
Critics have not been content with this conclusion, however. Beginning with J. Astruc (1753),4 “scholars” have attributed this book to the work of an unknown redactor who skillfully compiled the writings of four or more editors. Generally the four primary sources are referred to as J, E, D, and P. J is the “Yahwist”; E, the “Elohist”; D is the work of the Deuteronomist; and P, the priestly document.
Several lines of evidence are given to support the Graf-Wellhausen or Documentary hypothesis. First would be the different names which are employed for God.5 For those who hold to the Documentary hypothesis, the change from Elohim to Yahweh signals a change of author. One major flaw in this approach is that within “E” passages the word Yahweh is also employed (e.g. Genesis 22:11, 14; 28:17-22) and vice-versa.
Secondly, we are pointed to different expressions referring to some act, such as that of making a covenant. “Cut a covenant,” “give a covenant,” and “establish a covenant”6 are variously employed, by the different authors of the Pentateuch. This leaves the author with no opportunity for stylistic change or for a change in the nuance of a word. One would hate to write under such restrictions today.
Thirdly, we are told that the Pentateuch contains “doublets,” that is duplicate accounts of the same event.7 One such instance would be the two creation accounts in Genesis 1 and 2. Worse yet are supposed “doublets” where there is any semblance of similarity between two accounts, such as Hagar’s two departures from home (Genesis 16, 21).
While multiple authorship8 or the use of existing documents9 should pose no great difficulty to the doctrine of the Bible’s inspiration and inerrancy, the Documentary hypothesis stands condemned on two counts. First, it is based upon the very thin ice of conjecture of scholars who are supposedly better informed than the author(s) of old; and secondly, it has placed most of the emphasis upon the isolation of fragments and their authors, rather than upon the interpretation of the text itself.10 They are more concerned about an alleged Redactor, than the Redeemer.
Thus, we must agree with the conclusion of Sir Charles Marston:
So J., E. and P., the supposed authors of the Pentateuch, are becoming mere phantom scribes and fetishes of the imagination. They have made Old Testament study unattractive, they have wasted our time, and they have warped and confused our judgments on outside evidence. It has been assumed that they possessed some sort of prescriptive right and authority superior to the Sacred Text. In the clearer light that Science is casting, these shadows that have dimmed our days of study and devotion are silently stealing away.11
The Outline of the Book of Genesis
Nearly every student of the book of Genesis agrees that it falls logically into two sections: chapters 1-11 and 12-50. The first eleven chapters focus upon the ever widening ruin of man, fallen from his created perfection and coming under the judgment of the Creator. Chapters 12-50 describe God’s ever narrowing program of man’s redemption.
The first division of the book, chapters 1-11, can be summarized by four major events: the creation (chapters 1-2), the fall (chapters 3-5), the flood (chapters 6-9), and the confusion of languages of the tower of Babel. The last division of Genesis, chapters 12-50, can be remembered by its four main characters: Abraham (12:1-25:18), Isaac (25:19-26:35), Jacob (27-36), and Joseph (37-50).
While there are more complicated schemes for the book, this simple outline should assist you to think in terms of the book as a whole. Every incident, every chapter should be understood as it contributes to the argument of the book.
The Importance of the Book of Genesis
A surveyor must always begin from a point of reference. So, too, history must start at some definite place of beginnings. The Bible is, through and through, a historical revelation. It is the account of God’s activity in history. As such, it must have a beginning. The book of Genesis gives us our historical point of reference, from which all subsequent revelation proceeds.
In this book we find the “roots” of the inhabited world and the universe, of man and nations, of sin and redemption. Also, we find the foundation of our theology. Fritsch, in The Layman’s Bible Commentary has referred to Genesis as “the starting point of all theology.”12 J. Sidlow Baxter has written,
The other writings of the Bible are inseparably bound up with it inasmuch as it gives us the origin and initial explanation of all that follows. The major themes of Scripture may be compared to great rivers, ever deepening and broadening as they flow; and it is true to say that all these rivers have their rise in the watershed of Genesis. Or, to use on equally appropriate figure, as the massive trunk and wide-spreading branches of the oak are in the acorn, so, by implication and anticipation, all Scripture is in Genesis. Here we have in germ all that is later developed. It has been truly said that “the roots of all subsequent revelation are planted deep in Genesis, and whoever would truly comprehend that revelation must begin here.”13
Genesis is particularly crucial in the light of the doctrine of progressive revelation. This doctrine attempts to define the phenomena which occurs in the process of divine revelation. Essentially initial revelation is general while subsequent revelation tends to be more particular and specific.
Let me try to illustrate progressive revelation by an examination of the doctrine of redemption. The first promise of redemption is definite but largely undefined in Genesis 3:15: “He shall bruise you on the head, and you shall bruise him on the heel.”
Later in Genesis we learn that the world will be blessed through Abraham (12:3). The line through which Messiah would come was through Isaac, not Ishmael; Jacob, not Esau. Finally in Genesis we see that Israel’s coming ruler will be of the tribe of Judah: “The scepter shall not depart from Judah, nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet, until Shiloh comes, and to him shall be the obedience of the peoples” (Genesis 49:10).
Later on we learn that Messiah will be the offspring of David (II Samuel 7:14-16), to be born in the city of Bethlehem (Micah 5:2). Literally hundreds of prophecies tell in greater detail, the coming of the Messiah.
The striking realization is that Genesis (and the Pentateuch) contain the broad outlines of virtually every major area of theology. For those of us who tend to lose our sense of perspective between fundamental and incidental truths, a study of Genesis will tend to remind us of those areas of theology which are most fundamental and foundational.
Genesis also sheds light on contemporary events. The bitter struggle which is currently going on in the Middle East is explained in the book of Genesis. Abram, who wanted to help God along with His plan, took matters into his own hands. The result was the birth of a child to Sarai’s handmaid, Hagar. The Arabs of today claim to have descended from Ishmael.14
The Interpretation of Genesis
Francis Schaeffer mentions four different interpretations of the Genesis account of creation:
For some this material is simply a Jewish myth, having no more historical validity for modern man than the Epic of Gilgamesh or the stories of Zeus. For others it forms a pre-scientific vision that no one who respects the results of scholarship can accept. Still others find the story symbolic but no more. Some accept the early chapters of Genesis as revelation in regard to an upper-story, religious truth, but allow any sense of truth in regard to history and the cosmos (science) to be lost.15
How one approaches the book of Genesis largely determines what they will get from its study. I would like to mention three methods of interpretation which we must avoid.
Neo-orthodox theologians are willing to grant that the Bible contains truth, but will not go so far as to accept it as the truth. They suspect that throughout its transmission down through the ages it has become something less than inspired and inerrant. These untrue accretions which have become mixed with biblical truth must be exposed and expunged. This process is referred to as demythologizing Scripture. The great difficulty is that man determines what is truth and what is fiction. Man is no longer under the authority of the Word, but is the authority over the Word.
A second method of interpretation is called the allegorical approach. This method is barely one step removed from demythologizing. The biblical account is not nearly so important as the “spiritual” message conveyed by the passage. The difficulty is that the “spiritual message” seems to differ with every individual, and it is not tied in with the historical-grammatical interpretation of the text. In popular group studies this usually fits under the heading of “what this verse means to me.” The interpretation of a text should be the same for a housewife or a theologian, a child or a mature Christian. The application may differ, but the interpretation, never!
Closely related to the allegorical method of interpretation is the typological approach. No one questions that the Bible contains types. Some of these types are clearly designated as such in the New Testament (Rom 5:14; Col 2:17; Heb 8:5, etc.). Other types can hardly be questioned, while not specifically labeled as such. For example, Joseph seems to be a clear type of Christ.
Oftentimes in my experience people have “found” types where they seem not to exist. While the meaning of such interpretation may be one that conforms to Scripture (or may be taught elsewhere), there is no way to prove or disprove the type. The more spiritual one is the more types he or she seems to find. And who can question them? But in this search for types, the plain and simple interpretation is obscured or overlooked. Let us exercise great caution here.
I would like to suggest that we approach the book of Genesis as the book presents itself to us. I believe the first verse makes clear the way we must approach the entire work.
“In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth” (Genesis 1:1).
Beside this verse I have written in the margin of my Bible, “This account either explains it all or it does not explain it at all.”
No, don’t tell me that I am seeing too much here. Some books begin, “… Once upon a time … ”
When we find such an introduction we immediately understand that we are reading a fairy tale. So also the conclusion, “… and they lived happily ever after.”
Genesis 1:1 is totally different. The mood is authoritative and declarative.
The claim implied by this verse is much like that of our Lord when He presented Himself to men. No one can logically tip their hat to Jesus Christ as a “good man,” “a wonderful example,” or a “great teacher,” He was either Who He claimed to be (the Messiah, the Son of God), or He was a fake and a fraud. There is no middle ground, no riding the fence with Jesus. Jesus does not deserve mere courtesy. He demands a crown or a cross.
So it is with this verse. We dare not call it good literature. It claims authority and veracity. From this verse one should either read on, expecting a revelation from God in this book, or he should set it aside as mere religious rhetoric.
Let us remember that no one witnessed the creation:
Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth! Tell Me, if you have understanding, who set its measurements, since you know? Or who stretched the line on it? Or where were its bases sunk? Or who laid its cornerstone, when the morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted for joy? (Job 38:4-7).
There are only two viable options as to where Genesis 1:1 (and the rest of the book) came from. Either it was a product of a human author’s imagination, or it is divinely revealed truth. If it is the former, we should value it only as a work of antiquity, on the same level as other ancient cosmogonies. If the latter, we must come on bended knee, willing to hear and obey it as an authoritative word from God.
This view of Genesis as divine revelation, the historical account of our origins, is that of the remainder of the Scriptures.
To Him who made the heavens with skill, for His lovingkindness is everlasting; to Him who spread out the earth above the waters, for His lovingkindness is everlasting; to Him who made the great Lights, for His lovingkindness is everlasting; the sun to rule by day, for His lovingkindness is everlasting, the moon and stars to rule by night, for His lovingkindness is everlasting (Psalm 136:5-9).
The One forming light and creating darkness, causing well-being and creating calamity; I am the Lord who does all these. It is I who made the earth, and created man upon it. I stretched out the heavens with My hands, and I ordained all their host. For thus says the Lord, who created the heavens (He is the God who formed the earth and made it, He established it and did not create it a waste place, but formed it to be inhabited), “I am the Lord, and there is none else” (Isaiah 45:7,12,18).
For it was Adam who was first created, and then Eve. And it was not Adam who was deceived, but the woman being quite deceived, fell into transgression (I Tim 2:13-14; cf. also Matt 19:4-6; Rom 5:14f).
Our Approach to the Book of Genesis
We will therefore come to the book of Genesis as divine revelation. We shall endeavor to interpret the book literally, in the light of the culture and customs of its day. We will attempt to find eternal principles which are as true today as they were those many years ago. We will then suggest how these eternal truths relate to us in our own age.
This series will not be (Lord willing) a message marathon, persisting forever and ever, age without end. My purpose is to deal with Genesis on a chapter by chapter basis, keeping an understanding of the argument of the book as a primary goal.
I will not deal extensively with the theory of evolution in the first two chapters. This is for several reasons. First, I do not think this issue is within the primary thrust of the book. I would have to depart from the text and to speculate much to deal effectively with evolution. Secondly, I have little interest and little expertise in this scientific area.
(I refuse to attack scientists out of my own ignorance, and I do not wish to be “drawn offsides” so to speak by theories which are critical of divine revelation.) Thirdly, I wish to stay within the Bible’s emphasis and application when dealing with creation. For thousands of years evolution was not an issue. What did people learn from Genesis 1 and 2 all those years? Fourth, most Americans are either tired of hearing about evolution or don’t believe in it anyway: “Half of the adults in the U.S. believe God created Adam and Eve to start the human race.”16
The issue of creationism is ultimately not one over facts, but of faith:
For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse. For even though they knew God, they did not honor Him as God, or give thanks; but they became futile in their speculations, and their foolish heart was darkened (Romans 1:20-21).
By faith we understand that the worlds were prepared by the word of God, so that what is seen was not made out of things which are visible (Hebrews 11:3).
I must say that I am eager to begin this study of Genesis. I would ask you to study the book carefully and prayerfully. Most of all, I would hope that in its study we would come to know God as did men like Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Joseph.
9 “No lack of such sources, oral and written, however, need be supposed for an author of the period indicated in section a. (pp. 15f.), since Abram had migrated from a country that was rich in traditions and genealogies, and Joseph (like Moses after him) had lived many years in the intellectual climate of the Egyptian court on the one hand (with access to, e.g., the detailed ethnography reflected in Genesis 10) and of the patriarchal society on the other, with ample opportunities of preserving these stores of information.” Kidner, pp. 22-23.
10 “With the study of Genesis on its own terms, that is, as a living whole, not a body to be dissected, the impression becomes inescapable that its characters are people of flesh and blood, its events actual, and the book itself a unity. If this is right, the mechanics of composition are matters of small importance, since the parts of this whole are not competing for credence as rival traditions, and the author of the book does not draw attention, as do the writers of Kings and Chronicles, to the sources of his information.” Ibid, p. 22.
12 As quoted by H. C. Leuphold, “Genesis,” The Zondervan Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Bible (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1975, 1976), II, p. 679. This excellent article has a helpful summary of the book, chapter by chapter.