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Genesis Background

Posted by Jim F. on December 20, 2009

I’m going to go through my study materials for the Old Testament again this year, revising them. So I am starting with several posts of background materials for Genesis and the Old Testament.

I will keep insisting on this as I go, but it is important to remember that these are not notes on how to teach a lesson, but study notes on the lesson material. Of course, one could study using the notes, then create a lesson. So they aren’t irrelevant to teaching the lesson, just not intended as lesson materials.

Overview of Genesis

The Hebrew title is bereshit, “In the beginning,” the first word of the text.

I. “Genesis” is a transliteration of the Greek title of the book, genesis.

Speaking of Genesis, Margaret Barker says:

The word bara´ [“to create”] is similar in sound and form to the word for covenant, berith, and the Hebrew dictionary suggests that the root meaning of “covenant” is “to bind.” This similarity of the words for covenant-and-binding and the uniquely divine creative activity leads me to suspect that is the key to the older Creation story, that the words had been related. [The first or “invisible” creation] was a process of binding into bonds, engraving limits and definitions, and then using them to order the visible creation. (Temple Theology 44)

II. Genesis does not stand alone as a book. It is the first book of the five books of the Pentateuch, giving the background necessary for anyone wanting to understand Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. In other words, Genesis tells how the covenant came about that we see manifested in those four books. It claims to cover 2,000 years of history while the other books claim to cover only about 120 years.

III. Ways of thinking about the organization of Genesis:

III.A. As a group of stories with gradually narrowing focus:

  1. From the cosmos as a whole (1)
  2. To the nations (2-11)
  3. To Israel and his children, in particular, Joseph (12-50)

III.B. As a collection of stories about / histories of / accounts of the origin of:

  1. The cosmos (1:1-2:24)
  2. Adam (2:25-5:2)
  3. Noah (5:3-6:9)
  4. Noah’s sons (6:9-10:1)
  5. Shem (10:2-11:10)
  6. Terah (11:10-11:27)
  7. Ishmael (11:27-25:12)
  8. Isaac (25:13-15:19)
  9. Esau and Jacob (25:19-36:9)
  10. Jacob’s family (36:10-37:2)
  11. Joseph (37:2-36, 39:1-41:57)

(Interrupted by the story of Judah and Tamar 38:1-30)

     12. Joseph’s family (42:1-50:26)

Notice that the creation story gets 2 chapters, while the story of Abraham gets 13.

Notice also that though chapters 1-11 tell us about 20 generations (from Adam to Abraham), chapters 12-50, by far the greatest part of the book, tell the story of only 4 generations.

One result: the fall of Adam and Eve gets 1 chapter and the story of Joseph gets 13 chapters, about one-third of the book.

Many have seen this division of Genesis as beginning with a prologue and then having only 10 parts, each having the heading “these are the generations of” (which could also be translated “this is the story of”):

  1. Prologue 1:1-2:3
  2. The generations of heaven & earth 2:4-4:26
  3. of Adam 5:1-6:8
  4. of Noah 6:9-9:29
  5. of Noah’s sons 10:1-11:9
  6. of Shem 11:10-11:26
  7. of Terah 11:27-25:11
  8. of Ishmael 25:12-25:18
  9. of Isaac 25:19-35:29
  10. of Esau 36:1-37:1
  11. of Jacob 37:2-50:26

C. Geographically:

  • Babylon (1-11)
  • Palestine (12-36)
  • Egypt (37-50)

D. According to the kind of history recounted:

1. Pre-patriarchal history (1-11): people who have land but lose it in some way

These stories deal with all of mankind, and they relate to stories shared by Israel with other Near Eastern traditions

    • Creation (1:1-2:25)
    • Crime & punishment (3:1-4:16)
    • The family of Adam & Eve (4:17-5:32)
    • The flood (6:1-9:29)
    • Noah’s son’s children (10:1-10:32)
    • The tower of Babel ((11:1-11:9)
    • Noah’s descendants from Shem to Terah (11:10-11:26)

2. Patriarchal history (12-50): people who do not have land but are promised it

These stories deal specifically with the ancestors of Israel and mention other nations only in passing.

    • Abraham and his families (11:27-25:18)
    • Isaac and Rebekah (25:19-26:35)
    • Jacob & his family ((27:1-36:43)
    • Joseph (37:1-50:26)

E. In terms of the Abrahamic covenant:

  1. From creation and covenant (the creation story and Adam and Eve)
  2. To degeneration (from Adam to Noah)
  3. To covenant (Abraham)
  4. To the blessings of covenant in family (from Abraham to Joseph)

F. Isaac M. Kikawada (“The Shape of Genesis 11:1–9,” in Rhetorical Criticism: Essays in Honor of James Muilenburg; I. M. Kikawada and A. Quinn, Before Abraham Was: The Unity of Genesis 1–11:

Genesis 1-11:

    1. Creation (1:1-2:3)
    2. First threat to creation (2:4-3:24)
    3. Second threat (4:1-26)
    4. Final threat (5:1-9:29)
    5. Resolution (10:1-11:32)

According to Kikawada, this structure mirrors the structure of Genesis as a whole:

    1. Creation
    2. Adam
    3. Cain
    4. Flood
    5. Dispersion / Primeval history (Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph)

G. Victor P. Hamilton points out that Genesis also mirrors the chiastic structure of the Pentateuch as a whole (The Book of Genesis: Chapter 1-17):

  • Genesis as a foretelling of Exodus
  • The Exodus story (Exodus-Numbers)
  • Retelling of the Exodus (Deuteronomy)

7 Responses to “Genesis Background”

  1. Ben said

    I’m glad to see these collected and revisited in one place, since I’ve been collecting links and resources for Patheos’ OT background posts.

  2. Jim F. said

    There are several places with stray bullet points or list numbers at the beginning of lists. I can’t figure out why they are there, so I don’t know how to get rid of them. Sorry about that.

  3. Robert C. said

    Thanks, Jim. These are great notes.

    In terms of your III.E., I’ve read a little bit about ways to understand the New Testament in light of Old Testament patterns and prophecies, and the following extension of your 4 points occurred to me as possibly interesting–first your 4 points:

    1. From creation and covenant (the creation story and Adam and Eve)

    2. To degeneration (from Adam to Noah)

    3. To covenant (Abraham)

    4. To the blessings of covenant in family (from Abraham to Joseph)


    5. From Joseph to the world/Gentiles (and Joseph’s blessing specifically mentions the multitude of nations), which is an idea made explicit in Paul’s writings

    6. From the Gentiles back to the Israelites (incl. Jews), as prophesied in the Book of Mormon (i.e., regeneration, if related chiastically back to point 2 above)

    7. To Adam-Ondi-Ahman / Millenial gathering, etc.

  4. joespencer said

    Very good stuff, Jim. Two notes:

    (1) I found it interesting that you described the Judah/Tamar story as an interruption. Isn’t it more common to take it as an integral part of the Joseph story, given (a) the role Judah plays at the beginning and end of that story, (b) the obvious comparison narratively being drawn between Joseph’s fidelity vis-a-vis Potiphar’s wife and Judah’s infidelity vis-a-vis Tamar, and (c) the appearance in the Judah/Tamar story of the goat? Of course you might simply have meant by “interrupt” not that the Judah/Tamar story is out of place, but that it apparent out-of-placeness forces one to recognize Judah’s important place in the story.

    While I’m at it, I really like the question of the goat in the Joseph story. The first goat in the Joseph story is killed and its blood is applied to Joseph’s coat. The second goat Judah leads out from his home to leave with the harlot (in the wilderness, as it were). I imagine that there is a deliberate echo here of Leviticus 16, the Day of Atonement, emphasizing the reconciliation at the end of the story.

    (2) Another way of making sense of the threefold structure of Genesis is to map it onto the threefold structure of the entire Hebrew Bible: Genesis 1-11 as founding narrative and torah (the “mythical” stretch of the book); Genesis 12-36 as prophetic intervention in the promised land (Abraham of course, but also note Jacob’s “exile” in Babylon, etc.); and Genesis 37-50 as wisdom and historical writing (with the twelve sons we are finally in the realm of Israelite history, and it is, of course, standard to read the Joseph narrative as a narrative of the “child of wisdom,” etc.).

    • Jim F. said

      Joe, these are very helpful additions. You’re right, by “interruption” I meant that the Judah / Tamar story interrupts the narrative as we might expect it. As such an interruption it demands our attention, forcing the kinds of questions and observations you offer.

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