The first book of the Bible, which tells the story of God's creation of the world and humankind; and the ancestral history of the people of Israel, beginning with Abraham and Sarah.

Name of Book.

Though some early manuscripts call Genesis sefer ri'shon (“the first book”) or sefer Beri'at ha-Olam (“the book of the creation of the world”), the bulk of Jewish tradition follows an ancient practice in naming the first book of the Bible Bereshit. Bereshit is the first phrase in the entire Bible, and can be translated as “in the beginning (of)” or “when first.” It was common in the ancient world to name a book after its first word(s). For example, the great work about the elevation of the deity Marduk (often called The Mesopotamian Epic of Creation), the Enuma Elish, gets its name from its first words, which mean “When on high.”

Christian tradition takes its name for the first book of the Bible, “Genesis,” from the old Greek translation of the Torah, called the Septuagint. Genesis in Greek means “origin” or “birth,” and it is a word that appears in the Greek translation of book (e.g., 2:4 and 5:1 in reference to a “book of origins/births”). This name highlights an important dimension of the book of Genesis: its focus on genealogical origins. Though Genesis contains some of the most powerful narratives in the Bible, these stories occur within a genealogical structure. As we will see in more detail below, the whole book is organized by a series of genealogical headings, starting with 2:4 and ending with 37:2. These often overlooked labels turn the book into an expanded genealogy of the “sons of Israel” who will be the focus of attention in the book of Exodus and following.

Canonical Status and Location.

The book of Genesis, along with the rest of the first five books of the Bible (Pentateuch/Torah), stands as one of the most important parts of the Jewish scriptures/the Christian Old Testament. Every ordering of the Bible places it first. As the opening of the Bible it sets the stage for what follows.

Jews have long revered Genesis as the first book in the Torah, the most authoritative part of the Jewish scriptures. Each fall Jewish synagogues begin their annual reading of the Torah with the reading of all of Genesis, divided into twelve weekly readings. Many Jewish legends surround figures in Genesis, such as Abraham, who is seen in Jewish interpretation as the father of monotheism. Some Jewish interpretation has found legal relevance in the stories of Genesis and has depicted its characters as anticipating the dictates of rabbinic law in times long before the rabbis or Moses, while other traditions have appreciated its stories.

Christians have paid particular attention to Genesis because of its focus on God's work with humanity prior to the giving of the law. The stories of creation in Genesis 1–3 were a source for theological reflection on the nature of the cosmos and the human role in it. The story of the Flood was seen as an ancient image of baptism. Starting with the apostle Paul, Abraham was seen as the first one to achieve a relationship with God “by faith.” As we will see below, Paul used narratives from Genesis to argue that gentiles could join in covenant to the God of Israel without undergoing circumcision and converting to Judaism. In this way, the narratives of Genesis played a crucial role in the establishment of Christianity as a separate religion.

When Islam arose, it too featured a prominent focus on traditions from Genesis, such as the stories of Adam and Eve, Noah, Abraham, and Joseph. Building on ancient Jewish tradition, the Qur'an and other early Muslim texts depict Abraham as the first monotheist, an important role given the fact that monotheism is one of the five defining “pillars” of Islam. Abraham and his son, Ishmael, are said to have rebuilt Islam's most holy shrine, the Kaaba, in Mecca, and Ishmael is an important prophet in Islamic tradition. The pilgrimage to Mecca, another one of the defining pillars of Islam, focuses on a series of rites reenacting the experiences of Ishmael and his mother, Hagar, when Abraham left them in a desert area (the region of Mecca, according to Muslim tradition).

In sum, three major religious traditions—Judaism, Christianity, and Islam—all lay claim to the characters and promises of Genesis. Each offers a competing take on the meaning of this important book of beginnings. In particular each religion claims the figure of Abraham featured in Genesis as a founding figure of their religion, usually to the exclusion of the claims of others.

Structure and Contents.

There are two main sections in Genesis, the primeval history in Genesis 1–11 and the ancestral history in Genesis 12–50. The latter section is often divided into the story of Abraham and Sarah (Gen 12–25), the story of Jacob and Esau (Gen 26–36), and the story of Joseph and his brothers (Gen 37–50). Notably, despite the male focus of headings like this and in the book itself, it is matriarchs of ancient Israel, Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel, and Leah, who often play a determinative role in the Genesis narratives of birth and the transmission of God's promise. For this reason, the term “ancestral history” is more appropriate for the stories in Genesis 12–50 than the older common designation “patriarchal history.” In all of these designations, the word “history” should not be understood as an accurate description of the past.

As recognized in the division between the first two readings in the Jewish lectionary cycle, the primeval history has two major sections that parallel each other: (1) the creation of the cosmos and stories of the first humans (1:1—6:4); and the Flood and dispersal of post-Flood humanity (6:5—11:32). It features universal traditions similar to myths in other cultures, particularly in the ancient Near East and Greece. For example, the Mesopotamian Atrahasis epic was written hundreds of years before chapters 1–11, yet it parallels numerous particulars of the biblical narrative as it describes the creation of humans, a flood, and the vow of the gods (here plural) not to destroy life with a flood again. Several details of the Genesis Flood story, including the story of sending of birds to see if the Flood had subsided (Gen 8:6–12), are parallel to the flood story included in the older, Mesopotamian Gilgamesh epic. The primeval history is similar in other ways to Greek, Egyptian, and other Mesopotamian mythic materials as well.

The Genesis version of this primeval history (both earlier and later stages of it) is distinguished from such ancient precursors by a complex web of parallels between its different narratives (Cohn 1983; Rendsburg 1986; Jensen 1987). Close parallels in language between Genesis 1–2 and 6–9 show that the Flood story of Genesis is God's partial undoing of past creation and reestablishment of a new created order. In the Flood story, God looks back on the failure of the first act of creation (Gen 6:6–7), allows the primeval seas to rejoin by opening gates in the heavenly dome once created to separate them (Gen 7:11–12; see 1:6–8), and takes creation back to a state where there is just one human family, Noah's, and a set of animals in his care. Then, the story of Noah's wine drinking and curse on one of his grandsons


Construction of the Tower of Babel (11:4–9).

Illustration from the Velislav Bible, c. 1340.


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(Gen 9:20–27) echoes parts of the garden of Eden story (Gen 2:4—3:24), with Noah as the first vintner (9:20; cf. Adam as first farmer 2:15), who experiences problems from his produce (drunkenness in 9:20–21; see 3:2–19), involving nakedness (9:22; see 3:7) and a final pronouncement of judgment (9:25–27; 3:14–19).

The Noah story also parallels the Cain and Abel account, especially its focus on a division between brothers (9:21–23; see 4:4–8) and misdeed by one of them that leads to a curse (9:25–26; see 4:11–12). In this way, the story of Noah in Genesis 9:20–27 shows in a small compass the same dynamics that were present before the Flood with the first human family, while also showing an important difference: after the Flood, Noah rather than God plants the garden, pronounces judgment on a son, and expels the one who is cursed; God is less involved. Next both storylines feature predominantly genealogical sections (Gen 4:17—5:32 and 10:1–32) which, despite differences, imply that a much larger human community has developed from the initial family. Finally, each storyline concludes with a story where the boundary between God and humans is threatened, whether through divine beings having children by humans called (in the Hebrew) “men of the name” (Gen 6:1–4) or humans attempting to “make a name” for themselves by building a tower to heaven (Gen 11:1–9). In both cases, God responds less with judgment and/or curse (cf. Gen 2:1—4:16; 9:20–27) than with measures to protect that boundary (Gen 6:3B; 11:7–8), a pattern already seen at the conclusion of the garden of Eden story (Gen 3:22–24).

The impact of these correlations is to draw a carefully balanced picture of ambiguities surrounding the emergence of human culture. Through wordplay (e.g., Adam and adamah/earth in 2:7, “man” and “woman”/ish and ishshah in 2:23) and artful narrative, the story depicts God's interaction with humans as they develop different aspects of culture: farming (Gen 2:7–15; 3:17–19 and then husbandry 4:2), sexuality (Gen 2:23–25), clothing (Gen 3:7; 21), childbirth (3:16), cities and various crafts (Gen 4:17–22), viticulture (9:20–21; see also 5:29), divisions in nations (Gen 10) and languages (Gen 11:1–9). Thus primeval stories correspond to each other in multiple ways (see chart), even as they add their distinctive accents in describing the development of human culture amid a mix of divine curse and provision. In the middle stands the Flood story, where Yahweh (the LORD) promises not to interrupt again the natural order (Gen 8:20—9:17), the LORD's last direct address to human characters in the primeval history. From that point forward, the dynamics of the pre-Flood period reappear in parallel stories, but the level of divine engagement is reduced. In the wake of the LORD's post-Flood self-limitation the orders of the cosmos and civilization are allowed to run their course.

Correlations in the Primeval History

Creation (1:1—2:3)
Origins of farming/reproduction (2:4—3:24) Origins of Viticulture (9:20–27)
Flood (Un-creation/re-creation) 6:5—9:17
Cities and Craftwork (4:1–16) Nations and Empires (10:1—11:9)

The ancestral history picks up where the primeval history left off and tells the story of God's choice of Abra(ha)m and the transmission of the promise (12:1–3) through Isaac and Jacob (whose name is changed to Israel in 32:28; 35:10), down to Jacob's twelve sons, the progenitors of the twelve tribes of Israel. These stories are close in form to oral folklore, so it is not surprising that there are few ancient textual parallels to them. Scholarship has found similarities between Israelite tales about the matriarchs and patriarchs and modern legends told in oral cultures (Niditch 1987). For example, there are some striking parallels between the depiction of the clever deceptions of Jacob and others (e.g., 25:27–34; 27:1–45) and the celebration of wily “tricksters” in Native American and other traditions.

As in the two storylines of the primeval history, this ancestral storyline begins with a single father, Abram (Gen 11:27), who is later said to be renamed “Abraham” by God because he will be a “father of a multitude” [Heb. hamon] of nations (Gen 17:7), thus recognizing his status as the ancestor of the major figures to follow. As the narrative progresses, it quickly becomes clear that it is differently focused and structured from the primeval history. After a preliminary description of Abraham's family and journey from Ur to Haran, it moves to the LORD's call for Abraham to leave his family in Haran for a “land that I will show you” (Gen 12:1) and the LORD's promise to make him into a great nation, bless him, give him a “great name” (12:2; cf. Gen 6:4; 11:4), bless those who bless him and curse those who even treat him lightly (Gen 12:3A), and make him such an emblem of blessing that clans of other nations will wish upon themselves a blessing like the one he has (Gen 12:3B; see also, Gen 48:20 and Ps 72:17). Abraham then goes to Shechem in Israel and receives a promise of the land there (12:7), builds an altar to the LORD in Bethel (12:8), and then flees to Egypt because of famine in the land (Gen 12:10). The following stories, structured overall in a concentric pattern (see diagram; Cassuto 1972, pp. 294–296), show Abraham's varying responses to the promise and God's gradual clarification of how it will be executed.

  • A. Prologue (11:28–30)
  • B. First challenge: call to leave family of origin (12:1–3)
  • C. Wife-sister story 12:10—13:1—the LORD's rescue of Abraham in Egypt
  • D. Separation from Lot (13:2–18)
  • E. Covenant of pieces with Abraham (14–15)
  • F. Hagar-Ishmael story (Gen 16:1–14)

  • E′. Covenant of circumcision with Abraham (17)
  • D′. Hospitality/progeny episodes; Abraham contrasted with Lot (18–19)
  • C′. Wife-sister story (20)—the LORD's rescue of Abraham in Philistia
  • B′. Final challenge: call to sacrifice family of future (22:1–19)
  • A′. Epilogue 22:20–24

Almost every part of the narratives in this structure links in some way with the theme of promise, from the LORD's Exodus-like rescue of Abraham from Egypt (Gen 12:10–20), Abraham's split from Lot (13:1–13), and the LORD's “showing” of the whole land of Israel to Abraham (Gen 12:1; 13:14–17) to the dramatic, troubling story of the LORD's final “test” of Abraham, the command for him to sacrifice Isaac, the heir of the promise, at a place that the LORD would “show” him (Gen 22:1; see 12:1). Meanwhile, in the middle of the concentric structure, stands the story about Hagar and Ishmael (Gen 16:1–14), where an Egyptian maid is “oppressed” by an ancestor of Israel (16:6), flees in a reverse-exodus from Israel back toward Egypt (16:7), meets God in the wilderness much as the people of Israel later would (16:8; see Exod 24), receives promises there about her son Ishmael (16:10–12), and names the deity that she met there (16:13; see Exod 3:14–15).

Though the promise and the heir to the promise, Isaac, are particular foci of Genesis 12–24, both are somewhat peripheral in the next major section, Genesis 25–35. A few stories are told that make Isaac parallel to Abraham (Gen 26:1–33) and he appears in a supporting role as Jacob's father (e.g., Gen 27:1—28:5), but most of chapters 25–35 focus on Jacob and his family. Moreover, rather than focusing particularly on the promise, chapters 25–35 revolve instead around the consequences of Rebekah and Jacob's efforts to have Jacob take his brother Esau's birthright and fatherly blessing (Gen 25:29–34; 27:1–40). These acts lead Esau to vow to kill Jacob as soon as their father, Isaac, dies (27:41). When Rebekah overhears this vow, she gets Jacob to flee for his life (27:42–45) and persuades Isaac to send Jacob away to get a proper wife (27:46—28:9). Most of the rest of the story narrates Jacob's acquisition of flocks, wives, and children in Haran (Gen 29–31) and then his return, wrestling with God and renaming as “Israel,” and semi-reconciliation with Esau (32:1—33:11). The reconciliation with his brother is not complete in the end because Jacob refuses Esau's invitations to join him in Seir (33:12–17), perhaps recalling that Esau originally planned to wait until their father died to kill him (27:41; Sternberg 1985,


The Table of Nations (ch. 10).

Only places that can be identified with probability are shown.


pp. 242–243). Overall the promise theme occurs only occasionally across this narrative stretch (e.g., Gen 26:1–33; 28:1–9, 13–14; 32:10–13), while the concentric structure organizing the episodes of the Jacob story focus on the fertility of Jacob's clan (Fishbane 1979, pp. 40–58):

  • A. Encounter between Jacob/Esau (25:21–34; 27)
  • B. Encounter with God and departure from home (28)
  • C. Acquisition of wives, Leah and Rachel (29:1–30)
  • D. Fertility: the birth of Jacob's children (29:31—30:24)
  • D′. Fertility: the growth of Jacob's flocks (30:25–43)
  • C′. Jacob's removal of his wives from their father's household (31:1—32:1)
  • B′. Encounter with God on return home (32:22–32)
  • A′. Reunion encounter between Jacob and Esau (33:1–17)

The last major section of Genesis, the story of Joseph and his brothers (Gen 37–50), likewise begins with a case of potentially murderous brotherly rivalry, this time between Joseph and his brothers (Gen 37). Here again, the promise theme is peripheral, mostly present in a digression about Israel's (Jacob's) stop in Beer-sheba (Gen 46:1A–5) and a story about his blessing of Ephraim and Manasseh (Gen 48:15–16). The main emphasis instead is on the envy and resentment felt toward Joseph by his brothers for their father's preference for Joseph as the “son of his old age” (37:3–4) and Joseph's dreams which seem to predict his brothers and parents lying prostrate in submission to him (37:5–11). Initially Joseph's brothers plan to murder him either directly or through abandoning him in an underground cistern (37:18–24), but they eventually agree with Judah's proposal to sell him into slavery to the Ishmaelites instead (37:27). The narrative, probably due to fissures left through its history of transmission, goes on to describe the Midianites actually selling Joseph into slavery (37:28) rather than Joseph's brothers, and they then take him to Egypt. Joseph rises to power there, and becomes second in power only to Pharaoh, mainly through his ability to interpret dreams (Gen 41). When his brothers come to Egypt during a famine in Israel and lie prostrate before Joseph requesting food to avoid starvation (42:1–6; see 37:6–8), they do not recognize him and he does not confess his identity. Instead, he puts them through an elaborate process that places them in a situation (44:1–13) where they can save themselves from a sentence of death by betraying Benjamin, the other favored “son of old age” in the family (42:4; 43:6–9) and adding to their father's ongoing grief about Joseph. This prompts Judah to offer himself as a slave in place of Benjamin (44:18–34, also 44:16; see 43:19), which leads Joseph to break down, reveal his identity to his brothers, and reunite the family in Egypt for the remainder of the time of famine (chs. 45–47). The rest of the book of Genesis focuses on Jacob/Israel's blessings on his grandsons (ch. 48) and sons (ch. 49), and the deaths of Jacob/Israel and Joseph (ch. 50).

The whole of the Joseph story, then, is an intricate exploration of brotherly rivalry and the move of Joseph's brothers from a position of being willing to make their father grieve for his favored son (Gen 37) to refusal to do so again (Gen 44). The narrative ends with Joseph's brothers still anxious about whether Joseph will kill them after the death of Jacob (50:15–18), much as Esau once planned to kill Jacob after Isaac's death (27:41). Nevertheless, Joseph reassures them that God had placed him in power over them not for revenge, but to provide for them (50:19–21). The power over brothers that seemed ridiculous when imaged in Joseph's dreams at the outset of the story (37:5–11) ended up saving his family. This speech by Joseph represents a significant human interpretation of divine action that—aside from the divine speech in Genesis 46:1–5—was generally implicit throughout this final section of the book. Increasingly across the stretch of Genesis, the narrative goes from direct description of God's actions and intentions (e.g., Gen 1) to more exclusive focus on human speeches that make claims about what God is doing (Gen 50:19–21).

In sum, the stories revolving around Abraham (Gen 12–25), Jacob (Gen 25–35), and Joseph (Gen 37–50) are differently structured and emphasize different themes. Though the Abraham story begins with and is saturated with the theme of the LORD's promise of blessing and land, the Jacob story emphasizes the crafty efforts of Jacob and his favorite women (Rebekah and Rachel) to succeed and protect themselves, and the Joseph story emphasizes the resolution of complex relationships between Joseph, his brothers, and their father. The Abraham and Jacob narratives both feature distinct episodes organized in a rough concentric pattern centering on the different themes of each narrative. In contrast, the Joseph story is a more cohesive, virtually novelistic whole. These three larger sections, to be sure, are connected genealogically by the family linkage of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob/Israel, and his sons; and the theme of promise continues, albeit with less textual space devoted to the topic, in the stories about Jacob and Joseph. Nevertheless, the three sections are otherwise distinct—stylistically, thematically, and structurally. The primeval history unfolds the ambiguities of human culture in parallel storylines moving from one ancestor to a multitude of humanity threatening the divine human boundary. The Abraham story is a chiasm relentlessly focused on the theme of the divine promise and who will inherit it. The Jacob story is likewise a chiasm, but one revolving around the particular fertility and craftiness of Jacob and his household. Finally, the bulk of the Joseph story is a still differently structured novella showing the gradual reconciliation of Joseph with the brothers who wished to do away with him. Overall, the stories appearing in the first half of Genesis are more episodically distinct, while the stories appearing in the Jacob and much of the Joseph story are more organically connected to each other.

That said, these distinctly different sections of Genesis also fit together in the broader sweep of Genesis to form the beginnings of a third storyline, parallel to the pre- and post-Flood storylines seen in the primeval history (Carr 1998, pp. 336–340). Just as the primeval storylines moved from focus on an initial pair (Adam-Eve) or person (Noah) to focus on divisions among brothers (Cain-Abel, Noah's sons), the ancestral storyline of Genesis moves from a focus on Abraham to two brotherly rivalries each of which almost end in death (Jacob and Esau in Gen. 25–33; Joseph and his brothers in Gen 37–50). Yet in the ancestral history the outcome is different. Where the primeval storylines ended with brothers unreconciled or divided, the sons of Jacob/Israel—Joseph and his brothers—end up together in Egypt.

Ultimately, the ancestral storyline of Genesis points beyond itself to narratives found in the book of Exodus. The children of Jacob/Israel who are reconciled in Egypt at the end of Genesis, grow together in the book of Exodus into a great nation who becomes the people of God at Sinai. The promises of blessing and fertility given to all humanity at the outset of Genesis (Gen 1:28), are given with particular intensity to Abraham (Gen 17:2, 6; see also 12:3) and then fulfilled with the multiplication of Israel in Egypt (Exod 1:7). Meanwhile, the end of the book of Exodus leads to a different outcome than the one seen at the end of the primeval storylines. Where those storylines ended with divine protection of the divine-human boundary, Exodus ends with God crossing the divine-human boundary and living in the midst of Israel in the wilderness tabernacle (Exodus 40). Furthermore, this climactic story of the completion of the tabernacle on the sabbath echoes the completion of the cosmos on the sabbath in Genesis 1:1—2:4. In this and other ways, the stories of Genesis now lead inextricably beyond themselves into Exodus. They function in the present Pentateuch as a prologue to the story of God's creation of Israel through Moses in the rest of the Pentateuch, Exodus through Deuteronomy. In this sense, the later Jewish name of the book, bereshit (“in the beginning”) is particularly apt.

Meanwhile, in contrast to the rest of the Pentateuch, the different parts of Genesis are united by a set of toledot (“generations” or “descendants”) headings (originally from the Priestly source [see Literary History, below]), each of which guides the reader to the major focus of the section that follows it (2:4A; 5:1; 6:9; 10:1; 11:10; 11:27; 25:12; 25:19; 36:1,9; 37:2). After an initial focus on all the peoples of the world

Primeval Storyline 1 Primeval Storyline 2 The Israelite Storyline
First family Adam and Eve (2–3) Noah's family (6:1—9:17) Abraham and family (11:27—25:11)
Brotherly division Cain and Abel (4:1–16) Noah's sons (9:20–27) Jacob-Esau, Joseph and brothers (25–50)
Multiplication into great people Genesis 4:17—5:32 Genesis 10:1–32 [Exodus 1:1–7]
The divine- human boundary Genesis 6:1–4 Genesis 11:1–9 [the tabernacle in Exodus 40]

descending from Adam (5:1) and Noah (6:9; 10:1), these headings highlight a narrowing focus in Genesis on those who receive the divine promise (Carr 1998, pp. 160–166). The headings first lead us to Abraham, the first to receive God's promise (“descendants of Shem” leading up to Abraham in 11:10, “descendants of Terah” [Abraham's father] in 11:27). Then the genealogical headings distinguish between descendants of Abraham who receive the promise (Isaac [25:19] and Jacob/Israel [37:2]) and those who do not (Ishmael [25:12] and Esau [36:1, 9]). Together, these genealogical headings turn the artful narratives of Genesis into components of an extended genealogy of the “descendants” of heaven and earth (2:4), Adam (5:1), Noah (6:9), Noah's sons (10:1), Shem (11:10), Terah (11:27), Ishmael (11:27), Isaac (25:19), Esau (36:1, 9) and finally Jacob/Israel (37:2). In this sense, the Christian name for the book, “Genesis,” which is derived from the Greek word for origins or birth, well characterizes the first book of the Bible as an extended genealogy. It is a genealogy of the “sons of Israel” soon to be the focus of Exodus and following.

Summing up this discussion, we can outline Genesis as follows:

I.The beginning of the beginning: God's seven-day creation of the cosmos 1:1—2:4.

II.Primeval storylines: descendants of heaven and earth, Noah, Shem 2:5—11:26.

A. Creation and violence before the Flood: the first primeval storyline 2:5—6:4.

B. Re-creation through Flood and multiplication of humanity: the second storyline 6:5—11:26.

III. The ancestral history: 11:27—50:26.

A. “Descendants of Terah”: Gift of the divine promise to Abraham and his descendants 11:27—25:11.

B. The divergent destinies of the descendants of Ishmael and Isaac (Jacob-Esau) 25:12—35:29.

1. The descendants of Ishmael, not the primary heir of the promise 25:12—18.

2. Descendants of Isaac (Jacob and Esau), the primary heir of the promise 25:19—35:29.

C. The divergent destinies of the descendants of Esau and Jacob/Israel 36:1—50:26.

1. Descendants of Esau, not the primary heir of the promise 36:1—43.

2. Descendants of Jacob/Israel (Joseph and his brothers), the primary heir 37—50.

By the end of Genesis, the lens of the narrative camera has moved from a wide-angle overview of all the peoples of the world, to a narrow focus on one, divinely chosen group, the sons of Jacob (also named “Israel”), and primeval blessings on all humanity (e.g., Gen 1:28) now focus particularly on them. As the book concludes, this family is stuck together in Egypt because of famine in their homeland, but they all are heirs of the promise of their fathers, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. This family of promise will become the people of promise featured at the outset of the book of Exodus.

Authorship of Genesis.

Genesis lacks any claim of authorship. In the ancient Near East, such narratives generally were typically anonymous. Yet on another level, such ancient teachings were viewed as divinely inspired, and this certainly was the case for Genesis as part of the Torah. The book of Ben Sira, for example, identifies the Torah with Wisdom, created by God at the outset of creation (Sir 24; cf. Prov 8:22–31). Later Jewish rabbinic and mystical traditions repeatedly affirmed that the Torah, including Genesis, was written by God even before the making of heaven and earth (e.g., Gen. Rab. 1:4; ʾAbot 3:14). Moreover, Maimonides stated as one of the fundamental principles of Jewish faith the belief that “The Torah has been revealed from heaven.” (Commentary to Sanh. 10[11]:1). Another part of Maimonides' same statement was that “the whole of the Torah found in our hands this day is the Torah that was handed down by Moses.” This idea is anticipated by references in the Bible to the “Torah of Moses” (e.g., Josh 8:31–32; 23:6) or to “the whole Torah which Moses, my servant, commanded” (Josh 1:7). Nevertheless, it was only during the Greco-Roman period, in the last centuries B.C.E., that we start to see explicit statements in early Jewish texts that Moses wrote Genesis and the rest of the Pentateuch (Exodus through Deuteronomy). By this time Judaism had been influenced by Greek culture, where authorship was important and the writings of Homer enjoyed the highest prestige. In response, the Jewish authors claimed that their Pentateuch had an ancient author as well—Moses. Indeed, some, such as Aristobulus, Philo, and Josephus, claimed that famous Greek authors, such as Homer and Plato, had drawn some of their most important ideas from the Mosaic Torah (in Greek form) that preceded them. This idea of early Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch then persisted in Christian and Muslim contexts as well.

Nevertheless, careful readers of the Bible realized in subsequent centuries that there were problems with this claim of Mosaic authorship. Certain parts of Genesis seem to have been written after the time of Moses, for example a verse specifying that Canaanites were in the land (12:6), implicitly coming from a time when they were no longer present. Another verse gives the origin of a place name “as it is said to this day” (22:14). In addition, some rabbinic texts (e.g., b. B. Bat. 14b; Menaḥ. 30a, and Midr. Sipre 357) ascribe the last few verses of Deuteronomy about Moses' burial to Joshua, perhaps because of doubts about whether Moses himself would have written on that topic. To be sure, interpreters who have made it an article of faith to affirm Moses' authorship of the entire Pentateuch have found ways to explain these and other problems. The often tortured reasoning involved in such explanations, however, highlights ways that Genesis and other books of the Pentateuch do not seem to have been written originally in the voice of Moses. Instead, the book was originally anonymous and only attributed to Moses in the context of later, author-oriented cultures.

Dates of Composition, Historical Contexts, Literary History, and History in Genesis.

For more than two hundred and fifty years, historical scholarship on Genesis has established that Genesis was written over many centuries, using oral and written traditions. “In the beginning,” so to speak, were oral traditions, since Genesis was produced in a largely oral culture. We can see marks of that oral culture in the way similar stories were attached to different patriarchs. For example, the stories about Abraham in Genesis 20:1–18; 21:22–34 are similar to stories about Isaac in Genesis 26:1–33: both texts tell how a patriarch living in Philistia lied to the ruler there (Abimelech) about his wife being his sister (compare also Gen 12:10–20, which is set in Egypt), disputed with the Philistines about wells of water, and made a treaty with Abimelech at a well that was then named “Beer-sheba” (understood in the story as “well of oath”). Despite these parallels, these stories about Abraham and Isaac share few phrases in common and should rather be viewed as competing accounts of how the well of Beer-sheba got its name. Such transfer of stories from one figure to another is common in oral culture, as is the retelling of stories without an attempt at verbatim repetition. Most of the stories in Genesis, at one stage or another, were told and retold in such oral contexts.

The actual writing of Genesis took place over a long period, probably starting at the time when Judah and Israel began to have kings and continuing after the monarchy during the exile of much of Jerusalem's leadership in Babylon and then their return in the Persian period. Scholars agree most about the final stages of this process, distinguishing between Priestly and non-Priestly sources of Genesis. The Priestly layer, to be discussed in more detail below, is a continuous set of texts, starting with the seven-day creation account in Genesis 1:1—2:3, and followed by a set of intricately interlinked narratives and genealogies that prepare for more specifically Priestly material in the book of Exodus and onward. The non-Priestly layer of Genesis is less homogeneous and interlinked. It includes distinctly different treatments of the period of creation and Flood, of Abraham and his sons, of Jacob and Joseph—treatments that form the basis for the distinctively different styles, emphases, and structures of the above-discussed major sections of Genesis.

In so far as Genesis was written over hundreds of years, it has proven difficult for scholars to pierce back to its written origins and achieve consensus about its earliest sources. For a long time, many thought that the non-Priestly portions of Genesis had originated in parallel source documents, a tenth-century B.C.E. “J” document that often used the divine designation Yahweh (the German scholars who named this source spelled the name “Jahweh”) and a slightly later “E” document that avoided that sacred name (“E” is the Hebrew word for “God,” Elohim). Nevertheless, an increasing number of scholars began to dispute that approach in the late twentieth century. Instead, they became convinced that the writing of Genesis began with the composition of shorter narratives covering just parts of what is now the Genesis story. Each such narrative may once have been copied on a separate scroll, thus explaining many of the differences discussed above in structure and focus between the four major parts of Genesis: the primeval history, and stories of Abraham, Jacob, and Joseph. Such early scrolls probably included: an early primeval history (including Gen 2:4—4:26; a strand of the Flood account; 9:20–27 and 11:1–9), various complexes of traditions about Abraham (e.g., Abraham and Lot in Gen 12–13, 18–19; some “E” stories about Abraham in Gen 20–21), and early forms of the stories about Jacob (parts of Gen 25–35) and Joseph (early portions of Gen 37–50).

These early scrolls apparently originated from the time of the monarchies of Judah (based in Jerusalem) and Israel (based in northern Israel). The early non-Priestly primeval history probably originated in the monarchy of Judah and shows links to the (Jerusalem) Temple traditions such as the focus on a divine garden (Gen 2:8–9, 15) with world-watering rivers including the Jerusalem Gihon spring (Gen 2:10–14), and the prominent theme of sacrifice in both the Cain and Abel (Gen 4:1–16) and non-Priestly flood stories (Gen 8:20–22; prepared for by preservation of extra pairs of clean animals in 7:2). Its story of creation and Flood echoes and revises more ancient Near Eastern myths, including (among others) the above-mentioned Atrahasis epic (Carr 1996, pp. 241–247). Some parts of the Abraham story, such as the traditions about Abraham and Lot in Genesis 12–13 and 18–19 may have originated in the monarchy of Judah as well. Meanwhile, the earliest parts of the second half of Genesis show signs of a different, northern, “Israelite” origin (Blum 1984, 175–190, pp. 234–244). Most of the non-Priestly portions of the Jacob (Gen 25–35) and Joseph (Gen 37–50) stories emphasize places and characters important in the north and probably originate in the (northern) monarchy of Israel. Only at a later stage in their development were these traditions about Jacob and Joseph expanded through the addition of traditions about Judah (especially Gen 38 and the pro-Judah blessing in Gen 49) to better speak to a Judean audience (Blum 1984, pp. 209–230). Yet even these Judah-focused additions to the Jacob-Joseph story show signs of being authored before the end of the monarchy, promising that the monarchy in Jerusalem would be eternal (Gen 49:10). This expectation would be disappointed by the Babylonian ending of monarchal rule and the destruction of the Temple in the late sixth century B.C.E.

This disaster for Judah and its monarchy, however, proved to be decisive in the formation of Genesis. For it was at the time when the Judeans had no land or monarchy that the sorts of stories found in Genesis became most important to them, stories about landless ancestors and the place of Israel in the broader world. We can see this outside Genesis as prophets such as Second Isaiah (Isa 40–55) addressed the despair of the exiled Judeans through recalling the power of God as creator of the world and God's promises to bless figures such as Abraham and Sarah (see Isa 41:8; 51:2). This exilic context of Second Isaiah is also the time when unknown authors, probably former royal scribes, linked together the separate, non-Priestly compositions behind Genesis about the primeval history, Jacob, Joseph, etc. When they did so, they placed the stories in their present order, so that the promise of the Abraham traditions became an answer to the curse theme of the primeval history, and they followed the Abraham narrative with a revised version of the stories about Jacob and Joseph that now had the theme of promise inserted at crucial junctures (e.g., 28:13–15; 46:1–5). In this way, the exilic authors of the first non-Priestly Genesis narrative reassured the Judeans in Babylon that God would bless them, protect them, and give them land much as God once had done the same for their ancestors. In their despair, the exiles might doubt God's promise, as Abraham sometimes does (e.g., Gen 15:2–3; 16:1–3), but God would fulfill his promise nevertheless.

Meanwhile, another group of authors in exile, linked to the priesthood that claimed Aaron as its ancestral founder, soon produced their own version of the narratives in Genesis, a version now embedded in Genesis alongside the above-described non-Priestly narrative, but recognizable because of its distinctive terminology and conceptuality. When these distinctive Priestly sections are separated from their non-Priestly counterparts, the result is a continuous Priestly version of Genesis including texts such as: the seven-day creation account in Genesis 1:1–2:3; the genealogy in Genesis 5; a version of the Flood story culminating in the covenant in Genesis 9:1–17; God's covenant of circumcision with Abraham (Gen 17); and then other genealogies (25:12–18; 36) and brief stories about the ancestors (e.g., 26:34–35; 27:46–28.9; 35:9–15). This layer of texts in Genesis is called “P” or “Priestly” because of its strong links to other Pentateuchal texts in Exodus through Numbers that focus on the priesthood of Aaron and sacrificial worship, such as the links noted above concerning the seven-day creation account in Genesis 1:1—2:3 to the Priestly tabernacle account in the book of Exodus. For the period covered in Genesis, however, the Priestly narrative focuses exclusively on genealogies and two ritual practices, sabbath (Gen 1:1—2:3) and circumcision (Gen 17), that could be performed by exiles in Babylon. References to sacrifice are postponed to the Priestly narrative of God's establishment of the tabernacle, since according to the Priestly conception, such sacrifices could only be offered at the tabernacle and the later Temple.

The last major stage in the composition of Genesis was the combination of this exilic, promise-centered, non-Priestly Genesis narrative with its Priestly counterpart. This combination probably happened during the postexilic period, when exiles such as Nehemiah and Ezra had returned and were rebuilding Jerusalem and its Temple. The consolidation of parallel traditions now in Genesis (and the rest of the Pentateuch), allowed these leaders to promote a common Torah around which different members of the community could unite. The resulting whole prominently featured non-Priestly traditions that formed the core of the parallel primeval storylines, the framework of the concentric Abraham and Jacob stories, and the narrative flow of the Joseph story. Yet it also began with the Priestly creation story (1:1—2:3), featured the Priestly account of the LORD'S covenant of circumcision with Abraham (Gen 17) near the center of the chiasm that now dominates the present Abraham story (see above), and was structured throughout by the Priestly toledot genealogical headings.

This consolidation of P and non-P narratives, however, also produced powerful contrasts in Genesis that can be seen by the attentive reader, such as between the seven-day creation in 1:1—2:3 (P) and the non-Priestly story of creation and aftermath in 2:4—3:24, or between a version of the Flood culminating in Noah's sacrifice (e.g., 7:1–5 and 8:20–22) and a Priestly version of the Flood that lacks such a sacrifice and does not describe the provision of extra animals for it (e.g., 6:11–22 and 9:1–17). These contrasts are so clear that historical scholars had already started distinguishing between the Priestly layer and the other parts of Genesis almost three hundred years ago, and the majority of scholars have agreed on most specifics of this distinction of Priestly and non-Priestly Pentateuchal texts from the late nineteenth century onward.

Overview of Stages of the Formation of Genesis

Monarchal (Preexilic) Period Babylonian Exile Postexilic Period
[Originally separate scrolls] Promise-centered, non-Priestly
Early creation-Flood story Genesis narrative and expansion of older preexilic narratives
Abraham-Lot Cycle
Early Jacob story Combination of non-Priestly and Priestly Narratives
Early Joseph story
Priestly narrative of creation to Sinai

In sum, the book of Genesis that we now have is a complex combination of different texts with echoes of now-inaccessible oral traditions. Not only was the book written over hundreds of years, but the very earliest of its written precursor documents—written sometime in the monarchal period of ancient Israel (1000–586 B.C.E.)—are separated by hundreds of years from the figures and events they purport to depict. The ancestors of Genesis are said to have lived long before the time of the Israelite Exodus from Egypt, which in turn seems to have taken place, at the latest, during the New Kingdom period of Egyptian history (approximately 1500–1200 B.C.E.). Therefore, the stories about them in Genesis come filtered through hundreds of years of oral and written tradition.

As a result, most contemporary scholars do not attempt to write “history” about the events in Genesis. Past attempts to use ancient Near Eastern analogies to ancestral narratives to prove their historical veracity have failed (Van Seters 1975; McCarter and Hendel 1999), and it appears that we simply do not have the kind of data needed to assess the historicity of the Genesis narratives. There probably were figures named Abra(ha)m, Sarah, Jacob, etc. Nevertheless, Genesis is too thoroughly shaped by later periods in history to provide reliable data about what they said and did.

Insight into the complex formation of Genesis can contribute immensely, however, to our interpretation of its present form. As a result of hundreds of years of scholarly analysis, we now know that the book was written over centuries by multiple authors, and we have a relatively specific and assured picture of the final stages of its composition (the combination of P with non-Priestly materials). These findings highlight the way Genesis is not limited to just one situation or set of perspectives. Instead, it is a chorale of different voices, a distillate of ancient Israel's experiences with God over the centuries, written in the form of continually adapted stories about beginnings.

History of Interpretation.

The history of interpretation of Genesis begins already with its gradual composition over centuries. Early monarchic scribes reinterpreted oral traditions in writing the first preexilic compositions behind Genesis. Later, exilic scribes expanded and joined originally separate compositions about the primeval history and different ancestors in the process of addressing an audience of Judeans exiled in Babylon. Priests (exilic or postexilic) wrote their own, more homogenous version of the beginnings of Israel, “P.” Still later postexilic writers consolidated the non-Priestly and Priestly writings into a common Torah that was the foundation for later Judaism. Each stage of composition involved interpretation of how earlier writings pertained to the present. Genesis as we have it now is a crystallization of these multiple interpretations.

Looking over the history of the formation of Genesis, we can already detect a tendency to focus ever more on the first parts of the Genesis story, especially the primeval and Abraham narratives in Genesis 1–25, as later communities attempted to discern truth for their lives from narratives about earliest origins, whether of the world or of Israel. On the one hand, the earliest larger narratives in Genesis are probably to be found in its latter half, especially the Jacob and Joseph stories. Some of these early Jacob materials now found in Genesis are alluded to in the preexilic northern prophet Hosea (Hos 12:3–5, 13). On the other hand, the later (exilic) Priestly layer seems to have focused on stories appearing earlier in the book of Genesis: the primeval history and story of Abraham (especially Gen 17), some stories about Jacob (e.g., Gen 26:34–35; 27:46—28:9; 35:9–15) and relatively sparse coverage of later parts of the ancestral story (e.g., Gen 46:6–27; 48:3–6; 49:29–33; 50:12–13). Similarly, later biblical traditions, such as the exilic prophets Ezekiel and Second Isaiah, allude to the garden in Eden (Ezek 28:13–16; Isa 51:3), Noah (Isa 54:9–10), and Abraham and Sarah (Ezek 33:24; Isa 51:2). Whereas relatively early overviews of biblical history in Deuteronomy 26:5–9 and Psalm 78 mention almost none of the traditions now in Genesis, later overviews, such as Joshua 24, Psalms 105 and 136, and Nehemiah 9, emphasize events in Genesis to a far greater extent.

We see a similar tendency in early Jewish writings to emphasize Genesis ever more, particularly the first half of the book. Apocalyptic writings, such as the collection of writings associated with Enoch, focused on figures featured in the primeval history. Works such as Jubilees and the Genesis Apocryphon emphasized events up through the time of Abraham in their retellings of biblical history. Indeed, it is during the centuries immediately following the formation of the Hebrew Bible, that we first see much of a focus in Israelite-Jewish traditions on creation and the garden of Eden, major topics for many later interpreters of the Bible, whether Jewish thinkers and mystics or Christian theologians or others.

The first centuries of interpretation of Genesis decisively shaped how it was seen by later communities, whether Jewish, Christian, or Muslim. From the third century B.C.E. to the first century C.E. early Jewish interpreters added layers of interpretation to the stories of Genesis that were presupposed as parts of the text by later believers. Thanks to these early interpretations of the book, many later readers presupposed that the snake in the garden was Satan (e.g., Apoc. Mos. 16:4; 17:4) and the punishment for eating of the tree was mortality (Sir 25:24; Wis 2:23–24). Early Jewish interpretations also started the tradition of finding a particular fault of Cain to explain God's rejection of his sacrifice (e.g., Philo, QG 1:59), developed legends about Noah's exhortations to his current generation to repent (e.g., Josephus Ant. 1:73), and explained God's promises to Abram as resulting from his rejection of his household's idolatry and other pagan worship practices (Jub. 11:16–17; 12:2–9; see already Josh 24:2). Interpreters sometimes built pictures of longer spans of the Genesis narrative. For example, already in Jubilees (17:17–18; 19:2–3, 8) and the Mishnah (5:3), Jewish scholars mentioned a series of trials of Abraham, usually numbered as ten. The lists of these trials vary, but often start with Jewish legends about attempts to assassinate Abraham and his imprisonment (not found in Genesis) and culminate with the Akedah (binding) story in Genesis 22. Finally, many early interpretations alleviated the moral ambiguity of the trickster Genesis tales, providing rationales for the seemingly deceitful behavior of Jacob and Rachel, while depicting characters such as Esau and Laban as scoundrels deserving to be punished for their evil ways.

This rich tradition of Jewish exegesis of Genesis has continued into later Judaism. Building on precedents already in Second Temple Judaism (e.g., Jubilees), rabbinic scholars wrote midrashic interpretations of Genesis and expansive Aramaic translations of the book that often adapted stories of Genesis so that they linked better with the requirements of Torah law. This was not necessarily an alien imposition on the Genesis text, since the Priestly material of Genesis already introduced a focus on practices such as Sabbath and circumcision into the stories of Genesis. Nevertheless, later Jewish writings built beyond these beginnings to portray the ancestors of Israel as fully Torah-observant Jews, and they used details of Genesis to enrich their sense of Torah law, as for example in the Babylonian Talmud and Mekilta, which use texts from Genesis 17:10, 14 and 21:4 to outline three different levels of circumcision obligations for Jews (b. Qidd 29a; Mek. on Exod 13:13). In addition, the story of Abraham's almost sacrifice of Isaac (22:1–19), termed the “Akedah” (the “binding”) in Jewish tradition, was adapted by some readers into an account of how Isaac


The Setting of the Story of Abraham


actually was sacrificed by Abraham and resurrected by God—anticipating later Jewish suffering and hopes for redemption.

Christian communities likewise focused on the stories of Genesis. For example, Paul, the central figure behind the outreach of early believers in Jesus to gentiles, argued that Abraham was an important example of how grace, through faith, came before the giving of the law. In his letter to the Romans (4:1–15; see also Gal 3:6–9) he notes that Abraham had his faith “reckoned to him as righteousness” (Gen 15:6) before he had undergone circumcision (Gen 17). Based on this and other arguments, Paul argued that gentiles did not have to fulfill Torah requirements such as circumcision in order to partake of God's promise, as long as they joined themselves to Jesus Christ, whom Paul affirmed as the true spiritual offspring and heir of Abraham. Thus, where earlier and later Jewish interpreters tended to stress Abraham's and other patriarchs' Torah obedience, Paul, himself a Jew, reinterpreted Abraham's significance apart from Torah obedience in order to create a place for non-Jews to have a full relationship with the God of Israel.

Stories originating from Genesis also play a prominent role in Islam. Building on older Jewish traditions about Abraham destroying his father's idols, the Qur'an and other Muslim traditions revere Abraham as one of the first monotheists. Yet within Islam, Ishmael and not Isaac is the most important of his sons. It is Ishmael and not Isaac whom Abraham almost sacrifices (compare with Gen 22). Moreover, after that, Islamic tradition holds that Abraham and Ishmael went on to find and rebuild the Kaaba shrine at Mecca, Islam's most holy site.

Thus, as a story of origins, Genesis has been a battleground where major contemporary religious communities have attempted to establish the legitimacy of their claims to be authentic heirs of Abraham. In this sense, the book of Genesis both draws these communities together and is a place where they define their differences.

Yet we would be mistaken to conclude that these three religious traditions always struggle to claim figures from Genesis as their own, particularly when gender or ethnicity is a factor. For example, we see striking contrasts in how the different traditions relate to the figure of the Egyptian slave, Hagar, featured in Genesis 16 and 21. Jewish tradition has been the most ambivalent about Hagar, on the one hand occasionally depicting her as deserving the harsh treatment she received at Sarah's request (Gen 16:4–6; Gen. Rab. 45:4, 6), while on the other hand depicting her as eventually giving up her Egyptian idols and returning to Abraham as his later wife, Keturah, a new name given to Hagar to symbolize her virtue (Gen. Rab. 61:4). Much of Christian tradition, on the other hand, has been dominated by Paul's allegory in Galatians (4:21–31) where Hagar represents life enslaved to the covenant at Sinai, and Ishmael stands for the broad community laboring under that covenant. One of the main places where we see strong positive associations with Hagar in Christian tradition is among African-American biblical interpreters (particularly women), who have identified with Hagar's status as outsider, woman, and slave. Meanwhile, Islamic tradition has embraced Hagar as the mother of Ishmael, a prophet, and she stands as one of the central figures in legends surrounding the pilgrimage to Mecca.

Finally, recent years have seen a proliferation of other approaches to Genesis, particularly literary studies of Genesis in its final form and feminist rereadings of the many narratives in Genesis that feature women. For example, some feminist scholars have questioned whether the garden of Eden story in 2:4—3:24 is as critical of women as it has often been seen to be. Others have highlighted the crucial role of the matriarchs as actors in the Genesis drama, especially as determiners of which son of a given patriarch will inherit the promise (e.g., Sarah and Rebekah) or as influencers of the levels of privilege among brothers (e.g., Rachel). Reading from another perspective, African-American scholars have traced the misuse of the story of Ham to reinforce racism and slavery (Felder 1991; see also Haynes 2002), and a wide variety of interpreters have called into question the traditional interpretation of the story of Sodom and Gomorrah as a judgment on homosexuality. In these ways and


The Binding of Isaac.

Detail of the mosaic floor of the Beth Alpha synagogue, sixth century C.E. Abraham holds a knife, ready to sacrifice his son Isaac (22:1–19). Photograph by Zev Radovan.

view larger image

many others, an ever more diverse range of published interpreters of the Bible have offered new perspectives on a text centrally important to readers for centuries.

Reception History.

Genesis also has been the focus of much art, both religious and secular. For example, Genesis (along with Exodus) has been the source, more than any other book of the Old Testament, of topics for the visual arts. The story of the binding of Isaac (Gen 22:1–19) is featured in early Jewish art, such as the wall of the Dura Europos synagogue and the mosaic floor of the synagogue at Beth Alpha. And the same story appears prominently in Christian art, both in depictions of the final scene of the story and general depictions of Abraham as a strong, bearded man holding the knife with which he almost sacrificed Isaac. Certain figures in Genesis were more frequently depicted because of their special role in certain contexts, such as the inclusion of Noah in catacomb paintings because he was seen as a symbol of the redeemed soul. Some episodes from Genesis that appear particularly often in the visual arts include the creation of Adam (Gen 1–2), expulsion from the garden (Gen 3:23–24), Noah's ark on the seas of the flood (Gen 7), Noah's drunkenness (Gen 9:20–29), Abraham's meeting with Melchizedek (Gen 14:17–19), Abraham's hospitality of the three angels (Gen 18:1–15), the above-mentioned Akedah (Gen 22:1–19), Jacob's impersonation of Esau to gain Isaac's blessing (Gen 27:1–46), Jacob's vision of angels on a ladder at Bethel (22:10–17), and the final journey of Jacob and his sons to Egypt at the invitation of Joseph (Gen 46:1–7). In so far as much such art is Christian, the choice of subject often had to do with whether and how a given figure in Genesis (e.g., Adam, Noah, Isaac on the altar, Jacob, Joseph) was seen as a prefiguration of Jesus Christ. In addition, after the Protestant Reformation, figures from Genesis became yet more prominent in northern European art as artists shifted from painting later saints to focusing instead on biblical subjects, particularly subjects from Genesis.

Partly because of its central importance to multiple religious interpreters of the Bible, the traditions of Genesis have been the focal point for non-religious cultural expressions as well. From Milton's masterful evocation of the garden of Eden in “Paradise Lost” to such diverse retellings of the Joseph story in Thomas Mann's novel Joseph and His Brothers and the rock opera, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, Genesis has been one of the primary biblical foci of secular art, music, and literature in cultures with Jewish, Christian, and Muslim heritages. For example, though Eve was always a particular focus of Christian artists wanting to explore the possibilities of depicting the nude female form (e.g., the Junius Bassus sarcophagus, 359 C.E.), she was painted in new secular contexts in the Renaissance and later as European artists developed the techniques of painting human nudes. In a different medium, Kierkegaard's famous existential meditation, Fear and Trembling, is in large part a reflection on broader questions raised by the Akedah (Gen 22:1–19). Finally, the narratives of Genesis sometimes have played negative roles in broader culture, as in, for example, the use of the story of Noah's curse on Ham's son, Canaan (Gen 9:20–27) by Christians in the southern United States to justify enslavement of blacks in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries (Haynes 2002).

More recently, Genesis has been an important battleground as contemporary believers have worked to live out ancient faiths in a modern world. For example, with the rise of modernity and historical criticism, much recent discussion of Genesis, at least among Christians in the West, has focused on whether the stories of Genesis are historically true or not. Astronomers, biologists, and other natural scientists have offered accounts of the origins of the cosmos and humanity different from those seen in Genesis 1–2. Some believers, however, have insisted on the importance of affirming the historical accuracy of every part of Genesis, and have come to see such belief as a defining characteristic of what it means to be truly faithful. This definition, however, is something new. Such concerns about the historicity of Genesis were not a significant issue prior to the rise of modern science and the historical method. Moreover, many would argue that an ancient document such as Genesis should not be treated as scientific treatise or a modern-style historical source.



The Formation of Genesis and Historical Issues

  • Blenkinsopp, Joseph. The Pentateuch: An Introduction to the First Five Books of the Bible. AB Reference Library. New York: Doubleday, 1992. See pp. 1–28.
  • Blum, Erhard. Die Komposition der Vätergeschichte. Wissenschaftliche Monographien zum Alten und Neuen Testament 57. Neukirchen-Vluyn, Germany: Neukirchener Verlag, 1984.
  • Campbell, Antony F. “The Priestly Text: Redaction or Source?” In Biblische Theologie und gesellschaftlicher Wandel: Für Norbert Lohfink SJ, edited by Georg Braulik et. al., 32–47. Freiburg, Germany: Herder, 1993.
  • Carr, David M. “Genesis in Relation to the Moses Story: Diachronic and Synchronic Perspectives.” In Studies in the Book of Genesis, edited by A. Wénin, 273–295. Bibliotheca ephemeridum theologicarum lovaniensium 155. Leuven, Belgium: Peeters and Leuven University Press, 2001.
  • Carr, David M. Reading the Fractures of Genesis: Historical and Literary Approaches. Louisville, Ky.: Westminster John Knox, 1996.
  • Crüsemann, Frank. “Die Eigenständigkeit der Urgeschichte: Ein Beitrag zur Diskussion um den ‘Jahwisten’.” In Die Botschaft und die Boten: Festschrift für H. W. Wolff, edited by J. Jeremias and Lothar Perlitt, 9–29. Neukirchen-Vluyn, Germany: Neukirchener Verlag, 1981.
  • Dozeman, Thomas B., and Konrad Schmid, eds. A Farewell to the Yahwist? The Composition of the Pentateuch in Recent European Interpretation. Society of Biblical Literature Symposium Series 34. Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2006.
  • Kessler, Rainer. “Die Querverweise im Pentateuch: Überlieferungsgeschichtliche Untersuchung der Expliziten Querverbingungen innerhalb des vorpriesterlichen Pentateuchs.” ThD diss., Heidelberg Universität, 1972.
  • Koch, Klaus. “P-Kein Redaktor! Erinnerung an zwei Eckdaten der Quellenscheidung.” Vetus Testamentum 37 (1987): 446–467.
  • McCarter, P. Kyle, and Ronald S. Hendel. “The Patriarchal Age: Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.” In Ancient Israel: From Abraham to the Roman Destruction of the Temple, edited by Hershel Shanks, 1–31. Washington, D.C.: Biblical Archaeology Society, 1999.
  • Niditch, Susan. Prelude to Biblical Folklore: Underdogs and Tricksters. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2000 (1987 original).
  • Schmid, Konrad. Genesis and the Moses Story. Translated by James Nogalski. Winona Lake, Ind.: Eisenbrauns, 2009 (1999 original).
  • Van Seters, John. Abraham in History and Tradition. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1975.
  • Van Seters, John. Prologue to History: The Yahwist as Historian in Genesis. Louisville, Ky.: Westminster John Knox, 1992.
  • Volz, Paul, and Wilhelm Rudolph. Der Elohist als Erzähler ein Irrweg der Pentateuchkritik? An der Genesis Erläutert. Beihefte zur Zeitschrift für die alttestamentliche Wissenschaft 63. Giessen, Germany: Töpelmann, 1933.
  • Weisman, Z. “The Interrelationship between J and E in Jacob's Narrative.” Zeitschrift für die alttestamentliche Wissenschaft 104 (1992): 177–197.
  • Wellhausen, Julius. Die Composition des Hexateuchs und der Historischen Bücher des alten Testaments. 4th. ed. Berlin: De Gruyter, 1963 [orig. 1876].
  • Witte, Markus. Die Biblische Urgeschichte: Redaktions- und Theologiegeschichtliche Beobachtungen zu Genesis 1,1–11,26. Beihefte zur Zeitschrift für die alttestamentliche Wissenschaft 265. Berlin: De Gruyter, 1998.

The Shape and Interpretation of Genesis

  • Carr, David M. “Βίβλος γενέσεως Revisited: A Synchronic Analysis of Patterns in Genesis as Part of the Torah (Parts One and Two).” Zeitschrift für die alttestamentliche Wissenschaft 110 (1998): 159–172, 327–347.
  • Cohn, Robert L. “Narrative Structure and Canonical Perspective in Genesis.” Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 25 (1983): 3–16.
  • Fishbane, Michael. Text and Texture: Close Readings of Selected Biblical Texts. New York: Schocken, 1979.
  • Fokkelman, Jan P. “Genesis.” In The Literary Guide to the Bible, edited by Robert Alter and Frank Kermode, 36–55. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1987.
  • Jensen, H. J. L. “Über den Ursprung der Kultur und der Völker: Eine transformationskritische Analyse von Komplementarität und Verlauf in der Jahwistischen Urgeschichte.” Scandinavian Journal of the Old Testament 2 (1987): 28–48.
  • Rendsburg, Gary. The Redaction of Genesis. Winona Lake, Ind.: Eisenbrauns, 1986.
  • Steinmetz, Devora. From Father to Son: Kinship, Conflict and Continuity in Genesis. Literary Currents in Biblical Interpretation. Louisville, Ky.: Westminster John Knox, 1991.
  • Steinmetz, Devora. “Vineyard, Farm, and Garden: The Drunkenness of Noah in the Context of the Primeval History.” Journal of Biblical Literature 113 (1994): 193–207.
  • Sternberg, Meir. The Poetics of Biblical Narrative: Ideological Literature and the Drama of Reading. Indiana Studies in Biblical Literature. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1985.


  • Alter, Robert. Genesis: Translation and Commentary. New York: Norton, 1996.
  • Brueggemann, Walter. Genesis. Interpretation. Atlanta: John Knox, 1982.
  • Cassuto, Umberto. A Commentary on the Book of Genesis. Translated by Israel Abrahams. Jerusalem: Magnes, 1972 (1961–1964 original).
  • Fretheim, Terence E. “The Book of Genesis.” In The New Interpreter's Bible, edited by Leander Keck, 321–674. Nashville: Abingdon, 1994.
  • Gowan, Donald. From Eden to Babel: A Commentary on the Book of Genesis 1–11. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1988.
  • Sarna, Nahum. Genesis. JPS Torah Commentary. Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1989.
  • Speiser, E. A. Genesis: Introduction, Translation, and Notes. Anchor Bible 1. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1964.
  • Vawter, Bruce. On Genesis: A New Reading. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1977.
  • Westermann, Claus. Genesis. Translated by John J. Scullion. Continental Commentaries. Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1984–1986 (original 1974–1982).

History of Interpretation and Interpretive Issues

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David M. Carr