The words, “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth,” have evoked considerable debate; but without apology, that is how this book begins. In the words of one of the historic creeds: “I believe in God the Father almighty, Maker of heaven and earth.” These words are only the beginning of this book of beginnings—a prologue to a prologue. Genesis gives more than an account of creation. It also describes other beginnings—humanity’s Fall into sin and the start of God’s elaborate rescue mission for all peoples. It tells what happened first in many important respects (creation, sin, judgment, languages, races, marriage); but at the center of Genesis lies God’s sovereign call to Abram and Sarai, a couple of idol worshipers in the Middle East.
Author and Background • The Book of Genesis was written and compiled by Moses in the Wilderness of Sinai. Biblical and extrabiblical evidence points to this fact. Jesus clearly assumes Mosaic authorship of Genesis in the statement, “Moses therefore gave you circumcision” (compare also Acts 15:1). Since the reason for circumcision is mentioned only in Genesis 17, Jesus had to be referring to Moses’ compilation of the story. Second, both Jewish and Christian tradition unanimously agree with this biblical testimony: Moses compiled and wrote the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Bible, in the Wilderness of Sinai. This would place his authorship of Genesis around the fifteenth century B.C.
Many scholars since the nineteenth century have denied Moses’ authorship of Genesis. Instead, some of these scholars have suggested that the Pentateuch, including Genesis, was compiled at a later date, perhaps in the sixth century B.C. According to this analysis, anonymous editors used at least four documents to piece together the Pentateuch. These four documents were identified by tracing the divine names, such as Elohim and Yahweh, through the Pentateuch, and by tracing certain variations in phraseology and word choice. The four documents are called: the J document, which uses Yahweh for God; the E document, which uses Elohim for God; the P or Priestly document; and the D or Deuteronomic document. More recently, this dissection of the Pentateuch has been challenged, and no real consensus has emerged from the ensuing scholarly debate.
By appreciating the unified structure of Genesis, Moses’ guiding hand in the compilation and authorship of Genesis can be discerned. Certainly, Moses used other literary sources to piece together his narrative. Sometimes these sources are identified (see Gen. 5:1). Moses presumably edited these older documents to make them understandable to his readers—the second Israelite generation after the Exodus. And later prophets updated the language for the ensuing generations of Israelite readers.
But after all the analysis, it is clear that Moses wrote and compiled Genesis to encourage the early Israelites while they were preparing to enter the land of Canaan, the Promised Land. The content of Genesis would have been especially significant to them. It explains why their ancestors went to Egypt in the first place, why their nation was destined for another Promised Land, and why God had revealed Himself so dramatically to them in the wilderness.
Principal Message • Genesis, the book of beginnings, has two parts. The first part (chs. 1–11) serves as a prologue to the second part (chs. 12–50), the book’s main event—God’s sovereign work in Abraham’s family to accomplish His good will for all nations. This prologue (chs. 1–11) provides keys that unlock the rest of the book and the rest of the Bible as well.
Four key concepts presented in Genesis 1–11 are crucial for comprehending the rest of the Bible. First, the God who entered the lives of Abram and Sarai is the same God who created the entire universe. He is the only true and living God—Yahweh, the Creator and the Savior of the world. Second, all people have rebelled against God, their benevolent Creator, and His good will for them. Humanity has inherited a state of sinfulness from Adam and Eve’s rebellion in the Garden of Eden. Third, God judges and will judge the actions of all people. God, by sending the Flood, made it clear to Noah and to everyone that human wickedness is entirely unacceptable. God cannot let evil reign free in His creation. Fourth, sin continues to plague all of humanity—even after the Flood. Although the Flood did not wash away sin, God, as the second half of Genesis (chs. 12–50) reveals, has a plan to save humanity from its own evil deeds.
The first part of Genesis provides the setting for the story of Abram and Sarai (chs. 12–50). Their world is populated by a broad spectrum of people groups, each with its own language, customs, values, and beliefs, and all have adopted their own imaginary gods.
The main story of Genesis—God’s plan to bless all nations through Abraham’s descendants—starts in chapter 12. It begins with God’s call to Abram and Sarai (Abraham and Sarah) to become the parents of a new people—a new nation. This new nation would become God’s tool for blessing all peoples. Even though Abram and Sarai were merely an elderly couple with the means to travel, God chose to begin His plan of redemption for the entire world with them. The description of their experiences demonstrates the irruption (the breaking into from without) of God’s blessing into their lives. Central to God’s blessing was His covenant with Abraham—the Abrahamic covenant (see 12:1–3; 15:1–21). God, the awesome Creator of the entire universe, freely chose to make everlasting promises to Abraham and his descendants. These promises in the Abrahamic covenant were the foundation for all of God’s subsequent promises and covenants in the Bible. Genesis is not merely a beginning; it provides the foundation for the rest of the biblical narrative.
The NKJV Study Bible (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2007), Ge.