What Is the Background of the Book of Genesis?

Moody Bible Commentary
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Genesis is volume one of a five-part work known as the Pentateuch in English and the Torah (law) in Hebrew. Despite the division into five parts, the Torah was intended to be read as a single book by one author. The Hebrew Bible always views it as one book (Jos 1:8; 23:6; 2Ch 25:4; 35:12; Ezr 6:18; Neh 13:1) as does the NT (e.g. Mk 12:26) and the Apocrypha (Ecclesiasticus, Prologue; The Letter of Aristeas 15). As such, Genesis functions as a prologue to the entire Pentateuch.

Structurally, the opening of Genesis focuses on an extended period of time, covering all of primeval history in just 11 chapters, followed by the patriarchal history of Israel, covering four generations in 39 chapters. Following the emphasis of the author (the law of proportion), Genesis should be viewed more as the book of the beginnings of Israel rather than the beginning of the world.

Additionally, Genesis uses the Hebrew word toledoth (commonly translated as “generations”) as a structural marker. Although some have mistakenly thought of this word as a summary of the previous material, rather it functions as a forward marker. Hence, the phrase “these are the generations of . . .” (KJV; “this is the account of . . .” NASB) would best be paraphrased, “this is what became of. . . .” Thus, after the opening account of creation (1:1–2:3) and beginning in 2:4, the author stated 10 times, “this is what became of” the heavens and the earth (2:4), Adam (5:1), Noah (6:9), the sons of Noah (10:1), Shem (11:10), Terah (11:27), Ishmael (25:12), Isaac (25:19), Esau (36:1, 9), Jacob (37:2). In each case, the text proceeds with the story of what follows. So for example, the Abraham narrative follows the statement “this is what became of Terah” (11:27–25:11), the Jacob story comes after “this is what became of Isaac” (25:19–35:29), and the Joseph narrative follows “this is what became of Jacob” (37:2–50:26).

The first three chapters of Genesis introduce all the major concepts that are developed in the rest of the Bible: God’s nature, man’s purpose, the divine image, divine mercy, divine grace, temptation, human depravity, atonement, blessing, the future Messiah, etc. Thus more commentary space is devoted here on these three chapters. Where these concepts and paradigms appear later, therefore, readers should refer back to the more substantive comments in these opening chapters.

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