What Is the Literary Structure of Genesis?

Herbert Wolf
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Genesis is divided into two unequal sections, chapters 1–11 and 12–50. The first section deals quickly with the origin of the universe and the creation of man, tracing the fall of Adam and the rapid growth of sin. Following a detailed account of the devastation brought by the flood, Moses shows how the descendants of Noah’s three sons repopulated the world. Throughout these early chapters the emphasis geographically is upon the region of Mesopotamia, and the events cover many thousands of years.

The second section focuses on the patriarch Abraham, whom God called from his homeland to make a new beginning in the land of Canaan. This is in actuality the third “beginning” in Genesis (after Adam and Noah), and this time God promised to form a new nation through whom “all peoples on earth will be blessed” (Gen. 12:3). The contents of this Abrahamic covenant are repeated and amplified in several other passages. Abraham is given further details in 17:6–8 and 22:11–18; Isaac in 26:4; and Jacob in 28:3, 14, and 35:11. As the book unfolds, Abraham and his descendants are told that the land of Canaan will be theirs as an everlasting possession. Although Canaan is the land of promise, the country of Egypt also plays a key role in Abraham’s family history. He himself spent a brief time there during a famine (12:10–20), and the drama surrounding Joseph and his brothers takes place mainly in Egypt (chaps. 37–50). Even Isaac was tempted to take refuge in Egypt during a famine, but God told him to stay in Canaan (26:1–2). Mesopotamia remains important as the region where Isaac’s wife, Rebekah, lived (chap. 24) and where Jacob spent twenty years in exile, marrying Rachel and Leah and raising a family (chaps. 28–31). Most of chapters 12–50, however, are centered geographically upon Canaan and Egypt. Unlike the first eleven chapters, the last thirty-eight cover only about four hundred years.

It is common among scholars to relegate Genesis 1–11 to the realm of mythology and to consider chapter 12 as the start of the historical section, but from a literary standpoint such a sharp distinction is difficult to make. In an article entitled “The Literary Form of Genesis 1–11,” Walter Kaiser notes that these chapters contain “64 geographical terms, 88 personal names, 48 generic names and at least 21 identifiable cultural items” (such as wood, metals, buildings, musical instruments).[1]

Part 1: The Origin of All Things

  • Introduction and Creation—1:1-2:3
  • The Account of the Heavens and the Earth—2:4-4:26
  • The Account of Adam—5:1-6:8
  • The Account of Noah—6:9-9:28
  • The Account of Shem, Ham, and Japheth—10:1-11:9
  • The Account of Shem (chosen)—11:10-26

Part 2: The History of God’s People

  • The Account of Terah (Abraham)—11:27-25:11
  • The Account of Ishmael (not chosen) —25:12-18
  • The Account of Isaac (chosen)—25:19-35:29
  • The Account of Esau (not chosen)—36:1-43
  • [The Account of Esau Repeated]—[36:9]
  • The Account of Jacob (chosen)—37:2-50:26

He concludes that Genesis 1–11 is prose and not poetry and that historical narrative best describes the form of these chapters.[2] Hence, when the New English Bible translates Genesis 11:1 “Once upon a time,” it is badly misleading the reader about the nature of the Tower of Babel episode.

Another important factor in any analysis of Genesis 1–11 is the use of the introductory formula “This is the account of” (or “These are the generations of”) in 2:4; 5:1; 6:9; 10:1; 11:10; and 11:27. This formula occurs another five times in the second half of the book (25:12; 25:19; 36:1; 36:9; and 37:2) where we are given information about the activities and families of Ishmael, Isaac, Esau, and Jacob. There is nothing to indicate that the records about Adam and Noah are to be understood any less historically than the material about Abraham and his descendants.

Also of interest is the way the writer of Genesis consistently leaves his discussion of the most important family members until the end. Cain’s genealogy is presented before Seth’s (cf. 4:17, 25); the families of Japheth and Ham are discussed prior to the sons of Seth (10:2, 6, 21); Ishmael precedes Isaac (25:12, 19); and the account of Esau comes before the account of Jacob (38:1; 31:2).[3]

Such systematic features argue for the unity of Genesis and for a unified interpretation of the whole book.

Another characteristic of Genesis that spans both sections is the occasional use of an “oracle of destiny.” These verses occur in poetic form and contain weighty predictions about the fate of an individual or nation. Usually a wordplay of some sort is involved. The most famous example and one which has messianic import is Genesis 3:15 with its reference to the battle between the offspring of Eve and of the serpent. Other examples include the curse on Canaan (9:24–27); the blessing upon Abraham and Rebekah (12:2–7; 24:60); Isaac’s blessing upon Jacob and Esau (27:21–29, 39–40); and Joseph’s predictions about the fate of Pharaoh’s cupbearer and baker (40:13, 19).

When considering the overall structure of Genesis 1–11 we should also mention the arrangement of the Babylonian Atrahasis Epic. Like Genesis, the Atrahasis Epic describes creation and the beginnings and failures of mankind, gives a list of individuals who lived before the flood and then describes the flood itself.[4] Although the specific content differs considerably from Genesis, it is interesting to find a similar literary pattern in a text about as old as Abraham.

[1] Walter Kaiser, “The Literary Form of Genesis 1–11,” in New Perspectives on the Old Testament, J. Barton Payne, ed. (Waco, Tex.: Word, 1970), 59.

[2]  Ibid., 59–60.

[3] Gleason Archer Jr., A Survey of Old Testament Introduction (Chicago: Moody, 1974), 187.

[4] Kenneth Kitchen, Ancient Orient and Old Testament (Chicago: InterVarsity, 1966), 41.

For Further Reading:

An Introduction to the Old Testament Pentateuch

by Herbert Wolf

The Pentateuch—Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy—are the vital first books in the Bible. Understanding their scope, meaning,...

book cover for An Introduction to the Old Testament Pentateuch