We all look back and wonder about beginnings. Children are fascinated with stories of their birth and babyhood. Families trace their genealogies. Nations produce histories of their origins. The pressures of the present and hopes for the future take on new meaning when we know more about how it all began.

Genesis is a book of beginnings: the origin of the universe, birth of the human race and founding of the Hebrew nation. Yet this book is more than a record of origins. It provides the foundation for many of the great themes so prominent throughout the Old and New Testaments. Here we learn about God, man and nature in their mutual relationships. The Creator and Controller of the universe reveals himself as the Lord and Judge of history, which has both a purpose and a goal. Concepts of covenant and grace, election and redemption permeate God's saving activity to overcome the consequences of evil and sin. These great doctrines of creation, sin and salvation trace their beginnings to this remarkable book.

It should not surprise us that Genesis, more than any other part of the Bible, has been the scene of historical, literary, theological and scientific battles. Some of these issues have made their way out of churches and seminaries into our schools and courts. Since much discussion of these controversial questions is based on misinformation and secondhand opinion, we should find out for ourselves what the text says and, equally important, what it does not say. The purpose of this guide is to help you discover the meaning of Genesis for those who first heard its message and then for us today. You may be surprised to find how clear Genesis is when we let the author have his say and refrain from importing questions he never intended to answer.

Historical Context

Genesis is the first of five books called the Pentateuch. The New Testament attributes these writings to Moses. During the last century, many critics have questioned the Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch. Liberal scholarship attributes these writings to unknown authors or redactors long after Moses, probably late in the monarchy. Nevertheless, a strong case can be made for the traditional view that Moses wrote most of the Pentateuch, even though he may have used existing sources for Genesis, and some of the material may have been edited after his death. At any rate, we will assume that the message of Genesis was given to Israel during their years in the wilderness, around 1250 B.C. Therefore, we need to know something of Israel's cultural and religious situation in order to understand what the author intends to teach.

For about four hundred years the Hebrews had languished in Egypt, far from the land promised to Abraham. Those centuries took a spiritual as well as a physical toll. The Hebrews had no Scriptures, only some oral patriarchal traditions. Except for a few midwives who remained faithful, the people had supplanted the fear of the Lord with cultic worship of the gods of other nations. Even after they were miraculously delivered from slavery and led toward Canaan, the people apparently had little knowledge of the God of their forefather Abraham.

When the Hebrews arrived at Mount Sinai, their worldview and lifestyle differed little from that of neighboring nations. Their culture was essentially pagan. Now God was calling them to keep his covenant, to become "a kingdom of priests and a holy nation" (Ex 19:6). Although the people assented enthusiastically, their yes was just the beginning of a long, painful process by which God would create a new culture to fulfill their vocation.

Moses faced a formidable task. The people needed a radically different theology to know God and his purpose in history, a new religious institution to guide their worship, another lifestyle for moral and ethical living, and a new cosmology to reorient their attitudes toward the natural world. These five books of Moses were designed to make the Hebrews a people of God through a new, divinely instituted culture. For this reason the Pentateuch provides strong antipagan teaching to help God's people make a clean break with the past, and learn to look at all of life from his point of view.

The Role of Genesis

This first book opens with an account of the beginning of the universe that lays the foundation for Israel's new cosmology. The narrative strikes hard not only at the nature gods worshiped by Israel's pagan neighbors but also at an array of false philosophies which have led large sections of the human race astray in every century.

The creation of the world culminates in God's forming a man and woman. But they soon rebel against their Creator and plunge humanity into sin, with its devastating consequences. From then on, Genesis recounts the drama of God's mighty acts of judgment and mercy as his redemptive purpose unfolds.

Throughout these narratives, a central and organizing motif is the "call of God." His creative word initially calls the whole creation into being. God then calls into existence a covenant community to be his special people. Genesis and the whole Old Testament look forward to his new creation and covenant in Jesus Christ, into whose fellowship we also are called.