Genesis Overview

The Book of Genesis is the first book of the Bible and the first book of the Pentateuch (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Deuteronomy and Numbers) traditionally attributed to Moses. For Jews it constitutes the promise of God's covenant(s) in the special relationship with the chosen people with the consequent promises of blessing, fertility and land. For Christians it constitutes the pre-figuration of the need for salvation and the redemptive act of Christ, the Son of God, on the cross as the fulfilment of covenant promises making good the sin of Adam.

It is divided into two sections:

The first is symmetrical, hinged around Chapters 6-9, the flood stories, with the events before it mirrored by the events after it; the second tells the story of Abraham, Isac and Jacob, to whom God reveals himself, culminating in the story of Joseph in Egypt which prepares the way for Exodus.

For most of the 20th Century scholars agreed that the work comprised four elements:

J - The Yahwist, redacted from ancient traditions at the time or shortly after King Solomon

E - The Elohist, collecting material beginning with Abraham, less theological than the Yahwist, more populist and coarse

P - The Priestly, collected after the exile (538-450 BCE), not so much a separate document as a set of revisions and commentaries; and

D - The Deuteronomist, also written after the Exile.

More recently scholars have tended to believe that E is simply a set of variants on J and that there is no D material in Genesis. Contemporary scholarship dates J to just before or after the Exile, with P interpolated shortly afterwards; the earlier dating rules out the Greek and Mesopotamian influence on the primeval history.

J begins with the primeval history, borrowing from Greek and Mesopotamian sources, editing them and adding his own theological perspective; the narrative then unifies four principal blocks of material on the Patriarchs (Abraham, Jacob, Judah and Joseph), together with genealogies and itineraries. J was then revised by P. In this scheme, J encompasses the link between creation, 'The Fall’, and God's promises, supplemented by P's insertion of covenants with their signs: creation of all people and the rainbow; Abraham and circumcision; and Israel alone (in Exodus); and Sabbath.

The structure and argument of our discussion of the Book of Genesis is based on:

von Rad, Gerhard: Genesis: A Commentary (revised 1972 Edition), Old Testament Library, SCM Press to which all page numbers, unless indicated otherwise, refer.

Genesis is part of a large, integrated work, the Hexateuch, the Pentateuch plus Judges, in which:

"God, the creator of the world, called the patriarchs and promised them the Land of Canaan. When Israel became numerous in Egypt, God led the people through the wilderness with wonderful demonstrations of grace; then after their lengthy wandering he gave them under Joshua the Promised Land. If we compare this table of contents with the Hexateuch itself we are struck with the incongruity between the theme and its actual development, with this colossal massing and arranging of the most varied kinds of material around so simple a basic design." (pp13-14).

von Rad says that such a complex structure could not be organic but could only have been written late in the Jewish tradition from a variety of sources but true to a uniform set of credal assumptions. The Yahwist (J) gave the Hexateuch its form and compass, collecting etiologies "unthinkable outside the sacred framework" (p17). There seems to have been a cultic crisis during the early monarchies which had begun near the end of Judges and culminated with Solomon; the transformation of tradition into literature arrests evolution:

"In many narratives he (the interpreter) can ascertain with a probability verging on certainty the meaning and purpose which the material once had in an earlier, pre-literary phase. But he must not forget that the narrative has changed by virtue of the context in which the Yahwist has put it. Sometimes he must reckon with profound changes, since when the old etiological focus of a story is diffused, its whole structure can collapse. Thus ... we face the question of the meaning of the whole of the Yahwist's work." (p19).

The dating only refers to the completed literary narrative, not its elements. The Yahwist's great achievement is to see all his material through the lens of revelation:

"He sees the complete mystery of the election of the Old Testament community, and in Gen. 12.3 he answers the riddle of this divine act with prophetic authority. Yahweh is the God of the world, his presence is felt everywhere with profound reverence;" (Otto Procksch) (pp.25-26).

The Elohist was redacted with the Yahwist, less refined, more popular, beginning with Abraham.

The Priestly document is not concerned with narrative but only doctrine.

The Yahwist connects with the Davidic period. Behind the Yahwist is a new experience of God.

There is an over-emphasis on history versus literary saga. Saga results from a different intellectual activity from history and they should not be compared. Genesis conjures history but it is not history, yet is quite distinct from fairy tales. Genesis is:

The later the saga, the less naive and the more theologically reflective it is. The patriarchal narratives deal more with God than men. It is shorn of adulation, concerned with relationship with God.

The Yahwist had little freedom in blocks of narrative but great influence through writing links. There are bound to be clashes:

"We receive the Old Testament from the hands of Jesus Christ: not just the great Redactor. “The real subject of the account is everywhere a quite definite act of Yahweh, into which the patriarchs are drawn, often with quite perplexing results. So the first interest of the reader must be in what circumstances and in what way Yahweh's guidance is given, and what consequences result from it. ... Can we not recognise a common link even between the revelation of God in the old covenant and that in the new ..." (p43).

Although von Rad is somewhat approximate in his usage, the following reference abbreviations apply:

f. - The current and the following unit according to context, i.e. verse, chapter

ff. - The current unit in which the aberration occurs and an indefinite number of sequential units relevant to it.

With regard to the allocation of sources:

KC V/14

Buy this book from

Related Study Sheets…