Where does the book of Genesis fit into the Bible as a whole?
When answering this question, you are in danger of stating the obvious. Anyone with a basic knowledge of the Bible will tell you that it is right at the beginning. However, it may be helpful to revisit the location of the book within the rest of Scripture.
Genesis is the first of the five books making up the Pentateuch, or also called The Torah (The Law or Book of Instruction).
The Pentateuch consists of the first five books in the Bible – Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy. The word “Pentateuch” comes from the Greek word meaning “five books” or scrolls. The basic setting is that God’s people were captive as slaves in Egypt. God miraculously freed them, called them to a special covenant, revealed Himself and His will to them, cared for them as they travelled through the wilderness and finally they were on the verge of entering the Promised Land which God promised to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. The outline of the Pentateuch can be depicted as follows:
More will be said about where the book fits into the Bible as a whole when we discuss the key themes of Genesis.
Basic background – author
The New Testament speaks of the Pentateuch as “Moses” or the “book-/law of Moses”. From the actual text of the Pentateuch, we find very little support for this view, e.g. Moses is never referred to as “I” but rather as “he”. Also, Deuteronomy speaks of Moses’ death, which he could hardly have written himself.
Some critical scholars of the Pentateuch devised a comprehensive theory regarding the origin of the books. Some passages use the term “Elohim” for God, and other Yahweh (YWH, and in German Jahveh). This was then considered proof of two different sources – E, for Elohists and J for Jahvists. Later it was decided that there were two Elohist sources and a P for Priestly was added. The chronological order was PEJ, and later scholars revised it to JEP. However, after all the theories Kidner writes that “all these attempts are, in their different degrees, speculative and of only secondary importance.” What is important is that we can and should acknowledge that God through the Holy Spirit is the ultimate author of the book of Genesis, and we can accept the account as true. There are many passages in the New Testament that infers this point of view, but probably none as much as 2 Tim 3:16-17: “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.”
Outline of the book – main sections as well as subsections within each one of the main sections.
1 – 2: Creation
3 – 6: The fall of man and the consequence of sin
7 – 10: The Universal flood
11: The Tower of Babel
12 – 20: The call of Abraham until the birth of Isaac
21 – 25:18: Abraham’s faith tested to his death
25:19 – 35, 36: Jacob’s life and Esau’s descendants
37 – 50: Joseph’s life
Derek Kidner writes that “Genesis is in various ways almost nearer the New Testament than the Old, and some of its topics are barely heard again till their implications can fully emerge in the gospel. The institution of marriage, the fall of man, the jealousy of Cain, the judgment of the flood, the imputed righteousness of the believer, the rival sons of promise and of the flesh, the profanity of Esau, the pilgrim status of God’s people, are all predominantly New testament themes.”
In Luke 24 we read about the two disciples walking from Jerusalem to Emmaus discussing the death of Jesus. Jesus appeared to them and started talking to them. In verse 27 we read that “Jesus took them through the writings of Moses and all the prophets, explaining from all the Scriptures the things concerning himself.”
Genesis is probably one of the most “theologically loaded” books in the Bible and one can easily find yourself in a tangle trying to decide which key themes to focus on. However, in light of the passage quoted from Luke above, one would do well to focus on how Jesus is revealed in the book of Genesis. Therefore, stepping into the shoes of the followers of Jesus en route to Emmaus, let us imagine what Jesus would have focussed on:
Jesus was involved in the creation of the world. In John 1 we read “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made.”
- The Fall and its results
Right from the beginning, at the time of the fall, God already had a plan. He said to the serpent, “I will cause hostility between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring. He will strike your head (a fatal and final blow), and you will strike his heel (a temporary blow).”
While the results of sin caused both physical and spiritual death, God knew that one day His Son will redeem human kind and bring restoration between God and man.
- Noah and the flood
In 1 Peter 3:18-21 Peter interprets God’s mercy through the salvation from the consequences of sin: “Christ suffered for our sins once for all time. He never sinned, but he died for sinners to bring you safely home to God. He suffered physical death, but he was raised to life in the Spirit. So he went and preached to the spirits in prison— those who disobeyed God long ago when God waited patiently while Noah was building his boat. Only eight people were saved from drowning in that terrible flood. And that water is a picture of baptism, which now saves you, not by removing dirt from your body, but as a response to God from a clean conscience. It is effective because of the resurrection of Jesus Christ.”
While this is a notoriously difficult passage to interpret, the general thrust is clear enough. Through his mercy, God saved Noah and his family – in the same way, through his mercy, God saves believers through Christ Jesus.
- The Tower of Babel
This is another picture of God’s ultimate grace to humankind. When the human race decided that they did not need God, but wanted to rather make a name for themselves, God dispersed them through giving the people different tongues (languages). Many, many years later, the disciples from Galilee were empowered by the Holy Spirit to bring the gospel in the native languages of the people from all over the world: Acts 2:7-12: “They were completely amazed. “How can this be?” they exclaimed. “These people are all from Galilee, and yet we hear them speaking in our own native languages! Here we are—Parthians, Medes, Elamites, people from Mesopotamia, Judea, Cappadocia, Pontus, the province of Asia, Phrygia, Pamphylia, Egypt, and the areas of Libya around Cyrene, visitors from Rome (both Jews and converts to Judaism), Cretans, and Arabs. And we all hear these people speaking in our own languages about the wonderful things God has done!” They stood there amazed and perplexed.”
As God dispersed people, He also has the power to reconcile through Jesus Christ.
- The call of Abraham
Much can be said about Abraham – he made his share of mistakes. However, what cannot be denied is his unwavering obedience to God. This can be seen in many areas of Abraham’s life, but probably one of the most significant is when God called him: “The Lord had said to Abram, “Leave your native country, your relatives, and your father’s family, and go to the land that I will show you. I will make you into a great nation. I will bless you and make you famous, and you will be a blessing to others. I will bless those who bless you and curse those who treat you with contempt. All the families on earth will be blessed through you.” So Abram departed as the Lord had instructed.” (Gen 12:1-4).
In the New Testament, we read of a similar kind of obedience: “Though he was God, he did not think of equality with God as something to cling to. Instead, he gave up his divine privileges; he took the humble position of a slave and was born as a human being. When he appeared in human form, he humbled himself in obedience to God and died a criminal’s death on a cross.” (Phil 2:6-8)
In Genesis 14 we read of the enigmatic figure Melchizedek. Very little is known about him, but the author of Hebrews draws a parallel between this king/priest figure and our Saviour:
“Jesus became a priest, not by meeting the physical requirement of belonging to the tribe of Levi, but by the power of a life that cannot be destroyed. And the psalmist pointed this out when he prophesied, “You are a priest forever in the order of Melchizedek.” Yes, the old requirement about the priesthood was set aside because it was weak and useless.” (Heb 7:16-18)
- Covenant with Abraham
In chapters 15-17 we read of the covenant God made with Abraham. A covenant is often confused with a contract. A contract is the result of bargaining between two equal parties who then reach agreement and the terms of agreement is recorded in a contract. A covenant is different. A set of terms is offered by a superior party to an inferior party. The inferior party either accepts or rejects the terms of the covenant. The covenant with Abraham was a promise of many descendants and land: “Then the Lord took Abram outside and said to him, “Look up into the sky and count the stars if you can. That’s how many descendants you will have!” And Abram believed the Lord, and the Lord counted him as righteous because of his faith. Then the Lord told him, “I am the Lord who brought you out of Ur of the Chaldeans to give you this land as your possession.” (Gen 15:5-7)
This passage contains many parallels with the New Testament, but probably the most important is that Jesus is considered “the first of a great harvest of all who have died …” (1 Cor 15:20) The covenant that God made with man is that Jesus will bear the sins of humankind on the cross. We can either accept this through faith and God will count us as righteous or we can reject it like many of the Israelites later did – we choose.
- Abraham’s faith tested
In Genesis 22 we read how God tests Abraham’s faith: “Then God said, “Take your son, your only son, Isaac, whom you love, and go to the region of Moriah. Sacrifice him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains I will tell you about.” (Gen 22:2)
In the New Testament we read of a similar story of a Father who sent his Son to be sacrificed – on the same mountain. In the case of Abraham, God provided a substitute, but when Jesus died for our sins: “The next day John saw Jesus coming toward him and said, “Look! The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29)
- Jacob’s ladder
As Jacob slept, “he dreamed of a stairway that reached from the earth up to heaven. And he saw the angels of God going up and down the stairway. At the top of the stairway stood the Lord, and he said, “I am the Lord, the God of your grandfather Abraham, and the God of your father, Isaac.” (Gen 28:12-13)
Since the fall of man and sin entered the world, there has been separation between God and man. However, Jesus said to the disciple Nathanael, “I tell you the truth, you will all see heaven open and the angels of God going up and down on the Son of Man, the one who is the stairway between heaven and earth.”(John 1:51)
Jesus is Jacob’s ladder – the link between God and man; “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one can come to the Father except through me.” (John 14:6)
- Joseph’s story
David Pawson draws some remarkable parallels between Joseph and Jesus:
- Just as Joseph was rejected by his brothers, only for him to be their saviour, so Jesus was rejected and then became Saviour;
- God is ever-present in Joseph’s life, just as Jesus who only did what the father told him to do; and
- Joseph was a man of total integrity – he had all the reason to resent or hate his brothers, yet he acted with a forgiving and loving heart – just as Jesus did.