The Story of Genesis
The book of Genesis, the first book of the Bible, often strikes modern readers as irrelevant, hard to understand, and verging on the mythological. What message could this ancient story have for us today? In this study we will be looking at the overall structure of the biblical book of Genesis and a few of the major themes. It will by no means be exhaustive, but rather provide an introduction to start giving interested (or perplexed) readers an idea of how to approach this foundational book of the Bible.
Genesis is divided into two major sections. Chapters 1-11, leading up to the tower of Babel, deal with the origins and growing corruption of humanity as a whole. In chapters 12-50 the focus tightens to the story of a single Middle Bronze Age family over several generations – Abraham and his descendants – which lays the groundwork for the rescue of mankind from the degeneration demonstrated in the first section.
Though it may not look like it at first, Genesis is the basis of the Gospel. The death of Jesus in our place is good news, but this good news is meaningless unless we first know the bad news of the hopeless state in which we as humans find ourselves. Genesis shows the initial fall of mankind into sin and separation from God and the failure of humanity to fix the problems this caused. Then, in the story of Abraham and his descendants Isaac and Jacob, the Bible plants the seeds of God’s plan to rescue humanity.
Part 1 – The Desperation of Humanity
The Bible begins with an account of the creation of the world by the powerful words of God. There is strong emphasis on God’s sovereignty and on the goodness of His creation, and Adam and Eve, the first humans, are portrayed as the climax or centerpiece of creation. They are made in God’s own image – bearing intelligence, independent will, and moral capacity – and given a mandate to populate and subdue the earth. God gives them great freedom, with one limitation. They may not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, a particular tree in the Garden of Eden. Tempted by a serpent, Eve and then Adam eat the fruit in disobedience to God, and a rift is created in their formerly perfect relationships with God (they suddenly gain the urge to hide from God and cover up their nakedness with fig leaves) and with each other (they begin blame-shifting instinctively when God confronts them).
God declares judgment on them, and the curse of sin enters the world, bringing with it hardship, pain, and death. Even in His declaration of judgment, though, God gives the first hint of His commitment to restore a perfect relationship with humanity in his curse on the serpent, which promises that one of the woman’s offspring will be wounded by the serpent, but in the end will crush its head. In a powerful symbolic gesture, God Himself makes animal-skin clothes for Adam and Eve and clothes them.
Adam and Eve are ejected from the garden, and in time have their first son, Cain, and humanity sees its first new hope. The woman now has offspring. Can the serpent’s defeat be far off? This hope is tragically crushed, however, when Cain – far from redeeming mankind from its sinful state – kills his younger brother Abel out of jealousy and is condemned by God to wander the face of the earth.
Humanity’s state goes from bad to worse in story after story of failed human opportunities to fix the problem of sin that has entered the world. Ten generations after Adam, Noah is born, and called “a righteous man, blameless in his time.” (Gen. 6:9, NASB) He seems to be alone in his generation, however, as the rest of mankind has plunged into deep and thorough wickedness, and God sends a flood to blot out the wickedness and start again with Noah. Once again, there is a glint of hope – a descendant of Eve, righteous and placed in a newly cleansed world, may finally be the man who can reverse the results of the fall of mankind. After the flood, God renews his promises and mandate to Noah and his family, telling them to populate the earth anew, and sending a rainbow as a sign of his promise to never again destroy humanity with a great flood.
The hopeful new beginning is immediately shattered, however, when Noah becomes drunk and is mocked by one of his sons, whom he curses into subjection to his brothers. The descendants of Noah grow into nations and begin to repopulate the earth, but the taint of sin is still evident as they refuse to spread abroad but pridefully set out to build the Tower of Babel to establish their own security and figuratively, if not literally, create their own pathway into heaven. God responds by shattering mankind’s thus-far unified language and confounds the nations’ plan, in effect forcing them to move apart and populate the earth as God originally commanded. Eight generations from Shem was born Terah, the father of Abram, who in time would be renamed Abraham and called by God to become the channel through which God would set in motion his plan to fulfill his promise and crush the serpent, bringing blessing and restoration to all nations.
Continued in Part 2 – The Hope of Humanity