An Introduction to the Book of Genesis in the Bible | Old Testament

The book of Genesis marks the beginning of the Pentateuch or Torah and with it the whole of the Tanakh. It is known in Hebrew with the name “Barashit” literally meaning beginnings. From creation and the fall, the world deteriorates until a reset becomes necessary and the world faces the catastrophe of the Great Flood. Intertwined within the narratives from creation in Genesis 1 and 2 to the flood in Genesis 6 are genealogies, short stories, and etiological accounts; the latter is a term referring to stories of origins like the origin of music or ironsmith among other crafts.[1] Another etiological account comes after the flood, namely the Tower of Babel. Though it was only a few generations since the flood, humanity continues to rebel against God with their attempt to build a tower to reach heaven, so God descends and confuses their tongues. This story explains how languages and dialects came to exist. 

Biblical scholars think that Genesis 1 to 11 almost act as a preface of primeval history to the main story of the book of Genesis, namely the patriarchs and matriarchs: Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca, Jacob and his wives Leah and Rachel.[2] Together with the children of Jacob, later known as Israel, their stories make up the bulk of Genesis from chapter 12 to chapter 50. Important themes in these chapters include the covenant God made with them and the land He promised them. This episode will shed some light on these two major concepts that will appear through the Tanakh in general and the book of Genesis in particular. 

First, let us begin with the theme of the Covenant:

Agreements in the ancient world that occurred between two or more parties were known as covenants. Each side of the agreement had a set of duties or responsibilities toward the other parties. Often these agreements required external witnesses and many times, the god(s) would be the witnesses depending on the context. And while the English rendering would speak of the “making of a covenant,” the world of the Near East and indeed the Hebrew Bible spoke of “cutting a covenant” or “Karath Barith” which might have been an allusion to the cutting of animals or the spilling of blood.[3] The first covenant God makes with humanity as a whole is seen in Noah, the leader of the saved creation, whom God promises that He will never again destroy the earth with the rainbow as the sign of the covenant. Later, God would make covenants with Abraham, the people of Israel, David, etc. Other covenants appear such as the one between Jacob and his father-in-law, Laban. Eventually, the Christian Bible would pick up on this theme as Jesus would make a “new covenant in His blood” before His passion.    

Now, let us briefly examine the theme of the Land:

From the opening chapters, the relationship between humanity and the land is highlighted in the fact that man or Adam is created from the dust of the earth or Adamah in Hebrew. Ultimately, the land belongs to God and man who comes from it as in Leviticus 25:23. The land is likewise tied to the water which is often seen as a symbol of chaos. This symbolic element of the ancient world is best seen in the light of Genesis 1:2 where the Spirit of God hovers over the deep waters until creation comes forth and Genesis 6-9 where the multitude of the waters of the flood essentially cleanse and recreate the new world.[4] The order in the land is thus often contrasted with the chaos of the waters. Furthermore, the theme of the land features an organizing motif by which the narrative is placed into organized stages. Displacement from Ur to Canaan marks the beginning of the Abrahamic narrative, displacement of Israel from Canaan to Egypt marks the end of the Genesis narrative and beginning of the Exodus narrative few hundred years later, and the list continues.[5]   

Whether Genesis in particular or the Hebrew Bible in general, what identifies the vocation of the people of God and their success in relation to this vocation is how much they keep their side of the covenant relationship and how they treat the land they find themselves in. 


[1] Richard Soulen, Handbook Of Biblical Criticism, Fourth Edition, 1st edition (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011), 113–14.

[2] John Collins, INTRODUCTION TO THE HEBREW BIBLE, 1st edition (FORTRESS PRESS, 2018), 71.

[3] Collins, 105.

[4] Marjorie O’Rourke Boyle, “The Beginning of Chaos for Genesis,” Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 43, no. 4 (June 1, 2019): 588–606,

[5] Jordan B. Peterson, Maps of Meaning: The Architecture of Belief, 1st edition (New York: Routledge, 1999), 382–83.