The book of Genesis is the first book of the Bible, and opens with one of the most famous first sentences of any literary work: “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.” It’s where we find the famous stories of Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, Noah and the ark, Abraham and Isaac, and a well-dressed dreamer named Joseph.
Genesis is a carefully and intentionally crafted account of Israel’s origin story. Moses is traditionally credited as the human author of the Old-Testament book of Genesis. This is because Genesis is part of the Torah, which is known as the Law of Moses.
On its own, the book of Genesis reads like a string of epic stories: a semi-tragic saga of a world that just keeps going wrong, despite its Creator’s intentions. But Genesis isn’t a stand-alone book. It’s the first installment in the five-part Torah (or Pentateuch), which is the foundational work of the Old Testament. The Torah is Israel’s origin story: it’s the history of how the nation of Israel got its population, its land, and its religion.
Important characters in Genesis
Genesis is the second-longest book of the Bible (after Jeremiah). That means there are a lot of characters in Genesis. But in terms of getting an overview of the book, these characters are the most important ones to know about:
God (Yahweh)—the creator of heaven and earth, including the humans Adam and Eve. God makes all things “very good,” but when both humans and divine beings rebel against God, the world slips back into chaos. The humans rebel against God, bringing a curse on the world and growing so violent that God destroys everyone but Noah and his family. God is still at work to bring the world back to “very good” status again—and chooses to begin this work through a man God names Abraham.
Abraham (formerly Abram)—a Mesopotamian whom God chooses as the patriarch of a special nation. Abraham journeys through the land of Canaan, which God promises to give to Abraham’s descendants. God makes a covenant (a special binding agreement) with Abraham—which is where Israel’s story as a nation truly begins.
Jacob/Israel—Abraham’s grandson. Jacob tricks his father and brother, finagling his way into receiving a special blessing. He has twelve sons, which the twelve tribes of Israel trace their lineage back to.
Joseph—Jacob’s favorite son, who has prophetic dreams of greatness. He is also able to interpret other people’s dreams. His brothers sell him into slavery, but through his God-given wisdom, he ascends to the position of second-in-command over all Egypt.
The story of Genesis is really all about setting the stage for the rest of the Pentateuch: it’s the long, long prologue to Israel’s beginnings as a nation. Specifically, it’s the story of the promises God made to humans—promises that God begins to carry out through the rest of the Bible.
In fact, if the main thrust of Genesis were summed up in one verse, it would be these words that God said to Abraham:
I will establish my covenant as an everlasting covenant between me and you and your descendants after you for the generations to come, to be your God and the God of your descendants after you. (Gn 17:7
Genesis has a lot of these agreements, including God’s covenant with the post-flood world (Genesis 9:1–17) and his covenants with Abraham (Genesis 15, 17).
Covenant is what moves the story forward in Genesis. God promises the childless Abraham that he will be the father of nations, that his descendants will have a land, and that the world will be blessed through them. For 38 of Genesis’ 50 chapters, the story follows Abraham’s family as God begins fulfilling the first part of that promise: Abraham has eight children, who have children of their own, and so on and so forth. The next four books tell the story of how these descendants become a nation and make their move toward claiming their promised land.
In the twelfth chapter, God promises to bless Abraham, bless his allies, curse his enemies, and eventually, bless the world through him (12:1–3). This kicks the rest of the book, the rest of the Torah, and indeed the rest of the Bible into gear. From this point on, God has a special relationship with Abraham and his family. The rest of Genesis watches this promise unfold—and it involves a lot of people getting blessed.
The narrative of blessings is especially important when we get about halfway through the book, when Jacob “inherits” (i.e., tricks his dad into giving him) the blessing that God had given to Abraham and Isaac. This blessing was originally intended for Jacob’s older brother Esau. But before another Cain and Abel situation takes place, Jacob escapes to a distant land, where he starts a new life. When Jacob returns, he wrestles with God—who blesses him.
One more important theme in Genesis: the land of Canaan. God promises that Abraham’s descendants will possess that land in chapter 15, but this promise is not fulfilled until the book of Joshua. Abraham wanders through Canaan, Isaac settles there, and Jacob eventually settles here, too. However, at the end of the book, the budding nation of Israel is dwelling as guests in Egypt. The next four books of the Torah tell us how they make their way back to Canaan.Genesis is the first book of the Bible, but more importantly, it’s the first book of the Torah, the law of Moses. Genesis told the ancient Israelites that God had befriended their ancestors, promised them a land, and had a plan to bless the world through them. But the story of Genesis is really just the grand prologue to Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. Together, these five books tell the story of how Israel became God’s special nation.
Movement 1: God and humanity
Genesis opens with God creating the heavens and the earth, the stars, the plants, the animals, and humans: Adam and Eve.
Movement 2: God and Israel
Act 1: Abraham & Isaac
Hundreds of years later, God calls Noah’s descendant, Abram, to leave his family and journey to the land of Canaan. God promises to bless Abram with many descendants, and to bless all the nations of the world through him.
Act 2: Isaac
Isaac dwells in the land of Canaan and has twin sons: Jacob and Esau.
Jacob grows up, tricks Esau into giving away his blessing, and Esau’s not too happy about this. So …
Act 3: Jacob/Israel
Jacob then leaves town to live with his uncle. He marries, has 13 children, and lives with his uncle for 20 years before God calls him back to Canaan. As Jacob returns to the land of Abraham and Isaac, his name is changed to Israel (35:9–12).Act 4: Joseph
Of Jacob’s 12 sons and one daughter, Joseph is his favorite. Joseph’s brothers sell him into slavery, and he becomes a prisoner in Egypt. His God-given ability to interpret dreams becomes valuable to the Pharaoh, however, and so Joseph is released from prison and made second in command of all Egypt.
The book of Genesis ends with the death of Joseph, whose last prediction is that God will bring the children of Israel back to the promised land. God begins fulfilling this in the next movement of the story: the book of Exodus.