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.
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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. If you want a look at the most-mentioned characters in Genesis, Adrien pulled the nerdy data together here. But in terms of getting an overview of the book, these four 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.
Key themes in Genesis
The book of Genesis is full of stories we know from Sunday school, like Adam and Eve, Noah’s Ark, and Jacob’s Ladder. But 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.
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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, NIV)
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.