Book of Genesis


reproduced from A Survey of the Tanach for the Practical Messianic

Approximate date: 1440-1400 B.C.E. (Right); 1300-1200 B.C.E. (conservative-moderate); 500s B.C.E. (Left)

Time period: the Creation of the world to Israel in Egypt

Author: Moses exclusively (Right); Moses, Joshua, and later editors (conservative-moderate); compiled traditions and mythologies (Left)

Location of author: wilderness journey after the Exodus (Right, conservative-moderate); Babylon and/or Land of Israel (Left)

Target audience and their location: wilderness journey after the Exodus (Right, conservative-moderate); Babylon and/or Land of Israel (Left)

Theological Summary: The Hebrew title of the first book of the Bible is Bereisheet (pronounced Bereishis in the Ashkenazic tradition), coming from the first sentence in the text, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth” (1:1). Our English term “Genesis” is derived from the Greek Septuagint, which uses theterm geneseōs in Genesis 2:4, describing “the book of the generation of heaven and earth” (LXE). This passed over into the Latin Vulgate as Liber Genesis. In the Jewish tradition, the full title of Genesis is Sefer haBereisheet, and referred to by some as Sefer haYesharim or “Book of the Upright.”[1]

The theme of the Book of Genesis is undoubtedly beginnings. “Genesis covers an immensely long period of time, longer perhaps than the rest of the Bible put together. It begins in the distant past of creation, an event about whose absolute date we cannot even speculate, through millennia to reach Abraham at the end of chapter 11” (Dillard and Longman).[2] If the lifespans of the early genealogies in chs. 5 and 11 are added together, then the text itself covers almost 2,400 years.[3] Specifically, it would cover 1,948 years from Adam to Abraham,[4] and then 361 years to the death of Joseph, equaling 2,309 years.[5] If one considers there to be missing generations or individuals via a telescoped genealogy, then the timespan between Creation and the Patriarchs becomes considerably longer,[6] with human history certainly going back 18,000-20,000 years or much , much more. The wide breadth of space and history that Genesis covers cannot be ignored by any able interpreter. Several, if not multiplied millennia of human history, are covered in Genesis’ first twelve chapters.[7]

Geographically, Genesis can be divided into two principal segments. This first segment, chs. 1-38, comprises a great deal about what we know about humans living in Mesopotamia. Many conservative scholars are agreed that the Garden of Eden was likely located in Mesopotamia. Mesopotamia was the original home of Abram, Isaac’s wife Rachel was from Mesopotamia, and Jacob lived in Mesopotamia for twenty years. The homeland of the original Hebrews was, in no uncertain terms, found in Mesopotamia. Various other parallels exist between the customs and laws followed by the Patriarchs,[8] and what was followed in Mesopotamia, in spite of them transplanting themselves to Canaan. Of extreme importance is the fact of distinct Mesopotamian influence on the first parts of Genesis. Harrison notes that “On the whole, English translations of the first dozen or so chapters of Genesis are so literal that they betray the translators’ ignorance of the Mesopotamian background that Genesis so faithfully reflects” (ISBE).[9]

“There can be no real question as to the immense antiquity of the source material that is to be found in Genesis” (Harrison).[10] We cannot ignore some distinct parallels between what we see in the Hebrew Bible and what is recorded in Mesopotamian works such as the Enuma elish creation story and Epic of Gilgamesh disastrous flood.[11] However, it must be noted that there are severe differences as well. “The Babylonian account depicts the Creation as taking place as a result of the sexual union of the gods…It is patently mythical and pagan in its orientation” (NIDB).[12] This is contrary to a Divine Creator making humankind in His own image, and being One who cares for His creatures. The Mesopotamian stories are nothing more than perverse preservations of the true Biblical account. “[I]t would not then be at all surprising if the story concerning them should come to be mythologized in pagan traditions, while being preserved in authentically historical form within the stream of tradition of which Gn. 1-11 is the inspired deposit” (Kline, NBCR).[13] It is probable though, that the author of Genesis knew of these myths when composing the text.[14]

This first segment of Genesis can largely be broken up into two halves. The first half deals with what we might call primeval or pre-history, the period from Adam to the appearance of Abraham (1:1-11:26). This largely covers the Creation and Fall of humanity, the spread of sin in the early world, Noah’s Flood, and the Tower of Babel. The second half of this segment deals with the Patriarchal history (11:27-38:1), covering the lives of Abraham and Isaac (11:27-25:11), and then with Isaac and Jacob (25:19-35:29; 37:1). These parts record Abraham’s journey to Canaan, the judgment of God upon Sodom and Gomorrah, and Abraham offering up Isaac for a sacrifice. They are interspersed by the genealogies of Ishmael (25:12-28) and Esau (ch. 36).

The second major segment of Genesis, chs. 39-50, that covers far less time, sees the scene shift from Canaan to Egypt. From 39:2-50:26 we see the lives of Jacob and Joseph, and the twelve sons of Israel having to move into Egypt. We also get a feel for the Ancient Hebrews’ lives in Egypt, and as a result, we see that the author of Genesis is quite familiar with the Egyptian civilization, with careful attention given in this part to specific agricultural advances made and perfected by Egypt.

The authorship of Genesis is a lively debate in modern theology, and has been since the mid-Eighteenth Century. Most, regardless of their position, are agreed that Genesis should not be read on its own without some connection to the rest of the Torah or Pentateuch (Exodus-Deuteronomy), as the story continues on. It is important that we remember Genesis “was not written as an independent and complete volume” (New Interpreter’s Study Bible).[15] But as one can imagine, reading the Book of Genesis in light of the rest of the Torah has caused a great deal of controversy.

Historically, both Jews and Christians have held to the position of some kind of Mosaic authorship, even though Genesis is, in a strict sense, totally anonymous.[16] Varied ancient traditions, both inside and outside of the Bible, Jewish and Christian, almost all attest to Moses being the author of Genesis (at least before 1750). The principal witness that we have attesting to genuine Mosaic authorship—as Believers—is actually the Apostolic Scriptures or New Testament. Acts 15:1, for example, treats the rite of circumcision as being “according to the custom of Moses” (even if here it involved some Rabbinic additions), a direct allusion to Genesis 17. A consensus reading of the Apostolic Scriptures assigns some level of the Torah’s authorship to Moses (Mark 12:26; Luke 24:27; Romans 10:5; 2 Corinthians 3:15), especially John 1:45 and 5:46:

  • “Philip found Nathanael and said to him, ‘We have found Him of whom Moses in the Law and also the Prophets wrote—Yeshua of Nazareth, the son of Joseph’” (John 1:45).
  • “For if you believed Moses, you would believe Me, for he wrote about Me” (John 5:46).

All of the specific quotations in the Apostolic Scriptures from Yeshua or the Apostles ascribe Moses as being the author of the Torah. “[T]he NT endorses the Jewish tradition of Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch, not excluding Genesis” (Kline, NBCR).[17] Sailhamer further repeats, “It appears relatively certain that Jesus and the writers of the NT believed that Moses was the author of the Pentateuch” (EXP).[18] So, for anyone to deny Moses’ hand in composing the Torah, such a person is going against the authority of the Messiah and the Apostles.

There are, however, conservative-moderates who believe in principal Mosaic authorship of Genesis, but do allow for post-Mosaic editing in some distinct references. “The concept of Mosaic authorship does not demand the belief that Moses was the first to write every word of each account in the Book of Genesis. It is generally understood today to mean that much of his work was compilation” (NIDB).[19] Verses that clearly indicate post-Mosaic editing of Genesis include the mention of “Dan” (14:14), a list of kings that reigned in the land of Edom (36:31), and a reference to the “land of Ramses” (47:11). Many “conservative Christians have been too quick to distance themselves from the possibility of sources and too closed to any evidence of significant post-Mosaic activity” (Dillard and Longman),[20] and the idea of exclusive Mosaic authorship of Genesis permeates the vast majority of today’s Messianic community, with almost no room to move.

In affirming Mosaic authorship of the Book of Genesis, none of us can conclude that Moses is the author of every single letter. First, we do not know if he used scribes to compile the earliest edition of Genesis, and secondly, it is quite probable that Moses did incorporate outside materials in its composition. Harrison speculates that the material for chs. 1-36, including the story of Creation and the Flood, originally existed on cuneiform tablets, and that information was adapted by Moses for our canonical Genesis account:

“If it is correct to assume that the first thirty-six chapters of Genesis had originally had an independent existence as cuneiform tablets, it would have been a comparatively easy matter for a talented person such as Moses to compile the canonical book by arranging the tablets in a rough chronological order” (ISBE).[21]

Conservatives generally believe that “the writer of the Book of Genesis appears to have composed his work from ‘archival’ records of God’s great deeds in the past…the narratives within the Book of Genesis appear to be largely made up of small, self-contained stories worked together into larger units by means of various geographical and genealogical tables. If such is, in fact, the case, one should not expect to find absolute uniformity of style, etc., among all the individual narratives any more than an absolute uniformity can be expected in later historical books” (Sailhamer, EXP).[22] Some divide the material for Genesis 1:1-37:2 into eleven possible tablets,[23] noting “to what extent [Moses] wrote any of its contents, with the possible exception of all or part of the Joseph narratives, is unknown” (Harrison).[24]

Moses may better be described as the “principal compiler” of Genesis, if indeed he took Patriarchal traditions that had been passed down in the community of Israel, and via God’s Spirit integrated them into His authorized religious Instruction. It is notable that having been raised in Egypt, he would have seen that the original Genesis was written on leather, a more preferred and durable material than clay.[25] The author of Genesis has a knowledge of Egypt (13:10) and the Egyptian language (41:43-45), certainly pointing to Moses. We must, however, consider the fact that whatever was written in Moses’ time was composed in the paleo-Hebrew or Phoenician script, whereas what we have today is in Assyrian or Babylonian block script, acquired by the Jewish exiles who were taken to Babylon. The Talmud tells us that Ezra the Priest was responsible for the final composition of the Tanach in the current block script (b.Sanhedrin 21b),[26] and so the Torah, and thus Genesis as we have it today, is a product of the post-Babylonian exile.

Our ministry falls well within the conservative-moderate position of Mosaic authorship of the Book of Genesis, and we are certainly not advocates of the liberal view.[27] We cannot ignore the broad array of events and history that Genesis covers,[28] including the incorporation of outside sources into Genesis, so it is best to say that we believe in the “essential authorship” of Moses (Dillard and Longman),[29] allowing for possible later editing by individuals such as Joshua or Ezra the Priest.

The liberal view of the composition of Genesis, and indeed the entire Torah, is one that most Messianics are not even aware of. Liberals all deny any Mosaic authorship of Genesis, and instead adhere to some kind of “documentary hypothesis.” The most widely advocated of these theories is commonly called JEDP, which is believed to string together various religious traditions from a distinct element or religious tradition within Ancient Israel. Forms of this theory have existed since the mid-1700s, and were popularized in Germany in the mid-1800s, specifically by Julius Wellhausen. It is often based on factors such as differing literary styles, usage of the Divine name YHWH, alleged contradictions in the text, and perceived developments in Israel’s religion[30]—although there have been significant scholars who have challenged it.[31]

Liberals advocate that the Jews returning from Babylonian exile in the Sixth Century B.C.E. compiled various traditions into what we now call the Torah, ascribing authorship to Moses. Extreme liberals believe that the story of Creation and the Flood are largely myths, coupled with other “local legends” such as the judgment upon Sodom and Gomorrah.[32] Perhaps Abraham existed as an historical figure, but never as prominent as Genesis portrays him. Furthermore, many have tried to postulate that the religion of Ancient Israel developed from polytheistic to monotheistic, so any references in the Hebrew text to “YHWH” (J) or “Elohim” (E) are actually to be viewed as references to two different deities. This view came to prominence in a time highly dominated by social Darwinism, and is undeniably affected by the theory of evolution.[33]

Liberal views which deny the historicity of the Book of Genesis are frequently developed by people who deny anything supernatural. Conservative views are commonly criticized as being “shaken by modern natural science, especially by biology and Darwinism” (IDBSup).[34] While JEDP is a very common theory to hear in liberal Christian seminaries, many Jews likewise believe in it.[35] Many in Jewish and Christian institutes think that they “have to” believe it because “everyone else does,” but as Sarna validly points out, “it is beyond doubt that the Book of Genesis came down to us, not as a composite of disparate elements but as a unified document with a life, coherence, and integrity of its own. For this reason, a fragmentary approach to it cannot provide an adequate understanding of the whole.”[36] A good trend in Biblical scholarship among liberals appearing more and more is acknowledging some kind of unity in Genesis on literary grounds,[37] recognizing that all readers have to deal with the text in its final form, even though some Mosaic involvement in Genesis’ composition will still be denied by these people.

From a textual standpoint the major witnesses that we have of the Book of Genesis are the Hebrew Masoretic Text (MT), Samaritan Pentateuch, the Greek Septuagint (LXX), and Genesis fragments found among the Dead Sea Scrolls.[38] On the whole, the Hebrew textual witnesses of Genesis are very good, but on occasion it can be necessary to find a better reading evident in a secondary version because of Genesis’ antiquity.[39] This is especially true of translation into English where the Hebrew can be unclear or vague, and the Greek LXX will often give a translator clues as to what a clearer rendering in English can be.

The theological message of Genesis is clear to anyone who reads it. Genesis must be understood for a person to understand the rest of the Bible.[40] Genesis lays the groundwork via the promises given by God to Abraham for the establishment of the nation of Israel, and most importantly lays the groundwork for understanding the Messiah to come. Genesis is highly monotheistic as Adam, Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph are all seen relating themselves to a single deity. We see God relating to humanity in both love and judgment in Genesis, characteristics seen throughout the rest of Scripture.

As Genesis lays the foundation for the rest of the Bible, and specifically the Torah, we see that Israel is not just an emerging nation brought about by random chance, but by God directly intervening in the lives of people. We see that God has a plan of blessing all the peoples of Planet Earth through the line of Abraham (12:1-3), and the beginning of the people who will accomplish this blessing as His representatives. Sarna summarizes that “the entire Hebrew Bible is both God-centered and Israel-centered,”[41] so any examination of Genesis by us as Messianic Believers today must be done by us seeing what God’s ultimate agenda is for the world: to see humanity’s restoration to Himself. Not surprisingly, some of the themes seen at the beginning of Genesis are repeated at the end of Revelation.[42]

When we consider the theology of today’s Messianic movement, some challenges exist in our present approach to Genesis. While many Messianic Believers engage in a consistent study of the Torah, including Genesis, some tend to make the reverse mistake of liberals who deny that its miraculous events took place. Some Messianics have an “overly mythical” view of Genesis that largely comes from consulting ultra-Orthodox and Chassidic Jewish sources, at the expense of understanding Genesis in the context of the Ancient Near East. Honest inquiries about human origins and the greater universe are often dismissed. We would do well in the future to adapt a more conservative-moderate view of Genesis, where we fully affirm the accuracy of the text, that God did indeed create the world intentionally with humans made by His intelligent design, that these people and the events actually did take place, and that these accounts give us a vivid picture of God’s love, but also His judgment. We need to engage with more commentaries and references that do not skirt around the controversies which exist with Genesis, so that our faith can be strengthened, and we can truly see the supernatural interacting with the natural.


Dillard, Raymond B., and Tremper Longman III. “Genesis,” in An Introduction to the Old Testament, pp 37-56.
Eissfeldt, O. “Genesis,” in IDB, 2:366-380.
Harrison, R.K. “The Book of Genesis,” in Introduction to the Old Testament, pp 542-565.
____________. “Genesis,” in ISBE, 2:431-443.
Hiebert, Theodore. “Genesis,” in New Interpreter’s Study Bible, pp 1-84.
Hendel, Ronald S. “Genesis, Book of,” in ABD, 2:933-941.
Kline, Meredith G. “Genesis,” in NBCR, pp 79-114.
Levenson, Jon D. “Genesis,” in Jewish Study Bible, pp 8-101.
McComiskey, Thomas Edward. “Genesis,” in NIDB, pp 380-382.
Sailhamer, John H. “Genesis,” in EXP, 2:3-284.
Sarna, Nahum M. “Introduction,” JPS Torah Commentary: Genesis, pp xi-xvi.
Westermann, C., and R. Albertz. “Genesis,” in IDBSup, pp 356-361.


[1] Nahum M. Sarna, JPS Torah Commentary: Genesis (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1989), xi.

[2] Raymond B. Dillard and Tremper Longman III, An Introduction to the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1994), 37.

[3] O. Eissfeldt, “Genesis,” in George Buttrick, ed. et. al., The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, 4 vols. (Nashville: Abingdon, 1962), 2:368.

[4] Sarna, Genesis, xii.

[5] Ibid.; such a basic approach is reflected in Nosson Scherman and Meir Zlotowitz, eds., ArtScroll Tanach (Brooklyn: Mesorah Publications, 1996), 2024.

Note the chart in Harrison, Introduction to the Old Testament, 150 with the different ages given in the textual witnesses of the Hebrew MT, Greek LXX, and Samaritan Pentateuch.

[6] Harrison, Introduction to the Old Testament, pp 147-152.

[7] For a further discussion on this, and related issues, the author recommends Hugh Ross, The Genesis Question: Scientific Advances and the Accuracy of Genesis, second expanded edition (Colorado Springs: NavPress, 2001) and A Matter of Days: Resolving a Creation Controversy (Colorado Springs: NavPress, 2004).

[8] Thomas Edward McComiskey, “Genesis,” in Merrill C. Tenney, ed., The New International Dictionary of the Bible (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1987), 380.

[9] R.K. Harrison, “Genesis,” in Geoffrey Bromiley, ed., International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, 4 vols. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1988), 2:438.

[10] Harrison, Introduction to the Old Testament, 552.

[11] Ibid., pp 555-558; Ronald S. Hendel, “Genesis, Book of,” in David Noel Freedman, ed., Anchor Bible Dictionary, 6 vols. (New York: Doubleday, 1992), 2:938-939.

[12] McComiskey, “Genesis,” in NIDB, 381.

[13] Meredith G. Kline, “Genesis,” in D. Guthrie and J.A. Motyer, eds., The New Bible Commentary Revised (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1970), 79.

[14] Harrison, Introduction to the Old Testament, 552.

[15] Theodore Hiebert, “Genesis,” in Walter J. Harrelson, ed., et. al., New Interpreter’s Study Bible, NRSV (Nashville: Abingdon, 2003), 1; Harrison, “Genesis,” in ISBE, 2:431-432; Dillard and Longman, 37.

[16] Harrison, Introduction to the Old Testament, 542; Dillard and Longman, 39.

[17] Kline, “Genesis,” in NBCR, 79.

[18] John H. Sailhamer, “Genesis,” in Frank E. Gaebelein, ed. et. al., Expositor’s Bible Commentary, 12 vols. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1976-1992), 2:5.

[19] McComiskey, “Genesis,” in NIDB, 380.

[20] Dillard and Longman, 39; cf. Harrison, Introduction to the Old Testament, 542.

[21] Harrison, “Genesis,” in ISBE, 2:437.

[22] Sailhamer, in EXP, 2:4.

[23] Harrison, Introduction to the Old Testament, pp 548-551.

[24] Ibid., 542.

[25] Harrison, “Genesis,” in ISBE, 2:437-438; cf. Harrison, Introduction to the Old Testament, 552.

[26]And even though the Torah was not given through [Ezra], the script was changed through him” (b.Sanhedrin 21b; The Babylonian Talmud: A Translation and Commentary. MS Windows XP. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2005. CD-ROM).

[27] Cf. Dillard and Longman, 38.

[28] Cf. Sailhamer, in EXP, 2:3-4.

[29] Dillard and Longman, 40.

[30] Eissfeldt, “Genesis,” in IDB, 2:369-373; C. Westermann and R. Albertz, “Genesis,” in Keith Crim, ed., Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible: Supplementary Volume (Nashville: Abingdon, 1976), 358; Hendel, “Genesis” in ABD, 2:933-938; Dillard and Longman, pp 40-44.

[31] Harrison, “Genesis,” in ISBE, 2:433-437.

[32] Eissfeldt, “Genesis,” in IDB, 2:376-378.

[33] Ibid., 3:379.

[34] Westermann and Albertz, “Genesis,” in IDBSup, 356.

[35] Jon D. Levenson, “Genesis,” in Adele Berlin and Marc Zvi Brettler, eds., The Jewish Study Bible (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), 11.

[36] Sarna, Genesis, xvi.

[37] Dillard and Longman, 46-47; cf. Harrison, Introduction to the Old Testament, 564.

[38] Hendel, “Genesis,” in ABD, 2:933.

[39] Harrison, Introduction to the Old Testament, 565.

[40] Dillard and Longman, 37.

[41] Sarna, Genesis, xii.

[42] Harrison, “Genesis,” in ISBE, 2:432.

About J.K. McKee 759 Articles
J.K. McKee (B.A., University of Oklahoma; M.A., Asbury Theological Seminary) is the editor of Messianic Apologetics (, a division of Outreach Israel Ministries ( He is a 2009 recipient of the Zondervan Biblical Languages Award for Greek. He is author of numerous books and commentaries, dealing with a wide range of topics that are important for today’s Messianic Believers.

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