The book of Genesis derives its name from the Greek translation of 2.4 and 5.1, "This is the book of the origin of (biblos geneseos)?' In Jewish tradition the book is called Bereshit, after the first word of the book, which means "in the beginning of." Both names accurately convey the content of the book—it tells of the origins of the cosmos, humankind, and the ancestors of Israel. The origins of the cosmos and humans are recounted in the primeval narratives (chs. 1-11) and the origins of Israel's ancestors in the patriarchal narratives (chs. 12-50). In the ancient world as in the modern, the era of origins has a special authority—its formative events set the rules and conditions for all subsequent developments. As a book of origins, Genesis partakes of the sacredness and authority of this era and has served as a foundation for thought, belief, and action for millennia.
The Genesis of Genesis
According to Jewish and Christian tradition, the book of Genesis was dictated by God to Moses, but this belief is not found in the Hebrew Bible. (It seems to be first attested in the book of Jubilees and in the Dead Sea Scrolls from about the second century BCE.) Commentators have long noted that several points in Genesis indicate the narrator lived well after Moses, at a time when the Canaanites had disappeared from the promised land (12.6) and when kings ruled over Israel (36.31; 49.10). Modern archaeological and historical discoveries confirm this general picture: the constellation of peoples, places, and religious practices and the language of Genesis indicate that the book was primarily composed and compiled during the centuries of monarchical rule and immediately thereafter, roughly from the tenth through the sixth centuries BCE.
Biblical scholarship has identified three major literary sources that were edited together to form the book of Genesis called the Yahwist (J), Elohist (E), and Priestly (P) sources. The first two (often called "old epic" sources) reflect the predominance in certain narratives of forms of the divine name, Yahweh (Jahweh in German, hence J) and Elohim. The P source reflects concerns of the Priestly writers most evident in the book of Leviticus. There are also a few texts that belong to none of these sources (including chs. 14, 15, 24, and 49). The literary sources drew on traditional oral lore as well as written records and were engaged in preserving and revising Israel's traditions of the past. This is the standard model of the composition of Genesis, and although various scholars have proposed modifications, it remains the most coherent explanation of the evidence.
The editor (or editors) who wove the literary sources together created a text with an abundance of meaning, combining the different theologies, philosophical perspectives, and literary styles of the sources into a work of great power and complexity. The editors were not embarrassed by the duplications of particular episodes (e.g., the different creation accounts in 1.1-2.3 and 2.4-25, the two flood stories in chs. 6-9, the three wife-sister stories in 12.10-20; 20; and 26.1-11, and the multiple accounts of Jacob's change of name to Israel and the founding of Bethel in 28.10-22; 32.22-32; and 35.9-15), but, rather, valued the preservation of different traditions. One result of this complexity is that Genesis is a layered "mosaic" of meanings that is richer than any of the sources alone. Yet its lucid and tersely evocative narrative style generally allows readers to pass untroubled over its internal compositional seams.
Science, History, and Genesis
Genesis is not a scientific or historical textbook in the modern sense. Rather, it is a narration of ancient Israel's traditions and concepts of the past—a mixture of myths and legends, cultural memories, revisions of tradition, and literary brilliance. It is a complex portrait of the past that encodes the values of biblical religion and creates a rich array of perspectives on the world.
There are authentic historical memories in the book, but most of the historical details reflect the period when Israel was an established nation. The older memories include the rise of urban civilization in the land of Sumer (10.8-12; 11.1-9), the region of Haran as an ancient tribal homeland (12.4; 24; 27.43), Semitic rulers and officials in Egypt (ch. 41), and the worship of the high god named El in pre-Israelite times (17.1). These and other old memories are mingled with more recent memories, such as relations with Israel's neighbors, including Aram, Philistia, Edom, Ammon, and Moab, which arose at roughly the same time as Israel. The portrayal of the natural world in Genesis also belongs to the worldview of its time—a geocentric universe with light and the earth created before the sun, and with the stars, sun, and moon attached to the surface of the dome of heaven (ch. 1); the first woman fashioned from the first man's rib (2.21-22); the rainbow as God's huge weapon set in the clouds (9.13); and the desolate landscape of the Dead Sea (including the pillar that was once Lot's wife) as the result of ancient transgressions (ch. 19). These and other details reflect ancient lore about life, the earth, and the universe.
It is somewhat unfair to note the scientific inadequacies of Genesis, since it was not written to be a work of modern science. We need to learn to read Genesis as a book that speaks strongly to modern readers, but we need to read it on its terms, recognize its ancient voice, and not superimpose on it our own. It is a book of memories—of marvels and miracles, imperfect saints and holy sinners, a beneficent and often inscrutable God, and promises that bind the past to the present and the future. It tells us where we came from, not in the sense that the book is historically accurate, but in the sense that the book itself is our historical root. [Ronald Hendel]