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The Book of Genesis opens the Hebrew Bible with the story
of creation. God, a spirit hovering over an empty, watery void,
creates the world by speaking into the darkness and calling into
being light, sky, land, vegetation, and living creatures over the
course of six days. Each day, he pauses to pronounce his works “good”
(1:4). On the sixth
day, God declares his intention to make a being in his “own image,”
and he creates humankind (1:26).
He fashions a man out of dust and forms a woman out of the man’s
rib. God places the two people, Adam and Eve, in the idyllic garden
of Eden, encouraging them to procreate and to enjoy the created
world fully, and forbidding them to eat from the tree of the knowledge
of good and evil.
In the garden, Eve encounters a crafty serpent who convinces
her to eat the tree’s forbidden fruit, assuring her that she will
not suffer if she does so. Eve shares the fruit with Adam, and the
two are immediately filled with shame and remorse. While walking
in the garden, God discovers their disobedience. After cursing the
serpent, he turns and curses the couple. Eve, he says, will be cursed
to suffer painful childbirth and must submit to her husband’s authority.
Adam is cursed to toil and work the ground for food. The two are
subsequently banished from Eden.
Sent out into the world, Adam and Eve give birth to two
sons, Cain and Abel. Cain, a farmer, offers God a portion of his
crops one day as a sacrifice, only to learn that God is more pleased
when Abel, a herdsman, presents God with the fattest portion of
his flocks. Enraged, Cain kills his brother. God exiles Cain from
his home to wander in the land east of Eden. Adam and Eve give birth
to a third son, Seth. Through Seth and Cain, the human race begins
Ten generations pass, and humankind becomes more evil.
God begins to lament his creation and makes plans to destroy humankind
completely. However, one man, Noah, has earned God’s favor because
of his blameless behavior. God speaks to Noah and promises to establish
a special covenant with Noah and his family. He instructs Noah to
build an ark, or boat, large enough to hold Noah’s family and pairs
of every kind of living animal while God sends a great flood to
destroy the earth. Noah does so, his family and the animals enter
the ark, and rain falls in a deluge for forty days, submerging the
earth in water for more than a year. When the waters finally recede,
God calls Noah’s family out of the ark and reaffirms his covenant
with Noah. Upon exiting the ark, Noah’s family finds that the earth
is moist and green again. God promises that from this new fertile
earth will follow an equally fertile lineage for Noah and his family.
But humankind must follow certain rules to maintain this favor:
humans must not eat meat with blood still in it, and anyone who
murders another human must also be killed. God vows never to destroy
the earth again, and he designates the rainbow to be a symbol of
One night, Noah becomes drunk and lies naked in his
tent. Ham, one of Noah’s sons, sees his naked father and tells his
brothers, Shem and Japeth. Shem and Japeth cover their father without looking
at him. Upon waking, Noah curses Ham’s descendants, the Canaanites,
for Ham’s indiscretion, declaring that they will serve the future
descendants of Ham’s brothers. A detailed genealogy of the three
brothers’ descendants is given. Many generations pass and humankind
again becomes corrupt. Some men, having moved west to Babylon, attempt
to assert their greatness and power by building a large tower that
would enable them to reach the heavens. Their arrogance angers God,
who destroys the edifice. He scatters the people across the earth
by confusing their common language, thus forever dividing humankind
into separate nations.
The first eleven chapters of Genesis tell an authoritative
story about the beginnings of the world that contains many contradictions. Scholars
believe that the account is not the work of one author, but of a
later editor or “redactor” who collected stories from various traditional
sources into one volume. For instance, the author of the story of
Cain and Abel shows a knowledge of Jewish sacrificial law that only
a later writer would possess. Also, the narrator’s introduction
of stories with phrases such as “This is the list of the descendants
of Adam” (5:1) or
“These are the descendants of Noah” (6:9) suggests
these tales existed before the current writer or redactor collected
them into their present form.
The major thematic link of the first eleven chapters
is the structuring of the world around a system of parallels and
contrasts. Light breaks into the darkness, land separates water,
and “the greater light” of the sun opposes “the lesser light” of
the moon (1:16). A more
complex occurrence of parallel and contrast takes place with the account
of man’s creation. Man is not only made in the image of God, paralleling
him, but woman, made from the man’s rib, contrasts with man. The
Genesis writer uses the poetic device of antistrophe, or the repetition
of a line in reverse order, to highlight the parallels and contrasts
in the creation of man:
So God created humankind in his image,
in the image of God he created them;
male and female he created them. 1:27–29
The antistrophe suggests that the world is logically organized around
binary opposites, or basic opposing forces. Positive and negative,
work and rest, and day and night are among the many binary opposites
that the first chapters of Genesis describe. Good and evil is probably
the most consistently explored binary opposite in the Old Testament,
and the story of Cain and Abel initiates a lengthy analysis of the
difference between good and evil. Cain’s deception and murder of
Abel, as well as his evasive response to God’s questioning, describe
his evil as inherent in his character and unmitigated by other good
traits. God’s punishment, however, demonstrates both justice and
mercy, establishing God as the absolute good that opposes Cain’s
absolute evil. God exiles Cain from God’s presence, but marks Cain
to protect him from the wrath of other people.
Images of the ground and of the earth recur in
these chapters. In Genesis, mankind’s relationship with the ground
is often a measure of the quality and fullness of human life. God
creates Adam from dust, and Adam’s fate is connected to the earth
when God curses him:
cursed is the ground because of you;
in toil you shall eat of it. . . .
you are dust,
and to dust you shall return. 3:17, 19
Cain is similarly cursed to the ground, for he is exiled
from his home and sent to wander in a strange land. The ground is
the object of God’s rage when God sends the flood and, in some respects,
when he destroys the Tower at Babel. However, the ground is also
the symbol of God’s blessing to Noah, for God’s promise of fertility
to Noah’s family mirrors the green and plentiful quality of the
In the account of Noah, God himself uses symbols as much
as the authors of the story. God explicitly calls the rainbow a
“sign,” or symbol, of his covenant with humanity after the flood
frequently uses physical objects to show his spiritual purposes. But
unlike the Greek gods of Homer or other Near-Eastern deities, the
Hebrew God is never depicted as limited or defined by these objects.
Rather, the authors of Genesis suggest that God is telling an elaborate
allegorical story through the act of creation and that as God manages
the affairs of the earth, symbolic meaning is one of the primary
ways in which he communicates with his creations.
The central purpose of these introductory chapters is
to construct a detailed etiology, or explanation of the origins
of the world. The author is trying to account for the way that certain
unfavorable elements of everyday human life came into being. The
etiological concerns are clear enough in these chapters. The writers
and the redactors have collected stories that explain how evil and
separate nations entered the world, why women must live in a society
characterized by male standards, why we as humans must work to survive,
and why our daily labor is always so hard.
Ace your assignments with our guide to Bible: The Old Testament!