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 to grow.

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 his covenant.

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 earth.

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 (9:12–13). God 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.