Old Testament | Hebrew-Bible | Study Guide


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Old Testament | Hebrew-Bible | Genesis | Summary



Genesis is often divided into four sections. The first, known as the primeval history (Chapters 1–11), relates the famous stories of the creation of the world (1–2), the Garden of Eden (3), Cain's murder of Abel (4), the flood (6–9), and the Tower of Babel (11), with genealogies interspersed. The next two sections revolve around the lives of Israel's patriarchs, Abraham (Chapters 12–25) and Jacob (Chapters 27–36)—one intervening chapter (26) connects these two figures through Isaac, the son of Abraham and father of Jacob. The final section centers around Joseph, one of Jacob's 12 sons (Chapters 37–50).

Primeval History

  • In the first of two distinct creation stories, Yahweh creates the world and all living things in six days and declares it "good" before resting on the seventh day.
  • In the second creation story, Yahweh fashions the first human, Adam, from the dirt and cultivates a garden called Eden for him. Seeing that "it is not good that the man should be alone," Yahweh creates animals and then Eve, the first woman.
  • Adam and Even follow the advice of a talking serpent and eat fruit from a forbidden tree, a violation for which Yahweh banishes them from the garden.
  • The first son of Adam and Eve, Cain, kills his younger brother Abel out of jealousy.
  • Several generations later, humanity has become corrupt, and Yahweh determines to destroy all life on earth with a flood.
  • Noah, a righteous man, builds an ark and saves his family and a pair of each animal species from the flood.
  • Noah's descendants spread and populate the earth.
  • People gather and build a city with an immense tower, called Babel. In response, Yahweh confuses their speech and they scatter.


  • Yahweh instructs a man named Abram to move with his family from Mesopotamia to the land of Canaan, the future territory of Israel, and promises big things: "I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great."
  • After a brief journey to Egypt to escape famine, Abram returns to Canaan and accumulates wealth as a livestock farmer.
  • Abram and his brother Lot survive a regional war, after which Abram meets an enigmatic king/priest, Melchizedek.
  • Yahweh renames Abram as Abraham and his wife Sarai as Sarah and instructs Abraham to mark their relationship with Yahweh by practicing male circumcision.
  • Because Sarah is old and they have no children, Abraham fathers a son, Ishmael, with Hagar, an Egyptian slave who was gifted by Sarah to Abraham.
  • Two angels destroy the corrupt cities of Sodom and Gomorrah by raining fire from heaven, but Lot, who lives in Sodom, is saved.
  • Over 90 years old, Sarah finally bears Abraham a son, whom they name Isaac.
  • Yahweh tests Abraham's faith by requesting that he sacrifice Isaac, but just before Abraham complies, an angel intervenes to stop him and presents a ram as a substitute sacrifice.
  • Isaac marries a woman named Rebekah, who bears him twin sons, Esau and Jacob.


  • Esau was born first, but Jacob usurps Esau's privileged status as firstborn son.
  • Jacob marries two sisters, Leah and Rachel, and acquires considerable wealth from their father, Laban, in the process.
  • Through his two wives and their two handmaids, Jacob sires 13 children—12 sons and 1 daughter.
  • Jacob encounters a mysterious divine figure with whom he wrestles through the night, after which he receives a new name—Israel, meaning "he wrestled God."
  • After a long time apart, Jacob meets Esau and the brothers embrace warmly.
  • Jacob revisits the shrine at Bethel where he first encountered Yahweh earlier in his life, and returns home to visit his aging father, Isaac, on his deathbed.


  • Jacob favors Joseph, the second youngest of his sons, over his elder brothers.
  • Joseph's jealous brothers conspire to kill him but decide to sell him as a slave to passing merchants, who take him to Egypt.
  • Joseph initially does well as an overseer for an Egyptian official named Potiphar but refuses the sexual advances of Potiphar's wife, who lies to Potiphar that Joseph assaulted her.
  • Potiphar has Joseph put in jail, where he gains a reputation for interpreting dreams.
  • Joseph is released from jail and appointed second-in-command over all Egypt after he interprets a dream for the Pharaoh.
  • Famine spreads across the land and Joseph's brothers come to Egypt to buy grain from Joseph, whom they do not recognize.
  • Eventually, Joseph reveals his identity, the brothers repent of their treachery, and the entire family, including their father, Jacob, move to Egypt and flourish.
  • Genesis concludes with the death of Jacob in Egypt, surrounded by his sons.


Genesis offers many explanations for the nature of Yahweh, the origin of the world, the human condition, and the backstories of the ancestors of Israel. It also introduces themes that echo throughout the rest of the Torah, especially Yahweh's interest in a special relationship with his people—epitomized by the promises to Abraham—and the human tendency to stray from Yahweh's expectations, beginning with Adam and Eve. From a distance Genesis looks like an orderly narrative that takes readers from creation to Egypt. But it achieves its broad coverage of topics by combining stories from different sources and perspectives that are not always fully harmonized. Yet together, they create an intelligible narrative arc.

Traditions about the ancestors of Israel in the rest of Genesis likely originated in diverse times and places. The familial relationships between the important figures may even be later inventions meant to present these diverse traditions as the traditions of one Israelite people. Many of the episodes included in Genesis are etiological, explaining the origins of the names of individuals such as Israel, places such as Bethel, and practices such as circumcision. The Joseph story stands out because of its well-crafted, novella-like format, which may signal a distinct origin and function.

Despite the diverse origins for these stories, they are well organized in Genesis. Beginning with 2:4, headings stating "These are the generations of ... " introduce genealogical lists and narrative hinges that reaffirm the historical connections of characters and events in the book (see Genesis 2:4, 5:1, 6:9, 10:1, 25:12, 25:19, 36:1, and 37:2). The Greek word genesis, which translates "generation" in Greek versions of these passages, is where the title Genesis comes from. Genesis also includes the first segments of a basic structure for the narrative arc of the Torah, based on a series of three covenants, or formal agreements between Yahweh and central characters: Noah, Abraham, and Moses.

The impressive combination of all these stories in Genesis communicated a clear message to its ancient Hebrew readers: they were one people, all children of Abraham who worshipped the same god and whose ancestral ties to the land of Canaan were intertwined.

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