First book of the Bible.

Ascribed by tradition, though not by scholars, to Moses, the book of Genesis chronicles the creation of the world and everything in it, as well as God's early relationship to humanity. For purposes of critical analysis, Genesis is often divided into the primeval history (chapters 1 through 11), which includes the stories of God's creation of the universe, as well as the Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, and Noah stories, and the patriarchal history (chapters 12-50), which includes the narratives of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph. Altogether, the stories in Genesis span—according to the usual calculation—2,369 years. The sources from which Genesis was compiled, including Babylonian, Egyptian, and Hebrew myths and folklore, date from the tenth to fifth centuries b.c.

Textual History

Modern scholars generally agree that there are three main literary sources within Genesis. Among these three groups of source documents, the two oldest are designated as “Yahwist” (or “J” for the German word for Yahweh) and “Elohist” (or “E”), respectively. These terms are derived from the distinctive name by which each author referred to God, either Yahweh or Elohim. The completed texts (rather than the various source materials) for the Yahwist compositions date from circa 950 b.c., and the Elohist compositions have been dated one to two centuries later. The third, later group of source texts, referred to as “Priestly” (or “P”), is believed to have been completed circa 538 to 450 b.c. The style of the P sources is somewhat different from that of J and E, in that P is more formal and more interested in factual information, such as geneologies and precise dates. J and E sources, on the other hand, tend to be more lyrical. Many scholars believe that the chapters of Genesis are comprised of a number of J, E, and P source documents that were at one time combined by a redactor (sometimes referred to as “R”).

Plot and Major Characters

The principal characters of Genesis include God and the individuals he created. Genesis tells the tale of God's creation of the universe, and then traces the history of mankind from Adam and Eve, through Abraham and his descendents. Genesis focuses primarily upon five persons: Adam, Noah, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. God appears repeatedly throughout the text, interacting with mankind largely through issuing commands and announcements, and punishing, forgiving, and testing those he created.

Major Themes

Many scholars have attempted to isolate the various themes threading their way throughout the book of Genesis. Some point to Genesis's emphasis on power and patriarchy, with God the Creator as the initial patriarch, followed later by Abraham and his descendents. Other critics note that the theme of sin and failure is woven throughout Genesis, from Adam and Eve's original sin, to sins of humanity as a whole, punishable by such acts as the great flood, from which only Noah and a select few escaped. Man's alienation from God, as a result of man's failures, has also been identified as one of the primary themes in Genesis.

Critical Reception

Modern criticism of Genesis has centered on analysis of issues related to the composition of the text, and literary analyses focusing on such things as plot, theme, and use of literary devices. A number of critics have studied the myth sources from which, it is argued, Genesis was derived. Robert Graves and Raphael Patai review the deities of Hebrew myth that have found their way into the Bible, and examine the parallels between Greek and Hebrew mythology and religious attitudes, stating that one significant difference is that the Hebrew myths draw moral conclusions from the acts of their heroes. Similarly, William H. Ralston, Jr. compares the creation story in Genesis with other creation myths. For example, Ralston draws parallels between the story of Adam and Eve, and an older Palestinian myth; in both stories, Ralston obverses, a couple becomes alienated from one another and from God. Other commonalities have been observed as well. Peter Booth examines the relationship between the myth of Agamemnon and his sacrifice of Iphigeneia, and Abraham's near-sacrifice of his son Isaac. In addition to the study of myth as source material for Genesis, critics have also analyzed the method by which Genesis's final form was derived. Gerhard Von Rad views Genesis not as an independent book but as a part of the Hexateuch (the book of Genesis through the book of Joshua), and examines the way the Yahwist writer developed his source material. Von Rad also outlines the widely-accepted view that the source documents comprising the books Genesis to Joshua were woven together by a skillful redactor. Leslie Brisman, however, challenges the traditional view that the Yahwist and Eloist strands were “reacted to” by the author of the Priestly strand; Brisman maintains that a character identified with the Yahwist strand “reacted to” a composite of the Elohist and Priestly documents.

The plot and themes in Genesis offer numerous avenues of critical investigation. D. J. A. Clines examines the ways in which Genesis provides hints about the plot and meaning of the Bible. One such way is the series of “announcements” made by God. Clines studies how these announcements are fulfilled and what they lead the reader to believe. He maintains that often the announcements made in Genesis are not brought to fulfillment until much later in the Bible, as late as 2 Kings 25. In conclusion, Clines states that Genesis foreshadows the events to come in subsequent chapters of the Bible. Thematic studies of Genesis are another area of scholarly analysis. Edwin M. Good examines Genesis' thematic irony, which Good defines as the conjunction of several episodes which all point to an ironic theme or motif. Good identifies the thematic irony in a number of stories, including the stories of creation, Cain and Abel, the flood, Abraham, Jacob, and Joseph. The ironic theme of the first eleven chapters of Genesis, argues Good, is the perception of the incongruity between God's purpose in creating man, and man's actual nature. Like Good, D. J. A. Clines searches for the theme of Genesis 1-11. Clines offers two possible versions of the theme of this portion of Genesis: that man destroys God's creation, and despite God's forgiveness and/or punishment, sin continues; or: that no matter how severe man's sin, God's grace continues to save mankind from the consequences of sin. Another portion of the Genesis text singled out for thematic study is the story of Adam and Eve. Alan Jon Hauser contends that the theme of intimacy in Genesis 2 (God's creation of man and woman) is intertwined with the theme of alienation in Genesis 3 (man and woman's original sin against God). This dual theme, argues Hauser, integrates the narrative and is used as a literary device by the author to reveal the disruption of order that occurs in day-to-day life. While Hauser's analysis focuses on the disorder that apparently results from the sin of Adam and Eve, other critics view the end of this tale somewhat differently. Dan E. Burns studies the inconsistencies within this myth, finding that they are only problematic when viewed from a logical, rather than literary, standpoint. Burns concludes that the tale is best viewed as an awakening, rather than the fall of man. Similarly, Sam Dragga identifies several assumptions that are traditionally held about the Adam and Eve story, assumptions which yield a tragic interpretation of the myth. Dragga argues that when the connotations of these assumptions—such as the assumptions that the serpent's intentions are malicious or that God is omnipotent—are properly understood, the story may be viewed as one of man's liberation, rather than the fall of humanity.

Principal Works

Authorized King James Version with Apocrypha Bible (1998)

The Holy Bible: King James Version (1999)


Kenneth Burke (essay date 1958)

SOURCE: “On the First Three Chapters of Genesis,Daedalus, Vol. 87, Summer, 1958, pp. 37-64.

[In the following essay, Burke offers an examination of the covenants depicted in Genesis, focusing primarily on the nature of disorder, temptation, and man's “fall.”]


We want so to relate the ideas of Creation, Covenant, and Fall that they can be seen to implicate one another inextricably, along with ideas of Sacrifice and Redemption.

Creation implies authority in the sense of originator, the designer or author of the things created.

Covenant implies...

(The entire section is 11039 words.)

Edwin M. Good (essay date 1965)

SOURCE: “Genesis: The Irony of Israel,” in Irony in the Old Testament, pp. 81-114, The Westminster Press, 1965.

[In the following essay, Good maintains that “thematic irony” is developed throughout the book of Genesis.Good discusses Genesis's use of such irony, from the creation myth through the stories of Abraham, Jacob, and Joseph.]

An essay on irony in the book of Genesis should probably be of book length. Such an essay, thoroughly done, would approximate a commentary, which would necessitate attention to many subjects that must here be passed by. I cannot consider in any detail the problems of the composition of the book of...

(The entire section is 12129 words.)

Jay Y. Gonen (essay date 1971)

SOURCE: “Then Men Said, ‘Let Us Make God in Our Image, After Our Likeness’,” Literature and Psychology, Vol. XXI, No. 2, 1971, pp. 69-79.

[In the following essay, Gonen analyzes the analogous relationship between Genesis's account of man's nature, and psychoanalytic ideas regarding man's nature. Gonen concludes that the description of God in Genesisreflects man's own image of what he is and what he would like to be.]

The story of man's banishment from the Garden of Eden has fascinated many thinkers who discovered a variety of meanings in the story. For example, Erikson (1950) sees this banishment as symbolizing the first ontogenetic catastrophe...

(The entire section is 6127 words.)

Gerhard Von Rad (essay date 1972)

SOURCE: Introduction to Genesis: A Commentary, revised edition, pp. 13-43, The Westminster Press, 1972.

[In the following essay, Von Rad asserts that the book of Genesis should not be viewed as an independent work; rather, it is “significantly related” to the five Biblical books that follow it. Together, these six books—Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy—are commonly designated as the Hexateuch. Von Rad goes on to discuss the theme of the Hexateuch, and the development of the source materials into their current Biblical form.]


Genesis is not an independent...

(The entire section is 13680 words.)

William H. Ralston, Jr. (essay date 1973)

SOURCE: “That Old Serpent,” The Sewanee Review, Vol. LXXXI, No. 3, July-September, 1973, pp. 389-428.

[In the following essay, Ralston examines the composition and themes of Genesis, maintaining that the book emphasizes man's separation from God.]


The anonymous author of the primary literary document of the Old Testament, whose imagination has been determinative for the rest of Biblical literature, begins the story of his people, a narrative he was impelled to write by his experience of the person and the kingdom of David, with an account of creation. For this writer, the form of history, without which the events and circumstances...

(The entire section is 12970 words.)

Peter Booth (essay date 1974)

SOURCE: “Abraham and Agamemnon: A Comparative Study of Myth,” The Humanities Association Review, Vol. 25, No. 4, Fall, 1974, pp. 290-97.

[In the following essay, Booth analyzes the commonalities between the Greek myth of Agamemnon's sacrifice of Iphigeneia, and Abraham's near-sacrifice of Isaac in the book of Genesis.In particular, Booth studies the similarities in story patterns and aetiological features.]

The myths of Agamemnon's sacrifice of Iphigeneia and Abraham's near-sacrifice of Isaac have much in common. Out of similarities in story patterns emerge narrative unities of comparable primary characteristics suggesting variations on a single theme, a...

(The entire section is 3369 words.)

D. J. A. Clines (essay date 1976)

SOURCE: “Theme in Genesis 1-11,” The Catholic Bible Quarterly, Vol. XXXVIII, No. 4, October, 1976, pp. 483-507.

[In the following essay, Clines studies the theme of the first eleven chapters of Genesis, emphasizing that this thematic investigation focuses on these chapters as a portion of Penteteuchal text, rather than on the individual sources from which Genesis was created. Clines goes on to survey the historical setting and literary pre-history of Genesis.]


Most recent studies of theme in the Pentateuch turn out to be investigations of the theme of the individual sources of the...

(The entire section is 11581 words.)

Bernhard W. Anderson (essay date 1978)

SOURCE: “From Analysis to Synthesis: The Interpretation of Genesis 1-11,” Journal of Biblical Literature, Vol. 97, No. 1, March, 1978, pp. 23-39.

[In the following essay, Anderson argues that while scholars have often examined the source materials of Genesis,and how these materials were formulated into the final version of Genesis, a new critical approach examines Genesis as a synthesized whole. Anderson follows this approach in examining the flood story in Genesis.]

The vitality of biblical scholarship is shown by a disposition to test and challenge working hypotheses, even those that are supported by a broad consensus. Today there are...

(The entire section is 8580 words.)

Alan Jon Hauser (essay date 1982)

SOURCE: “Genesis 2-3: The Theme of Intimacy and Alienation,” Art and Meaning in Biblical Literature, Journal for the Study of the Old Testament, Supplement Series, 19, 1982, pp. 20-36.

[In the following essay, Hauser examines the literary devices and techniques by which the author of Genesisdevelops the theme of intimacy in chapter two of Genesis, and alienation in chapter three. Hauser maintains that the author uses this intimacy/alienation theme as a motif to both focus and integrate the narrative, and to emphasize the disorder and divisiveness of human life.]

The narrative in Genesis 2-3 is one of the better-known pieces of Western...

(The entire section is 7289 words.)

James S. Ackerman (essay date 1982)

SOURCE: “Joseph, Judah, and Jacob,” in Literary Interpretations of Biblical Narratives, Vol. II, edited by Kenneth R. R. Gros Louis with James S. Ackerman, pp. 85-113. Abington, 1982.

[In the following essay, Ackerman explores the use of doubling in the Joseph narrative, noting that the author employs an “unusual” amount of doubling of speech and actions. Ackerman argues that this doubling is intentional and used for emphasis.]

Scholars have long noted the unusual amount of doubling in the Joseph story: three sets of dreams occur in pairs—by Joseph, by his fellow prisoners, and by Pharaoh.1 Joseph is twice confined—in the pit and in prison. The...

(The entire section is 11754 words.)

Allen Scult, Michael Calvin McGee, and J. Kenneth Kuntz (essay date 1986)

Allen Scult, Michael Calvin McGee, and J. Kenneth Kuntz (essay date 1986)

SOURCE: “Genesis and Power: An Analysis of the Biblical Story of Creation,” The Quarterly Journal of Speech, Vol. 72, No. 2, May, 1986, pp. 113-31.

[In the following essay, the critics use two sections of Genesis, believed by many scholars to have been written by different authors, in order to examine the relationship between discourse and power. The critics maintain that the two texts complement one another and present a complete, balanced, persuasive vision of God's power.]

The relationship between truth and power has fascinated philosophers and...

(The entire section is 12170 words.)

Dan E. Burns (essay date 1987)

SOURCE: “Dream Form in Genesis 2.4b-3.24: Asleep in the Garden,” Journal for the Study of the Old Testament, No. 37, February, 1987, pp. 3-14.

[In the following essay, Burns analyzes the apparent inconsistencies in the Adam and Eve story, maintaining that such inconsistencies are only problematic when viewed from a logical, rather than literary, standpoint.]

The story of Adam and Eve as told in Gen. 2.4b-3.24 contains a number of apparent inconsistencies that challenge interpreters, and that draw the careful reader in for a closer look. The garden in Eden contains not one but two talismanic trees, the tree of knowledge and the tree of life, yet the...

(The entire section is 4843 words.)

David J. A. Clines (essay date 1990)

SOURCE: “What Happens in Genesis?” in What Does Eve Do to Help? and Other Readerly Questions to the Old Testament, Journal for the Study of the Old Testament, Supplement Series, 94, 1990, pp. 49-66.

[In the following essay, Clines examines the plot of Genesis, and argues that the book, by way of the announcements made by God in it, foretells the direction in which the narrative of later books of the Bible, extending through 2 Kings 25, will follow.]

What happens in Genesis? Genesis looks like a narrative book, with events being told in roughly chronological order and characters remaining reasonably recognizable throughout their...

(The entire section is 6583 words.)

Leslie Brisman (essay date 1990)

SOURCE: “Introduction: The Documentary Hypothesis and Family Romance,” in The Voice of Jacob: On the Composition of Genesis, pp. ix-xviii, Indiana University Press, 1990.

[In the following essay, Brisman highlights the method by which Biblical scholars study the composition of Genesis, and suggests that literary motivations, rather than sociological ones, guided the development of the source material of Genesis into its final form.]

In the King James translation, the Decalogue begins (or almost begins) with the injunction “Thou shalt have no other gods before Me.” Although the Hebrew ‘al pānaî (as opposed to lěpānaî) clearly...

(The entire section is 4774 words.)

Sam Dragga (essay date 1992)

SOURCE: “Genesis 2-3: A Story of Liberation,” Journal for the Study of the Old Testament, No. 55, September, 1992, pp. 3-13.

[In the following essay, Dragga surveys the assumptions that typically color one's understanding of the Adam and Eve story. Dragga argues that when these assumptions and their connotations are revealed and understood, the story may be viewed as one of the liberation of humans, rather than one of their fall.]

Genesis 2-3 is typically characterized as a tragic narrative of human failure and disgrace. This perspective, however, assumes that the human couple of the narrative is procreative prior to their act of disobedience, that...

(The entire section is 4012 words.)

Further Reading


Watson, Duane F. and Alan J. Hauser. Rhetorical Criticism of the Bible: A Comprehensive Bibliography with Notes on History and Method. Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1994, 206 p.

Discussion of two types of rhetorical criticism of the Bible—source and form criticism—followed by a bibliography that includes Genesis studies.


Cassuto, U. Commentary on the Book of Genesis. Part I: From Adam to Noah. Genesis I-VI 8. Jerusalem: The Magnes Press, Hebrew University, translated from the Hebrew by Israel Abrahams, 1944, 323 p.

Critical analyses of the creation story, the story of...

(The entire section is 720 words.)