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Hastings' Dictionary of the Bible


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1. Name, Contents, and Plan . The name ‘Genesis,’ as applied to the first book of the Bible, is derived from the LXX [Note: Septuagint.] , in one or two MSS of which the book is entitled Genesis kosmou (‘origin of the world’). A more appropriate designation, represented by the heading of one Greek MS, is ‘The Book of Origins’; for Genesis is pre-eminently the Book of Hebrew Origins. It is a collection of the earliest traditions of the Israelites regarding the beginnings of things, and particularly of their national history; these traditions being woven into a continuous narrative, commencing with the creation of the world and ending with the death of Joseph. The story is continued in the book of Exodus, and indeed forms the introduction to a historical work which may be said to terminate either with the conquest of Palestine (Hexateuch) or with the Babylonian captivity (2Kings). The narrative comprised in Genesis falls naturally into two main divisions (i) The history of primeval mankind (chs. 1 11), including the creation of the world, the origin of evil, the beginnings of civilization, the Flood, and the dispersion of peoples. (ii.) The history of the patriarchs (ch. 12 50), which is again divided into three sections, corresponding to the lives of Abraham ( Genesis 12:1 to Genesis 25:18 ), Isaac ( Genesis 25:19-34 ), and Jacob (37 50); although in the last two periods the story is really occupied with the fortunes of Jacob and Joseph respectively. The transition from one period to another is marked by a series of genealogies, some of which ( e.g. chs. 5, Genesis 11:10 ff.) serve a chronological purpose and bridge over intervals of time with regard to which tradition was silent, while others (chs. 10, 36, etc.) exhibit the nearer or remoter relation to Israel of the various races and peoples of mankind. These genealogies constitute a sort of framework for the history, and at the same time reveal the plan on which the book is constructed. As the different branches of the human family are successively enumerated and dismissed, and the history converges more and more on the chosen line, we are meant to trace the unfolding of the Divine purpose by which Israel was separated from all the nations of the earth to be the people of the true God.

2. Literary sources . The unity of plan which characterizes the Book of Genesis does not necessarily exclude the supposition that it is composed of separate documents; and a careful study of the structure of the book proves beyond all doubt that this is actually the case. The clue to the analysis was obtained when (in 1753) attention was directed to the significant alternation of two names for God, Jahweh and Elohim . This at once suggested a compilation from two pre-existing sources; although it is obvious that a preference for one or other Divine name might be common to many independent writers, and does not by itself establish the unity of all the passages in which it appears. It was speedily discovered, however, that this characteristic does not occur alone, but is associated with a number of other features, linguistic, literary, and religious, which were found to correspond in general with the division based on the use of the Divine names. Hence the conviction gradually gained ground that in Genesis we have to do not with an indefinite number of disconnected fragments, but with a few homogeneous compositions, each with a literary character of its own. The attempts to determine the relation of the several components to one another proved more or less abortive, until it was finally established in 1853 that the use of Elohim is a peculiarity common to two quite dissimilar groups of passages; and that one of these has much closer affinities with the sections where Jahweh is used than with the other Elohistic sections. Since then, criticism has rapidly advanced to the positions now held by the great majority of OT scholars, which may be briefly summarized as follows:

(1) Practically the whole of Genesis is resolved into three originally separate documents, each containing a complete and consecutive narrative: ( a ) the Jahwistic (J [Note: Jahwist.] ), characterized by the use of ‘Jahweh,’ commencing with the Creation ( Genesis 2:4 b ff.) and continued to the end of the book; ( b ) the Elohistic (E [Note: Elohist.] ), using ‘Elohim,’ beginning at ch. 20; ( c ) the Priestly Code (P [Note: Priestly Narrative.] ), also using ‘Elohim,’ which opens with the first account of the Creation ( Genesis 1:1 to Genesis 2:4 a). (2) In the compilation from these sources of our present Book of Genesis, two main stages are recognized: first, the fusion of J [Note: Jahwist.] and E [Note: Elohist.] into a single work (JE [Note: Jewish Encyclopedia.] ); and second, the amalgamation of the combined work JE [Note: Jewish Encyclopedia.] with P [Note: Priestly Narrative.] (an intermediate stage; the combination of JE [Note: Jewish Encyclopedia.] with the Book of Deuteronomy, is here passed over because it has no appreciable influence on the composition of Genesis). (3) The oldest documents are J [Note: Jahwist.] and E [Note: Elohist.] , which represent slightly varying recensions of a common body of patriarchal tradition, to which J [Note: Jahwist.] has prefixed traditions from the early history of mankind. Both belong to the best age of Hebrew writing, and must have been composed before the middle of the 8th cent. b.c. The composite work JE [Note: Jewish Encyclopedia.] is the basis of the Genesis narrative; to it belong all the graphic, picturesque, and racy stories which give life and charm to the book. Differences of standpoint between the two components are clearly marked; but both bear the stamp of popular literature, full of local colour and human interest, yet deeply pervaded by the religious spirit. Their view of God and His converse with men is primitive and childlike; but the bold anthropomorphic representations which abound in J [Note: Jahwist.] are strikingly absent from E [Note: Elohist.] , where the element of theological reflexion is come-what more pronounced than in J [Note: Jahwist.] . (4) The third source, P [Note: Priestly Narrative.] , reproduces the traditional scheme of history laid down in JE [Note: Jewish Encyclopedia.] ; but the writer’s unequal treatment of ‘the material at his disposal reveals a prevailing interest in the history of the sacred institutions which were to be the basis of the Sinaitic legislation. As a rule he enlarges only on those epochs of the history at which some new religious observance was introduced, viz., the Creation, when the Sabbath was instituted; the Flood, followed by the prohibition of eating the blood; and the Abrahamic Covenant, of which circumcision was the perpetual seal. For the rest, the narrative is mostly a meagre and colourless epitome, based on JE [Note: Jewish Encyclopedia.] , and scarcely intelligible apart from it. While there is evidence that P [Note: Priestly Narrative.] used other sources than JE [Note: Jewish Encyclopedia.] , it is significant that, with the exception of ch. 23, there is no single episode to which a parallel is not found in the older and fuller narrative. To P [Note: Priestly Narrative.] , however, we owe the chronological scheme, and the series of genealogies already referred to as constituting the framework of the book as a whole. The Code belongs to a comparatively late period of Hebrew literature, and is generally assigned by critics to the early post-exilic age.

3. Nature of the material . That the contents of Genesis are not historical in the technical sense, is implied in the fact that even the oldest of its written documents are far from being contemporary with the events related. They consist for the most part of traditions which for an indefinite period had circulated orally amongst the Israelites, and which (as divergences in the written records testify) had undergone modification in the course of transmission. No one denies that oral tradition may embody authentic recollection of actual occurrences; but the extent to which this is the case is uncertain, and will naturally vary in different parts of the narrative. Thus a broad distinction may be drawn between the primitive traditions of chs. 1 11 on the one hand, and those relating to the patriarchs on the other. The accounts of the Creation, the Fall, the Flood, and the Dispersion, all exhibit more or less clearly the influence of Babylonian mythology; and with regard to these the question is one not of trustworthy historical memory, but of the avenue through which certain mythical representations came to the knowledge of Israel. For the patriarchal period the conditions are different: here the tradition is ostensibly national; the presumed interval of oral transmission is perhaps not beyond the compass of the retentive Oriental memory; and it would be surprising if some real knowledge of its own antecedents had not persisted in the national recollection of Israel. These considerations may be held to justify the belief that a substratum of historic fact underlies the patriarchal narratives of Genesis; but it must be added that to distinguish that substratum from legendary accretions is hardly possible in the present state of our knowledge. The process by which the two elements came to be blended can, however, partly be explained. The patriarchs, for instance, are conceived as ancestors of tribes and nations; and it is certain that in some narratives the characteristics, the mutual relations, and even the history, of tribes are reflected in what is told as the personal biography of the ancestors. Again, the patriarchs are founders of sanctuaries; and it is natural to suppose that legends explanatory of customs observed at these sanctuaries are attached to the names of their reputed founders and go to enrich the traditional narrative. Once more, they are types of character; and in the inevitable simplification which accompanies popular narration the features of the type tended to be emphasized, and the figures of the patriarchs were gradually idealized as patterns of Hebrew piety and virtue. No greater mistake could be made than to think that these non-historical, legendary or imaginative, parts of the tradition are valueless for the ends of revelation. They are inseparably woven into that ideal background of history which bounded the horizon of ancient Israel, and was perhaps more influential in the moulding of national character than a knowledge of the naked reality would have been. The inspiration of the Biblical narrators is seen in the fashioning of the floating mass of legend and folklore and historical reminiscences into an expression of their Divinely given apprehension of religious truth, and so transforming what would otherwise have been a constant source of religious error and moral corruption as to make it a vehicle of instruction in the knowledge and fear of God. Once the principle is admitted that every genuine and worthy mode of literary expression is a suitable medium of God’s word to men, it is impossible to suppose that the mythic faculty, which plays so important a part in the thinking of all early peoples, was alone ignored in the Divine education of Israel.

J. Skinner.

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These files are public domain.
Text Courtesy of Used by Permission.

Bibliography Information
Hastings, James. Entry for 'Genesis'. Hastings' Dictionary of the Bible. 1909.

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