{1}         Genesis 12—50: Introduction

The Book

Genesis is the first of the 5 books of the Laws (Torah) of the Jews called the Pentateuch. The word “Pentateuch” comes from Greek meaning fivefold volume (Gr. pente teuchos). The title “Genesis” comes from Latin Vulgate (Liber Genesis) which was borrowed from the Greek Septuagint (abbreviation: LXX). It translates the key word in Genesis (Heb. toledot) into a Greek word geneseos (a form of genesis, meaning source, birth, generation, probably taken from Gen 2:4a). The best English for it is “origin”.

It is a book concerned with origins—the origin

·         of Earth’s creation,

·         of mankind,

·         of institutions by which civilization is perpetuated, including marriage,

·         of sin and salvation,

·         of one special family chosen by God and designated as the medium of world blessing.

The book is important as it constitutes the foundation for the whole revelation of God.



The book is clearly demarcated into 11 sections by the presence of the formula elleh toledot, literally “begettings”, used 10 times in Genesis. The phrase can be translated either as “this is the story (or history) of X” or “these are the descendants (or generations) of X”. It occurs at 2:4 for the heavens and the earth [NIV: “This is the account of the heavens and the earth”]; 5:1 Adam; 6:9 Noah; 10:1 sons of Noah; 11:10 Shem; 11:27 Terah; 25:12 Ishmael; 25:19 Isaac; 36:1 Esau; 37:2 Jacob. [The phrase is also used in 36:9 for Esau but is probably a duplication of 36:1.]

The clearest division of Genesis is between ch.111 and ch.1250. The first 11 chapters were about primeval history; the last 39 chapters about patriarchal history. The first part describes an increasing alienation from God; the second part describes the solution to this alienation through the obedience of Abraham and his descendants. Chapters 12 to 36 include the stories of the 3 patriarchs of the nation of Israel: Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Chapters 37 to 50 tell the stories of Jacob’s sons, with Joseph as the main character.



“Canon” means a group of authoritative documents accepted by a religious community as divinely inspired; their function is to shape their faith, practice, and doctrine. No Christian or Jewish source ever raised questions over the legitimacy of Genesis’ presence in the biblical canon.


Author and Date

Until the 18th century, hardly anyone questioned the unity of Genesis, whether rabbinical scholars of Judaism or ecclesiastical scholars of Christendom. For all of them, Genesis was a unified work of Moses written in the 15th century BC (around 1450–1410 BC). It was probably written slightly before or after the Israeli Exodus from Egypt (dated about 1446 BC). This approach to the authorship of Genesis is now labelled as the “traditional” or the “precritical” approach, with a slightly negative connotation.

Starting from the mid-18th century, the situation was gradually but completely turned around. The academic world totally adopted the new “critical” approach which holds that Genesis is [a] not a unified work and also [b] not written by Moses. By the end of the 19th century, this position dominated the academic world so much that anyone holding the traditional view was labelled pejoratively “fundamentalist”. However, it should be noted that the traditional view has always been upheld in conservative evangelical churches. Moreover, recent academic research since the 1960s has found evidences that contradict the critical approach and support the traditional approach.

Today, after intense discussion in the last 200 years, the definitive answer to the authorship of Genesis remains unknown. It is likely that the argument will never be resolved. Despite all these academic arguments, it is important to point out that the authorship of Moses is supported by the rest of the Bible, including Jesus Himself. This does not preclude the use of different earlier documents by Moses in his composition of Genesis. Nevertheless, Moses was under the guidance of God and would not have included any erroneous information from those documents.


Answering Suspected Anachronisms

Some point to anachronisms that lead to the conclusion of late authorship. These include:

[1] Reference to Philistines (Gen 21:32,34; 26:1,8,1418): The word does not occur until the 12th century BC in Egyptian sources. Yet, the Philistines were later referred to by 5 Philistine cities and the rulers of them were referred to as tyrant (Jos 13:3; 1Sa 7:16–18). However, in Genesis, they were not identified as constituting a pentapolis, nor is Abimelech referred to as tyrant. Scholars believe that the term was actually a “blanket term for non-Canaanite Aegean people”.

[2] Presence of camels: The domestication of camels was said to have occurred at the end of the second millenium BC. It is known the patriarchs bred small cattle, sheep, goats, and donkeys. It is not at all certain that the domesticated camels was unknown in that period. Also, if the book was composed later than believed, then we would expect the a much greater frequency of mentioning the horse (Gen 47:17; 49:17; 50:9), not the camel. Probably, camels were rare because they were associated with those with wealth and the prestige.

[3] Aramean origin of the patriarchs: The widespread influence of the Aramean culture was only felt during the early first millenium BC. Yet, Aram was descended from Shem (Gen 10:22) and Nahor, Abraham’s brother was father of Arameans and Chaldeans (Gen 22:20–24). This same Aramean origin was again claimed later (Dt 26:5). The Arameans were possibly the descendants of the Amorites who lived in this region in the second millenium BC. During the first millenium BC, the Arameans and Israelites experienced centuries of hostilities. The tendency was against an association with the Arameans. Therefore, the attribution of their heritage to Arameans must be an authentic record.

[4] The rule of Joseph: Some argued that a foreigner like Joseph was unlikely to be the ruler of Egypt. Chronological reconstruction puts Abraham’s birth at 2166 BC and Joseph’s lifespan (1916–1806 BC) in Egypt’s Twelfth Dynasty (1963–1786 BC). Some believe that Joseph, a Semite, could gain acceptance among the aristocracy because Lower Egypt was ruled by Hyksos (a Greek rendering of the Egyptian word for “rulers of foreign lands”) for 100 years (1648–1540). However, many features of the story can be better explained in the early Egyptian setting: the personal names are Egyptian, not Hyksos; Joseph shaved himself before facing Pharaoh, an Egyptian custom (Gen 41:14); the Egyptian prejudice against Semites (Gen 43:32; 46:34); and the Egyptian embalming process (Gen 50:2–3). In reality, Semites were present in significant numbers at all periods in Egypt and it was not impossible for a Semite to hold great power.

[The dedication of Solomon’s temple is dated at 966 BC. 1Ki 6:1 describes a period of 480 years between exodus and the construction of the temple, thus the exodus is dated 1446 BC. The birth of Abraham is dated 2166 BC and his departure for Canaan is thus 2091 BC. Jacob’s migration to Egypt is dated at 1876 BC.]


Documentary Hypothesis: Attack on Genesis

In late 17th century, attack on the “internal inconsistency” of Genesis began. Some critics believed that Moses was not the “author” of Genesis but only a “redactor” (editor), who put Genesis together by copying verbatim from other documents. The reason was because of the distribution of different names for God scattered through Genesis, sometimes “Yahweh” and sometimes “Elohim”.

In the 19th century, some academics invented a hypothesis for multiple sources in Genesis (and the Pentateuch) called the documentary hypothesis (also called JEDP hypothesis), proposed by Julius Wellhausen (1878).

The hypothesis identifies 4 major literary strands behind the Pentateuch: [a] Yahwist (J source, use “Yahweh” for the name of God; “Yahweh” begins with the letter “J” in German) written in Judah during the reign of Solomon around 950 BC; [b] Elohist (E source, use “Elohim” for the name of God) written in northern Israel after Solomon’s reign around 850 BC; [c] Deuteronomy (D source) written in northern Israel around 620 BC, confined to the writing of Deuteronomy; [d] Priestly Writer (P source) written after the Babylonian exile around 550–450 BC.

The document analysts cut up the book of Genesis into about 170 small segments based on the 3 hypothetical documents. Since they believed that the documents were written a long period after the occurrence of the recorded events, they argued that the information presented in Genesis could not be authentic. Thus the documentary hypothesis led to direct attacks on the accuracy of the Bible.

Wellhausen’s work was followed by many academics in the 20th century. However, since the 1960s, the documentary hypothesis has been opposed by many scholars; many now believe that the documentary hypothesis is untenable and should be discarded.

In addition, many scholars have produced concrete linguistic and archaeological evidence to support the authorship of Moses. They satisfactorily answered the two main attacks on Genesis: unity and authorship. Today, the traditional view has gained much ground and Mosaic authorship is again dominant in orthodox churches.


Theme and Motifs of Chapters 12-50

The theme is an overarching idea that holds the stories together. The theme of Part 2 of Genesis is the promise. This promise has 3 elements: land, descendants (or seed), and blessing (relationship with others) (Gen 12:1-3). It has 3 characteristics:

·         Promises were repeated for Abraham (Gen 12:7; 13:15–17; 15:7–21; 17:4–8; 22:16–18), Isaac (Gen 26:2–4), and Jacob (Gen 28:13–14; 35:9–12; 46:1–4).

·         The present occupants of the land would be removed because of their sin (Gen 15:16). The patriarchs’ descendants will receive the land (Gen 12:6–7; 13:15,17; 15:7,18–21; 17:8; 24:7; 26:3–4; 28:13; 35:12; 48:4).

·         The promise has international significance as the blessing is intended for all humanity. The patriarchs’ testimony was that God blessed them and those favourably related to them (Gen 21:22–24; 24:31,50; 26:26–29; 30:27; 41:39).

Motifs are the recurring keywords or ideas that appear throughout the book. They include:

[1] Sibling rivalry:

·         Abraham vs. Lot, son of Haran

·         Jacob vs. Laban, grandson of Nahor

·         Isaac vs. Ishmael

·         Jacob vs. Esau

·         Joseph vs. brothers

[2] Deception:

·         Abraham and Isaac lied about their wives

·         Rebekah helped Jacob to trick Isaac

·         Jacob tricked Esau but was in turn tricked by Laban

·         Jacob was deceived by his sons about Joseph (37:31–36)

·         Simeon and Levi murdered the Shechemites through deceit (after requiring them to circumcise) (34:13,30)

·         Simeon and his brothers were deceived (42:24)

·         Rachel deceived her brother Laban by stealing and hiding his “household gods” (31:19,34–35)

·         Tamar disguised as a harlot (38:13–15)

·         Joseph deceived his brothers before reunion

[3] Alienation/Separation: Abraham (from Lot), Jacob and Joseph all involved the separation from the father’s household. The motify becomes increasingly important to each successive story. Separation is followed by reconciliation. Abraham to Terah’s household with Isaac’s marriage to Rebekah, granddaughter of Nahor. Jacob was reconciled by marrying the daughters of his uncle Laban.

In addition, Abraham identied himself as “an alien and a stranger” in the land of Canaan (Gen 23:4, Heb 11:13)— meaning a foreigner who took up residence mostly for a temporary time. Isaac and Jacob (and Esau) also were described as aliens sojourning in Canaan (Gen 28:4; 35:27; 37:1; 36:7). Christians, too, also view themselves as alien population in this world (1Pe 2:11).


Biblical Chiasmus

Some Bible passages in the OT are constructed in the form of chiasmus. It is a literary device commonly used in rhetoric to give balance and strength to the argument. In a chiasmus, many passages with a common theme are intentionally arranged or constructed in an inverted parallel structure. For example, 6 passages may be arranged in a structure of A—B—C—C’—B’—A’, where A and A’ have similar themes, etc.

Biblical scholars have detected this kind of parallelism throughout the book of Genesis. Sometimes, one chiasmus includes many chapters of the Bible. Sometimes, it includes only a short passage of a few verses. Since these structures are of interest mainly to scholars, only 3 chiasmuses (on the lives of Abraham, Jacob, and Joseph) will be presented here.



·         God’s promises are intended for everyone in the world but only those who accept the free gift of God (salvation and eternal life) can receive all those promises.

·         Deception is a main motif of the book. The lesson is that despite these self-indulgent deceptions, God’s goal of blessing proceeded. The deceivers received the same treatment, often more severely. The pattern of “the deceiver being deceived” and the resulted pain warned against the sin of self-interest.

·         In past centuries, many academics and critics have tried to discredit the Bible. Many have even predicted the loss of credibility of the Bible. But as of today, there is still no definitive proof that any part of the Bible is erroneous. Millions today still have full trust of the Bible as the Word of God.