The Structure of Genesis (The Covenant & the Cross #23)

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Today’s passage of Scripture is John 6:63 which reads: “It is the spirit that quickeneth; the flesh profiteth nothing: the words that I speak unto you, they are spirit, and they are life.”

Today’s quote about the Bible is from John Quincy Adams. He said: “So great is my veneration for the Bible that the earlier my children begin to read it the more confident will be my hope that they will prove useful citizens of their country and respectable members of society. I have for many years made it a practice to read through the Bible once every year.”

Our topic for today is titled: “The Structure of Genesis” from the book, “The Promise and the Blessing” by Dr. Michael A. Harbin.

It would seem that when God gave the Israelites their first canon on Mount Sinai, it was designed to answer several questions. One of the key concerns in their minds probably was, What does God now expect from us? God’s answer is evidenced by various lifestyle issues set forth in what we call the “Law.” But there must have been other questions. Two that readily come to mind are, Why us? and Why is God doing this? Both of these are answered in the book of Genesis. But before they are addressed, a prior issue is dealt with — one of the key questions about life: Where did it all begin? As we will see, this topic is foundational to all others.

The Bible begins with a basic answer to that question, although it does not give us anywhere near the detail we would like, and even the information we have is debatable. Rather, it records just enough data to demonstrate two key points: (1) the universe in which we live was entirely created by God, and (2) the world in which we live is not the way God created it. To understand these ideas, we need to appreciate how Genesis is organized

From a literary perspective, Genesis is a well-structured book. The author uses a stylistic marker to break the book into sections. This structural indicator, which clarifies the author’s intentions, is the Hebrew word “toledot,” often translated “generations.” For example, if we look up Genesis 5:1 in most English translations, we find a phrase like “Now these are the generations of Adam”; a list of some of Adam’s descendants (a genealogy) follows.

However, the word must mean more than a list of descendants. For example, in the “toledot” of Noah in Genesis 6:9, we find not a genealogy, but an account of the Flood. Likewise, in Genesis 2:4, a reference to the “toledot” of heaven and earth is followed by a recap of Creation. Here, modern translations read something like “This is the account of the heavens and the earth…” Therefore, a better translation of the phrase “these are the toledot of…” might be “this is what became of…”

The term “toledot” appears 10 times in Genesis. It normally seems to serve as a marker introducing each section. The key exception is the opening for the creation account. Given the overall pattern and the subject matter if each section, the opening account would then be an introduction to the whole book. This understanding will prove important when we look at the relationship between the first two chapters, a key factor leading to the modern liberal interpretation of the Bible.

In terms of the overall structure of the book, we might also group these various “toledot” segments together into three major sections based on their general focus. The first major section, Genesis 1:1-11:26, sets the stage by explaining where life, the universe, and everything came from. It also explains how the perfect world God created became the mess we struggle with today. The second major section, Genesis 11:27-37:1, tells of God selecting from humankind a single man who was to be an instrument of God. The author’s purpose seems to be to show how God began to fix the mess the world is in. The process begins by establishing a line of individuals who had a special relationship with God. The final segment, Genesis 37:2-50:26, shows the purpose of that relationship as it began to transform an individual into a nation that was to mediate between God and humanity. In other words, these three sections answer the three questions we noted earlier.

The first question is, Where (or How) did it all begin? As we look at the issues involved in how we got the world in which we live, Genesis 1-11 focuses on three lessons: Where did the world come from? Why is the world in such a mess? and What happens when you ignore God? This section of Genesis only gives broad answers to all three questions, leaving many more questions in our minds. Still, there is enough information to point us in the right direction as long as we keep the issues in perspective.

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