3 Things You Should Know about Genesis
Most modern readers do not view Genesis as a carefully composed work of literature. We have become accustomed to reading it piecemeal. The public and private reading habits of Christians mitigate against the idea that Genesis should be understood as a single, coherent book. As a result, important aspects are missed. Let me mention three significant features of Genesis that need to be observed.
1. Genesis was composed to trace the history of a unique family line.
First, Genesis was composed to trace the history of a unique family line that highlights one male member in each generation (a “patriline”). The Greek term genesis means “genealogy.” This patriline begins with Adam and runs via his third son, Seth, to Noah (see Gen. 5:1–32). From Noah, the patriline is traced via Shem to Abraham (Gen. 11:10–26). Thereafter, the pace of the story slows, but interest in the unique family line continues. The childlessness of Sarah is a major barrier to its continuation, but God enables Sarah to have a son, Isaac. Beyond Isaac, the patriline is traced to Jacob (later renamed Israel), the younger twin brother of Esau. Esau should have been next in the patriline, but he despises his birthright and sells it to his younger brother, Jacob—who desires to be part of the patriline—for a bowl of stew (Gen. 25:29–34). Beyond Jacob, the patriline is associated with Joseph (see 1 Chron. 5:1–2) and his younger son, Ephraim, whom Jacob places ahead of his older brother, Manasseh (Gen. 48:13–20). Interestingly, Genesis often gives clues as to why firstborn sons are passed over in the patriline (e.g., Ruben’s inappropriate liaison with Bilhah; see Gen. 35:22).
While Joseph enjoys priority over his older brothers, Genesis introduces an important twist in the history of the patriline. In Genesis 38, a passage that is often dismissed as interrupting the story of Joseph’s life, attention is drawn to Judah. Read with an eye to the patriline, Genesis 38 is about tracing the line of Judah, which appears in danger when his eldest sons are struck dead by God. Tamar’s unusual intervention brings about a radical transformation in Judah’s life and results in the birth of twins. At this birth, once more the principle of primogeniture (the eldest son’s right of inheritance) is reversed as Perez breaks out in front of Zerah. Later, Jacob will pronounce a blessing on Judah that suggests kingship will be associated with his descendants (Gen. 49:8–12). This blessing is seen centuries later in the time of Samuel (see Ps. 78:67–72).