"In the beginning of creation, when God made heaven and earth, the earth was without form and void, with darkness over the face of the abyss, and a mighty wind that swept over the suface of the waters. God said, "Let there be light," and there was light; and God saw that the light was good, and he separated light from darkness. He called the light day, and the darkness night. So evening came, and morning came, the first day."
—The New English Bible, The Old Testament (Oxford and Cambridge University Presses, 1970), p. 1.
Genesis is the first book of the Torah, which is in turn the first portion of the Jewish sacred texts known collectively as the Tanakh. Genesis has also been incorporated into the Old Testament of the Christian Bible. It tells of the origins of the universe and the earth and its plant and animal inhabitants. Genesis also carries the story of the ancient Hebrew people up to the time of Joseph. It is a central creation story for the religious traditions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. This section focuses on the account of creation offered in the first few chapters of Genesis.
The Text's History
According to modern scholarly analysts of the texts that comprise the Tanakh and the Bible, the oldest complete manuscripts of the Torah are roughly one thousand years old. Fragmentary Hebrew manuscripts, including some of the Dead Sea scrolls, are older, dating back to about the third century B.C.E. Translations of the Torah are numerous, and students may wish to explore several versions of the text. Some of these translations have historical significance in their own right, including Martin Luther's German Bible and the King James version of the Bible. These two translations gained a central place in the traditions of German and English literature, respectively, as models of expressive prose. But translations of religious texts have sometimes generated powerful and even deadly controversies as well as lasting literary achievements. The author of the first English translation of the Bible, William Tyndale, first had his translations cast into the flames as "untrue," and then he himself suffered brutal public execution in 1536. More recent translation controversies have not led to such violence, but the debates that translations inspire reflect the central place of religious texts in modern as well as ancient cultures.
Questions to Consider
- What is the language of the oldest manuscripts of Genesis? What series of translations has an English version of Genesis often undergone? Should these facts about translation influence our reading of the Genesis text, and if so, why and how?
- Does it matter if the individuals described in Genesis, such as Adam and Eve or Cain and Abel existed as historical people? Why or why not? In what ways do our answers to such questions express our relationship to this text and define the limits of our historical inquiry?
- What is the range of current scholarly opinion regarding the age of the texts that make up the Tanakh and the Bible? How could we find out more about the issue of ascertaining the dates of ancient texts? How or why might information about the age of textual artifacts influence our understanding of Genesis? Would such information necessarily have an impact on our reading of Genesis? Why or why not?
Translations of the Tanakh and the Bible are readily available and far too numerous to list here. Students may wish to perform a close reading of two different versions of Genesis. This comparative analysis may be especially useful to students who can read the Genesis text in more than one language. The passage from Genesis quoted above is from The New English Bible: The Old Testament. Oxford and Cambridge: Oxford and Cambridge University Presses, 1970.
An online text of the Genesis story as translated in the Revised Standard Version of the Bible can be found at:
The King James version of the Bible, searchable by book, is found at this site maintained at the University of Michigan:
For students who read German, Martin Luther's translation of the Bible is also avaiilable at the University of Michigan site:
The Library of the University of Chicago maintains a web page with information on a variety of religious texts, including the Bible, the Koran, and the Book of Mormon:
Paul Halsall's Internet Jewish History Sourcebook presents a great variety of historical and textual source materials:
The Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago maintains a site with a great range of textual and pictorial materials:
The Library of Congress web site offers information on and images of the Dead Sea Scrolls:
Questions about the Text
These questions are of an introductory nature, and may be used as the basis for classroom discussions, papers, or both.
- According to Genesis, what happens on each of the days of creation?
- What is the sequence of creation, according to Genesis? What might this sequence tell us about the culture that generated this account of creation?
- For what transgressions are Adam and Eve cast out of the Garden of Eden?
- What curses are laid against humans as a consequence of their disobedience?
- What might Eve's role in these events tell us about the perception of women in the culture that produced this story? Are there other discussions of women in the early chapters of Genesis? Describe and explain these discussions.
- What explanations of the relationship between God and humans emerge in the first nine chapters of Genesis?
- What is God's command to Noah? How does Noah respond?
- How does God punish humans for their corruption at the time of Noah?
- Compare the account of the flood in Gilgamesh with the account in Genesis. How are they similar? How do they differ?
- For what reasons do some scholars claim that chapter ten of Genesis bears the traces of an oral tradition?
Questions about the Text as Evidence of Past Civilizations
- What can the book of Genesis teach us in a general way about the cultures of people living in ancient Mesopotamia or Egypt? What other kinds of sources might we investigate in order to learn more about the civilizations of these regions?
- How have scholars attempted to explain the similarities between the Genesis stories and stories from other Mesopotamian civilizations? In what ways does the dating of textual artifacts affect these discussions?
- What are some of the limitations of the Genesis account as historical evidence?
- When was the book of Genesis first translated into English? By whom? Which versions of Genesis have become standard for different groups of Jews, Christians, and Muslims? For scholars?
- When and where did Genesis begin to appear as a primary source text in courses on Ancient History? What might this fact teach us about the history of learning about the ancient past in modern times?
- What other question(s) about the story would you like to ask or answer?