Structure and Genesis

As we read our way through the book of Genesis one of the key questions we ponder is, ‘What kind of literature is this?’ Our answer to this question of literary genre will determine our understanding of the book. Is it a scientific treatise, a dispassionate eye-witness account, a fairytale, a ‘dreaming’ narrative,… the options are endless. Further, we also need to ask, ‘What is the purpose of Genesis?’ When we know why it was written, and for whom, then we also have a firm foundation for making the important step into our place and time, into our lives and basic self-understanding.

The best answers are going to be found in the book itself. Instead of beginning with our own prejudices and ‘hobby horses’, we want to allow the book itself to reveal the answers to these questions.

An important feature of Genesis seems to be its in-built structure. It is a highly patterned document with repeated devices, narrative motifs, bookends and inter-textualities. For example, in the creation account of Genesis 1 we saw the numeric patterns (3+3+1) and the repetition of phrases such as, ‘And God said…,’ ‘and it was so…,’ and, ‘evening and morning, the X day.’

Genesis 2:4 introduces the first structural marker that appears throughout the whole book, ordering all the narratives that follow the initial creation account. Genesis 2:4 begins: “This is the account of…” The underlying word, Toledot, means ‘generations’— which is best understood as “this is what became of” (Woudstra, CTJ 5). It is this ‘generations of’ marker that provides a structuring device for all of Genesis. It is used in Gen 2:4; 6:9; 10:1; 11:10; 11:27; 25:12; 25:19; 36:1; 36:9; 37:2, each introducing a new narrative thread and closing off that which came before. In this way Toledot gives us a heading to each new unit. It tells us what is important and which information belongs together.

This careful structuring shows us that the whole of Genesis hangs together as a unit. It has been organised with a particular purpose. While there are very clear signs that multiple sources have been brought together in the one book, there is someone who has acted as editor and organiser. They have collected together the accounts of Adam, Noah, Abraham, Joseph etc and assembled them in a single place for a certain audience.

Traditionally, Moses is identified as this Editor. He is the one who is said to have gathered the oral traditions of his people. Why? Because his people need to know who they are. Their origins are not found among the Egyptians. Their God is not like the pantheon of the Egyptians or the Babylonians or the Mesopotamians. The people whom Moses led out of Egypt and into God’s promised land have their identity formed in the family lineage of Genesis. It is history told with a purpose. The wilderness generation and their descendants are uniquely called by God to be his people, living his way, in his land.

And so as Christian people reading Genesis in the 21st century, we find some very important parts of our identity in the same scriptures. We understand ourselves, our world, and God through this narrative. He reveals his purposes, his character and his ways to us within the story of the family which became the nation of Israel. Despite our many significant differences, we are also bound into the world of Genesis.