Study Guide

Book of Genesis

Book of Genesis Introduction

Picture this. You're about to meet your favorite person on the planet for dinner. We're talking Oprah. Ellen. The Old Spice guy. Shmoop. Take your pick.

After sweating over what to wear, you settle on… yesterday's dirty gym shorts? No. You put on that killer outfit you paid way too much for and have been saving in the back of your closet because you never go anywhere cool enough to wear it. After all, first impressions count.

The point? Genesis is the Bible's killer outfit.

The first line of any great work of literature always counts more than the others. Take these zingers: 

  • "Call me Ishmael" (Moby-Dick).
  • "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times" (A Tale of Two Cities)
  • "It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife." (Pride and Prejudice)
  • "It was a pleasure to burn." (Fahrenheit 451)
  • "A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…" (Star Wars). (Yes, we know that's not literature. Too bad.)

Beginnings aren't only for literature, either. Humans can tend toward obsession when it comes to the origin of things. Think of the notorious chicken and egg conundrum. Then there's the dreaded question, "Where did I come from, Mommy?" Ideas about how it all began ping-pong around scientific and philosophical circles as well as our own conversations.

This isn't a modern thing, either. Ancient people were reaching for epic explanations back when caves were art galleries and iron was the new black. Genesis, just like the Epic of Gilgamesh and Enuma Elish, is another Ancient Near Eastern story of how it all began.

And boy is it full of firsts: first critters, first people, first culture, first murder. Oh, and God's first redo—of creation, that is. And its first line? No surprise there: "In the beginning..." (NRSV). Work it, Genesis.

What is Book of Genesis About and Why Should I Care?

Politics and religion: the two things you're not supposed to talk about at dinner parties. Well, Shmoopers, next time you you're invited for hors d'oeuvres, you might want to leave your Genesis at home.

But wait a second. The reason that Genesis doesn't make for polite table-talk is the very reason you should care: it's religiously and politically explosive. In fact, it's downright nuclear.

Think about the violent tensions between Israel and Palestine. Genesis is where you'll find God's first promises to Abraham that the land of Canaan will belong to his descendants, a.k.a. the Jewish people (12:1-9; 13:14-17; 17:8).

And how about those debates over whether evolution or creationism should be taught in the public schools? Well, in Genesis, you can read all about God's creation of the world. Or actually, his two creations of the world, if you really take the time to read it (1:1-2:4; 2:4-25).

This is only the tip of the iceberg. Whatever opinion you may have on topics like these, one thing's for sure. You better be able to back it up with some Genesis.

The good news is that we at Shmoop are throwing the first ever BYOG (Bring Your Own Genesis) dinner party. And you're invited.

Book of Genesis Resources

WEBSITES

iTanakh
Want to dig deep? iTanakh contains academic articles on nearly every passage in Genesis. If you're curious about a certain passage—or even a turn of phrase—click on over.

Conversations on Faith
Your one-stop shop for information and conversations about different religions.

The Brick Testament
Genesis in Legos? Yes, please. They don't shy away from the gritty stories—they just Legofy them.

MOVIE OR TV PRODUCTIONS

Year One
The stars of this comedy, Zed and Oh, aren't around in Genesis, but they stumble through selected biblical-ish stories. Along the way, they encounter events featured in the stories of Cain and Abel, Abraham and Isaac, and Sodom and Gomorrah. Hilarity ensues.

Evan Almighty
In this retelling of the story of Noah and the Ark, Noah is pretty comical—and kind of angsty, too.

Fallen
In this 1998 theo-dramatic crime drama, the bad guys are "fallen" angels inhabiting bodies on earth. Body Snatchers, anyone? The movie picks up on the reference in Genesis 6:4 to the "fallen ones" (KJV) or "Nephilim" (NRSV).

Adam's Rib
Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn star in this aptly named courtroom drama.

Loving Leah
A modern-day story about the practice of levirate marriage set in the United States. Think back to Genesis 38, when we learn that a brother is supposed to marry his deceased brother's wife and raise an heir on his brother's behalf.

HISTORICAL DOCUMENTS

The Epic of Gilgamesh
The stories of Genesis don't emerge from a vacuum. Other writings from the Ancient Near East have a lot in common with it. Check out this nearly 4,000-year-old story for one example.

Enuma Elish
Like Genesis, this ancient text is a literary product of the Ancient Near East and is complete with an alternative and highly polytheistic creation account. Read! Compare! Discuss!

VIDEO

Noah's Ark as told by BBC
The BBC juxtaposes a literalist reading of the flood story with contemporary science. Fancy.

Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat
Donny Osmond plays Genesis's own Joseph in this clip from the movie version of Andrew Lloyd Weber's musical stage-play.

AUDIO

Joan Baez
In her song, "Isaac and Abraham," Baez reexamines Abraham's near-sacrifice of his son Isaac. What's her take?

Bob Dylan
In this hit, Dylan puts a folksy spin on the passage when Adam names all the animals of creation.

The Grateful Dead
"My Brother Esau" interprets the tension and reconciliation between the biblical brothers in Genesis. Yeah, that was a messy one.

Spinal Tap
The title of the song, "Rock and Roll Creation," says it all.

IMAGES

Printed Genesis
The Gutenberg Bible is the first Bible constructed using a printing press. That means that this picture shows the first ever printed page of the book of Genesis. Fancy.

Mapping Genesis
Googlemaps might fail you, but this one should take care of all your Genesis geography needs.