Study Guide

Book of Genesis Analysis

  • Genre

    Classic Biblical Narrative

    We know, we know. It's a narrative and it's in the Bible, so obviously it's a biblical narrative. But one thing's for sure: the people behind these narratives know how to tell a good story. They value the art and pleasure of characterization, plot, suspense, irony, foreshadowing, humor, and even good ol' puns. Hey, just like Shmoop.

    Here are a few key tips for interpreting biblical storytelling:

    Tip #1: The narrator and the deity are reliable and generally well-informed. That means we can trust what they say (as far as the story is concerned—anything else is your call).

    Tip #2: Repetitions matter. And there are lots of 'em in Genesis. Wells, anyone? VIP hint for how to read them: pay attention to the differences. They're there for a reason, usually as a way of characterizing people and their actions. Remember when Jacob amends God's promises of land and protection in 28:13-15 to include "food and clothes" (28:20-22)? That's so Jacob.

    Tip #3: Biblical prose is famously tight-lipped. These storytellers don't give us much to work with, so what they do say is there for a reason. Example: what better way to awaken pathos in the story of Abraham's binding of Isaac than by constantly reminding readers that Isaac is Abraham's son, his only son (check out chapter 22)?

    Feeling the itch to scratch below the surface? You pioneering Shmoopers can check out some very accessible treatments of Biblical storytelling by Robert Altar and Yairah Amit.

  • What's Up With the Title?

    Remember that old classic Call Me Ishmael? Or how about one of our favorites, It Was the Best of Times, It Was the Worst of Times? No? Oh, right, that's because those books are called Moby-Dick and A Tale of Two Cities

    Genesis, on the other hand, takes its name from its very first line. In Hebrew, the title of this text is Bereshit, which translates to "In the beginning."

    That's all well and good (and very sensible, actually), but where does the English title come from? The short answer: "Genesis" is the English transliteration of the Greek title for the book.

    But we know we've got a group of overachieving Shmoopers on our hands, so we'll give you the long answer, too. Ready?

    Step 1: Alexander the Great spreads Greek language and culture through his various conquests (after 323 BCE).
    Step 2: Hebrew- and Aramaic-speaking Jews start speaking and writing Greek, and they translate their sacred stories into the Greek language.
    Step 3: The Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible is called the Septuagint (usually abbreviated: LXX), which was translated over a long period during the 300s and 200s BCE.
    Step 4: The title in the Septuagint for Bereshit was Genesis, meaning "origin."
    Step 5: Voilà!

  • What's Up With the Ending?

    It's simple, really. The end of Genesis is leading up to a sequel.

    Here were are, left in Egypt, with all of God's big promises to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob totally deferred and unfulfilled. Yet Joseph says to his offspring, "God will surely take care of you," and then makes his final request: "you shall carry my bones up from here" (50:25). It's pretty clear that there's more to come, and so we're thrust forth straight into the book of Exodus, where God (finally) leads the people out of Egypt.

    Spoiler alert: even in Exodus, they still don't make it to the promised land. Looks like this might be more than your regular trilogy.

  • Setting

    The Ancient Near East

    We follow the first family all over the place in Genesis, but everything goes down in what we call the Ancient Near East or Ancient Mesopotamia. And we're talking ancient—these stories take place probably around the 1800s BCE. Nowadays—millennia later—this area encompasses Egypt, Israel, Palestine, Lebanon, Syria, Iran, and Iraq.

    And as it turns out, Genesis explains the origins of a bunch of different places: Shechem (12:6); Jerusalem (here called Salem) (14:18-19); Beer-lahai-roi (16:14); the wilderness around the Dead Sea (19:24-28); and Bethel (28:19; 35:3). The fancy word for this is etiology, and Genesis is full of it.

    The geographic center of the story is of course Canaan. The promised land.

    One way to think about Genesis-geography is to trace the protagonists who enter and exit the land. Why? Well, they're supposed to possess it (God shoves that one down our throats), but they're all basically immigrants. Abraham and Isaac are forced to go elsewhere when famine strikes (12:10; 26:1), and Jacob flees from Esau to the east of Canaan and then moves to Egypt to escape—you guessed it—another terrible famine.

    In Jacob's case, significant divine epiphanies mark his exits and re-entries (check 'em out: 28:10-22; 32:23-33; 46:1-7). The setting dramatizes the tension between divine promise and human reality. And despite all the big promises, the patriarchs remain immigrants, exiles, or refugees until the very end.

  • The Garden of Eden

    Imagine living in a place where everything's perfect. There are fruit trees (2:9), cool breezes (3:8), and rivers (3:10-15). People walk around naked without shame (2:25), and God just hangs out, speaks directly to mortals, and enjoys evening strolls through the garden (3:8-9). Just imagine…

    YOU CAN'T GO THERE.

    Sorry to be so forceful, but that's kind of the point. After Adam and Eve ate the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (3:22-24), mortals were forever banished from Eden.

    And you know what? Eden is used as a symbol in literature and art not only to represent paradise but also—and maybe more often—a symbol of paradise lost, of the all-elusive nature of happiness and peace, and of the end of innocence.

    Writing Eden

    Upon their exit from Eden mortals have to deal. Their lives are like ours. They die (3:19), endlessly toil (3:17-18), feel shame (3:10), are aware of their nudity (3:7), and endure the pain of childbirth (3:16). Soon Cain will introduce violence into the world when he slays his brother Abel, and with this comes an overdose of jealousy and sibling rivalry (4:1-15). And eventually Cain will settle "away from the presence of the Lord" (4:16).

    Poets just love this kind of stuff, and Eden ranks high in their toolbox of images. Everyone from Robert Frost to Emily Dickinson to Ina Rousseau has taken their turn to remind us that we can never go back.

    Speaking of depressing, how about John Steinbeck's East of Eden? Its title is taken from Genesis 4:16, and it's chock full of Genesis-esque themes, especially sibling rivalry.

    Genesis Owns Eden

    Eden is such a powerful symbol that the authors of Genesis capitalize on it right after they've presented the image. Remember Lot? When Abraham tells him to take first pick at the land he wants, Lot does some recon:

    Lot looked about him, and saw that the plain of the Jordan was well watered everywhere like the garden of the Lord, like the land of Egypt, in the direction of Zoar […]. So Lot chose for himself all the plain of the Jordan, and Lot journeyed eastwards; thus they separated from each other. Abram settled in the land of Canaan, while Lot settled among the cities of the Plain and moved his tent as far as Sodom. Now the people of Sodom were wicked, great sinners against the Lord. (13:10-13)

    "[T]he plain of the Jordan" is "like the garden of the Lord," eh? Red flag, Lot! Red flag!

    We've already been told that it's impossible to go back to Eden, so it's no surprise that Lot ends up in Sodom. And as we know, Sodom ain't no Eden.

    Return to Eden

    The Christian Bible begins with the image Eden in Genesis, but get this—it also ends with a vision of a future Eden. The Apocalypse of John (a.k.a. Revelation) foresees a God-induced utopia that clearly echoes the paradise of Genesis 2-3.

    For the author of the Apocalypse, Eden will return complete with a river and the tree of life bearing fruit and leaves that will heal the nations. And sure enough, mortals will again dwell with God, whose throne will be right there in the middle (Revelation 22:1-5).

    So in the vision of the Christian Bible, the story of mortals will end where it began, in Eden.

    Would the authors of Genesis agree?

  • The Forbidden Fruit

    Don't think about pink elephants.

    No, we said don't think about pink elephants.

    Hello? Stop thinking about pink elephants!

    We all know that when you're told not to do something, the easiest solution is… to do it. And sure enough, when Adam and Eve are forbidden by God to eat fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (2:16-17; 3:3-6), they eat anyway. With the serpent urging her on, Eve sees that the fruit looks yummy, picks it, and eats; then she gives some to her husband, who also eats (3:6-7).

    The fruit has become a symbol for everything that's off limits to us mortals. It's the ultimate symbol of temptation, and more importantly, giving into temptation.

    Mmmm, Fruit

    You probably think of the fruit as an apple, but Genesis never specifies. Hey, maybe it was a durian. (Probably not.)

    Regardless of what kind of fruit it was, we see that apple everywhere. From the cover of Twilight to Snow White to Desperate Housewives promos, this fruit has come to symbolize wanting what we can't have, and taking it anyway.

    Stephenie Meyer takes it one step further, using the image as her epigraph:

    But of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it: for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die. (2:17 KJV)

    But wait. If Bella eats the apple, she's live forever. We think there's a term paper in there somewhere.

  • Circumcision

    Let's talk about penises.

    That's right, we're talking about wee-wees, ding dongs, or in Latin, the membrum virorum. Get your chuckles out now, because that's what circumcision is about—the distinctively male private part, the all-important reproductive organ of the male human species.

    First, the run down. Every male is born with a foreskin over his penis, and circumcision snips that right off. The majority of newborns in the United States today are circumcised by doctors for various reasons, and it's absolutely a hot-button issue.

    In Genesis, circumcision is a symbol of the special promises the deity makes to Abraham and his offspring. God's end of the deal: he'll give them the land of Canaan and make them a huge nation. Abraham's end? He has to circumcise himself and then circumcise every male in his household.

    From then on, the deity lays down the rule that every male newborn is to be circumcised when he's eight days old. And the consequences for not doing so are harsh: "Any uncircumcised male who is not circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin shall be cut off from his people; he has broken my covenant" (17:14). It's a physical act, yes, but it's a sign of the Israelites' promise to God.

    Circumcision's Legacy

    Circumcision starts to make waves right away.

    Later in Genesis, when the Hivite Hamor wants to marry Jacob's daughter Dinah, her brothers require that Hamor and every Hivite be circumcised first:

    "We cannot do this thing, to give our sister to one who is uncircumcised, for that would be a disgrace to us." (34:14 NRSV).

    Hamor agrees, and while Hivite males are recovering from the removal of their foreskins (remember, this is a time before anesthetics), Dinah's brothers take the opportunity to kill them all (34:25-31), "while they were still in pain" (34:25 NRSV). What are we supposed to make of this? Are Jacob's sons abusing their covenant with God? Or did Hamor plain-old deserve it?

    Much later, during the Roman empire, circumcision became one of the distinctively Jewish practices. Writers mocked this practice constantly, and some Jews went to great lengths to hide the fact that they were circumcised just so that they could fit in. Remember, these people exercised in the gym buck naked.

    Even the Apostle Paul, who was himself Jewish, gets in on the action, when he warns people who want to circumcise newly initiated Christians that they might as well cut off the whole thing (see Galatians 5:12). This was in fact a big issue in the early Christian movement. Should non-Jewish converts be circumcised or not?

    Today, people are all abuzz about circumcision. People who are pro-circumcision cite, among other things, religious freedom and the reduced chance of transmitting HIV. And those who are anti-circumcision highlight, among other things, the lack of choice on the part of the baby boy being circumcised and the potential damage done to the body.

    Either way, we're still talking about it. Thanks for the tip, Genesis.

  • The Promised Land

    The night before his assassination, Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his last sermon in Memphis. He closed the sermon by saying, "I've been to the mountaintop. […] And I've seen the promised land" (source).

    King is referencing Deuteronomy 32:49, where God shows Moses a panoramic view of the promised land of Canaan. But the concept of the promised land has its origin way back in the book of Genesis.

    Big Promises

    In Genesis, God makes his first Big Promise that Abraham's offspring will possess a pretty sizeable playground. He repeats the promise ad nauseum, but here's the very first one (Genesis is all about firsts, after all):

    And Abram took Sarai his wife and Lot his nephew, and all their possessions which they had accumulated, and the persons which they had acquired in Haran, and they set out for the land of Canaan; thus they came to the land of Canaan. And Abram passed through the land as far as the site of Shechem, to the oak of Moreh. Now the Canaanite was then in the land. And the Lord appeared to Abram and said, 'To your descendants I will give this land.' So he built an altar there to the Lord who had appeared to him." (12:5-7 NRSV)

    (Want to read God's other promises of land to Abraham? Check out: 13:14-15; 15:7; and 17:8. We told you they're everywhere.)

    Most kids and grandkids inherit their parents' looks and hair-color or share similar personalities or annoying quirks. But Abraham's offspring—Isaac, then Jacob—inherit God's promise of the land of Canaan. That's right, God also appears to both of them to let them know that Canaan will be all theirs (26:2-3; 28:13; 35:12; 46:3-4).

    Promise Deferred

    But here's the catch. The promise is never fulfilled in Genesis.

    What?!

    Yep. After eight-ish iterations of the promise, it never comes true. When Genesis ends, Abraham's offspring are actually in Egypt. Abraham's descendants don't start taking possession of the land until later in the Bible, namely in the book of Joshua, which is four humongous books after Genesis.

    But this deferral of the promise seems to be part of the point in Genesis itself, which thrives on the tensions between harsh human realities and big divine promises. For example, as soon as God promises the land to Abraham, there's a famine, which forces Abraham to go to Egypt for a while (12:10). It's kind of a bait and switch, don't you think?

    Martin Luther King, Jr. uses the image of the promised land with a certain awareness that the promise of civil rights for which he fought was by no means a reality. He continues, "I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight that we, as a people, will get to the promised land" (source). King thought deeply about his Genesis. He knew that the promised land was a symbol that evoked a sense of hard-won hope in the face of sinister realities.

    P.S. The concept of the promised land has caused everything from tension to all-out-war in the modern world. Check out "Current Hot-Button Issues and Cultural Debates" for all the deets.

      • Sex Drugs And Violence Rating

        R

        Other than a few drunken episodes, the book of Genesis is pretty tame in the drugs department. Sex and violence, though? That's a different story.

        Let's just take a quick look at all the nastiness that goes down in Genesis:

        • Murder
        • Fratricide
        • Human trafficking
        • Rape
        • Incest
        • Dismemberment

        The narrator doesn't go into detail about all this—to be fair, the narrator doesn't really go into detail about anything—but it's still pretty hard to swallow.

        P.S. We dare you to find all the euphemisms for sex in Genesis. Hey, what do you expect for a book so full of begats?

      • Allusions

        When it comes to having an insanely important influence on culture, Genesis is guilty as charged. This book has its fingerprints all over Western art and media, from the Sistine Chapel to Sega Genesis. And it spans the distance from a huge Noah's Ark replica in Holland to a creepy Noah's Ark funhouse in Pennsylvania.

        The point? The shout-outs we have here are less the tip of the iceberg and more the tip of, um, a black hole.

        Literary and Philosophical References

        Anita Diamant, The Red Tent
        In The Red Tent, Anita Diamant retells the stories of the book of Genesis from the perspective of its female characters. Take that, ancient patriarchal society.

        Sᴓren Kierkegaard, Fear and Trembling
        In his 1843 Fear and Trembling, Kierkegaard offers a philosophical interpretation of Abraham's binding and near sacrifice of Isaac (Genesis 22), exploring the themes of stress, anxiety, and faith within the episode. Warning: you might need a PhD in Hard-To-Understand Stuff to get through this one.

        John Milton, Paradise Lost
        Milton retells (and expands like whoa) the story of the Adam and Eve in his 17th-century epic poem, Paradise Lost. Spoiler alert: things are looking grim.

        Pop Culture References

        Heroes
        Fell-off-the-radar sci-fi drama Heroes opened its four-season run with a pilot episode called "Genesis." The episode lays out the origins of the principal characters. Fitting, don't you think?

        GCB
        GCB gets punny in its episode called "Adam and Eve's Rib," which capitalizes on presumed cultural knowledge of the Genesis 2 account about Eve being created from Adam's rib. The episode spins a feminist thread as it plays off of the not-so-feminist biblical narrative.

        Lost
        When John Locke finds two skeletons in this epic TV show, he dubs them Adam and Eve. Why? He thinks they were the first two people to live on the oh-so-crazy island.