"In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth." - Genesis 1:1 (ESV)
Where to begin other than the beginning? The book of Genesis is the first book of the Pentateuch ("The Five Scrolls"), also known as the Torah (meaning "law" or "instruction". Scripture refers to these first five books collectively as the Law of Moses (Luke 24:44; Acts 28:23). As the verse above demonstrates, Genesis begins the story with God.
What is the big idea of Genesis? I have summarized it this way: "God's people are fruitful and multiply."
The Outline of Genesis
Genesis can be broken down into two sections. Although the chapter and verse breaks are not inspired, they are helpful for easily citing specific portions large and small. In the case of Genesis, chapters 1-11 tell about the origins of the earth and many aspects of life. Genesis 12-50 narrows down to the origins of just one people, the Jews. It begins with Abram (later called Abraham) in Genesis 12. It ends with Joseph, the great-grandson of Abraham, in Genesis 50.
It is striking to note that Genesis begins the Bible as a story. This is a fundamental aspect of the Bible. It is not first a set of instructions, or a list of rules, or a manual for life. From Genesis to Revelation, a storyline can be traced which has the most fundamental connections possible to today.
So, Genesis begins with God creating the world. The story of creation is recounted as a period of six days. The world is in its basic shape by the end of chapter 1. Chapter 2 focuses on the making of Eve to be a companion for Adam. They are both placed in the garden to work and keep it. Thus marriage is instituted by God before anything bad ever happened on the earth.
In chapter 3 we have the fall. The serpent tempts Eve, Eve succumbs, and Adam with her. From there, they are cursed along with the serpent and kicked out of the garden, but not without a rather vague promise about the serpent's head being crushed by the woman's seed. This is often referred to as the "first gospel" or the protoevangelium. God makes a people and tells them to multiply, but they fall into sin before they start.
What will happen to mankind after they fall into sin? Many momentous events fill the next several chapters to help us arrive at Abram. The first murder happens in chapter 4, where Cain kills Abel. Chapter 5 gives a genealogy. And then chapter 6 recounts how the state of things was so bad on the earth that God decided to make an end of everything and start over. We find that God made people, but after Adam and Eve, they are not his people. They are rebellious and wicked.
So we meet Noah in chapter 6, and the following chapters recount the flood. Everything starts over, but in chapter 11 people consolidate power to build the Tower of Babel. God stops this by confusing their language. The work stops and people finally begin to spread out. Genealogies give an account of the names of the fathers all the way down to Abram, whom we meet in chapter 12.
Genesis 12 is where the story of the Bible begins in earnest. Chapters 1-11 are the setup for the rest of the story. The story begins with the call of Abram, later named Abraham. God calls him to go from his land to a land God will show him. Abraham goes. God makes a covenant with Abraham, promising to bless him and make his name great. He promises him a land for his people, a great number of descendants, and to bless all the peoples of the world through Abraham.
But there is a problem. Abraham lacks a son, and he and his wife are already elderly. But God gives Abraham Isaac anyway, named after the laughter that was their response upon hearing they would have a child. God tests Abraham by asking him to sacrifice his son, which Abraham shows he is prepared to do. But God provides a ram caught in a thicket instead.
So the stories continue. Isaac has two sons, twins. Esau is the firstborn and Jacob is the second. But through Jacob's machinations, he manages to finagle for himself not only Esau's inheritance but also his blessing of the firstborn. Jacob is forced to flee Esau's wrath and goes to the east, where he works for his uncle Laban for 14 years to marry two sisters.
As we enter the second half of Genesis, the story centers on Jacob and his twelve sons, especially Joseph. But the people are not the focus of the narrative so much as the inexorable movement toward Egypt, where Jacob's small clan will blossom into a full-blown nation. It is easy to forget that the fate of God's promises to Abraham rested on a mere seventy people by the end of Genesis. Genesis 37-50 covers the story of Joseph, one of Jacob's twelve sons, and his meteoric rise from a prisoner in Pharaoh's dungeons to second in command over all of Egypt, just in time for the famine that would have threatened the lives of many, including his family in Canaan.
The Benefits of Genesis
What does Genesis have to do with living for God through Christ? In a word, plenty. Genesis tells us about where we come from and how we got here. Genesis tells us about the original plan for creation and explains why there is sin, death, and corruption in the world.
Genesis shows us our moral history as it does any other kind of history. We were created good but fell into evil. We have never recovered the goodness we had in our innocence. Indeed, we cannot. So Genesis presents us with the basic outline of our problems in the world and where they come from.
Genesis also presents us with the beginning of the history of the workings of God in the world to set apart a people for himself for his glory. Genesis begins the story that will culminate in Scripture with Christ.
God's absolute sovereignty over the world, combined with his interest in it, are two dominant themes in Genesis. God is sovereign in creating the world, but he remains sovereign afterward as well. God did not make the world only to get bored with it. The world is shown to be part of a special project of the most high God.
This project continues today. Genesis provides us with a wealth of information that serves to orient us to the world in which we all live. If not for Genesis, we would lack so much of the setup that later comes to closure in the New Testament. Genesis begins with a garden and a tree. Revelation ends with a tree and a city. In Genesis, man is separated from God by sin. Later, man is reconciled to God by sacrifice. Over and over again, Genesis invites us to see not only the history of the Jews but the history of God's work in salvation.
Genesis is of immense value for helping us to learn to live for God through Christ. It answers several of the most basic kinds of questions. Where did we come from? Why do we exist? How do we exist? What went wrong? How exactly did it go wrong? Is there any hope for the future?
While Genesis does not answer all these questions fully, it gives a great start. In reading Genesis, we read the story of us. It is not about faraway people and places. Genesis is about our origins. Genesis is about our hope. Genesis introduces us to the God for whom we live and explains why we do not naturally do it.