The Structure of the Book of Genesis
Critics of the Bible have long alleged that the book of Genesis is composed of a number of diverse documents, some from a much later date, which do not really fit together. Various kinds of evidence can be cited against this critics' theory. The October 31, 1981 Grand Rapids Press reported that "A five-year-long computer study ... strongly indicates that one author — and not three as widely held in modern criticism — wrote the book of Genesis.
'The probability of Genesis having been written by one author is enormously high — 82 percent statistically,' a member of the research team said in an article published in Wednesday's Jerusalem Post."
Attentive Bible readers have long recognized that the book of Genesis is divided into several subdivisions, each marked at the beginning with the same Hebrew word. This word is variously translated. The King James renders it uniformly with "generations" (see Genesis 2:4; 6:9 etc.). Other English translations have realized that although the Hebrew word is the same, one cannot always render it with the same English word. For this reason they sometimes use the word "history," "genealogy," or "account."
A Significant Word
The Hebrew word underlying these translations is the word toledot (pronounce: TOH'-le-DOHT). One finds this word used at the following points: Genesis 2:4; 5:1; 6:9; 10:1; 11:10; 11:27; 25:12; 25:19; 36:1 (also 36:9) and 37:2.
When a word like this occurs at significant points in a book such as Genesis the Bible reader should inquire whether the use of this word has probably a special significance. It might well be that the writer of the book meant to alert us to the purpose and the plan he had in constructing the book. To discern such a plan would naturally be of the utmost importance for a believing use of his inspired writing. It is not we who must give meaning to the Bible. No, we must obediently listen to the Bible in order thus to perceive God's Word.
Listening to the Bible means, among other things, that we are conscious of the design and purpose of a book. Careful attention to various features in a book such as Genesis and other books as well may disclose to us the writer's aim in composing the book. In doing so we will be able to discern the Spirit's meaning and it is that meaning which we wish to receive believingly for ourselves and transmit to others.
The Hebrew word translated "generations," "history," "account," is derived from a verb form which means "to bear," "to bring forth." It is a noun form derived from this verb. The noun is in the plural. Literally this noun means something like "the things brought forth," or "the things that came of..." Hence it will be seen that the word "history" is really quite a good rendering for this word.
Thus, when the story of creation has been given us in Genesis 1:1-2:3 the writer continues to tell us that he will now give us the "generations of the heaven and the earth." This means, he will speak of what happened to heaven and earth after they were created. So he sets out to tell us about the garden, the trees, the temptation and the fall. This is followed by the first promise.
But this first subdivision of the "Generations" does not end there. The writer also informs us of the slaying of Abel by his brother Cain and then he traces the line of Cain and its accomplishments down to seven generations. At that point the line of Cain is dropped. Chapter 5 begins with the line of Adam via Seth. Cain is no longer mentioned.
This is a feature which has been noted by careful students of the Bible. The book of Genesis uses this system of the "generations" (toledot) in order to draw an ever narrowing line through the history of redemption. The reason for this is that the book is concerned to give us the line of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. For it is in that line that God's promise of salvation will ultimately be realized.
A Narrowing Line
This is why in the line of Noah there is a focusing on Shem (see Genesis 9:25-27). And in the 10th chapter, which contains the "generations" of Noah's sons, one finds that the usual order of the three sons is changed. Instead of listing them in the order Shem, Ham and Japhet, this chapter first describes the line of Japhet, then that of Ham, and finally it centers on Shem. This is why the great Reformed Biblical scholar Geerhardus Vos can justly say that chapter 10 is "a chapter that belongs to the genealogy of redemption."
It should be clear, therefore, that Genesis clearly tells us that long before God called Abraham, in order to make a new beginning with him, there already was a trend toward the particular. God made divisions even before he called Abraham.
What should be kept in mind, therefore, as we read the book of Genesis, is that this book helps us, by its very structure, to understand what it is driving at. The book draws lines from one incision point to the next. And in doing so it focuses on the particular grace of God. God will save people from all nations, kindreds and tongues. But He does so as a God who makes divisions. God has a "people" that is peculiarly His own. In the Old Testament this people was defined (after Abraham) by mostly national boundaries. In the New Testament the ethnic difference of God's people disappears. But the idea of people-hood as such does not. It is imprinted on the "goods" of salvation and is never again erased. It is true, gloriously true, that in Abraham all the families of the earth will be blessed and have been blessed. This is why there is a Christian church today, spread throughout the earth, and not limited to Abraham's descendants by any means. Yet that church is today just as defined as "people of God" as it was in the Old Testament.
The Line of Covenant Promise
But there is more that we can learn from paying attention to these "generations" divisions of the book of Genesis. As was noted earlier, these headings alert us to lines of development. They do not focus on individuals as such but they indicate how God traced the "history" from one point to the next. Hence we are kept from centering unduly on biographical details in the lives of the people described. Note for example that the great figure of father Abraham is not accorded a separate subdivision. All the many important things we must know about Abraham are arranged under the title of the "generations" of Terah. This may appear strange to those who have followed the custom of treating the great ones of the Bible as just so many "Bible characters." But in God's way of writing history this is not strange at all. It is not Abraham and Sarah that should be the focus of our attention. Rather, it is the fulfilment of the promise of the "seed" that makes them so all important for us.
This is the reason why right from the start the writer informs us that "Sarai was barren" (Genesis 11:30). And as if this one statement was not enough he adds: "She had no child." Twice he alerts the reader to the tremendous drama that will unfold as the line is drawn from Terah to Isaac (after Ishmael has been eliminated) (see Genesis 25:12-18; Genesis 25:19).
Unity of the Book
We believe that a careful attention to this structural arrangement which the Holy Spirit placed in the book of Genesis will serve yet another important purpose. All too often the first 11 chapters of Genesis are set apart as being of an altogether unique nature, requiring quite a special set of rules of understanding. But the thing that comes to light is that the writer of the book of Genesis did not see these chapters as being so completely different. Instead, he links Abraham, through his father Terah, to that which precedes. That is what determines Abraham, as much as the call that will come to him later. The great incision in the book of Genesis is not chapter 12, but chapter 11:27. From that point God will draw the line forward, though it may seem humanly impossible since Sarai was barren and had no children.
The Critics' Error
Paying close attention to this arrangement of the book of Genesis yields still further benefits. It is often said that Genesis 1 and Genesis 2 contain two creation accounts. Critical scholars assign the first account to the Priestly document which is said to have achieved its final form in the time of the Babylonian exile. The second account is then assigned to another "document," called the Jehovist document. This is not the place to discuss this approach to Genesis in detail. We believe that it is a fruitless approach and that it cannot do justice to the Biblical data.
Well-informed and enlightened conservatives such as Horace Hummel, R. K. Harrison and others reject the documentary approach to the Pentateuch. Hummel puts it strongly but correctly:
It almost goes without saying that both the literary and the historical reconstructions of higher criticism conflict so drastically with the Bible's own presentation that "ne'er the twain shall meet." To be blunt, really no one denies that, except certain administrators at times when higher criticism is first invading an institution, and the hoi polloi need to be mollified. Far more, of course, is involved than merely reshuffling dates and authors, because, within limits, that by itself could be quite an innocuous matter theologically. Nothing less than a fundamentally different version of the Christian faith is entailed...The Word Becoming Flesh,1979, p. 58
It is because of this other, radical alternative to the book of Genesis and to the other early books of the Old Testament, that we should do our utmost to listen faithfully and believingly to what the Spirit Himself says by way of the arrangement of the book.
One Revealed History
Genesis 2:4 ff. is not a second creation account. Rather, it is the first major division of the "generations." There is indeed some repetition of the details of creation, some of which are presented in an order different from that of Genesis 1. But the focus is on the garden, the trees, and on the first human pair in relation to these trees. Thus viewed, this section fits harmoniously into the larger whole. Its style differs from that of Genesis 1. God is "closer" to man in chapter 2 than he is in chapter 1. He forms man of dust from the earth. He forms Eve from Adam's side. In chapter 3 He walks in the garden. Later He is seen to be fashioning clothes for the first human pair to cover their nakedness of which they had become aware.
But the arrangement of Genesis as here discussed does not suggest a second account of creation. Instead it focuses on what became of heaven and earth when they were made. Man, earth's chief creation, fell and was alienated from his Maker. Brother murders brother. The line of Cain is traced and then dropped from view.
It is this organic and Scriptural view which in the present writer's opinion offers an infinitely better understanding of these early chapters than any documentary theory can ever accomplish. For this, and also for the other reasons mentioned earlier, I commend this approach to the readers.