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Notes on the Bible, by Albert Barnes, [1834], at

Genesis Introduction


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Introduction to Genesis

The Book of Genesis can be separated into eleven documents or pieces of composition most of which contain additional subordinate divisions. The first of these has no introductory phrase; the third begins with ספר זה תּולדת tôledâh zeh sēpher, "this is the book of the generations"; and the others with תולדות אלה tôledâh ̀ēleh, "these are the generations."

However, the subordinate pieces of which these primary documents consist are as distinct from each other as they are complete in themselves. And, each portion of the composer is as separate as the wholes which they go to constitute. The history of the fall Gen. 3, the family of Adam Gen. 4, the description of the vices of the antediluvians Gen 6:1-8, and the confusion of tongues Gen 11:1-9 are as distinct efforts of composition and as perfect in themselves as any of the primary divisions. The same holds true throughout the entire Book of Genesis. Even these subordinate pieces contain still smaller passages, having an exact and self-contained finish which enables the critic to lift them out and examine them and makes him wonder if they have not been inserted in the document as in a mold which was previously fitted for their reception. The memoranda of each day's creative work, of the locality of Paradise, of each link in the genealogy of Noah, and the genealogy of Abraham are striking examples of this. They sit, each in the narrative, like a gem in its setting.

Whether these primary documents were originally composed by Moses, or whether they came into his hands from earlier sacred writers and were revised by him and combined into his great work, we are not informed. By revising a sacred writing, we mean replacing obsolete or otherwise unknown words or modes of expressing as were in common use at the time of the reviser, and then putting in an explanatory clause or passage when necessary for people of a later day. The latter of the above suppositions is not inconsistent with Moses being reckoned as the responsible "author" of the whole collection. We think that such a position is more natural, satisfactory, and consistent with the phenomena of all Scripture. It is satisfactory to have the recorder (if not an eye-witness) to be as near as possible to the events recorded. And it seems to have been a part of the method of the Divine Author of the Scripture to have a constant collector, conservator, authenticator, reviser, and continuator of that book which He designed for the spiritual instruction of successive ages. We may disapprove of one writer tampering with the work of another, but we must allow the Divine Author to adapt His own work from time to time to the necessities of coming generations. However, this implies writing was in use from the origin of man.

We are not able to say when writing of any kind was invented or when syllabic or alphabetic writing came into use. But we meet with the word ספר sêpher, "a writing," from which we have our English "cipher," as early as Gen. 5. And many things encourage us to presume a very early invention of writing. It is, after all, only another form of speech, another effort of the signing faculty in man. Why may not the hand gesticulate to the eye, as well as the tongue articulate to the ear? We believe that the former was concurrent with the latter in early speech as it is in the speech of all nations to the present day. Only one more step is needed for the writing mode. Let the gestures of the hand take a permanent form by being carved in lines on a smooth surface and we have a written character.

This leads us to the previous question of human speech. Was it a gradual acquisition after a period of brute silence? Apart from history, we argue that it was not! We conceive that speech leaped at once from the brain of man as a perfect thing - as perfect as the newborn infant - yet capable of growth and development. This has been the case with all inventions and discoveries. The pressing necessity has come upon the fitting man, and he has given forth a complete idea which can only develop after ages. The Bible record confirms this theory. Adam comes to be, and then by the force of his native genius speaks. And in primitive times we have no doubt that the hand moved as well as the tongue. Hence, we hear so soon of "the book."

On the supposition that writing was known to Adam Gen. 1-4, containing the first two of these documents, it formed the "Bible" of Adam's descendants (the antediluvians). Gen. 1:1-11:9, being the sum of these two documents and the following three documents, constitutes the "Bible" of the descendants of Noah. The whole of Genesis may be called the "Bible" of the posterity of Jacob; and, we may add, that the five books of the Law, of which the last four books (at least) are immediately due to Moses. The Pentateuch was the first "Bible" of Israel as a nation.

Genesis is purely a historical work. It serves as the narrative preamble to the legislation of Moses. It possesses, however, a much higher and broader interest than this. It is the first volume of the history of man in relation with God. It consists of a main line of narrative, and one or more collateral lines. The main line is continuous and relates to the portion of the human race that remains in communication with God. Side by side with this is a broken line, rather, several successive lines, which are linked not to one another but to the main line. Of these, two lines come out in the primary documents of Genesis; namely, Gen 25:12-18 and Gen. 36, containing the respective records of Ishmael and Esau. When these are placed side by side with those of Isaac and Jacob, the stages in the main line of narrative are found to be nine, that is, two less than the primitive documents.

These great lines of narrative, in like manner, include minor lines, whenever the history falls into several threads which must all be taken up one after another in order to carry on the whole concatenation of events. These come out in paragraphs and even shorter passages which necessarily overlap one another in point of time. The striking uniqueness of Hebrew composition is aptly illustrated by the successive links in the genealogy of Gen. 5, where the life of one patriarch is brought to a close before that of the next is taken up, though they actually run parallel for the greater part of the predecessor's life. It furnishes a key to much that is difficult in the narrative.

This book is naturally divided into two great parts - the first which narrates the creation; the second which narrates the development of the things created from the beginning to the deaths of Jacob and Joseph.

The first part is equal in value to the whole record of what may take place to the end of time, and therefore to the whole of the Bible, not only in its historical part, but in its prophetic aspect. A created system of things contains in its bosom the whole of what may be unfolded from it.

The second great part of Genesis consists of two main divisions - the one detailing the course of events before the deluge, the other recounting the history after the flood. These divisions may be distributed into sections in the following way: The stages of the narrative marked off in the primary documents are nine in number. However, in consequence of the transcendent importance of the primeval events, we have broken up the second document into three sections, and the fourth document into two sections and have thus divided the contents of the book into twelve great sections. All these matters of arrangement are shown in the following chart:

Table of Contents


A. Creation Gen. 1:1-2:3


A. Before the Deluge

II. The Man Gen. 2:4-25

III. The Fall Gen. 3:1-24

IV. The Race Gen. 4:1-26

V. Line to Noah Gen. 5:1-6:8

B. Deluge

VI. The Deluge Gen. 6:9-8:22

C. After the Deluge

VII. The Covenant Gen. 9:1-29

VII. The Nations Gen. 10:1-11:9

IX. Line to Abram Gen. 11:10-26

X. Abraham Gen. 11:27-25:11

XI. Isaac Gen. 25:19-36:34

XII. Jacob Gen. 37:10-50:26

Next: Genesis Chapter 1