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A guided tour of an unfamiliar place can make all the difference.

I’ve traveled to many foreign cities. Some of them are just a blur in my memory. I was transported from an airport to a hotel to an event and back to an airport. I only have a sense of people, buildings, and movement but no shape or purpose.

At other times, someone has spoken during a trip from the airport. The guide pointed out important routes, landmark structures, and historical sites and their significance. The tour gave me a grid of understanding—the city had structure, reference points, and historical meaning.

One such example was St. Petersburg, Russia (formerly Leningrad). One monument marked the farthest advance of the German army during the bloody Second World War battle for the city. A building on the bank of the Neva River was identified as the famous Hermitage. We stayed in the Astoria Hotel across from St. Isaac’s Cathedral. There was still much to learn about the city, but we began to sense its shape and purpose.

So it is as we read the Historical Backbone of the Bible.

Let me start with a short tour of Genesis by pointing out three essential features. 


Genesis is often called the “seed-plot of the Bible.” It introduces us to major themes of the Bible in their seed form.

One scholar, Gordon Wenham, confirms this in Rethinking Genesis 1-11: Gateway to the Bible

... themes, set out so simply and clearly in Genesis 1-11, run through later parts of Scripture. In this way Genesis 1-11 can provide us with the theological spectacles with which to read the Bible both sympathetically and appropriately.

One example of such a theme is marriage. Genesis 2:18-25 sets out the fundamentals of the life-long covenant of companionship between a man and a woman.

We encounter the subject of marriage throughout the Bible. Marriages are made and broken, challenged and strengthened.

When Jesus, and later Paul, speak about the shape and purpose of marriage, they refer to Genesis 2:18-25 (see Matthew 19:3-6 and Ephesians 5:31). 


Most commentators point to the genealogies as the basic structure of Genesis. Bruce Waltke, in his Genesis: A Commentary, writes,

After the prologue representing the creation of the cosmos (Genesis 1:1-2:3), the author of Genesis introduces ten new divine initiatives in salvation history with a toledoth heading.

The Hebrew word toledoth refers to a genealogy and means “the account/record of the line of X.” So, for example, 

  • “this is the account [toledoth] of the heavens and the earth” (Genesis 2:4);
  • “this is the written account [toledoth] of Adam’s line” (5:1);
  • “this is the account [toledoth] of Noah” (6:9), and so forth.

I encourage you to locate and mark each of these toledoth in Genesis.

Let’s simplify the tour into these four sections or “cycles”

              Primeval History             1:1-11:26

              Abraham cycle               11:27-22:24     

              Jacob cycle                     25:19-35:22

              Joseph cycle                   37:2-50:26

The texts between each of these cycles act as linking material. 


There is much to learn of God’s ‘Story’ and of our human condition from Genesis.

Concerning the Primeval History (chapters 1-11), Derek Kidner states that it describes:

 two opposite progressions: first, God’s orderly creation, to its climax in man as a responsible and blessed being, and then the disintegrating work of sin, to its first great anticlimax in the corrupt world of the Flood, and its second in the folly of Babel.

We then read the life stories of three patriarchs together with other characters, including Sarah and Lot, Ishmael and Isaac, Rebekah and Rachel, and the twelve brothers who became the tribes of Israel. Here’s a suggested theme for each of the cycles for the three patriarchs:


  • Abraham – being a friend of God.

Abraham is the only individual in the Bible specifically called a “friend of God” (see 2 Chronicles 20:7; Isaiah 41:8; James 2:23), so we can expect to learn what it means to be a friend of God by exploring his life.

It is significant that Jesus later says to his followers (John 15:13-14):

Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends. You are my friends if you do what I command.

… but we’re getting ahead of ourselves.

How do you relate to God’s person: are you a friend or not?


  • Jacob – a journey of spiritual formation.

Jacob is a rogue. Every action seems to be for personal gain until he reaches the end of his resources at Peniel (Genesis 32:22-32). There, he is transformed and renamed by the gracious power of God.

 Jacob’s new name, Israel, probably means “God prevails” or “God rules.”

God’s sovereign purposes will not be frustrated—he will ultimately fulfill them. Like Jacob, we are invited to submit to God rather than fight him. Later, this God who encountered Jacob reveals himself to us as Jesus Christ. I’ve chosen to submit—what about you?

How do you relate to God’s power?


  • Joseph – living God’s purpose.

This cycle traces Joseph’s recognition of God’s purpose for him and how he lived according to that purpose—not only for himself but also in the flow of  God’s Story of salvation.

A key verse is Joseph’s statement to his brothers (50:20):

you intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives. 

How do you relate to God’s purposes? 

In all this, we should never lose sight of God at work—in the foreground and the background. After all, this is primarily God’s Story.

How do you relate to God’s power and purposes? 

Hopefully, this ten-minute “tour” has given you a greater sense of the shape and purpose of Genesis. What do you think?

FORWARD TO the next post in this series

BACK TO Grasping God’s ‘Story

Photo Credit: BRJ INC. via Compfight cc

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