The word Genesis comes from the first word of the book. The Hebrew word is translated as “In the beginning”, the companion Greek word is genesis (guh-nessiss), meaning “origins”. (That Greek word is transliterated to our English “Genesis”. Transliteration just means to take a word from another language and treat it like it’s a legit word in your language. It’s word theft, really. Phil Collins didn’t even know he was a criminal.)
The authorship is debatable. Up until the 18th century it was pretty much acknowledged that Moses was the author of Genesis as well as the 4 books that follow, known as the Pentateuch),and that for the most part the modern version we have was sourced from documentation sometime between the 10th and 9th century, BC. There are problems with this, however. For example, Moses’ death is recorded in these first 5 books, some locations are referred to using names that are believed to have not been around until the 8/7th century BC, and there are references to a king being in Israel (Genesis 36), which happened beyond Moses’ time.
There are a number of proposed solutions which contain various puzzle pieces like multiple documents, multiple authors, various motivations for writing, intertwined source material and so on. Some perhaps retain Moses as the author with suggestions of minor editing to include his death and location correction so folks know which location is being referred to after a name change. It’s worth noting here there we shouldn’t be surprised to find that an oral culture passed stories down for centuries before they were written down, and that old references would be updated as part of that.
Smart people who love Jesus haven’t come to anything resembling an agreement or particularly a way forward to what an agreement would look like in this area. So, we’re left with the text itself which does not bear the name of an author. So, we will proceed without knowing for certain.
Things to watch for in Genesis:
– It is not a book in a traditional sense in that there isn’t a single, consistent plot that winds throughout the book. However, all of the stories are moving in the same direction, contributing to progression of our understanding of God and His relationship to his creation.
– That said, there is a clear focus change from chapters 1-11, which are universal, to the rest of the book, which focuses on a single family line.
– The stories weren’t written in a vacuum, they had relevance to those reading or hearing of them in those days (they certainly weren’t written just for a 21st century audience). In general, Israel’s history has been a troubled one, they very rarely saw sustained periods of peace. As such, Genesis doesn’t shy away from hard questions of people of faith. It was likely formally written down to attempt to serve that very thing.
– They also lived in the context of competing gods and idols. As such, the text interacts with that. We see a fiercely monotheistic God who controls/creates everything with ease, compared to other creation accounts filled with strife and gods fighting with each other.
– Watch for consistent themes of land, blessing (and curses), and offspring. They have relevance in every major story.
– Watch for contrasting characters. Cain and Abel, Jacob and Esau, Judah and Joseph. Many of the stories put two characters up against each other for evaluation. Some are obvious, some less so (like Sarah and Hagar, where Hagar is understood in a much better light upon the comparison.)