It tells how God creates the world and all its beings and places the first man and woman (Adam and Eve) in his Garden of Eden, how the first couple are expelled from God's presence, of the first murder which follows, and God's decision to destroy the world and save only the righteous Noah and his sons; a new humanity then descends from these sons and spreads throughout the world, but, although the new world is as sinful as the old, God has resolved never again to destroy the world by flood, and the history ends with Terah, the father of Abraham, from whom will descend God's chosen people.
The history contains some of the best-known stories in the Bible plus a number of genealogies, structured around the five-fold repetition of the toledot formula ("These are the generations of..."):
Scholars generally agree that the Torah, the collection of five books of which Genesis is the first, achieved something like its current form in the 5th century BCE. Genesis draws on a number of distinct "sources", including the Priestly source, the Yahwist and the Elohist – the last two are often referred to collectively as "non-Priestly", but the Elohist is not present in the primeval history and "non-Priestly" and "Yahwist" can be regarded here as interchangeable terms. The following table is based on Robert Kugler and Patrick Hartin, "An Introduction to the Bible", 2009:
|1:1–2:4a||First Creation story|
|2:4b–4:26||Second Creation story, Adam and Eve and the Garden of Eden, Cain and Abel|
|5:1–24||Descendants of Adam|
|6:1–8||Sons of God (Nephilim), reason for the Flood|
|6:9–13||Reason for the Flood|
|6:14–8:22||Flood and post-Flood renewal||Flood and post-Flood renewal|
|9:1–17||Covenant with Noah|
|9:18–27||Drunkenness of Noah/Noah and his sons (the curse of Canaan)|
|10:1–32||Table of Nations||Table of Nations|
|11:1–9||Tower of Babel|
|11:10–32||Descendants of Noah|
Genesis 1–11 shows little relationship to the remainder of Genesis. For example, the names of its characters and its geography – Adam (man) and Eve (life), the Land of Nod ("Wandering"), and so on – are symbolic rather than real, and much of the narratives consist of lists of "firsts": the first murder, the first wine, the first empire-builder. Most notably, almost none of the persons, places and stories in it are ever mentioned anywhere else in the Bible. This has led some scholars to suppose that the history forms a late composition attached to Genesis and the Pentateuch to serve as an introduction. Just how late is a subject for debate: at one extreme are those who see it as a product of the Hellenistic period, in which case it cannot be earlier than the first decades of the 4th century BCE; on the other hand the Yahwist source has been dated by some scholars, notably John Van Seters, to the exilic pre-Persian period (the 6th century BCE) precisely because the primeval history contains so much Babylonian influence in the form of myth.[Note 1]
Numerous Mesopotamian myths (and one Egyptian myth) are reflected in the primeval history. The myth of Atrahasis, for example, was the first to record a Great Flood, and may lie behind the story of Noah's flood. The following table sets out the myths behind the various Biblical tropes.
||Mesopotamian (Egyptian) myth|
|Genesis creation narrative: Genesis 1||Enuma Elish, the Babylonian creation myth, has a very similar opening to Genesis 1, refers to such entities as the "Deep" (Hebrew Tehom), arrives at a cosmology very similar to the one in Genesis 1:6, and shows a similar concern for reckoning time through the creation of heavenly bodies. God's creation of mankind in his image also recalls Mesopotamian myths, as does man's sovereignty over nature. In addition, the way God creates through the spoken word in Genesis 1 mirrors the Egyptian "Memphis Theology" in which the god Ptah creates the world through speech.|
|Genesis creation narrative: Genesis 2||The Atrahasis epic tells how the gods created mankind from dust|
|Garden of Eden||The god and goddess Enki and Ninhursag enjoyed a Tree of Life; the serpent in Genesis recalls the god Apsu in the Enuma Elish.|
|Cain and Abel||Cain and Abel are paralleled by the gods Dumuzi and Enkimdu|
|Genealogies||The Sumerian King List, like the list of the descendants of Cain, explains the origin of the elements of civilisation. Enoch, seventh in the line of Adam and taken by God, mirrors the king Enmerduranki and the sage Utu'abzu, also seventh in their lines, taken to dwell with the gods|
|Genesis flood narrative||The great deluge is told in a number of versions beginning in the early 2nd millennium; like the later Genesis myth, they tell how humanity survives through one hero and his family.|
|Tower of Babel (Genesis 11)||While there is no Mesopotamian myth associated with the Tower of Babel, there is scholarly agreement that Babylonian ziggurats, or tower-temples, lie behind this story.|
The history tells how God creates a world which is good (each act of the Genesis 1 ends with God marking it as good), and how evil contaminates it through disobedience (the Eden story) and violence (Cain and Abel).
The Genesis creation narrative marks the start of the Biblical chronology, the elaborate system of markers, both hidden and overt, marking off a fictive 4000 year history of the world.[Note 2] From Creation to Abraham, time is calculated by adding the ages of the Patriarchs when their first child is born. It seems possible that the period of the Flood is not meant to be included in the count – for example, Shem, born 100 years before the Flood, "begot" his first son two years after it, which should make him 102, but Genesis 11:10–11 specifies that he is only 100, suggesting that time has been suspended. The period from the birth of Shem's son to Abraham's migration to Canaan is 365 years, mirroring Enoch's life-span of 365 years, the number of days in a year. There are 10 Patriarchs between Adam and the Flood and 10 between the Flood and Abraham – the Septuagint adds an extra ancestor so that the second group is 10 from the Flood to Terah. Noah and Terah each have three sons, of whom the first in each case is the most important.