This is the sign that I am giving for all ages to come,
of the covenant between me and you and every living creature with you:
I set my rainbow in the clouds to serve as a sign of the covenant
between me and the earth.
Genesis 9:12-13

Even if you’ve never so much as touched a Bible, you’d be hard-pressed not to know at least some of the stories in the Book of Genesis— Adam and Eve and their rather speedy capitulation to temptation, Noah’s Ark and the Flood, the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah (including the unforgettable moment when Lot’s wife becomes a pillar of salt), and God’s testing Abraham by asking (but fortunately not permitting) him to sacrifice his son Isaac.

Genesis means “beginning” in Greek, and though it is the first book in the Bible (and of the Penteteuch or Torah), it is not the first to have been put in ink. Scholars believe the book to have been written by multiple authors over a period of several centuries, from the time of King David in 1000 B.C. to after the exile in Babylon. The existence of two creation stories in Genesis (Gn 1:1-2:4 and Gn 2:4-25) is a prime example of this multiple authorship.

Genesis, has two main parts. The first 11 chapters deal primarily with the creation of the earth and humanity. It consists of myths and legends that reflect the ancient Israelites’ understanding of the world, their relationship to God, and certain customs and traditions. Part two, chapters 12 through 50, is dedicated to the founding patriarchs of Israel, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph, and begins the historical account of Israel’s origins as a people.

Several episodes are key to understanding events and references in subsequent books of the Bible. The first is God’s call to Abraham and the covenant God establishes between them, the sign of which is circumcision. The covenant is thus marked in the Israelites’ flesh, setting them apart as God’s chosen people.

Another important event is the promise of a son, which the aged Abraham and his infertile wife, Sarah, find absurd, but with God anything is possible. Sarah indeed bears a son called Isaac, who later becomes the father of Jacob. Jacob then has 12 sons, the most loved of which is Joseph, and his 11 brothers sell him into slavery in Egypt out of jealousy. But Joseph’s knack for interpreting dreams makes him indispensible to Pharoah, and he soon becomes governor of all of Egypt. Meanwhile, famine sends Joseph’s brothers packing to Egypt where they end up beseeching Joseph himself (without recognizing him). In the end, Joseph reveals himself and all settle happily in Egypt, thus setting the stage for Exodus.

In Genesis, we see the ancient Israelites’ understanding that God has been involved in their world and in their story from the beginning, and that God has guided Israel’s ancestors and led them to the climactic event in Exodus.