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Other Courses in this Series:

Bible 1: Abraham

Bible 2: Isaac

Bible 3: Jacob

Bible 5: Adam & Eve, Cain & Abel

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Bible Overview

Excerpt from Lesson Four: Genesis - The Book of Creations

 Lesson Outline

  1. Introduction
  2. The Book of Creations
  3. Universal Creation
  4. Historical Creation
  1. Prelude: Early History
  2. The Patriarchs (Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob)



The descriptive title of the Book of Genesis calls to mind the creation of the universe; the word "genesis" connotes an origin or a coming into being.

Yet a cursory reading of the Book of Genesis reveals a very different picture of its contents. Of its fifty chapters, hardly more than one chapter (just thirty-four verses) describes the world’s creation. The remainder of its chapters list briefly a few genealogical lines (leaving most of the world’s first families unmentioned), and a few accounts of early history (the Garden of Eden, the Great Flood and its aftermath, and the Tower of Babel); the bulk of the Book of Genesis recounts events in the lives of a few individuals – the Patriarchs and Matriarchs of the Jewish nation.

What is the role of these post-Creation narratives in the "book of Creation"?

The Book of Creations

Nachmanides introduces us to two modes of creation that are depicted in the Book of Genesis:

Nachmanides (Introduction to the Book of Exodus):

The Book of Genesis, also known as "The Book of Creation," describes two independent courses of creation:

[1] Universal Creation: G-d’s creation of a universe ex nihilo, inclusive of all its creatures;

[2] Historical Creation: G-d’s creation of historical patterns that were to characterize Jewish history. These patterns were established through events in the lives of the three Patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Episodes in their lives are to be viewed as powerful influences that affected events that would follow throughout Jewish history. (This principle will be explained in more detail later in this lesson.)

The first mode of creation, the creation of the world we know and the natural laws and forces that affect that world, is not difficult to identify in the narrative of Genesis. But what does Nachmanides mean by the second mode of creation? How do the narratives of Genesis describe the "creation" of history?

To understand the concept of "Historical Creation," we need to understand the events that led to G-d’s special relationship with the Patriarchal families.

Overview of Genesis

Rabbi Ovadiah Sforno (1470-1550, Italy) introduces the concept of "historical creation" in his overview of the Book of Genesis.

Rabbi Ovadiah Sforno (Introduction to Torah commentary):

The Book of Genesis begins with an account of G-d’s volitional and purposeful creation of the Universe, and of G-d’s ongoing management of all created beings (see Genesis, chapters 1-2).

The Torah then demonstrates G-d’s special loving-kindness toward mankind: in each generation, G-d provides for man’s needs. Nevertheless, man brought destruction upon himself, through his sins.

Sforno expands this last point:

The first historical narrative (Genesis, chapters 2-3) describes how G-d created man "in His image and likeness," (Genesis 1:26) so that man might emulate his Creator as closely as possible in order to achieve a state of human perfection. In His mercy G-d placed man in the Garden of Eden – in the environment most conducive to spiritual development – so that he could cultivate both his spiritual character and his knowledge of G-d (ibid. 2:15). However, due to their sin (of eating from the Tree of Knowledge), G-d expelled Adam and Eve from the Garden, so that mankind would need to work the land to provide for his sustenance.

The Torah’s second major historical account (Genesis, chapters 5-8) shows how, even in the nonutopian environment that prevailed outside of the Garden of Eden, G-d caused the earth to yield sufficient produce to sustaine human life, causing the earth to yield sufficient produce, for close to a thousand years (see Genesis, ch. 5). During that time, however, over the course of centuries, the sins that men perpetrated against G-d (ibid. 4:26, which Midrashic literature explains as a reference to the introduction of idolatrous practices) and one another (ibid. ch. 6) accumulated, resulting in a Divine judgement to destroy life on earth. The Great Flood caused major changes in the earth’s elements, affecting both its vegetation and the physical balance of all living creatures. Man’s former simple diet could no longer sustain him throughout his lifetime, as it had prior to the flood.

The third major historical narrative (Genesis, chapters 9-11) shows that [despite man’s abuse of his earlier dominion over the earth] G-d [once again] gave man extensive control of the earth, such that "there shall be a fear and dread of you instilled in all wild beasts of the earth and in all the birds of the skyI have placed them in your hands." (Genesis 9:2) In spite of the drastic changes that followed the Great Flood, which diminished so much of the earth’s energy for sustaining human life, men could still live at least 400 years (Genesis 11).

Yet with all these advantages in life, in another act of rebellion against G-d mankind united to proclaim allegiance to a man-made god (through the building of the Tower of Babel). They sought to build a towering edifice upon which to display an image of this god for everyone to see and worship. Had their plan succeeded, mankind would eventually have lost all awareness of G-d. Following this attempt to sever their relationship with G-d entirely, G-d dispersed men across the globe and again shortened the human life span, this time to about 200 years.

After this third great rebellion against G-d, G-d no longer expected the entire human race to serve Him properly. He therefore chose from among them one individual who would lead the world toward perfection. He charged the righteous Abraham and his descendents with the task of fulfilling the goal of Creation. Abraham, his son Isaac, and his grandson Jacob, together formed a strong and stable unit, a "cord of three strands," to reintroduce mankind to awareness of G-d. G-d established an eternal covenant with each of them individually, promising that He would oversee directly their own destinies and the history and destinies of their descendents, the Jewish people. He also promised to give them the land of Israel, where they would unite to serve Him.

Sforno now addresses the concept of Historical Creation:

As a reward for the Patriarch’s perfect devotion to G-d and the perfect character traits each of them developed, G-d enabled them to guide their descendants through occurrences of their own lives. Many events they experienced served to instruct later generations regarding important historical episodes in their history. Numerous "token" acts that the Patriarchs performed shaped many of the larger events their descendant would experience in future generations.


Rabbi Sforno identifies the Book of Genesis as a book whose principal focus is on man and on events of historical significance (i.e., an account of "historical creation"). In a world where G-d gave man free choice to either heed or ignore G-d’s Will, G-d established a relationship with man that would be based upon human merit. During the early stages in the history of mankind, three disastrous events proved that mankind as a whole was unwilling to heed G-d’s Will. Adam’s sin of partaking of the Tree of Knowledge, the Great Flood and the Tower of Babel, together demonstrated that mankind as a whole was not prepared to submit to G-d’s Will. G-d therefore chose from among the human race someone who would put into motion the process of reintroducing mankind to the concept of the existence of G-d. G-d charged the righteous Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob with the task of founding the religious movement that would eventually fulfill G-d’s goal of universal recognition of His Sovereignty. When He chose the Patriarchs to set off the process of mankind’s eventual return to G-d, He did not stop there; G-d guided the Patriarchs through the primary historical events that would bring about ultimate realization of this goal.

Thus we can divide the Book of Genesis into three sections:

  1. Universal Creation: The First Book of Creation (Genesis, chapters 1-2)
  2. Early History: Prelude to the Second Book of Creation (ibid., chapters 2-11)
  3. The Patriarchs: The Second Book of Creation (ibid., chapters 12-50)

(The remainder of this file is contained in Lesson Four of the course)