There are plenty of opinions about Genesis, the first book of the Bible. It’s easy to see why. In those fifty chapters, you’ll find stories like God creating humanity in his own image and blessing an infertile old man with a child— but you’ll also find a talking snake, a floating zoo, and that same old man trying to kill the son God gave him. Uh… what?!
Some people see Genesis as a science book, reading every word of the ancient text as literal fact. Others see it as glorified mythology, symbolically communicating the character of God without laying down anything historically accurate. Some strike a balance between those two approaches, some disbelieve all of it, and some people just don’t care. It’s enough to make your head spin.
After more than a decade of deeply engaging the Bible, I’m convinced Genesis is much more than any of those assessments. It’s not a science book or a collection of mythology— it’s a symphony.
I get it. Symphonies haven’t been popular since guys wore powdered wigs, but the book of Genesis is as much a masterpiece as anything written by Beethoven, Mozart, or Tchaikovsky. A classical masterpiece like Beethoven’s 5th Symphony (you know, the dun-dun-dun-duuuuuuuun one) exists in 4 movements. Each movement is a separate piece of music, but each relates to the others. When taken together, the movements form the symphony.
It’s the same with Genesis. You cannot fully appreciate (or wrestle with, or embrace, or even reject) the rest of the scriptures without engaging Genesis. It’d be like watching the original Star Wars trilogy without A New Hope; making your favorite pizza without any sauce; buying a home without a qualified inspection of the foundation. Can you do it? Sure— but you probably shouldn’t. Genesis is literally the bones the rest of the Bible hangs on. It introduces the character of God, the nature of His people, and how the two interact—not through dry theology or lists of rules, but with stories. The rest of the Biblical canon, the remaining 65 books that follow Genesis, point back to these stories again… and again… and again.
Like any good symphony, there’s much more to Genesis than can be unpacked in this article. There is nuance and symbolism and foreshadowing and turns of phrase that are downright incredible. But on your first trip to the symphony, you’re not worried about understanding if the third movement’s a minuet or a scherzo, or if the fourth movement is in rondo or sonata form (honestly, I just Googled those words. I have no idea what they mean. Sorry music majors.) You’re just there to enjoy the music— which you do by listening to the four movements. That’s how we’re going to approach Genesis. This isn’t a breakdown of each story or even every major character. Instead, it’s a 30,000-foot view of the Bible’s premier book, built around calling out the four movements. As you read the ancient text for yourself (which is totally worth it, by the way), I believe knowing these movements ahead of time will help you grapple with what you find there.
Honestly, there’s no better name than movement for the component parts of Genesis because that’s exactly what God does in this book. He moves, and in response to that movement, His people follow suit. While these four movements are key to Genesis (and therefore, the rest of the Bible), they’re also how God continues to move in the world today. That’s why the stories of Genesis have as much power now as they did to the ancients—the stories may age, but the God moving in them stays the same.
To quote one of my favorite bluesmen, Blind Willie Johnson, “God moves, moves… God moves.” As we recognize those movements, first in the stories of Genesis and then in our own lives, we can join Him there. When God moves and we follow Him, everything changes.
MOVEMENT ONE: CHAOS TO ORDER
The opening notes of the Bible’s symphony are as familiar as anything Beethoven ever composed: “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.” The first movement of God, turning chaos into order, has begun.
Before anything was created, the Bible says the earth was “formless and empty, darkness covered the watery depths, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters” (Genesis 1:2). Consistently throughout the scriptures, water (especially large bodies of it) was associated with chaos and uncertainty. This makes sense when you consider the ancient world didn’t have modern boats, let alone pool floaties, to help them navigate the seas. The unpredictable winds and waves, and the destruction they could bring, kept most people firmly on land. But the Spirit of God is there, hovering above the waters, ready to take this chaos somewhere—to a beautifully ordered creation.
The first chapter portrays God as a skillful artisan, creating a masterpiece by ordering the planet. In succession, He creates day and night (day 1), the sky and oceans (day 2), and then the dry land and vegetation (day 3). With the macro-organization of earth taken care of, God uses the next three days to go back over creation and add artistic flourishes. On day four, He gives the sun, moon, and stars to the day and night; on day five, He adds birds and sea creatures to the sky and oceans; and on day six, all wildlife (including humans) is added to the land.
My kids (ages 6, 6 and 4) love to do art, but the way they create is the polar opposite of God. After an art hour at the house, there’s more glitter, glue and markers on the floors and walls than there is on the project. Not so with God. Everything is ordered; meticulous; perfect. Genesis 1:31 says that God looked over His completed creation and saw that it was very good. Nothing was out of place.
Far in the future, a missionary named Paul would harken back to this order when writing a letter to a church he’d started in the city of Corinth. Upon hearing that their worship services had descended into chaos, he’d write them this reminder: “God is not a God of disorder but of peace” (1 Corinthians 14:33).
As you read beyond page one, you find God’s movement toward order continuing through the pages of Genesis. From promises made to an elderly couple (Abraham and Sarah in Genesis 12), to reconciling brothers who hadn’t spoken in two decades (Jacob and Esau in Genesis 33), to rescuing a young man sold into slavery (Joseph in Genesis 37), God seems to specialize in using chaos as the wet clay from which he builds sculpted masterpieces.
Where there is chaos in your life, I believe God wants to bring order. It doesn’t mean He’ll snap his fingers and you’ll wake up tomorrow with a full bank account, healed relationships, 50 pounds lighter with a job that isn’t torture. But I do believe He wants to meet you in those things; to mend what is broken, influence what seems impossible, and bring to life what feels dead. His Spirit is still hovering over waters of chaos, looking to bring order.
How can you meet Him in that movement?
MOVEMENT TWO: ISOLATED TO GATHERED
One of the great mysteries of faith is the idea of the Trinity—that God is one, but also three, existing as God the Father, God the Son (Jesus), and God the Spirit (frequently referred to as The Holy Spirit). Even before the creation of any other living things, God wasn’t isolated, but existed in community with the other persons of the Trinity. How do we know this?
First, in Genesis 1, the word used for God (the Hebrew noun Elohim) is plural, while the verb used for create is singular. That’s not a third-grade language arts mistake by an uneducated writer, but an intentional literary device indicating the presence of God is larger than just God the Father. Later, just before creating the first human, God speaks to the plural, saying “Let us make man in our image, according to our likeness” (Genesis 1:26). Because using al “royal we” was not a common speech device in ancient Israel, and because elsewhere scripture states man was not made in the image of any other spiritual being (like angels, Psalm 8:5), we can assert that the “we” God is referring to is the Son and the Spirit.
We could go on and on, but that’s not actually the point here. Is the Trinity a mind-twister? Yes, and I’m not even going to muddy the waters by introducing clever analogies involving apples, three-leaf clovers, or ice/water/steam. It is what it is what it is. (See how I said that three times? That’s a trinity joke. Sorry, not sorry.) The point of all this is to say God exists in community, and throughout Genesis, He moves His people in the same direction—from isolated to gathered.
The first time God calls His new creation anything less than good is when He finds Adam all alone. So God creates Eve—not to be his secretary, or chef, or personal assistant—but his partner in life. (The Hebrew word is ezer and it’s a biggie. You can read more about that here.) God then gives that couple children, growing their family— and when that goes sideways, he gives them another son (Genesis 3). To survive the flood, God gathers the family of Noah into an ark (Genesis 7), and when He enters into a special relationship with an elderly (but childless) couple, Abraham and Sarah, people (and flocks of donkeys, sheep, and camels) start to gather to them like a magnet (Genesis 12). Two chapters later, when Abraham’s nephew is taken as a prisoner of war, Abraham personally has 318 trained soldiers that belong to his house. Dude had a private militia before the word was even invented.
Later, God intervenes in a miraculous way to connect a lonely man with a good wife (Isaac and Rebekah, Genesis 24), and showers Jacob with 12 sons and one daughter (Genesis 35). Even the lists of genealogies, which many readers find boring, point to this movement. God exists in community, and He moves His people to do the same.
Public service announcement: marriage and kids have been two of the prime examples of this movement in Genesis, but let me take a short aside to say (a) those aren’t the only (or even the best) forms of community; (b) if you aren’t married or don’t have kids it does not mean God’s not moving in your life and; (c) if you are married and/or have kids, you still need friends outside your house. Cool? Cool. Now, back to our previously scheduled article.
At a time when loneliness is arguably the worst epidemic facing Americans, it’s helpful to remember God didn’t create you for an isolated life. You were meant to live integrated with others. If you feel isolated, forgotten, or looked over, I believe God wants to move in your life, to gather you into community with others. That, of course, might mean you have to make the first step, but you can do so knowing the community-minded God of the Universe is on your side. He doesn’t want you isolated, but gathered.
How can you meet Him in that movement?
MOVEMENT THREE: INDEPENDENT TO COVENANTED
Americans pride ourselves on our independence, our self-sufficiency, our pull-ourselves-up-by-our-own-bootstraps initiative. There’s a lot of good to be said for that. I actually believe God is pleased with a life that defaults toward action over passivity. All that being said, there are some things only God can do. Which leads us into the third movement of Genesis—from independent to covenanted.
Covenant isn’t a word that gets much airplay in our modern world. We’re quick to doubt, to be skeptical, to assume the wool is being pulled over our eyes. Verbal agreements don’t mean much, and most of the time, neither do written ones. We live life with a backdoor option, ready to scoot if things go sideways. That’s not how the ancient world worked. Without any modern amenities, life for the heroes of Genesis was all about agreements—you help me get food, I’ll help protect your herds; you give me a wife for my son, our tribes can combine forces for protection. Covenants were everything, because without them, life was too dangerously unpredictable.
Which is what makes the covenants of Genesis so utterly mind-blowing. God, who stands to benefit nothing from entering into agreements with humanity, initiates these covenants— and then puts the heaviest weight of keeping them on His own shoulders.
One of the most important begins in Genesis 12, when God calls a man named Abram, and his wife Sarai, to leave their homeland and travel to a land He’d show them. In doing that, God said he’d bless them, make them into a great nation, and that all the people of the earth would be blessed through them. To the childless couple, living in an ancient society where ancestry was paramount, that sounded too good to be true. So they got to packing.
Years later, the couple is settled in the land God pointed them to, but there’s still no child. In Genesis 15, God comes to Abram again, a reminder that He hasn’t forgotten the covenant—but this time, God gives him a powerful picture. God tells Abram to fetch some farm animals for their meeting: a cow, a female goat, a ram, a turtledove and a pigeon.
It sounds weird to us, but Abram likely knew where this was going. In ancient times, a covenant between two parties was often ratified by gathering livestock. The animals would be killed, split in half, and laid opposite each other so that there was a walking path between the pieces. The parties entering into the covenant would walk between the pieces of livestock together, symbolizing the severity of the agreement. If either broke the covenant, they were agreeing that they could be punished by becoming like the slaughtered livestock. High-stakes game, right?
So Abe gathers the animals, slaughters them, and arranges them so that he and God can stroll between… except God doesn’t show. All day, Abram waits, chasing off birds of prey trying to swoop down on the animal pieces. Finally, as the sun sets and it grows dark, Abram sees a smoking fire pot and a flaming torch appear out of nowhere and pass between the pieces of animals without him.
Weird? Yes. But also incredibly meaningful. God passes between the pieces without Abram, showing that while the covenant between them does involve both parties, God will own the hardest parts of it. He will carry the load. In order to fulfill His promises—to give Abram land, to make him a great nation, and to bless the whole earth through him—He’d go so far as to be slaughtered like these innocent animals.
The hits keep coming, so let’s fly through them. Some years later, still without a son, God shows up again, changing Abram’s name to Abraham, and Sarai’s to Sarah. In ancient Hebrew, there is only one letter difference between Abram and Abraham, and between Sarai and Sarah. Where did that letter come from? God’s own name. In Hebrew, the name God shares with humanity is YHWH. The 2nd and 4th character (the Hebrew letter he) is what gets inserted into both Abram and Sarai’s names to form their new ones. God shares a letter with each member of this family, yet another powerful symbol of His covenant that joins them together.
Twenty-five years after first appearing to Abram (now Abraham), Sarah gives birth to their son, Isaac. The promise was kept. God has moved to begin the formation of His people, and to bring about a blessing, through Abraham’s offspring, that will influence the whole world.
(A quick aside, in a section that’s already gotten too long. Sometime in Isaac’s late teen years, God asks Abraham to sacrifice him. Yes, kill the son he’s waited 25 years for. Abraham prepares to do what God says, believing God can raise Isaac from the dead, but God stops him. There, in a thicket, a ram is caught. “Sacrifice that instead,” God says. Abraham does, and has his son restored back to him from “death.” More on what this means shortly.)
Thousands of years after Abraham, God is still about covenants. The night he was betrayed, Jesus shared a meal with His closest friends, explaining that the bread they ate symbolized his body and the cup of wine they shared was “The new covenant established by [His] blood” (Luke 22:20). While God’s covenant with His people, starting with Abraham, did include regular sacrifice of animals for the forgiveness of sins, Jesus came to establish a new normal—a new covenant. He would become that sacrifice, once and for all.
Even in the first book of the Bible, it’s been all about Jesus the whole time. The pieces of animals Abraham cut up? They point to Jesus. The sacrificial ram caught in the thicket? Jesus. Abraham’s son “returned from death?” You guessed it.
When God makes a covenant, He means to keep it—and He’s inviting you in. You don’t have to be self-made, independent, or good enough on your own. Stop striving. God wants to be the x-factor in your life. On your own power, you can’t earn it, keep it, or chase Him away. Rest easy in the fact that God is both the covenant-maker and the covenant-keeper. He wants to move you from the religion of self-reliance into something much deeper and meaningful: a covenant.
How can you meet Him in that movement?
MOVEMENT FOUR: BLESSED TO BLESSING
Time to bring our symphony, and the book of Genesis, to it’s big crescendo. The final movement finds God pushing His people from the comfort of being blessed into the pursuit of being a blessing.
There are loads of examples: from God’s covenant agreement to bless the whole world through Abraham (that’s another promise that found fulfillment in Jesus), to Abraham giving 10% of everything he owned to the mysterious king-priest Melchizedek (no time to unpack who he is, but if you want a fun rabbit trail, go Google that later. Read about it in Genesis 14), to the way Abraham cared for his nephew Lot. But my favorite example lands us at the end of Genesis, with the story of Joseph.
Abraham’s great-grandson, Joseph, was the favorite of his father—something his 11 other brothers didn’t take too kindly to. Long story short, they faked his death and sold him into slavery in Egypt. There, Joseph earns the trust of his master and the longing eye of his master’s wife. After refusing her advances, she claims Joseph tried to rape her and has him thrown in jail. Bad to worse, right?
Eventually, Pharoah finds out that Joseph is not only wise and trustworthy, but gifted in dream discernment. After helping the most powerful man in the world with some of his nightmares, Joseph is put in charge of preparing the nation for seven years of hard famine. From slavery and prison, Joseph skyrockets to 2nd in-command of all Egypt.
Joseph spends the time before the famine wisely, stockpiling so much food that, as the drought rages, neighboring people groups regularly come to Egypt to purchase grain. Some twenty-odd years after they faked his death, who should wander into Joseph’s presence to buy grain but his brothers. To quote the great Michael Scott, “Well, well, well, how the turns table…”
The brothers don’t recognize him, and with power in Egypt eclipsed only by the Pharaoh, Joseph was in the position of power. He could have had his brothers thrown in prison, sold into slavery, or squashed like bugs. He could have refused to sell them grain, let the consequences of their past actions seal their fate. But Joseph had been caught up in the movement of God. Even living as an exile in a foreign land, he had been blessed— and he was prepared to also be a blessing in return.
On their first visit, Joseph not only sold them grain, but he secretly returned their money to their sacks. On their second visit, he did the same. After seeing how their hearts had changed, he finally reveals himself as their long-lost brother. They shake in fear at his power, but Joseph has moved beyond the past. He’s a blessing now. He embraces them. He weeps with them. With the famine still raging, he makes plans for his whole extended family, including his elderly father, to come and live in Egypt where there is food and water. He is in a position of power to be a blessing, and he makes good on it.
Some of the last words of the book of Genesis show Joseph’s incredible perspective: “Joseph said to [his brothers], “Don’t be afraid. Am I in the place of God? You planned evil against me; God planned it for good to bring about the present result—the survival of many people. Therefore don’t be afraid. I will take care of you and your little ones” (Genesis 50:19-21).
God absolutely blesses His people, but it’s never meant to just stay there. He moves them to become blessings to others. Whether it’s reconciling a broken relationship, sharing your stored up grain (what’s the modern equivalent, toilet paper?), or taking care of kids in need, Joseph provides a model for the life God moves His people into—blessed in order to become a blessing (especially when things are difficult).
How can you meet Him in that movement?
ONE MORE TIME, FOR THE PEOPLE IN THE BACK Here’s the most brilliant thing about a good symphony— you can listen to it more than once. In fact, you probably should. The more you engage a masterpiece, the more you’ll pick up on all the things that really set it apart. Which takes us all the way back to the start.
Genesis is a symphony. No matter if you’ve never read it before, tried and quit, or you’ve finished more times than you can remember, now is as good a time as any to crack open the first book of the Bible and journey through it. I’ve found, the more I read, the more the pages come alive.
Remember what the bluesman said: God moves. And, at least according to Genesis, the people who get the most out of this life are the people who join Him.