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Preaching on Genesis

An overview of the historical background and theology of Genesis to help you develop your sermon series and apply it to your hearers.
Preaching on Genesis
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Historical Background

You’ll never know who you are or where you’re headed until you know where you’re from. That’s why many of us research our ancestries and pay a lab to map our DNA. We hope that by uncovering our past, we’ll discover our identity and our destiny. This is one of the reasons God gave us the Book of Genesis.

Who wrote Genesis? When? Where did that author get his information? What is the book’s purpose? These simple questions have generated considerable controversy over the past three hundred years. Before then, Jewish traditions taught and Christians believed that Moses wrote the entire Pentateuch, from Genesis through Deuteronomy. Jesus himself ascribed the Pentateuch’s authorship to Moses in John 5:45-47, as did his interlocutors, the scribes and Pharisees, in Matthew 19:7 and 22:24.

When we accept Moses’ authorship of Genesis, it’s reasonable to assume he wrote or dictated the book’s contents during the forty years between the time he led his people out of Egypt to when he left them under Joshua’s care on Canaan’s border. He undoubtedly drew upon oral history and his early education in Egypt’s court (Acts 7:22) for parts of his composition. The rest could have easily been supplemented by God when Moses communed with him atop Mt. Sinai and, later, in Israel’s Tabernacle.

Moses’ immediate audience for Genesis was his own people, particularly that new generation about to claim the land God had promised to Abraham hundreds of years earlier. Those young people needed a trustworthy account of their forefathers, their origins, their travels and travails, and, not least of all, their covenants with God. In that record they would find their identity and inspiration. Through it they would learn to appreciate who they were and find the strength to carry on.

Thanks to the Spirit’s inspiration of Moses’ work, we today have a reliable account of the world’s creation, mankind’s fall, sin’s consequences, and, most importantly, God’s unflagging grace. It’s significant that the book opens in a garden and ends in a graveyard. In between, are promises of a brighter future to be ushered in by a particular “seed” (3:15). The world that God created in the beginning was “good” and will be good again. It had a blessed start and will enjoy a blessed future. This first book of the Bible tells us where we came from and gets us ready for where we’re headed—both the grave and beyond. Here we meet a good God who wants to do us good and to do good through us. What a wonderful way to begin the Bible’s story!

Sermon Series

Genesis mixes history, biography, and theology in such a way that a preacher can easily develop a sermon series highlighting one or more of these emphases. I once preached a biographical series from Joseph’s life titled “In Pursuit of Excellence.” Later, I considered another such series drawn from Abraham’s life to be called “Walking by Faith” and a historical series covering chapters 1-11 possibly to be titled “In the Beginning.” Eventually, I settled on a few stand-alone sermons from those passages.

To preach a single series covering all of the book’s fifty chapters poses quite a challenge. It first requires the preacher to identify, on the one hand, a theme that unifies the book’s contents and, on the other, the book’s natural divisions. What the preacher determines here will set the trajectory for the whole series. Then, the preacher must determine how detailed the series should be. Chapter-by-chapter preaching makes less sense for this book than a unit-by-unit approach. The following suggested series may be preached in as few as four sermons or as many as eight.

1) Finding Lavida Bendita in a Vida Loca World; In the Beginning (a historical series on Genesis 1-11); 2) Biographical series on Abraham, Jacob, and Joseph; 3) His Story, Our Story—A theological series on the “seed” of the woman and how this theme is developed throughout Genesis and beyond.

Title/Big idea for whole series: Finding Lavida Bendita in a Vida Loca World: God intends for us to lead blessed lives that bless others.

Text: Genesis 1:1-11:26
  • Title: Created for Blessing
  • Exegetical Idea: Despite humanity’s incessant sin from the beginning of time, God did not abandon his creation nor his gracious intentions thereto.
  • Big Idea: God creates us for blessing.
Text: Genesis 1:1-25
  • Title: The Life God Intends
  • Exegetical Idea: God’s creation of the world and Moses’ account thereof are together marked by order, balance, and harmony.
  • Big Idea: God created us to live in a world marked by order, balance, and harmony.
Text: Genesis 3:1-6:8
  • Title: The Life Nobody Wants
  • Exegetical Idea: Adam and Eve’s sin which pitted them against each other, God, and their environment was passed on to their descendants, resulting in death, alienation, and chaos—the latter recalling the earth’s state in 1:2.
  • Big Idea: Our sin has created a world marked by disorder, imbalance, and disunity.
Text: Genesis 6:9-9:29
  • Title: Life in the Storm
  • Exegetical Idea: God recreated the world by washing it clean in a flood and starting over with Noah’s family, who, like Adam and Eve before them, soon “fell” thereafter.
  • Big Idea: God judges sin; only his grace keeps us afloat.
Text: Genesis 10:1-11:26
  • Title: Life Under the Rainbow
  • Exegetical Idea: Despite humanity’s widespread disobedience, culminating in the events at the Tower of Babel, the relatively righteous line (“seed”) of Shem continued.
  • Big Idea: God will always have his remnant.
Text: Genesis 11:27-25:18
  • Title: Called to Blessing
  • Exegetical Idea: God called Abraham into a life of blessing—including a land, “seed,” and the promise to bless all nations through him—in response, despite occasional lapses on his part, Abraham believed God, worshipped him, and obeyed.
  • Big Idea: God calls us to a blessed life.
Text: Genesis 25:19-36:43
  • Title: Pursuing the Blessing
  • Exegetical Idea: Through Abraham’s son Isaac, God’s promises passed to Jacob, who doggedly pursued God’s blessings on his own terms until God crippled him and taught him to submit.
  • Big Idea: We pursue the blessed life by submitting to God.
Text: Genesis 37:1-50:26
  • Title: Passing the Blessing
  • Exegetical Idea: Through Jacob’s son Joseph, God began to fulfill his promise to bless the nations through Abraham by taking Joseph on a remarkable journey that ended with him in the position of Egypt’s (and his family’s) savior.
  • Big Idea: The blessed life is a shared life.


Genesis consists primarily of narratives, that is, stories. The Bible’s stories, particularly those in the Old Testament, operate on three levels. The upper level is theological. Every story teaches us something about God through what he says, through what other characters in the story say about him, and/or through his actions. The middle level is historical. Israel’s history is traced through the Bible’s stories. The bottom level is biographical. Here we meet people like us muddling through life as best they can under God’s watchful eye.

When preaching from a story, it’s important to keep all three levels in mind. Sermons that don’t rise above the first level may provide helpful examples and instruction on how (not) to live but too often leave the hearer trusting in her/his own strength to implement those instructions. Sermons that rise no higher than the second level may be interesting, even informative, but can seem irrelevant to the challenges of life in today’s world. Only by rising to the highest level do story-based sermons help hearers along in their life with God, by calling them to look to his Spirit for strength to obey and by pointing them to his Son as the embodiment of perfect obedience.

There’s a great deal of truth in the old adage that “biblical narrative is not normative.” In other words, just because God told Abraham to offer up Isaac doesn’t mean he intends for us to practice child sacrifice today. In much the same way, the Book of Job tells us what his friends said, but it’s not to endorse all they said.

Still, all Scripture is instructive—beneficial for doctrine, reproof, correction, and instruction in righteous living. There’s something to be learned from every conversation, every list, every story. What we must do as preachers in order to apply a story as the author intended is to ask not only “What is the writer saying here?” but “Why are they saying it?” or, better yet, “What are they doing with what they are saying?” Is the author issuing a warning, offering encouragement, inspiring awe, offering evidence, instigating praise, or something else? What (re)action is the author trying to evoke?

Authorial intention should always inform if not guide our handling of the scriptures. This is especially important to remember when preaching from Genesis 1-11. While Moses undoubtedly recounted God’s creation of the world and the great flood in such a way as to contrast the person and ways of Israel’s God with the gods of the surrounding nations, it’s unlikely he intended what he wrote to be treated as a scientific treatise on either topic. Without question, what Moses wrote is completely true! But we must beware that we not lose sight of the theological truths he wanted to convey while using his account for some purpose other than what he intended. This is not to say that Moses couldn’t have “written better than he knew.” Thanks to the Spirit’s inspiration, his writings may say more scientifically than he realized. Nevertheless, we must begin with what he said and why he said it. Only afterwards might we consider whether anything else needs to be added.

Theological Themes

The words “bless” and “blessing” occur more often in Genesis than any other book of the Bible. What does it mean to be blessed? Our hearers will likely equate blessing to good health, material wealth, and overall prosperity. While that’s close to the mark prior to the Fall, back when Adam and Eve enjoyed perfect bodies and an abundance of all good things, we now live on the other side of Eden. Deprivation, decay, and death are the rule in today’s world.

What does blessing look like now? To answer that question, we start with Abraham. His very name contains two of the three consonants in the word “bless.” In a sense, Abraham himself was the incarnation of blessing. To him was given God’s blessing, and through him that blessing still flows. Turning to the New Testament, we find Jesus, from the “seed” of Abraham, to be the fulfillment of all God’s promises (2 Cor. 1:20). In him we experience life abundant and eternal (John 10:10).

Abraham received and believed God’s promises but didn’t live to see them fulfilled. Instead, his life was marked by waiting, disappointment, failure, and, despite it all, hope. It was hope that sustained Abraham’s son Isaac and his grandson Jacob. Jacob desperately sought God’s blessing but didn’t begin to know it until he learned in a midnight wrestling match to let God rule. He walked away from that encounter with a limp and, more importantly, a new name—Israel. Finally, through Abraham’s grandson Joseph, the world began to experience some of those blessings that God previously promised to bestow through Abraham.

Clearly, “blessing” ties the Book of Genesis together. It’s impossible to preach through the book without addressing this oft misunderstood topic. To cover this topic well, a preacher must be clear on what “blessing” looked like before Genesis 3 and what it looks like thereafter from chapter 12 through today.

The One who blesses is Yahweh Elohim (2:4), the LORD God. He is the one God, not one out of a pantheon. And yet, his words in 1:26 imply there is more to this one God than a singular person! He is sovereign and almighty, not tied to any locale (be it earth, sea, or sky) nor limited in ability. He only has to speak, and it is done. This God created human beings in his image, not as an afterthought nor out of personal necessity but to share in his community and grace. In sum, the God of Genesis 1 was unlike any god known to the ancient world. This is what Moses wanted to emphasize, but it’s a point too easily overlooked when we turn to Genesis 1 only to form an apology for a particular view on origins. Let the preacher beware!

God’s blessings are never deserved. Despite Adam and Eve’s sin, God didn’t abandon them. Instead, he sacrificed some of his beloved animals, the very animals that Adam had only recently named, in order to provide his image-bearers with coats (3:21). Despite humanity’s subsequent chaotic behavior, God didn’t destroy everyone on earth. Instead, he recreated the race beginning with Noah and his family. Despite the sins of Noah and his generations that followed, God didn’t leave the world with nothing but confusion in the wake of Babel’s demise. Instead, he made a covenant with Abraham. As much as we may want to rail against sin, and there is definitely a place for that(!), we must never fail to preach God’s undeserved grace.

Adam, the progenitor of humanity, failed to appreciate God’s grace enough to resist the temptation to eat from Eden’s forbidden tree. Noah, who became something of a second Adam through whom God recreated the human race, failed to appreciate God’s grace enough to behave any better than he did after the flood. What did God do? He started over yet again with Abraham, who would father a new people. To this third Adam, God promised a land (not Eden but Canaan), a seed (as numerous as the stars and sand, recalling his earlier command to Adam and Noah when he told them to be fruitful and multiply), and special purpose (not to tend a garden or build a boat but to bless the world).

God walked with Adam in the cool of the day; he walked with Noah’s ancestor Enoch; and he commanded Abraham to walk uprightly before him (17:1). What does God require of his people today? It is that they do justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with [their] God (Micah 6:8). When we call our hearers to a life of obedience, let’s not forget nor fail to remind them that we’re inviting them into a blessed life!

Space prohibits me from making more than a passing reference to the formerly barren women in Genesis whom God miraculously blessed with children (foreshadowing Mary’s virginal conception); the theme of conflict running throughout the book (pointing ahead to that time when the “seed of the woman” will finally prevail); how many divine appointments take place around a body of water—especially wells (an oft-repeated theme in Scripture, most memorably when Jesus conversed with the Samaritan woman at one of Jacob’s wells); the multiple deceptions throughout the book (giving credence to Jesus’ assertion that we are of our father, the Devil, who was a liar from the beginning [John 8:44-45]); the choice of Judah, not Joseph, the favored one, or Benjamin, the youngest, to be heir to Abraham’s blessing (from whose tribe Jesus came); and the traces of Eden we find in the new heavens and new earth of Revelation 21-22 (including the Tree of Life from which Adam and Eve were barred following their fall). Life, at last, comes full circle! What started in paradise ends in paradise. What grace! What a good God!

My Encounter with Genesis

As stated earlier, my lone extended sermon series from Genesis traced the arc of Joseph’s life. I was in my mid-twenties then and pastoring my first church. I admired how Joseph overcame so much to leave behind such a wonderful legacy. It was my hope that both I and my congregation might learn from his exemplary life and be excellent before the Lord.

In the three decades since that initial series, I have preached a handful of one-off sermons from some of the book’s more familiar stories. Most recently, I took up the story of Noah, focusing first on God’s judgment and then his grace. I pointed out that families were in a mess prior to the flood (6:1-6) and that they remained in a mess after the flood (9:20-27). The flood changed nothing! Only God’s grace is keeping us afloat.

I never cease to marvel at the riches to be found in Genesis. More amazing still, it’s only the beginning of the Bible’s story!

Recommended Commentaries

Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart. How to Read the Bible Book by Book. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2002.

Abraham Kuruvilla. Genesis: A Theological Commentary for Preachers. Eugene, OR: Resource Publications, 2014. (The four-part sermon series outlined above is based on Kuruvilla’s work.)

John H. Walton. Genesis: The NIV Application Commentary. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2001.

Gregory Hollifield is the Associate Dean at Memphis College of Urban and Theological Studies at Union University and Book Reviews Editor for the Journal of the Evangelical Homiletics Society.

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