by Rev. Martin Pennington

Genesis is the first book of the Bible and the first of the 5 books called the Pentateuch, (5 scrolls) which gives an account of the period from the beginning of the world to the death of Moses. Tradition holds that these 5 books are all written by Moses, which makes them highly revered by Jewish people.

The word Genesis is related to two words we know, “generate” (to cause to happen) and “genus” (family). This is appropriate because the two main themes of the book are about God’s creation of the world and the descendents of Abraham, the Father of the Jews.

The first 3 chapters of Genesis tell of the 7 days of creation, the creation of man and woman and the fall of mankind into sin. In themselves these stories are fascinating, but we can look deeper at the “internal spiritual sense” of these chapters and see much more. For example, the 7 days are a 7 stage process by which God fashions us into spiritual beings and into a Church. The creation of woman tells us how God allowed us to have a personal sense of ourselves as separate from Him even though this isn’t real. The temptation of the snake is a sad reminder of how we distort God’s gifts to our own selfish ends, loving the world more than we love Him. The next nine chapters of Genesis contain many of the stories we are familiar with from Sunday School, the Garden of Eden mentioned above, Noah’s Ark and the flood, and the Tower of Babel. These accounts are not actual history, (e.g. there wasn’t a world-wide flood, nor is the Ark under the ice on a mountain in Turkey) but they are an account of spiritual things which we often call myth or legend. Recently I heard it described this way, ‘as we dream individually so myths contain the dreams of mankind’. Myths describe spiritual events taking place on a deeper level than that of the world stage we refer to as ‘History’. Its often hard to imagine such underlying influences, but then we all accept that the world changes with each generation. What causes these changes or are they random?

From Genesis Chapter 12 onwards we do have a description of actual history, Abraham, a shepherd in Mesopotamia in 2000 BC is called to leave his country of birth and take every thing he owns and move westwards to a country we now call ‘The Land of Israel’. As Abraham establishes himself in his new home we learn not only of God’s provision and guidance but also of His preparation for the needs of mankind. The world at this time was sinking into darkness and ignorance and God’s plan for Abraham and his descendants was to keep alive knowledge of Himself through a new religion. Abraham had 2 sons Isaac and Ishmael, (Ishmael is traditionally the father of the Arabs). Isaac had twin sons Jacob and Esau. And Jacob had twelve sons. Genesis retells the story of this dynasty of wealthy shepherds as compelling as any TV melodrama, with wars, marriages, promises and betrayals.

According to the Arcana Caelestia (Swedenborg’s commentary on Genesis and Exodus) these generations of Abraham also give us an understanding of the way God developed and prepared Jesus from his birth onwards during his life on earth over two thousand years later and from this we get a hint of how God also works in our own lives. It is worth noticing here the many layered nature of the Bible:

  • We have the development and preparation of the Jewish nation as history.
  • The development and preparation of the Jewish religion covered in the next four books.
  • The salvation of mankind through personification of this religion by The Lord Jesus.
  • And Jesus’ life as a template for our own salvation.

All these levels in this latter half of Genesis are explored by Swedenborg in the Arcana. What an amazing tapestry of meaning. What an amazing and timeless book the Bible is.

Jacob, (Abraham’s grandson), was told to change his name to Israel, his twelve sons became the twelve tribes of Israel, but the most well known son was Joseph. Sold by his brothers as a slave he eventually became the second most powerful man in Egypt. The rock opera “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dream coat’ by Andrew Lloyd Webber is a beautiful version of this story. All of Jacob’s extended family finish up in Egypt, setting the stage for the Exodus from Egypt which is the next book in the Bible.

Further reading can be found in the New Church Books: Allegories of Genesis by Thomas King and The Divine Allegory by Hugo Odhner