Structural Analysis – Sefer Bereshit
"From Creation to the Chosen Family"

This topic is still being developed and updated

Boundaries of the Book

From Creation to the Chosen Family

  • Names – The name "בְּרֵאשִׁית", which is derived from the opening word of the book, dates back to antiquity.1 Two other names found in Rabbinic sources2 are more descriptive and relate to the content of the book: "ספר אברהם יצחק ויעקב"  and "‎‎‏ספר הישר".‎3  In the vernacular, the book is known as Genesis, referring to its opening description of the creation of the world.4
  • Themes – Sefer Bereshit serves as the introduction to the rest of Torah,  describing a series of rejections and selections which conclude with the choosing of the twelve tribes. Subsequent books discuss the formative experiences which transformed these tribes into the nation of Israel and the laws which govern their interactions with each other and Hashem.
  • Setting – In contrast to the rest of Torah which takes place in exile (in Egypt or the Wilderness), much of Sefer Bereshit occurs in the Land of Canaan.
  • Timing – Sefer Bereshit takes place over a much longer period than any other book in Torah, encompassing over two thousand years. This is in contrast to the centuries of Sefer Shemot,5 decades of Bemidbar, and weeks of Vayikra and Devarim..
  • Characters – While the rest of Torah deals with the nation of Israel, Sefer Bereshit focuses on the family unit, discussing the nation's founders: Avraham, Yitzchak, and Yaakov.
  • Genre – Sefer Bereshit is unique in Torah in that it contains almost no legal material.6
  • Promises and Fulfillment – Many of the promises laid forth in Sefer Bereshit (plentiful seed, the prediction of exile and slavery, punishment of the oppressor, and departure from exile with great wealth) are first fulfilled in Sefer Shemot. 

Division Into Units

I. Universal History (1 – 11)
II. Selection of a Chosen Family (12 – 50)

  • Plot – The book divides into two main sections, both of which contain a series of rejections and selections, first on the universal level and then on the individual level. Thus, the first eleven chapters speak of the creation, destruction, and recreation of the world at large, while the subsequent chapters focus on the dismissing and choosing of the individuals who were to father Hashem's chosen nation.7
  • Characters – While the first unit speaks of the seventy nations of the world (or, the human species as a whole), the second  focuses on Avraham and his descendants.
  • Setting – The opening unit of the book is set all over the world, as the flood destroys all, and then Noach's descendants spread throughout the land. In contrast, most of the stories of the Patriarchs and Matriarchs take place in Canaan, while others occur in Mesopotamia or Egypt.
  • Timing – The first section of the book takes place over close to 2000 years and covers 20 generations, while the rest of the book occurs over a period of about 360 years and speaks of only 4 generations.

Subdivision of Unit I – Universal History

I. Creation Take One: From Adam to Noach (1 – 5)
II. Creation Take Two: From Noach to Avraham (6 – 11)

  • Plot – The first unit describes Hashem's initial creation of the world and the failures of its first inhabitants.  Hashem's subsequent destruction of the world and its recreation are described in the second unit.
  • Characters – While the first section focuses on Adam and his descendants, the second tells of Noach and his offspring.
  • Setting – The stories of Adam and his descendants take place in and around the Garden of Eden, while the Noach narrative occurs world-wide.
  • Timing – Each unit spans 10 generations and close to 1000 years, but focuses on only one to two of those generations.
  • Literary Markers –  Each unit ends with a genealogy list (זֶה סֵפֶר תּוֹלְדֹת אָדָם / אֵלֶּה תּוֹלְדֹת שֵׁם ) covering ten generations. These both bring the reader from one era to the next and highlight the chosen line that emerged from each period. Thus, Chapter 5 speaks of the line of Shet which replaced the rejected line of Kayin.  It ends with the birth of the chosen Noach. Chapter 11 similarly speaks of the line of Shem, the chosen son of Noach, and ends with the birth of Avraham.

Subdivision of Unit II – Selection of a Chosen Family

I. Patriarchs and Matriarchs (12 – 36)
II. The Children of Israel: the Twelve Tribes (37 – 50)

  • Plot – The first unit speaks of the lives, struggles, and accomplishments of each of the Patriarchs and Matriarchs.  In discussing each generation, much of the narrative is devoted to the search for an individual heir to receive Hashem's blessing.  The second unit moves to discuss the choice of all twelve tribes.  The narrative, like that of the first unit, speaks of both challenges and triumphs, and details significant sibling rivalry as the brothers (unlike the reader) do not know that they are all to be chosen.
  • Characters – While the first section focuses on the Patriarchs and Matriarchs, the second section turns to the interactions between Yaakov's twelve sons, later heads of the tribes of Israel. 
  • Setting – The stories of Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov take place mainly in Canaan and Mesopotamia.  The story of the brothers, in contrast, switches off between Canaan and Egypt.