Finding the Pericopes for Genesis

 |  October 12, 2020

Preaching historical narratives can, at times, be intimidating. Historical narratives do not function in the same way as, say, an epistle. Epistles are normally loaded with both indicatives and imperatives, thus providing the reader with a clear outline of what to believe and what to do in light of the author’s message. Historical narratives, though, invite the reader into the story through the usage of phrases, themes, and character and plot development, and the reader is left to conclude what should be done in light of the text.

The author, however, does not leave the reader to wander the forest alone; rather, he structures themes, plots, theologies, and the overarching narrative into broader sections often called pericopes. A pericope is simply a unit that forms one coherent thought and can contain few (John 7:53–8:11) or many verses (Rev 4:1–16:21).

When preaching Genesis, it is important that the preacher understands how Moses has strategically shaped and formed the book as a whole in order to see how the smaller sections may fit into the overall plotline of this biblical text. In other words, the preacher must identify the pericopes in Genesis in order to divide the sermon series appropriately.

Identifying the Structure of Genesis

Genesis is about “the beginnings” of the biblical world and its storyline, and this sentiment is reflected in the Hebrew title בראשׁית. (bĕrē’šît). For the purposes of creation, as Gen 1 describes, it is the origin story of the world and the created things found therein. But Genesis also furthers the origin story of humanity, their dispersion, and the creation of Israel. So, one pericope of Genesis could be as follows:

  1. The Origin of the World (Gen 1)
  2. The Origins of the Nations (Gen 2–11)
  3. The Origins of Israel (Gen 12-50)[1]Gordon J. Wenham, Genesis 1-15 WBC (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1987), xxi.

This outline is brief and allows the reader to see the broader layout of the book. Found within each section is the emphasis on a specific family, but there is a clear demarcation in time between Gen 1–11 and Gen 12–-50. For example, in the genealogy of Noah in Gen 5 most people are only mentioned to establish the narrative of Noah in Gen 6–9, and there are several hundreds of years glossed over. However, when the reader arrives at Gen 12–50, the narrative slows down dramatically to focus on the patriarchal line of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob/Israel, thus establishing the significance of these three characters for the biblical storyline as it progresses forward and God’s covenantal love towards the nation of Israel as a whole. So, another possible outline could be as follows:

  1. The Origin of the World (Gen 1)
  2. The Origins of the Nations (Gen 2–11)
    1. Adam and Eve (Gen 2–3)
    2. Cain and Abel (Gen 4–5)
    3. Noah (Gen 6–10)
    4. The Tower of Babel (Gen 11)
  3. The Origins of Israel (Gen 12–50)
    1. The Life of Abraham (Gen 12–25:18)
    2. The Life of Isaac (Gen 25:19–26:35)
    3. The Life of Jacob (Gen 27–Gen 37:1)
    4. The Life of Joseph (Gen 37:2–50:26)

This pericope serves better than the first, but there is a problem by dividing the book in this way as well. It is, perhaps once again, over-generalized. Furthermore, there is too much overlap in the storyline of the characters, and more is missed here than not.

 ﬨלדות as the Pericope for Genesis

Scholars have long recognized the importance of the world ﬨלדות (tōlĕdōt) and the function it serves within the book of Genesis. Commonly translated as “account” or “generations,” ﬨלדות provides a helpful pericope for dividing Genesis adequately. The phrase אלה תלדות (‘ëleh tōlĕdōt) divides Genesis into eleven separate sections and begins in Gen 2:4.[2]This outline is modified from ibid., xxii; Kenneth A. Matthews, Genesis 1:1-11:26 NAC (Nashville: Broadman and Holman, 1996), 29. The outline provided by Matthews is helpful as well, but is not divided strictly by אלה תלדות, as he groups together Gen 1:1-4:26.

  1. Prologue (Gen 1:1–2:3)
  2. Heaven and Earth (Gen 2:4–4:26)
  3. The History of Adam (Gen 5:1–6:8)
  4. The History of Noah (Gen 6:9–9:29)
  5. The History of Noah’s Sons (Gen 10:1–11:9)
  6. The History of Shem (Gen 11:10–26)
  7. The History of Abra(ha)m (Gen 11:27–25:11)
  8. The History of Ishmael (Gen 25:12–18)
  9. The History of Isaac and Jacob (Gen 25:19–35:29)
  10. The History of Esau-Edom (Gen 36:1–37:1)
  11. The History of Joseph (Gen 37:2–50:26)

By dividing Genesis into these pericopes, the preacher follows the natural form and shape of the book and has allowed the text to dictate its own division. Furthermore, it also allows for clean division breaks and focuses on the specific history of certain people and is not overly generalized in its group.

The attempt to find the pericopes of a book can be a difficult process, for it may appear that many options are available. Yet, finding these divisions is an integral and necessary part of preparing to preach a book, and should be done at the onset of the sermon series. By digging into the text of the Bible, forming one’s own outline, and reading helpful commentaries to see their suggested division, the preacher will have a clear map to guide his sermon series.


Jason Kees is the Associate Pastor of East Leesville Baptist Church in Leesville, Louisiana.

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