This book begins with...the Beginning. The creation of the world, the animals, and the first human beings, is described in this book. Creation is told terms that hint at much more than a simple history story. Behind every word and every grammatical nuance might lie the deepest of secrets. The stories themselves beg to be interpreted with a little more sophistication than childish "Bible stories."
The fact that man was created last could teach a few things simultaneously...
It teaches us that man is the very purpose of creation (the "stage had to be set before the star arrived" see Rashi to Bereishis 2, 5).
It humbles us ("even the smallest insect was here before." Gemara Sanhedrin 38a).
Man was created alone (i.e. we all descend from the first couple). This teaches us a few things:
"whoever kills one soul is as though he had killed a whole world"
No one could say "I'm more important than you, my ancestor was such and such..." because ultimately, we all descend from one source.
The greatness of G-d. In the raw material of that single couple, there was the genetic
information needed to create all of the immense variety of human life (Sanhedrin 37a).
This book is much more than just a story book about the first murder, the first flood, the first organized rebellion against G-d, or the first generations of the Jewish people. True, there are stories about all of that and much more, but that's not Genesis' deepest point. This is the book about the way the world was built; its rules and purpose; its people, both great and small. This along with the Tanach as a whole is the book about G-d Himself. Everything that is ever possible to know about Him is in these pages. But it would take many lifetimes to see and learn it all. Perhaps the main goal when learning the Tanach is to overcome the simplistic grade school understanding of these great people and events and examine them for the first time through mature eyes.
Back to the simple "Bible story" level.
Genesis describes creation, the early generations (Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and the birth of Jacob's twelve sons and one daughter), and finally the descent of this small family into the spiritual wasteland of Egypt.
Genesis begins at the beginning which was year "0" according to the Jewish dating scheme, that is the year 3760 BCE. The book finishes with the death of Joseph in the Jewish year 2309 (1451 bce).
Many passages of the Torah were written in a way that hides much more than it reveals. If you compare the simple version of the story of Jacob meeting his brother Esau (Gen. 32), with the story according to the oral tradition (see the commentary of Rashi), you'll see two very different approaches. Of course, there's no story or description in the Five Books (Chumash) that isn't true (that's nothing more than, say, a parable), but what the oral Torah adds is more than just extra detail. It's a whole approach, it's a 3 dimensional
understanding. The Chumash without the classical commentators (who's words are based on the Talmud and
Midrashim) is nothing more than Bible stories. They seem
nice... but on second thought they don't make much sense.
For some examples, look up the following passages and see if you can find any logical reason why G-d (or anyone else) would want us to read them.
Gen. 15: 8:17 (Ask: "what do the animals and the sun's setting and the fire have to do with the conversation?")
Exodus 4: 24:26 (Ask: "What does anything here have to do with anything?")
Deut. 22:12 (Ask: "What does this passage refer to?")
So why the secrecy? Why couldn't the Author of the Chumash have been more straightforward? By way of an answer, it could be said that even the written Torah is a little bit "oral," it too needs its own key. Why? So that even if a copy of the Bible - the Jew's Bible - has come into possession of other nations, they still wouldn't really know what's going on without the commentary of the oral law. In other words, it's still the property of the People that stood at Mt. Sinai.
Rabbi Boruch Clinton teaches at the Ottawa Torah Institute yeshiva high
school and Machon Sarah high school for girls (both in Ottawa, Canada).
You may reach him with comments and questions at