The first book of the Torah is known in Hebrew as Bereishit (“In the Beginning”), because the opening lines describe how G‑d created heaven and earth. In English it is called Genesis (from the Greek for “origin”).

To keep things simple, let’s divide the book into three parts:


Portion: Bereishit

G‑d Cain kills his brother Abelcreates the world in six days and rests on the seventh. Adam and Eve are created on day number six and placed in the wonderful Garden of Eden, but they sin by eating from the tree of knowledge and are expelled from the garden. Their son Cain kills his brother Abel, and the world descends into chaos.

Portion: Noach

Ten generations later, G‑d determines to press “restart” on His creation by flooding the world and washing away all life. Noah, the only righteous individual in his time, is commanded to build an ark to save himself, his family and a mated pair of each species. After the flood, Noah’s descendants start to build a tower to centralize their power. G‑d destroys the tower of Babel and disperses them by causing them to speak different languages.

The Patriarchs

Portions: Lech Lecha, Vayeira

We are introduced to Abraham, 10 generations from Noah, who faithfully follows G‑d to the future Land of Israel and overcomes multiple tests that G‑d sends his way. G‑d promises Abraham that he will be the father of a great nation. But Abraham’s wife Sarah is barren. Sarah suggests that Abraham marry her maid, Hagar, who bears him a son, Ishmael. Abraham follows G‑d’s instruction to circumcise himself, and he and Sarah are blessed with a son, Isaac, at the ages of 100 and 90, respectively. Abraham’s most famous test comes when G‑d commands him to sacrifice Isaac on an altar. Abraham is willing, but G‑d stops him at the last moment.

Portions: Chayei Sarah, Toldot

Isaac marries Rebecca, and after several years of praying for children, they are blessed with twin boys, Esau and Jacob. Jacob is a studious “dweller in tents,” and Esau is a hunter. In his old age, Isaac wants to bless Esau, his firstborn. Knowing that Esau does not deserve the blessings, Rebecca Esau does not deserve the blessingstells Jacob to impersonate his brother and take the blessings himself. Jacob then flees to his uncle Laban to escape his brother’s wrath.

Portions: Vayeitzei, Vayishlach

Jacob marries Laban’s two daughters, Rachel and Leah; grows prosperous; and has twelve sons. Upon G‑d’s instruction, he returns to the Holy Land, and even makes peace with Esau.

The Brothers

Portion: Vayeishev

Of Jacob’s 12 sons, Joseph is his favorite. His jealous brothers sell him to slave traders, and he ends up in Egypt. Joseph is wildly successful there, but is thrown into jail after he refuses the overtures of his master’s wife.

Portions: Mikeitz, Vayigash

Joseph is taken out of prison to interpret Pharaoh’s dreams, predicting years of plenty followed by a famine. Pharaoh is so impressed with Joseph that he appoints him viceroy and charges him with preparing for the famine. When famine sets in, people come from all over to purchase food from Joseph—including his own siblings.

Joseph recognizes his brothers and interrogates them. Holding his brother Simeon hostage, he has them return to his father and bring back Benjamin, the only brother with whom he shares both father and mother. They return with Benjamin, and Joseph continues to trouble them. At last, Joseph is Joseph recognizes his brothersunable to contain himself and reveals his identity to his brothers. At Joseph’s invitation, Jacob and his family settle in Egypt.

Portion: Vayechi

Jacob lives the last—and best—17 years of his life in Egypt. Before his passing, he blesses his children and enjoins them to take his body back to Canaan and bury him in the same plot as his parents and grandparents in Hebron. They fulfill his wish and then return to Egypt—setting the stage for the enslavement and subsequent exodus recorded in the book of Exodus.

What began as a cosmic tale ends focused on a small group, the seed of Abraham, whose legacy will shape the course of world events in ways still unfolding today.