The Bible is the story of God's interaction with His creation. Specifically, it is the story of how mankind fell with no hope of redeeming itself, and how God provided Jesus as the way of redemption. Genesis 1—11 is the beginning of the story and sets the stage for all of history.
What is the biblical history of early humanity?
First came creation. The first chapter of Genesis outlines the seven days of creation. Of course there is extensive debate regarding exactly how literal this chapter was meant to be. Scholars and scientists argue everything from the Hebrew word used for "day" to the relationship between sin and death (If Adam's sin brought death to the world, how could the millions of animals have died before him?). But God is more than capable of creating the universe in seven days, and there is no biblical reason to assume He did otherwise.
On the sixth day, after God had created the land animals, He formed Adam, the first man, out of clay and breathed life into him. Genesis 2 fits into the Genesis 1 summary here, detailing how God showed Adam the animals he was to have dominion over so that Adam could understand that he needed a partner. Once he understood his need, God formed Eve out of Adam's side (Genesis 2:18-25). The story returns to Genesis 1:27 where God outlined Adam and Eve's mission — to procreate and rule over creation.
As specific as the seven-day creation was written, there are some things in the creation story that are more ambiguous. When did Satan rebel against God? After or before creation? How long were Adam and Eve in the garden before Satan tempted them? How many kinds of animals were there if Adam named them all the same day God created him and Eve? Although speculation abounds, the Bible doesn't say. It does say that Satan rebelled against God out of pride (Isaiah 14:12-14) and a third of the angels followed him (Revelation 12:4). Satan then set out to damage both God's creation and God's relationship with His creation. He started by tempting Eve.
In the Garden of Eden were two trees: The Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil and the Tree of Life. Back on day 6, God had specifically told Adam not to eat from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. God did not ban him from the Tree of Life. Again we reach the realm of speculation — what if Adam and Eve had eaten from the Tree of Life? It's possible this would have been their defining moment, a once and for all decision to follow and worship God.
But in the end, all we know is that Satan tempted Eve, Eve tempted Adam, and their fate (and ours) was sealed. They voluntarily took on the sin nature for themselves and for all their descendants. A massive corruption of the DNA of the soul that only Christ's sacrifice can repair. Their purity was so damaged they feared the Creator they had loved. God cursed all three parties — men, women, and snakes, and expelled Adam and Eve from the Garden. In the midst of the curses, however, God gave the first hint of His plan to save Adam and Eve and their descendants from eternal punishment. And in banishing of Adam and Eve from the Garden, God saved them from reaching the Tree of Life and living for eternity in corrupted, damageable physical bodies. But He was also the agent of the first death in the new world as He killed and skinned an animal to provide durable clothing for Adam and Eve.
In Genesis 4, we're introduced to Cain and Abel. Most scholars assume Cain and Abel were the first two children of Adam and Eve, but the Bible doesn't actually say. They certainly weren't the only, as Cain was married (to either a sister or niece). We aren't told exactly why Abel's sacrifice was more pleasing to God than Cain's, other than Abel offered his in faith (Hebrews 11:4). Despite God's warning (Genesis 4:6-7), Cain let his anger grow to the point he committed the first recorded murder, killing Abel. God's response was to curse his strength. The man who was defined by his ability to grow crops was confined to be a wanderer who could no longer find provision in the land.
Five generations into Cain's line we come upon Lamech (Genesis 4:17-24). He was the first recorded polygamist, and apparently a strong and powerful man. One of his sons, Tubal-cain, forged "all instruments of bronze and iron" (Genesis 4:22), giving us a quick indication of the intelligence and skill of the early generations. Seth, the son born to Eve after Abel's death, had a much longer line — all the way to Noah and beyond. The men in the line between Seth and Noah all lived between 895 and 969 years, save for Enoch whom God took early (Genesis 5:21-24). These impressive lifespans were due to at least a couple of factors. When God made the world, He called it "good." It couldn't have been so without being able to sufficiently provide healthful food for its inhabitants. In addition, Adam and Eve were created physically perfect. They had no DNA anomalies and passed on no congenital defects. This is also why their children were able to marry each other with no physiological repercussions.
Unfortunately, the good health and long lives had another result: people were able to plan and accomplish incredible evil over a long time span (Genesis 6:5). It got so bad that God grieved He had even made man, and sent the Flood to clean the slate (Genesis 6:6-7). In order to save a remnant of both people and animals, He chose the remaining righteous man, Noah, to build a giant ship. Noah took his wife, three sons, and their wives, along with representations of every kind of animal, and hunkered down for just over a year while rain and violently expelled groundwater covered everything they'd ever known.
When the Flood waters receded and the Holy Spirit dried the land, the Ark landed on Mt. Ararat, which may or may not be in present-day Turkey. Noah made an altar and sacrificed to God; God promised not to destroy the world again with a global flood (Genesis 8—9). Then proceeds an ambiguous event in which Noah got drunk, and his son Ham and Ham's son Canaan somehow disrespect him (Genesis 9:20-25). Some say they mocked his naked body, while others believe one of them raped Noah as he lay passed out. At any event, Noah cursed Canaan to be "a servant of servants" to his brothers. We don't know exactly what that means today, but it can be said unequivocally it does not justify the enslavement of millions of Africans.
After the Flood there were two major changes to human life. The first is that the people were allowed to eat meat and their relationship with animals became more antagonistic (Genesis 9:2-3). The second was a substantial and rapid decrease in lifespan. Noah died at 950 years old. Nine generations later, Abraham's 175 years was considered "a good old age" (Genesis 25:8). It's possible that the Flood devastated the land, making it much more difficult to live and gather food. The suddenly homicidal animals couldn't have helped. It's also hypothesized that the atmosphere went through such a drastic change that radiation from space damaged DNA, increasing congenital birth defects. Either way, it turned out to be a grace, as humans were no longer given such long times to plan great evil.
The next major event involved the Tower of Babel (Genesis 11:1-9). God had commissioned Adam and Eve to fill the world with people. At some point after the Flood, the people decided this was a bad idea and built a giant tower as a centralized rallying point. Babel is identified as part of Nimrod's domain in the land of Shinar (Genesis 10:10), but it's unclear if Nimrod was directly involved with the Tower. In response to the people breaking God's word, God divided their languages, thus melting away their unity of culture and purpose, and scattered the people across the face of the earth
Chapters 10 and 11 invite more speculation. Noah had three sons — Japheth, Ham, and Shem. We know for certain that Shem was the father of the Semites, including Jews. It's thought that the descendants of Japheth spread across Europe, and Ham's eventually travelled to Africa. We do know that Ham's progeny included the future enemies of Israel: the Canaanites, Jebusites, Amorites, and Girgashites. The speculation is more geological. Secular scientists speak of a single continent, Pangea. The Bible speaks of Peleg, a man about half-way between Shem and Abraham, whose claim to fame was that he lived in the time that "the earth was divided" (Genesis 10:25). Does this mean the time when Pangea started breaking into the continents we know today? Or does it just refer to the scattering of tribes after God divided the languages at Babel? It's fun to speculate, but the Bible doesn't say.
The time recounted in early Genesis has many lessons for us, but one of the most significant is how quickly a people can turn their backs on God. Adam and Eve walked with God and spoke to Him directly, yet their son committed the first murder. Going by the genealogies given in Genesis, Adam was still alive during the time of Methuselah and Lamech; Noah was born about 130 years after Adam's death. Yet the people were so evil that God had to destroy them. Noah was still alive when Abraham was born. Yet during that time, God had to divide the languages and the tribes to mitigate the people's reach of evil. While Noah was still alive, new religions were created, assigning powers and authorities to gods that didn't exist, and lasting into the ages of the Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans (it's believed the goddess Ishtar, found in the Epic of Gilgamesh, went on to inspire Venus and Aphrodite). Although the story of the Flood spread with the tribes of Babel, it was often distorted beyond easy recognition.
After covering several thousand years in less than eleven full chapters, the rest of the Book of Genesis goes on to describe the exploits of one family: that of Abram/Abraham. From one man, God created several nations. And from one of those nations, He introduced the world to His Son, and the only one Who could save us from Adam and Eve's sin.
Why did God create humanity?
What is the basic timeline of the Old Testament?
What is the basic timeline of the New Testament?
Did God create the universe?
What is salvation?
Truth about Everything Else