These days, the book of Genesis is locked in a full blown identity crisis. The one thing debaters on both sides agree on is that it is either a modern scientific document, or it has no value whatsoever.
However, if you read Genesis as the original, ancient authors and audience would have done, there are better options available. Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggeman calls Genesis 1-11 a “remarkable intellectual achievement of faith seeking understanding.”* What we find in the first chapter of Genesis is not a scientific description or an argument, but a poem; a song proclaiming something incredible about the character of God. Waiting for the reader in these sacred scriptures is a beautiful story of tremendous theological significance.
I invite you to take another look at these well known chapters, from the standpoint of a story. A story told by ancient followers of YHWH, about the surprising God whom they have encountered and found working in their midst. It is a powerful, beautiful, deeply true story.
There is much to learn from each individual element, but if we look at them all together a forest emerges which we easily miss while studying only the trees. The elements themselves – creation, flood, building a tower to the heavens, etc – have precedent in the literature and oral tradition of the ancient near east and Babylon, the cultural air that ancient Israel breathed. Yet here the well known stories are told and oriented towards a unique and profound point – the God of Israel is the One who has originated all this, His great plan is underlying our experience, and whatever threat our own errors bring to this plan, we have assurance that God himself is determined to carry it to completion.
The story begins, of course, at the beginning: Israel’s God YHWH forms creation out of chaos, places it in the care of man and woman, and calls it good. But right on the tail of this divine provision his chosen couple mess things up with literally epic proportions. God is angered, and discipline is needed – expulsion of Adam and Eve from the garden. But God is also merciful and protective, clothing their nakedness and shame, protecting them from access to the tree of life lest they continue in this shameful state for all eternity.
In other words, human foolishness has destroyed the very good “Plan A” God had devised. But even as he disciplines, the Creator provides a link from the mess we have made into a new future. Adam and Eve therefore move forward to “Plan B,” having lost the goodness of God’s created intentions but nevertheless re-established in God’s plan and protection.
The narrative continues with their first offspring, Cain and Abel. When Cain murders his brother we see further rebellion against the good plan of creation. God’s response is again discipline, but again also mercy and protection. Cain too is sent away, but divinely marked for safekeeping lest he in turn be murdered. Another man-made mess, another providential plan encompassing both discipline and grace.
As the story goes on, generations pass and mankind continues to hurl itself away from God’s good intentions for us. This goes on to such an extent the God eventually becomes sorry he created humans at all and, heartbroken, resolves to bring this experiment to an end. Yet even in these drastic measures there is again grace and provision – God remembers Noah, who is chosen to launch a new beginning. God places his bow in the sky with a promise to never again destroy the world with a flood.
Each of these narratives are linked together in cycles – God’s grace and provision, followed by creation’s response towards self-destruction, evoking God’s anger and discipline, but also further grace and provision. Each account turns over into the next as the pattern weaves us from story to story.
Finally, the narrative takes us to the tower of Babel. Even after the flood and God’s provision for continued life, mankind has continued its bent towards obstinance. We find in this narrative again the now oh-so-familiar pattern, but this time with a shocking twist: after our stubborn, selfish error comes God’s discipline through confusion and dispersal of the people but then….nothing.
The tower of Babel story ends without a whisper of grace or provision, no link to a future hope.
These stories were certainly passed down by oral tradition for generations before being put to parchment. Can you imagine yourself around an ancient bonfire, listening yet again to the stories of YHWH’s work in our world, in our people; hearing the steady rhythm of provision, rebellion, discipline, then back full circle to provision through story after story…only to reach the end of the Babel account, hanging on the edge of our seats. We reach the pregnant pause that ends Genesis chapter 11 with baited breath.
And then, with this magnificent set-up the storyteller continues. On the very next page we are introduced to a man named Abram. We listen as he is called by God to leave his father’s country, to walk into covenant with God Almighty himself, to start a nation through whom the entire world will be blessed. This then – the nation of Israel herself (and for the Christian reader, ultimately Israel’s Messiah Jesus) – is the act of divine grace and provision that comes in response to mankind’s continued rebellion and discipline.
Tell me that is not an amazing, stunning, beautiful story, one of profound theological and literary power.
For ancient Israel listening in exile, this was a promise that went deep into their most vulnerable questions and doubts – even in the darkest hours, even when the darkness is of our own making, God is faithful to his covenant with Creation and Israel. He will see this through, no matter how badly we mess it up. The ancient Israelites who formed these Scriptures took the well worn tales and used them as a stunning entrance to their national history, the interpretive frame for their entire witness of God’s character and role in creation.
Brueggemann writes “The sum of these narrative parts constitutes a remarkable theological statement. What may have been various “myths of origin” is now transposed into a theological statement of divine judgement and divine rescue…the text is an attestation to the main themes of Israel’s faith in God.”*
The main message here is not how or when the universe historically and scientifically began, but the character and trustworthiness of the author and sustainer of the story.
In other words, we have here a powerful assurance in the face of the darkest day – God himself is determined to carry the world’s story to its redemptive conclusion, and no amount of our blind pigheadedness is going to stand in his way.
And that, the ancient Israelites tell us, is what this story – the story of Genesis, but more, the story of reality – is all about.
And that is a story worth telling.
If you’re interested in reading the rest of this series, you can find more of it here.
*Quotes taken from: Brueggeman, Interpretation: Genesis, pg 14 and Bruggemann, An Introduction to the Old Testament, pg 33