There is a tremendous amount to unpack in Genesis 1-11. Each individual story is rich in ancient theological meaning and nuance, obscured by our modern day perspective but there none the less. The stories taken together form a stunning cycle – God’s good plan, our rebellion, and God’s faithful redemptive response.
Since forming function out of chaos in Genesis 1, Yahweh has seen his “very good” creation turn away again and again. After the destruction of the great flood, it is clear that even this was not sufficient to turn mankind’s bent from wickedness, and Yahweh forms, in essence, a new world with a new strategy. What this is has yet to be unveiled but this we know – he will never destroy his creatures.
There is one final story – the tower of Babel. Through two lists of descendants we watch as Noah’s children repopulate the earth. Speaking all one language, they build a massive city and tower. Why this is unacceptable is not entirely clear, but it is alarming to God, who confuses their language and the people scatter across the earth.
One of the basic functions of these passages is to lead us from the stories of “pre-history” to the world as we know it within history, and where we meet Abram in Genesis 12. A bridge is needed from one man and his children to a world full of people in every corner, each with their own language and customs. The focus of these lists are the actual social/political situations of the known world in (at that time) the present day.
As the nations are laid out in these pages, the stage is being set for the biggest event yet. Though the world the Hebrews knew was diverse and wicked, in these pre-history genealogies and stories we learn that they are also united by ancient family ties, part of God’s blessed, rebellious, and beloved Creation. What happens next is not against this Creation, but for this Creation. If we miss this point, so carefully and repetitively laid out in these early chapters, we will miss the good news itself.
We have seen God’s commitment to bless the earth, and mankind’s commitment to disobedience. Through Noah, God has come to terms with man’s utter unwillingness or inability for lasting change and is formulating a brand new thing – the calling of Abram and the creation of Israel.
The ending of Genesis 11 wraps up the first calling, the first creation. Its final verses end with a mention of Terah, his son Abram and wife Sarai. What they begin is woefully incomplete – Terah heads out with his family to Canaan but doesn’t finish the journey; Abram and Sarai are married, but have no children. Sarai is pronounced barron.
And with this pronouncement, God’s great redemptive act is about to begin. Instead of a few chapters, the telling of it will require the rest of the Hebrew Bible…and time itself.
Are you coming with me? We have traveled a long way, but we are just getting started.
If you’re interested in reading the rest of this series, you can find more of it here.
(Continuing my series on the Hebrew Scriptures)
The story of the Great Flood has had an incredibly long run. It was a wildly popular story in several ancient cultures well before the dawn of recorded history, and it clearly remains a blockbuster to this day.
The story line as we find it in Genesis is well known. Once again, mankind is failing to live up to God’s good plan for creation and finally God has had it. He decides to bring an end to the unrelenting corruption and violence by making an end of mankind itself. But Noah and his family are to be spared.
There is some powerful foreshadowing right before the story gets going which we tend to miss. At the end of the genealogy that bridges Adam and Noah, we find Lamach naming his son Noah and saying “Out of the ground the LORD (YWHW) has cursed, this one shall bring us relief from our work and from the painful toil of our hands” (Gen. 5:29)
The name “Noah” means “to comfort” or “rest” and in this overlooked baby naming we have foreshadowing for the story and a key to the meaning of Genesis, the Gospel, and the Jewish/Christian view of reality – out of the sin-cursed ground there will come relief, and out of the death and destruction of the flood and the consequences of our broken choices there will come life.
With this juicy piece of foreshadowing on the table, the narrative turns to the story as we know it. Other ancient versions of the flood share many common components, but the meaning of the Genesis story is very unique. Once again, the Biblical writers focus on communicating something very important about the Creator, humanity, and the relationship between them.
In preparation for the coming deluge, Noah is instructed to build his ark, then gather the animals and his family. The rains come, then go, and eventually they are set free, beginning life anew on the earth. To the ancient understanding and imagination, the “blotting out” with water is a return to chaos. In the original creation story, God shaped beautiful, useful function from watery chaos; here the process is reversed. Life on earth is not so much drowned (though that is clearly indicated), but taken over by the forces of chaos in order to be recreated into beautiful, useful function once again.
It quickly becomes apparent, however, that the new creation and first family is just as broken, rebellious, and flawed as the original set. So what has this all been about? What was the point of ending life on the earth if things are to continue on as badly as they began? And how is Lamech’s prediction to be fulfilled? How does Noah’s life and story bring relief, comfort or rest, much less redemption?
The answer to this comes from the real main character of the story – Yahweh. While we tend to focus on Noah, the ark, the water, or the animals, the really interesting action is happening within God himself.
At the outset of the story, the Bible tells us that God is sending this flood to blot out life from the earth because of the incurable wickedness of mankind. Then at the end of the story God places his bow in the sky, vowing never again to strike down all living things. The reason he gives for this promise? Because “the intentions of a man’s heart is evil from his youth.”
In other words, in a shocking twist God’s strategy towards mankind takes an entire 180 degree turn. Humanity remains the same but God’s response changes forever from “therefore, I will destroy them” to “therefore, I will never destroy them.”
There is no human repentance, promise, or evidence of change in this story – quite the opposite. What changes is God and his approach to humanity and his rebellious creation. We looked earlier at Genesis 1-11 as a series of stories that outline the tension between a loving, faithful Creator, and an uncooperative creation. The Biblical version of the flood story is setting up the final resolution: Creation will not fall into line as intended so God changes his strategy. He will not give up his plan for a good creation even in light of this grievous reality. Mankind has proven hopeless, hence hope must come only from God. Placing his bow in the sky, God commits to be faithful because mankind will always and only prove utterly unfaithful.
In this decision, and throughout the story, we see the heart of God not as an angry tyrant, but as a grieved parent. There are phrases such as “the LORD regretted…” and “it grieved him to his heart.” His choices and actions toward creation stem, the authors show us, not from disinterest but deep, pained, broken relationship. The consequences of this pain he here and finally resolves to put upon himself.
This is how we find comfort, rest, relief, and redemption in Noah’s life and story. This is where we find the key to understanding the meaning of Genesis, the Gospel, and the Jewish/Christian view of reality – God has made an irrevocable covenant with all living things and all generations, knowing full well who we are and how we will fail. He will be faithful, even when – and because – we are unfaithful. He will love and nurture even when – and because – we have hated and killed. He will rebuild even when – and because – we have destroyed.
And with this in mind we turn the page. Where will this incredible, surprising story lead next?
After Adam and Eve are expelled from the Garden, their story continues into the next generation. Two sons are born to the couple, first Cain and then Abel. Abel becomes a shepherd, while Cain farms the ground. Each brings an offering of their labors to YHWH, but the Lord is pleased only with Abel’s and not with Cain’s.
Once again, the story is sparse, hinging on information not given. What was unsatisfactory about Cain’s offering? We cannot know. Once again, there are boundaries around the characters’ lives and actions regarding which they have no say, and for reasons which we do not understand.
Cain is faced with an (apparently) un-requested difficulty and the question is again is on the table – how will he handle living under someone else’s terms?
Cain becomes angry at the situation and YHWH warns him: “If you do not do right, sin is crouching at the door. Its desire is for you, but you must rule over it.”
Sin here is described as a wild animal, a predator hunting with an eye on Cain. His instructions are not to blindly follow a list of rules, but to gain mastery over a stalker. The assumption given by God is that it is fully possible to summon the strength to succeed.
Cain does not heed the warning, however. He rises in strength not against the crouching predator of temptation but against his brother, killing him. As the rest of the story unfolds, two things are clear – Abel’s life is destroyed literally, but Cain’s life is destroyed as well.
As he did for Adam and Eve, God offers protection and provision along with discipline. Cain’s headstrong behavior, as his parents’ before him, carries a consequence of death. Yet the consequence given is, as was his parents’, less than a death sentence. The ground that took in the blood of Abel will no longer partner with this brother-betraying farmer, and Cain is exiled – again, as his parents were before him. But his life will also be protected. Once more, God is true to the boundaries he has laid, but merciful.
The image of sin as a crouching predator is a powerful one. Cain is warned that he is being stalked by a hungry creature desiring him, yet he is given hope – even an imperative – that he can and must defeat this powerful foe. When he does not, both victim and perpetrator are destroyed. And so here in the story, even more than in Adam and Eve’s story, we are introduced to one of the main characters we meet with in life – sin.
In our current language and conversations, we’re suspicious of the word ‘sin.’ It has been so misused it can hardly be used at all. We tend instead to speak more in terms of brokenness, and there is good reason for this. Yet here in Genesis 4 we find a valuable description of our situation. Sin in this narrative is not the breaking of an arbitrary list of rules as we often speak of it, but a hunter poised to consume us who can and must be defeated. When we give way to this crouching animal it destroys both ourselves and our own victims.
In Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, Raskolnikov seems to understand this as he gives his first confession: “Did I murder the old woman? I murdered myself, not her! I crushed myself once for all, for ever.” He has given in to what hunted him, and not only his victim but he too is destroyed.
I can see the truth of this, in my own life, and in the world around me. There is no need to commit murder to see that when we are stalked by temptation, giving in (to anger, self-centeredness, greed, desire, or whatever) destroys both ourselves and those around us.I appreciate both the warning and the empowerment – sin is crouching at the door. Its desire is for me, but I must rule over it. This hunter is lethal to both perpetrator and victim, but victory is possible.
“Am I my brother’s keeper?” was Cain’s insolent retort when cornered by YHWH in his guilt. Rabbi Telushkin* suggests that the rest of the Bible is spent answering a resounding “Yes” to that question.
The main character is the Gardener, who lovingly, personally, and relationally forms a man by hand from the dust of the ground, breathing his own life into his lungs. The Gardener then sows his garden and gives it to the man to care for, both plant and animal. YHWH the Gardener is obviously a hands-on sort of God, and he remains intimately and passionately involved in the nurture of the garden and its inhabitants. He walks among them and talks intimately to them throughout.
The human pair have a job to do, sharing in God’s gardening work. They are permitted to meet their needs within the garden, but they also have a rule to follow – no eating from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.
Old Testament Scholar Walter Brueggemann sees here an archetype for the reality of human nature: we live in a world where God has given us vocation, permission, and prohibition.* The foil of Adam and Eve’s story is “how will these first humans live in the balance of these three?” Likewise, this is the test in all of our lives. How will we respond and balance the vocation, permission, and prohibition given us by God? Can we find the discipline and trust to manage the boundaries and realities, both good and bad, which we encounter?
The plot thickens. As the story reads “Now the serpent was more crafty than any other beast of the field…and he said to the woman “Did God actually say ‘you shall not eat of any tree in the garden?’” This, of course, is not at all what God has said, but it is a good trap to get Eve talking and thinking. One thing leads to another and soon both Eve and Adam are hiding in shame.
Christian interpreters traditionally see this narrative as the foundation for the rest of scripture and reality – the cause of sin, the cause of death, and the introduction of Satan in the role of the serpent.
Jewish interpreters have traditionally read it differently. There is no Jewish doctrine of “original sin” and they do not see here the story of a “fall” or the introduction of evil, death, or Satan. Instead, most Jewish scholars and theologians believe that men and women sin and die as Adam and Eve did, not because Adam and Eve did. +
Not surprisingly, the Hebrew books – the Genesis text and the Old Testament as a whole – supports the Jewish view. The story itself does not name the snake, nor offer any explanation or analysis. The story is not referenced elsewhere in the Hebrew Scriptures, much less as the all-pervading source of the ups and downs of humanity and Israel’s attempts at faithful, righteous living. Though the New Testament does make further theological use of Adam and Eve, Christian scholar Brueggeman warns us that the Old Testament itself is never interested in abstract issues such as explaining the origins of evil or death. Instead, the Old Testament has a pastoral focus, addressing our “faithful responses” to the evil and trials we encounter.**
What then is the pastoral message of this deeply descriptive account? As mentioned above, Bruggemann suggests that Adam and Eve’s story asks: What does it mean for humans to live in God’s world on God’s terms? How does mankind live out the balance between vocation, permission, and prohibition?
To begin with, this most certainly is God’s garden, and they are his terms – not only are the human pair not allowed input, they are not given explanation. Why the forbidden tree? The story does not tell us why the tree is there at all. As Brueggemann writes “one might wish for a garden without such dangerous trees. But that is not given to us.” ** Adam and Eve must live and work in the garden, following the terms without understanding them. Their foundation for thriving here must be trust, and mutual investment in the relationship God has initiated with them. The unexplained nature of the boundaries is exactly what the snake exploits.
It is fascinating to this theology lover that the conversation with the serpent is the first instance of theology in the Bible. Eve and the snake are not talking to God or with God, but about God. This might not be a problem in and of itself, but for Eve it subtly begins to take the place of obedience. Her thirst for knowledge begins to corrode the life giving power of relational trust.
Whether because they did or as they did, there is no question that we too chafe against the boundaries and limits placed on our lives and understanding, raging against mortal limits and unsolvable riddles rather than accepting them inside a relationship of trust. We too fill our relationships with conflict rather than sweet, intimate work and rest.
The first chapter of Genesis declares that the world belongs to a good, intimate, relational God who presides over all with a plan of hope. The second and third chapters show us what our posture and role before this Creator must be – and what difficulty we inevitably have in remaining there.
I started out saying that a story is best listened to – so head to Genesis 2-3 and give it a read. What do you find there of interest?
Each New Year I crave organization. Something powerful overtakes me and I find myself overhauling rooms and cupboards, cleaning out and clearing away.
Corners and pockets of my house – previously rendered useless due to clutter or wear and tear – are cleaned up and tuned up and made right again. Entire rooms fall under the sway of my intent; dust bunnies, outgrown clothes, and plastic toys are recycled or re-purposed and I find myself with a functional, tidy home once more. Whether the impetus is a fresh new start for the New Year, an extension of packing up Christmas, or simply being home bound in the cold, I can’t say. But each January finds me searching for order in the midst of chaos.
My reasons for this whirlwind of activity are certainly not theologically driven in the least, but when I take a moment to rest my feet and back I’m cheered by the reminder that this is God-work. Making order out of chaos is his signature move.
The opening chapter of Genesis is a beautiful song in which we find the Creator hovering over the waters. The author observes that “the earth was formless and empty, and darkness was over the surface of the deep.” In the ancient near-eastern minds that first heard this story, these Hebrew words indicate that what was had no purpose, function, or order. It was useless and needing to be arranged into something useful. In God’s hands all this changes. The word we translate as “create” is rich in Hebrew with meaning that connotes filling up and giving purpose – as one would create a home. Suddenly the Creator is forming day and night, rearranging water and land to produce sky, sea, and dry ground. From chaos has come wonderful, wonderful function, beauty and life.
When I’m in the middle of ordering the chaos of my home, it can take days, long days that spill into the night. Frequently, it appears that the situation is getting worse instead of better – when I’m re-purposing a bedroom or cleaning out a closet the contents are spread everywhere, making the house more filthy and cluttered than it ever did before I began this gargantuan task. My children gingerly step over boxes of light bulbs, shoe polishing kits, and stacks of paper looking for their toys and books. It is tempting to throw my hands up in the air and let the clutter take over, but I never do. I’ve set myself to this project, and I won’t give it up until I’m done.
The ancient Biblical hope, held still today by Christians around the world, is not that God will give this Creation up as a bad job and get a few of us out of here. The Biblical, Jewish, and now Christian hope – announced since that first song in Genesis – is that the Creator will not give up on the project he started. That even if the chaos on this earth seems to be gaining ground against beauty and goodness, it is simply because He is not yet finished with the job of creating and redeeming. He has promised to see his Creation through. He has placed his name, his character and reputation, and his Son on the table as collateral against this promise as guarantee. No matter how it may look to us right now in the middle, the Good News we hold to is that under no circumstances will God abandon or give up his Creative project. He will see it through to full function, full beauty, full order – full redemption.
And we have the opportunity to join him, to do our part to bring comfort where there is pain, provision where there is need, love where there is hate, joy where there is fear, peace where there is conflict. Function, order, and beauty where there is chaos.
As I look through my dusty windows at the cold piles of snow, I pick up another stack of papers to sort with gratitude. He is making all things new. And in our own ways, we are invited to do the same.
Next week we’re going to meet Adam and Eve! Stay tuned, and if you’re interested in reading the rest of this series, you can find more of it here.
Genesis 1, by contrast, is a beautiful song. Written in a poetic, liturgical style it tells a lovely and subversive story. The opening chapter of the Bible claims that the world is not made and ruled by the forces of nature or the all-intimidating Babylonian or Near Eastern gods, but by Israel’s God. He, the story declares, is the true and ultimate God, who creates not out of whim or weakness but as part of a powerful and wonderful plan.
The song tells of a loving, rejoicing, intimate Creator who is proclaiming and creating; who takes the chaos and forms it into something functional, beautiful, and life giving. It tells of a relationship that under-girds reality: power belongs to the Creator, and we are not merely nature but creation. This idea imbibes everything with purpose, hope, and possibility.
For the Israelites in the ancient near east, this creation song was a subversive political and theological statement – a small and relatively powerless nation claiming an identity and reality which the invading powers could not touch. The song beautifully insists that we exist not by accident or by the whim of lazy, quarreling gods, but are called forth by a loving Creator with a long term plan for relationship, goodness, and life. We are not (ultimately) under the thumb of the gods and rulers of Babylon or Egypt, but image bearers of the Creator who has not for a moment lost track of his creative, redemptive plan.
The song ends with the Creator resting on the seventh day. This rest implies not exhaustion after much work, but a deity or king ‘coming to rest’ in the place where he will dwell and reign. In other words, what the Creator has made is not only a good home for His creation, but for Himself as well, and he is present here in a permanent sense.
Today we are so far removed from the questions and assumptions of this ancient world that we see little of this political and theological stake in the ground when we read chapter 1 of Genesis. We bring our own questions and needs to the text, assuming it is written with them in mind, and confused when they are not addressed.
When Old Testament scholar John Walton teaches on Genesis 1 he tells the story of building a house. He discusses blueprints and foundations, framework, plumbing, and wiring. He talks about the construction contracts and legal codes. It is quite boring, to be honest. All true no doubt, important and necessary, but factual rather than poetic.
But then he tells a second story, a story about a home. It takes place in the same physical space as the first story, but this is about a family moving in, years after the building itself was constructed. We imagine furniture and decorations being arranged, children making sure their favorite blankets and bears are in place, meals being eaten together, memories being made, a new family identity being formed.
Both stories are about the same building. The first, about the origin details of a house. The second, about the creation of a home. Likewise, Walton says, Genesis 1 is not about the scientific details of the origins of the universe, but the creation of a home that God forms within it. And more shocking still – a home in which he intends to dwell with us. Yes, God is the ultimate cause of all we see and know but the revolutionary message of Genesis 1 is theological – God has taken the house and given it a sacred function for both creation and Creator, a home in which he will dwell with us.
If you’re interested in reading the rest of this series, you can find more of it here. Otherwise, stay tuned for next week!
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.
Earlier this year I was accosted on the street by a group of folks holding signs with offensive religious slogans and handing out pamphlets. The literature claimed to be a summary of “the real truth in the Bible.” A quick glance showed me the stories of Creation and Fall, and then skipped right to the angel appearing to Mary in Luke 1.
In other words, this summary of “God’s Word” skipped passed more than 1300 pages, nearly 90% of the book they consider God’s holy and inspired truth. Sadly, this group of street preachers aren’t alone – we frequently read the stories at the beginning, the stories at the end, and consider it done. Or we open to certain commands or promises without knowing the context that give them meaning.
But no part of a book can be understood if we skip over 90% of it. The parts we do read will be grossly taken out of context. We cannot possibly understand the story, message, or meaning this way. To remove Jesus from his Jewish culture and identity is an old and dangerous heresy; or to put it another way, a certain dead end for understanding and following him.
Christians are by definition the followers of Christ. But “Christ” was not his name – it is a title full of meaning for the ancient Jews, infused with centuries of longing, suffering, and theological contemplation. As Christians we believe that Jesus of Nazareth was fully God and fully man, and the “man” he was fully was an ancient Near Eastern Jew. His scriptures were the Hebrew scriptures, and his followers believed that he was the embodiment, culmination, and fulfillment of these scriptures. We cannot possibly understand his words, actions, or identity without seeping our own consciousness into the Hebrew scriptures.
When we modern Christians do read the “Old Testament,” one popular way to go about it is to see it as a scavenger hunt for Jesus. Where do we find Christ in these writings? On one hand, this is very appropriate – the very earliest Christians themselves went back to the ancient books, as Jesus instructed them, in order to make sense of them through the revelation of Christ, while likewise making sense of Christ through the words of the Law and Prophets. But for us, it can be a dangerous shortcut. The early Christians knew what we call the “Old Testament” inside and out Jewishly. It was from this understanding that they met and made sense of Jesus, and from there that they re-read and made sense of the Scriptures. Today, far removed from ancient Israel, we learn of Jesus and then go back to read the Hebrew Scriptures. We can’t really avoid doing it in this order, but it is important to acknowledge that it impacts our understanding. If we are to grasp who Jesus was we must attempt to hear this amazing 1350 page story as it sounded to Jesus and his Jewish peers.
And so, I go back to the beginning not only for the sake of studying Judaism, but as a Christian as well. Next time, I promise to actually open up the book. Are you coming with me?
If you’re interested in reading the rest of this series, you can find more of it here.
Several years ago, before my children took so much of my time, energy, and brain cells, I studied different religions and wrote about them on my blog. Oh, I had fun. The things I read! The people I met!
Then I went from one child to three, and my muse went into hibernation. All along I have continued to read, study, ponder, and learn but I haven’t shared any of it in writing. Which is too bad, because I have pondered such gorgeous, breathtaking things.
In due time I wound up at Judaism, which is complicated for me in a good way. As a Christian, I am as familiar with many of the ancient Hebrew texts and stories as I am my home address, but I know them as a Western, modern-day Christian. I couldn’t approach my study of Judaism as I did the others because its very familiarity makes it more difficult to approach. In truth, the modern or ancient Jewish worldviews are as unique to mine as any other, even if we do tell some of the same stories.
Furthermore, Judaism has greater implications for me given that my life’s focal point is what I believe to be the history of God’s plan for humanity through the Jewish people, a Jewish family, and ultimately a Jewish man. So my process and my intent, this time around, was to learn as much as I could of the culture, history, and practice of Judaism, while simultaneously using this knowledge to better understand the Christian branch that veered off from the tree two thousand years ago.
I began as far back as I could reach, studying ancient Sumer, Mesopotamia, and the ancient Near East. I have spent almost two years immersing myself into what we understand of the prehistoric, pre-Hebrew religious thought of the ancient Near East. I have read the old, old stories of Gilgamesh and Atrahasis and Utnapishtim, creation myths such as Enuma Elish; Sumerian, Egyptian, or Mesopotamian tales similar to Job or Babel; all of them stories that go back literally before the dawn of recorded time.
I have read theories on what we can (and can’t) know about the ancient Hebrew people through literature, archaeology, and artifacts. I have read debates on the formation of Israel as a nation, and the Torah/Tanakh as scripture. I have learned about the powerful civilizations of Assyria, Babylon, Persia, and Egypt, as well as the smaller tribes of Canaanites and Philistines. I have studied photos of the pottery and religious relics and read their stories.
Now, at last, I am turning to what in the Jewish faith is known as the Tanakh, and what I as a Christian have known as the Old Testament. And what a stunningly gorgeous treasure it is, truly a gift from the ancient world. I’m grateful for the new eyes I have to bring to the text and for the profound, breathtaking, and very Jewish message I find there…which in turn shines a piercing light on Jesus, what he taught, how he lived, and the community he began – of which I am part of to this day.
And here I ask you to join me, as I ponder these scriptures as a student of both Judaism and Christianity. I am bringing a number of much more qualified Biblical scholars with me (well, their books and a few lectures or conversations anyway), whom you will meet in due time. Some of these scholars are Christians, while others are Jewish; a few are neither one.
Come along and join me as we begin at the beginning. It is a very good place to start.