How does one begin to make sense of Genesis as a first-time reader? An overview is essential. First, Genesis is a book of beginnings; it covers primeval history (1-12) then moves into narratives of the "fathers" of the nation Israel. Chapters 1-12 contain four outstanding events: creation, fall, flood, Babel. Chapters 12-50 detail the lives of four outstanding people: Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph. An emerging theme is that relationship completes us.
Beyond a general structure, Genesis develops a world view or way of thinking. Creation is not out of nothing; divine substance was already there. "In the beginning God" is an utterance of faith; one could create other perspectives: In the beginning, atheism; polytheism, fatalism, evolution, pantheism, or materialism. When was this beginning, this time before history? We know that science records a paleolithic or old stone age going back to 10,000 BCE, beginning some 500,000 years ago; 5000 years ago, we move into an age of metals. We can trace civilizations in historical time: Sumerians (2500BCE), Babylonians (1800 BCE), Egyptian (2650-2500), Semitic tribes filling Syria-Palestine (2500 BCE). Hebrew history usually begins then with an accounting of about 4000 BCE, a relatively short time ago! Who was there in the beginning to observe this creation? These are questions the reader of Genesis must ask. Out of primordial time comes creation, order, and human beings with purpose and place. What else can this be other than a record of faith?
From the beginning, human beings were created for relationship, both vertical and horizontal, with God and with other human beings. This human being is given preeminence and is made in God’s own image. What is this image? Am I supposed to look like God? Are you? Is God male, female, Hispanic, Jewish? Certainly, a patriarchal society affords ample images of Father God, but even that image evolves from being a distant and abstract God into a God historically present. The image is a psychophysical one: human beings are animated by God’s breath; no Greek dichotomy of body and soul exists here; rather, what we have is a trichotomy: body, mind, and soul. This, too, is a position advanced by faith. Formed from dust, this human being is mortal; the relationship is earthly and physical, but animated by the breath of God, the mortal is also partially immortal. The issue of life, human beings as living souls, confronted with decisions of good and evil, is the picture of human creation painted by Hebrew faith. Missing this, readers sometimes criticize the Bible, insisting it clashes with science, history, even logic; while the Bible is not a science, history, or logic text, its statement of faith overlaps these areas. The early chapters in Genesis move quickly, and the relationship with God and with earth becomes a relationship to another: Eve is created so that the first man will not be alone. What this relationship is to be is realized immediately: "they become one flesh." The outcome of relationship is that of unity, harmony; but into an age of innocence, the nature of the divided creature reveals itself quickly. Adam and Eve discover themselves to be vulnerable, naked, shivering creatures; with knowledge comes both blessing and curse. Conception itself has a place in this knowledge: "Adam knew his wife and she conceived." Building from this point will be the Hebrew notion that life, given by God, is sustained by God; no matter how much human beings meddle, interfere, or concoct elaborate schemes, the Hebrews believed human destiny was still divinely controlled; nonetheless, life is struggle, and human beings must endure the woes of flesh, its susceptibility to illness and death, and always, they are threatened by possible extinction. Hebrew faith, however, insisted upon God’s mercy and love, and always, a remnant is saved: multiple wives are taken, slave women conceive, and barren women bear fruit; the story is sometimes sordid: drunk fathers, fathers lying with their own daughters-in-law, men going in to prostitutes, and women deceiving and manipulating; the best laid schemes often collapse into nothing, and only in the long run, by hindsight and faith, can it be seen that the Hebrew God Yahweh has prevailed, and life succession continues, but continues through unpredictable turns and twists, through a catalog of "unlikelies," at the extremities of human wit. Faith proclaims, with Eve: "I have gotten a man with the help of the Lord" (4.1); from generation to generation, the succession continues, but always, humans beget sons in their own likeness, after their own image, psychophysical beings animated by God’s spirit.
So what then of the rest of Genesis? The emerging history of a people begins to shape itself. Abel is a keeper of sheep; Cain is a tiller of the soil. In the ages of a people and a culture, how much time is required to soften the tension between nomad and farmer? How quickly brother turns against brother! From the beginning, Genesis sees sibling rivalry for what it is; at a distance, the reader has historical perspective. The line of Adam is not to come from Abel, whom Cain slays; Adam’s descendants will come through Cain and Seth, the nation of Israel from Seth. Whatever else happened between Cain and Abel, the Hebrew account makes it clear that Cain had opportunity to do well (4.7), but he learns what humans always learn: choice, both good and evil are possible, but evil is "crouching at the door." Evil, for practical purposes, can be defined here as willful separation from that which is spiritual in one’s self. Tension results in bloodshed; the killer, Cain, becomes a fugitive and a wanderer, who goes away from the "presence of the Lord." This presence is the spin-off of a vertical or metaphysical relationship realized; to go away from is to sever this relationship. From Cain comes a people set on measureless blood revenge. Human history is awash in blood, blood bath after blood bath, to the point that life itself seems to issue from death. Only slowly are human beings to come to regard sanctity of life, and even then, individual and egotistic ambition continues rivalry and bloodshed. But into this history comes Seth and a time when people began to "call upon God" and to reassert their vertical relationship. History, as seen by the Hebrew people, consists of a series of renewals, separations; revivals and falling away; covenants reestablished and broken. It is an obedience, disobedience cycle; to stress this, however, is to miss the short-sightedness of human aspiration and intention: "we will serve the Lord" (Joshua 23.21); power, however, to stand by this declaration and recommitment to the law, these people find tragically lacking.
Culture has advanced; violence has accelerated in this "book of the generations of Adam." Still, the "likeness" of the divine creator continues in the image passed from father to son (5.3). The generations bring history to Noah and the inauguration of a new age. The Hebrew God punishes reasonably and consistently for disobedience; not until Job will the Hebrew formula of obedience-reward and disobedience-punishment be revealed as far too simplistic. The picture of humankind in Noah’s day is one of abounding wickedness, but Noah is a righteous man, "blameless in his generation" (6.9). From Noah springs Shem, Ham, and Japheth: the Hebrew vision is one of unity; humankind emerges from and is sustained by one source. Shem becomes the father of the Semitic peoples; from Ham comes the Egyptians and Canaanites; from Japheth, Asia Minor. From Ham’s son Cush comes Nimrod, building his kingdom in Babel, Assyria, Nineveh. From these sons of Noah, Genesis tells us summarily, "from these the nations spread abroad on the earth after the flood" (10.32). Such genealogies of the generations must not obscure the vast periods covered and the complexity involved in peopling the earth. This is the Hebrew people’s account of the emergence of their own people in relation to the rest of the world; it is a pointedly myopic view of a vast world stretching beyond their familiar horizons. Their vision beheld a "remote" father and region, Abram of the Chaldees—from somewhere out of Mesopotamia, from the fork of the great Tigres and Euphrates rivers; it is irony created by time that renders the Hebrew "remote" a much more immediate than they could but dream.
With the migration of humans came a change; people no longer have "one language, and few words" (11.1); instead, they are a scattered people with a confused language. Human beings have been fruitful, have multiplied, and are filling the earth, but they have also settled in a willful testing of their own destiny. Wherever, and whenever, Babel occurred, "one language" and "one people" grew confused. Traceable directly to Shem, the Semitic people give us Abram, a Hebrew man of faith whose change in name to Abraham, signifies his right relationship with God. Abram believed his God would make of him a nation, and he acted upon his faith as a promise. He went in search of destiny.
Who is Abram’s God? Considering the Bible as history may pose some problems for the way this question gets answered. We know that in the Middle Bronze age, Canaanites moved into northern Egypt and established a local dynasty called the Hyksos, who eventually took over the whole of Egypt; in the Late Bronze Age, about 1550 BC, the Egyptians expelled the Hyksos. Dispossessed Canaanites became known to the Egyptians as Hapiru (or Hebrews) and formed the basis of what was to become Israel.
Biblical scholars propose that Israel emerged from peoples indigenous to Canaan in the mid twelfth century BC. Israel was united by its faith in Yahweh, who had delivered their ancestors from slavery in Egypt. Among the Israelites circulated stories about the Exodus and the Passover observance. Abraham settled in the Hebron area, migrating from Ur of the Chaldees or Mesopotamia. The tradition of how Yahweh revealed His name to Moses is recounted in the Exodus. To Moses, Yahweh said, "I am the God of thy father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob" (Exodus 3:14 and 3:6). Just prior to this revelation, the response to Moses has been "I AM WHO I AM." To possess more than this, to possess the name, would have meant Moses possessed the very being of this God; at another level, perhaps, is understood that to Moses was revealed only what a mortal mind could comprehend. By the time of the exodus from Egypt, then, the Hebrew God is Yahweh, not a plural Elohim. The Israelite deity becomes a Covenant God—first Abraham (and the promise of land and people), then Moses (and moral, religious, and social laws), and finally, in New Testament history for some, the New Moses, New Covenant God of Grace realized in Christ. The God Yahweh then is a name used in contrast to the gods of all the people who lived around the Israelites. Yahweh adopted Israel as his people and demanded total allegiance; this leads to an explicit monotheism. The troubling aspect for many is any connection at all of Yahweh to EL, the high Canaanite God, or Baal and Asherah, the earthly representatives; nonetheless, names given to notable Israelites down through the ages suggest some link, and the Jews of this period repeatedly lapsed into the worship of surrounding gods. One thinks of Jerrubbabaal; Saul, Israel’s king, naming a son after the god Baal. The prophets Jeremiah and Isaiah specifically reject all gods other than Yahweh, a contest going back to the prophet Elijah, renewed in Joshua and Judges both.
A formula that seems to help students understand an intermingling of culture with culture is Abram’s migratory path: he goes from Ur through Canaan into Egypt and back up into Canaan again. This trek places Abram in contact with Mesopotamia, Canaan, and Egypt. In Canaan, an echo of Cain’s potential to do right is found when Abram makes the right choice while his nephew Lot makes the wrong move: what is at issue here is the promise of the land. Abram’s posterity has been earlier eclipsed when Sarai was almost taken into Pharaoh’s harem. Always, in Hebrew faith, the outworking of destiny is under Yahweh’s sovereign control. The promise of a land then hangs in the balance of Lot’s decision. Choosing the region around Sodom, Lot fathers Moab. From Moab, of course, will come Naomi and Ruth, with direct ties to David and the New Testament birth of Christ. After Lot has separated from Abram, Abram hears this message from his God: "Lift up your eyes and look… for all the land which you see I will give to you and your descendents forever."
The destiny of Abram moves forward. With small forces, he defeats an alliance of Eastern kings. He worships after battle with Melchizedek, Canaanite priest in the place later to be known as Jerusalem, both worshipping El Elyon, God most high. What may be revealed here is the extensiveness of a developing monotheism. Following closely upon this worship experience is Abram’s vision in which, though he is old, he is told his own son will be his heir. Abram seals the vision with a covenant ceremony, but as the sun goes down, he falls into a deep sleep and is seized by dread and darkness: Abram foresees oppression for his people, four hundred years, before they will come into possession of their own land.
Through Hagar, his Egyptian maid, Abram seeks to defeat Sarai’s barrenness, following the custom of the age, with Sarai’s good faith. Hagar, however, taunts Sarai, and when Sarai, is harsh, flees into the wilderness. One should think here, not only of the Hebrew children and their wilderness wandering, but also of Revelation where the woman with child flees into the wilderness; her male child, the one to rule all nations, is caught up to God, and the woman is left for three and a half years in a place "prepared by God" where she is nourished. Faith must prevail—for Abram, who has been promised his own son will be his heir; for Sarai, who waits for her time of fertility; for Abram, who has to endure the upheaval in his own home.
Time passes. Abram, who was eighty-six when he fathered Ishmael, is ninety-nine before his destiny is changed forever, his name changed from Abram to Abraham and that of Sarai to Sarah, and the covenant reestablished, the promise of his own son renewed. Who can wonder that this time Abraham laughed. Nonetheless, at ninety-nine, Abraham submits to circumcision as a mark of his changed direction in life; Ishmael, to become the father of the Ishmaelite nation, is also circumcised at thirteen. Sarah also laughs on learning she is to have a son. This time, human laughter is rejoined by a reminder from Yahweh: "Is anything too hard for the Lord?"
Abraham, who will later be ominously silent when he is asked to sacrifice his miracle son Isaac, questions divine justice when both the righteous and the wicked are to be destroyed in Sodom. The theological question is whether the righteous few can have a saving influence upon the whole? One is made to think of the masses relative to the few through which the Hebrew see Yahweh’s working carried forward. In this case, even in the face of mortal questioning, destruction is rampant, except for God’s remembrance of Abraham and the deliverance of Lot and his two daughters; even his wife, who looks back, is destroyed. Lot, not unlike Abraham, is old when he fathers two sons; unlike Abram, though, Lot’s succession results from his own daughters’ lying with him when he has had enough wine not to discern the outcome of his actions. From these two sons is born the Moabites and the Ammonites. Again, the Hebrew sense of sovereign purpose prevails, even when it comes through less than righteous channels.
Isaac is born, almost midway in Genesis; he is circumcised at eight days, grows, is weaned, and Abraham makes a feast for him. Once again, Abraham is sorely tested, being instructed now to sacrifice his only son and his promised posterity. Abraham must be willing to surrender every hope he has for his own life and succession in order to obey this divine command. This is not unlike the surrender of ego which is later required of Jacob, son of Isaac. Abraham has to learn that God provides; knowing this, however, may not make individual surrender easier. Events move quickly with this near sacrifice moving genealogy forward and introducing Bethuel, who is Rebekah’s father. Abraham buries his wife, obtaining legal title to Machpelah, has his son Isaac swear he will marry among his own people and sends him off in quest for her. Isaac finds Rebekah, loves her, and is comforted after his mother’s death. Isaac functions largely as one uniting generations.
The issue of who is to carry succession forward is encountered again in the struggles between Jacob and Esau. Esau is, of course, the older brother, and according to Hebrew custom, the elder is to carry the leadership of the family forward. Jacob, the younger brother, however, steals Isaac’s death bed blessing and Esau’s birthright through deception; in time, Israel the nation gains ascendancy over Edom, even though Edom through Esau becomes a nation first. Abraham’s Covenant with Yahweh is carried forward through his son Isaac and then through Isaac’s son Jacob. Two rival ways of life are also contrasted in these two sons: the hunter and shepherd. Isaac has been seen as a semi-nomad who settled down long enough to raise crops but also moved about to find pasture for his flocks. From Jacob comes twelve sons, leaders of the emerging tribal confederation.
Jacob is an intriguing, strongly individual character, who reveals the struggle of creatures animated by Yahweh’s breath. He is a dreamer, and his dreams are sweeping; he dreams that heaven and earth are connected, angels ascending and descending on a ladder reaching between the two realms. The ancients believed God took sanctuary at the place where divine presence entered into earthly domain: a Babel "gate of god", a tabernacle at Sinai, and later, the temple; God’s place of abode on earth, prevalent in Deuteronomy, becomes the human heart in Jeremiah. The finite limitations of Jacob, and all humankind, is perhaps defied by his dream; nonetheless, John sees clearly that "No one has ascended into heaven but he who descended from heaven, the Son of Man." John, of course, writing at the end of the first century CE, influenced by Greek thought, clearly sees two realms: the heavenly and earthly. Any knowledge of the metaphysical John sees as being initiated by the Divine. Western tradition with its emphasis on science and logic, the here and now and its rules, has clearly favored physics over metaphysics. All, however, that science can say is that limited creatures know only in limited ways; the archetypal, religion, and dreams have always revealed the deeper urgings of the human heart for a connection of worlds and a unity of self. This is Jacob’s dream: Jacob arises from that dream knowing, "Surely, the Lord is in this place… This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven." It may be important for some people to note here that Jacob’s exclamation in faith reveals heaven come to earth, the eternal realized immediately in earthly habitation. He called the place Beth-EL, house of God.
When Jacob reenters Canaan, he comes by way of Edom, through his brother Esau’s land; he had every right to expect that his brother will still be angry and seek requitement of the wrong Jacob has dealt him in stealing his birthright. What happens though is that Jacob is changed spiritually before this encounter. While he worries at first about how he can appease Esau, in his long night of darkness at Jabbok, he wrestles within his own soul. Jacob remembers Jabbok as the place where he saw God face to face. Jacob echoes here Moses’ discovery of Yahweh; he asks for a name, which he is not given, and then concludes what he already knew anyway: "I have seen God… and yet my life is preserved." Jacob’s conversion is signified by a new name: Isra-EL, which probably means God rules and becomes the name of the Tribal Confederacy. Unlike Abraham, Jacob's names are used interchangeably. Once again, Yahweh proves sovereign: "I am God Almighty" (35.11). Encountering Esau, Jacob’s changed vision now sees God in his brother’s face, in keeping with the evolving notion of God’s place as being within the human heart. At stake in the Jacob cycle is the covenant itself; Jacob returns to Canaan, the land promised, when he could have returned to Mesopotamia or gone elsewhere. The land itself is fulfillment of covenant; recall that Abram first encamped in Shechem as he passed through Canaan (12.6). With Abram, readers learn that Canaanites were in the land. Abram then moves on to Bethel. Jacob, in Shechem, exchanges hostilities with the Canaanites, no longer to be considered friendly. Like Abram, he sets up an altar in Bethel (35.15). The story concludes with the birth of Benjamin, Jacob's youngest child; the death of Rachael, his beloved wife; and the death of Isaac. Jacob's brother Esau (36) has become the father of the nation of Edom; the Abraham cycle is repeated again, Esau resembling Lot in the migration away from the primary patriarch. With Jacob settled in the land, focus now is upon Joseph.
Joseph is not a patriarch in the same sense as Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; he is, rather, the ancestor of two Israelite tribes, Manasseh and Ephraim, which produce important leaders of Israel (Joshua, Gideon, Samuel) between the eras of Moses and David. The beginning of this story makes clear its recounting of the family of Jacob: "This is the story of the family of Jacob" (37.2). In Joseph's rise to power is revealed, bringing together all the themes of Genesis, divine providence. Yahweh clearly directs and controls human history, although in brief interludes, what is seen are human beings trying to shape their own fates. Human conflict is once again explained as arising out of favoritism (37.4): Joseph's father loved Joseph more than any other of his children. Interesting human psychology explains this as the result of Joseph's being a child of Jacob's old age, as is Benjamin, except that Benjamin is also associated with his mother's death. Joseph follows in the tradition of Jacob, the story recounting three episodes of prophetic dreaming. Hebrew veneration for the family is revealed in Jacob's rebuking of Joseph: "Shall we indeed come, I and your mother and your brothers, and bow to the ground before you" (37.10); Rachael lives on here in Jacob's memory, a phenomenon repeated in the continuing saga of human life and loss. The collective destiny of a family and nation is at stake in Joseph's story.
Jealous brothers sell Joseph into Egypt, reminding readers, once again, of the closely interwoven and connected themes in Genesis. Recall that Sarai's oppression of an Egyptian leads to the oppression of Sarai's descendants by Egyptians, expanded to include Abraham's concubine and wife Keturah, whose best known child is Midian; the Midianites aid in bringing Joseph to Egypt, as do the Ishmaelites (37. 25-27). How clear the book of Genesis is in telling the story of human oppression leading to farther oppression, a cycle unbroken as it extends into modern day. Moreover, the theme of the younger sibling usurping the older child's birthright is again picked up in the recounting of Joseph's older brother Judah's encounter with Tamar, an interruption in the Joseph story, or is it. From the products of this illicit union according to levirate customs comes the usurping Perez from whom the line of King David derives. The themes are very neatly packaged, no loose strings left untied. We return to the usurping younger brother in the Manasseh-Ephraim blessing by Joseph. From Ephraim, the younger brother, will come Israel's prominent leaders Joshua and Samuel; from Manasseh, though, will come Gideon. The Joseph story resumes with the dreaming Joseph now interpreting prophetically the Egyptian Pharaoh's dreams. As with Jacob, Joseph's story concludes with reunion with family and a return to the land of Israel; first, though, the brothers go to Egypt, as does Jacob, Joseph's father. Jacob, though, after living in Egypt seventeen years, makes clear in his days his wishes to be returned to Canaan: "Do not bury me in Egypt" 47.27). Jacob recounts to Joseph the covenant promise: "God Almighty appeared to me at Luz in the land of Canaan, and he blessed me, and said to me, 'I am going to make you fruitful…; I will make of you a company of peoples, and will give this land to your offspring" (48.3-4). Jacob is buried at Machpelah, the field Abraham bought, the first legal possession of land in Canaan. Joseph himself remains in Egypt, but his death request, like that of his father, is to have his bones carried to Canaan (50.25); he is, however, embalmed Egyptian style. Joseph's deathbed reminder to his family is "God will surely come to you and bring you up out of this land to the land that he swore to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob" (50.24). A resounding return to divine providence is revealed in Joseph's reply to his brothers' plea for forgiveness: "Do not be afraid! Am I in the place of God? Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good" (50.20). Short term human evil is long term divine good; still, responsibility in relationship invites no passivity here or acceptance of evil, a theme returned to in the New Testament, when Christ, a Joseph-type, admonishes us to be about our Father's business: "Are you still sleeping and taking your rest? See, the hour is at hand, and the Son of Man is betrayed into the hands of sinners. Get up, let us be going" Matthew 26.45-46). Language collapses into paradox: rest occurs in the spirit, not in work, so that active rest is the desired outcome.
A special people, a special land, a divine destiny: in Genesis, the universal story is particularized. That story is one of human striving and unrest, short-term evil but long-term good. The themes are promise and delayed fulfillment, fertility and barrenness, rest and unrest, life and death, knowledge and ignorance, hiding and revealing, presence and absence. Lonely heroes are provided cathartic release from the frustrating battle against death; death is overcome by community and law; stress is on morality and order; human beings must make it through a world of omnipresent death armed only with faith in themselves as created in the image of the divine, thus containing a spark of immortality itself. The story of the patriarchs is the story of humanity: individuals punished for broken relationship and reduced to perpetual questioning of the eternal; an achieved intimacy with the Eternal through vision; significant individuals singled out to wrestle with but eventually perform the will of God; affliction in the short run and blessing in the eternal. At all points, we share this story: journeying always into the unknown, alienated sojourners in a strange land; always leaving and returning; facing death in our parents, ourselves and our children; yielding often to our parents' sighting of the way out through vision; discovering God's messengers intervening in innumerable manifestations and personalities; shaping and directing our lives always upon a promise, however remote or dimly understood. Like Abraham, we are often demanded to give up the past and all too often, subjected to despair of the future; in the span between past and present, we live our lives, as Eugene O'Neill has said, as interludes in the electrical display of God the Father, who comes to rescue. Played out in Genesis are all our tensions of fate and free will, destiny and choice. The cycle continues: visionaries and dreamers, we find God in every encounter and every human face. Genesis is the story of humankind. "Let everyone who hears say, 'Come.' Let everyone who wishes take the water of life as a gift" (Revelation 22.17).
Copyright: Jeanie Crain, Association of Bible Teachers