If you’ve been around church for any time, you’ve heard of Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, Noah and the flood, Abraham and Sarah, Jacob and his sons. You’ve probably heard debates about creation and evolution. You know about the snake and the fall. You may have heard of Nimrod or the Nephilim, or compared our time to the days of Noah.
These topics are in Genesis, but they are not the message of the book. Why was Genesis written? What is the theme at the core of the book? What is this book doing at the start of the Bible’s narrative?
Genesis is far more than a collection of fascinating stories. There’s something grander going on, a narrative that is greater than the sum of its parts.
So what is it? How does the story work, and where is it going? Here’s the macro story, the big picture of how the story flows in Genesis, what it says about God and us, and how this draws us into the whole Bible narrative:
Why do we start with “original sin” when the Bible starts with “original good”?
There’s more than one way to tell a story. Theology has its jargon. It often starts with original sin, the result of the fall. These aren’t phrases from Scripture, though Paul does say that one person got us into trouble and one person can get us out (Romans 5:12; 1 Corinthians 15:21).
I love the Christological focus at the heart of everything Paul writes, but Genesis doesn’t use our theological language for Adam’s story. It doesn’t start with original sin. In fact, the first three chapters don’t mention sin at all. It talks about good. A lot. Fifteen times.
Genesis starts with original good. What would change if we told our story this way?
Let’s see how Genesis inspires us to understand the good world and our place in it.
“What is this that God has done to us?” (Genesis 42:28)
People expect to be rewarded for doing right, and to suffer when they harm others. Religions teach that this will happen in the next life if not in this one, whether that’s understood as eternity or reincarnation. Does the Bible teach this?
You can certainly find cases of people who felt like this. Joseph’s brothers believe their past has caught up with them when they find themselves in an Egyptian prison:
How did Joseph handle the most difficult temptation of his life?
When we idealize our heroes, we diminish their struggles. Joseph’s temptations were real, but Mrs Potiphar wasn’t the big one. His greatest test was his brothers — what he’d do to them once he had the power to give them what they deserve.
Who was Asenath? Why did she marry Joseph? What do we learn from their story?
Did you know that Joseph married an Egyptian?
Genesis 41 (NIV) 45 Pharaoh gave Joseph the name Zaphenath-Paneah and gave him Asenath daughter of Potiphera, priest of On, to be his wife. … 50 Before the years of famine came, two sons were born to Joseph by Asenath daughter of Potiphera, priest of On.
Joseph is an amazing character. Despite being catapulted to power from prison, Joseph is one of the few not corrupted by power. But his lifestyle choices in exile still present problems for observant Jews.
Do politics and religion mix? How did Joseph make it work with Pharoah?
From prison to palace in a single day! Are you encouraged by Joseph’s story? It’s more than personal encouragement. It’s God doing something enormous, global even. What does Joseph’s story teach us about the kingdom of God?
God gave the king of Egypt a dream (Genesis 41:1). Is religion meant to influence politics? Aren’t church and state too explosive to mix? I guess God’s not very good at staying out of the political arena.
So how does the kingdom of God relate to the kingdoms of the world? The heavenly sovereign has wisdom for earthly rulers. He’s the king above all kings. But how God does this is crucial:
We misrepresent God when we withdraw from politics, as if God has no interest in the secular domain.
We misrepresent God when we engage with the fights and factions of earthly politics, to force our will on the secular world.
Is there a third way? Joseph brought God’s wisdom to the secular world. In a land far from family and faith, with a meteoric rise from prisoner to prince, Joseph represented God well in Egyptian politics. Can we learn from him?
Joseph’s story shows us how God deals with injustice.
You’re in good company if you’ve noticed that life isn’t fair. Joseph had every reason to be bitter over how his brothers sold him out, and his boss falsely accused him. Prison walls offer no choices. Every morning Joseph wakes to this meaningless existence.
Others feel the same in this prison. Joseph finds meaning in caring for them. But one morning they’re more glum than usual, troubled by dreams.
“Then we’ll see what comes of his dreams,” his brothers said as they threw Joseph in a pit (37:20). He had big dreams of ruling the sun, moon and stars (37:9). Instead, we find him in a dungeon with no control over his own life, ordered to serve prisoners (40:4).
So, serving prisoners is what Joseph does. One morning a couple of them looked more dejected than ever. “Why the long face?” he enquires (40:7). Turns out they had dreams too.
How did Joseph cope with treachery and accusations from a sexual predator?
Role-reversal stories help us break down our stereotypes and cultural bias. As a boy, I was warned against seductive females like Potiphar’s wife, but I don’t remember being warned against mistreating women as the men of Genesis did: Pharaoh (Genesis 12:15), Abimelek (20:2; 26:8), and Hamor (34:2).
Maybe the real issue is power rather than gender. Those three guys were all kings or princes. And Potiphar’s wife held all the power while Joseph was merely a slave.
Women are devalued in patriarchal society. Judah’s mistreatment of Tamar isn’t resolved until he realizes that, even though she used her sexuality against him, She is more righteous than I (38:26).
So, rather than treating gender as the problem in the conflict between male and female, could we make some progress by identifying abuse of power as the real issue? The role-reversal story of Genesis 39 suggests that might be a productive approach.
What happens when the woman has all the power, and the male is her slave?
Why interrupt Joseph’s story with the scandal of Judah and Tamar?
Judah is quite the cad in Genesis 38. But why interrupt the story of Joseph with a scandalous story about Judah?
That’s the puzzle for modern readers. As one of them said, All commentators agree that ch. 38 clearly interrupts the flow of the Joseph story (Hamilton, The Book of Genesis, NICOT, 2:431).
It makes more sense if we listen to the narrator who labelled Genesis 37–50 as the generations of Jacob, not Joseph’s story. Jacob was setting up his family, and he intended Joseph to rule.
But wasn’t Judah supposed to rule? King David descended from Judah. Didn’t Jacob intend the lion from the tribe of Judah to receive the ruler’s sceptre? (49:9-10)
Yes, but let’s not jump there too quickly. There are issues with Judah’s character, issues that call into question whether Judah is fit to rule. Would you trust a leader who would sell his brother into slavery? (37:26). Genesis 38 gives us more reason to question Judah’s character.
Genesis is the foundational story of the kingdom of God. It starts with all God’s creatures in the care of his human servants who live in his garden. When they rebel, God sets in motion his plan to bring everything and everyone back under his sovereign care, starting with a prototype kingdom through the family of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.
We saw how the different stages of this story are clearly marked by the tô·lē·ḏôṯ formula, the final one being, These are the generations of Jacob. (37:2). Observing these cues helps us avoid twisting the story into our own image.
But why is this Jacob’s story? People usually treat Genesis 37–50 as the story of Joseph. His name is mentioned 151 times, twice as often as Jacob/Israel (73 times). We’ve heard Jacob’s name more frequently in previous chapters (150 times in Genesis 25–36), so why does the narrator say we’ve now reached Jacob’s story?
You’ll know how the story fits together if you know why it’s called Genesis.
Genesis is a Greek word (γένεσις) meaning birth, how something came to be, the account of a family.
The Septuagint translators (c. 200 BC) used genesis to translate tô·lē·ḏôṯ — a Hebrew word meaning a record of descendants or successors. The narrator used this word at key points. Watch for it, and you’ll see how the book fits together.
Here’s a practical exercise in pastoral care, hearing people in their pain.
Wherever you care for people — family, small groups, churches, counselling — you’ll feel the whole gamut of emotions. Empathy for their pain. Disappointment with how they treat each other. Hope that they’ll sort things out. Powerlessness to sort it out for them.
We’d love to have our churches full of mature people who have the faith of Abraham and Sarah, but sometimes our people feel more like the problem than the solution. So, here’s some honest pastoral encouragement for you. Your clients are Abraham and Sarah, as we meet them in Genesis 16.
They have this amazing call on their lives to establish a kingdom that will bless all nations. Ten years they’ve walked with God in the land of promise, but they still have their old names and they’re struggling to trust God.
We’re shocked to learn that Abram is sleeping with someone who isn’t his wife. Actually, that’s not what happened, and if that’s our judgement we won’t be able to listen to them.
So, here’s your pastoral care exercise. Read Genesis 16 carefully. Observe the three main characters. Identify what they’re feeling, and what they do in response. Jot down your observations.
Abraham lived his entire life for the kingdom of God.
This podcast (28 minutes) surveys Genesis 12–25 as the foundational story of the kingdom of God.
God founded his human rescue project in Abraham and Sarah. They left the region of the Babel-builders to establish a nation under God — a representative kingdom of God among the nations. The obstacles they faced are the obstacles that threaten God’s kingdom project. They trusted God, even though restoring God’s kingdom would take many lifetimes.
When I first blogged these thoughts four years ago, it became my most popular post (downloaded more than 10,000 times). Enjoy this podcast version.
Esau’s kingdom story is such a contrast to the kingdom God is establishing through Jacob.
If you miss the kingdom perspective, you may wonder why Genesis 36 is in the Bible. It’s a repetitive jumble of names associated with Esau. Sure, Esau was Abraham and Sarah’s grandson; God promised them nations; and Esau has a nation. But there’s too much detail to just say that. Something else is going on. Continue reading “Esau’s ordinary kingdom (Genesis 36)”
Jacob is invited to live in God’s house (Bethel). How well do they do?
Bethel—literally God’s House—is where Jacob is invited to live. But if they are to live in the house of their heavenly sovereign, they must purify themselves. After the skirmish with the Shechemites, the smell of death is on them and their clothes. Among the spoils are idols and talismans. When these impediments are gone, they enter Bethel. The surrounding cities are too terrified to seek vengeance on these servants of the heavenly king (35:1-5). Continue reading “Jacob’s life in God’s house (Genesis 35)”