III. Canonical Shape
From the outset, the focus of Genesis is on God and his dealings with humankind. The opening chapters relate the story of a God who creates. The emphasis is primarily on the Creator rather than his creation per se. Man himself is perceived in terms of the imago dei. The ensuing chapters depict a God who judges his creation. In the Abraham narrative, God is the Covenant Maker, the One who initiates interpersonal relationship with humanity. The story of Jacob emphasizes that aspect of God that transforms human life, while the Joseph narrative stresses God's providential sustaining power. In each instance, by reversing the causal nexus, one comes to an understanding of the nature of God through an appraisal of his acts. One must first ask what God has done (his heilsgeschichte) before one can determine what he is like.
The foundation for heilsgeschichte (salvation history) is encountered initially in creation. The ultimate good portrayed in the opening chapters of the book provides the ideal situation to which salvation history must return if it would have any meaning. As such, the canonical shape of the book indicates God's redemptive plan for the whole of his creation and that, ultimately, any adequate definition of redemption must take all of creation into account. Israel, therefore, cannot be considered, on this basis, as the sole object of salvation history (which might arguably be the case had Genesis begun at ch. 12 without reference to primeval history). Rather, within the framework of the book, Israel is given a crucial role in affecting God's reconciliation for all nations.
The opening chapters also serve to set forth the need for a salvation history at all. Having already depicted an ideal state, sin and judgment (or the curse) can be more readily understood in relative terms. Genesis begins with a perfect order and moves to a degenerate order. It is important to comprehend the problem posed in the early sections of the book if one is ever to come to grips with the solution to the problem in terms of covenant. An antidote has no particular meaning apart from a diagnosis of the disease. It is this study of the disease that occupies the attention of the first eleven chapters.
Genesis' primeval history, having related the inauguration of sin into the created order, then enumerates a history of increasing alienation from God. Beginning with the Fall, the problem of sin is generalized and expanded to reach its climax at the Tower of Babel. Sin has finally taken on cosmic proportions, and any solution must inevitably involve the entire universe.
As God calls the world into being in the primeval history of chs. 1-11, so during the patriarchal history, chs. 12-50, he calls a special people into existence. It is through this latter call that the divine purpose of salvation history will be accomplished. At the heart of God's call to the patriarchs lies a promise of divine blessing most often portrayed in terms of posterity and land. These promises represent the essence of the covenant relationship that God establishes with Israel. It is the motif of covenant that gives insight into the patriarchal age of the final thirty-nine chapters of the book.
In the light of the universalizing of sin portrayed in the first eleven chapters and the subsequent picture of a degenerate world it depicts, God acts to inaugurate the process of salvation history to bring an ultimate solution to the problem of sin and to restore the ideal of the original creation. God's call to Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph takes the form of a command coupled with a promise. As each patriarch responds by obedience to the command, he is rewarded with the realization of the divine blessing. Two things should be noticed about God's promise and its consequent realization. First, the “theology of call” perceptible in (though not exclusive to) the patriarchal history is clearly contrasted to the “theology of the serpent” described in (though not exclusive to) the primeval history. Simply put, the serpent revealed untruth regarding God by bringing into question God's veracity and loving concern (“Did God really say,” 3:1ff.). The human reaction was distrust of God, which led to disobedience (eating the forbidden fruit) and which, in turn, resulted in the divine curse (3:14-19). By contrast, in the “theology of the call,” God reveals the truth about himself. It is the truth concerning his veracity and loving concern, integral to the covenant which he establishes with Israel's ancestry. The human response, in this instance, is displayed as trust—trust in a God who is able to stand behind his promises—and obedience to his commands. Such obedience elicits the divine favor and the tangible realization of the promised blessings.
Second, the promises are not always fully realized within the life span of a particular patriarch. Ge 15:13 specifically assigns the fulfillment of the promise of the land to a point beyond the Exodus. As such, the promises to the patriarchs and their realization function within a larger canonical framework stretching from Abraham to Joshua. The stories of the patriarchs are told, within the structure of the canon, with this eschatological dimension. The schema of promise-fulfillment extends beyond the bounds of Genesis itself, beyond the patriarchal age to the distant future. This is nowhere more clearly seen than in the final verses of the book. Joseph is dying. In his last spoken legacy to his progeny, he rehearses the truth about God: his veracity and loving concern. God will be true to his promises, he declares in 50:24. Then, as a reinforcing instruction to his brothers, Joseph asked that his bones be carried up from Egypt and buried in the land God had promised. For more than four hundred years Joseph's dead bones would remind Israel of a living theology that would encourage them to continue to hope in the eventual fulfillment of the promise.
Genesis will end where it began with an unapologetic focus of God. As creation declares the nature of God, so the story of re-creation, or salvation history, continues to define his character. In that regard, Genesis points beyond primeval and patriarchal histories to the reality of God whose creative acts are not confined to any specific era and who himself transcends history. A. W. Tozer may well have been describing Joseph's death when he penned, “When a man of God dies, nothing of God dies.”