For 10 weeks we are focussing on how to understand the Old Testament. Many people find parts of the Old Testament daunting and challenging to understand. In the weeks to come we’ll break it all down, bit by bit, looking at the land of the Bible, the book of Genesis, the Law, the books of the prophets, the eras of the kings, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and more. We begin today with how to read the narrative stories of the Old Testament.
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If someone were to ask you to take as much time as you wanted to answer the question “Who are you?” you would start at the beginning. Your birth, your parents, your hometown, your ethnicity. To fully understand a person, a people, or a place today, you must go back to their beginnings.
That is why the Bible starts with “In the beginning.” Generations of believers have found the meaning and purpose of life—including its tragedies and triumphs—by reading Genesis, the book of beginnings. When we read Genesis we should see the larger part of the God-story in it. The book is not merely a sequence of events. It is a theology about God’s intention in creating humanity, about the dreadful corruption within humanity, and about God’s way of restoring humanity, beginning with one man and one tribe.
“In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth”—in other words, everything. Right there in just a few Hebrew words, Bereishit bara Elohim et hashamayim ve’et ha’aretz, we have a specific definition of reality. First, there is a singular God who chose to create. This eliminates the main alternatives: atheism (no god), polytheism (many gods), and pantheism (god is the universe). In many other ancient religions, there is a god who competes with the sun, moon, stars, and sea monsters who also are gods. In contrast, in Genesis God is Creator of all. It sets forth the perspective carried all the way through Scripture, that there are only two categories in the universe: Creator and created. One Almighty God, and everything else.
And there is order in the creation. God speaks it into existence, and then God commands the way life should work. There is thus a harmony and logic in the creation. For this reason we should not see science and the Bible as exclusive of each other. Science is based on being able to predict the way things will be because there is an order and predictability in nature. This is theologically true, and empirically true.
Genesis puts humanity at the apex of creation, whereas in other religions human beings are slaves to the gods. The revolutionary idea that humanity was created “in the image of God” affirms the dignity and value of human beings. The disobedience of the man and the woman and the fall into sin is all the more tragic because it is a fracturing of the image of God. The book of beginnings describes the genesis of sin in human beings as succumbing to the temptation to rise even higher than their noble place, to believe that they know better than the command of God.
So Genesis speaks of multiple beginnings: of the universe, of humanity, of sin, of the nations, and of one nation in particular which God would use to define the right life. Most of the book of Genesis (chapters 12 through 50) tells the story of the patriarchs of Israel: Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and the sons of Jacob who produced the tribes of the Hebrews numbering hundreds of thousands by the end of the book. This is the people of God. A particular tribe whom God used in particular ways in order to establish universal principles.
In the New Testament, the apostle Paul interprets Genesis as he describes the essence of the meaning of Abraham’s story. Grace through faith. Righteousness as right relationship. Patience in the promise. And so on. The truth of Genesis reaches to where we live. Abraham was justified by faith, and thus it always must be (Rom. 4; Gal. 3; Heb. 11).
We see in the narratives about Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Jacob, Esau, Joseph and his brothers, and many others a raw depiction of human virtue and vice, of faith in God and contention with God. We are not to take their behaviors as prescriptions for what we should do in our lives, and there isn’t necessarily a moral to every story. The text does not tell us story by story which actions of these people were right and which were wrong. Genesis gives the narrative, and the whole of Scripture is the magnifying glass through which we examine it.
We need to read Genesis in context so we’ll get the whole sweeping truth of it. Occasionally it is beneficial to read Genesis all the way through in three or four sittings, looking for the big themes. When we do so, we’ll see in it the greatness of God, the dignity and tragedy of humanity, and the piecemeal, plodding process whereby one tribe learns lessons for all of us. Genesis sets the tone of everything else in Scripture. It contains the DNA of the people of God.
So if someone asks you to take as much time as you want to say who you are, you might consider starting with Genesis.
Next time: “How Should We Understand the Law?”
Care to offer feedback this week?
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Mel Lawrenz is Director of The Brook Network and creator of The Influence Project. He’s the author of thirteen books, most recently Spiritual Influence: the Hidden Power Behind Leadership.