Through the Bible in Just Over a Year – Genesis

Welcome to this new blog, which is designed to help us see the huge picture of the Bible, by encouraging us to read one book per week. As promised it certainly won’t be the last word in scholarship, but I hope it will help people to read their Bibles more and with greater understanding.

 

So … Genesis. The word means ‘beginnings’, and the Hebrew words with which it begins simply mean ‘In the beginning …’ It helpful to think of the book in three ways: as an overture, as a book of ‘Just So’ stories, and as a scene-setter. It contains the well-known stories of Adam and Eve, Noah’s Ark, Abraham and the Patriarchs, and Joseph with his amazing coat. Just like an overture for an opera of musical, the book introduces briefly some of the themes we’re going to hear played out more fully as the story unfolds. So we see God as creator, but also destroyer, we see the idea of covenant relationships, of calling, of journey and pilgrimage, of sacrifice and mercy, and of a purposeful working out of God’s plans for redemption. In the story of Abraham we see both the calling of the ‘chosen people’, but also the idea that the only reason God chose a nation was to be the purveyors of good things to the whole earth. Their calling was to be blessed but also to bless, a theme which I have explored before. Maybe you could trace some of these themes through the rest of the Bible and see how they are developed, just as a composer develops his original musical hints into full numbers.

File:The Creation - Bible Historiale (c.1411), vol.1, f.3 - BL Royal MS 19 D III.jpg

But the other purpose of Genesis is to answer some questions which will later arise. The technical term for this is ‘aetiology’ – a ‘just-so’ story which you can imagine parents telling their children to explain something which they observe as they go through life. Another technical term here is ‘myth’, which doesn’t strictly mean ‘not actually true’, but rather that it explains something. So the stories of creation are there to explain how we all got here, and to argue whether Adam and Eve were literal historical characters is to miss the point entirely, and is about as useful as arguing about whether Pandora’s box was made of wood or metal. ‘Why is that pretty coloured thing up in the sky?’ is another question we can imagine children asking, and the story of Noah and the flood answer that question. Similarly questions such as ‘Why are we living where we’re living?’ can be answered by the story of the call of Abraham to go to ‘a land which I will give you’.

 

Thirdly, though, the book acts as a scene-setter for the drama to come. THE pivotal event in Israel’s history is the Exodus from Egypt, which we will come to next week, but before God can get his people out of Egypt he has to get them in there, so the long story of Joseph is there to explain how it came to be that those who had been promised God’s favour and a land of their own are working as slaves far from home under cruel foreign domination. To be continued …

Caravaggio. The Sacrifice of Isaac.

To think about:

 

  • Why are there two different stories of creation? What is each meant to teach us?
  • What can the story of Abraham’s call (Gen 12) say to the church today?
  • What can you learn about the ministry of Jesus from reading Genesis?

 

OT Lectionary Sunday 13th September Trinity 13 Genesis 50:15-21

 

Two words can sum up the thrust of today’s OT passage: grace and mercy. Joseph’s brothers, those who left him half-dead and then sold him into slavery, are worried because now that Dad has died the respect which Joseph has had for him might run out and he might wreak an awful revenge on them from his position of power. So, whether out of fear for their lives or genuine repentance (it’s hard to tell which from the text – maybe it was a mixture of both) they grovel before him asking that he will forgive them. Joseph’s response shows both grace and mercy, but something else besides which we will come to in a minute.

And old children’s song helpfully tells us that

‘Grace is when God gives us/the things we don’t deserve’

and

‘Mercy is when God does not/give us what we deserve’

Joseph shows both to his brothers, putting away their sins against him, and promising to provide for them into the future. It would be interesting to speculate just what his tears in v 17 were about. Gratitude that they had finally apologised to him? Horror that they should think him capable of such revenge? Maybe, but I wonder also whether his tears were about glimpsing the bigger picture. Showing grace and mercy are human activities, and very good ones too, but behind it all Joseph is able to see the hand of a loving and powerful God.

He has already made the point, in chapter 45, that what they intended as harm for him was used by God to a greater purpose. He repeats the point here, as evidence that to take the path of revenge would be to go counter to God’s larger purposes. I think there is something here for those of us who suffer, and something for those who must forgive.

Let’s begin with forgiveness. I have written elsewhere[i] about an important paper on the nature of forgiveness, so I won’t repeat is here. but I am interested that Joseph does three things. He looks their sin fair and square in the face and calls it what it is – ‘You intended to harm me’ v 20. No excuses: he tells it like it is. Secondly he refuses to take revenge, even though it was well within his power to do so. The most helpful definition of forgiveness I have heard is ‘Handing back to God the right to punish those who have hurt us’. Most of our angst and bitterness comes from the fact that we would like to take revenge ourselves, but most of the time we don’t have the ability to. To give back to God the right to punish sets us free from all that agonised bitterness.

But then Joseph goes one step further: he ‘spoke kindly to them’ v 21. Much of the time this is a step too far. We can forgive people, if we use the definition above, without having to trust them, or even to like them. Much of the time the wisest way is simply to avoid them. But Joseph somehow manages to maintain relationship with those who were so cruel to him.

I think that third step is optional, so don’t beat yourself up if you simply can’t be around those who have hurt you so much. However, the first two are essential.

And once we gain the perspective which comes from having genuinely forgiven, that makes it easier to seek God’s larger purposes. I know how much this hurt, but what did God give me, or build into me through it. what is there, in the harm intended by others, which he has turned to his purposes?

[i] Leach, J God’s Upgrades … My Adventures (Milton Keynes: Authentic, 2014) p 168ff.

 

Coming soon – my new Wednesday blog ‘Through the Bible in Just Over a Year’ – 600 words introducing each book of the Bible, and how we might read it today as Christian disciples.