Thursday, October 11, 2007

Essay on Genesis 1-11

I'm writing essays every two weeks to introduce a set of daily lessons our church is doing reading through the Scripture in one year. Here's the essay for the first 11 books of Genesis:

So much has been written about Genesis and the first few books of the Bible that it is really hard to know where to start. There is probably no part of Scripture other than the Gospels that has had more commentary written about it. Genesis is so very rich and diverse. It starts out with two creation stories, one an overall creation story of the heavens and the earth, the second one more centered in on humanity’s place in creation and its relationship to it. Then it moves on to the early myths- the flood, new languages, the first murder, etc. I call these stories “myths” not because I don’t believe they actually happened, but more because they are told not just to record an event, but also to show us a truth. So, we can read the Noah story as an account of a flood that really happened, but we can also read it as a truth about sin, God’s hatred of sin, but God’s forgiving and relenting in the midst of sin and destruction. The story is mythic because it carries that truth.

The early part of Genesis, chapter 1-11, keeps plodding along with these mythic stories, and all of it is intertwined with a genealogy, from Adam and Eve all the way to, eventually, Abram (remember that later in Scripture, God is called “the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob”). So as you read these first 11 chapters, you’ll see the mythic tied very closely together with the personal and the familial. That’s very interesting. But actually, the whole bible is like that. We think of God operating on a really grand scale, but the truth is, most of the time in the Bible, God is working through very specific and local means. He doesn’t appear in the sky and call the whole world. He calls one specific family, Abram and Sarai, to go where he tells them. She doesn’t save all the enslaved peoples of the world. She hovers over like a mothering hen and calls Israel out of bondage from Egypt.

This last point is especially important. Even though we haven’t started reading Exodus yet, it is important to remember that, from the perspective of the Bible at least, all of these books are written by the man who led the exodus out of Egypt- Moses. Moses is, according to Scripture, the author of Genesis. There has been a lot of historical work done that now calls into question whether historically Moses actually did write Genesis, but we can disregard that concern, at least for the time being, and think of Moses as like a narrator that we can imagine writing this. If you want to think of who is narrating all of this, think of Moses.

If you do that, you’ll realize that the lens through which we read all of Genesis is the Exodus. In fact, I almost thought of having us read Exodus first, and then go back and read Genesis after the exodus narrative. Because the Israelites and Moses can only think of God as the God who saves and liberates. Their worldview is forever affected by what happened to them when God led them out of Egypt.

This is not actually strange to us. We cannot really read the Old Testament without thinking of it through the lens of the New Testament. We read everything in Genesis, Exodus, and the other books of Scripture shaped by what we know of God’s work through Jesus Christ in his birth, death, and resurrection. We are Easter people, just as Moses was an Exodus person. So when you read the early chapters of Genesis, in fact, when you read all of Genesis, keep in mind the exodus, and God’s liberation of an enslaved people, and a promise of salvation. In fact, you can think of Moses as a kind of interpreter, looking back and interpreting these historical events in a special way, always watching for God as savior in and through the events.

Martin Luther certainly does this in the Small Catechism. I his explanation of the first article of the creed, “I believe in God, the Father almighty, creator of heaven and earth,” he writes, “What does this mean? I believe that God has created me together with all that exists. God has given me and still preserves my body and soul: eyes, ears, and all limbs and senses; reason and all mental faculties.

In addition, God daily and abundantly provides shoes and clothing, food and drink, house and farm, spouse and children, fields, livestock, and all property—along with all the necessities and nourishment for this body and life. God protects me against all danger and shields and preserves me from all evil. And all this is done out of pure, fatherly, and divine goodness and mercy, without any merit or worthiness of mine at all! For all of this I owe it to God to thank and praise, serve and obey him. This is most certainly true.”

God’s creation is not simply a past action for Luther, something that is done and over with. Instead, Luther reads creation in light of redemption, and sees creative work as on-going. The key phrase is, “and still preserves.” God still preserves; God still saves; God is living and active. Not only that, God was there, in the beginning, making heaven and earth, living with and loving a humanity that was sinful from the very beginning, redeeming and saving.

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