Some thoughts on Genesis and the Old Testament for today

What is the Old Testament and why should it be read? 

The Old Testament, a collection of 39 different books, gives the history of the Israelites - Godís chosen people - and how they lived. It covers the recurring failure of the human race to do things Godís way and thus to receive Godís intended blessing. 

Dealing as it does with ethics and morality, it can be seen as an ethical guidebook, giving guidelines about behaviour and providing a charter for an egalitarian, just and sustainable society. The law codes in the Old Testament, which put a higher value on human life than on property, give an excellent basis for a legal framework. 

In describing the relationship between God and humanity, showing how God acted in history, the Old Testament can be helpful in allowing us to know how God acts today. Jews and Christians recognise it as being fundamental to their understanding of God. 

The books of the Old Testament, regarded as sacred writings, are the Scriptures of Jesus and the New Testament writers. Jesus, the embodiment of Israelís mission, makes no sense without an understanding of the Old Testament and, as the New Testament took shape, the early Church continued to regard the Old Testament as an essential part of Christian Scriptures. 

It also helps us to understand Godís mission to fulfil his purposes for the world in terms of what God wishes and how we should respond. 

Thus, the Old Testament is not just about events which happened in the past but is also a guide for today.

Why believe the Biblical story of creation?

One does not have to believe the Biblical story of creation at all, particularly as taking an absolute literal reading gives rise to difficulties (e.g. light is created before the sun and stars; day and night take place before the sun is created etc).

However, seeing it not as historical or scientific but, rather, as a figurative account of human origins and as a theological account asserting fundamental truths helps to make sense of it, particularly bearing in mind that the original audience was the ancient Hebrews. This is especially so if it is viewed as a piece of theological polemic, i.e. a tract for its time as a response to other ancient near East beliefs (for example, as set out in the Babylonian Creation Epic ďEnuma ElishĒ) which said things about God with which the Hebrews radically disagreed. 

Certain symbolic features - such as the garden, tree of life, serpent, humans made of clay etc - found in Mesopotamian origin stories are included in Genesis but the narrative has been recast to show the true nature of God, the world1 and humanityís purpose. 

How God, the only creator, is described as creating things (He simply speaks and things come to pass, in an orderly, structured fashion) demonstrates His almighty power and sovereignty over everything. It also affirms that God is separate from creation but that His character can be seen therein. 

Creation of humans in Godís image implies resemblance and the importance of human beings. Further, it suggests representation, i.e. that all humans are to represent God to the rest of creation as ďmanagersĒ, with a responsibility to fulfil that role in a beneficial way, everything having been created ďgoodĒ. Humans have a solidarity with the rest of creation and, as Godís authorised stewards of it, we represent His rule.

Humanity is made male and female, Godís image being reflected in the characteristics of both sexes2, suggesting that women have an important place alongside men and that humanity is created for relationships, this association being a different and unique one to that between humans and animals.

The story also says something significant about rest and, possibly, about the theological importance of the Sabbath. 

So the creation story should be seen as something other than a straightforward historical record. Dismissing it out of hand means overlooking the key messages it contains.

What is the relevance of Genesis 4-113 for Christian life today? 

The Cain and Abel narrative reinforces Godís interest not only in a personís offering but, primarily, in the right attitude. This is a lesson always to put God first in oneís thoughts, reinforced in the story of Noah, whose his first thought after leaving the ark is of God, to whom he offers a sacrifice (one lesson for today from which is that in a properly offered sacrifice, the evil inclinations of the human heart can be set aside by God.

The Flood narrative shows that God opposes sin and wickedness. In reaffirming that humansí rebellion against God causes Him real sorrow and grief, it also reveals how righteousness and obedience can win through. God chose Noah to be the object and agent of His grace because of Noahís attributes and, today, we should pervade similar attributes.

Through the covenants with Noah, humans are made accountable for their lives, others and the environment. Such accountability - and acceptance of Godís plan for the whole of creation, for eternity - is a fundamental lesson for Christian life today.

The Tower of Babel narrative speaks of misplaced motives4 and shows the nature of God and humanity. Christians today must continue to be mindful that God sees the true spirit behind efforts and can continue to frustrate wayward plans and thwart human initiative. Man proposes; God disposes. 

The mark of Cain is a reminder of Godís grace in punishment, whilst the genealogies point forward to the fulfilment of Godís promise of salvation. 

In a modern world of continued separation of humanity from God and what He wants, these Chapters outlining Godís interaction with His world and with humanity provide key theological points fully applicable today.

The significance of the story of Abraham in the Book of Genesis  

The story of Abraham and his family is significant because it forms more than 80% of the content of Genesis and is thus the bookís main focus of interest.  

Abrahamís call, an act of grace (as shown by the promise of blessing to all families on earth) is a reminder of Godís commands, seen earlier in the book, to be fruitful and multiply. The promise of land and descendants appears, like other covenants in Genesis - e.g. the covenant with all life on earth, seen in Gen 9 - to be unconditional. The themes of wandering and worship, seen in the Abraham story, are important in the rest of Genesis and throughout the Pentateuch.  

Godís dealings with Abraham and his descendants, the people of Israel, are a result of all that has happened in Gen 1-11 and are placed in the context of His universal intention to bless the world. It is for the sake of the nations - and not primarily for the sake of Israel - that God chooses to call Abraham and create a people for Himself.  

Gen 12-14 shows how Abraham may put the covenant in jeopardy by his actions, both good and bad. Godís response is repeatedly to reaffirm the covenant, giving more specific and explicit details. The missiological and ethical reasons behind the revelation of Godís plans to Abraham both relate to the covenant theme in Genesis.  

The birth of Isaac is an indication of the promise of descendants and the burial ground purchased when Sarah dies may be viewed as an indication of the promise of land. The description of the love between Isaac and Rebekah goes on to become a significant term in the Old Testament, focussing on trust and friendship.  

In the overall themes of Genesis (and the Pentateuch), the story of Abraham and his family show how Godís covenant is fulfilled through the lives of ordinary people and unlikely circumstances.

Can God use people from broken families? 

The story of Isaac and his sons Easau and Jacob (which in many ways echoes the story of Abraham and his sons Ishmael and Isaac) shows that Godís promises are fulfilled in His way and at His time, even though this may go against cultural norms and expectations, e.g. that the firstborn son would expect to inherit the promises made to his Father.  

It also evidences that the fulfilment of Godís promises does not always result in peaceful and happy situations. Godís plan to bless humanity is worked out in the messy reality of human deceit and jealousy between the sons of Isaac. God seems to choose the most unlikely person - Jacob (the ďdeceiverĒ) - as the instrument of his covenant. 

Jacobís many highs and lows - including saying goodbye to his family, finding himself married to Leah, whom he does not love then, when he does marry his beloved Rachel, of whom Leah is intensely jealous, finding her barren - further demonstrates how Godís plan is worked out in the reality of human existence. 

The Scriptures give an honoured place in the story of salvation to the most unexpected women who have been abused and neglected by society. For example, in Matthewís genealogy, Tamar, Rahab (a prostitute), Ruth and possibly Bathsheba (whose husband was a Hittite) are all foreigners. Tamar, Rahab and Bathsheba have all been involved in questionable sexual liaisons. Mary is accused of bearing Jesus as an illegitimate child.. God works out his mission through weakness, sinfulness and through abusive situations. The most unlikely people (e.g. Tamar, who had an incestuous liaison with her Father-in-law) are redeemed to be significant players in Godís mission to redeem humanity.  

Thus, God works in the messy and often dysfunctional nature of human relationships and graciously chooses the most unlikely people as agents of His covenant. Jacobís family was completely dysfunctional, with Leah and Rachel vying to have children by Jacob. When they cannot, both offer their maidservants to Jacob to be surrogate Mothers. Jacob seems unwilling to deal with the abuse of his Daughter Dinah and is incapable of controlling his Sonsí reactions to this. Joseph is hated by his Brothers because of his dreams. Yet the story of Joseph ends in the remarkable healing and reconciliation of a dysfunctional family.

Even in the lowest points of their lives, God is seen to be with them to transform them into the people that he wants them to be.

1 this element may be aetiological in nature, i.e. seeking to explain the way some things are as seen in the world today.

2 and a sign that God approves of the sexual expression of male and female towards each other.

3 These chapters include the stories of Cain and Abel, Noah and the Flood, the covenant with Noah, the Tower of Babel and various genealogies.

4 a desire to glorify; a determination for protection relying entirely on oneís own strength; arrogance in the face of God.

© Richard Farquharson, Maulden, Bedfordshire June 2017