Over the next few weeks I would like to do a preaching series giving short summaries of each of the first five books of the Bible. If it goes well we could extend it further. But today we start with the book of Genesis.
It should be remembered that the Book of Genesis is not a scientific textbook, neither is it a history or an archaeological textbook. It is a book of archetypal stories inviting us to explore the mystery of our human experience and our human destiny and purpose. The validity of the book does not therefore stand or fall on the accuracy of the information it gives, but rather, it stands or falls on the assertions it makes about the meaning and purpose of human life and existence.
The Book can be divided into two sections:
The first section runs from Genesis 1 to Genesis 11:26
The second section runs from chapter 11:27 to the end of the book, chapter 50
In the first section we read two accounts of the origin of the universe and the world. The first gives a kind of a bird’s eye view and the second focus’s on the so-called first human beings, Adam and Eve. The rest of the section runs from Adam and Eve to Cain and Abel and their descendents, down to the story of Noah and the Flood and ending with the story of the Tower of Babel. From the initial harmony of the Garden of Eden, the story tells of the rapid descent into disharmony, waywardness and self-destruction. In the middle of this first section there is an initial attempted reboot where the God character sends a flood to wipe the slate clean and to begin again, exterminating the bad and starting again with Noah and his family,. But the plain fails and humanity very quickly descends again into disharmony, waywardness and disharmony again driven mostly it would seem by human pride, which culminates in the building of the Tower of Babel in which humanity are pictured trying to build a tower up to heaven, bridging the gap between heaven and earth through their own misguided ingenuity and technological advance. Apparently they have become a danger not just to themselves and the earth, but also a potential danger to heaven as well, and so God scatters them across the earth giving them different languages to prevent not just the corruption of the earth but also the corruption of heaven too it would seem.
The second major section of the book from chapter 11:27 to the end of chapter 50 represents a change in strategy by God. The quick fix method of exterminating evil failed and so the God character in the book adopts a strategy for the long term. And this involves God calling and befriending Abraham and Sarah and their descendents and taking them into the school of his love and wisdom so that they might slowly learn God’s ways and the ways of faith and trust in order to be a blessing to the rest of the world. The second half of the story follows the descendents of Abraham and Sarah, most especially, Isaac, Jacob and Jacob’s 12 sons who become the heads of the twelve tribes of Israel. The book ends with the story of Joseph who is betrayed by his brothers who are jealous of the favouritism he receives from their father Jacob. Joseph ends up a slave in Egypt but rises up the ranks to become Pharaoh's regent which enables him to provide sanctuary to the very brothers who betrayed him when the land they were living in is struck by famine.
That’s a brief outline of the book:
What are some of the major themes and lessons of the book:
The first major assertion of the book of Genesis is that there is a Higher Power or a Higher Wisdom at work behind the scenes of life constantly bringing order our of chaos, light out of darkness and life out of nothingness as the Book describes God doing at the very beginning of creation. In the language of the book of Genesis itself, this mysterious Higher Power and Greater Wisdom is called by four names Elohim, the Supreme or the Most High, and also called Yehovah, which later on in the book of Exodus we find out means “The I Am”, Adonai, meaning the Lord, and El Shaddai – the Provider. And often the first two names are used together: Yehovah Elohim.
A second major underlying assertion of the book is that human beings have two contrasting dimensions. The greatness of our potential to reflect God’s Divine Life is mirrored by the greatness of our potential for evil destruction. It would seem that without the potential to make bad and destructive choices, humanity wouldn’t truly be able to realise our potential for goodness and true greatness. Our potential for greatness it seems lies ultimately in our ability to be victorious over our our tendency towards evil and self-destruction. As we read in the story of Cain and Abel, God says to Cain: “Sin is crouching at your door. It desires to have you, but you must gain mastery over it” (Genesis 4:7). But this, not simply by humanities own doing, as we shall see as the story unfolds, it will happen by God’s grace, God’s calling, God’s leading and God’s guidance. Left to our own devices it would seem we tend to make wayward and destructive choices, but in relationship with Elohim, human beings can begin to tap into their true inner potential for greatness and nobility. And so throughout the book of Genesis, we see God working with ordinary wayward human beings, seeking to teach them his ways of grace and truth. Jacob’s name means deceiver, and he becomes the father of the nation of Israel which means ‘wrestler with God’. In other words this journey of growth in God’s school of love and wisdom is not going to be a neat line moving in one direction, but rather a journey characterised sometimes by three steps forward and two steps back.
A third major underlying assertion in the book is that you cannot divide the world of human beings neatly into those who are good and those who are bad. This seems to be the lesson of the Noah Story. The line between good and evil does not run between people but runs through every human heart. We all have the seeds and the potential for evil, waywardness and destruction within us. Even Noah the righteous man has this potential for waywardness and destruction within him which is why the attempted reboot with the flood ends in failure.
A fourth major theme in the book is that God’s Ways are not our ways. In the story, the God character constantly disrupts the natural human assumptions to bring about God’s good purposes. The normal cultural human assumption n the book for example is that the first born should be the chosen one. But throughout the story, Yehovah Elohim chooses someone other than the first born. to fulfil the Divine purposes. This is a value that has come to be deeply rooted in Western culture, that the circumstances of one’s birth don’t need to, and perhaps shouldn’t have to determine one’s future possibilities and potential.
A fifth major theme in Genesis is that God is able to take the waywardness of human beings as well as their mistakes and to turn those around and to use them for God’s good purposes, like using a crooked stick to beat a straight path. According to the book of Genesis, there are no human mistakes or waywardness that can ultimately thwart God’s greater purposes, it can all be used as material for God’s greater design. And so the book of Genesis, which gets it name from the Hebrew word Bereshith, meaning ‘Beginning’ is a book about beginnings and new beginnings, and assets that God is a God of new beginnings for God is constantly bringing light out of darkness, order out of chaos and life out of emptiness and bareness.
A final major assertion that the book of Genesis makes is that the purpose and meaning of human existence is that we are created to be a blessing to others, blessed to be a blessing, to be value creating beings. We see it in the call of Abraham and Sarah where Yehovah Elohim says: “In you, all the families of the earth will be blessed!” Genesis 12:3. We see it also in the story of Joseph. As he finds himself blessed by rising up the ranks in Egypt, through God’s grace and through the integrity of his life, he is blessed to be a blessing to others, to the very brothers who betrayed him and sold him as a slave in the first place. According to Genesis, blessings are not for our own private pleasure but always given to be shared with others and for the greater good of God’s purposes.
Today as we stand at the beginning of a New Year the book of Genesis invites us to remember that God the Great Wisdom that brought us into being is the God of beginnings and new beginnings. What new beginnings might the year ahead have in store for us? What mistakes, waywardness and misfortunes and even tragedies of the past might become the seeds of new blessing in the future. Out of the seeming chaos of the present what is the new light that God is already speaking into the darkness. Amen.