|Reformed Perspectives Magazine, Volume 7, Number 24, June 12 to June 18, 2005|
Pastor of South Baton Rouge Presbyterian Church (PCA),
Baton Rouge, Louisiana
To study the beginning of anything is a challenge because there is always so much to consider, so many decisions that have to be made. One could, for example, study the beginning of a particular country, like China, or the beginning of a particular practice, like hand shaking or garage sales. And within each of these topics is a world of possibilities. You could begin your search in any one of a number of different directions. And that is part of the challenge: deciding which possibilities to consider and which ones to pass by; determining what to include and what to leave out.
But if the study of the beginning of anything is a challenge, then the study of the beginning of everything is more challenging still. As we study the early chapters of the book of Genesis, we are reading of the beginning of everything, and therefore we are in for a challenge. Genesis, as a book, is unique because it is not only a beginning, but it is the "beginningest" of beginnings, the first of the firsts, the introduction from which all other introductions spring and upon which they all depend.
Now, with many biblical books that we study, we work hard to try and connect the passages under consideration with the larger storyline of the book in which they are found. We also try to place them within the plot-line of the rest of the Bible. And we will be doing the same kinds of things with Genesis.
However, with this particular book, the process has to be modified somewhat because here we are not so much trying to fit the events under study into an existing storyline as much as we are seeing, for the first time, why there is any story line at all. We are seeing, in Genesis, the formation of all the questions and tensions and trajectories from which the rest of history and Scripture result and to which they respond.
In this introductory study, we will begin by stepping back and thinking for a minute about the Bible's nature and structure. Secondly, we will look very quickly at a few passages of Scripture that show us how we ought to read Genesis. And thirdly, we will look at some of the background details of Genesis in order to orient ourselves to what lies ahead.
The Bible's Nature and Structure
The fact that we are going back to the beginning of Scripture gives us a chance to go back to the basics of Scripture, if only for a moment or two. Like the football coach who once trained his team with the immortal words "This is a football," we can benefit at this opening juncture from making a similar sort of comment — "This is a Bible" — which is fairly obvious, but which raises the not so obvious question, "But what IS the Bible?" The short answer to that question, as one writer puts it is this: "The Bible is the one written word, by the one God, about the one way of salvation." But what does that all mean?
Well, for starters the Bible is revelation — that is, it is information that has come to us from God, through His prophets and apostles. It is not something we might have discovered or figured out on our own. It is truth that has been given, and even "gifted" to us, intentionally, by God and about God. And one of the things we discover from this revelation is that the God who has given it has no neighbors. He is not one of many "gods" but is alone God of the universe. As Goldsworthy writes,
The one God has made all things, and the evidence of his being is everywhere in creation. The human race was created in the image of God and thus with a knowledge of the fact that every aspect of creation witnesses to the Creator's being and power. Humankind has rebelled against its Creator and suppressed the knowledge of the truth. But, in love and mercy God has acted to redeem a people for himself. The word that He now speaks to the world is a redemptive word, and its authenticity is established by the Spirit of God as he takes from us our rebellious spirit and gives us a heart of faith... There is no place here for the kind of relativism that places all gods and all religions on the same level. The unique character of God rules this out since he is holy and perfect in a way no other supposed deities are. The plan of salvation revealed in the Bible is consistent only with a God who alone is God. It is a comprehensive plan that reflects the unity and uniqueness of God.
So, the Bible comes to us from the one God. This uniqueness of God then becomes the basis for the understanding of the uniqueness of the Bible as the one written word of the one God. That is, just as God is not one of many "gods," so the written word of God is not one of many written "words of God."
What I want you to see at this point is simply that in the Bible, we have the one, unified Word of God, which comes from the one mind of God. And because the whole thing comes from the one mind, it is unified — even though God has certainly chosen to assemble his word progressively, over time, and through various authors. The things that are said in one part are congruent with what is said in every other part. The truth found in one book does not undercut or contradict the truth found in another but is, rather, coordinate with it. This simply must be the case if we understand that it is the one Word, which is coming from the one God.
To put it another way, the whole Bible is the context for every verse in the Bible, because it all comes from the one God. As one writer puts it, this does not mean that "we have to laboriously go through the entire biblical story ever time we preach … [but] it does mean that we must strive to understand the truth that … Scripture interprets Scripture …that the meaning of any text is related to the meaning of all other texts."
Now, admittedly, the thought of relating every text to every other text would be a frightening prospect, if it weren't for the fact that God has greatly simplified that process for us by sending his Son who, while he was here, gave us the interpretive key to the Scriptures — and that key was himself (Luke 24:27). This leads us to the third part of our definition of the Bible: it is the one written word, from the one God, about the one way of salvation. "I am the way, the truth and the life," says Jesus, "no one comes to the Father except through me."
Contrary to popular belief, all roads do not lead to God. Regardless of what people may say, human religion is not about people trying to find a way to God. It is nothing of the sort. That's sentimental, politically correct, nonsense. As Paul makes clear in Romans 1:18-25, human religion is not about the pursuit of God; it is about the avoidance of God. It is concerned with finding something — anything — to substitute for the true worship of the one true God. And what is usually settled upon in human religion is a system of human effort that helps one to reach a certain desired goal.
In contrast to this, the way of salvation presented in Scripture is so radical and so counter-intuitive that, as one writer observes, "It has to be constantly argued and defended even within the pages of Scripture." It is counter-intuitive both in the fact that it is exclusively tied to the person of Christ and in the fact that it is tied completely to the work of Christ. Every fiber of our fallen, sinful nature wants this not to be true. And yet that is the clear message of Scripture.
The Bible is the one written word from the one true God about the one way of salvation, which is to say that the Bible is the book that tells us what God has done and is doing through Christ. That is true for the Bible in general, and that means that Genesis must, in some way, be brought into the service of that purpose.
The final thing that needs to be said with regard to the nature and structure of the Bible, and we have already alluded to it, is that God has given us the one written word about the one way of salvation in a progressive fashion. That is, the plans and purposes of God have been made known to us in stages and through history, over a period of time. From the very beginning of the Bible — in Genesis — we see the broad parameters and structures of this saving, redemptive plan of God's. And then we see those things unfolded over the remainder of the Scriptures.
But because it is a progression of revelation, what we see in Scripture is something like the relationship between an object and its shadow. The things that we see dimly and in shadowy form in the Old Testament are made much more solid and real as we progress toward the New Testament's portrayal of the Lord Jesus, who was the fullest and clearest revelation of God.
Another way of saying this, as Goldsworthy puts it, is to say that in the process of progressive revelation, "Abraham knew more than Noah, Moses knew more than Abraham, David knew more than Moses, Ezekiel knew more than David, and Paul knew more than all of them." Why? Because God has revealed his truth to us over time in a progressive, cumulative fashion.
One of the implications of this is that in Genesis we see the very beginning of this process of God revealing himself and his plans and purposes to us. And because in Genesis we are at the origin of that process, we will see things in a very seminal, shadowy form. We'll see the essence of a covenant here, a hint of a promise there, the strong suggestion of a coming Savior in another place.
The Mississippi River begins as a small rivulet of water that, if you didn't know any better, you would never guess would become a massive body of water. In the same way, we can pick up in Genesis some very thin streams, just the barest trickle here and there that may not appear to be of any great significance but which, by the end of the Bible, have become powerful, deeply significant truths.
Scripture Teaches Us How to Read Genesis
Well, after thinking about the nature and structure of the Bible for a moment, we need to shift from thinking about the Bible to looking at the Bible. Because of the progressive nature of revelation, and because of the unity of God's word, we need to see how later revelation shapes and influences the way we read and understand prior revelation. Specifically, how do the things which God revealed after Genesis affect the way we read Genesis itself? And we need to grab hold of this because if we fail to grasp the significance of this dynamic, we may find ourselves misreading the text.
I remember hearing a story about a man who was driving down a windy, dusty road one day, going along at a pretty good speed and approaching a big curve up ahead. As he neared the curve, another car suddenly came flying around the bend from the opposite direction, sliding and skidding and very nearly hitting his own car as the driver struggled to maintain control of the vehicle. As their two cars passed and narrowly missed one another, the driver of the out-of-control car, who happened to be a woman, shouted out of her window as she passed the man, "Pig!"
Well, at that, the man became quite angry. After all, this woman was the one who was out of control, not him. She was the one who had been driving so recklessly and had come flying around the corner, nearly causing a wreck. And she called him a pig? And as she sped away behind him, he muttered under his breath, pressed down the accelerator, and powered through the curve — and then ran straight into the pig.
Now, if you haven't heard that story before, then chances are that, up until the very last moment, you thought the story was about one thing. And then you got the closing line which caused you to re-evaluate the whole thing. The woman whom you thought was driving recklessly was really just trying to avoid a collision with a farm animal. The cry of "Pig!" from her lips was not an insult but a warning.
The man's perception of her as a selfish jerk would have been wrong as well, and his anger badly misplaced. To put it another way, the information that was progressively revealed at the end of the story forces you to go through a huge paradigm shift and re-interpret the beginning of the story. The information and details don't change, but the way you understand them does.
In a similar fashion, the revelation of God in Jesus Christ, which came along much later than Moses and his book Genesis, has had — and indeed ought to have — a huge impact on how we understand what was going on at the very beginning. And if we were to read Genesis without it, we would most likely misinterpret and misuse what we were reading.
So, in light of those realities, let me just very quickly suggest a few passages that have a more obvious bearing on our approach to Genesis and which illustrate the sort of thing I am talking about here. To be sure, there is a sense in which every passage in the Bible has a bearing on our study of Genesis, but it is also true that not every passage has the same weight or impact, nor is the impact always as easily seen in some places as it is in others. What I share with you now are some of the more obvious ones:
Luke 2413-35; John 5:39-40,46
Jesus is walking on the road to Emmaus, after his resurrection, and leading these two people on a whirlwind tour of the Old Testament, showing them how the Scriptures in every place pointed to him. The implications of that we have already seen, but two other passages which are similar in impact to this one are John 5:39-40 and John 5:46. 1
In John 5:39-40, Jesus is pointing out the huge irony that the people in his day, at least some of them, searched the Old Testament Scriptures for the clues to eternal life (which they should have done) and yet they refused to come to the very one to whom those Scriptures bore witness: the man standing right in front of them, namely Jesus.
In John 5:46, Jesus makes a very specific connection between the writings of Moses and himself. Since Moses is the author of Genesis, we are justified in seeing that this comparison is at least partly between Genesis and Jesus.
In John 1:1-5 there are a number of significant elements that are crucial to our understanding of Genesis. As one writer says,
John begins his Gospel by recalling the first words of the book of Genesis, but in so doing he identifies the word of God by which creation was effected as the same word that became flesh. The Genesis account tells us that God spoke the universe into being and thus establishes the principle that is developed throughout Scripture that God chooses freely to relate to his creation by His Word.
And so, through the opening to John's gospel we see this connection between Jesus, who is the eternal Word of God, and the words God spoke in Genesis when he created the universe.
Ephesians 1:3-10 paints a clear picture of a God who purposed to "unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth." Part of his accomplishing that purpose involved sending his Son Jesus Christ to dwell among us, and to live and die on our behalf. But the interesting thing about Ephesians is the fact that it says that all of these things, amazingly, were part of God's plan from the beginning, indeed, from before the beginning.
Logically, then, if these sorts of things were in his mind, if they were part of his plan and purpose before he ever created the world, then they would have had a shaping influence upon him when he created the world. Specifically, since it was in God's mind to redeem us by Christ's blood before the world was created, when we get to the account of the fall into sin in Genesis 3 we need to keep in mind that the events recorded there were no mere accident. They were not an unfortunate, unforeseen, tragic detour that put a wrinkle in God's plans. According to Paul in Ephesians 1:3-10, all these things — including the Fall itself — were not accidental. They all find their place within the sovereign purpose and intention of God.
Here Paul makes a specific connection between Adam and Christ, the one being a type of the other. Paul talks about both Adam and Jesus acting in a kind of representative or federal capacity, something which we will say more about later, but which clearly has an impact on our understanding of Genesis. Additionally, the fact that Paul regards Adam as a real-life, historical figure says volumes about Paul's own confidence in the historical reliability of the Genesis account.
Revelation 21:1-4; 22:1-5
Finally, we can go to a book like Revelation, at the other end of the Bible, and learn a number of helpful things that influence our understanding of the book of Genesis. As we read Revelation 21:1-4; 22:1-5 — this picture of the end toward which God is moving this whole thing — we are treated to a wonderful and yet mysterious image.
The language used here is of a new heaven and a new earth. Now, this may be describing an actual new heaven and earth, or it may be figurative language used to describe a fully restored creation. But regardless of how you understand these words, one thing is clear: the former creation is no more.
Something was wrong with the original creation, and something needed to be done to fix it. But the point remains that a day is coming when this creation — the one in which we now live — will be replaced. And so, when you read the opening words of Genesis about God creating the heavens and the earth, and as you recall the words of Revelation 21 about a new heaven and earth, it is valid to see everything in between as an explanation of how we get from the one to the other.
Looking further at these words from Revelation, we read a description of a time when "the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God" (Rev. 21:3). That coming reality ought to affect greatly the way we read and understand the Genesis account which describes how, in the beginning, God walked with and among men, as well as how that blessing was seemingly lost forever in the Fall. As Revelation 21 shows us, God will once again dwell with and among his people. Once more, we can see this movement from point A to point B, this story of how something precious was lost, and of how it will be regained in the end.
Also in Revelation 21 we see that a time is coming when God will "wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away" (Rev. 21:4). Again, having these coming realities in mind should greatly affect how we read and understand the Genesis account. Genesis shows us how tears became part of our lives, and why death is an inescapable reality: the Fall. But just as we see the introduction of death and tears in Genesis, we see the end of death and tears in Revelation — and everything in between is the story of how we get from point A to point B.
Looking at Revelation 22, we see a similar pattern going on. The Tree of Life that was created and then hidden in Genesis will be accessible in the end. In fact, it will be abundantly available, yielding its fruit for the benefit of God's people. Again, this picture of the end helps us to see the picture at the beginning and to understand that the plot line includes how it is that we get from point A to point B.
Now, we could go on with many other examples — and it would take some time because there are something like 268 different direct and indirect references to the book of Genesis in the New Testament alone, not to mention other parts of the Bible. But I think you see the point. If we are going to understand Genesis rightly, we have to take into account the Bible's own infallible interpretations of one of its own books.
Background Details for Genesis
The last thing we need to look at will also be the briefest thing: some details orienting us to the book of Genesis. As has been stated a few times in this introduction already, the author of this portion of the Bible was Moses. That conclusion is the product of a number of things, including direct references in the New Testament that attribute to Moses the writing of the first five books which we know as the "Pentateuch," the "Books of Moses" or the "Law" (e.g., John 5:46; 7:22; Luke 24:13ff.). That conclusion is also based on the structure and content of the books themselves.
Now, you need to know that in the world of biblical scholarship, the view that Moses wrote Genesis is a minority view. We do not need to go into any great detail here, but there is an alternative view that Genesis is the compiled work of anywhere from two to five major authors and a few minor editors.
However, the view that Genesis is a compilation has, in my judgment, been well refuted, and in the past decade the compilation view of Genesis has become increasingly difficult to maintain. So, again, the author of Genesis, and indeed of all the first five books of the Bible, is Moses. This does not exclude the possibility that some of God's later scribes may have included some additional material in these books, such as the account of Moses' death in Deuteronomy 34:5ff. But the essential recording of these books is clearly Mosaic.
Well, since the author was Moses, then that gives us a range of possibilities for who the original audience or recipients of this book were. And the consensus on this matter, based on the internal evidence of these books, is that Genesis was probably written down and given to the people of God after they had left Egypt and after their wilderness wanderings. It was given to them as they were standing on the edge of the Promised Land — up on their tip-toes, as it were, staring in and wondering what battles and blessings awaited them in that place. They had been there before, you see; they had come right to the edge and then — in faithlessness — had refused to go in. And they had spent 40 years wandering in the desert as a result.
Now, here they were again, having come full circle. The dramatic tension was high. Would they or would they not be obedient and faithfully embrace the future that God had set before them? It was in the midst of all this that they were given the Books of Moses in general, and Genesis in particular. It was in this context that they received and heard again this account of God's creating and ordering of the world, and the fall into sin, and the wrath and judgment of God, and of the promise of hope and restoration. It was in this context that they heard again of how God — in fulfillment of his promise — chose their ancestor Abraham, and then Isaac, and then Jacob, and then Joseph to show his faithfulness to them, to show that he is God who not only makes but keeps promises.
It was in this context that they heard again of God's bringing them out of Egypt in order to bring them to a new place. They were standing many miles away from Egypt, on the brink of that new place, yet many of them still wavered, many of them still wondered if things would not be better back in Egypt, if they had made a huge mistake in following this Moses.
It was into this sort of context that God's people first heard and received the book of Genesis. It was in this situation that they heard — as they needed to hear — of God's gracious provision and promises toward them in spite of their great and repeated sin and rebellion and unworthiness. And it is this context that will guide us in our own understanding and approach to this book.
1. Another passage that is similar to these can be found in the opening verses of Hebrews 1.