Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Themes in Genesis

VastLeft poses a question in two parts:
[W]hat inspiration and/or life lessons do you think one can draw from Genesis?

I had trouble finding characters to admire, including the Lord, who seemed pretty cruel and arbitrary much of the time.

Also, I'd be interested in your thoughts about what seemed to me to be the prevailing themes in this [book]:

1. Promises of being the most fruitful and blessed of families
2. Sibling rivalry, often with an upstart younger brother somehow getting the upper hand.
Please forgive the length of this post, and for those of you not interested, maybe I'll post something smaller in a bit. Some questions demand more blog space than is typical to do them justice.

But following with one of the main themes of Genesis, the last part of the question shall get the first answer. The two themes you lay out I believe make up a good portion of one of the major themes of Genesis. Of course, as the name implies, another of the major themes is “beginnings” (of the universe, of the earth, of man, of sin, of sacrifice, of clothing, of marriage, of culture, of government, and of much more). The second major theme is that God is sovereign over all those things, and both of your points (especially the promises and the younger siblings) illustrate ways in which God’s sovereignty is manifested in his continuing revelation to and redemption of mankind.

Genesis provides a picture of a perfect universe which becomes broken by evil, and within which God begins laying the foundations of setting aright again*. If you imagine scripture in the shape of an hourglass, it might help you picture this. The beginnings of scripture are universal, yet their focus becomes smaller and smaller, first on a specific people, then on a tiny nation, then on a believing remnant of a tiny nation. By the time the New Testament begins, that focus is one man, Jesus Christ (promised in the OT, delivered in the NT), from which the process begins working backward, becoming universal once again at the end.

The themes you pick out are not just themes in Genesis, but carry straight through the entire bible in different ways.

For example, the promise of fruitful and blessed families, setting aside the universal that everyone wants fruitful and blessed families, find their apex in one family, that of Abraham, which becomes a nation, yet they are a small nation with but a few small periods of glory. Most of the time finds them under someone’s foot, whether Pharaoh’s or later Nebuchadnezzar’s, then at last Caesar’s.

The upstart younger brother motif is part of that, because in each case God chooses the younger, the smaller, and often (as in the case of Jacob) the weaker - through no merit of their own - to rule over the elder and stronger. There is obvious application to the nation of Israel, to whom these books were primarily given. God has promised them blessing and the fact that they are currently a smaller and weaker brother in no way sets that aside. God has shown them that his choices transcend culture (in all ancient cultures – Israel not excepted – the eldest brother was the ruler, a tradition that still carries over to modern England, for example).

That motif is played out consistently in the histories (Israel’s greatest King, David, was a younger brother selected by God), in the prophets** (through the selection of tiny Bethlehem as the birthplace of Jesus), and in the words of Jesus himself (“But many that are first shall be last and the last shall be first”). The idea is that it is not through strength or power or position that God works the redemption promised in Genesis 3, but by his sovereign choices. Not our works, but his grace.

Sibling rivalry, in this case, is not a theme so much as it is an inevitable and real-life result of that. But there’s also another reason for it, and that is that the Patriarchs continue to mess up their own families. They act faithlessly (e.g. Abraham’s taking of the maid Hagar), they act selfishly, foolishly, greedily. They play favorites among their children (Jacob’s favoritism of Joseph is a perfect example) in ways that always bring about bad results. In fact, in many ways, the Patriarchs are not so much role models of conduct as they are object lessons. They testify to the innate unfaithfulness of man, and yet overriding it all is the faithfulness of God.

And perhaps that ties back to your first point, that there are not too many characters to admire. The characters that are presented have their warts on full display (the only character who is wholly faithful is Joseph (and maybe Enoch, but his is a bit part)). Just wait, Judges gets worse. Far worse. And even when the New Testament (e.g. Hebrews 11) praises the patriarchs, most of the time it’s praising not their actions in general but their faith in specific cases. When God calls them to act in ways that require them to trust him, that’s what they get praised for. But most of the time they are just like you and I and everyone else, fallen humans who mess up each other much of the time. This is not literature designed to give us heroes as much as to give us insight into ourselves.

I do, however, think at least part of the problem with God seeming cruel and arbitrary is that on first reading we miss these themes. Is he arbitrary? He is certainly sovereign. And if he chooses to bless wimpy Jacob over manly Esau or the promised son Isaac over the established one Ishmael, that’s his choice. He is under no obligation to respect human cultural expectations, and so his sovereignty seems arbitrary to us (why pick Jacob? I have no idea).

Is he cruel? That’s an issue that would take far too long to address - I have the distinct feeling I'm going to run long already - so I’ll have to shoot you over to Glenn Miller (this specific piece is on the cruelty of nature as a manifestation of the cruelty of God, and I think it covers your question broadly).

But there is one final thing to remember, and that is especially important because as you stated you are reading this “through modern eyes.” That’s a problem, and it’s not a problem unique to scripture. You would get the same problem reading, for example, Caesar’s Gallic Wars. Without understanding Caesar’s precarious legal position, the election process in Rome, the effects of the death of Crassus and Julia on the relationship between Caesar and Pompey - none of which are explicitly mentioned in the text but all of which play a major role not only in what Caesar does, but in how he presents what he does – you will never understand what Caesar is doing. Caesar does not tell you he’s writing PR, and you’ll never know it if all you read was Caesar and that through modern eyes.

You are reading a book written to a certain people in a certain culture in a certain time, about other people living in a culture that is to us frankly bizarre. They have experiences and understandings and background that are not part of the text. And that plays out in a huge way in how Genesis covers people like Lot, so let me just hit on him briefly.

Lot, as you know, slept with his daughters, and there’s nary a hint of condemnation for the act (just like there’s not a hint of condemnation for Noah’s drunkenness). But the act of Lot had implications that played out in Israel’s history. Lot’s sons by his daughters were the progenitors of the Moabites and the Ammonites, two peoples who were, even 1000 years later, a trouble to the promises of God***. The condemnation of Lot’s act is therefore played out in a history that the audience knew but that we might not if we look through it with only modern eyes - sin is not just personal, it affects everything. The same will be the case in David’s adultery (which *is* condemned by a prophet to his face): Israel’s greatest king acted faithlessly and the results of that would not only destroy his own family (one must consider that fratricide and sibling rape would at least make family picnics an uncomfortable affair) but the one fleeting period of glory that the nation enjoyed. Lot stands condemned not by words in Genesis but in the experience of the readers of Genesis, David by the experience of the readers of Samuel.

Therefore when we see the acts that the patriarchs do, we have to look at them through the eyes of the audience, and we have to look for condemnation in the results of those acts, even if those results don’t completely play out for centuries. Genesis covers a tremendous amount of historical time in a few chapters, and there is simply no way to include backstory for it all, especially when it was unnecessary to those who first received it.****

The book of Genesis is a book of beginnings, but it’s also a book of object lessons, and perhaps there you can draw the “life’s lessons” that you don’t see laid out in black and white. We can see faith and faithfulness and forgiveness rewarded, not only in one’s life but in the lives of the descendents of the faithful. We can see that cruelties and lies and trickery and vengeance are punished somewhere down the line, if not in our their lives then in the lives of the children who did what they did and not what God said. And finally we can see that through this all, God is faithfully working toward Mankind's ultimate redemption by carving out a people for himself - the neck of the hourglass is growing narrower and narrower until finally it reaches the one point it can grow no smaller, the point at which only one man can pass through it, and from there it begins to grow again.

Rather than being a heavenly scold, God is a great teacher who uses not just words but examples to instruct us. But throughout that lesson, there remains the fact that God is sovereign. He has a plan for humanity which includes not only redemption, but judgment: acts of God that will set this broken universe right no matter what it costs him and no matter what it costs us. If one understands the plan, the ultimate goal of the restoration of paradise, then one can see how all the acts that are so confusing by themselves (like Babel) work together to lead mankind to the one man who can lead us back to God.

That went longer than I hoped, but theology is not really my thing and there’s probably a way to say all of that in a much neater fashion. But I do hope that even if you disagree with my answers, at least it has given you something to think about.

* Obviously that work is not completed in Genesis; the problems of the first 3 chapters of Genesis are not resolved until the last 3 chapters of Revelation.

** “But you, Bethlehem Ephratah, though you be little among the thousands of Judah, yet out of you shall he come forth to me one that is to be ruler in Israel; one whose goings forth have been from of old, from everlasting.” – Micah 5:2

*** Just as Abraham's unfaithfulness with regards to Hagar resulted in trouble that exists to this day.

**** Just try writing a history of the last 1000 years in 40 pages and you'll see the challenge. The vast majority of what you wish to say will be left out as a matter of necessity.

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