Genesis & the Big Story
If you’re tracking with this series, this is part three of the question: “How should we read it?” In previous posts I have argued that Genesis should be read as theological history within the context of the Pentateuch. It is not a science text book, but when it speaks about matters of history and science, it is always true and never false. But there’s something even more obvious that can be said about approaching Genesis. How should we read it? We should read it (and enjoy it) as story:
- It has a setting: I believe that the bulk of the story in chapters 1-3 takes place in the Promised Land/Garden in Eden. *I’ll tell you why I believe that in a later post.
- It has tension: God tests Adam and Eve with a provision and one prohibition (2:16), but the Serpent tempts them to sin against God, setting death lose into God’s new creation. What will happen to the blessing of 1:26?
- It has a resolution: God provides a substitute to cover Adam and Eve’s shame (3:15), but they are expelled from the Garden.
- It has a “Good Guy” (i.e. protagonist): God is the hero of the story.
It has a “Bad Guy” (i.e. antagonist): The Serpent is one of the bad guys in this story. The apostle John tells us his identity in Revelation 12:9, “The great dragon was hurled down—that ancient serpent called the devil, or Satan, who leads the whole world astray.”
God loves a good story! In fact, Genesis can be told as the story of four events (creation, fall, flood and Babel) and four people (Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Joseph). The story of Genesis spills over into the Exodus (note how Exod. 1:1 connects to Gen. 46:8) and that story expands through all 66 books of the Bible. The ten dollar word for this is meta-narrative, but we can save a few bucks and call it the Big Story. The Big Story of the Bible is told in four acts (here I am following Justin Buzzard’s outline) and all of it is foreshadowed in the first few chapters in Genesis):
Act #1: God & Jesus
“In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth” (Gen. 1:1).
“Then God said, ‘Let us make man in our image, in our likeness’” (Gen. 1:26).
The Big Story is told by God and is ultimately about Him. Interestingly, the Bible never sets out to prove the existence of God, but instead always assumes it. Chapter one of Genesis reveals that God has a big heart for people. He prepares a good land for people to be in relationship with Him. The word good (Hebrew tob) is used 7X in the first chapter and the care and creativity that God puts into the land so that we can flourish says something about how He feels about us. He is especially fond of His imagers.
In Genesis 1:1 the generic name for God is used (Elohim), but who is this God? In Gen. 2:4 we learn that Elohim is none other than Yahweh, “When the LORD God made the earth and the heavens…” The word LORD in full caps is how our English Bibles translate God’s covenant name. By this Moses identifies the God of creation as the God of the Promise. The God who made everything is the God of the covenant. But as we get deeper into the Big Story, we learn that all the good we read about in Genesis was made through Jesus:
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through Him all things were made; without Him nothing was made that has been made. In Him was life and that life was the light of men” (John 1:1-4).
As Christians we believe in the Trinity (i.e. One God in Three Persons), the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. When we read Genesis within the context of the Big Story, we see all the members of the Trinity present and actively involved creation: The Father, the Word and the Spirit (1:1-3). The doctrine of the Trinity also goes a long way in explaining the mysterious “Us” in 1:26, “Then God said, ‘Let us make man in our image, in our likeness’” (Gen. 1:26).
A lot of ink has been spilled over the mysterious “Us” in 1:26. Some say that the “us” includes God and angels. But as my favorite Genesis scholar notes:
“The singulars in v. 27 (‘in his own image’ and ‘in the image of God’) rule out…that the plural refers to a heavenly court of angels, since in the immediate context man’s creation is said to be ‘in His image’ with no mention of man in the image of the angels’” (John Sailhamer, “Genesis”, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, p. 37).
A clue to the mystery of “Us” is found in the imagers God made. Sailhamer notes that “the singular man (adam) is created as a plurality, “male and female” (p. 38). If man is a unity and a plurality, could it be that God is also a unity with plurality? When we read Genesis 1:26 in the context of the Big Story, we gain insight into the passage about what God is like.
Act #2: Creation
“In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth” (1:1).
“God saw all that He had made, and it was very good. And there was evening, and there was morning—the sixth day” (1:31).
I’m a huge Star Wars fan. I love the story and the characters. I’m not Geeky enough to dress up in a costume, but I have pondered how the Death Star could explode so close in orbit over the moon of Endor without destroying it. Perhaps it was an implosion? I love the characters too, but the worldview behind the Star Wars story is riddled with error. It pictures a dualism where the light side and the dark side must co-exist in order for the galaxy to be in harmony. It also takes a dim view on matter. After Luke Skywalker fails to rescue his X-wing fighter from a swamp on Dagobah, Yoda chides, “My ally is the Force, and a powerful ally it is. Life creates it, makes it grow. Its energy surrounds us, binds us. Luminous beings are we, not this crude matter.”
Genesis tells a different story. God creates out of nothing and His creation is without sin. Matter is good. On the sixth day, God surveys His creative work and calls it “very good.” Even Satan was originally created without sin. Sin came about in his heart when he chose something good (himself) instead of God. This is how sin works. Sex is good and God’s wedding gift to a man and woman in marriage (1:28; 2:24), but it can be distorted and twisted by sin. Food is good, but sin comes in and produces gluttony and starvation. Wine and beer is good, it was made by God to make hearts glad (Ps. 104:15), but it’s good effects can be ruined through drunkenness.
We don’t know much about the angelic rebellion mounted by Satan against God. A later prophet sheds some light on this mystery. Speaking against the king of Babylon, an earthly king animated by the devil, we catch a glimpse of Satan’s fall, “You said in your heart…I will make myself like the Most High” (Isa. 14:13-14). Genesis is frugal with the details. We don’t know when the angelic rebellion happened. Was it before God created the earth? Some Christians believe that God’s original creation of the earth was good, but that it was ruined in the angelic rebellion. Genesis one is God cleaning up the mess and restoring it to His original design. Interestingly, the word made (1:6, 16 [2x], etc.) is used of putting something messy in right order (Deut. 21:12; 2 Sam. 19:24-25). Think of making your bed after a restless night. This could explain why the land was tohu wabohu (uninhabitable waste) in verse 2.
However we read Genesis 1:2, matter is redeemable. It matters to God. Sin tramples on God’s creation and death is unleashed in humanity, but God will redeem people and planet (Rom. 8:20-21). Moreover, our bodies are not crude. God will redeem them too in the resurrection. All of this comes at the end of the Big Story. So, take care of your bodies and creation. Make things beautiful, it’s one way to fight against entropy. If you’re old enough and sin has not ruined it, enjoy a cold one and if you’re married, enjoy the marriage bed and keep it holy. Creation is good and new creation will be even better!
Act #3: Rebellion
“The LORD God took the man and put him in the Garden to work it and take care of it. And the LORD God commanded the man, ‘You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat of it you will surely die’” (Gen. 2:15-17).
“When the woman saw that the fruit of the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom, she took some and ate it. She also gave some to her husband who was with her, and he ate it. Then the eyes of both of them were opened, and they realized they were naked; so they sewed fig leaves together and made coverings for themselves” (Gen. 3:6-7).
Doing lunch is doing theology. The simple act of eating is either worship or blasphemy. Eve took a single piece of fruit and ate it. Like the other fruit trees in the garden, it was “very good”, but unlike the rest of the trees, God had said, “…you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat of it you will surely die’” (Gen. 2:17). Over and over again, God is the one who declares what is good for man (1:4, 10, 12, 18, 21, 25, 31), but in a moment of temptation, Eve chooses to seek the good without God. This is high treason and death is unleashed on humanity.
There is a great deal of speculation over the forbidden fruit. An early Jewish source likened it to a grape (1 Enoch 31:4), but in the West the fruit has long been thought of as an apple. This is what happens when you sub out the Latin word for evil (malus) with the Greek word for apple (malum). This is also clearly a reach. Some people think it was a fig, because it’s leaves are mentioned next in the story (Gen. 3:7). We don’t know what the fruit was, but we do know what it resulted in, “Then the eyes of both of them were opened, and they realized they were naked; so they sewed fig leaves together and made coverings for themselves” (Gen. 3:6-7).
Christian theology has labeled this story “The Fall.” Creation is broken. In God’s plan, Adam and Eve were supposed to obey God and rule over the creatures (1:28), but now the creature/serpent sits over the man and God is thrown under the bus. It’s interesting that one of the first things God does it to right the order of creation. Adam is called to account first, then Eve and lastly the creature (3:9, 13, 14). God has a big reconciling heart, so what is broken must be fixed.
Nakedness is also broken. In 2:25 we read, “The man and his wife were both naked (arom) and unashamed,”, but here we see a different exposure, “…they realized they were naked (erom). This is a different kind of nakedness. This kind carries the nuance of punishment and sitting under God’s judgment, “therefore in hunger and thirst, in nakedness (erom) and dire poverty you will serve the enemies the LORD sends against you” (Deut. 28:48). After man’s rebellion, mankind could no longer come naked into God’s presence (Exod. 28:42-43).
In the choosing of the good without God, a dark exchange takes place. Instead or worshipping God, we make other things ultimate. Good things become “god-things” and in this act of blasphemy, what was good spoils and dies. This is what comes of idolatry. It is the nature of Biblical Narrative (i.e. story) to teach doctrine more by showing than telling. Where the apostle Paul describes man’s condition apart from God as “dead in transgressions and sins” and “by nature objects of God’s wrath” (Eph. 2:1, 3), Genesis shows us nakedness, self-atonement, and estrangement from God (3:7-8). More is shown than told, but it speaks a thousand words.
We are rebels by nature and choice. The total depravity of man is one the most empirically proven doctrines of Scripture. True, we are not as bad as we can be, but we are all bent in on ourselves. There is no part of us, in our flesh, that can resist the gravitational pull of selfishness. Parents know this. No one teaches their kids to lie. They do that all on their own. Instead we have to teach them to tell the truth. Spouses know this. How many arguments over sex, money and hobbies could be disarmed if we were only a little less selfish? Sin is less about breaking rules and more about breaking relationships. At our best and most religious, we can manage the rebellion, but we can’t stop it. Apart from God’s merciful intervention, we are all stock-piling judgment for the day of wrath.
Act #4: Rescue
“The LORD God made garments of skin for Adam and his wife and clothed them. And the LORD God said, ‘The man has now become like one of us, knowing good and evil. He must not be allowed to reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life and eat, and live forever.’ So the LORD God banished him from the Garden of Eden to work the ground from which he had been taken” (3:21-23).
God has a big heart. Have I mentioned that? Adam and his wife stood naked in fig leaves, but the leafy green of the tree was not enough to cover their sins. Religion, with all its acts of self-atonement, will always leave you naked (erom) before a holy God. If man is to be rescued, it cannot come by his own hand.
In the act of making garments of skin to cover the man and his wife, God breaks His Sabbath rest. The work of rescue has begun! Theologians see this as prefiguring what God would do in Christ Jesus. He substitutes His life for ours and His death on the cross covers our sins. The theology of rescue is more shown than told, but when it does speak, it points to Jesus. Speaking to the serpent, God proclaims the first Gospel:
“And I will put enmity between you [the serpent] and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will crush your head, and you will strike his heel” (3:15).
When we read Genesis within the context of the Big Story, we see the first announcement of the gospel. Satan will suffer total defeat. He is cursed to “eat dust” all the days of his life, but the seed of the woman will one day crush his head, but at the cost of his own life, “…you will strike his heel.”
Putting it all Together: How should we read Genesis 1-3?
- Read it like it’s history (real people and real events from a God-centered point of view).
- Read it as part of the Pentateuch (Genesis is book one of a five part series, not a science text book); and
- Read it as the beginning of the Big Story (the rebellion of mankind sets up the need for divine rescue).
If I were to sum up the overall message of Genesis chapters 1-3 it would go like this:
The God of the covenant (Yahweh) is the One who made everything and prepared a good land so that His people might flourish and be blessed (chap. 1). God created the first man to worship and obey him and put him in the perfect environment with the perfect partner (chap. 2). Man rebelled against God, but He is the compassionate judge of sinners, displaying His righteousness by punishing sin and His mercy by providing a substitute (chap. 3).
Next Week: How old is it? Young earth or old earth creation?