I use to do construction and I remember my boss telling me that if you get something plumb, straight up and down, then it would go all the way up to the moon forever. But if you get it wrong by just a little bit than you are going to be off by a lot in the end. What you do in the beginning has a big impact on where you end up. It is the same with the Bible. The book of Genesis is very foundational. Without a good grasp of Genesis the rest of our theology will likely crumble to the ground and be worth nothing. So much is built on it. If we are off here, we are going to be way off down the road of the Bible.
There are many “plot conflicts” in the book of Genesis. They will serve as our compass to find our way through the huge book that is Genesis. Leland Ryken has wisely said “Stories are always built around plot conflicts. These conflicts progress toward some type of resolution… Noting plot conflicts is one of the best ways to organize a story, either in the actual process of reading or when talking about the story” (How to Read the Bible as Literature, 41). So, there are three things I want to pay careful attention to and note their expansion in the rest of Scripture and their fulfillment through or in Jesus the Christ.
Here are a few of the themes that are the building blocks of the theology of Genesis (NDBT, 140) and in many ways the whole Bible: (1) The promise of seed, i.e. offspring, (2) the promise of land, and (3) the promise of being a blessing to the nations (see esp. 12:1-3). All of these themes are in embryonic form in Genesis chapter three and expand through the rest of the book. They continue to expand through the Old Testament but don’t find their true fulfillment until the New Testament and the coming of the Promised One. Truly, even then, in the New Testament, there is still an element of the “not yet” until in Revelation all things are made new.
There are many “plot conflicts” in the book of Genesis that seek to disrupt the promises. In fact, when you read Genesis realizing that there are all these promises there is a type of cliff hanger in many chapters. “How will theses promises come to fruition?” you find yourself asking. There are many points of opposition, some of which we will be considering. Many of these points of opposition continue through the whole cannon.
“Genesis functions as the introduction to the Sinai revelation by recounting how the ancestors of Israel received the promises of God intended also for their descendants (e.g. Exod. 3:13-17)” (NDBT, 141).
Overview of Genesis 1-11
Genesis 1:1 says, “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.” It does not say, “Once upon a time there was a thing called god.” No! It says in the beginning God. This truth is foundational to all that follows. God is and God has spoken. By this statement beginning the Bible, the Bible claims truth, ultimately reality, true truth as Schaeffer puts it.
I read a book about Pablo Escobar awhile back. He was an infamous drug lord. The book does not claim a definitive view on the world. It’s claim is on the life of Pablo Escobar. We know it’s not a worldview because it makes no ultimate claim unlike the book of Genesis. “In the beginning God” is a big sweeping claim. It is a worldview statement, it claims ultimate reality. Killing Pablo begins with the historical and familial context in which Pablo was born. The Bible begins “In the beginning God.”
Well, the book goes on and we see that God made everything that is and He made it out of nothing. Which reminds us that God is eternal, sovereign. He, and He alone, deserves worship. After making everything God looks over what He made and announces “Very good!” He, as a painter, looks over His masterpiece and says, “Great!”
Yet, it didn’t stay in that same great state for very long. Adam and Eve sinned and tarnished the garden, tarnished all things. No longer was everything good but behold, everything was ill, fallen. “Chapter 3 introduces cataclysmic changes into the ideal scene of chapters 1 and 2… First, Adam and Eve lost their original innocence… Second, they lost their immediate and easy access to God’s presence… Third, they lost the peaceful paradise and freedom of the Garden of Eden when God expelled them (v. 23). Thus they lost their freedom from pain, disease, and death” (Encountering the Old Testament, 83).
In the midst of chaotic calamity a shimmer and glimmer of hope was seen in a seed, a promised heir that would crush the serpent foe. Yet as the immediate context shows the offspring and savior from the evil snake would apparently not come on the scene for some time. But from Genesis 3:15 on, God’s people have their hope and heart set on some form of offspring (I explored this verse in some detail in a previous post).
After Adam and Eve were expelled from the garden things continued to plunge downhill, Cain killed Abel. The corruption only increased from there until God destroyed all on the face of the earth. Here we see a great “plot conflict,” where will the seed of hope come from if all of humanity is destroyed? However, God graciously preserved the life of Noah and his family; it looks like creation might have a new chance. God says, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth” to recall Genesis 1:22, 28. God also established a covenant with them. He said, “9Behold, I establish my covenant with you and your offspring after you, 10 and with every living creature that is with you, the birds, the livestock, and every beast of the earth with you, as many as came out of the ark; it is for every beast of the earth. 11I establish my covenant with you, that never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of the flood, and never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth.”
There would be no new Eden, however. Noah, the new Adam (Kingdom through Covenant, 163ff), too messed up in the garden and got drunk and was disgraced by his son Ham. People lived at peace with each other but they had pride in their peace and the pursuit of establishing themselves as a god. This led to the scattering of the nations at Babel. “8So the Lord dispersed them from there over the face of all the earth, and they left off building the city. 9Therefore its name was called Babel, because there the Lord confused the language of all the earth. And from there the Lord dispersed them over the face of all the earth” (Gen. 11:8-9). The peace they briefly experienced was not the true biblical shalom we all seek. That is basically the end of this section of Genesis.
Thus “Genesis 1-11 sets the stage by describing God, his created universe, and the fallenness of humankind… Before relating the personal story of national Israel, the Bible first tells the sad universal story of all humankind” (Encountering the Old Testament, 78).
A Few Observations
- Before God made a beginning, there was no beginning, there was nothing. God made everything, everything out of nothing! That is sovereignty! Second, who banished Adam and Eve from Eden? Who sent the flood upon the earth? Who made it subside? Who dispersed the nations? God! God is sovereign and we clearly see that through this book.
- We see God’s grace and mercy shown in a few different ways. First, God had every right to kill Adam and Eve on the spot but He didn’t. He even gave them a seed of hope. Second, we see God’s grace in preserving Noah and his family.
- We see it always leads to problems when we don’t follow God’s Word.
- We see the wickedness of humanity time and time again. Man is messed up. Creation is messed up. We need fixed. Simply trying to fix the problem ourselves is not the answer.
Overview of Genesis 12-50
In this section, we see God’s character shown through covenant.
In Genesis chapter 12, God calls Abram. “The Lord said to Abram, ‘Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. 2And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. 3I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Gen. 12:1-3). Abram obeys God’s call and goes.
Later on in Genesis chapter 15, in a very important chapter in Genesis and all of the Bible, God makes a covenant with Abram: “the word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision: ‘Fear not, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great’” (Gen. 15:1). Verses 2-18 are very important:
But Abram said, “O Lord God, what will you give me, for I continue childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?” 3And Abram said, “Behold, you have given me no offspring, and a member of my household will be my heir.” 4And behold, the word of the Lord came to him: “This man shall not be your heir; your very own son shall be your heir.” 5And he brought him outside and said, “Look toward heaven, and number the stars, if you are able to number them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your offspring be.” 6And he believed the Lord, and he counted it to him as righteousness.
7And he said to him, “I am the Lord who brought you out from Ur of the Chaldeans to give you this land to possess.” 8But he said, “O Lord God, how am I to know that I shall possess it?” 9He said to him, “Bring me a heifer three years old, a female goat three years old, a ram three years old, a turtledove, and a young pigeon.” 10And he brought him all these, cut them in half, and laid each half over against the other. But he did not cut the birds in half. 11And when birds of prey came down on the carcasses, Abram drove them away.
12As the sun was going down, a deep sleep fell on Abram. And behold, dreadful and great darkness fell upon him. 13Then the Lord said to Abram, “Know for certain that your offspring will be sojourners in a land that is not theirs and will be servants there, and they will be afflicted for four hundred years. 14But I will bring judgment on the nation that they serve, and afterward they shall come out with great possessions. 15As for you, you shall go to your fathers in peace; you shall be buried in a good old age. 16And they shall come back here in the fourth generation, for the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet complete.”
17When the sun had gone down and it was dark, behold, a smoking fire pot and a flaming torch passed between these pieces. 18On that day the Lord made a covenant with Abram, saying, “To your offspring I give this land.”
Thus, we see the covenant that God has made. Notice, it was God that made the covenant, He established it. Let me quickly explain what was happening in this covenant. Here is an excerpt from a covenant around that time period, except I changed the names, “This spring lamb… has been brought to sanction the treaty between [Bill] and [Bob]… This head is not the head of a lamb, it is the head of [Bob], it is the head of his sons, his officials, and the people of his land. If [Bob] sins against this treaty, so may, just as the head of this spring lamb is torn off…the head of [Bob] be torn off…” (Rane, 101).
“The ceremony of covenant making involves an oath in which the covenant partners bring the curse of death upon themselves if they are not faithful to the covenant relationship and promises. Walking between the animals cut in half is a way of saying, ‘May I become like these dead animals if I do not keep my promise(s) and my oath’” (Kingdom Through Covenant, 251).
It recalls the covenant (“to cut a covenant” karat berit) in Jeremiah 34:18-20:
“18And the men who transgressed my covenant and did not keep the terms of the covenant that they made before me, I will make them like the calf that they cut in two and passed between its parts—19the officials of Judah, the officials of Jerusalem, the eunuchs, the priests, and all the people of the land who passed between the parts of the calf. 20And I will give them into the hand of their enemies and into the hand of those who seek their lives. Their dead bodies shall be food for the birds of the air and the beasts of the earth.”
Thus, in essence God is saying that if He does not fulfill His end of the deal, i.e. covenant, then let Him be cut in pieces as the animals. Let Him be slain. Notice that a deep sleep had fell on Abram so it does not appear that he went through the symbolic practice of walking through the rend animals. Peter Gentry has said, “The fact that only God passes between the pieces is quite remarkable and shows that the promise depends upon him and him alone” (Kingdom Through Covenant, 251).
God had told Abraham that his very own son shall be his heir (Gen. 15:4) yet there were all sorts of problems with this promise. Abraham took matters into his own hands a few times but that was no way in God’s plan. God would show that He is indeed God. He would show that He is a God that keeps His promises. Yet, Sarah, Abraham’s wife, was now 90 years old (Gen. 17:17). How would the promise be realized? Problem? It would appear so. That is the way it appeared for Abraham as seen by his laughter (Gen. 17:17).
Yet Abraham had a lapse in memory as we so often do. He forgot, apparently, that God is the one who spoke all things into being. He forgot that God said, “Let there be… and there was.”
In time, the LORD appeared to Abraham and told him that He would indeed give them an heir. Later on in this same chapter, we see that Abraham intercedes for Sodom. We see from this and from Noah that there is precedence for godly men to intercede for sinful humanity.
Eventually Abraham’s son, Isaac, is born. Yet, in chapter 22, Abraham is told to sacrifice Isaac, his only son on an altar. Wow! What a ride. It has taken so long to get to this point where he finally has an heir and now he is commanded to kill him, are you serious?! This is crazy!
Abraham is ready to kill Isaac because God told him to and he trusts that God can bring him back from the grave. Well, Abraham has Isaac on the altar and God says, “Stop! Don’t do it! Look over there, there’s a ram, a substitute.” So the ram, the substitute, was sacrificed in the place of Isaac. From a New Testament perspective we know that Jesus Christ is the only Son that was sacrificed, He is the true substitute, He is the one through whom all the blessing to all the nations will finally come.
Later on Abraham dies. Isaac, the promised son, is marred to yet another barren woman (Gen. 25:21) but Isaac prays to the LORD and He gives them children, twins. So, where is this great nation? When will this great promise be fulfilled? Maybe through Jacob or Esau?
Jacob (later Israel, from whom Israel gets its name), the one to inherit the promise, flees the land of promise because he fears his brother that he has cheated. Further, Rachel, one of his wives is barren (Gen. 29:31), like Sarah, Abraham’s wife was. So again here, we see a “plot conflict,” where will the heir come from? God grants that Rachel will conceive (Gen. 30:22). From all this we are beginning to see that there is something very significant about the offspring. From Genesis 3:15 onward we really see a lot of intention placed not just on offspring in general but rather a specific offspring, an individual.
Finally, Joseph is born to Jacob and Sarah (30:25). Joseph has the most space dedicated to his story. There are various reasons for this. Yet it is interesting to note that “Joseph is not in the direct line of the covenant promises. The Messiah came through the tribe of Judah” (Encountering the Old Testament, 98). However, Joseph is clearly not a peripheral character. Rather, without him, as without Noah and his ark, there would be no more story of Israel. The hope, truly all hope, would have died with Jacob/Israel and his decedents, had Joseph not been sovereignly preserved and had he not by God’s sovereign orchestration preserved Judah’s life.
Thus we see that Joseph is a type of suffering servant. It is through his suffering that Israel was provided for. He suffered so that Israel and his heirs would not. Joseph, I think, in many ways prefigures Jesus. Yet, where is Joseph at the end of the book? His body is cold laying in a tomb. And, further, neither he nor Israel is in the promised land.
Truly, Genesis ends without a proper ending. It ends on a cliffhanger. It ends as so many movies do, it ends leaving us wondering what is going to happen. We find ourselves asking all sorts of questions.
One book said it this way:
“The promises of God to Abraham in Genesis 12:2-3 serve as focal points for the rest of the patriarchal account. That they are only partially fulfilled in Abraham is obvious. At his death, he has acquired only a small plot of ground in the promised land (Gn 23:17-18), and Isaac hardly constitutes a multitude of descendants. Though the patriarchal family grows dramatically under Jacob, Genesis closes with their descendants living in exile in Egypt… The ultimate fulfillment of these promises must await a later generation” (Encountering the Old Testament, 100).
At the close of Genesis Israel is 70 people strong (Gen. 46:27 cf. Num. 1:46). That hardly accounts for a fulfillment of the promise to Abraham in Genesis 12.
At the end of Genesis Joseph is laying in a coffin. “The book that begin with creation ends with a coffin!” (The Message of the Old Testament, 83). Mark Dever goes on:
But look at where that coffin is: in Egypt, the mightiest nation on earth. God knew what he was doing. God knew where to plant his seeds for his purpose. He knew what he was doing. God knew exactly where to leave Joseph’s coffin. As we will discover in our study of Exodus, the stage was set for God’s Great drama of redemption and resurrection, where he would show the whole world that no nation on earth, not even the greatest superpower, could stop his plans. And so he leaves Joseph’s coffin in Egypt. Genesis, the book of beginnings, ends. But God’s business is not finished yet. Not nearly finished!
Do you think you have experienced something that has finished off God’s plan in your life? Some circumstance that is too horrible? Some situation that is too messed-up? Some sin that is just too serious? Then you have not carefully considered the Creator of the world… or Joseph’s coffin. You think the story is over? God was not finished then. And, thank God, he is not yet finished today!” (Ibid.).
A Few Observations
- We see God’s grace in the call of Abraham and in the promises to Abraham. Second, God provides a ram in the place of Abraham’s son Isaac. Third, we see the provision of the line of promise through the divine orchestration in Joseph’s life.
- We saw that God’s character is shown through covenant yet what is the character like of those that He made the covenant with? Deplorable, right? At least compared to the LORD. And yet He entered the covenant at His own expense. Remember who passed through the slain animals? Remember what that represented? Amazing!!
A Few New Testament Reflections on Genesis (Lk. 1:54-55,72-76; Gal. 3:16)
Luke 1:46-47, 54-55: “Mary said, ‘My soul magnifies the Lord, 47and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior… He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, 55as he spoke to our fathers, to Abraham and to his offspring forever.’”
Luke 1:67-76: “Zechariah was filled with the Holy Spirit and prophesied, saying, 68‘Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has visited and redeemed his people 69and has raised up a horn of salvation for us in the house of his servant David, 70as he spoke by the mouth of his holy prophets from of old, 71that we should be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us; 72to show the mercy promised to our fathers and to remember his holy covenant, 73the oath that he swore to our father Abraham, to grant us 74that we, being delivered from the hand of our enemies, might serve him without fear, 75in holiness and righteousness before him all our days. 76And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways.’”
Galatians 3:16: “Now the promises were made to Abraham and to his offspring. It does not say, ‘And to offsprings,’ referring to many, but referring to one, ‘And to your offspring,’ who is Christ.”
What then Should our Response be?
“6Just as Abraham ‘believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness’? 7Know then that it is those of faith who are the sons of Abraham. 8And the Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying, ‘In you shall all the nations be blessed.’ 9So then, those who are of faith are blessed along with Abraham, the man of faith” (Gal. 3:6-9 cf. Rom. 4:16-18).
Ray Vander Laan describes this very well:
“Imagine! The Creator of the universe, the holy and righteous God, was willing to leave heaven and come down to a nomad’s tent in the dusty, hot desert of Negev to express his love for his people…
Bring me a heifer, a goat and a ram…
Think of it. Almighty God walking barefoot through a pool of blood! The thought of a human being doing that is, to the least, unpleasant. Yet, God, in all his power and majesty, expressed his love that personally. By participating in that traditional, Near Eastern covenant-making ceremony, he made it unavoidably clear to the people of that time, place and culture what he intended to do.
‘I love you so much, Abraham,’ God was saying, ‘and I promise that this covenant will come true for you and for you and your children. I will never break My covenant with you. I’m willing to put My own life on the line to make you understand.’
Picturing God passing through that gory path between the carcasses of animals, imagining the blood splashing as he walked, helps us recognize the faithfulness of God’s commitment. He was willing to express, in terms his chosen people could understand, that he would never fail to do what he promised. And he ultimately fulfilled his promise by giving his own life, his own blood, on the cross…
When he walked in the dust of the desert and through the blood of the animals Abraham had slaughtered, God was making a promise to all the descendants of Abraham—to everyone in the household of faith. When God splashed through the blood, he did it for us.
We’re not simply individuals in relationship to God, we’re part of a long line of people marching back through history, from our famous Jewish ancestors David, Hezekiah, and Peter to the millions of unknown believers; from the ancient Israelites and the Jewish people of Jesus’ day to the Christian community dating from the early church. We’re part of a community of people with whom God established relationship in the dust sand of the Negev.
But there’s more. When God made covenant with his people, he did something no human being would have even considered doing. In the usual blood covenant, each party was responsible for keeping only his side of the promise. When God made covenant with Abraham, however, he promised to keep both sides of the agreement.
‘If this covenant is broken, Abraham, for whatever reason—for My unfaithfulness or yours—I will pay the price,’ said God. ‘If you or your descendants, for whom you are making this covenant, fail to keep it, I will pay the price in blood.’
And at that moment, Almighty God pronounced the death sentence on his Son Jesus” (Kingdom Through Covenant, 257-58).
Outline of Genesis
Joseph’s Death (50:22-26)