Can I just say that the first three texts of our scriptures are BEAUTIFUL works!
Genesis, Exodus, and Leviticus weave together a story not mainly about humanity and Israel, but of God; we just happen to be a major character. Genesis is primarily about God’s activity in “descending” humanity, especially those who descend directly from God. Exodus and Leviticus are primarily about God’s speaking to humanity, especially to Moses. God speaks/reveals to Moses an order of society, one which ensures extreme providence to the God-ordered community: both in terms of God’s presence among his community and the land’s wholehearted embracing of the people. At center stage, we find God at step with humanity as he himself works unceasingly to reveal himself, care for a constantly fragile new creation, and perpetually speak life and redemption into his descendants. (I’m sure that Numbers, Deuteronomy, and the rest of the scriptures add similarly to this narrative; I just haven’t read them yet, this time around).
I’m writing in 2006, which means that before I go any further I have to answer some pertinent questions about how I am reading these texts. I am reading under the assumption that to some high degree God continually speaks through the cannon of Christian scripture. I am interested in how God has worked in this world, and I believe that the First Testament has some pertinent and historical answers. I am mostly attempting an objective reading of the texts: one that is interested in what the text primarily says. Regardless of our growing cynicism towards all things “objective”, our post modern friends still haven’t toppled everything scientific. As all things objective to some degree fail, I do understand that some degree of personal bias will influence the “meaning of the text”. And since some of our current audience still thinks that we can’t come to some focused conclusion concerning the intended meaning of the texts, I have to wonder if these critics will ever really read the Bible; or will they continue their assault, through wide sweeping rejections, on all things universal.
As for what I think the scriptures are, I will only say two things. Firstly, that these texts find themselves in a tension between history and story. Without such tension, one falls into the perils of fundamentalism; furthermore, without such tension, one strips the beautiful meaning from the texts. Secondly, I am fairly comfortable with redaction and its influence upon the text. When the dust settles, I remain all the more interested in what the Bible says and how it influences my actions and relationships.
So, with that out of the way I feel fairly comfortable jumping in to Genesis.
“Then his brothers also wept, fell down before him and said, ‘We are here as your slaves,’ But Joseph said to them, ‘Do not be afraid! Am I in the place of God? Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good, in order to preserve a numerous people, as he is doing today.’”
From Joseph’s mouth we understand the emphasis of Genesis: Despite our malcontent God has intended good, to create and preserve a bustling people of influential blessing. In fact God has not held back; no, he continues to fashion good things despite our evil and violence. This message weaves throughout the book from the turbulent beginning:
“I have produced a man with the help of the Lord”, proclaims the new mother Eve; and after things go terribly wrong, “God has appointed for me another child instead of Abel, because Cain killed him” (4.25).
God treated the first family with the care given to a newborn child, despite its internal violence; the tree lead to death after all. And God’s heart grew as heavy as the violence in the earth:
“Now the earth was corrupt in God’s sight, and the earth was filled with violence. And God said to Noah, ‘I have determined to make an end of all flesh, for the earth is filled with violence because of them; now I am going to destroy them along with the earth.
But I will establish my covenant with you; and you shall come into the ark.”
God would not let his dreams wither. Long has he tilled human society forming it in the image of his rule. Just when human ways engulf his revelation, God preserves a remnant who upholds the ways of God. Yet, as a flower in long bloom, God reveals himself; in fact, only when Adam’s grandson opened his new eyes, ‘At that time people began to invoke the name of the LORD’ (4.25). It was Adam and Eve’s family that produced Noah, a line safeguarding knowledge of Eden and perhaps preserving the righteous life.
The earth became a new Genesis after the washing. From this vantage point we must understand Abraham; Egypt, Babylonia, Canaan, all sprung from Noah’s sons. The world would engulf God’s revelation with images of birds and beasts and earthly kings. Yet the descendents of Noah also produced Abraham, a son of Babylon, a son of Lamech of Shem. Joseph’s words echo of Abraham’s story. God has been “preserving a numerous people”:
“God brought Abraham outside and said, ‘Look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them’. Then he said to him, ‘So shall your descendents be.’ And he believed the LORD and the LORD reckoned it to him as righteousness.” (15.5-6).
We cannot understand Genesis without understanding God’s intention to preserve a numerous people; people coming through hell and high water. And all along, God slowly reveals himself,
“No longer shall your name be Abram, but your name shall be Abraham; for I have made you the ancestor of a multitude of nations. I will make you exceedingly fruitful; and I will make nations of you, and kings shall come from you. I will establish my covenant between me and you, and your offspring after you throughout their generations, for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you” (17.5-7).
Finally, if Genesis would bear any meaning for us today we must understand the relationships between the brothers: Cain and Abel, Ishmael and Isaac, and Esau and Jacob. I have begun to wonder if we are supposed to relate to Cain, Ishmael, and Esau, rather than the victim, the chosen child, and the blessed one.
For in Cain we find our response to God’s rejection: a bitter surge of violence. In Cain we find our punishment: the very land we toil rejecting our needs. In other words, we’re stripped from our identity; all that was familiar and comfortable utterly forsaken.
In Ishmael we find the wild ass of men that we are, living at odds with our kin. God’s favor seems to rest on us, but Isaac has God’s full attention. (I thought it was interesting that we find both brothers burying their father Abraham, “His sons Isaac and Ishmael buried him in the cave of Machpelah, in the field of Ephron”.)
In Esau we find our struggling attempts to be the chosen one, “When Esau saw that the Canaanite women [his new wife] did not please his father Isaac, Esau went to Ishmael and took Mahalath daughter of Abraham’s son Ishmael to be his wife in addition to the wives he had” (28.9). We also find our haunting mistakes, “Have you not reserved any blessing for me, bless me also, father! And Esau lifted up his voice and wept. Now Esau hated Jacob because of the blessing with which his father had blessed him” (27.41).
Finally, Joseph’s brothers despise him for his self-glorifying attitude and ship him off to Egypt so that no such younger brother would rule over the family. But,
“God sent me before you to preserve life. For the famine has been in the land these two years; and there are five more years in which there will be neither plowing nor harvest. God sent me before you to preserve for you a remnant on earth, and to keep alive for you many survivors. So it was not you who sent me here, but God” (45.5-8).
In the end, God continues that work which he began. He creates and sustains people who live a life of mysterious communion, a people who walk with God; a righetious people who slowly learn what the reader learns in the beginning: that this person who won’t leave humanity in violent peril is the God who created the heavens and the earth and all that lives.