By the looks of things, the end of the book of Genesis is still quite a ways off as we are only through chapter 11. Genesis, however, undergoes a major shift in its story telling beginning in chapter 12. As Genesis slows down and plods its way through the family of Abraham, I'm going to keep my same pace, trying to write a post on each major character and what the story communicates about YHWH. That means I'll be covering lots of ground as I point out some of the theological points from each of Israel's patriarchs. 

The ESV Study Bible provides a great summary of this shift, and the upcoming chapters. 
The narrative now moves from the general survey of humanity to the specific family from which Israel comes. The narrative style becomes severely matter-of-fact. The narrator devotes much more time to describing the lives of the characters: whereas chs. 1–11 covers many generations in only 11 chapters, the patriarchal history deals with only four generations in 39 chapters. It begins with Abraham and goes on to his son Isaac, and Isaac’s two sons Jacob and Esau; the final section focuses on Jacob’s sons, especially Joseph. Here the specifics of being Israel are made clear: the land, the people, the blessing, and the calling. The Sinai (or Mosaic) covenant, which the first audience for these chapters receives, will provide the setting in which Israel is to put these patriarchal promises into practice. Throughout these chapters the readers will see how God has preserved the members of his chosen family, whose calling it is to walk with him, to be the headwaters of a special people and to be the channel by which blessing comes to the entire world.
 
 

So far in my posts on Genesis 1-11, I've tried to highlight important parallels to Israel's stories. Many similarities exist between Israel's stories and the stories of their neighbors, and many times Israel writes centuries later. Instead of being threatened by this, I believe the parallel accounts help illuminate the original contextual reading. Genesis uses the common forms of communication in its own day to reveal and proclaim the nature of Israel's God, YHWH, and the story of his people.

The
ESV Study Bible provides a very helpful summary of this section, how it fits into an ancient context, and how this doesn't undermine, but undergirds, the truth and authority of Genesis. This resource has surprised me by its helpfulness in this Genesis study.

The first eleven chapters of Genesis differ from those that follow. Chapters 12–50 focus on one main family line in considerable detail, whereas chs. 1–11 could be described as a survey of the world before Abraham. These opening chapters differ not only in their subject matter from ch. 12 onward, but also because there are no real parallels to the patriarchal stories in other literatures. In contrast to the patriarchal stories, however, other ancient nonbiblical stories do exist recounting stories about both creation and the flood. The existence of such stories, however, does not in any way challenge the authority or the inspiration of Genesis. In fact, the nonbiblical stories stand in sharp contrast to the biblical account, and thus help readers appreciate the unique nature and character of the biblical accounts of creation and the flood. In other ancient literary traditions, creation is a great struggle often involving conflict between the gods. The flood was sent because the gods could not stand the noise made by human beings, yet they could not control it. Through these stories the people of the ancient world learned their traditions about the gods they worshiped and the way of life that people should follow. Babylonian versions of creation and flood stories were designed to show that Babylon was the center of the religious universe and that its civilization was the highest achieved by mankind.

Reading Genesis, readers can see that it is designed to refute these delusions. There is only one God, whose word is almighty. He has only to speak and the world comes into being. The sun and moon are not gods in their own right, but are created by the one God. This God does not need feeding by man, as the Babylonians believed they did by offering sacrifices, but he supplies man with food. It is human sin, not divine annoyance, that prompts the flood. Far from Babylon’s tower (Babel) reaching heaven, it became a reminder that human pride could neither reach nor manipulate God.

These principles, which emerge so clearly in Genesis 1–11, are truths that run through the rest of Scripture. The unity of God is fundamental to biblical theology, as is his almighty power, his care for mankind, and his judgment on sin. It may not always be obvious how these chapters relate to geology and archaeology, but their theological message is very clear. Read in their intended sense, they provide the fundamental presuppositions of the rest of Scripture. These chapters should act as eyeglasses, so that readers focus on the points their author is making and go on to read the rest of the Bible in light of them.


Join the conversation in the comments! Please make effort to show the fruit of the Spirit in tone, purpose, and content. 
 
 
Genesis in context continues with names, names, and more names! How exciting! (But seriously, take a look at the names and how the drama unfolds in and through them.)

I don't like reading genealogies.

I admit it. It's out there. The most non-newsworthy confession that every reader silently affirms. They are boring. They are tedious (especially when they're written in other languages--so for all of our sake, here is the helpful audio of this passage). 

(As a quick aside, here are my top-5 nominations for the least likely name I will give my future son from Genesis 10-11. #5 It's a tie! Hazarmaveth and Togarmah. Too many syllables and both sound a little violent. #4 Peleg. Unless, of course, this hypothetical son needed a peg leg and had aspirations of pirate-hood in his future, then it would fit. #3 Joktan. I hear Joktan and picture a really tan and toned David Hasselhoff in Baywatch. #2 Asshur. Seems too obvious to explain. And the least likely name I will give my son from Genesis 10-11 is...#1 Nimrod. How you go from the founder of Babylon and the king of Shinar to a word in English that just means, "idiot, jerk," I don't know. In either case, I do not want to label my future hypothetical son a godless jerk, even if he might be a great warrior and/or a really great Green Day album.)

But even as I despise (Is that an overstatement? I'm still not sure. Let's go with it.) genealogies, I love stories. Stories capture my attention with their plot twists, character development, and drama from the early rising action to the denouement. I enjoy trying to trace their trajectories, analyze the events and characters, and rewrite better endings in my head (looking at you, LOST). They are fascinating. They are engaging (and, perhaps it's needless to say, my poor wife doesn't always enjoy watching plays, movies, or discussing books with me as a constant critic).

I'm a little conflicted, then, when Genesis starts mixing up my categories of love and hate. One of the story-telling techniques Genesis uses is the genealogy. When you come across a Genesis genealogy, don't pass over too quickly or you could miss real excitement and drama. 

Genealogies in Genesis connect Israel's present with the past. They also propel the story forward, sometimes even thousands of years at a time. We can get from one place and character to another very quickly with these aerial overviews of families (Seth to Noah; Shem to Abraham). And families are incredibly important, especially in that culture. So it's necessary to trace who in the family God is going to work with. Often times it isn't who you'd expect (i.e. the oldest son overlooked is a repeating theme). The first genealogy shows the readers in Israel that God doesn't work through Cain's family because of his curse, using Seth's line instead (Gen 5). You'll remember that Noah's family members were the sole survivors of a catastrophic flood. The next genealogy shows that God doesn't work through Ham's family because of his curse, using Shem's instead (Gen 10-11).

But something very confusing happens right in the middle of all of the names and lists in Genesis 10-11. The author breaks from his genealogies to reverse course and sprinkle in a little narrative drama. As soon as we are told that the descendants of Noah's sons each had their own languages and lands (10:5, 20, 31), we are told that "the whole earth had one language and the same words" (11:1). What's going on here? The narrative is back-tracking to the time of 10:8-11, the building of a kingdom in the land of Shinar. 

It's important to notice that Genesis isn't big on kingdoms and cities. So far the city-builders are Cain and Nimrod, with the next city to show up being Sodom (13:12). That's company you don't want to keep. To the audience of Genesis, cities were breeding grounds for wickedness and idolatry. In that day, cities were built in honor of gods, and in them were pagan temples, shrines, and other cult practices and buildings. For example, in the literature of Sumeria, following the great flood the god orders the surviving humans to build a city so he can dwell there comfortably saying, "Let them build many cities so that I can refresh myself in their shade. Let them lay the bricks of many cities in pure places, let them establish places of divination in pure places, and...I will establish well-being there" (1). In Genesis, on the other hand, building cities and kingdoms flies against God's command to multiply and fill the earth. They're supposed to "spread abroad" (10:32), not build cities. 

Just what was happening in Shinar (Gen 11:2-9)? There we find Babel. Babel is the Hebrew word for Babylon, used 250+ times throughout the OT to refer to the enemy city (unfortunately, it goes untranslated in Gen 11 in English translations). In Babel, the people said, "Come let us build ourselves a city and a tower." The Babylonians were trying to build towers to the gods of heaven, for their own glory and self-promotion (much like this quote from Nebuchadnezzar). In fact, many of these Babylonian towers (or ziggurats) have been discovered in many of their ancient cities, including in Babylon and Ur (made out of bricks, of course. Cf. Gen 11:3). It's even likely that Israelite exiles would have helped construct these towers. 

But just as the people of Babylon try to go up to the gods, God says "Come, let us go down" to see their little project and confuse their language. This is condescension in the most literal and ironic sense. God's punishment is to scatter them and confuse their language--balal (confusion) is a Hebrew pun with babel (Babylon), one more parting shot at Israel's oppressors. The Sumerian gods wanted to unite human language (2), but the true God, YHWH, shows that nothing and no one can stand in opposition to him. He alone is God.

So, what's the big point? Instead of humans building their way to the gods, Israel maintained (and Christians since perhaps even more so) that YHWH is the God who comes down to us. He comes down to confuse and punish when necessary, but more importantly he comes down to dwell with his people. Israel doesn't need a ziggurat--God comes down to their tent and into their camp. Later their temple doesn't need stairs or tiers to heaven because it is God who comes to them. And in a profound display of humility, love, and faithfulness to his creation, God came down to humanity in Jesus Christ. To use the language of John 1:14, God came and tabernacled among us, making his home with us (1 Cor 6:19). 

Whether by building towers or by self-righteous moralism, every attempt of man to reach up to God ends in gods made in our own image. Thanks be to the God who comes down! There is no other God than YHWH!

You are not a God created by human hands.
You are not a God dependent on any mortal man.
You are not a God in need of anything we can give.
By Your plan, that's just the way it is!

You are God alone, from before time began,

You were on Your throne, You are God alone!
And right now, in the good times and bad,
You are on Your throne, You are God alone!

(Check out Zoe Group's acapella version of this Phillips, Craig, and Dean song.)

Join the conversation in the comments! Please make effort to show the fruit of the Spirit in tone, purpose, and content. 
 
 
It’s a big book, full of big stories with big characters. They have big ideas (not least about themselves) and make big mistakes. It’s about God and greed and grace; about life, lust, laughter, and loneliness. It’s about birth, beginnings, and betrayal; about siblings, squabbles, and sex; about power and prayer and prison and passion. And that’s only Genesis.

–N.T. Wright, Simply Christian, 173.

 
 
Continuing a series on Genesis, this time I look at the flood narrative in its ancient context. If you have time, read over Genesis 6-9 before reading.

Picture
Most of us first encountered Noah and the flood as children--and what child doesn't like animals, boats, and rainbows? But some of us never really grasped the 'adult content' of the story. I asked my class at church what about this story seems more adult than childlike. A class member flatly said, "Everyone dies." O, right! That does happen--and God is even the one responsible! The surprising thing about this story is that it ever became a children's story at all! If we're reading in context (which I think is important), then instead of picturing rainbows and animal marches (though they're there, too), to get a feel for floods in the ancient world we picture the violent scenes of destruction and death from the storms and floods in Indonesia or Katrina in the last decade. In other words, Noah's flood is more post-apocalyptic, more The Walking Dead, than Disney. 

Floods are terribly destructive, seemingly expansive and inescapable, and randomly unavoidable. The pain and trauma of these events cry out for an explanation, then and now. It's no surprise, then, that most every culture which had the threat of flood (i.e. coastlines, rivers, etc.) also had a tale to tell answers to the questions of, "Who is behind this?" and "Why?" Traumatic events, whether death, disaster, or disease, naturally cause us humans to reflect, and ask ourselves and whatever god we believe in, "Why did this happen? Why did you let this happen?" 

Most scholars agree that a massive and destructive flood likely occurred in Mesopotamia ('between the rivers', the Tigris and Euphrates) in about 2900 BC. This prompted those living in the area at the time (Sumeria, Assyria, and the Babylonians--Israel wasn't a nation quite yet) to ask who was behind this catastrophe, and why did it happen. Their literature gives us some interesting answers. Take a look at how they explained these big questions.

In one flood story called Atrahasis, we meet the high god, Enlil, who controls the weather. He had created humans as slaves to do the menial tasks, but since then those humans have just been too noisy... and so he killed all of them by a massive flood. All of them except Atrahasis. Fortunately for him, the water god, Ea, told him to build a large boat and led him to safety. 

More interesting still is the story written in the Epic of Gilgamesh (I mentioned this account here, too). Gilgamesh was actually king of Uruk (modern day Iraq) in about 2500 BC, but this story is fanciful fiction about him. Gilgamesh (who happens to be 2/3 god and 1/3 human) is in search of immortality after his close friend dies. He comes across the immortal Utnapishtim (the story's Noah figure), and asks him for the secret to his long life. Utnapishtim says his immortality was actually given to him after he was the lone survivor of a catastrophic flood. The gods had second thoughts when they destroyed all humanity, and so Ea (the water god) gracefully delivered him. There are really striking similarities between this story and the Genesis account that you'll obviously notice, including 1) the god instructs him to build a large boat according to precise measurements and dimensions, 2) he brings his family on board, 3) he brings animals on board, 4) he seals the boat with pitch (or tar), 5) the boat comes to rest on top of a mountain, 6) he releases birds to see if waters have subsided.

(For more on these similarities, check out this 3-part series on Ancient Near Eastern flood narratives and Genesis by Peter Enns.)

It seems clear to most scholars that these stories are cut from the same cloth and answer many of the same questions as Genesis (with Gilgamesh being written about 1000 years prior). But while they have similarities, they have strikingly different perspectives on the gods and humans. Too often, in my opinion, we read through the flood narratives asking the wrong questions and missing the big theological points. Instead of asking how many animals could fit on an ark, how long ago did it happen, how much of the actual earth was covered by water, etc., I want to focus on what Genesis says about YHWH in a culture all too familiar with devastating floods and their explanations. 

(For those who want to engage with some of those questions, here is a helpful analysis of flood science and interpretation in recent history.)

The flood narrative of Genesis says something unique about both God and humans. On the one hand, the Mesopotamian gods sound more like the Grinch looking over Who-ville, annoyed at all their noise and in competition for power and control. Israel's God, in contrast, isn't touchy or grumpy--He is a God of standards and purposes for His creation. He is a God of justice and judgment. He's not in opposition to other gods; there is only one God. It's not noise that puts Him over the edge; it's worse. The sons of God (most likely heavenly beings) are coming down and sleeping with women (the progression mirrors Eve in Eden: see something good and take it). Meanwhile, the humans are only focusing on evil continually. This reveals something about Israel's view of mankind: Humans may have a prized place in Israel's understanding of God and the world, but they are terribly flawed, bent on evil, and they soon fall out of God's purpose for them. 

Even as Genesis portrays the evil of humanity, it allows us to see another side of YHWH. Genesis says He is deeply troubled, stirred in His heart, about the corruption of the order He created in the cosmos. But He is not presented maliciously, but graciously. In spite of the corruption, God finds grace to show to Noah. In Israel's story, YHWH is the just judge of all creation, but He also shows himself to be Savior and Deliverer of humanity and creation. God takes His creation that ignores its order/purpose, and He quite literally un-does creation. He reverses it. He removes the order He set up in Gen 1 so that creation returns to a watery deep. Instead of the Spirit "hovering over the face of the waters," we see "the ark floating on the face of the waters" (Gen 1:2, 7:18). New creation is happening. And so God repeats His purpose for humanity--to be the image of God--and He repeats His command to the new Adam figure, Noah--to be fruitful and fill the earth. Noah is the new Adam (as if Gen 5:29 didn't give it away already). God is doing something new with this family. To show that He is done with the old, God hangs up His weapon of war (his bow) in the sky.

From the dawn of creation, through the horrific scenes of the flood, and in through the in-breaking of Noah's new creation, we keep finding more reasons to praise YHWH, Israel's faithful God. Genesis 1-9 repeatedly shows us in story form what God says for Himself later in the Pentateuch: "The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children's children, to the third and the fourth generation" (Ex. 34:6-7). Praise Him for who He is!


Join the conversation in the comments! Please make effort to show the fruit of the Spirit in tone, purpose, and content. 
 

    CHAUNCEY Smith Hopkins

    This blog focuses on topics related to Christianity, especially Bible study, ministry, and theology. The posts are my attempt to challenge, inform, and enlighten to the glory of God. 

    I certainly don't have all the answers, but I do enjoy rethinking challenging questions. Please join in the conversation by commenting or contacting me. God bless!

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