The Story of the Torah, part 1—Genesis
God’s relationship with humanity has a future, even though they have proven faithless in the past.
- God desires to bless humanity.
- God bound himself by covenant promise to one family to somehow bring his blessing to all of humanity.
- Israel’s failure to live up to God’s promises was preceded by a long list of similar human failures.
- God is determined to bless people and remains faithful to his promise, despite Israel’s failures.
Genesis is composed of two main movements. Chapters 1–11 are a story about all of humanity over thousands of years. God made a good world and commissioned humans to rule it, but then they gave in to evil and ruined everything. Then chapters 12–50 are a story covering a few hundred years of one man’s family. God promised to bless rebellious humanity through the family of Abraham, despite their constant failure and folly. Somehow, what is happening with this single family is linked to the fate of all humanity. Genesis establishes the basic plot line and basic themes of the entire biblical story.
Part I (ch. 1–11): about all of humanity
The Bible begins at the beginning. Way back when, God made everything that is over our heads and everything that is under our feet. The earth was “wild and waste” (1:2)—not fit for human beings to live in. So God organized all the elements of creation into a beautiful place. He separated the waters and made dry ground appear (1:9).
Then God made an image of himself (1:26–27). This is the most common word in the Old Testament for ‘idol.’ Israel was not supposed to make an image to represent their God, but God is allowed to make an image of himself. So what is God’s image? Suggestions include rationality or love or a soul. But the answer is right in verse 26, “so that they may rule.” For his own reasons, God chose to have his will and rule accomplished through these earthlings. They are co-rulers with him. They are supposed to assert their will on creation to continue God’s purpose of creating beautiful things out of chaos.
Immediately after creating these humans, God blessed them. Blessing people is God’s primary will and what he wants to do most of all. The blessing he gave them is, be fruitful and multiply (1:28).
Genesis chapter 2 reboots the story. God is pictured as a potter, fashioning an image of himself out of dirt and then joining it to divine breath (2:7). In chapter 1, these humans were called to rule, but here they are called stewards (2:15). Those are complementary images—not conflicting ones—as Jesus so often pointed out to his disciples but they so often misunderstood. The Old Testament Messiah is the human being we were all made to be, but have failed to be. He is both ruler of all and servant of all.
God gave humanity one, simple rule, “Don’t eat from that tree” (2:16–17). He didn’t give any reason for it, and it didn’t seem to make any sense, but that was exactly the point. Human beings are supposed to trust God’s definitions of good and evil rather than make their own definitions. They are co-rulers of the world, not independent rulers.
Did Adam and Eve trust God? No. The evil serpent deceived them. The tragic irony is they were already like God in every way (3:5)! They were his image. Up to this point, God alone had declared things to be good (seven times in chapter 1) or not good (2:18), but then the humans decided for themselves the fruit was good (3:6). They wanted to be independent gods. And then the next human beings were born in Adam’s image, not God’s (5:3).
God responded with both judgment and promise (3:15–19). In some kind of mutual destruction, God promised to defeat evil. Remember his primary will is to bless humanity, but rebellion must carry consequences.
From there, the storyteller has collected little vignettes showing humans spiraling down, until God washed the world of humanity’s evil.
In a reversal of creation, God covered the dry land with water. His sustaining power had until then restrained the “wild and waste” of Genesis 1:2, but in the Flood God released his imposition of order and allowed chaos to return (7:11).
Then God blessed a new man named Noah with the same blessing with which he had blessed Adam in the beginning, be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth (9:1).
So how did this new Adam fare? He was the same as the old Adam, failing in a garden no less (9:20)! Humanity was back on the downward spiral. They specifically wanted the opposite of what God wanted—they did not want to fill the earth (11:3–4) so they used bricks to build a city. They wanted to make a name for themselves.
Instead of another Flood, this time God defeated humanity’s evil by scattering the people (11:8). His confusing of the languages at the Tower of Babylon (which sounds like ‘babble’) is an act of judgment, but also of mercy. He’s trying to save them from themselves.
Part I is all tragic. God kept giving humans chances, and they kept ruining God’s good world.
Part II begins, “The Lord said to Abram . . .” (12:1). Who is he?! We need some kind of transition to get us from the story of all humanity to the story of one man and his family. That is provided by a genealogy (11:10–32) tracing the origin of this man from the scattering of the people. Somehow, this man has everything to do with the fate of lost, rebellious humanity.
Part II (ch. 12–50): about Abraham’s family
Like Adam and Noah, God selected another man to receive his blessing (12:2). The idea “be fruitful and multiply” is here expressed as the promise “make you into a great nation” and the very thing God stopped the Babylonians from doing, making a great name for themselves, is the thing God is going to give Abraham (12:2). Why will God do this? So his blessing can spread back to all of humanity (12:3), as he wanted in the beginning.
Why is the entire Old Testament about these Israelites? This is why! For the rest of your reading of the Old Testament, you’re supposed to have in the back of your mind that God is going to do something with these people to rescue and save and restore blessing to all humanity. It’s not that God likes these people any more than others. Rather, out of his grace the family he chose is the vehicle for his blessing and salvation for all of the nations.
These verses are the key promise of the entire Old Testament, and it is what the story is all about. What humanity has been doing up to this point is rebelling against God. His response is to set in motion a plan to bless them. If you only had these first twelve chapters of the Bible, you would already know a lot about God and humanity. You would know that God is a God who wants to bless humanity, but that they lost that blessing in the garden. Even though human beings have become God’s enemies, he still wants to bless them, and he is going to give them—as a pure gift—what they have been looking for in all the wrong ways.
Did Abraham trust God? The next story is about how Abraham lied about the identity of his wife in order to save his own neck (12:13). Nevertheless, God turned human evil into good! God even arranged that Abraham be given wealth out of the whole mess.
Then God repeated his blessing to Abraham, saying “I will make your offspring as numerous as the dust of the earth (13:16) and give you the land” (13:17). Then again, God said, “I will make your offspring as numerous as the stars of the sky (15:5) and will give you this land” (15:7). God had promised to make Abraham fruitful and to multiply him, but Abraham didn’t have any kids yet. Then Abraham did just about the only right thing he did in the whole book. He believed the Lord, and the Lord accepted Abraham’s trust in place of a righteousness he didn’t have (15:6).
Abraham trusted God’s promise for children, but he asked how he could be sure about the promise to possess the land (15:8). God answered with the bizarre vision of a firepot and a torch passing in between cut-in-half animals laid on the ground. The author knows we’ll struggle to understand what’s happening there, so he gives the conclusion plainly: God made a covenant (15:18). So we know this is some kind of ancient covenant-making ritual (confirmed by archaeology). It’s a way of saying, “I swear on my life.” But only God made the covenant. Only he passed between the animals while Abraham watched. The covenant depended only on God’s own faithfulness, not at all on the faithfulness of Abraham. God put his own name and reputation on the line and committed himself to this family to somehow give blessing to all the nations. This covenant is the basis for all of God’s further dealings with Israel.
Did Abraham’s family trust God? Were they any better than the rest of humanity? No. You’d think the stories following God’s covenant would be great, showing things heading the right way. But this family is full of horrible people. They constantly tried to take matters into their own hands. Lots more stories follow about this family, all with one theme: human stupidity and rebellion vs. God’s desire to bless (ch. 16–50). At every step, God intervened to keep them from running the train off the tracks.
Chapters 37–50 bring these stories to a climax. The family seemed like it was imploding when ten brothers sold the eleventh brother to be a slave in Egypt (37:28). But through a crazy set of circumstances, Joseph ended up second-in-command of all of Egypt. Pharaoh made him a co-ruler (41:40) and put him in charge of the land (41:41). Joseph exercised that rule specifically by being a good steward of seven good years of crops (41:49), which he stored in cities (41:48) so that he could serve others in seven years of famine and save the world from death (41:57). Joseph was ruler of all and also servant of all—a picture of what humanity was designed to be and do, fulfilled in Jesus.
Joseph summarized not only his own story, but the story of the entire book of Genesis and the Bible. He said that God was in control of all of these events, turning evil into good (50:20), a reflection all the way back to the good and evil of the first chapters of the book. It’s the ultimate irony. God redeemed the brothers’ stupid, selfish act of evil to be the thing that saved their lives. What are humans doing in this story? Evil, that’s what we do. What does God do? Not just good, but he works it out so that even our evil becomes good. Even when we human beings intend to ruin what God means for good, we can’t do it!
Then Joseph repeated God’s promise to give them the land and stated his own trust in that promise (50:24). The patriarchs of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph are not heroes because of their actions, which were so often horrible, but because of their trust. Each man expressed his belief that God would be faithful to his promises. We should be taught by these stories to also be confident that God will keep his promise to them and to us. But how will he do it? Keep reading . . .