The book of beginnings
By Moses, the shepherd of God’s people
Every great story has a great beginning. If Moses was speaking, He probably would say, my book of Genesis in Bible, the first book in the Bible, is no exception. It opens with a memorable phrase, “in the beginning,” a phrase that is echoed later in Scripture (John 1:1) the purpose of the book of genesis answers some basic questions:
- Where have we come from?
- Why are we here?
- What has gone so terribly wrong?
It chronicles the beginning of time, of heaven and earth, and of all God’s splendid creatures. It tells the story of a loving God who has acted to restore His broken creation to its original beauty and goodness.
But where has this book come from? Like most things ancient, its origin is cloaked in mystery.
Tradition ascribes the authorship of this and the next four books in the Bible to Moses, a man of extraordinary ability through whom God rescued and gave laws to His people.
But even if Moses was not responsible for the final form of the book we have today, his life and work helped shape it through all the lively stories told and retold by generations that remember and celebrate his life.
Repairing, Bringing True Blessings And Healing
Genesis offers a fascinating account from the origin book of genesis creation through the age of the patriarchs: Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.
The Scriptures reveal God as a covenant-making and covenant-keeping partner who relentlessly pursues and loves His creation.
When it becomes clear that Adam’s and Noah’s descendants have strayed from God, He chooses Abraham and his family to begin the work of repairing the world and bringing true blessing and healing to the rest of the families of the earth.
A Chosen People
As the story unfolds, the theme of the book of Genesis recounts the great exploits of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (whose name God changes to Israel).
At times the patriarchs flourish under God’s blessing and protection.
At other times, they fail miserably to remain faithful to what God requires of them. Despite their flaws, God is clearly at work, moving and transforming them into a people who are chosen to declare His love and truth to the world.
As we continue reading, closing in on a brief summary of the book of Genesis, and see the book of Genesis explained, the summary about the book of Genesis are devoted to telling the story of Joseph, one of Israel’s sons, and they relate how Abraham’s descendants come to live as free people in Pharaoh’s Egypt.
Some may find relief, finally understanding book Genesis, but when the Book of Exodus, the book after Genesis begins, it is clear their freedom has been taken away.
Out of nowhere, time, space, and all the living whirl forth as God speaks the universe into existence. With the utterance of His voice, creation takes form, chaos yields to order, light eclipses darkness, and emptiness fills with life.
Not long after God creates the first man, Adam, and the first woman, Eve, the story takes a tragic turn when the first couple disobeys the clear instruction from God not to eat the fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.
As a result, humanity falls from God’s intended perfection. The disastrous consequences of this decisive act are demonstrated in Cain’s murder of Abel, Noah’s flood, and the Tower of Babel.
The crown of God’s creation is a new creature, a creature that can sound the heartbeat of its Creator. That creature, made male and female, reflects God’s own relational richness. The human family is to join God in the ongoing work of creation.
The earth below and the sky above with all their inhabitants are too beautiful and too good to be left alone. They need the tender care and close attention that only God’s favored creature can give.
When human body meets divine spirit, soul is born. Divine breath and sculpted earth come together to make up the living soul. For thousands of years, philosophers and theologians have posed the question: what is a human being? Here God gives the answer.
Genesis provides an image of the ideal marriage: One man. One woman. In a one-flesh relationship. For life. These four elements constitute the ideal, as Jesus reminds His followers (Matthew 19:4–5).
Anything less, anything more, or anything other misses the ideal. In marriage two individuals, who once lived as “me,” come together as “we” in one flesh and one life. No earthly bond can match the intimacy of this divinely sanctioned union.
The story of humanity’s sin begins with a tree and ends on a tree: first, the tree of the knowledge of good and evil; and finally, the cross on which Jesus dies. The first tree offers fruit that leads to death, but the second offers a death that leads to eternal life.
One of the first things Adam and Eve do after being banished from the garden of Eden is to make a baby. Despite the pain of childbirth, Eve speaks with joy of the birth of her son.
She certainly suffers and could have easily died in childbirth, but the desire to reproduce and the joy of joining with God in the creative process brings great reward. Every parent knows the risks and rewards of bringing forth the next generation.
Throughout Scripture God is described as spirit and humans as flesh. God’s statement emphasizes the eternal, life-giving nature of spirit and the mortal, dependent nature of flesh.
Without God’s Spirit-breath sustaining humanity, life itself is not possible. Humans are totally dependent on God. The upper limit of human life is set at roughly 120 years; but the change comes gradually, and Aaron is the last of the patriarchs to live beyond the limit.
In distinguishing between animals that are ritually acceptable and unacceptable, God is anticipating the instructions He will give His people later regarding holiness and purity (Leviticus 11:1–47; Deuteronomy 14:4–20).
Some animals are ritually acceptable for sacrifices, so they are suitable for food. Other animals are not to be offered to God or eaten. Ultimately, what enters human bodies matters to God; after all He made them.
All life is sacred. Human life is especially so. Protecting it is of utmost importance to God. He takes this so seriously and personally because He made humanity to reflect Him.
We are His earthly representatives, made in His image. To murder another person is to mount an attack on the One who created him.
Noah’s words are not idle words. As the story unfolds, the importance of this curse becomes clear. But as the ancients knew, and we now have forgotten, words have power.
It was with a word that God created the heavens above and the earth below. Now Noah’s words create a new reality, a harsh reality for Ham and his children.
The desire to settle in one place and build a city runs counter to God’s command to spread out across the earth. They want to make their mark on the world rather than conform to God’s plan for their lives.
They want power and prestige. They want to ensure that they will not be scattered; that is, they want to choose their own destiny. But God has a different plan and purpose. He is the One who determines destiny.
Out of all the descendants of Noah, God chooses Abram to have a special relationship with Him. He calls Abram to enter into a particular kind of relationship that changes the course of his life and the lives of his people forever.
God has a plan to rescue the world from sin and destruction, and that plan begins with one man. He promises to make Abram a great nation, to bless and protect him, and ultimately to bring true and lasting blessing to the world through his children.
To enter into that promise, Abram must do something daring; he must leave everything he knows and put his trust in God.
Sarai is an unusually attractive woman. Even at her age of 65, Abram is afraid of what the Egyptian men might do when they see her and desire her.
So he takes matters into his own hands and devises a half-truth to conceal their marriage.
We learn later — when Abram repeats this half-truth to Abimelech (chapter 20) — that Sarai and Abram have the same father but a different mother.
Abram is an exemplary man of faith. Being older than Lot, he by custom has first choice of the property, but he waives his right and grants Lot the first choice.
Given their recent experiences in the famine, it is no wonder that Lot chooses the lush, fertile soils of the Jordan Valley for his new home. But as Lot moves his family east, he moves farther from Abram and closer to danger.
This unusual encounter has sparked much interest over the centuries. Melchizedek, it seems, appears out of nowhere. There is no genealogical record for him; he is described simply as the priest-king of Salem, likely a reference to the city that will one day be known as Jerusalem.
The Hebrew root of the name Salem means “peace” (shalom). Melchizedek comes in peace, offering the victors a meal to sustain them on their journey home. Abram, in return, gives Melchizedek ten percent of the spoils claimed in battle.
There are two other scriptural references to Melchizedek in Psalm 110 and Hebrews 7. The writer of Hebrews compares the priestly role of Jesus to the ancient priestly order of Melchizedek showing that Jesus’ role, like that of Melchizedek, is superior in every way to the later Levitical priests.
The Scriptures tell us that names matter. What we call people and places often describes and defines them in ways other kinds of words do not.
People’s names may recall the circumstances of their birth or reflect their character or perhaps depict their destiny.
God changes Abram’s name to Abraham to signify that he will become the founding father of many nations.
The change in Sarah’s name is a bit more complicated because both “Sarai” and “Sarah” mean “princess.” Still the name “Sarah” becomes her covenant-name, the name by which generations know her.
As the wife of Abraham’s youth and old age, Sarah is destined to become the founding princess of many nations, a royal mother to many kings.
Scripture records an amazing exchange between the Lord and Abraham. In all of the Bible there is nothing quite like it. In these verses Abraham is negotiating with God over the fate of Sodom and its inhabitants.
But this is no game. Abraham isn’t bargaining with a peddler over the cost of his wares; the lives of many people hang in the balance. Abraham has followed God long enough and knows Him well enough to stand confident as he presses and probes the extent of God’s mercy.
God’s mercy, he learns, runs deep; but there are limits, and Sodom has crossed the line.
Lot leaves the safety of his home to negotiate with the men of the city, all of whom seem determined to have sex with his guests.
Although his courage is commend able, his solution is deplorable — offering his virgin daughters for the deviant pleasures of his neighbors.
But Lot knows their sexual preference is for his guests, not his daughters; so the offer is safe, and he has bought some time.
Lot’s wife makes a fateful turn. She stops and looks back. No one knows why.
Perhaps it is to mourn the past.
Perhaps curiosity gets the better of her; but instead of looking ahead to her destination — a place of safety and security — she turns around and looks back at what she has left behind.
In that instant, as the messenger warned, she perishes. All that is left of her is a standing pillar of salt.
Scripture is brutally honest when it comes to people. It never sugarcoats the depths of human degeneracy.
Here is a prime example:
Lot’s daughters conspire to commit incest with him, an act so reprehensible it is universally condemned.
They do so in order to guarantee their future and security, but as a result they create a future where insecurity and trouble are guaranteed.
The nations which they birth become two of the most troublesome enemy nations God’s people will ever have to deal with. As time goes on, the Moabites and Ammonites become fierce adversaries to the children of Abraham.
Once again Abraham and Sarah take matters into their own hands.
Although God has promised to protect and prosper them, they choose half-truths and deception in order to stay in Abimelech’s favor.
The results could have been disastrous; but God’s intervention stops Abimelech from violating Sarah’s marriage, and in the end obedience preserves them all.
Abraham, it seems, is rewarded, not because of his deception but in spite of it. Since Abimelech does the right thing, God brings hope and healing to his family as well.
Does good then result from evil? Not at all. The good comes from God’s action and everyone’s eventual obedience.
What is clear through these narratives is that God has a plan, and He can manage any contingency in achieving His purpose. When God is on the move, even evil can be turned into good.
Abraham leaves Beersheba as he left Haran many years earlier. God calls and he leaves. It is as simple as that. No map. No directions. Just an unwavering trust that God will lead him where he needs to go.
Mount Moriah becomes one of the most important places in all of the promised land, the one place in the world set apart for the worship of the one True God.
According to 2 Chronicles 3:1, Solomon builds his temple on Mount Moriah in Jerusalem, not far from where God tests Abraham.
We reach the climax of Abraham’s covenant story. God tests Abraham, and he passes with flying colors. Somehow he knows God will provide, for he tells his servants that he and his son will come back from the mountain.
He also knows that God’s covenant promises are going to be fulfilled through Isaac and not another. Although Abraham is willing to sacrifice him, he expects Isaac to still be the one through whom God’s blessings come to the world.
How could it all happen? Only God knows, and Abraham trusts in God and His promises. Abraham’s level of trust is unmatched in all of Scripture. This is why he stands as the founding father of our faith.
This account reveals the complex and rather ambiguous Near Eastern way of negotiating a purchase is as follows:
The transaction takes place publicly at the city gate in the presence of the community leaders who could serve as advisors to the deal or witnesses if the deal goes awry.
Initially Ephron offers to give the land to Abraham for a burial site, but in true Near Eastern style the patriarch indicates respectfully that he desires to purchase it instead.
Ephron’s true motive may be seen in his counteroffer; the property is worth 10 pounds of silver, a not-so-insignificant price for a tract of land on the edge of his property.
Abraham’s motive is clear enough. He wants to own outright a parcel of land near where he and his family have lived for many years, a land promised to him by God, a land where now Sarah has died and needs a proper burial.
Gifts come with strings attached, and Abraham does not want to owe Ephron or anyone else for that matter. He knows full well he owes everything to God.
Isaac repeats the ruse his father used in Egypt and Gerar many years earlier. Abraham told another Abimelech (likely the father or grandfather of this Philistine king) that Sarah was his sister to avoid being killed.
Isaac tries the same trick for the same reason but is soon found out. Many rulers in that day would have killed or severely punished a man for telling such tales and jeopardizing their reign. By GOD’s Grace and Mercy, Abraham and Isaac not only survive, but they grow rich from the experiences.
When the Lord told Abraham to leave Haran and travel to Canaan, most of his relatives remained in Northern Mesopotamia in towns between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers.
The area southwest of Haran becomes known as Paddan-aram (the plain of Aram). Abraham and some of the other patriarchs continue to see this land and its people as their own. This is why Jacob and his family are known as Arameans (Deuteronomy 26:5).
Dreams are a bit mysterious. There are many theories about what dreams are and why we dream, but no one knows for sure.
What is sure is that at times in the Scriptures God uses dreams to reveal Himself to His covenant partners. Certainly not everyone has revelatory dreams, and not all dreams are revelatory.
But sometimes, on special occasions, when it suits God’s purposes, dreams can be a vehicle to see, hear, and experience reality as God knows it.
It happens here with Jacob, who has not yet fully embraced the Eternal as his God; and it continues to happen in both testaments with Joseph, Daniel, Peter, and others.
What Rachel suggests is not at all improper for her time. As you may recall, Sarah and Abraham had a similar situation with Hagar (16:1–4).
Custom allows for these kinds of arrangements, just as technology today allows for an infertile woman to have a child through a surrogate.
Any child born to Bilhah is regarded as Rachel’s, because she has the right to name the child. As we have seen, the naming of a child carries great significance.
Jacob, the heel-catcher, has met a kindred spirit. Both men are deceivers and manipulators. Both do whatever they can to get the better of the other. It just comes naturally.
Laban tricks Jacob first by marrying him to Leah before Rachel. Then, after Jacob and he agree on a clear strategy to separate the flocks, Laban goes behind his back and takes away the animals that rightfully belong to Jacob.
But Jacob is crafty, too, and he devises a way to produce striped, speckled, and spotted animals from Laban’s flocks.
After the many years of service, Jacob finally outwits Laban and gains a more valuable flock in the process.
Deception may work for a while, but there are dire consequences that come with it. Jacob’s situation is about to change, and it isn’t long before his deceptive days are behind him.
Jacob has come to the end of himself. He has struggled with his brother and the rest of his family for his entire life.
He was born a “heel-catcher,” a deceiver, and he lived the part well. But he can’t go on like this any longer. With Esau on his way, by this time tomorrow he could well be dead and his family killed or captured.
He desperately needs God’s blessing and protection, so he grieves and agonizes through the night. Through stabbing pain Jacob demands a blessing from his unknown assailant, but he cannot receive it until he confesses his name.
Once he does, his name is changed. No longer is he known as Jacob; from now on he is “Israel,” he who wrestles with God. This is the turning point in Jacob’s life.
He lays aside his former self and takes up a new name, a new identity. If Jacob is to be the one to carry on God’s covenant and the source of universal blessing, he has to change.
Genesis is filled with moral failures and ethical dilemmas, the kinds of things that happen in real life. Abraham’s children are not perfect people; they — like the rest of us — are deeply flawed and conflicted over the tough moral choices we all have to make.
After Dinah is forcibly raped:
- What are her brothers to do to protect her and restore their family honor?
- How is justice to be done?
- How can they make things right?
These are important questions. The desire to protect those you love and to make things right is a noble impulse, but ignoble deeds follow.
Skilled in deception, her brothers use circumcision — their covenant obligation — to temporarily disable the men and make them vulnerable to attack.
After the carnage, Jacob, the older, wiser head of the family, knows the score: actions like these have consequences. Violence only breeds more violence. If they are to survive, they must leave… soon.
This disturbing chapter is artfully inserted at the beginning of Joseph’s story for a reason.
Though Joseph has the key role in getting Israel to Egypt and saving his family from the upcoming famine, it is Judah’s line that is chosen by God to play a crucial part in Israel’s more distant future.
Judah’s son, Perez, is the ancestor to King David and ultimately to the Anointed One (Matthew 1). But Perez’s strange birth is overshadowed by the sleazy events that lead to his conception.
The sexually-charged atmosphere of this chapter may well upset some, but Scripture is brutally honest about people and what they do.
Lust and lies, deception and prostitution do not frustrate God’s plan; in fact God has a way of taking them, redeeming them, and including them within His greater will.
Although the text is not descriptively clear, the chief baker dies a particularly gruesome death.
The way the story is told, Pharaoh lifts up the baker’s head — a gesture which would seem to signal royal favor — but in the next treacherous instant, his head is removed.
Then his lifeless corpse is impaled on a tree, exposed to the elements.
Because the body is left to rot outside and be eaten by birds — instead of being carefully embalmed and entombed — the Egyptians believe the victim’s soul can never enter the afterlife.
This is the worst form of capital punishment, leaving the cup bearer to fear not only death but also eternal oblivion.
Pharaoh wants there to be no doubt that Joseph is his second-in-command:
- So he holds a formal ceremony and presents Joseph with special gifts, symbols of high office and power.
- He gives Joseph his signet ring, mounted with Pharaoh’s personal seal.
- He dresses him in royal garb and provides him with the finest chariot available.
- He issues decrees that put Joseph in charge of all affairs in Egypt.
- Finally, to top it off and to make sure this son of Israel would be fully accepted into Egyptian society, he gives him an Egyptian name and arranges a marriage with a high-profile priestly family.
Just a few hours before, Joseph was a prisoner. Now he is in charge of all the land.
Famine in this part of the world normally involves a drought that extends for years. Only those with access to bodies of fresh water can survive.
The Egyptians are perfectly positioned to use the Nile River to irrigate their crops during a drought. Most of the land of Canaan, on the other hand — where Jacob and his sons still live — has little fresh water even when there is no drought.
Although some grain can be moved up and down the Nile or across the Mediterranean over established trade routes, the amount of grain needed to keep large populations alive cannot be moved across land or sea. So people have to go where the food is, or they starve to death.
Israel knows he is out of options at home, so he has to look abroad.
The brothers of Joseph are in the dark:
- What does this mean?
- Is this some sort of trick?
- Has someone planted the money there only to later claim it or the grain has been stolen?
- Are the Egyptians even now bearing down on them?
- Is this part of the test?
- Should they go back and tell the gruff Egyptian governor what has happened?
- And if they do, will he believe them?
- What happens to Simeon?
They have a thousand thoughts, but their most profound thought occurs next.
Judah speaks the truth.
God has uncovered their guilt and exposed it for all to see.
Not that someone in their party has stolen Joseph’s cup — that’s not what he means — but years ago they conspired and stole Joseph’s freedom.
Ironically they could now lose their freedom to Joseph.
Judah has come a long way.
He is no longer the selfish young man who conspired with his brothers to sell Joseph into slavery (37:26–27).
Though he knew that decision would have a devastating effect on his father, Judah did not seem to care. Nor is he the lustful man who propositioned the prostitute who happened to be his daughter-in-law (38:1–30).
Now he is different. His priorities have changed. He is willing to sacrifice his freedom and future to save his father the grief of losing Benjamin.
Judah’s transformation is not immediate; it takes years to accomplish. But his place in the family and his selfless example impact the children of Israel for generations to come.
Once again Joseph and his brothers are parting company.
But this time is much different: they know where he is and who he has become.
Although Joseph has been separated from his brothers for many years, he remembers how they were; and he is counting on the fact that they are a quarrelsome bunch.
He has intentionally given Benjamin more money and clothes than the others. That in itself is enough to cause bickering and squabbling among the crew.
In addition, he knows they are worried. They have just received quite a shock. To learn after all these years that the brother they sold into slavery has become one of the most powerful men in the world takes time to process.
The famine, the journey from Canaan, and the shock of seeing him again have taken a toll on them. Now they have to go back, get their families, and return.
The road home leaves plenty of time to worry about what might become of them, plenty of time for nerves to fray and anger to stir. Joseph knows they have a hard journey ahead, and they need to pull together and not apart.
Jacob blesses Pharaoh.
As we have seen, words spoken as a blessing have great meaning at this time.
It may be no more than a greeting spoken, such as “shalom,” which means “peace.”
However the story of Genesis prompts us to consider another possibility.
In God’s plan to redeem and reclaim His creation, He chooses Abraham and his descendants to be a blessing to all the families on earth.
Jacob, Abraham’s grandson and God’s covenant partner, speaks a blessing over Pharaoh that creates a new reality for Egypt and its king. Little does Pharaoh know that this humble nomadic family in need of his help will one day change the course of history.
Jacob bows his final bow.
Perhaps in the weakness of old age or in thankfulness for Joseph’s promise, or maybe in prayer to the Lord.
In the days of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, custom demands that the firstborn son become the next head of the family and inherit the name, status, and wealth of his father.
But as we have seen throughout Genesis, God makes a habit of ignoring human customs, subverting tradition, and privileging the younger over the older.
When it comes to the covenant, God typically chooses to pass its blessings and duties to the younger. The trend continues throughout Scripture as God selects David and then Solomon, both younger sons, as the two greatest kings over Israel.
It is almost humorous the way Joseph tries to engineer the situation placing Manasseh, his firstborn, at his father’s right hand to receive the greater blessing. But Israel has none of it. He crosses his hands and extends the right hand to Ephraim, the second-born.
Joseph is sure his ailing father has made a mistake. But Jacob knows exactly what he is doing.
Israel’s blessing speaks not only what is but what will be.
His words establish Judah as the father to the royal line from which King David and his dynasty will one day come.
They anticipate God’s eternal covenant with David that brings peace and prosperity to the entire world.
It is little wonder that early Christians referred to the risen Jesus as “the lion of the tribe of Judah,” for they found in Him the fulfillment of Israel’s blessing.
When Israel’s inheritance of the land is divided, Levi is not included; but Joseph’s two sons become the leaders of two tribes descended from Joseph.
Manasseh and Ephraim take Joseph’s and Levi’s places, filling out the twelve tribes.
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