The first eleven chapters of Genesis are arguably the most foundational and revelatory chapters of the Bible.
They are also the most contested:
– Did God create the universe in a literal six days, or is that merely a literary framework?
– Must we accept that the Earth is only 3500 years old due to the timeline given in the Bible tracing back to Genesis? Or is this timeline just simply a God-inspired legend?
– Was there a literal walking and talking snake who deceived Adam and Eve?
– Did early humankind have a lifespan of 900+ years?
– Did fallen angels have sexual relations with women and create a demonic hybrid variation?
– Did two of all the animals of the earth fit inside an ark made of gopher wood and float on the surface of a global flood for months?
– Do earth’s various languages all trace back to a city named Babel?
These are the kind of questions that naturally arise when one reads the text in a post-modernistic, post-Enlightenment worldview: evolutionist vs. young earthers, the existence of evil spirits vs. naturalism, elongated lifespans vs. the cultural significance placed on numerologies, and so forth. These questions are unavoidable given the place that scientific reason has given in our Western culture since the birth of European Enlightenment in the 1800’s.
These questions should be welcomed and sincerely considered by the church given that there is significant content within the Genesis story, on a surface level reading, that appears incompatible with contemporary science.
The church has responded to these questions in a few different ways:
1. The church pussyfoots around these questions and fails to address/balance these questions in an adequate fashion. This has ladened parishioners with more questions than resolutions, birthed more skeptics than believers, and in many cases turned followers into apostates and/or agnostics. Church leaders are either unable to, or do not find is necessary to provide a satisfactory defense to scientific rationalism. The thought goes, “If the Bible is made up of myths, then the perhaps the biggest myth might be the existence of a god itself. How can we believe in a god from a book that does not get the sciences correct?”
2. The church walks back from asserting divine inspiration of the Genesis 1-11 text and draws out of it only what seems culturally relevant to the time. Contemporary social leaders may agree with the general principle of love toward one another as witnessed in Jesus’s ministry, but on passages that may seem challenging they are merely disregarded as fluff, intended for an uneducated/unscientific culture from times past, and/or just a vivid imagination birthed from man. The scriptures, then, are oftentimes dismissed—not regarded as divinely inspired, but rather a work of human invention from a time when people had not yet grasped the love that directs the nebulous universe. Attention is distracted away from these verses and directed toward later more culturally relevant passages on love for thy neighbor and issues relating to social justice. What you believe about God, how to reach heaven, or whether you have faith in a god at all is irrelevant—simply love others as Jesus modeled.
3. Ultra conservative churches deny contemporary scientific discovery and method and assert that the Bible itself is God’s perfect Word in every way, including matters of physics, chemistry, anthropology, history, zoology, etc. The Bible alone, without the need to dig deeper into the cultural context, should stand on its own as the standard by which we judge all other understandings of the natural world.
Response 1 leads many to abolish their faith as they learn become critical thinkers progressing through the modern education system. Response 2 has led to some positive social progress, but it does not lead people into deeper relationship and intimacy with the personal God of the Bible. God is the author of love, and we should love others, and living out that idea is replaced for actually experiencing Him. Knowing Him personally is replaced with just trying to do what we think He wants. Ritual and righteous living is replaced for relationship and intimacy.
Response 3 needs a little more space to unpack:
Many church leaders teach the literal elements of Genesis 1-11 as fact and dogma. They teach these dogmas as fundamental essentials to the faith. They spend a lot of time refuting anyone who may disagree. And they hold those in contempt who endorse an opposing view, believing that if one thinks otherwise that they are compromising on the sovereign authority of God’s perfectly inspired Word.
Sadly, this author has seen more than a few organizations put greater attention and prominence to preaching and strengthen these “dogmas” than on receiving life and daily bread from intimate, personal and communal relationship the Living God. In some of these conservative circles, spirituality and righteousness with God has been reduced to knowing the facts about how the unfathomable universe came into being rather than having an tangible, life-changing relationship with the creator who created unfathomable world.
An infinitude of hours has been spent in Sunday school classes, Saturday morning auditorium gatherings, and Bible studies going over materials that advocate their church’s stance on the literal or figurative nature of these eleven chapters and why it is important to make this dogma. Then, the attenders walk away with their heads puffed up with knowledge/arguments thinking that this is what Christianity is all about, this is how I be a good, Bible believing Christian, this is how I go out and make disciples of Christ, and this is time well spent. Those who embrace this dogma feel energized and strengthened in their beliefs on Biblical facts, and then are ready to take on anyone who may disagree in the world of unbelievers—Christian and non-Christian alike. They feel a surge of life from having confidence that we know how a Biblical story happened instead of getting our life from connection with the actual living source behind the story. I say that not out of opinion or observation, but from personal experience of living in this Biblical view.
None of these 3 responses bring life and meaning to Genesis 1-11 in that way I believe the texts were originally inspired to do.
This is where I believe much of the church as missed the point. I do not believe that the ultimate purpose God had in mind behind inspiring the first eleven chapters of the book of Genesis is reached by disregarding them, or just practicing love toward one another. Nor do I think we arrive at God’s inspired purpose by deciding what content is historical and scientific, or what is unequivocally literal or figurative.
Why? Because when God inspired these books the early readers/hearers of the Bible would have been engaging with the text in a way familiar to their cultural context. The early readers/hearers were operating from a non-scientific, primitive approach to the world. They would have understood these stories/parables as serving a transcendent applicational meaning rather than a book whose purpose was to reveal empirical or observational fact. Myths/stories were not intended to be understood as scientific and factual in the Ancient Near East, but revelatory toward how we ought to interpret our world and surroundings—especially toward the divine. In the same way in our culture, it is immaterial whether the story of, “The Boy that Cried Wolf”, happened or not. The purpose of the story is not to search and identify what is literal or not, but to learn what is lesson being taught from the narrative. If the Bible were to be inspired today, perhaps if would be written from a historical/literal point of view since that is the culture we are now living in. But it was not the culture of the Ancient near East, and I’m not convinced that we should insert our cultural context into an ancient text.
Therefore, rather than to take a stand on what is historical, fictional, or hyperbolical, I believe our task in reading Genesis 1-11 should be to focus in on what is the main point God is trying to tell us through these stories. This might require a deeper look into the text to search for God’s intended message to us.
Jesus of Nazareth endorsed these stories. And if Jesus is center of our faith in Christianity, then I propose that we ought to endorse the need for these stories to be taught and told even when they may seem challenging in our modern context. But if God’s love and essence was fully revealed in Jesus (John 14:9-11, Colossians 2:9, Hebrews 1:3), then we should look to these scriptures to find more revelations of Jesus-looking-love instead of going to them to defend or refute the literal or historical accuracy of the text.
Instead of addressing the list of questions I shared prior, the following list becomes a much better set of questions if we are truly seeking to deepen our faith and relational walk with God:
– What implications does the text of Genesis 1-11 bring into the lives of those who are following Jesus today?
– How does understanding these God-breathed, inspired texts enhance our relationship and depth of intimacy with Christ?
– What do these stories tell us about the nature of God and the relationship He has with us that will bring to bear more Jesus-like fruit in our lives?
So then, this blog post will look at Genesis 1-11 and examine what these stories reveal about the meta-narrative behind the text, the character and nature of God, and the relationship displayed between peoplekind and their God. We will dig for what these passages mean for everyday life regarding our relationship with God, others, creation and the cosmic world around us.
Whether or not these events took place in actual history is irrelevant. We affirm that Jesus was a real person and that He and His early followers used the contents from Genesis 1-11 to further help us be transformed into His image and likeness. We shall now seek to do the same.
IN THE BEGINNING
The first verse of the Bible leaves no doubt about our existence—the universe has been created and is here for a purpose. “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth (Genesis 1:1).”
The universe, and all that is in it, is not a random happenstance. We are not here by accident. God created the world with intention.
We are given no knowledge about God, or His nature prior to the opening of Genesis. However, over the first two chapters of Genesis the text reveals is that this a God who is intimately involved with His creation.
This is shown as the text describes God creating the structure and contents of the earth with the “…. Spirit of God [hovered] over the waters” (Genesis 1:2). God is present and interacting with His creation.
But His intimacy is revealed even more beautifully when He creates humans in particular, “the Lord God formed the man of dust from the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living creature (Genesis 2:7).”
Just imagine God gently scooping dust into His hands, sculping a human being into his image and combining the earthly elements in just the way He wants Him, and then pressing His lips against the face of this fragile, mortal being to breathe and bring forth a living soul. The description of this process drips with tenderness, intimacy, and loving care. Humankind is very precious to God.
Throughout the different stages of creation God looks back what He has made and declares them as good. But it is not until male and female persons are created that God sees all He has made and declares that His creation is “very good” (Genesis 1:31). The intimate creation of human beings complete God’s wonderous creation. They are His crown jewel. They are the piece of the puzzle that makes the creator step back, look at his work and says, “Ah, now it is complete and perfect.”
The creation of the earth and the things within it is finished. Now, let us look at the how the whole of creation functions in community with one another. Note that creation is autographed by a unique distinguishing characteristic—sholom.
Creation is at peace, and everything is rightly ordered with one another. There is no conflict, no war, no fighting, no rage, no selfish ambition, no destruction, no bloodshed, and no death. God gives all the animals and humans plants to eat (Genesis 1:30). Creature does not dominate over one another, and it certainly does not threaten or murder for food or survival. There is no competition. God has provided everything that living organisms need to live and thrive. The little creatures are not in fear of the larger. There is no need to use coercive power over another for survival. Everything is in perfect harmony with one another. This is the good that God declares over His creation.
This relational harmony is something we will now refer for the remainder of this essay as God’s sholom. We normally think of sholom as a transliterated Hebrew word that simply means peace, but when we reference sholom from here on out we expand that definition to also include God’s beauty, harmony, life, and a domain that free from all bloodshed, death, and suffering. This is what God’s kingdom looks like. When all things are operating under His perfect will and intentions, they have entered the realm and tangible experience of God’s sholom.
The created world is a beautiful reflection of God’s sholom. It reflects His nature, desires, intentions, and His beauty—perfectly.
CREATED WITH PURPOSE
The first glimpse of God’s purpose behind creation is revealed at the end of the seven-day creation story. God creates humankind and set apart from all other creatures. He does this by giving them the defining characteristic of sharing in His very own image, or likeness (Genesis 1:26-27)—an attribute that would be unique only to humankind.
The first couple, Adam and Eve, are not created to merely worship and toil in labor in service to the gods. That would be the mindset of the other religions found in the Ancient Near East (ANE) and around the globe. The God of the book of Genesis instead creates humankind in His image, to be like Him, to act like Him, and to share in the same glory that He is. This is radically different from what we might expect from our culturally conditioned conception of an all-powerful, all-mighty God. This is precisely where the God of Genesis shows his uniqueness compared with the gods found in other parts of the earth. This God doesn’t wield His power over His creation just to get what He wants. God shares His likeness with His beloved crowned jewels of creation and invites them into expressing His image and co-laboring with Him into maintaining and growing His sholom.
God bestows two more gifts upon humankind: responsibility and choice.
God grants them dominion and rule over the earth and everything in it (Genesis 1:28). He encourages them to procreate and fill the earth with more image-bearers who express the goodness of God. These responsibilities are placed under humankind’s discretion and jurisdiction. Additionally, God plants a garden in Eden in the East—an important direction that we will come back to later. He places the first couple in the garden and gives them the responsibility to tend and keep it.
God also gives humans the gift of choice. They have full autonomy. They are free to act in accordance with God’s rightly ordered peace, or to act contrary to it. The text illustrates this by showing God placing two special trees in the garden—the tree of life, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (Genesis 2:9). The first couple is free to eat of whatever they want in the garden, but God warns them that eating from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil will bring death (Genesis 2:16-17)—death is not good, and completely foreign to God’s sholom. The choice to eat of either tree is Adam and Eve’s to make. Choice becomes a powerful element in God’s creation.
God’s creation of the earth is perfect and it displays His goodness perfectly. But the narrative shows that He is not alone in the universe. There are cosmic threats to His sholom.
EVIL LURKES NEARBY
Genesis 1:1 gives us a vision of God creating the heavens and the earth in a rather simple, ex nihilo fashion. The opening verse does not give the reader any clues whether anything else had been taking place in the heavenlies before creation. However, when we read the very next verse, we do see something rather disturbing in the universe.
Genesis 1:2 alludes to a sort of nebulous darkness over the earth: “The earth was without form and void, and darkness was over the face of the deep”. The narrative shows God creating a world out of formless, dark void. Yet when we imagine an all-powerful God creating the universe, do we envision a divine being who must deal with an accompanying presence of darkness and emptiness? This seems contradictory to the nature of an all-powerful God—a God who we will be later told that, “in Him is no darkness at all” (I John 1:5).
But the reference to something dark coinciding with the presence of God in 1:2 is impossible to miss, “The earth was without form and void, and darkness was over the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God [hovered[ over the face of the waters.” Something or someone is out there with God.
It is also in 1:2 that we see the first mention of the waters. In the texts of the ANE, water and seas were often understood to be a cosmic level force of evil, powerful deities who needed to be tamed, a force that contain ferocious cosmic sea monsters (i.e., Levithan from the book of Job), and something that caused chaos, destruction, and havoc. If we were to enter into the mindset of someone from the ANE it is more than likely that they would have understood these first two verses as referring to cosmic forces battling against one another. There was something going on the heavenlies that was among God’s creation. God is seen then as pushing back against and holding at bay these waters as He separates them in and over the earth to make space for His creation.
We see a similar allusion to something evil lurking nearby when God places humankind in the garden of Eden. God places Adam and Even into the garden with the task to keep it (Genesis 2:15). While this word can be easily passed off as merely meaning to cultivate and tend, Strong’s Biblical Concordance describes the Hebrew word translated as keep in this passage as also carrying the connotations of to hedge about (as with thorns), to guard or protect, and preserve.
One must wonder that if God created a universe in which there was no evil or danger, then what would humankind need to be so watchful and protective about in the garden?
The creation text shows that there was more than one player in the cosmos. We do not yet know how it got there, but we do know that there is something more going on with the story.
The threat that humankind was directed to be watchful about manifests itself shortly after the initial creation story of Genesis 1 and 2 closes.
In only seven verses, in merely a paragraph, God’s ideal paradise-like, harmonious world is undone and thrown into chaos.
A serpent, a beast from the field dwelling outside of the garden, appears to Adam and Eve and challenges their core beliefs about God. This serpent is later identified in the book of Revelation as Satan—a rogue spiritual agent, and head captain of all other demons. Satan has rebelled against God’s sholom and is responsible for the influence of evil inclinations over all the universes.
God was known for walking and talking with Adan and Eve in the cool of the evening day. Adam and Eve had a relationship with God. They knew Him. Yet the story told in Genesis 3 says that despite the relationship that Adam and Eve experienced with God they both considered what this walking and talking snake said to them.
The serpent’s attack was focused on getting Adam and Eve to question God’s character and His other-orientated loving nature toward them:
“…[the serpent] said to the woman, “Did God actually say, ‘You shall not eat of any tree in the garden’?” And the woman said to the serpent, “We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden, but God said, ‘You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the midst of the garden, neither shall you touch it, lest you die.’” But the serpent said to the woman, “You will not surely die. For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate, and she also gave some to her husband who was with her, and he ate. (Genesis 3:1-6)
Could it be true that God did not have Adam and Eve’s best interests in mind? Was God holding something even better back from them? Was God a liar and only out to protect Himself by charging the couple not to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil? Was there some secret power that could be realized by going against God’s warnings?
These were the possibilities that Adam and Eve considered after the serpent planted these false notions.
God revealed Himself to Adam and Eve in many ways: sovereign creator, and an intimate maker, the originator of peace and harmony, provider, sustainer, and friend. However, Adam and Eve did not rely on their relationship with God to discern or understand the serpents’ remarks. They did not go back and ask God if what the serpent was saying was true and trustworthy. They did not ask God for wisdom or for an explanation. Instead, they made a judgment call purely out of their own limited, human understanding of the circumstance and decided to eat of the forbidden tree. They assessed the situation and made a conscious choice apart from trusting in what God had lovingly spoken to them for their own protection. Deciding was what right in their own eyes was the first sin. The result of that initial sin was that they ate from the forbidden tree.
Once Adam and Eve’s choice was made, they unleashed a massive, self-inflicted curse—a curse that the Biblical narrative shows perpetuating down through their children, children’s children, and through every generation of human beings on earth. For the first time, humans put their own selfish wants and desire above God’s other-orientated sholom. Self-centeredness, greed, envy, strive, and selfish ambition would all be natural consequences of living out God’s free gift of autonomy apart from being connected to His self-sacrificial love. Adam and Eve would no longer rule the world from God’s law of sholom—for It would be impossible to do so since their own evil inclinations would keep them slaves to themselves. And the instigator of it all, Satan and His evil cosmic forces and kingdom of darkness, would be their master, continuing to exploit their slavery to grow his own evil empire.
After transgressing God’s warning about the forbidden tree, Adam and Eve’s inclination was no longer to love and trust in their Creator. Instead, their new fallen nature of self-centeredness brought them fear and shame. They knew God would be coming soon for their evening walk and out of fear and shame they hid themselves, covered themselves up with leaves, and were embarrassed.
Yet their transgression did not change God’s love or affection for them. The story goes on to tell us the God visited them in the garden shortly after the incident with the serpent. But Adan and Eve were nowhere to be found. Concerned with their undisclosed whereabouts He calls out to them, “Where are you?” (Genesis 3:9, a beckoning call yearning for that intimate, relational time spent together in the cool of the evening.
God soon finds them hiding in the Garden and ashamed of their newly realized nakedness. He sees their broken condition and the Lord displays His tender care for them by providing clothing.
Disappointingly, God shares with Adam and Eve all of the natural consequences that would derive from their sin of disobedience and mistrust: the stronger would now rule over the weaker, woman would be in subjection to men, the earth would no longer provide sustenance with ease but in toil and strife, and life would be given birth in anguish and pain rather than out of peace.
Seeing that sin and destruction had now entered into the heart of man, God blocks access to the tree of life. The couple are ushered out of Eden toward the East, away from God’s garden. But we need not necessarily interpret this as punishment. This is an act of loving-kindness and mercy—for to be eternally nourished by a tree of eternal life in world filled with evil, darkness, and destruction that never ends is nothing less than a description of hell itself. It is by blocking the tree of life that God prevents humans from suffering from an eternal hell.
It would be easy to stop here and think that evil has won outright—the serpent was victorious, sin is going to bring destruction, and God’s loving intention for sholom has been forever thwarted. Disharmony, disunity, struggle, toil, war, fighting, and bloodshed—all of those would be the new way of life for the inhabitants of the earth. What a disaster.But shining out as one glimmer of hope amid this dark story of sin, God drops in a subtle hint of His eternal plan—a glorious plan that would reconcile man back to Himself and an into His eternal kingdom of sholom. His original intentions for humans to be one with Him and display His image was not forever doomed. We will see that it was only delayed.
In speaking to the serpent in judgement, God says that a day would be coming when, “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel” (Genesis 3:15).
God speaks that there would be an offspring that would come and would crush the serpent and his domain. The text says this would come at a cost—the serpent would bruise the offspring’s heal—but in doing so the serpent would be dealt a death blow to the head and the serpent would be defeated. This offspring would come through the human childbirth, from the birth of one who had not yet been born. Restoration of God’s sholom would come, but it would lie somewhere in the future.
What would this offspring look like? Who was going to defeat Satan and his ways? How would this be accomplished? These questions would remain a mystery throughout the Old Testament narrative. The answers would not be brought to light until millennia after the Garden of Eden though the work of Jesus of Nazareth. But until that time would come, the narrative would continue with a mystery and much time.
RELATIONSHIP LOST AFTER EDEN?
The effects of sin made Eden a potential hell for Adam and Eve. An angel is stationed at the East side of the garden to take over Adam and Eve’s original job of keeping and standing guard of God’s sholom.
Sin has pushed humans eastward, away from Eden, a direction which begins to be understood as moving away from God’s sholom and outside the natural goodness and protection that comes with God’s rule and reign. But despite the move eastward, God has not abandoned or left them in the slightest.
In the chapter following the serpent and the exodus from Eden, God is found speaking to Cain, Adam and Eve’s firstborn son. God is shown to be present with Cain and keenly aware of his saddened mental state. God speaks to him and admonishes that sin is knocking at the door—a loving and protective warning that consequences could ensue from Cain’s autonomous actions (Genesis 4:6-7). Unfortunately, Cain’s thoughts of jealously are not extinguished by God’s consolation. Cain carries out his evil thoughts and senselessly murders his brother Abel.
This is the first account of human bloodshed on the earth. It is an ugly and pointless attack on the loving nature of God’s sholom. How would God respond? Anger? Judgement? Withdrawal of His presence?
Isn’t it true that Adam and Eve were, in a manner of speaking, suckered into their sin? After all, they were tricked and deceived. Maybe we can give them some grace and push some of blame of their sin on their naiveite and the Devil. I mean after all, the only thing that Adam and Eve did was to eat a forbidden apple—right? Maybe that is why God didn’t get angry with them.
But Cain’s act was premeditated, violent, and took the life of another with no end in mind other than to satisfy a personal jealous rage. This is entirely different then just eating an apple. Surely this will spark God’s rage—right?
What comes is a surprise. God responds in loving-kindness. He is right there, present and dwelling among His fallen beloved just as He was when Adam and Eve sinned.
God asks Cain, “Where is Abel your brother?… “What have you done? The voice of your brother’s blood is crying to me from the ground” (4:9-10). God then informs Cain of the natural consequences that will arise from this sinful act—Cain will be cursed from the ground, he will be wanderer and a fugitive, and when he works the land to gather life and sustenance it will not yield him satisfaction.
Cain sees that punishment that is too hard to bear. He knows that he will now be feared and people will try to kill him. But in a further display God’s unfathomable loving-kindness, God tells Cain “Not so! If anyone kills Cain, vengeance shall be taken on him sevenfold” (4:15). God places a mark on Cain so that if anyone comes across Cain and sees the mark, they will think twice about bringing harm upon him.
God’s grace and kindness, even to a premeditated murderer, is dumbfounding. God loves Cain so much that He protects him from further harm.
Cain tries to blame his consequences on God. He claims that he is the one getting moved away from God’s presence. But in what could be the most telling point of this story, Cain’s narratives finishes up with this verse, “Then Cain went away from the presence of the Lord and settled in the land of Nod, east of Eden” (4:16).
Cain is the one who walks away from God. He walks further East, away from the garden. He walks further away from God’s presence, His other-oriented love, and His rule of peace.
It is true to say that humankind’s relationship with God was severely impacted due to sin. This is undeniable. But what we are starting to see in the Genesis narrative is that sin is the thing that pushes people away from God. It is sin that alienates us from God, not God who alienated Himself from sin. And if we were to sum up the rest of the Bible going forward, God’s story to humankind is His loving efforts to bring them back to Himself, and back to His loving-kindness despite their sin.
The sins of both Adam and Eve and their child Cain were great. And unfortunately, sin and its effects only increase.
EVIL, SIN, SELF CENTEREDNESS, AND DISTRUST SPILL OUT
Sin begins to grow and magnify in the earth. This is presented to us in the story that follows Cain. A few generations down the line from Cain, we are introduced to Cain’s descendant, Lamech. Not much is revealed about him in the text, but the take-away is clear.
Lamech says to his two wives, “Adah and Zillah, hear my voice; you wives of Lamech, listen to what I say: I have killed a man for wounding me, a young man for striking me. If Cain’s revenge is sevenfold, then Lamech’s is seventy-sevenfold.” — (Genesis 4:23-24)
Lamech admits to killing a man in a revengeful/retaliatory act, or at best, in self-defense. Lamech shows no repentance and no remorse.
He then compares himself to Cain and references the mark of protection that God put on Cain’s head after Cain killed Able. Lamech’s believes that if God extended grace seven-fold over to a pre-mediated murderer like Cain, then surely God will protect Lamech 70 times more since his murder was a justified response.
Isn’t this exactly of how we think of violence today? Do we not justify our punitive acts of justice toward others, including suffering and death, in proportion to how we have been first wronged? We know that Jesus taught to love our neighbor and to not respond to such evils in kind (Mark 12:31, Matthew 5:38-48), but surely there would be some cases where the taking of another life is justified. We can suspend that teaching in situations when we are in self-defense, right?
But the message of God’s sholom is clear—sin, revengeful retaliation, violence, and death were never manifestations of God’s kingdom. They were not present in God’s beautiful garden, nor were they present in God’s responses toward humankinds’ rebellion.
Humankind’s temptation to act according to their own wisdom and self-preservation brought evil, lust, and self-centeredness in the world. Rather than coming back to God and operating under His ideals of other-orientated love and peace, people were now falsely seeing God’s gracious and forgiving acts of protection as a justification to continue evil, death causing behavior.
The going thought must have been, Sure, murder is bad, but justified murder is not bad, or at least not as bad if someone did evil to me first!
This twisted view of justice, justice via redemptive violence, is not the view that would later be taught and exemplified by God’s Son, Jesus, and His followers. “Turn the other cheek” (Matthew 5:38-40), “Do not repay evil for evil or reviling for reviling, but on the contrary, bless.” (I Peter 3:9). Nor is it the view that God had imprinted on the writer(s) of Genesis who were inspired to write the narrative of the patriarchs. Lamech’s story is included the text to remind us that God is not in favor with violence, even when it seems justified.
Sin was spilling out over all creation. It was increasing, multiplying, and expanding into being justified as a correct response to evil.
The Genesis story is telling us that the world was getting ugly—very ugly.
CREATION FALLS INTO DISARRAY
After only a few generations on earth, mankind’s situation is a crisis. Sin, and all the evils that come with it, was desperately out of sync with God’s sholom.
God describes the state of humankind as, “every intention of the thoughts of [their hearts] was only evil continually.” (6:5)
Furthermore, the text says, “…the earth was corrupt in God’s sight, and the earth was filled with violence. And God saw the earth, and behold, it was corrupt, for all flesh had corrupted their way on the earth.” (6:11-12)
The description of the earth presented here is so bleak than we cannot even begin to imagine. To see it from God’s perspective, we must think a world where the worst evils that could ever possibly be imagined are realized—endless murder, pain, injustice, rape, slavery, torture, trauma, death—worse than life is for us now or has even been in recent history, a world without hope, and a world in absolute chaos. The conditions of the world were so desperate that God saw that if He didn’t act then His preeminent plan of sharing His love with His beloved creation would be thwarted by evil.
The Bible doesn’t give any type of description of what was actually taking place on the earth when evil was at its worse. But we do know that mankind’s thoughts were evil continually, and violence was everywhere. To express the gravity of the situation, Genesis 6:1-4 even goes as far to say that demons were impregnating human women and creating a sort of hybrid, Nephilim humanlike offspring—something that would have raised a giant red flag to those in the ANE relating to the topic of cosmic evil.
Whether the passage about the Nephilim is to be taken literally or not, the narrative is overtly conveying to the ANE reader/hearer that God’s creation was incredibly corrupted. And not being corrupted by humans alone, but even cosmic personalities of darkness. The Devil was just as much involved with the earth’s decline as humans’ sin was.
God had been open and receptive to working with His people wherever they were at regardless of their sin. But in response to His grace, His beloved creation continued to move eastward from Eden—away from Him. While respecting their free agency, He had always protected them from the consequences of sins to the fullest extent that free will made possible. But mankind was only a sliver away from leaving God so far behind that their sins would prevent them from ever coming back to Him.
The next character in the Bible’s story is Noah. Noah is said to have been, “a righteous man, blameless in his generation.” Additionally, “Noah walked with God” (Gen 6:9).
Chaos was rampant on the earth. God’s sholom was being further and further suppressed. Yet the text says that through it all, Noah’s family had stayed faithful to seeking after God.
It is through Noah that God now reveals what is about to take place—the earth will be flooded by waters.
Just as in Genesis 1:2, the ANE concept of powerful waters—waters that represented cosmic level forces who were out of line with God’s harmony and peace and hellbent on destruction and suffering— are paralleled in the story of Noah.
We see similar language concerning these chaotic waters in the book of Job and the some of the early Psalms—passages that many scholars believe were stories written or carried over from the same time of the early patriarchs. In these passages God is seen as the only one who can hold these chaotic waters back (Job 12:15, 26:8, chapter 41 with the sea creature Leviathan, Psalms 18:15, 33:7, 74:13, 77:16). These waters are not seen as working by directive or in concert with God. They are His opponents, powerful yes, but able to be subdued by God and Him alone.
The text even says that God is the one doing the flooding of the earth. But knowing that the waters symbolize independent, opposing forces of evil, we must take into account that these evil forces were already in a state that was driven toward the destruction of God’s peace and harmony. Waters are independent agents exercising their free agency to work contrary to God’s purposes. We must understand God’s warning of a coming flood to mean that opposing cosmic forces of evil are going to befall the earth. If there was to be a literal global flood, it would be these anti-God cosmic forces doing the actual destroying, not God.
God is never seen as the author of chaos and evil. He is revealed as the author and propagator of peace, and the ANE victor who presses back against these evil waters. He is opposed to them and is the only one powerful enough to defeat them. The evil waters do not work in line with God’s purposes. They work against God’s purposes.
Therefore, the warning of a flood should not be understood as God succumbing or using these forces to bring about good for a higher heavenly purpose. The warning can instead be understood as God moving away in a retreat from the current battle with evil and retreating to higher ground in an effort to save His beloved creation—just as Noah’s ark rests on higher ground after the destructiveness of the flood.
A retreat isn’t necessarily a sign of weakness, nor is it an implication of an inadequacy of power. Retreats are used as a strategic response in warfare to regroup, refocus, and remobilize one’s efforts toward the enemy in a more effective manner.
God steps away from the battleground with the intentions to save humanity. And this decision does not come easy.
God is not angry with creation. His wrath has not kindled hot or waxed warm. There are no thunderbolts coming down from heaven in disgust. Rather, He is shown to be painfully devastated with the current state of affairs. God is showing to be grieving:
And the Lord regretted that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart. So the Lord said, “I will blot out man whom I have created from the face of the land, man and animals and creeping things and birds of the heavens, for I am sorry that I have made them.”
Grieved to His heart, God pulls away from the battle to let evil receive its own destruction upon itself. Yet in desiring to continue His plan of human redemption and reconciliation to Himself, God works through Noah’s family to restart a special lineage—a lineage that had retained faith in God, who remained faithful to Him, and possessed a small remnant that sought after God’s sholom.
God instructs Noah to build an “ark” of salvation to save a remnant of humankind. It is through this remnant that God would be able to bring the offspring (3:15) that would eternally bruise the heal of the monster of the sea, the serpent who invaded Eden, and rescue humankind from the destruction and evil that sin brings upon the earth. This is God’s ultimate intention in bringing the flood.
Genesis 7 describes the devastating flood. God’s sholom is nearly wiped out, save a remnant of it in Noah.
But once again, just as in the beginning of creation (1:6-9), God pushes back against the chaos of the waters and restores peace. The earth becomes dry and habitable again.
But with all of the murder, death, and suffering that this flood brought, how much peace has been restored? Has sin been vanquished from the earth? Had the world been completely restored? Was Noah’s family going to be set in an Eden-like paradise now that this flood took place?
A GLOBAL RESTART AND SPRAWL
Noah’s family comes out unscathed from the flood. They have been protected in God’s ark of salvation as a lasting remnant of people who stay faithful to God.
After exiting the ark, God commissions them with the same image-bearing task given to Adam and Eve—to multiply and fill the earth with image-bearing replicants that share in Noah’s fear and relationship with God.
However, and within only a short period of time, the text reminds us that despite the great flood sin and evil are still very present in the world. Sin shows up right away in the Noahic line.
Noah favors wine and becomes drunk—the first sin. Then, one of his sons sees his father’s nakedness—a reference to something very sinful that Biblical scholars still do not conclusively agree on the meaning— and sin is once again seen perpetuating itself throughout the thoughts and actions of humans.
God’s retreat/regrouping, and the flood that ensued, did next to nothing to combat the rule and reign of sin. If God was trying to wipe out sin, then He didn’t do a very good job. But that wasn’t the point of the flood. The flood merely preserved a lineage of humans who would be able to continue the succession of God’s plan of redemption through faith. Sin was unaffected by the affects of the flood.
God concedes to the fact that, “…the intention of man’s heart is evil from his youth” (8:21). The ancient text reveals that while God’s efforts to regroup may have eliminated a great portion of evil from the earth, the evil inclinations of humankind are inherent to their fallen nature. They are, at some fundamental level, distanced from God because of the knowledge of good and evil continues to be passed down generation to generation. Humans are organically cursed with an inherited nature that is self-seeking and out of line with God’s sholom. It appears that as long as humans continue to be on the earth residing in their current, fallen state, sin and evil will continue to rule over them. Evil will continue to dominate on the earth until God’s ultimate plan of restoration and reconciliation with humankind is fully realized though the mysterious offspring.
As we finish Genesis 9, we still don’t know what God’s plan will be concerning the coming offspring. But we do know that when this offspring comes the cosmic enemy’s head will be crushed, and evil will be forever vanquished.
Noah was found to be walking rightly with God before the flood. But just we saw in the examples with Adam and Eve, Cain, and Lamech, the Genesis story continues to reveal that God’s loving-kindness toward us doesn’t seem to be based upon our acts of righteousness. Not to the say that putting faith in God doesn’t lead a person to acting righteous, but faith towards Him does not necessarily take away the impulse and natural gravitation to sin. God remains faithful to sinners, but the sin that organically arises from within us continually pushes us away from His sholom.
With the flood over, the repopulation of the Earth started, and with human sin and cosmic evil continuing its malevolent rule over humans, Noah’s descendants spread out across the earth and are listed out one by one in Chapter 10.
What would Noah’s descendants set out to do? And would they remain faithfully relying on God for His provision and guidance as Noah had?
Chapter 11 brings one final twist to the Bible’s exposition. The text opens with saying that “Now the whole earth had one language and the same words. And as people migrated from the east, they found a plain in the land of Shinar and settled there” (Genesis 11:1-2). The descendants of Noah continue to go eastward— away from their ancestral land of Eden, away from God’s presence, and away from God’s perfect sholom. Fallen human beings continue to walk in an opposite direction from God.
It is in this eastward land of Shinar that Noah’s descendants decide to build a city, later called Babel.
A city is a community of people working and functioning together. But what we notice in Shinar is that this city is not something that God institutes or directs them to build. The city is built on their own accord, in their own strength, to serve their own purposes independent from God.
It is no surprise that this chapter describes the inhabitants of Shinar as rebellious toward God and His vision for humankind to spread out and fill the world. The residents say, “Come, let us build ourselves a city and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be dispersed over the face of the whole earth” (11:4).
The residents were not looking to have God build them a name or looking to build God’s beautiful name through them. They were seeking to establish a name for themselves. They were seeking to set themselves up on earth as a combined, independent city-force, separated from God and His directives.
Additionally, notice that they set out to build a “tower with its top to the heavens” (places also referred to as high places throughout the Old Testament). To those in the Ancient Near East, high places were regarded as locations where the gods dwell. The cities inhabitants set out to build their own mountain, or perhaps something like a ziggurat, such as to create their own god, or bring one of the gods down to them. Their self-sufficiency was pushing out the need for God’s own presence and sustainability.
The narrative shows God coming down from heaven to look at this city and the tower that humankind has made without Him. Seeing that humankind’s unity toward self-sufficiency will leave nothing outside their realm of possibility (i.e., greater sins, greater destruction, moving further and further from dependance from God) He breaks up their shared common language and introduces new languages. This leads to confusion among the people and the city/tower is abandoned.
The text leads us to speculate that that people with common languages band together and set out with one another migrating to various places. Humankind is finally spread out on the earth as God has wished all along since Eden. But God’s sholom is absent and the world is a far cry from the beauty and love God desires.
THE CREATION STAGE IS SET FOR GOD’S PLAN OF ULTIMATE RESTORATION
It is here, at the end of Genesis chapter 11, that the stage is set for God’s grand story to play out. The show is ready to begin, and the exposition is complete:
- The world has been created.
- God’s intentions for sholom are expressed in his beautiful creation of peace and harmony.
- Humanity gives place to sin and God’s enemy forces and God’s sholom is severely disrupted.
- Violent and destructive conditions on the Earth brings cause for God’s retreat and regrouping from the evil.
- Chaotic cosmic waters result in a catastrophic flood.
- A faithful remnant of humankind is preserved.
- And finally, God’s remnant is scattered abroad into multiple nations and languages across all the earth.
The Biblical story will now return to the redemptive promise made back in Genesis 3:15—the promise of the final defeat of God and humankinds’ cosmic foe, the serpent/Satan, and the restoration of God’s sholom. Sin and Satan’s defeat must come to pass, but we know nothing about how, what methods, what this will look like, or when it will be accomplished. All we know is that a future offspring is coming.
WHAT IS TO COME
What follows in the next chapters of Genesis and continuing all the way through till very last book of the Bible, is the story of God defeating His cosmic enemy Satan, defeating the power over humankind’s sin, and restoring His beloved creation back to His original intention of sholom.
It is not till Genesis 12 that we begin to be able to see how God is going to accomplish this. And as a spoiler alert—God would be selecting one person of faith, from the faithful descendants of Noah and Adam and Eve, to build a unique nation of faith. Through this nation God would bring His promised offspring that would defeat Satan, His evil kingdom, and bring freedom from sin and restoration to the world. This would all start in chapter 12 with the calling of a man named Abram (later called Abraham).
Abraham’s family is far away from Eden, about as far away East from Eden as the Bible’s geographic land narrative covers—Ur of the Chaldeans. The message is clear: Abraham’s family couldn’t be any father from God and His perfect Eden that stood in the West.
Therefore, what is the first thing that God speak to Abram? God calls him westward, back toward Eden, back to His sholom, and back to full relationship with him!
The calling of Abraham inaugurates a beautiful, new story in the Bible that carries the promise of God’s redemptive seed all the way through into fruition in Jesus of Nazareth. It would be a long and painful journey, but victory over evil would one day be put to death for eternity.
I set out on this journey with the purpose to help us to better understand who God is, to better understand His relationship to us, and use these eleven chapters to bring greater Christ-like fruit in our lives. I specifically chose to draw life from the meta-narrative, God’s ultimate, practical, and applicational story to us, rather than claims of inerrancy or scientific accuracy of the text.
While there may be a space in Christianity for those discussions to play out, we must not let the intersection of the literal and figurative argument bypass the message that God ultimately wants us to understand from the text. That message can be broken down into three areas: God, ourselves, and the world.
- GENESIS 1-11’s message about GOD:
We know nothing about the god who first shows up, “in the beginning”, creating the heaven and Earth in Genesis 1:1. Just that statement alone causes one to pause at the vast and unfathomable depth that “in the beginning” could even mean to us and to a being/force that exists on an eternal plain.
What we see from these chapters is that the God of Genesis 1-11 is different from the gods of the ANE. He is relational and wants to/can be known. He (or just as easily She since this god assumes an asexual form) has great power as witnessed in His creation of the universe. However, the text does not portray this God as a being that uses His omnipotence to force His creation into becoming what He wants. Humans are created with purpose, potential, and direction. But the path they choose is completely up to them. Divine power is reserved as a mechanism to enable, encourage, and persuade, but not to dominate or to coerce. God creates out of love with the purpose to co-labor with His partners in creation, not to use them as pawns, robots, or servants to further His own agendas. The gift of free will creates a real give and take relationship between humankind and the divine—but free will exercised in a domain where God limits His omnipotence also includes risk.
We know of God’s great power and loving intentions as seen in the first two chapters with the creation story, and we learn about His resilient faithfulness to His people as they faulter, abuse His grace, and walk away from Him.
God always has humankinds’ best interests in mind. He desires to see them operating at a level of love and peace equal to His own nature. He grants humankind freewill and ability to make their own decisions freely as they learn about Him. And even when they make choices outside of His sholom He remains with them to the greatest extent that they allow him access.
Human choices bring sin and devastating results to God’s sholom. But rather than abandon them due to their sins, His presence remains steadfast, and He works with them to move them closer to His sholom and redemption.
- GENESIS 1-11’s message about OURSELVES:
We are beloved creatures of God’s creation. He has intimately made us with purpose and intention. God wants to dwell and be among us even when we don’t act righteously before Him. Even when we try to walk away from God, He will pursue us.
Our creator has bestowed upon us immeasurable value and worth. He has also bestowed upon us great responsibility and autonomy. Our decisions matter. They made a distinct impact on the earth and its community. Aligning ourselves with God’s kingdom brings sholom. Giving into our sinful nature brings death and destruction.
Sin has corrupted humankind’s good nature. Self-centeredness and self-preservation have led to an earth that does not represent God’s sholom. We have become enslaved to sin. We are not able to defeat it in our own power. We are an utterly sinful people. Yet God’s love abounds to us, and He eagerly waits for the time when we will be free once again from the bondage of slavery, free from our own self-interests and independent attempts of sustainability, so we can live out a reality that is unified with our Creator.
- GENESIS 1-11’s message about THE WORLD:
God is not alone in the universe. The text does not tell us of the origins of God’s enemies, but we know that there are cosmic forces of wickedness opposed to God who are constantly threatening God’s sholom. The world is subject to their influence and their power—including human beings.
All hope in breaking free from these powers is on God’s offspring—the offspring will overcome the Devil. The world will eventually be restored to God’s sholom. But until then there will be an ongoing battle for dominion and control over the earth.
Despite Satan’s power, the world is subject to what humans make of it. Humans have great power in influencing what direction the earth takes. We can minimize the effects of the evil cosmic forces by aligning ourselves toward God’s sholom. We can also maximize the destructive effects of sin by giving into it and the deceptive powers of the Enemy.
Genesis 1-11 is a powerful exposition to the grand Biblical story of redemption from sin, destruction of Satan’s power, and the coming restoration of all things. Genesis 1-11 can sidetrack us if we are lured into spending time on settling arguments concerning literal/historical/scientific accuracy of narrative.
These stories contain life-changing insights into the divine story between God and humankind regardless of what scientific view one comes from. I believe it is possible to table the objections regarding evolution, the existence of demonic half-breeds, and the long Genesis-style lifespans and talk about what the text speaks to issues concerning the heart, rather than the head.
Let us abandon evangelism techniques that require converts to assert that all the answers to science and the natural world are contained in the Bible. Let us abandon evangelism techniques that are aimed at proving the Bible’s literal accuracy and instead focus on the transformation of one’s heart to the redemptive work of the love of God through the gospel of Jesus Christ. Ministries that are brave enough to go out into a post-modern world without entangling themselves in “foolish controversies, genealogies, dissensions, and quarrels about the law, [that] are unprofitable and worthless” (Titus 3:9) are going to reach hearts in powerful and transcendent ways. Ministry to the heart will always trump ministry to the head.
This going to look quite different than how many ministries have wielded the gospel—and I look forward to that day!
*As always, I’d love to hear what’s on your mind so please drop your thoughts in the comment section below!
[…] As we read the subsequent chapters through Genesis chapter 11, our Sunday school memories revive with the stories of Cain and Able, Noah and the flood, and the Tower of Babel (For deeper look at these first eleven chapters you can visit my blog post, A Summary of Genesis chapters 1-11). […]
[…] of the story of the Old Testament. What we saw was that except for the expositional chapters of Genesis 1-11, the surface-level story of the Old Testament is a chronology of the rise, fall, and partial […]