Tag Archives: Genesis

Favorite Genesis Commentaries

Favorite Genesis Commentaries

Last year I intended to begin a series of posts on my favorite biblical commentaries. I began with a post on my favorite commentaries from 1&2 Samuel (click here), but unfortunately I have not taken the time to continue this series until now. Below I list some of my favorite Genesis commentaries. But before proceeding to the list below I’d like to explain a little about my selection of commentaries for biblical books. As Michael Heiser explains in his mobile ed course from Logos, Introducing Biblical Interpretation, there are 3 different kinds of commentaries: 1. Devotional or Popular (a one volume commentary with very general info);  2. Expositional (more specific, English based, dealing with some textual issues); and 3. Scholarly (based on research in the original languages, with more indepth discussion of the various issues raised by a text). Generally, my commentary selections come from category 3 because I have found these kinds of commentaries to be the most insightful and beneficial. Sometimes a selection may also come from category 2. Although devotional commentaries are a great resource for getting some basics and for inspiration, my focus is on those commentaries that give a deeper insight into the text. Following the lead of my previous article on Samuel commentaries, I will list my 5 favorite Genesis commentaries, although this time I have listed them in the order of my preference from 5 to 1.

This Genesis commentary is available at Amazon USA / UK
This Genesis commentary is available at Amazon USA / UK

5. James McKeown, Genesis, The Two Horizons Old Testament Commentary, (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 2008), 398 pp.

What I like about the Two Horizons Commentary format is that the first part of the book focuses on the commentary proper while the second half of the book treats important theological topics raised by the biblical book under discussion. The commentary on Genesis itself in the first part of this book is only 193 pages. My first reaction was that this was a thin treatment of a biblical book with 50 chapters! However, McKeown doesn’t waste any space and does an excellent job of focusing on the main points of the text. The second half of the book greatly enriches the commentary portion and allows McKeown extra space to focus on important topics in Genesis. McKeown breaks his treatment down into 3 parts: 1) Theological Message of the Book; 2) Genesis and Theology Today; and 3) Genesis and Biblical Theology. Under “Theological Message of the Book,” McKeown devotes 100 pages to the important themes of Genesis. His opening discussion concerns “Main Unifying Themes,” of which he sees descendants (the theme of the seed), blessing (or relationship with God), and land as the key themes of Genesis. McKeown states that, “The theme of descendants is the foundational or key theme, since the others, blessing and land, can only be recognized by their relational function to those who benefit from them–the descendants” (p. 197). In Part 2: “Genesis and Theology Today McKeown examines the various questions regarding Genesis and Science (Creationist and other approaches, the Day/Age theory, etc.). Part 3: “Genesis and Biblical Theology,” examines the influence of Genesis (including quotes, allusions, and ideas) on the rest of the biblical canon. If someone was looking for an insightful, but shorter treatment of the Book of Genesis, this is a commentary I would definitely recommend.

This Genesis commentary is available at Amazon USA / UK
This Genesis commentary is available at Amazon USA / UK

4. Bruce K. Waltke, Genesis: A Commentary (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2001), 656 pp.

One of the greatest strengths of this Genesis commentary by Waltke, is also one of its weaknesses. Waltke pays great attention to the structure of the Book of Genesis. He believes it is an intricately woven set of concentric patterns (some would say chiastic patterns). Although Waltke really opened my eyes to the literary beauty of the Book of Genesis, and taught me to look at it in a way I had not before, many would argue that at least some of his concentric patterns are forced. Nevertheless, I appreciate the fact that his commentary follows the outline of the Book of Genesis by using the “these are the generations of” (Hebrew: toledoth) formula. A lot of the introductory material is designed to familiarize the reader with various literary techniques that can be found in the Book of Genesis. Things such as key word, contrast and comparison, foreshadowing, and inclusion, to name a few. Besides a commentary section, Waltke has many other useful ways in which he examines the passage. He summarizes the theme of each “book” (or toledoth), provides an outline, does a literary analysis showing the structure, summarizes the theology and adds other helpful discussions. For example, in “Book 2,” (Gen. 5:1-6:8), Waltke provides helpful discussions on genealogical structure and the use of numbers. While one may not agree with all of Waltke’s conclusions, this Genesis commentary is packed full of information and insight, and presents a very illuminating way of looking at the Book of Genesis.

Volume 1 of Hamilton's 2 volume Genesis commentary, available at Amazon USA / UK
Volume 1 of Hamilton’s 2 volume Genesis commentary, available at Amazon USA / UK

3. Victor P. Hamilton, The Book of Genesis, The New International Commentary on the Old Testament, vols. 1&2 (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 1990, 1995), 522 & 774 pp. respectively

The New International Commentary on the Old Testament (NICOT) series is simply one of the best commentary series out there (its companion on the New Testament is also excellent). If you’re looking for high quality evangelical scholarship, this series is hard to beat. Hamilton certainly upholds this standard in his excellent 2 volume Genesis commentary. Hamilton begins in volume 1 with a 100-page introduction which concludes with a whopping 25 page bibliography! In the Introduction, Hamilton discusses such topics as the structure, composition, theology, and canonicity of Genesis, as well as others. Unlike the other two commentaries mentioned above, the NICOT includes a translation by the author from the original Hebrew. Thus each section begins with this fresh translation and any footnotes the author deems necessary in explaining the Hebrew text and his translation of it. A verse by verse commentary follows. Each section (usually following chapter divisions) concludes with a helpful section entitled: “New Testament Appropriation.” This section looks at NT quotes from Genesis or the NT’s appropriation (hence the title) of certain concepts from Genesis (e.g., the image of God). As one might expect from a commentary that is approximately 1300 pages, Hamilton’s commentary patiently discusses significant problems in Genesis interpretation (e.g., who are the “sons of God?”) and provides a lot of wonderful insights.

Wenham's 2 volume Genesis commentary is available at Amazon USA / UK
Wenham’s 2 volume Genesis commentary is available at Amazon USA / UK

2. Gordon J. Wenham, Genesis, Word Biblical Commentary, 2 vols. (Waco: Word Books, 1987, 1994), 353 & 517 pp. respectively

For those of you who read any of my reviews, you may be aware that Gordon J. Wenham is a favorite author of mine (see my review of Exploring the Old Testament: Pentateuch, by Wenham). This is actually my favourite Genesis commentary, but my reason for putting it at number 2 will be discussed below under number 1. Wenham spends more than half of his introduction discussing “Genesis in Recent Research,” which involves the authorship and composition of Genesis. It includes a look at the documentary hypothesis (JEDP) and the “New Literary Criticism” approach. Wenham argues for the unity of many of the Genesis narratives and concludes that the most likely scenario for Genesis is that it was written by one author whom he designates as “J” (using the old terminology) somewhere between 1250 – 950 B.C., with a few late editorial updates (e.g., “Ur of the Chaldeans”–Gen. 15:7). Wenham sums up his discussion of the theology of Genesis by stating “If the message of Genesis is essentially one of redemption, Gen. 3-11 explains why man needs salvation and what he needs to be saved from” (p. lii). For those who are unfamiliar with the format used by Word Biblical Commentary, each section contains the following: 1) an original translation of the Hebrew text by the author; 2) notes on the translation itself; 3) comments on the form, structure, and setting of the passage under consideration; 4) a comment section (this is the verse by verse commentary); and 5) an explanation section which sums up the meaning of the text and seeks modern-day application. Each section also includes a detailed bibliography. One of the strongest aspects of Wenham’s commentary, in my opinion, is his analysis of the structure and flow of the narrative in Genesis. While this is more commonplace in commentaries today, Wenham’s Genesis commentary was among the pioneering efforts of the New Literary Criticism approach. The careful reader will be greatly rewarded working his or her way through this excellent commentary.

This 2-volume Genesis commentary by Mathews is available at Amazon USA / UK
This 2-volume Genesis commentary by Mathews is available at Amazon USA / UK

1. Kenneth A. Mathews, Genesis, The New American Commentary, 2 vols. (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1996, 2005), 528, 960 pp. respectively

My reason for giving the nod to Mathew’s commentary on Genesis over Wenham’s is because Mathews has the benefit of reaping the insights of Wenham, Hamilton, and many other Genesis commentators before him. If you could only buy one Genesis commentary, this is the one I would recommend because of the great synthesis of material that it contains. This is not to say that Mathews does not offer his own contributions to understanding the text of Genesis, but only to affirm that he has greatly benefitted from the work of others before him. The sheer size of this commentary, nearly 1500 pages, suggests its thoroughness (at least as far as can be expected on any one book of the Bible). Mathews excellent 90 page introduction in volume 1 only covers that volume (which treats Gen. 1:1-11:26). In volume 2, Mathews has another 60 pages of introductory material before beginning the commentary on Genesis 11:27-50:26. Mathew’s favors a literary approach, and this is one of the first things he discusses in the Introduction of volume 1. The stated purpose of the New American Commentary series by the editors includes “illuminating both the historical meaning and contemporary significance of Holy Scripture” (Editors’ Preface) and focuses on two concerns: 1) how each section of a book fits together; and 2) a theological exegesis which provides practical, applicable exposition. The NIV translation is used throughout the commentary with the author’s comments on the Hebrew text when necessary. Each section begins with an outline of the passage under consideration followed by introductory comments, commentary on the verses themselves. Theology and application is interwoven in the commentary and at points the commentary is punctuated by “Excurses” on important topics. Mathews demonstrates a mastery of the material and no important discussion is omitted. This commentary is the most comprehensive commentary on Genesis that I have come across. It should definitely be a part of any Christian’s library who desires to be a student of the Word.

There are, of course, many other commentaries on the Book of Genesis worthy of reading. Those mentioned above are simply my favorites. Honorable mention should also be given to Umberto Cassuto’s 2- volume Genesis commentary, Walter Brueggemann’s Genesis commentary in the Interpretation series, and Gerhard Von Rad’s Genesis commentary in the Old Testament Library series. For a popular treatment of Genesis that is based on scholarly research (but reads as if the author is telling you about his discoveries in Genesis), one should consult Genesis: The Story We Haven’t Heard by Paul Borgman. By the way, Borgman is the author of David, Saul, & God, previously reviewed by me at the following link (click here).

As the first book of the Bible, and as the book that provides the foundation for all the rest, I would greatly encourage you to study the book of Genesis. I am confident that studying it with one or more of the commentaries above by your side would be a blessing and greatly enhance your knowledge and understanding of Genesis. For an overview of the main theme of Genesis see my article: The Theme of the Book of Genesis.

Encountering the Book of Genesis: Book Review

Encountering the Book of Genesis: Book Review

Bill T. Arnold, Encountering the Book of Genesis (Baker Academic, 2003), 234 pp.

Encountering the Book of Genesis: Goals

Encountering the Book of Genesis is available at Amazon USA / UK
Encountering the Book of Genesis is available at Amazon USA / UK

Encountering the Book of Genesis is part of the Encountering Biblical Studies (EBS) series. According to the editors, the goals of the EBS series include 5 intellectual goals and 5 attitudinal goals. The intellectual goals include: 1) present the factual content of each OT book; 2) introduce historical, geographical, and cultural backgrounds; 3)outline primary hermeneutical principles; 4) touch on critical issues (why some people read the Bible differently); and 5) substantiate the Christian faith. The attitudinal goals are a unique feature of the EBS series and include: 1) to make the Bible a part of students’ lives; 2) instill in students a love for the Scriptures; 3) to make them better people; 4) to enhance their piety; and 5) to stimulate their love for God. The attitudinal goals, along with intellectual goal number 5 (substantiate the Christian faith) make this series unabashedly evangelical in the truest sense of the word (seeking to share the gospel with a view to transforming lives). The goals also make it obvious that the focus of this series is on students. In fact, the publisher’s preface states that “this Genesis volume is intended primarily for upper-level collegians” (p. 13). This should not discourage any serious Bible student from picking up this book however. Although at times there is some “upper-level” collegiate language, the book is eminently readable and full of good information for anyone wanting to explore the main messages and issues concerning the Book of Genesis.

Encountering the Book of Genesis: The Structure

Bill T. Arnold is the author of Encountering the Book of Genesis. He is Paul S. Amos Professor of Old Testament Interpretation at Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Kentucky
Bill T. Arnold is the author of Encountering the Book of Genesis. He is Paul S. Amos Professor of Old Testament Interpretation at Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Kentucky

Arnold breaks his treatment of the Book of Genesis into 5 different parts. “Part 1: Encountering God’s Creation” looks at the so-called Primeval history found in Genesis 1-11. “Part 2: Encountering Abraham: God’s Faithful Servant,” treats Genesis 12-25. “Part 3: Encountering Jacob: God’s Troubled Servant” looks at Genesis 25-36. “Part 4: Encountering Joseph: God’s Model Servant” examines the rest of Genesis (chapters 37-50). “Part 5: Encountering the Authorship of Genesis,” completes the book by reviewing and evaluating the evidence on the authorship of Genesis. This includes everything from examining and evaluating the evidence for Mosaic authorship to surveying the history of the documentary hypothesis. A final concluding section surveys the story of Genesis and shows Genesis’s part in the canon of Scripture, especially as it relates to the Pentateuch (entitled: “From the Patriarchs to Moses”) and the rest of Scripture, including the New Testament (entitled: “From Moses to Jesus”). In terms of his actual commentary on the sections of Genesis, Arnold follows the toledoth (“these are the generations of…”) formula, which is the natural outline of the Book of Genesis itself.

Encountering the Book of Genesis: The Content

Each chapter of Encountering the Book of Genesis begins with an overview of what the student can expect to learn (laid out in terms of an “Outline” of the biblical text, and “Objectives”–what the student should know after reading the chapter). Similarly, each chapter ends with a set of study questions. Unlike some books with study questions, these questions are actually helpful in making the student think about the material covered in the chapter. By answering the study questions, the student can be confident that he or she has achieved the goals announced in the “Objectives” section at the beginning of the chapter.

Because Encountering the Book of Genesis is intended to be a student textbook, each section not only includes a commentary on the passage under consideration, it also includes photos, maps, charts, tables, and special text boxes that deal with specific topics. This layout has many features in common with the “Teach the Text” series reviewed elsewhere on this blog (see my review on the Samuel commentary in this series, including the Logos version which can be found here). The text boxes are often quite interesting. Some of the topics include: “Did God Use Evolution to Create the World?” (p. 27); “Life-Spans of the Pre-Flood Family of Adam” (p. 56); “Polygamy in the Bible” (p. 95); and “Levirate Marriage in the Old Testament (p. 150), to name only a few.

What I Didn’t Like About Encountering the Book of Genesis

don't likeWhile it is a great idea to include photos, maps, charts, etc., the black and white presentation of the Encountering Biblical Studies series is very disappointing. In most cases the black and white photos are so indistinct that they are not helpful whatsoever. The colorful cover of Encountering the Book of Genesis is very appealing, but sets you up for a major disappointment when you open the book. Next to the photos, some of the maps that are included are unhelpful. For example, under a section entitled, “Who Were Israel’s Neighbors?” (p. 44) a black and white map of the ancient Near East is included–so far so good–but the map doesn’t detail the names or places of any of Israel’s neighbors! I also didn’t find the map of the much-disputed location of Sodom and Gomorrah very helpful (p. 103). To be fair, however, many of the other maps included are useful. Another small irritant is the use of endnotes rather than footnotes. Considering that the editors didn’t want to muck up the format by having footnotes at the bottom of the page, this is understandable, nevertheless, for those of us who like to look at the footnotes, it is a constant nuisance. My final complaint about this volume concerns the binding. I have the paperback version of Encountering the Book of Genesis and I found it to be very unwieldy. The book is very stiff and difficult to handle when turning from page to page. As books become used and the binding relaxes, they can often be opened to a particular page without the entire book folding back in on itself. Such is not the case with this book. You must hold it open with two hands or give up trying to read a page. This feature is another reason why the use of endnotes is annoying.

What I Did Like About Encountering the Book of Genesis

i.1.s-facebook-like-button-first-amendmentWhat did I like about Encountering the Book of Genesis? Absolutely everything except what I have noted above. The text is well written and full of good information, especially for the beginning student of Genesis. Don’t let the 234 pages fool you; there is a lot of information packed into this volume! For one thing, the book is larger than usual, measuring 17.1 x 1.4 x 24.8 cm (Americans break out your measurement converters!), and consisting of two columns of text per page. Arnold is well-read. He draws from the best material available on the Book of Genesis and the ancient Near East and does a great job of distilling it for the student. He clearly communicates the main themes of Genesis (see my article, “The Theme of Genesis” for what these are), and deals with all the major issues pertaining to it. The bibliography is excellent and there is also a glossary to help the student with unfamiliar terms.

Besides his insightful comments on the text, Arnold has a couple of chapters that focus on helping the reader to gain the bigger picture of the ancient Near Eastern context of Genesis. In Chapter 3 “What’s Wrong with This Picture?” (pp. 43-53), Arnold looks at Israel’s neighbors, ancient Near Eastern parallels to Genesis 1 and 2-4, as well as ancient views (including Israel’s) of the nature and makeup of the universe. In the chapter on the Flood story, he also looks at ancient Near Eastern parallels to the Flood (pp. 59-61). In Chapter 6 “Tracking Abram and His Family” (pp. 77-88), Arnold looks at the geography of the ancient Near East, deals with questions related to the historicity of Abram, introduces the student to the scholarly breakdown of ancient archaeological periods (Early Bronze, Middle Bronze, etc.), and discusses the nature of the religion of the Patriarchs. In my opinion, Arnold’s discussion of the religion of the Patriarchs (which he discusses in several places throughout the text), and its differences with the later Mosaic Period, should prove to be insightful to beginning students of Genesis. While some might call Arnold a bit “preachy” I would prefer the word “pastoral.” However one looks at his application of biblical truths (personally I liked it), he admirably achieves one of the stated goals of the EBS series.

Evaluation of Encountering the Book of Genesis

I suppose the highest personal praise I can give this book is that I plan on using it as a foundational textbook for my class on Genesis. The books in the EBS series are intended to be textbooks, and Encountering the Book of Genesis has certainly achieved that goal. This book deals with all of the major themes and issues related to the Book of Genesis, while at the same time doing it in a concise way. The text boxes, tables, charts, as well as some of the maps, also go a long way in visually orienting the student for a greater learning experience. I recommend Encountering the Book of Genesis, not only to “upper-level collegians,” but to all who are interested in learning more about the Book of Genesis, while also being personally challenged to grow in their relationship with the Lord.

Buy Encountering the Book of Genesis at Amazon USA / UK

  • Series: Encountering Biblical Studies
  • Paperback: 234 pages
  • Publisher: Baker Academic (January 1, 2003)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0801026385
  • ISBN-13: 978-0801026386

(Special thanks to SPCK for sending me this copy of Encountering the Book of Genesis, in exchange for a fair and unbiased review!)

The Theme of the Book of Genesis

The Theme of the Book of Genesis

It's important to get the big picture.
It’s important to get the big picture.

Whenever possible, I like to summarize a biblical book in one statement. This is much harder than it might seem, and sometimes I am unsuccessful in coming up with a single statement. While it might seem like an oversimplification to summarize a book of the Bible in one sentence, it is helpful when it comes to gaining the “Big Picture.” In my experience, many people do not know how to connect the dots of a book in order to see the big picture. Some study books of the Bible without ever considering how the various things said fit together. For example, the Book of Genesis contains some of the most well-known stories in the world. Stories such as the Creation, the Flood, the tower of Babel, Abraham’s offering up Isaac, and Joseph’s “rags to riches” story in Egypt, are told in every Sunday School class and have even frequently appeared on the silver screen. These stories are often told in isolation to one another and some readers never stop to consider what connections they share. So while someone might listen to a lesson on Joseph and learn about God’s faithfulness in the midst of adversity, they don’t ask what that has to do with the story of Creation, or Abraham, which are also recorded in the Book of Genesis. In other words, many people fail to grasp the big picture of a biblical book. As the old saying goes, “They can’t see the forest for the trees.”

Bible study that never looks at the big picture can lead to more questions than answers!
Bible study that never looks at the big picture can lead to more questions than answers!

The failure to think in terms of the overall message of a book of the Bible is often the result of preaching that one Sunday is in the Gospel of John, and the next Sunday is somewhere in Isaiah. Topical preaching can be very valuable and certainly has its place, but some Bible teachers and preachers often fail to teach the Word verse-by-verse and chapter-by-chapter. In other words, many Christians have not had good Bible study habits modelled for them. As a result, many people in the church are unfamiliar with how to study the Bible and how to hear the messages that are being proclaimed in It. In this article I will take a look at the first book of the Bible, the Book of Genesis, and attempt to, not only summarize it’s message in one statement, but show you how I arrived at that summary statement.

Key Words in the Book of Genesis

Biblical writers repeat key words and ideas!
Biblical writers repeat key words and ideas!

Key words are an important way of discovering the meaning of a biblical text, or even a whole book. We all know that “repetition is the first law of learning.” If a particular point is important, a writer or speaker will repeat it several times to make sure the reader, or audience catches its significance. The most frequently repeated word in the Book of Genesis is the word “bless.” The words “bless,” “blessing,” etc. occur a total of 88 times. Not only is “bless” the most frequently occurring word in the Book of Genesis (excluding God and God’s name), there is no other book of the Bible in which it occurs more. This observation is a clue that blessing is an important theme in the book. There are several helpful tools that help identify key words. First, a good concordance, second, a good bible software program (e.g., Logos Bible Software), and third, a good Bible commentary (such as Gordon Wenham’s commentary on Genesis in the Word Biblical Commentary series).

Be fruitful and multiply is the first blessing mentioned in Genesis.
Be fruitful and multiply is the first blessing mentioned in the Book of Genesis.

Since we have discovered that blessing is the most frequently occurring word in the Book of Genesis, the next step involves finding out what blessing means in Genesis. Once again a concordance is all that’s necessary, although a good Bible Word Study Book is also helpful. By using a concordance, I can see the various ideas associated with blessing in Genesis. The first thing I notice is that blessing is frequently connected with the gift of life. The first two occurrences of “bless” in Genesis are connected with the statement: “Be fruitful and multiply” (Gen. 1:22, 28). Not only are living creatures blessed with the ability to reproduce, but I also notice that the word “blessing” only begins to appear once life is created! These observations suggest that blessing and life are closely tied together in the Book of Genesis. As I search for other connections, I notice that blessing is also connected with possessions (Gen. 13:2), protection (as when Abram lies about his wife and he and Sarah are protected by God), the gift of land, descendants, and a great name (Gen. 12:2-3); fertility in the midst of drought (Gen. 26:12), and saving others from starvation (Gen. 41:55-57), plus much more! I begin to notice that even when the word “bless” doesn’t specifically occur, the idea of blessing is still present in many stories.

Offspring in the Book of Genesis

The second most repeated word in the Book of Genesis is "seed" or "offspring"
The second most repeated word in the Book of Genesis is “seed” or “offspring”

When I begin to look for the second-most repeated word in Genesis, I find that it is the word “seed” or “offspring.” The word “offspring” occurs 59 times in Genesis. This theme of offspring further confirms what I’ve learned about the connection between blessing and life. Already, a few key ideas are beginning to take shape on my understanding of Genesis. Once I begin to recognize the connection between blessing and life (or offspring), the genealogies of Genesis also take on a new depth of meaning. No longer do I simply view them as a long list of boring hard-to-pronounce names, but I begin to see how they are intimately connected to this theme of blessing and life. The genealogies literally show God’s blessing at work. Through them we experience human beings being “fruitful and multiplying!”

I am now beginning to form a basic understanding of the main theme of Genesis. It involves God’s desire to bless. That blessing includes many things (protection, deliverance, possessions, etc.), but ultimately the blessing is about life. God’s blessing in chapter 1 of Genesis resulted in a world that was “indeed very good” (Gen. 1:31). Sin ruined God’s good world and introduced the opposite of blessing, curse (Gen. 3:14, 17), and with curse also came death (Gen. 2:17; 5:5). But Genesis teaches me that God isn’t content with a world that has been plunged into a cycle of sin, curse, and death. Therefore, God continues to bless. In fact, God promises that human beings will triumph over the curse through the “seed” of the woman (Gen. 3:15). This is the first messianic promise in the Bible, and it is why there is such a focus on “seed” (offspring) in the Book of Genesis. The genealogies follow a pattern of tracing the promised seed, and so we see another reason for their significance. Although I’ve identified a key ingredient in attempting to summarize the message of Genesis, there is still another important theme I need to account for.

God’s Promises to the Patriarchs in the Book of Genesis

God's promises to Abraham continue the theme of blessing and offspring in the Book of Genesis.
God’s promises to Abraham continue the theme of blessing and offspring in the Book of Genesis.

As I follow the story of God’s blessing in Genesis, and see it constantly disrupted by sin, I come to the story of Abraham. God’s call of Abraham is clearly an important dividing point in the Book of Genesis. From this point on, God begins to work with a specific family: Abraham and his descendants. The reason for this is not because God has given up on the rest of mankind, but because He plans to use Abraham to bring blessing to all the nations of the earth (Gen. 12:3; 18:18; 22:18). In fact, through the promises given to Abraham, I recognize the occurrence of my two key words in God’s statement: “In your seed all the nations of the earth shall be blessed” (Gen. 22:18). Therefore, the promises given to Abraham are clearly an important part of the theme that God desires to bless by bringing life. Not only do I continue to see the key words “bless” and “offspring” throughout the rest of Genesis, but I now find the recurring theme of “promise.” This key idea is not found in the recurrence of the word “promise” but in the actions of God in the story. God begins by making certain promises to Abraham, which include the blessings of land and descendants, but also the promise to bless all nations through Abraham’s seed. These blessings are repeated a number of times to each generation of Abraham’s family. We can trace them, not only in Abraham’s life, but also in the lives of his son Isaac (e.g., Gen. 26:3-4, 24), and grandson Jacob (e.g., Gen. 28:3-4, 14). The apostle Paul clearly saw this theme of promise in the story of Abraham and he writes about it a number of times (e.g., Rom. 4:13-14; Gal. 3:16-18–note that Paul also uses the key word “seed” in both of these passages!).

Although there are other sub-themes and motifs used in Genesis to communicate the message (and I will examine some of these in a future article), we have now reached a point where we can formulate our sentence. If I had to sum up the message of Genesis in one sentence (in fact, 6 words) it would be: God’s Promise of Blessing and Life. I believe this statement captures the big picture. In this statement we have the key themes of blessing, life, and promise, and the One who is behind it all.

I hope this exercise has not only given you the big picture of Genesis, but that it has also suggested some fruitful ways to go about getting at the message of a biblical book. For other articles that explore certain aspects of the message of Genesis please see my series on “Violence in the Old Testament” parts 4, 5, and 6. For articles that explore other tips on studying the Bible please see my series, “Helpful Suggestions for Bible Study” of which this article is a part.

“You Reap What You Sow”: Violence in the Old Testament Part 6

“You Reap What You Sow”: Violence in the Old Testament Part 6

What-You-Sow-Is-What-You-ReapIn my last article I looked at the nature of God and sin as a reason for the need of judgment (I would encourage you to read or reread that article before continuing, as many of the ideas presented there are important for the discussion here). In this article I will provide a second reason for judgment. The easiest way to sum up this response is with the biblical teaching “You reap what you sow” (e.g., 1 Kgs. 2:32; Hos. 8:7; Gal. 6:8). Although many passages declare that God brings judgment on wicked human beings, the Bible also teaches that sinful people experience the consequences of their own choices, bringing judgment on themselves. Perhaps one of the clearest statements of this principle is found in Psalm 7:14-16: “Behold the wicked brings forth iniquity; Yes, he conceives trouble and brings forth falsehood. He made a pit and dug it out, and has fallen into the ditch which he made. His trouble shall return upon his own head, and his violent dealing shall come down on his own crown” (NKJV).

Proverbs, Esther and the Theme “You Reap What You Sow”

Previously I noted that, since God is the Author and Giver of life, any choice that excludes God is a choice of death. If this logic is pursued, then it becomes clear that we bring judgment on ourselves by making the wrong choices. This idea is stated clearly throughout the Book of Proverbs. One of the best examples concerns the speech of Lady Wisdom in chapter 8. In Proverbs 8, Wisdom claims to have been with the Lord before the creation of the world, as well as present at creation (Prov.. 8:22-31). Everything said in these verses parallels what we previously established about God’s Word (see Part 5 of this series). It is not surprising then when Wisdom states, “For whoever finds me finds life, and obtains favor from the Lord; but he who sins against me wrongs his own soul; all those who hate me love death” (Prov. 8:35-36–italics are mine for emphasis).

Haman hanged on his own gallows. Courtesy of the Digital Image Archive, Pitts Theology Library, Candler School of Theology, Emory University
Haman hanged on his own gallows. Courtesy of the Digital Image Archive, Pitts Theology Library, Candler School of Theology, Emory University

Stories in the Old Testament frequently illustrate this theme. In fact, some of the acts of violence which are recorded are not acts sanctioned by God, and this violence results in the culprit(s) experiencing the principle: “You reap what you sow.” The story of Haman, recorded in the book of Esther, is an example of this. Haman hated a man named Mordecai, the uncle of Queen Esther, because Mordecai would not bow down before him and show him the proper respect he thought he deserved (Esth. 3:1-6). As a result, Haman planned to have Mordecai hung on the gallows he had constructed, as well as have the Jewish people massacred (Esth. 3:8-15; 5:14). In the end Haman’s plan was uncovered and he was hanged on his own gallows (Esth. 7:4-10).

The Flood and the Theme “You Reap What You Sow”

The Flood resembles the statement in Gen. 1:2
The Flood resembles the statement in Gen. 1:2

Although the story of the Flood is portrayed in Genesis as God’s judgment on His creation (Gen. 6:7), there is another sense in which humans bring judgment upon themselves. Last time we noticed that Genesis 1 teaches that the Word of God created structure and order out of what was “formlessness and void” (Gen. 1:2) resulting in a good creation (Gen. 1:31). We also noted that sin is a disregard of God’s Word which results in crossing over, or destruction of, the good boundaries He has put in place. The example of a house with walls, doors, and structural beams was used as an analogy to illustrate that order and structure are necessary for a quality existence. To commit sin is similar to knocking out the beams and walls that hold the structure in place. When enough damage is done, the roof caves in. The story of the Flood is told similarly.
Genesis 6:1-6 describes the growth of sin in God’s creation until it is said, “Then the Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intent of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually” (Gen. 6:5–my emphasis). The description continues in verses 11-12 stating, “The earth also was corrupt before God, and the earth was filled with violence. So God looked upon the earth, and indeed it was corrupt; for all flesh had corrupted their way on the earth” (Gen. 6:11-12). In other words, all of the good order and structure that God had built into His original Creation had eroded away. Instead of the good quality of life that God had created, there was only violence and corruption. As a result of humans kicking out all of the God-given structure that God had put in place, the roof caved in on them and the ground gave way beneath them (Gen. 7:11). If this seems like stretching the language a bit, all one needs to do is check out the language of Genesis 7 (a good modern commentary such as Kenneth A. Mathews, “Genesis 1:-11:26” vol. 1 New American Commentary, p. 376 is also helpful). Genesis 7 purposely recalls the language of Creation in Genesis 1 using similar expressions found there (e.g., Gen. 7:14–”every beast after its kind, all cattle after their kind, every creeping thing that creeps on the earth after its kind, etc. Compare Gen. 1:24-25). The difference is that the language of the Creation story occurs in reverse order in Genesis 7 until the world returns to the formlessness and void of Genesis 1:2. The message is clear: not only has God judged His creation, human beings through their sin, have “reaped what they had sown.”
This message comes through in another way in Genesis 6. After God tells Noah in verses 11-12 that the earth is “filled with violence” and “corrupt,” He pronounces judgment on it by saying in Genesis 6:13, “for the earth is filled with violence through them; and behold I will corrupt (NKJV reads “destroy”) them with the earth.” In other words, God uses the same word to speak of destroying the earth that describes the sin of the people. There are two potential messages here: 1) God’s judgment is fair; Just as people “corrupted” the earth through sin, so He “corrupts” it in judgement; and 2) people have brought judgment down upon themselves. By using the same verb for judgment that describes peoples’ sin, the Bible is declaring, “You reap what you sow.”

When God Takes His Hand Off the Wheel

When God lets go, you reap what you sow!
When God lets go, you reap what you sow!

Another way of looking at this biblical teaching is by saying that God simply takes His hand off of the controls and allows people to experience the consequences of their actions. Again, this is much like a parent who has warned their child to no avail, and finally realizes that they will only learn by experiencing the consequences of their actions. Some will object that the consequences God allows are more severe than what a parent would allow. However, this objection fails to take into account two important factors: 1) the destructive nature of sin (which we established in the previous article leads to death); and 2) the matter of human freewill. Ultimately a parent is helpless if their child exercises free will by destroying their lives with drinking, drugs, or suicide. So it is not true that a parent would not allow their child to experience serious consequences. Sometimes they have no choice! Sin has its consequences and neither a parent or God can prevent those consequences when someone is determined to go in a deadly direction. As we previously established, departure from the God of life, results in death. If God stopped a person from making decisions that led to harmful consequences, then the atheist would complain that God is unfair for not allowing free will. If God allows free will, then He is considered a moral monster for allowing the choices that people freely make to destroy themselves and others. Either way, God cannot win!

Romans 1 and the Theme “You Reap What You Sow”

Romans 1 is an example of the principle we have been talking about. This passage is particularly important for what it teaches about the nature of free will and God’s wrath. In Romans 1:18 Paul’s discussion begins with the statement: “For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men….” When we hear the words “wrath of God” we immediately expect to read of God sending thunderbolts or other calamities to “let people have it” for disobeying Him. In fact, what Paul says, and this is repeated three times, is that “God gave them over” (Rom. 1:24, 26, 28). In other words, those who don’t want to follow God and insist on going their own way are permitted to do so. This permissiveness of God is an expression of His wrath according to Paul! God simply allows people to do what they want to do and to reap the consequences for their actions. This is then a passive way in which God’s wrath is expressed. God actually does nothing. He takes His hand off and allows us to do what we want. Since what we want has nothing to do with God, the Giver of life, then our choice leads to death (Rom. 1:18-32). This is the same message then that was taught in the Old Testament and once again it can be summed up in the statement: “You reap what you sow.”
Even though this all sounds like bad news, we must not forget the context of grace in which even God’s judgments are set (see Part 4 of this series). The good news is that God has provided a way to escape the power of sin and death (e.g., Rom. 7:24-25). God gives us the freedom to choose, for love must involve freedom of choice. However, the story of Scripture is that whenever people have chosen the path that leads to death, God has always graciously provided a way back to the path of life. That remedy is the free gift of His Son Jesus (Rom. 6:23) and it is received when we repent. Repentance means we turn from the path of death we are on, and turn back to God and the path of life He has illumined for us by His Word.
Near the beginning of this article, I mentioned that a number of the acts of violence spoken of in Scripture are not sanctioned by God. Atheists often refer to such passages claiming that the Bible endorses violence. I will take a closer look at this idea in the next installment of “Violence in the Old Testament.”

The Context of Grace: Violence in the Old Testament Part 4

The Context of Grace: Violence in the Old Testament Part 4

In my last article on Violence in the Old Testament, I noted that atheists ignore the context in which the stories of violence occur. This context is a context of grace. In particular we looked at the Conquest of Canaan, a bone of contention with nonbelievers, and we surveyed the immediate context of the Conquest found in the books of Deuteronomy and Joshua and offered some responses for those who claim the Conquest is evidence of a genocidal, xenophobic god. In this article we will widen our scope by looking at the beginning of the Conquest story which has its roots in God’s promise to give Abram the Land of Canaan.

Genesis and the Context of Grace

Call of Abram
Call of Abram

The story of God’s promise to give Abram the Land of Canaan is birthed in a context of grace. According to Genesis 12:1, God calls Abram to go “to a land that I will show you,” and proceeds to make 7 promises to him (Gen. 12:2-3). These promises are underscored by one of the keywords of Genesis: “bless.” In fact some form of the word “bless” occurs 5 times in these two verses. God’s purpose in calling Abram is summed up by the well-known promise, “And in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” Notice that this promise does not exclude the Canaanites. The promise is not “all the families of the earth” except the Canaanites! Abram and his descendants are God’s chosen vessel(s) to bring blessing to every nation. In Genesis 13:14-17, God specifically promises Abram the Land of Canaan. This promise is reiterated in Genesis 15:18-21, clearly marking out the land and peoples involved.
The obvious question is, “Perhaps this context of grace is good news for the later Israelites, or other nations, but how can the promise to give Abram and his descendants the Land of Canaan be good news for the Canaanites?” I will seek to answer this below, but before doing so, there is another important detail that needs our attention. A few verses earlier in Genesis 15 God tells Abram that neither he nor his descendants will possess Canaan immediately. In fact 400 years will pass before Canaan becomes the possession of Abram’s descendants (15:13-16)!

Election Involves Rejection

"Your descendants will be strangers in a land that is not theirs and will serve them" (Gen. 15:13)
“Your descendants will be strangers in a land that is not theirs and will serve them” (Gen. 15:13)

There are three aspects of this declaration that are important for us to consider. First is the shocking revelation that Abram’s descendants will suffer affliction and slavery in a foreign land. I doubt that this sounded like “good news” to Abram. An important biblical truth evidenced here and seen throughout Scripture is that election involves rejection. Atheists misunderstand the biblical concept of election (and so do some Christians). They accuse the God of the Old Testament of being arbitrary and showing favoritism. God’s election is likened to the negative human fallibility of favoring certain people over others due to racial prejudice or some other superficial standard. God’s choices are considered fickle and capricious. Once again, this is to remove the idea of election from its context of grace. As Genesis 12:1-3 demonstrates, God chooses some in order to bless all. Furthermore, God’s chosen are not exempt from hardship, but often endure misunderstanding and rejection. Strangely, it is through the suffering of the elect, that God not only redeems them, but others. Joseph is one example in the Old Testament (among many others), while Jesus is the supreme example of this truth (the suffering Servant of Isaiah 53). Receiving the Land of Canaan then will not be an easy journey for Abram or his descendants.

Grace Waits!

Abram builds and altar
Abram builds and altar

Second, neither Abram or his descendants will be given the land immediately. God says there will be a 400 year waiting period! This waiting period demonstrates God’s justice and recognition that the land currently belongs to the Canaanites. He will not dispossess them without providing examples of how they should live, and warnings of coming judgment. The patriarchs, although far from perfect, become a living sermon to the Canaanites of the power and faithfulness of the God of Abram, as well as setting an example of worshipping the true God. Abram constantly sets up altars to the true God wherever he goes (e.g., Gen. 12:7, 8) and worships Him publicly (this is the meaning of the expression to “call on the name of the Lord” – e.g., Gen. 13:4). This same example is followed by Isaac (Gen. 26:25) and Jacob (Gen. 35:2-3, 7). Furthermore, God’s blessing on the patriarchs, as well as His protection of them (even when they don’t deserve it!), provides evidence that He is the true God and faithfully keeps His promises (Gen. 14:19-20; 21:22-23; 26:28-29; 31:29, 42; 35:6).
ten plaguesGod’s judgments are also intended to turn people from idolatry to worship of Himself. This is not only true in the book of Genesis, it is the major reason behind the ten plagues in Egypt (along with freeing the Israelites). The constant refrain found in the plague narrative is “then you/they will know that I am the Lord (Exod. 6:7; 7:5; 8:10, 22; 9:14, 16, 29; 10:2). Through the plagues all the false gods of Egypt are revealed for what they really are, and even Pharaoh’s court magicians realize the power of God (Exod. 8:19). The judgments were necessary because people do not easily give up well-entrenched beliefs and practices even if they are false. A visible demonstration of the power of the true God was actually a gracious revelation. It was the only way to break through centuries of false worship and belief and, according to Exodus 11:3, it made an impact on the people of Egypt. Furthermore, the plagues on Egypt and the crossing of the Red Sea became another witness to Canaan and the surrounding nations that Israel’s God was the true God (Exod. 15:14-15). These events not only brought fear on the Canaanites, but as we saw last week, led to the repentance of some and the worship of the true God (Josh. 2:10-11; 9:24). Centuries later even the Philistines would recall these events and realize the power of Israel’s God (1 Sam. 4:7-8; 6:5-6). This brief survey clearly shows that the Canaanites had ample positive and negative witness for believing in Israel’s God. Therefore, when the Conquest began, they had been given plenty of time and witness.

The Context of Grace Involves Announcing Judgment in Advance

Third, the statement, “For the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet complete” (Gen. 15:16), reveals the patience and mercy of God which is attested elsewhere in Scripture. The statement reveals that the Canaanites (referred to hear as “Amorites”) were already a wicked people. Yet in spite of that, God was not willing to simply hand over the land to Abram. God would wait. Although this statement is a warning of impending judgment, it is also a statement of amazing grace and reveals a consistent quality of God’s character evidenced throughout the Bible. The point I want to emphasize here is that God always announces judgment in advance and allows the opportunity for repentance. This characteristic is not evidence for the bullying, capricious god that the atheists like to portray, but rather of a patient God who would rather see repentance than destruction.

Jonah knew the context of grace and he was none to happy about it!
Jonah knew the context of grace and he was none to happy about it!

God’s statement in Genesis 15:16 has similarities with the words he sends Jonah to proclaim to the Ninevites: “Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” (Jonah 3:4). This statement sounds like judgment is inevitable but notice two things. First, God allots a certain period of time before judgement will fall. He does not bring it unannounced. Second, as the book reveals, the reason God waits is in hope that the people will respond in repentance, which they do! (Jonah 3:6-9). As a result, God reverses His decision to judge and shows mercy (Jonah 3:10). We learn in Jonah chapter 4 that this was the real reason Jonah didn’t want to go to Nineveh. He knew how gracious God was and he quotes the words revealed to Moses long ago about God’s merciful nature (Jonah 4:2; see Exod. 34:6). The problem with Jonah was that, unlike God, he was prejudice and he wanted this hated enemy of Israel destroyed. Therefore, he didn’t want to preach a word of judgment to them because he didn’t want them to have the opportunity to repent and be saved from destruction! This story clearly illustrates the same point as the Conquest of Canaan. God does not judge people because of prejudice, but because of sin. “The iniquity of the Amorites is not yet complete” demonstrates that God’s judgment has nothing to do with ethnicity (as I established in the last article) but with sin. God’s reason for waiting 40 days or 400 years is for the purpose of giving people an opportunity to change and repent. The Canaanites who did repent (like Rahab) were saved, those who didn’t experienced a judgment that was long overdue.

A Look at the Wider Context of Grace

The potter's wheel
Jeremiah at the potter’s shop (Jer. 18:1-10)

 

This same truth is emphasized in two other prophetic texts that are important to mention. In Ezekiel 18:30-32 God pleads with Israel and says, “‘Therefore I will judge you, O house of Israel, everyone according to his ways,’ says the Lord God. ‘Repent and turn from all your transgressions, so that iniquity will not be your ruin.'” God concludes by telling Israel He finds no pleasure in anyone’s death, but desires repentance so that they might live. Notice that, although the Lord proclaims judgment, it’s repentance that He really desires. The prophet Jeremiah relates this same principle and he does it in a way that reminds us of the story of Jonah. In Jeremiah 18 the prophet visits the house of a potter and learns an important lesson from the Lord. The verses that particularly concern us here are Jeremiah 18:6-10. God tells Jeremiah that when He speaks a word of judgment, if that nation repents He will “relent of the disaster” that He thought to bring upon it (Jer. 18:8). Similarly, if God speaks a word of blessing on a nation but the people turn from Him, He will relent concerning that word of blessing (Jer. 18:10). The New Testament also confirms that God delays judgment in hopes that people will repent. 2 Peter 3:9 states, “For the Lord is not slack concerning His promise, as some count slackness, but is longsuffering toward us, not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance.” The Bible reveals a remarkable consistency in testifying to the redemptive nature behind God’s announcement and execution of judgment. Therefore the new atheists and other skeptics do a great injustice to the biblical message when they ignore the context of grace in which these words of judgment occur.
In conclusion, to be true to the biblical account, it is important to maintain the context of grace. At the heart of God’s selection of Abram (Abraham) and Israel is a desire to bless all nations. Through the positive example of worship of the true God and revelation of His will (by His Word), God seeks to draw all people to Himself. Warning of judgment, as well as the execution of judgment, is necessary when people refuse God’s gracious invitation by continuing in their sin. This is why even the Conquest of Canaan was both good news and bad news for the Canaanites. It was good news for people like Rahab, Uriah the Hittite (2 Sam. 11 – whose name means, “Yahweh is my light”), and Araunah the Jebusite (2 Sam. 24), foreigners who served the living God and were incorporated into the people of Israel. But it was bad news for those who hardened their hearts and continued in their rebellious ways. Some will object and say that it is unreasonable for God to bring judgment on people who don’t want to follow Him. Why must they receive judgment? Why can’t God just “live and let live?” We will examine these questions in our next article on Violence in the Old Testament.