Archive for the ‘Genesis’ Category

Here’s one other suggestion on the language of the first few chapters of Genesis…

Some have suggested that Genesis 1-3 (and possibly up to chapter 11) is apocalyptic in genre. It can be pushed too far but I think there’s probably an element of truth here that might be worth pursuing.


Apocalyptic is not necessarily looking to the future or the ‘end times’. An ‘apocalypse’, like the book of Revelation, is literally an unveiling – visible reality is pulled aside like a curtain and we glimpse a deeper spiritual reality. That’s what happens in Rev. – the surface layer of life, characters and events in the Roman world in the first century is peeled back and we see terrifying and wonderful deeper realities – spiritual death, demonic schemes, the wrath of God, the reign of Christ, the security of the saints.

Apocalyptic is essentially a form of visionary prophecy – a divine disclosure in the form of a vision. This is made very explicit in Rev. as the writer John reports heaven being opened and repeatedly says, “I saw”. You don’t get that in early Genesis but, when you think about it, how did Moses know this stuff about pre-history? Surely he must have had it revealed to him in some way.

Interestingly, there are a lot of connections between the first few chapters of Genesis and the last few chapters of the Bible. In both we find a creation of heaven and earth, patterns of seven, a river, the tree of life, the serpent, deception, a mark, worldwide judgment, a rainbow, the fall of Babel.

I’m aware that this is probably just opening yet another can of worms about the genre of the book of Revelation but I think it’s hard to miss that the last book of the Bible is chock full of metaphor. That’s not to say it is fantasy – it is just a different way of talking about reality. When it says, “I saw a Lamb standing as though it has been slain” – it doesn’t mean that the focus of the devotion of all creation is a  woolly animal with multiple horns and eyes. But in one sense, yes, there is a Lamb on the throne at the centre of the universe. When it talks of the “the dragon” who “stood before the woman who was about to give birth, so that when she bore her child he might devour it” – we don’t need to believe that around the manger in Bethlehem there was Mary, Joseph a few farm animals and a colossal seven-headed dragon ready to gobble up the incarnate Son of God. But in one sense, yes, the dragon was there in Herod’s palace, in the desert for 40 days, indeed throughout Jesus’ life, doing his best to devour the serpent crusher.

What does this mean for early Genesis? I’m not sure. But here are five characteristics of apocalyptic metaphor that I noticed in research on Revelation which may also to apply to early Genesis:

  1. Original rather than conventional – Original metaphors are not standardised symbols with predictable meanings (e.g. people might say that in ancient literature the symbol A always means B). Rather, these are metaphors that are surprising, puzzling, creative. The whole story of creation, Eden and fall, its characters and twists, is without any close parallels in ancient writing. We shouldn’t expect comparative religion or ancient mythology to shed light on these metaphors except sometimes by way of contrast. Original metaphors grab the attention and make you think.
  2. Open-ended rather than determinate – That is metaphors that cannot be easily or helpfully fixed as one thing or ‘translated’ into ‘normal language’ (A = B). Instead these are metaphors that live/work as metaphors, sparking all sorts of connotations and sending your mind off in various directions, opening up whole seams of meaning and significance. E.g. what about the mentions of trees, fruit and seed (both plant and human) that come at various points in Gen. 1-3? Don’t they open up all sorts of possibilities that resonate throughout the rest of Scripture?
  3. Noun-based rather than verb-focused – I.e the key metaphors are not so much in the verbs (e.g. make, desire, hear) but consist in the nouns. Noun-based metaphors seem to have a greater power to paint pictures in your mind. It’s interesting that it’s the nouns of early Genesis that really stick with you and essentially tell the story: Garden, Serpent, Tree, Fruit, Sword. In Rev. metaphors are often introduced the first time with a definite article – e.g “THE Beast” (when you’d expect the first reference to be ‘a beast’) – which seems to underline/highlight/give extra force to the metaphor. And similarly in Genesis it’s interesting to notice we are introduced to “THE tree of life” and “THE serpent”.
  4. Referent-supressing rather than referent-explicit – That is, in apocalyptic, you rarely get a mention of the visible-world ‘thing’ to which the metaphor refers. E.g. Revelation doesn’t say “The Emperor such-and-such is the Beast” it just tells you about “the beast”. You are not given A = B you are just given B. The everyday world is completely peeled away and you are just immersed in the deeper reality. This sort of metaphor is very difficult to spot because there are none of the obvious clues of metaphor and it can be read as a straightforward narrative – much as Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels was initially read by many people, and is still read often today, as simply a children’s story rather than a political and moral allegory. I’m not saying that Genesis is allegory in the same way as Gulliver’s Travels but could there be similarly referent-suppressing unflagged (i.e. unmarked, hard to notice) metaphors in there?
  5. Allusive rather than everyday – That is metaphor which is not making links within ordinary human experience (e.g. “can you see what I’m saying” where the metaphor of sight is being used) but rather metaphor which makes intertextual links with other parts of Scripture. Revelation does this all the time, making hundreds of allusions to the Old Testament. Again and again the prophet John uses an OT image or name to describe reality – Babylon, Sodom, Egypt, Jerusalem. At first sight the idea of looking for allusion in early Genesis seems a bit odd – how can you allude forward? But when we consider it was (at least in large part) written by Moses who already had in mind, if not had already written the other four books of the Torah, and furthermore that it was written by the Spirit who had the whole canon in mind, then it seems less strange. Greg Beale and others have noted a lot of connections between language in early Genesis and the way the vocabulary of Tabernacle and priesthood later in the Torah. It’s not just that Exodus etc. pick up things from Genesis, it’s more that the particular language used in Genesis describing the activity of Adam and the LORD is already priestly/tabernacle language which would be odd in a purely garden context and suggests there is allusion going on. (Beale’s talk on this is well worth listening to in full here or there’s a summary in his article here).

So what? Well the purpose of metaphor is, I would argue, more to move the heart than simply inform/puzzle the mind. The dragon in Rev. and the serpent in Genesis are supposed to impact us with the repulsive, scary reality of demonic deception. We’re supposed to long for that garden home as well as feel the heat of the sword that blocks the way. We’re supposed to feel that real tension between the attractiveness of the forbidden fruit and the attractiveness of the Lord and his tree of life.

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I know this is a massively controversial one. The last thing I want to do is stir up an unnecessary hornets nest. It’s just that we’ve been looking at Genesis in iServe devotions recently and this came up in discussion. A few thoughts (definitely not a final word):

Some basic ground rules:

  • Genesis is first and foremost teaching theology. I know no-one is really denying that – the issue is whether it is also teaching the scientific how – but all the same, it so often gets lost in the debate about genre. In the beginning GOD. And to be more specific, the big point of the first few chapters of Genesis (as the whole Bible) is Jesus – the good news of Him (Luke 24, John 5, 1 Peter 1). Richard Bewes calls Gen. 1:3 “the first and primal Christ-centred sermon”. Who is discussing the creation of man? Who is walking around the garden? Who is the serpent crusher? Let our searching the Scriptures be with the goal of coming to Him for life.
  • There’s got to be loads of love and generosity as we discuss this stuff – and the forbearance described in Romans 14-15. We also need to be fair and open about the evidence – both from the Bible and science – not overstating or understating, not picking and choosing what fits our position.
  • All of us should believe at least that God could have made the universe in six 24 hour periods should he have wished to – that is the sort of God we are dealing with. The new universe will presumably be created in the twinkle of an eye when Christ returns.
  • Adam must be a historical individual (the ‘one man’) and the fall of Adam (the move from a sinless to a sinful world) must also be historical (e.g. Rom. 5; 1 Cor. 15). Also Eve, her being created second, her marriage to Adam and her being deceived are also depended on by the NT as historical events.
  • The genre of Gen. 1 is not strictly speaking a salvation issue. Sure, you can argue that everything has implications and the Bible is an integrated whole but the gospel is Jesus – died, buried, raised, seen (e.g. 1 Cor. 15:1-11). The gospel is not Christ crucified plus a particular view on Creation. We are not saved by having a perfect understanding of every passage of the Bible but by glimpsing the glory of God in the face of Christ in the pages of Scripture. That is the core of our evangelism, our preaching and our unity.

So, to a starting point for discussion…

Harrison pointed us to Tim Keller’s article where he deals with this genre issue at some length:

So what genre is Genesis 1? Is it prose or poetry? In this case, that is a false choice. Edward J. Young, the conservative Hebrew expert who reads the six-days of Genesis 1 as historical, admits that Genesis 1 is written in ”exalted, semi-poetical language” (Young, Studies in Genesis One (P&R, 1964) p.82). On the one hand, it is a narrative that describes a succession of events, using the wayyigtol expression characteristic of prose, and it does not have the key mark of Hebrew poetry, namely parallelism… On the other hand, as many have noted, Genesis 1’s prose is extremely unusual. It has refrains… including the seven-time refrain, “and God saw that it was good” as well as ten repetitions of “God said”, ten of “let there be”, seven repetitions of “and it was so,” as well as others. Obviously, this is not the way someone writes in response to a simple request to tell what happened (Henri Blocher, In the Beginning (IVP, 1984) p.33).In addition, the terms for the sun (“greater light”) and moon (“lesser light”) are highly unusual and poetic, never being used anywhere else in the Bible, and “beast of the field” is a term for animal that is ordinarily confined to poetic discourse (Blocher, p.32).

All this leads Collins to conclude that the genre is: “…what we may call exalted prose narrative. This name for the genre will serve us in several ways. First, it acknowledges that we are dealing with prose narrative…which will include the making of truth claims about the world in which we live. Second, by calling it exalted, we are recognizing that… we must not impose a ‘literalistic’ hermeneutic on the text” (C. John Collins Genesis 1-4 (P&R, 2006.) p.44).

I’ve got another thought on this but that’s plenty for now…

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Pray & Vote

In an earlier post we said there is a time to stand still and do nothing, purely receiving God’s saving grace (Exodus 14; Eph. 2:1-9) and there is a time to run the race, still on the receiving end of grace but co-operating, working, doing, acting by that grace (Phil. 3:12-15; 2 Tim. 4:7; Col. 1:29 etc.).

On the second category, Don Carson writes of Jacob in Genesis 32:

None of this means he is so paralysed by fear that he does nothing but retreat into prayer. Rather, it means he does what he can, while believing utterly that salvation is of the Lord.

On the one hand, Jacob sets in motion a carefully orchestrated plan (32:1-8)… On the other hand, he prays, reminding God of his covenental promises, pleading his own unworthiness, acknowledging how many undeserved blessings he has received, confessing his own terror, begging for help (32:9-12).

Jacob takes action and prays…

(For the Love of God, Vol. 1, Jan. 31)

Voting in KisumuYou could add the example of Nehemiah – again, action and prayer. As we approach election day in Kenya on Monday we remember the importance of both – voting and praying. On praying for leaders I was helped by Josh Moody’s little article written around the time of the US elections. To summarise it, we pray for leaders:

  1. Because they are people (1 Tim. 2:1). “Leadership is a tough job. And our leaders are people like us doing a difficult job.”
  2. Because we’re told to (1 Tim. 2:2). Including for those who “we deem to be illegitimate, or who in some way abuse their authority” as did the powers in Paul’s day.
  3. That we may lead peaceful and quiet lives (1 Tim. 2:2). “This is very different from a pseudo-messianic view of political leadership. We do not pray that they will solve all our problems, or reverse the effects of the Fall, or solve every calamity that may happen on their watch.” We pray simply that we would be spared chaos and oppression.
  4. That they would encourage or at least allow godliness (1 Tim. 2:2).
  5. That the gospel would be allowed to spread (1 Tim. 2:3-4). “We want schools to be open to the gospel, universities, public spaces, and churches and Christian institutions to be able to go about their work unhindered. Paul does not ask us to pray that the government would itself convert people; it is unable to do that. Government instead has the relatively limited task of allowing for the gospel to do its job, which, by the power of ‘God our Saviour’, is the conversion of all those who believe.”


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If you want to see some hardcore moralism where should you go? Sadly, the answer is most likely Sunday School. This is not to say that there aren’t some brilliant brilliant Sunday School teachers. There are children’s pastors who have committed their lives to feeding children with the Word of God. We’re privileged to have one of them often come and train the apprentices at iServe Africa on children’s ministry – passionate about Jesus and the importance of children’s work, wonderfully clear on the children’s need of the gospel, careful Bible handling and presenting the Word of Christ in a well-prepared, appropriate, engaging way. But sadly, as she herself says, often children’s work is massively under-resourced, under-supported, treated as child minding and colouring, and left to completely untrained volunteers. Here are a couple of  real examples of Bible teaching for 2-3 year olds. I relay these not to mock or condemn but just to remind of us of an issue which often gets ignored in analyses of the church.


Genesis 27: Jacob steals Esau’s blessing

Main point: Jacob did a bad thing – he lied to his daddy and he stole something from his brother.

Application: Don’t lie to your parents and don’t be unkind to your brothers and sisters. Obey your parents and do nice things for your brothers and sisters.

Luke 1:26-30: The angel Gabriel appears to Mary


Main point: Mary was a good, beautiful, obedient girl who said her prayers every day and was kind to everyone. The angel came to tell Mary that she was more blessed/nice/beautiful/obedient than all the other girls and boys around.

Application: Be good like Mary – read your Bible, pray and obey your parents.


My first response is a great sadness. A great sadness that there was no mention of Jesus to these children, no gospel for these children. And the massively frustrating thing is that He was there in those passages just waiting to give life but he was ignored and replaced with a ‘moral’ that ran completely contrary to the text.

In the Genesis passage, surely the big point is that God’s blessing goes to the sinner, the deceiver, the one who doesn’t deserve it. Just as had been decided before his birth (so without works) now in Genesis 27 Jacob is blessed despite his works. The ancient commentators have long seen in Jacob wrapping himself in his elder brother’s clothes a picture of how we are to approach the Father clothed in our elder brother Jesus. Election, grace, union with Christ – it’s all there. Obviously you wouldn’t use those words with 2 year-olds but could we not tell them that God is a God who gives massive hugs to bad children.

And in the Luke passage surely Jesus should be absolutely unmissable. This is the incarnation! Mary is highly favoured / blessed / lucky because she gets to be the mother of God (Luke 1:43)! Has she earned that privilege? How could you possibly earn that? The God in her womb is her Saviour (Luke 1:46-47). Again and again in Luke’s Gospel, this God shows he does not come to rubber stamp the good works of the ‘righteous’ (“Yes, well done, you really are very good”) but to save lost sinners (Luke 5:27-32; 7:47; 15:7; 19:1-10). If Mary is an example to us it is as a sinner receiving words of grace with faith (Luke 1:45 cf. 1:20) – to do that is to find a blessing even greater than being the mother of God (Luke 11:27-28).

Can we not give this grace, this Jesus, this loving God to children? Do we not trust them with grace? Do we think we must give them law and moralism till they are 12 or 18 and then, perhaps, we can give them a bit of the gospel? Are we surprised when as young adults they constantly fall back into legalism and self-righteousness when that has been their food and drink throughout their childhood; when they have been trained to read the Bible as Pharisees, to find a law they can keep rather than to find Jesus and have life in him? And even if they do grasp the gospel as teenagers, can we justify enslaving children under the yoke of joyless moralism for year after year, denying them the bread of life? Do we value our children as Jesus does (Matthew 18:5-6)? Do we let the children come to Jesus (Matthew 19:14)?

My second thought is, we really need to invest in training Sunday School teachers. I know there are a number of churches and organisations that are passionately concerned about this and are doing great work. And, as I said at the beginning, there is some brilliant children’s ministry going on. But the need is massive; the harvest field is vast. Teaching children is far harder than teaching adults. To teach the Bible message simply and clearly – one point that gets to the heart of a child – you have to get it very very clear in your own head and that is exceptionally hard work. To handle the word of God carefully, particularly to handle Old Testament narrative texts well; to do the extra work of boiling it down (without watering it down) so that you can put it on a teaspoon and feed it to a three year-old – that is very very hard. We should have the highest possible esteem for those who labour to teach children faithfully and engagingly. In some ways it is not ‘rocket science’ – it’s mainly about context and letting the story make the point and spending sufficient time reading and praying over the text, sufficient time thinking carefully about how it relates to the listener, sufficient time preparing how to make it as visual and engaging as it is. In the meantime, maybe we’d be best simply reading the Bible to children, telling the stories and forget trying to find the ‘moral’.

Then my third thought is, there’s a deeper problem here. It’s not that teachers don’t believe in Jesus, it’s not that they don’t love their children (they manifestly do, pouring out their time and energies), it’s not (always) that they don’t have enough time to prepare or enough skills in Bible interpretation, the big issue lurking behind this is, Do we really grasp the gospel? Do teachers have strong gospel instincts – so when faced with a Bible story and a class of children, even without any preparation, their instinct is to preach Jesus, the Cross, a loving, outpouring God of grace – so that, even if it isn’t the most technically ‘correct’ exposition or the most well constructed lesson, the children go away not thinking ‘God blesses good people’ but with some sense that the Bible is about Jesus, that he is amazing and that he has a ferocious love for them.

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In his image

What do all these things have in common?

  • The abortion of 189,100 babies in the UK in 2009, 1.1% for reasons of likely serious handicap.
  • A Muslim debater challenges a Christian, “Can God also become a dog?”
  • A terrible industrial accident brought about by a culture of recklessness on the part of authorities and residents.
  • Extreme environmentalism that sees humanity as a cancer on the planet.

Underlying each of these is the suppression of a very important truth – that men and women are immensely privileged to be made in the image of God.  We are not God (as some sects would have us believe and as our sin pretends) but we are in the image of God.  As Francis Schaeffer says:

I am as separated from God in the area of His being the Creator and infinite and I being the creature and finite, as is the atom or the energy particle [or the dog]…  However, on the side of God’s personality, the break comes between man and the rest of creation… man’s relationship is upward      (The God Who is There, pp. 94-95)

What is the image of God then?  What is it that we have trampled and deformed?  What is this personality that we are supposed to share (amazingly) with the Creator?  I’ve always been a bit stuck on this one.  From Genesis 1:27-28 we can infer that we are like God in exercising dominion, in being moral beings and in being plural, social beings.  Is that all?  I was greatly helped by a David Jackman article recently which prompted me to turn to Colossians 3:

9 Do not lie to each other, since you have taken off your old self with its practices 10 and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge in the image of its Creator12 Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. 13 Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. 14 And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity.

So what is the image?  Truthfulness, compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, patience, forgiveness, love.  From the parallel passage in Ephesians we might add ‘working with your hands so that you have something to share with those in need’ (Eph. 4:28).  Now try meditating through the Old Testament and consider how God is all those things – truthful, compassionate, gentle, incredibly patient, even working with his mighty hands for the benefit of others – what a God we have!  Even his dominion is a gentle, humble, loving, for-the-benefit-of-others dominion – servant leadership.

Which all makes us think of Jesus doesn’t it?  The ‘Creator’ in Colossians is Christ (Col. 1:16).  It is the image of the Lord Jesus into which we are being changed (2 Cor. 3:18).  Before the world began it was God’s plan to conform us to the image of the Son (Rom. 8:29) and one day we will be fully like him (1 John 3:2).  And how are we conformed to his image?  (1) By all things that we experience (Rom. 8:28), especially suffering; (2) by seeing Him (2 Cor. 3:18; John 3:2) – that is knowing him, his truth, compassion, kindness, humility in his Word, and fixing our hearts and minds on him (2 Cor. 3:12-16; Col. 3:2,10).   

Sometimes these truths are better sung than read – listen to this great song by Emu Music – In His Image.

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In the beginning

It was great to spend some time in the early chapters of Genesis amid the beauty of creation a few weeks ago.  I’ve noticed (I don’t know how representative my experience is) that it is quite common for Kenyan preachers to refer back to Genesis 1-3 when preaching on diverse subjects and texts elsewhere in the Bible.  So perhaps in a sermon on contentment or sin or salvation the preacher will take us back to the Garden or the Serpent or the Tree of Life.  This is such a helpful impulse.  In narrative terms the first three chapters of the Bible give us the setting, the main characters and the crisis (problem) which the whole of the rest of the story will concern.  Here in the beginning are the foundations for so many doctrines, all of which are under attack, especially in the West:

  • God as primary
  • God as Trinity
  • God as Creator
  • God as speaker
  • God as judge
  • God as artist and lover of diversity and abundance and order
  • God as vastly gracious
  • Man as creature under Creator
  • Man as made in the image of God
  • Men and women equal in status and complementary
  • Humanity descended from a single man
  • Man as worker with divinely-given work – to serve and extend his Kingdom
  • Marriage as God-given for his work – sex in the service of God
  • God desiring intimacy with man – God as the seeker and missionary
  • The Fall as disobedience, rejection, rebellion, pride and especially Faithlessness
  • The Fall as the context within which we now live
  • The Fall as The Big Problem for all humanity – enmity, curse, exclusion, death
  • Salvation comes from God and is by a man

Which have I left out?  Maybe we’ll have a chance to flesh some of these out in future posts but just one example for now.  There is a stream of teaching popular in many theological colleges in the West which argues that Jesus came to deal primarily with the problem of Israel’s national sin and curse and spiritual exile.  He saw himself as the representative of Israel.  He died the death that idolatrous Israel deserved.  Israel in turn is representative of the world, a microcosm of its sin.  So in this sense Jesus died for the world.  There is much that is helpful in this argument.  As we have been reading through Luke as a staff team we have been struck by how Jesus is very clearly presented as the fulfilment of Jewish hopes (e.g. Luke 1:68-79).  The prophecy of Isaiah in particular is never far from the surface.  Jesus is indeed the perfect Israel (e.g. Luke 4:1-13).  He has indeed come to provide the greater Exodus (Luke 9:31).  But that’s not the whole story.  It’s bigger and better and more basic than that.  The Bible does not begin at Genesis 12 but at Genesis 1.  Luke traces Jesus’ legal lineage back not only to Abraham but to Adam (Luke 3:23-38 cf. Mat. 1:1-16).  Jesus is not only perfect Israel but the second Adam as he resists the Serpent’s temptations (Luke 4:1-13).  He has come not only to deal with the curse and exile of Israel but The Curse and The Exile from the Edenic presence of God.  As he died he opened the way back to Paradise and not just for the nation of Israel but for an individual criminal like me (Luke 23:43).  He tore down the curtain embroidered with the cherubim guard (Luke 23:45 cf. Ex. 26:31-34; Gen. 3:24) and rose on the first day to begin the New Creation (Luke 24:1).  Whereas the new teaching over-complicates the gospel and makes it an issue of membership of the people of God, it’s really very simple – as simple as 3-2-1

I remember I once walked into the wrong screen at a cinema and was surprised when the film ended somewhat obscurely 40 minutes later.  I didn’t get it because I hadn’t seen the opening scenes.  If we don’t keep returning to Genesis 1-3 then the Bible will make little sense and we’ll have a wrong view of God, ourselves, our world and the gospel. 

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