Genesis: Folklore of Faith, lesson 42: The End

Genesis 50 – Conclusions

Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church, originally broadcast Sept. 9, 2006 Craig Atwood,

Introduction: Good morning and welcome to the Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church. There was much sad news this week. My uncle Henry died in his sleep Friday night. He was a brilliant electrician turned preacher. Also this week, Steve Irwin, the Crocodile Hunter, was killed in a freak accident. Steve tried to help us see how gorgeous every animal is, affirming God’s statement that creation is good. Our hearts also go out to the White family in Stokes County. Our whole nation, of course, is reflecting on the events of 5 years ago. Last year I offered reflections on 9-11, which are available from the church office. This week we come to the end of our study of the Book of Genesis. We started on September 18, 2005 and a year later, we have reached the end. I’ll be reading from Genesis, chapter 50.  


Back to Canaan:            The only references to embalming in the Bible are in chapter 50 because that was the Egyptian way of caring for the bodies of important people. Embalming also meant that Jacob’s body could be taken back to Canaan. Pharaoh tells Joseph “go, bury your father, as he made you swear.” In Exodus, the Pharaoh has to be forced to allow the Israelites to go into the desert to worship the God of their fathers. Only after plagues does Pharaoh say, Go.


The other death we read of is that of Joseph. His story also looks forward to the Exodus. He made his brothers swear that one day his bones would be carried back to Canaan. He also prophesied that God would one day take the children of Israel out of Egypt and back into the Promised Land. Though Genesis ends with the deaths of the patriarchs, it is a book of beginnings that is looking toward the remainder of sacred history.


Genesis as a Whole                        We have been carefully studying Genesis chapter by chapter, which has allowed us to give focus to individual units. Today let’s contemplate this book as a whole. Remember that in ancient times, this would have been on a single scroll, written in Hebrew. It would have been read to the worshiping community and interpreted by a teacher. The priests and teachers of Israel would have been able to read and study the entire scroll, but the people would have heard it read aloud, just as we have done over the radio.


We do not fully know the history of the writing of Genesis, but we can deduce that some of the stories were originally oral tradition passed down by priests, prophets, sages, and matriarchs. They were told in the women’s tents, around campfires, and during religious festivals. Some of the stories were told to help children become part of the tribe, others were told to teach the tribal elders how to act. Some stories were probably written for political purposes, to train government officials, or to help form a nation. We cannot accurately date the different parts of Genesis, but it seems evident that some material is 500 years older than other material. Even people who insist on the legend that Moses wrote Genesis must acknowledge that much of the material in Genesis is older than the time of Moses.


During the past year we have seen that the author of Genesis was an editor rather than an author. He took two long narratives and blended them, and added bits and pieces that he found in the archives or knew from oral tradition. He also added some of his thoughts. If you prefer analogies, you can think of the author of Genesis as a brick-layer or a knitter, someone who takes various bits of material and carefully arranges them into a new whole.

This is why it is hard to date the writing of Genesis. Are you dating the individual elements or the book as a whole?


How old is a patchwork quilt that uses pieces from many years worth of clothing? Genesis is more like a patchwork quilt than a seamless blanket. Like a quilt, though, it appears that a later editor added to or tried to repair Genesis. The translator Stephen Mitchell put some of that material in his endnotes rather than in the main text.


Exile:                        It is helpful and fun to look at a quilt or mosaic and look at the individual pieces, which we have done this year. But it would be foolish not to step back and enjoy the quilt itself. We need to keep in mind that there was a reason that the editor produced this sacred Hebrew text in its final form. Throughout the year, I have mentioned that this scroll was probably written either during or shortly after the Babylonian Exile, which took place in the 6th century before Christ. Christians don’t talk much about the Babylonian Exile, but it was one of the most important and traumatic events in the history of Israel. It rates up there with the Exodus from Egypt and the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans in 70 AD as a formative event.


For two centuries there had been a northern kingdom of Israel, and much of the Old Testament was written in that kingdom. Many of the stories of Genesis, particularly the story of Jacob, came from the north. In 722 BC the northern kingdom was destroyed by the Assyrians, and those tribes were dispersed. The southern kingdom was all that was left of Israel, and it was struggling for survival in a world dominated by two super-powers: Egypt and Babylon. Despite the warnings of prophets like Jeremiah, the king of Judah decided to rebel against Babylon. Emperor Nebuchadnezzar invaded Judah and destroyed the capital city in 586 BC. The temple was razed to the ground and the leaders of Judah, including the priests, were taken to Babylon.


The Scribes:                        In Babylon, the priests, prophets, and scribes began writing what we call the national history of Israel and Judah: the stories of the prophets, patriarchs, priests, and kings. Scribes assembled collections of the sayings of the prophets and the laws of Israel. All of this material was collected in the hope that one day God would bring the Jews out of bondage in Babylon and restore them to the Promised Land, just as he had done in the Exodus. The priests and scribes hoped to restore the legal and religious framework of Israel when they returned from exile. They also tried to find an explanation for their suffering. How could God have allowed Nebuchadnezzar to destroy his house in Jerusalem?


Throughout Genesis, we have had discussion on the use and abuse of power. We have seen the wisdom of Abraham in making peace with his neighbors and even his enemies. We have also seen how foolish it was for Jacob to cheat his brother or Laban to cheat Jacob. We have had ample opportunity to use Genesis as a tool to reflect on the way we deal with one another in our homes, in our business dealings, and in international politics. I think John Adams had a good understanding of the teachings of Genesis when he wrote: “Power always thinks it has a great soul and vast views beyond the comprehension of the weak; and that it is doing God’s service when it is violating all his laws.” In case you were wondering, it was because the Founding Fathers knew history and the Bible that they insisted on a Bill of Rights that could not be violated even in times of conflict and war.


Restoration:            As we have noted in our study, portions of Genesis originated in Babylon and reflect Babylonian ideas and culture. The Garden of Eden and the Tower of Babel were in Babylon. The story of Abraham begins in Babylon and ends in Palestine. The story of Joseph ends in Egypt but anticipates the return to Palestine. Throughout Genesis, from the story of Adam and Eve to the story of Jacob, there is the theme of exile and restoration; judgment and forgiveness; condemnation and grace. This theme of exile and restoration looks ahead to the story of the Exodus, but it was also written to encourage the Jews in Babylon. It continues to speak to people of faith in times of crisis.


The conviction that God was with the people of Genesis in times of exile has strengthened people of faith throughout history, even when the exile was a result of their own disobedience. When Adam and Eve were exiled from paradise, God was still with them. We can read the story of the Tower of Babel as a story of punishment, but we saw that God did not abandon the human race. One person was chosen to bring a new perspective into the world. Abraham was sent out from Babylon by God to a land he did not know. Abraham is depicted as the first monotheist and the first pilgrim. Even in his homeland, he was a wanderer in the world. For him, exile and restoration were the same thing because he was always with God.  


Covenant:            This relates to another major theme in Genesis: the covenant. A covenant is a sacred contract between God and people. Christians in general have difficulty talking about the covenant with Israel, but it is the unifying theme of the Old Testament and especially the book of Genesis. Interpreters differ in their counting of covenants in Genesis, but there were several. There was a covenant with Adam and Eve, which they broke. Then there was a form of covenant with Cain, which God made for his protection. From that covenant came cities and culture. There was a covenant with Noah that promised that God would not destroy the earth by flood again. Although commandments were given to humans, God’s covenant was unconditional. It was God’s promise to the human race.


Then there was the covenant with Abraham, which was confirmed with Isaac and Jacob. This was the covenant that the descendents of Abraham would become a great nation, several nations in fact, and that they would have a land of their own. Much of the Old Testament is about the fulfillment and breaking of this covenant. We have seen that God included all of the children of Abraham in the covenant, to some extent, which has become a source of conflict in the Middle East in our day.

One of the most surprising things we discovered this year is that the LORD did not reject Ishmael and Esau or their children. One of the few people to speak directly with the LORD was the Egyptian Hagar. The children of Joseph had an Egyptian mother, and yet they were part of the covenant. For centuries, the Bible has been used to divide Jews, Muslims, and Christians, but Genesis offers us resources for a more universal view of God. Jacob was welcomed by his brother Esau, just as Joseph forgave his brothers.


Israel:                        The most important part of the covenant with Abraham was that the LORD would be the God of his family for all time and they would be the people of God. The story of Genesis, as we saw, became the story of Jacob, whose name was changed to Israel. Israel would be the people of God who were sworn to obedience, but the name Israel meant “one who strives with God.” The covenant would not be easy, and it would be frequently broken, but God remained faithful to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob despite their failures. This message inspired hope during the Babylonian Exile and in many dark years later in Israel’s history. In his letter to the Romans, the Apostle Paul took up this theme of God’s covenant. Paul recognized that one of the major teachings of Genesis is that God remains true to his promises even when humans fail. The covenant with Israel remains in place.


Flawed Heroes of Faith:            One of the things that bothered many people in the class is that Genesis is not a moralistic book. On the surface, you might expect it to be a series of morality tales useful for teaching children, but the stories themselves are remarkably ambiguous. They are almost modern in their neutrality toward the characters. The first parents rebel against God and eat the forbidden fruit, and they are punished. But they became the parents of the human race.


Cain murders his brother and is protected by God. Noah is righteous, but after the flood he gets so drunk that he is lying around naked. Abraham tries to pass his wife off as his sister and lets another man take her into his harem. But he is rewarded. Isaac does the same thing. Abraham almost murders his son and is praised for his faithfulness. Lot gets his daughters pregnant. Jacob cheats his brother out of a birth right and is blessed by God. Rachel steals her father’s idols. Judah sleeps with his daughter-in-law, and she is praised for deceiving him. Jacob’s sons massacre the city of Shechem, and they sell their brother into slavery. We have looked at these stories individually, but seen together, one wonders why this would be the national history of Israel.


The answer lies in Joseph’s claim that his brothers acted out of evil intent, but God brought good out of it. One of the main themes of Genesis is the corruption of the human race and God’s ability to bring good out of. This was a very important message for those who had been in exile. Even though their enemies had meant this for evil, God could use it for good. Jerusalem would be rebuilt. The covenant was still in place. The nation would be restored. It is a hopeful message of God’s providence in our time as well as reflect on the destruction and war. We have seen that there are not many miracles in Genesis. God generally works through natural means and human agents, even though they are flawed. God is active in Genesis and is moving events forward, working to bring about the redemption of Israel and the world.


Women:            Another theme we examined was the role of women in Genesis. They are complex and important individuals. God spoke to Hagar. Rebekah and Rachel played key roles in the drama of salvation. Eve was the first theologian. It is quite likely that some of the material in Genesis was the oral tradition of women in Israel, and they recalled the faith and courage and flaws of the matriarchs.


Creation: Speaking of Eve, we are brought back to the beginning of the beginnings. Genesis is an important book because it sets forth one of the most important ideas in human history. The universe was created by an intelligent being and it is a good creation. Despite the mistakes and sins of the patriarch that we spoke of earlier, Genesis affirms that God’s creation is good and humans bear the image of God. Genesis is ultimately about creation and life, blessing and redemption. This conviction that the universe is good and works by God’s laws was the foundation of modern science and is a strong ethical foundation for environmentalism. The axiom on which Christian ethics is based is simply this: God saw all that he had made and it was very good.


As we look ahead to our study of the Gospel of John, keep in mind that for five centuries before the birth of Jesus, the descendents of Abraham had been reading and studying the scroll of Genesis. They discussed and debated ideas like creation, covenant, sin, redemption, and God’s promises. Jesus was born into a world that was shaped by the good news of God’s creation and engagement with his world. Let me leave you with this conclusion about Genesis from Walter Brueggemann: “From the speech of creation to until the affirmation of Joseph at death, we have been attentive to God’s call. We have attended to the sovereign call by which ‘God calls the worlds into being.’ We have also considered the way in which God calls us into his church. That call has been embraced by Abraham and Sarah, has set Jacob into many conflicts and has worked its hidden way through the life of Joseph. … The listening community waits with Israel. And while waiting, it, too, must decide about the call.” (Genesis, 379-380) Next week the lesson with be brought by the Rev. Scott Venable.

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