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Occasionally, Pastor Ryan Ahlgrim will post a biblical commentary or discussion of a contemporary topic, inviting readers to submit their comments for a readers' dialogue. You are welcome to join the conversation!

Genesis 15:1-6

The Book of Genesis is filled with passages that are crucial for establishing themes that recur and expand throughout the Bible. This is one of those passages.

God has promised Abram he will be the father of a new nation through which all nations will be blessed; but as time passes, he is still childless. Previously, Abram has been careless about fulfilling the promise (for instance, letting his wife be taken into Pharaoh’s harem), but it also looks like God has been careless.

God now comes to Abram in a vision: “Do not be afraid, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great!” But Abram is troubled. He still has no children; his heir is one of his slaves. God assures him he will have children of his own and brings him outside to look at the night sky: “Look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them. So shall your descendants be.”

This is all within a vision experience–a sort of dream. Do we believe in visions? Do we believe in dreams? How do we know when it is God speaking to us? Even if we “know” it is God, do we dare to believe the seemingly impossible?

Then comes the crucial line in this story: “And he [Abram] believed the LORD; and the LORD reckoned it to him as righteousness.”

For the last few chapters we’ve been wondering what makes Abram special. Why has God chosen him to be the originator of a new nation that blesses all nations? It’s been puzzling because Abram, for the most part, has come across as a liar, a coward, self-concerned, and careless. But now we see his crucial quality: he believes God. In other words, despite a total lack of physical proof or evidence, he chooses to trust what God is promising him. Abram has a holy imagination. Abram has a spiritual capacity to see what ought to be, what can be, even though it is not present now. Abram is able to rely on that which goes beyond himself and his own abilities; he humbly trusts in “a higher power.”

When I was a volunteer counselor at a drug rehabilitation center, a patient was objecting to the 12-step language of the AA program which speaks of a “higher power” that can restore us to sanity, and turning one’s will and life over to God, as one understands God. One of the other counselors responded, “There’s only one thing you have to believe: there is a God and you ain’t it.” This has always struck me as the starting point of true spirituality: the recognition that we need to let go of our ego and depend on something that is beyond us. I think that is what Abram is doing in this passage.

And how does God respond to Abram’s act of trust? By considering it as “righteousness.” Abram, at least so far, has not come across as a particularly righteous person. But by trusting in God, by relying on a hope that goes beyond his strength and ability, he is joining God in a profound way. He is now right with God.

This theme and language is picked up by the prophet Habakkuk. Responding to a time when the Jewish people are going through terrible suffering and confusion, Habakkuk reminds them that, unlike the proud, whose “spirit is not right in them,” “the righteous live by their faith.” At the heart of righteousness is not simply doing good and just things, but doing these things even when it makes no sense to do so–because one trusts in God and is loyal to the ways of God regardless of whether it “pays” or not.

The apostle Paul sees this truth as being at the very heart of the biblical message and the purpose of Jesus. In Romans 1:17 he repeats Habakkuk’s claim that “The one who is righteous will live by faith.” And in Galatians 3:6-8 he refers to the Genesis 15 story when he says: “Just as Abraham ‘believed in God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness,’ so, you see, those who believe are the descendants of Abraham. And the scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, declared the gospel beforehand to Abraham, by saying, ‘All the Gentiles shall be blessed in you.'”

Paul’s line of thinking goes like this: If trust in God is what made Abraham righteous in God’s eyes, then that is what makes all of us righteous in God’s eyes. Abraham is the beginning of a nation that lives by faith, and this is how all nations (Gentiles) are blessed–by also living by faith. For Paul, Jesus’ crucifixion is the supreme act of God’s love for all humanity, so anyone who trusts in the love of God, embodied in Jesus, is “made right” with God. Jesus is the one who opens up the blessing of faith to all the nations.

And so, one little verse in Genesis 15 (combined with one little verse in Genesis 12) becomes the North Star around which the entire biblical message revolves.

But faith is never once-and-done. Will Abram continue to have faith? That is what we still await to see.

Genesis 13

When I was a little boy in Sunday school, the story of Abraham giving his nephew Lot first choice of where to live and graze his flocks was used as an illustration of generous sharing and letting others pick first. I don’t think that’s what this story is about. Instead, this is another example of Abram’s carelessness.

In chapter 12 we saw Abram’s extreme carelessness with his wife. God has promised Abram he is going to be the father of a great nation, but Abram almost immediately is selling off his wife to Pharaoh. At this point, God has not yet said who will be the mother of the great nation, but since Sarah is his only wife, the implication is strong that she’s the likely candidate. Out of fear and self-protection, Abram risks his wife and God’s promise.

Now, in chapter 13, he is careless again–but with the land of Canaan rather than with his wife. Abram is accompanied to Canaan (the land promised to his descendants by God) by his nephew, Lot. Both Abram and Lot have large herds and flocks, as well as herders working for them. The land cannot support all of them in the same space, and there is conflict between their respective herders. So Abram tells Lot: choose the land you want; let’s go our separate ways. On the surface, this is indeed a generous offer by Abram, letting his nephew choose first. The problem is: What if Lot chooses the land of Canaan–the land God has already promised to Abram and his descendants? Once again, Abram is being careless, jeopardizing the promise God has made him.

Fortunately, Lot does not choose the hill country and desert area known as Canaan; instead, he chooses the Jordan River valley, which is well-watered, fertile, and boasts a couple of cities–Sodom and Gomorrah. Lot chooses the rich life. He moves his tent close to Sodom. In fact, in a few chapters we will find him no longer herding but living a sedentary life in the city. He has chosen another way of life–a choice which will turn out to be quite dangerous for him and his family.

Once Lot has moved out of the picture, God tells Abram to survey the land around him and once again affirms that this land–the land of Canaan–will belong to his countless offspring.

Abram is fickle and careless, and yet God is constant in giving him unconditional favor and blessing. It doesn’t make moral or intellectual sense. We have yet to see any characteristic in Abram that would cause us to be impressed. So why Abram? How is this person going to be the beginning of a unique nation and relationship to God? That will soon be revealed.

Genesis 12

Chapter 12 sets the theme for the rest of the Book of Genesis; indeed, it sets the theme for the rest of the Bible. This chapter is the key to understanding the entire biblical story.

Previous to this chapter, Genesis has been telling us the story of humanity, giving special attention to its flaws and problems. Hope for humanity has not yet emerged. How is God going to rescue humanity from itself? This chapter begins to suggest the solution: God is choosing Abram (later re-named Abraham) to begin a new family, a new community; and through that community all the families of the earth will be blessed. So now begins the story of the people who will become known as the Israelites–and later as Jews. The healing of the world will depend on their special relationship to God.

The question that inevitably comes to mind is: Why Abram? What’s special about him? This chapter gives us no basis for seeing anything special about him. He’s not a king; he’s not a warrior; he’s not famous; he’s not even described as a righteous and blameless man–as Noah was described. Instead, he’s quite ordinary. He’s a semi-nomad shepherd. God tells him to leave his home and go to a new country. Even his move is not out of the ordinary; he’s simply completing the migration that his father had intended (11:31).

Another striking element is that God makes a promise to Abram without any conditions. Abram, other than having to move to Canaan, does not have to do anything else.

But no sooner does he arrive in the land of Canaan–the place where his family is supposed to become a great nation–then he has to leave because of a famine. He takes his wife, Sarai, down to Egypt. The reader, who knows the later story of the Exodus, will feel a bit of a chill at the mention of Abram going to Egypt. Egypt is always a threat to the promise. And sure enough, when Abram gets to Egypt, he’s afraid the Egyptians will kill him in order to take his wife. So he tells Sarai to tell the Egyptians that Abram is her brother–that way, if someone wants Sarai, Abram can sell off his wife instead of being killed. This is exactly what happens when Pharaoh sees Sarai and wants to add her to his harem.

This story reveals that Abram, far from being righteous and blameless, is in fact a liar and a coward who puts his own welfare ahead of his wife’s. Not only that, but he risks derailing the whole promise God just gave him about becoming the father of a new nation by marrying off his wife! He seems to lack any seriousness or trust in God. God has chosen a man of poor character to be the father of a blessed nation! How strange.

Though Pharaoh has done nothing knowingly wrong, he is punished by God with plagues (another foreshadowing of Exodus) for taking Abram’s wife. When Pharaoh figures out the problem, he gives Sarai back to Abram and tells him to leave the country. Abram doesn’t even need to pay back the dowry. He comes out of the whole sorry encounter as a rich man.

The point of the story seems to be that God is going to be on Abram’s side whether he deserves it or not–which is the biblical meaning of grace. At least at this point, we’re not meant to admire Abram. We’re meant to scratch our heads at the weird ways of God. The healing of the world is going to be a convoluted story using imperfect people.

Genesis 11:1-9

Perhaps the oldest epic poem in the world is the Babylonian Epic of Gilgamesh. The story begins with the king of Uruk, Gilgamesh, pointing out the impressive walls of his city. He is a kind of Hercules figure whom no person or monster can defeat. But then his best friend dies and he is shattered to realize that he also will someday die. This drives him to take up a quest for immortality. Along the way he encounters a Noah-type person who tells him immortality is impossible. Gilgamesh manages to find a plant at the bottom of the ocean that will renew his youth, but even this plant gets taken away and eaten by a snake (that then sheds its skin). Defeated, Gilgamesh returns to Uruk as a wiser man. The poem ends with him once again pointing out the impressive walls of Uruk.

It appears to me that this epic is suggesting that the only immortality we humans can achieve is in the impressive things we build. The story of the Tower of Babel is perhaps presenting the same sort of thinking–and then rejecting it. In this story all of humanity is depicted as being together in one place, the plain of Shinar (which happens to be the location of Babylon). There they decide to build a city and a tower of baked bricks. Surely this is a veiled reference to the impressive city of Babylon and its huge ziggurat dedicated to the god Marduk. The people build this city and tower in order “to make a name for ourselves; otherwise we shall be scattered abroad upon the face of the earth.” In other words, they are afraid of being weakened by being scattered. Together they can build something immortal.

But God rejects what they are attempting because “nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them.” Is God fearful that humans are becoming too strong? Not fearful, but concerned. The problem is that humans have come together in a cooperative plan for the wrong purpose, and that wrong purpose will ultimately hurt them rather than help them. Through their cooperative strength they are attempting to “make a name” for themselves; they are trying to achieve immortal fame. But this is humanity’s wrong purpose. God then confuses their speech, creating various languages. Unable to cooperate, the humans scatter–the very thing they were trying to avoid.

I see here a possible critique of the Epic of Gilgamesh. In the face of our mortality, the wrong response is to try to become famous by what we can build. Instead, we need to accept our mortality, give up our anxiety of being forgotten, and instead live in gratitude for the gift of life God has given us now. God intended for humans to be scattered–not all clumped together trying to achieve a false immortality. God told the first humans, as well as Noah’s family, to “fill the earth.” God confusing the human languages is not a curse, but a blessing. It creates the diversity and richness of human cultures. Not all unity is good; not all diversity is bad.

Chapters 3-11 contain various stories that explore what is wrong with humanity, and false ways to try to correct human flaws. Let me suggest a contemporary way of understanding three of these stories:

In 6:1-4 is the strange story of the “sons of God” mating with human women. The offspring are “the heroes that were of old, warriors of renown.” In ancient mythology, heroes are half divine and half human. But this story is against such mating and such offspring. God stops it. Perhaps this story is suggesting to us today that solving human frailty and flaws should not be done through creating a super-human race. Genetic engineering to create better (perhaps immortal) humans is a misplaced hope. This will not solve the human dilemma.

In 6:5-9:17 is the story of the Flood (which I wrote about last week). Perhaps its message for us today is that trying to solve the flaws and violence of humanity by picking out the brightest and best and sterilizing those who are “inferior” through a eugenics program is also a catastrophe. We all share the same basic flaws–and promise.

And now in 11:1-9 is the story of Babel. Perhaps it’s message for us is that we will not solve humanity’s limitations through technology. Doubtless it is a powerful tool that can do a lot of good. But our technology is just as likely to destroy us (e.g. through environmental degradation and contamination, overpopulation, global warming, and nuclear holocaust) as to help us. Ultimately, technology is not what is going to be needed to save us from ourselves.

So if neither technology, genetic engineering, nor eugenics will save us, what will? That’s what the rest of the Bible is about, and the beginning of an answer begins in the next chapter of Genesis.

Genesis 6-9

The biblical story of the Ark and the Flood is a favorite motif for nurseries and playrooms–which is strange given that the story depicts an unimaginable natural disaster that annihilates almost all land animals and the human race. It is also a favorite story for those who want to prove the complete historicity of Genesis. A very impressive full-scale Ark is on display in Kentucky for this purpose.

I do not think this story is a children’s story, nor a historical story. It is a further exploration (begun in the previous chapters of Genesis) of human nature, God’s relation to humanity and nature, and the problem of solving human evil.

One of the greatest stories originating in the ancient Near East is a Babylonian poem (based on an even older Sumerian poem) that we call the Epic of Gilgamesh. Within that epic is a story about the high god, Enlil, deciding to punish humanity with a gigantic flood to wipe them out. But another god, Ea (who made humans from clay and divine blood), rescues a portion of humanity by warning one man to build a big boat. This sounds a lot like the biblical story, doesn’t it? It looks to me like the ancient Israelites revised this old Babylonian story for their own theological purposes.

In addition, it looks like the ancient Israelites had two versions of the story which got combined in Genesis. In one version of the flood story, God is consistently called “Elohim” (God), and in another version God is consistently called “Yahweh” (LORD in English translations). In one version, Noah is to collect one pair of every kind of animal, but in the other version he is to collect one pair of unclean animals and seven pairs of clean animals. In one version the flood lasts 40 days, but in the other version it lasts 150 days. In one version Noah sends out a raven that flies around until the waters have subsided, and in the other version Noah sends out a dove for this purpose. The two versions of the story are so similar–and both were so sacred–that the two stories were woven together so that neither was lost–or at least that’s the theory held by most scholars. Whether one accepts this theory or not is beside the point. What matters is the meaning of the story.

The biggest difference between the Babylonian version of the flood story and the Genesis version is that the Genesis version seeks to make a moral point. In the Babylonian version, the god Enlil wants to wipe out humanity because humanity has become too noisy and Enlil can’t sleep. In the Genesis version, the reason for blotting out humanity is that “the imagination of the human heart is evil continuously.” It is our own violence and evil that results in our destruction. The Babylonian version has a pantheon of gods in competition with one another; the Genesis version has one God who has one moral purpose: saving humanity from its own evil. In chapter 4 of Genesis we see the first murder; by chapter 6 the violence has spread so that it is a part of everyone and everything. Genesis is making the profound point that violence is intrinsic to us, and God wants to rescue us from our own condition.

The flood is an attempt not only to begin again with a “good” family, but also a way of cleansing the earth from the stain humanity has put on all of creation. God’s plan, however, fails. Only after the flood is over does God see that “the inclination of the human heart is evil from youth”–even among Noah and his family. At this point, the story of the flood could easily be a tragedy. But the Genesis author turns the tragedy into hope by having God bless these evil-inclined humans, and God makes a covenant of eternal peace with them by placing a rainbow (an unstrung weapon) in the clouds–an unconditional covenant of grace not only with humanity but with every creature on earth.

The story is not concerned with logical questions such as, “Didn’t God know ahead of time that the flood wouldn’t solve the problem? Wasn’t this a pointless genocide by God?” Rather, the story is concerned with a more important question: If humans all have a tendency toward harmful behavior, what is God’s attitude toward us? The answer, according to this story, is that God continues to hate and grieve human evil, but God is nevertheless committed to us and our wellbeing. This is the first clear statement of God’s grace. It is the foundation upon which God–through the rest of the biblical story–will find a way to save us from our own self-destruction.

How can humanity be saved from its own self-destruction? Starting over with “the right” people is not going to work. That, it seems to me, is the lesson of this story. And it is a lesson we continue to ignore. Over and over again we try to solve the human dilemma of evil and violence by creating utopian communities that involve only the right people: those of the right religion, or the right education, or the right race, or the right IQ, or the right mental health, or the right philosophy. These communities always fail to root out our innate selfishness, fears, and tendency to harm one another. Instead, we have to begin by accepting and embracing the grace of God, just as we are.

God is indeed starting a new community, but it isn’t made up of the best people; it’s made up of ordinary people who are willing to rely on God’s grace and share God’s grace. The Ark has long been seen as a symbol of the church–God’s community of unconditional love floating in the midst of the storms and chaos of the world. Life on the Ark (the church) is not perfect. It consists of ordinary people. It can get very smelly on the Ark. But when it embraces God’s grace and shares God’s grace, life on the Ark is better than the storm outside.

The story of the flood is also an ecological warning. Today we are actually doing what the flood did: killing off most of the animals on earth (just in the past fifty years) and threatening our own existence. We better make an Ark soon, or humanity along with the animal kingdom faces a dire future.

Genesis 4

Violence is the most traumatizing of sins, and murder is the most destructive form of violence. And so, immediately after humanity’s expulsion from the innocent world of Eden, we have the story of the first murder. It is a symbol for the depth of humanity’s flaw. If humanity is to avoid its own self-destruction and find its way to wholeness, it will have to find a solution to violence.

Cain and Abel represent two ways of life: the semi-nomadic life of the shepherd (Abel) and the sedentary life of the farmer (Cain). In the ancient Near East these two ways of life were at odds with one another, and there are various ancient stories of feuds between shepherds and farmers. Shepherds need to be able to graze their flocks freely, whereas farmers need to be able to fence off their crops from the destruction of animals. Shepherding communities live in tents, moving whenever the land is no longer grazable, whereas farming communities need to stay in one place, resulting in the building of towns and cities. Shepherding communities have no accumulated wealth (except the flocks themselves) and therefore tend to be more egalitarian. Farming communities amass excess food, and cities create specialization in occupations, resulting in hierarchies of power and vast differences in wealth. One of the puzzles of anthropology and history is why humans ever became farmers. Life is less oppressive, working hours are shorter, and nutrition is actually better in a nomadic hunting and gathering society.

The Israelites were originally semi-nomads (look at all the references to living in tents). So it is not surprising to me that the story of the first murder is of a farmer killing a shepherd! Behind this story is, I think, an ancient prejudice against farming and the kind of hierarchical, violent, and oppressive life it leads to.

Even God does not favor farming, disregarding Cain’s offering while accepting Abel’s. This provokes a murderous jealousy in Cain. God warns Cain not to carry through with his jealous and angry feelings. “If you do well, will you not be accepted?” What is God suggesting? Is God suggesting that Cain has sinned in some way, and that’s why his offering was not accepted, and so if he stops sinning, his offering will be accepted? I don’t think so. In the next verse God says, “And if you do not do well, sin is lurking at the door; its desire is for you, but you must master it.” That gives the impression that to “do well” means to exercise self-control over one’s angry impulses. If Cain can respond to his disappointment and rage at the apparent unfairness of his offering not being accepted, and his envy of his brother, God will bless him in some way. If that’s the meaning, then Cain is facing a choice somewhat similar to one faced by Job: how to respond to unjust suffering. Let it eat you up to the point where you curse God, or accept that some things in life are unfair and a mystery?

Cain has not actually done anything wrong. Being a farmer is not intrinsically wrong. No actual reason is given for God not accepting his offering. That’s just the way life is–unjust and sometimes senseless. Perhaps Cain experienced crop failure soon after making his offering, whereas Abel experienced an increase in his flocks. Cain rages at the unfairness of it all. He can’t kill God, so he’ll kill the beneficiary of God’s abundance: Abel. The story is suggesting that the root of violence is often envy and covetousness: wanting what someone else has and feeling it is unfair that one does not have it. The tenth commandment in Exodus 20 is “Thou shalt not covet.” It is the only commandment that deals with our internal process of desire. It is the root of what destroys community.

Cain does not master his emotions. He murders. He is punished by no longer being able to farm and being banished from society. Fearing he will be killed by anyone who meets him, God puts a protective tattoo on him. God does not want a cycle of violence. Even a murderer is not to be murdered.

We expect the rest of Cain’s life to be one of misery and isolation, so it comes as quite a surprise when Cain suddenly has a wife, bears a son, and then builds a city. We see here the link between farming and the building of cities in a sedentary life. Cain can no longer farm, but he can do the next thing that farming leads to: build a complex social structure that we today call “civilization”! Cain’s descendants include every kind of profession–from shepherding to the delights of music and the technological advances represented by metallurgy. One of those descendants is a woman named Naamah, which means “pleasant.” Cities and civilization aren’t all bad.

However, one of those descendants, Lamech, also becomes a murderer, and threatens multiple murders on anyone who seeks revenge. And so we see that Cain’s descendants represent both the good and the bad of humanity. I’m reminded of the fact that Britain used Australia as a place to abandon its criminals and undesirables. And yet the descendants of those criminals created a country that is now the envy of its neighbors. There is potential for good and harm in all of us, so the proper response to crime and criminals is not to cut off all potential for the healing and good that is still possible.

Genesis 2-3

These two chapters are filled with images and ideas that have become foundational for the Western way of looking at life. Rather than trying to cover all of this rich material, let me make just a few observations:

As has been noted many times by many scholars, chapter 2 is another, and different, creation story from the story in chapter 1. In chapter 1, human beings–male and female–are created together on the sixth day, after the the plants and all the other animals have already been made. But in chapter 2, one human (a man) is made before there is any vegetation or animals. After the creation of vegetation and animals, a second human being (a woman) is made. These two different creation stories come from different sources. The source for chapter 1 consistently refers to God as “God” (Elohim in Hebrew), and the source for chapters 2 and 3 consistently refers to God as “the LORD God” (Yahweh Elohim in Hebrew). At some point, these two stories were brought together. They compliment each other. The first is a broad and majestic view of origins, and the second takes an intimate view; the first displays the sublime sovereignty of God and the essential goodness of creation while the second explores in more depth what it means to be human.

The creation of woman is interesting. She is meant to be a helper and partner for the man so he is no longer alone. They are of one bone and one flesh; equals. Only equals can truly overcome aloneness. Verse 2:24 establishes marriage and the meaning of marriage–which is a lot to try to get into one verse! I don’t think one verse can ever be sufficient for defining the nature and purpose of marriage. But what I find fascinating in this verse is that it says nothing about being fruitful and multiplying; it says nothing about having children. Throughout the rest of the Bible, having children (and men knowing that their children really are their children) appears to be the primary purpose of marriage. But in this verse, the purpose of marriage is oneness. Marriage is the ultimate way to conquer aloneness and separation.

Today there is a lot of debate in our society (and societies all around the world) about the meaning of marriage. Specifically, must marriage be between a man and a woman? If the purpose of marriage is procreation and knowing that your children are biologically your own, or if the purpose of marriage is the unity of that which is male and female, then marriage is between a man and a woman. But if the purpose of marriage is to overcome aloneness, if it is for the purpose of creating covenantal life partners who share a household and are helpers to each other, then perhaps marriage can be defined more broadly. To answer this question will require more study and reflection by the church, and it may be that “religious” marriage and “civil” marriage are not the same thing (or perhaps they are). In the meantime, let us not be in a hurry to condemn one side or the other.

The presence of the “tree of the knowledge of good and evil” in the Garden of Eden is intriguing. Why is this tree there, what does it mean, and why is it forbidden? After the woman and the man eat the fruit, their eyes are opened and they know good and evil. Apparently, this means that they now know the difference between right and wrong; they have the capacity for moral discernment. Genesis 3 seems to be saying that this is one of the human capacities that makes us fundamentally different from the rest of the animal kingdom. Recent research has shown that, in actuality, some other animals also have a basic moral sensibility and make decisions based on that sensibility. Nevertheless, I think Genesis is correct in seeing humans as having this capacity to a truly unique extent.

But here’s my question: Isn’t our moral capacity a good thing? And if it is a good thing, then why is it viewed as forbidden? The Genesis story does not explicitly answer this question, but my guess is that from the perspective of Genesis 2-3, if we did not have this capacity, we would be innocent creatures, just like all other creatures. We do not usually label other animals as being morally bad or morally good; they simply do what their nature and environment dictate. A lion that kills a zoo keeper is dangerous, but it is not morally bad; it is still “innocent.” In a sense, we humans would be better off if we were like the rest of the animal kingdom–simply doing what comes naturally and being morally innocent. If such were our state, we would suffer from no guilt or shame (such as the man and woman in 2:25). With our moral capacity comes a terrible price: we now are burdened with the knowledge that we have morally failed from time to time, and we suffer guilt and shame. But is there not an even higher price if we do not have our moral capacity? Without it we cannot fully love. Who would choose to be an innocent animal rather than a morally plagued human being with the capacity to fully love?

The creature that tempts the woman to eat the forbidden fruit is a talking snake with legs and arms. Later generations have identified the snake as Satan, which makes sense given the later belief in the devil. But for the original author of Genesis 3, the snake is not the embodiment of demonic evil, it is simply a character who makes the temptation possible. Perhaps the temptation is not evil at all. Perhaps the temptation is needed or there is no such thing as choice. And perhaps the woman and the man make the right choice after all, despite its painful and destructive consequences.

The man and woman, after eating from the forbidden tree, suffer certain curses. Now, for the first time, there is male dominance over the female, and the man’s work for survival becomes bitter. Is Genesis 3 suggesting this is our God-willed state and we have to accept it, or that this is a state from which God hopes to free us somehow? In light of the rest of the Bible, I believe quite strongly the latter. Another consequence is that the man and the woman are now barred from the Garden of Eden, specifically so that they do not now eat from the tree of life–a tree that would give them ongoing immortality. This is for their (and our) own good: God does not want us to be in a permanent state of guilt and shame, separated from God and suffering these other curses. The rest of the Bible is, in a sense, the story of how God helps us remove the curses of our moral capacity and help us get back to the tree of life. The tree of life is never mentioned again in the Bible until we get to the last chapter of the Bible–and there it is in the new Jerusalem, our ultimate home.

Genesis 1:1-2:3

In my opinion, the Book of Genesis is the most important book in the Old Testament, and with the exception of the four Gospels, the most important book in the Bible. This is the book that sets out basic truths about God, creation, humanity, and their relationship to one another. This is the book that most deeply diagnoses the human condition–its promise and its tragedy. The Bible, as a whole, is the story of God finding a way to rescue humanity from its own self-destruction; Genesis depicts the first steps in the story of God finding a way.

The first chapter of Genesis is perhaps the most familiar passage in the Bible. But it is so familiar, we perhaps miss what makes it unique and important. Let me make a few observations.

Central to the Jewish and Christian definition of God is that God is the creator of the visible universe. This may seem obvious to us, but it hasn’t been obvious to everyone. In some strands of ancient Greek philosophy, the natural world is viewed as so deeply flawed it can only have been created by an incompetent, inferior, and even malign god. Just look at all of the suffering and decay inherent in nature: living things must feed on other living things in order to survive, and all living things must die and putrefy. Based on this observation, many ancient philosophers rejected the creator of the universe as a being worthy of praise; rather, the god we ought to worship is a completely spiritual god who has nothing to do with the material world; this spiritual god gave us immortal souls, and salvation means escaping the physical, corrupt, perishable world and being joined to a purely spiritual reality. Genesis, chapter 1, resoundingly rejects this view. The author claims that every aspect of creation is “good”: or at least it was originally. God is invested in this creation. God loves it and wants the best for it. Salvation does not mean escaping from creation, it means healing creation.

At the same time that this chapter affirms the basic goodness of the universe, it also makes clear that God is not the universe or any part of the universe. This is a unique perspective. The mythology of the ancient world identifies the various gods with various aspects of nature, but Genesis places God outside the universe as One who is Other than the universe, while at the same time being intimately involved in the universe. In the mythology widespread throughout the ancient near-east, the universe is the result of a great battle by a god against the forces of chaos, but Genesis 1 depicts an effortless creation brought about simply by God speaking. All of this adds up to a God that is beyond all natural forces, who is utterly sovereign over everything. Such a view of God is taken for granted by most Christians and Jews today, but it was breathtaking in the ancient world, and it still challenges our tendency to put God into categories we can understand and control. The God of Genesis, chapter one, is a God we will never get to the bottom of.

The climax of the first chapter occurs when God creates “humankind in our image, according to our likeness.” Much ink has been spilt exploring all the possible meanings of this phrase. It seems most likely that “image” and “likeness” refer to humanity’s role: to oversee creation just as God does. We have a job to promote the good stewardship of our world (which we are failing dreadfully at this time). But the claim that both men and women reflect God’s image also suggests that all of us (regardless of gender or other categories) possess a common and intrinsic value. If we are all in the image of God, then we are all “created equal” as the Declaration of Independence puts it. And if we are all created equal, then no one ought to be treated with less value than another person. This is a revolutionary idea for which we are still figuring out the ramifications.

Interestingly, Genesis 1 envisions humanity and the animal kingdom as originally vegetarians. As a matter of biology and natural history, we know this has never been the case; but I think the point is that God desires a world free from all bloodshed and violence. Such a world is “very good.”

Chapter 1 doesn’t actually conclude until three verses into chapter 2. The creation is not truly complete until God rests. Rest is built into creation. A regular rhythm of rest is sacred. In ancient agricultural societies there was precious little rest; instead, people had to work much harder and longer than when they were hunters and gatherers. Ancient agricultural communities were hierarchical, creating an exploited and oppressed peasantry. But by including God’s rest into creation, the author is undermining maximum exploitation by the powerful. Rest is the divine privilege that belongs to all.

This opening chapter has not yet presented the problems of humanity and creation; those will be explored later. The purpose of this opening chapter is to give us an ideal to live toward, an ideal that represents God’s purest will. Without an ideal to guide us, we simply accept what is as what must be. Genesis allows for no such resignation!

These observations transcend the literalist arguments about whether the universe was created in six twenty-four hour days or where the dinosaurs fit in. To me, such questions misunderstand this chapter. A close reading of this chapter reveals an ancient picture of the earth as one covered by a bowl (the firmament), surrounded above and below by water. It’s not science, nor is it history as we understand history today; it’s spiritual reality.

How to Pray for a President

With the inauguration of Joe Biden two days away, I turn to a question that has long puzzled me: how should one pray for a president? Mennonites, historically, have tended to be apolitical, ignoring the government as much as possible while pursuing our alternative community of faith, love, and service to one another. As followers of Jesus committed to nonviolence, we have had an uneasy relationship with the government’s power to coerce citizens and kill enemies. And yet, 1 Timothy 2:1-2 urges all believers to pray “for kings and all who are in high positions.” For what, exactly, are we supposed to pray?

How did those early Christians pray for the Roman emperor? How did they pray for someone who made constant expansive war against various tribes and nations, enslaving men, women, and children for the greater glory of Rome? How did they pray for an autocrat with unlimited power who lived a life of drunkenness, orgies, murderous plots, and luxurious excess while most citizens groveled in poverty? How did they pray for those in “high positions” who crucified Jesus and Peter and beheaded Paul? The Epistle to Timothy seems to suggest that the purpose of praying for kings is so that they will leave Christians alone! As the rabbi replies to the question in “Fiddler on the Roof” on how to pray for the Czar: “May God bless and keep the Czar–far away from us!”

But in a democracy in which we participate (in however attenuated fashion) in the political decision-making process, should not our prayers engage the government and its leadership in a more constructive way? How should we pray for President Joe Biden?

Four years ago when Donald Trump became president, some of my friends made public statements that they hoped his presidency would be a complete failure. I did not vote for Trump, but I took a very different stance: I told those friends that I hoped Trump’s presidency would be a success. No, I was not hoping for a huge wall across our entire border with Mexico, nor was I hoping for Muslim immigrants to be banned from the United States. I did not like his character, and I did not like his stated policies. But what I was hoping was that Donald Trump’s presidency would turn out to be beneficial to our nation as well as to the world. If his presidency became a failure, then we would all be hurt.

We do not have to agree with the president, or have voted for the president, in order to pray positively for the president. What we should pray is that the president (and the president’s staff and cabinet) be wise and just, and that the public good be the ultimate result. God wills every government to be just, every leader to act wisely, and all people to experience good.

At this particular moment in our history, there are several specific things that all Christians should be united in praying for: that partisan hostility be replaced with mutual understanding and respect; that violent protest be replaced with positive demonstrations; that trust in democratic processes and institutions be strengthened; that vaccines for the Covid virus be administered as quickly as possible.

May all people of faith pray for the new president, the new Congress, the people of our country, and for the welfare of the entire planet. At the same time, let us realize that human governments will always fall short and disappoint us. We do not give our ultimate hope and allegiance to a president, a party, or a government; we give it to God.

The Consequences of Bearing False Witness

Last week, when a protest turned into a mob storming the Capitol, resulting in members of Congress hiding for their lives and the deaths of five people, we saw the consequences of a President repeatedly bearing false witness.

“You shall not bear false witness” is one of the Ten Commandments. The Ten Commandments laid the basis for ancient Israel, articulating the essential principles for a healthy and functional society. The first few commandments are religious, establishing Israel’s unique relationship with God, but the rest are social and apply well to any society, regardless of its underlying religious or secular commitments.

“You shall not bear false witness” prohibits making false public statements or accusations that undermine justice. President Trump repeatedly claimed that the election was “rigged” and that he actually won by a landslide. He filed scores of suits challenging the legitimacy of elections in various states, but not a single one of his suits held up in court. Judges appointed by him, and Republican election officials, all dismissed his accusations. Hand recounts of paper ballots, signature matching, and the reviewing of unedited videotapes have all demonstrated that there was virtually no fraud in this past election. On the contrary, this was perhaps the most accurate election, with the highest voter turnout, in history. On this basis, the Electoral College declared Biden the clear winner of the election.

Despite the facts presented in court that refuted all of his claims of fraud, and despite the Electoral College finalizing the results of the election, President Trump continued claiming he won the election “and everyone knows it.” He then tried to pressure the Republican election officials in Georgia to “find” enough votes to make him the winner. They refused. He then pressured Republicans in Congress to challenge the Electoral College results and have Vice President Pence declare him the winner–something Vice President Pence refused to do since such an action would be unconstitutional and nothing less than a coup.

Nevertheless, President Trump convinced many of his supporters that Pence actually had the authority to overturn the election, and he called on his supporters to march to the Capitol in order to pressure Congress and Pence to make him the winner of the election.

We all know the horrifying things that happened next. I do not believe that President Trump intended the protesters to actually storm the Capitol, using force and violence to gain entry and break into the Senate chamber and the offices of Congress. But when this happened, he was initially pleased, tweeting his congratulations: “Remember this day forever!”

All of this happened because Donald Trump continued–and continues–to bear false witness. What makes matters even worse is that a sizeable number of Republicans in Congress have chosen to repeat the lies. This is made possible by certain “news” outlets that have also chosen to repeat the lies. When members of the public get all of their information from highly biased sources that are willing to make unsubstantiated (even discredited) claims, then the result is the undermining of justice. These media outlets feel no shame. Even now they are spreading a false narrative that it was “antifa” that stormed the Capitol and committed the violence.

We are all susceptible to believing lies, regardless of our political orientation. Friends of mine–intelligent and well-educated–were convinced that George W. Bush ordered the 9-11 attacks for his own political gain. I was shocked that my friends had gotten sucked into such an absurd conspiracy theory. But we are all capable of believing lies. It happens when we are so suspicious and hateful of our political or ideological opponents that we readily believe the worst in them and their intentions. It happens when our information sources continue repeating the lies so often that we become convinced they must be true.

Our democracy cannot survive if we tolerate or continue to be susceptible to the bearing of false witness. It must stop right now.