The beginning of the Bible is full of rich stories that are helpful in today’s pagan world. As we continue our study together, we are going to provide you with an overview of the stories in the first eleven chapters of Genesis.
In these first chapters of Genesis, Moses tells stories about
- the Fall
- the Flood
- and the Tower of Babel
Story 1. Only One God (Genesis 1.1-2.4a)
Remember, Moses first told this story (and the others) around campfires in the wilderness, given by God through him to the Hebrews. They were oral. No doubt they may have had some verbal expressions as well as dramatic expressions.
More than anything else, the ancient Hebrew needed to understand that there was only one God. The prevalent cultural belief about the deities in their day was that there were many gods to be worshiped. The idea that there was only one God and it was he who created the world is what separates the First Testament faith from its ancient Near Eastern counterparts. In addition, the ancient world believed that the world was made by other gods from other gods. The job of Moses was to demonstrate that there was only one God, the God of the Hebrews.
The trial in July 1925 of a public school teacher John T. Scopes in Dayton, TN (called the Scopes Trial) set America on a course of interpreting Genesis against the villain of science. So when you open your Bible to the first story (Genesis 1.1-2.4a), a natural tendency is to think of it as a treatise about how God created the earth. This was not the driving question of the day among the Hebrews as it has become in our day because of the Scopes Trial.
The first teller of this story, Moses, and the first hearers of this story, Israel in the wilderness, did not have privy to Darwin’s theory. It was not part of their mindset. One might reason that if it were not part of the original storyteller’s mindset and it had meaning for the first hearer who also did not have a scientific mindset, then we might need to look in another direction for the meaning of the story of creation.
Alas, we return to our original thought, the ancient Hebrew needed to understand that there was only one God and not many gods. They needed to realize that other so-called gods that were being worshipped at their time and thought to be creative forces were in reality not gods at all.
Story 2. Freedom: The Creation of Humankind (Genesis 2.4b-25)
This story tells about the creation of the first community by God.
The purpose of the stories in Genesis 1-11 was to help the children of Israel to comprehend that God was serious about the covenant that he had made with them at Mt. Sinai. This story uses the term “Lord God,” which is the covenant-making name of God. The first recipients of this story would have understood that the God who created the world was the God who had made a covenant with them at Sinai. We should resist hearing this story wearing our “Western” hats based on the Scopes Trial, i.e., a war against science and the Bible. We must learn to hear the story of the creation of our first parents through the ears of those sitting around a campfire at the foot of Mt. Sinai who had made a covenant with the God of creation.
Story 3. Bondage: The Fall of Humankind (Genesis 3.1-24)
Adam and Eve make a decision of eating the forbidden fruit that leads to the original fall of humankind away from God. This story explains the foundation for the trouble that humankind lives in. The story was meant to help Israel understand that there were serious consequences for breaking covenant with God.
We often hear this story told to demonstrate how the Fall occurred, to identify the serpent as Satan, and to teach about the first sacrifice of blood. There is one thing clear from this story: the serpent is not Satan. The first two chapters and the final chapter of Scripture begin and end with a mention of him. The thrust of this story is to help Israel understand the care and concern that God has for his children, even when they disobey him.
Story 4. The Fruit of the Fall (Murder) (Genesis 4.1-16)
This story is the first of humankind’s fall outside of the created paradise of God in the original Killing Field. We are told that our first parents had two children: Cain and Abel. Abel’s vocation was a herdsman and Cain’s was growing fruit. We are told that they both brought gifts to God who accepted Abel’s and rejected Cain’s. This story is about the attitude that Israel must have when presenting gifts to God. It is not as often thought and taught that God accepted Abel’s gift because it was livestock fit for a blood sacrifice and Cain only brought produce from the field. The story demonstrates the freedom to make choices and to take personal responsibility for the choices that are made.
Story 5. Coming to Grips with Genealogies (Genesis 4.17-5.32)
Those who read Scripture usually do not consider the genealogies the most exciting parts to read. For the most part, they are read once, if that, and then discarded in future readings. Beginning with Genesis 4.17 there is a proliferation of people. Scripture uses a literary device, which is called genealogy. In the Old Testament sense, it is a list of names, which indicate the ancestors or descendants of individuals. Often it is a simple registration of names. It is clear that Old Testament genealogies are not used in the same strict fashion that modern genealogies are in which each person in a line is listed. We find most of the genealogies in the Pentateuch, Ezra-Nehemiah, and the Chronicles.
Story 6. Sons of God and Daughters of Men (Genesis 6.1-8)
Genesis 4-5 focuses only on the sons born before the flood, while Genesis 6.1 focuses on the daughters born to men. To say the least, Genesis 6.1-4 has been and appears to remain a baffling passage of Scripture. This story was to demonstrate the increase of wickedness that occurred after the fall of humankind.
Story 7. When It Rains It Pours: The Flood (Genesis 6.9-7.24)
This story identifies Noah as a righteous man who walked with God and was not contaminated by the wickedness and sin of his day. God tells him to build an ark in which his family and other created creatures could enter and escape the coming judgment of God on the world. God establishes a covenant with Noah and then the flood. For forty days and nights, it rains until every part of creation was wiped out except for those who were on the ark. After the flood, God told the survivors that never again would such a catastrophe come on humankind.
Our usual attempts are to try and prove the Flood story scientifically. It has been fashionable to try and discover the ark so that Christians could say that Scripture was true to a scientific certainty so that the world would know the Scriptures are true.
Of course, this is not the purpose of this story. It is a story of God’s judgment and grace on humankind.
Story 8. A New Beginning (Genesis 8.1-9.17)
God made a promise to Noah and all other life on earth. Noah’s family was to begin the process again of increasing and filling the earth. Life is revealed as sacred. It is about a God who protects his own image. It is about the propensity of children to be like their parents regardless of race. It is about how God makes a covenant in spite of the sinfulness of humankind. It is about a God who is faithful to his own word.
Remember, these stories are told against the background of the covenant that God made with Israel. Like Noah, he would surely allow the Israelites to begin again after breaking covenant with him.
Story 9. The Cursing of Canaan (Genesis 9.18-10.32)
The storyteller could have ended the story with the covenant of the rainbow but instead chose to tell a story about the weakness of Noah who produced some wine and got intoxicated. The flood surely did not wipe out the human tendency to sin. This story is not about drunkenness or the evils of wine. It is not about the African race being the descendants of Ham/Canaan and thus being cursed (which was the belief by which our own forefathers in America defended slavery).
Story 10. The Tower of Babel (Genesis 11.1-26)
A new expression of confidence was instilled when the world was repopulated. Everyone spoke the same language and because of this act, they were able to collaborate on this tower building adventure.
All these stories are told against the backdrop of polytheism. The point of the story like the ones before is that the creator God is the only one to be worshiped. Towers were built in the ancient world with a staircase so the gods could come and visit. Moses may have wanted God’s children to understand that his presence was with them at all times (the tabernacle) instead of occasionally at his whim.
We now come to the last section of Genesis 1-11. We must note that this section ends with verse 26 and the new section of Genesis begins with verse 27. This is one of those unfortunate breaks that came with the versification of Scripture. The narrator ends with another genealogy section. This genealogy is of the Shemites that begins with Shem and moves to Terah who was Abraham’s father. This is a vertical genealogy and is designed to show legitimate ancestry. These types of genealogies were often used in the ancient world to establish the authenticity of a king or a dynasty. The narrator moves his hearers toward the next story to be presented in Genesis, the story of Abraham.
Where do we go from here?
We are now ready to tackle each of the stories and see what they teach us for living our lives today. It should be fun. Hang on!
It is always important to apply what you have learned. Pause at this point and ask for the help of the Holy Spirit to help you meditate on and put into practice some or all of the following.
- Why is it important to understand that Darwin’s theory of Evolution has no part in interpreting the story of creation?
- Why do you think that the genealogies are important?
- How does seeing these first eleven chapters broken into stories help you begin to understand them?