The Book of Beginnings
Both the Jewish and Christian Bibles start with the Book of Genesis. This fascinating book provides an account of the earth’s origins, the creation of mankind, sin, redemption and the Twelve Tribes of Israel. The first two chapters provide the Creation Story. While the story of Abraham covers fourteen chapters, the Creation Story only takes up two.
The Genesis account of Creation is not the only one to come out of ancient literature. The Babylonian story, “Enuma Elish,” for example, provides an interesting account of creation. It tells of multiple gods who were themselves part of creation. There are definite pantheistic elements in this story and the other ancient creation accounts.
The Genesis account of creation, however, is very different. It starts with the phrase, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” (Genesis 1:1) The writer of Genesis starts off by making it clear that God the Creator existed prior to creating the world. The Creation Story in Genesis is also different from many of the other accounts because it is obvious that God is outside of creation and not part of it. Another clear difference between Genesis and other ancient creation stories is the fact that there is no hint of polytheism in Genesis. God alone created the world and from the very beginning of the Bible, the idea of monotheism is firmly established.
Genesis also tells the story of the creation of mankind, and specifically, the first man and the first woman, Adam and Eve. God created a wonderful environment for them to enjoy and live in. God only placed one restriction on the man and woman. They could not eat from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. That was the only rule on the new earth. Genesis chapter three records the conversation that the serpent had with the woman. In essence, the serpent was able to convince Eve that God, by placing that one rule in effect, was withholding something good from her.
The serpent promised enlightenment if she would eat the fruit. Eve did eat, doing what God had forbidden, and encouraged Adam to eat, as well. The enlightenment that they were seeking was the fact that they realized they were naked and attempted to make coverings for themselves out of fig leaves. This sin led to their being banished from the Garden of Eden and also introduced sin into what had been a perfect world.
As mentioned, the story of Abraham occupies fourteen chapters in Genesis. Abraham is, by far, the biggest personality in Genesis, and one of the biggest in the entire Bible. The reader is not told how Abraham came into contact with God. His home town, Ur, was known for its idolatry. Somehow, Abraham had an experience with YAWEH, who told him to pack up and move South, to the land of Canaan.
This story is built around a series of seven encounters that Abraham had with YAWEH over more than twenty-five years. Most of these encounters involved God’s speaking to Abraham and promising to bless him. The most significant parts of the blessing that God promised Abraham were land and descendants. God told Abraham that his descendants would inherit the land of Canaan. He also said that Abraham would have more descendants than the “sand of the seashore” or “the stars in the sky.”
The tension throughout the first part of Abraham’s story was the fact that he and his wife, Sarah, were childless. Their story had opened when Abraham was seventy-five and his wife was sixty-five years old. Abraham is commended for his faith, especially in the New Testament. It was not easy, however, for Abraham to stay strong in faith. At one point, Abraham and Sarah decided to try to have a child through her servant girl, Hagar. She gave birth to Ishmael. This was an accepted social practice of that day. While God never rebukes Abraham and Sarah for this, YAWEH does make it clear that his intention was that Sarah would give Abraham a son.
When Abraham was one hundred years old and Sarah was ninety, Isaac was born. “Isaac” means “laughter.” It is not hard to imagine the joyful laughter after Sarah gave birth to a son. At some point after the birth of Isaac, God tested Abraham one final time. “Take your son, your only son, Isaac, whom you love, and sacrifice him to me.”
The writer does not mention the anguish that Abraham must have felt that night. The author does record that Abraham set off the next morning to obey YAWEH’s command. The altar was prepared, Isaac was bound and placed upon it, and Abraham picked up the knife and raised it overhead. At that moment, God’s voice called out to Abraham and stopped him. God then reaffirmed His promises to Abraham. Abraham becomes known as the “friend of God.”
Isaac, the child of the promise, lived a fairly uneventful life. His main claim to fame is that he fathered twins, Esau and Jacob. Jacob’s name was later changed to Israel. His twelve sons and their families formed the original Twelve Tribes of Israel. Jacob’s story is another one of the major narratives in Genesis. He is one of the most interesting personalities in all of the Bible. He was known for his manipulative, deceitful nature. He took advantage of his twin brother twice, as well as his elderly, invalid father, Isaac. When Esau threatened to kill him, Jacob fled to his Uncle Laban’s house.
Laban was an older and much more skilled deceiver and manipulator. He took advantage of Jacob, getting fourteen years’ labor out of him for the privilege of marrying Laban’s youngest daughter, Rachel. The original deal was that Jacob would work for Laban for seven years and then be allowed to marry Rachel. Laban, however, changed the arrangements on their wedding day and gave Jacob his oldest daughter, Leah, instead. Because Jacob loved Rachel, he agreed to Laban’s demand that he work for seven more years to get her as a wife. The only consolation was that Laban allowed them to marry almost immediately, even though Jacob would be working that debt off for the next seven years.
The story of Jacob is a story of grace, transformation, and of reaping what you sow. Jacob’s character was changed by an encounter with the God of Abraham and Isaac. YAWEH even changed his name to Israel. This name has various meanings, including “one who has struggled with God and prevailed,” “a prince with God,” and “God contended.”
Jacob’s sons, however, were another story. Because there were four different mothers involved (Rachel, Leah, and their two servant girls), there was conflict between them. The most serious conflict, however, was with one of their younger brothers, Joseph. He was clearly his father’s favorite, and his brothers hated him for that. Their hatred and jealousy eventually came to a head, and they sold Joseph to slave traders heading for Egypt. The brothers took Joseph’s clothes, ripped them and put some blood on them, and then showed them to their father. He assumed that Joseph had been killed by a wild animal.
God was clearly with Joseph, however, and blessed him. He was sold as a slave to Potiphar, one of the pharaoh’s military leaders. Joseph so impressed Potiphar that he gave him charge of his entire household. When Joseph refused his wife’s sexual advances, though, she had him framed and arrested and thrown into prison.
Even in jail, however, YAWEH was still with Joseph. The warden came to trust him completely. While in jail, he met two of pharaoh’s personal servants. They had been jailed because they had displeased the pharaoh. They both had dreams in jail that Joseph was able to interpret for them. One of them was later released from jail. When the Pharaoh had dreams that he could not understand, this servant remembered Joseph and had him brought before the Pharaoh.
After Joseph interpreted the Pharaoh’s dream, he was promoted on the spot from slave to prime minister. Joseph’s wisdom and insight saved Egypt and the surrounding nations during a time of severe famine. When Joseph’s brothers came to Egypt to buy food, Joseph recognized them. He tested them to see if they had changed. Eventually, there was reconciliation between them. The Pharaoh had Joseph invite his father, brothers, and their families to come and live in Egypt.
Genesis ends with the death of Joseph. The stage has been set for the next book in the Bible, Exodus. After Joseph’s family came to Egypt, they would continue to grow and multiply for the next several hundred years. In Exodus, the reader will see these twelve tribes being formed into a nation.
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