Understanding Genesis

UPDATE: As usual, my first cut at making connections between things 🙂 falls way short of doing justice to how complicated the world really is. This post is probably wrong. Please read this one that highlights the dangers within this post.

This post is to log a connection that came into my mind – an idea that I didn’t want to just fall by the wayside. The title doesn’t mean that I understand Genesis.

Ray Anderson writes,

“When someone asks where they should begin reading in the Old Testament, I never tell them to begin with Genesis, but rather with Exodus. Exodus is the theological beginning point that serves as the exposition and explanation of all that precedes.” [1]

When I first read this snippet, I took it as a curiosity and moved on without much thought. But, sitting in church one Sunday, I felt a twinge in my brain; a significance to Ray’s words began to form, a message to my own lost self and to a lost culture.

I can best understand Ray’s comments by thinking about the name of God – YHWH. This is God’s own, personal name (meaning I AM WHO I AM) and it is rendered by most English translations as “The LORD”. YHWH appears throughout Genesis (“The LORD said to Abraham.”) to describe which god (the only one!) created heaven and earth, and which god brought Abraham out from his own country to become a new nation… by whom all peoples of the earth would be blessed.

But Abraham never knew God’s name.

Only Moses knew God’s name; it is at the beginning of Exodus that YHWH appears to him in a bush that is ablaze yet does not burn up.  It is Moses whom YHWH commands to take off his shoes – Moses who is standing in the presence of holy God – present on the earth and introducing himself by name.

Exodus begins with a bombshell – the starting point of the Bible. God comes down and introduces himself to humanity. The rest of the story begins here… even Genesis. Most of us have been taught to read books by starting at the beginning, but Genesis is very much a prequel to Exodus.[2] This is clear; someone, in writing down the Genesis stories, has very carefully told them using God’s own name – YHWH. Genesis is written in hindsight, and it is important to pay attention to this.

For example, if we are tempted to place the Jewish creation myth alongside another ancient Mesopotamian creation myths, we must be cautious, because the Genesis story is not just an ancient myth. It is a reinterpreted ancient myth. Someone (having been stunned by the very revelation and introduction of God, by personal name, to the world) has gone back to re-examine tradition. Having been awed by the incredible and miraculous election and rescue of the Jewish people, he has retold an old story – to explain what actually happened.

The Moon and Sun are not gods; YHWH is. They are only created things. Matter is not shaped from a giant serpent of chaos but is spoken into existence by the word of the God who parts the sea and walks on the earth in fire, and who has introduced himself to humanity in a burning bush. Pharaoh, who claimed to be God – who claimed to protect and uphold the land – who claimed to make the rains fall – was exposed as a helpless fraud by the hand of our YHWH. There is a God who controls all Creation and he is YHWH. We know who he is because he has told us, and we know he commands the world because we have seen him do it.[3]

YHWH is in Genesis, which means that so is the burning bush. The plagues – the parting of the Red Sea… the pillar of fire… the glory at Sinai… all are in Genesis. The beginning words of this story are “I will rescue you from Egypt” and not, “Get out of my garden.” But – having now been rescued… we need to understand how we ever got to Egypt in the first place.

One lesson this story teaches us in our own lost culture is that God doesn’t play fair. He’s liable to introduce himself first, and ask him to follow him… before we understand everything. It’s quite probable that, once we have believed him and followed him some distance, we will have to go back and revise what we once thought we knew.

Our own lost culture is fixated on telling our own story “right the first time”. (These days, in the West, we mostly we try to do this through science and observation.) We think we can build an accurate story of our existence (an anthropology) without factoring in the introduction of God. Well, no – we can’t. We will get lost in bad creation myths, because we, as people – as storytellers – have not yet been transformed to the point where we can tell a decent story.

Look at the Gospels. They weren’t recorded in realtime, as events happened – not even close! Thanks be to God; even a brief read through Mark shows that when events were going on, the disciples were in the dark about what was actually happening. The Gospels were written through the fires of Pentecost. Here we have transformed Apostles who, having lived a life in the Spirit and in the Church, became men who knew – men who had seen with their very eyes the kingdom that Jesus came to announce.

They didn’t know what he had been preaching about, they knew the thing he had preached.

We need to know God first and understand him later. If we wait for God to make sense to us before we believe in him, we will forever be drowning in a world of primordial soup that houses ancient dragons of chaos, trying to piece together some kind of sensical story without any of the critical pieces. We can’t understand our lives without beginning in introduction and transformation.

“Hi God.
I’m Scott.
My life is kind of a mess.
Please don’t hate me…”

[1] Ray Sherman Anderson, The Soul of Ministry?: Forming Leader’s for God’s People (Louisville, Ky.: Westminster John Knox Press, 1997), 4. Back

[2] Prequels are funny things. Often (e.g. The Silmarillion & Lord of the Rings) they should be read last. In some cases (*cough* Phantom Menace *cough*) they should just be ignored. Back

[3] Genesis is really about Israel. It is not a general “How God made people” manual but more of a “Wow – YHWH was there all this time and this is what he was actually doing” account. Back

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4 Responses to Understanding Genesis

  1. “We need to know God first and understand him later.”
    I like this, Scott. Found this blog via Facebook and have just enjoyed reading.
    I’m wondering how much I really knew God when I first met you, but I know that I have understood him a lot more since then.
    Keep blogging

  2. happy_moron says:

    Wonderful to hear from you, U. John!

    I’m not sure I previously knew him much, either – but if our knowledge has grown in time then that is something to be thankful for 😀 I think one thing that knowing God more has done for me is to drive me increasingly towards utter dependence on his grace…

  3. Lila says:

    Viewing Genesis as a “prequel” solidifies the idea that the Pentateuch was written by Moses.

  4. happy_moron says:

    We talked about that in school; as with most things that nobody knows for sure, everybody likes to guess. Certainly the Genesis material did not begin with him (oral tradition) and he probably didn’t write his own obituary in Deuteronomy 34 😀

    All that means, of course, is that ‘wrote’ cannot be used in the narrowest definition of ‘wrote’ that we think of in modern publishing. Most of Shakespeare’s stuff wasn’t original, either, and it’s not hard to find a modern book with either a Foreword or with a little author blurb at the end.

    Still, the Pentateuch are clearly arranged as a unit that work together with one another.

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