Week 4 – Deliverance

Scripture Readings:  Exodus 1-7, 10-17

Significant Moments in The Story

The enslavement of Israel – Exodus 1

God calls Moses – Exodus 3-4

The first nine plagues – Exodus 7-10

The institution of Passover & the tenth plague – Exodus 12

The parting of the Red Sea (the Sea of Reeds) – Exodus 14

Manna in the morning – Exodus 16

Key Themes

God’s salvation

“Then the LORD said, ‘I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters.  Indeed, I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them from the Egyptians, and to bring them up out of that land to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey …” (Exodus 3:7-8).  In these sentences, we find the next major movement of God in his relationship with Israel as we have followed through the narrative of Scripture.  In these words, we also find a strong declaration of God’s character:  God will not allow His people to continue to suffer under the torment of the powers that keep them enslaved.  Thus, God acts in history to bring salvation to His people.  This theme of salvation and liberation will echo throughout the story of Scripture, from the exile in Babylon to the New Testament account of Jesus Christ.

God’s rule over all creation

Throughout this narrative, we see God declaring that He is only true authority and power in the world.  In the ten plagues (Exodus 7-12), God reveals the Pharaoh, representing the most powerful human force of oppression, as powerless to stop God and as ultimately answerable to God’s will.  The plagues also represent a direct assault, in several cases, on the gods that the Egyptians worshiped.  Many have seen in the Exodus narrative an attempt to support the radical monotheism of Judaism that was rather unusual in the ancient world.  We also, in this section, are introduced to what will be a recurring theme throughout the story of Moses as well as all of Scripture and our own faith stories today:  humanity’s tendency to question whether or not God knows what God is doing (Exodus 16-17).

God’s call

The story of the call of Moses (Exodus 3-4) is important for several reasons.  First, we are reminded that God’s desire for us to be partners with Him in His work has not changed since Creation, even when we have so often wanted to try to go it alone. The text is very clear throughout that God is the one doing the saving.  However, God wants Moses to be a part of what He is doing.  At the same time, this story of God’s conversation with Moses is enlightening to how we often respond to God’s call in our own lives:  we list all the reasons why we can’t do it and God should find somebody else.  However, God has an answer for every one of Moses’ excuses, just as He has an answer for every one of our excuses.  Over and over again in Scripture, we have seen God call the very people we would least expect Him to.  Moses probably fits into that same category (why call a man who has been separated from his people for some time to now come and lead them?)  However, to borrow a familiar phrase, God does not call the qualified, He qualifies the called.

Background Information

A king who did not know Joseph – Exodus 1:8

Trying to accurately date the events of the Exodus are very difficult.  For one thing, we are never told the names of the two “kings of Egypt” mentioned in the narrative.  Some have speculated based on the names given to the cities in Exodus 1:11 that Rameses II was one of the kings, who we know oversaw massive building projects and a decline in Egyptian power.  However,  there are other speculations that involve Seti I or Thutmose III as well as other Pharaohs.  A second complicating factor is that nowhere in the Egyptian records is there any mention of the Exodus event.  However, as John Bright in his A History of Israel points out, this would not be unusual since Pharaohs would rarely record stories of their defeats, especially stories that involved runaway slaves.  Thus, it is very difficult to date accurately when the Exodus took place.  There are some who even speculate that the Exodus was not one single event, but a series of migrations out of Egypt over a lengthy span of time.  For Israel, the Exodus story would be remembered as their birth as a nation and the defining moment of their relationship with God.

God’s name – Exodus 3:13-14

The story of the burning bush is significant for many reasons, but perhaps most important to the faith of Israel is that this is the moment when God reveals his name. Even though God has had an ongoing relationship with Abraham and his descendants, God has never shared with anyone His name (see Exodus 6:3-4). When Moses asks for God’s name, the reply that God gives is the Hebrew word Yahweh. The English translation of this Hebrew word is complicated in part because we are unsure of the tense. The name is a form of the Hebrew verb “to be”. Some English translations read I AM WHO I AM, others read I AM WHAT I AM, others read I WILL BE WHATBI WILL BE. “He causes to be” is another possible translation. Whatever its meaning, God’s name is treated as sacred. The Israelites would not pronounce God’s name, even when reading Scripture, substituting the word Adonai , or “Lord”, for the name. That is why, in our English translations, every time the name of God is used in the Old Testament, you will see the word LORD in all caps.

A hardened heart – Exodus 4:21

There are numerous references to Pharaoh’s “hardened heart”.  To understand this phrase, we must remember that we are dealing with a culture that believed that the heart rather than the mind was what guided human actions.  So to say that someone’s heart was hardened meant that the individual or people were stubborn, indifferent, or unable to understand something.  One of the interesting issues in this story is the recurring references to Pharaoh’s hardened heart.  Was his stubbornness a willfull act of the Pharaoh or an act of God?  There are references to both.  One interpretation notes that, through the first 5 plagues, the Scripture references seem to indicate that Pharaoh’s hardened heart was the result of his own will (Exodus 7:22-23; 8:15, 19, 32; 9:7).  However, starting with the sixth plague, the Scripture references indicate that the Pharaoh’s hardened heart was the result of God’s action (Exodus 9:12, 35; 10:20, 27).  Thus, God’s hardening of Pharaoh’s heart was an allowing of the Pharaoh to continue on the path that he had already determined to go down.  Another possibility is that God’s hardening of Pharaoh’s heart is indicative of the fact that God’s purpose was greater than the liberation of Israel.  God was determined to reveal his sovereignty to Israel and to all the nations, and the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart set in motion an entire series of events that served as such a statement.

The first 9 plagues – Exodus 7-10

The plagues are rich with meaning.  We often think of them simply as God punishing Pharaoh for not letting Israel go.  However, the plagues were both a revelation of God’s power and a direct assault on the cultural and religious systems of Egypt that enslaved Israel.

1)  Turning the water of the Nile to blood – the Nile river was literally the lifeblood of Egypt.  It was the commercial highway and it waters would overrun the banks and provide fertile soil for agriculture.  Maintaining the security of the waterway was one of the chief responsibilities of the Pharaoh and his government.  There were two gods, Hapi and Isis, associated with the Nile river.  Thus, to turn the water to blood was to turn a source of life into a source for death.

2)  The frogs – Haget was an Egyptian goddess who was believed to assist women in childbirth.  She was commonly depicted as having the head of a frog.  Now, Egypt is overrun with this symbol of fertility.  Pharaoh had been concerned about the Israelites “filling his land” and had ordered the midwives to kill the Hebrew boys, turning their purpose upside down.  So God turns the purpose of Haget upside down – the land is now overrun with her symbol, frogs, bringing disease and stench.

3 & 4)  The gnats and the flies – gnats, or possibly sand flies, were a huge problem in arid lands like Egypt, bringing disease to cattle and humans alike.  Flies, likewise, were so common in Egypt that they are associated with Egypt elsewhere in Scripture (Isaiah 7:18, 18:1).

5 & 6)  Pestilence on cattle – Hathor and Apis were both Egyptian gods who were associated with cattle.  In the plague of boils, the pestilence that began with the cattle now spreads to humans.  No one, not even the magicians of Pharaoh, can protect themselves from it.

7)  Hail – In this plague, God makes it clear that He is not only interested in setting His people free.  He is wanting to display to Pharaoh and to the world His ultimate sovereignty (Exodus 9:14-16).  Pharaoh believes he determines the fate of Egypt and Israel.  God is proving him wrong.

8)  Locust – Osiris was the Egyptian god of the crops.  God sends locust that destroy the work of Osiris.

9)  Darkness – the Sun-God was the supreme deity of Egypt’s religion.  Now, with three days of darkness, God has vanquished the best Egypt had to offer.

 

The tenth plague and the Passover – Exodus 11-12

The Passover celebration was a festival celebrated by the Jewish people to remember the night that the spirit of God passed over the homes of the Hebrews and struck down all the firstborn children of Egypt.  The celebration would become closely associated with another festival, the feast of unleavened bread, which also traced it’s origins to this story.  The children of Israel had to leave Egypt in such a hurry that they had to carry their unrisen bread with them.  The celebration of the Passover in the centuries that followed would allow each new generation to be formed and shaped by the Exodus story, to become a part of this Exodus community.  Later, in the New Testament, the celebration of the Passover meal is the setting of Jesus’ Last Supper with his disciples.

 

The Red Sea – Exodus 14

Perhaps the most well-known part of the Exodus story is the parting of the sea which allowed the children of Israel to escape from Pharaoh’s pursuing army.  In Exodus 14, where the story of the parting of the sea is told, the sea is never given a name.  We do not get a name until Exodus 15:4, “Pharaoh’s chariots and his army he cast into the sea; his picked officers were sunk in the Red Sea.”  In most of our Bibles, there is probably a little letter next to “the Red Sea”, which points to the bottom of the page where we are told that the phrase used here also means “Sea of Reeds”.  This is the translation of the Hebrew name given in this verse.  The translation of the “Red Sea” actually comes from later Greek and Latin translations of the Hebrew.  It is likely that it was not the Red Sea that the Israelites crossed, but instead a shallow body of water farther to the north of the Red Sea.

 

Miriam’s song – Exodus 15:21-22

Miriam’s song is believed to be the oldest poetry in all of the Old Testament.

 

Some Questions that Might Come Up

Who was Moses’ father-in-law?

In Exodus 2:15-22, we are told that Moses saves the daughters of Reuel from harassment by local shepherds.  We are also told that these are the daughters of the priest of Midian.  In gratitude for Moses’s actions, Reuel gives his daughter Zipporah to Moses for a wife.  In Exodus 3:1, we are told that Moses “…was keeping the flock of his father-in-law Jethro, the priest of Midian …”.  In Exodus 18:1, we are told, “Jethro, the priest of Midian, Moses’ father-in-law, heard of all that God had done for Moses …” and so he comes to visit Moses.  Numbers 10:29 reads, “Moses said to Hobab son Reuel the Midianite, Moses’ father-in-law…”.  The most common explanation seems to be the simplest:  that Reuel and Jethro are two different names for the same person, though there are some that think that the Numbers 10:29 passage actually reads that Hobab was Moses’ father and Reuel was Hobab’s, or Jethro’s, father.

Why does God try to kill Moses?

Exodus 4:24-26 is one of the most confounding pieces of Scripture in the entire Bible.  Why does God, right after calling Moses to lead his people to freedom, try to kill Moses?  And why is it that Zipporah’s act of circumcising her son abates the attack?  And what about what Zipporah says, “Truly you are a bridegroom of blood to me!”?  These are questions with no easy answers.  One explanation is that this was originally a story about a demon attacking Moses in the night.  Over time, the spiritual demon was erroneously replaced by God, perhaps as an attempt to maintain a strict monotheism that there are no other gods but God.  Some speculate that this is a remnant of an ancient ritual that, over time, lost its meaning and fell out of practice, thus rendering it incomprehensible to us today.  However, it had early on gotten connected with the Moses story and thus remained there, even though it had no significance any longer.  Others have wondered if this story is an attempt to explain the importance of circumcision as part of the covenant.  Since Moses was raised as the son of Pharaoh’s daughter, there is a chance that he was never circumcised.  God, therefore, could not recognize him as part of the covenant and, thus, considered him an enemy.  However, Zipporah’s circumcises her son and touches the circumcised foreskin to Moses’ own genitals (“feet” is a common Hebrew euphemism for male genitals) as a substitution for Moses’ lack of circumcision.  However, problems and challenges arise with each of these explanations, and there are many more that I could mention here.  The truth is, this passage remains a Biblical enigma.  Perhaps the best last word to be said was written by Walter Brueggemann in The New Interpreter’s Bible (Vol. I, p. 718).

The larger narrative is not solely about liberation.  It concerns, rather, the claim that all parties, Israelite as well as Egyptian, must live in the presence of unleashed, unlimited holiness.  There are provisional strategies for safety in the face of holiness, but none that will finally tame this dangerous God.  One is struck at the end of this brief encounter with the peculiar juxtaposition of threat and safety, a resolve to kill and safety found only in a primitive act of blood and genitalia.  But then, holiness is perplexing beyond all explanation.

 

Additional Resources

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Week 3 – Joseph: From Slavery to Deputy Pharaoh

Scripture Readings:  Genesis 37, 39, 41-48, 50

Significant Moments in The Story

Joseph’s Brothers Sell Him into Slavery – Genesis 37

The LORD was with Joseph in Potiphar’s House – Genesis 39

Joseph Interpret’s Pharaoh’s Dream – Genesis 41

Joseph’s First Visit From His Brothers – Genesis 42

Joseph’s Brothers Return with Benjamin – Genesis 43

Joseph Reveals Himself to His Brothers – Genesis 45

Jacob (Israel) Settles in Egypt – Genesis 46

The Burial of Jacob and the Death of Joseph – Genesis 50

Key Themes

The supremacy of God

Perhaps no verse has come to serve as a better summary of the story of Joseph than Genesis 50:19-20.  After Jacob died, Joseph’s brothers feared that he might finally seek his revenge for their actions 20+ years earlier when they sold him into slavery.  However, Joseph refuses to lash out at them, saying “Do not be afraid!  Am I in the place of God?  Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good, in order to preserve a numerous people, as he is doing today.”  We can perhaps hear an echo of the voice of the apostle Paul who will write centuries later in Romans 8:28, “We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.”  Both Paul and Joseph are proclaiming that God is indeed Lord over all things and that His will for the salvation of creation will not be stopped by man’s sin.

The fulfillment of the promise

God had said to Abraham, “In you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Genesis 12:3).  Now, through Joseph, Abraham’s great-grandson, not only are Abraham’s descendants saved but also the peoples of Egypt and surrounding nations.  God uses Joseph to insure there will be food in the midst of a devastating world-wide famine (Genesis 41:53-57).  We are seeing God’s promise to Abraham being fulfilled, and at the same time we are seeing that the ultimate intent of God’s salvation is not restricted just to this one family or people.

An introduction to wisdom

Within the Old Testament we see evidence of what is sometimes called the Wisdom tradition.  This tradition sought for truth that God embedded within all creation.  Experience and study of reality allowed mankind to learn this truth and thus grow closer to God while improving life and relationships.  Joseph’s story has sometimes been used as a paradigm for wisdom.  Unlike the stories of Abraham and Jacob, we rarely hear God speak directly in Joseph’s story.  However, Joseph does model some of the basic expressions of the Wisdom tradition.  Failure comes when one does not follow the teachings of wisdom, as modeled by the antagonism of Joseph’s brothers when he boasts about his dreams (See Proverbs 27:1-4).  On the flip side, success comes when one follows wisdom’s dictates.  Joseph’s faithfulness to Potiphar and the Pharaoh and his rejection of the advances of Potiphar’s wife, ultimately resulting in his rising to a position to save the people from famine, seems to be a parable of Proverbs 3:1-10.

Background Information

Joseph’s coat – Genesis 37:3

Many of us are familiar with Joseph’s “coat of many colors”.  However, this phrase came from a translation of the Greek and Latin texts of the Old Testament, not the original Hebrew.  While the meaning of the Hebrew is uncertain, the reference seems to be not to a multi-colored coat but to a coat with sleeves.  Typically, a young man would have worn a sleeveless tunic that reached to the knees.  This coat seems to have been more like a long robe of a type that could have royal connotations, which certainly would have increased the brothers’ agitation when Jospeh shares his dreams.  Another possible agitation is that such a robe is not one that Joseph could have done manual labor in, perhaps indicating that Jacob excused Joseph from tasks that he expected the rest of his sons to do.  Notice that Jacob is not with his brothers pasturing the flocks in Shechem (Genesis 37:12-14).

Reuben – Genesis 37:21-22

Reuben, Jacob’s firstborn son, has had interesting history within his family already.  In Genesis 35:22, we are told, “While Israel lived in that land, Reuben went and lay with Bilhah his father’s concubine; and Israel heard of it.”  To sleep with his father’s concubine while his father was still alive was an act that could be viewed as rebellion or an attempt to claim his father’s role in the family.  Later on, in Genesis 49, when Jacob address all his sons before his death, Reuben does not receive a blessing as we would expect the firstborn to receive.  Instead, Jacob says of him, “… you shall no longer excel because you went up onto your father’s bed; then you defiled it – you went up onto my couch!” (Genesis 49:4).  All this raises the question if Reuben’s motivation for preserving Joseph’s life was an attempt to return to his father’s good graces.

Potiphar’s wife – Genesis 39:7-20

This story parallels an ancient Egyptian story called “The Tale of Two Brothers”, in which the wife of one brother made sexual advances toward a second brother.  When the second brother refused her advances, she laid false accusations against him, causing the first brother to seek to kill the second brother.  However, the first brother eventually becomes convinced of the second brother’s innocence and has his wife killed instead.  Obviously the story of Joseph has a very different ending.

Pharaoh’s cupbearer – Genesis 41

After the incident with Potiphar’s wife, Joseph is thrown into prison.  Soon after, he makes an impression on the chief jailer, who gives Joseph responsibility over the other prisoners.  Two of those prisoners were former servants of the Pharaoh, a cupbearer, whose job it was to taste the Pharaoh’s drink to insure it was not poisoned, and a baker.  While in prison, both of these men have dreams that they cannot understand.  They ask Joseph to interpret their dreams, and Joseph tells them that their dreams indicate that the cupbearer will be returned to the service of the Pharaoh but the baker will be executed.  Sure enough, this is what happens, and Joseph asks the cupbearer to plead his case before Pharaoh so that he might be released from jail.  However, upon his release, the cupbearer returns to his duties and forgets about Joseph until Pharaoh has a confusing dream of his own.

Benjamin – Genesis 43

Benjamin was Joseph’s only full brother.  Benjamin and Joseph were the only sons of Jacob by his wife Rachel.  The remaining 10 sons were Jacob’s children by Jacob’s other wife, Rachel’s sister Leah, and their two handmaidens, Bilhah and Zilpah.  Genesis 29:30 tells us that Jacob loved Rachel more than Leah, so his preference for Joseph and Benjamin is perhaps not surprising.

Ephraim and Manasseh – Genesis 48

The story of Jacob’s blessing of Ephraim and Manasseh serves as an explanation of later social and cultural realities in Israel.  Jacob asks Joseph to bring the two boys to him so that he can adopt them as his own sons (“Ephraim and Manasseh shall be mine, just as Reuben and Simeon are” – Genesis 48:5).  In later generations, while each of Jacob’s sons will have a tribe associated with them, the tribe of Joseph will exist split into two tribes, Ephraim and Manasseh.  This story serves to explain that split and why they are considered equal in status to the other tribes.

During the adoption ceremony, Jacob places his right hand on Ephraim’s head, indicating the greater favor.  Typically, the elder son would have received the greater blessing by virtue of being the firstborn.  This story probably served as an explanation for why, especially during the period of the Judges and in the early years of the kingdom of Israel, the tribe of Ephraim wielded more influence and power than the tribe of Manasseh.

“Carry Up My Bones From Here” – Genesis 50:25

In the Biblical account of Israel’s departure from Egypt, we are told in Exodus 13:19, “And Moses took with him the bones of Joseph who had required a solemn oath of the Israelites, saying, ‘God will surely take notice of you, and then you must carry my bones with you from here.'”

This odd oath that Joseph makes the Israelites take brings to our attention a fundamental problem at the end of Genesis:  the descendants of Abraham are not in the land that God had given to Abraham.  The covenant would seem to be at risk, a feeling that will only be heightened by the events at the opening of the book of Exodus.

Some Questions That Might Come Up

How exactly did Joseph get out of that well?

The story of how Joseph gets out of the well that his brothers threw him in and ends up in Potiphar’s house is a little confusing.  Was he sold to Ishmaelites who then turned around and sold him to Potiphar or was he pulled out of the well by the Midianites who then sold him to Potiphar?  The Ishmaelites and Midianites were different people groups.  Likely, the oral tradition of this story varied on this detail and so the author of Genesis sought to join the two stories together rather than choose one over the other.

Additional Resources

Week 2 – God Builds a Nation

Scripture Readings:  Genesis 12-13, 15-17, 21-22, 32-33, 35; Romans 4; Hebrews 11

Significant Moments in The Story

God calls Abram – Genesis 12

God Seals His Promise to Abram – Genesis 15

Hagar and Ishmael – Genesis 16

Circumcision as a Sign of the Covenant – Genesis 17

The Birth of Isaac – Genesis 21

God Tests Abraham – Genesis 22

Jacob’s Name is Changed to Israel – Genesis 32

Key Themes

Why build a nation?

If the problem of sin is a universal problem, why does God focus His attention on this one man, Abram, and his family?  Has he forgotten about the problems of sin?  No.  Before, God had set apart Noah to spare him and his family from the destruction that would come upon the rest of the world.  Now, however, God is setting apart Abram and his descendants not as sole survivors but as a vessel through which all of humanity will come to be restored to God’s blessing (Genesis 12:3).  Redemption is not wiping the slate clean, but working in, with, and through humanity to recreate and rediscover the image of God.

How does God build a nation?

According to Genesis 17, Abram was 99 years old when God changed his name to Abraham and promised him, “You shall be the ancestor of a multitude of nations” (Genesis 17:4).  At the time, Sara was 90 years old and barren.  If God was going to build a nation with a couple, promising multitudes of descendants, shouldn’t he start with a young, energetic, virile couple?  No, because it needed to be clear that God was who was ultimately at work.  And God is inviting humanity into a relationship that is based not on walks in the cool of the day but faith.  Hebrews 11:1 says, “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for and the conviction of things not seen.”  Abraham and Sarah will both live to see the birth of Isaac.  However, they will not be around to see the multitude of descendants that God is promising.  However, they were willing to base their hopes and their lives on God’s promise.  God is creating a community defined not by a language or a tribe but by a shared hope that God will fulfill His promises.

The significance of covenant

Throughout this entire reading, God is making promises to Abraham and to his family (Genesis 12, Genesis 15-17, Genesis 21, Genesis 35).  As God develops the relationship with Abraham and with his family, God invites them to be a part of a relationship with Him that is based on promises by both God and man.  This is not a contractual relationship of “If you will do this, then I will do that.”  Instead, these are promises that define expectations, that state the character of each party in the relationship.  The Bible will refer to these types of promises with the word “covenant”.  Covenant will become the defining quality of God and His people.

Background Information

The call of Abram – Genesis 12:1-9

God promises to give Abram a land and to bless him with a multitude of descendants.  In one sense, God is counteracting the confusion following the Tower of Babel (Genesis 11:1-9) when man was scattered across the face of the earth unable to communicate with one another.  Now, through Abraham, all of the earth will be brought together to receive God’s blessing.

Eliezer of Damascus – Genesis 15:2-4

Evidence indicates that, in some ancient cultures, childless couples would practice “slave adoption”, where the couple would adopt a son to serve them all of their lives and who would inherit upon their death.  If, however, a natural son was born to the couple, the adopted son would have to yield his right to inheritance.

The smoking fire pot – Genesis 15:7-21

God engages in what was probably an early covenant ceremony practice in which agreeing parties would cut an animal in two and then walk between the parts.  Though we are not exactly sure of the reason for such a practice, some believe that the ancient ceremony was a visualization of an unspoken message in the agreement:  if either party breaks the agreement, they are liable to be cut in two themselves!  

Throughout the Scriptures, fire will be a common sign of the presence of God.

The iniquity of the Amorites – Genesis 15:16

In Genesis 9, Noah’s son Ham sees his father lying naked in his tent and goes and tells his two brothers, who walk into Noah’s tent backwards and cover their father up so that they do not see him in a state of disgrace and shame.  When he wakes up, Noah curses Ham and his son, Canaan.  While there is much discussion as to why Ham’s actions deserve a curse, some believe it may be because Ham chose to go and make his father’s disgrace public rather than cover him up himself or keep quiet about it.  

Whatever the explanation, Canaan was the forefather of the Amorites, and it seems Ham’s descendants are still living with Noah’s curse.  Therefore, God tells Abraham that his descendants will be delayed in inheriting the promised land until the effects of Noah’s curse have been removed.

Circumcision – Genesis 17:9-27

Though often associated with the Hebrew people, circumcision is not unique to the descendants of Abraham.  Some of Israel’s neighbors also practiced circumcision of males as a sign of membership in a community.  In this case, circumcision was used to identify not a relationship among humans but a relationship between humanity and God.

Jacob and Esau – Genesis 32-33

Jacob and Esau are the children of Isaac, the grandchildren of Abraham.  They are twins, though Esau is a few minutes older and, therefore, recognized as the firstborn son with all the advantages and inheritance expectations that go along with being the firstborn.  In Genesis 25:29-34, Jacob convinces a famished Esau to trade his birthright (leadership of the family and a double share of the inheritance) for some stew.  Then, in Genesis 27, Jacob disguises himself to trick a blind Isaac into giving him the blessing he had intended to give to Esau.  In the ancient mindset, the words of a blessing were believed to  be powerful and could dictate the future of an individual or a people.  Because of all this, Esau swore to kill Jacob.  The boys’ mother, Rebekah, learns of Esau’s plan and tells Jacob to run away to her brother’s house and stay there until Esau’s anger has cooled.  Jacob eventually marries his uncle’s two daughters, Leah and Rachel, and has twelve sons, who will become the twelve tribes of Israel.  We pick up the story as Jacob is returning with his family to meet Esau for the first time since he ran away.

Some Questions That Might Come Up

How could Sarah give Hagar to Abraham in the first place to bear his child?

There is evidence that in some ancient cultures a marriage contract obligated the wife to provide her husband with a substitute if the wife was barren.  Interesting enough, these same contracts forbid the expulsion of the mother and her son should a son be born of the union.  This may explain, in part, Abraham’s distress regarding sending Hagar and Ishmael away in Genesis 21:11.

Why does God need to test Abraham?

Genesis 22 is one of the most powerful tales of all of Scripture.  The author tells the tale in such a way that we can almost hear the story being retold around a camp fire, with all who were listening spell bound as to what would happen.  The text gives us, the reader, an out in Genesis 22:1 by telling us that everything that we read next is a test.  However, even that out leaves us with a question:  why is God testing Abraham in the first place?

The answer to that question has been discussed as much as any issue in the Old Testament.  Some point out that Abraham has, on several occasions, seemed to doubt whether or not God actually will deliver on his promises (i.e. passing off Sarah as his sister, his relationship with Hagar).  Others have pointed out that this is where God finds out if Abraham is truly interested in a relationship with Him or was just interested in getting a son out of the deal.  Will Abraham still trust in God’s character even once the core of the promise has been fulfilled?  Others see in this story the evidence of the gift of free will.  Though God can foresee all the options, he does not know what choice Abraham will make.  Ultimately, God needed to know if Abraham could pass the ultimate questions of faithfulness as a pattern and lesson for his future descendants.  At the same time, some point out that God is also being tested.  Abraham needs to know that God’s earlier promises are permanent!

This is a story that asks hard questions, and so it should not be dismissed as simple or easy.  It also seems to be, as we might expect, a traumatic moment in the life of Abraham and his family.  It is interesting to note that, in Genesis 22:19, Abraham went to Beer-sheba and lived there.  In Genesis 23:2, we are told that Sarah died at Hebron, some 25 miles away.  The next time we see Isaac after the events of Genesis 22, he is living in “the Negeb” (Genesis 24:62) an area south of Beer-sheba.  We are never to see, it seems, Abraham, Isaac and Sarah together after the events of Genesis 22.

Additional Resources

A Map of the region where most of the events of the Old Testament will take place.

A Map of the region where most of the events of the Old Testament will take place.

Week 1 – Creation: The Beginning of Life as We Know It

Scripture:  Genesis 1-8

 

Significant Moments in The Story

Creation – Genesis 1 & 2

The Fall of Humanity – Genesis 3

Noah & The Great Flood – Genesis 6:5 – Genesis 8

 

Key Themes

An Introduction to God

“In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth,” – Genesis 1:1

The main character of Scripture is God.  From the very first words until the end of the Biblical narrative, we are reading a revelation of the God who created the universe and all life.  In these first chapters of Genesis, we see God’s power (he can create life simply by speaking), God’s love (every part of creation is “good”; creation is not a series of completed tasks but a source of joy), and that God has a plan and purpose for His creation (Genesis 1:22, 28-30).

Where do we come from?

“Then God said, ‘Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.’  So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.” – Genesis 1:26

The Creation story not only introduces us to God, but also answers one of the fundamental questions of existence – where do we come from?  The creation story tells us that we are not the results of a cosmic accident, but a part of God’s design for His creation.  What more, we were created to have a purpose.  We are not just background or filler in the picture; we have an important role to play in how God’s creation operates.

The problem of sin

The first 8 chapters of Genesis reveal the fundamental causes and effects of sin.  Sin is when creation acts in a way counter to God’s intended purpose.  Sin is when humanity decides they do not need God, they can be their own gods.  As a result, relationships throughout creation are disrupted.  Rather than fellowship with God, humanity chooses to hide from God.  Rather than act as helpers to one another, humanity passes blame to one another.  God created everything with a purpose, but sin seeks to undermine God’s good purposes.

How will God respond to sin?

“And when the LORD smelled the pleasing odor, the LORD said in his heart, ‘I will never again curse the ground because of humankind, for the inclination of the human heart is evil from youth; nor will I ever again destroy every living creature as I have done.  As long as earth endures, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night, shall not cease.'” – Genesis 8:21-22

The good news of the first 8 chapters of Genesis is that God is not passive or uncaring about the problem of sin in creation.  He is not the watchmaker who wound everything up and then just lets it go.  God is actively involved in trying to solve the problem(s) of sin in creation.  By removing Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden and limiting their life span, God limits sin’s impact.  The flood represents God’s attempt to wipe the slate clean and start over with Noah, who has proved himself righteous.  However, at the end of the flood story, God says that destruction is not the answer to the problem of sin.

 

Background Information

The image of God – Genesis 1:26-27

This is drawing on an ancient idea where a representative of a king was known as the king’s “image”.  This representative was sent forth by the king to act with authority delegated by the king.  Perhaps one of the issues that leads to the fall of humanity is that humanity seeks to act not as those who have received authority from another but as those who possess authority inherently.

The tree of the knowledge of good and evil – Genesis 2:9

In Hebrew, “to know” is not just a matter of the mind.  Knowledge included the ability to do.  Thus, the tree of the knowledge of good and evil represents the knowledge and the ability to do anything and everything, right or wrong.  Interesting enough, the only thing that Adam and Eve were forbidden from doing was eating of the fruit of this tree.  However, they choose to make God and his commands unnecessary by eating of the tree so that they can do whatever they want.

The serpent’s temptations – Genesis 3

First off, it should be noted that the idea that the serpent is an embodiment of Satan is not found in the Genesis story.  The connection between Satan and the serpent is more indirect based on other biblical passages, primarily Revelation 12:9 – “The great dragon was thrown down, that ancient serpent, who is called the Devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world – he was thrown down to the earth, and his angels were thrown down with him.”  Genesis 3 simply describes the serpent as “more crafty” than any of the other animals.

It is interesting to note the three temptations that the serpent brings to Adam and Eve:

  • Is God trying to deprive you of something that you need or desire? (Genesis 3:1).  Notice that Eve’s response in 3:2 is actually stricter than God’s original commandment.  God never said anything about not touching the tree.
  • God does not really mean what He says.  (Genesis 3:4)
  • We can do whatever we want.  God is just a jealous and insecure dictator. (Genesis 3:5)

 

Some questions that might come up

Who is God talking to in Genesis 1:26 when he says, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness”?

Passages such as 1 Kings 22:19 indicates an idea of a heavenly court.  Many interpreters believe that God is addressing this court in Genesis 1:26.  Others over the centuries have speculated that this a hint of the idea that would become our belief of God as the Trinity – one God, three persons (Father, Son, Holy Spirit).  What does seem pivotal is the importance of relationship from the very beginning of our story with God.  Relationship is a significant part of understanding who God is, and God invites others to be a part of His work.

Why does chapter 1 describe the animals as being created before humanity but chapter 2 describes man being created, then animals, and then woman?

Genesis 1 & 2 have long been held up as a prime example of what scholars call “the documentary hypothesis”.  In short, the “documentary hypothesis” states that many of the books of the Old Testament, especially the first five, were not the work of one author but were instead compilations of several different traditions that had been passed from generation to generation orally.  Evidence to support such a view cites the different order of creation in chapter 1 and chapter 2 as well as the consistent use of different names for God in each of the chapters (chapter 1 consistently uses the Hebrew word Elohim, “God”, while chapter 2 consistently uses the Hebrew word Yahweh, “LORD God”).  At some point, these various oral traditions were compiled and written down to create the book of Genesis.  Rather than choose one over the other, the author of Genesis kept both traditions side by side.

While some form of the “documentary hypothesis” is claimed by a large number of biblical scholars, there are those who dispute its claims.  However, most scholars at least agree that Genesis 1 and 2 tell stories of creation from different perspectives.  Genesis 1 seems to focus on God’s majesty and power, while chapter 2 seems to focus on God’s immediacy and intimacy with His creation.

Was it seven literal 24-hour days?

The truth is, we don’t know.  Arguments have been made on every side of this issue.  While these issues are certainly interesting and of value to discuss, we should not miss the bigger issue, which is why the Creation story was told in the first place:  to introduce us to God and to explain why the world is as it is.

What does the phrase “stiff-necked people” mean?

A “stiff-necked people” is a phrase used to describe a people who are rebellious or unwilling to change their ways.  The phrase originated out of an agricultural world view.  An ox might stiffen its neck when it was resisting changing direction or turn a shoulder away to resist being yoked by a farmer.  The reference to “a stiff-necked people” was a reference to a people who were rebellious towards God or who were unwilling to learn His ways or change their ways.

 

Additional resources