3 Don’ts When Reading Genesis

Genesis is hard enough as it is; here are three things NOT to do when reading the first book of the Bible.

"The Tower of Babel," by Pieter Brueghel

“The Tower of Babel,” by Pieter Brueghel [c. 1563]

Don’t Mistake “Is” for “Should”

Genesis is descriptive, not prescriptive, i.e., it describes the world as it is, not as it should be.  Subsequent to The Fall described in chapter 3, every situation, family, and life is corrupted by sin.  Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob are sinful men, and their families are a mess.  Don’t be surprised when great heroes of the faith turn out to be seriously flawed.  And don’t confuse descriptions of sin with approval of sin, even in the lives of the Patriarchs.

The good news?  God writes straight with crooked lines.

Don’t Draw Conclusions Before the End

The Bible is not a series of disconnected stories; rather, it is one long drama in three acts, with a prologue at the beginning and an epilogue at the end:

  • The Prologue: Genesis 1-11 (Creation, Fall, and the Flood)
  • Act 1: Genesis 12 through the rest of the Old Testament (Covenant and Israel)
  • Act 2: the Gospels (Jesus)
  • Act 3: the book of Acts up through the present day (the Church)
  • The Epilogue: the Book of Revelation (the End).

Each small story in the Bible fits into the larger whole.  You wouldn’t draw too many conclusions about the author of a story from the first page of a novel or the director of the movie from its first five minutes.  In the same way, reserve judgment until you see how the story resolves.  Yes, there are parts of the story that are troubling, but reserve judgment until you see where everything is going.

Don’t Fill the Gaps with Suspicion

The Bible is filled with gaps.  All we usually get are big broad strokes, and it’s left to our imagination to fill in the gaps about why or how.  For example, in the Genesis 4 account of Cain and Abel, why does the Lord God approve of Abel’s gift but not Cain’s?  Isn’t that rather arbitrary and unfair?

Mind the gap

Here’s the true answer: no one knows why God preferred Abel’s gift to Cain’s.  In the face of such a gap, then, we have to fill it with our own conjectures.

Unfortunately, in the modern, cynical world, we are quick to fill gaps in the Bible with our own suspicions.  But suspicion is a choice, and there is another approach:

Don’t fill gaps with suspicion; fill gaps with trust.

It’s true that deciding ahead of time to fill the gaps in the Bible with trust is a faith decision, but deciding ahead of time to read with a hermeneutic of suspicion is itself a faith decision.  If you decide ahead of time that the Bible can’t be trusted and that God is cynically setting up people for failure so he can punish them, then nothing you read will ever change your mind.

A better way is to decide to fill the gaps in Genesis and elsewhere with trust and humility.  Then, when you encounter things you don’t understand, you’ll admit what you don’t know and assume that what you don’t understand has a purpose in God’s redemptive plan.

P.S.  What About the Bizarre Stuff in Genesis 6:1-4?

If you ever tried to read through Genesis, chances are that Genesis 6:1-4 caused you some trouble.

When people began to multiply on the face of the ground, and daughters were born to them, the sons of God saw that they were fair; and they took wives for themselves of all that they chose. Then the Lord said, ‘My spirit shall not abide in mortals for ever, for they are flesh; their days shall be one hundred and twenty years.’ The Nephilim were on the earth in those days—and also afterwards—when the sons of God went in to the daughters of humans, who bore children to them. These were the heroes that were of old, warriors of renown.”

-Genesis 6:1-4 [NRSV]

Here’s the truth: nobody really understands this passage.  Here’s how Terence Fretheim puts is:

This brief segment is one of the most difficult in Genesis both to translate and interpret.  Certain words are rare or unknown…; issues of coherence arise on many points.  These verses may be a fragment of what was once a longer story, or scribes may have added to or subtracted from the text.  The fact that the text presents ambiguity may be precisely the point, however: the mode of telling matches the nature of the message….

“Consistent with other sections in chaps. 1-11, this material reflects an era no longer accessible to Israel. [That is, the ancient Israelites who were the original readers of Genesis.  –AF] The text does not mirror a typical human situation…but speaks of a time long past when God decreed a specific length to human life.”

-Terence Fretheim, from Genesis, in vol. I of The New Interpreter’s Bible

So, who are the mysterious “sons of God” mentioned in v. 2?  Three options:

1. They are sons of Seth, mentioned in chapter 5, mixing with unbelievers.

2.  “They may be royal or semi-divine figures who accumulated women in their harems” (Fretheim).

3.  They are some kind of angelic beings.  This seems most likely in context, and most troubling and bizarre to think about.

But, basically, as mysterious as this passage is, it fits with the larger context: before the Flood, things were going from bad to worse, spinning out of control.

The good news is that Genesis 6:1-4 doesn’t affect any important Christian doctrines or beliefs.  (Which doesn’t mean it isn’t really strange.)

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

6 thoughts on “3 Don’ts When Reading Genesis

    • No, keep the comments coming–now I know what to write about. You are the voice of the people.

      And, I think you just stumbled upon your next band name.

  1. Great list of “don’ts”. The Tuesday Knights men’s bible study I help with is starting Genesis tonight and I have copied your blog for everyone in the class. I will give you credit for it (especially if they don’t like it).
    I would add one don’t. Don’t focus on the facts too much, especially the historical facts. Genesis is not a history book. It is a book of faith. Some people think God dictated it to Moses and he wrote it down for us, so every word is absolutely accurate. Others think many of the stories are complete myths (or parables) with a good message, but the factual stories never really happened, and I think a lot of people are somewhere in between. If we focus on the facts, they will often spin off into disagreements over those historical facts. But if we focus on the message or the take away lesson, we will all agree (for the most part) and benefit from the lesson that was intended. Not focusing on the facts is really hard for me and I am naturally argumentative, so if I let myself go that direction, I often times miss the point (and risk offending someone with a different take on the facts, even though we may agree on the message). Just my two cents.

    • Paul, I hear and am sympathetic to your point. Unfortunately, it’s not that simple. Facts DO matter. For example, if God didn’t make a covenant with Abraham or if God didn’t hear the Israelites in Egypt and bring them out with a mighty hand or (most importantly) if Jesus didn’t actually rise from the dead, if each of these stories is just about some vague sense we have that God is nice to those in need, it’s not enough. Fairytales have good endings, but they don’t help us when we lose children in their youth, or are betrayed by our spouses, or are face to face with murder and evil. Real hope only comes from truth.

      The problem is that some parts of the Old Testament ARE theological reflections–what’s difficult is to know which parts. In the 21st century, the church needs to help people understand the Bible better. A slavish literalism on the one hand or a liberal obsession with the whole Bible being just sacred story on the other hand aren’t adequate options, nor the only options. One of the things I want to do is help folks reject those categories for scripture and learn to read in a way that helps them know Jesus better and live in his abundance.

  2. “There are lots of stories in the Bible, but all the stories are telling one Big Story. The Story of how God loves his children and comes to rescue them.”

    Sally Lloyd-Jones, “The Jesus Storybook Bible”