Read an Excerpt
Immersion Bible Studies
By J. Ellsworth Kalas
Abingdon PressCopyright © 2011 Abingdon Press
All rights reserved.
How It All Began
Claim Your Story
Isaac Bashevis Singer is known to many of us as a winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature (1978). He knew himself, however, as a son and grandson of rabbis, for whom learning the Book of Genesis "was the greatest event in my life." But he recalls that even as a boy, he began dealing with problems he found in the opening chapters of Genesis—questions about time, space, eternity, infinity. How can something be created from nothing? And how do these questions relate to modern learning?
As you read Singer's questions, you probably realize that you had some of these same questions as a child and that some have remained with you as a youth or an adult.
As Christians reading Genesis, we also wonder how this ancient book relates to the New Testament and to our Christian faith as a whole. Especially, you and I ask what Genesis says to us personally. This is a proper question because the Bible is never simply a source of detached knowledge; it is a call to a new, real, and profound way of life, a life that recognizes that its goal is in its relationship with God. As such, the Bible speaks to us personally. It finds its way into the soul and marrow of our being. No book does this more incisively than the Book of Genesis.
So, of course, you have questions as you read Genesis because Genesis goes into the heart of life and its purposes. It is by way of your questions that you will come to a greater knowledge of the Scriptures and of life itself. In the process, you will come to a deeper and more challenging faith in God.
Enter the Bible Story
Since planet Earth is the only home I've known thus far, I'm sentimental about it and like to think of it as favorably as possible. Genesis reports that when God began the Creation process, "the earth was without shape or form" (1:2). Robert Alter translates the Hebrew as "welter and waste." The prevailing mood at this early point in Earth's story was not light and promise; rather, "it was dark over the deep sea" (1:2). From this kind of language we might conclude that God was beginning a reclamation project. In a way, it's an appropriate introduction to all that will follow in the grand Bible story. All of God's loving investment in us human beings unfolds in settings of "welter and waste."
We feel reassured, therefore, when we're told that "God's wind swept over the waters" (Genesis 1:2). We feel all the better about that wind from God when we remember that in the Hebrew the same word can be translated either wind, breath, or spirit. Thus the King James Version says that "the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters." Whichever word is used, the action is from God.
Order and Light Out of Welter and Waste
I feel better with each continuing step in the Creation process. I'm glad that God's first command was, "Let there be light" (Genesis 1:3). Something in our human soul abhors darkness, whether it be physical, intellectual, emotional, or spiritual. We long for light. And I'm also happy for the method by which God created. It was by the communing action of speech. Mind you, I honor God as the ultimate engineer, the supreme craftsperson, and the complete landscape architect. But I'm glad that Genesis tells us that the Creator talked with the stuff that was going into our human home. I feel better about this dwelling place of earth and water and trees and sky when I understand that it happened with some kind of eternal conversation. And I like it that at every pause in the story we're told that "God saw how good [each thing] was" and that at the completion, God felt "it was supremely good" (Genesis 1:31). I like living in a world that gave God pleasure in its creating and that was finished with a divine stamp of approval.
Yet while this pleases me, it also puts a burden on me. This lovely world is a divine trust. If I have any true reverence for God the Creator, I will do nothing to harm this earth and everything possible to preserve, bless, and develop it.
I'm fascinated by the way Genesis describes Creation in a day-by-day way. It pictures an orderly God. Whatever may have been the "welter and waste" with which the process began, the Creator knew how to bring beauty and perfection out of it, with no intervals of confusion and no need to work overtime. It is always "evening and ... morning," a good day's work. At its completion, the work was celebrated by a day of rest. "God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it God rested from all the work of creation" (Genesis 2:3). Work is essential to our planet and to us humans who are made in the Creator's image. But rest is also essential; and when we ignore this need for rest, we not only violate the way we are made, we also deny ourselves the exquisite joy of a task completed. By the nature of some work, a task is not done and we know that we'll have to pick it up again another day. To rest is an act of trust, a declaration that our work is good and that if we put it aside in holy rest, we will resume work responsibilities better on the day after our sabbath.
Holy is the key word in what I have just said. The seventh-day principle in the Creation story is significantly more than sociological, economic, or philosophical issues, though all these elements are present; it is a spiritual fact. "God blessed the seventh day and made it holy."
Obviously, I must pause at this point in the Genesis story to deal with a question that inevitably comes to many minds, especially in our contemporary culture: Is the Genesis story scientifically correct? In a sense this is like asking if a Bach cantata was a good football game. Science seeks, rightly, to explain how; Genesis talks about who. The Genesis story is concerned about the Who (Creator) and the who (humanity)—the God who created and the humans responsible to care for the creation. As a believer, I am satisfied that God was behind the creative process, whatever the factors by which it may have taken place. I love the Genesis story because I understand poetry better than I understand molecules, but I honor the work of the scientist who searches for more knowledge of the how. Personally, I feel that a scientist who eliminates God from the Creation story has gotten beyond the realm of science, just as I, a believer, am likely to get beyond the realm of faith when I try to offer too many "how" details.
The Unique Role of Human Beings
Human beings don't appear in the Creation story until near the end of the first chapter of Genesis, but our entry is auspicious. When we're told that "God created humanity in God's own image" (Genesis 1:27), we know that we humans have a unique role in the story that will follow. We get a further insight into our human nature in a second account of human creation that serves as a kind of philosophical reprise on the first. It is both playful and powerful, with stuff enough for ten thousand poems and a million late night discussions: "The LORD God formed the human from the topsoil of the fertile land and blew life's breath into his nostrils. The human came to life" (2:7).
This human creature was made of the dust of the earth, but the breath within was the breath of God. We are, as I like to phrase it, "a bit of sod and a breath from God." We are as common as the earth on which we walk, yet we are dramatically distinctive from all the rest of creation because the life that is in us is an investment from the very person of God. This infers a peculiar sacredness in human life, a fact that ought to inform the respect we have for ourselves and for all human creatures. We humans tend to judge one another on a variety of matters—race, sex, ethnicity, intelligence, wealth, achievement, personality, physical attractiveness, or prowess. But as Genesis sees it, nothing is so basic or so ultimate about us as this: God crafted us in God's own image, and the breath within us is God's investment. This, above all other measures and considerations, is who we are.
As such, God entrusts creation to us. "Take charge of the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky, and everything crawling on the ground" (Genesis 1:28). We're given an Eden, "to farm it and to take care of it" (2:15). Of all the innumerable species on this planet, it appears that we are the only ones who can bless or curse it, benefit or exploit it. Thus the welfare of all the other species rests on us. If we don't show regard for the rest of the planet's inhabitants, whether flower, fauna, or human being, we will someday find our planet home a desolate place.
We humans have another particular quality in us: We are creatures with the power of choice. Long before there were systems of government, centuries before anyone imagined such instruments as citizenship and elections, we became voters. The choice was between good and evil, and it was offered in a setting of beneficence: "Eat your fill from all of the garden's trees; but don't eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, because on the day you eat from it, you will die!" (Genesis 2:16-17). We humans are surrounded by benefits, but there is one place that spells trouble—big trouble! It's interesting to see how attractive that singularly forbidden place becomes.
Created for Relationship
At this point the scene is almost idyllic. The home plot is called Eden, Paradise. At each stage of Creation, God has found it good and then in conclusion, extremely good. But now we hear a "not good." "It's not good that the human is alone. I will make him a helper that is perfect for him" (Genesis 2:18). However perfect the setting, however ideal the weather, however beautiful the scenery, the perfection is incomplete until it is shared. Even the good is not good; it is unfinished and unfulfilled until someone shares it with us.
Some of us love solitude, perhaps even to the point where we desire it more than we desire company. But into our solitude we take a book which, of course, came from another person; or we take music, which carries the emotion of another person. Nothing argues more convincingly against selfishness than the Genesis story with its insistence that paradise requires other persons. We're made that way. So John Donne the poetpreacher wrote, "No man is an Island, entire of it self; every man is a piece of the Continent ...; any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in Mankind."
"So the Lord God put the human into a deep and heavy sleep, and took one of his ribs and closed up the flesh over it. With the rib taken from the human, the LORD God fashioned a woman and brought her to the human being. The human said,
'This one finally is bone from my bones
and flesh from my flesh.
She will be called a woman
because from a man she was taken.'" (Genesis 2:21-23).
When I read this passage, I remember the novelist who explained repeatedly that some truths are too big to be conveyed as facts or data; they can only be understood as symbols or word-pictures. I know of no psychological or sociological study that can explain our human need for another as poignantly as this Genesis story. There is in every human being a missing rib. All of us are incomplete. Never is our incompleteness more ironic than when, in a fit of independence, we announce our sufficiency. Even such an announcement needs an audience or it is wasted.
The Genesis writer goes on to endorse the institution of marriage. "This is the reason that a man leaves his father and mother and embraces his wife, and they become one flesh" (Genesis 2:24). A sense of loyalty might make humans feel they should never leave home; we might think that the parents who have reared us now have a right to our continued presence and service. But Genesis tells us that life must go on and that though we owe much to our parents, we also are debtors to generations to come. So we are not violating our obligation to parents when we leave; we are carrying the obligation into generations to come.
Genesis is also altogether candid and unembarrassed about the nature of marriage. It is not simply an economic, social, or spiritual union; it is also physical. Indeed, it is this physical quality that especially identifies it. Many other relationships are also social, economic, or spiritual; but marriage is defined by our becoming "one flesh." Genesis makes the point emphatically. "The two of them were naked, the man and his wife, but they weren't embarrassed" (2:25). There is nothing titillating or suggestive about this description; rather, it is quite matter-of-fact. This, Genesis tells us, is the way it is.
Live the Story
The questions we first ask as children are likely to be life's big questions. As we grow older, we may amend the form of these questions and seek to phrase them in more sophisticated language; but the early questions tend to deal with the basic stuff of life. These are the questions that Genesis raises and then answers. But Genesis leaves much to faith. This shouldn't surprise us because the ultimate question in Genesis is whether we will believe the commands and promises of God, as we shall see in the next chapter of this study.
But Genesis speaks to you and me as it tells us what God is like: a God who loves creation and delights in sharing it with us humans and the other inhabitants of our planet, a God who is the ultimate craftsperson but who chooses to "talk" the creation into existence, showing us that the Creator is above all a communicator. If that be so, what does God expect of you and me? As persons made in the divine image, our first calling and privilege is the act of communing with God and then with our fellow human creatures.
Genesis also tells us that we humans are the caretakers of this planet and its awesome resources. How do you and I do justice to this stewardship? This is a question I answer every day—and you do, too, whether we realize it or not.
Since God has made us to need fellow humans and to be needed by them, how do you and I live in a way that blesses other persons and allows other persons to bless us?
Do you know God better after reading the first two chapters of Genesis? I hope so. But you and I have only just begun. Is there something in you that wants passionately to know God and to know yourself and others still more deeply and caringly? I think this is something of what Isaac Bashevis Singer had in mind when he concluded his essay on Genesis, "No matter how the human brain might grow, it will always come back to the idea that God has created heaven and earth, man and animals, with a will and a plan, and that, despite all the evil life undergoes, there is a purpose in Creation and eternal wisdom." Whatever our questions, we continue to return to Genesis because here we find purpose and wisdom.CHAPTER 2
The Beginnings of Sin and of Grace
Genesis 3:1–4:17, 25
Claim Your Story
If you have ever watched the television game show Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? you probably know that it ran for several years in prime time and that it is now purportedly the most internationally popular TV franchise of all time, having aired in some 100 countries. Contestants on the show, when faced with a difficult question, were allowed to use the "50-50 Lifeline," which eliminated two of the four multiple-choice answers. Theoretically, that made it easier for contestants to choose the right answer. In actuality though, a choice remained between two seemingly plausible answers.
This phenomenon is standard procedure in many multiple-choice exams. Test makers deliberately make one of the incorrect answers especially attractive in order to make sheer guesswork unsuccessful. The appealing incorrect answer is sometimes called the "attractive distracter."
We humans have perennially faced various types of real-life attractive distracters. No doubt you have faced some yourself. What have been the attractive distracters in your life, the tantalizing options that seemed good at the time but ultimately proved not to be the best? What was it that led you astray? What were the consequences? When you look around your world, what evidence do you see that other people are likewise making choices that are out of sync with God's best intention?
The biblical Book of Genesis tells the story not simply of Adam and Eve, but of you and me—people who succumbed to an attractive distracter with serious consequences. Let's take a closer look.
Enter the Bible Story
You and I learned as long ago as our first hearings of the tales of Little Red Riding Hood or The Three Little Pigs that every story has its villain. That's because life as we've experienced it always seems to have its villains. Sometimes, however, it's hard to recognize the villain; and that's where our problems become more complicated.
A stranger enters the biblical story in Genesis 3: a snake, "the most intelligent of all the wild animals that the Lord God had made" (3:1). This snake would therefore seem the best ally for the man and the woman. But Robert Alter's translation describes the snake as "the most cunning," and that word suggests that the snake's intelligence was devoted to deception. The snake raised a question, one having to do with belief, and addressed the question to the woman. "Did God really say that you shouldn't eat from any tree in the garden?" (3:1). The woman replied correctly that God had made all of the fruit of the garden available except for the fruit of the tree "in the middle of the garden"; of that tree God said, "Don't eat from it, and don't touch it, or you will die" (3:3).
It's significant that the tree is in "the middle of the garden." This tree is the issue in the garden, around which the garden's very existence as a garden depends. Relate to the tree properly, and the garden remains Eden; violate it, and Eden is lost.
Excerpted from Genesis by J. Ellsworth Kalas. Copyright © 2011 Abingdon Press. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press.
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