Due to the length of Genesis 1:1-2:3, rather than including the entire passage here, we encourage you to read it in your own bible, or elsewhere online.
I wonder what comes to your mind when you think of the book of Genesis. I imagine that some of you think of the age of the earth. Others might long for the Garden. For others, perhaps, your mind goes to the stories of the Noah, Abraham and Isaac, or Jacob. Maybe you think of the book’s famous opening line, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth…”
For careful students of Genesis—the commentators I read—the universal response was one of awe and reverence. One commentator captures well the sentiment of them all, “No work … from the Ancient Near East is remotely comparable … with the book of Genesis” (Kidner, TOTC, 15).
The main term that comes to my mind when I think of Genesis is: vital. Let me briefly explain why. There is no truth more central to the gospel and necessary for salvation than justification by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. If we lose that, we lose Christianity altogether. The Church in Luther’s day had lost that understanding and had begun teaching justification by faith + works. In other words, the Church had begun teaching a doctrine of salvation that would keep people from being saved. Luther desperately wanted people to know the freedom of the gospel and he know that the gospel is most clearly presented and defended in the book of Romans. Thus, he worked tirelessly to study, teach, and defend the Romans to the people of his day.
I’m not Martin Luther but I can’t help but to wonder if Genesis is the book for our generation (like Romans was for Luther’s). I wonder that because it addresses the central question of our day: authority. Where those in Luther’s time were debating the means God had provided to reconcile mankind to himself, today the debate is over whether or not mankind actually needs saving, whether or not we are accountable to anyone or anything outside of ourselves, whether or not there is any ultimate authority, indeed, whether or not there is a God.
Debates over the finer points of justification, marriage, life, purpose, immigration, taxes, gender identity, sexuality, global climate change, and the like are entirely futile if we cannot agree on the standard by which we will make those decisions. And debates over the standard by which we will make those decisions are entirely futile if we cannot agree on whether or not there is an ultimate standard-giver (God). But that’s exactly where we often find ourselves today…stuck in futility as a result of so many having rejected God’s will as the only genuine standard of truth and God’s Word as the only means of discerning God’s will.
Genesis is the vital book for our day, then, in that it takes us back to the beginning; in which God (alone) created the heavens, the earth, and everything in them; in which God (alone) assigned purpose and meaning to all that he had made; and in which God (alone) declared his authority over all that is.
So, what should come to our mind when we think of Genesis? That is, what was God’s purpose in inspiring the book and how does that relate to us today? My primary aim in this sermon is to answer those questions for you from 10,000′ before we spend the next (many) weeks looking at them from ground level. In order to do so we first need a bit prayer and then a bit of background.
THE BACKGROUND OF GENESIS
Genesis was primarily written by Moses (John 5:46; Luke 24:27) as part one of a five part story (Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy). Genesis serves as a prologue of sorts to the rest of the Pentateuch (penta = five; like the Pentagon). Interestingly, Genesis covers events over 2000+ years while the four other books cover events of a mere 120 years. That is, Genesis covers the history of God’s people leading up to the Exodus and then the rest of the books of Moses cover the 120 years around the Exodus —the central event of the Jewish people.
Genesis was most likely written/compiled by Moses somewhere in the mid to late 1400s BC, just before the Israelites entered the Promised Land. It is likely that the primary purpose of Genesis (coupled with the rest of the Pentateuch) was to answer a few simple questions for the Israelites as they sat on the bank of the Jordan.
A little bit of the biblical timeline might be helpful here before we get to the questions of Genesis. In approximately 2100 BC, God made a promise to Abraham (which is first recorded in Genesis 15) to make him into a great nation. God promised that Abraham would have children as numerous as the stars in the heavens and land of their own as fertile as can be. Indeed, God gave Abraham a son (Isaac), who had a son (Jacob), who had a son (Joseph). By the time of Joseph, Abraham’s descendants were indeed numerous and prosperous. They were far from perfect (as we will see in Genesis), but they were favored by God because they had been chosen by God to receive the fruit of his faithfulness.
Here’s where the story takes a significant turn. God’s providence brought Joseph and his family into Egypt and caused them to thrive even more as a result. However, the tide turned once a new ruler took power in Egypt. Instead of trust and blessing, the descendants of Abraham (known as the Israelites) were feared and then enslaved. When Joseph died in apx. 1800 BC (300 years after God’s promise to Abraham), the Israelites began a period of 400 years of slavery and suffering at the hand of the Egyptians. As a result, many forgot God and his promises. In this context, when all seemed lost, God raised up another man to lead Abraham’s children (the children of God’s promise) out of Egypt and into the Promised Land. This man’s name was Moses.
Due to sinfulness on his part, Moses himself was not allowed to enter the Promised Land. But he led God’s people out of Egypt and right to the bank of the Jordan River (the eastern boundary of the Promised Land). There (in 1400 BC, 700 years after God’s first covenanted with Abraham), on the brink of the glorious fulfillment of God’s promises, Moses shared the contents of Genesis (and most of the rest of the Pentateuch) with the descendants of Abraham as a means of answering a few simple questions: Who is our God? Who are we? How did we get here? And where is all of this taking us?
For the Israelites, Genesis primarily answered the first two questions (Who is our God? And who are we?). And for you and me, it begins to answer a similar question as well: what is our place in God’s great plan?
THE STRUCTURE OF GENESIS
So how is Genesis structured and why do we care? It’s makeup is very straight-forward, and at the same time it is very significant. Understanding the simple structure of Genesis is critical to reading it well.
Genesis has two major divisions. The first division consists of narrative accounts of the history of mankind in general (1-11) and then the second division consists of narrative accounts of the children of Abraham in particular (12-50).
To expound a bit more, as one commentator put it, “The book falls into two unequal parts…[The first part,] chapters 1-11 describe two opposite progressions: first, God’s orderly creation, to its climax in man as a responsible and blessed being and then the disintegrating work of sin, to its first great anticlimax in the corrupt world of the flood and its second in the folly of Babel” (Kidner, TOTC, 16).
The second part which spans the rest of the book (chapters 12-50) moves from “the general history of man…to the germinal story of ‘Abraham and his seed’, with God’s covenant no longer a general pledge to all mankind as in chapter 9, but narrowed down to a single family through which ‘all the families of the earth’ will be blessed” (Kidner, TOTC, 16).
In other words, to borrow from yet another commentator, “[Chapters 1-11 form] the prologue for the book. It demonstrates convincingly and graphically the need for God’s blessing in the world, for ever since humankind acquired the knowledge of good and evil, evil became the dominant force, bringing corruption and chaos into God’s creation and incurring the divine curse. This prologue explains why God called Abram and inaugurated a program of blessing through his covenant” (Ross, CB, 99).
The first thing to see about the structure, then, is that it is broken into two parts (1-11 and 12-50).
The second thing I want to highlight for you regarding the structure is that within the two basic divisions (1-11 and 12-50) the basic structure of Genesis consists of 10 sections all of which (except the first) are indicated by a single Hebrew word: toledot (which means “generations” or “account”). It has been said that the toledot formula is “the very fabric around which the whole of Genesis has been constructed” (Ross, CB, 74). It is indeed significant that “few books of Scripture reveal the lines of demarcation between their individual units as clearly as does Genesis” (Hamilton, NICOT, 2).
- Generations of heaven and earth, 2:4-4:26
- Generations of Adam, 5:1-6:8
- Generations of Noah, 6:9-9:29
- Generations of Shem, Ham, Japheth, 10:1-11:9
- Generations of Shem, 11:10-26
- Generations of Terah, 11:27-25:11
- Generations of Ishmael, 25:12-18
- Generations of Isaac, 25:19-35:29
- Generations of Esau, 36:1-37:1
- Generations of Jacob, 37:1-50:26
Keeping these two aspects of the structure of Genesis in mind as we work through Genesis will certainly help us understand the book better. More so, it helps us see the divine fingerprint on all of it. God’s clear hand in Genesis’s subject matter as well as its composition is a beautiful gift to his people. Genesis is not merely an historical book. It is a book of divine revelation for the good of the whole world…even you and I today.
THE MESSAGE OF GENESIS
With that, then, the last main question I want to address is, “What is the message of Genesis?”. That is, what is its overall story. It seems best to me to answer that by quickly considering its four main themes.
I want you all to picture God in your mind. Think about who God is. I’d be curious to know what came to your mind (maybe you can share a bit of it with me after the sermon or with your friends in DG). I’d be even more curious to know where those things came from. How do you know what you know about God?
Unfortunately, for many people, the simple answer is that they made it up. To some extent that’s the case for everyone of us here today as well. We all believe things about God that are not true. How, then, do we separate fact from fiction? How can we come to know who God truly is?
The simple answer is that we know about God what he has chosen to reveal to us. And he has done so primarily in the bible. In Genesis we are introduced to God by God. He tells us (through Moses) who he is. He does so through direct statements (“I am your shield,” 15:1; “I am the LORD,” 15:7; “I am God almighty,” 17:1). And, as we’ll soon see, he does so through his actions.
In all of this there are, perhaps, five primary aspects of God’s nature that God reveals to us in Genesis.
- God is eternal. He alone exists prior to the creation of the universe. Genesis assumes what later biblical writers state explicitly—God has no beginning and no end.
- God is the only God. In Genesis, God is not presented as one God among many gods. He is clearly shown to be the one true God. He has no equals. He has no rivals. He alone is God.
- God is personal. In just the first few chapters God is described as seeing, speaking, hearing, resting, relating, and knowing. He is not seen as a God who is far off, but a God who is near. Interestingly, as the book goes on and sin spreads, God’s presence is decreasingly obvious to his people. Genesis helps us to see that although sin destroys and deteriorates this fellowship, we were made to enjoy God forever.
- God is sovereign. Genesis describes God as the “Most high God” (14). He made all that was made (1-2). He alone has to power to assign purpose and meaning (1-2). We see in creation that he alone has the power to name and command (and delegate those powers). We see in events like the world-wide flood (6-8) that all weather obeys his voice. We see in the tower of Babel (11) that even human language is at his mercy. We see in his promises of land and fertility (12, 15) that every corner of the earth belongs to him to distribute as he pleases. We see in Abraham, Sarah, and Isaac (17) that he has the power over birth and death. We see that he controls the rulers of the earth in the story of Joseph (41). We see many times that h he is master of dreams (15, 28, 31, 40, etc.). And through his destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah (19) we see that God is the judge of all the world.
- Finally, in Genesis God reveals himself as perfect, righteous, and holy. He possesses every desirable quality in the fullest measure. He is all and only good. And he is entirely set apart in these things. From the first pages we find him punishing all sin with death (2). He curses all who rebel against him (3). Because every intention of mankind was evil he destroyed all but one righteous man (6). He does not bring harm to the innocent when punishing the unrighteous (18). All that he made was very good (1-2). He rewards the faithful throughout. And he gives freely and freely forgives the humble.
While the world around us has a very different picture of God, the God of Genesis is eternal, unique, personal, sovereign, and good. He is presented to us to stand in awe and wonder and fear and worship. He is presented to us as one who knows us and offers himself to us to be known. But he is not to be trifled with. If we will come to him he will receive us and bless us without measure. But we must come to him on his terms. Watch for these things (and more) as we work through Genesis, for everything else in Genesis and everything in our lives hinges on the nature and plan of God.
The second key theme in Genesis (which we already touched on) is creation. “Genesis is obviously a book concerned with origins—the origin of earth’s creation, of humankind, of institutions by which civilization is perpetuated, of one special family chosen by God as his own and designated as the medium of the world blessing” (Hamilton, NICOT, 2).
Thus in Genesis we see God as the maker of the heavens and everything in it (stars and sky and clouds and light), the earth and everything in it (plants, animals, birds, fish, mountains, and water), mankind (male and female), human relationships (husband and wife, parent and child, friendships, etc.) and institutions (marriage, family, government, etc.). As creator God made all things good and assigned meaning and purpose to all things. All creation was made for God’s glory but mankind alone was made in God’s image (with body and spirit) and with dominion over the rest of creation. All of this we find first in Genesis, and all of this forms the basis for understanding the Genesis, the bible, the world we live in, and fullness of life.
Hear this, Grace, the great claim of Genesis is that because God is the creator of all you are who God says you are and you are for what God says you are for; likewise for everything else God has made. No number of academic degrees or amount of passionate pleading or personal conviction can change any of that. Genesis is vital to help us see this.
Fall and Life Under the Curse
Although God made all things good and ordered, almost immediately in the Genesis account sin entered into the world and brought with it chaos and death. The ground hardened, man became passive and his work became frustrated, woman became disoriented towards man and childbirth became painful, and the world itself became hard and dry and frustrated. Again, “The immediate results [of the fall] were guilt, fear, denial, pain, conflict, and death” (Ross, CB, 94). Mankind’s essential nature remained the same (in the image of God), but God’s image became disguised and evil and depravity attached themselves to it. No part of creation was untouched by the fall. Everything became harder, less fruitful, more chaotic, and frustrating.
Violence (6), immorality of many kinds (9), and ever-increasing wickedness (13) marked man’s fallen heart. The family broke down with murder (4), incest (19), and polygamy (6). And the very fabric of society began to break down with the rise of envy (4, 37), hatred (27, 37), and pride (11). All of this is a picture of the war that began in the garden between the woman (and her offspring) and the serpent (and his offspring). Genesis gives us a picture of the constant tension between good and evil, light and darkness, and between blessing and curse. Genesis introduces and pictures what the rest of the OT only makes more and more vivid.
Why is life often so difficult? Why is there so much suffering? Why are people so hardened to God? Genesis explains the origins of all of that.
The Promise of the Curse’s Lifting
But that’s not the end of the story. Genesis does not picture man stuck in his fall and under the curse without hope. “Genesis 1-11 declares that mankind is without hope if individuals are without God. Human society will disintegrate where divine law is not respected and divine mercy not implored. Yet Genesis, so pessimistic about mankind without God, is fundamentally optimistic…” (Wenham, WBC, liii) because God is with man and has promised to provide rescue.
Sin came quickly and death with it, but so did the promise of help. “The LORD God said to the serpent, ‘Because you have done this, cursed are you above all livestock and above all beasts of the field; on your belly you shall go, and dust you shall eat all the days of your life. 15 I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel'” (Genesis 3:14-15).
There is so much that could be said here (and we’ll get to all of it eventually in Genesis). For now, however, I simply want to draw your attention to two key aspects of God’s promise to bring help through the woman’s offspring. First, it is owing entirely to God’s grace. God’s promise to bring rescue to and through the descendants Abraham, and God’s remaining faithful to his promise in spite of the continued rebellion of Abraham’s offspring, together point to the fact that salvation is entirely and exclusively owing to the grace of God. There was nothing in Abraham worth choosing and there was nothing in the chosen Abraham that warranted God’s blessing. It was all and only on account of God’s kindness and mercy.
The second thing I want to draw your attention to concerning Genesis and God’s promised help to fallen mankind is that God has chosen to bring that help through covenant—an agreement between God and mankind concerning the nature of their relationship and the means of blessing and cursing. In simplest terms God made known to Adam’s children his will for them. Were they to obey in faith—setting God apart in their affection and allegiance—they would know God’s kindness, blessing, and rescue. If they were to continue to disobey God’s commands and rebel against his design, they would know God’s judgment, condemnation, and wrath. Signs of the covenant (that would only continue to develop throughout the books of Moses and the OT before finding their fullness in Jesus) were everywhere. In Genesis God laid the foundation for the Sabbath, he created the seasons which would eventually mark the covenant feasts, he clothed Adam and Eve with animals pointing to sacrifices, he accepted (or didn’t) offerings and altars, circumcision, the sign of the covenant was implemented, and even the beginning of the dietary laws was pictured. All of these covenant signs were only shadows of what was to come, but all of their fullness find their roots in Genesis.
If we are ever to make sense of this world that we live in and fit into it according to our place in it, we must understand these aspects of Genesis. Apart from the knowledge that there is a God, apart from a right understanding of who God is, apart from a knowing and appreciating God as creator of the world and definer of its purpose and our place in it, apart from grasping the curse that all of creation is under as a result of sin, and apart from having experienced the great hope that is ours (promised in Genesis and fulfilled in Jesus) we will always live life in futility, hardship, difficulty, frustration, struggle, and death. Genesis opens our eyes to the great realities of God and provides the foundation for learning of our authority, our purpose, our peril, and our one and only hope. Is there real hope in the world in spite of all its suffering? Genesis answers with an emphatic “Yes!”, calling us to hope in God alone.
Genesis is vital for us today in that it helps us to begin at the beginning. That is, it helps us to understand the core tenants of the Christian world-view and why they are what they are. Genesis helps us understand our place in God’s plan. While the world around us is frantically and futilely seeking out and creating meaning for itself, we are able to find rest and peace and satisfaction in Genesis’s explanation of our place in God’s world. Above all, however, Genesis points us to Christ. The themes of Genesis leave us with questions and hopes that are only answered and fulfilled in Jesus. Genesis introduces us to promises that rest of the OT only increases our longing for. Genesis describes the source of our yearning for something greater than Genesis offers. Genesis is the source of many of the promises whose answer is in Jesus. I hope all of this leaves you excited to begin Genesis.