Pentateuch (part 1) – Beginnings
So let’s begin at the beginning…
The first five books of the Bible are grouped together and known as the ‘pentateuch’, or the Torah (meaning law, or instruction). ‘Genesis’ means origin/beginning and that’s what this book is all about – beginnings:
- of the world,
- of life;
- the human race,
- the God’s friendship with us;
- and the beginning of his people Israel and their mission in the world.
Genesis falls into four main sections and we’re going to fly through each one now.
Section One: Genesis 1–11 The ‘Primeval’ period
- Almost every culture around the world has creation stories and many of them sound very similar.
- The cultures around Israel, particularly the Mesopotamians and Babylonians had creation stories that the Israelites would have known, about their gods fighting huge monsters and chopping them up to make the world.
- Then humans would be made as slaves to feed the gods, and when the humans got too noisy, the gods sent a huge flood to shut them up.
In contrast, Genesis tells the story of a God who, like an architect or artist at work, calmly speaks and communicates everything into life, and as he does so, says, “This is good.”
- When he makes the human beings, they’re the pinnacle of his creation, and he gives them the responsibility of watching over his garden and caring for the animals.
- It says something very powerful about the purpose and potential of the human race in this world, and how we should regard our planet and the world around us. When we trash our planet or exploit its resources, or mistreat animals, that flies in the face of God’s intention for this world.
Genesis 3 tells of the serpent tricking the humans into thinking they can be their own gods, and it fractures the relationship between God and his people.
- We see the freedom humans have to accept or reject God, and the tragedy is that so early in the story they reject him, and it upsets the whole harmony of the planet.
- Everyday we are faced with choices about how we use our freedom.
(Chapter 4) Cain murders Abel and human families begin to divide and grow warlike. In fact the world becomes so stained with evil (chapter 6) that a flood comes (chapters 7-8) in order to cleanse the earth – that’s the main point of the flood. And that’s why we refer to it at every baptism – water that cleanses and restores.
Noah comes through the flood (chapter 9) and the human race begins again, and at the tower of Babel (chapter 11), humans divide into different races, cultures, and languages.
Section Two: Genesis 12–25 Abraham
Out of all the world God now zooms in to one person through whom he will instigate plan to save and bless the world: Abram.
- Out of the blue, he gets a call from God (12:1-3): “Go from your country…to the land I will show you; I will make you a great nation; I will bless you and make your name great so that you will be a blessing…in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”
- Those words are so important for making sense of the whole Bible – it tells us what the purpose and mission of Abram’s family should be; and throughout the Bible God’s people go back to this promise again and again to find their hope and identity, especially when things seem most bleak.
Which promises of God do you go back to for hope and encouragement?
- That call of Abram is an example of just how interested God is in each of us:
- how he calls us to follow him and trust him,
- but also how that will often mean going to places new and unfamiliar, taking risks and trusting him as we go.
So Abram goes with his family and nephew Lot, and encounters a number of people on the way, sometimes getting into some close shaves or making a few poor decisions or giving in to his fears.
- He can’t quite believe God will give him and his wife Sarah a natural son, so he has a child called Ishmael with his servant Hagar. And that leads to all sorts of problems later for poor Hagar and Ishmael.
- And God has to say to Abram again, why couldn’t you trust me?
- He’s very human, but what’s touching about the story is that God is faithful to him and works with those flaws, just as he is faithful to us and works with our flaws!
God affirms his faithfulness to Abram by making a covenant with him.
- This is really important throughout the Bible- when God makes a covenant with his people, it means he’s committing to them, to be faithful to them in friendship, blessing and love.
- A covenant between two parties ties those parties together, like a marriage. Whenever God makes creates a covenant in the Bible it’s often rightly quite dramatic, to mark its significance.
- And that’s what we see in Genesis 17 when Abram’s name is changed to Abraham (father of many nations),
- and circumcision is introduced as a way of marking out those who belong to this chosen people (if you wonder why the early church worried so much about whether people needed to be circumcised, it’s because of this!).
Section Three: Genesis 25–36 Isaac and (mainly) Jacob
Just as God promised, Abraham & Sarah do have a son: Isaac.
- Chapter 24 tells the beautiful story of how he finds and marries Rebekah. They have two children: Esau and Jacob.
- Esau is the firstborn, with the privileges of inheritance, but he sells it carelessly to his brother one day for a ready meal (chapter 25).
- Then Jacob pretends to be Esau so he receives his father’s blessing (chapter 27). He’s a very flawed character indeed!
Jacob runs away, works for a man called Laban and marries his two daughters Leah and Rachel, and has 12 sons (and if you know the song ‘Jacob & Sons’ from the Joseph musical, you’ll know all their names): Reuben, Simeon, Levi, Judah, Zebulun, Issachar, Dan, Gad, Asher, Naphtali, Joseph and Benjamin.
- These become the heads of the 12 tribes of Israel and their names will be important throughout the rest of the Bible, especially Judah.
During his travels, Jacob begins to encounter God in dreams and strange experiences (such as his dream at Bethel of the ladder going between heaven and earth).
- The promises God made to Abraham, then Isaac, are now reaffirmed to Jacob, whose character develops and matures through these encounters.
- Perhaps the most significant is chapter 32 where he wrestles with God one night. His hip socket is knocked out of joint and his name changed to ISRAEL, which means ‘the one who wrestles with God’, and from that point he seems to be quite at peace with God.
That explains a lot about his descendants and the turbulent relationship they would have with their God.
- It says a lot about the freedom God’s people have to question their God and be honest, to learn, to explore, to grow.
- But it’s also a story about how sometimes it’s the injuries or struggles in life that humble us to the point being able to find peace with God.
Section Four: Genesis 37–50 Joseph
This is the section of Genesis that people generally know best; it’s the longest continuous story in Genesis, and brilliantly told. Jacob’s sons had a wicked streak, and one day they sell Joseph into slavery because he’s bragging about his dreams telling him he’ll end up great.
He lands in Egypt, ends up in prison, but works his way to the top, learning to trust God on the way and learning the importance of integrity.
- When his brothers show up years later, looking for help because their land is suffering famine, he eventually reveals his identity to them (chapter 45), and it’s one of the most moving scenes of reconciliation in the Bible.
- And one of the key moments is when Joseph tells them (50:20) ‘Even though you intended to harm me, God intended it for good,’ because Joseph is now in a position to save his entire family.
Genesis ends with the whole family reunited, but now in Egypt, and just before Joseph dies, he reminds them of God’s promises to Abraham that one day they will inherit a land – “Take my bones when you go back!” That sets us up perfectly for next week.
Can we, like Joseph, look back over our lives with it’s ups and downs, and identify God’s hand at work in it all?
Joseph teaches us that nothing is wasted in our past, that no damage, suffering or grudge need define us or shackle us, and that reconciliation is always life-giving to all who are concerned.
Sermon by Rev. James Pettit – 14th June 2015