Abraham and Israel for Normal People (RJS)

Abraham and Israel for Normal People (RJS) May 1, 2012

Peter Enns and Jared Byas have a new e-book Genesis for Normal People designed to introduce Christians who have little if any formal training in biblical studies to the ancient voice of Genesis and to the purpose and focus of the book. It will rock the world for some because it presents the purpose and form of the OT in general and Genesis in particular from a point of view that is distinctly different from the approach the average Christian is familiar with.

Most people, when considering controversy and the book of Genesis, focus in on the first 11 chapters. Two unique people as progenitors of the human race, a flood reducing population to some 6 individuals repopulating the earth, the origin of language diversity following Babel… these are claims that are called into question today and give rise to hard questions we must think through together as a church. Enns and Byas devote the first 7 chapters of the book (and well over half of the text) to the primeval history in Genesis 1-11. But the purpose of Genesis becomes clear beginning with Genesis 12 – and this is, I think, the most important part of the book – both Genesis and Genesis for Normal People.

I put up a quote from the book in the last post, and would like to expand on this a bit today.

Oftentimes we are taught to read the Bible the way we read a book like Aesop’s Fables or The Adventures of Winnie-the-Pooh – as a collection of short, stand-alone stories. These stories may have some of the same characters, but there is no ongoing story line. We should not bring that way of reading to the Bible, where we are left with the “story of Noah’s ark” or the “story of Joseph” as stand–‐alone stories with moral lessons to be learned. These stories are part of a larger continuous story.

Genesis was not written like Aesop or Winnie-the-Pooh. It was written in the way of Alice. When we read Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland to our kids, they always want to know what happens next, because they know each part hangs together as one story that will find its climax at the end of the whole book, not the end of a single episode. To think that we can fully understand the story of Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac in Genesis 22, for example, without reading the first twenty‐one chapters of Genesis is like flipping to the tea party in Alice and thinking the “point” of that story is that we should never dine with someone who is crazy and wears mad hats. Genesis is not a series of pithy short stories with moral lessons, but a series of vital stepping‐stones in the story of Israel’s beginnings.

When we read Genesis, the entire book of course, but especially chapters 12-50, it will make much more sense and have more impact on our life as Christians if we read it through ancient eyes as the story of Israel’s beginnings.

What is the framing message of Genesis, especially Genesis 12-50?

How do individual incidents fit into this narrative? … the sacrifice of Isaac, the exile of Ishmael, the story of Jacob? Joseph in Egypt?

How does this connect with the Gospel?

That last question, asking how this connects with the gospel, may seem a bit of a sharp left turn. But I have found it interesting to read Genesis for Normal People, and to think about the ideas Enns and Byas raise, in parallel with N.T. Wright’s How God Became King. I am running a bit behind Scot and just finished Chapter 6 The Launching of God’s Renewed People. This chapter concludes with a reflection on Luke 24:13-35, the two disciples on the road to Emmaus.

He said to them, “How foolish you are, and how slow to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Did not the Messiah have to suffer these things and then enter his glory?” And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself. (24: 25-27)

They asked each other, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he talked with us on the road and opened the Scriptures to us?” (24:32)

This passage has occurred to me many times when thinking about Adam, and Genesis, and indeed the entire Old Testament and history of Israel. I don’t think Jesus was pointing out obscure “magical” prophecies that foretold events in his life thus “proving” that he is divine. He was showing how he was the fulfillment of the entire story from Genesis to Malachi (or Genesis to Chronicles if you read it in the Hebrew order). A couple of chapters back (Ch. 4 The Story of Israel) Wright couples the OT to the gospel, beginning with Genesis 1-3 ….well yes,  but more importantly with Genesis 12 through Malachi:

Just as Genesis 1-3 tell the story of the human plight through the pattern of glorious beginnings, rich vocations, and then horrible failure and exile, so Genesis 12 through to the end of Chronicles or Malachi tell the story of Israel with tales of glorious beginnings, rich vocations, and then horrible failure and exile. Indeed, whoever put Genesis 1-3 into its present form was undoubtedly aware of, and undoubtedly intended that resonance to be fully heard.  That itself is the backdrop to my first main point.

The problem is that we have all read the gospels, if we haven’t been careful, simply as God’s answer to the plight of the human race in general. The implied backstory hasn’t been the story of Abraham, of Moses, of David, of the prophets; its been the story of Adam and Eve, of “Everyman,” sinning and dying and needing to be redeemed. Israel’s story sneaks in alongside, in this version, in order merely to advance some promises, some hints, and some signposts. (p. 66-67)

The story of Genesis 12-50 is the story of Israel’s beginning, the beginning of the backstory for the gospel. But Genesis 12-50 is not merely an objective report on the lives of the patriarchs. It is shaped by the experience of the authors and editors who put it into the form we have for a purpose reflecting on the work of God – and the inspiration of God is in that purpose as much as it is in the composition of any text or oral tradition used to put together the text we have today.

In his book Wright points out that Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John were not providing “some “neutral,” “objective,” fly-on-the-wall kind of reportage.”   They were shaping their telling of the story of Jesus to connect with the past and to put down markers for the future. Enns and Byas, make the same point about Genesis. Genesis isn’t a “neutral”, “objective”, fly-on-the-wall report. It is a history of Israel’s beginnings and it is shaped to connect the past and put down markers for the writer/editor’s present and for the future. When Jesus opened the Scriptures to Cleopas and his companion on the road to Emmaus these are almost certainly the connections he was making. We see these connections in the New Testament, in all of the OT allusions and references contained in the gospels,  especially those that seem out of context and irrelevant like Matthew’s reference to Hosea “out of Egypt I called my son.”  (Mt. 2:15 and see an earlier post here.)

So what about Abraham (and Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph)? In Genesis for Normal People Enns and Byas work through a number of the key incidents in the lives of the patriarchs showing how these stories and incidents connect to and help make sense of the future reality of the people of Israel. The elements Enns and Byas bring up were not foreign to me. I have heard or read many of the ideas before in sermons or bible studies. But they have not been pulled together in such a concise and “user-friendly” form.

Abraham was chosen by God – in a manner that leaves us wanting more details. But his obedience to God is up and down, with moments of glorious success, horrible failure, exile, and redemption. He left Bablyon … but he also cycled through Egypt and was rescued by God. He is portrayed as a law-keeper (although the law came later), and as one who falls.

God demands the firstborn, the cream of the crop, and the sacrifice of Isaac (as well as the failure of Cain) reflect this demand. In the last plague in Egypt and the Passover we see this enacted again in Exodus. The message to the people of Israel was clear “Israel is, was, and always will be God’s firstborn son (Exodus 4:22) and is, was, and always will be safe in God’s hands—no matter how dire the circumstances.

Isaac in turn has success and failure, although he avoided a sojourn in Egypt. According to Genesis 26  The Lord appeared to Isaac and said, “Do not go down to Egypt; live in the land where I tell you to live. Isaac listened and stayed in the land promised by God.

Jacob’s sons, and then Jacob himself, of course, did venture into Egypt in response to a famine as his family was saved by his son Joseph.

The book ends with the death of Jacob and then Joseph. With this, Israel’s infancy comes to an end and a difficult period of growth is about to begin. The movement from a people to a nation is not one that will come easily—it will end with Israel licking its wounds from Babylonian captivity. And as we have seen, that larger story is already in view throughout Genesis. Israel’s ancient story is one of struggle, with God and with others. It is also a story of Israel’s faith in God, that he will come through for them no matter what. Genesis is Israel’s story to show that God can be counted on, from the very beginning. (Ch.11)

Enns and Byas conclude their book by challenging the reader to go back and look afresh at the story of Genesis, to “pay closer attention to what the ancient author was actually saying to his ancient readers.” … “Reading Genesis and all of Scripture is a lifelong process of learning, adjustment, and refinement.”

It is this story of Israel, begun in Genesis and continued through the Old Testament, that provides the backstory for the gospels. Without a proper understanding of the story of Israel, we will miss key pieces of the story of Jesus in the gospels, and of the significance of his life, death, and resurrection. We are seriously messed up when we skip from Genesis 3 to crucifixion and resurrection.

Have you read Genesis with eyes looking for resonances with the story of Israel?

Does the approach outlined by Enns and Byas make sense?

How does the story of Israel connect with the story of Jesus in the gospels?

If you wish to contact me directly, you may do so at rjs4mail[at]att.net.

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What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • RJS, I’m reading the book and I find it accesible and informative and I hope it will be read widely. We need more accessible writing on ancient Israel.

  • S Wu

    One of the precious (if not the most important) experiences I have as a Christian is to read the Bible from cover to cover every year. When I came to faith 30 years ago, I very quickly realized that there were different views on just about every passage in the Bible. I made up my mind that I would try to read the Scripture on its own terms as much as I could. I have to say that I have come to a similar reading as the above when it comes to Genesis. I guess it is because it is hard to separate Genesis from the rest of the Bible. My personal experience is that every time I come to Matthew (and the rest of the NT) I realize that I have the whole of the OT in the background. And when I come to Revelation, Genesis and everything in between Genesis and Revelation make sense. Scripture, a wonderful book!

  • CGC

    Hi RJS,
    On the one hand, people need to see “everyone” if they are to see themself or the Bible speaking right to them. The problem is the whole Christian subculure has taught Genesis and the whole NT story as if Israel is out (supersessionism reigns, I have also noted Piper reigns on the discussion of the gospel—is there a correlation here? 🙂

    I’m glad somebody is trying in a user-friendly way to put Israel back in the middle of the story. They never left the middle, we decided consciously or unconsciously a long time ago to leave them behind. I praise God for people like N. T. Wright, Kenneth Bailey, Scot McKnight and now like Peter Enns and others who are trying to give us a more holistic picture of the Bible even if it goes against some of our ingrained Reformation ideas and Evangelical sensitivities.

    I can’t help but think of what we have done with our Sunday School presentations of Biblical stories dissecting them into pieces without giving the larger context of the stories. I mean, why else would Christian parents for example decorate their baby’s nursury with Noah and the Ark deocrations with smiling giraffs looking at you. Maybe if they had in the background the storm and dead people floating around, it would not be such a baby user friendly decorations as our Christian marketers make it out to be.

  • In my experience, many people are a little fuzzy on Genesis, especially after chapter 3. I study through Genesis as part of a year cycle of studying the Torah portions. It’s foundational. Every time I study through it, there are new realizations and connections made. Hopefully this book (which I haven’t read btw) will help people see the importance of Genesis.

  • Fred

    “Christians who have little if any formal training in biblical studies”

    I wonder what they mean by the above statement. I am glad for this book because this would, in my view, include most of the people in our churches.

  • RJS


    You are right that we need to see ourselves as part of the story to see the Bible speaking to us. I think we get some of that from Genesis 1-3, and more of it from Paul. But not by skipping over everything between (as Scot will often point out). It seems to me that we have all been brought in as the people of God … and thus in a way the story of Israel is our story. Not supersession but a broadened selection. I haven’t studied this nearly as much as I would like to though.

    I have been struck lately by the depth of connection within the OT and by the connection between the gospels and the story of Israel. Yes, it has been a surface teaching in many of the churches I have attended – but the depth of the synthesis has been sorely lacking.

    Nice image of the nursery – we should have images of sons of god marrying women and nephelim and great wickedness followed by dead people and animals floating around. This is far more accurate to the story than smiling giraffes.

  • CGC

    You all always make me smile and laugh. One of the reasons I enjoy reading others musings so much on this website 🙂

  • RJS

    S Wu,

    You’ve inspired me – through the Bible cover to cover. I started an audio version on my commute today – not quite reading through, but about as good I expect. Although I have read it all – I don’t think I’ve ever read it cover to cover.

  • S Wu

    Thank you! I think the problem of Sunday school presentations dissecting biblical stories is one that happens all too often elsewhere – Bible studies, preaching, etc. I don’t want to criticize our hardworking Sunday school teachers and faithful pastors who want to get their job done. There is no easy way around it, I suppose. But this is where reading the Bible from the beginning to end – from Genesis to Revelation – is really helpful. And indeed, listening to it makes a lot sense, for that’s how the ancients did it.

  • RJS

    S Wu,

    I have about a 25 minute commute each way, and over the last day and a half have listened to Gen 1-20 straight through. Already it has some things stewing in my head … because of the order of the incidents in the life of Abraham and because of the things that are emphasized.

    And it got me thinking about the point made by CGC at 7:19 am yesterday … one of the things emphasized here is how the nation from Abraham through Isaac will be a blessing for all the nations. It appears that this isn’t just about a chosen people worshipping their God, but about God reaching out to all the nations through his chosen covenant people.

  • CGC

    Rjs, S Wu, Scot, and all,
    Yes, yes, yes! God reaching out to all the nations through his chosen covenant people. If we all would only do this! And then there are those who say to me, “But c’mon, Jesus is the only way?” I try to say nicely, “He’s the way for everyone.” Jesus death, burial, and resurrection looks backward, forward, and takes in the present. All people are saved by the blood of the lamb whether the OT patriarchs, a baby dying in the womb, or the person who has no special revelation of God but simply throws oneself on the mercy of God. Christ is the Messiah of both Jews and Gentiles, poor and rich, young and old, mentally challenged and academically brilliant, God wants his banquet full. But then, it’s the meek and not the strong, the weak and not the powerful, the last and not the first who often end up at God’s table.

  • Sheri Graham

    I haven’t been nearly as disciplined as S Wu, but I also commend the reading through of the Bible each year. I’ve only made it about 15 times through the Bible but those times have been invaluable to me. When I’m teaching or preaching I try to guide the folks to see how each book fits into the whole “big picture” from Genesis to Revelation. I need help seeing that too. I’m looking forward to reading this book.