In The Beginning
The opening verse of the Bible pictures the earth in a state of chaos. Deep waters surge to and fro, and it is intensely dark.
But God the Creator, in six days of intense activity and by the limitless energy of His Spirit power, transformed the turmoil into a new world of order and beauty. He turned on the light of the sun, dried out the land, planted trees and grasses, and stocked both sea, land and sky with a huge variety of life forms, each capable of reproducing. Then the mighty Designer proclaimed the seventh day a day of rest. Amazingly, that is how it still is – we measure our lives by groups of seven days and we call them weeks.
In the second chapter, we have more detail of the creation of man, brought to life with the breath of God, the very same life-force which keeps us going until one day we breathe our last, and our life stops. That sad fate is introduced in chapter three.
Adam, and his partner Eve lived in a Paradise – a watered garden. There they were subject to God’s law – ‘feel free to eat any fruit you desire, except from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil’. One day the Serpent – a creature created by God – fooled Eve into breaking God’s rule. She then talked Adam into joining her in crime. Soon the human pair found themselves before the great Judge and were condemned to die at the end of a process of ageing, inevitable and final. This grim news was accompanied by exclusion from Paradise; in future they were to find their food only by toil and perspiration.
This human condition, which we all inherit (remember, we break God’s rules ourselves, and therefore deserve Adam’s sentence) would be grim indeed, were it not that God is merciful. Seeing the predicament, He prepared a way for us to achieve reconciliation and everlasting life.
Take a look at Genesis 3:15 for a taste of the many hidden surprises in the Bible. The Serpent had deceived Eve into breaking God’s law, which the Bible calls Sin. From this point onwards, the Serpent in the Bible becomes symbolic of Sin. So, in this cryptic statement, which seems at first glance to state the obvious – that mankind and snakes do not get on with each other – God promised that a descendant of Eve would one day destroy Sin. He would stamp on the Serpent’s head.
The solution to this ‘Serpent Mystery’ only became plain with the coming of Jesus, millennia later. Jesus, descended from Eve, conquered the temptation to sin day after day. Arrested and falsely accused, he volunteered to die, a sentence he did not deserve, and endured the pain of the cross so that he could share our humanity to the full. Consigned to the tomb, he could not in justice remain there, being a sinless man. God raised him to immortal life on the third day. At this point the power of sin was broken and those who believed in Jesus could be forgiven their sins and likewise raised from the dead at the Last Day. Amazingly, the whole gospel is there, in the opening chapters of Genesis! After their expulsion from the Garden of Eden, it seems that Adam and his family worshipped God at the gates of their former paradise, through which they could see the Way to the Tree of Life. Fiery cherubs and a flaming sword barred the road to happiness and fellowship with God, but the hope was set before them that one day, on God’s terms, and in His good time, they might eat the fruit of the Tree of Life and live forever. That could only be possible through the death of the Son of God. And so they brought to this appointed place at the required times the sacrificial animals which God had prescribed, spotless and blemish-free, to represent in symbol his own dear Son.
The next 1000 years or so of human history are compressed into a few verses. Chapters four and five of Genesis record two rival genealogies – the one of the descendants of Cain, and the other of Seth, born to replace Abel. Cain’s family were strong, warlike and selfish, with no respect for God. Seth’s people, in contrast, were believers, and kept the commandments of the Lord. At last the longsuffering of the Creator was stretched too far. The Cainites had filled the world with violence and bloodshed. God’s Way, the life He taught man to live, had become corrupted and man did what he pleased. The time had come to wash the world clean and start again.
The account of the Flood in Genesis chapters six and seven is a stark reminder of the power of God to judge the world, and His mercy in preserving the children of faithful Noah. He does not condemn the righteous with the wicked. When the waters retreated, Noah’s family replenished the earth. From them came the three main branches of the modern family tree – the black peoples, the Asiatic/Europeans, and the Semitic race of Jews and Arabs.
Not surprisingly, the rebellious heart of man had not changed. Noah’s descendants settled in Mesopotamia (recognised as the source of civilisation) and began to build the great cities of the plain. In an attempt to thwart the Creator, they planned the Tower of Babel, high enough they thought to protect them against another flood (even though God had promised He would not send one again). A visit from the angels (God’s immortal messengers) put a stop to that by confusing their languages. After that the disparate tribes spread outwards into the earth.
From this point the Genesis camera focuses on the family of one man – Abraham, the father of the Jews and the Arabs. Our hero, a devout believer in God, was asked by an angelic visitor to leave his comfortable home in Ur, a city whose ruins are still visible in Iraq. In spite of the obvious uncertainties, and his advanced age, he set off for an unknown land. His reward was the promise of a large family, and a permanent inheritance of this land, which turned out to be Canaan, or Israel as we call it today.
The fascinating biography of the Father of the Faithful occupies 13 chapters of the Bible. Abraham’s faith in God was tested time after time. He had been promised a son, but it took 25 years before the baby arrived. He had been guaranteed the land on which he camped in his tent, but until the day of his death he still owned none of it except a cemetery plot, which he paid for in cash.
As the New Testament writer to the Hebrews remarks, Abraham died in faith, still believing God would give him the land in which he was to be buried.
These all died in faith, not having received the promises, but having seen them afar off were assured of them, embraced them, and confessed that they were strangers and pilgrims on the earth … all these, having obtained a good testimony through faith, did not receive the promise, God having provided something better for us, that they should not be made perfect apart from us. (Hebrews 11:13, 39-40)
This means Abraham’s faith stretched beyond death. He believed in the resurrection from the dead. He was convinced God would one day bring him back to life, so that he could inherit the land for ever. That is why the Apostle Paul says the ‘gospel’ was preached to Abraham.
Isaac and Ishmael
Abraham had two sons. One was born of his slave-concubine Hagar. This was Ishmael, forefather of the Arab races. The other was Isaac, his son by his true wife Sarah, and born miraculously in extreme old age. God chose Isaac as the heir of Abraham’s promises, and repeated them to this young man as he grew up. One most moving incident, in chapter 22, involves the final and greatest test for Abraham.
The angel of the Lord asked him to offer his beloved Isaac as a sacrifice on a hill three days’ journey away – from the directions probably Mount Moriah outside Jerusalem. The torment of the old man and the obedience of his young son – who was later spared – is a classic of literature. It also helps us understand how much God suffered when He allowed His own dear Son to die at the hands of his enemies, so that we could be delivered from death.
In time Isaac and his wife had twin boys, and once again the firstborn, Esau, was demoted in favour of the younger, Jacob. Esau became the head of the Edomites, who like the Arabs became implacable rivals to the descendants of Jacob – the twelve tribes of Israel. The twists in the fortunes of Jacob are riveting. Jacob tried endlessly to prosper himself by craft and guile but came to realise, after 20 years, that it was God who had protected him, and given him success.
In recognition of this realisation, Jacob’s name was changed to Israel, ‘a prince with God’. He returned to the land of his birth, but was devastated by the loss of his dearest wife, Rachel, in childbirth. Sorrow struck again when his favourite, her son Joseph, was taken from him by stealth as his jealous brothers sold him into slavery and pretended to their father that he was dead.
Joseph in Egypt
The last 14 chapters of the Book of Beginnings tell the amazing story of young Joseph, transplanted violently at the age of 17 into an alien land. For 21 years he had no contact with his family or any other believer in God, yet his faith never waivered. His master promoted him from slave to head of the house. Then overnight he was thrown into prison, after his master’s wife pretended he had molested her. Defenceless and alone, this second reversal was daunting but even in prison Joseph made the best of things.
Eventually his God-given gift of interpreting dreams opens the door to Pharaoh the king of Egypt, and overnight he finds himself Lord of the Land. Here he was in a position to provide for the salvation of his family in a time of famine. They all came down to Egypt to live with him, and Jacob found his favourite son alive after all. God had guided the fortunes of Abraham’s family through a plot with many twists and turns.
In fifty fast-moving chapters Genesis traverses two thousand years of human history and the Bible drama is poised to introduce the Exodus, the beginning of the nation of Israel.