The theology of Genesis can be studied on three levels. The first level of study focuses on its message in and of itself. This is the attempt to determine what the meaning of the book is apart from its place in the larger canon of Scripture, and particularly relates to the question of what it might have meant to its original readers. The second level of study concerns the theology of Genesis within the Old Testament canon. This relates to how the rest of the Old Testament looks back to Genesis and draws upon its theology. The third level of study looks at the theology of Genesis from the New Testament perspective. This relates to how Genesis feeds into the Christian faith.
The first level involves one's critical outlook more than the other two. Scholars who in some fashion accept the documentary hypothesis of Julius Wellhausen are less concerned with the theology of Genesis as a whole than the respective theologies of J, E, D, and P. Other scholars, such as those who follow the tradition criticism of Martin Noth, believe that Genesis is the result of legends and traditions that grew and underwent transformation throughout the centuries of Israel's history. These scholars, too, tend to find diverse messages in the various streams of tradition they claim to uncover and rarely concern themselves with the book as a whole. Some critics have attempted to bridge the gap between critical theory and biblical theology with "canon criticism" (following especially Brevard Childs) and thus have a theology of the whole book of Genesis without abandoning the reigning critical theories. Even so, it is fair to say that those who hold to the view that Genesis is a late work (ca. 450 b.c.) and is the result of competing traditions or schools either have great difficulty describing a theology of Genesis or simply do not consider the concept meaningful.
Scholars who essentially hold to Mosaic authorship contend for a unified message for the book since they believe that it has a unified background and purpose. It is not enough, however, simply to say that Moses wrote Genesis to be in a position to grasp its message. Since the stories in Genesis presumably circulated among the Israelites in Egypt log before Moses, one must ask what significance the stories would have had to them. Another question is how these stories were put together into a coherent package as the Book of Genesis. Assuming that Moses did receive these stories and gave them coherent form, much as Luke did with the stories of Jesus ( Luke 1:1-4 ), one can work through the structure of Genesis to its message for the earliest Israelite community.
The structure of Genesis parallels an ancient Near Eastern model in which there is a prologue, three threats to an ancestor or community of ancestors, and a concluding resolution. A story in this pattern describes how the community has come through a series of dangers in the persons of the ancestors. On the one hand, it is a story of triumph but, on the other hand, it can be rather bleak since the "concluding resolution" tends to be semitragic in this pattern. The main purpose of this kind of story is to tell the community of descendants how they came to be in the situation in which they now find themselves. Genesis has the following structure:
The Abraham Cycle
The Jacob Cycle
The Joseph Cycle
Settlement in Egypt
The "Primeval History" ( Gen 1:1-11:26 ) sets the stage for the whole of the book. It tells how humanity began in paradise and yet lost its hold on the tree of life through disobedience. It explains how the world we live in came to be. This concerns not only the creation of the physical universe and living things, but also the origin of both human evil and of the diverse, competing nations of the present world order. This sets the stage for the emergence of Israel among the nations.
Beginning in Genesis 12, the text focuses on the ancestors of Israel. Although the ancestors are Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and the twelve, the literary narrative concentrates on Abraham, Jacob, and Joseph. This is because each of these men must leave his home to face diverse dangers in an alien, hostile world, whereas Isaac stays in the relative security of his family and the land of his birth throughout his life. Each of the three major characters wanders among strange and sometimes hostile peoples. We can well imagine how the earliest Israelite audience may have heard this story with rapt attention as the ancestor (and by extension his descendants) is placed in mortal danger. The tension is resolved with the welcome of Jacob into Egypt. The young nation comes into a place of nurture and refuge. Even though Egypt is a haven, however, it is still alien, and the Israelites are in a land not their own. Hence the story ends on a bleak note with Joseph, their sponsor and protector, placed in a coffin.
If one wishes to determine the theology of Genesis, one must take into account this narrative framework. And theology, particularly the theology of divine guidance and providence, is at the heart of the narrative. It is a divine call that first takes Abraham away from his homes in Ur and Haran to Canaan ( 12:1-5 ). By divine intervention Abraham is repeatedly delivered and even prospers, as in his sojourn to Egypt ( 12:10-20 ). Jacob is tricked into marrying Leah, sister of his beloved Rachel, and Rachel is for some time barren. Out of this situation comes the twelve sons who become twelve tribes (29:15-30:23). Joseph is first cruelly sold into slavery by his brothers and then wrongly accused of rape by his master's wife, but through this series of cruel circumstances, he rises to the summit of power in the Egyptian empire (chaps. 37-41). Joseph aptly describes the providential nature of his story: "Even though you intended to harm me, God intended it for good, in order to preserve a numerous people, as he is doing today" ( 50:20 NRSV). For the earliest audience, the story of Genesis would have been the story of how they, by the providence of God, came to find themselves in the land of Egypt. It would also tell them that although Egypt was not their land they were there legitimately since they had been welcomed by Pharaoh himself ( 47:7-12 ).
Genesis also contains a statement of hope for Israel in Egypt so profound that it may almost be called gospel. This "gospel" is built around Abraham. The relevant texts here are 12:1-9; 15:1-21; 17:1-27; and 22:1-19. In the first text ( 12:1-9 ), Abraham receives the command to abandon his homeland with the promise that his offspring will be a great nation. He obeys, goes to Canaan, and there builds altars to Yahweh his God. In the second text ( 15:1-21 ), God makes a covenant with Abraham. God identifies himself, then rejects the suggestion that Eliezer of Damascus might be Abraham's heir, and promises Abraham many descendants and the land of Canaan. Abraham believes, offers a sacrifice, and hears a prophecy concerning his offspring of dark days of slavery followed by the possession of the promised land. The third text ( 17:1-27 ) introduces circumcision as the sign of the covenant. God again identifies himself to Abraham and again promises many offspring and the possession of Canaan. He rejects the suggestion that Ishmael may be the heir, and demands that Abraham and all his male descendants undergo circumcision as the sign of the covenant. Abraham obeys. The fourth text ( 22:1-19 ), like the first, begins with God commanding Abraham to leave his home, only this time it is to take his son up a mountain and sacrifice him to God. Abraham obeys, only he is prevented from carrying out the sacrifice by the angel of the Lord and sacrifices a ram instead. Having passed this greatest of tests, he is again promised the land and many offspring.
The theological importance of these narratives to early Israel, particularly Israel in Egypt, can hardly be missed. They owed their very existence to the divine promise of the birth of a son, a promise that was fulfilled by miracle long after any natural hope for a son was dead. Through these stories the Israelites learned that they were heirs of a covenant between Yahweh and Abraham. They also learned of the origin and meaning of the covenant sign of circumcision, a sign that for Israel had the same importance as does baptism and communion for the church. They also saw, vividly portrayed in the life of Abraham, the importance of faith and obedience to Yahweh. Finally, for Israel in Egypt, this story had a kind of eschatology in the promise that they would one day inherit the land of Canaan.
When one investigates how the rest of the Old Testament uses Genesis, one is struck by how little direct reflection on that book exists. Most of these are brief references to the promises given "to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob" (e.g., Exod 3:15-16 ; 4:5 ; 6:8 ; Lev 26:42 ; Deut 6:10 ; 30:20 ; Joshua 24:2 ; 2 Kings 13:23 ; 2 Chron 20:7 ; Neh 9:7-8 ). Sodom is sometimes cited as a paradigm of evil and divine judgment (e.g., Deut 29:23 ; Isa 1:9-10 ; Jer 23:14 ; 49:18 ; Ezek 16:46-56 ; Amos 4:11 ; Zeph 2:9 ). Psalm 105:9-23 briefly recounts the story of Genesis with emphasis on the Joseph narrative. Theological reflection on Genesis occurs in the Book of Ecclesiastes, which includes meditations on the human condition after the fall. Allusions to Genesis tend to be rather veiled here, however, as in the refrain that everything is "meaningless" (hebel, 1:2 , which is also "Abel, " the name of Adam and Eve's murdered son ). Poetic and wisdom texts also reflect on the doctrine of creation.
The limited nature of theological reflection on Genesis in the rest of the Old Testament is meaningful, however, as it points again to the fact that the message of Genesis was originally a message for Israel in Egypt. It told that community who they were, why they were there, and what future God had promised to them. After the conquest of Canaan it is not Genesis but the exodus event that stands at the center of Israelite theology.
The New Testament and subsequent Christian theology deals with Genesis more directly. First and foremost, Christ is regarded as descended from Abraham and as the fulfillment of all the promises ( Matt 1:1-2 ; cf. Luke 24:27 ). Although the New Testament itself is not explicit in tracing Christ through all the related passages in Genesis, Christian interpreters have regarded Christ as the true "seed of the woman" who would fight against the serpent ( Gen 3:15 ). The line of the promise was narrowed to the line of Seth ( Gen 5 ), Shem ( 9:26-27 ), Abraham ( 12:1-3 ), Isaac ( 26:2-5 ), Jacob ( 28:10-17 ), and Judah ( 49:10 ). Genesis tells of the fall into sin but also immediately begins the story of redemption through the promised son.
Stephen, in his Acts 7 speech, briefly recounts the story of Genesis (vv. 2-16) with emphasis on how God overruled the jealousy of Joseph's brothers in order to fulfill the promises. He implies that God in the same way used the sin of the Jews to bring about redemption through Jesus' crucifixion.
Paul draws upon Genesis at several points. His case for justification by grace through faith to a great degree rests upon the story of Abraham and in particular on Genesis 15:6, which records that Abraham believed God and that God reckoned his faith as righteousness. In Romans 4:1-12, Paul argues that this can only be an act of grace on God's part and is not a matter of works or merit. He further observes that since this act of justification occurred prior to circumcision, it demonstrates that Gentiles do not need to receive circumcision in order to enter the company of the redeemed. Similarly, in Galatians 3:6-18, he cites Genesis 15:6 to establish that justification is not by works, and further argues that the promise is not nullified by the law that came 430 years later.
Paul also sees the miraculous birth of Isaac as a type of grace through faith. In Romans 4:18-25 he compares the faith of Abraham in the promised son to the faith of Christians in Jesus and the resurrection. In Galatians 4:21-31, the miraculous birth of Isaac contrasts with the natural birth of Ishmael, and the two are types respectively of justification by grace and by the law. James, by contrast, emphasizes the obedience of Abraham in offering up his son Isaac for sacrifice ( 2:21 ).
Paul also extracts theological lessons from the story of the fall. In Romans 5:12-21, he observes that through the sin of one man, Adam, death and sin spread to all humanity, and that in the same way the obedience of one man, Jesus, provided justification and life for all. In the same fashion, he develops the concept of the first and second Adam in 1 Corinthians 15. As the first brought death to humanity, the second opened the way to eternal life (vv. 21-22, 45). Taking Genesis 3 in a completely different direction, he also uses it to help define the role and duty of Christian women in 1 Timothy 2:9-15.
Hebrews uses Genesis 14:17-20 to demonstrate the supremacy of Christ's priesthood (the order of Melchizedek) to that of the Levites, since Levi was in effect in the loins of Abraham when he gave the tithe to Melchizedek ( 7:1-10 ). On a less complex level, Hebrews also refers to Abel, Enoch, Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph as examples of persevering faith ( 11:4-22 ). Finally, Revelation closes the canon by looking back to the early chapters of Genesis. It proclaims the victory of Christ over the serpent ( 20:2 ) and free access to the tree of life for the redeemed ( 22:2 ).
Duane A. Garrett
Bibliography. W. Brueggemann and H. W. Wolff, The Vitality of Old Testament Traditions; B. Childs, Introduction to the Old Testament as Scripture; D. A. Garrett, Rethinking Genesis; D. Kidner, Genesis; G. Wenham, Genesis 1-15; C. Westermann, Genesis 1-11.
Copyright © 1996 by Walter A. Elwell. Published by Baker Books, a division of
Baker Book House Company, Grand Rapids, Michigan USA.
All rights reserved. Used by permission.
For usage information, please read the Baker Book House Copyright Statement.
Bibliography InformationElwell, Walter A. "Entry for 'Genesis, Theology of'". "Evangelical Dictionary of Theology".