Covenant History: a Lenten journey

Last year for Lent, my wife and I read the New Testament. This year, we decided to kick it old school, reading what are sometimes called the historical books of the Old Testament — or simply the “Covenant History” (Genesis – Kings).

Lent doesn’t start till next week, but seeing as this section runs about 25% longer than the New Testament, we decided to give ourselves a head start. So we started reading last night.

Side note: we’re reading from a Bible without chapter or verse numbers, so you won’t find any in these posts, either. Try reading this way sometime. Trust me, it’s way better than reading the Bible as a reference book.

Of course, not having any chapter or verse numbers makes it tricky to describe what we’ve read each day. Their absence forces you to look for other reference points to orientate yourself. It turns out each book has its own natural markers to guide the way.

For example, Genesis consists of a prologue, followed by 11 “accounts.” Each begins with the same phrase: “This is the account of so-and-so.” For day 1, we read the prologue and the first five accounts. (Some are shorter than others.) See? Who needs chapter numbers?

True story, myth, or all of the above?

Having just read The Evolution of Adam, the question at the front of my brain is: what kind of story is Genesis? Is it literal history? Or something else?

There are a number of things about Genesis that should alert us to the perils of reading it as a scientific, literal description of how it all began. For example, when describing day 2 of creation, the prologue to Genesis depicts a world that looks something like this:

In other words, very consistent with ancient Near Eastern cosmology. But not so compatible with a literal, scientific understanding of reality.

Or the fact that we get light and darkness on day 1, three days before God creates the “greater light” (sun) and the “lesser light” (moon). To say nothing of the fact that, strictly speaking, the moon isn’t a light; it reflects light from the sun.

But it’s not just modern science that should cause us to rethink how we read Genesis. There are clues in the text itself that the writers/editors weren’t interested in giving us an exact, literal account.

For example, how is it that when God sends Cain away for murdering his brother, there’s already a large enough human population to make Cain fear for his life? If you follow a strict, literal reading, Cain is only the third person in existence. Young-earth creationists say these other people are Cain’s younger brothers and sisters — which means, among other things, he must’ve married his own sister. (On behalf of us all: eww.)

But if that’s what the writer meant for us to think, he would’ve had Cain say, “My brothers will kill me,” not, “Anyone who finds me will kill me.” What Cain fears is being sent into the unknown — being forced to wander among strange people in a strange land. His response (much less God’s punishment) makes no sense if Cain is being sent away from his family to wander… among his family?

No, what the writers/editors of Genesis are doing is crafting a story to make sense of the human condition — and in particular, Israel’s condition. Genesis declares that the God of Israel is the one who brought everything into existence; creation is not the accidental by-product of a cosmic smackdown among warring deities (as suggested by other ancient creation stories).

The Genesis narratives also paint a compelling portrait of humanity’s increasingly desperate state. Cut off from our source of life, creation fragments. Humanity descends into an ever-worsening spiral of violence, injustice, and oppression.

Finally, the narratives foreshadow everything that follows in the Covenant History. Adam’s story is Israel’s story. Adam is specially chosen by God. He’s given a land to tend; he’s given a law to tether him to his creator. He fails to keep that law, so he’s sent into exile. But he’s not just exiled anywhere. He and his descendants are sent away to the east.

This is Israel’s story. Israel was specially chosen by God. They were given a land to tend, and given a law to tether them to their creator. They failed to keep that law, so God sent them into exile. They weren’t just exiled anywhere, either. They were carried off to the east — to Babylon.

In the Bible, Israel’s condition and the larger human condition are one and the same. Which means that Israel’s hope is the hope of the world. Israel’s long-anticipated deliverer, hinted at in the creation account, is the deliverer of us all.

Reversing the curse: connecting Jesus to Genesis

The gospels connect Jesus to the Genesis story, sometimes in surprising ways. For example, Matthew describes a scene where one of Jesus’ disciples asks how many times he has to forgive someone who sins against him. “Up to seven times?” the disciple asks.

Jesus answers, “Not seven times, but seventy-seven times.”

This story is often presented as a simple lesson in the importance of forgiving others. On one level, that’s not a bad way to read it.

But there’s more to it than this. Jesus is reaching all the way back to the creation account in Genesis. There, a man named Lamech (said to be one of Cain’s descendants) kills a man, then brags about it to his wives:

Adah and Zillah, listen to me; wives of Lamech, hear my words.

I have killed a man for wounding me, a young man for injuring me.

If Cain is avenged seven times, then Lamech seventy-seven times.

God had promised Cain that if anyone killed him, they would suffer vengeance “seven times over.” Then Lamech engages in a dangerous game of one-upmanship — a sad illustration of how in a broken world like ours, retaliatory violence escalates at an alarming rate. Lamech’s boast is actually a curse.

To be a follower of Jesus, then, is to reverse the curse of Lamech. Where the children of Lamech seek vengeance 77 times over; the children of God forgive 77 times over. To become a subject of Jesus’ kingdom is to reject the kingdom of Lamech.

Jesus’ story is a response to Israel’s story. It’s a response to the story in Genesis. Whether or not Lamech was an actual historical figure (much less Adam), he serves as a monument to the universal human condition — a condition Jesus came to reverse.

That’s why if you want to understand Jesus, Genesis is a good place to start.

One thought on “Covenant History: a Lenten journey

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s