Telling the story well: God’s good world


About this series: I believe “getting the gospel right” means telling the story well. This idea inspired me as I wrote my book for kids, The Story of King Jesus.  In this series, I’m sharing a few aspects of the story that I believe are key to telling it well. 

God made the very first people
so he could share his home with them. 

He gave them a job to do:
take care of his good world. 

                                    – from The Story of King Jesus

Last year, we bought a kids’ worship album for the car. My daughter wants to listen to it ALL the time. She knows every song by heart—including the popular Hillsong Anthem, “Forever Reign,” which opens with the line, “You are good, you are good / when there’s nothing good in me…”

Let me tell you, there’s something jarring about hearing your 4-year-old daughter sing, “There is nothing good in me.”

Yet when it comes to the gospel, that’s how we typically start, with the idea that our sin defines our whole identity. It’s the first letter of the Reformed mnemonic, TULIP. Total depravity. It’s the first way station on the “Romans Road” plan of salvation. For all have sinned and fall short.

But that’s not where our story begins.

Our story begins in Genesis 1, not Genesis 3. And, yes, it matters where we begin.

In Genesis 1, with each successive act of creation, God delights in the inherent goodness of what he’s made. On the sixth day, God surveys everything and sees that it’s not just good, it’s very good. Seven times God sees that it’s good—which, for the discerning Jewish reader, signaled something. The number seven signaled completion. In Genesis, it signaled the complete, utter goodness of God’s creation.

That includes us, by the way. Whatever else may be true about us, God made us good.

Obviously, a lot happened after Genesis 1. But why do we skip this part of the story when sharing the gospel? Why do we bypass Genesis 1 and go straight to Genesis 3?

Is it because we’re afraid of thinking too highly of ourselves by saying that God made us “good”? Is it because we think our salvation depends on our willingness to grovel, to confess utter worthlessness before a reluctantly forgiving God?

Some Christians seem to almost revel in their portrait of human depravity, as if trying to outdo one another in capturing the wretchedness of our natural state—as if thinking the more we beat ourselves down, the more God will somehow be lifted up.

Except it’s not our natural state, and acting as if it is actually leads to a diminished view of God. In Genesis 1, we see that we are good—not because of anything we did, but because God made us that way. Our goodness is not something we came to on our own; it’s a gift. It’s the very first gift, the very first act of grace.

In God’s story, grace precedes sin.


Starting with the world as God made it also helps us to see where the story is going.

If God made the world good, then he can make it good again.

If God made the world good, then salvation—whatever else it may entail—is going to involve this world, its rescue, its remaking.

If God made the world good, then it changes how we understand our role as citizens of his kingdom. To return to God—to renounce sin and exile—is to return to our original mission: to take care of God’s good world.

If God made the world good, then our salvation is not from this world; it’s for this world.

Of course, the story doesn’t stop at Genesis 1, and neither should we. We cannot skip right over Genesis 3. We should not underestimate its impact on the rest of the story. To paraphrase N.T. Wright, we cannot whistle in the face of darkness when confronted with Hiroshima or Auschwitz… or (we might add) Ferguson. Guantanamo. Bhopal. ISIS.

The darkness is real. Our sin is real. It’s why the world needs saving.

But telling the story well means starting in Genesis 1, not Genesis 3. God made the world good, and he is making it good again.

This is where we should begin when sharing the story with our kids.

Next up: Making the world right and good again…


Telling the story well: “God made the world to be his home”


About this series: As I shared in the introductory post, I believe “getting the gospel right” means telling the story well. This is what inspired me to write my book for kids, The Story of King Jesus. Over the next few posts, I want to share a few aspects of this story that I believe are key to telling it well. 

It all began with God.

God made everything you can see.
(And even things you can’t see!)

God made the world to be his home.

                                    – from The Story of King Jesus

Growing up, I thought this world was doomed.

Like many Christians, I thought it was destined for the furnace. I looked forward to the day when I would be evacuated from this world, along with my fellow believers, and ushered into an ethereal paradise.

Actually, I wasn’t looking forward to it all that much. As a teenager I would ask God to delay his return long enough for me to experience what life has to offer: getting married, having a family… OK, that’s a pretty noble way of describing what it was I didn’t want to miss out on.

Then I would beat myself up for praying this way, for treasuring “worldly” things over “spiritual” things. Maybe I didn’t deserve that one-way ticket to heaven after all.

My gospel was mainly about escaping this world.

I had the end hope of the gospel wrong because I didn’t understand how the story began. My gospel began with the world gone wrong—and therefore a world not worth saving—not the world as God made it.

If we understood how our story begins, we’ll end up with a very different view of where it’s going. (Plus I could’ve  saved myself a lot of needless teenage guilt.)

So let’s go back to the beginning.

Many of us read Genesis 1 with an eye toward the mechanics of creation. But the biblical origin story is far more interested in the why of creation than the how.

Genesis 1 depicts God giving order and purpose to creation. The land is “good” not simply because it’s there, but because it produces vegetation. The stars, sun, and moon are “good” not simply because they’re there, but because they help mark sacred times, days, and years. They give light to the earth.

Created elements are introduced in order of increasing complexity and importance. Vegetation, then animals, then people. And then it stops. Chapter 1 comes to a close at day 6, with human beings seemingly the pinnacle of God’s creative work.

Except the story continues into the first few lines of chapter 2, which briefly mentions day 7 before turning to a second account of creation. But day 7 is more than an epilogue to the previous story. Remember, things have been moving in increasing order of importance, which means day 7 is the whole point of the story. The seventh day is the day God “blessed” and “made holy,” not days 1-6. The seventh day is what it’s all about.

The seventh day is when God rests—and that is the high point of creation.

Observing the parallels between Genesis and other ancient creation stories, Old Testament scholar John Walton notes that creation was typically followed by divine rest. In these stories, deities always rested in temples.

“Rest” in this case was not the cessation of activity but the beginning of something. It was like a king taking his seat on the throne after his coronation. The hard work of becoming king was done, but the even greater work of ruling was yet before him.

However, there was one crucial difference between Genesis and these other stories: other deities needed someone to build a temple for them. Their houses were crafted by human hands. Not so with God and his temple, to the apostle Paul later declared. God doesn’t need anyone to build him a temple because he’s already built one.

Where is God’s temple in the Genesis story? Where does God rest?

It’s all around us. The cosmos, heaven and earth, is God’s temple.

“Heaven is my throne, and the earth is my footstool,” God declares through the prophet Isaiah. Throne, footstool… these were temple artifacts. This is temple language.

In other words, God made the world to be his home, his temple. Then he invited us to share it with him.

(If anyone says the Old Testament is where we find law and the New Testament is where we find grace, remember what God did at the beginning when he invited us to share his home—his world, his temple—with him.)

This changes how we understand the gospel.

This changes the trajectory, the end goal, of the gospel: it’s about God dwelling with us again.


We see it over and again throughout the story. First, in the primeval garden, where God walks in the garden, his temple, in the cool of the day. Humans are exiled from the garden after the fall, but in some ways it’s as much an exile for God as it is for us. God’s creation—his very home—is turned against him. Heaven and earth are temporarily severed from each other. But God won’t give up on his creation.

God keeps coming back to earth—first to dwell in buildings made by Israelite hands. Initially he occupies a portable tabernacle in the wilderness. Later his presence fills their temple in Jerusalem. In Ezekiel, God departs the temple shortly before Israel goes into exile—a replay of the earlier scene in the garden.

But still God keeps coming back.

Next, he comes to dwell with us in human form, as Jesus—God in flesh and blood.

According to the scriptures, God will return to dwell with us again, this time bringing a whole city with him (which prompted an interesting conversation with my 4-year-old about how big God’s arms must be).

At the end of all things, God will mend the breach between heaven and earth for good.

This changes how we view the gospel. It means this world matters. It matters to God, so it should matter to us.

It means salvation is not just about me and where I go when I die. Salvation, as seen in the Bible, is all-encompassing. It’s “the renewal of all things, not just individual human souls.

This is the story we should tell our kids—a story in which their lives, their choices, and their participation in this world matter. A story where, instead of pressuring them to renounce “worldly” desires for “spiritual” things, we help them to see and welcome God’s presence in all things. A story where the life of this world is not renounced but redeemed.

If we miss how our story begins, we’ll miss where it’s going. If we settle for an escapist gospel, we might just find ourselves moving in the opposite direction as God.

We keep trying to escape the world; God keeps trying to break into it.

God made the world to be his home. Starting our gospel here will make all the difference in the world.


Firmament image via Exploring Our Matrix. John Walton quote via Christianity Today.

How “the days are evil” is a lousy excuse

The other day, Joel J. Miller offered some helpful insight into what he calls the “most highlighted verse” in the Bible, Philippians 4:6.

Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.

The problem, he observed, is that highlighting and reading this verse in isolation yields a rather different meaning than the one Paul intended. Arbitrarily placed verse divisions, none of which were original to Paul or the other biblical authors, have conditioned us to ignore the surrounding context. In this case, the immediately preceding statement: “The Lord is near.”

Which, it turns out, was Paul’s whole reason for not being anxious in the first place.

Severed from its original context, Philippians 4:6 sounds more like a self-help guide to stress management than what it truly is: an affirmation that God is presently at work doing away with all cause for anxiety.

But this isn’t the only example of how reading one verse at a time can cause us to hear something different from what Scripture is really trying to say.


We do not experience God in ways that take us out of this world, but we experience him in ways that root us even more deeply in this world.

I came across this quote the other day while reading The Compassion Quest, a great new book by a friend named Trystan Owain Hughes.

This idea, that our relationship with God is rooted in this world, flies in the face of how some of us — especially those of us who grew up in the evangelical subculture — are accustomed to thinking.

This world is not for experiencing God. This world is for “just passing through” on the way to God. This world is overdue for judgment, burning, destruction.

We don’t wait for God to meet us here. We wait for him to evacuate us from here.


After all, “the days are evil.” Just like Paul said in Ephesians 5:16.

I hear this verse (half a verse, actually) quoted a lot. Often with an air of resignation. As a rationale for why the world doesn’t turn the way some Christians wish it did, for why it doesn’t always cater to their expectations.

The days are evil.

So what’s the point in bothering with this world?

None, right?

As it happens, that’s the precise opposite of what Paul argues in the passage we now know as Ephesians 5. Here’s the fuller quote:

Be very careful, then, how you live — not as unwise but as wise, making the most of every opportunity, because the days are evil.

“Making the most of every opportunity” can also be translated as “redeeming the time.”

Redeem. As in, buy back. Reclaim. Make good again.

Time. As in, this present age. Otherwise known as “the days.” Yes… the same days that are “evil.”

The days are evil is not an excuse for resignation, abandonment, or escapism. It’s not an invitation to retreat into some religious bubble… or to check out, sit back, and wait for the apocalypse to commence. It’s an invitation to engage, connect, restore, rebuild. The days are evil is why Paul admonished his readers to make themselves useful.

“Sure, the days are evil. So do something about it. Redeem them. Make them good again.”


Near the end of Genesis, there’s a story about a man named Joseph who was sold into slavery by his older brothers. Through a series of unlikely events, Joseph wound up in Egypt, where he was elevated to the rank of second-in-command, just as famine struck the entire region.

Everyone turned to Egypt for food, including Joseph’s brothers. After a somewhat tense reunion, the brothers worried that Joseph would seek his revenge. But Joseph assured them there would be no reprisal. What his brothers meant for evil, Joseph explained, God had used for good.

I think Genesis 50 is a picture of what Paul describes in Ephesians 5. But notice how bringing good from evil isn’t God’s responsibility alone. It’s ours. We have a part to play in the story. We’re meant to be God’s agents for bringing good into this world. We are his best plan for “redeeming the time.”

The days of Joseph’s brothers were evil. They were marked by jealousy, betrayal, oppression, and violence. But with God’s help, Joseph redeemed them, “making the most of every opportunity.” In the end, Joseph redeemed not just “the time” but his own family, rescuing them from starvation and slavery.

We too are called to redeem the time. Checking out early isn’t an option. Writing off this world as a lost cause isn’t an option. To do so is to read only half the verse and miss the whole point.

Breaking the cycle: the resolution of Joseph’s story

I’m blogging my way through the first several books of the Old Testament, sometimes known as the “historical books” or the Covenant History. Today’s installment is the last from the book of Genesis.


The account of Jacob’s family continues as the entire land is besieged by famine, just as Joseph predicted. The only place with any food left is Egypt — and that is credited to Joseph’s diligence.

Back in Canaan, Jacob says to his 10 oldest sons, in effect, “What are you all standing around for? Get your butts down to Egypt and get some food before we all starve.”

It’s not surprising that residents of Canaan would turn to Egypt for help. Archaeological evidence suggests that Canaan was an Egyptian colony of sorts during the second millennium BC — right up to the point when a tiny nation called Israel came onto the scene. In other words, Israel emerged “out of Egypt” in more ways than one.

The tale of Joseph and his brothers is a darn good read. It’s biblical storytelling at its best. Sometimes, characters in the Bible can come across a bit, well, two-dimensional — perhaps because the Bible isn’t just telling stories for the sake of telling stories.

But not in this case. You can almost feel the brothers’ panic when they discover the silver in their bags, planted by the Egyptians before making their way home. Jacob’s despair at the prospect of losing his youngest son, Benjamin, reverberates off the page.

What goes around (doesn’t always come around)

There’s a beautiful sense of irony to this story, too. Not only because Joseph’s brothers end up bowing down to him, just as he dreamed they would. The story has come full circle. Near the beginning, Joseph came to his brothers, sent by their father. But his brothers did not welcome him. (Unless being thrown into a pit and sold into slavery is your idea of rolling out the welcome mat.) Now, many years later, Joseph’s brothers come to him, sent by their father.

Near the beginning, Joseph’s brothers ate and drank while Joseph languished in the pit. Now his brothers have nothing to eat or drink; they are the ones languishing. This could be the perfect opportunity for Joseph to get a bit of his own back. But in the end, Joseph breaks the cycle of hostility. Abraham’s family — the family of promise — is in danger of fracturing into oblivion. Joseph’s choice to reconcile instead of avenge keeps the family — and the promise — alive.

It’s not all sunshine and roses, though

But there’s also a portent of darker days ahead. As the famine wears on, we learn that Joseph has inherited his father’s scheming ways. When the people of Egypt run out of money to buy food (the food Joseph had stockpiled for the Egyptian government, that is), he takes their livestock in exchange for more food. When that food runs out, he takes their land as well.

Which makes me wonder: why don’t conservatives despise Joseph? He’s the biblical poster boy for big government. While everyone else panics, he takes advantage of a crisis to seize everyone’s land and enlarge the government of a tyrant.

In fact, the text itself sounds a note of disapproval, saying, “Joseph reduced the people to servitude.” Which could also be translated, “Joseph enslaved the entire population.”

Everyone, that is, except the pagan priests.

The implication would not have been lost on the original readers. Just as Jacob’s son enslaved the Egyptians, so Egypt would enslave the sons of Jacob.

So with Joseph’s brothers, we see how the cycle of oppression and retaliation can be disrupted. But otherwise, the cycle continues unabated. Joseph’s enslavement of the Egyptians will have repercussions. Just as his too-close-for-comfort affiliation with Egyptian gods will have lasting consequences for his descendants. (Three times Genesis tells us that Joseph married the daughter of an Egyptian priest. It keeps coming up, as if to say, “See? This’ll come back to bite you.”)

The ransom of Benjamin (and the ransom of us all)

One more thing worth noting about this story is the ascendancy of Judah. Earlier, Judah was introduced as the fourth son of Jacob. But Judah’s namesake will emerge as chief among the tribes of Israel. The line of David, Israel’s greatest king, traces its roots back to Judah.

The elevation of younger children over their older siblings is a recurring theme in Genesis. Abel, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, etc. From our vantage point, the choice often seems arbitrary. Jacob’s dominance over his brother Esau, for example, is foretold before they are even born.

Judah, on the other hand, rises to the occasion. Joseph orders his 10 brothers to bring Benjamin, Jacob’s youngest son, to him. Jacob is afraid of losing Benjamin the same way he lost Joseph. (Both were special to him because they were the only sons of his favorite wife, Rachel.) So Judah promises to take personal responsibility for Benjamin’s safety.

Down in Egypt, Joseph plants his silver cup on Benjamin, then accuses him of stealing it. When Joseph threatens to make Benjamin his slave, Judah intervenes. (Notice the irony. No one intervened when Joseph was carried into slavery; now the brothers get a second chance.)

Judah offers himself in Benjamin’s place. If he can’t bring Benjamin back to his father, better to not go back at all. Judah, in effect, lays his own life down as a ransom for Benjamin’s.

Centuries later, a descendant of Judah will come, claiming to do the same — but this time, for the whole of Israel and for humanity itself. The story of Jesus is a fulfillment — that is, the full expression or completion of — Judah’s story. It is through and through a story of deliverance from slavery and exile. And it is our story, too.

Putting the “fun” in dysfunctional: Joseph and his brothers

[This year, my wife and I are reading the Covenant History books of the Old Testament during Lent. We started a bit early because, well, they’re really long.]

After Isaac dies and Esau moves on, the spotlight comes to rest on Jacob’s family. Which is to say it rests (mostly) on Jacob’s upstart son Joseph.

Joseph is the first of two children born to Jacob’s favorite wife, Rachel. No surprise, then: he’s Jacob’s favorite son. And he knows it.

Joseph is a mixed bag. There are flashes of remarkable integrity and breathtaking impudence, all from the same guy. (You have to admire the writers/editors of Genesis for allowing their heroes to come across very un-heroic at times.)

On the one hand, while in Egypt, Joseph refuses to violate his master’s trust when the boss’s desperate housewife makes a pass him. (Several passes, actually.) On the other hand, Joseph is a schemer just like his father. He’s a tattletale. And as he proves to his brothers early on, he doesn’t know when to keep his mouth shut.

Carted off by the Ishmaelites Midianites Ishmaelites

Fed up, Joseph’s brothers toss him into a well. As they’re deciding what to do with him, a caravan of Ishmaelite merchants come along.

Or were they Midianites?

The text refers to them as both. So which is it?

Apologists who see Genesis as a literal/historical composition, authored by Moses from beginning to end, argue the terms are interchangeable. But that’s not very convincing, because according to Genesis itself, the two groups descended from different branches of Abraham’s family tree.

Some see this as proof Genesis was cobbled together from a variety of disparate sources. In which case, the final editor was either profoundly stupid for not smoothing out the apparent discrepancy before going to press (not likely) or he wasn’t bothered by it to begin with because the story he’s trying to tell wasn’t meant to be read as exact, literal history — not in the way we understand history, anyway. (That’s just not how they did history in the ancient Near East.)

The other possibility is that the dueling references are a literary anachronism — the author taking something from his own time and importing it into a much older story. This makes more sense, assuming that Genesis in its final form came together relatively late in Israel’s history — say, sometime in the first millennium BC. There is reason to believe the Ishmaelites had assimilated into other groups, including the Midianites by then. Plus, it would go a long way toward explaining how this story can depict both groups as well-established tribes, presumably only a few generations after their ancestral namesakes were alive.

It helps to remember that Israel is telling these stories in order to make sense of its own story. As Peter Enns would argue, they’re a “theological response to Israel’s national crisis of exile.” They’re the product of a Jewish nation, either in danger of collapse or having just recently collapsed, asking itself, “How did we get here? And what do we do now?”

Mandated polygamy and the inspiration of scripture 

The account of Jacob’s family also features the bizarre tale of Judah and Tamar.

It starts with Judah, fourth son of Jacob, finding a wife for his oldest son, Er. When Er dies, Judah orders his second son Onan to get busy making babies with Er’s widow, Tamar. Onan doesn’t want to, because any son they have will be reckoned as Er’s, not his. So Onan dies too.

By this time, Judah’s only got one son left, and he’s not about to risk losing him, too. So he sends Tamar back to her family and forgets about her — until she disguises herself as a religious prostitute and tricks Judah into sleeping with her. (You might’ve gathered by now that Genesis is not for the underage.) Thus Tamar is able to shame Judah into taking her under his protection.

There are a few interesting things about this story. For starters, Tamar is a Canaanite. Which means, according to tradition, a sizable portion of the Jewish nation — including the Davidic line of kings, was part-Canaanite. Keep this in mind when you come to the conquest of Canaan in the book of Joshua.

This story also prefigures the Hebrew custom of levirate marriage. This custom, which was later enshrined in Jewish law, obligated the brother of a deceased man to marry his brother’s widow.

Levirate marriage would pose a fascinating dilemma for modern society, since the passage in Deuteronomy doesn’t make an exception for brothers who were already married. In other words, to the already married brother of a deceased man, the Hebrew scriptures didn’t merely tolerate polygamy; they mandated it.

Now, there are plenty of reasons why polygamy is BAD idea. And the concept of levirate marriage has to be read against its cultural backdrop. Back then, it was the only way of providing some marginal protection for widows in a patriarchal world. We can be thankful that’s not the world we live in — and that there are better, more humane ways to look after widows today.

But this apparent endorsement of polygamy should give us something to think about before we weigh into some of the present-day debates involving sexual ethics with simplistic, “Bible-based” answers.

Finally, the original audience would have immediately detected the custom of levirate marriage in the Genesis story — even though from Judah and Tamar’s perspective, Jewish law (including levirate marriage) didn’t exist yet. It’s possible that levirate marriage was a much older custom that came to be absorbed into Jewish law.

This is yet another reminder that the Bible was not written in a vacuum. From its story of creation to its legal code, the ancient writers freely interacted with — and, at times, borrowed from — surrounding cultures.

For some, this may come as a blow to the inspiration of Scripture. But not for me. I see it as proof of inspiration. If we know anything about God from the Bible, it’s that he’s in the business of incarnating himself — coming down from lofty heights to enter into our story.

Incarnation is an act of divine self-limitation. If God doesn’t accommodate his self-revelation to the linguistic, cultural, or scientific limitations of the day, then no one would have any chance of understanding him. Just like none of us would be able to see God if he hadn’t incarnated himself into a human body.

I’ve shared this quote from Peter Enns before, but it’s worth repeating:

There is a reason why Scripture looks the way it does, so human, so much a part of this world: it looks this way to exalt God’s power, not our power.

The ‘creaturelines’ of Scripture is not an obstacle to be overcome so that God can finally be seen. Rather, we can only see God truly because of the limited, human form he has chosen as a means of revelation, and if we try to look past it, we will miss everything.

Heavenly napalm, geriatric parenting, and human sacrifice: Abraham’s story

[This year, my wife and I are reading the Covenant History books of the Old Testament during Lent. We started a bit early because, well, they’re really long.]

What struck me about Abraham (the subject of our second day of reading) is how different his story is from those that precede it. The first five “accounts” in Genesis follow each other in rapid succession.

Starting with Abraham, the focus narrows. The pace slows. The first few pages of Genesis breeze through primordial humanity, while the next several pages focus on just one man.

Up to this point, things haven’t gone well for the human race. With a remarkable lack of fanfare, God launches a new project that will hinge on one family. It’s a pretty bold move, since at the time, this family is in danger of extinction. (Abraham and his wife are childless.)

The account of Abraham starts by connecting him to primordial humanity. He’s introduced as a descendent of Noah’s son Shem. Like his predecessors, Abraham is a restless wanderer. It was Abraham’s father Terah who first set out for Canaan, with family in tow. Then Terah died, leaving them stranded.

From Cain to Babel, Genesis depicts the human race as scattered. Wandering. Lost. This is how God finds Abraham. But God starts something altogether new with him.

More previews of coming attractions

As with Adam and Eve, the writers/editors of Genesis connect Abraham’s story to Israel. For example, after arriving in Canaan, a famine sends Abraham & co. packing for Egypt. Which is exactly how Abraham’s descendants will end up in Egypt a few generations later.

While there, Abraham’s wife catches Pharaoh’s eye. To save his own skin, Abraham passes her off as his sister. As a result, Abraham gets the royal treatment — and grows rich off Pharaoh (until Pharaoh realizes he’s been had). Thus Abraham plunders the Egyptians, so to speak, before being driven out — much like his descendants 400 years later.

Or how about when Lot and his mysterious guests sit down to a meal of bread made without yeast before making a hurried escape from Sodom? Can you say “Passover”?

[Side note: As long as we’re talking about Sodom, let’s clarify something. This story has nothing to do with being gay. The men of Sodom didn’t pound on Lot’s door because they had the hots for other men. Their desire to rape Lot’s guests wasn’t motivated by sexual orientation. This was about humiliating a couple of outsiders. It was a way of asserting their dominance. That’s what got Sodom fried to a crisp, not having a suspiciously keen sense of fashion. If you want a “biblical” lesson on sexuality, you’ll have to look for one elsewhere.]

Covenant dance

What makes Abraham stand out is the covenant God establishes with him. Sometimes it’s been characterized as an “unconditional covenant.” But this doesn’t do justice to the whole story, which at times feels a bit like a faltering dance between two partners still trying to make out one another’s character.

The covenant figures into the story at least five times:

  • The first comes near the beginning. God tells Abraham to “go… to the land I will show you.” In return, God promises to make Abraham into a great nation and to bless the whole world through him. There’s nothing unconditional about this covenant. For it to go into effect, Abraham must “go.”
  • God reiterates his covenant after Abraham and Lot part ways in Canaan, with Lot taking the best land for himself. God, in effect, nullifies Lot’s choice, promising to give Abraham everything he can see. God says this land will belong to Abraham’s offspring “forever.” Some Christians make this the basis of a particular political posture vis-à-vis the modern nation of Israel. (Which is to miss how the New Testament radically redefines what it means to be “Abraham’s offspring.” But that’s for another post. And yes, I just wrote “vis-à-vis.”)
  • Later, Abraham reminds God of the not-so-trivial fact that he still doesn’t have an heir. In response, God restates his promises to Abraham, at which point Abraham “believed the Lord, and [God] credited it to him as righteousness.” (Paul makes much of this when arguing for justification by faith.) What’s interesting is how in the next breath, Abraham asks God for proof that he’ll keep his promise. At which point, God walks through a gauntlet of animal carcasses, which many believe was his way of saying, “May what happened to these animals happen to me if I don’t keep my promises to you.” God also promises that Abraham’s inheritance will stretch to the Euphrates. (The boundaries of the land promised to Abraham are somewhat fluid in the text, but Israel’s actual territory never extended as far as this.)
  • When Abraham is 99 years old (and still without an heir), God reiterates the covenant once more. Here again, there’s nothing “unconditional” about it. God uses a classic “if-then” formula: “[If you] walk before me faithfully… then I will make my covenant between me and you.” As a sign of adherence to the covenant, Abraham and the male members of his household are circumcised.

On the one hand, Genesis depicts God breaking into history. He is not some distant deity; he’s actively engaged in human affairs. On the other hand, Abraham is no chess piece. He has a meaningful part to play in the unfolding drama.

God’s covenant is still an act of grace; he didn’t have to do anything for Abraham. But the covenant only goes into effect because Abraham responds. “All nations on earth will be blessed, because you have obeyed me.

About that test…

One last thing to cap off an already long post. Abraham’s story contains one of the most troubling scenes in the whole Bible. After finally coming through on the promise of an heir, God tells Abraham to sacrifice his beloved son.

The Sacrifice of Isaac (Caravaggio)

Years later, the writer of Hebrews argued that Abraham obeyed because he “reasoned that God could even raise the dead.” While the text in Genesis doesn’t explicitly say this, Abraham does act as if he thinks Isaac will be coming back down the mountain with him. He tells his servants, “We will worship and then we will come back to you.” When Isaac inquires about the absence of a lamb, Abraham says, “God himself will provide the lamb.”

Somehow I don’t think Abraham was lying to his servants or his son. I think Abraham genuinely believed God was going to come through with something. After all, this was the same God who had said, in effect, “May it be to me as these slaughtered animals if I don’t keep my promise to you.”

In the end, the test reveals as much about God’s character as it does Abraham’s. Plenty of ancient cultures practiced ritual human sacrifice. A divine demand for human blood wouldn’t come as a surprise to an ancient Near Easterner like Abraham. What was unusual was Abraham’s apparent belief that his God wouldn’t really do something like this — a belief that was ultimately vindicated. Even more remarkable was the fact that human sacrifice would be banned from Israelite worship altogether.

This God was not like other gods. I think that’s what Abraham’s test reveals, disturbing as it may be.

This is a God who brings life instead of chaos and death. Centuries later, Jesus showed him to be a God who would rather sacrifice himself than see any of his people die.

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.

The Evolution of Adam by Peter Enns, a review (part 2 of 2)

So what are we to make of The Evolution of Adam?

There’s no question Enns’ proposals concerning Adam (and Paul’s use of Adam) are controversial for many Christians. They’re not something we should embrace or reject quickly. Books like these often elicit knee-jerk reactions (from both sides) when something more thoughtful is called for.

Like James Dobson did 20 years ago, I’m going to pass on rendering a final verdict. It’s not for me to say what we should make of Adam. Instead, I want to share three takeaways — two positive and one (mildly) critical.

1. Inspiration as incarnation

Some have accused Enns of demonstrating a low view of Scripture and a near-total disregard for its divine inspiration. If Genesis is “wrong” about creation, (I would argue it’s not a matter of Genesis being right or wrong because Genesis doesn’t seek to address scientific reality), and if Paul was “wrong” in some of his assumptions concerning Adam (though not in the point he was using Adam to make, Enns would say), then we are left with an unreliable, uninspired Bible.

But Enns himself never goes there. He repeatedly talks about the Bible’s divine inspiration in ways that should give responsible critics pause before lobbing these rhetorical grenades.

Rather, what Enns does is connect scriptural inspiration to divine incarnation — which, I gather, is the point of his previous book, Inspiration and Incarnation (though I haven’t read it).

God revealing himself in the written word, the logos, is fundamentally an act of incarnation. And incarnation — whether it’s God finding a way to contain infinite divinity within finite humanity or finding a way to reveal infinite truth through finite language — is an act of divine self-limitation. Or divine condescension, if you like.

As Enns writes in the final section of The Evolution of Adam:

Even the expression of deep and ultimate truth does not escape the limitations of the cultures in which that truth is expressed. [God accommodates] himself to the views of the time.

There is a reason why Scripture looks the way it does, so human, so much a part of this world: it looks this way to exalt God’s power, not our power…

The ‘creaturelines’ of Scripture is not an obstacle to be overcome so that God can finally be seen. Rather… we can only see God truly because of the limited, human form he has chosen as a means of revelation, and if we try to look past it, we will miss everything.

According to Enns, the biblical writers’ knowledge of the universe was limited by the time and culture in which they lived. (No doubt our knowledge is similarly limited in ways we don’t fully realize.) Evidently, when God chose to speak into THAT time and culture, he didn’t feel the need to correct every false assumption about cosmology, origins, etc., because he had a much more important story to tell.

The fact that the Bible reflects the cosmological assumptions of its day isn’t a problem for inspiration — unless you attribute to God a compulsion to correct every false assumption people have, much like the overzealous parent who nitpicks a child’s pronunciation just as she’s learning to talk.

Disagree with Enns about Adam if you like, but to accuse him of holding a low view of scripture is, in my opinion, a red herring.

2. Creation as cosmic temple (and a few other things)

Using Genesis 1-2 to wage a scientific battle is like using Van Gogh’s Starry Night to make a point about astronomy. There is little to be gained — and a good deal that will be missed.

For example, when we lay Genesis 1 next to other ancient creation stories like the Enuma Elish, we see more clearly the polemical punch our story packs. Genesis 1 effectively neuters the gods of the ancient pantheon. Sun, moon, and stars are no longer gods themselves, but merely created objects, stripped of their supposed divinity. Genesis 1 rather ingeniously suggests that God doesn’t even need the sun to provide light — he’s more than capable of that himself! Genesis 1 is, at its core, a profoundly subversive text.

Genesis 1 also reveals the true purpose of the cosmos: to serve as God’s dwelling place. We’re so used to thinking of God existing outside of time and space that we have a hard time wrapping our minds around this one.

Enns observes that Genesis 1 follows the pattern of a seven-day liturgical week, which for its original Jewish audience would have brought to mind Sabbath and sanctuary. Enns notes the many parallels between Genesis 1 and the creation of the tabernacle in Exodus 25-31. And he draws an important contrast between Genesis and the Baal creation myth:

There is no temple in Genesis 1 constructed after creation to celebrate God’s victory over chaos; the created world is his temple.

Which connects nicely to the resolution of the biblical drama in Revelation, where God returns to his cosmic temple once more, this time to dwell among his people forever.

Meanwhile, in Genesis 2, we see a striking parallel to Israel’s story. Both Adam and Israel are “hand-made” by God. Both are given a piece of land to tend on God’s behalf. Both are given a law to govern their relationship to God. Both fail to keep their end of the bargain, and consequently both are subjected to exile — exile and death being nearly synonymous in the Old Testament.

There is so much good stuff to be explored in Genesis 1-2 once we get over our scientific hang-ups. There is deep truth to be found here, if we’d stop trying to make scripture answer questions it has no interest in answering.

If nothing else, the fact that these stories were carefully arranged to make specific theological points should serve as a clue that their writers were not particularly interested in providing a literal, scientific, or purely historical description of events. They would give us so much more — if we would just let them.

3. Death as the last enemy

I do have one criticism of The Evolution of Adam that I’ll share here. On the next-to-last page, Enns writes, “Death is not the enemy to be defeated.” His point is that some of the things we think of as bad (such as death) need to be revisited in light of evolution.

I agree… up to a point. Death in some form seems to be a vital element of creation and not just a foreign entity. Call it “the circle of life.” Or as Rob Bell once said, “Death is the engine of life.” In the plant world, for example, death and decomposition are vital to creating and sustaining new life.

There’s nothing in Genesis to suggest that humans were immortal by nature prior to the fall. In fact, they needed to eat from the tree of life precisely because they weren’t immortal. Death was woven into our DNA from the beginning.

And it’s a good thing too, given the reality of sin. I mean, to live forever in a progressively decaying body, now cursed by sin and sickness — who in their right mind would want that? (Unless, of course, you’d like to end up as Lady Cassandra from Doctor Who.)

Still, in a more ultimate sense, death is an enemy to be defeated. Or as Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 15:

The last enemy to be destroyed is death.

We’re all made to die. The question is whether death will have the last word. And the whole point of the redemptive story — of Christ’s death and resurrection — is so this question can be answered with a definitive, resounding no.

I don’t think Enns would disagree, which is why I characterized this as a mild criticism. In any case, whatever you make of Adam, Enns’ book is one that deserves to be read and considered carefully.

A line in the sand?

I’ve been sharing a number of preliminary thoughts before I get around to reviewing Peter Enns’ book The Evolution of Adam, partly to buy some time so I can actually finish reading it. (One more chapter to go.)

In the meantime, here are some good reviews by Kurt Willems and Rachel Held Evans.

I said in an earlier post that The Evolution of Adam is not so much a book about creation vs. evolution as it is about big, foundational questions like: What kind of book do we think the Bible is?

But there’s another “question behind the question,” the importance of which can’t be overstated: What do you have to believe in order to be a “Christian”?

Ken Ham, president of the young-earth advocacy group Answers in Genesis, threw down the gauntlet, charging Enns with heresy and willful disbelief. Elsewhere he called The Evolution of Adam a “heretical book” and accused Enns’ publisher (a respected evangelical book company) of sowing “the seeds of doubt leading to unbelief.”

For Ham (and others), it’s quite simple. If you believe in evolution and/or if you believe the account of Adam and Eve is something other than exact, literal history, then you cannot be a Christian.

Now, I’ve long been uneasy with efforts to equate Christianity with a set of propositional statements which must be affirmed or denied, as if faith is best expressed in the form of a doctrinal checklist. This is reductionist Christianity. It bears little resemblance to the Christianity of the gospels or of James or of, well, pretty much the whole New Testament.

Emerging church types have been deconstructing this form of Christianity for several years, and they are right to do so.

At the same time, Christianity still involves believing something about something. Several years ago, Mike Wittmer wrote a book called Don’t Stop Believing, which is largely a critique of the “how you live matters more than what you believe” point of view. I don’t agree with everything he wrote, but I affirm the basic premise: it matters that we believe something about Jesus.

Emergent types rightly ask what good it is to believe in the resurrection, for example, if it doesn’t compel you to bring new life wherever you can. But it’s equally fair to ask: what good is bringing new life wherever you can if you don’t believe in the resurrection?

I would say that what has to be believed is the core Christian story. That is, what Paul defined as the “gospel” in passages like 1 Corinthians 15:1-7. It’s story of Jesus as the fulfillment of Israel’s story — which, it turns out, is God’s plan for rescuing the whole of humanity from sin and death.

This is the story that churches like mine affirm every Sunday when we celebrate the Eucharist with these words:

Christ has died.

Christ is risen.

Christ will come again.

It’s the story the church fathers sought to encapsulate in our earliest creeds, such as the Apostle’s and Nicene Creeds.

If someone believes and seeks to put these words into practice, they have the right to call themselves a Christian. It doesn’t matter how they vote. It doesn’t matter what they believe about evolution or Genesis or Adam.

“But what about the slippery slope?” some will ask.

Answers in Genesis argues that even the slightest tolerance of any view of creation other than theirs will open “a door of compromise that will inevitably be pushed open further.”

If we reinterpret Genesis, they argue (without acknowledging that many of us would dispute the term reinterpret), we will inevitably reinterpret other teachings of Scripture, “such as the Virgin Birth, Resurrection, and Ascension of Christ.”

To those who question the validity of the slippery-slope argument, they say, in effect, “I told you so”:

Well, that door of compromise has now been opened to such an extent that the gospel itself is under attack.

It’s fine to worry about a slippery slope. It’s always a good idea to check ourselves, to ask if we’re just trying to be clever or if we’re sincerely trying to understand the Bible as best we can.

But remember, as Pete Enns and N.T. Wright reminds us in this video: the slippery slope runs both ways.

Innovation for its own sake has a slippery slope that, if not guarded against, can lead farther away from authentic Christianity — without even realizing it.

But I would argue that Ham and others are headed down a slippery slope in the other direction — one that leads to a reductionist Christianity. One that misses the real point of Genesis and the story that follows.

Theirs is a belief system that emphasizes the how of creation more than the who or the why of creation (the latter two being what Genesis 1 and 2 are actually trying to tell us).

The draw a line around questions the Bible doesn’t even seek to answer.* And they go careening down a slippery slope of their own making, further and further away from the real gospel story.


*It’s worth noting there are many young-earth, six-day creationists who don’t draw a nonnegotiable line around this issue. They may feel strongly (and argue strongly) that Genesis 1-2 demands to be read literally, but to their credit, they don’t reject other Christians who see it differently.

Science vs. Scripture (or, history repeats itself)

There was a time when scientists made a series of discoveries that revolutionized our understanding of the world around us. They began proposing new theories to explain these groundbreaking observations.

Not everyone was happy about it.

Many in the church felt threatened by the new scientific consensus, which undermined confidence in Scripture (so it was thought), because it contradicted some of what Scripture seemed to say about the universe.

So the church rejected these new theories as “godless,” even though many scientists (though by no means all) professed a deep and abiding faith in God.

Church leaders expended vast resources trying to discredit the new science. They accused scientists of being hostile toward religion and discouraged the faithful from reading any of their books.

“Science or Scripture,” the church seemed to say. “You have to choose.”

For some, this might sum up the present-day creation-versus-evolution debate. But it also describes a scene from our more distant past.

Over 500 years ago, science began questioning the geocentric view of the universe, which said the earth is fixed and everything else revolves around it.

Copernicus, Kepler, Galileo. These were the scientific trailblazers who brought geocentrism crashing down. The church fought them tooth and nail because it feared that without a geocentric universe, the Bible would come crashing down as well.

After all, Joshua 10 described the sun, not the earth, standing still during a battle between Israel and the Amorites. 1 Chronicles 16:30 said the earth “cannot be moved.” (And the list goes on.)

The new science, heliocentrism, was regarded as a threat to faith. It had to be stopped.

In fact, opposition to it was one of relatively few areas of common ground between Catholics and Protestants (who, generally, were still trying to kill one another).

On one side, Rome forced Galileo to recant his scientific theories (under threat of torture) and sentenced him to house arrest for the remainder of his life. Books by Galileo and Kepler were banned by the pope — for over 200 years in some cases.

Sixteenth-century Protestants took by and large the same view as their Catholic counterparts. John Calvin wrote that “the earth… is placed in the center [of the universe].” It is “unmoved,” because God himself made it that way.

Calvin may not have been acquainted with Copernicus’ theory, but Martin Luther was. And he didn’t like it any better. In a conversation with a student of Copernicus, Luther reportedly said:

But that is how things are nowadays: when a man wishes to be clever he must agree with nothing else others esteem. He must invent something special, and the way he does it must needs be the best! That fellow [Copernicus] wants to turn the whole art of astronomy upside-down. However, as Holy Scripture tells us, so did Joshua bid the sun to stand still and not the earth.

Luther’s disciple Philip Melanchthon went even further, suggesting governments should punish anyone who advocated the new science.

It took many years for the church to come to terms with heliocentrism. But eventually it did, largely because it had no other choice in the face of overwhelming evidence.

None of the contentious passages in Scripture (Joshua 10, Psalm 104:5, 1 Chronicles 16:30, etc.) disappeared from the Bible. But they came to be read in a new light — not as scientific or literal descriptions of reality, but as something else.

Some would argue that we find ourselves in a similar situation today. Only now with evolution as the church’s Waterloo moment instead of geocentrism.

But we don’t have to fight this battle.

Science can’t answer questions of ultimate origin (i.e. God), and the Bible doesn’t seek to answer questions of science. To make it do so is to turn it into something it’s not. It’s making the Bible what we want it to be, rather than letting it speak for itself.

Five hundred years from now, I wonder if our descendants will look back on the Al Mohlers and Ken Hams of our world in the same way that most of us look back on the 16th-century church’s opposition to heliocentrism.

By waging a battle with science, Ken Ham and others are taking a page from a very old script. They are repeating history. (You might even say they’re refusing to evolve.)

Worse, by forcing people to make a false choice between science and faith, they’re inadvertently pushing people away from faith — people who conclude that science and faith are irreconcilable, that the evidence for evolution (for example, the Human Genome Project) is compelling, and that Christianity therefore is not.

It doesn’t have to be this way.

The church came out its last tiff with science a bit bruised, but otherwise intact. Faith didn’t come crashing down. The Bible didn’t stop being God’s inspired word just because people realized it may not be an inspired word about science.

If the church continues to pick an unnecessary fight with science, it will end as the last one did. And it will be a self-inflicted wound.