Very often, well-meaning Christians attempt to read Genesis as a string of moral examples, whether by their instincts or instruction. This attempt may be because, as an ancient text, Genesis is an unfamiliar genre. It’s hard to know how exactly one should read it. The problem with this method is that the patriarchs aren’t all that strong as role models for the journey of faith.
One may then be tempted towards the rather logical conclusion that if the patriarchs aren’t there to be moral exemplars, they must be there as moral warnings. While any character can certainly be read as a series of warnings and encouragements, this reading too misses the overarching narrative of Genesis, namely the beginning and prefiguring of God’s plan for New Creation, signaled through the Israelites, enacted through Jesus, and ultimately coming to bear on the whole world.
After God’s covenant is established, Abraham is depicted as a less-than-stellar example of faith. He repeatedly fails to live up to the faith he had professed, over and over again endangering his family because he is afraid. He passes his wife off as his sister, sends Hagar and Ishmael off to die in the wilderness, and almost sacrifices Isaac. Note, however, that in each instance, the Lord protects these family members in precisely the way that Abraham didn’t. Isaac and Jacob later showcase similar tendencies to shortcut their way to God’s promises.
For the Israelites in captivity many years later reading Genesis, these stories may have been stark reminders of their natural tendency, even and especially as God’s chosen people. The pattern repeats over and over. God makes a promise; the patriarchs, like the Israelites after them, initially praise God but quickly forget and turn back towards unbelief. The narrative presents a constant oscillation between trust and wavering. The Israelites will fail in their trust in God’s promise up to the point that the natural and expected consequence is exile. Yet God’s purposes will be carried forward and accomplished through all of this, even as the family which is supposed to be the bearers of the promise are themselves exiled and divided amongst themselves.
Question: Think about the patterns present in Genesis: trust and forgetting; promise and rejection; faith and bargaining. Have you experienced these back-and-forth swings in your faith journey? If so, reflect on the emotions present when you find yourself in this cycle? Why do you think Genesis emphasizes these shifts? Is this more reassuring or concerning for you?
Practice Prompt: Thinking about the behavioral examples of the patriarchs, reread these stories paying attention to the wives (including Sarah, Hagar, Rebekah, Leah, and Sarah). What similarities and differences do you notice in God’s responses to them?