Some issues in life are not capable of final resolution. Questions such as ‘What is the good life?’ and ‘How can we get good government?’ and ‘Whom can I trust?’ are not amenable to definitive answers in the same way as many mathematical and scientific questions. Rather, such fundamental questions of living recur afresh in every age. Part of the thesis of this chapter is that the role of the Old Testament in Christianity is, in essence, such an irresolvable issue. Christians ancient and modern have not found unanimity or finality in understanding and using the Old Testament – and this may be a sign not of failure but rather of the intrinsic variety of the challenges that the Old Testament poses for Christian faith. A collection of religious literature that is pre-Christian in origin, written over centuries and initially compiled by Jews (as Israel's Scriptures), and only subsequently appropriated by Christians (as the Old Testament), inherently poses intriguing, albeit enriching, questions to Christians.
Lack of definitive resolution therefore should in no way call into question the importance of wrestling with understanding the Old Testament within Christian faith. A. H. J. Gunneweg, for example, wrote
It would be no exaggeration to understand the hermeneutical problem of the Old Testament as the problem of Christian theology, and not just one problem among others…. If the interpretation of holy scripture is an essential task for theology, and if the Bible is the basis of Christian life, the foundation of the church and the medium of revelation, then it is of fundamental importance for the theologian to ask whether and why the collection of Israelite and Jewish writings to which the Christian church has given the name Old Testament are part – indeed the most substantial part – of the canon of scripture and what their relevance is. This question affects the extent and also qualitatively the substance of what may be regarded as Christian.
Thus, engagement in debates about the understanding and appropriation of the Old Testament – debates which in practice probably take place more in contexts of worship and everyday life than in formal academic contexts – is itself part of what constitutes Christian faith.
Few, if any, portions of the Old Testament have been more influential on historic Christian theology than the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden in Genesis 2–3. Although in recent years the story has received any number of readings of a remarkably diverse kind (which I cannot begin to enumerate or analyze here), the classic construal of the story in terms of “the Fall” of humanity retains a certain primacy in Christian thinking. So, this will be the focus here.
It is sometimes pointed out, usually in implicit or explicit critique of the classic significance of the narrative, that the Old Testament itself appears to make no use of the story – with the implication that therefore it could not really be that important within the Old Testament, and therefore perhaps should not really feature in theological use of the Old Testament in the way it often has. Such an observation, however, is largely beside the point and tends to confuse the task of a history of religious thought with the task of constructive theological interpretation of scripture. Internal cross reference within the Old Testament is not necessarily a good guide to intrinsic significance. The oneness of God as proclaimed in the Shema (Deut 6:4) appears to be cited within the Old Testament only once (Zech 14:9), yet the instincts of historic Judaism to fix on the Shema as a keynote text are surely entirely sound. Similarly, the location of Genesis 2–3 at the very outset of the Old Testament, with the first interactions between God and humanity, gives a contextual weight to the narrative that is as great as could be.
Much that was said about reading Genesis 1–11 in Chapter 2 applies also to reading Genesis 12–50, for there are many continuities of content and convention between these chapters. Indeed, any sharp distinction between chapters 1–11 and 12–50 has no warrant in the biblical text itself. Nonetheless, some distinction remains heuristically useful. Now in Genesis 12–50, the focus is no longer on the world and humanity generically; rather, the prehistory of Israel in the form of its ancestors becomes the center of attention. This raises certain distinct issues that merit separate comment.
THE PATRIARCHS AS A PROBLEM FOR JEWISH OBSERVANCE OF TORAH
Froma Jewish perspective, perhaps the central issue in understanding Genesis 12–50 is posed by the normative, indeed definitive, nature of God's self-revelation to Moses and Israel at Sinai/Horeb, together with the covenant making and gift of torah. If the norm for life with God is here, then how is Israel to understand those whose life with God is in some way of enduring significance – as Abraham and Sarah's, Isaac and Rebekah's, and Jacob and his twelve children's clearly are – and yet who lived without torah, because torah had not yet been given?
There are various possible approaches to this question. Should one perhaps imagine that torah somehow“must have” been known to the patriarchs and that they really were observant after all? This could take the form of supposing that Genesis's silence about observance need not mean its absence, and so the patriarchs were in fact formally observant.
Some years ago, Cambridge University Press, under the editorship of James D. G. Dunn, initiated a series entitled New Testament Theology. The first volumes appeared in 1991 and the series was brought to completion in 2003. For whatever reason, a companion series that would focus on the Old Testament/Hebrew Bible was never planned or executed. The present series, Old Testament Theology, is intended to rectify this need.
The reasons for publishing Old Testament Theologyare not, however, confined solely to a desire to match New Testament Theology. Instead, the reasons delineated by Dunn that justified the publication of New Testament Theologycontinue to hold true for Old Testament Theology. These include, among other things, the facts that, (1) given faculty and curricular structures in many schools, the theological study of individual Old Testament writings is often spotty at best; (2) most exegetical approaches (and commentaries) proceed verse by verse such that theological interests are in competition with, if not completely eclipsed by, other important issues, whether historical, grammatical, or literary; and (3) commentaries often confine their discussion of a book's theology to just a few pages in the introduction. The dearth of materials focused exclusively on a particular book's theology may be seen as a result of factors like these; or, perhaps, it is the cause of such factors. Regardless, as Dunn concluded, without adequate theological resources, there is little incentive for teachers or students to engage the theology of specific books; they must be content with what are mostly general overviews.
The book of Genesis contains some of the most memorable and moving narratives within the Old Testament, which have engaged the hearts and minds of (quite literally) millions of people down the ages. Neither Jewish nor Christian faiths – nor, more distantly, Islam – can be understood without some appreciation of the enduring impact of the Book of Genesis. Likewise, much of the literature and art of Western civilization, at least until recent times, is deeply imbued with motifs and images from Genesis.
In Genesis, God creates a world, which is the object of his approval, indeed delight (“very good”). Yet Eve and Adam listen to the serpent in Eden and eat the forbidden fruit, hide from God, and are expelled from Eden. Cain resents God's preferential acceptance of Abel's sacrifice, ignores God's warning,murders Abel, and is condemned by God to be a marked and restless wanderer on the earth.Noah builds an ark in wordless obedience to God and enables a faithful remnant to live through the unmaking and remaking of the known world. The great building project at Babel – Babylon, an early center of human enterprise – is overturned by God so as to scatter people and make human language and culture complex. Against His backdrop Abraham is called by God to leave his Mesopotamian home on the basis of God's promise to make him the ancestor of a great people, in a land of their own, blessed by God, and esteemed by other peoples.
The story of Joseph is one of the best known parts of Genesis. The enduring popularity of Andrew Lloyd Webber's musical, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, has helped make the (adapted) story a minor contemporary cultural phenomenon. Alongside a steady flow of scholarly monographs is an equally steady flow of popular studies that seek to make the biblical story accessible to any thoughtful reader.
Discussion of the theological significance of the Joseph narrative tends to focus on three interrelated aspects. First is the recurrence of dreams, implicitly or explicitly sent by God, whose interpretation is not straightforward (Gen 40:8: “Do not interpretations belong to God?”), and whose outworking is central to the storyline (41:25: “God has revealed to Pharaoh what he is about to do”). Second are Joseph's statements to his brothers of divine sovereignty, both at their initial scene of reconciliation and then in the renewed context of reconciliation at the end: “You intended against me evil, God intended it for good” (50:20). Third is the character of Joseph himself, traditionally viewed positively by Christians as a type of Christ, and more recently as a model of wisdom, but open also to other readings of a more suspicious nature. A particular focus for this third issue is Joseph's treatment of his brothers in Genesis 42–44. This is never explained by the narrator, and so widely differing readings are possible. These range from those that see Joseph as wisely administering a searching moral and spiritual discipline for his brothers' ultimate well-being to those that see Joseph as cruel and vengeful.
In the previous chapter, we saw that the extensive scholarly interest that has been directed to Genesis 12:1–3 has tended to focus on v. 3b. By contrast, little scholarly attention has been given to v. 3a, where Yhwh says to Abram, “I will bless those who blessyou, and the one who curses you I will curse.” To be sure, there is some passing comment, but it tends to be little more than routine.1 Beyond scholarly circles, however, things look different, and at the present time, at least within some Christian groupings within the United States of America, there is great interest in 12:3a, which is taken to mandate U.S. support for the state of Israel, support that is practical, both financial and military, and not solely idealistic. Since I do not think it wise for biblical scholars to ignore the actual use that the Bible receives beyond the academy, and since the appeal to Genesis 12:3a raises interesting issues about what constitutes good interpretation and use of Genesis, it will be appropriate here to consider briefly this particular appeal to this text.
WHY CHRISTIANS SHOULD SUPPORT ISRAEL
The phenomenon of Christian Zionism is complex and takes many forms, both distinct from and overlapping with the numerous Jewish forms. My impression, however, is that appeal to Genesis 12:3a has been promoted especially by Christians operating within a premillennial dispensationalist frame of reference and that this particular form of Zionism has had significant public impact and influence. So this will be my focus here.
The famous story of Cain and Abel is puzzling for most readers. Why does God prefer Abel's sacrifice to Cain's? And what is the story really about? As with all the resonant narratives of Genesis, there are various possible readings, whose theological significance may differ considerably.
Onetime-honored approach is to see the Cain and Abel narrative as a negative exemplification of the double love commandment, a failure to love God and love neighbor. This reading takes its cue from the context of the story, subsequent to Genesis 3 (traditionally construed): “Gen 4 graphically illustrates how alienation from God produces alienation from one's fellow human beings.” Alternatively, one can read the story as exemplifying some of the problems of human free will: “The use that humans make of their freedom to be responsible for themselves is catastrophic: the first deed recounted is a murder, fratricide in fact…. We see here what humans are capable of. But we also see, with inescapable clarity, that God will not allow this: Cain is banished from the human community.” Or one can read the story as an overture that introduces certain prime moral and theological categories that will be more fully developed elsewhere in the Bible: “Genesis 4 is not only the first narrative about sin and guilt that compresses the action into particular terms, it is also at the same time a narrative of forgiveness that unfolds at least in rudimentary ways.”
Some of the central problems of theological interpretation posed by changing attitudes toward the Bible in general, and Genesis in particular, are focused with unusual clarity on the famous story of Abraham's near sacrifice of Isaac, often known by its Hebrew name, the Akedah (Gen 22:1–19).
Traditionally, Jews and Christians have read this story as displaying costly right response to God on the part of both Abraham and Isaac. In the New Testament, for example, Abraham is seen to demonstrate the kind of engagement with God that is called “faith” in a Christian context. James argues that Abraham shows that genuine faith entails a total lived-out responsiveness to God (James 2:14–26), while the writer to the Hebrews sees Abraham as a model of faith in the sense of trusting God for a future as yet unseen (Heb 11:1, 17–19). For both these writers, the significance of Abraham for believers is well summarized by the words of Jesus in John's portrayal: “If you are Abraham's children, then do what Abraham did” (John 8:39).
There is also a long history of reading Paul as alluding to Genesis 22 when he speaks of God “not sparing his own son” (Rom 8:32), in a way that sets up a potent imaginative link (a typology or figuration) between Isaac and Jesus, a link that has often been developed in the history of interpretation.
When I began seriously to think about the writing of this book, two things struck me. Neither was new, but each struck me with fresh force, in the kind of way that changed my thinking and so also my writing.
First, of all the books in the Old Testament, Genesis is probably the most appealed-to and most used in contemporary discussion. To cite a few examples, the biblical portrayal of creation, and the contemporary phenomenon of creationism, feature regularly in “science and religion” debates, such that the question of what to make of the first few chapters of Genesis remains a live issue. Global warming is directing enormous attention to our understanding of, and appropriate interaction with, the environment; in such a context, the implications of the divine mandate to humanity to “have dominion” over the earth, and what kind of stewardship is envisioned, becomes important in a way that it was not a hundred years ago. Greater population mobility raises issues about the interrelationship of different religious traditions, such that interfaith dialogue is increasingly on the agenda of those to whom faith is important; and dialogue among Jews, Christians, and Muslims regularly appeals to Abraham as some kind of “ecumenical” figure, who may represent common ground among the dialogue partners. Millions of Americans believe that the United States of America should support the state of Israel because of God's promise in Genesis to bless those who bless Abraham and his descendants.
It is perhaps unusual for a book within the Old Testament to have one particular text that can be regarded as a possible interpretative key to the book as a whole, and even to the Old Testament as a whole. Yet such a case has been made in relation to God's call of Abraham in Genesis 12:1–3:
Now the lord said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father's house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed [or: by you all the families of the earth shall bless themselves].”
The intrinsic significance of this passage is not in doubt. For its context makes it a bridge between God's dealings with the world in general in Genesis 1–11 and his dealings with the patriarchs in particular in Genesis 12–50. These are also words on the lips of God, which clearly introduce and frame the story of Abraham that follows.
Enormous significance is attached to this passage by Paul, who cites part of it, together with Genesis 15:6, in Galatians 3:6–9:
Just as Abraham “believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness,” so, you see, those who believe are the descendants of Abraham. […]
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