The promised deeper reflections on Genesis.
Reading through the book (as opposed to just dipping in) – which I haven't done for years – I've realised that its main message is redemption by faith.
The patriarchs and their wives were a motley bunch. If you're looking for shining moral examples you need to look elsewhere.
Sure, by the end of his life Abraham had learnt a deep obedience to God which led him to be prepared to offer Isaac. But that was after lying about Sarah twice, and getting into a complete tangle over Hagar and Ishmael, sending them away into the desert to die at Sarah’s jealous insistence.
Lot didn’t like the idea of the men of Sodom sleeping with his guests, but seemed happy enough to let his virgin daughters be raped instead (the same daughters, incidentally, who he later has sex with after they got him drunk).
Let’s just take a check – so far we have lying, cruelty, jealousy, attempted assisted rape, incest and drunkenness. That’s the first generation.
Isaac inherited his father’s faith – but along with it he seemed to inherit his father’s tendency to lie about his wife. He also favoured one son on the basis that he made nice tasty stews for him in his old age. The other son gets the patriarchal blessing however – as the result of his mother (Isaac’s wife) Rebekah’s deceitful scheming.
Jacob appears to have inherited – along with his father’s faith – his mother’s deceitful streak. In fact his name means deceiver – and where do you start with this wily wheeler-dealer? Tricks his brother out of his birthright and blessing, marries two sisters who enter into frenzied competition over who has more children (“Here, have sex with my maid”, “No – my maid!”) Fleeing from his uncle (who he has fleeced – pardon the pun – out of most of his livestock), his wife, Rachel, steals some idol gods (presumably, she wasn’t too sure about Jacob’s mysterious deity at this point), but gets away with it because she lies to her father.
Jacob’s sons? Well, there’s the scarcely justified slaughter of the Shechemites, the selling of Joseph into slavery – and then the disgraceful catalogue of events surrounding Judah’s family.
Briefly: Judah runs off with pagan mate; gets a wife; has three sons; first two die (because they were “wicked in the LORD’s sight”, which feels like a rather superfluous bit of narrative in this chapter of iniquity); daughter-in-law disguises herself as roadside prostitute; unrecognising Judah supplies her with “business” but orders that she is “burnt” when suspected of prostitution (bit of a NIMBY is Judah, you could say...) and relents when it is proved that he is the father of the twins she is carrying.
Twins, incidentally, one of whom is an ancestor of Christ.
No wonder Paul can write: “Before the law was given, sin was in the world” (Rom.5:13). Too right it was!
But reading this catalogue of sin and folly makes one particular verse of Genesis stand out like a beacon: Genesis 15:6
Abram believed the LORD, and he credited it to him as righteousness.
This is a verse that Paul makes much of, quoting in both Romans and Galatians. It is a foundation stone of biblical revelation.
Abraham had faith. He believed. And this was what God was after. This was what God could work with. Isaac believed. Jacob believed (in the end!) Theirs' was a righteousness that springs from faith. James, in the New Testament, rightly insists that Abraham’s faith led to actual acts of righteousness – but faith came first.
Even bad old Lot is described in the New Testament as “a righteous man”. What kind of righteousness is this? The faith kind. Because it sure as hell (I use the expression advisedly) wasn’t the works kind.
The message of the first book of the Law, the first book of the Bible: redemption comes by faith. From true faith springs righteousness.