The Story of God and Us Chapter Two: A Family and A People
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Here is our written “chapter” for this week, focusing on God’s work to fulfill his promise through a specific family and a people: the Israelites.
Chapter Two: A Family and a People
As our story moves on, we open to see Adam and Eve starting a family. And, after a while, they have their first son, and name him Cain. This excites them, because God had promised that through their offspring shalom would return and the serpent’s work would be undone, opening the potential for their return to Eden and a return to life as it was supposed to live. And so, Eve says “I have gotten a man with the help of the Lord.” This is the guy.
But Cain can’t stand his younger brother, Abel, and if full of anger. Enraged that Abel’s sacrifice to God was more pleasing than his, he takes him to a field and murders him. Then, God shows up, just like in Genesis 3, but this time he asks where Abel is. Cain denies doing anything wrong, but this first murder shakes the world and God says that “the voice of your brother’s blood is to me from the ground.” And, just as Adam and Eve had been cursed in the garden and sent away, Cain is cursed to a life of wandering and toil and sent away to the land of wandering (in Hebrew Nod).
That sets the stage for what we commonly call “pre-history”, those first chapters of Genesis that describe events before recorded history, taking large swaths of time and marking important characters along the way. This story, told in Genesis 1-11, is told through two important family lines:
- The Line of Cain. Cain’s descendants prove the old adage that “the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.” We read of Enoch, his son, after whom Cain names the first city, the first outpost for this family line. We read of Lamech, farther down the family tree, who is the first to break the creational formula and take two wives. Even worse, Lamech loves violence, making poems of his murderous exploits (4:23-24). Cain’s line is really bad, and they are emblematic of people without God. By the time we get to chapter six, this family line has expanded to great groups of people who don’t know God, who love violence, and who use human ingenuity and creativity to subdue and kill one another.
- The Line of Seth. Adam and Eve, doubtlessly grieved over Abel’s death, have another Son named Seth (Gen. 4:25). Seth’s line is in marked contrast to Cain’s, as these folks seek God and walk with him. Enoch (which must have been a popular name) is one example, who “walked with God and he was not, for God took him” (Gen. 5:21). This line is followed all the way down to one man, a guy named Noah. Noah’s sons, Shem, ham, and Japheth become the fathers of all the known nations of the ancient Near East after God sends a flood.
As human sin gets worse, God reacts in justice by punishing human beings for their chaos-bringing and violence. Noah’s family alone, by God’s grace, is saved from God’s punishment on the world through the flood, an act of cleansing meant for the good of the created world rather than its destruction. Noah disembarks from the ark and God makes a covenant with him, with the same blessings and commands as back in the garden. But this time, the stipulation is against murder (9:5-6). But Noah’s descendants don’t follow God’s commands, again using human creativity to try to rival God’s power in the form a giant tower, and as a result God punishes them by bringing chaos in their very communication with each other, and they are sent out to the four corners of the world.
At this low point, when the true snake-crushing offspring seems all but forgotten, we read about one of Shem’s far descendants living in Haran: Abram.
Now Yahweh said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. And 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 him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” (Genesis 12:1-3)
In the story of the patriarchs, we see God choosing to reveal himself and his plan to bring shalom through a specific family, put in a specific land, and given a specific relationship to him. God, taking Abram from his family in Haran, commands him to go to an unknown place, where he later makes a covenant with him, repeating these three promises (15, 17:1-14). And importantly, Abram responds in faith.
And [Abram] believed Yahweh, and he counted it to him as righteousness. (Genesis 15:6)
Abram (whose name is changed to Abraham) doesn’t have a silky-smooth relationship with God, and doesn’t always respond perfectly, but he nonetheless believes God and, after settling in Canaan, is given a son in his old age: Isaac. Isaac in turn receives God’s blessing (26:1-5), and the same promises, told that his offspring will be the vehicles of God’s blessing. With each of these men God acts in grace and faithfulness, delivering on his promises as they respond in faith. That relationship will be tested with Isaac’s sons, Hairy and the Cheater (Esau and Jacob).
Isaac’s wife, Rebekah, is barren, but God keeps his promises and then some by blessing them with twins. But these two brothers can’t get along, even in the womb, and one comes out hairy (and is therefore called “hairy” or Esau), and the other comes out grabbing his brother’s heel (and is therefore called “heel grabber/cheater” or Jacob). Things get worse as they grow up: Esau doesn’t think this whole “blessing” thing is worth a bowl of hot soup (and so he “sells” his right to it to Jacob), and Jacob is endlessly scheming about how to one-up his brother. And then, to make it worse, Jacob tricks old Isaac into blessing him instead of Esau, effectively taking what Esau had already been tricked into giving him with the help of their mother. Esau vows, as Cain did before, to kill Jacob once Isaac dies.
Jacob flees, essentially exiled back to where Abraham came from, Haran. On the way he meets God, who calls himself Yahweh, and bargains with him that if Yahweh brings Jacob back to their meeting place (which he calls Bethel, the house of God), Jacob will worship and serve only him. Jacob lives in exile in Haran for many years, but God blesses him there, and he takes two wives and has many children. After many years his crafty ways catch up with him, and God tells him to pack up and head back to Canaan. Though he left one man, he returns with more than seventy people in tow, a new people. And, after a wrestling match with God on the way (in which God changes his name to Israel, or “God-wrestler”), he finds himself back at Bethel, safe and sound. God’s kept up his end of the bargain, and so Jacob takes all their household gods and buries them, vowing to serve and worship Yahweh alone. The cheater is done cheating.
While all would be well if our story stopped here, Israel’s sons are too much like old Jacob. They compete and jostle for supremacy, are violent and murderous, and even sell their brother, Joseph, into slavery out of jealousy. Joseph ends up in Egypt, and through him God blesses the Egyptians, but the land of Canaan struggles under such a famine that Israel and his other sons are forced to join Joseph in Egypt. And our chapter ends with Israel blessing his twelves sons, dying in Egypt with the hope that one day God will keep his promises and bring his sons and their descendants back to the land he promised.
The question now is, when will God bring his people back to the promised land?