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How Do We Make Sense of the Book of Genesis?

How Do We Make Sense of the Book of Genesis?

Exploring the Bible's First Scroll in Four Movements

Do you ever read the Bible and feel like you aren’t getting it?

If so, you are not alone. The Bible is contextually rooted literature written by people from an Ancient Near Eastern culture. In other words, the Bible can be really confusing for modern readers.

Many of us feel compelled to read the Bible, but we also feel afraid when we actually start getting into it. What do we do with the difficult passages—violence, slavery, the treatment of women? And why is there a talking snake? Confusion, frustration, or lack of emotion can sometimes lead to setting the Bible aside altogether.

Movements in the Book of Genesis

At BibleProject, we want to help with this confusion. And to help you explore, we are introducing a new Reading Journey feature on the BibleProject app. This will be a guided reading experience through movements in the Bible. We will follow key patterns and discover unique connections along the way. So hang on—this is going to be fun!

We’ll keep adding more as we go, but our first major focus is the book of Genesis (or Genesis scroll, as it was known in ancient traditions). Let’s take a quick look at the narrative of the Genesis scroll and the major themes (or patterns) we’ll be exploring in the text. The Genesis scroll has four literary movements. A movement is a group of stories or poems that have been arranged together into a meaningful whole.

Are you ready? Here we go.

Movement 1 (Genesis 1:1-11:26): Adam to Noah

The first movement begins with God creating order, beauty, and goodness out of disorder, chaos, and darkness. He creates a world where life can flourish, as well as creatures to inhabit that world.

Throughout this movement, we will focus on the pattern of the Holy Spirit. As you read, you will collect links throughout the movement that will expound upon this pattern. The Hebrew word for spirit is “ruakh,” meaning breath, wind, or spirit. And throughout the Hebrew Bible, God’s Ruakh is associated with the wind, an invisible, powerful energy. God’s Ruakh is the life-animating energy of God that is present in creation and sustains all life. We will trace God’s Ruakh at work through the early pages of Genesis.

God creates humans, or in Hebrew, adam, in his image (Genesis 1:27). By breathing his own life into them, he makes them reflections of his own good character in the world. And the humans are given a choice represented by the tree of knowing good and bad. Will they trust God’s truthful definition of good and bad, or will they seize autonomy and define good and bad for themselves? Unfortunately, humanity listens to the deceptive voice of a mysterious snake figure in the garden, and everything starts spiraling downward.

Human Rebellion

Chapters 3-11 trace the widening ripple effect of the rebellion and the fracturing of human relationships at every level. But God promises to rescue humans, and he never abandons his life-giving, life-sustaining work through his Spirit. Eventually, out of his love and desire for protecting the goodness of his creation, God washes the world of humanity’s rebellion with a great flood. And in Genesis 11, we read the story of the building of Babylon, the epitome of human rebellion and arrogance. Humanity continues to choose that which brings them back into darkness and chaos. And in response, God humbles their pride and scatters them across the land.

Despite humanity’s rebellion, God is determined to rescue his world. The big question is, what is God going to do?

Movement 2 (Genesis 11:27-25:18): Abraham

As God’s rescue plan unfolds, the introduction of Abram in Genesis 12 creates a major shift in the biblical story. Up to this point, the lens zoomed out to include the entire human race. Now, it zooms in on one man and his family.

Throughout this movement, we will focus on the pattern of the tree of life, collecting links as we trace tree imagery throughout the story of Abram (or Abraham, as he is later renamed). Trees are often used to portray Eden’s blessings, and they are also frequent places of worship and testing. Throughout the biblical story, there will usually be a tree somewhere in the mix, playing an active role.

In this movement, we see both Abraham’s failures and his acts of obedient trust in God. And although the stories often highlight Abraham’s frailty and his family’s dysfunction, God enters into a redemptive partnership (covenant) with Abraham that develops progressively in Genesis 12, 15, and 17. God promises to give to Abraham descendants as numerous as the stars, and they will inherit a promised piece of land in Canaan. God also promises to bring universal blessing to all humanity through this family (Genesis 12:1-3).

God’s Rescue and Abraham in the Genesis Scroll

This is a key moment for understanding the rest of the biblical story: God’s plan is to rescue a rebellious humanity and his entire world through Abraham’s family. Abraham’s family would then become the carrier of the original blessing and vocation given to humanity in the garden. Through Abraham’s family, every nation on Earth might one day be blessed by being reconnected to God and returning to his original calling for humans.

This movement begins with the story of Abraham and ends with his death. But the larger biblical story continues in the next movement with the introduction of Abraham’s son Isaac and Isaac’s sons Esau and Jacob.

Movement 3 (Genesis 25:19-37:1): Isaac and Jacob

The story continues with the birth of Isaac’s twin sons, Esau and Jacob. From birth, Jacob lives up to the meaning of his name, “deceiver.” He tricks his now-blind father into giving him the family inheritance and blessing that should have been given to his older brother, Esau.

The pattern we’ll trace in this movement is blessing and curse, and it focuses on God’s invitation to both experience real life and steward his blessing for the rest of creation. But when humans ignore and abuse God’s blessing, they bring about the curse, which refers to the negative consequences that come with opposing the blessing. This pattern develops throughout the story of Jacob and then the whole Hebrew Bible, and we will collect the links along the way.

God freely blesses Jacob from birth (Genesis 25:19-34), but Jacob lives as if God’s blessing depends on his own scheming and skill. And he’s willing to sabotage anyone to get what he wants. In spite of this, God will not abandon Jacob. Instead, God commits himself even more to Jacob, and at a key point in the narrative, God visits him in person to wrestle it all out. God wounds Jacob in the struggle, and it’s precisely this wound that helps Jacob finally receive God’s blessing as a gift. It’s a gift he could never acquire by himself, no matter how hard he tried. And it is here that God renames Jacob, changing his name to Israel, which means “wrestles with God.”

Throughout this movement, we continually see how God is committed to fulfilling the promise he’s made to his stubborn people.

Movement 4 (Genesis 37:2-50:26): Jacob’s Sons

In the final movement of Genesis, we find the story of Jacob’s sons. In this section, we’ll trace the pattern of exile. The imagery of exile permeates the entire biblical story from Genesis 3 to the end, and it is seen throughout the story of Jacob’s son Joseph.

Jacob loves his son Joseph more than his other sons. And he gives him special treatment as well as a colorful coat. The ten older sons come to hate Joseph, and they kidnap him and plan to kill him. However, at the last minute, they decide instead to sell him into slavery in Egypt. Talk about a dysfunctional family!

But God is with Joseph, and he orchestrates not only his release from prison but also his rise to power. Pharaoh discovers Joseph and elevates him to second in command over all of Egypt. Then, during a famine, Joseph saves all of Egypt and also his brothers who had betrayed him. Once again, the folly and sin of Abraham’s family is met with God’s faithfulness. God subverts even the evil of the brothers into an occasion to save lives. In fact, this is what Joseph says near the end of the scroll: “You planned all this for evil, but God planned it for good, to save many lives (Genesis 50:20).”

The Genesis Scroll and God’s Good Plan

Joseph’s words are strategically placed at the end of Genesis. They summarize not only the story of Joseph and his brothers but also the entire scroll of Genesis. From Genesis 3 onward, humans continue to act selfishly and do what is good in their own eyes. But God is not going to leave the world to its own devices. He said his creation is “good” at the beginning of the story, and here at the end, we see that God brings about his good purposes even in the midst of human evil. In both cases, the Hebrew word “tov,” meaning good, beautiful, and right-functioning, grounds the idea of God’s goodness in creation. He remains faithful and determined to bless people despite their failure.

As the movement comes to a close, both Jacob and Joseph die. But the family keeps growing in Egypt. And the scroll closes with all these future promises left hanging. What will happen to the family of Abraham?

We’ll have to turn the page and read more to see how it will all turn out!

Begin a New Journey with the Genesis Scroll

We invite you to begin a new journey with us through an ancient story. We will read the text in movements, which help to break down large stories into related pieces. We will trace patterns throughout these movements—like themes, word studies, and design patterns. And as we begin to see these patterns emerge in various places, our confusion or lack of clarity surrounding the biblical text will begin to dissipate.

This book that perhaps once felt random or perplexing will start to show itself as carefully designed and purposefully organized literary art. These journeys will help us move through confusion and fear toward an understanding of God and his story with humanity that can ground our real lives. And it will help us see how the whole Bible is one unified story that leads to Jesus.

We invite you to join us on this journey in exploring the Genesis scroll by downloading the BibleProject app for iPhone or Android today!

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