This is Part 3 of our Understanding the Bible series. In Part 1, I introduced an idea of understanding the Bible through a foundational story: the Creation of a Covenant between God and the world, the breaking of that Covenant, and the repair and restoration of that Covenant—a story we see spring up again and again. In Part 2, I argued that that story sees its primary expression in the Covenant that is given to Moses on Mount Sinai in the Book of Exodus.
This week, we go back to the beginning of the story in the Book of Genesis. Just by coincidence, it was in the past week or so that NASA released the first images from the James Webb Space Telescope, images showing us light that was created more than 13 billion years ago. I point that out simply to say that what I have to share with you in today’s lesson does not need to compete with that science. When we understand the Bible through this lens of Covenant, Brokenness, and Repair, we can both appreciate what science tells us about the origins of the universe, and we can appreciate that our spiritual ancestors told the Bible stories for quite different reasons: they were seeking to make meaning out of the world in which they found themselves. They wanted to make sense of the struggles in their lives. The answers to those kinds of philosophical questions come from a source that is not better or worse, but just quite different from the kind of data we get from a telescope. And we can appreciate—and even stand in awe—of both.
So because I am no astronomer or physicist, let’s turn to these stories in the Book of Genesis and see what these stories are trying to tell us.
The first sermon in this series began with a reference to the epic stories, The Lord of the Rings,and a theme I introduced: that the Bible follows a repeated cycle of the Creation of a Covenant, the breaking of that Covenant, and the repair and renewal of that Covenant. In the second sermon, we looked at how the Book of Exodus tells the fundamental story of that Covenant theme. This week, I invite you to return to that Lord of the Rings illustration of a grand, epic story, and consider that the Book of Genesis is like a prequel to Exodus. We learn the story of the Exodus and the Covenant at Mount Sinai, and then we look back at these earlier stories that explain how we got there. And when you read the stories through that lens, you see, from the very beginning, the foundation being laid for the epic story of Covenant that is told in the Bible.
Let’s look at some examples:
The Scripture Lesson today looked at two examples from the Book of Genesis. In the very first chapters of Genesis, some of you will know that there are actually two different ways the Creation story is told—if that’s new to you, go home and read Genesis 1 and 2 back-to-back. The first one tells the story of God creating the world over a period of six days and then resting on the seventh, giving a structure for life in the world that begins and ends with God. In Chapter two, a second creation story shows God creating the man, and then out of man’s rib a woman to be a companion for him, and placing them both in the Garden of Eden.
Look at the way the Covenant cycle unfolds in this second story: God places Adam and Eve in this Garden and provides for them everything they could need or want, and they are given a simple instruction: ‘Everything you need is here; just don’t eat the fruit of this one tree.’ When you read this story as a prequel to the Covenant cycle we’ve been talking about, the meaning is so clear: ‘I am the Lord your God. I have provided a good life for you and invite you to place your trust in me. In this world, there will be temptations, like this tree, that will tempt you to place your trust elsewhere. But that will not lead to fullness of life for you.’ And, predictably, when the talking snake comes along and tempts them, Adam and Eve eat of the fruit of the tree, break the Covenant, and lose their place in the Garden. And things start to fall apart.
In another story, God decides to renew the creation. A great flood wipes the slate clean, and God renews the Covenant with Noah. Like it was with Adam and Eve, God gives Noah blessings and instructions: “There is going to be a flood but here is how you will survive it. Here are the instructions for the Ark you will build and how you will gather together the beasts of the field and the birds of the air and the fish of the sea and the creeping things that crawl on the ground, so that when the flood waters recede, a good creation will be here for you to enjoy once more. And at the end of the story, there is a rainbow set in the clouds as a visible sign of…my Covenant with you. My promise is to be your keeper and God in this world…just don’t turn away from me again.” And so we see that the first 9 chapters of Genesis take us through this journey of Creation, brokenness, and renewal of the Covenant.
The Book of Genesis continues with more stories of this Covenant making and Covenant breaking and Covenant remaking. Genesis, chapters 12-50 are the stories of Abraham and Sarah and their descendants. In each story, there is an introduction where God initiates a relationship with the patriarch: ‘I am the Lord your God, I am about to make of you a great nation with more descendants than the stars in the sky…follow me, and trust.’ God says this to Abraham, and then to Isaac, and then to Jacob. And in each generation, the promise is followed by some very human story that shows how difficult it is to trust God, and how easy it can be to slip away, and that God loves us still and renews the Covenant with the next generation. Finally, in the story of Joseph, we see how arrogance and jealousy between brothers lead Joseph to be sold into slavery in the land of Egypt. There he will at first seem to trust God, but will ultimately place his trust in Pharaoh, and with him learn to store up grain and wealth for himself, until his people become slaves in that foreign land. This is the prequel to Exodus.
I am leaving out an incredible amount of detail along the way, but the fundamental building blocks of the story are there. The Bible is a collection of stories about God’s invitation to us into a relationship of trust, and we see over and over again how difficult that invitation is to accept, and how God reaches out again and again to renew it. And though the story is not always neat and tidy or linear if you will, I would argue that neither is your life or mine. We all have different ways we find a relationship with God, and different stories of how we’ve fallen away or chosen not to trust, and in the long view, have found that God loves us still. And in spite of our individual stories and ways of understanding the journey, the narrative is there for us to embrace as an ancient history of our own story: A Covenant Created, broken, and renewed so that we can begin again. This is God’s story. We are invited to claim it as our own.
In light of the place I began today, with that nod to the James Webb Telescope, it seems like a good place to end is with at least a short comment on how Bible readers might talk about creation.
I had a theology professor in college who used to say things like this: When we read the Parable of the Good Samaritan, we read that opening line, that “a man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho and fell among thieves”—and we don’t read that line and go looking for records from the Jerusalem highway patrol to find out if it happened. We know that we’re reading a parable—a story told for a reason other than historical reporting or courtroom evidence. It’s a lesson about generosity and love.
I understand Creation in much the same way—that we are reading a particular kind of a story. And I am telling you about the Bible in a way that aligns with that. The Webb Telescope shows us evidence of a universe more than 13 billion years old. It is based in scientific evidence. In my humble opinion, we can only be awestruck by that. None of us, who live at most about 100 years can begin to conceptualize what it means.
The Bible leaves me awestruck too, but in a completely different way, that does not need to compete with the science. The Bible is telling a different kind of story.
God is a Covenant Maker. God creates, provides for, forgives, and recreates us again and again.God makes promises and keeps them. God provides for and cares for us, and when we fall away, God is not waiting to punish us, but to welcome us home. Have you considered how unbelievable that is? God is not the angry judge or account manager most of us expect, but a loving Creator who provides and forgives and restores. This is unbelievable because it is so contrary to so much of what we hear every day. If we dare to think about it, we can only be awestruck. And we’ll continue to explore how that story unfolds in the weeks to come. Amen.