It’s mid-January, which means many of us are still going strong in our resolutions to read through the Bible this year. If your reading plan is like mine, that means you find yourself just wrapping up Genesis, the first book of the Bible, and the story of beginnings.
Coming out of the Christmas season, it’s easy to think of the Christian faith as beginning with the birth of Christ. But Jesus’s incarnation marked the “fullness of time” (Gal. 4:4)—what redemptive history was marching towards all along, starting in Genesis. We should read these familiar stories as family history, recognizing ourselves as Abraham’s descendants, grafted in through Christ to become fellow beneficiaries of God’s covenant faithfulness: “If you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise” (Gal. 3:29).
But perhaps, like me, you’re always a bit dismayed to find the skeletons in our closet.
The Dark Stories of Genesis
There are many difficult stories in the Old Testament as a whole, and in Genesis in particular. In my most recent sweep of this first book’s narrative, I was struck anew by the horrible treatment of women. We start with Adam throwing Eve under the bus before God (Gen. 3:12), even though he was there all along (Gen. 3:6). There’s polygamy, which starts among Cain’s descendants (Gen. 3:19) but extends to God’s people, and the way daughters and servants are mistreated and passed around like property (Gen. 16:3, 24:51, 29:21–30:24, 38). There are those instances when Abraham and Isaac pretend their wives are their sisters to protect their own skin (Gen. 12:10–20, 20:1–13, 26:6–11), Lot’s willingness to offer his daughters up to be sexually assaulted (Gen. 19:8), and the rape of Dinah (Gen. 34). I’m sure there are other examples I’m overlooking.
It should go without saying: this doesn’t mean women are presented in the narrative only as innocent victims. They contribute their fair share to the story’s downturn. From taking the forbidden fruit to mistreating their servants, from deceiving and manipulating to envying and coveting, every sin has both male and female perpetrators.
Nonetheless, this treatment of women documented in Genesis leaves me with a sour stomach. And it may lead some to question God’s goodness, accusing him and his followers of misogyny, or hatred of women. So, what are we to make of these cringey stories in our family history? Here are a few principles I find helpful to keep in mind as I read the Old Testament:
1. Remember the difference between descriptive and prescriptive texts.
Understanding genre is an important part of good Bible study, and it’s especially crucial when we uncover difficult texts like this. Genesis is historical narrative, which means it’s primarily describing events that occurred in history. It’s still God’s inerrant word, written as an example to us (1 Cor. 10:6) and for our instruction (2 Tim. 3:16). But keeping in mind the genre helps us see where the examples are (and where they aren’t).
At the beginning of Genesis, God is crystal clear about his view of women. He creates them in his image, imbuing them with equal dignity and value (Gen. 1:27). What follows the Fall demonstrates a distortion of his design. Many of the passages I noted above serve as examples of what not to do. Polygamy, for example, is not presented in the text as a virtuous option for God’s people. Rather, the text describes the patriarchs’ multiple wives in realistic terms, painting the portrait of a household full of hurt, resentment, and dysfunction. The prescription, then, is to cling to God’s design for marriage between one man and one woman (Gen. 2:24).
Further, recognizing the genre of a biblical text forces us to keep in mind our distance from it. These events took place in the ancient Near East—a time, location, and culture that we are largely unfamiliar with. While Scripture is plain and simple enough to make us wise unto salvation in Christ (2 Tim. 3:15), we don’t receive supernatural knowledge of historical context. We must do the hard work of understanding what sort of assumptions the original audience would have had and how that might shape their understanding of the text. Calling the patriarchs “men of their time” doesn’t excuse their sinful choices, but it does properly situate them in the world they knew. In some cases, the poor treatment of women we see in the pages of Scripture pales in comparison to the abhorrent practices of the surrounding nations. Throughout history, where Christianity spread, the situation for women improved.
2. Remember that sin is real, and its reach is vast.
When we read of creation’s undoing only three chapters into the biblical text, it’s meant to take our breath away. We have just beheld God’s kindness and beauty, his order and attentiveness, his transcendence and nearness. We are given a glimpse of what could have been. Now we long for creation’s original perfection, recognizing it was but a fleeting moment in history, and that what we experience now is shadowed and broken.
It’s right that we lament this post-Fall reality. These descriptions are meant to turn our stomachs. As the narrative unfolds and even God’s people are among those committing heinous acts, we see how far sin reaches, how none are immune: “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God”—even the patriarchs (Rom. 3:23).
When people accuse God of misogyny, we may be tempted to defend him by downplaying or justifying these stories. But downplaying human depravity only serves to water down the gospel. Instead, Genesis tells the ugly truth about the impact of sin and, in so doing, it points out our desperate need, reminding us that sinful people need a mighty Savior.
3. Remember who God is.
We often think of Genesis as revealing God’s character in his powerful acts of creation: he is orderly, majestic, and powerful. But this rich book gives us more than a glimpse into how it all started and how it’s going. It also builds a foundation of who God is, and that knowledge can sustain us and give us context as we read the rest of the story.
In the lives of the patriarchs, we see how God is at work in and through even our own acts of sin and foolishness to accomplish his purposes. At the end of the book, for example, Joseph marvels at God’s sovereignty, wisdom, and goodness—how he orchestrated the events of history in order to preserve and provide for his people: “As for you,” Joseph says to his brothers, “you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today” (Gen. 50:20).
From God’s dealings with his people after the Fall of chapter 3 to this provision for Joseph’s hateful brothers, Genesis is predominantly a book about God’s mercy. Though I’m tempted to read the stories of my forebears with disgust and pray, “Thank you God that I’m not like them,” the better prayer of response is, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner” (Luke 18:9–14). I am like them. Their failures are no worse than mine. And yet, God reveals himself to be “merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love” (Ps. 103:8).
In fact, throughout the rest of Scripture, he is often referred to as the God of Jacob. This reminds us that he is faithful to his promises, yes, but consider Jacob—the swindler, the deceiver, the one who had a favorite wife and a favorite son. God identifies himself by Jacob’s name, reminding us over and over again that he is merciful, that he sent his Son not for the righteous but for sinners (Luke 5:32).
4. Remember that justice will prevail.
If only it was just our ancient family history that gave us reason to lament our beginnings! But alas, misogyny persists today, as does racism, hatred, and myriad other forms of conflict, abuse, and violence, even among God’s people. Genesis helps us understand the origins of these grievous acts—sin—but as it instructs us in God’s mercy, it also points us to God’s justice. “Cursed are you,” God declares to the serpent (Gen. 3:14). He assures Satan and his fallen people that their sin will not go unpunished. But even as he warns of the enmity between the powers of evil and God’s people that will persist throughout history, he also points forward to his ultimate justice (Gen. 3:15). God will work through the greatest evil ever committed (the crucifixion of Jesus) to bring about the greatest good ever accomplished (Acts 2:36; 2 Cor. 5:21).
In the cross of Christ, we’re given a paradigm for how God will address evil. While he delays his judgment so that people can turn to him (Rom. 3:25–26; 2 Pet. 3:9), and while he extends his mercy to those who come to him by faith in his Son (Rom. 10:9), all sin will ultimately be paid for (Heb. 9:22). We can lament the evil in our history, in our hearts, and in our midst, trusting that God’s justice will prevail. This is our hope from the very beginning.