The first three chapters of the Bible, Genesis 1-3, are probably some of the most familiar of any chapters in the Bible. They have been ground zero for debates over the origins of life, evolution, and the age of the earth.
While these are certainly important conversations to have about Genesis 1-3, our focus on these questions often causes us to miss some of the most important reasons these chapters were written in the first place!
In order to understand the depth of what is happening in these crucial chapters and how they connect to our lives today, we have to ask the questions: Why were these chapters written and who was the original audience?
What you discover when you answer these two questions is that the main point of Genesis 1-3 is to help God’s people embrace a better story — the true story — about reality in the midst of many other competing stories about what is most real, important, and good. Genesis 1-3 introduce us to a reality where there is one true God as the Creator and Sustainer of everyone and everything. A reality in which self-giving love and self-sacrificial loyalty undergird all goodness, beauty, and truth.
Who was the original audience and why were these chapters written?
Answering the first question — who is the original audience? — holds the key to answering the second question — why were these chapters written?
The original audience of Genesis 1-3 was God’s people as they prepared to leave Egypt and journey to the land that God had promised to them.
For the past 400 years, God’s people had been enslaved in Egypt. They were surrounded by Egyptian culture, architecture, stories, beliefs, and religion. They knew all about the Egyptian gods and the Egyptian stories of how the world came to be and how it worked.
Now after all these years of slavery in Egypt, God sends Moses to rescue his people, to lead them to the Promised Land. But the Promised Land, Canaan, was also a place full of people who had all of their own stories and beliefs about the gods, origins, and meaning. How would God’s people maintain their unique identity and story in the midst of so many other stories and ideas? God would remind them of their own story!
Old Testament scholar Bruce Waltke explains:
“After the Exodus, the people of Israel travel in the wilderness. They leave Egypt, a place saturated with pagan mythology, and head for Canaan, another place saturated with pagan mythology.… Faced with the threat of paganism, politically redeemed Israel needed a creation narrative because they were in need of spiritual redemption. Confronted by the ubiquitous presence of pagan beliefs, Moses… does not leave the new nation without a creation narrative… to counteract the mythic way of looking at the world” (Bruce Waltke, An Old Testament Theology, 174-176).
Do you see the answer to the second question — Why was Genesis 1-3 written? — coming into focus now? It was written to give God’s people their own story, the one true story, about who God is, who they are, about what’s wrong with the world (and us!) and how it will be fixed.
Moreover, not only does Genesis 1-3 provide a framework for answering these questions, it is also constructed in such a way that it subtly responds to and undermines the rival stories of the other nations around Israel, such as Egypt and the Canaanites.
Each day of creation in Genesis 1 directly addresses rival stories and deities that God’s people faced in Egypt and would face in Canaan. In Egypt and Canaan, nearly every element of the world was associated with a god or gods. There was the sun god and moon god, fertility gods that made the plants grow and the rains come, sea god, animal gods, etc. At every turn, Genesis 1-3 confronts these stories and demonstrates that there are not many gods but one God who made all things.
Old Testament scholar, H. Conrad Hyer, points out:
“Each day of creation … dismisses an additional cluster of deities…. On the first day, the gods of light and darkness are dismissed. On the second day, the gods of sky and sea. On the third day, earth gods and gods of vegetation. On the fourth day, sun, moon, and star gods. The fifth and sixth days take away any associations with divinity from the animal kingdom. And finally human existence, too, is emptied of any intrinsic deity — while at the same time all human beings, from the greatest of the least, and not just pharaohs, kings and heroes, are granted divine likeness…” (H. Conrad Hyer quoted in Bruce Waltke, An Old Testament Theology, 177).
Genesis 1-3 provides God’s people with a rich introduction to the story — which takes the entire Bible to tell! — that is to shape every element of their lives.
The Ancient Story and Our Stories
Genesis 1-3 continues to serve God’s people in this way even today. God’s people around the world from Kansas City to Kenya are surrounded by a myriad of stories that attempt to make sense of the world.
For example, one of the dominant stories in the Western world is that the material world is all that there is. All life is the result of time plus chance plus matter. There is no overall guiding purpose or meaning to life. Death does not mark the transition to a different state of existence, but is simply the cessation of existence.
In the West, elements of this sort of materialism are also mixed frequently with elements from other cultural stories. Perhaps there are elements of Eastern thought about karma or reincarnation. Other elements may include a moral sense that all good people enter some sort of heaven or reward when they die.
However, for most of us in the United States, perhaps the most pervasive cultural story that shapes our lives is a consumer story. A story that tells us that happiness and contentment are linked to having financial success that allows us to secure comfort and security through what we purchase.
In service of this story, we may not sacrifice animals or or visit pagan temples, but we do make sacrifices. Full devotion to the consumer story will require that you sacrifice time with friends and family in order to work long hours in order to make more money to obtain more security and comfort. The more things that we acquire, the more those things own us and make demands on us. We must maintain and insure them. We must replace them with new and better models. (Have you upgraded to the new iPhone yet?)
Just as Genesis 1-3 spoke into and addressed the competing stories of Egypt and Canaan, so too does it address the competing stories that God’s people face today.
In the face of materialism, Genesis 1-3 provides a liberating view of the world that is not closed. There is a Creator who is separate from creation, who created all things and gives them meaning and purpose. There is life possible beyond death. Not all is lost when we die. We are accountable to a creator, and therefore life has meaning and purpose. We are loved. We exist because of love. We are not accidents.
In the face of the consumer story, Genesis 1-3 provides us with a view that affirms the goodness of the world and all the many pleasures and comforts that it has to offer. These are all a gift to us from God! He made the world and called it very good. But our hope and security are ultimately found in the Creator, not in the creation. The Genesis story frees us from the endless cycle of acquisition and allows us to find contentment in God’s good gifts.
Genesis 1-3 is an anchor for God’s people, providing them with a life-giving story that is worth living!
In our fall series, A Story Worth Living, we are asking these questions: How does Genesis 1-3 relate to the stories that our culture is telling, stories that influence everyone of us? Where does Genesis 1-3 affirm the stories of our culture? Where does it challenge the stories of our culture?