This recent (2014) book on Genesis 1-4 by Alasdair Paine (of St Andrew the Great in Cambridge) is a joy to read. The emphasis is on how the chapters make sense of the world in which we live. Indeed, the book’s subtitle is, ‘How Genesis 1-4 explains our world’. Summing up the value of these chapters, Paine notes how they make sense of ‘the magnificence of the world we inhabit’, its orderliness, the ‘dominance of the world by the human race’, ‘the extraordinarily mixed nature of life in our world’, ‘hatred, and the power of sin to master us’, and much more (p. 179-181). The book grew out of a preaching ministry — and it shows. Issues beyond the concern of the text are kept in their proper place, and dealt with in a sensitive way, and the book is filled with vivid illustrations and pointed applications.
However, despite the excellent material in the book, and despite having the right approach to Genesis (‘Persistently asking the question “what is the message here?” is the correct way to handle the book,’ p. 8), I’m not sure Paine quite hits the target. The reason for this is the lack of attention to the context.
Genesis 1-4, as well as being the first chapters of everything, are also the first chapters of the Book of Genesis. And Genesis, like every book of the Bible, has an immediate context. It was not written for us as isolated human beings trying to make sense of the world around us. It was written for the covenant people of God — for the (physical and spiritual) descendants of Abraham. Assuming a (basically) Mosaic authorship, as Paine does, we can focus still more sharply on the primary audience, which must surely have been Israel in the wilderness.
And when we do that, the text suddenly opens up in a fresh way.
Genesis 1 can now be seen not only as teaching us about God the Creator, but as teaching us more about our God: the God who has just set us free by triumphing over the gods of Egypt, who has entered into a covenant with us, and who has promised to give us the victory over the people of Canaan. The emphasis on God’s word in chapter 1 can be traced through the rest of Genesis, with its emphasis on God’s word of promise. Will the people of Israel trust God’s promises as they enter the promised land? Will we trust God’s promises? Then, just as God finished his work of creation, so he will most certainly fulfil all that he has promised to do. And he will work out each step of his plan, so that someone like Joseph (who, incidentally, ended up having dominion over much of the earth) can look back and say that ‘God meant it for good’ (Gen. 50:20, ESV), clearly echoing the language of the creation week.
Genesis 2-3 come to life when we think about the Tabernacle (as Paine does, very briefly). Eden was a garden sanctuary, in which God was especially present. In the same way, Israel in the wilderness has become a mobile sanctuary, with God present in their midst. And just as Adam and Eve faced the choice of life or death, so Israel was about to face the choice between life and death as they entered the promised land: ‘I call heaven and earth to witness against you today, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse. Therefore choose life, that you and your offspring may live,’ (Dt. 30:19, ESV). Would they listen to the Lord, or would they listen to the serpent, enticing them to serve other gods? And what about us?
I have found this to be a very fruitful way of approaching the first chapters of Genesis. Just as when we read a New Testament letter, we try to hear it first through the ears of the original recipients, and only then begin to apply it to ourselves, so it should be with Genesis. We shouldn’t bypass the Exodus and the wilderness wanderings in order to hear Genesis more directly. God speaks to us today through the word that he spoke to his people in the past. We need to keep them in mind if we want to hear what God is saying to us now.