The Narrative Flow of Genesis 12-50 and Missional Hermeneutics
Narrative Flow of Gen 12–50
Here are some thoughts on the narratives of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob from the perspective of a missional hermeneutic or approach to Scriptures. The approach of missional hermeneutics attempts to understand the Bible against the broader backdrop of God’s mission in the world.
God’s promises to Abram are the primary driver of plot for the remainder of Genesis. The narratives that follow Abram’s call show how the promises play out in the lives of Abram’s family and trace how the promises of God pass from generation to generation. God appears to Isaac and Jacob and reaffirms the earlier promises to Abram.
The theme of promise demonstrates the faithfulness and reliability of God despite the foibles and missteps of Israel’s ancestors. God is faithful when Abram, Isaac, and Jacob are faithful, but the God of mission is faithful even when his new humanity is not. As we will see, this does not mean that God’s people have no ethical responsibility. Rather Gen 12–50 offers a hopeful message that contrasts sharply with the narratives of Gen 3–11 where humanity’s ongoing lostness keeps it bogged down in perpetual cycles of sin and disbodience. God’s mission will move forward now in spite of human failings through the faithfulness of God. This does not mean that humanity has no responsibility, but it places the emphasis on God’s mission in the proper place—God himself.
God made promises to Abram, and God keeps them. God sustains the community of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob through threats to God’s promises. These threats most often result from ill-timed or conceived acts by God’s people. When Abraham twice passes off Sarah as his sister (12:10-20 and 20:1-18), Pharaoh and later Abimelech take her as a wife. In each case, God intervenes and reveals the truth to these men so that Sarah is restored to Abraham. God has called Sarah to be the mother of a people of promise. He acts to protect her. In Genesis 16, Abraham and Sarah conceive Ishmael through Sarah slave-girl Hagar whom Sarah presents to Abraham as a surrogate wife. Although this was an accepted practice, this means of conception was not God’s plan for Abraham and Sarah. Thus, Ishmael as Abraham’s firstborn represented a detour from God’s promise of a son. It was God’s intention for Sarah to conceive through the power and blessing of God. Ishmael receives his own special blessing (21:17-18), but it is Isaac whom God chose to serve as the key descendant of Abraham.
Jacob is the greatest example of how God is faithful to his promises despite the brokenness of his people. Jacob is God’s choice while still in the womb, but Jacob proves to be a conniving manipulator of the events and people around him. He gains Esau’s birthright by taking advantage of Esau’s hunger. Then he works in conjuction with his mother Rebekah to deceive Isaac into granting Jacob the blessing of the firstborn. This action sends Esau into a rage and forces Jacob to flee Canaan for Haran. Notice the problem: the bearer of God’s promise has now been forced to leave the promised land to return the country out of which God had called Abraham. Yet it is at this moment that God encounters Jacob personally for the first time. In Gen 28:13-15, God repeats the promises to Abraham and Isaac for Jacob and assures Jacob of his ongoing presence. This encounter impacts Jacob but does not change him. While in Haran, Jacob outwits his uncle Laban and accumulates vast wealth. This causes animosity and causes Jacob to return to Canaan. God delivers Jacob from the fury of Laban. While fretting over the necessity of meeting up with Esau again, Jacob encounters God as the river Jabbok. He wrestles with God. During this encounter, God blesses Jacob and gives him the name Israel. This encounter is life changing as Jacob finally relinquishes self-control and recognizes his need for God. The next day when Jacob encounters Esau, Esau shows no animosity over the past and welcomes his brother home. God has kept his promises despite Jacob’s unruly and scheming character.
The Joseph story (Gen 37–50) centers on the ongoing providential care that God provides for his new humanity. In these chapters, readers witness the tension and drama of Joseph’s fall from the favored son of Jacob to an imprisoned slave in Egypt and then see God reverse his fortune by raising him up to second in power only to Pharaoh. Joseph’s life in captivity is a model for missional living. Despite the profound unfairness of his enslavement, he resists the sexual advances of Potiphar’s wife. Astonishingly, Joseph’s uprightness gains him the reward of imprisonment. Joseph remains unbroken and God works through him to bless others in the prison. This leads to the miraculous series of events that leads him to interpret Pharaoh’s dream. When Pharaoh hears Joseph’s interpretation, he recognizes God’s presence in Joseph’s life (41:38). He then appoints Joseph his second in command and Joseph leads Egypt to prepare successfully for a devastating time of famine. The famine is widespread and affects Canaan. This threatens the ongoing existence of Jacob and his family. Jacob sends his sons to Egypt to purchase food. In the course of these events, Joseph reunites with his brothers who are frightened at the power of Joseph because it was they who had sold him into slavery. Joseph reconciles with his brothers, and Pharaoh himself invites Joseph’s father and entire family to live in Egypt as guests of Pharaoh. This chain of events delivers God’s new humanity from famine and sets the stage for the fulfillment of Genesis 15:13-15 in which God revealed to Abraham that his descendants would be aliens and slaves in a foreign land. In the book of Genesis, God’s people live in the delta region of Egypt as the guests of Pharaoh. In the book of Exodus, there will arise a Pharaoh who did not know Joseph and began to treat God’s people as a threat (Exod 1:8-10).
In Genesis 45 and 50, Joseph offers remarkable theological reflection on the events of his life as a means of assuring his brothers that there will be no retaliation against them (see especially 45:4-8 and 50:19-21). Genesis 50:20 is sublime, “You yourselves intended evil against me; God intended it for good in order to preserve for life a vast people, just as he is doing now.” Joseph’s words lift up the reality that God intends and works good regardless of the circumstances in which God’s people find themselves. This does not mean that God’s people will avoid suffering and hardship. Such elements are simply the reality of living in the post-Genesis 3 world. But recognizing that God is faithful to advancing his mission and keeping his promises allows God’s people to persevere as Joseph did in anticipation of the in-breaking of God’s future. Joseph witnessed this in the course of his own life. He was able to view the world with 50/20 vision. Joseph was able to understand the circumstances and challenges of his own life in light of God’s promises and mission.
At the end of his life (Gen 50:22-26), Joseph takes up the mantle of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob by affirming to his brothers that God will indeed lead the people back to the promised land of Canaan. This establishes the necessary transition to the book of Exodus.
Genesis 12–50 exhorts God’s people to recognize their standing in the world as a people of promise. God’s people exist as a missional community for the sake of the world. God’s faithfulness to his promises grants assurance of his grace and power. God is faithful in Jacob’s life despite Jacob’s own failings; he is faithful in Joseph’s life despite the injustices suffered by Joseph. God’s relentless faithfulness ought to embolden his people to faithful living in whatever circumstances they find themselves.
What do you think?
© 2010 Brian D. Russell