Who is the audience for Genesis?

Attentive audience by San Jose Library

I’ve been marking student assignments for a course on Genesis. The more I mark the more I become aware of the issue of the intended (expected/implied) audience. In this podcast I’ll suggest that the answer is not as simple as it sounds 😉 and draw a conclusion about our practices of reading Scripture…

5 Responses to Who is the audience for Genesis?

  1. John Hobbins says:

    Hi Tim,

    I’ve been away from the blogging community too long, but at least I finished up some writing that you might enjoy: http://www.vts.edu/ftpimages/95/download/FM.Hobbins.Habakkuk.pdf

    I’m guessing that Stephen Cook of biblische Ausbildung would appreciate any comments you might have on the choice of format for the series, not nearly as innovative as your approach, but still striking for many when they see it for the first time.

    The first thing I want to say about your podcast is how much I admire the clarity of your five minute presentation. That said, the picture of the children had me hoping that you would address the question of children as an audience for the book of Genesis, which I think is an interesting topic (my 8 year old daughter is mesmerized by her Manga Bible version of the Genesis narrative). I like what Fleming Routledge, a great preacher she, has to say on the subject:

    In the case of Old Testament stories taught to children, we are constantly tempted to moralize them, to make them teach a useful lesson according to our own ideas of what we should be imparting to students. Not only does this domesticate and tame the unruly “strange world of the Bible”; it is also boring for children. … The pastors of congregations can help to guide the teaching of children by delivering sermons in the adult congregation which seek to impart a sense of wonder and amazement. Over time, the adults who teach children will pick this up.

    Fleming Rutledge. And God Spoke to Abraham: Preaching from the Old Testament (Kindle Locations 360-366). Kindle Edition.

    For the rest, to be honest (you know me) I think you would have done better to take a concrete example of how Genesis was heard from within the Hebrew Bible rather than speculate about Ezra and the Samaritans vs. the Yehudians and what not.

    For example, several interwoven themes of Gen 32:10-13 are reprised, not just in Isa 48:19 but in the larger whole of Isa 48:1-21; in fact entire passages from the Jacob cycle, and beyond, are reprised in Isa 48. It will be seen forthwith that Israel’s triumph through an act of God in the court of history is at stake. Very often in Isa 40-55, Israel’s vindication in the court of history – its ?ed?q? – is understood, without remainder, as God’s vindication of Israel; very often God is, without remainder, Israel’s vindex. Isa 48, along with 46:12-13, aligns itself with the sola gratia and sola fide themes that reach expression in Gen 12; 15; 32-33; 35; and Isa 40-55 generally: the command to leave one’s home (Isa 48; Gen 12; 15); otherwise put, the command to return to the land of one’s ancestors (Gen 32-33; 35), along with God’s promises of success (throughout Gen 12-35 and Isa 40-55), are benevolent divine provisions the appropriation of which is contingent upon responding to the divine word with faith. Faith in the sense of reliance on God’s promises is expressis verbis in Gen 15. It is also perfectly clear that virtually every pericope of Isa 40-55, not to mention Gen 12:1-3 and parallels, aims to elicit faith in the same sense. In Isa 40-55, divine benevolence, the call to faith, and the expectation of salvation construed as justification cohere.

    If I am not far off here, then we know quite a bit about who the audience of Genesis was at one juncture: Jacob/Israel in exile in the 530s BCE; survivors and descendants of the deportations of 598 and 586 BCE. We also know how they understood the book of Genesis: as a template for the hope of restoration and palingenesis after exile, want, and suffering.

    I know how disappointed some people are to hear that Isa 40-55 is about justification received in faith thanks to divine grace, but that is, it seems to me, the long and short of it, even if a great deal of the Hebrew Bible has very different emphases.

    The long and short of the book of Genesis is different, to be sure. I would say that “original sin” as it would later be called does not consist of the creature wanting to be like his Creator. Rather , it consists of pursuing something that is a right and proper end in itself – in point of fact, the most laudable end of all, to be like God – by forbidden means. The proper way to become like God is not through knowing more or knowing good and evil. The proper way to become like God is by being solicitous in all of one’s relationships. For the first couple that meant, within the purview of Gen 2, to cultivate and tend the garden they were given and to exist in mutuality with one another to a degree unlike what is possible between man and beast. Within the purview of Gen 1-3, mankind is meant to dominate his surroundings in full awareness of the goodness of all of God’s creation. He is meant, as are all other living creatures, to procreate in imitation of, dependence on, and distinction from, his Creator. He is like God precisely in his vocation to creative activity and power. He is meant to be God’s viceroy on earth. Instead, as Gen 3 points out, he allows a power other than God to dominate him, a trickster. To be sure, the plot of Gen 3 is more complex than that. It is the woman God gave man who is the focus of the story. Her desire, aesthetic and intellectual at the same time, awesome in itself, is the occasion of her downfall as soon as she acquiesces to a power at odds with the power who gave her life and breath. “Her command over her passive cohort,” as Ronald Hendel puts it, leads to his demise as well. When they do precisely what they were told not to do, their eyes are opened, just as the trickster predicted. But what they see, as Hendel pointed out, “is an ironic surprise – their nakedness, of which they are now ashamed.” Beyond the terrible and enduring consequences of the original sin, the narrative zeros in on God’s solicitous care for the creatures who defy him: “The Lord GOD made garments of skin for the man and his wife, and he clothed them” (Gen 3:21). They are banished from the place God originally gave them following their act of seeking to be all that one can be and to have all that one can have – by a prodigal path. Yet banishment is a far cry from death, the consequence God warned of should they do precisely what he told them not to do (Gen 2:17). The God who punishes is, at one and the same time, merciful and solicitous. The pattern is repeated in the case of fratricide (Gen 4). Cain is not repaid in the same coin. On this understanding, primal sin in Gen 3 and 4 has to do with humanity’s proclivity to allow itself to be dominated by a power other than God. The alternative understanding is comprehensible to modern human beings who know themselves, no less than Luther, to battle demons who threaten to undo them.

    Moreover, it makes no sense to stop the account of original sins with the first pair, and fast forward to the designation of blood to atone for blood in Lev 4-5 and to the provision for expiation of wrongdoing through a blood rite, a transference rite, and acknowledgment of wrongdoing on an annual Day of Atonement, per Lev 16. The connection between the blood of Abel, the offence (?a????t) it represents, and the blood of the slaughtered animal which serves to purge (?i???’) the sanctuary of defilement through contact with a people of unclean hands and lips is salient, but there are other originating sins to which Genesis bears witness: that of the divine beings who mated with humankind and produced the nefarious heroes of old (Gen 6:1-4); that of the entire earth the inhabitants of which devise nothing but evil all day long (Gen 6:5); that of the residents of Babylon who sought to build a city able to dominate the four corners of the earth, and a tower able to reach into the heavens (Gen 11); that attempted by the men of Sodom, young and old, against innocent strangers (Gen 19); that of Sarah against Hagar and her son (Gen 21:8-21); that of Jacob against Esau, which triggers Esau’s fury (Gen 27); that of the brothers of Joseph who try to rid themselves of Joseph’s existence (Gen 37). The parade goes on in Exodus and Numbers. Everywhere we see a God who by no means clears the guilty, but also a God who is long suffering, mitigates punishment, forgives, and blesses.

    Okay, enough rambling for now.

    • Rob Willmann says:

      When I saw the photo, I thought the same thing. I thought the 5 minute podcast would be about the telling of Genesis to children.

      The previous commenter also thought this would be an interesting comment.

      Would you consider doing a 5 minute discussion of children as the intented audience?

      • tim says:

        Now, after two similar comments, I’ll have to think about it! Especially since my voluntary ministry (as opposed to my professional one to adult seminarians) has usually been to children 😉

        However, I suspect that it would be more than one five minute slot, so it will wait till I have more time…

  2. tim says:

    John, thanks for the meaty comments. I hope to mull them and perhaps respond when the current pile of marking is over. In the meantime, I’ll also thank you for the Rutledge quote, it is a fine one, makes me want to buy the book 🙂

  3. […] lieu of an actual post, please take a listen to “Who Is The Audience for Genesis“, a post in Dr. Tim Bulkeley’s Five Minute Bible podcast, which I’ve linked to […]