The Bible Project Pt 6: The Mission in Jeopardy

With Abram’s decision to listen and go, God’s rescue project is back underway. Everything that went “wrong” in Genesis 3 is now going to be set right. Abram indeed has a family—a couple of sons, in fact (Genesis 16-21). Then those sons have a couple sons (Esau and Jacob; Genesis 26-28), and eventually we get down to 12 brothers who form the beginnings of this nation that will “bless the whole world” (though they are still just a family, not a nation… yet). One of those brothers, Joseph, ends up in Egypt and actually rises to great status and honor in that nation, and as part of Abram’s family, it’s easy to see how this rise in status will help bless the whole world because, well, it’s easy to equate power with blessing.

But as the years pass, something goes amiss, and the “rescue project” begins to experience a major challenge. Exodus 1:8 says that, “a new king came to power in Egypt who didn’t know Joseph,” and with that innocuous statement, the wheels begin to come off. The Egyptians end up enslaving Abrams family—the rescue project—and forcing them to build cities for them.

How will the blessing move forward now?

In Exodus chapters 4-12, God demonstrates clearly—first to Moses and then to Pharaoh—that the blessing will not be held captive, culminating with the great release of Israel in chapters 12-14.

God’s agenda—the mission to rescue and restore—will not be denied. It will not be held captive, not even by the pre-eminent world empire of the day. The people are set free from their slavery in order to—and this is critical to understand—to get the blessing back on track.

Freedom is not the only point of Exodus; mission is.

This point is born out in the rest of the book of Exodus. In Exodus 19, God tells His people plainly what His hopes for them are:

“You saw what I did to the Egyptians, and how I lifted you up on eagles’ wing and brought you to me. So now, if you faithfully obey me and stay true to my covenant, you will be my most precious possession out of all the peoples, since the whole earth belongs to me. You will be a kingdom of priests for me and a holy nation.” (vv4-6a)

To break this down:

  • Identity is rooted in God’s gracious acts. God released His people merely because they needed to be released, not because they had done anything in particular to warrant his act. He moved before people were able to “deserve” it.
  • Being faithful to God means being a kingdom of priests.
  • Priests, by definition, exist to “intercede” to mediate or “come between” God and those who seek to meet Him.

As God’s mission gets back on track, He does a couple things to prepare this fledgling nation of priests. First in Exodus 20, God gives them a set of basic guidelines—we know them as the 10 Commandments—to live by. This is to be the basic code of life for God’s people so that they can be this nation of mediators, of priests, to the rest of the world. (Notice that these guidelines are not given so that Israel can earn God’s love; God has already unilaterally shown His love for His people by releasing them from slavery. The Law is given after freedom, in order to help His people live out their mission.)

Second, God establishes a “dwelling place” in the midst of His people. Much of the rest of Exodus, from chapter 25 to 40:33, is filled with the instructions of how construct “The Tabernacle” (or “dwelling place”): what materials to use, how to arrange them, what goes inside, who will maintain it, how they will dress, etc., etc. Another book of the Old Testament (Numbers 2) tells us that the Tabernacle sat at the exact center of the camp, and that all of God’s people would camp around it. Finally, everything finally culminates in Exodus 40:34-38—the last four verses of the book—when God enters the Tabernacle:

“When Moses had finished all the world, the cloud covered the meeting tent and the LORD’s glorious presence filled the dwelling. Moses couldn’t enter the meeting tent because the cloud had settled on it, and the LORD’s glorious presence filled the dwelling. Whenever the cloud rose from the dwelling, the Israelites would set out on their journeys. But if the cloud didn’t rise, then they didn’t set out until the day it rose. The LORD’s cloud stayed over the dwelling during the day, with lightning in it at night, clearly visible to the whole household of Israel at every stage of their journey.”

With these words, the Bibles gives us a picture of how God’s mission should work:

  • God has a people
  • He—and worship—is at their center
  • They move when He moves, and stay put when He stays put
  • The world comes to God through His people (the Church); they exist to introduce the world outside to God

Rather than being just an ancient tale of miracles, wandering and tent-making, Exodus gives us the model of mission for God in the world.

 

The Bible Project, Pt 5: Rescue Begins

To read The Bible Project, Pt 4 click here

To review:

• God created.
• God created humanity in His image, with freedom and authority
• That creation got fractured in a big way, but God responds with mercy and grace

But there’s still a long road ahead, and the central problem is this:

Creation is broken; what is God going to do about it?

From Genesis 3 to Genesis 11, evil and chaos spread over the earth, but then when we get to Genesis 12 something interesting happens:

A man named Abram hears something.

“The LORD said to Abram, ‘Leave your land, your family, and your father’s household for the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation and will bless you. I will make your name respected, and you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, those who curse you I will curse; all the families of earth will be blessed because of you.’

Abram left just as the LORD told him, and Lot went with him.

With those few lines, everything changes, and God reveals His plan:

• Abram is going to have a family/nation
• God is going to “bless” (fix) the earth
• This blessing is going to come through Abram and his family

With that, God’s “rescue project” is underway. His plan is to deal with the fracture of Genesis 3 through a people.

This passage also says two additional things about God and His story:

First, this God calls. The Bible doesn’t tell us how many people God actually spoke to, only that Abram listened. Regardless, God is a god of invitation, of extension, of welcome. We just have to learn to open our ears (or eyes) to hear Him.

Secondly, in the same way that God gave humanity “work” to do in the garden, God gives humanity work to do to help in the rescue of His creation.

(He obviously thinks a lot of us).

Put another way, God seems to be saying, “You were part of this problem (the brokenness); now you’re going to get to be part of the solution.”

Hidden inside this pronouncement is something else that will have a profound impact on the story. As the rescue project moves forward, it will be marked by three characteristics:

  1. It will be a community (“a nation” in v2). The rescue mission involves an invitation to be a part of a people. It is an invitation to connectedness.
  2. It will be marked by purpose (“an agent…”). It exists to be a blessing to the world, to be a part of the rescue project. To that end, to join the family of God is to receive purpose.
  3. It will be marked by holiness (“blessing”). “Holiness” can be a scary word, but in words of Dr. Brian Russell (who pointed out this three-fold framework), “Holiness is just a desire for people to be a little bit better than they are right now.” To join the rescue project is to desire to be a blessing, not a curse, and therefore involves growth in “blessing” things: love, gratitude, joy, generosity, and so on.

Next up: The Mission in Jeopardy

 

The Bible Project, Pt 4: Fall (or, “Well that didn’t last long…”)

God saw everything he had made: it was supremely good.” (Genesis 1:31)

The woman saw that the tree was beautiful with delicious food and that the tree would provide wisdom, so she took some of its fruit and ate it, and also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate it. Then they both saw clearly and knew that they were naked. So they sewed fig leaves together and made garments for themselves. (Genesis 3:6-7)

So there’s this tiny problem…

(Okay, well not really tiny…)

After God creates humanity, the garden is a “supremely good” place, and I can only believe that this is the way God wanted it to be: a place of growth, purpose, and relationship.

Unfortunately, that sublime perfection just doesn’t last long. At all.

There are lots and lots of questions about Genesis 3:

  • Is Adam and Eve’s sin one of pride (“you will be like God”), or is it one of distrust (God places them in the center of the garden, and they lose faith in God’s ability to provide for them in every way)?
  • Who put the snake there in the first place? Is the snake the devil? (The text actually never says that explicitly.)
  • Is Eve more culpable than Adam? Is Adam more culpable than Eve?

There are plenty more books written on questions like these, but I want to focus on the essentials…

… Because something is broken now. 

Something that God created.

What will He do? What would you do?

It’s easy for me to think that if I was a brilliant creator and had crafted a perfect place with and for my highest creations (humanity) that I would be, well, pretty darn angry if they either (a) tried to elevate themselves over me, or (b) mistrusted my ability to provide for them.

I’d be tempted to teach them a lesson. Or to just scrap the whole project.

But I am not this Creator.

Immediately after the man and woman realize that they are naked, and improvise the first fashion show, we are told that they “heard the sound of the LORD God walking in the garden; and the man and his wife hid themselves from the LORD God in the middle of the garden’s trees.” I can’t imagine the fear and hesitation that they were experiencing, but then God does something completely unexpected (as He often does): He asks a question. 

No temper tantrum. No lightning bolts. No annihilation.

A question. 

And not just any question.

“The LORD God called to the man and said to him, “Where are you?”

In other words, this God comes looking for people. Even the ones who “screw everything up.” 

In a bit of an interrogation/interview that follows, God hears the story and, while He pronounces that there will be consequences for this mistake, He still doesn’t “let them have it.” The garden—in fact everything in creation—is certainly now sideways, and in a way they can never go back, but then this God again surprises us.

“The man named his wife Eve because she is the mother of everyone who lives. The LORD God made the man and his wife leather clothes and dressed them” (3:20-21).

Outside of God playing in the mud and breathing into it to bring Adam to life, this may be the most astonishingly intimate portrait of God in the creation story, and it says an awful lot about who this God is. An awful lot. Nakedness in the Ancient Near East was shameful, and emphasized human vulnerability and frailty. In light of this, God “covers” the shame and vulnerability of humanity with clothes that He Himself makes.

That says a lot.

In a way He seems to be saying, “There is something in the world now—a sickness and a brokenness—that can’t be wished away, It is going to affect everything humanity touches or experiences, but there are two things that you need to know:

  1. I’m going to take care of this, and
  2. It’s time to get to work.

Postscript:

Before we leave this story, I want to point out something obvious. If you are a spiritual person who is even a little bit serious about the Jesus and Bible, it makes a lot of difference what your starting point is. To put it succinctly: there is a version of the Christian story that says it all essentially “starts” (or “ends”, depending on your perspective) with Genesis 3:1-7. It says, “We (humanity) ruined everything; see how wicked we are?”

However, if you start (or end) with Genesis 3:8-21, the story is slightly different: “We ruined everything, and God is going to restore it.” 

… And that’s just what’s going to start next.

To see the Part 3 of The Bible Project, click here.

The Bible Project, Pt 3: Enter Humanity (or, “I knew you were trouble when you walked in…”)

 Then God said, “Let us make humanity in our image to resemble us so that they may take charge of the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky, the livestock, all the earth, and all the crawling things on earth.”

God created humanity

In God’s own image,

  in the divine image

      God created them,

      male and female

        God created them.” (Genesis 1:26-27)

So God has this creation.

Day after day the rhythm is repeated: God creates, then sits back and enjoys it, and then evaluates it…

And it’s goooood. 

But, somehow, not good enough.

So after the world is complete, God decides to do one more masterfully creative thing…

He makes humanity.

This is no small thing.

With this moment of creation, the first glimpses of our biblical “spine” start to come into view.

Or, to put it another way, this God is up to something.

Broadly speaking, there are three things that we learn about humanity in the creation story. They’re not complicated, but these three things have profound significance for the rest of our story, so it’s important that we understand them.

One: Image

As verses say, we bear the imprint of God’s image on us. At this point in our story, what do we know about this god’s “image”?

  • He creates things
  • He enjoys His creation
  • He even creates human beings, and when He does it, He says it’s very good… 

So whatever human beings are, or whatever they become, one of the ingredients of our spine is that we are marked with the image of this creating, singing, celebrating God. We are called to measure our lives by our likeness to Him.

Two: Work 

In verse 28 of chapter one, God tells Adam (from the Hebrew ‘adam, which is not a proper noun, but rather a generic name for humanity; see Robert Alter’s book on the Pentateuch for more discussion), “Be fertile and multiply; fill the earth and master it. Take charge of the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky, and everything crawling on the ground.” In Genesis 2, we are told that God puts humanity in a garden (v8).

Here’s the thing about gardens: they take work. 

So God gives humanity work to do: they farm and keep the land (v8 and v15), and they name the animals (2:19-20).

So here’s another little piece of our spine that is beginning to take shape: this God invites—even expects—His creation to co-labor with Him. Whatever work there is to do, God allows humanity to be a part of it.

Work is a part of the divine plan. The garden isn’t all about sitting around, sipping lemonade and listening to lame angels’ songs.

It’s about making sure God’s creation is in balance…

… Oh, and also: don’t forget about the image thing. When we work, we have to work in God’s image. We have to do things the way He would do it (this becomes increasingly important).

Three: Freedom

“In the fertile land, the LORD God grew every beautiful tree with edible fruit, and also he grew the tree of life in the middle of the garden and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.” (Genesis 2v9)

“The LORD God commanded the human, ‘Eat your fill from all of the garden’s trees; but don’t eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, because on the day you eat from it, you will die!” (2v16-17)

So God creates a planet that He loves. He creates a creature to co-labor and create and steward this world. Then He tells the human to not eat of a certain tree…

… Then God retreats, and lets the human choose.

(… The outcome isn’t so good.)

This God gives us the freedom to choose, even when the results can be disastrous. 

Why?

I think it’s because of love.

After creating an entire universe and world, it would be a pretty small thing to put, say, a really tall hedge around the two trees. A fence. Anything.

But this God wants humanity to be able to choose.

Because you can’t love without a choice.

I think that if all God wanted was creatures to do His bidding, He could’ve easily eliminated choice or chance. But this God wants more. He wants community. He wants love.

Freely given.

And you can’t freely give something if you don’t have the option to not give. 

So here we stand, and in a way it’s quite simple:

  1. There’s a God.
  2. He created a something: a world.
  3. That world matters to Him. A lot. 
  4. He created someone. 
  5. That someone matters to Him an awful lot, but… 
  6. God is going to let that someone choose to be in relationship with Him.

And that’s going to cause an awful lot of trouble.

Next up: Genesis 3v1-4v16

Oh yeah… and of course I had to include this…

The Bible Project, Pt 2: Genesis A

William Blake [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

William Blake [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

When God began to create the heavens and the earth—the earth was without shape or form, it was dark over the deep sea, and God’s wind swept over the waters—God said, “Let there be light.” And so light appeared. God saw how good the light was. God separated the light from the darkness. God named the light Day and the darkness Night. 

There was evening and there was morning: the first day. (Genesis 1:1-5)

… And so our Story begins.

And with it, the controversy: how long did it take God to form the Earth? How old is our planet? In North America, there are whole museums dedicated to proving that creation closely follows the Genesis account, and that the Earth is significantly younger than most geologists would claim (10,000 years vs roughly 4.5 billion). The debate goes on and on (if you want to read a poignant account of it, check out A.J. Jacobs’ Year of Living Biblically).

But the troubles with Genesis don’t end there.

Over the years, scholars have become aware of other ancient near eastern “creation stories” that bare troubling similarities to Genesis, and these similarities have given rise to troubling questions:

* What do these other stories do to the claim of the Bible’s uniqueness? 

* Is Genesis plagiarized?

… And so on.

Without getting into too many details, there are multiple stories that have remarkable similarities to Genesis, including the same sequence of days in creation, the same association and rhythm of light and darkness, etc; there are other stories of floods (not to mention Hammurabi’s Code, which has a lot of similarities to the 10 Commandments).

Broadly speaking there are two extreme responses to these facts: either you throw the Bible (and in particular, Genesis) as myth and irrelevant, or you try to intellectually justify and “conquer” the other myths as somehow inferior or “stolen” from Genesis.

As a person of faith, I can’t do the former; as a thinking human, I can’t do the latter. Bluntly, it’s difficult to be intellectually honest and say that those other stories ripped off Genesis (and not vice-versa).

So where does that leave me?

But what if there was another way to look at Genesis? A way that “liberates” the text from having to be utterly unique? 

What if this approach to Genesis is also intrinsically related to what Genesis may actually be trying to tell us?

Hint: It’s all about YHWH. 

The best way to understand things at this point is to understand that Genesis isn’t written in a vacuum: it’s written (and still read) in a culture where everyone has an origin story…

Who started this whole thing off? Zeus? Marduk? Geology? It’s almost like a “my dad can beat up your dad situation”, and into the mix comes this people (the Jews) with a story that says, “Well we have a God too—in fact just one—but that’s all we’re going to need.” They seem to look at the cultures around them and say, “We agree with you on the basics of the story: stuff surely got created and put here, but what we are disagreeing with is simply the who behind the what.” 

What’s more, the folks who wrote Genesis weren’t newspaper people, historians, or journalists.

They were God-people.

Priests, prophets, spiritual leaders.

They were consumed with this God—this YHWH—they’d encountered, and they wanted to explain the world in terms of who He was/is.

Some people say that in God’s eyes there’s really only ever one sin, and it’s idolatry (we’ll here more about this in Exodus), and Genesis seems to start the story off in a similar way. Genesis is saying, in a sense, you have to get this one thing right: there’s God… Just. One. God. He’s the One who did all this. 

Now this is saying plenty.

Genesis may not be so much interested in the details of creation, but it’s highly interested in the author. Indeed, a lot of the details in Genesis can be found in other origin stories of the ancient near east, except for one small detail:

God. 

Can we solve the debate of the age of the earth? Did Adam have a belly button? Was there a serpent?

Ultimately, I don’t know, but I know there was a God…

And somehow He is a creator, and He made a planet that was good, and then He made human beings… 

And they were VERY good…

(Well, mostly…)

Next up: Genesis B (or the Great Challenge of Humanity)

The Bible Project, Pt 1

So we have this Book… 

Or “books”…

Sixty-six of them.

Across centuries of authors, cultures, and geography.

Thoughts and words scribbled in the wilderness and in the sprawling metropolis of the ancient world; by educated people and by shepherds; by pastors and by business people; by free people and by people who are in captive exile. They are words of teaching, of story-telling, of prophetic anger, of poetry and prayers.

And they are our words. They belong to us.

(Or, perhaps more accurately, we belong to them.)

Either way, this epic story can be difficult to understand:

What story does it tell? 

Is there even a coherent story through it, or does the whole Bible just not really “fit”? 

What do you do with all the apparent contradictions? 

How do you understand it? 

Can we understand it? 

Being a people “of the book,” I think there’s a lot riding on these questions. The Bible can be intimidating and frustrating: what does ancient Israel have to do with 21st century Christianity? How do you square all the blood-letting in the Old Testament with the “peace and love” message of Jesus? How do you get past the occasional-yet-seemingly-endless list of names and genealogies?

It seems like there are two reactions to the challenge of the Bible: either people manipulate the Bible to do and be what they want it to be, or they just run away from it.

Both of these reactions are unacceptable.

In The Creative Habit, Twyla Tharp says that creative projects should have a “spine”, that central thing that holds the whole project together. “The spine is the statement you make to yourself outlining your intentions for the work. You intend to tell this story. You intend to explore this theme. You intend to employ this structure. The audience may infer it or not. But if you stick to your spine, the piece will work.”

Does the Bible have a spine?

I think it does, and I think we can find it.

In late 2013, I started to wonder if you could extract a few passages and stories from the Bible that would show the “spine” of the Bible. Then, I stumbled across Rob Bell’s Tumblr series on the Bible, and thought to myself, “Yeah, I should try this.”

So here it goes…

I think there are a handful of critical Bible passages that serve as the “spine” of the Story that God is telling through the Bible, and over the next few months we’re going to explore them together. Roughly, they can be found in or around:

  • Genesis 1-2
  • Genesis 3
  • Genesis 12:1-4 and 15
  • Exodus 20:1-21
  • Deuteronomy 28
  • Jeremiah 39
  • Amos 5
  • Isaiah 55
  • Matthew 2
  • Luke 4
  • Mark 8
  • John 4
  • Luke 22
  • Mark 15
  • Luke 24
  • Matthew 28 (+ Acts 1)
  • Ephesians 4
  • Revelation 21

Essentially, what I’m saying is that you can draw a line through these scriptures and see that God is up to something, and that you can see the “spine” of God’s story in Scripture. That’s not to say that there aren’t difficult parts to understand or process, but there is a story through it. (Oh, and by the way, it’s not simply “God loves you.” While that’s accurate and perfectly lovely statement, God’s mission is much, much larger than that.)