Skipping Israel

Adam and Eve disobeyed God’s command to refrain from the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil and so were banished from his presence. That, in short, is the sad ending the opening narrative of Genesis.

Similarly, many Christians are taught, have we all sinned against God and have, by our own actions, banished ourselves from God’s life-giving presence.

Therefore, we need Jesus. In particular, we needed his death and resurrection on our behalf to bring about a renewed offer of humanity-in-communion-with-God.

It’s a familiar painting, if you grew up in some variety of the evangelical church. On a personal level, the picture portrayed is that I have sinned, therefore I need Jesus. From a scriptural perspective, the sketch is Adam and Eve sinned, therefore they—and all humanity with them—needed Jesus.

It’s all true. But if that’s the story, why does the Bible include so much more in the story? I don’t know about your Bible, but mine is, like, you know, a long book with several hundreds of pages of text after Adam and Eve’s story before you get to the New Testament.

What I’m trying to ask is why, in our summation of the Gospel, do we skip from Genesis 3 to Matthew 1? In short, our Gospel has had no need of Israel.

Old Bible by Felicia Atkinson under license CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

In my estimation, it’s a grave mistake to remove so vital a piece of God’s history with his people. It’s like tearing a great big hole in your Bible. It’s bound to elicit the wrath of … or at least blind us to things we ought to be seeing.

So we must ask, what was God trying to do with Israel for all those pages?

When we looked at the basic narrative of structure of Adam and Eve’s story, we found that the Creator had a goal of sending his life-giving presence into the whole world. And we saw that he had chosen humanity, represented initially by Adam and Eve, to be the agents through whom God’s governance was administered on the earth. The story crumbed, of course, in Genesis 3.

But is that the end of the story? Is there a possibility the narrative of Genesis 1-3 may be rescued? Is there a chance the heroes God had chosen to govern his good creation on his behalf may be redeemed and the Creator’s purposes renewed? In short, does the Lord close the book at Genesis 3 and move on to a better tale? Or does he continue writing?

You know the answer, naturally. Among the great and beautiful truths about the God of the Bible is his relentless persistence. God never stops doing good and he never gives up when something goes wrong.

But his salvation for humanity does not move directly to Jesus, as our shorthand Gospels have taught us to think. No, God moves to rescue humanity and continue the story begun in Genesis 1 with another humble individual.

Abraham is sent now to save what Adam and Eve had fumbled.

Genesis: 1970’s Melodrama or Act I of an Epic?

During my senior year of high school The American Film Institute released their top 100 movies of all time. When I saw the list, I immediately started checking off flicks I had seen over the years. I was surprised, as an 18 year-old, how many I could check off the list, but many still remained. I had myself a challenge.

1.22.11 – “The French Connection” by Movies in LA under license CC BY-NC 2.0

Little by little I would see one or another movie on the list and keep inventory. Over time, I began to see a disturbing pattern, particularly with films from the 1960’s and 1970’s. The Deer Hunter, The French Connection, Taxi Driver, A Clockwork Orange, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Chinatown: Depressing. Even solid gold, like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid—spoiler alert—they die!

Now, fairy tales, for the most part, have relatively simple plot lines. Part of their allure and longevity is a result of their brevity, while still containing powerful, widely applicable lessons. They are, nevertheless, straightforward: one hero with one objective, one cruel villain and one major crisis before a happy and satisfying resolution.

But what happens when the hero of the fairy tale does not win his battle? What happens when we don’t get “happily ever after”?

It means one of two things. It means we’re either watching one of those myriad depression-fests of the 1970’s, or it may very well mean we’re simply in store for a longer, more complicated story than we had anticipated. Following the initial failure, a new layer of the story is introduced, with a goal for redemption.

The initial pages of Scripture may outline a fairy tale at the beginning, with God the Creator employing humanity, the pinnacle of his creation, to administer his life-giving glory throughout the creation. An enemy arises in the form of the serpent to threaten this endeavor, but the Lord supplies the tempted humans with a clear command with which to combat the snake’s charms.

But, as we all know, there is no “happily ever after” in Genesis 3.

Rather, Adam and Eve fail. The first couple, humanity’s archetypes, are given one simple task: trust God and don’t eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Easy, right? But the serpent’s wiles gets them to question their Creator, to pluck the forbidden fruit and partake.

As a result, the creation itself is cursed and the Lord’s first priests are banished from the beatific natural temple of Eden. Humanity—meant to be God’s representatives pushing back chaos on the earth—is severed from the life-giving God.

So, what sort of story are we in for? Is the Bible a 70’s melodrama? Or could it be we’re embarking on a longer journey toward redeeming God’s first objective?

Villains and Sidekicks

Human beings, from the beginning, have been tasked with the all-important mission of transmitting the Creator’s glory—and thereby bringing life and order and abundance—to the entire creation. That’s we discovered last time in the pages of the creation narrative of Genesis 1-2.

As we explored earlier, however, every good story has a villain who seeks to thwart the hero’s efforts to accomplish her objective. The Opponent threatens the whole endeavor and brings drama to the narrative.

Who is the Opponent of humanity in the creation narrative? As the Bible begins its saga, who threatens humanity’s job of governing the earth of God’s behalf?

It’s among the most well known tales in all the world: Adam and Eve and the serpent.

Will the first couple succeed in extending the order of creation beyond the borders of Eden? Will they continually eat of the Tree of Life—a symbol, not only of the free-flowing life of God to them, but to the whole of creation?

The serpent has other ideas. He’s out to reassert the realm of chaos, to bring disorder back into the peaceful space the Creator has carved. Agent and Opponent are in a fixed struggle in the early verses of Genesis 3.

A fulfilling tale, however, does not leave the Agent to her own devices. Typically, the Agent receives some kind of Helper. In fact, an audience generally knows this to be a necessary component of a good drama.

Playing in the backyard with the neighbors, we might regularly invent for ourselves superhero identities and enter into pitched battle for an afternoon:

I call out, “My guy can fly!”

“Yeah?” says Greg, indignantly. “Well, my guy shoots lightning bolts. Kapow! You’re dead!”

“Nuh-uh,” I retort. “My guy has an invisible Faraday cage around him at all times. Electricity has no effect!”

No fair! Why? Because it’s cheep victory. My guy has overcome without any real struggle. Indeed he was never in danger from the lightning bolts.

So in a good story, including the biblical story, there must be an external Helper who enters the scene to aid the Agent in accomplishing her goal. In the superhero example, if my guy is to over come the lightning bolts, the help must come from outside himself. He needs a lightning absorbing Helper, a sidekick.

What Helper do Adam and Eve receive to overcome the serpent’s wiles?

In this case, the help has come prior to the serpent’s introduction. The first couple has received help even before they’re tempted. In fact, their help comes from the Lord himself, in the form of instruction. They’ve been pre-warned:

Scripture’s initial storyline. © 2016 Michael McKinniss

“But of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die” (Gen. 2:17, NRSV).

God’s commandment, his word of warning is their Helper to combat and overcome the serpent’s crafty temptations. If Adam and Eve—if humanity—rely on God’ word, defeat their Opponent, the serpent, and proceed to delivering God’s life-giving glory across the entire world. The future hangs in the balance.

Humanity: God’s Agent

We’ve been looking at the skeletal structure of the biblical narrative, not because it’s our intention to bore the internet to death, but because getting at the core story will provide clues to God’s agenda for creation and humanity’s role in that drama. Whittle away the myriad details of the scriptural story, and perhaps we can focus on the main point.

So we found on a broad level that the very simple storyline of Genesis 1-2 is that God is attempting to send his life-giving glory to the entire chaos-ridden earth.

Yet, as we had seen previously, we should expect another layer to the story, namely an Agent, Opponent and Helper.

The all-important Agent: this is the figure, in most tales, who becomes the main character. Other figures are important—critical even—but the Agent is the one on whom our attention is fixed. This is the figure chosen to deliver the goods. Will he accomplish his task?

In the creation narratives of Genesis 1-2, as we saw, God had effectively erected a natural temple from which to rule the planet. His seventh day rest is all about taking up the task of making the earth run as it should.

Curiously, however, he seems to have also told someone else to govern creation:

Then God said, “Let us humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.” … God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth” (Gen 1:26, 28).

This is the dynamic of agency. The Lord’s intention is to run the earth by bringing his glory to bear upon it, but he has simultaneously created agents to do this on his behalf.

Humanity as the Agent in the biblical story. © 2016 Michael McKinniss

The story the creation narrative lays out selects humanity as its main character, acting on God’s behalf to accomplish the goal of bringing order and peace to the entire creation. Humanity is the Agent in the story.

This is not to dismiss God by any means. Throughout the Bible, of course, the Lord is there, ever present, if not always in the foreground.

Yet human beings are his priests, made in his image. Humanity, at every turn, is on center stage. People are the main characters in every tale. Why? Because human beings have been created—and this is too often forgotten in the biblical story—as God’s Agents in accomplishing his life-giving goals.

God Sends *blank* into the World

When we consider the narrative framework for the biblical story, a handful of questions come immediately to mind. Who is the Sender, Object and Receiver in the biblical story? Who is the Agent, the Opponent and the Helper?

We might be inclined, given the way we’ve often told the biblical story, particularly the gospel story, to put it something like this: God sent Jesus (the object) to the world (receiver). No doubt many of us who grew up in an Evangelical church heard it something like this implicitly, if not explicitly.

If we did understand this to be the narrative structure of Scripture, what is the role of humanity? We are simply the passive receivers. We play no active role. Pastorally, at least, this kind of worldview becomes problematic if you want your congregation to do anything. What is there to do? God has done it all through Jesus.

And if this is the proper framework for the biblical story, who is the agent, the opponent or the helper? We’ve got God giving Jesus to the world—a perfectly biblical notion (Jn 3:16)—but is there anything working against God the Father? Is there anything at risk? In other words, where is the actual drama?

Further, with a brief narrative like God sent Jesus to the sinful world, we’ve entirely left out two-thirds of the Bible itself. This narrative has no real use for an Old Testament, except, perhaps, to highlight the necessity of Jesus in the first place. But that makes the Bible read like one of those old Russian novels (good as they are) that spend 500 pages on character sketches and background before anything substantive actually drives the plot forward.

No, the Bible is richer than this. God is more dynamic than this. The stakes are higher than this.

Perhaps, if we’re to sketch the narrative skeleton of Scripture, we can begin at the beginning. What kind of plat does the creation narrative set up?

People have read Genesis 1-2 in all sorts of way, with all sorts of conclusions drawn. I rather like certain aspects of John H. Walton’s interpretation in his recent works, The Lost World of Genesis One and The Lost World of Adam and Eve. Walton is keen to place the stories of Genesis 1-3 into its ancient context. That is, if the ancient Hebrews who originated these texts were, in fact ancient people living in the Near East, shouldn’t we expect them to think like other ancient Near Eastern (ANE) peoples, even if we also expect some key differences? In any event, we should not expect the ancient Hebrews to think just like modern (or post-modern, or post-post-modern) Western people in the 21st century.

So from Walton’s perspective, God is trying to do something very specific in the act of creation. In fact, we could say that the Creator primarily does two things in Genesis 1-2.

First, God is bringing order to the world. He is establishing peace in the midst of chaos. Consider how the story starts: “Now the earth was formless and empty…” (Genesis 1:2, NIV). Careful words studies of the Hebrew behind “formless and empty” (tohu and bohu) suggests that the implication is not a cosmic nothingness, but rather a chaotic, uninhabitable condition (for a quick analysis, you can see chapter 4 of Walton’s Lost World of Genesis One). Over the first six days of creation, then, God is reversing that chaotic and destructive state.

The second element to God’s creative activities is that he is establishing a temple for himself. This may be less obvious at first glance, but it’s perhaps the most clear when Genesis is compared with other ANE creation stories. For Walton, any ANE person, including the ancient Hebrews, hearing a story about a seven-day creation would have immediately communicated a profound fact: This is a temple creation story (Genesis One, 88-91).

Further, says Walton, when God rests on day seven, he’s resting in the way we might after we’ve moved into a new home and unpacked all our boxes. He’s taking up residence, not taking a nap (Genesis One, 71-76).

Lastly, the Garden of Eden, as so many scholars have recognized, greatly resembles the later tabernacle and temple still in Israel’s future. Eden itself is a natural temple for the Creator (Adam and Eve, 116-7).

What does all this tell us about the potential storyline for the biblical narrative? It begins to hint at God’s purpose in the story. In other words, we’ve found our Sender, Object and Receiver.

Actually, we’re quite close to where we began this post. God is indeed the Sender. The world is receiving something from him. But what is the Object? Genesis 1 makes no explicit reference to Christ, so I don’t think we can slot him in. What is being delivered to the world? Order, peace, shalom, a state of flourishing—in a word, life.

But I suspect even this Object (life, peace, order) ought to be subsumed within something even greater, something implied in the construction of a natural temple.

The temple in Eden is there in the midst of creation in order to house God, his presence, his glory. Consider, as a parallel, what happens when, later, Moses completes construction of the tabernacle, a mobile temple (Ex 40:34-38), or when Solomon consecrates the temple (1 Kgs 8:10-11). God’s glory rushes in to fill the place. I don’t think it’s a stretch to think that the Garden of Eden, as a natural temple, would house God’s glory in the same way the Holy of Holies would.

The Creator’s purpose at the beginning is to send his glorious presence into creation. © 2016 Michael McKinniss

And it’s from that glory, from God’s presence, from that temple, that the life, peace and order emit.

So now we have the top portion of our narrative diagram. God is attempting to send his glory (and thereby life) into the world.

But we’re not done, of course. There is a bottom half to complete. From here our drama comes.

Everyone Loves a Good Story; Not Everyone Knows How They’re Made

The other day I said I was going to concentrate this blog on theological anthropology. In other words, this blog is for everyone who has ever asked, “What in the world am I doing here?” It’s a big subject with a lot of different nooks and crannies to explore. But we’d better start looking at the forest before examining the trees.

Asking the question about humanity’s purpose presupposes a narrative frame of reference through which we view the world. If we believe we have a purpose—which I prefer to the alternative—we have essentially said that our collective existence begins with “Once upon a time…” After all, every (good) story has a goal.

With that in mind, it’s worth taking a look at the basic shape of stories. Of course, every story has a beginning, middle and end, but not every tale with a chronological sequence is worth telling. A three-year-old can tell you the story of her day, but it’s not going to be worth optioning to Warner Brothers. Real compelling stories have drama, conflict.

Narrative Framework
© 2016, Michael McKinniss

There is a basic shape we can draw that highlights the elements of a good, purposeful narrative, and these apply to nearly every good tale. [1]

A sender wishes to deliver an object to a receiver. To do so, the sender employs the help of an agent, who becomes the main character in the story. That agent is inevitably obstructed by an opponent. There’s your drama, the question raised by the audience: Will the agent get the package to its intended recipient? Typically, the agent cannot do this alone, and so a helper enters to get the agent back on track.

That’s your basic narrative structure, but let’s make this less stuffy.

Let’s suppose you are at home visiting your parents when everyone’s cell phones buzz all at once. It’s your tech-savvy grandmother. A spry 87, she’s been hiking in the back country and she’s texted to alert you all that she’s been bitten by a rattlesnake. Would anyone be a dear and run some antivenin out here right quick? Your mother, distraught, assigns you the task.

We’ve just filled in the first four pieces of the diagram. Your mother is the sender; the antivenin, the object; your grandmother, the receiver; and you are the agent who will deliver the object.

Dutifully, you steam out in your Hummer toward your grandmother’s location. (She’s activated Find My iPhone for your benefit.) You’re making great time until you get to the turnoff that heads into the wilderness. Fifty protestors, covertly funded by the EPA, have gathered—picket signs, bullhorns and all—to demonstrate against gas-guzzling off-road vehicles being permitted into the natural undisturbed wild. Seeing you attempting to enter the untouched lands in your monstrous SUV, the crowd recognizes its archetypal nemesis and concentrates its ire on you. They surround your vehicle, all the while spewing their tree-hugging slogans in your general direction.

Ah, an opponent. The plot, as they say, thickens. Will you get through to grandma in time to save her? Will you survive the environmentally friendly epithets of the eco-mob?

Then, what’s this?! A limo, flanked by patrol vehicles with sirens blaring, emerges over the crest in the road ahead and races toward you and the protestors. The caravan screeches to a halt just before the crowd and out steps a well-dressed, well-coiffured man in a dark pinstriped suit, along with a quartet of police officers. Calmly the man steps into the center of the crowd, between your H2 and the bio-degradable leader of the pack. He reaches into his Armani jacket and pulls out a slip of paper.

“Court order,” he says. “This protest is being disbanded as an unlawful assembly. You didn’t file the proper paperwork with city hall.”

Dazed by the irony of being funded by a government agency, then thwarted by government bureaucracy, the environmentalists trudge sullenly to the Priuses. You are free to proceed into the bush. Perhaps you can make it to grandma in time.

Antivenin Diagram
© 2016, Michael McKinniss

A bit more exciting, if unlikely, perhaps. We’ve demonstrated the various roles in a good narrative. We’ve had a sender (your mother), a receiver (your grandmother) and an object (the antivenin). To accomplish the task of transmission, an agent (you) was assigned. The agent had an opponent (the protestors), which made things dicey for a time, but a helper (the lawyer) arrived to thwart the opponent so that the mission could proceed.

We understand the concept now. Next time, we’ll have to apply the theory to the biblical story. What is the narrative structure and goal of the biblical story? And where do humans fit?

[1] I first came across this diagram in N.T. Wright’s New Testament and the People of God (71), but it’s based on the work of A.J. Griemas’s Sémantique structurale (1966) and Du Sens (1970). Now, where did we leave off?