A new semester dawns with new responsibilities, and I need to wrap up this series of meditations on Genesis for the time being. Yesterday’s post can serve as a good summary of where I’ve been. What I want to do today is look back to the beginning of the series and then ahead to where I’m going.
I started this series because a blog with the name “First Thoughts” seemed like an invitation to think through some primal questions. So where else to start than the book of Genesis? I had thought I would move quickly from the creation of humanity to the entrance of politics into human life, but it turns out I’m not there yet.
Here’s what I was thinking. There are three dualities at work in the narrative in Genesis: heaven and earth, male and female, and Israel and the nations (or in New Testament terms, Jews and Gentiles). Each duality is structured, I suggest, by a biblical logic of otherness, which I summed up in three abstract steps: first one, then the other; the one is not good without the other; and the one is for the good of the other. How this abstract logic is carried out concretely, especially after the coming of human disobedience and death, is different for each duality. Yet all three intersect in one story.
Where I’m going next is to the intersection of the second two dualities: male and female, Israel and the nations. These are the two great dualities of the human race in Scripture. In Genesis they intersect strikingly in the story of barren women and their frustrated husbands, who are promised that they shall be for the blessing of all nations (for they are the ancestors of Israel) but who have no future—no seed—without divine intervention.
As Genesis 3:15 makes clear, the battle of life against death depends on the woman’s seed. Yet God’s word to the woman in Genesis 3:16, which revolves around the power of procreation and its now painful good, is fulfilled in a deeply ironic way in the subsequent narrative in Genesis. “Your desire shall be for your husband”—but he can’t give you children unless God intervenes. And “he shall rule over you,” caring for you in a patriarchal household that flourishes under the blessing, “be fruitful and multiply”—which does not seem to apply to you.
As regularly happens, the biblical narrative throws us a curveball here. And the task of exegesis is not to explain this away but to perceive why the curving, indirect trajectory is precisely the point.
Next stop, Cain and Abel. Here the logic of otherness goes most deeply awry, setting up a biblical theme of murderously jealous brothers that is the background for the duality of Israel and the nations (who do so much killing of one another). Think of Jacob and Esau, who at first look quite a bit like Cain and Abel. Yet their story ends up—in a really stunning curveball—with Jacob insisting that Esau must take his blessing (Genesis 33:11).
At any rate, once we get to the theme of jealous brothers we enter, I think, into the biblical view of politics. God’s word to the woman looks forward to economics, the life of the household or oikos. Cain’s murder of Abel gets us started toward politics, the life of the polis, of kingdoms, laws, and armies, where only divine grace can promise a future of blessing and life rather than murder and death. Yet oddly enough—in another biblical curveball—the promise of God is fulfilled by a kingdom and its king, who brings with him nothing less than eternal life.
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