Departing the Primeval Period
The stage has been set. We have explored the Primeval Period, and it’s time to transition into the next epoch. All the major themes of the Bible have been introduced. We have witnessed both the “kindness and sternness” of God (Romans 11:22). Yahweh is always holy, and yet he delights in showing compassion, and has demonstrated his grace over and over again: to Adam, to Cain, in the time of Noah and Babel and, soon, through Abraham. But this is where our story stops. Following are a few things to keep in mind as you continue your study, in the Patriarchal Period, Genesis 12-50.
Let us return for a moment to the generational schema of the book of Genesis:
- The heavens and the earth (Genesis 2:4a)
- Adam and his descendants (5:1)
- Noah (6:9)
- Ham, Shem and Japheth (10:1)
- Shem (11:10)
- Terah (11:27)
- Ishmael (25:12)
- Isaac (25:19)
- Esau (36:1)
- Jacob (37:2)
In Genesis, we only covered the first five toledoth, stopping short of the sixth. We could extend our survey through time and history, ending up at Joseph’s funeral, in the early eighteenth century before Christ.
We moved from mankind in general to the line of Seth through the line of Noah to one man, Abraham. "... Genesis 11 offers a bridge to Genesis 12: Genesis 11 is failed human initiative to reestablish God’s presence; Genesis 12 is God’s initiative that will lead to relationship in his presence and sacred space" (Tremper Longman III and John H. Walton. The Lost World of the Flood, 139. In characteristically biblical fashion, the concentric circles tighten until the spotlight is very narrow indeed. After Abraham, the man of faith, the circles widen once again: to Isaac and Jacob, then to the tribes of Israel (his descendants), and ultimately, thanks to Jesus Christ, to the entire world (Gen 12:3).
Abraham, Jacob, and Joseph are the characters who dominate the remaining chapters of Genesis. (Isaac, son of Abraham and father of Jacob, is a minor character.) All three are men of faith, though quite different from one another. Abraham, called to follow God in his old age, does not waver through unbelief. Jacob, his grandson, is sure God wants to bless him, yet cannot resist relying on his own devices to guarantee those blessings. Joseph’s life is one of the clearest displays of divine providence in the entire Bible; he was sold into slavery by his own brothers, but as a result he was able to save his entire family—and the line that would one day lead to the birth of the Messiah—by bringing them to Egypt.
You can learn a lot about the lives of the men and women of Genesis through the following Old Testament character podcasts—and apart from Genesis, there are a hundred more. (A number require login.)
- Adam and Eve
- Cain and Abel
- Rachel and Leah
- Joseph and Esau
- Complete list of OT podcasts
Time and Patience
Abraham had to wait twenty-five years before the son of promise was born. Jacob ran in fear for his life to the land of Haran, only reuniting with his brother Esau—after his wrestling match with God!—twenty years later. And Joseph too spent over twenty years before God had lifted him up and placed him in a position where his life could be a true blessing for the entire world. Of course, in the time frame of God’s purposes, we should not be surprised that we often must wait for decades. These are infinitesimal in light of the Eternal One.
A key text for understanding Genesis, indeed for understanding all of Scripture, is found in Genesis 12. Here the Lord makes a triple promise to Abram: land promise, nation promise, and spiritual promise. Their respective fulfillments in scripture constitute an important framework for discerning biblical history. The nation promise was fulfilled nearly 3300 years ago. According to Joshua 21:43, the land promise was fulfilled over 3000 years ago. And yet the spiritual promise—that through Abram’s seed the entire world would be blessed—was not fully realized until Jesus Christ. As you continue to study Genesis, keep the triple promise in mind.
A New Epoch
As we leave the primeval period and enter the patriarchal, we enter a new epoch. Whereas Genesis 1-11 was a “tract for the times,” a radical rewriting of a familiar Near Eastern story, the same is not true of Genesis 12-50. While there are a few signs of previous stories or motifs being adapted, the remaining chapters of Genesis are not quite so polemical. They constantly expose idolatry for its foolishness, of course, but there is more emphasis on the faith and lives of key characters.
Theology, not Cosmology or Biology
It is clear that the writer of Genesis was, above all, interested in theology—not in cosmology or biology, though they are often the concerns of our day. We must respect the biblical emphasis.