Posts Tagged ‘Genesis’

Making Stuff Up

May 13, 2015

For the last six weeks I have been writing fiction Monday through Friday. It’s what I’ve wanted most to do since I was in the third grade. I love fiction, and I believe in the power of fiction. In my mostly-journalistic career I’ve managed to carve out time to write five novels; this will be my sixth. None of my novels has been anything like commercially successful, but what does that have to do with anything? I have the freedom to write fiction, and that’s what I’m doing.

I have to report, though, that fiction is much harder to write than non-fiction. I’ve written enough fiction that the techniques are not a mystery. I’m not floundering as I sometimes did in earlier novels. It’s just hard—hard every minute and every day. The reason can be expressed very simply: you have to make things up. You start with nothing. Every day you begin with a blank screen, and you try your best to breathe life into words so that people—real, three-dimensional people—walk and talk through your pages. So that real things of consequence go on. So that relationships develop and change. So that life is lived on the page.

It’s so much harder than non-fiction I can’t even put them under the same heading of “writing.” I know how to write. I’m a good writer. I am not sure I know how to create out of nothing. I’m trying, but I teeter on the edge hour by hour and often fall off.

All this to say: when you read the first words of Genesis, where it says, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth,” understand that this is a stupendous statement. A novel is a shadow of reality; God created reality. From nothing.


Lost World

April 21, 2015

The Lost World of Adam and Eve: Genesis 2-3 and the Human Origins Debate, by John H. Walton.

When I first read N.T. Wright’s Jesus and the Victory of God the experience was like that described by G.K. Chesterton in his book Orthodoxy. Chesterton imagines an English yachtsman who slightly miscalculates his course and discovers England “under the impression that it was a new island in the South Seas.” Chesterton claims to envy this yachtsman, for, “What could be more delightful than to have in the same few minutes all the fascinating terrors of going abroad combined with all the humane security of coming home again?”

In reading Wright, I found that I was looking at all the familiar landmarks of the synoptic gospels but seeing them from a very different angle. Nothing was discarded, in the way that liberal readings are apt to do, but all was heightened and clarified. It took me three or four readings before I began to feel comfortable in this new country that was actually so familiar.

I’m having a similar experience reading John Walton’s two books on Genesis 1-3. Walton is a very conservative Christian—he taught for years at Moody Bible Institute before moving to Wheaton College–who takes every word of Scripture as indispensably true, but he reads this seminal text in a way that is entirely new to me.

It’s difficult to get a clear understanding of the whole argument without reading the whole book, which deals with many nuances of Hebrew, with many Ancient Near East texts, and with careful readings of the Pauline writings on Adam and Eve. Let me try, however, to give a few aspects of Walton’s argument that I found helpful, and that may pique your interest in reading more.

Walton starts by saying that we are a very materialistic age, and that we therefore read the text seeking an explanation of the material universe.  But in the ancient Middle East, he says, people took the material as a given: they were more interested in power and organization. All origins texts of that period, including Genesis, place the components of the universe in their roles and explain their purposes.

Walton argued in his first book, The Lost World of Genesis One, that Genesis 1 tells how God made the whole universe to be his temple. There is no interest in when and how, but strictly who and for what. All the players are summoned in an orderly fashion to their roles in the temple, including human beings who are made to represent God’s image and in that role to preside over his temple, keeping it and caring for it. Walton says there is nothing in the first chapter suggesting how long this took, or by what physical process it was done, or whether human beings were made in a single pair or by the thousands.

He makes the point that when God pronounces this “very good,” he does not say “perfect.” “Good” in the context means, “well-functioning.” All the pieces are in their places and are in play. There is no reason to assume that there is no death among the creatures: well-functioning creatures do die.

I particularly like one image that Walton uses to describe the nature of the story that Genesis 1-3 tells. He suggests that we differentiate between a “house” story and a “home” story. We have read Genesis 1-3 looking for the “house” story—how the building was constructed. We think it is all about wooden beams and concrete foundations and floor plans and roof joists. Instead, Walton says, we should read it as a “home” story. When a family moves into a house, they bring in their furniture, their decorations, their equipment. They assign rooms to different people and to different functions. Jill’s room and Kevin’s room, the dining room and the den are not defined by their physical characteristics but by the people who inhabit them and the way they use them. People humanize the house and make it their own. It then serves for family life, for hospitality, for renewal, for family rituals—for whatever purposes the family endorses. The “home” story is much more interesting—and much subtler–than the “house” story.

If Genesis 1 is a “home” story, what is Genesis 2? Walton reads it not as a repeat of and detailed account of the sixth day of creation, but as a subsequent series of events. He believes Adam and Eve are real historical creatures, but not necessarily the first homo sapiens. Rather they are chosen by God (like Abraham, later on) to be representative and archetypal human beings to extend God’s rule. They are placed in a garden where they fellowship with God, name the animals, discover the meaning of sexual differences (Walton argues that the description of God making Eve from a rib and presenting her to Adam may be Adam’s revelatory dream of the value and purpose of marriage), and are given two trees—one a tree of life, so they need never die, and one a tree of wisdom, which they are warned not to eat. They seize wisdom, rebelling against God. (Perhaps, in God’s good time, he meant to share it with them. But they wanted it for themselves, immediately.) Their expulsion from the garden means that, just like all the other creatures, they cannot eat from the tree of life. And so they bring death to the whole human race, because we cannot enter the garden that they were evicted from.

This understanding of the fall turns the original sin upside down—not as an introduction of death, but as a rejection of life. That leaves room for an interpretation of our world where God’s good intentions are shown not in a perfect original creation—one without death, suffering, pain, earthquakes, disease, predation—but one that is well made with an end in mind. That end is that image-bearing humans in fellowship with God (through the One Man, the Image of God) might achieve a perfect new earth and heaven.

Even as I write this brief summary I am aware that you can take exception to Walton’s exegesis at many points. It’s hard material to interpret—and it’s not just Walton’s grasp that one might question; any interpretation you care to summon up raises its doubt and questions. Walton doesn’t skip over hard questions. He tries to deal with every word of the text, including New Testament writings that are relevant. (In one chapter on Paul’s view of Adam, N.T. Wright himself adds a brief section.)

I found it stimulating stuff. Perhaps the most significant contribution is to bring Genesis 1-3 into the literary world of its period. When we do that, Walton says, we find that many of the material questions we want to ask are not addressed at all. Instead, a worship-oriented view of the cosmos as God’s home and temple emerges. That clearly connects to the rest of Scripture, as a material history does not.

As for the possibility that science’s evolutionary story of origins is true, Walton simply makes the case that nothing in Genesis 1-3 rules it out. How and when God created the living creatures, including humans—Walton says Genesis does not address those questions. We can believe the science or not, on its own evidence.

Death Before the Fall

April 30, 2014

My review of Ronald Osborn’s Death Before the Fall: Biblical Literalism and the Problem of Animal Suffering has been posted on the Christianity Today website. The book is a very interesting and rather fierce critique of literalist readings of Genesis, from a quite orthodox and conservative perspective. Osborn’s concern to understand the meaning of animal suffering relates to those interpretations of Genesis.

Here’s the link:

A Tale of Two Scientists

July 6, 2012

Christianity Today just published my cover story on two biologists, Todd Wood and Darrel Falk. (It’s online here.) Todd is a young earth creationist. Darrel is an evolutionary creationist. I did in-depth interviews with both of them as research for the book I’m working on, The Search for Adam. I like both of them a lot. They are deeply committed Christians, deeply sincere, and both extremely knowledgeable scientists. I’m hoping this will pique the interest of some publishers!

Something Fresh on Genesis

March 28, 2012

Last week in New York I met John Walton, a Wheaton College Old Testament professor who has a new way of reading Genesis 1-3. My initial response to his theses was mild skepticism. Too often when somebody claims that they see something in the Bible in a whole new way, the result is idiosyncratic or crotchety—interesting, but not particularly convincing or helpful.

As I listened to Walton, though, I grew increasingly appreciative. He’s a thoroughly conservative reader, taking the text with dead seriousness and not overruling anything from a modern sensibility—“We now know.” He reads Genesis in a very unfamiliar way, but in a way that fits into and fills out the rest of Scripture. It avoids “modern” controversies and fits an Ancient Near East context.

Briefly, he sees the first chapters of Genesis as speaking of the earth as God’s Temple. The “action” is the establishment of that Temple as a place for God to live, and human responsibility to serve God in that Temple. It’s not a material history of the earth, Walton says, but a “spiritual” history. (My word, not his.) It sets the stage for everything that comes out in the rest of the Bible.

He lays out the details on Genesis 1 in his book The Lost World of Genesis One. I haven’t read this yet. In the talk I heard and the subsequent discussion, he built on that material into Genesis 2. Very, very interesting stuff. I thought you might like to know.

The Life of Joseph–5 studies

September 20, 2011

Here are my Bible study notes from the life of Joseph, intended for small groups. This completes the study of the Patriarchs in Genesis. Feel free to use and duplicate as you like.

Study 1: Genesis 37

Human Quarrels, God’s Plans

Read Genesis 15:13-16; 37:1-36

Many years before, God had told Abraham that his offspring would become exiles and slaves for 400 years before returning to capture the land of Canaan. In the remainder of Genesis we read a fascinating story showing how human follies work under the sovereignty of God for his purposes. This chapter in particular shows what Derek Kidner calls “a human pattern that runs through the Old Testament to culminate at Calvary: the rejection of God’s chosen deliverers, through the envy and unbelief of their kith and kin—yet a rejection which is finally made to play its own part in bringing about the deliverance.”

  1. Do you think that Joseph’s strikingly symbolical dreams came from God or from his own delusions of grandeur?  Why do you think so?
  2. Jacob frankly and obviously favors Joseph over his other sons. Have you seen such family favoritism? From your experience, what family dynamics does such favoritism produce?
  3. What was Jacob’s own experience with parental favoritism?
  4. What is your impression of Joseph, given the way he handles his growing isolation from his family? (Note that all the other brothers had a different mother from him. He alone came from Rachel, who was dead.)
  5. Verse 11 suggests that Jacob had a different view of Joseph’s dreams from the rest of the family. What do you think Jacob is thinking? Why?
  6. Do you think the story is credible in relating how Joseph was kidnapped and sold by his brothers? What could make them do such a thing?
  7. Both Reuben and Judah clearly had doubts about where this mob action was taking them. (Judah explicitly mentions the fact that they are flesh and blood with Joseph.) What kept them from stopping it?
  8. What is the moral and spiritual level of God’s chosen people in this chapter?
  9. Do you think you are capable of doing something like Joseph’s brothers? What would stop you?
  10. 10. Where is God in this story? What do you learn about his hiddenness?
  11. 11. How do you understand God’s hiddenness in your own life?

Study 2: Genesis 39-41

Joseph’s Fortunes

Read Chapter 39

  1. Verse 2 says, “The Lord was with Joseph and he prospered.” See how many ways you can name that God blessed Joseph.
  2. What positive qualities does Joseph display in responding to these opportunities?
  3. Does Joseph seem like a different person than the boy who got himself hated by his own family? How so? How do you explain the change (or lack of it)?
  4. In verse 9, Joseph mentions God. Where do you think that idea came from?

Read Chapter 40


  1. For the second time in his life, Joseph has been discarded, and for the second time God’s favor has put him in charge. What does Joseph think of his position?
  2. For the second time in his life, Joseph gets to interpret dreams—somebody else’s this time. Where does his confidence in interpreting them come from?
  3. When it turned out just as Joseph said, what do you think would have been his emotions?
  4. What were his emotions when he was forgotten?

Read Chapter 41

  1. In verse 16 Joseph tells Pharoah that only God can interpret dreams, just as he told the baker and the cupbearer in 40:8 Why do you think he says this?
  2. 10. Joseph not only interprets the dream, he goes on to suggest an administrative response. (vv. 33ff) Where did he get such chutzpah?
  3.  Why do you think Pharoah believed him and set him in charge?
  4. Both Pharoah and Joseph refer to God quite a bit in their dialogue. Do you think they are really talking the same language? What is the basis for discussing God with somebody of a different religion?
  5.  In 13 years—from age 17 to 30—Joseph went from the very bottom to the very top of the known world. Is this a text for the Prosperity Gospel? Why or why not? If not, what message do you think the story of Joseph preaches?
  6. Why did God do all this for Joseph?


Study 3: Genesis 42-45


Read chapter 42

  1. Why didn’t Jacob let Benjamin go with his brothers to Egypt? (verse 4) Was it purely because he would miss him, or do you think he suspected something about Joseph’s demise?
  2. When Joseph recognized his brothers, why did he accuse them of being spies? (Verses 8-9) Wouldn’t it have been simpler to introduce himself and have it out?
  3. From verses 22-23, what do you make of the brothers’ psychology?
  4. Why did the discovery of their silver frighten and dismay them?
  5. What kind of personality is Jacob at this point? (Verse 36) Is this a change?

Read chapter 43

  1. When the brothers are well treated on their second visit to Egypt, it provokes irrational fears. (Verse 28) What is going on in them?
  2. For the second time (42:24; 43:30) Joseph weeps. What is going on in him?
  3. What is Joseph’s plan? Why does he alternate between hidden gifts, accusations, and imprisonments?

Read chapter 44

  1. Joseph sets up his little brother Benjamin, and then doubles the fun by offering to let them all go except Benjamin. (verse 17) Why don’t the brothers take the offer and go?
  2. From Reuben’s speech to Joseph (verses 18-34) what would you say has changed in the brothers’ attitudes from the time when they sold Joseph?

Read chapter 45

  1. How did the brothers react when they realized it was Joseph they dealt with? What was in their minds?
  2. How does Joseph interpret their evil deeds of 23 years before? Where do you think he got these ideas?
  3. Does recognizing God’s presence in evil deeds make reconciliation any easier? Why or why not?
  4. Why do you think Joseph urged his brothers not to quarrel on the way? (verse 24) What do they have to quarrel about?
  5. From this passage, what do you learn about reconciliation?
  6. What do you learn about God’s work?

Study 4: Genesis 46-48

Leaving the Promised Land

Read 46:1-26

  1. What anxieties and uncertainties afflict Jacob at this point in his life?
  2. Beersheba was Isaac’s favorite place, and also the jumping off point for a trip to Egypt. What is the significance for Jacob of sacrificing to God here?
  3. What does God’s message to Jacob (verses 3,4) offer in the way of help? Why do you think God wants to communicate these messages?
  4. Verses 5-27 almost reads like a census report. What important information is conveyed?
  5. How does this sojourn in Egypt differ from Abraham’s? (12:10ff)

Read 46:27-47:12

  1. The ancient prejudice of farmers toward (nomadic) pastoralists shows up in Egypt. What’s the conflict based on? How does Joseph manage it?
  2. How would you describe Jacob in his interview with Pharoah?

Read 47:13-31

  1. What do you think of Joseph’s management of the famine? What is the concept of government? Does a tax rate of 20% seem fair or unfair?
  2. What is the significance of Jacob’s last request to Joseph? (vv 29-31)

Read chapter 48

  1. In naming Ephraim and Manasseh as his heirs, Jacob gave Joseph a double inheritance. Why do you think he “crossed hands” and blessed the younger as the firstborn?
  2. Contrast this blessing ceremony with the first one that Jacob experienced. (chapter 27)
  3. In Jacob’s blessing (vv 15-16) he gives a threefold reference to God. Name them. How does each one relate to his life and his experience of God?
  4. Jacob refers to God’s care over his ancestors Abraham and Isaac. How many “ancestors” in faith can you refer to? What significance do they have for you?
  5. Jacob asks that Ephraim and Manesseh be “called by my name and the names of my fathers Abraham and Isaac.” (verse 16) What ancestor do you want to be called after?
  6. This blessing gets singled out in Hebrews 11:21 as Jacob’s act of faith. (You should read Hebrews 11:8-22 for its summary of Genesis.) What is this faith about, and why is it worth noting?

Study 5: Genesis 49-50

Jacob’s and Joseph’s End

Read 49:1-28

  1. How would you describe these “blessings,” and what do you think is their function?
  2. Some of these pronouncements sting, Reuben’s (3,4) in particular, bringing up Reuben’s immoral behavior from 35:22. Why does Jacob want to make this public pronouncement?
  3. Which of the twelve sons get the longest and most positive blessings? What is most striking in these?

Read 49: 29-50:26

  1. Why does Jacob want to be buried in Palestine? (49:29-30)
  2. What do the details in Jacob’s burial suggest about the influence of Egyptian culture on Joseph? What do they reveal about Joseph’s position?
  3. What fears are raised by Jacob’s death? (50:15ff) Why now, after 17 years in Egypt?
  4. What do these fears suggest about the role of guilt and retribution in family life? Have you experienced anything like this?
  5. What made Joseph weep? (50:17)
  6. Joseph responds to his brothers’ anxiety with a series of deep statements. (50:19-21) What are they, and how do they speak to the situation?
  7. What impresses you most about Joseph’s character in relating to his brothers?
  8. When Hebrews 11:22 speaks of Joseph’s faith it singles out his last words before death. (50:24-25) Why are they so significant?
  9. Is there any future orientation for our lives that parallels this fascination with Palestine?

Family Through the Generations

June 23, 2011

Ten days ago my niece got married, and most of the extended family were present—four generations. My parents, both gone, now have 35 descendants, with more on the way.

I suppose it’s inevitable that with the expansion of our family, there’s a lot more variety in lifestyle and faith, some of which would certainly have saddened my parents. The clear, bright focus of their commitments carries on with some and not with others. I’m sure it’s so with all families. The couple committed to art and beauty has grandchildren who adore Britney Spears. The political activists produce mall shoppers. No matter how hard we try to pass on our vision to subsequent generations, they won’t all receive it. They have their own ideas and personality.

In many cases this erosion is merely an irritation, or a source of amusement. But for people of faith, there’s a stronger, sadder element. We feel that life and death are at stake. We wonder what we should have done differently.

I came home from the wedding to my Bible study group. We’re studying Genesis and have reached the life of Joseph. I was made to ponder: what changed Joseph?

As a teenager, he was notably brash and naïve, eagerly sharing dreams with family members who (the dreams suggest) will end up bowing down before him. His brothers resented it, and even his father was appalled. Thus dreamy Joseph got sold to some slave traders, who took him to Egypt.

The Joseph we see in Egypt seems different. He’s still brash and terrifically sure of himself, but he doesn’t seem naïve or full of himself. He makes a point (before Pharoah, no less) of giving credit to God for his abilities.

You can imagine that his sufferings as a slave and a prisoner cancelled Joseph’s naivete. But where did respect for God come from? His father had met God in two vivid nighttime encounters. No doubt those were part of the family lore. But so was his father’s outfoxing of Uncle Laban, his aunt’s barefaced theft of Laban’s household gods, his brothers’ trickster slaughter of the Shechemites, and other unsavory aspects of the Jacob heritage. Out of that stew of influences, good and bad, how did Joseph come to the point where in addressing the most powerful man in the world, he answers, “I cannot do it, but God will give Pharoah the answer.” (41:16) (For that matter, how was it that Joseph could interpret Pharoah’s dreams?) And how did Joseph gain insight into God’s ability to turn bad circumstances to good? (50:20)

The answer is actually plain: God grabbed Joseph. How, we are not told. But it clearly happened. God reached out to him and blessed him.

Genesis’ story of the patriarchs begins with God’s awesome promise to Abraham: I will bless you. God’s decision did not end there. It was not as though he set in motion an inevitable process and then only had to nudge it along occasionally. With every generation God had to choose and bless all over again, almost like starting from scratch. It is his decision, and his repeated decisions, that enable a people of God to grow through the generations.

My family is not so different. Unless God grabs people, our efforts to pass on the faith will be in vain.

Jacob’s Drive

April 22, 2011

In my Sunday night group we’ve been studying Jacob’s life. Most of that, as presented in Genesis, tells of a trip to nowhere. After engaging in a bare-knuckles struggle for the family primacy, Jacob has to run to Paddan Aram, where his uncle Laban lives. He makes a full life there, accumulating two wives, two concubines, twelve children and lots of property (mostly the four-legged kind). Despite these signs of permanence, he drags it all back to Palestine on the long journey to reconcile with his brother (who after all these years is extraordinarily gracious) and his father. The struggle for primacy seems long gone and irrelevant.

Jacob’s drive for property, for primacy, and for children is very powerful. That drive pushes him forward on his journey. But his acquisitions gradually lose their grand significance. His stolen “birthright” has not set him apart or above his brother in the least. When drought comes, he has to send to Egypt for help, just like his grandfather, the first wanderer. His children are a jealous and quarrelsome lot, not unlike him and his brother. (His brother wanted to murder him; his children want to murder his favorite.) He ends up just where he began. After all, he is living in the same place his forefathers lived, in a tent, and he will die just as they did.

What rises above this human futility are strange, numinous encounters with God. Once, running away, he has a dream of a ladder to heaven. Years later, terrified of meeting his brother, he wrestles with God. These stick. He gets a new name, “Israel,” or “God-struggler.”

Jacob is not a particularly good man. He has a powerful will, but in the scale of a vast desert, a continent, a planet, a cosmos, he does not amount to much. What sets him apart, in the end, are these encounters with a holy God, who has a particular and enigmatic interest in him and all his kind.

It’s a parable. Some of us have more drive than others; some have more wit and skill. Our lives are filled with adventure and achievement, largely based on that drive and skill. But we all are on a round trip. How different am I from my brother, my father, my grandfather? How far from home do I ever really get? “Dust to dust” remains the best summary of our lives, except for those few breakings-in of another reality.

The Lives of Isaac and Jacob: Nine Studies

April 11, 2011

I write study questions for my small group. We just finished our second series in Genesis, which I’m posting here in case you can make use of it. The first series, on the life of Abraham, has also been posted.

The Lives of Isaac and Jacob: Nine Studies

By Tim Stafford

Study 1

Genesis 24


Finding a Wife for Isaac


  1. In his instructions to his servant, what comes through as Abraham’s priorities for his son Isaac?
  2. What do you think about the servant’s approach to finding a wife? (vv 12-14) What other approaches might he have taken? What does this approach say about him?
  3. The servant prays to “Abraham’s God.” (verses 12, 26) What does this imply about his own relationship to God?
  4. Is there somebody whose God you worship? If so, who, and why is that significant?
  5. What do we learn about Rebekah from her response to the servant’s request for a drink? What kind of girl is she?
  6. In your mind, does this story emphasize the miraculous guidance of God? How so?
  7. In your mind, does this story emphasize the importance of the good, godly character of the servant in finding the right match? If so, how so?
  8. What admirable qualities does the servant show?
  9. What role do the gold bracelets and nose ring play? (verses 22, 30)
  10. There is some question about how soon Rebekah will be released, and she is consulted. (verse 58) What do you think her response says about her?
  11. Notice the way in which the blessing with which her relatives see off Rebekah (verse 60) echoes God’s promises to Abraham. What does this tell you about God’s plan?
  12. Do you find Isaac’s and Rebekah’s first meeting romantic? Why or why not?


Study 2

Genesis 25:19-34

Jacob and Esau, Act I

  1. We’ve barely got Isaac married at the age of 40 (v. 20) and immediately Genesis starts in on his two sons, born twenty years later (v. 26). Why the rush?
  2. Apparently the pregnancy was difficult and Rebekah prayed for understanding. What kind of answer does she get? (v. 23) In what way is this an answer to her question, “What is happening to me?”
  3. The boys are temperamentally opposites. What would you say is the most likely outcome for that in twin brothers?
  4. The fact that Jacob liked to stay near the tents—what does that tell you about him? What is it about the tents that he would like? What does he learn around the tents that Esau doesn’t while he’s out hunting?
  5. The boys are loved by different parents. (v. 28) What is the most likely outcome for that in twin brothers?
  6. As you read the story of the stew (29-34), what does it show about Esau’s character and personality?
  7. What does it show about Jacob’s character and personality?
  8. Do you think Jacob had been planning to offer this bargain, or was it spontaneous? What makes you think so?
  9. Why does Jacob make his brother swear? (v. 33)

10. Who do you like best, Jacob or Esau? Why?

11. The story is summed up that “Esau despised his birthright,” not “Jacob cheated his brother out of his family position.” Why do you think? Was Esau a greater sinner than Jacob? Why or why not?

12. In our context, what does it mean to “despise your birthright?” Have you ever been tempted to do it? How?

BONUS QUESTION: What is the “red stew” of our times?

Study 3

Genesis 26

Between a Hostile City and a Waterless Wilderness

This chapter doesn’t get preached a lot. It’s very interesting, however, for what it says about the context Isaac lived in. His pilgrimage was insecure and yet he was blessed by God in it.

Biblical criticism notes the parallels in Abraham’s life (12:10-20 when he pretended to the Egyptians that Sarai was his sister; 20:1-18 when he did the same with Abimelech; 21:22-34 when he made a treaty with Abimelech) and suggests that these are 3 variants on one story. That’s plausible, but it’s worth noting that the similarities are there for anybody to see. Whoever put this together was no fool, and didn’t put in three variations without noticing. There are very significant differences in the stories, too, and it’s plausible that this is actually a case of the sins of the father repeating themselves—and then being repeated by the son. That plausibility depends, however, on the possibility that Abimelech and Phicol are family names or court titles that got repeated in different generations. There’s no evidence of that, but there’s no evidence against it either.

Whatever you make of this issue, we are presented with a story that has its own meaning in its own time. Let’s enter into Isaac’s life!

  1. Famine occurred in Abraham’s, Isaac’s and Jacob’s day, and each time the possibility of going to Egypt came up. What was Egypt’s attraction? Why doesn’t God want Isaac to go there?
  2. What does God ask of Isaac?
  3. God plans to bless Isaac on the basis of his relationship with Abraham. (vv 3,5) We usually think of having a personal relationship with God on a one-to-one basis. Should we alter that way of thinking based on this passage? Why should Abraham’s blessing pass to Isaac?
  4. Have you been blessed because of God’s blessing on someone else? Who, and how?
  5. Abimelech’s alarm (v. 10) suggests that perhaps he knew of God’s warning in 20:7.  Contrast his mindset with Isaac’s. What is Isaac’s main focus?
  6. Genesis credits God for Isaac’s success in Gerar (v. 12-14) What is the result of this blessing in terms of his relationships? What does this suggest about material blessings?
  7. Isaac seems to be caught between a hostile city and a waterless wilderness that can’t support his flocks. What does he most need?
  8. When God appears to him a second time (v. 24) what is God’s message? Why is this important?
  9. What is Isaac’s response to God’s appearance?

10. When Abimelech and his men rode out from Gerar, what do you think Isaac expected? What do you make of Abimelech’s explanation of his visit? (v. 28)

11. Do non-believers often notice the blessing of the Lord as Abimelech did? Or do you think he was a highly unusual person?

12. List the things that happened to Isaac in Beersheba. What significance does this place have in his life?

13. Looking over this chapter we can see that Isaac has been on a difficult pilgrimage. What has he accomplished with God’s help? How much of it was his doing? What did God provide?

Study 4

Genesis 27-28:9

Jacob Gets the Blessing

  1. It’s important to reflect on the background of these sordid events. Re-read 25:21-34. What had God revealed about the relationship of these twin brothers? (v. 23) What had Esau sworn? (v. 33) How did these facts fit in with Isaac and Rebecca’s desires? (v. 28)
  2. When Isaac indicated that he would bless Esau (27:4) was he thinking that these previous events didn’t count? What motivates him?
  3. What motivates Rebekah in her instructions to Jacob? What makes a wife and a mother conceive such a thing?
  4. Jacob at first objects to Rebekah’s scheme. What is the basis of his objection? (vv 11-12)
  5. Overall, how would you describe Rebekah’s personality?
  6. Overall, how does Isaac come off in this exchange with his two sons? Is it really credible that he could be snookered this way? Why or why not?
  7. Isaac’s blessing of Jacob (28, 29) seems to mix both God’s blessing of Abraham and God’s prediction about Jacob ruling over Esau. Do you think Isaac is trying to undo that prediction? What is his motive?
  8. What do you think of Isaac’s conviction that he can’t undo his blessing, even if he made it under deception? Is this the power of a spoken word, or does he also have the conviction he has been trying to undo God’s work?
  9. How would you sum up Esau’s character? What actions or words tell you about him?

10. What do you think of Esau’s third marriage? (28:6-9)

11. Rebekah comes off as the great manipulator, by far the most insightful member of the family. How does she get Jacob to do what she wants? (42-5)) How does she get Isaac to do what she wants? (v. 46)

12. Overall, what is the result of Isaac’s scheme to bless Esau? What is the result of Rebekah’s scheme to gain blessing for Jacob? What does this suggest about human planning? What about God’s planning?

Study 5

Genesis 28: 10-22

Pure Grace

  1. What do you think was Jacob’s state of mind when he stopped for the night? How many factors can you name that might have weighed on him?
  2. Considering Jacob’s recent ugly behavior toward his brother and his father, why do you think God appeared to him without even being asked?  Why were his words so unstintingly positive, rather than reproachful?
  3. Is there anything new in God’s promise to Jacob?
  4. Considering how much of what God says to Jacob is a repeat of what he has undoubtedly heard from his father, what is the value in God reiterating these promises?
  5. What is the meaning of the “stairway to heaven?”
  6. Why would this vision seem significant to Jacob?
  7. What about you? What does the “stairway to heaven” say to you?
  8. Why and how did Jesus appropriate this imagery in John 1:51?
  9. Jacob responds with excitement not to God’s promises but to the presence of God and the “gate of heaven.” Does this reaction surprise you? Why or why not?

10. In Jacob’s vow, he emphasizes the promises that have a near-term impact, not those that affect future generations or long-term career. What does this say about Jacob’s mindset at the time?

11. What do you think of Jacob’s vow? Is it appropriate? Can you think of anything he might have said instead?

12. After this passage, it is a long, long time before God seems to be involved in Jacob’s life again. What do you think it means when a person like Jacob has a dramatic encounter with God? What difference do you think it makes?

13. What about you? Are your encounters with God more episodic, or steady? How do they affect you?

14. What do you learn about God from this passage?

Study 6

Genesis 29-30

Twenty Years Away from Home

  1. What do you learn about Jacob’s character from his first day in Paddan Aram? (29: 1-14)
  2. Why does Jacob weep? (verse 11)
  3. What do you learn about Jacob’s character from his courtship and marriage? (29:14b-30)
  4. What about Laban? Does he remind you of his sister Rebekah? Why or why not?
  5. In the competition between Leah and Rachel (29:31-30:24), what do children represent?
  6. Notice how Leah sees her children as a way to make up for Jacob’s lack of love. (29: 32-35; 30:20). What advice would you give her if she came to you for marriage counseling?
  7. What role does Jacob play in this competition? What does that tell you about his character?
  8. What do you think about the role that the servant women played in this competition?
  9. Do you feel sorry for Dinah? (30:21) Why or why not?

10. The discussion between Laban and Jacob over wages (30:25-43) is “a classic encounter between two schemers, each trying to take advantage of the other.” How does Laban try to get the better of Jacob?

11. How does Jacob try to get the better of Laban?

12. Jacob seems to think that he out-clevers Laban, but with a knowledge of modern genetics we can be pretty sure that Jacob’s theories were wrong. Why do you think Jacob’s flocks grew while Laban’s did not?

13.  Jacob finishes his twenty years in Paddan Aram a wealthy man (30:43) with two wives and twelve children (11 sons).  Is this a good thing? Why or why not?

14. Where does God appear in all this? What do we learn about him?

15. With which character in this story do you identify?

Study 7

Genesis 31

Good and Bad Partings

The number one question when Jacob left home was whether he would survive. Chapters 29 and 30 answered that question: he has become patriarch of a substantial family, with considerable wealth. Now comes the number two question: will he ever get home again?

  1. Verses 1-3 summarize how Jacob got the idea of going home. How would you describe the human factors?
  2. How would you describe the God factors? Were human or God factors more important?
  3. Jacob had proposed leaving six years before (30:25-28). What is different this time?
  4. How do you decide to leave? Human factors? God factors?
  5. Whereas Jacob had previously proposed leaving to Laban, this time he decides to leave secretly. Why? Do you think this was wise?
  6. Jacob consults Leah and Rachel, making a rather lengthy explanation of why they should leave. (31:4-13) Why does he feel it necessary to defend himself to them?
  7. From Jacob’s words, and from Laban’s words (31: 28, 43) you sense that these women were more than slaves. What was their social status?
  8. In Jacob’s explanation to his wives, and in their response, there are human factors and God factors. What are they? Which do you think mattered most?
  9. Are the God factors sincerely offered by Jacob? By Rachel and Leah?

10. The dramatic story of how Rachel got away with her father’s gods (19, 30-37)—what do you think is the point?

11. What impression do you get of Rachel?

12. After pursuing for seven days, why doesn’t Laban follow through and use superior force to take Jacob back?

13. What is the gist of Jacob’s defense to Laban? (vv 36-42) What are the human factors? What are the God factors?

14. Laban, totally flummoxed by God and man, proposes a covenant. (31:43-44) What are the elements of the covenant? What do they accomplish?

15. In the end Jacob and family are able to part peacefully, rather than leaving behind the ragged edges of getting out of town without notice. What had to happen to create that peace? What aspects of this story apply to your own transitions? (Leaving a job, leaving home, dropping out of a family tradition, changing churches, moving, etc.)

16. Who comes out of this story looking good?

Study 8

Genesis 32-33

Jacob Meets God and Brother

Read Genesis 32:1-21

  1. What did it mean to Jacob to see angels as he was on his way?
  2. Why do you think he named the place “two camps?”
  3. Jacob’s message to his brother (4-5) used very servile language, “your servant,” and “my lord.” What do you think is going on in Jacob’s mind?
  4. What made Jacob panic? (verse 7).
  5. What is the substance of his prayer? (9-12) Is he bargaining? If not, what is his approach?
  6. What is the substance of his plans as he approaches his brother? How will these protect him?
  7. Why doesn’t Jacob run? Why does he keep heading toward his brother?

Read Genesis 32:22-32

  1. Why did Jacob stay behind?
  2. In this strange encounter, God gave Jacob three new “gifts.” What were they? How was each one to Jacob’s benefit?

10. God names Jacob “struggler with God.” Is there a message for Jacob and for his sons? What do you think it is?

11. Why doesn’t God want Jacob to see him?

12. What was the significance of the limp, that it should be remembered by a tribal ritual? (verse 32)

13. Read Hosea 12:2-4, which summarizes the life of Jacob. What do we gain from this description of strength and weakness? Is this a good model?

Read Genesis 33

14. Esau is a portrait of grace, parallel to the Prodigal Son’s father. (verse 4) How can this be? What is behind it? What lesson can we learn?

15. Jacob not only declines to accompany his brother home, but as soon as he disappears going south, Jacob turns north toward Succoth. How much has Jacob learned about grace?

16. Thinking about difficult relationships, what parts of this story do you identify with? The scary approach? The wrestling with God? The unexpected grace? The drifting back into fear?

Study 9

Genesis 34-35

Homecoming for Jacob

As we noted in the last study, Jacob’s old deceptiveness sprang up immediately after his brother received him so graciously. (33:4) After promising his brother to follow him on his journey south, Jacob turned northwest to Succoth, where he took time to build a house and some shelters for his livestock. (33:17) Later he went on to Shechem, bought land and established an altar.

Since Dinah was probably about seven years old when Jacob left Laban (see 30:21-24; 31:41) it appears that some years passed before the trouble of chapter 34.

Read Genesis 34

  1. How would you describe the social relations between Jacob’s family and the people of Shechem?
  2. Hamor’s son Shechem forced sex on Dinah, but afterwards declared that he loved her and wanted to marry her. What is the best case for accepting Hamor’s offer in verses 9-10?
  3. What is the case for rejecting it?
  4. Was there any alternative to the brutal revenge carried out by Jacob’s sons? What else could they have done?
  5. What was the substance of Jacob’s complaint to his sons? (verse 30) If you were castigating them, what would you add to this?
  6. If you were in Jacob’s place, how would you answer the sons’ rebuttal? (verse 31)
  7. Did Jacob bear any responsibility for this awful incident? What, if anything, had he done wrong? (Consider Jacob’s settling down in Shechem, his passive response in verse 5, his non-involvement in the negotiations, and the lack of principle in his response to his sons (verse 30).)
  8. Why do you think this story is placed in the holy book of Israel? What can we gain from it?


Read Genesis 35


  1. When God stepped in (35:1) what did he command Jacob to do? Why were these beneficial actions to take? What would they accomplish?

10. Jacob’s instructions to his family (verse 2-4) differ somewhat from what God had asked of him. Why? What do we learn about the religious state of Jacob’s family?

11.  Note that despite Israel’s fear of violent reprisals, no defensive actions are mentioned. What kept them safe?

12. Jacob’s return to Bethel rounds out his long, complicated journey to Paddan Aram. He virtually repeats (35: 14-15) the actions he took when he passed through there alone (28:18-19). What has been gained on this round trip?

13. In what ways do you think Jacob has changed on the journey? In what ways has he stayed the same?

14. Has God changed toward Jacob? If not, what are his consistent actions?

15. Have you been on a round trip like Jacob’s? (For example, in leaving a place, a relationship, a job, a school, a church, and later returning.) What did you gain on the journey?

16.  Note also that Jacob and Esau were reunited when their father died. (35:29) That, too, ended a round trip. What can we learn about sibling rivalries from their experience?

17. As young men Jacob and Esau vied for primacy in the family and for “the blessing” of the firstborn. These seem to be truly important matters in the thought-world of Genesis, but by the time of Isaac’s funeral, it’s not so clear what difference they made for Jacob and Esau. What do you think was at stake, if anything?

18. What kind of man was Jacob? What in his life do you want to emulate? What avoid?

That Rat Jacob

December 15, 2010

Last Sunday my small group studied Genesis 27, which tells how Jacob pretended to be his brother Esau in order to get his father’s blessing. It’s a complex story that could come out of Yoknapatawpha County. All four major characters—Isaac and Rebekah, Jacob and Esau—operate according to his or her own selfish and blind principles. Their motives are complicated and you can interpret the text in several ways.

You can’t miss, though, that Jacob is a rat. That has to be the major point of the story, if you take it within the larger context of Genesis. Not only does Jacob set out to deceitfully dislodge his brother, he baldly lies to his father and coolly takes the Lord’s name in vain. (27:19,20) The author seems to want to grind it in our faces: the father of the Jewish nation was disreputable, sneaky, lying, and irreverent. Put that in your pipe and smoke it.

Genesis pulsates with the chaotic energy of human ambition and dysfunction, but somehow God is undeterred. His people move on in their proper direction in spite of themselves. Can anything stop God?

It’s a story of grace, which not only redeems fallen people but uses them while their flaws remain. As Philip Yancey told me in a recent interview, “God uses the available talent.” And what talent we are.