Genesis 1-11 and the Mission of God – what some scholars say

As we reach the final session of Redcliffe’s Missional Texts: Psalms and Genesis 1-11 module, I am sharing a number of quotes for us to discuss. If you were in the class, which one or two would you want to discuss the most and why?

Kaiser, W. (2000) Mission in the Old Testament: Israel as a Light to the Nations, Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Book House

No one can charge the Old Testament with beginning its story in a chauvinistic way. Genesis 1-11 is decidedly universal in its scope and outlook… rather than being pro-Jewish or featuring Israel as God’s favored or pet nation… Genesis 1-11 begins with the original human couple, Adam and Eve, and moves on until seventy nations of the world are encompassed in the scope of its message (in the Table of Nations in Genesis 10).

The earth is filled with a multitude of peoples and nations by the time we finish the first eleven chapters of Genesis. All of this is the result of the blessing of God. (Kaiser, 2000, p15)

O’Collins, G. (2008) Salvation for All: God’s Other Peoples, Oxford: Oxford University Press

The opening chapters of Genesis apply to the entire human community: first, their creation through the goodness of God and then their fall into sin that has affected all subsequent generations. What we read in those chapters refers universally to all human beings, their origin, and their life in the presence of God. (O’Collins, 2008, p2)

Genesis expresses not only humanity’s inherent dignity (as created by God and endowed with God-like qualities) but also the mission that issues from that dignity. Human images of God manifest the divine rule on earth and have the privileged task of being stewards, continuing and completing God’s creative work by presiding in the divine name over the rest of creation. (O’Collins, 2008, p3)

In language that is as fresh as ever, the Genesis story drives home the point: far from enhancing their life, sin leaves everyman and everywoman less than they should really be, and ushers in destructive consequences… Flanked by suffering and pain, death signals the radical change that sin brings to the human condition. (O’Collins, 2008, p5)

Yes this curse also suggests the future possibility of human salvation… Human sin does not do away with divine mercy. (O’Collins, 2008, p6)

We can sum up this vision of all humanity with which the Bible starts. Even after their sin, human beings continue to display the divine image and likeness and to experience the loving concern of God. They must rely on God for everything, and hope for redemption to come. The universal benevolence of God brightens a situation darkened by human sin. While human guilt is universal, the divine love and concern are also universal. (O’Collins, 2008, p7)

On the covenant with Noah (and so, with the rest of creation):

The account was written/collected during a period in which Israel’s sense of national identity as the people of God was well established, yet they still held to the assertion that ‘God’s loving care extended to everyone.’ (O’Collins, 2008, p10)


Okoye, J. (2006) Israel and the Nations: A Mission Theology of the Old Testament, Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books

Israel enshrined in her religious tradition the awareness that the purposes of God enfold the entire creation and that somehow Israel holds brief for humanity. Creation, as portrayed in the myths, is God’s first act of redemption…

The cycle of rest, in imitation of God’s rest on the seventh day, is a perpetual reminder of the lordship of God over all creation. It is also a pledge that a time will come for God’s own just order, in which there will be no masters and slaves, no citizens and foreigners with unequal rights. In this new order, Israel and the nations will finally rest together in the rest of God. (Okoye, 2006, p34)

Glaser, I. (2005) The Bible and Other Faiths: What does the Lord Require of Us?, Leicester: Inter-Varsity Press

On Noah’s covenant:  The first thing the Bible teaches us about people of other faiths is that they are human beings, in God’s land and under God’s rainbow, just like us. (Glaser, 2005, p55, author’s italics)

On the perfect numbers of Gen. 10:  The whole chapter, then, tells us that this great variety of peoples, each with its own land and culture, is good, and part of God’s creation. (Glaser, 2005, p55)

When you look at the people of different faiths around you, what can you see (a) of the image of God and (b) of the results of the fall? Is this any different from what you can see in Christians in your area? (Glaser, 2005, p56, author’s italics)

What can we learn about religion from Gen. 1-11? (Glaser, 2005, pp62-65)

1. Humans need a way to God

2. Sacrifice is one way

3. Religion can cause violence

4. Babylonian religion is criticized

5. We can make two fundamental religious mistakes: thinking we can become the same as God & thinking that God is far away and that we can find a way to reach him

6. Two pictures of true faith – rest and walking

What can we learn about communication? (Glaser, 2005, pp65-66)

Whatever the historical relationship between the Genesis stories and those of the surrounding nations, we can see the writer of Genesis using

  • familiar literary forms to express ideas – people would enjoy the language and rhythms of the stories;
  • stories to challenge stories – anyone could see that the Babel story mocked the story of Marduk’s temple;
  • images people would understand – everyone knew that there were stories about gods battling with waters, so they would immediately see the implications of God’s control of the flood;
  • appropriate thought categories – people would understand the story of the serpant and the fall much better than any abstract discussion of temptation and sin.

Wright, C. (2010) The Mission of God’s People: A Biblical theology of the Church’s mission, Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan Publishing House

Where can the mission of God go from here? What can God do next? Whatever it may be, it will have to tackle a broad redemptive agenda. Genesis 1 – 11 poses a cosmic question to which God must provide a cosmic answer. The problems so graphically spread before the reader in Genesis 1 – 11 will not be solved just by finding a way to get human beings to heaven when they die. Death itself must be destroyed if the curse is to be removed and the way opened to the tree of life. The love and power of God must address not only the sin of individuals, but the strife and strivings of nations; not only the need of human beings but also the suffering of animals and the curse on the ground. (Wright, 2010, pp65-66)

Mission and Genesis 1-11

The first part of Genesis (indeed, of the Bible!) is often neglected in Bible and mission writings. Is Gen. 1-11 merely a backdrop or prelude to Abraham’s call which is when the story of God’s mission really gets going in Gen. 12?

There are writers who do reflect on Gen. 1-11 missiologically (e.g., Ida Glaser in her book The Bible and Other Faiths or Brian Russell in his blog, to name just two). While taking a look at the website for Review and Expositor journal today I came across an issue from 2006 on Genesis 1-11 which features a couple of interesting looking articles, which will provoke thought, sympathy and disagreement: Bible and Mission MA students take note!

Missiological Thoughts Prompted by Genesis 10 by Isam Ballenger
The table of nations, Genesis 10, represents the post-history of Noah and his family with the fulfillment of the command given to be fruitful and multiply and the prehistory of Abraham and his family who are to bless all peoples on earth. Fulfillment, rather than a culmination, appears to be preparatory for what is yet to come; history appears to be prologue, attesting to the sovereignty and love of God and claiming time as an integral factor for mission. The peoples of this chapter are not without a relationship to God, raising the question about the relationship of all nonchosen peoples to God. Assuming God initiates relationships, i.e., mission occurs first in God, relationship assumes new dimensions, becomes more inclusive, less individualistic, and thus more demanding of the disciple of Jesus Christ.

God Came Down . . . and God Scattered: Acts of Punishment and Acts of Grace? by Nancy deClaissé-Walford
Throughout the stories in Genesis’ primeval prologue, humankind’s persistent sinfulness is met with punishment but also with acts of grace on the part of God. The last story, the Tower of Babel is usually understood as the ultimate act of disobedience on the part of humanity. In this interpretation, God punishes the people by scattering them over the face of the earth. There is no act of grace. Thus the primeval prologue ends in darkness; God moves to “Plan B” and decides to reveal Godself to humanity through a single family, that of Abram ben Terah. But what if we understood the scattering at the Tower as an act, not of punishment, but of grace on the part of God—an act that allowed humankind to fulfill the creation command to “be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth” (Gen 1:28)? How might that inform and affect our reading of the primeval prologue and the ancestral stories?

Mission and the Image of God

In the latest issue of Encounters Mission Journal (December 2010 on the theme, Justice and Mission) I reviewed Andy Matheson’s recent book In His Image: Understanding and Embracing the Poor (Authentic Media).

I was reading it while Redcliffe’s MA in Bible and Mission students were taking a class in missional hermeneutics called, ‘Reading the Bible Missionally’. We agreed with Matheson when he suggests that we often neglect the first two chapters of the Bible when formulating ideas about humanity in relation to the mission of God. His book makes a timely and important contribution to the discussion.

Here’s the review:

In His Image is a popular level book written by the International Director of Oasis. Drawing particularly, though not exclusively on his extensive experience in India, Andy Matheson challenges the reader with the importance, complexity and possibilities of standing alongside the poor as a way of participating in the mission of God.

His particular angle, as the title suggests, is to view the issue of poverty (in its many guises) through the lens of all people being made in the image of God. This gives the book a welcome coherence which sets his discussion helpfully within a robust framework.

Following two introductory chapters on the meaning of the image of God and an analysis of the various dimensions of poverty, Matheson then works through a series of relatively short chapters that unpack and illustrate his discussion:
Community; Wholeness; Change; Empowerment; Compassion; Justice; Prayer; Receiving; Celebration; Prevention; and Perspective.

I appreciated the use of the image of God as a starting point, not least because it puts Genesis 1-2 more on the agenda than has often been the case. While he does not compromise on the reality of humanity’s rebellion and sin, Matheson is keen for the reader not to rush past the opening chapters of the Bible, ‘after all, Genesis 1 came before Genesis 3. People are made in the image of God before sin comes into the world. In fact, the fall in Genesis 3 is so horrendous because our creation in God’s image in Genesis 1 is so wonderful.’ (p3)

I found the book’s anecdotal material profoundly challenging, not just because of the heartbreaking stories of broken lives and desperate poverty, but also because of the way Matheson combines honesty about his own failings with a resilient hope that God is at work in the midst of seemingly overwhelming need.

Although his focus is his own experience in India he also draws helpfully on stories from elsewhere, most notably from the work of Oasis in the London area.

A number of key, up-to-date issues are dealt with well, including the difference between development and transformation, the relationship between the local/personal and the global, the need for prevention rather than just dealing with the aftermath of abuse (e.g., with people trafficking), and the importance of genuine partnership.

The book is clearly not intended to be an exhaustive treatment of the subject of poverty, but it certainly makes a significant contribution to the discussion. More than merely discussing these matters, In His Image spurs the reader towards more informed action. A very good and readable book, on an ever-pressing issue.

A missional reading of Genesis ch1 v1

Noone I have come across writes as consistently as Brian Russell on the application of a missional hermeneutic to biblical texts. He recently posted some really interesting thoughts on the missional significance of the opening verse of the Bible. Here are some snippets:

Genesis 1:1 is crucial for a couple of reasons. First, it affirms that there is an active personal deity behind all that is. The creation is not the result of an impersonal force or forces. It is not an accident or the result of some cosmic battle between gods. God (Heb elohim) will later be identified specifically as Israel’s covenant God known as the LORD (Heb Yhwh). Second, though Genesis 1:1-2:3 explicitly challenges the theology of the creation stories of Israel’s neighbors, it remains staunchly international in focus and in scope. It is vital to make the simple observation that Israel’s Scripture opens with its more generic name for God (Heb elohim)… It is not until Genesis 2:4 that the reader of the Bible encounters God’s personal and relational name—Yahweh (typically rendered LORD in our English translations). There the form is Yahweh Elohim (the LORD God). In other words, Genesis 2:4 links explicitly elohim of Genesis 1:1 with the personal name of Israel’s God that was revealed to Moses at the time of the Exodus (Exodus 3 and 6). Why is this important? I think that it points to the missional intent of the Scriptures…

Read the full post.