BIBLICAL Horizons, No. 108
Copyright (c) 1998 Biblical Horizons
The three large patriarchal narratives of Genesis concern the three aspects of the cosmos: matter, space, and time. Over these three is man given dominion. Lucifer was originally appointed to train man in this dominion, but he chose to lead man into rebellion instead. Thus, the Angel of Yahweh replaced the fallen Supreme Archangel, and He became humanity’s tutor. In the stories of Abraham, Jacob, and Joseph, we see that tutorial programme in action.
The high point of the material substance of the universe is humanity. Human beings eat the world into themselves, quite literally, as they eat animals and plants, which have converted earth, air, water, and light into food. Human beings interface with God, and through humanity, the cosmos faces God.
Similarly, while the cosmos is full of spaces and places, it is only those occupied by human beings that are important — and specifically those occupied by human beings restored to God and to His programme. As well, what we call the flow of time only becomes significant as it is experienced and governed by human beings.
Originally, God created human beings, put them in a place called the Garden of Eden in the land of Eden, and called on them to learn to think about time and history. God told them that all the trees of the world were given for their food, but that for a time they were to refrain from eating of the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, which means the Tree of Judgment. They were, by implication, freely invited to the Tree of Life. Thus, there was a Tree of beginnings and a Tree of rewards. These two Trees bracketed time, and living with reference to them, humanity would learn the nature of time and history, growing from infant Life to mature Judges.
The rebellion of humanity brought about a destruction of these three aspects of existence. As persons, they were doomed to die, and to bring other human beings into existence only through pain. They were exiled from the good land. And, having already seized the eschatological rewards of the Tree of Judgment, they found themselves with no history, no future, because they had already seized the future. Thus, all pagan religions are devoid of historical consciousness.
Ultimately, of course, these three aspects of existence reflect the Father (the Ultimate Person), the Brother (the Organizer of Places), and the Spirit (the Lord of Time and Development). Man, being the image of God, was to develop along these three lines, and God determined to bring human history to its proper fulfillment despite man’s sin.
While God promised Abram seed, land, and blessing (future reward), the primary focus in the Abraham narratives is on the seed. Abraham is the earthly Father, who relates most fully to the heavenly Father, and whose story is about sons. The barrenness of Sarah is a major theme in the Abraham narrative, while the barrenness of Rachel is a minor theme, since Jacob had many sons by his other wives. On two occasions, Sarah was taken into the harems of other men, though evidently not defiled. The birth of Ishmael, the covenant of circumcision, the birth of Isaac, the conflict of Isaac and Ishmael, and the call to sacrifice Isaac, all focus our attention on the dimension of person, of matter.
The three promises are reiterated to Jacob. (In the way Genesis is organized structurally, Isaac is a transitional figure.) Jacob bargains with Esau for the birthright, and with Rebekah, conspires to obey God’s command that he be given the blessing as well. The blessing is phrased in terms of land. But Esau is determined to have the land for himself, and Jacob is driven out of it. God meets him on the way, and again promises the land to him. Jacob struggles in a foreign land, but eventually prospers, and returns to the promised land. His exodus from Laban and his entrance into the land strongly prefigure the later experience of the nation of Israel at the Exodus. Once in the land, however, his sons defile his presence, and he is forced to move away from the vicinity of Shechem. Eventually, famine in the land forces him and his family out of the land altogether, and into Egypt. Thus, the theme of land is the overarching concern in the Jacob narrative.
God does not meet directly with Joseph, for the emphasis in the Joseph story is on the guidance of the Spirit. The third promise was that the family of Abraham would bless all nations, and this theme is paramount in the Joseph narrative. As before, it appears that this cannot happen. The righteous Joseph is rejected by his brothers, and then enslaved and eventually imprisoned by the Gentiles. Yet, through the wisdom of the Spirit this situation is completely reversed. Joseph becomes ruler of Egypt in all but name. All nations are blessed by him, and through wisdom and craft he brings his brothers to repentance, so that they are blessed as well. Blessing is something that comes with time, and Joseph’s Spirit-given wisdom makes him a lord of time. His first dreams unfolded a future in which his father, mother, and brothers would depend on him. He interpreted the future for the cupbearer and baker in prison, and for Pharaoh regarding fourteen future years of plenty and famine.
There is much more to be said about these themes, but we must draw this brief essay to a close. The programme of discipleship through which God put the patriarchs discloses to us a pattern that we should take to heart. Before outward blessing and political influence must come the establishment of a people, a "land," as it were. And before a people can be established, individual persons must be discipled by spiritual fathers. Thus, before national influence must come the restoration of the Church as a visible entity, and the Church cannot become a visible "land" entity until the people in the Church have been discipled.
Man’s original sin took place where the process begins. He did not defile the land, nor did he try to set in motion a false future; rather, he ate forbidden food. The sin, located at the primal point of personhood, had the effect of alienating man from the land and of setting in motion an evil future. But the fountain of these outflows was the sin of defiling one’s person. Rebellion against the Father was the primal sin, though it entailed rebellion against the Son (land) and Spirit (future) also.
For restoration to take place, that sin has to be rejected and killed. The original man, now defiled, must die and be resurrected as a new man, to begin the history anew. This is the meaning of blood sacrifices, and is why the killing of a representative animal has to come before human history can begin anew, which is why every new covenant and every victory in the Bible begins with an animal sacrifice. Yet, because the sinful man is not adequate as a sacrifice, a sinless man is needed. Only because the sinless man is sacrificed can sinful man participate in that sacrifice and get a new beginning.
This is why the Abraham story, which is about the beginning, the new person, is a story replete with sacrifices, culminating in the call to sacrifice Isaac. With Jacob we come to a story of organizing the new people into a community, the Church as it were; while with Joseph we see the Church having influence and being a blessing to all nations. Blood sacrifices play no part in the stories of Jacob and Joseph, though doubtless both men offered them.
Practically speaking, then, we need first the restoration of full and sound Bible teaching, and participation in the sacrifice of Christ through the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper. Only on this foundation can the government and organization, the visibility, of the Church be restored. And only when that happens can Christendom become a blessing to any nation.