The first eleven chapters of Genesis have long been seen as a literary unit which serves as a sort of prologue to the rest of the book of Genesis, the Torah or Pentateuch, and the whole of the scriptures. Within these chapters, we read of the creation of the world and of humanity, the expulsion from paradise, the descent of man, the flood of Noah, the descent of the nations, and the tower of Babel. Theologically, particularly in the Late Antique West, Genesis 3 and the expulsion from paradise became the site of major focus, defined as “the Fall” of man. Debate began as to what precisely this fall entailed and what it represented. It was taken primarily as a first instance of human disobedience to the law of God which brought the entire human race under punishment, with the latter being perceived increasingly in solely legal terms. Much of the debate which produced the Protestant Reformation focused on just what elements of humanity remained free and not subject to depravity after the event of Adam’s sin. Further debate concerned in what respect Adam’s descendants carried guilt from his trespass. Over the last century, focus has shifted even earlier in this narrative, to the creation of the world and of humankind, and the relationship between the Biblical narratives and evolutionary theory.
While these later foci ask important questions which are legitimate and timely, they do not reflect the way in which the narratives of Genesis 1-11 were read by the ancients, nor the way in which they were understood in the apostolic era as read through the person of Jesus Christ. The early chapters of Genesis tell the stories of a threefold problem in God’s creation, and then Genesis tells the story of the beginnings of Israel which, as the Torah goes on to lay out, is the means by which Yahweh, the God of Israel, manages this problem. The New Testament, then describes how Jesus Christ has definitively and finally answered all three of these problems in order to produce a new, resurrected, restored, and glorified creation in the new heavens and the new earth.
As was already mentioned, the curses of Genesis 3 have long been the subject of theological inquiry. Very little of the later theological constructs associated with “the Fall” are actually present within the Genesis narrative however. The warning given by God to Adam was that in the day in which he ate of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, he would certainly die (Gen 2:17). The deceptive serpent entices Eve with knowledge for which she is not prepared, and is punished by being cursed to eat the dust of the earth. Here the serpent is cast down, and is given the power of death (the ashes which he eats are the ashes to which Adam shall return, Gen 3:14), which makes its claim through sin (1 Cor 15:55-56). The curse upon humanity is one of toil and struggle in this life, ending in death (Gen 3:19). The story of Genesis 3 is the story of how mortality came to the human race, which plays out first in Cain’s murder of Abel, and then in the genealogies which follow. It is repeated again and again, after the very long life of each individual, that ‘he died’. After giving the length of a person’s life, that he died can be taken for granted, but it is here repeated to make the point that “death reigned from Adam to Moses” (Rom 5:14). This is the first problem: death.
Death entering the human race then gave purchase to sin and corruption. Sin crouches at Cain’s door, seeking to master him, and Cain yields to it (Gen 4:7). In the ensuing genealogies, the line of Cain becomes increasingly corrupt, culminating in the murderous Lamech, but also produces all of the advances of civilization and culture. By the sixth chapter of Genesis, humanity has become so corrupt that his desires are always evil all of the time (Gen 6:5). Here again, spiritual beings are involved, seducing human women (6:1-2). The text here is referring to the historical literature and genealogies of other cultures in the ancient Near East. In the Babylonian king lists, rulers before the flood are named, along with the spirit who served as their advisor, and what arts and technology that spirit taught the king. Following the flood, the kings are described as being two-thirds god and one third man. Texts such as 1 Enoch brings these ideas together more explicitly, preserving the ancient traditions, that spirits, like the serpent, led humanity to knowledge for which it wasn’t prepared in order to corrupt and destroy it, culminating in demonic sexual immorality. These are the spirits “who sinned in the days of Noah” (1 Pet 3:18-20). This is how the second problem enters the creation: sin.
The final chapters of Genesis 1-11 are more often neglected, but no less important. The genealogies following the flood describe the descent of the 70 nations which made up the known world. While these describe their familial descent, it is the story of the tower of Babel that describes their fall. Here, Babylon is described as the capitol of a world empire, in which a grand ziggurat is being built, a place which will reach up to heaven and bring God down so that he can be made to serve man. In response, God does indeed descend, but does so to drive them away, confusing their languages and separating them. This even tis further developed in Deuteronomy 32:8, which states that God assigned the various nations to the sons of God (or his angels in the Greek). The icon at the head of this post depicts the gray angelic beings taking possession of the representatives of the nations of the earth. The nations of the world began to worship these angelic beings as gods, and became enslaved to them. This is the third problem afflicting God’s world: the dark principalities and powers.
These three events, and the three problems which they have created, are dealt with in the first place through the calling of Abraham in Genesis 12. With the patriarchs, we see the beginnings of God’s provision to manage these three problems. Death is managed through human fertility, through the promise that Abraham’s descendants will be more numerous than the sands of the seashore. Sin is managed through the priestly role of sacrificial offering and intercession undertaken by patriarchs such as Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Job. The principalities and powers, and their domination of the nations of the Earth are dealt with through God’s formation of a nation, Israel, for himself, his own peculiar people, who will be separate and apart from the nations dominated by wickedness.
Genesis as a whole serves as the prologue to the remainder of the Pentateuch, and the Torah goes on to codify these means of management further. The Torah regulates human reproduction and sexual morality, as well as inheritance, to ensure the continuation and flourishing of humanity on the earth. The Torah establishes the sacrificial system, centering around the Day of Atonement, to manage sin and uncleanness within God’s people, to prevent their destruction. The Torah strictly forbids the idolatry of the nations, and other actions and relationships which might render Israel or her people subject to the principalities and powers which govern the nations and seek Israel’s destruction. Israel is to be maintained holy and apart, to serve as a light to the nations which lay under darkness, until the time comes when Yahweh will visit his people and deal with these problems once and for all.
The entirety of the New Testament, then, is the apostolic record of that visitation which took place in the person of Jesus Christ. Through his death and resurrection, Christ has dealt once and for all with death, having defeated and disarmed it (cf. 1 Cor 15). Christ has accomplished and made possible complete purification and cleansing from sin and corruption through his blood, applied through baptism (in the likeness of the flood, 1 Pet 3:20-21). Christ has once and for all defeated and disarmed the powers and principalities which once governed this world and the nations (Jn 12:31, 16:11, Col 2:!5). Just as the events of the tower of Babel are too often neglected, so also is the fact that the effect of Christ’s defeat of these powers who ruled the nations is that now the nations, the Gentiles, are reconciled to God in Jesus Christ. The work accomplished by St. Paul and the other apostles in the book of Acts is not a sort of afterthought or epilogue to St. Luke’s Gospel, but represents the completion of Christ’s reversal of Genesis 1-11; the completion of Christ’s work (Acts 1:1). St. Paul’s concern in his epistles for the reconciliation of Jew and Gentile is not a practical issue that intrudes on the life of the early church, but rather is, as St. Paul sees it, part and parcel of the gospel of Jesus Christ.
For St. Paul, Genesis 1-11 is resolved eschatologically in reverse order. The reconciliation of the nations to God began on the day of Pentecost, and was completed in the apostolic era. Christ at his ascension has been enthroned, and all authority in heaven and on earth resides with him. Sin is now being dealt with through baptism for the forgiveness of sins, through repentance, and through the sanctification and glorification of Christ’s church. The last enemy to be defeated will be death in the resurrection, which will produce a new creation, which will be the realm of eternal life (1 Cor 15:20-27).