If being thought generous is more important than being generous, if gaining a reputation for prayerfulness is more important to us than praying when no one but God is listening, if fasting is something in which we engage only if we can disingenuously talk about it, then these acts of piety become acts of impiety.
The fundamental way to check out how sound we are in each of these areas is to perform these acts so quietly that none but God knows we are doing them.
While many of us are familiar with the stories contained in the first 11 chapters of Genesis, many of us may miss that a main goal of these chapters, particularly 3-11, is to show the spread of sin and its consequences from the Garden of Eden to the nations of the world. So while we can often retell the stories of Adam & Eve’s sin, Cain murdering Abel, Noah and the ark and the Tower of Babel, we might not know how they all fit together into a cohesive unit, setting the stage for what follows.
Sin and evil spread. It spreads quickly, with the acceptance, and even the celebration, of evil happening soon after the Garden of Eden (see here on Genesis 4). Adam’s legacy of death is recorded in chapter 5, while the story of the flood (6-9) is not a cute bedtime tale for children but an account of punishment as a result of the unrelenting evil in the hearts of people. After that, while we see the spread of Noah’s descendants into the nations (Gen 10), we see it’s also partially a result of their sin in trying to ‘make a name for themselves’ (Gen 11).
There is a dark cloud that hovers over the first 11 chapters. The call to be fruitful and multiply is partially fulfilled by the end of chapter 11, but evil, sin and death have multiplied with it. Given the severity of God’s response to Adam and Eve’s sin in Genesis 3, this shouldn’t be a surprise.
But there are signs of hope sprinkled throughout these chapters, and I want to call attention to them. I’ll organize these in reference to Noah (Pre-Noah, Noah, Post-Noah), mainly because the Noah narrative takes up the largest amount of space in these chapters and has quite a few promises of God’s salvation despite the harsh judgment depicted.
The biggest promise in these chapters is, of course, regarding the seed/offspring of the woman. If we keep this in mind while we read the following chapters, indeed the rest of the Bible, we’ll be looking for this ‘seed.’
- “And I will put enmity between you [the serpent] and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will crush your head and you will strike his heel.” (3:15)
Even in chapter 4, immediately following the fall in the garden and the expulsion from Eden, we see that God still honors offerings given to him.
- “The Lord looked with favor on Abel and his offering.” (4:4b)
Instead of God wiping Cain from the face of the earth after his horrific crime, God still protects the murderer, showing undeserved grace toward him.
- “But the Lord said to him, ‘Not so; anyone who kills Cain will suffer vengeance seven times over.’ Then the Lord put a mark on Cain so that no one who found him would kill him.” (4:15)
And even after the reference to the murder-celebrating Lamech, the Bible still notes,
- “At that time people began to call on the name of the Lord.” (4:26)
In chapter 5 we find the genealogy, which not only gives us a record of Adam’s descendants all the way to Noah, but shows us the reality of death in a world designed to know nothing of it. But in the middle of it, there’s this guy:
- “Enoch walked faithfully with God; then he was no more, because God took him away.” (5:24)
And at the end of the genealogy, there’s a quick break that links us to the subsequent story and back to chapter 3:
- “He [Lamech, not the same from chapter 4] named him Noah and said, ‘He will comfort us in the labor and painful toil of our hands caused by the ground the Lord has cursed.’” (5:29)
Noah’s appearance- and expression of hope at his birth- bridges us to the flood story, along with the salvation of Noah and his family. Noah is a bright light of hope in the midst of an evil world that rejects God.
- “But Noah found favor in the eyes of the Lord.” (6:8)
- “Noah was a righteous man, blameless among the people of his time, and he walked faithfully with God.” (6:9b)
Noah’s obedience is specifically highlighted as God commanded him to build an ark.
- “Noah did everything just as God commanded him.” (6:22; see also 7:5)
And in the middle of the flood narrative is this little gem, highlighting God’s grace in the midst of judgment.
- “But God remembered Noah…” (8:1)
After Noah makes an offering to the Lord, God promises:
- “Never again will I curse the ground because of humans… and never again will I destroy all living creatures.” (8:21)
The narrative also highlights God establishing a covenant once again (as promised before the flood in 6:18), as God says,
- “I now establish my covenant with you, and your descendants after you.” (9:8)
- And he set the “rainbow in the clouds… whenever the rainbow appears in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and all living creatures of every kind on the earth…” (9:12-17).
So in the midst of the spread of sin, and the judgment of the flood, Noah and his family (even despite their own flaws, see chapter 9) stand as a ray of hope for mankind.
In chapters 10-11, the only obviously positive statement is a somewhat off-handed remark about Nimrod:
- “He was a mighty hunter before the Lord…” (10:9)
But, the end of chapter 11 leads us up to Abram. While there’s not necessarily any sign of this being a positive turn of events up to this juncture, chapter 12 clearly functions as a turning point in the narrative: While the descendants of Noah have spread throughout the nations, and brought their evil inclinations with them, God has a plan to bless them all. After all, Abram is the one to whom God ‘announced the gospel beforehand’ (Galatians 3:8). But even before Abraham, there were rays of hope in the midst of darkness, teaching us that even though he kicked them out of Eden, God did not abandon his people in their sin and self-destruction.
I recently preached a sermon as part of our series on advent last week. The audio is available here. This was special for me because it marks the first time I’ve officiated (right term?) the Lord’s Supper in our church. The audio is special because you get to hear my extremely talented friends sing a favorite song of mine at the end.
In a few verses the writer is able to convey a sense of the catastrophic descent of the human race from covering up killing to boasting in bloodletting. Cain’s nonchalant words and his great-great grandson’s boast frame this genealogy and mark its spirit and its descent into a moral and spiritual abyss. The irresponsible ‘Am I my brother’s keeper?’ attempts to deny murder (Gen. 4:9); ‘I have killed a man for wounding me’ glories in it (Gen. 4:23). This is certainly not the dominion intended for humanity in Genesis 1-2.
Stephen Dempster, Dominion and Dynasty, pages 70-71
Moreover, the final compilers of the biblical text ensured that the text was to be understood as a unity. There are not only major groupings of books, but editorial ‘splices’ that join major groupings of books with each other. Therefore, both theological and literary points are made simultaneously. For example, at the beginning of each of the major sections of the Hebrew Bible there is an extraordinary emphasis on the word of God. The Bible begins with the word of God creating reality, and its first work is to create light, thus establishing the rhythm of the day and night (Gen. 1:3-5). The text proceeds to describe the first human beings and their residence in the garden of Eden, which is maintained only by organizing their lives around the word of God (Gen. 2:4-25). Joshua, which commences the second major grouping of biblical books, the Prophets, contains an exhortation requiring the new Israelite leader to meditate day and night on the Torah to ensure the success of Israel’s conquest of Canaan, and so be enabled to enjoy the fruits of the new Eden (Josh. 1:8-9). Near the beginning of the third and last grouping of books, the Writings, Israelites are urged to meditate on the Torah day and night in order to find success and become like trees planted in a garden alongside streams of gushing water (Ps. 1:2-3). By these links, this writing is conceptually distinguished from other writings, since it is the Word of God. But it is also distinguished literarily, since an implicit unity has been marked explicitly: it is also the Word of God.
Stephen G. Dempster, Dominion and Dynasty: A Theology of the Hebrew Bible, pages 32-33 (italics original)
The two images above are billboards recently released by American Atheists. Should these billboards be considered persecution? I believe that they should. Denigrating one’s beliefs – especially in the callow, sensationalistic, straw-man manner shown on these billboards – counts as persecution, in my book. Granted, these billboards are not the equivalent of beating somebody and sending them prison, but are they not just a lower rung on the same ladder? It is promoting an environment where Mormons and Christians are ridiculed for their “unreasonable” beliefs. What would happen if these billboards really caught on, and the majority of society started treating Mormons and Christians with the same petulant contempt?
Hence a series of ironies: American Atheists are against people being persecuted for their beliefs (e.g., “Action Alert” at the bottom of their home page), yet they persecute people for their beliefs. The billboards decry Christianity for promoting hate, yet they promote hate. The billboards violate American Atheists own aims and principles.
It seems that even atheists have their share of people who break with their own by-laws. Christians have their share of people who advocate hatred, despite the fact that the book they purport to follow supports no such agenda. One of American Atheists self-stated aims is to “collect and disseminate information, data, and literature on all religions and promote a more thorough understanding of them,” a task at which these billboards miserably fail.
I believe (hope?) that these billboards do not represent the majority of atheists in America. I’m hoping this type of rhetoric will be increasingly marginalized. From the responses I’ve read thus far on these billboards, it seems that most people are dismissing them, as they should. Conversely, I hope that atheists understand that churches like Westboro Baptist Church do not represent Christianity.
Once again, it’s not organized religion that is the enemy, nor is it organized non-religion, nor theism, nor atheism. It’s people. We’re all hypocrites. We’re all inconsistent. We’re all hateful at some level. We are the great problem with the world, and we need a great savior. I maintain that reason is not this great savior, and I believe that history abundantly supports my claim. We cannot save ourselves. Only God can save us from ourselves, each other, and the mess we’ve made of this world. Through Christ and His Spirit, that’s exactly what He has done, is doing, and will do.