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Genesis 12 – Key to the Old Testament?

It's popular to speak of Genesis 12 as the interpretive crux of the Hebrew Scriptures.  God's blessings pronounced on the seed of Abraham are said to be the centre-piece of Old Testament  hope.  Wherever you are in the Law or Prophets you can, supposedly, bring it back to Genesis 12... and then move it on to its (eventual and, humanly unforeseen) fulfilment in Jesus.

Mostly, when I hear someone assert Genesis 12 as the centre, I shrug my shoulders and think "Odd choice, but each to their own."  But more and more I'm thinking it's a problem.

Firstly, you have to ask the question Why?  Why Genesis 12?

The answer comes back: Because Paul points to it in Galatians 3:6-8.  Well, maybe.  Or maybe he's pointing to Genesis 18, or maybe to Genesis 22.  (He certainly references Genesis 15, which would be a wonderful focus for a bible overview.)  But even if we were certain that Paul was referencing Genesis 12 - why are we privileging Galatians 3:8?  Especially when that same chapter is so clear on the Christocentricity of this promise to Abraham.  As verse 16 declares - the Seed which is promised is not plural, it's singular.  It's Christ.  For Paul, Christ is not the surprising fulfilment of Israel's more general hopes.  He is the source and substance of them from the beginning.

Yet, for those who make Genesis 12 their crux interpretum, that's not generally the argument.  First they concern themselves with the seed plural (Israel) then the Seed singular (Christ).   So even as they claim apostolic warrant for this focus, they go about it in an unPauline way.

On the other hand, listen to Luther on Galatians 3:6-8:

All the promises of God lead back to the first promise concerning Christ of Genesis 3:15.  The faith of the fathers in the Old Testament era, and our faith in the New Testament are one and the same faith in Christ Jesus…  The faith of the fathers was directed at Christ…  Time does not change the object of true faith, or the Holy Spirit.  There has always been and always will be one mind, one impression, one faith concerning Christ among true believers whether they live in times past, now, or in times to come.

To understand the nature of God's promises concerning the Seed, of course we should go back to Genesis 3:15.  That seemed obvious to Luther.  And it has seemed obvious to many other Christians too!

But I can't help thinking that a preference for Genesis 12 over Genesis 3 represents a desire to be Israelo-centric before we are Christo-centric.  In short, it disregards what Paul actually says in Galatians 3, i.e. that the Seed is singular.

The second problem with a focus on Genesis 12 is this: It's almost always set forth as part of a framework where Christ Himself is not the source and centre.  He's only the climax.  That which binds the Scriptures together becomes "blessings" and "land" and "people" and "rule".  Certainly, on this understanding, Christ is important - crucially important - as the Fulfilment of these realities.  But the foundations of faith have been laid.  Christ comes later and works within an existing arrangement.

In all this, the unifying principle of the bible (and it is a principle) is progress towards Christ.  Not Christ Himself.  Progress towards Christ.  The difference is hugely significant.

When a new believer is introduced to a principle of biblical unity there's usually a grateful shout of joy.  "Ah I see!" they exclaim, "these 39 books really do belong with the other 27.  They all tell the one story of God's rule and land and people and blessings.  Wonderful!  Oh, and Jesus fits that pattern too.  Hurray!"

Their sense of excitement may last weeks.  But probably not much longer.  When anyone learns a system there is a sense of cognitive wonder.  Previously unexplained data now fits.  Good.  But a system cannot sustain joy.

On the other hand...

I still remember finally surrendering to the inevitable on Genesis 3.  Of course the LORD who walks in the garden is Christ.  I'd fought it for months, but no - it's obvious.  He is the One against Whom we have sinned.  Of course the sin that condemns is rejection of Christ - that was the original sin.  And He is the One who pursues us - the Hound of Heaven from the beginning.

I still remember the goosebumps of meeting Christ in Genesis 15 - the divine Word of the LORD in Whom Abram exercises justifying faith. Of course this is Paul's example of saving faith.  Of course Abraham is our father in the faith.  Surely Paul could only say that if Abraham trusted the same Person!

I still remember crying - and still cry today - to see how clearly the death of Christ was proclaimed in Genesis 22.  They even knew the mountain on which the true Son - the Atoning Lamb - would be killed.  For centuries they were saying "On the mountain of the LORD, God will provide Himself the Lamb!"

That's not just cognitive rest.  That's meeting Jesus in the Scriptures.

There's a world of difference between mastering a system and meeting the Son.  I fear that privileging Genesis 12 centres us on the system and not the Son.

My third reason for questioning an emphasis on Genesis 12 is this: It skews our hermeneutics towards a theology of glory.

If it's all about God's rule and people and land and blessings, then Christ comes to uphold God's rule, to be an obedient Covenant Partner, to be the Firstfruits of the new creation and to share the blessings He's enjoyed from eternity past.  All of those things are true and good.  But... where's the cross?

You can work it in for sure.  But it probably won't come naturally to a person raised on the system we're discussing.  Instead, the rule of God will be the dominating theme.  Sin will be understood primarily as rebellion against this rule.  And Christ's coming will be to establish again the rule of God.  His dying will certainly be explained - and explained as vital.  But it's vital in order to clear a path for rebels to submit again to God's rule.

As the cross is explained, there'll be phrases like "Jesus died so that all those who turn, put their full trust in Him and submit their whole lives to His rule, will be spared the judgement that otherwise belongs to them."  The cross serves a pre-determined understanding of God's rule.  It doesn't radically shape that understanding.  The wonder of the Lord reigning from the tree is not allowed to blow our minds as it ought.  Instead Jesus dies so that, later, He can reign.

But what if a verse like Genesis 3:15 was preferred as a crux interpretum?  Here we begin with the crushed Crusher, the struck Striker.  Here we have the One who would join wicked sinners like us to defeat an enemy we'd brought on ourselves.  Here we have One who loves us to incarnation, death and resurrection.

With this promise in view we can make perfect sense of Jesus' and the Apostles' interpretations of the Scriptures:

Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem.  (Luke 24:46-47)

I am saying nothing but what the prophets and Moses said would come to pass: that the Christ must suffer and that, by being the first to rise from the dead, he would proclaim light both to our people and to the Gentiles. (Acts 26:22-23)

Concerning this salvation, the prophets who prophesied about the grace that was to be yours searched and inquired carefully, inquiring what person or time the Spirit of Christ in them was indicating when he predicted the sufferings of Christ and the subsequent glories.  (1 Peter 1:10-11)

Jesus, Paul and Peter thought it was perfectly obvious that the Old Testament was about the sufferings and glories of Christ.  I've noticed that those who highlight Genesis 12 are also those who struggle to see this reality.  I've heard many who simply deny that OT believers could have anticipated a suffering Christ.  But the inadequacy is not in the OT believers - it's in a system which effectively makes every Hebrew saint a theologian of glory.

.

Genesis 12 is, without doubt, a vital passage in the Hebrew Scriptures.  Abraham clearly has an exalted place in the history of salvation.  But just make sure you're not privileging Israel over Christ, a system over the Son and glory over the cross.

Let the crux be the Crux.

20 thoughts on “Genesis 12 – Key to the Old Testament?

  1. Pingback: Genesis 12 – Key to the Old Testament? « Christ the Truth | Christian Dailys

  2. Kip' Chelashaw

    Eeeerm... why couldn't you have both? Must it be either or? 2 of the NT passages you cite actually show that it has to be both with references to all nations/from Jerusalem; our people/the Gentiles

    K

  3. Glen

    Hi Kip,

    Sure, let's have both-and. Just so long as it's not first-then.

    In other words, when it comes to Israel-Christ, system-Son, glory-cross, I'd be happy to say it's both-and (even though that's never my style!). I'd prefer to privilege the latter over the former. What I'm objecting to here is an insistence on an unconscious progress from the former to the latter. I think *that's* a rejection of the both-and which we should really hold.

    Hi Tim,

    Yeah, having a go at Genesis 12 as the centre sounds mega to my ears too. I'm sure I need more chewing too, but I wonder whether our feelings of a mega-shift (which I also feel) tells us something in itself. i.e. that we really have made this system The Way to understand the OT? Just thinking out loud...

  4. Tim Coomar

    That's exactly my point. Just beginning to realise now how much Gen 12 has probably been an implicit and unconscious starting point for me all this time too. You're right though - it may 'sound' mega but there's no reason why we can't make it a smooth transition ;-)

    At the end of the day, without Christ as their explicit focus, words like blessing, glory, promise, rule, fullness etc. are just empty words that do little more than fill up time in impressive-looking theological training programmes. Maybe that's a bit harsh but I'd rather make a few over-zealous statements about the centrality of Christ than miss the whole point of every promise and the focus of every blessing in there...

  5. Joe Dent

    Hi Glen. Helpful stuff. But isn't the significance of Gen 12 flagged up by the text itself - here comes multiple blessing after the multiple cursing of Gen 1-11? Gen 12 appears - on its own terms rather than as an imposed framework - to come as something of an answer (or the beginning of an answer) to the previous 11 chapters, and therefore it does appear a highly significant chapter. Perhaps in this case we need to keep both the baby of Gen 3:15 and the bathwater of Gen 12, if you see what I mean!

  6. Rich Owen

    This might just be the wrong time and place to think this thought, but it’s been in my head for years. Feel free to park it, Glen, if it pulls away from the main piece. Perhaps one day it could become a post of its own.

    My thoughts are more related to your first point. Perhaps this is *an* answer among others as to why Ch12 is set forth as the unifying principle.

    I’ve often wondered if making Ch12 the crux interpretum really has more to do with the view that Chapters 1-11 are not historical but a series of allegories, chiasms or interpretive creation stories.

    I can certainly appreciate the logic. If 1-11 simply provide general truths about God and creation, sin and redemption, judgement and new-creation, then it would be risky to anchor our interpretive principle in that more murky water. We all seem to agree that Ch12 is a real historical account, so it follows that your interpretive principles and frameworks would start there.

    I’m pretty sure that there is a link between a theistic-evolutionary view of 1-11 and a commitment to the kind of progressive blessing-land-people-rule-glory framework you mention here.

    Anyway. I’ve not put much flesh on the bones cause it’s probably not the right place to do it. Be interesting to know if anyone had thoughts like mine.

    Rich

  7. Si Hollett

    I hadn't before Rich, but that does make sense as one reason why the focus is on Gen 12. It's like all the 'back to Eden' type frameworks for the Bible - the beginning shapes the story and the end is set up at the beginning (which is Biblical, though often these 'back to Eden' frameworks end up rather Christless), just with a different beginning.

    Earlier this year, was teaching an OT overview - I gave up on the 'God's Big Picture' type overview (God's people in God's place under God's rule & blessing) at the beginning of the exile (how did I get so far?). One reason was the way that it sort of confined you to the Goldsworthy view of the OT (after all, Vaughan Roberts based it on Goldsworthy's Gospel & Kingdom). Another was reading God's view of Israel's history (Eze 16, Hosea, etc) and seeing it as 'Jesus wooing a bride' - which doesn't really provide a framework, but a narrative.

    I think that the need for some overviewing framework of the Bible means you end up with a Gen 12-based Old Testament, as Gen 12 gives you a framework (that you can take backwards to Gen 1, and on past the end of the OT at 2 Chronicles 36/Malachi 4 all the way to the end of the Bible at Rev 22). Glen's problem #2 seems to be unconscious reason #1 for the Gen 12 focus in Anglo-australian Conservative Evangelical circles.

    Of course don't throw out the baby with the bathwater when it comes to going with a more Christocentric key to the OT - Gen 12 is important, is very important, in that story of Jesus woos his bride and the promise there does have the various threads that you make a structure out of (the partial fulfillment of which a not little bit of emphasis is given over to in the OT).

  8. Glen

    Rich - The supposed shift in genre after Gen 1-11 was Very commonly cited in Sydney circles when I was there. Philip Jensen was always saying it and people were always quoting him approvingly.

  9. Eric Sidnell

    Glen - awesome post.

    I think the most important point you make is that starting with Gen 12 hooks you into a system - but starting with Gen 3 relates you to a person - namely Jesus.

    I've noticed (and become increasingly uncomfortable with) the fact that so many of us prefer a system rather than the person. In following a system - we are in control. In relating to a Person we surrender control to Him.

    As I said - awesome post

  10. Paul H

    Thank you Glen for another brilliant post.

    I wonder if sometimes those who emphasise Genesis 12 also don’t do justice to Genesis 12. Paul says in Galatians it is the Gospel announced in advance. Not a shadow of the Gospel which has now come, but the Gospel. Not a promise that could be fulfilled by the Gospel, but the Gospel. Not a preparation for the Gospel, an anticipation of the Gospel or a preliminary to the Gospel, but the Gospel. The birth, death and resurrection of Jesus is not a greater fulfilment than the promise to Abraham, it is the promise to Abraham.

    Because, in Genesis 12, the promise to Abram is a promise from the LORD. HE will bless Abram. And He will bless every single people and tribe and country through Abram. It’s a massive promise. By Genesis 12 we already know the Lord will come and deal with sin and death and the devil – we already know (among other things) that he will rescue all who trust him – through himself and sonship and judgement, through trees (and presumably nails) and rising from the deep and new life through the Holy Spirit. And now we see this same promised Gospel is through Abram, through this particular exalted father. Jesus is the blessing, the great name, the way, the life. And now he, the Lord who appeared to Abram (Acts 7:2, John 1:18), is giving that blessing, that name – giving himself – to Abram and to all of us through Abram. He’s wooing his bride as he promises that he will come, that he will be born as part of Abram’s family. It’s amazing.

    We can be part of Jesus' family because Jesus became part of Abram’s family. It’s the Gospel, the good news of Jesus Christ. What a wonderful comfort to the old couple as they followed the Lord through the wilderness, and what a comfort to us as we do the same.

  11. Glen

    Yes indeed Paul - Genesis 12 ought to fit into that cross-shaped, Christ-centred framework. And when it does - then I'm perfectly happy to "begin" diving in at that particular Scripture. Thing is - in a much deeper sense - you've "begun" elsewhere.

    Funnily enough, Mike Reeves "began" in Genesis 12 at Transformission:

    http://thebluefish.org/2012/10/transformission-2012-adopted.html

    i.e. the first Scripture he referenced was Genesis 12. But the framework was exactly what you describe here. :)

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  14. Brian Midmore

    Some in theology only interpret the OT in light of the OT. This is why Israel would be seen as more central than Christ. Making Christ the centre would be seen as a new testament idea. I think it is horses for courses. If you are a new testament preacher make Christ the centre. If you are writing a paper on OT theology maybe this might seem anachronistic.

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