“I’ve never read the Bible in its entirety before… Where do I begin?”
Once upon a time, the didactic use of the Christian Bible in basic literacy and the near ubiquity of religious education in western culture meant that few were unfamiliar with the stories of the Old and New Testaments. But today, whether motived by faith or criticism, millions of adults resolve annually to read every book of the Holy Bible for the very first time. I’ve heard the question posed countless times: “How do you read the Bible? Do you begin on page one and read straight through, or mix it up somehow?” Everyone seems to have their own opinion, and numerous reading guides are available to implement these views. Whenever a pastor is present, in my experience, the answer seems unanimously to be “Read the Gospels first—Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John—or you’re bound to become lost or confused.”
For most Christians, the New Testament in general and the Gospels in particular are the appropriate light through which the Hebrew Bible ought to be understood, much like a bright lamp in a dusky cellar. Unfortunately, this attitude toward the Old Testament, however true, can tend to minimize its importance for most readers, who typically understand the first 39 books (give or take) only through distance memories of their childhood Sunday School. It is the cherished foundation on which their house is built, but the best truths are hidden among the cluttered antiquities, and the party’s already moved upstairs. Now, I do believe that this somewhat intuitive view is rooted in a sacred truth common to the New Testament authors—namely, that the story of Jesus is the long-awaited climax of Israel’s story. As with any movie or play, for example, we understand the first act retrospectively once the climax emerges and the story is resolved. But this approach naïvely assumes that we already know the content of that foundational first act, unlike most of modern society, and so we may be likened to those stumbling into the theater only after the intermission.If you have determined to read the Bible in its entirety, many will advise you to begin with the Gospel of Matthew. I agree, so let us begin where Matthew himself begins, and that’s in Genesis. Once you grasp the reasoning behind this, I hope you’ll understand better why the New Testament authors never referred to the Old Testament as such, but called that collection of writings by its more appropriate name: “Holy Scripture” (e.g. 2 Tim. 3:15).
One discovery that changed forever the way I read the Gospel of Matthew
Many years ago, I attended a Bible study with a small group of friends, which may sound familiar to some of you. We took a book—in this case, the Gospel of Matthew—and spent several hours, once a week, attacking each detail the best way we knew how. We drew from commentaries, modern and ancient, and did our best to let “scripture interpret scripture” by cross referencing terms and ideas with other gospels and various references to the Old Testament. After six months, we had covered a whopping ten chapters (in studies like this, we are far prouder for taking longer to cover less). Though I wouldn’t see the end of the study, having to move away for graduate school, I felt more confident than ever in my ability to read and teach the Gospel of Matthew. But confidence is a glass house on a pebbly beach, and I was a curious kid on a long walk. What was the stone that changed it all?
– The Gospel of Matthew is a retelling of the Tanakh –
Shorthand for “Torah, Prophets, and Writings”, Tanakh is the name traditionally given to the collection of writings that constitute the Hebrew Bible, or the Christian Old Testament. While the content is the same, however, the arrangement and grouping of certain books is not. The Tanakh relies on the Masoretic ordering of the text, which conveys a distinct narratival and theological message: torah identifies the role and obligations of mankind, especially Israel, in God’s cosmos and tells the story of the law’s reception; the prophets tell of the application of law and covenant to the nations of the land, including by God who judges them; the writings balance the apparent rigidity of the law and covenant in shaping history with patient wisdom, not least to explain the lamentable lot in which Israel found herself after repeated exile and foreign rule. Thus Tanakh is a story without a climax; hope is buried in lamentation, and the covenant God is strangely more distant in the end than in the beginning.
When we read the Hebrew Bible, therefore, as those in the audience of the gospel writers, we begin with the opening words of the Greek Septuagint: βιβλος γενεσεως, or “The Book of Genesis”, and its famous opening line:
In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth…
We do not end, however, in Malachi 4 with the promised return of Elijah and the awesome day of the LORD (a rather obvious transition to John the Baptist). Instead, the Tanakh closes with the words of Cyrus of Persia in 2 Chronicles 36:23:
All the kingdoms of the earth hath the LORD God of heaven given me; and he hath charged me to build him an house in Jerusalem, which is in Judah. Who is there among you of all his people? The LORD his God be with him, and let him go up.
And so, Matthew begins and ends his gospel—the story of Jesus of Nazareth—in the same manner. The opening line (Matt. 1:1), so frequently glossed over as though its sole purpose were to title a genealogy, reads thusly:
Βιβλοσ γενεσεως Ιησου Χριστου, υιου Δαβιδ υιου Αβρααμ…
The Book of Genesis of Jesus Christ, son of David, son of Abraham…
The genealogy that follows proceeds systematically from Abraham to David to Exile to Jesus in precisely 42 generations, or, we might say, six sets of seven generations. Thus Matthew recounts for us the six days of Israel’s creation, culminating in one man, born by the breath of God (Matt. 1:20), who would bear the image of God, inaugurate the heavenly kingdom, and promise a new sabbath rest (Matt. 11:28). Chapter 28 opens with a familiar timeline:
Now after the Sabbath, toward the dawn of the first day of the week, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb…
On the sixth day, the new Adam succumbed to death, and on the seventh day, he rested in the tomb. The old word has died, but now, a new week has begun; it is a new creation. In the final scene, a new hope emerges with the Great Commission to build a holy temple, rooted not in the sympathies of a foreign king, but in the authority granted to the incarnate son of God (Matt. 28:18-20):
All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.
And so Matthew links his gospel conspicuously to the narrative of the Tanakh in its opening and closing lines, so that we might understand his message as a retelling of the story of Israel, in which the character of Jesus has taken up familiar roles. Like Solomon, son of David, he would build God’s temple; like Isaac, son of Abraham, he would be led up a hill to the slaughter. He would flee from Egypt, face temptation in the wilderness, and be baptized in the Jordan like Israel. Echoing the story of Adam, he was made alive by the Spirit of God and met his final evening in a garden scene, but the Edenic dilemma had been radically transformed: obedience to God now meant death and exile for one, in hope of life and glory for the many. Like Moses, he met death, but was vindicated through the faithfulness of God; like Joshua, therefore, he would lead his people back into Eden and inaugurate the kingdom of heaven. Jesus’ death and resurrection thus constitute the climax of Israel’s story, according to the Gospel of Matthew. Retold in this manner, the stories of the Hebrew Bible are thoroughly eschatological, pointing forward to their fulfillment in one like a son of man (Dan. 7:13)—the new Adam.
The eschatological Genesis of the Lord’s Prayer
Having established that the book of Genesis was fresh on the gospel writer’s mind in shaping his metanarrative, we are made fully aware of the subtle echoes that link Jesus’ story with that of Israel. Matthew does not scour the Hebrew Bible for prooftexts to support his messianic claims, however, as though all were written to predict the advent of Christ. Instead, he subverts the stories of land, law, and covenant so that all is fulfilled in this person Jesus of Nazareth (Matt. 2:13–15 is a great example; the gospel usage of Hosea 11:1 is radically different from the original). In the fifth chapter of Matthew’s gospel begins the well known Sermon on the Mount. Note the echo of the Exodus narrative in Matthew’s phrasing:
Seeing the crowds, [Jesus] went up on the mountain, and when he sat down, his disciples came to him.
Like Moses in ancient days, Jesus led his people to a mountain, where he sat down (in true rabbinical style) to deliver a message on law and covenant to the twelve representatives of a new Israel. In the old covenant, the people of Israel were portrayed as a sort of new mankind, fashioned from the dirt in Egypt, where God had separated the waters from the waters (cf. Gen. 1:6). Having the privilege to name God their Father, they are a new Adam, if you will, facing a fresh choice in a new Eden. The old generation had failed the test in the wilderness, and so the next would inherit the land of Canaan (Deut. 1:35; 38–39):
Not one of these men of this evil generation shall see the good land that I swore to give to your fathers… Joshua the son of Nun, who stands before you, he shall enter. Encourage him, for he shall cause Israel to inherit it. And as for your little ones, who you said would become a prey, and your children, who today have no knowledge of good or evil, they shall go in there. And to them I will give it, and they shall possess it.
Note the language reminiscent of Eden: no knowledge of good or evil. As you may recall, it was Joshua, who shares his name with the New Testament Messiah, who would lead Israel back into the garden of God. The imagery that links these concepts is most evident in Josh. 5:13-15, when Joshua readies his armies to cross into Canaan:
When Joshua was by Jericho, he lifted up his eyes and looked, and behold, a man was standing before him with his drawn sword in his hand. And Joshua went to him and said to him, “Are you for us, or for our adversaries?” And he said, “No; but I am the commander of the army of the LORD. Now I have come.” And Joshua fell on his face to the earth and worshiped and said to him, “What does my lord say to his servant?” And the commander of the LORD‘s army said to Joshua, “Take off your sandals from your feet, for the place where you are standing is holy.” And Joshua did so. (emphasis mine)
|The Garden of Eden, by Wenzel Peter|
The unnamed commander of the army of the Lord was last seen during the flight from Eden, where an angel was stationed with a flaming sword to guard its entrance (Gen. 3:24). Thus from beginning to end, Torah roots the flight from Egypt and inheritance of Canaan firmly in the Eden narrative. The law given to Israel, and the covenant terms emphasized in Deuteronomy, strongly echoed that given to Adam, who was cast out of the garden for having breached the terms. So long as Israel held fast to the covenant, they would flourish and see the day when God’s kingdom would come on Earth as in heaven (especially under David, God’s royal image). But when their transgression became too egregious, like Adam they would see only exile and frustration.
Your Father knows what you need before you ask him. Pray then, like this…
Matthew 6:9 begins the oft-recited Lord’s Prayer, which is placed in the middle of the Mosaic sermon. How is it that God knows what we need before we ask him? We might answer that in his omniscience, of course God knows all our needs, but the language of Jesus is not a philosophical truism. It gains meaning in the precedent of God working in similar fashion with his covenant people from the very beginning. Let us consider the echoes of Genesis in these famous lines.
Our Father in heaven… (Matt. 6:9)
Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. (Gen. 1:26)
[Adam] fathered a son in his own likeness, after his image… (Gen. 5:3)
On what grounds do we call God our Father? The answer comes in the very first chapters of scripture, where mankind is commissioned to be the image of God on Earth. In praying to ‘our Father in heaven’, therefore, we assent to the role and obligations of his covenant people.
Let your name be holy… (Matt. 6:9)
So God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it God rested from all his work that he had done in creation. (Gen. 2:3)
Like the day of rest, which signifies that God has taken reign over his good creation, we pray that the very name of God who made us be set apart from all others. This is, foremost, the binding prerequisite of the covenant to which we are called. Should we forsake it, we attempt to thwart the very will of God in making heaven and Earth anew.
Let your kingdom come… (Matt. 6:10)
And God blessed them. And God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.” (Genesis 1:28)
The command to be fruitful and multiply is not simply one to reproduce and increase our numbers. Rather, it is a commission to cultivate God’s glory throughout his creation and, by being the image of God, establishing his divine rule and expanding his kingdom on Earth. Mankind’s dominion over the orders of creation is not an autonomous one, because it is God who rules over all. The kingdom is his, and so are its laws. In ancient cultures, in which both Genesis and Matthew were written, the royal image—whether a statue or an engraven coin (e.g. Matt. 22:20–21)—signified who specifically had authority over the land. To say that we are God’s image on Earth, therefore, is to signify that God reigns here now, and to pray “Let your kingdom come” is also a calling to ourselves to be that image as described in Genesis 1.
Let your will be done, on Earth as in heaven… (Matt. 6:10)
And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. (Gen. 1:3)
In praying that God’s will be done on Earth as in heaven, we do not simply affirm his providence and omnipotence, but we petition that he make heaven and Earth as it was described in the creation hymn—very good.
Give us this day our daily bread… (Matt. 6:11)
Behold, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is on the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit. You shall have them for food. (Gen. 1:29)
And the LORD God commanded the man, saying, “You may surely eat of every tree of the garden… (Gen. 2:16)
Cursed is the ground because of you… By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread, till you return to the ground. (Gen. 3:17, 19)
When we petition that God fulfill our most basic needs—our daily bread—we long for the place in which thorns and thistles are no longer the fruits of our labor. We hope never to thirst or hunger again, but to be fed with manna from heaven, multiplied loaves, or even the garden trees. This symbolism reflects a greater reality that characterizes the cosmos when God reigns visibly: the naked are clothed, the hungry are fed, the alien is housed, and the widow and the orphan are cared for. If we take the covenant seriously, the Earth will reap a great reward and the nations of the land will be blessed on our account.
Forgive us our debts, as we have forgiven our debtors… (Matt. 6:12)
And the Lord God made for Adam and for his wife garments of skins and clothed them… (Gen. 3:21)
It is our transgression against God that keeps us out of his garden and taints the image we were called to be, so we seek the full reconciliation only shadowed during the exit from Eden, when God covered the shame and nakedness of his mankind.
And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one. (Matt. 6:13)
Now the serpent was more crafty than any other beast of the field that the LORD God had made… “What is this that you have done?” The woman said, “The serpent deceived me, and I ate.” (Gen. 3:1, 13)
If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is crouching at the door. (Gen. 4:7)
The final petition of the Lord’s Prayer provides the strongest echo of the garden scene, where mankind was tempted and led into evil by something innate to the creation. It was mankind who transgressed, but it was God who placed the serpent. Similarly, the Exodus generation wandered the Sinai desert without visible fulfillment of the promise, and Jesus himself was led out to the desert to be tempted. In praying that God not lead us into temptation, we do not propose that he tempts us intentionally for our own demise, but rather we acknowledge that in temptation, we will fall. We ask, therefore, that our Eden be rid of its snakes altogether, that we may cultivate his garden until the glory of God cover the whole land and his kingdom be everywhere visible.
When you pray the Lord’s Prayer, be mindful of the echoes of Eden in your petitions to God. Previously, I wrote on the dialogic of Genesis 1–3 and how the literary tension between two creation accounts—an intentional juxtaposition by the editor—leads us to a more profound truth. In Matthew’s mind, perhaps, it is almost as though Jesus were telling his disciples: “Ask that God remake heaven and Earth as described by the creation hymn (Gen. 1:1–2:4), but that your narrative will not end like Adam’s.” I believe we can summarize the Lord’s prayer to incorporate the eschatology of Genesis in the following fashion:
Our God in heaven, who formed us from the dust in his own image and likeness, that we may call him Father;
Let your name be holy among us, as the day you set apart to signify your completed work and give us rest;
Let your kingdom come, as we strive to be your image, reflect your heavenly reign, and cultivate your glory over all creation;
Let your will be done, on Earth as in heaven, as in the day when you made all things new;
Give us this day, our day in your garden, where thorns and thistles are no longer the fruits of our labor, but the Earth is finally blessed by our work;
Forgive us our debts, which have kept us from your garden and tainted your image, because in newness of life, we have at last forgiven our debtors;
And lead us not into temptation, as in Eden where the serpent deceived us;
But deliver us from the evil one, who is more crafty than the other beasts of the field and is crouching at the door.
For more reading from this blog on reading Genesis, please see the following posts:
Appearance of age or true age? Better yet—what’s the difference?
On reading Genesis as literature: breaking the hermeneutical bonds of a modern controversy
On reading Genesis as literature: the dialogic of Genesis 1–3
Finding Noah, then and now: Part 1—”Where is Noah today?”
Finding Noah, then and now: Part 2—”When and where did Noah sail his ark?”