Because of my sister’s essay on appreciating the strangeness and beauty of Biblical narratives, I began reading the Scriptures in large swathes, the way I would read a story. I started this experiment in Genesis, and the results have been both wonderful and terrible. I've gotten into the habit of mixing cocktails to accompany my Bible reading time, even though I rarely drink and have never even gotten tipsy, aside from that one time my missionary friend got me wasted.
I don’t watch horror movies because I don’t like feeling secondhand stress or anxiety about situations in which I don’t really have anything at stake; I avoid TV shows for the same reason, which is why my resolutions to improve my Mandarin via Taiwanese dramas always come to nothing. But Genesis! Genesis puts the most gruesome horror scenes and the most tear-jerking drama plots to shame. I think of all the platitudes I have ever heard about receiving peace through reading the Bible, or about finding inspiration in its pages, and I want to shake their speakers for false advertising. I suppose they’re technically right in that the Bible is so revelatory that peace follows in wake of the reading. To get there, I just have to plow through the incest and fratricide first.
The Book of Genesis makes me tremble because it tells stories about the things I fear most. A man and woman are expelled from the paradise they occupied, and live the rest of their lives in a wilderness with the memory of what they lost. Brothers tear each other apart. A city stands in peace one day and is beset by violence the next, all its men murdered, its women and children carried into captivity. A father has the blood-sodden garment of his favorite child delivered to him, and cries out with anguish I know I would share were I in his place as a parent - “surely I will go down to Sheol in mourning for my son.” Lives lived in alienation and regret, families ravaged, homelands erased, children gone - these are the stuff of my nightmares. By the end of a few chapters I need to have a drink and lie down.
The worst part of these stories is that they are all propelled by human choice. Platitudes about the Bible’s simple wholesomeness get on my nerves, and at this point, so do reductive arguments about the brutality of the Old Testament God. Everyone - are we reading the same book? The worst actors in these stories are the human ones, and they devise impressively treacherous shit without any divine inspiration. Yes, I too ruminate over the necessity of the flood, but if it only took a single generation to get from the Garden of Eden to Cain and Abel, and if the subsequent generations that God refrained from smiting raped and defrauded one another like it was their hobby, I’m giving God the benefit of the doubt.
Genesis is searing precisely for the human scale of its tragedies. Everyone gets hung up on the flood but the stories that keep me up at night are the ones about brothers spurring each other on to murder their kin. Making God the perpetrator of brutality in Genesis can only be the result of a sloppy reading. To me, the darkest theme in Genesis concerns our capacity to choose evil even when we have been bestowed with good things. Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit as residents of the Garden. Abraham and his descendants were marked with a divine blessing to prosper, but even as they were protected from external threats by the hand of God, each generation of siblings was filled with antipathy and strife. Their households always seemed to be in turmoil. Blessed from without, torn from within. I cannot imagine a sadder story.
Within this context, I’ve re-read the story of Joseph. Against the backdrop of his ancestors’ generational struggle, its emotional impact feels seismic. Joseph’s feats as an interpreter of dreams or as second-in-command to Pharaoh appear to be centerpieces of the narrative, consolation prizes for being tossed into a pit by his brothers and sold into slavery, perhaps, when in actuality they are mechanisms leading to the denouement, in which Joseph encounters the brothers who betrayed him and does what his forefathers could not. He forgives them, and reconciles with them fully. At the end of his story is a portrait that has been absent from Genesis since the Fall: finally, here is a family at peace with itself.
I think about all the things I have known Genesis for: Creation, the flood, the covenant between God and man. There is so much grandeur in this book, but its final chapters are arresting for how plainly human they are. They speak to me of how well God responds to our tragedies, for of all the ways the first book of the Old Testament could have ended, it ends simply with the reunification of a family that has been splintered for generations. It ends with Joseph and his brothers reconciling and living together as a single household, and with their father, who had wept and said he would go down to Sheol in mourning for his lost son, being blessed in his old age by the sight of his children and grandchildren living together in harmony.
“If there is a God,” said one of my friends, “he is in the miracle that happens between people.” I get what she means. I have an easier time imagining seas parting than I do families forgiving each other when there have been generations of intractable resentment. That the book of Genesis chooses to end on exactly this miracle - divisions erased, a family reunited - says something about the priorities of its God. He gives weight to human suffering; he cares about the pain we inflict upon one another. Already, in the first book of the Bible, there is a foreshadowing to what Paul calls Christ’s “ministry of reconciliation.”
I finished the Book of Genesis weeping because I thought about my own family and about how much the Lord has done to draw us together, when I truly believed that I would not see us reconciled this side of heaven. I also thought about the migrant families separated at the border, because I was reading Genesis at the time news about the zero-tolerance policy was breaking, and thought about how Joseph was separated from his own father following generational patterns of brokenness. I thought about how I long for them, like Joseph and his father, to see the Lord restore their families.
Mainly I think I was emotional because the Book of Genesis shows that there is nothing new under the sun, no forms of sin or suffering that the Lord does not know. I was moved because from the beginning, he was writing a story to assure that he would save us.
Cover image: Joseph’s Dream by Evelyn Dunbar