Preaching through Genesis has had me spending more time thinking about the narrative structure of the Old Testament lately. Last week as I was studying to preach Genesis 20-21 it struck me again that one of the main points of the whole Old Testament is also one of the simplest:
There is no human saviour, only humans who need one.
One of the very first things God does when humans sin is announce that he has a plan to bring a saviour, who will be born of a woman, so that right from the beginning our hopes are raised. With each new covenant and each new child miraculously born in the line of promise we’re to ask in anticipation: Is this the saviour?
But the narrative structure of the Old Testament makes it clear again and again that no human can be a sufficient saviour. Every spiritual climax soon descends into disaster and the heroics of faithful men are quickly followed by failure.
Think about the pattern:
- Adam is born to rule the world as the reflection and image of God, but as soon as he receives his charge he throws the world God ordered in righteousness into the chaos and disorder of sin & its effects
- Noah is called righteous and blessed with the promise of the covenant of new beginnings, and then immediately found drunk in his tent, the object of the disdain of his own son
- Abraham believes God’s great and amazing promises in the first part of Genesis 12 only to farm out his wife in fear by the end of the chapter (which he does repeatedly, despite God’s promises)
- Even King David has just barely received the covenant promise of his son reigning forever when he commits adultery and murder
The Israelites as a people are powerless to bring salvation as well:
- They are depicted as committing horrific idolatry at the very same time God is revealing the first commandment to Moses
- The priests are no better, either: when the Levites receive their charge, two of them die immediately for breaking the law regarding incense and fire
- Even while in the midst of inheriting the promised land, the people fail and don’t take the whole land
- Not learning their lesson after hundreds of years, when they return from exile they build their own panelled houses before the house of the Lord
What can all this failure mean? Why is the narrative so quick to point out the helplessness and hopelessness of people as soon as they have received the promise of blessing?
It must mean that God is looking forward to the one man who actually succeeds. It must be that the text, from the beginning of Genesis on, is relentless in driving us toward the expected and promised Saviour: the one who actually keeps the covenant, earns the blessing, and becomes a blessing to all nations, bringing redemption to all of God’s created world.