This is the first in a series of eight articles on the topic of Dominion in Genesis, as exemplified in the life of Joseph. For your reference, the post titles in this series are as follows:
- Part 2: What Would Joseph Do?
- Part 3: Do You Serve Two Masters?
- Part 4: Three Perspectives on End Times Prophecy
- Part 5: Joseph’s Rise to Power
- Part 6: The “Missing Link” Between Adam and Jesus
- Part 7: Did Israel Prosper at Egypt’s Expense?
- Part 8: The Three Freedoms
Jesus told a parable about wicked tenants who, after being hired to tend a vineyard, gave no fruit to the owner (Mt. 21:33-45). The owner sent servants to collect the rent, but the tenants killed them. Finally, the owner sent his own son in the hope that they would show him some respect. The tenants even killed the son. They thought that, with the son out of the way, the inheritance would become theirs when the old man died.
God had sent His servants, the Old Testament prophets, to the nation of Israel, including both ordinary people and their leaders. They spoke God’s words and urged the people to repent of their sins. Israel had not only killed the prophets, but Jesus prophesied that this would become His own fate as well (Mt. 23:29-36).
The parable of the wicked tenants calls attention to the need to respect God’s prophets. The implication is that if we disrespect or hate those who speak God’s word to us, we would do the same to the Son of God. Jesus didn’t walk around with a halo over His head to identify Himself. He didn’t demand an elite or privileged status, but humbly served the people around Him. Jesus warned that, for better or worse, how we treat other people is how we treat Him (Mt. 25:40).
Christians typically see no problem here with respect to God’s prophets. The Pharisees either misinterpreted or rejected the prophecies of the suffering Messiah, but we Christians have embraced them. We further respect God’s prophets by upholding the Bible, including both the Old and New Testaments, as the inspired and authoritative Word of God.
This argument assumes that respect for the Bible’s words is identical to respect for God’s saints and prophets. However, the Bible text isn’t equivalent to its authors, or to the heroes and heroines of the Bible. Unfortunately, we’ve tended to extol the words of the Bible far more than the godly people of the Bible.
In addition to presenting information, the Bible is very much about God’s saints. It’s about their relationships with the living God, and the ways in which our Lord revealed Himself through them. Although there is only one Son of God, many people in the Bible bore some resemblance Him by God’s design and purpose for their lives.
Let’s consider, as one example, king David. Surely, we shouldn’t be judgmental toward a man who killed a giant; endured many trials; united Israel; defeated her enemies; wrote many psalms; made preparations for the temple that Solomon built; received covenant promises from God about his throne being established forever; was a father to Jesus (the “Son of David”); resembled Christ as a shepherd and king; and was called a man after God’s own heart (1 Sam. 13:14). Despite all this, many teachers are quick to rag on David for a temporary lapse, for which he later repented (Ps. 51).
It all began when David didn’t go to war with his army. Instead, he stayed home and viewed the city from his palace. One thing led to another, and soon he was guilty of adultery and murder.
If we’re honest, I suspect that we’ve all been guilty of the first two sins—not fighting God’s battles and loitering about the house. Why should we think the latter two sins are incomparably more horrendous in God’s sight than the former? Moreover, I don’t know what makes so many of us guys think we would not let our eyes linger at the sight of a beautiful, naked woman, and not have a servant “invite” her to the palace.
My point is that, while we shouldn’t condone David’s sins, neither should we be judgmental, or puffed up with the thought that we haven’t sinned in similar ways.
Judging the Patriarchs
While studying Genesis, I’ve found it helpful to give the patriarchs the benefit of the doubt whenever possible. One reason is that, just as in real life, once we judge someone, we lose either the desire to further examine motives and actions, or any sense of objectivity when doing so. This is true of everyone, not only Bible characters.
I believe that in all cases, even though it takes effort on our part, we should seek to understand, and if possible, to exonerate other people when they appear to have sinned.
I fear that a judgmental attitude toward the patriarchs has negatively impacted our understanding of Genesis. For example, haven’t we all thought “sinners” when reading about the creation of Adam and Eve? Even though we anticipate the negative outcome, God had no impure thoughts or ill intentions. The Lord didn’t create Adam and Eve for the express purpose of letting them sin. As God was enjoying the beauty of His most glorious creations, so should we as we read the text.
Personally, I find Adam and Eve to be the most interesting people in the Bible, apart from Jesus Himself. For a brief period of time, they were perfect people. It’s a huge hypothetical, but if Adam and Eve hadn’t sinned, they would have been our spiritual father and mother in the most positive sense. As it is, they’re still our original parents. Since I believe in the Bible, I can’t help but feel some attachment to them.
Unfortunately, there has been little concern about studying Adam and Eve, even to identify their time and place in history. Instead, the couple has been spiritualized practically out of existence as the first sinners, as if that’s all we needed to know. For both moral and political reasons, we’ve also been reminded of the “profound” insight that Adam was a man, and Eve a woman. (I’m privileged to be able to say that I’ve partially filled this gap in our knowledge about Adam and Eve by having written extensively about them in Return to Genesis).
Many Bible teachers are critical of Noah for having gotten drunk, and for having cursed his grandson, Canaan. However, even Jesus drank wine, and the Bible doesn’t charge Noah with having sinned during this incident.
Both Christians and critics of our faith judge Abraham for having “lied” when he told the Pharaoh and Abimelech that his wife Sarah was his sister. Whatever we may think of the incident, Abraham didn’t lie, though he told a half-truth. Sarah was his half-sister. Also, God didn’t rebuke Abraham, but blessed him. Therefore, since our knowledge of the circumstances is limited, we’re in no position to judge Abraham.
Jacob Tricks Isaac by Henry Davenport Northrop, 1894 (Wikimedia)
Bible studies on the life of Jacob often brand the poor fellow as a liar and a scoundrel. Okay, Jacob did lie to his father Isaac. Seriously though, can there be a purer motive than wanting to be blessed by God? Esau had already surrendered the blessing voluntarily, and God had made it known that He favored Jacob. Therefore, Isaac was mistaken in having wanted to bless Esau. Let’s tar and feather Isaac instead!
If you seek evidence that some of our most learned Bible scholars have a bias against Jacob, turn in your Bible to Genesis 25:27. There, you’ll see Jacob described as a “quiet,” “peaceful,” “plain,” or “mild” man, based on the
Heb Greek Septuagint. The Hebrew word, widely ignored by translators, means “blameless, “perfect,” or “upright.”
Jacob didn’t shut the mouths of his critics, even after having been transformed by his trials and his encounters with God to receive the name “Israel.” The meaning of this name is uncertain, but it may mean “Prince of God.”
Joseph and Potiphar’s Wife by Wenceslas Hollar, 1606-1677 (Wikimedia)
I never knew it was possible for anyone to disrespect Joseph, except for having been boastful during his youth. However, while attending a seminary class on biblical interpretation, I had to read the following:
You will look in vain for any other moral than the one the Bible itself supplies: “God was with Joseph.” The entire process of Joseph’s fall and rise to power was God’s doing… Joseph’s lifestyle, personal qualities, or actions do not tell us anything from which general moral principles may be derived. If you think you have found any, you are finding what you want to find in the text; you are not interpreting the text.
(p. 86 of How to Read the Bible for All It’s Worth, 2nd Ed. boldface was italics in original).
I admit there’s nothing here that’s overtly critical of Joseph. The problem is the demand that readers refuse to learn anything from life of Joseph. This would include his flight from sexual temptation, his humility and endurance through trials, his reliance on divine wisdom, his heartfelt forgiveness, and his unwavering faith in God’s providence. Don’t learn from Joseph, even though the Bible commands us to do all these things? It makes no sense to me.
We Can Even Learn From the Villains
Each of the Bible’s heroes and heroines was, in some manner, a forerunner of Christ. As I will explain in Part 2, God wants us to follow the examples set by people in the Bible who were like Jesus, not only that of Jesus Himself.
It’s true that, as in the case of David, even some of the greatest saints in the Bible experienced occasional, sometimes spectacular failures. The Bible also gives us tragic stories about rebels who refused to obey the Lord. Some of them started out as decent people, but turned into hypocrites. Their sins, and the backslidings of Israel and Judah should serve as warnings to us, lest we become prideful and feel that we’re not in danger of stumbling.
The Bible’s stories often reveal negative character traits and habits that we might recognize in ourselves or in others. God reveals the evil in our hearts to humble us and lead us to repentance, not to condemn us. God shows us the evil in other people’s hearts so that we can learn to understand and forgive, and so we may cooperate with the Holy Spirit as He guides them to the truth (Jn. 16:13). We don’t have the power in ourselves to convince anyone that a particular behavior is sinful.
The Key to Understanding the Bible
We have much to learn from everyone, ranging from megachurch pastors to our worst enemies. God also wants us to share our knowledge with other people, based on what He’s revealed to us. Whether we go into a ministry or share our faith informally, it’s about helping others, not gratifying our personal ego and desires. The authority doesn’t come from ourselves, but from God.
As we saw in the quote related to Joseph, Bible colleges and seminaries often teach future ministers what to believe when the main focus should be on teaching them how to think. In particular, fundamentalist Christian ministers have taken it upon themselves to prevent heresy. Unfortunately, this approach perpetuates institutionalized errors and stifles expectations of finding new insights into the Bible.
The primary source of false teachings today is biblical literalism. Literalism leads its devotees to idolize the Bible’s words and their literal meanings at the expense of the stories, the poetry, and the overall flow or “big picture” message of the Bible. I wrote extensively about the problems with biblical literalism in Part 1 of Return to Genesis.
As you read through this series on Dominion in Genesis, I believe you’ll gain fresh insight into how to interpret the Bible, even though that won’t be the main point. My hope is that you will gain a better understanding of, and appreciation for the Bible as a compilation of inspired literature that is rich in poetry and symbolism.
God has promised us that we can understand the Bible with the help of the same Holy Spirit Who inspired it (1 Cor. 2:13-15, 1 Jn. 2:27). Spiritually minded people will find truth in the Bible, but those who are in the flesh will deceive themselves and others. Nothing will ever change that.
Do you agree that a spirit of non-judgmentalism and seeking the good in Bible characters is a sure path to gaining a better understanding both them and the surrounding Scripture text? Please feel free to leave a comment below. This series is continued in part 2.