Genesis, the first book of the Bible, is revered as sacred literature by three world faiths. Even among nonbelievers, its stories are famous—stories of Adam and Eve, Noah and the Flood, and Joseph in Egypt. People of faith may view these stories as true accounts of historical people; others may see them as myths that plumb the depths of the human desire to understand the world. Whether viewed as true histories or myths, these stories express timeless and profound themes. Perhaps the greatest of these themes is redemption. From Adam’s fall in Eden to Joseph’s salvation in Egypt, redemption is the underlying message holding Genesis together as a self-contained work of literature. Redemption is consistently portrayed in the stories, characters, and symbols of Genesis as initiated by God through his election of certain individuals for salvation during a time of judgment.
In the tragic story of Adam’s fall from grace, the hope of redemption can already been seen. Adam and Eve were created to live in a paradise where everything they could ever need or want was provided for them. God gave them one commandment, however, and that was to not eat of the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. Just like the door in a fairytale that one is never supposed to open, this is the one thing that Adam and Eve did. By disobeying God, they brought death upon themselves and all mankind. Suddenly, they and their offspring were in need of redemption.
To “redeem” literally means to “buy back.” Adam and Eve were now in bondage to sin and death, and they would need to be bought back if they were to experience God’s favor once again. The ancient author describes how God fashioned clothes for Adam and Eve to cover their nakedness. The clothing, being made from animal skins, functions like a symbol; it points forward to the sacrificial system of the ancient Israelites. Animals had to be slain in order for Adam and Eve to be covered, and so the promise of redemption is present in this symbol that ultimately looks ahead to Israel’s experience in Egypt and the slaying of the Passover lamb. According to the Documentary Hypothesis, Genesis was written at a later period in Israel’s history; it makes sense, therefore, that Genesis would reflect the themes and interests that were present in the Jewish religion at that later time (Friedman, 53).
The well-known story of Noah and the Flood is another example of how Genesis develops the theme of redemption by linking it more closely to the related themes of judgment and election. The world had fallen into great sin (Genesis 6:5), and God regretted that he had created mankind. He decided to wipe out the world’s population, except for one righteous man and his family. In the midst of God’s judgment, Noah and his family were preserved alive in the safety of the ark. They were elected to salvation. One interesting detail in this story highlights how the author of Genesis sees redemption as being the initiative of God. It was God who shut the door of the ark with his own hand (Genesis 7:16), which symbolizes that redemption is a divine act. It is not something that mankind can engineer for himself, but which God has to bring to pass for those he chooses.
At first glance, the story of Sodom and Gomorrah—two cities utterly destroyed by God’s wrath—would not seem to be a story of redemption at all (Genesis 19). The fiery death and judgment is well known; but when one reads the story more closely, one sees that this is really the story of the redemption of Lot and his family. Lot was elected by God, just like Noah had been, to be preserved alive with his family. God sent angels to deliver them from the coming destruction that God was about to rain down upon the city. The pairing of these two supporting themes—election in the midst of judgment—was no doubt highly meaningful to the Israelites at the time when Genesis was written. The Israelites saw themselves as a chosen people who were preserved by God, and they would have identified their national history with these themes and characters in the stories of Genesis.
The most sustained and detailed narrative of redemption in Genesis is the story of Joseph’s betrayal by his brothers and his ultimate deliverance from captivity. Occupying the last one-fifth of the book, this story is like a miniature epic or a short novel. As the second youngest son of Jacob, Joseph would not have been the logical choice in that traditional culture to be selected for a great purpose. Nevertheless, he is the one that God selected for a special role—both to be saved and to save others. Once again, his story would have resonated with meaning for the ancient Israelites; Joseph’s story of bondage in Egypt paralleled the story of Israel in Egypt and its deliverance under Moses.
Joseph was himself redeemed; but he also became a redeemer. The greater role that God had for Joseph was that he would become the means whereby his family would be saved. At the end of the story, Joseph was able to acknowledge that the hand of God had been instrumental in every circumstance of his life. Joseph stated to his own brothers who had betrayed him years earlier: “While you meant evil toward me, God meant it for good” (Genesis 50:20). This statement, coming at the end of the book of Genesis, can be seen as a summary of how the theme of redemption operates throughout the book. Sin brought evil into the Garden of Eden, but God turned that ultimately to good. The world was in rebellion during the time of Noah, but God redeemed Noah and remade the world. Out of the judgment of Sodom and Gomorrah, once again God brought something good by redeeming those he elected. This repeated message would have given hope to the Israelites during the various times in their history when they were oppressed and taken into captivity. If God had redeemed his chosen people before, then he could be expected to redeem his chosen people once again.
- Alter, Robert, ed. Genesis: Translation and Commentary. New York: Norton, 1997.
- Friedman, Richard Elliott. Who Wrote the Bible? New York: HarperCollins, 1997.