This is the first of a short “Genesis January” series helping people explore the complexity of the Bible at the start of a new year.

My wife’s college roommate would sometimes tell people, “I’m a descendant of George Washington!” It was an interesting way to start a conversation at a party, but more than that, I think, she was claiming a connection to the founding father as a way of writing herself into the history of America. Her story was America’s story, through this somewhat dubious lineage.

We do something similar when we read Genesis. The best way to read the first book of the Bible, with its sprawling story of a dysfunctional family, is to read ourselves into the text. We need to find ways to find ourselves as part of the narrative.

It is natural for most of us to feel a strangeness, reading Genesis, because we come to this story as outsiders who have been invited in. We are, as the apostle Paul said, grafted in through Jesus (Rom. 11:17–24). We have been adopted into this narrative about God’s family, and become children of Abraham, so that “in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Gen. 12:3, ESV).

If you’re reading it for the first time, or the first time in a while, you’ll see pretty quickly that the story of Abraham is a story of profound family dysfunction. We find our place in the narrative easily, because that family is so fractured. But then it is also the story about a promise of restoration—a story where we can be re-storied, re-narrated, restored. That’s the power and promise of Genesis.

But as we read, we really have to prepare for the dysfunction. Consider perhaps the most upsetting bit of parenting in Genesis: when Abraham attempts to sacrifice his son Isaac. If the parent of one of your child ’s friends confided in you, “God is telling me to kill my child,” you would hopefully dial 911. So what then are we to make of God ’s command that Abraham sacrifice his son? What kind of God would make this request? What kind of parent would agree? The text offers only a meager explanation: “After these things God tested Abraham” (Gen. 22:1, ESV, emphasis added). What things?

Decades earlier, immediately following the Lord’s calling, Abraham had found himself sojourning in Egypt. Fearing that the Egyptians would kill him to take his beautiful wife, Abraham passes off Sarah as his sister.

Pharaoh, who is known for taking what he likes, predictably takes Sarah into his house. Abraham is showered with gifts, but then Pharaoh is afflicted with plagues. So much for God ’s promise to make Abraham a blessing to all the families of the earth.

Article continues below

We might hope this early episode is a teachable moment for Abraham. He could learn to trust God and not make up weird lies about his wife being his sister. But then, several chapters later, he’s just as fecklessly trying to deceive another authority in the same way. He tells King Abimelech of Gerar that Sarah is his sister.

And lest we think this is just an Abraham problem, Genesis informs us that Abraham ’s son Isaac does the same thing. This weird bit of familial dysfunction happens three times in two marriages in the first book of the Bible!

This threefold repetition is an invitation to pause and ponder. Can we find ourselves in this odd repetition in the text? How do we repeatedly take matters into our own hands when fear leads us to doubt God ’s promise?

The whole she’s my sister business isn’t the only thing that might prompt God to test Abraham. Another one of “these things” may have been the episode when Abraham consented to Sarah’s plan to speed the promise along and get a child by impregnating a woman they have enslaved, Hagar. The text leaves little room to doubt that this was a terrible idea that leads to conflict and turmoil instead of the promised blessing.

Eventually, God must spell things out, informing the elderly couple that the promise will be fulfilled by the child they will have together. Both respond with incredulous laughter. They are now in their 90s! It’s one thing to believe God’s promises when they lie within the realm of possibility. But it’s another when the promises are simply ridiculous. And in this family, whether the promises are believable or not, they like to have a plan B ready just in case, an alternative way to take things into their own hands.

The question for us, reading this story, is whether we can relate. Disbelief. Cowardice. Plotting. Does this sound like us? Does this dysfunction sound familiar?

If it does, then we are prepared to see that God’s redemption of Abraham and Sarah can be our redemption too. Like them, we can see that we’ve had some “these things,” where we turned to our plan B instead of trusting God.

But the God of Genesis, importantly, is the kind of God who doesn’t just give up on the dysfunctional human family. Instead, there is this test of Abraham’s loyalty on Mount Moriah. Will Abraham trust in God’s promise even if the only tangible proof of its fulfillment—his only son Isaac—should die? Or will he resort once again to plan B?

Article continues below

The story of Abraham and Sarah invites us to see ourselves and connect ourselves to the hope of a promise beyond the wreckage of our bad decisions, our failures to trust God, and the families that we’ve messed up. We get to be children of Abraham.

Of course, the story of the immediate children of Abraham, and those children’s children, alerts us to the fact that our dysfunction is still an issue. By the time Abraham ’s great-grandson Joseph is a teenager, the relational dynamic within this family has—if possible—gotten worse.

Joseph’s older brothers conspire to murder him but settle instead upon a hasty plan to sell him into slavery in Egypt. The fallout from this betrayal shapes the final narrative arc of Genesis. After nearly 15 years, Joseph and his brothers are reunited. By this point, Joseph has risen to prominence as Pharaoh’s viceroy, before whom his brothers appear in a desperate attempt to buy grain during a famine. Joseph recognizes his brothers instantly, but plays the stranger. For the next several chapters, Joseph engineers an elaborate game of cat-and-mouse, accusing his brothers of spying, twice planting stolen goods in their packs, imprisoning his brother Simeon, and threatening to imprison his younger brother Benjamin.

In the end, Joseph reveals himself, embracing his traitorous brothers in tears. Why all this subterfuge? Did Joseph intend to confront his brothers with their guilt to prepare the way for reconciliation? Or was the goal of his drama all along simply revenge? When reconciliation bounds onto the stage at the climax of the narrative, is Joseph just as surprised as his brothers?

We are not told, but one thing is clear: Forgiveness in the face of such crushing betrayal does not come easily. Joseph has been betrayed by those who should have loved and protected him. But we as readers can see that the crippling reality of this betrayal takes its place within the more capacious reality of God ’s gracious provision.

As Joseph explains to his brothers in the final pages: “Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good, in order to preserve a numerous people, as he is doing today” (50:20). Joseph’s individual story, in this way, is renarrated as the larger story of God’s good work.

Article continues below

The question for us, then, is how to invite God to renarrate the stories of our own family dysfunction. The beginning chapters of Genesis offer us two practical truths to assist us in this task.

While we may feel, as Leo Tolstoy once observed, that our family dysfunction makes us unique, Genesis invites us to see how the pain and brokenness of the story we ’ve been born into can be part of a larger narrative of fulfilled promises.

We may be convinced that we are damaged goods, part of a damaged family, broken beyond restoration, but Genesis 1 reminds us that our story does not begin with our birth. Rather, we have been written into a story that begins this way: “God saw all that he had made, and it was very good” (1:31, NIV) God speaks goodness into being, and you and I are part of that goodness.

The first practical truth is this: We are not defined by our dysfunction. We bear the image of the God of boundless power and love. Our story begins not in sin but in goodness. It is not enough simply to know this truth; we must daily remember it. This daily act of remembering will be helped if we begin our day in stillness and quiet, in prayer and worship, and in gratitude.

When we turn to Genesis 2, we see that the God who speaks creation into being is also the God who kneels down and gets his hands dirty. We are creatures fashioned by God’s own hands, humans made from humus (in Hebrew, adam from adamah). Having breathed his own breath into this mud creature, God proceeds to work with the human to solve—together—one of the most basic of human problems: loneliness.

We observe that the first try doesn’t quite get it right: Having named all the animals as God has instructed, the man still has not found a partner. No matter; God tries a new strategy, bringing forth from the man himself a “corresponding strength” (in Hebrew, ezer kenegdo). “At last,” the man cries, “bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh … Woman” (2:23).

The second practical truth, then, is this: No matter the problem we find ourselves in, God is prepared to get down on his knees beside us. No matter how messy our families are (or how profoundly they have messed us up), God is prepared to get his hands dirty in the mess and muck of our lives. We must hold these truths together. God is the one who speaks goodness into being. And God is the one, when we fail or when life fails us, who is right there beside us, working with us to make us whole.

Article continues below

And God’s way of making us whole, of restoring us, is to re-story us, to renarrate our stories by enfolding them in his own story, a strange and wonderful story stretching from the goodness of creation to the resplendent glory of the new creation.

Strange as it is, Genesis is our story, for it addresses questions of fundamental human importance. In it we learn that we are creatures made in God ’s image, filled with God’s breath, called to faithfully represent God’s loving rule on earth. We learn of our fateful choice to listen to the cunning serpent, becoming cunning as a result and hiding from God in our shame. We learn of the disastrous results of our choice that persist even still: death, chaos, and confusion. But above all we learn of God’s plan to set things right, a plan to turn curse into blessing, a plan that we also have been called to join.

Julien Smith is an associate professor of humanities and theology at Valparaiso University. He has authored Christ the Ideal King: Cultural Context, Rhetorical Strategy and Paul and The Good Life: Transformation and Citizenship in the Commonwealth of God.

[ This article is also available in español and Indonesian. ]