Lessons Print Article
Lesson Three: East of Eden, Headed to Egypt
1. To read Genesis 3-50 with understanding.
2. To understand God’s covenants with Noah and with Abraham and to see how these covenants look forward to, and are fulfilled in the New Covenant of Jesus Christ.
3. To appreciate the key figures in the story of Abraham - Melchizedek, circumcision, the sacrifice of Isaac - as they are interpreted in the Church’s tradition.
- East of Eden, Before the Flood
- After the Flood
- Our Father Abraham
- Age of the Patriarchs
- Study Questions
In our last lesson, we left our first family, Adam and Eve, on the outside of paradise looking in - exiled by their sin and disobedience, their failure to live up to the demands of God’s covenant.
The chapters that follow (see Genesis 4-5) show us the "fruits" of Adam and Eve’s original sin: We see that human seed now is mixed between the good and evil. The tension between the two seeds - already prophesied by God in the garden (see Genesis 3:15) - shapes much of the remainder of Genesis, especially the book’s first 11 chapters.
The "first fruits" of Adam and Eve - their son Cain - is born of bad seed; his younger brother, Abel, of good. Cain kills Abel, becomes the world’s first murderer. As Adam and Eve, the first children of God, rejected the Fatherhood of God, their bad seed rejects the family of man that God intended to create. This is symbolized in Cain’s pitiless, spiteful words to God: "Am I my brother’s keeper?" (see Genesis 4:9).
Cain’s wicked line grows and one of his descendants becomes the first to take two wives - a perversion of the order of marriage God established in the garden (see Genesis 2:21-24) - and boasts of his murderous, vengeful ways (see Genesis 4:23-34).
Then Adam and Eve produce a good seed - Seth. It’s the children of Seth, born of Seth’s son, Enosh, who first begin to develop a personal, prayerful relationship with God - they "invoke the Lord by name" (see Genesis 4:26). The word name in Hebrew is shem. Just remember that for now, it will become important later.
Chapters 4 and 5 of Genesis give us a kind of comparison of the "bad seed" and "good seed" of Adam. We read of the sons of Cain (see Genesis 4:17-24) and the sons of Seth (see Genesis 5:1-32). From the first, come the unrighteous sons and "daughters of man" and from the latter, the righteous "sons of heaven" (see Genesis 6:2).
But sin infects even the righteous. And Seth’s descendants, seduced by the beauty of the daughters of Cain’s line, take them as wives. Worse yet, they follow Lamech’s example and take more than one wife - "as many of them as they chose" (see Genesis 6:1-4).
The fruits of the "intercourse" of the sons of Seth and the daughters of Cain were men of even more violence and wickedness - "men of renown," which Scripture elsewhere calls "proud giants…skilled in war" (see Wisdom 14:6; Baruch 3:26-27).
Finally, God is overcome with "sorrow" and "regret" at "how corrupt the earth had become, since all mortals led depraved lives" (see Genesis 6:5,7,12). Remember: God doesn’t actually get sorry or repent or change His mind like humans do - this is just a figure of speech to tell us how awful things had become (see Numbers 23:19; Malachi 3:6).
The story of the flood (Chapters 7-9) is told as a new creation story, with lots of subtle and obvious references back to Genesis 1. In the context of the entire book of Genesis, the flood story shows us God giving the world a new start, starting His family anew in the line of Seth.
Noah is like a new Adam. Like Adam, Noah is given authority over the animals (compare 1:26 and 9:2-3). He is also given the same command as God gave to Adam: "be fertile and multiply and fill the earth." (compare 1:28 and 9:1). Finally, as He did with Adam, God makes a covenant with Noah and through him with all living beings (compare 2:1-2 and 9:13).
With this covenant with Noah, God renews the covenant He made with creation in the beginning. The rainbow sign is like the Sabbath, a symbol of God’s communion with His creation. We have here, the second of the major covenants that form the "organizational principle" of the Bible.
Remember what we said in our first lesson: The Bible is organized according to a series of family-making covenants. With each covenant God reveals a little bit more of Himself to us. In the covenant with Noah He gives the family of God the shape of a nuclear family - Noah and his wife and their children. We’ve moved beyond the husband and wife model that He revealed in the covenant of creation.
Remember what else we said about the covenants in the Bible: Each one points us toward the new and everlasting covenant of Jesus. The covenant symbolized by Adam and Eve pointed us towards the covenant bond between Christ and His Church, which is to be a marriage-like union (see Ephesians 5:21-33).
The covenant with Noah points us to the sacrament of Baptism, by which we become, like Jesus and Noah, beloved sons and daughters in whom God is well pleased (compare Genesis 6:4,8 and Matthew 3:17). The Baptism He brings, like the flood, will destroy sin, and bring us the gift of the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove (compare Genesis 8:8-12 and Matthew 3:16).
Unfortunately, human history after the flood unfolds much as it did after creation.
As Adam (whose name in Hebrew literally means "ground") was given a garden to till, Noah plants a vineyard and becomes "a man of the soil" (compare Genesis 1:2 and 7:11). And as the forbidden fruit of the garden proves to be Adam’s downfall, so the fruit of Noah’s vine - wine - becomes his. And like Adam’s fall, Noah’s exposes his sin and nakedness (see Genesis 3:6-7; 9:21) and results in a curse (see Genesis 3:14-19; 9:25).
What’s going on in the story of Ham uncovering "his father’s nakedness" (see Genesis 9:22)? In Hebrew, this phrase is a figure of speech used to describe incest (Leviticus 20:17; 18:6-18. Note: In other places besides the story of Noah and Ham, The New American Bible translates this phrase as "to have intercourse with." The Revised Standard Version in all cases keeps the more literal translation "uncover the nakedness of." See RSV-Leviticus 20:17; 18:6-18).
To uncover the nakedness of your father is to commit incest with your mother. To state it bluntly, in all its brutality - while Noah was drunk, Ham slept with his mother. We don’t know what Ham was thinking. It could be that he wanted to seize power from his dad and this heinous act was his way of insulting Noah and showing his total disrespect (see similar episodes in Genesis 29:32; 35:22; 49:3-4; 2 Samuel 16:21-22).
But notice that Noah doesn’t curse Ham. He curses Canaan - the son born of this incestuous encounter. Why Canaan? It’s another hint in the text of what Ham’s crime was. As we’ll see later, Canaan will be the founding father of a nation that will be known for its abominable practice of maternal incest (see Leviticus 18:6-18; Exodus 23:23-24).
Canaan is the bad fruit born of Noah’s sin. But as Adam bore both Cain, the slayer of his brother, and Seth the righteous one, Noah too has a good seed: his firstborn son Shem, who had tried to "cover" his father’s nakedness (see Genesis 9:23).
As he curses Canaan, the bad seed, Noah blesses Shem: "Blessed be the Lord, the God of Shem" (see Genesis 9:26) and says that he will prevail over the wicked spawn, Canaan.
It is interesting to note, too, that the only other episode of drunkenness in Genesis is also associated with incest - and the birth of immoral nations hostile to the people of God. That’s the story of Lot’s daughters, who ply Lot with wine and then lie with him in incestuous unions that are the origin of the Moabites and the Ammonites (see Genesis 19:30-38).
And so Genesis continues - telling the story of the conflict between the two seeds of Noah, the good and the bad. The descendants of Ham become the great national enemies of the people of God - Egypt (10:6), Canaan (10:6), Philistia (10:14), Assyria (10:11), and Babylon (10:10).
From this bad line, came the nations who tried to build the Tower of Babel in order "to make a name [Hebrew = shem] for themselves" (Genesis 11:1-9). In other words, they were trying to build a kind of "counter-kingdom" to stand against the name of God.
As an aside: it’s interesting to note that in Genesis there seems to be a connection between the "name" (shem) and a person’s relationship with God. The big sinners in Genesis - beginning with Adam and Eve who fall for Satan’s promise of being "like gods" - all seem to be trying to make a name for themselves, to exalt themselves, to live as if they don’t need God.
Think back to Cain. When he builds a city, what does he do? He "names" it after his son, Enoch (see Genesis 4:17). That’s all the builders of the Tower of Babel were doing. Trying to glorify their name, their works.
The righteous ones in Genesis don’t try to exalt their name. Instead, they rejoice in the blessings of God - they "call on the name of the Lord." While Cain is glorifying his name, his righteous brother Seth is hallowing the Lord’s name, seeking His blessing (see Genesis 4:26).
We’ll see this pattern continue with the righteous Abraham (see Genesis 12:8; 13:4; 21:33) and with Isaac (26:25). It’s implied, too, in Noah’s blessing of Shem (9:26). By the way, that’s the first time in the Bible that God is associated with an individual, or where a person is identified by his or her relationship with God. He is "the God of Shem."
This pattern, too, continues in next chapter of Genesis - as God promises to make Abraham’s "name" great. Abraham’s name is made great by being associated with the name of God. God will even refer to Himself as "the God of Abraham" (see Genesis 26:24; 28:3; Matthew 22:32; Acts 7:3).
Throughout the Old Testament, we’ll see that the righteous are those who praise the name of the Lord, and seek n that name their blessing and their help (see Deuteronomy 28:10; Psalm 124:8; 129:8; Proverbs 18:10; Joel 2:23; Micah 4:5; Zephanaiah 3:12). This continues in the New Testament, where "every one who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved" (see Romans 10:13; Acts 2:21; 4:12).
From the good seed of humanity, the line of God’s righteous, Shem’s line, comes the first of the great patriarchs, "Abraham the Hebrew" (see Genesis 14:13).
This is the first time the word "Hebrew" appears in the Bible and it’s linked to the name of Eber, another son of Shem (see Genesis 10:21). This is why we refer to the chosen people the Hebrews. The descendants of Abraham are also known as "Shemites" or "Semites." Which is where we get our expression for hatred of Jews - "anti-Semitic," which means, hatred of the descendants of the righteous line of Shem.
With the story of Abraham we turn a page in salvation history. The remainder of Genesis (chapters 12-50) tells the story of the "patriarchs," the founding fathers of the chosen people. In Genesis 12-25:18, we’ll read about Abraham and his two sons, Ishmael and Isaac. In Genesis 25:19-36:43, we hear the story of Isaac and his two sons, Esau and Jacob. And the book concludes, in Chapters 37-50, with the story of Jacob’s 12 children, founders of the tribes of Israel, and especially Jacob’s son, Joseph.
For simplicity’s sake, we’re going to refer to him as "Abraham" throughout this lesson, even though he’s called " Abram" until God changes his name in Genesis 17:5.
God is going to make a covenant with Abraham, and by that covenant He is going to re-orient human history, give it a new possibility, a new goal.
The covenant with Abraham has three parts, and it begins with three promises: to make Abraham a great nation (see Genesis 12:1); to give him a great name (12:2); and to make him the source of blessing for all the world (12:3).
God later "upgrades" these three promises - turning them into divine covenants. God swears not only make Abraham a great nation, He makes a covenant in which He promises to deliver Abraham’s descendants from oppression in an alien land and give them a specific territory of land (see Genesis 15:7-21). Not only will his name be great, but God by a covenant oath swears to make Abraham "father of a host of nations," a royal dynasty - "kings shall stem from you" (see Genesis 17:1-21).
God elevates His third promise by swearing to make Abraham’s descendants "as countless as the stars of the sky and the sands of the seashore." In Abraham’s descendants "All the nations of the earth shall find blessing" (see Genesis 22:16-18).
By these three covenant oaths, God points our eyes to the future of salvation history.
Abraham is made a great nation in the Exodus, when by the covenant He makes with Moses, God makes Abraham’s descendants into a nation possessing the land promised to Abraham (see Genesis 46:3-4). We will read about this in our next lesson, when we look at the books of Exodus through Deuteronomy.
And finally, these covenants point us to Jesus. His New Covenant fulfills God’s promise to make the children of Abraham the source of blessing for all the nations. That’s why in the very first line of the New Testament we find the words "Jesus Christ…the son of Abraham" (see Matthew 1:1).
There are three more scenes from the dramatic life of Abraham that we need to look at because they point us forward to the New Testament.
The first is Melchizedek, the mysterious king of Salem, who makes his appearance after Abraham defeats the warrior kings to free his nephew Lot (Genesis 14).
Notice that he appears out of nowhere. He has no genealogy and his capital, "Salem" isn’t mentioned before in the book. Salem, as we see later in the Bible, is a short form of the name Jerusalem (see Psalm 76:2).
Melchizedek brings out bread and wine and declares a blessing on Abraham. The Church Fathers, saw this is as foreshadowing the Eucharist. And the Church’s Liturgy reflects this tradition in its First Eucharist Prayer, which refers to "the bread and wine offered by your priest Melchizedek (see Catechism, no. 1333).
The Bible sees Melchizedek as a figure of the son of David, who is declared "a priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek" (see Psalm 110:4). He is also, in the New Testament, seen as a figure of Jesus, the eternal royal high-priest (see Hebrews 7).
Circumcision is the sign God gives of His covenant oath to make Abraham’s descendants a royal dynasty. "Thus my covenant shall be in your flesh as an everlasting pact" (see Genesis 17:1-14). Jesus is circumcised to show that He is in the flesh a member of the people of the covenant (see Luke 2:21).
But circumcision is also a physical sign that points us to Baptism, the spiritual and sacramental sign by which we enter into the New Covenant, the royal family of God.
Already in the prophets, "circumcision of the heart" had become a sign of dedication of one’s whole being to God (see Deuteronomy 10:16; Jeremiah 4:4; compare Romans 2:25-29; 1 Corinthians 7:18-19). The prophet Jeremiah said that the law of the New Covenant would be written on the heart (see Jeremiah 31:31-34). This happens in Baptism which is the "circumcision of Christ" (see Colossians 2:11) and the true circumcision (Philippians 3:3).
St. Paul said that the story of Abraham’s two sons - the illegitimate Ishmael born to the slave girl Hagar, and his heir Isaac born by God’s promise to his wife Sarah - was meant to symbolize the difference between the New Covenant and the Old Covenant (see Galatians 4:21-31).
But there is an even more profound symbolism in the awful test that God gives to Abraham - to offer his only beloved son, Isaac, as a sacrifice.
Beginning in the Bible and coming to full flower in the writings of Church Fathers like St. Augustine, this story was seen as foreshadowing God’s offering of his only beloved Son on the Cross at Calvary (see John 3:16).
God twice here praises Abraham’s faithfulness - "You did not withhold from me your own beloved son" (see Genesis 22:12,15). St. Paul cites the Greek translation of these exact words when He talks about the Crucifixion - "He who did not spare His own Son but handed Him over for us all…" (see Romans 8:32).
There are other interesting parallels that Church Fathers saw:
For instance, the mountain where God tells Abraham to perform the sacrifice: Mount Moriah is in same place that Melchizedek came from - Salem. It’s the site where one day Solomon will build the Lord’s Temple (see 2 Chronicles 3:1). In fact, Jewish tradition says that the name Jerusalem comes from attaching Abraham’s word of faith - God "will provide" (see Genesis 22:8; Hebrew = yir’eh or jira) to the word Salem.
Calvary, where Jesus was crucified, is one of the hills of Moriah. And as Isaac carried the wood for his own sacrifice, and submitted to being bound to the wood, so too will Jesus, "the son of Abraham" (see Matthew 1:1), carry His cross and let men bind Him to it. St. Augustine even saw in the ram caught in the thicket, an image of Christ crowned with thorns.
Even Abraham’s words to his servants: "We will worship and then come back to you" (see Genesis 22:5) can be heard as a promise of resurrection. That’s how these words are interpreted in The Letter to the Hebrews: "He reasoned that God was able to raise even from the dead, and he received Isaac back as a symbol" (see Hebrews 11:17-19). In fact, Isaac is spared "on the third day" (see Genesis 22:4).
As Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his only son was counted as a sign of his faithfulness, the sacrifice of Christ brings us "the blessing of Abraham" (see Galatians 3:14).
While her twins are fighting in her womb, God tells Rebekah that each will be a nation, but the younger of the two, Jacob, will rule the older, Esau (see Genesis 25:23).
This is another sub-plot in Genesis. Notice that God chooses always the younger son, even though the way of the world is to grant privileges and pride of place to the older. Abel’s offering is preferred to Cain’s. Isaac over Ishmael. And Jacob’s youngest son, Joseph, becomes the hero of the later books of Genesis, while Reuben, Jacob’s first-born, fails to defend him against his brothers (see Genesis 37).
Why does God do this? It’s as if the betrayal by God’s "first-born" son, Adam, upset the harmony between the ways of the world and the ways of God. But God’s plan will not be frustrated. He saves us despite ourselves, choosing the young, the weak and the sinful to show that salvation history is governed by His free grace and His love. St. Paul, interpreting this Scripture, says God chose Jacob over Esau "in order that God’s elective plan might continue, not by works but by His call…So it depends not upon a person’s will or exertion, but upon God" (see Romans 9:11-13).
We’ll see this, too, throughout the Bible, especially in the story of David, the youngest son of Jesse, who God commands to be anointed king (see 1 Samuel 16:1-13). The youngest or last born are the engines of salvation history until the coming of Jesus, God’s only begotten Son, the first-born of the new family of God. Jesus fulfills the promise of Israel, which, as we will see in our next lesson, is God’s "first-born son" among the nations (see Exodus 4:22).
Don’t be distracted by the drama and trickery of how Jacob secures Isaac’s blessing. Esau had proven himself unworthy of the blessing, selling his birthright to Jacob for a bowl of stew. As the Scripture says: "Esau cared little for his birthright" (see Genesis 25:29-34).
Jacob’s deception is criticized by the prophets (see Hosea 12:4; Jeremiah 9:3), and he gets his "payback" in the text of Genesis. For instance, he will be tricked by his uncle Laban into marrying, not Rachel whom he loves, but Laban’s firstborn daughter, Leah (Genesis 29:25). And later, when his son Joseph is sold into slavery, his other sons will deceive him by soaking Joseph’s coat in goat’s blood. The irony surely isn’t lost on the narrator of Genesis - Jacob’s deception of his father involved the use of goat skins (compare Genesis 27:15-16; 37:31-33).
But Jacob’s s lie serves God’s purposes. God chose Jacob over Esau (see Malachi 3:1; Romans 9:13). Through Jacob, God will extend the blessing he gave to Abraham (see Genesis 28:3-4). God Himself confirms this in showing Jacob a ladder into the heavens (Genesis 28:10-15). Later, Jesus will apply this dream to Himself, revealing that in Him heaven and earth touch, the human and the divine meet. He is what Jacob called "the gateway to heaven" (see John 1:51; Genesis 28:17).
And in the story of Joseph and his brothers, we again see God choosing the youngest to carry out His plan of salvation.
Joseph foreshadows the sufferings and the salvation won for us by Jesus. He is the victim of jealousy and rejection by His brothers, the children of Israel, and is sold for twenty pieces of silver into slavery in Egypt. Still he forgives his brothers and saves them from death by famine.
Again, he shows us that what men plan as evil, God can use for the purposes of His saving plan (Genesis 50:19-21).
The Bible’s first book ends with Israel on his deathbed giving his blessing to his children. To one - Judah, he promises a royal dynasty that will be everlasting (see Genesis 49:9-12). He will rule over all peoples of the world - a Scripture that the Church interprets as a promise of Jesus, the Messiah-King. The line of Judah is the line of the kings David and Solomon (see 2 Samuel 8:1-14; 1 Kings 4:20-21).
God’s family has wandered from East of Eden to Egypt. In our next lesson, we’ll see how God fulfills the promise that Jacob makes to Joseph: "God will be with you and will restore you to the land of your fathers" (see Genesis 48:21).
1. How does the covenant with Noah point us to the Sacrament of Baptism?
2. What are the three parts of the covenant that God makes with Abraham?
3. How, according to the Church’s ancient tradition, is the sacrifice of Isaac similar to the sacrifice of Christ on the Cross?
4. For Prayer and Reflection: The Church’s Liturgy of the Hours has always included the Canticle of Zechariah (see Luke 1:68-79) in its Morning Prayers and the Magnificat (see Luke 1:46-55) in its Evening Prayers. Both prayers see the coming of Jesus as the fulfillment of God’s covenant with Abraham. Pray these biblical prayers of the Church and ask God to help you understand more fully "his promise to our fathers, to Abraham and his descendants forever."