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Bible Commentaries

The People's Bible by Joseph Parker


- Genesis

by Joseph Parker


This is a book of beginnings. Do not force the mind to immediate opinions upon it; let it tell out every bar of its new music, until the soul, startled by the unfamiliar tones, has become acquainted with the far-off melody and been brought to love its repetition in the hope that repetition may itself become a kind of interpretation. The mind ought not to rush with heedlessness or violence upon a book like Genesis, if only for the one reason that it is Genesis, and not Finis. Nor is there any sound reasoning in the easy philosophy which says that the Hebrew language, or other Eastern speech, is given to hyperbole, or such wealth of expression as is inconsistent with literal exactitude or arithmetical precision. What is exactitude? What is precision? In the expression of religious thought is that the right language which rebukes imagination and makes a final standard of the alphabet, or is that the right language which contemns its own inability to overtake the sacred meaning, and seeks by what is called exaggeration to express what is inexpressible? The Hebrew language is as certainly a Divine creation as is the mouth of man. "Who hath made man's mouth?" In whatever degree other and later languages may be indebted to the invention of grammarians, I cannot but find in the Hebrew tongue an instrument bearing special witness to the Divine hand. Its very amplitude is part of the fulness of all other things. It is a speech, bearing seed after its own kind, a language from which all other language has been deduced without impoverishing the original abundance. We must not, therefore, evade many a difficulty under the easy plea that Oriental languages are pictorial, redundant, imaginative, or hyperbolical. God himself is to our poor thought the great hyperbole. The universe must be an infinite exaggeration to any single part of its own entirety. The truly religious reason and emotion tarries us up to a region where exaggeration is impossible, where passion is temperance, where madness is composure, where every word in human speech must be crushed into one syllable with which to begin the utterance of the unutterable. If we degrade ourselves into merely literal critics, we disqualify ourselves to judge religious truth; yet this is what men have done of set purpose, and with some show of mental vanity, actually boasting that in the suppression of feeling they would begin the study of God. Hence we have seen a huge literary apparatus in place of the shadow of an Attar clothed with radiant clouds, and a thousand critics in place of an innumerable company of worshippers. In religious study there is but one thing better than speech, and that is silence. If we have speech, it must be great speech. Words must come like strong rivers too deep to be noisy and not like shallow brooks that fret the ear with petulant self-consciousness. It is so the Divine Hebrew speech flows through the Church; "the river of God is full of water," a most plentiful stream, worthy of the Fountain whence it flows, worthy of the Throne whither it returns.

"Handfuls of Purpose"

For All Gleaners

I. "Ye shall be as gods." Genesis 3:5 .

II. "God took him." Genesis 5:24 .

III. "The place of the altar, which he made there at the first." Genesis 13:4 .

IV. "And his sons Isaac and Ishmael buried him." Genesis 25:9 .

V. "I have learned by experience." Genesis 30:27 .

VI. "And Laban called it Jegar-Sahadutha, but Jacob called it Galeed." Genesis 31:47 .

VII. "The sun rose upon him." Genesis 32:31 .

VIII. "And Esau said, I have enough, my brother? Genesis 33:9 .

IX. "Gad, a troop shall overcome him: but he shall overcome at the last" Genesis 49:19 .

X. "And when Joseph's brethren saw that their father was dead, they said, Joseph will peradventure hate us, and will certainly requite us all the evil which we did unto him." Genesis 50:15 .

The Panorama of Genesis*

All books of action, as distinguished from books of thought, admit of being viewed in what may be termed a panoramic way; that is to say, the whole may be so seen as to express the purpose of the book without being distracted by the endless detail; the difference between a panoramic view and a critico-historical view being in some degree the difference between a terrestrial globe and a set of topographical maps. In the latter, a market place may be quite an important feature; in the former, it is utterly without recognition. Such a book as Genesis may be thrown into a panoramic form, so as to impress the memory and affect the heart as no mere detail can ever do. Suppose the whole book to have been read through at once without pause or distraction, what would be the mental condition of the reader? The mind would, for the moment, be stunned by the infinite action. Rest there has been none. The action has been as the swell and rush of great seas, and the varied noise has blended in its boom, tempests of wind, roars of thunder, and cruel floods. Never book spake like this book. What is the vision? How lies the land of wonder? Son of man, what seest thou? Form rises out of shapelessness; beasts wander over the earth; birds fly in the wide firmament; a man is made, and then a sweet, fair woman, who seems to be himself idealised; a garden a home all blossoms, a church of leaves, through which, as the soft wind parts them, one can see God. Two men a murderer, one of them; more men; cities; interchanges, inventions; then dreams, pilgrimages, new outlooks, and covenants which tell that falsehood is possible. Amid all the rush there is a strange quietness; there are men who stay at home to make fields fruitful, and keep the flocks from harm; quiet women, who know every change in the face of the sky, and the temper of every wind that hides its fury in a moan. Yes, sweet scenes on the uplands, in the valleys, and on the edge of the wilderness homes where peace lives, and prayer opens the upper gate; and homes of another sort, where jealousy rises before daybreak, where discontent makes every feast a disappointment, and where revenge whets its weapon in secret. So lies the wonderland so breaks the morning on the awakening earth.

The mind can keep no steady line in the contemplation of this book of wonders. This "beginning" of creation is the burial of ages. The punctuation of the first chapter of Genesis is a punctuation of centuries; say every comma represents ten thousand of our little years, every semicolon a myriad ages, every period a practical eternity. If we had a right sense of duration, we should read the Book of Genesis more intelligently. We are the victims of the clocks we have made. We think we have made the "day" as well as the clock, and by our clock we measure God's "evening" and God's "morning." We need, too, to correct our ideas of space as well as our conceptions of time. About space we know nothing. Quantity is a term we cannot define. In the highest imagining Time is impossible, and Space is also impossible, except in relation to other duration and quantity, towards which the relation is only possible, not actual; for whilst an hour may have a relation to a millennium, a millennium can have no relation to an eternity. So we cannot read the first of Genesis at all, excepting in some mumbling manner which leaves out all the music. We should read better, if we had no vexing clock ticking its impertinences in ears that should be filled with the boom of eternity. As for space, let the firmament rebuke us. There is room enough in that roof to make Venus but a diamond and Jupiter a sparkle of amber. Up there, the burning worlds are mere glints of pale fire; there the constellations take up no room; there the created universe is less than nothing beside the majesty of the uncreated God. We must not play the critic in this chapter, for we can neither measure its distance nor handle its materials. Be it history, be it allegory, be it fact in a dream, or a poem framed in fact, we cannot grasp it; we want more light, more time, more space.

So the heavens and the earth are formed, and the host of them set in temporary order. We see, at least, the outline of a universe. What is the universe? Is it but a mighty aggregation of mud, without living relations, and high purposes, and methods full of wisdom and beneficence? Is its movement a hap-chance whirl which will bring itself to a stop by its own madness, and the star-dancers drop out of rank through sheer giddiness and exhaustion? What is the universe? To me, at present, it is a boundless school, a house of God, a magnificent exemplification of unity, order, harmony, and balance of cause and effect. Its order is sensitive; let but a pin or loop in all the mechanism get out of place, and creation would shudder as if in pain. Behold the blessed, peaceful, unity no atom out of course, no dewdrop in excess, no shaft of light too luminous, no grass-blade omitted from the great audit, not a sparrow falling without record, the very hairs of our head all numbered! What harmony of movement! What infinite intersection, without rush or noise, collision, or confusion! Star glittering to star as if in cipher of light; thunder and sea utter the same sad melody; night and day but phases of the same majestic Presence. That is the universe outlined in this chapter of Eternity.

Son of man, what seest thou? The vision is now full of mystery. Men are building pillars, and writing strange words upon them; Noah builds an altar on the drenched earth; Abram piles an altar in the plain of Moreh, in the face of the hostile Canaanite; Jacob sets up a pillar near the foot of the dream-ladder fires are burning, and the Lord is smelling a sweet savour as of an acceptable sacrifice. Yet, amidst all the memorial pillars and altar fires, a marvellous work of deception and varied wickedness never ceases. Men turn from the altar to tell new lies. Men offer the sacrifice with one hand and rob their neighbour with the other. Floods, fires, devastations, all express the righteousness of God and the wickedness of man; yet the Lord will not give up the sinner, and the sinner will not wholly turn away from heaven the expectations which are prayers. The scene is full of confusion. If men would always pray, or if men would always curse, we should have the rest of consistency. But they will not. Cain murders Abel, yet in some way asks the protection of God. Jacob robs Esau, and asks for a blessing. Quite a wonderful thing is this. Is there inconsistency in God? Is he not inconsistent when he permits the wicked man to live? Does he not cease to be God when he ceases to slay the unholy? Nay, did he not uncrown himself when he made a being to whom sin was possible? Did not God himself begin the infinite rebellion? Thus, so soon, do great questions bring great troubles, and solemn wonders darken into heavy afflictions. A great moral tragedy here sets in. We must not attempt to catch this torrent in the tank of our ignorant wisdom. Let it rush On in its overwhelming fury, and, when it settles into a quiet river, we may ask some questions. Turn to some quieter scene, and say what are those black lines that run through the pages of Genesis? These are the early funerals of the race Sarah buried in the field of Ephron, in the cave of the field of Machpelah; Rachel buried in the way to Ephrath; Abraham laid to rest by the side of Sarah, in the land of Heth; Jacob going on his last journey, to join Abraham, and Sarah, Isaac, and Rebekah, and Leah. So long ago did men die! So soon were graves dug in the earth, and empty places left in the household! Ever since, the funeral march has never ceased. Well-trodden is the road that runs to the grave; a hard path; solid as lead; without a flower in all its weary miles the road that every human foot must tread. Poor burials they were, too, in that far-away time. Mere burials, solemn farewells! Yet nothing of dignity is wanting, nothing of noble pomp, nothing of ceremonial reverence. But where is the resurrection trumpet? Where the speech of immortality? Where the oath of reunion? Where the flower that cannot fade? Ah me; these are not in Genesis. Grim death is there; separation is there; good-bye is there; but it we would see Immortality we must see him of whom Moses and the prophets did write. "I am the resurrection and the life. He that believeth in me shall never die." "Death is swallowed up in victory." But the mid-day of this triumph must be waited for.

We spoke of black lines a moment since. Is there not a cause? What is sin? Is it a wart upon the hand that may be eaten off with sharp acid, or a stain upon the heart not to be touched but by the blood of Christ? Is it a mere mistake, a mischance, a knot or twist in life's string, which any child may untie or straighten? Is it a little grit on the smooth wheel, which tissue paper well used will remove, or chemist's oil dissolve and cleanse? What is sin? A stumble, but not a fall? A skin-wound, but not a fatal mischief of the heart? A discord that sets off the harmony, or a thunderbolt that crashes the organ into splinters, and leaves it without shape or tone? "Fools make a mock at sin." Fools look upon it as a variety of sport. If an enemy can twist the circles of the universe, reverse the order of the seasons, cause the sun to stagger at mid-day, and the moon to totter from the throne of night, that enemy would be sin, and there are fools who would mock the hideous disorder. Who could bear to see the blue heavens churned into foam by the plunging orbs that have been their eternal crown? Fools. What is the universe? Is it an infinite stretch of insensibility? An infinite heartlessness? An infinite vacuity? Then, truly, we may mock its misfortunes and find our laughter in the ghastliness of its ruins. To me the universe is other than this. It is my Father's house; it is a sanctuary; the very life of God runs through it and makes it glad. It is not God, indeed, but an expression of his wisdom and power, his preliminary disclosure and incarnation the light is his garment, and as for the wings of the wind he walketh upon them. My God is not an infinite Intellect; he is an infinite Heart as well. He feels, he sympathises, he suffers; he is glad in the pureness of our joy; he mourns in the bitterness of our grief. I cannot explain this. But what is there that man can explain? Not the throb of his own heart, not the uplifting of his own hand, not the origin and outgoing of his own thought. For God's fullest answer to sin we must wait further revelation than we have in Genesis. Meanwhile, even there an altar burns: even there blood begins to mean some moral mystery.

So we close this Unbeginning Beginning, or, rather, open this Gate of Wonders. The very name Genesis would seem to be inspired. "This beginning of miracles" did the Spirit of God. Other titles may be left to what we call Authorship; this is the creation of God. "Beginning" is a word which pledges no date, excludes no sane imagining a definition without boundaries not an earth, divided between the gardener and the sexton, but a Sky, a Heaven, an Eternity.

*(Found at the end of Genesis in the printed edition)

"Here endeth the First Lesson."