Give Me Jesus: A Brief Look at Method
It’s that time of year again. For most people the beginning of a new year means a swelling tide of people at the gym, which then quietly recedes back to normal by February 1st. For Christians it’s a swelling tide of people posting “I’m reading through the Bible in one year!” on Facebook.
But when the pages (or screens) crackle to life every morning, Christians run into a problem. They have to read the Old Testament. Now I suspect it’s not just Leviticus or Deuteronomy that gives people fits. The issue runs deeper. What’s the point of all these stories? What am I supposed to learn?
Many read these stories for moral instruction (Group A): “Because Isaac & Rebekah played favorites, their children turned against each other, so don’t play favorites!” Others (Group B) think that the point of the Old Testament is to reveal man’s sin and God’s holy character. Some (a subset of Group B) with this view admit that certain passages of the Old Testament point to God’s coming salvation in Jesus Christ, say Genesis 3:15 or Isaiah 53, but not all of the Old Testament. Still others (Group C) believe that all of the Old Testament points to Jesus Christ. Certain passages are more explicit (see above), other passages are more oblique, but the whole warp and weft of the Old Testament is threaded with promises, figures, prophecies, themes, images, histories that converge on he who is unlike any other—Jesus Christ.
To belong to Group C doesn’t mean that we neglect the moral lessons or the revelation of God’s holiness in the Old Testament. Rather such teachings gain depth and bring life because they are tied to Jesus’s person and work for us. The moral lessons do not hang like millstones around our necks because we stand on the solid rock of Christ who fulfilled all righteousness for us. God’s holiness does not crush us in slavish fear but produces reverence because we are fully loved and accepted as sons—all because of God’s true Son.
As we encounter strange stories and odd figures in our Old Testament readings, our approach ought to be one where we intentionally ask the question: What does this text have to do with Christ? We can safely ask this question because Jesus himself taught his disciples this way (Luke 24). To do otherwise would be to miss the context of not just the immediate passage but the larger context in which the passage must be interpreted: the grand narrative of God bringing salvation to a once-perfect, but now-fallen world through Jesus Christ.
Easier said than done right? Most of you using those one-year Bible reading plans have already passed through Genesis 10. But how many of you were blessed that day by the recounting of the genealogies of Noah’s three sons? And what does Genesis 10 have to do with Christ?
Three Lines: How Genesis 10 Leads Us to Christ
We begin to uncover the purpose of Genesis 10 by looking back at the end of Genesis 9.  In v.25, after Noah realizes Ham’s evil deed against him, he prophesies over all three sons and their progeny. Ham receives a curse against his son, Shem receives blessing, and Japheth receives a blessing as well—sort of.
The easy lesson is to say, “Respect your parents, or bad things will happen to you.” But why does Shem receive the primary blessing and Japheth the secondary? Both had covered the nakedness of Noah without looking upon it. Yet Shem, whose name means “name”, is the one who receives the name of God. Japheth’s blessing depends on Shem, “let him dwell in the tents of Shem,” and so is a derived blessing. And again, what’s the deal with the genealogies?
A major clue is the language of blessing and cursing. To be blessed, even at this early stage in history, was to receive God’s favor. Adam and Eve were blessed soon after creation, bestowed with favor to multiply and image God throughout the earth. But to be cursed meant to be under the judgment of God. Cain was cursed after murdering Abel. Adam and Eve were cursed post-Fall, and so was the serpent. And in Genesis 3:15, we hear the latter half of the serpent’s curse: “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel.”
What’s interesting about this verse in relation to Noah’s three lines is the idea of two offspring—the serpent’s and the woman’s. Throughout Scripture, humanity is constantly taking divergent paths. One path is the serpent’s path, the path away from God as God’s enemies, and like the serpent, this path is cursed. Those who follow it receive God’s judgment. The other path is that of the woman’s, the path towards God as God’s children, and this is the path of blessing. Thus, in Genesis 9, when Noah curses Canaan and blesses Shem, he is once again marking off humanity into two categories, the people opposed to God and the people who follow God. The line of Ham is the new line of Cain and the line of Shem is the new line of Seth. It comes as no surprise that Ham’s son Canaan becomes the Canaanites who oppose the true God-worshippers—the Israelites of the line of Shem—when they return to the Promised Land.
But what about Japheth? Why a third line? And why the genealogies? Again, we need to reflect back on Genesis 3:15. In a strange way, the Bible is about offspring. Offspring, children, sons and daughters are a great theme in Scripture. Adam is in a sense God’s son. He was supposed to do what a son does: represent his father, image his father’s glory, and carry out his father’s commands. But he failed and so there was a promise of another son to come who would reverse that failure. The genealogies represent the anticipation and the longing, the careful record of offspring after offspring as each generation hoped that the next generation would end the curse.
Furthermore, each successive generation displays a further differentiation between two lines. For each person listed in their generation, he surely had brothers who could have been part of the chosen line, the line that led from Shem to Abraham (see the end of Chapter 11), but there is a successive narrowing. For instance, although Abraham is of the line of the woman and of Shem, not all of his sons are of that line—Ishmael is excluded but Isaac is included. And from Isaac, it is Jacob and not Esau. And from Jacob, it is Judah and not his eleven brothers. The genealogies represent this successive narrowing as history and God’s providence seek the final offspring.
As we read our Old Testament, Shem’s line results in the nation of Israel, and there we begin to see how Japheth makes sense. Israel was meant as a blessing to the nations and many outsiders who became part of Israel or came into contact with Israelites were also blessed—from Rahab to Naaman to King Nebuchadnezzar. Japheth represents all those outside the chosen, blessed line, who yet receive the blessings by association with the line of Shem. The third line of Japheth, even in Genesis 9 and 10, points to the blessing of God extending beyond the tent of Israel and to the Gentiles—the fullness of which is seen in the book of Acts.
And yet who is that final offspring, the last son in the line of the Shem? Who is the one who ends the curse and overturns the serpent? Who is the one who truly represents God and is God’s faithful son, more than Abraham, more than Jacob, and David, and Solomon and the nation of Israel? He who alone deserves the blessing of God, but extends the corners of his tent to bring all nations, all peoples, all tribes and tongues into his camp and to know the presence of God is none other than Christ Jesus.
We can read Genesis 10 in our Bible reading plan and truly rejoice because though we were of the line of Ham, it was Shem’s final son who brought us into the line of Japheth so that we too might dwell in the tents of our God. And when we read Scripture as God intended it, the text comes alive—for in it we encounter the living Christ.