Why do bad things happen to good people? Why do the wicked prosper? Why is there so much frustration, pain, and seemingly pointless suffering in this world? These are tough questions, and they are made even more challenging to answer because they are usually asked out of acute emotional anguish, provoked by difficult circumstances.
Around noon on Wednesday, Congresswoman Jackie Walorski (R-Ind.) was killed in a head-on collision, along with two members of her staff and the other driver. One staffer who died was her communications director, Emma Thomson, who was deeply involved in serving and discipling at my church, and who will be deeply mourned by many. Whether slow or sudden, large or small, we all experience calamities that cause us to ask, “Why, God?” or, “How long, O Lord?”
To these questions, the book of Genesis is like a lighthouse in a storm: peeling back the darkness, providing a point of reference, and showing the way to safety.
Background of Genesis
Genesis was written by Moses, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, during Israel’s wilderness wanderings. It was the first of five books he wrote to teach the people about who God was and how they ought to relate to him. As the name suggests, this book is about beginnings and creations, and it contains accounts of many. “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth,” Moses begins (Genesis 1:1).
Many themes established in Genesis are carried throughout Scripture. Every chapter is a literary masterpiece, with lessons to teach through careful study.
God’s relationship to man
In Genesis, God creates, reveals himself, and judges. He accomplishes marvelous works by His word. He does not tolerate sin, yet he is merciful to sinners. He needs no one, does not change, and is faithful to his covenants.
Although made in God’s image, mankind performs disgracefully throughout Genesis. In an ill-intentioned plot to be like God, man rebels against God’s authority. He becomes so wicked that “every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually” (6:5), provoking God to flood the whole earth in judgment. You can find just about every evil under the sun right here in Genesis. The narrative describes with brutal honesty the grotesque horrors of sin, not for us to imitate, but for us to avoid.
Despite mankind’s sin, God is gracious in his judgment. He does not instantly strike Adam and Eve dead in the garden but preserves them to populate the earth. He does not completely obliterate humanity in the flood but preserves Noah and his family. He does not allow nations to perish by famine but reveals his purpose to Joseph to preserve them through it. He does not even destroy Sodom and Gomorrah before Abraham is given an opportunity to intercede.
God also chooses to reveal himself to a particular people and establish covenant relationships with them. God promised to make Abram a blessing to all nations (12:3), give him descendants beyond number (15:5), give to his offspring the promised land (15:18), and establish with his offspring an everlasting covenant (17:7). God chose Abram while he “served other gods” (Joshua 24:2). God made the promises. God took on himself the obligation to fulfill the covenant (15:17). God made barren Sarah (21:1), barren Rebekah (25:21), and barren Rachel (30:22) bear children. God chose Isaac and not Ishmael (21:12), and he chose Jacob and not Esau (25:23). God, not Abram, initiated and carried this relationship.
And what of Abraham? “He believed the Lord, and he counted it to him as righteousness” (15:6). Abraham was far from perfect. He feared, he lied, and he committed sexual sin. God would have been perfectly just to judge him, just as he had judged Sodom and Gomorrah with fire from Heaven. Yet God counted him righteous because he believed in God. God redeemed Abraham from his sins by directing the wrath they provoked onto his only Son, Jesus Christ.
New Testament significance of Genesis
We see fleeting pictures and types of this promised redeemer throughout Genesis — Moses’s road signs pointing to a future redeemer that even he didn’t know.
In Jacob’s dream, a ladder extends from earth to Heaven, spanning the vast distance between man and God (28:12, John 1:51).In the near-sacrifice of Isaac, there is a double picture of the crucified Son of God: Abraham’s only son carries the wood up to the place of execution, but at the last second God provides a ram as a substitute offering in Isaac’s place (22:6).In the exile from the garden, a lamb was slain so that Adam and Eve’s shameful nakedness could be clothed with its skin (3:21).In the institution of marriage, the man and wife “hold fast” to one another and “become one flesh” as a picture of Christ and the church (2:24, Ephesians 5:32).Perhaps most importantly, God holds out promised hope that the seed of the woman shall crush the head of the seed of the serpent (3:15).
The foreshadowing doesn’t end there. New Testament writers rely heavily on Genesis to explain salvation by faith (Romans 4), describe our newfound freedom in Christ (Galatians 4), exhort us to persevere (Hebrews 11), and warn of coming judgment (2 Peter 2-3).
In Genesis, we wrestle with the discrepancy between our purposes and God’s. Abraham waited decades for God to fulfill his promises. God had promised him land and offspring when he was 75, yet his promised son was not born until he was 100, and, when he died at the advanced age of 175, the only land he owned was his gravesite (25:7-10).
In fact, it takes generations for God’s purposes to ripen. God reaffirms the promises to Isaac, and Isaac waits for the fulfillment, but instead of expanding his family and blessing him with the promised land, God whittles his chosen offspring down to one, who is sent to another land. There, God blesses Jacob with a large family, and Jacob (also no hero) responds with obedience to God. But, again, it seems like the fulfillment of God’s promise is going backward when Joseph’s brothers attack him and sell him into slavery in Egypt. Yet we learn that this, too, is part of God’s plan. Joseph tells his brothers, “You meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive” (50:20).
Genesis ends in a surprising way. It began with God creating a world that was “very good,” devoid of sin and death, where his image bearers would live with him and rule over all creation. It recounted God’s amazing promises to Abraham’s line of descendants without number, who would fill the breadth of the land of Canaan and be a blessing to all nations. Yet the book comes to a disappointing conclusion. The last sentence reads, “They embalmed him [Joseph], and he was put in a coffin in Egypt” (50:26). This a dissonant, unresolved note. It ends with death, not life. It ends in Egypt, not the promised land of Canaan.
God explained this much earlier to Abram:
“Know for certain that your offspring will be sojourners in a land that is not theirs and will be servants there, and they will be afflicted for four hundred years. But I will bring judgment on the nation that they serve, and afterward they shall come out with great possessions. As for you, you shall go to your fathers in peace; you shall be buried in a good old age. And they shall come back here in the fourth generation, for the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet complete” (15:13-16).
What a strange, providential plan! Affliction, exile, waiting for four generations? That certainly isn’t the way we would have planned it. But God is playing a longer game. He is accomplishing larger purposes. And he is always working to do good for his people, in fulfillment of his many promises.
When we can’t understand how God is working, we simply have to trust him. Even when circumstances seem undeniably evil, God is using them for good.
Whether it’s a tragic car accident, a life-changing diagnosis, a broken relationship, or even smaller and simpler frustrations, Genesis shows us why we should trust these trials as part of God’s good and sovereign plan. Even if we never understand why.
We have Jesus’ promise that he will return to right all injustice and unite us to himself forever. The one who created planets by his word has promised that we will share in His resurrection and that through His death we can have eternal life. Come, Lord Jesus.
Joshua Arnold is Media Coordinator for Family Research Council.