Family Dynamics and Violence in Genesis

In just nine days (if you began your journey on January 15th), we have covered an enormous amount of material. The Creation of the world, told twice (In chapter 1, and then again with chapters 2-3); the murder of Abel by his older brother Cain; the Flood, told twice (interwoven stories in chapters 7-8- note the discrepancies in which kinds of animals and how many were taken onto the Ark, as well as discrepancies in timing; did the flood last forty days or 150 days?); God’s covenant with Noah (in chapter 9); the tower of Babel in chapter 11 (another tale, like the Garden of Eden, of human hubris and its consequences); and the beginning narratives of the patriarchs and matriarchs, chapters 12-50.

If you’re a little breathless, count yourself among friends. It’s an overwhelmingly complex, beautiful, multi-layered and breathtaking story about the origins of humanity and our relationship to God (and the brand new experience of monotheism!). We are looking at the written down traditions of stories that used to be oral, shared around the campfire, passed down over generations, modified according to geography and local context, and eventually captured on the page (or the scroll, to be historically accurate). We are reading geopolitics as family systems theory, with individuals representing entire tribes or nations, and dysfunctional family dynamics standing in for international relations. Understanding some of these early stories as allegories of political intrigue might help to alleviate the tension of so much strange and unsavory behavior.

For instance, let’s linger for a moment withLot. We are introduced to Lot in chapter 11, toward the end of a genealogy that has led us to Abram (aka Abraham), the true patriarch ofIsrael. Lot is Abram’s nephew, son of his brotherHaran.Lotwill become, as the narrative develops, the ancestor of the Moabites and Ammonites. The stories of Lot’s bad behavior (he is less gracious to the angels in chapter 19 than his uncle Abraham in chapter 18; he offers his virgin daughters as replacement victims of potential gang rape; and eventually finds himself in a drunken stupor and becomes the object of sexual transgression by his own offspring), serve to cast aspersions on Israel’s cultural rivals while acknowledging a kinship between them.

But the stories of Abraham and Lot are not simply about proving the superiority of one nation over another. They are also lessons about hospitality (Abraham entertaining angels, unaware of their true identity 18:1-15); justice and righteousness (Abraham bargaining with God to spare the citizens of Sodom18:16-33); and covenant/promise (throughout).

As you keep reading, maybe it’s helpful to hold these ideas together. The stories ofLotare horrific, and there is no redeeming value in the details of sexual violence. At the same time, there is a message (sometimes interwoven, sometimes bracketing these difficult scenes) about the primacy of hospitality and justice in the community of God’s people, as their ancestor, Abraham, enacts.

What has your experience of these difficult passages been like?

What messages are you receiving in these early stories of Genesis?


While I do a quick first read of my assigned task directly from my email, I try, when possible, to follow up with a secondary read from The Harper Collins Study Bible. Another resource I have found helpful (thanks Erin!) is James Kugel’s book, How to Read the Bible; A Guide to Scripture, Then and Now. Who has time for all this reading? I certainly don’t. But I like to be surrounded by great resources when I do find myself with a few extra minutes at the beginning or ending of the day.

About RevMcC

I am a pastor, licensed clinical social worker, consultant and workshop leader. I live in Brooklyn, NY, (the greatest place ever) with my husband and two children (the greatest people ever). I am an unqualified extrovert and lover of God. I try to live my life with gratitude, wonder, curiosity and intention.
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1 Response to Family Dynamics and Violence in Genesis

  1. I am feeling chagrined by how much of Genesis is unfamiliar to me. I expected this exercise to be a challenge of stamina, but in ways I can’t quite articulate yet, it is a challenge of faith, too. Having been so selective in my Bible reading; this is quite an experience, reading it warts and all.

    One of the most difficult passages for me is Chapter 34. What is the lesson here? Simeon and Levi destroy an entire city over the rape of their sister. Seems a bit disproportionate. Jacob seems only concerned with how this affects their relationship to other nations. “Should he treat our sister as a harlot?” ends the discussion, as if it is a perfectly reasonable explanation. There’s no talk of justice, forgiveness, or some kind of lesson. Apparently, God is just letting them off the hook, and helping them out of a jam? (35: 5)

    It is interesting to see how God is learning and growing throughout Genesis, like a new parent. And that he poses his own humanity; needing to rest, and needing a “reminder” to avoid flooding the planet again.

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