It’s popular to speak of Genesis 12 as the interpretive crux of the Hebrew Scriptures. God’s blessings pronounced on the seed of Abraham are said to be the centre-piece of Old Testament hope. Wherever you are in the Law or Prophets you can, supposedly, bring it back to Genesis 12… and then move it on to its (eventual and, humanly unforeseen) fulfilment in Jesus.
Mostly, when I hear someone assert Genesis 12 as the centre, I shrug my shoulders and think “Odd choice, but each to their own.” But more and more I’m thinking it’s a problem.
Firstly, you have to ask the question Why? Why Genesis 12?
The answer comes back: Because Paul points to it in Galatians 3:6-8. Well, maybe. Or maybe he’s pointing to Genesis 18, or maybe to Genesis 22. (He certainly references Genesis 15, which would be a wonderful focus for a bible overview.) But even if we were certain that Paul was referencing Genesis 12 – why are we privileging Galatians 3:8? Especially when that same chapter is so clear on the Christocentricity of this promise to Abraham. As verse 16 declares – the Seed which is promised is not plural, it’s singular. It’s Christ. For Paul, Christ is not the surprising fulfilment of Israel’s more general hopes. He is the source and substance of them from the beginning.
Yet, for those who make Genesis 12 their crux interpretum, that’s not generally the argument. First they concern themselves with the seed plural (Israel) then the Seed singular (Christ). So even as they claim apostolic warrant for this focus, they go about it in an unPauline way.
On the other hand, listen to Luther on Galatians 3:6-8:
All the promises of God lead back to the first promise concerning Christ of Genesis 3:15. The faith of the fathers in the Old Testament era, and our faith in the New Testament are one and the same faith in Christ Jesus… The faith of the fathers was directed at Christ… Time does not change the object of true faith, or the Holy Spirit. There has always been and always will be one mind, one impression, one faith concerning Christ among true believers whether they live in times past, now, or in times to come.
To understand the nature of God’s promises concerning the Seed, of course we should go back to Genesis 3:15. That seemed obvious to Luther. And it has seemed obvious to many other Christians too!
But I can’t help thinking that a preference for Genesis 12 over Genesis 3 represents a desire to be Israelo-centric before we are Christo-centric. In short, it disregards what Paul actually says in Galatians 3, i.e. that the Seed is singular.
The second problem with a focus on Genesis 12 is this: It’s almost always set forth as part of a framework where Christ Himself is not the source and centre. He’s only the climax. That which binds the Scriptures together becomes “blessings” and “land” and “people” and “rule”. Certainly, on this understanding, Christ is important – crucially important – as the Fulfilment of these realities. But the foundations of faith have been laid. Christ comes later and works within an existing arrangement.
In all this, the unifying principle of the bible (and it is a principle) is progress towards Christ. Not Christ Himself. Progress towards Christ. The difference is hugely significant.
When a new believer is introduced to a principle of biblical unity there’s usually a grateful shout of joy. “Ah I see!” they exclaim, “these 39 books really do belong with the other 27. They all tell the one story of God’s rule and land and people and blessings. Wonderful! Oh, and Jesus fits that pattern too. Hurray!”
Their sense of excitement may last weeks. But probably not much longer. When anyone learns a system there is a sense of cognitive wonder. Previously unexplained data now fits. Good. But a system cannot sustain joy.
On the other hand…
I still remember finally surrendering to the inevitable on Genesis 3. Of course the LORD who walks in the garden is Christ. I’d fought it for months, but no – it’s obvious. He is the One against Whom we have sinned. Of course the sin that condemns is rejection of Christ – that was the original sin. And He is the One who pursues us – the Hound of Heaven from the beginning.
I still remember the goosebumps of meeting Christ in Genesis 15 – the divine Word of the LORD in Whom Abram exercises justifying faith. Of course this is Paul’s example of saving faith. Of course Abraham is our father in the faith. Surely Paul could only say that if Abraham trusted the same Person!
I still remember crying – and still cry today – to see how clearly the death of Christ was proclaimed in Genesis 22. They even knew the mountain on which the true Son – the Atoning Lamb – would be killed. For centuries they were saying “On the mountain of the LORD, God will provide Himself the Lamb!”
That’s not just cognitive rest. That’s meeting Jesus in the Scriptures.
There’s a world of difference between mastering a system and meeting the Son. I fear that privileging Genesis 12 centres us on the system and not the Son.
My third reason for questioning an emphasis on Genesis 12 is this: It skews our hermeneutics towards a theology of glory.
If it’s all about God’s rule and people and land and blessings, then Christ comes to uphold God’s rule, to be an obedient Covenant Partner, to be the Firstfruits of the new creation and to share the blessings He’s enjoyed from eternity past. All of those things are true and good. But… where’s the cross?
You can work it in for sure. But it probably won’t come naturally to a person raised on the system we’re discussing. Instead, the rule of God will be the dominating theme. Sin will be understood primarily as rebellion against this rule. And Christ’s coming will be to establish again the rule of God. His dying will certainly be explained – and explained as vital. But it’s vital in order to clear a path for rebels to submit again to God’s rule.
As the cross is explained, there’ll be phrases like “Jesus died so that all those who turn, put their full trust in Him and submit their whole lives to His rule, will be spared the judgement that otherwise belongs to them.” The cross serves a pre-determined understanding of God’s rule. It doesn’t radically shape that understanding. The wonder of the Lord reigning from the tree is not allowed to blow our minds as it ought. Instead Jesus dies so that, later, He can reign.
But what if a verse like Genesis 3:15 was preferred as a crux interpretum? Here we begin with the crushed Crusher, the struck Striker. Here we have the One who would join wicked sinners like us to defeat an enemy we’d brought on ourselves. Here we have One who loves us to incarnation, death and resurrection.
With this promise in view we can make perfect sense of Jesus’ and the Apostles’ interpretations of the Scriptures:
Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. (Luke 24:46-47)
I am saying nothing but what the prophets and Moses said would come to pass: that the Christ must suffer and that, by being the first to rise from the dead, he would proclaim light both to our people and to the Gentiles. (Acts 26:22-23)
Concerning this salvation, the prophets who prophesied about the grace that was to be yours searched and inquired carefully, inquiring what person or time the Spirit of Christ in them was indicating when he predicted the sufferings of Christ and the subsequent glories. (1 Peter 1:10-11)
Jesus, Paul and Peter thought it was perfectly obvious that the Old Testament was about the sufferings and glories of Christ. I’ve noticed that those who highlight Genesis 12 are also those who struggle to see this reality. I’ve heard many who simply deny that OT believers could have anticipated a suffering Christ. But the inadequacy is not in the OT believers – it’s in a system which effectively makes every Hebrew saint a theologian of glory.
Genesis 12 is, without doubt, a vital passage in the Hebrew Scriptures. Abraham clearly has an exalted place in the history of salvation. But just make sure you’re not privileging Israel over Christ, a system over the Son and glory over the cross.
Let the crux be the Crux.