What is the Moral Lesson of Genesis?

Latter-day Saints are studying the Old Testament this year.  Unfortunately, many LDS readings of the Old Testament adopt a hermeneutic wherein the stories in Genesis provide moral role models.  It seems that we have come to see the scriptures as a kind of guide book for living a moral life, in spite of the fact that the stories never tell their readers to emulate any of the characters.  If we adopt this reading strategy, we miss important ways of engaging in moral reasoning, and quite frankly, misread the point of these stories entirely.

As an example of this misreading, in a recent Ensign article (pg 38), readers are directed to some women in the Old Testament, with the idea that “the characteristics and values that guided their actions have relevance for our day.”  Sarah is praised for her patience in her righteous desires.  So too with Leah and Rachel.  Perhaps the reader neglected to notice that Sarah kicks her slave Hagar and her son into the desert when those “righteous desires” for a child finally come?  Perhaps the reader does not understand that the women “given” to their husbands are household slaves when the wives cannot conceive?  Yes, there is a different set of ideas about slavery in antiquity, but are we really going to praise the treatment of these slaves in these texts as examples of the moral qualities of these biblical women? The historical and ethical problems in the Ensign account abound in each treatment.  And this reading the patriarchs as a morality tale is not an aberration in LDS sources.

By modern standards, the narratives of the partriarchs and matriarchs in Genesis depict pretty awful people.  Tricksterism is one of the most pervasive themes in the narrative of the patriarches, from Abraham marrying his wife off as his sister for personal gain, Rebecca’s tricks on Isaac, Jacob’s tricks on Esau, Laban’s tricks on Jacob, Jacob’s tricks on Laban, Rachel’s tricks on Laban, Simeon and Levi’s tricks on Shechem, the brothers’ tricks on their father Jacob, Joseph’s tricks on his brothers, Tamar’s trick on Judah, etc.  Perhaps the moral lesson here is about the negative consequences of trickery?  This can hardly be the case in full.  While some of these characters are punished for their trickery, many are not, and indeed prosper because of their actions.  That these tricks often result in theft, murder, and other hazards should not be glossed as simply fulfilling the Lord’s will.

Part of the reason for having to clean up these stories is that they no longer make sense to us as they would have in their original context.  Their status as sacred literature leads us down the path of thinking there must be something about morality here.  However, these stories cannot make sense to us today without some historical knowledge.

These accounts in Genesis are not just individuals, but ancestors of ancient peoples, nations, and tribes.  These stories have political import, explaining the characteristics and interrelationships of Israel and her neighbors, “foreshadowing” the authors’ present.  These stories are etiologies about why the Edomites are how they are, what are the terms of the treaty and boundaries between Aramites and Israel, how the disliked Ammonites and Moabites are products of incest, and why they have better land for farming and pastures for sheep, why some tribes have prospered and others have failed, why the tribes quarrel, and why some places have altars to Yahweh.  When these stories were told originally, they were a kind of map for the peoples of the ancient near east, a cartography of nations and places as told through their namesake.  These stories are full of puns and allusions that ancient audiences would have recognized, often as jokes, about the peoples described in the text.

If there is to be a moral lesson from these texts, it is not about parenting tips or other modern morality we wrest from the scriptures.   If we take them seriously, we also discover that honesty about our shortcomings is part of the story here.  The accounts of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and their wives are not given because these figures are paragons of virtue, but because God covenants with these figures in spite of their imperfections.  The lesson is about God’s faithfulness to his promises with full knowledge of the brokenness of those with whom he makes covenants.  If we are to have any meaning today from these stories, they should be read as stories of imperfection and God’s love, the mistakes his chosen peoples knowingly and unknowingly make.  They are our role models not because we should emulate their righteousness or their wickedness, but because God has promised to be with them as he has with us.


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