The Purpose of Genesis: 'They're All God's Kids'

At the end of the book of Genesis, the patriarch Jacob blesses his twelve sons, each one according to their individual personality. They will each become the head of a tribe. He offers them criticism for their faults and encouragement for their strengths. Rabbi Simcha Bunem of the 18th century says that it is as if God is an overflowing pool of blessing, and Jacob's job was to make each blessing flow into the unique vessel that was each one of his children. Thus ends Genesis, setting up the story of the Exodus with the liberation from Egypt and the giving of the commandments.

Jewish people reread the book of Genesis each year during the fall into the beginning of winter in synagogue. Christians and Muslims turn to these stories as well. What are we supposed to learn from this book of Scripture?

I think the point of reading Genesis -- and its overarching teaching for us -- is threefold. First, Genesis teaches us how the Israelites saw their place in the world: where they came from and their relationship to other people. Secondly, Genesis tells us that we are all one human family going back to Adam and Eve, made in the divine image. From there the family tree breaks out into tribes that become nations. We are all related to each other, even those Midianites and Edomites over there. Finally, Genesis mirrors back to us that we are a mess. Our family is full of strife. Brother is fighting against brother, sibling rivalry is rampant, and even the holiest people in the world -- Abraham and Sarah, Rebecca and Isaac, Jacob, Leah, and Rachel, and Joseph, Judah, and their brothers are deeply flawed. Genesis teaches us the truth about the state of our world and the human condition. It doesn't ignore problems; it confronts them, but it does so in a context I believe we need to hear.

The modern tendency is to dehumanize our enemies. We don't think of our enemies as people. "They behave like animals," we claim, and they may! Reading Genesis shocks us back into a reality that is both ancient and universal, which says we are all one human family. That person over there that you are thinking of as less than human is actually your cousin. If you go back far enough, Jacob and Esau are brothers, Isaac and Ishmael are brothers, Sarah and Hagar have children with the same man, and our tribes are all related to each other. The conflicts are real -- full of violence and hate -- but so are the family ties. Even David and Goliath, the Rabbis teach, are actually the descendants of Ruth on the one hand and Orpah on the other, the daughters-in-law of Naomi. Our battles are a family affair.

What would happen in our world if we saw our conflicts as part of a larger family instead of dehumanizing the Other? What if we took the teaching of Genesis seriously in the area of international relations and conflict resolution? I think -- if we saw ourselves as one family with each person made in God's image -- we would be more prone to work it out and slower to resort to violence.

Jacob blesses each one of his sons in the traditional portion read this week in synagogues around the world. Dinah, Jacob's daughter, is left out as she does not become the head of a tribe, but in my imagination, I see Jacob blessing her, too. In any case, these tribes will not be at peace with each other, despite their father's efforts. They are related, but often the most bitter battles are ones of love, disappointment, and close family. Jacob tries to bless, guide, and control each child's future.

A story told to me by my colleague Rabbi Jonathan Kraus drove home how personal the lesson of Genesis can be. A father in his congregation has a son son with Down's Syndrome. When talking about the continuous care for his son, the father said, "They're all God's kids. We just get to look after them for a little while." In other words, even our own children are not really our own. They are not extensions of ourselves to possess and control. We are all part of one family, but we are all ultimately God's children. International relations or parenting: in God's sight it is all the same thing.

Your neighbor is not less than human, but a person made in God's image that is part of the human family tree, and your child is not your possession but a child of God, who you get to look after for a little while. From a God's point of view, so to speak, it's all one family. It doesn't matter if you are talking about nations or your own household. The purpose of Genesis is to teach us a new golden rule: "they're all God's kids."

What would happen if we all saw each other that way? Perhaps we would be gentler.