Every Word By Faith


How an Old Testament genealogy changed my worldview

If you've ever tried to read through the whole Bible, you know about those Old Testament passages that seem like little more than tables of strange names of people you've never heard of, impossible to pronounce. Or the laboriously detailed descriptions of the construction of tabernacles and temples. Or the seemingly endless lists of obsolete ceremonial laws. Plowing through those kinds of passages can be drudgery, especially in the King James Version, which adds archaic language to the arcane content:

"And Canaan begat Sidon his firstborn, and Heth, and the Jebusite, and the Amorite, and the Girgasite, and the Hivite, and the Arkite, and the Sinite, and the Arvadite, and the Zemarite, and the Hamathite: and afterward were the families of the Canaanites spread abroad."

Apply that to your daily life.

It's tempting to think of those passages as irrelevant, and to skip over them or at least skim quickly and thoughtlessly through them. But approaching them with that sort of attitude, and taking those kinds of shortcuts, can cause us to miss the depths of the riches of the wisdom of God.

Once upon a time, the very chapter that contains the passage quoted above changed my worldview more radically than any other single passage I can point to. I think it was about the fourth time I went to read through the Bible. I was dreading all those roadblock passages, especially the genealogies. Then the Spirit prompted me to rely on more than sheer determination to slog through them. I prayed something like this, "Lord, I believe that you gave us every word in the Bible and preserved it all for us for a reason. Help me to read every single word, and to read every word by faith."

The word "faith" has changed it meaning in our culture over the past 150 years or so, and especially in the past few decades. I like to use it in the older sense, as I understand it, so maybe I'd better explain what I meant by "read every word by faith." Most people today think of faith as something that can't be reconciled with reason, something fanciful, irrational, and completely unconnected with real life. To read the Bible by that kind of faith is contrary to reading it to get something out of it that you can apply to your daily life, because daily life is lived through sensory experience and through making reasoned out decisions.

But faith used to mean trust, confidence, firm belief in something real, the willingness to rest on something. We still use it that way in certain contexts, like when we speak of an offer made in good faith. In business, if someone makes a good faith offer, and if we believe we can trust them, we act on the assumption that they will actually do it. If they don't come through, we may sue them and win. We acted on their word. That's faith.

In scriptural usage, it's believing that God will do what He promised, both in this world and in the world to come. It's like falling back on Him and knowing He'll catch you. Biblical faith sees the world as God's clothes, as John Calvin said it. It distinguishes between God and creation, but it doesn't separate them. It sees God as active in the world, and sees his promises as having fulfillment every bit as real as you'd expect from a business partner.

So, when I said "read every word by faith" I didn't mean spiritualizing the Bible away so that it had no connection with my ordinary life. Just the opposite. I meant receiving every word as a gift from God intended for my good, here and now, and always. I also meant reading every word with my face turned, if you will, toward God, acknowledging my inadequacy to understand it on my own, and requesting the help of His Holy Spirit to teach me. What happened soon after was amazing.

I've always enjoyed the opening four chapters of Genesis. The first roadblock comes with chapter 5, the list of the descendants of Adam down through Noah. It's a small roadblock, pretty easy to push through, and that's all I'd done on previous reads: push though it and get back to the interesting stuff.

But this time, it occurred to me that I was reading about my own ancestors. I'm descended from these guys! Directly! They're my great-great-to-the-10th-power-great grandfathers, or thereabouts. It's something to know your last ten ancestors; you're in a tiny minority if you can fill out your family tree ten generations back from you. But to know your FIRST ten ancestors -- well, that's really something.

Of course, they're everyone's long fathers, and I'd always "known" that, or at least had information to that effect in my head. But now, I really knew it. It was like I was introducing myself to them personally. I made a chart of their lifespans, and saw how they overlapped and who could have known whom, and I looked up the meanings of their Hebrew names and pondered the implications, and things like that. It was fun. Somehow, it made me feel more real, more solidly connected to the rest of the world.

After that, there's the story of Noah's flood in chapters 6-9, which is plenty interesting as a story in itself. Flew through that.

Then the second roadblock, a much larger one -- chapter 10: the record of the descendants of Noah's three sons. That's the passage I quoted a bit of above. Two or three pages of tongue-tying names, and begats, and whoeverites. Oy! Yeah, I'm descended from a few people in there. Probably from Japheth, and likely Gomer, and so on, but who really knows for sure? In any case, it's a slim minority of them.

I reaffirmed my commitment to read every word by faith, and dove in. I got through it, but it was trying. It was work. I had to plow through. And no startling new revelations seemed immediately forthcoming. Until I went to town the next time.

Now, I'm a WASP, raised in the Southern United States. My parents were Mid-Westerners, and they taught me that a different skin color doesn't make someone less of a person. But my surrounding culture did take a toll on me, although I didn't know it at the time. I was so much less racist than most people around me, that I didn't think I was racist at all. I was even ostracized from some white friends once because I made friends with black people. I thought of myself as a kind of role model for not being prejudiced.

Until that day I went to town after reading Genesis 10 by faith. I saw a black person, and thought, "Wonder who he's descended from? Ham probably, Cush very likely. And Ham and Japheth were brothers. His ancestor and my ancestor were brothers. That makes us cousins! That guy's my cousin!" Suddenly, piercingly, I was aware that, in order to see him as my cousin, I had to lift him up a notch in my esteem. All this time I thought I wasn't racist and prejudiced, I had still been unwittingly seeing people of other races, and black people especially, as different from me, and a notch or two below me and my white buddies. Human, yes, but a different kind of human somehow; a lesser kind. It brought me to tears to recognize the depth of my silly arrogance.

Since then, I've been able to feel it when the old racist impulse raises its ugly head in my heart. All I have to do is remember Genesis 10. Cousins! He's my cousin. We're all cousins. We're all descended from Noah's three sons and their wives. We're all ultimately the same kind of people, no matter what we look like.

And that's how a boring Old Testament genealogy radically changed my worldview. It takes faith, and it takes work and determination. But the passages you least expect can sometimes yield the deepest wisdom, and effect the greatest transformation of your life if you read every word by faith.

By the way, if you happen to be one of those people who find Hebrew names and cultural terms just too hard, try The Listener's Bible, and let Max McLean do the reading for you!

29 Mar 2006
David J. Finnamore
Orlando, FL