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Spring 2014 · Vol. 43 No. 1 · pp. 99–104 

Ministry Compass

Teaching Genesis to Young Adults

Randy Klassen

Mennonite Brethren are evangelical—which means, gospel-centered, gospel-shaped, gospel-proclaiming. But the label continually draws us to the all-important question: what is the gospel? One facet of this question that is often left unasked is the more specific question: where does the gospel begin? Mark 1:1 appears to be the answer, but it comes with a twist. Does the gospel begin with the preparatory hell-fire preaching of John the Baptist? The narrator points us further back: the gospel is shaped by the words of Isaiah. But a look at Isaiah reveals that the prophet himself points back to the work of the Creator God. Thus the most biblical answer is the one echoed in the children’s song of Maria von Trapp: “Let’s start at the very beginning, a very good place to start.”

“Throughout this year, I have found many gems of wisdom in the book of Genesis that I had never considered before.”

It is my conviction that the gospel of Jesus Christ starts in Genesis. Mark hints at this, as does Luke (with the Magnificat’s description in Lk 1:55 of Jesus’ birth as fulfilling God’s promises to Abraham). The other two gospel writers are bolder in their allusions: Matthew 1:1 reads literally “the book of the genesis of Jesus Christ,” and John’s quotation of the opening words of Genesis makes the theological point crystal clear: “in the beginning was the Word.” Paul too connects the dots between Creation and Christ, between first and last Adam (key passages are Rom 5:12–21, 1 Cor 15, 2 Cor 4:6, Phil 2:5–11). The conclusion is inescapable (but all too often unremarked): the gospel begins in Genesis. Without a solid understanding of Genesis, we risk misreading Jesus. {100}

It has been my privilege to teach Genesis to young adults for the past decade, as part of the core curriculum of Bethany College. In this brief article, I would like to share some of my convictions shaped, practices used, and lessons learned, through this experience. The context of this teaching is a class of second-year college students, which means, among other things, there is a lot of shared experience (dorm life, service learning trips) and shared trust. They come with a variety of church backgrounds (urban, rural, none) and denominations. A few have a year or two of university before transferring to Bethany; others come with some short-term ministry training experiences. Many are thoroughly postmodern in their outlook, while others are shaped by a more traditional Christian subculture. For some, a young-earth creationism (YEC) is very important (and this goes for some parts of the college’s constituency as well), while for others debates over creation and evolution are passé. This then is the (moderately) diverse setting of our exploration of Genesis.

My general approach to the book is shaped by three emphases: the big picture, details of the text, and integration. The first two are of course elementary, including both the “forest” (or perhaps more appropriately for Genesis, the Garden) and the “trees.” I find it hermeneutically essential to lay the groundwork for the big picture before attending to the details of the text. Thus the question of worldview is central. Whose questions does Genesis answer, and what are those questions? Furthermore, what do we do if those questions aren’t our questions—and, more importantly, if the text doesn’t seem to answer our questions? One of students’ most common questions at the beginning of the course is, “What about the dinosaurs?” I refuse to answer that question at the beginning of the course (one of the benefits, I admit, of teaching a somewhat captive audience), for it is important for that question to have an appropriate frame, and for us to recognize what in fact we are asking with a question like that.

The second emphasis, exploring the details of the text, is of course the central task of exegesis. And Genesis is an exegete’s delight. The impulse of Genesis 1:3, creation by the divine Word, is woven literarily into the entire tapestry of this book: creative wordplay, allusion, poetry, punning, and other literary techniques densely populate this text. At a slightly more macro level of inquiry, defining the relationship between narrative episodes is an important exegetical act. One of the most crucial exegetical questions, in my estimation, is asking whether Genesis chapters 1 and 2 are two narratives with the same theme (as, for example, Jesus’ stories of the Lost Sheep and the Lost Coin), or two accounts of the same event (as, say, the Gospels). Much depends upon our answer to this question.

For the vast majority of the church’s Bible teachers and preachers for whom Hebrew is a distant luxury, a good concordance (or equivalent {101} software) is a necessary tool to gain access to these riches. As far as commentaries and other resources go, I hesitate to mention any at all, because there are so many fine ones. Nevertheless, I have found John Walton, in the NIV Application Commentary and elsewhere, to be a wise and trustworthy guide. I have also appreciated the insight gained from Paul Borgman’s Genesis: The Story We Haven’t Heard (InterVarsity, 2001).

For the third emphasis of my approach to teaching Genesis, I use the word “integration.” By this I mean, helping students discover significant connections between the truths of Genesis and other areas of their life and education. I work at this in a number of ways, through both class experiences and assignments. First, I want students to grasp the fundamental rootedness of the story of Jesus in Genesis. One of the first classes of the year, we go out of doors for a session around a campfire and listen to a one-hour presentation of the story of Scripture. This session accomplishes several goals, first of which is effectively tying together the biblical narrative from Creation to Christ. The presentation I use, The Great Story from the Sacred Book by Terry Wildman, is designed specifically for a First Nations audience, and thus accomplishes another integrative goal: it gives students a first taste of an aboriginal culture, which they will be entering for a week-long service learning trip, not many days after this session. It also helps to recreate a more historically authentic setting for the narratives of Genesis: it is a communal oral story-telling experience (as opposed to reading a book silently and solo, like so many modern scholars), and it translates the names of characters: Noah is “He-Rests,” Isaac is “Laughter,” Adam is “Red Clay”—all of which would have been transparent to the original Hebrew audience. (In case you’re wondering, in this aboriginal recontextualization, the name of Jesus—from Joshua, “Yahweh saves”—becomes the beautiful “Creator-Sets-Free.” 1)

A second integrative assignment is based on themes that emerge from Genesis 1-2: themes of “wonder” (based on the beauty and “goodness” of Creation), “food” (God’s provision for all creatures), and “partnership” (the marriage emphasis of chapter 2). Students choose one theme, and will have assigned readings representing both Christian and secular reflections on the theme. They will then engage in an activity (an hour or more of uninterrupted, focused attention to the environment while out in the bush; an exploration of a favorite meal, along with research into the foods involved, and related food justice issues; or an interview of a senior married couple, normally undertaken over the October Thanksgiving break) and present a written report. These activities help students to connect these foundational chapters to one or more areas of their daily lives.

A third integrative dimension, and one that has borne much fruit over the years, involves producing a work of art as part of the major research {102} project. Students will do the usual exegetical study in commentaries and so on, but invest their primary energies in a work of visual or musical art. Given that the book of Genesis begins with divine artistry, these art projects have proven themselves as legitimate and powerful vehicles of interpretation. The assignment includes a written component summarizing the research, but also focuses on the artistic medium, drawing attention to the intersections between Scripture and the student’s artistic creation. Every year I am blessed, and moved, as I witness how the spirit (Spirit) of the text brings light and life as it hovers over the blank canvasses of students’ creative talents.

The book of Genesis is full of well-known stories, a few of which still have currency even in our secular, post-Christian culture. But in my experience with students, this superficial familiarity soon gives way to the puzzling details and challenges of the text. Genesis forces the reader to ask the most basic of theological and philosophical questions: Who is God? What does it mean to be human? What does it mean to be called by God? Among the theological and ethical convictions that have taken root in me over the years, and that I hope to germinate in my students, are the following:

  • an understanding of Genesis 1–2, specifically 1:28 (“fill, subdue, rule over” the earth) and 2:15 (“serve and guard” the Garden) as the Bible’s first Great Commission, which has never been revoked;
  • intimations of divine incarnation in the narratives of Noah (Gen 6 and 9) and Abraham (Gen 15), which show the divine King as one who chooses self-limitation, binding himself in love to a covenant partner, even to the point of identifying with the doom or judgment pronounced over creation;
  • the biblical centrality of divine covenant and human response, seen in the story of Abraham (Gen 12, 22)
  • the importance of filial reconciliation, seen in the story of Joseph, as the mysterious but inexorable climax of the story of Genesis (from chapter 4 onwards, a tale of dysfunctional brothers) of divine grace infusing human experience.

These are some of the theological signposts that grace our common journey through the book of Genesis. And what are the results of this exploration? I’ll let the students answer that themselves. Each semester, I give students a chance to reflect on their learning, by means of the following (optional) essay question on the final exam: What has troubled or prodded you most about the message of Genesis, and how is it reshaping (a) your understanding of God, and (b) your understanding of the Christian life? Here are four recent responses, in which we see how young adults are wrestling with some of the real issues of the text, and its impact for their lives: {103}

“What has troubled me the most about the message of Genesis is that at times it seems like God is making things up as He goes. I much prefer to think that God has a plan and knows what He’s doing. For example, God goes through the whole process of creation with Adam and Eve and their descendants, only to wipe out the entire population apart from Noah’s family. God was grieved by the sinfulness of mankind and wished He’d never made them! Isn’t that something He should have known in advance? . . . It also bothers me that He kills so many people. Could really none of them have been redeemed? . . . This is a huge reminder that God will punish sin. I know it is different now that we have Jesus as our intercessor but the story of the flood definitely encourages me to get a hold of the sin in my life so that God doesn’t have to take it into His own hands.”

“These questions about how the Bible was written have caused a shift in my understanding of God and how he works. I have had my understanding shifted from a God who is very precise and direct in his communication to a realization that God often leaves things vague and sometimes open-ended. God speaks in ways we can understand but in ways that can seem unconventional . . . I have a different respect for how he has chosen to pass along information about himself. This realization has then come to affect my Christian life and how I watch for God to speak. By realizing the great variation of how God communicates in Genesis . . . it has opened me up to seeing him speaking in more places.”

“God’s character as portrayed in the account of Noah does not seem sovereign, all-knowing or even fully understanding why he is doing what he is doing and what the consequences are. This is not a settling picture of the God I put my trust in. . . . Granted, this is only a perception of mine from one little story in Scripture. This keeps me from creating an idealized theology where I make God up to be all the good things I believed/wish him to be. I recognize from this unsettling perception that I cannot create the god I want God to be. . . . Following God whose character is unpredictable and not limited by my safe beliefs about him takes a whole lot more trust to follow. As a Christian able to read the Scriptures . . . I have an example in this radical trust. Abraham walked away from comfort and security of homeland, family, etc. He trusted God, even the God who asked him to sacrifice his son (talk about unpredictable and hard to trust in!) with not even a promise given. As the story of Noah placed confusion in my mind, the story of Abraham placed a challenge and {104} a conviction; a challenge to love God more than his promises and a conviction to trust him because of this love.”

“Throughout this year, I have found many gems of wisdom in the book of Genesis that I had never considered before. Not the least of which was the passage for my art project, The Sixth Day of Creation. I have spend a good amount of time this semester struggling with the meaning of being created in the image of God. . . . This passage has sharply shaped my understanding of God. I spent most of this semester finding new characteristics that I had never thought of before. I started seeing God through the human capacity to love and to be angry. I realized that the human tendency to be angry at a person because you love them has God written all over it. . . . If I didn’t let this shape my Christian life, I would be like the man in James who looks in the mirror but doesn’t remember what he looks like. Struggling over the meaning of “image of God” has also led me to struggle with “child of God.” Questions like “how do I act appropriately as a child of God, bearing His image?” and “Is this characteristic that I am displaying of God, or not?” have been in the front of my mind for quite a while now. The change that I have noticed in my life is that I am far more confident in my identity as a child of God and I am more conscientious of being a bearer of his image and what that should look like. Genesis is an amazing book. I am slightly disappointed that I hadn’t studied it earlier. I think the best description of Genesis is a treasure chest, packed full of gems of wisdom and knowledge.”

Student responses like this, year after year, show that the gospel of Jesus Christ is life-changing—and it begins with Genesis.


  1. The Great Story from the Sacred Book is available for purchase online from Another artistic resource I have used on occasion with my students arises from a completely different cultural context: The Mysteries is a version of a medieval mystery play, performed by a South African drama troupe (Mark Dornford-May, director; available on DVD). It is multilingual (Latin, English, Afrikaans, Xhosa) and inter-racial, and movingly presents the stories of creation (including the medieval account of the fall of Lucifer), the flood, Abraham, and Christ in a stunning musical and visual spectacle.
Randy Klassen is a Bible instructor at Bethany College, Hepburn, Saskatchewan.

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