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The Bible Begins with God’s Desire

The Bible Begins with God’s Desire

The Bible begins with God. Not you. As such, the Bible isn’t primarily about you. Nor is it about its human characters — be they kings, prophets, patriarchs, or disciples. One character from the beginning of the story is found at the end: God. To be sure, a cast of human characters step on and off the biblical stage. But they appear more or less as cameos, extras in a quickly changing sequence of scenes. Put another way, the Bible is no ensemble.

This is God’s story.

While the Bible describes a dizzying record of human desires, they aren’t central. The Bible tells the story of God’s desire.

This is accomplished through words. Why? Words are how we learn the desires of another. A parent learns to listen through the disheveled grammar and word scrambles of their children to ascertain needs. A spouse attunes their attention toward the other to hear the heart’s needs. Children, hopefully, mature to listen to the directions of a parent, teacher, or coach who knows what’s best. By listening carefully, we hear an author’s intent in their latest book. Without words, desires remain unknown, unrevealed, and unheard. Words can often serve as the grammar of desire.

For biblical authors, every word mattered. Note, for example, how few different words are contained in the first two chapters of Genesis: 282 to be exact. Rather than roll out a breathtaking array of new and exotic vocabulary, the human author repeated, recycled, and reused the same words over and over, squeezing out new meaning with each use. Hebrew scholar Robert Alter once argued this was the distinguishing accomplishment of Hebrew culture. The Sumerians, Egyptians, and Babylonians offered antiquity gifts of architecture, politics, and culture. In these realms, Israel was “meager,” according to Alter. The Jews, on the other hand, gave the world the gift of words. Alter wrote,

  • In literary art, the ancient Hebrew writers... eclipsed their neighbors, producing powerful narratives that were formally brilliant and technically innovative and poetry in such texts as Job, Isaiah, Psalms, and the Song of Songs that rivaled any poetry composed in the Mediterranean world. I have no idea how or why this level of literary achievement came about. The Hebrew writers were clearly bent on promoting a new monotheistic vision... with their literary gifts.1

Every jot and tittle of biblical literature is carefully chosen, intentional, imbued with timeless purpose and transcendent luminescence. Yet as its readers discover, biblical literature teaches not only through what’s explicitly stated but also in what’s implicitly assumed. God teaches through words. But God also teaches through the silence and gaps between words.2 That is to say, we learn by what’s spoken and by what remains unspoken. If words can be the grammar of desire, then the Bible is the grammar of God’s desire.

We begin with the Bible’s first words:

In the beginning, God made the heavens and the earth. Genesis 1:1

What can we learn about God’s desire from this first line of the Bible? One may remember the first line in Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. The story begins, “Marley was dead, to begin with.” This is distinctive Dickens. In one fell swoop, the author whisks his reader into two basic assumptions in the span of one sentence. First, there’s a character named Marley. And second, this Marley is dead. No explanation. We are simply confronted by a flurry of assumptions.

The first sentence of biblical literature utilizes a similar technique by heaving two big assumptions in the reader’s lap. First, notice that the Bible doesn’t begin with some logical argument for God’s existence. There’s simply no clear, open-and-closed case for why someone should believe a Creator God exists. The Bible doesn’t begin with debate. The Bible simply begins with a “God who is there.”3

Why is this assumed? This is due, in part, to the religious context of the ancient world. Everyone worshiped some spiritual being or entity in antiquity. Atheism, in its contemporary form, wouldn’t exist until the early-modern period. The ancient world had no purely secular readers. As such, no argument was necessary to prove the existence of a spiritual being. Admittedly, the Bible remains a stumbling block for many modern readers for this reason.

The Bible’s contemporary readers come with a vastly different set of assumptions than its ancient readers did. Ancient readers came spiritually interested and open. Modern readers often come skeptical and suspicious.

At the university where I teach, I teach a course entitled “Introduction to Biblical Literature” that boasts an astounding diversity of students. Some are Christian. Some are not. Time and again, my nonreligious students are invited to read a book that doesn’t share their assumptions about life. One particular student couldn’t get past this first line in Genesis. He didn’t share the Bible’s assumption. In one submission, he admitted his growing frustration:

  • The Bible is full of assumptions. But so am I! The Bible assumes there’s a God before I get to the text. But now I see that I assumed there wasn’t a God before I came to the text. We stand toe-to-toe.

He earned an A for his honesty. But this reveals one reason the Bible comes off as offensive to modern readers: it doesn’t share our assumptions. In his enlightening book Unapologetic Theology, theologian and historian William Placher discusses why it’s challenging in the Western, post-Christian, post-Enlightenment, secular world to be a faithful Christians in the public square. The belief that a God actually exists is, at our cultural moment, not a shared assumption. And religious assumptions in Enlightenment cultures have been deemed the great unforgivable (and unforgettable) sins.

Placher goes on to point out that behind the prevailing modern skepticism about God is, well, a hidden assumption — an assumed disbelief in God. Placher contends that the church — in an effort at garnering respectability in the post-Enlightenment West — has paid the price for respectability by playing along and killing the Christian witness. “One reason seems to be that Christianity cannot criticize our culture very effectively,” Placher contends, “because it has already accepted many of the assumptions of that culture as the price of intellectual respectability.”4 It is believed that Pascal once said Christians are to live “as though God actually exists.”5

  • Christian or not, everyone starts with assumptions.

Genesis 1 also assumes that God has a name. In the Bible’s opening two chapters, God is said to have two names: Elohim (Genesis 1) and Yahweh (Genesis 2). Two names. Two chapters. While appearing insignificant, we must remember that the gods of antiquity often withheld divulging their names to the human inhabitants below. One may remember Paul in the New Testament arriving in the ancient city of Athens. There, he makes note of a statue bearing an inscription: “To an unknown god” (Acts 17:23). Inscriptions to nameless gods were quite common in antiquity. Statues and idols would often omit the name of the gods they represented.

Why the anonymity? Simple: If the gods revealed their names, they were liable to be called upon, spoken to, and woken up. Knowing the name of your god gave you power to call upon that god. Comparing the biblical account of Noah’s ark with the flood from the ancient Gilgamesh epic, the divine response is vastly different. In the Bible, God responds to sin and injustice in the world. In Gilgamesh, the gods respond angrily because humans have disturbed their slumber. They were furious for having been woken up.

In a world of anonymous gods, the earliest chapters of Genesis revealing two names for God would have come off as shocking. Apparently, this God desires to be called on — even known. Perhaps this adds to the weight of Jesus’ prayer in John:

I have revealed Your name to the men you gave Me.John 17:6 NET, emphasis mine6

In the first two chapters of Genesis, God has already doxxed Himself, giving humans a name which they can call upon. This God isn’t unknown. Nor does this God want to remain unknown.

This God has a name. It’s almost like God wants to be wanted. Or as A. W. Tozer wrote, “God is waiting to be wanted.”7

  1. Robert Alter, “A Life of Learning: Wandering Among Fields,” Christianity and Literature 63, no. 1 (Autumn 2013): 100.
  2. “Biblical gaps” are explored in Meir Sternberg, The Poetics of Biblical Narrative: Ideological Literature and the Drama of Reading (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1987), chap. 6.
  3. D. A. Carson, The God Who Is There: Finding Your Place in God’s Story (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2010).
  4. William C. Placher, Unapologetic Theology: A Christian Voice in a Pluralistic Conversation (Louisville: Westminster, 1989), 12.
  5. As quoted in Eugene Subbotsky, The Bubble Universe: Psychological Perspectives on Reality (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2020), 258–59.
  6. Van Kaam, Adrian, The Tender Farewell of Jesus: Meditations on Chapter 17 of John’s Gospel (New York: New City, 1996), chap. 7.
  7. Quoted in John Eldredge, The Journey of Desire: Searching for the Life You’ve Always Dreamed Of, expanded ed. (Nashville: Nelson, 2016), 59. The quote is slightly modified for writing flow.

Excerpted with permission from The Gift of Thorns by A. J. Swoboda, copyright A. J. Swoboda.

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Your Turn

We can call on God by name every moment of the day. That’s how much He loves us! The Bible isn’t about us, it’s about Him! How does that change the way you read the Word?