Three Testaments?

Following on from my recent post, N T Wright provoked another thought, through an offhand reply in a video of his. He described Genesis 1-11 as “The Old Testament of the Old Testament”. And that of course is true, both in its time frame – the world before the call of Abraham into covenantal (= testamental) relationship – and its provenance, in a classical Mosaic torah framework at least, as the ancient traditions that Israel already possessed at the time of the Exodus.

But it seems to me quite informative to look at the Bible, for a moment, as a book in three, rather than the usual two, parts. Perhaps “testament” is an anachronistic term for Genesis 1-11. The covenant-structure of the Old Testament and, accordingly, of the New Covenant first announced in the prophets at the time of the Exile and fulfilled in Jesus, derives from the pattern of 2nd and 1st millennium treaty codes. The first chapters of Genesis relate to a time before those formal patterns of covenant existed. And yet, as the Reformers recognised and many modern commentators endorse, there is a form of covenant – in the sense of a formal arrangement between God and Adam – described in the Eden story.

That, indeed, is the basis of the strong parallels drawn by Seth Postell, and also by Wright, Greg Beale, John Sailhamer, Gordon Wenham and others between the call, failure and exile of Adam and those of Israel. As Wright points out, no Jew living at the time of the exile could possibly have read Genesis 2-3 without seeing their own national experience in his.

For they, as a nation, had been called to a land apart to meet Yahweh, had rebelled over the centuries despite clear guidance, and had ended up exiled from the sacred land to Babylon. Likewise Adam was called to serve Yahweh in the garden, rebelled, saw his offspring go from bad to worse, the final outcome being – the tower of Babel. Skeptics have seen that as evidence that Gen 1-11 was written as a response to exile: I’ve argued, like Postell, that it is about real events paradigmatic of Israel’s recapitulated history. Either way the two are presented in the Bible as comparable events.

If we run for a while with such a three-part Bible division, and factor in the narrative overview I suggested last time, then that overview becomes divided into three parallel “movements”.

In the first, God’s original plan to transform the cosmos through mankind is stymied by Satan’s malicious deception and Adam’s sin, leading to the latter’s exile and the blighting of creation.

In the second, Israel is called as a remedy, through the Patriarchs Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, to know God personally at Sinai, and so become the “kingdom of priests” who will restore the knowledge of God to the nations and so achieve his original goal (Psalm 8). But they fail even at that first encounter, and the Old Testament records the slow deterioration leading to the Babylonian Exile, and Yahweh’s name being held in contempt among the nations.

The third movement is, of course, the Incarnation of God’s own Son as both the faithful Adam and the true Israel, who succeeds where the others failed through the scandal of the cross. He defeats Satan, and saves mankind, as the Church, to transform the world in and through him, so that God’s whole initial purpose is vindicated and accomplished.

What’s somewhat interesting is that, seen as a story, that three-movement narrative fits the classic story-telling pattern known as the Rule of Three. We saw this in some of my cunningly chosen examples of folk-tales in the previous post: The Three Little Pigs, The Three Billy Goats Gruff, and even The Good Samaritan with its failed priest and Levite prior to the Samaritan’s success. But I could have chosen many more such examples: stories across the world and across the millennia often work best with that three-form structure. Check out how many of Jesus’s parables use it (eg the feast, the sower, the talents, the lost coin, the lost sheep…)

Seen through these spectacles, the overarching Bible narrative begins to interpret itself as an example of omne trium perfectum. The Adam story, the Israel story, and the Christ story all fit together as parallel episodes in the bigger overall narrative of God’s intended completion of his creation. The garden narrative is both God’s first “goal seeking” attempt and the “obstruction” to his plan that turns the Bible into a true story at all. The call of Israel, the “second attempt”, appears to be a large-scale solution to the problem that has emerged, calling an entire nation rather than one fallible couple. But as we’ve seen, the story recapitulates the story of Adam and things end up looking worse than ever.

And of course the coming of Jesus is shown to be no accident, or whim, or ad hoc solution, but the third and final movement of God’s remedy, through the “champion” helper for whose glory, as the New Testament finally reveals, the whole drama was planned before time. The Lamb, it turns out, was actually slain from the creation of the world.

This pattern ought not to be controversial, really, since (as Wright, Postell and others have pointed out) the stories of Adam and Israel screamed out their parallels to every exilic Jew who heard them. And the coming of Messiah was, of course, presented from the very start in the prophets as a New Covenant to replace that made through Moses (and to fulfil that made through Abraham): see Isa 42:6, 61:8; Jer 31:31ff;Ezek 16:59-60, 34:23-31.


Seeing this pattern helps, I suggest, to interpret the origins narratives more reliably too. In the first place, if the Adam story is indeed an intended parallel both to the history of Israel and the Gospel of Jesus, then we have to give full weight to that fact. It is not simply a folk-explanation for evil, or even just for human sin. Rather it’s a crucial event whose human characters are a foundational couple who fail in an appointed, and fundamentally cosmic, role. Thereby they become both agents of a failure that needs to be corrected, and bearers of a guilt that needs to be dealt with in order to correct the failed task and reach God’s intended goal.

Satan’s role as deceiver, and its remedy, also need to be accounted for fully, since that aspect of Christ’s work remains of major importance in the New Testament. It is more than the defeat of “evil forces”, but a clear case of the punishment fitting the original crime.

The current state of the world, and the “groaning of creation” described in Romans 8, become explicable in terms of the long delay in the consummation of the new creation, as well as the corruption of sin, both of which are the fault of Adam through his succumbing to Satan, yet are remedied, as first intended, through “the glorious freedom of the sons of God” – a freedom that was offered to Adam, but lost.

Incidentally this also casts the role of Israel in its proper cosmic light, as of course was intended by the divine author, whose purpose for Israel was that they should see themselves as called to complete what Adam did not, and not merely to be the followers of a particular national god, nor even simply the favourites of the true God.


A second use of this threefold narrative framework is in drawing a sharper distinction between Genesis 1 and Genesis 2 than is often done. They are not simply alternative creation stories, because chapter 1 isn’t a “story” in the proper sense at all, but some other kind of account. On its own it’s rather like Wright’s example of a non-story in NTPG: “One day Little Red Riding Hood decided to take some food to her granny, so she did, and they were all happy.” Genesis 1 simply describes what God did, unopposed. Enuma elish is a creation story – plenty of drama and conflict there. But not Genesis 1.

But what Genesis 1 does narratively within the Bible (ignoring its own brilliant role in establishing the creation as God’s temple) is to set the scene for the beginning of the real story, whose action begins in chapter 2. It quite literally describes the “resting state” before the story, as a story, begins. (See the discussion in, for example, Beale’s The Temple and the Church’s Mission on how God’s “sabbath rest” represents God’s settled rule over the “very good” Genesis 1 creation. The change comes only at 3:1). Genesis 1 sets out the Bible “store”, in the way that “Once upon a time there was a king who lived in a forest” does in some generic fairy tale.

Only in chapter 2 does the action begin, by describing the intention God has for change, perhaps expressed in 1:26-28, or perhaps something beyond that. In the immediate sense that intention is to call a man into fellowship, and royal and priestly service. Ultimately, as the rest of the Bible unwraps, it is to transform creation by filling it with his glory (see Richard Middleton on this). It introduces the villain and his mischief. Chapters 2-3 are the equivalent of “One day the king sent his son off to marry a beautiful princess in the next kingdom. But an evil giant, who was jealous, captured the prince and put him in a deep dungeon…” Now we have the beginning of a story.

If this is correct, and Genesis 1, for all its importance for the theology of creation, is narratively only decribing the “initial conditions” (“Once upon a time there was a king…”) then its chronology becomes very much irrelevant to the matter. We never ask, of a fairy tale, how long the king had been reigning in his forest, or what that reign had been like. For all we know it could have been half a century of social reform, or he might have been crowned the week before. Those things are simply assumed. It’s what happens next that matters. The “initial state” of God’s reign “in rest” in Genesis 1-2:4 might have been as just long as modern discoveries suggest. Mankind, even, could have been living in that state of God’s settled rule for tens of millennia before God decided to move creation along to something new. After all, he has not been over-hasty, in human reckoning, in putting the tragedy of the garden right, and 2,000 years have passed since the cross without the final denouement of the Bible tale.

Nevertheless we now live at the fortunate time when the prince has, after many adventures, imprisoned the giant and is, perhaps, just about to marry the princess. And that more or guarantees that they will all live happily ever after eventually. But perhaps not before one or two more adventures, in which we ouselves may well be characters.

Jon Garvey

About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
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3 Responses to Three Testaments?

  1. Mark Mark says:

    Excellent article, describing some of the same themes I have been exploring from a different angle. Or in some ways the same angles.

    “Only in chapter 2 does the action begin, by describing the intention God has for change, perhaps expressed in 1:26-28, or perhaps something beyond that.” – It is expressed in 1:26-28. And notice how 1:27 is also a three part verse. I go much more into it in the book, but “the Man” in His image is Christ and the Church. That’s the goal. The starting place is men and women generally- Adamic race male and female. The bridge to get from the latter to the former is the man Adam and his wife. They are to initiate God’s plan to “make man in our own image”.

    • Jon Garvey Jon Garvey says:

      Hi Mark

      Yes, my ambivalence about 1:26-28 is because I haven’t yet bottomed out to my own satisfaction the exact scope of Genesis 1, if one accepts the existence of all the people before Adam.

      If it is intended to describe (in its own terms, of course) the whole history of the world, then perhaps one can consider mankind before the Eden “covenant” as created to subdue the world, and even as having a “natural” religion through seeing God’s works, as in Romans or Ps 8, that primordial role being extended to the whole cosmos through the Adam/Israel/Christ stories.

      On the other hand, if the account is written with the focus on Adam’s role, then other people around at his time, or before, are liable to written out of the story: they are not in 1:26-28 since that is about Adam and his line, so they must simply be included among the beasts, which misses the universalism that seems to be intrinsic to Genesis.

      There may, of course, be a middle position!

  2. Jon Garvey Jon Garvey says:

    This is a note to myself as much as anything:

    A second use of this threefold narrative framework is in drawing a sharper distinction between Genesis 1 and Genesis 2 than is often done. They are not simply alternative creation stories, because chapter 1 isn’t a “story” in the proper sense at all, but some other kind of account. On its own it’s rather like Wright’s example of a non-story in NTPG: “One day Little Red Riding Hood decided to take some food to her granny, so she did, and they were all happy.” Genesis 1 simply describes what God did, unopposed.

    I’m interested to discover that biblical scholars Richard Middleton and Walter Breuggemann (respect), and others, have noted the lack of “story” in Genesis 1, and used it to show that the creation account is background to the drama that then begins in chapter 2, in the way I have suggested here.

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