Questions are among the sharpest tools for Jewish Bible study. For millennia, Jewish sages and scholars have been probing the sacred text with questions and uncovering priceless truths in the process.
Next week, on Simchat Torah, we’ll roll the Torah scroll back to the beginning for another year of reading, and the ancient sage Rabbi Yitzchak provides a well-honed question for the occasion: “Why does the Torah begin at Bereisheet, the book of Genesis?” (cited by Rashi on Genesis 1:1).
The Torah as a book of law, says the rabbi, should have opened with the first commandment given to all Israel: “This month shall be for you the beginning of months” (Ex. 12:2). But instead, it begins with creation so that,
If the nations of the world say to Israel, “You are bandits, for you conquered the lands of the seven nations who inhabited Canaan,” Israel can respond, “The whole earth belongs to the Holy One, blessed is he. He created it and he gave it to whomever he chose. By his wish he took the land of Canaan from them and gave it to us.”
In other words, the Torah begins with God’s creation of heaven and earth to establish God’s right to give the land of Canaan to the people of Israel.
Rabbi Yitzchak raises a fascinating question, but today’s hyper-inclusive world wouldn’t be happy with his answer. Lots of Christians seem to doubt that the land grant given to the descendants of Abraham—the Jewish people—remains valid today. And folks like that are likely to question whether the main point of Genesis 1 is really to establish God’s right to give the land of Canaan to Israel. That idea seems so particular and narrow amid the broad, universal language of Genesis and the hope of redemption to come. One Christian writer who’s particularly unfriendly to the Jewish claim to the land of Israel writes,
In light of their universal fulfillment in Christ, the narrow Old Testament promises regarding the land take on a very transitory and provisional meaning. They are time bound and, in view of their completion in Christ, become theologically obsolete.
If the “Old Testament promises regarding the land” are obsolete, then R. Yitzchak’s understanding of Genesis is even more obsolete. But I think he’s actually on to something. The particular promises to Abraham’s descendants meant to bring universal blessing. In the same way, the universal purpose of blessing will in the end be accomplished by that particular Jew named Yeshua Ha-Notzri. God uses the particular to show that he’s present and engaged in real life, even as he remains transcendent and holy.
This particular-universal dynamic is evident throughout the first parasha of Genesis (1:1–6:9).
For example, God tells the first male and female, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth” (Gen. 1:28). That’s pretty universal. But then God plants a particular garden, Eden, in a particular place, the east, and puts the humans there to “work it and keep it” (Gen. 2:8, 15). We soon learn that God is in the habit of “walking in the garden in the cool of the day” to hang out with his humans (Gen. 3:8). In this particular place the humans are to enact their universal destiny as stewards of the earth, under God’s authority and in close contact with him.
The humans had dominion over the whole earth, so what did they need with a garden? Apparently God delights in working through the particular—real people, real places—to bring about universal blessing.
After Adam and Eve are expelled from the Garden, Scripture takes up the drama of finding a way back to the Garden. The land promised to Abraham is a reflection of the Garden—a land flowing with milk and honey, “a land of hills and valleys, which drinks water by the rain from heaven, a land that the Lord your God cares for” (Deut. 11:11-12). Now, the modern state of Israel is hardly the Garden of Eden (although it is a beautiful stretch of planet earth). It’s a work-in-progress. But its sometimes prickly particularity doesn’t conflict with God’s universal purpose in Messiah Yeshua, as Israel’s anti-Zionist critics contend. Instead, despite its setbacks, errors and frustrations, we who support Israel believe it will still become a source of blessing to the nations.
Why does the Torah begin at B’reisheet? Maybe it just makes sense to begin at the beginning, but from beginning to end, God delights to use particular means, which might even include you and me, to accomplish his universal purposes.
 Naim Ateek, “The Earth is the Lord’s: Land, Theology, and the Bible,” in The Land Cries Out: Theology of the Land in the Israeli-Palestinian Context, edited by Salim J. Munayer and Lisa Loden. (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2012), 178, 179.