Judgement in Genesis

Following O’Donovan’s broad definition of judgement, we see the first act of that in Genesis 1, where God looks at his creation and judges it to be very good. Even as we focus on a more criminal definition of judgement, this is an important starting point, because the first crime will be committed on the backdrop and in contrast to this declared goodness. Crime itself – or sin – is the ‘not-good’: that which is antithetical to the good that God has created and declared.

The paradigmic example if this is in Genesis 3. There is more discussion of the ethical framework of this sin in Ethics in Genesis, but it is important to note in this discussion that the crime is committed in the face of an existing command, and that the punishment declared is enacted. However, that punishment is instantly moderated in God’s compassion. Now that humanity is sentenced to death, they do not die immediately, and indeed God blesses them with a child as a promise of the future.

Chapter 4

Chapter 4 introduces the second crime, which is the first crime of violence (While Cain’s failure to sacrifice to God appropriately is seen as wrong, there is no actual crime-punishment here. Instead God is warning him of the direction that his attitude is taking him, see Ethics in Genesis). It is notable that, if the first crime/sin is the paradigm of rejecting Gods pattern for reality, then the second crime – the first out-working of the fall – is violence. As we progress, we shall see a pattern where violence is a paradigmatic example of sin. This is the first hint of that patten.

Also notable is the fact that God did not respond to violence in kind. His first punishment for Adam and Eve was exclusions from the garden. His second punishment – for Cain – is exclusion from the social structures of settling, farming, building cities etc. that is, an excision from society. Cain interprets this as being a further exclusions from Gods presence (v14). In these paradigmatic accounts, Gods response to evil so far has been to shun it, not to enact violence upon it. Indeed, when Cain fears that God’s expulsions of him might cause others to be violent, God specifically protects him. It is not that God has not got around to executing Cain for his act of murder, but that he actively wants to prevent him from being killed.

The third crime reported in Genesis is also murder. Lamech boasts to his wives (also the first example of polygamy) that he has killed a man for striking him (the word kill is in qatal, which means it was an event that happened, not a threat). This is an escalation from the shame suggested in Cain hiding his murder, to a bragging about it.

What are we to make of the fact that the first two post-fall crimes are murder? There are some possible suggestions.

  • that humanity’s sinful heart is particularly moved towards killing. Given half the chance, that’s what we end up doing.
  • that murder is the worst of crimes, so the OT highlights those crimes to prove how bad humanity has got so quickly

Possibly both.

The Flood – Chapters 6-9

The Flood is the next account of crime and punishment. The description of the evil in the world is worth noting if for no other reason than because it is so comprehensive.

1 When human beings began to increase in number on the earth and daughters were born to them, 2 the sons of God saw that the daughters of humans were beautiful, and they married any of them they chose. 3 Then the Lord said, “My Spirit will not contend with humans forever, for they are mortal; their days will be a hundred and twenty years.”

4 The Nephilim were on the earth in those days—and also afterward—when the sons of God went to the daughters of humans and had children by them. They were the heroes of old, men of renown.

5 The Lord saw how great the wickedness of the human race had become on the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of the human heart was only evil all the time. 6 The Lord regretted that he had made human beings on the earth, and his heart was deeply troubled.  […]

11 Now the earth was corrupt in God’s sight and was full of violence. 12 God saw how corrupt the earth had become, for all the people on earth had corrupted their ways. 13 So God said to Noah, “I am going to put an end to all people, for the earth is filled with violence because of them. I am surely going to destroy both them and the earth.

My first question is whether verses 1-4 are connected to 5ff. We can at least say that the intermarrying is not described as the PRIMARY reason for the flood. Whether it is an example of the evil of humanity, or something else again, is interesting (and probably beyond the scope of this). It seems possible that verses 1-4 are explaining why the big ages of the previous section are not the norm for today, and verse 5 describes a wider problem as the back-drop of the flood. It does seem that the ‘punishment’ in verse 3 (limiting their life span) does not make sense if the punishment in verse 7 (wiping them out) was also a punishment for the same ‘crime’, suggesting that they are two different accounts of two incidents/ideas.

Either way, the problem described in 5 and 11-13 is much greater (but not exclusive of) the intermarrying issue: “EVERY inclination of the thoughts of the human heart was ONLY evil ALL the time”. It is a comprehensive condemnation. Apart from the inter-marrying, which is not mentioned after verse 2 (or 4), what is the only other symptom that is described as an example of this corruption? “the earth was corrupt in God’s sight and was full of violence” (v11) “the earth is filled with violence because of them” (v12). Again, violence is the go-to outworking of inward sinfulness in these early accounts of the Bible. There is something about violence in the way that it is being described here that is both very wrong and also very pervasive in the human mind.

God then judges. Again, we see God stepping into history directly and enacting his own judgement. He is the one who enacts the flood and kills the people who were his creation. And, again, we see that God tempers his judgement with mercy. Not only does he save Noah and his family, but he also saves all the animals. So far, we have not seen a judgement of God that does not have a merciful ending. I suspect that this will be the consistent pattern.

The Covenant with Noah

Throughout those accounts, God demonstrated his ability and willingness to directly judge the evil of humanity – both individually and collectively – without the mediation of human agency. This is an important theme that is seen consistently through the Bible.

In 9:6, however, we see a new element:

6 “Whoever sheds human blood,
by humans shall their blood be shed;
for in the image of God
has God made mankind.

There is a question of ethical process (creation order etc) which we consider in Ethics in Genesis, but the important point to note in this topic is that there is now a mandate for some form of human involvement in God’s process of judgement. At the same point where God is promising never to flood the whole world and judge humanity whole-sale for their evil (which prominently included violence), he begins to establish a framework for humans to judge their own violence. Note that this is not God getting out of the judgement game, it is him delegating one aspect of it to his people.

Yes in the in cident of Noah and his sons, we see a different model of human judgement. When Noah finds out about how his son Ham shamed him, he did not respond with beating or killing, but with a curse. Now this account is here partly to describe the relationship of the descendants of each son, and the theological primacy of Shem’s line, but it is interesting to note this method of punishment (or consequence of sin) and its similarity with God’s curse in Genesis 3.


Babel returns us to the theme of God enacting his own judgement. In Noah, we do not see God ‘handing over’ judgement to his people. Instead, he continues to make major acts of judgement. Is it possible that here we see the beginnings of a distinction? the Noahic covenant delegates one aspect of judgement – the person-to-person judgement of murder – to humanity, but God continues to reserve big-ticket items for himself?

Sodom and Gomorrah

In the account of Sodom and Gomorrah (Gen 18-19), we see the second great example of God’s ability and willingness to execute judgement on nations through direct action.

Abraham’s negotiation with God is particularly interesting, and is discussed in more detail in Prayer in Genesis. In this discussion, however, it is worth noting how God seems willing to leave the punishment of the guilty if it would hurt the innocent.ot Given that he knows that Abraham will have this conversation with him (again, see Prayer in Genesis), is there a hint here that God prefers protection of the innocent over punishment of the guilty? Either way, in his statement to Abraham he makes it clear that he is acting only because the evil of the cities has become so great (raising strong echoes with the flood).

18:20 Then the Lord said, “The outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah is so great and their sin so grievous 21 that I will go down and see if what they have done is as bad as the outcry that has reached me. If not, I will know.”

 The incident with Lot and the angels serves to both highlight the total depravity of the city and the (comparative) innocence of Lot. Again, though, we see an example of humanity trying to solve their problems their way rather than trusting God in the way that Lot offers his daughters in the face of danged (see Providence in Genesis). This does raise the question of what God considered to be “righteous” in this context. Clearly it did not mean “innocent of sin” for two reasons; firstly, no-one is, and secondly, Lot had just demonstrated that he REALLY wasn’t. So we are pushed back to God’s promised to Abraham and the definition of righteousness supplied there: It seems that Lot is “righteous” and is therefore saved from the coming wrath, because he believes (trusts/follows?) God.

Not only that, but Lot’s family has the potential to be saved because of their relationship to him:

19:12 The two men said to Lot, “Do you have anyone else here—sons- in- law, sons or daughters, or anyone else in the city who belongs to you? Get them out of here,

There seems to be two axis of judgement upon which the cities are being judged. Why are Sodom and Gomorrah being judged and not other surrounding cities? It is not because they do not worship God: most surrounding cities do not. It is because they are particularly wicked in their human activity. In this regard, the whole city is guilty. On the other hand, why is Lot saved? Not because of his purity of actions, but because of his faith. In this instance, judgement is because of actions, but salvation is because of faith.

 Judgement for Jacob

Where is the judgement for Jacob and his constant deceptions of his brother, father and uncle? No tribunal stands up and condemns him. Instead, God himself appears. However, when he does, Jacob is not judged and condemned as we would expect. instead, he is renamed and re-directed (re-created in a way) to be a man who follows God.

Dinah and the Shechemites

In Genesis 34, we see Jacob’s sons take judgement into their own hands. Jacob’s daughter Dinah is raped by a prince of the Shechemites, and her brothers decide and then attack the city. Jacob is angry with his sons for their actions because they risked triggering all out war with their neighbours. Along with this denouncement from the patriarch, the story as a whole suggests that their actions were wrong. This was not an action of public judgement, because the brothers pretended to be making an alliance with the Shechemites, deceived them, and then attacked them while they were post-circumcision. Ironically, this pattern very closely matches the life style of their father in his younger years. This small incident is an example of both judgement and war done wrong.


Judah and Tamar ch 38

No judgment on Joseph’s brothers

Unjust judgement on Joseph in potiphar


One thought on “Judgement in Genesis

  1. The paradigmic example if this is in Genesis 3. Should read “of” not “if” and paradigmatic is not slept right. Apart from that, great work, Thank you, very encouraging…

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