What Did Jesus Learn About God?

What did Jesus learn about God from his “rabbi-pastor,” as He studied the first three chapters of Genesis?

The New Testament provides only brief glimpses of Jesus’ youth and training. One such glimpse is found in Luke 2:40, where we read that He “continued to grow and become strong, increasing in wisdom; and the grace of God was upon Him” (NASV). Luke also tells us that when Jesus was twelve, He was found in the temple in Jerusalem, both listening and asking the teachers questions; and that they were amazed by Him (Luke 2:46-47). From these limited passages we cannot determine what understanding of God Jesus “brought” with Him when He, being omniscient God, became man; or what knowledge He, becoming created man, had to learn about God. Therefore, rather than attempt to examine what Jesus learned about God, I will consider what Jesus might have been taught about God.

If Jesus were studying the first three chapters of Genesis in a contemporary Bible study group here in our western society, He might be challenged to think of God in certain “western” ways. For example, Jesus today might be called upon to consider questions such as: Were there seven literal days of creation? What is the origin of Cain’s wife? How do prehistoric people fit into the creation account? He would likely be exposed to a God who appeals to the intellect of humankind, who works within laws of reason, and provides in His word, tangible evidence of Himself. This would not be an unreasonable approach. From the discovery of the first dinosaur bones in the early 1800s, to the study of black holes and their relationship to the genesis of life, western society has challenged the faithful to view God through spectacles not formerly worn. As a result, Christians are often compelled by the challenges of the modern, scientific community to review the book of Genesis, and the Person of God, for answers that satisfy western pragmatism.

I do not believe it is wrong to ponder God in “western” terms. But, it is probable that Jesus’ first-century, Middle-Eastern teachers did not ask these types of questions, and likely thought of God in a different way. It stands to reason, therefore, that the way in which Jesus’ teachers understood God, is the way they taught God to Jesus.

For the sake of this study, let us examine a fictional character. His name will be Rabbi Zechariah. Rabbi Zechariah’s most significant tenure was at a small synagogue in the unassuming hamlet of Nazareth, near the beginning of what we now know as the first century. Rabbi Zechariah has a heart for ministry, and especially enjoys his role as a teacher within this Jewish community. Among his pupils is the son of a local carpenter – a bright lad who Rabbi Zechariah believes has considerable promise. The boy is attentive, considerably less mischievous than his colleagues, and seems to take special delight in listening to the scriptures being read during class.

During one such teaching session, Rabbi Zechariah takes the first scroll of the Torah, and unrolls it to its beginning. Reading in Hebrew, a tongue now reserved for religious use, Rabbi Zechariah begins to teach his class about God through the story of creation, while a young Jesus sits nearby, absorbing each spoken word with unprecedented attention.

The opening chapters of Genesis are not narrated to Jesus like data from a science book. Rather, Rabbi Zechariah unravels from the scroll, a beautiful, poetic story that tells of the dawning of life. That story begins with God Himself: Elohiym. This name, Rabbi Zechariah points out, is unique, speaking of the distinct character of God. He points out that it is in plural form, yet it does not suggest that the Hebrew people serve many gods. Instead, Rabbi Zechariah tells them, the word could refer to God and his heavenly court, or perhaps the word has been intensified to the plural to represent the supreme God. How interesting to consider that as Rabbi Zechariah labored to provide his class with a meaning of the word Elohiym, there was one present who would later claim to be a living definition.

Jesus’ “pastor” next compares the story of creation found in the Torah to that told in ancient Babylon, as found in the Enuma elish. In the latter story, the earth and heavens were the haphazard result of a brutally fierce battle born of envy and anger between the gods. The Genesis account, in contrast, reveals a God who thoughtfully and circumspectly spoke each element of our universe into existence, and then bound Himself to His created world. From that explanation, Rabbi Zechariah teaches his class about the care, orderliness and commitment of Elohiym.

Continuing their study of Genesis, the class hears from their teacher how God created all things good. The rabbi is compelled to address a growing Greco-Roman philosophy expounding a completely different, dualistic concept of life that teaches that spirit is good, but matter is evil. This teaching readies the class to form answers to a current and very important topic.

Rabbi Zechariah teaches his class that the central figure in all of God’s creation is humankind. For no other created thing, living or inanimate, can lay a claim to being created in the image and likeness of God (Genesis 1:26). Nor did any other created thing become the vessel to receive the soul-giving breath of God (Gen. 2:7). This has profound implications, Rabbi Zechariah informs them, in understanding our basic nature, and value, to God. He explains to his students that we have been charged by God to replenish, subdue and have dominion over the earth (Gen. 1:28), and that we have been called to dress and keep God’s creation (Gen. 2:15). This evidences God’s great interest in His own creation, and purpose, for us.

Rabbi Zechariah then shares with his class how God established harmony for people, one with another (Gen. 2:18), with creation (Gen. 2:15), with one’s self, and with God (Gen. 3:8-9). The class is gaining an understanding of God’s nature by examining the virtues He displayed at the time of creation. They also see that this harmony was contingent upon the key element of obedience (Gen. 2:15-17). And with this idea, Rabbi Zechariah detours to instruct his class on an extremely important concept. The blessings of living in relationship with God, they learn, are bound together in a single word echoed again and again throughout the scrolls of scripture: covenant. The students learn that this covenant was not instituted by humankind, but was designed by God and offered to us out of the mercies of God. Our acceptance of the covenant is marked by obedience to God. However, when we disobey, Rabbi Zechariah cautions, we step beyond the secure walls of covenant protection and are subject to judgment.

Unrolling the scroll further, the class continues with their teacher to what we know as Genesis Chapter 3. Here, Rabbi Zechariah relates, the story takes a terrible turn. The harmonious picture so beautifully painted in the first two chapters is marred by humankind’s disobedience. Sin has entered and nothing is the same. Harmony with nature is broken (Gen. 3:17), harmony with others is affected (Gen. 3:16), disharmony is born in the heart of humankind through guilt (Gen. 3:10), and the once intimate relationship openly enjoyed with God is now veiled (Gen. 3:21).

Rabbi Zechariah, however, does not leave his class alone with this bleak picture. He continues in his teaching by reading the passage we find at Gen. 3:15. Here, the good rabbi shares with his eager listeners that God, in spite of being rejected by humankind, has not rejected us. Rather, God leaves us with a promise – that one day, coming from the seed of woman, restoration will come from One sent by God. The good news shared with Jesus and His classmates is that God has not abandoned His people – even when we have broken His covenant. Adam and Eve are sent out from the garden of God’s creation, but they go with a promise of God’s grace. The class is reminded that ever since that dark day, God’s people have been waiting for the fulfillment of that promise. Each generation that has passed, Rabbi Zechariah tells, was blessed in hearing of God’s promise. Each generation saw for themselves how this promise became their hope.

Then, Rabbi Zechariah does what any rabbi worth his salt does – he interprets the passage in a tangible way for his class. He reminds them that for centuries now, no prophet has visited Israel. Yet, as God waited patiently to send Moses to an enslaved Israel, He will remember them also. Rabbi Zechariah motions in the direction of four Roman soldiers who have just marched past their open-aired classroom, and reminds his class that they are once again an oppressed people: a predicament that disobedience toward God has created for them. He shows for his class that the account just read to them from the Torah does not lack corporeal value. It brings hope to each one of them, just as it brought hope to every Hebrew through the ages who heard the same words.

Before class is dismissed, the students are asked to reflect upon the timeless reality of God’s word. They ponder the challenge raised by their “rabbi-pastor:” to examine the hope that their “Bible” has given to each generation, and then work to apply that same hope to their own lives.

The class ends with a prayer of thanksgiving for the lessons learned, and for the Hope of the ages, to come to Israel and lift the heavy hand of Roman oppression. None could imagine Hope sitting so close by, nor how He would labor to wrestle a yoke, much heavier than Rome, from their necks.