God’s providence is a fundamental necessity to Christian orthodoxy.
“We believe that this good God, after creating all things, did not abandon them to chance or fortune but leads and governs them according to his holy will, in such a way that nothing happens in this world without God’s orderly arrangement. Yet God is not the author of, and cannot be charged with, the sin that occurs. For God’s power and goodness are so great and incomprehensible that God arranges and does his works very well and justly even when the devils and the wicked act unjustly.
“We do not wish to inquire with undue curiosity into what God does that surpasses human understanding and is beyond our ability to comprehend. But in all humility and reverence we adore the just judgments of God, which are hidden from us, being content to be Christ’s disciples, so as to learn only what God shows us in the Word, without going beyond those limits.
“This doctrine gives us unspeakable comfort since it teaches us that nothing can happen to us by chance but only by the arrangement of our gracious heavenly Father, who watches over us with fatherly care, sustaining all creatures under his lordship, so that not one of the hairs on our heads (for they are all numbered) nor even a little bird can fall to the ground without the will of our Father” (The Belgic Confession, Art. 13).
The doctrine of God’s providence does not merely confess “God is in control” but that he is in control of all things to a certain end. God is not playing eternal checkers with himself, moving humankind infinitely around the same old board. He is accomplishing something. He is accomplishing everything.
Genesis is about the beginnings of things. The beginning of time, matter, people. The beginning of all that’s right and all that’s wrong. But it’s about far more. Things that are begun by a powerful and benevolent God necessarily infer purpose. And purpose, according to Christianity, infers God’s providence. God did not merely begin all things. He started all things in order to finish all things. Genesis not a mere story of creation but the outworking of God’s divine and loving providence.
Genesis offers details that surely confuse me and force important and unanswerable questions. But one thing remains constant: God has ordained every detail of history to serve his appointed ends; namely, the eternal display of his grace to his people through Jesus Christ (Eph 1.3-14).
Either God has gotten lucky for ten thousand years (or ten gazillion, which only strengthens my point), reacting perfectly to all human behavior so that Jesus happened on the scene in the nick of time and the church holds on by the skin of her teeth. Or, God has orchestrated all of human history — favoring one person rather than another, allowing this event and not that one, preserving one life and not the ten next to it — to prove he alone is God and will get all glory for the salvation of any one man.
God’s providence is on full display in Genesis 11 where we read eight times in vv10-25, “and he had other sons and daughters.” The same phrase was used nine times in 5.4-30, most importantly of Noah who had three sons: Shem, Ham and Japheth. But Genesis 11.10-30 concerns itself only with Shem’s lineage beginning with his son Arpachshad on its way to Abram. But if Shem “had other sons and daughters” why is Arpachshad singled out? Why not any one of Shem’s other sons?
Arpachshad and I have something in common. We both welcomed children at 35. He had Shelah at 35 but over the next 403 (!) years “he had other sons and daughters.” They, however, are lost to history and only Shelah is immortalized in the biblical witness. Shem’s line gets more and more specific until the spotlight shines on one man: Shem’s great-whatever grandson Abram. All along the way, though, everyone was having “other sons and daughters.”
In a stroke of literary brilliance, the author (Moses?) stopped us dead in our tracks. He’s rhythmically ended each generational iteration with “and he had other sons and daughters.” He gets to Terah and mentioned his three (not one) sons: Abram, Nahor Jr., and Haran (v26). Haran died (v27) thus ending that line and leaving Abram and Nahor to continue whatever God started with Shem and Arpachshad. Abram married Sarai and Nahor married Milcah (v29).
Verse 29 leaves us hanging in suspense. Which son will enjoy being “begat” and which one swept into the “other sons and daughters” category? Who will be the “one” and who the “other”? In v30 we’re startled to read, “Sarai was barren; she had no child.” Barren? No child? In a chapter carried along by the rhythm of fertility, each stanza refrained “and he had other sons and daughters,” the song ends abruptly with this crescendo of barrenness. If Shem was a movie, it was a short one.
But that settles it, right? There’s only one son left to keep the line moving. We should then expect v31 to begin “So Nahor became the father of Uz” but we don’t hear that until Genesis 22.20. No, whatever God is doing through the line of Shem will go through Abram, husband of Barren Sarah, not Nahor, husband of fertile Milcah. Nahor fades from the scene and the next twelve chapters are, as we say, history.
Did God get lucky that Shem had a son, and every son thereafter had a son until Abram went and married that barren woman? If God were merely reacting to history then he should’ve chosen Nahor, who did have a fertile wife and did bear a son. Like a coloring book maze, God hit a wall and should back up to a more promising line. Why insist on “interfering” with the seeming natural order of things by risking history on an impossible situation? How many details must “fall into place” so that an Arpachshad could be born, much less an Isaac?
It must be that God has sovereignly ordained the most minute details of history — even which son will inherit his favor — to serve his good and wise purposes. Otherwise, every generation was a roll of the cosmic dice. Why favor Seth and not Cain? Why Shem and not Japheth? Why Abram and not Nahor? Why Isaac and not Ishmael? Why Jacob (the liar) and not Esau? Why Joseph and not one of his 11 other better-suited brothers? Why little David and not one of his strapping brothers? There were always other sons and daughters to use who were just as, if not more, fit for God’s purposes.
And on and on until we read of a teenage virgin who is pregnant. And we thought a post-menopausal Barren Sarah becoming pregnant was something!
In the end we must ask ourselves, “Why me and not him? Why him and not her?” Dear sister, why do you love Christ and not your younger brother who grew up in the same house? Dear brother, why do you believe the gospel and not your older sister who sat beside you in the same pew every Sunday? Dear friend, why would God use you in his kingdom and not your neighbor who gives twice as much to charity? Among all the better people in the world, who have done seemingly far less to offend God, why would God favor you and not them? Why did God adopt you rather than the hundred other spiritual orphans next door? Why should my salvation possibly happen?
From Genesis 1.1 on we cannot help but say, “So then it does not depend on the man who wills or the man who runs, but on God who has mercy” (Rom 9.16).
All the genealogies of Scripture are of a piece of one lineage: Our Heavenly Father’s only begotten Son. And this Son has many brothers and sisters “who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God” (Jn 1.13). This Son’s Bride is not barren, but fertile, to beget God’s many sons and daughters into his kingdom through the gospel (Mt 16.18).
With the gospel’s aroma wafting through heaven we will spend eternity confessing, “For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, so that no one may boast” (Eph 2.8-9). Dead sinners can take no more credit for their eternal life than post-menopausal barren women and teenage virgins can for their pregnancies. And so goes the rhythm of sovereign grace.