Does the Bible Provide Guidance Regarding Genetic Engineering?

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Since human beings weren’t able to manipulate the genetic code when the Bible was written, it doesn’t directly address genetic engineering. It does, however, give general principles regarding medical technology that apply to genetic technologies.

Humans are created in God’s image and likeness, and so He charges them to exercise dominion over His creation (Gn 1:27–28). Their mandate? To subdue and kindly master the earth, unlocking its resources to benefit themselves and their successors—in a sense continuing the spirit of creation by being subordinate “creators” with God in unlocking the secrets of the creation to benefit humankind.

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The command to subdue the earth takes on added complexity after the entrance of sin into the world in Genesis 3. Exercising dominion over creation after the fall now involves dealing with sin’s effects in the world. Dominion includes working toward improving the creation or reversing the effects of the entrance of sin. The most important of sin’s effects is the reality of death (Gn 3:2–3), which is universal in its scope (Rm 5:12). That is, after the fall, death, decay, and deterioration face every person. Thus dominion over creation largely involves dealing with death and disease (disease being the cause of death in most cases), which can alleviate the harshness of life after the fall, even genetic disease. In order to exercise dominion God (through general revelation) provided human beings with resources necessary for accomplishing that task. That ingenuity and wisdom come from God as His “common grace” gifts to humans (Is 28:23–29).

The knowledge and skill necessary to develop the kinds of technologies that enable humankind to subdue the creation are part of God’s general revelation. Humans didn’t acquire the ingenuity and skill to develop sophisticated technology on their own apart from God. It’s not an accident that these technologies came to be so useful in our exercise of dominion over creation. They are gifts from God. Thus technologies that generally improve the lot of humanity and specifically help reverse the effects of sin’s entrance into the world are part of God’s common grace. The skill and expertise needed to bring about these creation-subduing technologies come ultimately from God, being His good gifts to humans in harnessing creation.

This is particularly the case when it comes to medical technology. Since death is one of the primary consequences of the entrance of sin into the world, and disease is the primary cause of death and physical deterioration, medical technologies bringing cures to diseases and other afflictions are among God’s most gracious gifts to the human race.

Medical technology can be part of God’s common grace to assist humans in fulfilling their role in exercising loving dominion. The more controversial technology of genetic engineering should be used only for therapeutic reasons (repairing damage), in keeping with the creation mandate. It should not be used for eugenic reasons (creating a kind of super race, as Hitler and the Nazis hoped to do, considering other races inferior to the so-called Aryans). C. S. Lewis warned that if “the dreams of some scientific planners are realized” by using their power to make their descendants into what they please, then their “conquest of Nature … means the rule of a few hundreds of men over billions upon billions of men.”

Genesis 30:25–43 This passage is crucial as an explanation of how Jacob became wealthy in his own right. He had lived as a part of Laban’s wider family wherein his own expanding family had been cared for sufficiently. But he was in no financial position to leave with his wives and children and go back to his own father and the land of promise. While this passage may appear to describe a type of magic, God instructed Jacob in this through a dream (31:10–12). The following narrative makes it clear that, throughout the six years described here, Laban repeatedly changed Jacob’s wages in seeking to gain material advantage over him (31:6–7, 38–42).

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Genesis 31:1–3 Providentially, the Lord’s command for Jacob and his family to return to his father and the promised land coincided with the rapidly growing desire for retribution by Laban and his sons.

Genesis 31:4–16 Jacob was concerned that Rachel and Leah would oppose leaving Laban’s extended family and going to Canaan. In attempting to persuade them, he reminded them of Laban’s cheating (vv. 5–7). He also came to fully realize God’s protection and guidance during this time (vv. 7–13). While Rachel and Leah do not echo Jacob’s growing faith, they display no loyalty to their father because of the way he has treated them (vv. 14–16).

Genesis 31:19–20 The Bible does not condone, but merely observes, Rachel’s “sin of commission” (i.e., stealing her father’s household idols) and Jacob’s “sin of omission” (i.e., not telling Laban he was leaving, though he was still employed by him as his herdsman). The narrative reveals that both sins caused larger problems, giving Laban reason to pursue and endanger Jacob’s family and herds.

Genesis 31:30, 32–35 This passage demonstrates that, much as Jacob had learned deception from his father (26:7–10) and mother (27:5–17), Rachel took after her father as a master deceiver. Children watch their parents’ behavior and learn from them, for good or evil. The narrative does not condone Rachel’s deception but portrays the realities of family life.

Genesis 32:1–23 There is striking interplay in this passage between the sovereign protection of God and the responsibility of man. The two are not contradictory, but complementary. On the way, Jacob met angels (vv. 1–2) whose protection had not been apparent to him before. In addition, his prayer reflects growing faith in the Lord’s promises during a time of danger (vv. 9–12). However, Jacob also does his best to appeal humbly and diplomatically (vv. 6–8, 13–23) to his brother, Esau, from whom he has long been estranged.

Genesis 32:24–31 The mysterious “man” (v. 24) whom Jacob wrestled with until dawn was God Himself (vv. 28, 30). The Lord had taken human form previously to interact with Abraham (18:2, 10, 16). Remarkably, the all-powerful Lord did not see fit to overpower Jacob but allowed him to cling tenaciously to Him all night. The concept of a Christian “wrestling with God” during particularly difficult or fearful times originates in this passage. Though Jacob physically limped away (32:25, 31) from this unexpected struggle, his new divinely given name, “Israel,” indicated that “he struggled with God” and prevailed, growing spiritually in the process.

Genesis 32:32 The nation of Israel, so named as Jacob’s descendants, abstained from eating “the thigh muscle that is at the hip socket” before Moses wrote Genesis. Observant Jews maintain this practice today.

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Genesis 33:1–4 Bowing seven times has been documented as a reflection of sincere regret and submission as early as the fourteenth century B.C. in Egypt. Unexpected forgiveness and reconciliation, especially when it occurs amidst volatile family squabbles or feuds, is touching and joyful.

Genesis 33:8–11 Since the Hebrew word for “present” in verse 11 is the same as that used in 27:35 for Esau’s expected “blessing” as the older son, it is likely Jacob is sincerely attempting to repay the “blessing” he had deceptively stolen from Esau.

Genesis 33:12–17 Sadly, there is no indication that Jacob, in fact, intended to go and meet Esau in Seir (v. 14). If so, in spite of his spiritual growth and sincere regret regarding his earlier behavior, he remained deceptive.

Genesis 34:1–31 Significantly, God is not mentioned in this tragic chapter. Unlike the book of Esther in which God is also not named but in which God’s people do act nobly (Est 4:16), there is nothing but treachery and angry vengeance here.

Genesis 34:3, 18–24 Though his act was heinous, Shechem, for whom the city may have been named, desired to marry Dinah, even being willing to undergo circumcision.

Genesis 34:13–31 Jacob’s sons, in their deceit at Shechem, employed the divine covenant sign of circumcision (17:10–14) as a means of ambushing the men of the city. Their looting the city and taking of its wives and children, for which they evidenced no shame or repentance (34:30–31), would cause the descendants of Simeon and Levi to be dispersed among Israel with no definite allotment of territory, through their father’s deathbed pronouncement (49:5–7).

Genesis 35:1–7 Jacob’s faith in the Lord had grown greatly, but his wives and children still worshiped the gods of Laban’s household. Still, the Lord protected the family when it responded in obedience, putting away everything related to idolatry and building an altar at Bethel as the Lord had directed.

Genesis 35:9–10 This explanation of why God changed Jacob’s name to Israel does not contradict the original statement in 32:27–28 but reaffirms it. The two names are used interchangeably from this point forward in the book of Genesis.

Genesis 35:16–20 Rachel is the only major figure in the Abrahamic line of promise not to be buried in the cave at Machpelah, which Abraham purchased as a burial site for Sarah (23:17–20). The naming of Benjamin, meaning “Son of the Right Hand,” indicates her new son now assumed Rachel’s special place of love and honor in Jacob’s life.

Genesis 35:22–26 Reuben, Jacob’s oldest son, attempted to assert his right over his father’s estate by sleeping with Jacob’s concubine Bilhah, the mother of two of his brothers. By doing so, however, he forfeited his blessing as the oldest son (49:3–4).

Genesis 35:27–29 Isaac lived longer than either Abraham or Jacob. That both Esau and Jacob buried Isaac implies that their reconciliation (33:1–15) continued through the rest of their father’s lifetime, extending approximately 50 years after Jacob returned to the promised land.

Genesis 36:1–5, 9–19, 43 Esau’s ties by marriage to various Canaanite peoples almost assured that his descendants would engage in false worship (Neh 13:23–26). In spite of this, as Isaac’s son, Esau was greatly blessed. His descendants intermarried and developed into a large, full-fledged kingdom, Edom, before Israel had a king.

Genesis 36:6–8 Because of the size and continuing growth of Esau’s and Jacob’s households and herds, it was necessary for them to separate, as had Abram and Lot (13:5–12). As heir of the promise to Abraham, Jacob lived in the land of Canaan, while Esau moved his family to Seir, southeast of the Dead Sea in what is now Jordan.

Genesis 37:1–2 Though Isaac’s death is mentioned earlier (35:27–29), the order of events here keeps the focus on Joseph. The story of Joseph explains to Moses’ original readers how Israel came to Egypt.

Genesis 37:2–4 It is likely that, because of the special relationship with Joseph, Jacob asked him for a report on his brothers’ work habits (v. 2). The brothers resented Jacob’s favoritism, of which the special garment was ample evidence.

Genesis 37:5–11 The reference to “your mother” would refer to Leah, Jacob’s remaining primary wife, since Rachel had died in childbirth years before (35:16–20). The observation that Jacob “kept the matter in mind” looks back on the prophecy of Jacob, the younger son, ruling over his older brother, Esau (25:23), as well as Jacob’s significant dreams revealing God’s will (28:12–15; 31:10–13). Jacob will live to see these prophecies fulfilled when Joseph becomes the second ruler in Egypt (46:29–30).

Genesis 37:12–14 Remarkably, Jacob allowed his sons to pasture their flocks in the vicinity of Shechem, the site of their earlier treachery (chap. 34). Apparently the “terror from God” (35:5) continued to protect them in the towns surrounding Shechem.

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Genesis 37:15–17 The brothers had moved the family’s herds from Shechem to Dothan. Though located in northern Palestine, Dothan was situated on the primary trade route between the Fertile Crescent and Egypt. Those providential circumstances led to Joseph’s being carried to Egypt (vv. 28, 36).

Genesis 37:21–22, 30–31 Two things probably motivated Reuben to try to save Joseph’s life. First, as the oldest son (35:23), he was most responsible to his father for the safety of his young sibling. Second, after having sexual relations with his father’s concubine, Bilhah (35:22), Reuben was undoubtedly attempting to get back in Jacob’s good graces.

Genesis 37:24–28 This passage reveals the low value Joseph’s brothers placed on his life, as well as their cruelty. Joseph was thrown into a pit without food or water while his brothers ate a meal. In addition, when Joseph was sold into slavery his brothers accepted “20 pieces of silver” (v. 28), far less than the typical 30 pieces of silver (Ex 21:32).

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Genesis 37:25, 28 The Midianites (25:2, 4) and Ishmaelites (25:12–18) were closely related as descendants of Abraham (though not Sarah). At this time the two peoples must have enjoyed a close working relationship, since their names are used interchangeably.

Genesis 37:35 When Jacob says that he will go down to “Sheol,” he does not mean he will go to hell (or heaven), but that he will be reunited with his son beyond death. In the Hebrew Bible, Sheol is the general term for the after-life, the abode of departed spirits beyond the grave.

Genesis 38:1–30 This passage, which spotlights Judah, has been viewed by some as an awkward intrusion into the long narrative about Joseph (chaps. 37; 39–50). However, it reflects the continuing spiritual hardheartedness of Joseph’s brothers, seen in their massacre of the men of Shechem (chap. 34) and in selling Joseph into slavery after nearly killing him (chap. 37). Judah’s ethical failures stand in stark contrast to the solid moral character of Joseph (chap. 39).

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Genesis 38:8–11 Two questions might arise in connection with this passage: (1) Why did Judah have his son, Onan, sleep with Tamar, his widowed daughter-in-law, and then withhold his remaining son, Shelah, from her? (2) Why was Onan killed for “evil” behavior after having sexual relations with Tamar? In regard to (1), an established institution of the culture was the “levirate marriage,” in which a widow was to be taken as wife by the closest male in her husband’s family. Any children from that marriage would be legally considered those of the deceased husband. This practice was made part of the Mosaic law (Dt 25:5–10) and is central in the book of Ruth. Thus, what Judah did in giving Tamar to Onan was morally appropriate, while stalling in regard to Shelah was not. As to (2), the “evil” which caused Onan to be killed was not, as some have said, that he had sex outside marriage or that he practiced a crude form of birth control (vv. 9–10). Rather, it was his selfishness in refusing to allow his sister-in-law to become pregnant by him. He knew that, while he would have to support the child, he would not receive any of his deceased brother’s estate, since it would legally belong to the child.

Genesis 38:11–26 Judah’s conclusion that Tamar was “more in the right” (v. 26) is not inferring that her impersonation of a prostitute was morally acceptable. Judah is acknowledging his greater fault in seeking a prostitute and his neglect of Tamar’s needs as a helpless widow, to which he should have attended. The fact that Tamar chose to play the prostitute to ensnare Judah speaks volumes about his moral reputation. By wearing the customary veil of the religious prostitute, she avoided being recognized by Judah.

Genesis 38:18, 23, 25 A “signet ring” impressed a person’s distinctive seal into clay or wax, functioning much like a signature on a legal document today. Tamar was shrewd to insist on keeping Judah’s signet ring as a guarantee of payment for her services. Her possession of the ring was undeniable proof of his involvement in her pregnancy.

Genesis 38:27–30 This passage stands out in the narrative of Genesis for two reasons. First, it is one of several examples of the struggle between older and younger siblings in the ongoing line of Abraham. Second, the sordid incident in which Judah impregnated his daughter-in-law, Tamar, would not thwart God’s plan to bless the world through Abraham. Indeed, it would lead to a demonstration of His grace when their illegitimate son would find a place in the Messiah’s genealogy (Mt 1:3; Lk 3:33).

Genesis 39:1–6 Joseph’s success in whatever he did indicated divine blessing to Potiphar, just as Isaac’s and Jacob’s earlier success revealed God’s favor (26:12–14; 30:43–31:1).

Genesis 39:6–10 Joseph’s refusal to sleep with Potiphar’s wife stands in stark contrast with the behavior of his brother, Judah, who sought out a prostitute (38:15–16).

Genesis 39:11–19 This passage parallels what happened to Joseph and Judah in regard to an item left behind in each case. Judah’s signet ring convicted him and prevented a cover-up of his behavior (38:25). Joseph’s garment, left behind when Potiphar’s wife made her aggressive sexual advances, allowed her to fabricate a convincing lie about his behavior.

Genesis 40:1–4 The king’s “cupbearer” (or butler) and “baker” were highly trusted “officers” in ancient royal courts. They made sure the king was not poisoned in his food or drink, and because they were highly trusted, both often served as his advisers. The honor of their positions is reflected by the fact that, though they had “offended” Pharaoh, their imprisonment was a kind of house arrest in which Joseph served as their “personal attendant.”

Genesis 40:5–8 Because of his own previous dreams (37:5–10), and his ability to interpret them straightforwardly, Joseph was confident the Lord would allow him to interpret the dreams of the cupbearer and the baker. Joseph’s question—“Don’t interpretations belong to God?”—was a bold declaration of faith, especially since he had not yet heard the dreams.

Genesis 40:9–13, 16–22 Though the two dreams were significantly different, they occurred the same night and were parallel in the use of the number three, which meant “three days” (v. 18) in each case. Joseph’s interpretations repeat the phrase “Pharaoh will lift up your head” (vv. 13, 19). The cupbearer’s head was lifted up in restoration to his position, while the baker’s head was lifted up in being hanged (vv. 20–22). These dreams, containing a number that designates a period of time and pointing to starkly contrasting outcomes, preview Pharaoh’s dreams (41:1–7).

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Genesis 41:1–8 Pharaoh’s dreams were dominated by the number seven and were full of the common agricultural imagery of Egypt. It was surprising that none of the “magicians” (who relied on occult knowledge), or so-called “wise men,” a group of advisors found in many ancient royal courts (e.g., Dn 2:2, 10), ventured an interpretation. Perhaps the down-to-earth imagery in the dreams suggested it would be obvious if their interpretation proved false, and that Pharaoh’s distress concerning the dreams (Gn 41:8) might lead to their being treated somewhat like the baker.

Genesis 41:9–13 It is striking that the cupbearer, in bringing up Joseph’s name and skill in interpreting dreams to Pharaoh, admits his own faults (lit., “sins,” v. 9). Since ancient rulers had the power of life and death over all their subjects, he was taking a risk in reminding the king of this. Perhaps the cupbearer is including his previous failure to mention Joseph to Pharaoh among his acknowledged shortcomings.

Genesis 41:17–32 Given the annual overflow of the Nile River that left deposits of rich soil, a long drought with resultant famine seemed an unlikely possibility to the Egyptians. When the “thin, ugly cows” in Pharaoh’s dream had devoured the “well-fed, healthy-looking cows,” their appearance was as repulsive as before. This was a detail he had not told the magicians and wise men (vv. 1–8), but which he disclosed to Joseph.

Genesis 41:33–36 These words could be a continuation of Joseph’s God-given interpretation or they could be the advice of the divinely gifted manager that Joseph had proven to be, both in Potiphar’s house (39:1–6) and in the prison (39:22–23). In either case, Joseph certainly was not interviewing for a job as overseer of the famine preparation effort.

Genesis 41:37 The acceptance of Joseph’s proposal by Pharaoh and his honored servants was an insult to the recognized wise men of Egypt.

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Genesis 41:38–39 Although Pharaoh does apparently attribute Joseph’s knowledge and ability to the true God of Israel, he would not have known at this point about the Spirit of God (i.e., the Holy Spirit). Instead, his words should be translated “a spirit of the gods,” since the Egyptians believed in many gods.

Genesis 41:40–44, 46–49 Potiphar had almost immediately trusted Joseph with everything related to his household (39:3–6), and the warden of the prison had done the same in his sphere of responsibility (39:21–23). Amazingly, Pharaoh immediately made Joseph the vizier (i.e., second ruler) over all the land of Egypt. In the description of Joseph’s newfound splendor and power, the most significant item is his possession of Pharaoh’s signet ring. Given Pharaoh’s confidence in Joseph’s intelligence and wisdom (41:39), the king’s signet was virtually a blank check for anything Joseph decided to do anywhere in Egypt.

Genesis 41:45, 50–52 In contrast to Daniel’s being given a Babylonian name to draw him into the culture of Babylon (Dn 1:6–7), Joseph’s Egyptian name recognized his faith in the God of Israel. Zaphenath-paneah means “the God speaks and lives.” Within Joseph’s family his brother, Judah, had chosen to marry a Canaanite and had largely lowered his moral and spiritual standards to the surrounding culture (Gn 38). Joseph’s arranged Egyptian marriage (41:45), by contrast, produced two children whose names honored the one true God (vv. 50–52).

Genesis 41:53–42:3 The famine of seven years’ duration becomes the occasion for Joseph’s reintroduction to his family. It is striking that Jacob chooses to purchase grain but not relocate from the promised land due to the famine, even though both Abram (12:10–20) and Isaac (26:1–2) had done so in similar circumstances.

Genesis 42:4–6 When Joseph’s 10 brothers (Benjamin remained with Jacob; v. 4) bowed down before him (v. 6), it was the literal fulfillment of Joseph’s first dream (37:5–8).

Genesis 42:7–22 Joseph was indeed testing his brothers (v. 15), but not in regard to their being spies (vv. 9, 14). Instead, the fear and anguish they must have felt because of Joseph’s accusations were similar to his pleas not to be sold into slavery (v. 21). Also, having his brothers imprisoned, even briefly (vv. 16–17), gave them a taste of what he had been through as an inmate in 39:20. Had the brothers been spiritually sensitive, they would have followed up on the strong clue in Joseph’s testimony that he feared God (v. 18). At least, though they assumed Joseph was dead (v. 13), they perceived that their predicament was from the Lord and was a delayed punishment for their horrible treatment of Joseph (v. 21; cp. 37:23–28).

Genesis 42:20 Joseph’s insistence on seeing Benjamin was not a whim. Benjamin was his only brother born to Rachel, his mother (30:22–24; 35:16–18).

Genesis 42:21–24 Joseph was deeply touched by his brothers’ awareness of guilt in their mistreatment of him, and especially of learning of Reuben’s attempt to save him from being sold into slavery. That is the apparent reason why Joseph chose to hold Simeon, his second oldest brother (35:23), as his hostage. As next in line to the oldest brother, he bore the most responsibility for Joseph’s ill-treatment.

Genesis 42:25–38 Joseph was not being cruel in his behavior. By holding Simeon, he guaranteed that his family would return to Egypt so that he could have further interaction with them. By having the money they had paid for the grain put back in each bag, he made sure they had the financial means to pay when they needed to return for more grain. However, Joseph’s presumed death years before and the odd circumstances surrounding the money made Jacob that much more reluctant to allow his beloved youngest son, Benjamin, to go to Egypt.

Genesis 43:1–14 This passage reflects a change of character on Judah’s part and a fallback to an earlier strategy on the part of Jacob. Judah had apparently been humbled by what had happened in regard to Tamar (38:26) and now was willing to accept responsibility before his father for Benjamin’s safety. Much as he had done with Esau (chaps. 32–33), Jacob chose to send gifts in appealing for mercy.

Genesis 43:15–34 To be invited to eat with the powerful Egyptian official was not what Jacob’s sons had expected to happen. Stranger yet was the pleasant atmosphere, in contrast to the previous encounter when Joseph had upbraided them as spies (42:9, 14). The only practice they had expected was that Joseph, presumed to be an Egyptian, ate separately from his brothers. Egyptians found Hebrews to be “abhorrent” (43:32), probably because they considered their bodily hair and beards repulsive.

By Scott B. Rae

The Apologetics Study Bible: Real Questions, Straight Answers, Stronger Faith, ed. Ted Cabal et al. (Nashville, TN: Holman Bible Publishers, 2007)

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