Although I am hardly doing a word study here, it will be interesting to note when the two main Hebrew words that can be rendered in terms of forgiveness are used in Genesis. They are: כָּפַר kaphar, which commonly meant to cover, and נָשָׂא nasa', which meant to lift or bear up. From here on I will use their transliterations (the italics).
Fall-out from the Fall [Gen 3]:
Distinguishing forgiveness from the general grace of the Creator to do good for creatures as the offer of goodness despite badness, we first see something like it when the first humans have disobeyed God and in shame turned against each other. Though God has told them that disobeying him will mean their certain death, and follows up their disobedience with the information that "to dust you will return", the very next verse sees Adam naming his wife Eve, which designates her "the mother of all the living" [19-20]. God also provides clothes to cover their shame . Despite the curse of creaturely fallenness and the promise of justice, life goes on. Though the conditions of earth have changed, God seems willing to work with them, and the discordant note struck against discord is a promising sign.
Cain's Protection [Gen 4]:
Cain is the child born from God despite creaturely disobedience . After killing Abel, he is told his enmity with the ground will be worse, and because of the difficulty he will have farming he will be a "restless wanderer". When Cain calls this punishment too much for him to bear (nasa'), lamenting the danger of a fugitive nomad particularly [13-14], God marks him out (somehow) so that people know that vengeance will come 7 times over to anyone who kills Cain. Despite being a murderer, Cain goes "out from the presence of the Lord" protected, has a wife and kids, and even founds a city. Curiously, his triple-great grandson Lamech takes it upon himself to declare that vengeance will come 77 times over to anyone who so much as hurts him . These numbers will be picked up by Jesus and flipped on their head in Matthew 18's teaching about forgiveness.
Noah's Rescue [Gen 6-9]:
Though God has allowed life to go on, things have gotten out of hand and God has declared: "My Spirit will not contend with humanity forever" [6:3]. Among the people of his time, Noah is found relatively blameless [6:8-9; 7:1], and so is told (in this order) to build a wooden boat and cover (kaphar) it with pitch inside and out [6:14] so that floodwaters will not destroy him . Having done so, when the waters do come they lift up (nasa') and elevate the boat above the wicked earth, thus rescuing a remnant of persons and creatures for their continuation. Curiously, the boat's protective cover [kaphar] is different from the destructive cover [kacah] of the earth with floodwaters (and also in Exodus 15:5&10 the Egyptians), and also from the cover-up schemes that take place later in Genesis [see 9:23; 24:65; 37:26; 38:14f]. In conclusion, God reserves his wrath against people, "even though the inclination of their hearts is evil from childhood" [8:21]. The mark protecting Cain is replaced with a declaration that "each person" will be held accountable for the lives of each other person [9:5]. Life, as we know it, goes on.
Noah's Rescue, part 2 [Gen 9:18-27]:
Noah gets drunk and somehow ends up naked in his living room. Ham sees him and runs and tells his brothers. Shem and Japheth come and cover (kacah not kaphar) up his nakedness (as God had done in Eden, and later does for the priests in Ex 28:42) with their faces turned away. Noah saves some face, proceeding to curse Ham for his reaction to Noah's foolishness and to bless Shem and Japheth for theirs.
From Abram to Abraham [Gen 15-17]:
Abram is promised land and offspring despite his wife's barrenness. Believing this, Abram is credited as righteous . However, he and Sarah act in disbelief by trying to conceive via their servant Hagar, and this results in nothing but trouble . The child, Ishmael, is blessed, but is also promised a life of resultant hostility (which has only born true in history). It isn't until 13 years later that God's promise is fulfilled through Sarah, and here the promise is extended to make Abram into Abraham and call him the "father of many nations" [17:18]. In the process, when Abraham asks "what about Ishmael?", God implies that he will be a great nation himself but will still be blessed through this promised son, Isaac, and not vice versa [17:18-23; 21:18]. The blessing is not removed from other nations for the sake of one, but despite all this discord and disobedience, is ordered toward all nations in a certain way through this one.
Abraham Pleads for Sodom [Gen 18-19]:
A telling and important moment in all the above is when Abraham lifts up (nasa') his eyes and sees God in three persons on the road, and appeals to their good favour not to "pass your servant by" [18:3]. That they are gracious to him seems to be infectious in his own life, since before the chapter is out he will be pleading also for these divine visitors to have mercy on others as well. The three visitors decide not to cover (kacah not kaphar) up their plans with Sodom and tell Abram that the "outcry" of wickedness has reached them and they have come to check whether indeed the "outcry is so great" [18:20; 19:13]. (I think it interesting that in this infamous case of God's wrath against sin it is a response to victimization and not some supposed "self-righteousness" that motivates God's judgment here). Without being privy to the same outcry, but no doubt aware of the possibilities of evil, Abraham pleads for Sodom and asks that the whole city be spared on account of first 50, then 45, 40, 30, 20 and finally 10 righteous people who might be found there. What Abraham asks is whether God might nasa' the place if 50 righteous are found, and God promises that if 50 are found the city He will indeed nasa' (spare) them.
Thereafter the narrative takes an increasingly abbreviated form and the nasa' is implicit in the "not destroying" and "not doing it" that Abraham asks for. (Why Abraham stops at 10 we are not told and we can only assume that in God's eyes Lot's family did not exceed the requested 10). When the mob at Lot's door wishes to rape his houseguests (two of the divine persons!) and Lot offers them his daughters instead, we see that the divine visitors are quick to their conclusion: This city has not passed inspection.
Curiously, in flight from Sodom, Lot makes it clear that his version of being spared (chayah not nasa') is residence in a nearby village, and at this the divine visitors flex with his request and declare it nasa' (granted). Lot is hardly cooperative with these rescuers in this episode, showing a great slowness despite their urgings to safety, and one can only imagine him barely escaping the same fate as his wife, who is turned to salt for looking back. Whatever we might say about this whole ugly scene, we can say that the nasa' offered Lot manifests itself in a less-than legalistic and rigid but nonetheless urgent and demanding call for cooperation on the part of the divine visitors. And (as Kampen's comment on an early edition of this post made me notice), Lot is forgiven his part in Sodom's atrocities not at his own request, but Abraham's.
[to be continued]