Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Book Review: How To Read Genesis

Day Three of my Genesis book reviews, and this time 'How To Read Genesis' by Tremper Longman III. From the outset, this was a book I warmed to and thoroughly enjoyed, and has made me keep an eye out for his other introductions to Psalms and Proverbs. He acknowledges early on that Genesis 'is the foundation stone of that great literary ediface', the Bible, the Word of God. It's important to have the foundations right, and we get a good survey of those foundations in this highly readable book.

As the author declares: 'This book is not a commentary, though it will provide an overarching interpretation of Genesis... [It] is an exploration of the proper interpretive approach to the book of Genesis.' The opening chapter discusses the interpretation of the book, proposing a number of principles: 1. Recognise the literary nature of the book of Genesis; 2. Explore the historical background of the book; 3. Reflect on the theological teaching of the book; 4. Reflect on your situation, your society's situation and the global situation. These four principles are elaborated using fourteen questions to ask of the text under consideration.

Part Two encourages us to read Genesis as literature. There's a great discussion on the authorship of Genesis, beginning with a defence of Moses being the author (except for the bit about his death, obviously), and an examination of the four source hypothesis of JEDP - which we didn't really hear much of in college, perhaps because it's mostly unfashionable these days. At the end, though, the author summarises in the following way:

But when it comes down to it, it is both impossible and unnecessary to differentiate Mosaic and non-Mosaic material in any detail.

Also in Part Two there's a chapter on the structure of the book, highlighting the various elements and markers along the way. Longman proposes a three-tiered structure - the primeval history (1-11); the patriarchal narratives (12-36); and the Joseph story (37-50).

Part Three felt like the perfect remedy and answer to the suffering of my Old Testament classes at Theological College! Throughout we had been hammered with the Enuma Elish and other creation myths, as well as alternative flood narratives such as Utnapishtim. These textual traditions were solid evidence that the Israelites just copied and adapted other cultures' great texts, or so we were told repeatedly. For so long I refused to believe it, but also had no scholarship to argue against the assertions. If only I had known Tremper Longman back in 2005, his ears would have been burning, I would have been quoting him so often!

Part Four traces God's story through the stories of Genesis in broad brushstrokes, applying the lessons and principles already supplied. It's good to see the principles applied in concrete examples, and to see the bigger picture of the whole story - especially since there's a danger of getting bogged down in the detail when preparing and preaching individual passages of Genesis (or indeed any book).

Part Five looks at reading Genesis as Christians. While some may protest, this is ultimately how we need to read the text to receive its fullest revelation:

'In what follows I am not claiming that the human author(s) of Genesis had a detailed awareness of how his words would play out in the history of redemption. However, we have already expressed our understanding that there is an ultimate Author standing behind the human author. We couldn't presume to know the Author's intentions if it weren't for the New Testament. Later revelation brings out the fuller significance of these ancient words, and it's from the perspective of the New Testament that we now read the book of Genesis.'

All in all, I really enjoyed this book, and not just because it was the necessary and perfect corrective to the dodgy and depressing theology we'd been force-fed in college. It's a great introduction to Genesis, and helps to lay the appropriate building blocks for a rigorous exploration and interpretation of Genesis. While addressing theological scholarship, it wasn't a heavy read, and should be fairly accessible for anyone wanting to be stretched, while at the same time carefully guided through the issues arising.

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