Book Review: Iain Provan, Discovering Genesis (2015)

Prior to reading his Discovering Genesis: Content, Interpretation, Reception (Discovering Biblical Texts; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2015), I knew of Provan chiefly from I. Provan, V. Phillips Long, and Tremper Longman III, A Biblical History of Israel (Louisville/London: Westminster John Knox, 2003). Knowing that to be a quite conservative work on Old Testament history, though theoretically substantial, I was half expecting one of those commentaries on Genesis that borders on fundamentalism. The classic marker in my mind of the kind of naively conservative approach I have in mind is not a young-earth creation, which is almost non-existent in Genesis commentaries outside of the old example of Henry Morris’s The Genesis Record (1976) and what might be its intended replacement from the creationism movement, Jonathan Sarfati’s The Genesis Account (2015), a definite improvement over its predecessor. The marker that comes to mind for me is the assumption, sometimes expressed as a kind of shibboleth that does not even need supporting argument, that because the Pentateuch is traditionally deemed “the Law of Moses,” that Moses naturally wrote 99.9% of the whole five-book set, all the way back to Genesis 1:1. How could we tell that? At the least, it shouldn’t just be stated as if it needs no verifying data. That’s plain assertion, a habit we try to wean our students away from in theological education.

Provan Discovering Genesis

Right, so I was pleased to find that unsupported assertions of that kind did not characterize Provan’s book on Genesis, nor a kind of thoughtless traditionalism. My impression was that he had actually read the scholarship on the chapters he covered, which I found refreshing. He is (trusting Wikipedia on this one) 61 years old, and you get the feeling of a fair career’s worth of mature biblical reflection in this book. I didn’t agree with everything, of course; I’m still a little wary of that rather ancient Jewish position that the first-created human in Genesis 1–2 should be viewed as hermaphrodite (both male and female) until it is split into two sides and made into male & female in Gen. 2:21, a position Provan takes (p. 77). What did I like, then? Well, as an exegete by nature, I like it when a biblical commentator doesn’t let their pre-existing theology blinker them from seeing what the language of the text is actually trying to say. That happens too, I can testify. Provan calls it as he sees it, and I think he often sees it true, e.g.:

  • He does not offer a great deal of theoretical explanation of the value of reception history, or to use a narrower term, the history of interpretation of Genesis 1–11, but he devotes two whole chapters to surveying this history in both Jewish and Christian interpretation, implying the importance of this tradition of interpretation for providing a context for our own reading of Genesis. By labelling these chapters “Strategies for Reading” and locating them prior to his own exegetical efforts, he rightly implies that we do not read our Bibles in a hermeneutical vacuum, but are deeply influenced by the way others, especially in our own ancestral spiritual traditions within the church, have read their Bibles before us. This is an interpretive reality to which it is easy to be blind until we study that interpretive past for ourselves. [This was the topic of my doctoral studies, so I’m sympathetic to the position. See my The Days of Creationnow a Brill title through no real merit of my own, just a providential publisher buy-out.] While we certainly will not want to imitate every past interpretive stance we discover through such a study, and many have been rendered redundant as thinking has moved on, we nevertheless sometimes find that when we read some examples of past interpretation we are looking at ourselves in the mirror.
  • He can tell the difference between the age of the earliest original components of the text and the age of the final edition, done up, as I like to say, for the ‘box set’ of the Pentateuch. Indications are that most of our OT books did not arise in a single authorial setting. (Check out Karel van der Toorn, Scribal Culture and the Making of the Hebrew Bible for a few insights on the process.) This is not to presume the source criticism that classically manifested in the ‘Documentary Hypothesis’ of the Pentateuch, and Provan clearly does not sign up to that (pp. 35-37, 44). Nevertheless, materials in Genesis persist from all different times, says Provan. “[S]uppose that (as seems likely) the Genesis tradition, albeit rooted in much earlier times, was receiving its final shape during the sixth and fifth centuries BC; what may we say about the historical, social and religions context…of that time…?” (p. 50). A few pages down, he implicitly retains the value of the literal sense of the Genesis text, adding,

“If the literal sense…is of primary importance in understanding what the book of Genesis has to say, then that literal sense is intrinsically bound up with the historical, social and religious context in which the book [note, not the stories and other materials within it] first came to be, which I am taking to be the ‘axial age’ of the sixth and fifth centuries BC,” offering “a distinctive Mosaic Yahwist response to the ‘old religion’ of the a.N.E.” (p. 58).

  • He points out quite rightly that the doctrine of the Fall seems to be overplayed sometimes in relation to the Genesis text. I’m not putting up my hand to be a Pelagian here, but Provan points out that even outside the Garden of Eden, God encounters Cain (with a warning) and will go on to encounter others in the story, though we might add, mostly within the framework of covenant privileges. The alienation between God and humans is not complete, though serious. For sheer honesty to the Old Testament, I rejoiced to read, “the remainder of the OT does not view the events of Genesis 3 as cataclysmic events that somehow inevitably change everything about the world in which we live. Indeed, the rest of the OT does not ever again even refer back to the events of Genesis 3 as important for human beings in the present” for understanding our relationship to the world or to God (94). This isn’t the last word on a biblical doctrine of sin, but as far as it goes, it is absolutely true (the reference to Adam in Hosea 6:7 being rather uncertain, but probably a place name). This is an issue of biblical ‘framing’; it is Paul in the New Testament who gives a whole new level of emphasis to the primordial realities of Genesis 1–3; references to the details of the Eden narrative are by contrast extremely rare in the OT.
  • He identifies a curious double property of the narratives in Genesis 1–11 (pp. 95–98) that I have long sought to find the best way to explain to my students. The property is that on the one hand these narratives combine a kind of universality, e.g. presenting Adam & Eve as the parents of all humanity, the flood as eliminating all life ‘under heaven’ except what is saved on the ark, the table of nations covering all known peoples, etc. (95). But on the other hand, we not only have Cain marrying a wife (famously), but on the run, afraid he’ll be killed as a vigilante, and founding a ‘city’…for whom? Himself, his wife, and a couple of kids? I thought a three-bedroom place was roomy enough. A whole city seems positively indulgent, even if that word really means a walled settlement. Provan adds the point about the ‘nephilim’ showing up before and then after the Flood (Num 13:33; Deut. 2:11, 20), though on their way out (97). All that swimming, perhaps. I explain Genesis 1–11 as being like the Tardis from Dr. Who – obviously circumscribed in scope from the outside (e.g. covering just known ancient Near Eastern peoples in the Table of Nations in Genesis 10) while being vast almost to limitlessness, i.e. deliberately universal, on the inside. Glad to see both Provan and, in several quotations, Walter Moberly in his The Theology of the Book of Genesis (2009) picking up on this property of Genesis.Phone_box_at_Hadlow_Road_station
  • He finds the figure of Judah nearly as important (on p. 40, he says more important) as the figure of Joseph in what we are used to thinking of as the Joseph stories (pp. 185–188). Joseph in some sense is righteous or blessed from the start. But Judah finds redemption through his offer of himself as a substitutional sacrifice (Gen. 44:18–34), and the brothers are subsequently reconciled. I fully agree with Provan. To read these chapters as essentially a biography of Joseph is not only to ignore Genesis 38 but to largely miss the point of the whole story.

I’ve picked up on some of the more noticeable positions where Provan shakes up the scene a little from a conservative evangelical point of view. In other ways, he is found taking up some more expected positions. But I have been very attracted to his scholarship and independence of mind and sheer honesty to the testimony of the text. At the same time, at under 200 pages, this is a very manageable book — deep and thoughtful, exegetically capable, but not overwhelming in size or cost. Highly recommended.


Vale BibleWorks

In case you haven’t heard, and you’re interested in Bible software (which means you probably have heard, but anyway), BibleWorks has ceased operations as of 15th June, except for supporting BW10 with compatibility updates. I’d like to commiserate with other users who will miss BibleWorks, and are now left with two main paid rivals for serious Bible study in the original languages, Accordance and Logos, along with alternatives like the free StepBible, which I like to use for quick student study tasks in the classroom, because it will do everything needed at that level, and students can take their understanding of the tool home and use it straight away without a major financial investment. But it is not sufficiently developed to act as the main Bible study tool for me, and I have been purely a BibleWorks user for about 18 years now, opting not to even venture into the Logos cosmopolis. Accordance is attractive to me, but became an option later in that it was originally tailored for the Apple universe, and I’ve dwelt in the Windows one. What I’ll miss most is having a package devoted to primary text study, rather than to the assembly of a suite of secondary resources that, I have observed, can often be overpriced in the two rivals’ offerings, or else sometimes represent resources that can be found cheaply or freely elsewhere. BibleWorks stuck to what it was good at, and though a little dated in appearance and involving a learning curve before its full power could be unleashed, is lean and lightning quick in its sweet spot of textual search functions.

So, where to from here? I can imagine that new, imaginative digital solutions will and probably already have appeared for serious biblical study. There are some nichy options, like the sophisticated analysis tool for the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament, Shebanq, and its associated HB/OT text analyzer, Bible online learner, which is fantastic for grammatical and syntactical analysis. For other such tools, see my Pinterest page on digital tools for Bible study and another focused on biblical Hebrew. Yet the Big Three were the main options for heavy-duty study in the original languages, and BibleWorks’ demise leaves the bulk of the field to Logos and Accordance. I will be keeping my BibleWorks 9 running as long as possible, having baulked at a US$200 upgrade for little else than insurance that I will get those compatibility updates, and then will eventually have to shell out for one of the others. I hope that’s ten years from now, at least. I’ve invested heavily in using the notes function of BibleWorks, to the level of a quasi-commentary on a lot of the chapters of the OT. But those notes files, despite their .bww extension, are simply rich text files, and easily cross-compatible, so they won’t be lost. For fellow BibleWorks users wanting to make the jump to either Logos or Accordance sooner rather than later, there is good, compact advice about this over on the Bible and Tech blog.

The Elephant in the Room of Old Testament Biblical Theology

Human beings can get used to nearly anything. People can learn to live under oppressive regimes, grow accustomed to wearing jeans that an earlier generation would have immediately thrown out, and adopt tap-and-go technology without a second thought. Familiarity breeds invisibility.

By such a means an Old Testament elephant has achieved a striking invisibility. My students in Old Testament Foundations, a first-year subject that covers Genesis–Kings, have the task of creating a thematic portfolio as their assessment piece, and may choose one of four themes, each with an associated student text in OT biblical theology:

  1. The story of Israel, utilizing the text by the same title by Pate, Duvall, Hays, et al.
  2. The presence of God, using T. Desmond Alexander’s From Eden to the New Jerusalem
  3. Covenant, using Sandra Richter’s Epic of Eden
  4. Kingdom, with Bartholomew & Goheen, The Drama of Scripture

I must confess to not having read each of these student texts from end to end; I have only browsed portions in connection with student work or class preparation. But wait, I’m working my way towards the elephant: that utter surprise lurking within the pages of our Old Testament that should leave our jaws hanging, but which through familiarity and a dull reading fog, we fail to notice.


Not elephants, but the more interesting and even bigger Paraceratherium, member of the Pleistocene megafauna (
ABelov2014 ( via Wikimedia Commons)

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Winners are Grinners?

The Gospel of Jesus and Christian Celebration in 1 Corinthians 1

The Gospel of Jesus and Christian Celebration in 1 Corinthians 1

The glitter has settled on the 2018 Commonwealth Games, here in Australia’s own home of humility, the Gold Coast, and all we have now are fast-fading memories of close contests and come-from-behind victories in the pool, on the track and in the velodrome. Judged by the wisdom of the leather lounge, there seems no greater adrenaline rush than victory over one’s rivals in an athletic contest.


The vicarious thrill of such contests is so universal that Paul can appeal to a foot race to illustrate dedication to the task of Christian life and service in 1 Cor. 9:24-26. Yet the thrill of outperforming our fellow runners is not a motive Paul wants to encourage. What is, behind the fanfare, something of an ego trip is not compatible with the spiritual ideals Paul has long imbibed from Old Testament Scripture. Paradoxically, the Christian life is a race that leaves no room for boasting.

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Reference Manager Comparison

Following up from the previous post, which offered a link to a prezi on (postgraduate, and primarily text-oriented) research workflow, with a digital tool emphasis, here is a similar link to a prezi that compares Endnote and Zotero in particular, and notes the existence of an integrated word processor and reference manager tool called Comwriter.

Ref Mgr Prezi Sshot

You’ll have to forgive the minority of instructions that are specific to our institution here in Australia, Melbourne School of Theology (MST), along with its parent accrediting body, the Australian College of Theology. The three resources treated here are those that feature our in-house citation style. Some other interesting ones include Mendeley, ReadCube, and Docear, which combines reference management and writing with a mindmapping function, though it isn’t easy to learn, in my opinion.

One point of interest in the prezi is a comparison of the relative advantages of Endnote v. Zotero, two of the most popular reference managers. In a word, Endnote has more power under the hood for large library management and mass-editing, and offers a lot more free space online, while Zotero is more user-friendly and versatile, with better notetaking, tabbing and linking of records, and of course, it’s free, even when you’re not a student. That’s hard to beat. More details in the prezi!

Research Workflow Revisited

A few years ago I prepared a prezi to explain research workflow to students at our college, and I recently refreshed it for a seminar to some of our postgraduates. It really hints or suggests a workflow rather than fully explaining it, and it indicates some of the digital tools that may come in handy. The focus is on literary studies, in connection with my own more specific field of biblical studies. I offer the link to the prezi here again for those interested.

Research Workflow Prezi 02-2018

I have also revisited two main reference managers in recent times, Endnote and Zotero, comparing their virtues in their latest versions, so stay tuned and I’ll offer that prezi with my summary of their relative strengths, life permitting.

Philosophy of Creation Class Discussion

I recently conducted a class on Creation, Fall and Redemption, with the emphasis on creation, for a colleague’s Essentials of Philosophy class. Our conversation ranged over a number of important issues in the Christian philosophy of creation, helped by some particularly sharp and engaged students. I offer the Powerpoint here in case it’s of help. (Just discovered I have to upgrade if I’m to include the audio.)

Note of a change: I’m putting the file directly into WordPress, so anyone who couldn’t reach it before should be able to access it now.

Creation, Fall, Redemption – Ess’ls of Philosophy

I’ll have to look into that audio! I received some very intelligent questions.

The key philosophical question about creation in my mind over the past 12 months or so is, “How long of a leash does God give the created order?” That is, is every event in the world God’s doing quite directly, as Luther tended to think? Is apparent cause and effect in nature really something of an illusion? Jonathan Edwards was quite strong on this too, and the classic figure who really unplugged natural events causally from one another, I understand, was William of Ockham with his ‘occasionalism’, as it’s called. Natural law, in this model, is a way of describing the regularities in God’s actions. Then if God chooses to be ‘irregular’ and do miracles, he’s not breaking any higher law, as it were. It keep the Lawgiver in charge of the laws. That’s attractive, and protects the sovereignty of God.

But there’s also something to be said for God giving creation its own, robust existence – allowing the natural world enough autonomy that one thing can really lead to another. Billiard ball A striking billiard ball B will send it off at the appropriate angle and speed without God needing to ‘micro-manage’ that interaction. Creation is programmed to behave regularly by God, in the way it will need to if human and other life is to be possible:

As long as the earth endures,

seedtime and harvest,

cold and heat,

summer and winter,

day and night,

will never cease.

Gen. 8:22 (NIV)

Genesis 1 perhaps hints at God’s delegation of causal power to creation when it says, “Let the land produce vegetation” (Gen. 1:11), or animals (1:24). In any case, there are theological virtues that may be argued for this position as well, e.g. that it gives better assurance that we as human beings are given real existence involving genuine moment-to-moment continuity. If we follow a full-blown creatio continuua model, we might find ourselves saying that God effectively creates the world anew moment by moment. The risk there is that we become like video images, an illusion created by a rapid raster scan rate.

So for God to give natural bodies and living creatures a real moment-to-moment existence and continuity would be a true condescension and giving on his part – to introduce into existence other real entities where previously there had been none besides Him. Pondering that will rock your philosophical socks. But there is risk at this end too. Make the position too strong, and you have a creation that, once made, no longer needs God in order to ‘do its thing’. Further still, and you’re into process theology, where God is another cork in the stream of time, trying to manage things as best He can, like a very good chess player who still doesn’t know exactly what the opponent will do. I get that there are bits in the Bible where God speaks of a future that’s unresolved because of the human freedom factor (e.g. Jer. 26:3; 36:3), and we ought to take those seriously. But to imagine God as lodged in the stream of time just because we are is small-minded. I recommend Crysdale & Ormerod, Creator God, Evolving World, for an intelligent treatment of this issue. For a scientist out near the edge of a creation that’s too independent, in my view (i.e. risks dabbling with deism), but raises the same sorts of issues check out:

Van Till, H. J. “Basil, Augustine and the Doctrine of Creation’s Functional Integrity,” Science and Christian Belief 8 (1996), 21–38.