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.

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Hacksaw Ridge Movie Preview

Thanks to an invitation through the Ethos Centre for Christianity and Society, based in Victoria, Australia, I spent last evening at a preview screening of Mel Gibson’s new film, Hacksaw Ridge. I thought while it was fresh, and since it hasn’t come out in Aussie cinemas yet, I don’t think, I’d offer a short evaluation.

The Story

We all hate spoilers, and this bit of fluff will give you time to look away…

Alright, in very brief, it’s the story of an unusual war hero, an American pacifist who went to fight on the Pacific front in WWII, voluntarily, but wouldn’t handle, let alone fire a weapon on principle. His name was Desmond Doss. And his principles were related both to earlier personal experiences and to Christian beliefs.

(I actually know some Americans, friends who have nearly the same level of distaste for guns of any kind. Just thought I’d put that on record. You can’t judge a book by its bookstore, I always say. From now.)

Okay, I won’t tell you how it all came out in the wash, but offer some pluses and minuses, while still trying not to spoil the plot.

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Book Review – Rau, Mapping the Origins Debate

Last post, my power was running out. This time, funnily enough, it’s the anaesthetic on my wisdom tooth extraction. But this book is worth a quick post before the pain sets in:

Rau, Gerald. Mapping the Origins Debate (Leicester: InterVarsity, 2012).
Now I’ve read more than a couple of books about creation, evolution, and Genesis, and a few more about science and religion. I dare anyone to read all the books available on those topics. There would hardly be time if you did nothing else. So it isn’t uncommon to get that “I’ve heard all this before” feeling.

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Ten Books on the Boil: The Other Five

Well, the truth is you can’t really keep ten books properly on the boil. And a word from experience: this isn’t the kind of snappy title that attract readers to a blog post. Learning as we go. But, in the interests of finishing something that you start, here are some comments on the following five books whose reviews were flagged in a post probably two months ago:

  • Isaiah 1-39 with an Introduction to Prophetic Literature (1996), by Marvin Sweeney
  • Interpreting Isaiah: issues and approaches (2009), edited by David Firth and H. G. M. Williamson
  • The Book Called Isaiah: Deutero-Isaiah’s Role in Composition and Redaction (1994), also by H. G. M. Williamson
  • Prolegomena to the History of Israel, originally 1878, by Julius Wellhausen (that ought to get a reaction), and
  • Thinking Like Your Editor: How to Write Great Serious Nonfiction – and Get It Published (2002) by Susan Rabiner and Alfred Fortunato.

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Ten Books on the Boil? The First Five

Are you one of those people who have 6 or 8 books on the go at once? A couple at the office, three or four on the bedside table, another one on top of the fridge? It isn’t the most efficient system, is it? Short attention span? Too many interests? When you know how you operate, you don’t keep fighting it, do you. So it’s going to be 6 or 8 books on the go for life.

In the absence of a more coherent & thoughtful piece, here are my ten or so books with a comment on what each is about and how good it is. There is, naturally, an Old Testament theme, and more specifically, most have to do with either Old Testament history and historiography (history-writing) or with Isaiah, my new teaching subject for this semester. Continue reading

Note to the Reader: Latest Addition to my Blogroll

Check out Debtonation, the blog belonging to Ann Pettifor, whose simple book, The Coming First World Debt Crisis

(2006) grabbed my attention by predicting that the next debt crisis would take place in the ‘first world’ rather than some battling ‘third world’ country. How right she was. I guess I’m inspired to mention this by having seen The Big Short (about the GFC in the US) at the movies with my wife yesterday. So I’m still feeling a little apocalyptic after that, and Ann Pettifor, along with Satyajit Das (if I spelled that correctly) are my favourite apocalyptic economists.

Which reminds me of one of Das’ great quotes about the seemingly endless build-up of debt by governments like the US:

If something can’t go on forever, it’s going to stop.

Ahhh, impeccable and irresistible logic, and probably also true of our great economic structures.

Oh by the way, since this is an Old Testament blog, there’s plenty of wisdom there about money. What about,

I have seen a grievous evil under the sun: wealth hoarded to the harm of its owner” (Eccl. 5:13), or

As goods increase, so do those who consume them (5:11a), and,

As a man comes, so he departs, and what does he gain, since he toils for the wind? (5:16)

What I would advocate is a Christian theology of money, anchored in a parent theological category, the theology of human nature, with a keen eye on the theology of human corruptibility. We desperately need a theology of human corruptibility (check out Eccl. 5:8-9), which could save our society by warning us to retain checks and balances on greed in both our economic and our political structures. If the system is not already too sick to save.

Anyway, I could always be missing something. Feedback is welcome. But on to my real work for the evening…

Micro Book Review: Dembski, End of Christianity

William Dembski, The End of Christianity (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 2009). Hardcover $16.38, Kindle $6.09 on Amazon 18/12/15.

Dembski End of Cty

This will be a quickie – supposed to be packing for summer holidays! A few comments on this book from perhaps the most recognized name in the Intelligent Design movement, Bill Dembski.

This is an ambitious book, trying to address two philosophical problems for Christianity simultaneously. The problems are:

  1. The problem of evil and pain, a perennial chestnut, and
  2. The clash between an apparently old earth and a biblical soteriology (teaching about salvation) that, notably in Romans 5, apparently attributes death in the world to the sin of Adam, and the re-entry of life likewise to the saving work of Christ.

I’m resisting the temptation here to exegete Romans 5. That would ruin our holiday plans. But here in nuce is Dembski’s solution: the destructive effects of the first sin of the first couple, yes, the true blue Adam and Eve, can apply retrospectively in time and be the cause of all pain, decay and death in the world from the very dawn of time. This allows Dembski to retain:

  1. An old earth in co-operation with mainstream scientific consensus, and,
  2. A full-blown, classic Christian doctrine of the Fall in its undiminished traditional form.

My final assessment: this is, despite appearing in a moderately-sized book, a grand intellectual venture, a tour de force if you like.

Ultimately, it never quite persuaded me. It would solve some philosophical problems if it did, and I could appreciate the ambition it represented. I like the Augustinian perspective of God being outside of time and able to operate independent of the flow of history. But every hint of corruption and decay, every hint of mortality in any creature, every star destined to burn out…all due to the transgression of a couple short of duds in Mesopotamian garden? I think there’s a problem of proportionality here that means it doesn’t win me over.

Happy to hear what you thought of it.