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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Creation and Time in Basil’s Hexaemeron

The wise old monkey in The Lion King told the young lion character, whatever his name was, that the whack on the head he had just applied with his stick was “in de past,” so it didn’t matter. I’m like someone who has had a good whack on the head when it comes to things further into the past than about 10 minutes, so forgive me if I’ve already posted this, but in May I had a post about Basil (‘the Great’), the Cappadocian church father who lived c. 330-379 AD/CE, published online by the Creation Project, operating out of the Henry Center, an arm of Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Chicago, USA. It went by the above title, and its concern was to explain how Basil viewed creation in his famous nine-part Lenten sermon series on the subject, dating from about 376. It’s the first stand-alone piece of speaking/writing on the creation week or ‘hexaemeron’ in Genesis 1:1-2:3 to have appeared in the church, and gave birth to an entire genre of similar writings, as well as embedded treatments within Genesis commentaries and other types of writing, that lasted for more than 1,000 years. Basil was no dummy, and though he regularly disparages secular philosophy in this sermon series, he utilizes quite a bit of it as well.

Here’s the mug shot of Basil from the Henry Center page, with Basil looking suitably transcendental, if not somewhat spaced out. Hey, he did have his mystical side…

Basil Mug Shot from Henry Center Basil Post

So you might find this an interesting read, if you’re following discussions about historical Christian thinking about creation and/or Genesis:

Creation and Time in Basil’s Hexaemeron

Knowing: The Gnostic Lure of Knowing It All

“According to Irenaeus, sin in its primitive form is Man’s attempt to be God.”

(Jacobsen, Anders-Christian. “The Importance of Genesis 1-3 in the Theology of Irenaeus.” Zeitschrift Für Antikes Christentum 8, no. 2 (2004): 299–316 @ 303)

A few things have converged lately for me:

  1. A sermon I preached on the nature of sin in relation to Romans 1–3. This, by the way, led to discovering the curious facts that:
    • Oscar Wilde died at 46, having in some practical ways arguably explored the meaning of sin, at least as his society understood it, as a participant in the ‘Decadent Movement’.Doriangray_Raoul Van Coneghem[Raoul Van Coneghem, 28/01/2016, Wikimedia Commons]
    • Oscar Wilde’s Picture of Dorian Gray, his sole novel, which has long fascinated me as a story concept, seems to have been inspired by the kind of life lived by another member of the movement, the Frenchman Charles Baudelaire, who also, it turns out, died at 46.
    • I am presently 46, so I had better watch how I conduct my affairs.
  2. Reading 1 Corinthians 1–2 with its deliberate antithesis of ‘knowing’ and ‘not knowing’. In 1 Cor. 1 Paul seeks to undercut the Corinthians’ smugness about their wisdom by showing how the gospel of Christ frustrates human expectations of wisdom. Then in 2:1–5 Paul recalls having adopted, at his previous visit to the Corinthian church, a policy of knowing nothing but “Christ and him crucified,” as if to avoid getting into a knowledge contest or encouraging that smugness. But in 2:6ff. Paul begins overtly to use a whole vocabulary associated with ‘gnosis’, e.g. ‘sophia‘, wisdom; ‘teleios‘, perfect, complete, ‘arrived’; ‘archōn‘, ruler; ‘mustērion‘, a hidden truth, and that’s just vv. 6–7. Just as familiar in gnostic discourse are the categories ‘pneumatikos‘, spiritual (v. 13) and ‘psychikos‘, natural as two different categories of persons. Paul clearly is no longer bound to “know nothing but Christ and him crucified,” because he is applying to himself and his fellow apostles the full vocabulary of spiritual enlightenment that we will see in later gnosticism, though not necessarily with the range of gnostic associations yet to come.

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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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Seven Interesting Things from the Book of Numbers

So it’s probably going to take a certain kind of Bible nerd type to get a buzz out of noticing new things in the book of Numbers. But in my personal quest to read the entire Bible through in the original languages, Numbers is about the fourth-last book, and I came to it expecting, maybe, some dull patches. Here are seven things I have found so far (in chapters 1-30);

  1. The names began flowing from 1:5, and something almost immediately took my interest. Lo and behold, not a name to be seen that is a compound of ‘Yah’ (from the name of God, Yahweh). If Numbers was a seventh- or sixth-century book or later, I’d expect the devotion to Yahweh that was (as far as I’m aware) increasingly dominant in the society in Judah to creep into the names lists somewhere, unless as a book from this era it faithfully records names known from an earlier time. Researching further I discovered that there is only one name anywhere in the Pentateuch that clearly seems to be a compound of ‘Yah’, and that is Jochebed, the name of the mother of Moses and Aaron in Exod. 6:20. Check out any of Richard Hess’s articles on personal names in the Old Testament (OT) for more information.
  2. So many things in Numbers correspond to something in the book of Exodus. There are the major correspondences, such as key failures of the Israelites, the Golden Calf incident in Exodus 32 and the failure to invade Canaan from the south in Numbers, both followed by a threat of destruction by the LORD, and reconstitution of a chosen people from Moses himself (Exod. 32:9-10; Num 14:11-12). In both cases Moses mediates for the people and judgment is mitigated. There are likewise two strikings of the rock for water, two rebellions, two battles with desert tribes, and besides many such narrative parallels, a lot of parallel laws. I dare you to check it out; there are dozens and dozens of connections. Mark Smith offers further ideas on this phenomenon in an essay called “Matters of Space and Time in Exodus and Numbers” found in a festschrift for Brevard Childs.
  3. The word for ‘spying’ on the land in Numbers 13-14 in Hebrew, funnily enough, sounds like the English ‘tour’. It is used mostly for this purpose, but in 10:33 it refers to the role of the Ark of the Covenant to go ahead of the people and ‘find’ a place of rest for them. And in 15:39 it is used to describe how the wayward heart of an Israelite might make him go astray – an interesting last use of the word in the book.
  4. The Balaam oracles in chapters 22-24 have long interested me. I did find an interesting connection between these chapters and the following chapter where the Israelites cross the line in some kind of fertility worship connected with Baal. But do you think I can find it now? Should’ve written it down somewhere!
  5. Following the failure at Kadesh Barnea, despite the sentence of wandering in the desert for (what is a stock figure, I believe) forty years, there is no other location mentioned to which the Israelites actually travel in the narrative. The next specific geographical reference on their itinerary is, once again, Kadesh Barnea in ch. 20. But the book gives us a sense of delay and the passage of time using an interesting device, the insertion of a lot of torah instruction in the intervening chapters, along with minor incident records such as Korah’s rebellion in ch. 16.
  6. Speaking of which, it is curious to find the ‘sons of Korah’ as the baddies in Numbers, while they are major contributors to the Psalms collection! They are Levites, and comparing Exodus 6 and Numbers 16 (and this can also be found in 1 Chronicles 6), we discover that Korah himself is implicitly a cousin of Moses and Aaron. So we’re dealing with an intra-Levitical conflict. Is this shades of a later dispute being narrated by proxy in the forebears’ story? But the two needn’t be mutually exclusive, of course.
  7. Speaking of relevance to a much later generation, wouldn’t the second-generation exiles of Judah in Babylon found a message for themselves in the story of a second generation of God’s people, raised in the desert, being numbered and readied for a return to the promised land? Their exile was strikingly near to a forty-year period, with 47 or 48 years passing between the 586 fall of Jerusalem and the 538 decree of Cyrus celebrated in Ezra 1. I know that the more sceptical critic would see the story as essentially crafted for the exiles’ needs. This is probably too much an either-or kind of thinking. I personally don’t struggle to believe in Israel’s ancient origins in the desert south of Canaan and, for that matter, an early captivity in Egypt. But it is a likely case of what I think of as “past-future feedback” in the Old Testament. The needs of a later generation often seem to lay there as motivation for the telling or recording of a story from earlier times.

Well, that was a bit haphazard, but I’m trying to watch a rather strange and quite eventful cricket match between Australia and India as I write this. There are catches being taken and dropped all over the place, and I can concentrate no more. I’ll leave the unexpectedly interesting book of Numbers with you, and knock off for the evening. Sayonara!

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.

Five Responses to Reading Genesis 1–2 (ed. J. Daryl Charles) #3

Charles, J. Daryl, ed. Reading Genesis 1–2 : An Evangelical Conversation (Peabody: Hendrickson, 2013).
Charles, ed., Reading Genesis 1-2

My last post in this series offered my opinions on Chapter Two: Reading Genesis 1–2: A Literal Approach, by Todd S. Beall.

Now I offer a few thoughts on the next chapter:

Chapter Three: Reading Genesis 1–2 with the Grain: Analogical Days, by C. John Collins (+ the four responses of the other writers)

At the time of publication, Collins was/is “Professor of Old Testament in the Dept. of Scripture and Interpretation at Covenant Theological Seminary, St. Louis, Missouri. He has a long list of achievements and publications in the interpretation of Genesis and understanding of creation, and brings scientific as well as theological training to the task. I was quite impressed years ago with his article, “How Old Is the Earth? Anthropomorphic Days in Genesis 1:1-2:3,” Presbyterion 20 (1994), 109-130, and he has more recently published:

C. John Collins, Genesis 1-4: A Linguistic, Literary, and Theological Commentary (Phillipsberg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2006).

Collins, C. John. “Adam and Eve as Historical People, and Why It Matter,” Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith 62, no. 3 (2009), 147–165.

Collins, C. John. Did Adam and Eve Really Exist?: Who They Were and Why You Should Care (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2011).

Collins’ position has remained consistent over the two decades or so since the first-mentioned article was published, and is reflected in the present chapter. The 2nd and 3rd titles actually reflect where the heat is in Genesis debates at the moment – not the age of the earth, the Genesis 1 days or evolution per se, but whether we should insist that Adam and Eve were literal people. Earlier in the present volume Collins cites N.T. Wright in a kind of cautious support for a historical Adam and Even (see p. 64 and footnotes), but that is not really discussed in the chapter under review.

So what is?

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