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

Presentation: The Position of Reception History in Biblical Studies

I presented this presentation and paper to the Australian group, the Fellowship of Biblical Studies, in Melbourne, 26/09/16. It concerns both the value & risks of reception history for biblical studies and consideration of the similarity and differences in practice between reception history (Wirkungsgechichte) and history of interpretation (Auslegungsgeschichte), which are both studies of how biblical texts (and others, as easily) have been interpreted and had influence through time. The former is broader than the latter in a range of ways, and I found some tensions between the practice of the two. The following demonstrates these ideas mostly in diagrams with a little text and some explanatory notes, and see the following Word document also.

This is the Word document, merely in dot-point form, rather than a proper prose piece, but it may fill in some gaps:

Days of Creation Book Now Available

Received the first box of print copies this week, and I’ve checked and found that the title is available for purchase:

http://www.eisenbrauns.com/item/BRODAYSOF

Boxa Books

Here’s a better view, though I enjoyed the first one, too:

Days of Creation Book Image

Here’s the rider: it only covers up to around 1860! (Perhaps I should have put that on the cover!) Stay tuned for the sequel. I hope you’re in good health…it’s gonna take some time!

GENESIS AND THE REAL WORLD: THE BENEFIT OF LOOKING BACK

It is clear to me as I teach Old Testament each week that many present-day Christian readers of Genesis still want to know how it interfaces with the sciences.  Some will be happy simply to ignore the sciences, while others know little about them, and still others think science and the Bible speak unrelated languages and have nothing to do with one another.  But as soon as I try to skirt the tricky issues and concentrate purely on the theology of Genesis, or its literary features, I am soon reminded that the burning question for at least some students is, “How am I to regard evolution?”, or, “What do the days of Genesis mean?”

These questions are not new.  The first has been firmly on the agenda for two centuries, and the second has been asked and studied from various standpoints throughout Christian history.  I am firmly convinced that a look into the history of attempts to bring the ‘real world’ (as perceived at the time) and Genesis to terms will bring insights into present attempts to do the same.  This conviction motivated my personal research into the history of Christian interpretation of the creation week of Genesis 1:1-2:3.[1]

Days of Creation Book Image

This study has turned out to be a kind of deep-trench archaeological investigation into the history of Christian thought – rather narrow sideways, but very deep.  Most of the leading thinkers of Christian history, amongst their other output, wrote or said something about Genesis 1, and often at great length – up to 800+ pages on this single chapter of the Bible![2]

It is revealing to discover that the most popular schemes of reconciling the Genesis creation week with ‘common knowledge’ about the world’s origin have deep roots.  The Gap Theory or Ruin-Restitution Hypothesis, which posits a vast and geologically eventful period of ancient time after creation but prior to the creation week, lying concealed within the rather indefinite language of Gen. 1:2, is often traced back to a Scot called Thomas Chalmers, speaking in the early 1800s.  In fact, it was a well-recognized option on the continent after about 1750, as related to geological eras, and in a more vague form, as a lifeless early phase of earth history, has roots all the way back past the Renaissance and to the patristic period.

The Day-Age or Long Creation Day concept, too, while it had its heyday around the 1850s and remains a well-recognized method of reconciling Genesis and geology today, is quite identifiable shortly after 1750, is being mooted in more limited forms before 1700, and finds antecedents in the idealist approach to the Genesis days of the Cambridge Platonists in the mid-1600s and prior…although the often-cited precedent in Augustine is greatly overstated.  One interesting factor is that this strategy, which today represents a realist stance regarding the physical world, has its taproot in Platonist, idealist approaches to the creation week.  On the other hand, a second ancestry lies in the very early trend of interpreting the creation week as a prophecy of a 7×1000 year sacred world history.

Idealist approaches to the Genesis days, which arguably include Augustine’s final, ‘literal meaning of Genesis’, ultimately find expression today also in the Framework Hypothesis/Analogical Days stance on the creation week, sometimes with quite a Platonist flavour (as in Meredith Kline’s thought)[3] and sometimes without.  As a final example, not all Young Earth Creationists, taking the creation week literally and associating it with a biblical chronology that leads back from datable ancient events in an unbroken chain to creation itself, would realize that one of the strongest defences of this position was published in the 1850s by Philip Gosse in Omphalos,[4] yet failed to persuade the mainstream scientific world.

It’s a fascinating history, and the more it is studied, the more profoundly relevant it turns out to be.  The history of interpretation of the creation week in Genesis emerges as a crucial case study in Christian thought, the history of western thought, and even the rise of modern science, for interpretation of Genesis was the midwife that oversaw its gestation and birth, though its genetics are partly pagan and classical.

Genesis’ version of creation dominated Western thought for most of the last 2,000 years.  It’s a career that deserves to be narrated.

 

Andrew Brown

June 2014

 

References

Brown, Andrew J. The Days of Creation: A History of Christian Interpretation of Genesis 1:1–2:3. Blandford Forum: Deo Publishing, forthcoming.  https://www.eisenbrauns.com/ECOM/_43L1FFT2V.HTM

Gosse, Philip. Omphalos: An Attempt to Untie the Geological Knot. London: John Van Voorst, 1857.  http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/39910

Kline, Meredith G. “Space and Time in the Genesis Cosmogony.” Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith 48, no. 1 (1996): 2-15.

Mersenne, Marine. Quaestiones celeberrimae in Genesim, cum accurata textus explicatione. Reprint of 1916. Edited by. ed. Vol. Paris: sumptibus Sebastiani Cramoisy, 1623.

 

[1] Brown, The Days of Creation: A History of Christian Interpretation of Genesis 1:1–2:3 (Blandford Forum: Deo Publishing, forthcoming).

[2] Specifically Mersenne, Quaestiones celeberrimae in Genesim, cum accurata textus explicatione (Paris: sumptibus Sebastiani Cramoisy, 1623).

[3] Kline, “Space and Time in the Genesis Cosmogony,” Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith 48, no. 1 (1996): 2–15.

[4] Gosse, Omphalos: An Attempt to Untie the Geological Knot (London: John Van Voorst, 1857).

Days of Creation Book Only Days Away

More thoughts about Genesis 1 shortly, but just discovered a happy sight: the listing of my forthcoming book on the Eisenbrauns website:
The Days of Creation

The Days of Creation
A History of Christian Interpretation of Genesis 1:1-2:3
History of Biblical Interpretation – HBI 4
by Andrew J. Brown
Deo Publishing, Forthcoming, spring 2014
English
Paper
ISBN: 9781905679270
Your Price: $37.95
https://www.eisenbrauns.com

I know it’s real, because I just sent the index off this afternoon, the last thing needed.  Please use it, it was a lot of work!

Some tasters to come…

There Was Morning, and There Was Evening: Wistful Reflections on the Cultural Rise and Fall of an Iconic Biblical Text, the Creation Story of Genesis 1

There is light at the end of the tunnel: I have almost completed the indexing, the last stage of preparation of my first book:

The Days of Genesis: A History of Christian Interpretation of the Creation Week (Blandford Forum: Deo Publishing, forthcoming).

I conclude the book with three main observations from the long and complex story of the interpretation of this seminal biblical text.  I’ll spoil only one here: I find that it is the story of a trajectory, a rise and fall…meaning that Genesis 1 rises from obscurity in the consciousness of the Christian church until it, like the church itself, comes to cultural dominance in the West by about 400 CE/AD.  Then it rules the Western mind for more than 1200 years, becoming the repository for all knowledge and speculation about the world, visible and invisible.

Then as the modern era unfolds, say from 1600–1900, its dominance is steadily eroded, until the 20th century sees it largely forgotten in the West, treasured only in the special place, and at the same time (or so it feels in Australia) the cultural ghetto that is the Christian church.  I won’t try to explain the reasons for this here.  I have to leave something in the book!  But I can characterize them as a whole using a proverb spoken by Jesus:

“We played the flute for you,

and you did not dance;

we sang a dirge,

and you did not mourn.” (Matt. 11:17)

The Western world wanted Genesis 1 to be metaphysics, but it didn’t quite want to be metaphysics.

The Western world wanted Genesis 1 to be a mystical key to reality, but it didn’t really work like that.

The Western world wanted Genesis 1 to be an all-embracing philosophy, but it didn’t aim to be philosophy.

The Western world wanted Genesis 1 to be history, but it wasn’t really history in the normal sense.

The Western world wanted Genesis 1 to be science, but it wasn’t really trying to express science.

The West finally reluctantly allowed that Genesis 1 could simply be poetry, but anyone who knows how Hebrew poetry works knows plainly that Genesis 1 is not Hebrew poetry.

Genesis 1 would not dance the requested dances, and now it stands at the wall, unwanted.

An unappreciated beauty.

Creation Week as Menorah

It had its morning, its cultural high noon, and now its long sunset.

But we stand reminded that in the seventh day, when God finally gets to rest, when the world is as it should be, there is only a morning, and no evening.

Your Kingdom come.