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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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.

Taking Creation Personally

At intervals through 2017 I pursued the question, “Are we on safe ground theologically to declare that not only is humanity corporately the creation of God, but you and I individually are God’s creations?”

It has been surprising just how difficult the topic of individual creation is to find in theological texts. It’s as if it is a non-issue in theology. I found brief mention in Eichrodt’s Theology of the Old Testament, and fuller mention, as might be expected, in Wolff’s Anthropology of the Old Testament (ET 1974), in section XI. Creation and Birth. William Brown is on to the issue in an essay, “Creatio Corporis and the Rhetoric of Defense in Job 10 and Psalm 139,” in God Who Creates (2000), edited by Brown and McBride.

Those two biblical passages are the best evidence for personal creation, and by themselves are enough to reassure me that we can claim to be made by God personally. But I was reassured finally to discover a theological precedent I should have been aware of before this. Martin Luther, whose 1517 door notice is being celebrated in this 500th anniversary year (surely you’ve heard!), was a big proponent of belief in personal creation. Here’s the first item from Luther’s Small Catechism (http://catechism.cph.org/en/creed.html):

The First Article: Creation

I believe in God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth.

What does this mean? I believe that God has made me and all creatures; that He has given me my body and soul, eyes, ears, and all my members, my reason and all my senses, and still takes care of them. He also gives me clothing and shoes, food and drink, house and home, wife and children, land, animals, and all I have. He richly and daily provides me with all that I need to support this body and life. He defends me against all danger and guards and protects me from all evil. All this He does only out of fatherly, divine goodness and mercy, without any merit or worthiness in me. For all this it is my duty to thank and praise, serve and obey Him.

This is most certainly true.

I’m here to tell you that I don’t think the creation of the individual person is a non-issue for real people, for Joe and Jane in the pew, and the person who has never seen a pew. I believe that believing in our personal creation by God makes all the difference in the world for how we see ourselves.

I’ve explained this pretty thoroughly in a recent PowerPoint presentation, embedded hereafter.

The notes to the PowerPoint don’t show, so here they are for your reference, with slide numbers:

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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

Science and the Bible Video Series

I recently completed a four-part series on Science and the Bible for a suburban Melbourne church, Eltham Baptist. Here are the links to the four entries in the videos taken of the series:

The Philosophy and Theology of Creation

Science & The Bible (Part 1) – Andrew Brown from Eltham Baptist Church on Vimeo.

The History of Interaction of the Bible and Science

Science & The Bible (Part 2) – Andrew Brown from Eltham Baptist Church on Vimeo.

The Cosmos

Science & The Bible (Part 3) – Andrew Brown from Eltham Baptist Church on Vimeo.

The Earth Sciences
Science & The Bible (Part 4) – Andrew Brown from Eltham Baptist Church on Vimeo.

I didn’t hold strictly to my titles at all points, but you may find something interesting there.

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:

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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